Despite our best attempts to make him talk, Billy Mouskawitz jumped into his truck and roared off. I looked at Nick. “We need to tell the cops.”
He nodded. “Yeah. We do.”
“I’ll call I tugged my cell phone out of my pocket and a slip of paper fell out. I recognized the sticky I’d written the numbers from Oscar’s pocket on.
Nick bent down and picked it up. “What’s this?”
I opened my mouth to dismiss it…make an excuse…lie…but then decided against it. Nick was right. I’d have to trust him at some point. It seemed we were both investigating Oscar Greenbottom’s untimely death on my Welcome mat whether I liked it or not. “Those numbers were on a slip of paper in Oscar’s pocket. I memorized them and put that sticky in my pocket in case I could figure out what they meant.”
I cocked my head at Nick as he studied them. “They don’t ring a bell with you, do they?”
He frowned. “Not off the top of my head. We could ask Billy…” His phone rang. “Hold that thought.” He answered and stood there, his frown deepening. “Yes, Sir. Okay. Got it. I’ll see you in a few minutes.”
Nick hung up. “I need to go into the office. There’s been a break in one of my cases.” He held the slip of paper up for me. “Do you mind if I take this? I’ll do some research and see if I can figure out what they mean.”
I shrugged. It didn’t really matter anyway. The numbers were fixed in my brain. “Sure. Whatever.”
Nick nodded, slipping the sticky into his pocket. “You should get home. The police were going to be monitoring you today, right? It would be best if they didn’t find you over here. Especially once the stash in the upstairs bedroom is discovered.”
I watched Nick take off down the street, hoping to see him go into a house so I’d know where he lived. He’d gone past five houses and was still walking when movement caught the corner of my eye and I turned to see a patrol car oozing slowly down the street from the other direction. When I looked back, Nick was gone. “Dangit!” I murmured.
Then I took off running toward the back of my house. Nick was right. I didn’t want to be caught at ground zero. The police already considered me a suspect in Oscar’s death. Though I’d have to be a pretty stupid killer to leave him on my own porch.
A firm knock sounded on my back door a couple of minutes later. I peered through the glass and saw the young cop who’d dragged me home from the stash house on the next street. He saw me looking at him through the glass and gave me a tight smile, lifting his hand in a weird kind of wave.
I let the curtain drop over the window and opened the door. “Officer.”
If he was surprised by my coldness, he didn’t let on. “Ms. Prince. I was just checking in to make sure everything was all right.”
I gave the cop a look. “You mean you were making sure I was still here?”
His brown eyes shifted away guiltily. “Sorry, Ma’am. I’m just doing my job.”
The flush in his pale cheeks and the regret I could see in the slightly bulgy brown gaze made me feel like an oaf. “I know. I’m sorry. This all has me on edge.”
He put his hands on his hips and nodded. “I get that, ma’am. Really.”
“Please stop calling me ma’am. It makes me feel old.” I forced a smile onto my lips. It felt stiff and insincere. But I suddenly realized I might be able to pump the inexperienced officer for information. “Would you like to come inside? I think I have some blueberry muffins and I could make coffee.”
Two lines of indecision showed up between the expressive eyes and then he nodded. “I’d like that, ma…erm…Ms. Prince.”
“Dee will do just fine.” I stepped back, opening the door wider. “Come on in.”
As I rinsed the coffee pot and went about making more coffee, I glanced his way. He stood awkwardly by my back door, looking around as if he expected to find a weapons cache or a pile of stolen goods. “I really have nothing to do with all this, you know.”
He started to shrug and then seemed to think better of it. “I’m sure you’re right, m…Dee.”
Coffee brewing, I opened the refrigerator and pulled out my last two muffins, unzipping the bag I’d put them in to keep them fresh. “I know you don’t believe me. But you’ll see.”
His gaze swung to mine and held. For just a beat, alarm filled my chest. He looked at me as if I were trying to be cagey. As if he’d never be convinced that I was innocent. Even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong…well…nothing that rose quite to the level of a crime anyway…it made me feel unsettled.
I placed the muffins onto two plates and set them on the table, dropping paper napkins alongside the plated. “Sugar or cream for your coffee?”
He jerked his head in a quick negative. “Just black will do.”
“Sit,” I told him.
He obliged, but I noticed he half turned his body away from the table so he could get to his gun if he needed to.
