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All rights reserved. Aside from brief quotations for media coverage and reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced or distributed in any form without the author’s permission. Thank you for supporting authors and a diverse, creative culture by purchasing this book and complying with copyright laws.
Copyright © 2017 by Amy Vansant
Interior design by Pronoun
Distribution by Pronoun
A Pineapple Port Mystery: Book Three
©2016 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.
Library of Congress: 2016909641
Vansant Creations, LLC / Amy Vansant
Cover art by Farik Osman - http://www.sexytoonpinups.com
Copy editing by Carolyn Steele.
To the cackle twins: Mary & Carol.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Other Books by Amy Vansant
Two months earlier.
Alex walked into The Striped Goldfish and felt cool, heavy air settling on sun-warmed skin. A skinny man in his mid-fifties sat alone at the bar in a pair of khaki shorts and over-sized Jimmy Buffett t-shirt. In front of him sat a full beer and an empty shot glass. It was three o’clock in the afternoon.
Alex moved to the bar and sat one stool away.
“What can I getcha?” asked the young bartender, his eyes never leaving his phone.
“I’ll take a beer. Whatever’s on tap.”
The bartender finished thumbing his text message, slipped the phone into his pocket and reached to pour a frosted glass.
The man in the Buffet t-shirt spoke.
“Still hot out there?”
“Not too bad. It’s been worse,” said Alex.
“You aren’t kidding. Sometimes I question why I came to Florida in the first place.”
“Are you originally from farther north?”
“Isn’t everyone? Connecticut.”
Alex held out a hand. “I’m Alex.”
“How long you been here, Pat?”
“In the bar, or in Florida?” he asked, chuckling.
“Twenty years. You?”
“Just a few. Retired?”
“I guess you could say I’m semi-retired. I worked for the railroad up in Connecticut. Down here I started making jigsaw puzzles.”
“Outta wood. I sell them at the craft fairs. Got a website I don’t understand. Got some in stores.”
“Wait.” Alex took a sip of beer. “You’re not Pat Conley are you?”
Pat grinned. “In the flesh.”
“Wow. I’ve seen your stuff. You’re kinda famous. Weren’t you and your puzzles on TV or something a few years back?”
Alex snapped in the air. “Bartender! Get this man another round. Me too, for that matter. I’ll have what he’s having.”
The bartender tucked his tongue into his lower lip, staring as if considering the value of the request, and then nodded.
Alex peppered Pat with questions about the jigsaw puzzle making business and the man answered each inquiry with delight. He never asked about Alex, but then, Alex found most people never thought to steer the conversation away from themselves if given the chance to remain the center of attention.
The shots of bourbon appeared and disappeared like runway models. Alex threw back the first, but for subsequent rounds, dribbled the contents of the shot glass down the leg of the bar stool to the wood plank floor.
It would be important to stay sober.
“I’d sure love to see how you do it,” Alex said, as Pat finished expounding on his time creating a puzzle for Mick Jagger’s grandchild. Or it might have been James Brown’s grandkid. Alex wasn’t really listening.
“You should come back to the shop,” said Pat, his tongue thick with bourbon.
“Could I? Hey, you need a ride? I have my car.”
Pat looked at the door. “I walked here. DUI last year. Lost my license. It was a trap. Cop was waiting for me—”
“No problem, no problem. I’ll drop you off and you can show me your stuff.”
Pat grinned—leered, really—his eyes at half-staff. “Sure sure.” He turned to call for the bartender.
“Don’t worry about it. I’ve got the bill.”
“This is my kinda day.” Pat slid from his bar stool.
Alex paid and palmed Pat’s shot glass as the young man ran the card. After signing the receipt Alex held the door open for Pat as they headed for the car. The jigsaw king weaved, giggling at the effort it took to continue forward.
“I might’ve had one too many today.”
“Happens to the best of us.”
Alex opened the passenger door and helped Pat inside. Three minutes later they pulled into the driveway of Pat’s moss green, cement block rancher.
After a wobbly trip from the car to the front porch, Pat hummed the theme to The Brady Bunch as he fumbled for his keys. The door popped open and they entered.
Inside, the walls were covered with intricate wooden puzzles, assembled, mounted and framed.
“Look at that,” said Alex, whistling with admiration.
“That’s one of my favorites.” Pat thrust his finger in the direction of a large wooden map of the world with each country’s puzzle piece stained a slightly different shade. “Took me three years to finish that.”
