Pineapple Pack! - Amy Vansant - ebook

The first three Pineapple Port Mysteries - Murder, romance & laughs strike a Florida retirement community full of characters you'll never forget!Book One: Pineapple LiesGrowing up in one of Florida’s fifty-five plus communities, Charlotte never expected life to be wild. Golf cart racing with her surrogate mothers Mariska and Darla was about as nutty as life got...until she found the hot pawnbroker’s mom buried in her backyard. Talk about making a lousy first impression. Armed with nothing but her wits, Pineapple Port’s questionable cast of characters and a growingcrush, Charlotte is determined to solve the mystery of Declan’s mother’s murder. Hey, at least this guy’s skeletons aren't in his closet. Book Two: Pineapple Mystery BoxWhen a giant inflatable Halloween witch goes missing in the Pineapple Port retirement community, Charlotte’s eager to nab the culprit. Before she can lift a fingerprint, someone threatens to kill a new neighbor who looks like an adorable Pomeranian but possesses a disturbing talent for revenge. Moments later, a stranger demands the return of a mysterious wooden box… or else. Charlotte's boyfriend, Declan, isn't having a great morning either. His calculating ex-girlfriend has returned to claim she's the rightful owner of his pawn shop. She’s livid he’s found a new lady, too.Eh. Things could be worse. At least Charlotte doesn’t know that a mojito-swilling killer who fed his grandmother to a cat is on his way to Pineapple Port…Book Three: Pineapple PuzzlesThe infamous Puzzle Killer returns to Charity, Florida, in search of a rival murderer, and when two serial killers battle, Charlotte, Declan, Seamus and a naked cat find themselves on the chopping block!

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Table of Contents

Book 1 : Pineapple Lies

Book 2: Pineapple Mystery Box

Book 3: Pineapple Puzzles

About the Author



©2015 by Amy Vansant. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, by any means,

without the permission of the author. All characters appearing in this

work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is

purely coincidental.

ISBN-10: 0-9837191-6-8

ISBN-13: 978-0-9837191-6-8

Library of Congress: 2015905485

Vansant Creations, LLC / Amy Vansant

Annapolis, MD

Cover art by Farik Osman -

Copy editing by Carolyn Steele.


To Pineapple Port. Y’all are nuts.

“Whachy’all doin’?”

Charlotte jumped, her paintbrush flinging a flurry

of black paint droplets across her face. She shuddered

and placed her free hand over her heart.

“Darla, you scared me to death.”

“Sorry, Sweetpea, your door was open.”

“Sorry,” echoed Mariska, following close on

Darla’s heels.

Charlotte added another stroke of black to her wall

and balanced her brush on the edge of the paint can.

Standing, her knees cracked a twenty-one-gun salute.

She was only twenty-six years old, but had always

suffered bad knees. She didn’t mind. Growing up in a

fifty-five-plus retirement community, her creaky joints

provided something to complain about when the

locals swapped war stories about pacemakers and hip


Charlotte wiped the paint from her forehead with

the back of her hand.

“Unlocked and open are not the same thing, ladies.

What if I had a gentleman caller?”

Darla burst into laughter, the gold chain dangling

from her hot-pink-rimmed glasses swinging, and then

sobered beneath the weight of Charlotte’s unamused

glare. Another pair of plastic-rimmed glasses sat


perched like a baby bird on her head, tucked into a

nest of champagne-blonde curls.

“Did you lose your other glasses again?” asked


Darla nodded. “I did. They’ll turn up.”

Charlotte tapped the top of her head. “I’m sure.”

Darla’s hand shot to her head. “Oh, there you go.

See? I told you they’d show up.”

Mariska moved closer to Charlotte, nudging Darla

out of the way. She threw out her arms, her breezy

cotton tunic draping like aqua butterfly wings.

“Morning hug,” she demanded.

Charlotte rolled her eyes and relented. Mariska

wrapped her in a bear hug, and she sank into the

woman’s snuggly, Polish-grandmother’s body. It was

like sitting in a favorite old sofa, rife with missing

springs, and then being eaten alive by it.

“Okay. Can’t breathe,” said Charlotte.

“I’m wearing the top you bought me for

Christmas,” Mariska mumbled in Charlotte’s ear as

she rocked her back and forth.

“I saw that.”

“It’s very comfortable.”

“This isn’t. I can’t breathe. Did I mention that? We’re

good. Okay there…”

Mariska released Charlotte and stepped back, her

face awash with satisfaction. She turned and looked at

the wall, scratching her cheek with flowered, enameled

nails as she studied Charlotte’s painting project.

“What are you doing there? Painting your wall

black? Are you depressed?”

Charlotte sighed. Darla and Mariska were

inseparable; if one wasn’t offering an opinion, the

other was picking up the slack.

“You’re not turning into one of those dopey Goth

kids now, are you?” asked Darla.

“No, it has nothing to do with my mood. It’s

chalkboard paint. I’m making this strip of wall into a

giant chalkboard.”

“Why?” Darla asked, her thick, Kentucky accent

adding syllables to places the word why had never

considered having them. Her mouth twisted and her

brow lowered. Charlotte couldn’t tell if she

disapproved, was confused, or was suffering a sharp

gas pain. Not one guess was more likely than any


“Because I think I figured out my problem,” said


Darla cackled. “Oh, this oughta be good. You have

any coffee left?”

“In the kitchen.”

Darla and Mariska fell into line and waddled toward

the kitchen like a pair of baby ducks following their

mama. Mariska inspected several mugs in the cabinet

above the coffee machine and, finding one, put it

aside. She handed Darla another. Mariska’s mug of

choice was the one she’d given Charlotte after a trip to

Colorado’s Pikes Peak. She’d bought the mug for

herself, but after Charlotte laughed and explained the

double entendre of the slogan emblazoned on the side,

I Got High on Pikes Peak, Mariska had thrust it at her,

horrified. Mariska remained proud of her fourteen


thousand foot spiraling drive to the peak however, so

she clandestinely drank from the offending mug

whenever she visited.

Charlotte watched as Mariska read the side of the

mug, expelled a deep sigh, and poured her coffee. That

heartbreaking look was why she hadn’t broached the

subject of Mariska’s I Got Baked in Florida t-shirt.

The open-plan home allowed the two older women

to watch Charlotte as she returned to painting the wall

between her pantry door and living area.

“Are you pregnant? And after this you’re painting

the nursery?” asked Darla.

Charlotte grimaced. “No.”

Darla sighed. “You’re the youngest woman in

Pineapple Port. You’re our only hope for a baby. How

can you toss aside the hopes and dreams of three

hundred enthusiastic, if rickety, babysitters?”

“I don’t think I’m the youngest woman here

anymore. I think Charlie Collins is taking his new wife

to the prom next week.”

Darla laughed before punctuating her glee with a

grunt of disapproval.

“Stupid men,” she muttered.

Charlotte whisked away the last spot of neutral

cream paint with her brush, completing her wall. She

turned to find Mariska staring, her thin, over-plucked

eyebrows sitting high on her forehead as she awaited

the answer to the mystery of the chalkboard wall.