“Any breaks on the case?”
He picked up his muffin. “I can’t share information on an ongoing case, Dee.”
I gave him his coffee and sat down across from him with mine. “I feel like I’m at a disadvantage since I don’t know your name.”
“Peter, surely you can understand that I’d be a little jumpy about all this. I can’t help thinking I’m in danger.”
“You’re not.” He took a bite of muffin and chewed thoughtfully.
“You seem pretty certain. Do you know who killed Mr. Greenbottom?”
He carefully avoided my gaze. It wasn’t hard to read the message there. I set my mug down a little harder than necessary and he grimaced. “Look, does it make any sense for me to kill Greenbottom and then leave him on my own doorstep?”
“People do stuff every day that doesn’t make sense.”
He wasn’t wrong about that. “True. But unless I’m overly fond of orange jumpsuits, or totally insane, I don’t know why I’d deliberately draw you to me as a suspect.”
He frowned slightly and I thought I was witnessing the first crack in his defensive armor. Then he looked at me and asked the one thing I couldn’t explain. “So what were you going in that house? Did you plant the murder weapon there?”
Ralph! They’d found the bloody gnome and realized Oscar had suffered death by yard ornament. I was toast! I figured my only hope was to plead ignorance. Something I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to pull off, given my wholly illegal foray into that house. ”Murder weapon? What murder weapon? Did you find one there?”
He clamped his lips together and stood up, his muffin and coffee only half finished. “Thank you for the snack, ma’am. I need to get going now.”
I realized as I watched him saunter out the door that I’d been played. I’d invited him inside hoping to pick his brain about the investigation. Instead, he’d swung it around on me. And by the way he was swaggering as he left my house, I couldn’t help wondering if I’d inadvertently given him what he was looking for.
I paced the kitchen for an hour after Officer Heck had left. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something…some bit of information…which was right in front of my nose and I wasn’t seeing it. I ran back over the moments when I’d first found Oscar on my porch. I’d been so focused on the dead man lying there, I’d most certainly missed something important.
Knowing I’d never be able to come up with it in my current state, I forced myself to sit at the table and, as my silent house embraced me, I closed my eyes and tried to push all negative thoughts away. Once I was completely focused, I could feel the way my muscles were contracted, from my toes to my jaw.
I was a column of stress and worry. I concentrated on each body part, trying to unlock my muscles. One by one, I focused on my toes, feet, legs, belly, arms, hands, fingers, neck, shoulders and finally, my face.
My body slowly relaxed and I felt my mind clear.
I thought about the morning before. About how I’d been jolted awake, ripped from sleep by a sudden cry. My heart pounding with fear, I’d listened to the silence beyond my walls. There had been nothing but silence. A cat had yowled unhappily somewhere outside. Convinced I’d dreamed it, my fear had slowly eased. I tried to go back to sleep, knowing it was too early to get up, but the dream cry had clung to me, keeping my mind from resting. Finally, I’d climbed out of bed, extending my arms above my head in a hearty stretch. The room was chilly and I’d shivered. A light had flashed past my window and I remembered thinking it was really early for someone to be out and about. I’d glanced at the clock and it read four-forty-five AM.
Yawning so widely my jaw creaked, I trudged into the bathroom…
My cell rang, dragging me back to the present. Sighing, I answered it without looking at the number. “Hello.”
“I want what you took.”
The voice was deep, gravelly, and the tone was threatening. All of the calm I’d managed to muster fled me. “What? Who is this?”
“If you don’t give it to me, you’re gonna end up just like Greenbottom.” The call disconnected and the cell phone slipped from my suddenly nerveless fingers, thumping onto the carpet.
My legs locked, my chest tightened as I found it suddenly hard to breathe. Fear cut a jagged path through my belly. Had I just been threatened?
I stood rooted to the spot, my mind and heart racing. What did the killer think I’d taken from Oscar? And how or why did they think it? I remembered Nick insinuating the killer was probably watching when I came out of my house and found the corpse and I shuddered violently.
That had to be it. Oscar’s murderer thought I’d taken that slip of paper I’d looked at and then shoved back onto his person. Since the cops had the body and everything in its possession, I was the only connection to those numbers on the sticky. If the killer wanted them…
My frame was wracked by sudden, violent shivering.
