For the briefest flare of time I thought I saw a sharpening of her vacant gaze. But then I blinked and the moment passed. I realized I’d probably imagined it, seeing only what I’d wanted to see. I was so desperate to find a killer, that I was grasping at straws.
Let’s face it, the suspect pool was shallow. It pretty much consisted of the three of us standing at the bottom of Mrs. Mouskawitz’s stairs.
And I knew I hadn’t killed poor Oscar.
My elderly woman smiled. “It’s Billy’s room, dear.”
I blinked again. “Huh?”
“That bedroom on the second floor. The one above where Ralph used to live, it belongs to my son, Billy.”
Nick and I shared a look. Nick turned to the old woman. “Is your son living with you now?”
She shrugged bony shoulders. “Sometimes he does. Not always. He says my little quirks drive him to drink.”
I suspected if I had to live full time with Mrs. Mouskawitz, kind as she might be, Billy and I would share that opinion. “When was the last time your son was here?” I asked my neighbor.
Her gaze narrowed on me, held for a long moment, and then she smiled, offering me her hand. “It’s a pleasure to see you, dear. Have we met?”
Nick looked at me over the elderly woman’s head. “Show me the room.”
I took Mrs. Mouskawitz’ hand and returned her smile. “It’s nice to see you too. I’m just going to show Nick that broken window now.” I pointed toward the top of the stairs.
Mrs. M frowned. “Broken window? What broken window?”
Nick patted her arm. “Don’t worry, Mrs. M. We’ll get that window fixed.”
I felt her gaze on us as we climbed the stairs and, as I showed Nick the room where I’d found all the stuff earlier, my earlier doubts returned. I closed the door behind Nick and grabbed his arm. “You don’t think she’s capable of masterminding a thievery ring, do you?”
He shook his head. “Probably not. But…” He glanced around, frowning. “This is definitely some of the stolen stuff.”
Alarm bells rang in my head. “How would you know that?”
“I’m very thorough with my neighborhood watch.” He moved to the dresser. “Did you search this?”
I shook my head. “Not inside the drawers.”
He jerked his head toward the nightstand across the room. “Check those drawers.”
I started picking my way through the mess to the small dresser. “What am I looking for?”
He reached into the drawer he’d been searching, pulling out a gun with the tips of his fingers. “Something like this.”
He held it under his nose and sniffed the muzzle tip. “This has been fired recently.”
My eyes round, I slid my gaze toward the broken window. “You don’t think…?”
Nick nodded. “A bullet definitely could have broken that window.” His gaze tightened on something beyond the empty frame, tension filling his face.
“What is it?”
Nick pointed through the ragged glass. “That’s your house, right?”
I nodded, feeling ice spreading in my belly. “You know it is.”
He slid the gun back into the drawer and pushed it closed, moving to the window. He leaned through, careful to avoid the slivers of remaining glass, and pointed toward a spot a few feet under the eaves. “If I’m not mistaken, that ding in your brick is probably our slug.”
“Dang!” My house had been shot. That made me strangely sad. But what was worse was that the slug only missed my bathroom window by a few inches. I could have been shot doing something I didn’t want the papers to know about. WOMAN SHOT ON TOILET. DETAILS AT ELEVEN.
“So you’re thinking…what?” I frowned. “Oscar and his accomplice fought in this room. One of them shot at the other…”
“Or the gun went off in the struggle, breaking the window…”
“And then Oscar’s accomplice shoved Oscar through the window.” An idea flared bright in my mind. “Maybe that’s why we found blood on my bushes. The accomplice might have sliced himself on that glass when he shoved Oscar out.”
Nick nodded. “Makes sense. “He peered downward. “Oscar falls to the ground below…” He pointed. “Is that flat spot there…?”
“Ralph’s former home,” I said, nodding. “So… The killer runs down, starts to drag Oscar back toward the house we searched and realizes he isn’t going to make it so he drops him on my porch…” I frowned. “That part doesn’t make any sense.”
“No, it doesn’t. Let’s assume for a minute that our killer is Billy Mouskawitz. Have you done something to Billy that would make him want to get revenge? Maybe he thought it would be fun to implicate you while at the same time making sure Oscar’s death couldn’t be tied to this house?”
“I’ve never met the man. I barely know his mother.” I shook my head. “Besides, if he wanted to pull suspicion away from this house he would have gone further away before dropping the body.”
“Unless he couldn’t. Maybe a patrol car drove past and he was forced to bolt.”
I thought about Nick’s suggestion and saw some merit in it. “He might have shoved Oscar onto my porch hoping the bushes around the entrance would hide him…”
“Intending to come back and get him once the coast was clear…”
“But I opened the door and saw Oscar. Then he couldn’t come back…” My knees buckled out from under me and I dropped onto the narrow edge of the bed that was clear of junk. “I was probably inches away from the killer.”