“So you’re going to keep your grocery list on the

wall?” asked Mariska.

Charlotte shook her head. “Not exactly. Lately, I’ve

been asking myself, what’s missing from my life?”

Darla tilted her head. “A man. Duh.”

“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, last week it hit me.”

“That your life was missing a chalkboard wall?”

asked Mariska.

Darla paused, mug nearly to her lips, waiting for

Charlotte to continue.

Charlotte set down her brush. “No. It hit me that

my life was missing a purpose. I need to figure out what

I want to be.”

Darla rolled her eyes. “Oh, is that all? I think they

had that on sale at Target last weekend. Probably still


Charlotte chuckled and busied herself resealing the

paint can.

“So you’re going to take up painting?” asked

Mariska. “I’ll take a chalkboard wall. I can write Bob

messages and make lists…”

Charlotte stood. “I’ll paint your wall if you like, but

starting a painting business isn’t my purpose. The wall

is so I can make a to-do list that will lead me in the

right direction.”

Darla sighed. “I have a to-do list, but it only has one

thing on it: Keep breathing.”

Mariska giggled.

“I’m going to make goals and write them here,” said

Charlotte, gesturing like a game show hostess to best

display her wall. “When I accomplish something , I get

to cross it off. See? I already completed one project.

That’s how I know it works.”

There was a knock on the door and Charlotte’s gaze


swiveled to the front of the house. Her soft-coated

wheaten terrier, Abby, burst out of the bedroom and

stood behind the door, barking.

“You forgot to open your blinds this morning,”

said Mariska.

“Death Squad,” mumbled Darla.

The Death Squad patrolled the Pineapple Port

retirement community every morning. If the six-

woman troop passed a home showing no activity by

ten a.m., they knocked on the door and demanded

proof of life. They pretended to visit on other

business, asking if the homeowner would be attending

this meeting or that bake sale, but everyone knew the

Squad was there to check if someone died overnight.

Odds were slim that Charlotte wouldn’t make it

through an evening, but the Squad didn’t make


Charlotte held Abby’s collar and opened the door.

“Oh, hi, Charlotte,” said a small woman in a purple

t-shirt. “We were just—”

“I’m alive, Ginny. Have a good walk.”

Charlotte closed the door. She opened her blinds

and peeked out. Several of the Death Squad ladies

waved to her as they resumed their march. Abby stood

on the sofa and thrust her head through the blinds, her

nub of a tail waving back at them at high speed.

Mariska turned and dumped her remaining coffee

into the sink, rinsed the purple mug, and with one last

longing glance at the Pikes Peak logo, put it in the

dishwasher. She placed her hands on her ample hips

and faced Charlotte.

“Do you have chalk?”

“No.” Charlotte had been annoyed at herself all

morning for remembering to buy chalkboard paint

and forgetting to buy chalk.

Darla motioned to the black wall. “Well, there’s

your first item. Buy chalk. Write that down.”

“With what?”

“Oh. Good point.”

“Anyhow, shopping lists don’t count,” said


Darla chuckled. “Oh, there are rules. The

chalkboard has rules, Mariska.”

Mariska pursed her lips and nodded. “Very


“Well, I may not have a chalkboard, but I have a

wonderful sense of purpose,” said Darla putting her

own mug in the dishwasher.

“Oh yes? What’s that?”

“I’ve got to pick up Frank’s special ED pills.”

She stepped over the plastic drop cloth beneath the

painted wall and headed for the door.

Charlotte gawked. “ED? You mean for his—”

“Erectile Dysfunction. Pooped Peepee. Droopy


“Got it,” said Charlotte, cutting her short.

“Fine. But these pills are special. Want to know


“Not in the least.”

Mariska began to giggle and Darla grinned.

“She’s horrible,” Mariska whispered.

Darla reached into her pocketbook and pulled out


a small plastic bottle. She handed it to Charlotte.

“Read the label.”

Charlotte looked at the side of the pill bottle. The

label held the usual array of medical information, but

the date was two years past due.

“He only gets them once every two years?”

“Nope. He only got them once. Ever since then I’ve

been refilling the bottle with little blue sleeping pills.

Any time he gets the urge, he takes one, and an hour

later, he’s sound asleep. When he wakes up, I tell him

everything was wonderful.”

Charlotte’s jaw dropped. “That’s terrible.”

Darla dismissed her with a wave and put the bottle

back in her purse.

“Nah,” she said, opening the front door. “I don’t

have time for that nonsense. If I’m in the mood, I give

him one from the original prescription.”

Darla and Mariska patted Abby on the head, waved

goodbye and stepped into the Florida sun.

Charlotte shut the door behind them and balled her

drop cloth of sliced trash bags. She rinsed her brush

and carried the paint can to the work shed in her

backyard. On her way back to the house, she surveyed

her neglected yard. A large pile of broken concrete sat

in the corner awaiting pickup. As part of her new life

with purpose policy, Charlotte had hired a company to

jackhammer part of her concrete patio in order to

provide room for a garden. The original paved yard

left little room for plants. With the patio removed,

Charlotte could add grow a garden to her chalkboard

wall. Maybe she was supposed to be a gardener or

work with the earth. She didn’t feel particularly earthy,

but who knew?

She huffed, mentally kicking herself again for

forgetting to buy chalk.

Her rocky new patch of sand didn’t inspire

confidence. It in no way resembled the dark, healthy

soil she saw in her neighbors’ more successful gardens.

Charlotte returned to the shed to grab a spade and

cushion for her knees, before kneeling at the corner of

her new strip of dirt. It was cool outside; the perfect

time of day to pluck the stray bits of concrete from the

ground before the Florida sun became unbearable. She

knew she didn’t like sweating, so gardening was

probably not her calling. Still, she was determined to

give everything a chance. She’d clean her new garden,

shower, and then run out to buy topsoil, plants and


“Tomatoes, cucumbers…” Charlotte mumbled to

herself, mentally making a list of plants she needed to

buy. Or seeds? Should I buy seeds or plants? Plants. Less

chance of failure starting with mature plants; though if

they died, that would be even more embarrassing.

Charlotte’s spade struck a large stone and she

removed it, tossing it toward the pile of broken

concrete. A scratching noise caught her attention and

she looked up to find her neighbor’s Cairn terrier,

Katie, furiously digging beside her. Part of the fence

had been broken or chewed, and stocky little Katie

visited whenever life in her own backyard became too


Charlotte watched the dirt fly: “Katie, you’re


making a mess. If you want to help, pick up stones and

move them out of the garden.”

Katie stopped digging long enough to stare with her

large brown eyes. At least Charlotte thought the dog was

staring at her. Katie had a lazy eye that made it difficult

to tell.






demonstrating the process with her spade. “Stop

making a mess or I’ll let Abby out and then you’ll be

in trouble.”

Katie ignored her and resumed digging, sand arcing

behind her, piling against the fence.

“You better watch it, missy, or the next item on the

list will be to fix the fence.”

Katie eyeballed her again, her crooked bottom teeth

jutting from her mouth. She looked like a furry can


“Fix your face.”

