Dan slapped across the surface of the nightstand in search of the buzzing cell phone, head pounding with each vibration of his palm against wood. Locating the instrument, he snatched it up to his ear, smacking himself in the temple. Ow.
“Dan Stauffer here.” Dan cleared his throat before speaking again. “What’s up?” He glanced at the clock. “At three forty-five in the damned morning.”
His head hurt. Sometimes one more beer could be the one that caused the damage. He hadn’t been drunk, but for some reason he felt like he had one hell of a hangover. Maybe it was a cold coming on. This damned, indecisive weather didn’t help. “Hello?”
“We’ve got a body.”
“Where?” Groaning, Dan swung his legs over the side of the bed. He leaned forward, squinting at the bright rays of the streetlight burning through the slats of the blinds. He crossed the floor, and with an aching stretch of his arm, he reached up and shut them, dimming the room to near-darkness. What the heck had he been doing? Sure, he’d spent some time at the gym before heading out with the guys, but being hit by a truck hadn’t been in his exercise regimen.
Rubbing his eyes, Dan scanned the floor through his fingers for the clothes he’d discarded earlier. Paler than the dark rug beneath them, they lay in a shadowed, crumpled heap. “Is it Alva herself?”
“Looks to be.”
Dan massaged the back of his neck, turning his head from side to side. “You don’t know for sure?”
“Whitley’s here. He says it’s her. I’ve never met the woman.”
“Never had the hankering to get your fortune told?” His joke met by silence, Dan straightened. “Signs of foul play?”
Dan heard a voice in the background—presumably Whitley—speaking in an undertone. Officer Green spoke once the other officer had finished.
“Not really,” he said without inflection.
Dan paused as he reached for his pants. “Not really or no? You need to be more specific when I’m asking questions.”
Green inhaled and then hesitated before speaking. “Then the answer would be no.”
“Alva has to be more than ninety years old. I’m willing to lay odds on natural causes.”
“I don’t want to make that call, Detective. That would…that would be your job.”
Dan didn’t need the reminder. He didn’t like the reminder. Since his advancement to detective several months ago, he’d noted some of the younger officers were miffed. He didn’t understand why. He had seniority over them all, and the position was based on experience. He’d worked hard for it. The promotion certainly hadn’t been handed to him as matter of favoritism. Far from it.
“All right,” Dan said. “I’ll be there in ten minutes.”
“Look, Detective Stauffer, I apologize if it seems I’m out of line. It’s just…well, there’s something off about her. The dead lady.”
Jonathan Green was fairly young. Maybe this was his first dead body and his reaction one of nerves. “Okay,” Dan said in an attempt at reassurance, “I’ll be heading out in a sec.”
“You need the address?”
“Nope. I know the place.”
Dan hung up and pulled on his pants. His button-down shirt had been slung crookedly over the back of the desk chair, and he pulled it free. He held the fabric to his face to breathe in the scent of perfume clinging to the soft folds. Nice. Trouble was he couldn’t even remember the woman’s name. He hadn’t had that much to drink tonight. His inability to recall the identity of the perfume owner had nothing to do with inebriation, only lack of interest.
God, was he that much of a bastard? He didn’t want to be. As he slipped his arms into his shirtsleeves, he gave brief consideration to his defunct marriage. Funny, everyone figured he’d caused the demise of that relationship. He had a reputation. Not a particularly good one. Not unfounded. But for the time he’d been married, he’d been an honest husband. It had been his wife who’d strayed, who eventually left him for some guy she hooked up with in the grocery store after discussing the cost of chicken with him. Dan had spent the years since making sure he didn’t get hurt again. Maybe he’d gotten too good at it.
Shoving his feet into his shoes, he snorted. Hell, the issues between him and his ex had begun long before she found a lover in the packaged meat aisle. And that was something for which they both were to blame.
Dan dropped his cell phone into his pants pocket, grabbed his keys, ID, and wallet, and jogged down the stairs, body protesting. He snagged his jacket from the banister as he passed. As he put on the garment, he noticed lipstick on the lapel. The marking appeared deliberately placed to form a full set of lips. Dan pulled a tissue out of the box by the door and scrubbed the oily substance off. “Sorry, Miss Nameless, but I don’t need the guys seeing that.”