From the serious look on Nick’s face, I realized he believed my guess was pretty close. He reached out and clasped my shoulder, giving it a squeeze. “He probably took Ralph with him to hide the trail back to Mrs. M’s house.”
“Hiding it in the stash house behind us.” I sighed. “So all this points to Billy Mouskawitz then.”
“It certainly seems to, yes,” Nick agreed. Though his dark gaze was locked on the empty window frame, filled with speculation.
“I think the scenario we’ve outlined leaves Mrs. Mouskawitz out,” I said. “She’s not strong enough to pull this off.”
“You’re right. She certainly doesn’t seem capable of all this.”
That left only three suspects. Two really, because I definitely hadn’t killed Oscar Greenbottom. I only had access to one of the remaining suspects. Eyeing Nick carefully, I crossed my arms over my chest. “Now tell me who you really are and why you left me at that house to face the music alone?”
Nick shook his head. “This isn’t the time…”
“It’s exactly the time. Right now it’s looking like one of four people killed Oscar Greenbottom. And I know I didn’t do it so that leaves you, Mrs. Mouskawitz, Billy Mouskawitz or you. If we take Mrs. M off the list that only leaves you and Billy.”
“You’re right. I think it’s Billy too.”
“That’s not what I said.”
Nick’s face turned stony. “Do you really think I killed him?”
I threw up my hands. “How the heck would I know? You say you’re my neighbor, but before that body showed up on my doorstep I’d never seen you before. You knew about the stash house behind us…”
He shook his head. “I didn’t know about it. Not that house specifically, anyway. I just followed the blood trail like you did.”
“No, Nick. I followed you and you followed the blood trail. But there wasn’t really all that much blood. Just a few drops in my front bushes. Then you were following fairy dust or something. It was like you knew exactly where to go.”
He tensed but didn’t try to defend himself so I went on.
Then at the house, you were confident enough that nobody was inside that you broke into the garage. You seemed to know exactly what was required to preserve a crime scene…”
“I watch a lot of cop shows.”
I rolled my eyes. “Nice try. And you found Ralph in that closet. Strange that you went right to that bloody gnome.”
“Dee, you have to believe…”
“You see, that’s just the thing, Nick. I don’t have to believe you. I want to. I really do. But you left me to face the cops alone in that house. Why did you do that?”
“I can’t explain why…”
“You have to explain why. Or I’m going to go to Officer Maxwell and tell him I think you’re involved.”
We glared across the space of two feet for a long moment, neither of us willing to give in.
Finally, Nick expelled a long, angry breath. “You don’t know what you’re doing, Dee.”
“Maybe not, Nick. But that’s completely your fault because you won’t talk to me.”
He shook his head and started for the door. “Let’s get out of here. I want to find out more about this Billy guy.”
Mrs. Mouskawitz ambled down the hallway from the kitchen as Nick and I jogged down the stairs. Penny trotted happily alongside, her nails clicking on the hardwood floor.
I was irritated with Nick for dodging my question and I didn’t plan to let him off the hook for it. But I’d wait until we got outside to start in on him again.
“I’ve made tea, dears.”
To his credit, Nick stopped and took the elderly woman’s hand, giving her a smile. “I’m afraid we’re going to have to take a raincheck on that, Mrs. M.”
Her face fell, her fleshy jowls wobbling unhappily. Down by her feet, Penny the Schnauzer dropped to her haunches and cocked her head at Nick in silent question. He reached down and scratched the little dog under the chin. “We’re following up on a lead and need to get going.”
She frowned. “Lead? What lead?”
“We’re trying to find Ralph,” I blurted out. Nick threw me a glance filled with surprise and I gave a tiny shrug.
“Ah, that’s good, Dear. He spends a lot of time up the street. At the Bonds’ house. He’s sweet on the angel there.”
Nick’s lips curved upward but he caught the smile before it blossomed fully. “That’s good advice, Mrs. M. We’ll speak to the Bonds.”
“Goodbye, Mrs. Mouskawitz. You stay out of trouble now, okay?”
The elderly woman gave me a wicked grin. “What fun would that be, hon?”
I laughed along with her and followed Nick out of the house. As soon as the door closed behind us, I tapped him on the back. “You never answered my question.”
Nick jogged quickly down the steps, heading toward the street. “Yeah? What question.”
The bushes rustled alongside the concrete stairs and I yelped in surprise as a man flew out of them, a deadly pair of garden shears clutched in his gloved hands.
Nick's hands came up and he swung at the man almost before my mind could register what had happened. The man was short, widely made, and had a sparse crop of graying brown hair that stuck straight up on his head as if he'd stepped on a live wire. Despite his muscular build, the man was quick and agile. He ducked away from Nick’s punch and lifted the blades in his hands as if hiding behind them.