Who should I tell about the phone call? I looked at my cell lying on the floor, thinking I should call the police. I dismissed that thought immediately. They half thought I’d killed Oscar myself. If I told them someone was threatening me for something they thought I’d taken from him, they’d only be more certain I was involved in his murder.
Then it hit me. How had the caller gotten my phone number? It wasn’t like I gave it out to everybody I ran into. That thought made me wonder if it was someone who had access to tools that could find private information not easily available to the public.
Like a cop. …Or an investigator. I shook off the thought. If Nick had wanted my number he could have easily gotten it when we were together. I might have even given it to him.
Why didn’t that thought make me feel any better?
My stomach twisted with fear. I was trapped. I had nowhere to turn. Both sides thought I was involved and the only one who knew the truth was me. I’d just been dumb enough to stumble into a mess and not walk away from it.
Stupid Dee. Stupid, stupid Dee!
Wait! I wasn’t completely alone. I still had Nick. If I believed he wasn’t the killer. Deep down I didn’t really believe that. And if it was the numbers the killer wanted, Nick already had those. But I did believe he wasn’t telling me everything. And if I ever saw him again, I was going to make him tell me everything. I was sick of simultaneously being the only one completely in the dark while being everybody’s suspect.
Then I realized he’d left me to deal with the problem alone again. Where the heck was he? If only I had his number…
I blinked. I didn’t have his number, but I had the next best thing. I knew where he worked…sort of…and I knew where he’d gone. I lunged for my phone, calling up a browser and punching Acme Insurance into the search bar. There was an office not too far away. I didn’t have any idea if it was the right office, but I needed to do something so I decided to try them.
I dialed the number and a woman answered on the fourth ring, her voice way too chipper. “Acme Insurance, how may I direct you?”
“Hello, My name is Dee Prince and I’m looking for Nick Bednick.”
There was a long pause and then, “I’m sorry, I don’t know anybody by that name. Are you sure you have the right office?”
“Actually, no. He never told me which Acme office he worked for. He’s in investigations.”
“Ah, I see. Well, if you can give me a few minutes, I can check the employee roster and tell you which building he works out of.”
“That would be great. Thanks so much.”
My doorbell rang and I jumped.
I hurried to the front door and snuck a peek through the curtain bunched on the long side window. A man stood on my porch, his gaze locked on the spot of blood the police had left behind when they’d taken my Welcome mat. He was frowning and the expression made him look a bit intimidating.
What if he was the man who’d threatened me?
But he was dressed in a suit, a perfectly knotted red power tie anchoring a spotless white shirt at his throat. His light brown hair was business-short, combed neatly to the side and trimmed tidily around his ears. Just the faintest speckling of gray touched the tips of his perfect sideburns.
He looked more like a businessman than a thief.
Checking to make sure it was still bolted, I called through the door, my eye on the peephole. “Yes?”
He turned toward the door as I spoke, a stiff smile lifting the corners of his lips. “Ms. Prince?”
“Yes. Who are you?”
His frown returned at the suspicion filling my voice. “I’m so sorry to bother you. I’m sure you must be so freaked out. We heard what happened and we…my wife and I…just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“You haven’t told me who you are.”
“Oh. Sorry. My name is Bond. Chase Bond.” I’m your neighbor. We live across the street and down a few houses.”
Memory spiked. My mind replayed Mrs. Mouskawitz talking about Ralph’s supposed affair with the Bond’s angel. “Oh, yeah. Sorry. Just let me…” I turned the deadbolt and slipped the chain out of its track, pulling the door open and giving my neighbor an embarrassed smile. “I’m so sorry. As you can imagine I’m a little spooked.”
“Of course you are.” He glanced at the stain on my porch again. “You must be terrified. Did you know the man who died here?”
I realized Mr. Bond’s purpose there was probably due as much to curiosity as anything else. “No. But the police think he was connected to a string of robberies in the area.”
His expression showed surprise. “Really? I’d heard about the robberies. But they happened a distance from here, didn’t they?”
I shrugged. “I guess the thieves had shown some interest in this neighborhood too.” I shrugged, trying to make my expression neutral. “I don’t really know much. The police weren’t too interested in giving me information.” I didn’t want to tell him that was most likely because they thought I’d killed Oscar myself and they’d interrupted me in the act of trying to dispose of him.