Not at an investigation. Not in front of men who resented him enough already.
As he backed out of the garage, he glanced in the rearview mirror and stopped short, the force of the brakes jerking him in the seat. A feminine silhouette blocked the driveway behind his car, a shawl on her shoulders blowing like a flag in the breeze. He started to get out, then paused. He could see through her to the post of the streetlight across the road. Tightening his fingers on the inside handle, he pulled the door shut.
“Not tonight. I don’t need this type of shit tonight.”
The figure didn’t move. Dan held a silent debate with himself regarding the difference between reality and the effects of sleep deprivation. “Get away from me. I mean it.”
Good God, if anyone at the station could hear him now he’d be up for a psych evaluation. He couldn’t deny, though, that he’d seen his share of strange, but he had hoped to go the rest of his lifetime without a repeat. He opted to wait, keeping the figure in sight in his rearview. After a moment, the apparition turned and vanished like smoke in the wind.
With a great deal of profanity, Dan backed the car from the driveway and sped down the street in the direction of Alva Mabry’s house, pushing the hair at his nape down with an open palm. A few years back, he’d learned rather horrifically that more existed in this world than logic could explain. But what did a person do with that type of knowledge? It wasn’t something a man imparted to others as the wisdom of experience. No, it was the kind of information a man kept to himself, mouth shut, teeth clenched against the yell that always wanted to escape at the memory.
When Dan reached Alva Mabry’s two-story, nineteenth-century house at the edge of the commercial district of Alcina Cove, two marked cars were already parked out front. The nearest partially blocked the purple sign that read in large, block letters Alva Mabry, Psychic – Palmistry and Tarot Card Readings. Dan managed to prevent rolling his eyes at the last second. A little respect for the dead might be in order. No matter what her occupation, Alva had been a resident of Alcina Cove for nearly a century. And if a man believed he’d seen ghosts, who the heck was he to question a woman’s claim to clairvoyance or an ability to speak with those very spirits? Even so, the notion made him far from comfortable. He wanted to deny all of it outright, but lying had its own costs.
Dan closed the car door with a quiet click. As he strode across the sidewalk and up the steps to the front door, he shoved his hands into his pockets in a search for the notepad and pen he’d clearly forgotten to grab from his desk. Green and the other officer, Whitley, stood together in the foyer of the antiquated white house, not doing much of anything. Dan nodded at the man who’d phoned him. “Green. Where’s the body?”
The two uniformed men stepped back, parting in opposite directions like a pair of double doors. Dan looked past them into the parlor Alva utilized for her business and sucked a breath in through his teeth. He resisted the urge to smooth the fine hairs on his neck again. “Shit.”
“See what I mean?” Green said.
Dan walked into the room in silence. His contact with the dead wasn’t the same as what this woman had claimed when alive, but in the corporeal sense. In a harbor town, there were plenty of drowning victims. Accident victims, too, and the occasional murder, as well as those who had died from whatever natural cause had taken them. Even so, Dan’s heart had skipped a beat at the sight of Alva Mabry sitting bolt upright in the red upholstered wing-back chair behind the draped table. Her thin arms lay along the tabletop. Clouded eyes in a wrinkled face slanted at an angle that made them appear to be watching Dan and the officers behind him.
“Shit,” Dan said again and hastened forward. “Did either of you think to take her damned pulse?”
He reached for the woman’s arm as the two men protested—of course they had. Dan closed his fingers on chilled flesh. Pressing his middle finger against the inside of Alva’s narrow wrist, he found no evidence of life. He watched her chest for movement, bent his cheek to her face to feel for breath, pressed the flesh beneath her jaw. Alva was definitely gone.
Dropping his hand to his thigh with a small slap against fabric, Dan sighed. “Did you call the medical examiner’s office?”
“Yep.” This from Whitley.
“What have you touched in here?” When neither of them answered, Dan glanced back.
“Nothing,” said Green. “I called you first.”
Dan stared at the body in the chair, a fringed shawl draped across the shoulders in folds, as if blown by a current of air. The memory of the silhouette, shawl fluttering in the wind behind his car, came back to him. “Bloody hell.”
(Look for Excerpt #3 coming Monday!)