Katie snorted a spray of snot and returned to


Charlotte removed several bits of concrete and

then shifted her kneepad a few feet closer to Katie.

She saw a flash of white and felt something settle

against her hand. Katie sat beside her, tail wagging,

tongue lolling from the left side of her mouth.

Between the dog and her hand sat the prize Katie had

been so determined to unearth.

Charlotte froze, one word repeating in her mind,

picking up pace until it was an unintelligible crescendo

of nonsense.

Skul . Skul skul skullskul skul skuuuuulll l…

She blinked, certain that when she opened her eyes

the object would have taken its proper shape as a rock

or pile of sand.


The eye sockets stared back at her.

Hi. Nice to meet you. I’m human skull. What’s up?

The lower jaw was missing. The cranium was nearly

as large as Katie and a similar off-white color, though

the skull had better teeth.

Charlotte realized the forehead of this boney

intruder rested against her pinky. She whipped her

hand away. The skull rocked toward her, as if in

pursuit, and she scrambled back as it rolled in her

direction, slow and relentless as a movie mummy.

Katie ran after the skull and pounced on it, stopping

its progress.

Charlotte put her hand on her chest, breathing


“Thank you.”

Her brain raced to process the meaning of a human

head in her backyard.

It has to be a joke… maybe some weird dog toy…

Charlotte gently tapped the skull with her shovel. It

didn’t feel like cloth or rawhide. It made a sharp-yet-

thuddy noise, just the sort of sound she suspected a

human skull might make. If she had to compare the

tone to something, it would be the sound of a girl

about to freak out while tapping a metal shovel on a

human skull.

“Oh, Katie. What did you find?”

The question increased Katie’s rate of tail wag. She


yipped and ran back to the hole she’d dug, retrieving

the skull’s lower jaw.

“Oh no… Stop that. You sick little—”

Katie stood, human jawbone clenched in her teeth,

tail wagging so furiously that Charlotte thought she

might lift off like a chubby little helicopter. The terrier

spun and skittered through the fence back to her own

yard, dragging her prize in tow. The jawbone stuck in

the fence for a moment, but Katie wrestled it through

and disappeared into her yard.

“Katie no,” said Charlotte, reaching toward the

retreating dog. “Katie—I’m pretty sure that has to stay

with the head.”

She leaned forward and nearly touched the jawless

skull before yanking away her hand.

Whose head is in my garden?

She felt her eyes grow wider, like pancake batter

poured in a pan.

Hold the phone.

Heads usually come attached to bodies.

Were there more bones?

What was worse? Finding a whole skeleton or

finding only a head?

Charlotte hoped the rest of the body lay nearby, and

then shook her head at the oddity of the wish.

She glanced around her plot of dirt and realized she

might be kneeling in a whole graveyard. More bones.

More heads. She scrambled to her feet and dropped her


Charlotte glanced at her house, back to where her

chalkboard wall waited patiently.

She really needed some chalk.


The Sheriff’s deputies allowed Charlotte to stay in her

home while they oversaw the removal of human

remains from her garden; the garden she now lovingly

referred to as The Garden Never to be Touched Again. It

wasn’t as catchy as The Garden of Eatin’; the nickname

one couple in Pineapple Port had dubbed their

screened-in porch area, but it would have to do. It was

still better than lanai. Everyone in Pineapple Port had

a lanai. Outside of Hawaii, calling a porch a lanai

smacked of Sun Belt snobbery. As if Florida sun

porches were more exotic than those in Maryland or


Maybe they were. Her fellow Floridians could grow

palm trees and dwarf fruit trees in their southern

porches. Maybe it was okay to call a porch a lanai. I

mean if it makes everyone happy…

Charlotte rubbed her eyes.

No wonder I never get anything done. I spend time thinking

about the dumbest things. A human head was sitting in her

garden and all she could think about was whether she

had the right to call a porch a lanai.

Priorities, Charlotte, priorities.


Outside, two young deputies stood in drab tan

uniforms watching the dig with little interest. Frank

Marshall, Darla’s husband and the Manatee County

Sheriff, stood beside the diggers, clearly wishing he

could be anywhere but standing in the Florida sun

watching nerds excavate a body one brushstroke at a

time. Whenever Charlotte trotted water to the crowd

in her backyard, Frank released an exasperated sigh

that conveyed his deep preference for ice-cold beer.

When she offered him a bottle, he glanced at his young

companions and declined.

“I couldn’t possibly have a bottle on duty Charlotte,”

he said, retrieving a handkerchief to swab his sweaty

forehead. “Not a bottle this early.”

“A can?”

Frank tilted his head and peered at her from

beneath his brow, encouraging a second guess.

Charlotte considered the emphasis Frank had put

on the word bottle.


She popped back into the house, poured the bottle

of beer into a coffee mug, and returned.

“How about coffee?” she asked, handing Frank the


He glanced at his younger officers. “Oh, sure. I

would love some cof ee.”

“It’s good, I grind the beans myself.”

“Do you, now?”

“They have a nutty, almost hoppy taste, don’t you


Frank glared at her. “Mm,” he grunted, taking a sip.


“You should probably go back in. I don’t want you

contaminating the scene.”

She grinned and went back inside. Abby barked as

she entered and ran toward the front of the house.

Charlotte followed her.

“What is it girl? Is Timmy down the well?”

The police had stretched a length of yellow crime

tape across Charlotte’s front gate and a line of

chattering neighbors stretched from one side to the

other. The police might as well have sat in the front

yard with a bullhorn screaming, “Scene of the crime!

Come see the scene of the crime!” Like sharks to

blood, the people of Pineapple Port smelled gossip-

fodder from miles away.

Charlotte wasn’t only the youngest resident of

Pineapple Port, she was the most famous. Growing up

in a retirement community made her the local oddity.

If she purchased a different brand of coffee, within

two hours, the whole neighborhood knew. Crime tape

was overkill.

She’d moved to Pineapple Port with her

grandmother, Estelle, at age eleven, following her

mother’s death from cancer. Estelle had died nine

months later. Mariska and Darla were her

grandmother’s best friends, and they conspired with

Darla’s husband Sheriff Frank, and Pineapple Port’s

founders, Penny and George Sambrooke, to allow

Charlotte to remain in her grandmother’s home. She

spent most of her time at Mariska’s, until her teens,

when she officially moved back into her

grandmother’s home. Though she lived alone, she had

everyone in the community as foster parents, with

Mariska and Bob, who lived directly across the street,

as primary caregivers.

Growing up in a fifty-five-plus community had

pros and cons. The con was having endless nosey

grandmothers watching her every move. The pro was

access to golf carts. Everyone in the neighborhood

had a cart, some quite fancy. Access to souped-up golf

carts was a child’s fantasy, and as a child, she’d

dreamed of becoming a professional golf cart racer.

She’d been horrified to discover there was no such

thing. All other career options paled in comparison.

As an adult the pros and cons of living in the Port

shifted. The neighborhood scrutiny contributed to her

lackluster love life. That was a huge con. The one time

a man spent the evening at her home, she’d been

greeted by winks or scowls by nearly everyone in the

neighborhood the following day. In retrospect, she

wished she’d worn a t-shirt that said, We kissed a little

and then he slept on the sofa.