A sudden thought occurred. That huge dumpster at the stash house would have been the perfect dump spot. No wonder they were suspicious about my being there. In addition to the gross and grisly means of poor Oscar’s death being found in the upstairs bathroom closet.
I realized he’d been speaking to me. “Huh?”
“Is there someone there?” He pointed to my cell and I realized the woman at Acme was speaking. I quickly lifted it to my ear again. “Hello? I’m sorry, I got distracted…”
Silence. She must have hung up. I’d have to call her back once Bond. Chase Bond was gone. I gave him a strained smile. “I’ll touch base later.”
He nodded. “Well, I won’t keep you. I just wondered if there was anything we could do for you.”
“That’s so nice.” I was a little surprised he didn’t press for more information. “I’m fine though. Thank you.”
“Okay. Well, if you don’t want to stay here at the scene of the crime, you’re welcome to stay with us.”
Tears burned in my eyes. I suddenly realized what a turd I was for never really reaching out to my neighbors in the five years I’d lived there. I made a promise to myself to do better in the future. “You’re very kind. Thanks. I think I’m fine here. The police are actually driving by every once in a while, checking up on me.” Of course I wouldn’t tell him that was because they thought I was a suspect.
Mr. Bond’s brows lifted. “Do they think you’re in danger?”
“Not necessarily,” I obfuscated. “I think they’re just being cautious.”
My neighbor nodded. “Well, the offer stands. If you change your mind later…”
“I really appreciate that.”
He started to turn away and then stopped, turning back and handing me a business card. “My number. If you decide to have a sleepover.” His smile was warm.
I chuckled. “Have a great day,” I told him as I shoved the card into the pocket of my jeans.
After Bond, Chase Bond, left I found myself at loose ends. I couldn’t shake the feeling that the police were way off base on the murder slash thievery ring. They were suspecting me and heaven knew who else instead of the very real suspects Nick and I had already uncovered.
Or suspect anyway. The tinny rumble of a small engine interrupted my thoughts and I looked out my back door. Tony Marrow was trimming the wild and wooly bushes in the back corner of Mrs. Mouskawitz’s yard.
I watched him for a moment, noting how he kept glancing toward my elderly neighbor’s house. He was a nosy sort of fella. I had no doubt he knew pretty much everything that went on in the neighborhood. Which meant he was a rich source of untapped information.
And I was just the girl to tap it. I put my hand on the knob and turned, tugging it open. But as I stepped forward, a tall, gangly figure emerged from the vicinity of Mrs. M’s back door and stalked toward Marrow. Billy Mouskawitz’s body language was hostile. His expression was murderous. He jerked to a halt in front of the unsuspecting gardener and started screaming at him, his face nearly purple.
Marrow jerked slightly as he caught Billy in his peripheral vision and took two steps back. He did something that halted the tinny rumble of his trimmers and Billy M’s voice rang out across the yard.
“…stick your nose into stuff that’s not your business!”
Marrow glanced toward my house, his dark gaze worried. I ducked sideways, hoping he hadn’t seen me.
I waited to hear what had Billy’s bloomers in a coil, but heard only the low rumble of Marrow’s voice. After a moment, I risked peeking through the window again.
Marrow’s head was bent toward Billy. Amazingly, he was speaking urgently and angrily, a stubby digit pecking at Billy’s bony chest. The dynamic I’d expected was turned on its head. It looked to me like Marrow was schooling his employer rather than the other way around.
The big question was, what was he schooling Billy on? I doubted a badly trimmed bush would be enough to cause the spirited conversation between the two men.
Billy suddenly came alive. He threw his arms into the air and straightened, his gaze flashing with rage. “You don’t know that! She can’t be.” Without warning, Billy Mouskawitz’s gaze shot in my direction. He caught me staring through the window and, for a long moment, he stared back at me, the rage on his face clear.
I was rooted to the spot. Stuck. I couldn’t very well dive sideways and pretend I hadn’t been spying on them. He’d already seen me. Finally, I forced my lips into a stiff smile and lifted my hand, waving like an idiot.
Then I dove to the side. I leaned against the wall for a while, my heart pounding. I suddenly realized I still held the doorknob in my hand. I slowly eased the door closed and turned the deadbolt.
Just in case.
But nobody came pounding on my door. No one screamed at me for spying. In fact, it was just way too quiet.
I finally screwed up my courage and glanced through the window again.
The yard was empty.
Both men were gone.