Alex had already wandered to the slider doors leading to the back yard. “No kidding. Is that a pool out there?”
Pat nodded. “You bring your bathing suit?”
“No, but I wouldn’t mind sitting out back and getting a little air. Evening breeze is picking up.”
He nodded again. “Whatever you like. Grab us some beers from the fridge and I’ll lead the way.”
Alex gathered one Miller Lite from the fridge and handed the can to Pat before wandering to the edge of the pool.
Pat, about to flop into a lounge chair, paused. “Yeah?”
“You’ve got a gator in your pool.”
“What?” Pat shuffled toward the pool. His eyes grew wide. “Hoo!”
In the shallow end of the pool, a large alligator floated, eyes and nose breaking the surface.
Alex opened a pocketknife. Before Pat could say another word, Alex grabbed him by the shoulder of his t-shirt sleeve, stabbed him twice in the neck and pushed him into the pool. The attack took less than three seconds. Not a single drop of blood had fallen on the cement surround.
Pat surfaced sputtering, an ever growing halo of blood encircling his body.
“Did I fall in?” he asked, swimming toward Alex. “Help me out of here!”
He doesn’t even realize he’s been stabbed. Doesn’t know he’s bleeding to death faster than he’s swimming.
To Alex’s surprise, Pat did manage to paddle to the edge of the pool. He reached out his hand for help and his mouth opened but he was too weak to speak. Alex watched as the man’s eyelids grew heavy. His arm, hooked on the side of the pool, kept Pat afloat, even as his face submerged. It slid in tiny staccato jerks across the pavement as the weight of his body pulled.
A moment later, the alligator was on him. It grabbed Pat by the leg and jerked him under.
Alex stepped forward to watch, curious how the hungry beast would proceed, but the water was too bloody to see.
“I told you if you were patient you’d get fed.”
A few details to arrange . . .
Alex returned to the car, retrieved a boxed cardboard puzzle featuring a field of jellybeans, and tossed a handful of pieces in and around the pool.
Alex sat on the end of the lounge chair and watched the pieces bob in the bloody water.
“This counts towards my detective hours, right?” asked Charlotte.
Sheriff Frank hung his thumbs in his belt and looked at her. “Nah. I just thought you’d like to see a dead guy.”
She made a dimple with her right cheek. “Fine. Stupid question.”
It might have been a stupid question, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want to see a dead guy. Though, she couldn’t see much with his face planted firmly in his cereal bowl. She had an excellent view of his bald, sunburned pate. Dead Guy was no spring chicken, but in Charity, Florida, land-of-a-thousand-retirement-communities, very few people were.
She noticed Frank was distracted, messing with his radio, so she poked the dead guy’s neck. It was cold. She was about to do it again when she heard Frank.
She looked at him. “Sorry.”
He shook his head.
Time to change the subject. “So…heart attack, you think?”
Frank shrugged. He was both the sheriff and one of her unofficial, adopted fathers. When her grandmother died and left her an orphan, it had been Frank who’d help her keep her grandmother’s home in the Pineapple Port fifty-five-plus community and avoid social services. Growing up with a whole retirement community for your family was odd, but it was better than shuffling from one group home to the next.
Frank wandered over and studied the back of Dead Guy’s head, sucking his tooth with his tongue. He poked his neck, winked at Charlotte, and then grunted.
“Probably is a heart attack. Though...I happen to knowhis wife died two days ago. Might be one of those broken-heart deaths.”
“You mean where someone dies because they just can’t live without their mate?”
“Aw. That’s cute.”
“Adorable. Happens more than you’d think. Though I think it has more to do with the shock to their routine than everlasting love. Without Darla I’d starve to death in a week.”
Charlotte patted Frank on the arm. “Always such a romantic.”
Frank leaned against the refrigerator and stared at the floor. With no knife projecting from the victim’s back or brains splattered across the wall, there wasn’t much for them to do except wait for the EMTs to arrive and pronounce it death from natural causes.
Or at least as natural as death by milk inhalation could be.
Charlotte didn’t mind waiting. When she’d asked Frank to help her earn intern hours towards her private detective license, she imagined police work would be exciting. As it turned out, detecting was a lot of standing around. At least this time she was in the same room as an actual Dead Guy.
She wandered toward the back of the house. Nothing appeared out of order. In the bedroom she found a half-empty closet and a pile of women’s clothes. Dead Guy must have been organizing his recently deceased wife’s things for Goodwill. Her eyes drifted to a faded picture of the couple’s children on the bureau.