On the pro side, she never wanted for jams, jellies

or crocheted items of any kind. People without an

endless supply of homemade jelly really didn’t know

what they were missing.

Charlotte returned to her kitchen and watched the

men dig, drinking the rest of Frank’s beer from her

own coffee mug to calm her nerves. The Sheriff wasn’t

the only one trying to avoid scrutiny.

Frank peeked through the window and she held up

her mug in cheers. He reciprocated.


As they enjoyed their beers, the forensic team

removed and labeled each part of a single skeleton.

Charlotte watched a tech dust and place what looked

like a toe bone into a baggie. She took another sip

from her mug.

“I’m her mother,” said a voice.

Charlotte’s head swiveled toward her front door as

the sounds of arguing grew. She recognized one voice

as that of the female officer guarding her front door.

The woman had a terrible demeanor, and her sharp

bark was undeniable. The other voices sounded even

more familiar, particularly the one claiming to be her



Charlotte drained her mug and put it in the sink.

She walked to the front door to find Darla and

Mariska on her porch, their faces twisted in agitation.

From the conversation, she deduced the two were

attempting to gain entry by claiming to be her mother

and grandmother, but they’d forgotten to agree upon

who would play which role, and neither wanted to be

the grandmother.

“So, you’re both her mother? Or you’re both her

grandmother?” asked the officer.

Charlotte opened her door just as two other

neighbors, Penny and Bettie, joined Mariska and Darla

on her stoop.

Mariska put a hand on Charlotte’s arm. “Dear, I

was so worried for you. What’s going on? Tell Mama.”

Darla glared at Mariska. “Your grandmother and I are

very worried,” she said, stepping on Mariska’s toe.

Penny attempted to push pass the officer. “What’s

going on? I demand to know what’s going on.”

Charlotte knew she’d have to tell Penny everything.

Pineapple Port’s matriarch ruled all the important

committees and planned all the events worth

attending. Those who disappointed her were doomed

to a lifetime of weak bridge partners.

“Hi Charlotte.”

Behind the three louder women stood five-foot-

nothing Bettie “Bettie Giraffe” Dahl, adorned in her

trademark giraffe-print blouse.

“Hi Bettie, you’re back,” Charlotte said,

unsurprised to see her. Bettie had no permanent place

of residence. She visited friends until it was time to

hop to the next host home, and appeared in Pineapple

Port two or three times a year.

Bettie waved. “You look beautiful, Charlotte.”

Bettie never had a bad word to say about anyone,

didn’t mind if other people did all the talking and her

obsession with giraffes made holiday shopping for her

a breeze. Her collection of friends was no mystery.

The officer turned to Charlotte, her thumbs

hooked in her belt and her demeanor hovering

somewhere between annoyed and simmering volcano.

She was clearly a woman of many moods, all of them

variations of cranky.

“Two of your mothers are here. Should I be on the

lookout for any more?”

Charlotte shook her head and stepped outside,

leading her four visitors away from the door and

toward the crime-taped gate.


“What’s going on?” asked Mariska, as Charlotte

half-beckoned, half-dragged her away from her front

door. She herded the three instigators until they

arrived on the edge of her property, as far from the

officer as possible. Bettie, Charlotte knew, would

follow wherever the others went.

“Are you okay? There’s tape everywhere. We

thought you were murdered,” said Darla.

Charlotte grimaced. “I’m fine. I was going to call

you, but the police showed up so fast I didn’t get a

chance. Did you read the tape?” Charlotte pointed to

the yellow strips draped across her gate. “It says, Do

Not Cross.”

“It’s on the fence,” said Penny, punctuating her

comment with a sniff. She had a sniff for every

emotion, from a level one Not Really Listening to You to

a level ten Fury. This was about a two: Don’t Waste my

Time. “They didn’t go across your door with the tape.

It’s a mixed message at best and a fine symbol of their

infinite incompetence.”

Charlotte paused, waiting for a level five Why is

Everyone so Stupid? but Penny instead chose a well-

timed hair flip, which, according to the body-language

thesaurus, landed somewhere between a sniff and an


“We didn’t cross the tape,” said Darla.

“We didn’t cross it,” echoed Penny.

“I didn’t cross it,” said Bettie. She looked at

Charlotte with large brown eyes. “I didn’t, did I?”

Charlotte smiled and patted Bettie on the shoulder.

“No, you didn’t cross it, Bettie. None of you did.

But we need to disperse this crowd. You’d think Justin

Bieber was throwing a concert in my backyard.”

“Who?” asked Penny.

“Oh, he’s that awful Canadian kid. Needs a good

kick in the pants,” said Darla.

“But what’s going on?” asked Mariska again.

Charlotte looked around to be sure no one but her

immediate crowd stood within hearing distance.

“After you two left this morning I went to work on

my garden and found bones.”

Charlotte said found bones in a dramatic whisper.

She didn’t mean to; the word bones just inspired drama.

Mariska’s eyes grew wide as silver dollar pancakes.

Those particular pancakes were half-price on John F.

Kennedy’s birthday at the local diner. Charlotte knew

all the deals in town. She didn’t mean to, but living in

Pineapple Port she just naturally absorbed that sort of

information. Coupons, promotions and deals made up

twenty percent of local small talk. Fifty percent was

medical related; the remaining thirty was a mixture of

bragging about grandkids, disapproval, gossip and


“Whaddya mean, bones?” asked Darla.

“Dog bones?” asked Bettie.

Bless her heart.

“Well, it was a Cairn terrier who did the actual

finding, but not dog bones. Human bones. A skull, to

be exact.”

All four women put their hands to their mouths,

except Penny, who put her hands on her hips and

cocked her head hard enough to send her short bob


haircut swinging.

“That’s ridiculous.”

Charlotte shrugged. “It’s true.”

“There was a body in your yard? A whole body?”

asked Bettie.

“No skin or clothes, just bones, but yes. When they

removed the concrete for my garden, the bones were

underneath. They’re old. The police and some forensic

guys are back there processing the scene.”

“Ooh, is Frank there? I’ll get the whole story from

him,” said Darla, visibly giddy that she’d found a

source of information.

“He’s there. He isn’t happy about it, but he’s there

with two other officers.”

“Two policemen?” asked Bettie, touching her hair.

Bettie was an incorrigible flirt.

“Did they bag and tag him yet?” asked Darla.

Darla watched an inordinate number of crime

shows. Charlotte could see she was giddy at the

opportunity to use her crime slang. Telling food store

employees to bag and tag a sack of potatoes just wasn’t

as satisfying.

“Are you a person of interest?” asked Penny.

“What? No.”

Charlotte realized the local gossip mill would have

her labeled as an escaped convict/serial killer before

Jeopardy! aired that evening. Even sharing what facts

she could would spare her little in the imaginations of

bored retirees.