“Stop! I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Glaring at the other man, Nick kept his hands up and his stance on alert. “What the heck, man?”
The man lowered the garden shears, resting the tips on the ground near his feet. “Sorry. I stumbled on that root there.” He pointed toward the ground beneath the bush he’d apparently been trimming. There were fragments of the bush all over the ground nearby.
Nick relaxed slightly. He jerked his head toward the lowered garden implement. “You need to be more careful with those.”
The man slid me a look. “You live next door.”
I nodded, wondering if he’d been spying on me. “Have we met?”
The man looked at his gloved hand and tugged off the glove, rubbing it along his slacks before offering it to me. “Tony Marrow. Marrow Landscaping. I’ve been checking out your lawn. It could really use some help.”
I barely kept from wincing. Though I’d been thinking almost the exact same thing earlier, it still felt like a personal insult coming from him. “I haven’t lived here long. I’ve been busy getting settled in.”
His slightly bulgy brown gaze fixed on mine and I got the impression he knew exactly how long I’d lived in the house. Though it felt like five years had flown by, it was obviously plenty of time to have done something with my yard. “I’ll take one of your cards, though, if you have one. The landscaping is next on my list of to dos.”
He slipped his meaty hand into the pocket of his industrial blue slacks and tugged out a card. It was slightly tattered, with a faint brown stain on the back, but I shoved it into my jeans pocket anyway. “Thanks. How long have you been doing the gardening for Mrs. Mouskawitz?”
Tony Marrow narrowed his gaze. “Not long. I think it’s been about six months. It was kind of unruly when I started.” His gaze slid toward my yard again and I flushed with embarrassment.
“Do you come every week,” Nick asked the man.
“Pretty much. Sometimes twice a week, depending on how much the grass grows.”
“You didn’t by any chance notice the broken window around the side, did you?”
Marrow’s eyes got even bulgier. “I didn’t do that, man. It was like that when I showed up.”
“When did you first notice it?” Nick asked the gardener.
Marrow shrugged. “Today. I assumed it happened recently.” He glanced toward Mrs. M’s front door. “I was actually going to offer to repair it for him.”
“For him?” I asked.
“Yeah. Billy. The owner.”
Nick and I shared a look. Did Billy Mouskawitz own the home?
“Is he the one who hired you,” Nick asked.
The gardener nodded. “He said the old lady’d been mismanaging her money. Claimed he took over the finances earlier this year and was making some changes.”
“Did he say what kind of changes,” I asked.
Marrow shrugged. “Heck if I know. I just trim and fertilize stuff. I wouldn’t even know about the money thing if that Billy guy hadn’t felt like telling me. I certainly didn’t ask.”
“Have you seen him since he hired you?” Nick asked.
“A few times. He drove up in a brand new pickup truck the other day, unloaded a few boxes from the back. I waved and teased him that it looked like he was doing a much better job with the finances.” Marrow chuckled.
“Did he appreciate the joke?” I asked, smiling.
“Not so much. He’s kind of a moody guy.” Marrow lifted the trimmers. “Well, I should get back to work, I guess.”
“Thanks for your help,” Nick told the other man, reaching out to shake the gardener’s hand. Marrow hesitated a beat and then slowly peeled off his glove, offering Nick a hand that was wrapped in gauze.
I eyed the wound. “That looks like a pretty nasty cut.”
Marrow winced. “Yeah, I grabbed the wrong end of these things yesterday.” He lifted the trimmers and nodded in my direction. “Have a good one.”
Nick and I headed down the sidewalk to the street. He stopped and looked both ways down our street, frowning.
“What are you looking for?” I asked.
“Where’s Mr. Marrow’s truck?”
I realized he was right. “He has to have one, right? He certainly didn’t carry all his supplies here on his back.” I eyed the commercial-sized mower sitting in the center of my neighbor’s yard.
Nick slid a glance back up to the busily snipping older man. “Let’s go ask.”
The throaty roar of a souped-up engine caught our attention and we turned toward the street. A new pickup truck in a sexy gold color sped toward us and made the turn into Mrs. Mouskawitz’s drive on little more than two tires.
The man inside the fancy truck threw a dark look over us before climbing out and coming around to glare our way. “Yeah? I’m not buying, whatever it is you people are selling.”
“We’re not selling anything.” Nick stepped closer, lifting his chin to look the slightly taller man in the eyes. “Billy Mouskawitz?”
Nick extended his hand. “Nick Bednick, Acme Insurance Fraud Investigator. How are you today, Mr. Mouskawitz.”
Billy Mouskawitz and I both blinked, doing a slow eye slide to Nick in what could have been an orchestrated movement. I opened my mouth, dying to ask Nick if that was really his job description or if he was just playing a part.