Dead Guy could have packed up his own stuff while he was at it and saved his kids the trouble.
She chastised herself for thinking such a thing. Growing up in a retirement community had desensitized her to death. Not because she was young and callous; but because her elderly neighbors loved telling sick jokes.
How can you tell your wife died? The sex is the same but the dishes are piling up.
How can you tell your husband died? He finally gets an erection but he doesn’t run to tell you about it.
Hear about the old lady with a hole between her breasts? It was her belly button.
She’d heard a million of them.
Charlotte was about to head back to the kitchen when a noise caught her attention. It sounded like someone slowly strangling a balloon to death.
“Was that you, Frank?” she called.
“Did you make a noise?”
“No. Unless I dozed off. Did it sound like snoring?”
She cocked her head and listened. After a moment the noise began again and continued long enough for her to follow it to the back bedroom. She dropped to her hands and knees and peered under the bed.
Two green eyes peered back at her.
“It’s a cat,” she called.
“A cat. There’s a cat back here. I think it’s sick.”
Charlotte reached under the bed and the cat batted her hand away. Luckily, it didn’t seem to have claws.
“Come on, cat, don’t be like that.”
She tried again and the cat opened its mouth, threatening to bite.
She skootched forward without fully extending her arm, pretending she couldn’t reach as far as she could.
“Here goes nothing,” she whispered, taking a moment to summon her courage.
She flicked out her arm like a frog’s tongue and grabbed the cat by the back of its neck. A terrifying caterwaul filled the air as she dragged it from beneath the bed.
“Gotcha ya little—aaah!”
Charlotte yelped at the sight of the creature in her hand. It took all her power not to toss it away from her.
What had she fished from under the bed?
In the light, it looked less like a cat and more like a baggy, pink rat. The face was feline, but the body was entirely hairless.
“You okay?” called Frank.
“It’s some kind of freaky mummy cat.”
“I’m not even going to ask what that means.”
The cat struggled briefly and then went limp as she wrapped her arms around it.
The skin didn’t feel unlike Dead Guy’s, but it was a lot warmer.
She carried the cat to the kitchen.
“I think it’s sick,” she said, showing Frank the feeble feline cradled against her chest.
Frank made a face as if he’d caught a whiff of something terrible. “Good heavens, that thing is more than sick. What is it? Should you be touching it?”
“It’s a cat. It’s supposed to look like this, I think. It’s one of those hairless cats. I hope. But look, it has no energy.” She lifted one paw and dropped it. It flopped back into place with no resistance. The cat stared dully up at her with an expression that said, “I’ll let that one slide, but on any other day, I’d kill you for that.”
Frank squinted at it. “I’d give up on life if I looked like that, too.”
Charlotte sighed. “I’m going to take it to the vet. Can I borrow your cruiser? I’ll come right back.”
Frank rubbed his face with his right hand. “You’re killing me.”
“Please? It might die.”
“It might be evidence.”
“You think the cat drowned him in his cereal?”
Frank shrugged. “Cats can be pretty sneaky.”
Charlotte stared at him until he relented.
“Fine. I’ll wait for the ambulance. Go get that thing some Rogaine or something.”
Charlotte placed the cat in the passenger seat and drove ten minutes to the local vet clinic. The doctor there said he would see what he could do and give her a call. She was back at the house in less than half an hour. As she pulled up, the EMS techs were rolling a gurney toward the ambulance. A long sheet covered the lump strapped to it.
Bye, Dead Guy.
“Perfect timing,” said Frank, standing in the doorway. She threw him the keys to his cruiser and they waited as the body was loaded into the ambulance. As the vehicle pulled away, Charlotte’s phone rang and she answered it.
“That was the vet,” she said, hanging up a minute later.
“Calling to tell you that’s the ugliest cat he’s ever seen?”
“No, calling to tell me a quick tox screen says the cat has atropine in its system.”
“He thinks it was poisoned with belladonna.”
“The plant?” Frank shook his head. “Cats get into everything.”
“Yeah, but don’t you think it’s weird a cat was poisoned in the same house where two people just died in a matter of days?”
Frank was preparing to lock Dead Guy’s door and paused. “Now that you mention it...” He re-entered and walked to the cereal bowl. “Maybe we should get this tested.”
“Careful, don’t touch it without gloves.”
“Right. The bowl might have fingerprints on it.”