“From what I’ve overheard, the bones are at least

ten years old,” Charlotte said, taking a moment to

make eye contact with each of the women, except

Bettie, who had already lost interest and was watching

a Blue Jay hop around the azalea bushes. “And I can

promise you they’re at least fifteen years old, because

that cement has been there since my grandmother

moved in. When I was eleven. I didn’t kill anyone and

tunnel them under my grandmother’s porch like some

kind of psychotic Lord of the Rings dwarf.”

Penny squinted at her, her expression cold. “You

were always a precocious child.”

“Is it a man or a woman? What age?” asked Darla.

“I hope it isn’t a child,” said Mariska.

“I think I heard one of the nerds say the bones were

female, but to be honest, I’m not sure. I can tell you

the skull was a normal adult size.”

“Oh, that’s good,” said Mariska. “I mean, not good,

but better.”

“Do you think we all have bodies in our yards?”

asked Darla, glancing down the street toward her own

house as if it were a party guest she’d just found

lurking near her good jewelry.

Penny huffed. “Don’t be ridiculous. This land was

nothing but swamp when George and I expanded

Pineapple Port, not a grave site.”

“I told you not to build this place on an Indian

burial ground,” said Charlotte.

Mariska gasped. “What? It was?”

“I’m just kidding. Poltergeist reference.”

The women stared at her with blank expressions.

“You know… Little girl gets sucked into the TV?

Their house was built on an Indian—”


“Precocious,” muttered Penny.

Charlotte sighed. “Look, never mind. Bottom line

is I don’t know much yet, but I’ll tell you everything

when I find out. You all go home and let me do the

snooping. Maybe if you leave, some of these others

will wander off.”

Charlotte watched a woman slowly pass her house,

Dachshund in tow. It was the tenth time she’d passed

by and the stubby-legged dog looked tired. One more

circle and the poor thing would be dragging behind

her like a deflated party balloon.

None of the women moved.

“Hello?” repeated Charlotte. “Did any of you hear


Darla and Penny remained planted on the sidewalk

just outside Charlotte’s gate, trapped in a contest to

see who could purse their lips more tightly. Bettie’s

attention wandered down the block, and Charlotte

followed her gaze to find a tall, athletic-built man

headed in their direction. He had dark hair; not shaggy,

but long enough that Charlotte suspected it took real

effort to keep it so perfectly in place. As he neared, his

mouth curled into the sort of charming grin that could

melt the icing off the ladies’ best church bazaar


He made eye contact with each woman, spending

no more or less time on each, and then glanced at the

yellow tape half-heartedly hugging Charlotte’s picket


“This must be the place,” he said.

The four women watched, silent, as the young man

slipped past them and walked toward the stoop. The

grim keeper of Charlotte’s doorstep turned toward

him as he approached, preparing for battle.

Charlotte cocked an eyebrow. Good luck with her,


After a short conversation, the officer stepped aside

and allowed the tall stranger to enter her home, her

dour puss replaced by two rows of teeth arranged in

the shape of a genuine smile.

She giggled as he passed.


Charlotte would have bet money the woman had

never giggled in her life.

Noticing eight eyes upon her, the officer’s face

collapsed like window blinds, shifting back to her

usual mask of disapproval. She crossed her arms over

her chest. Charlotte wondered if the officer had just

given her home to the dark-haired man and now

planned to keep her out while he redecorated.

“Who was that?” Charlotte said aloud, not

expecting an answer.

Darla, Penny and Mariska all answered in unison.



Charlotte passed the disapproving gaze of the officer

at her door without turning to stone and reentered her

home. She found the handsome stranger in her living

room, bent over, scratching Abby behind her ears.

Abby stretched and groaned, shifting her butt toward

the man in order to offer him more spots for attention.

He apparently had a mystical power over all women,

regardless of species.

She glared at Abby, who remained oblivious to her

failings as a watchdog.

Charlotte rolled the man’s name over in her mind.

She’d heard it before. He was the one who always

swept in and bought all the best things at the estate

sales Mariska and Darla loved to peruse. She’d heard

Mariska lament that she missed all the good stuff

because ‘Declan had already picked it over.’ She’d

pictured him older.


Declan looked up, gave the dog one last pet and

straightened. He scratched his nose, and Charlotte saw

he had large hands; each of his long, elegant fingers

ending in perfectly clipped, buffed nails. She

wondered if Declan had a woman in his life who

worked at one of the four hundred nail salons in the


area. He wore no wedding ring. Of course, if he were

married to a nail technician, she probably would have

told him to do his own nails by now, so that didn’t

make sense…


Declan’s face was suddenly very close to hers, his

bemused smile working the laugh lines on either side

of his mouth to maximum visibility. He peered into

her eyes and used the hand attached to those elegant

fingers to wave, as if she were a window and some

small child stood on the opposite side of her skull.

Charlotte took a step back to better focus. Declan

smelled like mint and expensive aftershave. It was not


“What are you doing?” she asked.

“You called me. Then you sort of phased out.”

Watching him approach outside, she’d guessed

Declan to be about six feet tall. Now, to scale with the

other things in her home, including herself, she

decided he might be closer to six-three. She wondered

if he liked being that tall or if it made life difficult.

Sitting in plane seats was probably uncomfortable, his

knees pressed against the seat in front of him; but on

the other hand, he had full access to high cabinet

shelves, where most people could keep things only

rarely used…

“You did it again,” said Declan.

Charlotte refocused.

“What? I did what? Called you or phased out?”

“Phased out.”

“I did not.”


“Did not, what? Call me or phase out?”


“Yes, you did. Both. The phasing bit you did twice.

You called me once.”

“No, I didn’t.”

Declan opened his mouth and then shut it. He took

a deep breath.

“Let’s take this from the top. You just came in the

front door, right?”

Charlotte looked back at her front door and then

crossed her arms across her chest. She added a slight

head tilt and twisted her lips, adopting what she would

call “the disapproving parent” stare. This con man was

not about to convince her that she had called him to

her house. Who did he think he was? Who did he think

she was, that she would fall for such a scam?

“What are you doing here?” she asked.

“Answer me first. You just walked in, right?”

She thought about her answer, concerned it was a

trap. She couldn’t find the harm in responding.


“And you said ‘Declan’ right?”

Charlotte’s scowl released like a spring trap, her

mouth forming into a small ‘o.’

“Oh, you mean I called you…”

“You called me. Right. By name. See? Unless I’m not

Declan anymore and, well, I can check my driver’s

license…” He twisted his body, pretending to reach

for his wallet.

“No, no. I see what you’re saying. I did say your


“Told you.”

“I thought you were saying I called you to this house.

Like on the phone.”

He stopped pantomiming the move for his wallet

and grinned.

“No worries,” he said, leaning forward and lightly

tapping her shoulder.

She scowled. Declan registered her disapproval and

pulled back his hand, smile failing for a nanosecond.

He ran his shoulder-tapping hand through his hair.

“How did you get in here?” she asked.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean why did the officer let you in here?”

“I told her I was a consultant.”

“A consultant of what?”

“She didn’t ask.”

Charlotte’s scowl deepened as she recalled the

officer’s giggle. Abby wasn’t the only lousy watchdog.

“Anyway…” said Decaln, drawing out the word to

fill the awkward silence. “I know you didn’t call me

here. This was a false alarm. I figured when I saw the

crime tape, but I thought I’d double check.”