Then I realized, if he was playing a part, that would pretty much neuter anything he hoped to gain. So I filed it away for future Nick whackings and met Billy M’s gaze as it slid my way. “I’m just the neighbor.” I pointed toward my house and then immediately regretted it as Billy’s narrow, brown gaze locked onto my house and his jaw tightened. “I saw this guy out here and just wondered why he was annoying your gardener.”
Nick slid me a “Really?” look but I ignored it. “He’s very pushy.”
Billy seemed to relax, nodding his head. “Yeah. Insurance Investigators are like cops. I don’t trust any of them.” Suddenly Billy was puffing up and stepping toward Nick, his glare intensifying, and I realized I might have overplayed my hand.
“Um, yeah. Well.” Before I knew what I was doing, I stepped between them. Nick reached out and put a hand on my arm, trying to nudge me aside, but I dug in. “I was worried about your mom. Has she been robbed?”
Billy’s ire slid from Nick to me. “No. Why would you ask such a thing?”
“I didn’t mean any harm. I’m just concerned.”
“My mom’s not your business, Miss…”
I ignored his obvious attempt to get my name, deciding to appeal to his clearly self-interested nature. “It actually is my business, Mr. Mouskawitz. I live right next door. If there’s a group of thieves…”
“There ain’t no thieves. You just mind your business and let me manage mine.”
“You’re wrong, Mr. Mouskawitz,” Nick said. “There’s been a rash of robberies in this neighborhood and other homes within a one mile radius. Acme Insurance has several claims and my boss is coming down pretty hard on me to stop it.”
I frowned. I was pretty sure Insurance Fraud Investigators didn’t get involved in criminal cases. Then again, that would certainly explain why Nick had slithered away and left me to deal with the police at the stash house.
“I don’t know nothin’ about any o’ that,” Billy growled out. “I’m just here tryin’ ta make sure my mom’s okay. She’s old and forgetful.”
“And she has a room full of stolen property in an upstairs bedroom,” Nick said softly.
Tension pulsed between the three of us for a long, long moment. Billy’s big hands clenched into fists and his jaw turned to stone. “That’s a dang lie.”
I shook my head, feeling reckless. “No it’s not. I saw it too.”
“How do you suppose all that stuff got up there?” Nick asked.
Billy shook his head and his gaze slid toward the street. For a minute I thought he was going to bolt, but then he turned his belligerent gaze to Nick. “I think I need to get my mom a lawyer.”
Dang! I’d seen this on TV enough times to know that was the death knell for further information gathering. Or was it? Nick wasn’t a cop. Did the same rules apply? I thought I’d test the waters a little. “Mr. Moukawitz, when was the last time you saw Oscar Greenbottom?”
He flinched, clearly startled, and his body posture folded in just the tiniest little bit. His eyes met mine and, for a flicker in time, I thought he was going to confess to killing Oscar.
But then the front door opened and Mrs. M stepped out onto her front porch. Penny Pooper trotted out with her and commenced to serenading us with her yippy bark.
“Is that you, Billy Boy? Come on inside, now. I made your favorite frosted oatmeal cookies.
The moment passed. Billy Mouskawitz gave me a mean little smile. “You can talk to my lawyer about that, nosy neighbor.”
“Well dang,” I murmured to Nick as we watched the hostile progeny of Mrs. M saunter toward her.
“Yeah, I thought you had him for a minute.”
Sighing, I nodded. “I hate when people lie.”
Nick gave me a funny look. “I was going to tell you about my job. I was just waiting for the right moment.”
I dragged my attention away from the Mouskawitz’s closing front door and refocused it on Nick. “Huh?”
“I didn’t actually lie, you know. I just didn’t tell you who I was. Exactly.”
“Oh. Yeah.” Then I realized what he was saying. “Wait, you’re telling me you actually are a Fraud Investigator?”
“I am. Independent. Acme Insurance is just one of my clients.”
“So you’re working a case? Then why are you hiding from the police?”
He flushed with embarrassment as we started across Mrs. M’s front lawn, heading for my house. “That’s the thing. I don’t have a specific case on this one. But I’ve been following the robberies and I think whoever’s behind it is nearby.”
I nodded. “So if the police find out you’re breaking into stash houses and investigating little old lady’s upstairs bedrooms…”
He nodded. “I’ll be slapped with impeding an investigation faster than you can say Acme Insurance.”
Remembering the crime tape barricade at my front door, I diverted toward my backyard. “That leaves only one burning question in my mind.”
Nick grimaced as he eyed my crap-grass and weed forest. “What’s that?”
“Does your Acme Insurance polo shirt have a Wile E Coyote logo on the pocket?”
“Har,” Nick responded.