“I was thinking more like it might be poisonous.”
“I wasn’t going to taste it. I don’t even like Wheat Chex.”
“If it’s poison you might not want to get it on your skin.”
“Of course not. I was testing you. Good job. You passed.” He pulled his hand away from the bowl.
Frank grimaced and stared at the bowl a moment longer before peeking down the hallway toward the bedrooms.
“If there was enough poison to kill a man, don’t you think there would have been enough to kill ten cats? How did that hideous cat live and he died?”
Charlotte considered this. “His face had a pretty tight fit in that bowl. Maybe the cat could only get to a little milk that splashed when he...splatted.”
She reached into her pockets and pulled out a pair of gloves.
“Look at you, all prepared,” said Frank, jerking his radio from his side. The radio crackled to life. “Ruby?”
“I’m here, Sheriff,” said Ruby from her station at the sheriff’s office. She’d replaced Miss Charlene, who’d moved to Alabama.
“Can you get me a tech out here to 745 Locust Ave? I need something tested for poison and I don’t want to touch it.”
“Is it poop?”
“You said you don’t wanna touch it. Is it poop?”
“No, Ruby, it is not poop.”
“Alrighty then. Yes sir, I certainly will get you a tech.”
Charlotte looked at Frank as he replaced his radio, head shaking.
“Was she not going to get you a tech if it was poop?” she asked.
He sighed. “She’s getting weirder every day, I swear. I’m starting to wonder if recommending Ruby was Charlene’s final revenge before she left.”
Charlotte chuckled and opened the refrigerator. She was surprised to find room in it. All the people she knew in Pineapple Port kept their fridges overflowing with food. If anything was on special Mariska always had to buy six. Between meal leftovers, recipes ripped from Woman’s World magazine and shared neighborhood baked goods, Mariska couldn’t squeeze another grape in her fridge with a shoehorn.
Charlotte pulled the milk carton from the refrigerator with her gloved hand and put it next to the bowl on the table for testing. Peering back into the fridge, she noticed a white powder on the top shelf near the back. She removed some orange juice and a few more items to get a better view.
“You making a snack?” asked Frank.
“There’s a white powder on the shelf.”
“Well, let the techs deal with it. Don’t mess with anything. You might inhale something.”
Charlotte put her hand over her face, realized her glove might have already touched the powder and whipped it away.
She was about to stop pretending she had any idea what she was doing, when she noticed a shallow, square indentation in the back wall of the fridge. She poked it, but it didn’t move. Running her gloved finger over it, she found it slid to the side and sprung back into place. She tried again, applying more pressure. This time the little trapdoor revealed what looked like the end of a plastic tube. She stared at it. This wasn’t a refrigerator feature with which she was familiar. She allowed the trap door to snap shut again.
“Frank, there is something really weird back here.”
“You wouldn’t believe what old people eat sometimes. I remember Darla got on this prune and wheatgrass kick—”
“No, I mean there’s a secret door in the back of their fridge.”
Frank peered in and Charlotte showed him how the door slid to the side and sprang back into place.
He tapped her on the shoulder to get her to move and closed the door. He walked to the side and, with great effort, slid the refrigerator away from the wall.
He peeked behind it. “What the heck is that?”
Charlotte shifted to get a better view. There was a small water bottle taped to the back of the refrigerator with a tube running from the bottom to the sliding door. The trap door was a piece of white plastic with a spring and a plastic loop on the opposite side. Clear fishline was tied to the loop and led to the other side of the fridge, out of view.
Charlotte circled the appliance and spotted the line protruding from the other side. She pulled the coffee pot in the corner of the counter toward her to investigate.
“What did you just do? The door opened,” said Frank.
Charlotte looked at the back of the coffee machine and found the fishline ended there, secured to the back. She flipped the top and peered inside to confirm that was where someone making coffee would pour water.
She pushed the coffee machine back into its corner.
“Now the door is closed,” said Frank.
Charlotte opened the refrigerator and pulled the coffee maker toward her again. She watched the sliding door open.
She grabbed the carton of milk from the table and put it back in the refrigerator. She eyeballed its height, and found the top of the carton sat just beneath the hole.
“I think they poisoned themselves,” said Charlotte.
“You think they built a contraption to poison themselves on purpose?”
“No, I think someone else built a contraption to trick them into poisoning themselves. Someone put poison powder in that tube and rested it against that little door. They must have put the milk directly under it with the spout open. The next morning these poor people pulled out their coffee machine so they could flip open the top and pour in the water. When they did, it pulled the fishline and released the powder into the open carton.”