“False alarm?”

“Oh, sorry. Let’s start over.” He held out his hand

to shake. “I’m Declan, as you apparently know. I own

the Hock o’Bell Pawnshop in town.”

Charlotte shook his hand.

“Did you say the Hock o’Bell?”

Declan adopted a serious countenance, so serious,

it bordered on sadness. “It’s named after my dear,

departed mother, the Belle of Swansea.”


Charlotte squinted. “Really?”

“No. Just kidding. It’s a play on the restaurant. I

just moved the shop to an abandoned Taco Bell.”

Declan pulled his wallet from his back pocket and

retrieved a business card. He handed it to her.

She studied it and then put it on her counter,

mumbling, “Make a run for the hoarder.”

She smiled at the look of surprise that leapt to his

face. It was if he’d just noticed her standing there—as

if up to that moment, she’d been in a movie starring

Declan. Then she’d caught him off guard, diverted

him from his scripted lines and caused him to fall out

of character. Now he seemed lost.


“That’s funny. Make a run for the hoarder. Can I steal

that?” he asked.

She shrugged. “I’m not sure it’s me you need to clear

it with. You might need to talk to Taco Bell.”

Declan replaced his wallet and thrust his hands in

his pockets, still grinning and staring at her. Charlotte

found it unnerving. Her eyes darted to Abby, who lay

at his feet, her chin resting on his toes.


“Anyway, false alarm,” said Declan, picking up

where he’d left off. “I come around when the, uh,

residents… you know… move on. But this fellow

apparently passed a long time ago. Just as well.”

“What do you mean, just as well?”

Declan made a sweeping gesture with his hand.

“There isn’t anything of value here. It’s practically

barren. It looks like a dorm room. Like some kind of

crazy professor off his meds lives here.”

“Does it?” asked Charlotte, following his gaze as it

swept her home. She’d never noticed how empty it

was. Stacks of books leaned against the walls and

against each other. Two short sofas with different

patterns, a table, and a rickety dining room chair were

the only pieces of furniture. She made a mental note

to write decorate on her chalkboard wall.

She looked at the strapping gentleman insulting her

abode. She felt another scowl creeping down her

forehead, but was powerless to stop it.

“So you swoop in when old people die to buy their

worldly possessions for your shop?”

Declan winced. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be

insensitive. I actually pay good money for good items.

There are vultures around here who do try to steal what

they can, but I always try to be fair. That’s why they

call me Fair Declan.”

“They do?”

“No. But they could.”

“But they wouldn’t because it isn’t very catchy.”

“No, not really.”

He stared at her again. His head tilted to the right.

“Wait. How did you get in here? Are you visiting

your grandparents? Oh no… is this their house?”

Charlotte shook her head.

“Whew,” he said, putting his hand on his chest.

“Thought I might have put my foot in my mouth there

for a second. So… What are you doing here?”

“I live here.”

“In the area?”


“In the house,” she said sweeping her arm toward the

living room. “Home, sweet psychotic dorm room.”

Declan screwed his eyes shut as if in pain. “You live

here? You can’t possibly be over fifty-five.”

“No, I grew up here. I’ve been grandfathered in, so

to speak.”

His gaze swept over her piles of books. “Are you a


“No. I just like to read.”

“Ah. Jeeze, I’m sorry. I didn’t—I mean, it’s a nice

house. Uncluttered. Furniture is over-rated.”

“Uh huh.”

He clapped his hands together. “I apologize for any

and all misunderstandings. I feel as though I’ve

overstayed my welcome and I’ll be on my way.”

He thrust out his hand to shake again. “Nice to

meet you.”

Charlotte was about to shake when one of the

officers from the backyard dig entered.

“Hey Declan, you’re still here,” said the deputy,

smiling and wiping his sweaty brow on his sleeve. He

gave his belt a hard yank to pull it over his belly.

“Yeah, Daniel, I was just heading out.”

Charlotte looked at the deputy and then back at

Declan, her hand now enveloped in his. Everyone

seemed to know the handsome pawnbroker. Maybe

Deputy Daniel tipped him about deaths in the

neighborhood. Declan probably had dinner with the

ambulance drivers every Thursday. Nevermind how

handsome he was. He was a ghoul. He made his living

from the death of her friends.

“We were just saying we had something for you,”

said the deputy, holding aloft a plastic evidence bag.

“Oh yeah?” Declan gave Charlotte’s hand one last

short shake before releasing.

Daniel nodded. “I mean, if it wasn’t evidence. We

pulled a necklace from the bone pile.”

The officer held up the bag for Declan to see.

Inside, Charlotte saw a sunflower, attached to a gold

chain. Even with dirt caked to the delicate petals, the

bright yellow and orange enamel glowed in the sun

that streamed through her front window.

“Think it’s worth anything?” asked Daniel.

Charlotte’s lip curled.

“Daniel, really,” she said, but the deputy didn’t

acknowledge her statement. He didn’t shift his stare

from Declan.

“Dec, are you okay? What is it?” asked officer.

Charlotte followed his gaze and saw the blood had

drained from the pawnbroker’s face. Declan

swallowed and took a step forward, his hand lifting to

touch the bottom of the evidence bag. Daniel released

the sealed bag into his open palm. Declan stood,

staring at the necklace, his thumb moving the bag

against the flower to remove more dirt from the petals


Pale, he looked at the deputy.

“I know who she is,” he said.

“You recognize the necklace?” Charlotte asked.

Declan nodded, his eyes never leaving the bag.

“I gave it to her.”


“You look like you’re going to fall over,” said


“I have to see,” Declan said, pushing past the

deputy and walking toward the back of the house. She

followed, with Daniel close behind.

Declan opened the backdoor and the three of them

filed out onto the screened-in porch.

“Whoa whoa,” said another deputy. “Declan, I told

you, you can’t come down here. You’ll contaminate

the area.”

“Dick, I think that’s my mother,” said Declan.

Charlotte gasped. “They said the bones were about

ten years old? Is that right?”

Declan nodded. “She disappeared when I was

twelve. Fifteen years ago. We never knew what


He made a move to walk down into the yard as an

Officer Dick moved to block his path.

“You can’t come down here.”


Dick stood his ground. “I’m sorry. There’s nothing

to identify, just bones. You’ll have to go to the station

and then you can tell us everything you know. What


makes you think this is your mother?”

Declan held up the baggie. “This necklace. I gave it

to my mother for her birthday, not long before she

went missing.”

“What are you doing with that bag?” Dick shot

Daniel a dirty look and snatched the bag from Declan.

Daniel’s eyes cast downward. “Sorry. I had to give

it to him. He looked like he’d seen a ghost.”

“Where is Sheriff Marshall?” asked Charlotte.

She hoped Frank might let Declan closer to the

body if she asked. After all, she’d given him a coffee

mug of beer and mowed his tiny patch of lawn for

years as a teen. Without her, who would point out on

a daily basis that Sheriff Marshall was ridiculous and

clearly he should have become Marshal Marshall? He’d

stolen from her the chance to greet him each day with

“Marshal Marshall Marshall” in her best Jan Brady

imitation. He owed her a favor or two.

“He left, ma’am, and I’m in charge,” said the reedy

officer. He had a humorless disposition. Charlotte

wondered if the female officer in her front yard was

his sister.

Standing on the porch, Declan craned his neck to

see, doing his best to gain a bird’s eye view of the

excavation. Most of the bones still lay half-buried in

the dirt. The body lay flat on its back, head missing.

Nearby, the skull sat in a clear plastic bag. The

jawbone was in the bag as well. Katie had lost all her


Dick opened the door to the porch and ushered

Declan and Charlotte back into the house. Daniel

followed them.

“I want them out of the house,” said Dick to his

partner. He looked at Charlotte and Declan. “Go get

a cup of coffee or something.”

“It’s my house,” said Charlotte, feeling Dick was

trying too hard to live up to his name. She’d met him

when he was a brand new deputy, green as an M&M.

She’d watched him drop his gun while trying to spin it

on his finger like a gunfighter. He had a lot of nerve

pretending he was large and in charge now.

“This house wasn’t even built when she was buried.

There aren’t any clues to protect here,” she said.

“Yeah, well, I don’t want to have to keep an eye out

for you.”

“Fine, we’ll go. Just don’t try and do any fancy

tricks with your gun while we’re gone. I don’t want

holes in my walls.”

Dick pressed his lips into a hard white line and

pointed toward her front door.

That’s right. You remember now. I saw you try to spin that


Declan’s face was still ashen.

She touched his arm. “Declan? Let’s go. We can go

to Mariska’s. She’s like my mother. Okay?”

Declan nodded and allowed himself to be led from

the house. Charlotte paused to clip a leash on Abby

and then navigated them past the female officer. She

wasn’t surprised to find the ladies still gathered near

her gate. Charlotte caught Mariska’s eye and motioned

to her. Mariska nodded and waddled in fourth gear to

catch up to them. She had bad legs, so at that pace she


looked like a hyperkinetic penguin racing after the last


“They kicked you out, dear?” asked Mariska as she

grew near. “I don’t know who they think they are. Was

it Dick? He’s not the sharpest cheese in the

refrigerator, that one. They don’t think you have

something to do with the body, do they?”

“No, nothing like that. They just want the house

clear while they finish up.”

“You didn’t kill that lady who cut your car off the

other day, did you?” asked Darla, chuckling as she,

too, arrived at Charlotte’s side.

Declan looked at her. “I think it’s my mother.”

Darla chuckled and then, registering the look on

Declan’s face, covered her mouth with her hand.

“You’re serious?”

He nodded.

“Oh, I am so sorry. I should know better than to

joke about something like this. Oh, I feel terrible.”

“Declan, this is Mariska and Darla,” said Charlotte

stopping to point to each in turn.

He shook their hands. “Declan Bingham.”

Charlotte turned to Mariska. “Is your door

unlocked? I think he should sit down for a bit.”

“Yes, yes,” said Mariska hurrying to open the door.

They went inside. Mariska’s pound mutt, Izzy, ran

up to greet them and Charlotte had to scramble to

unclip Abby’s leash before they all became entangled

and fell to the ground like hog-tied calves. Released,

the two dogs raced around the house together,

narrowly missing furniture and knees. Part Dalmatian,

part rat terrier and part wildly over-fed, Izzy looked

like a black-speckled body pillow with radar dishes for


Charlotte walked past the kitchen counter to the

living room and motioned for Declan to sit in a large,

cushy La-Z-Boy chair. Every house in Pineapple Port

had running water, electricity and a La-Z-Boy with the

shape of the man of the house worn into it.

“Can I get you something, Declan?” asked Mariska,

tight on their heels. “Water? Milk? Soda? Tea?”

“No, thank you,” he said.



“Do you have any coffee left?” asked Darla.

“I do. Let me brew you a fresh pot. Declan, I have

coffee and some milk. It’s two percent… or

creamer… I have hazelnut creamer.”

“No, thank you.”

“What about a donut? I have donuts. Oh, I have

some wonderful muffins from Publix. Do you want a

muffin? Blueberry?”

“Have you tried their pineapple coconut muffins?

They are to die. Simply to die,” said Darla.

Mariska shook her head. “I haven’t. I’ll have to get

some. That sounds wonderful.”

“Nothing, thank you,” said Declan.

Mariska barreled on. “Corn muffins? I might have

corn. No… No, I think Bob ate the corn muffins with

the chili last night. Cinnamon apple? I do have a

cinnamon apple…”

“No, thank you.”


“I could cut a banana. Or I—”

Charlotte held up a hand. “He doesn’t want


Mariska paused and looked around her kitchen. “I

have some leftover chicken…”

Charlotte shot her a look and she shrugged.

“Well, I do,” she mumbled.

Mariska went to the coffee pot and dumped that

morning’s remains into the sink to start afresh. She

didn’t like to drink coffee more than three minutes

old, and she didn’t expect her guests to have to put up

with nonsense like that either.

Charlotte removed a fake cat from a nearby chair

and sat down. The cat was black and white and curled

in a ball as if sleeping. Declan looked at the cat as she

set it on the floor.

“That is terrifying,” he mumbled.

“I know. I can’t tell you how long I’ve begged her

to get rid of it. Used to give me nightmares.”

Declan offered a half smile and rubbed his face

with his hands.

“I’m sorry. I’m acting crazy. It was just a shock.”

“I can’t imagine. Did you—never mind.”

Charlotte shook her head and waved her hands to

say she was dropping the question.


“Nothing, I… I was going to ask if you’d thought she

was still alive. Before today.”

Declan sighed. “I don’t know. I guess part of me

thought she was. Honestly, now I’m not sure if this is

better or worse. It hurt to think she ran out on us.

Now I know she didn’t leave on purpose, but she’s

dead. Part of me hoped she was living a happy life


Mariska slipped a small plate on the table next to

Declan’s chair.

“It’s sharp cheese and pepperoni and crackers,” she


Charlotte growled.

“They’re Pepperidge Farm,” said Mariska in a huff.

She turned and disappeared to the back of the house.

Darla walked by and took one of everything on the


Charlotte watched her. “Darla, you’re encouraging


“Why wouldn’t I encourage people to feed me?”

Charlotte turned her attention back to Declan.

“Sorry. She means well.”

Declan chuckled and took a cracker and a slice of

pepperoni. “Oh gosh, don’t apologize. I talk to old—


Declan glanced at Darla, who arched an eyebrow.

“Tread lightly, mister.”

Declan cleared his throat. “I mean, I talk to mature

ladies all day long. They invite me to their houses to

look at their antiques and they’re always trying to feed

me. I’m used to it.”

“I bet they do,” mumbled Charlotte.

“Well, you’re so skinny. Both of you need to eat,”

said Mariska from the kitchen.

“I eat plenty. Don’t you worry,” said Declan.

“And I live across the street from you, Mariska, so


you know I’m not going to starve any time soon.”

Charlotte saw the hint of Declan’s five o’clock

shadow against his pale complexion. His hair was dark

but his skin was fair for a Florida boy.