“These people didn’t notice their milk was open?”
Charlotte put her hands on her hips. “If you found your milk open in the fridge, would you start looking for a poison delivery system?”
Frank shook his head. “No, I guess not. I’d probably just blame Darla.”
He pointed. “I think you just put your poison gloves on your hips.”
Charlotte realized she was resting the knuckles of each hand on her hips and held out her arms. “Shoot.”
“So finish your theory,” said Frank.
She sighed, holding her hands a safe distance from her body. “Once they poured the water into the coffee machine, they probably pushed it back. The hole snapped shut and they didn’t notice it.”
Frank grimaced. “That’s a pretty good theory, assuming the milk is poisoned. We’d better take the orange juice too, just in case.”
Charlotte nodded. “They’ll probably want to test a lot of stuff, but my money is on the milk. There’s no coffee in the pot so maybe the man didn’t drink it. I’m thinking the missus took milk in her coffee, so she died first. Then a couple days later the husband decided to have cereal and...sploosh.”
“Is that the sound of a man dying in his Wheaties? Sploosh?”
She nodded. “Duh.” She pulled the gloves from her hands and put them next to the milk. “Who would do something like this?”
She looked at Frank, who stood frozen, staring at nothing. “Frank?”
Frank frowned. “I’m afraid I know exactly who would do something like this.”
He opened the refrigerator and scanned it, moving the contents left and right as if looking for something. Finally, he opened the butter compartment and gasped.
“What is it?” asked Charlotte.
He grabbed her gloves from the table and, slipping one on, gently pulled something from behind a box of butter sticks. He held it up for her to see.
It was a piece from a common cardboard jigsaw puzzle.
Charlotte squinted at it and recognized the pattern printed on it.
“Jellybeans?” she asked.
THE BELL CONNECTED TO THE Hock o’ Bell Pawnshop’s door rang its merry greeting and Declan looked up to see who’d entered. He realized part of him worried it was the man he’d just hired part-time. Blade. Something about the guy was a little unsettling. Maybe that his name was Blade. That should have been his first clue. He was already wondering if he’d made the right decision between Blade and paying for another month of want ads in the local paper. Something about that guy—
Declan’s apprehensions over his hiring practices dissipated as he watched a blonde in a tight blue business suit slink through the door.
This was much worse. Now his heart yearned for Blade.
It was Stephanie darkening his door. His ex. Growing up with her had blinded him to the horror of dating her and, like a fool, he’d given it a shot.
She made Blade look like Santa Claus.
Who knew when he started a pawnshop the greatest downside would be that his ex-girlfriend could pop in any time she wanted?
“Why?” he asked, dropping his gaze to continue his paperwork.
“Why what?” she asked, weaving through the furniture. He’d recently reconfigured his wares, forcing people to walk through more of them on their way to the counter. Not only did it help sales (theoretically), it also kept bad guys from bolting straight from his counter to the door, which hadn’t been a problem until recently.
“Why are you here?”
“Oh. Nice to see you, too, Decky.”
Declan’s gaze rose from his books. The sound of her pet name for him made his blood run cold. She stopped at the counter and smiled at him.
She had a face that launched a thousand trips...to therapists.
She sighed. “You blinked first but I’ll get to the point. Doesn’t your little friend work with the police or something?”
“My little friend?”
“You mean my girlfriend? Charlotte?”
“Mm. Whatever. I don’t like labeling people.”
“She’s training to be a detective, if that’s what you mean.”
Stephanie grimaced. “Oh. I thought she was more than that. A cop or something. Probably the total lack of femininity about her gave me that impression.”
“You’re pushing it. Get to the point.”
“Oh. I know. She’s friends with the sheriff, isn’t she?”
“Yes. He’s helping her get her license.”
“Good. I need you to give her a message to give to him.”
Declan sighed. “I don’t know where this is going but I already don’t like it.”
“Tell her to tell him there’s a serial killer in town.”
Declan’s eyes grew wide. “What? Why would I do that?”
“Because there is.”
“No, I mean why wouldn’t you tell the police if you know there’s a serial killer in town?”
She shook her head. “It’s for a client. I can’t answer any questions about it and don’t want to draw attention. Lawyer-client privilege and all that.”
“You take serial killers for clients?”
“My client isn’t the serial killer. Not that I could tell you if she was.”