“Black Irish?” she asked.

“What’s that?”

“Your name, your hair… I’m guessing you’re


“My father was from Dublin. Right off the boat.”

“Was your mother from Ireland as well?”

“My mother was a plain old American. But Irish

and German heritage, I think. I got my height from

her side.”

“You are tall,” said Charlotte. Declan looked at her

and she looked away, embarrassed.

You are tall. What a stupid thing to say.

“I mean, I’m tall so I notice when other people

are,” she added.

“What was her name, your mother?” asked Darla.


“That’s a pretty name.”

The room fell silent, but for the sound of Darla

crunching on crackers.

“I should probably go,” said Declan after a minute.

He tried to stand, but it took several rocks back and

forth to dislodge himself from the deep cushions of

the chair.

“Are you sure?” asked Charlotte, standing with

him. “Do you feel okay to drive?”

“I’m fine. Thank you. I appreciate you taking care

of me. This just isn’t what I expected to find when I

came to your house.”

“No, you expected to find me dead,” said Charlotte.

“No—well, yes, I guess I did,” he said, the left side

of his mouth hooking into a tiny smile.

He looked at her and she noticed his eyes were a

brilliant green with brown edges around the iris.

How did I not see those gems earlier?

She suddenly felt very aware of herself and rushed

to squash the uncomfortable silence. “So, for me, the

day turned out better than expected. I’m alive.”

Charlotte raised her hand to cover her mouth,

realizing how tactless her statement had been.

“That didn’t come out the way I meant it. I


“I know what you meant,” said Declan, letting her

off the hook. He put out his hand and she shook it,

eyes locked on her toes.

“Nice to meet you. Hope to see you again soon,”

he said.

“You, too.”

“Nice to meet you, Darla.”

“Nice to meet you,” said Darla, popping another

cracker in her mouth. As he headed for the door she

met eyes with Charlotte and smiled, waggling her

eyebrows suggestively.

Charlotte wrinkled her nose and waved her away.

As Declan passed the hallway that led to the back

of the house he called out to Mariska.

“I’m leaving. Thank you for everything.”

Mariska burst out of the bedroom with the dogs

exploding forward on either side of her. They raced


down the hall and Declan jumped to his right to avoid

being trampled.

“Oh, my pleasure, dear. You take care of yourself.

Do you want a muffin to take home with you?”

“No, thank you.”

Declan offered a last wave to everyone before


From the door, Charlotte watched him walk down

the street to his car.

“He has nice posture,” she said. “I mean, for a tall


Darla nodded. “He has nice a lot of things. I can tell

you his posture wasn’t the first thing I noticed.”


“What? I meant his face. Now who has the dirty

mind? Didn’t you think he was handsome?”

“I guess. Why didn’t any of you ever tell me about


Darla raised her eyebrows. “Oh, darlin’, he’s so

gorgeous and polite… we all thought he was gay.”

Charlotte grabbed her towel and headed to water

aerobics at the Pineapple Port pool. It wasn’t so much

aerobics as it was swinging limbs back and forth, but it

served as the epicenter of some of the best community

gossip. She stopped in front of her chalkboard wall

and picked up the chalk she’d finally purchased the day

before. It had taken the police until eight p.m. to finish

removing Erin Bingham’s bones from her yard, and

she’d gone shopping to kill time. She didn’t buy

seedlings or plants. It would be a while before she’d

consider gardening again. She could officially remove

gardener and archeologist from her potential career


Charlotte wrote find Erin’s killer on her wall. It

seemed dramatic, so she erased it and replaced it with

solve mystery. The statement was vague enough that if

someone saw it, they wouldn’t jump to the conclusion

that she was nuts. She could say the mystery was the

location of a missing earring, or the clicking noise her

dishwasher made.

Speaking of which…

She added fix dishwasher clicking to the board.

It had been twenty-four hours since she’d found a


skeleton in her backyard, and while life went on as

usual, she felt strange in her own home. She fought a

persistent urge to peek out her back window. A

tingling feeling on the back of her neck made her

suspect that at any moment, she’d find Erin Bingham

standing in her lanai.

But in what state? Would she look like she did when she

was alive? Or a zombie? Or would she find a skeleton with a

broken mandible tapping on her door?

She couldn’t stop thinking about the poor woman

or her handsome son. She felt terrible for Declan.

She’d lost her own mother at a young age, so she

empathized. To relive his loss through such a

gruesome discovery; she could only imagine what

impact that might have on the enterprising


Maybe the body wasn’t his mother’s? It would be a

while before the officials identified the remains, but

the appearance of the necklace didn’t bode well.

Maybe, the necklace wasn’t unique. He’d only been a

child when he bought it for her, surely, it wasn’t very

expensive. Maybe a local store had sold hundreds of


Her mind was still racing through the possibilities

of both necklace sales and hauntings when she found

Mariska and Darla waiting outside her home in their

swimsuits and floral cover-ups. Mariska sat behind the

wheel of her light blue golf cart, Darla in the passenger

seat, her nose slathered in bright yellow sun block.

Charlotte hopped on the rear seat and set her towel

beside her.

“Any news on your bones?” asked Darla.

“No. Any details from Frank?”

“Oh, you know that man. Getting him to talk is like

pulling teeth. I told him about Declan’s mother and he

just grunted at me and asked what was for dinner.”

Charlotte grimaced. “He’s our only hope. I don’t

think the police are required to share information with

the person who found the body. That would be a dog,


Mariska stomped on the pedal and the cart lurched

forward. “It’s just so awful. You never think this sort

of thing is going to happen in your neighborhood. The

next thing you know we’ll have the Dateline people

lurking around.”

Darla grinned. “Ooh, I hope so. I like that Keith

Morrison. He’s like sexy old saddle leather.”

Charlotte squinted at Darla. “I don’t even know

what that means, and I do not want an explanation.”

Mariska made a sharp right. “Do you think this will

lower our property values?”

Charlotte closed her eyes and enjoyed the artificial

breeze created by the moving golf cart. “Yes. I think

our homes will plunge tens of dollars.”

The community pool sat to the right of the large

multi-purpose building in the center of Pineapple

Port. It sparkled in the sun, beckoning, clean and

warm. Retirees possessed ample time to lodge

complaints, so the community workers always keep

the pool in tiptop shape.

Mariska stopped the cart in front of the community

bulletin board to look for news. A thumbtacked-


notice printed on neon pink paper announced a new


Darla shook her head. “Another club. This place

has more clubs than a deck of cards.”

Charlotte read the notice, her eyes growing wider

with every word. “The Corpse Committee. A committee

to get to the bottom of the mystery behind the body

found in the backyard of Miss Charlotte Morgan.”

Darla looked at Mariska. “I guess we’ll have to join

that one.”

“I did this morning. I saw it when I walked Miss

Izzy. I wasn’t sure how you’d feel about it, though,


“Well, I don’t feel great being named as the

benefactor of the Corpse Committee, but what can I do?

I assume this is Penny’s handiwork?”

Darla wrinkled her nose at the name of the

community founder’s wife.