Harley Rushes In

Harley Rushes In
Virginia Brown

March 2012 $13.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-098-5

Book Two of the Blue Suede Mysteries
 
Our PriceUS$13.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Harley Jean must be on the right track

if someone wants to kidnap her...

Memphis tour guide and amateur crime-solver, Harley Jean Davidson, is up to her handlebars in mystery, again. Last time, she was almost whacked by jewel thieves. Now her Aunt Darcy, an interior designer, needs Harley’s help catching a smuggler of prized artifacts. When Harley finds Aunt Darcy’s suspicious business partner hanging off her shop’s elk antlers, Harley can’t help but wonder if Aunt Darcy murdered him. Soon Harley’s already quirky life spins way off the Normal Meter again, with another corpse in the mix, an assault by cranky farm animals, a kidnapping attempt, and surprise assistance from a temperamental Siamese cat. Add hunky detective Mike Morgan to the trouble, plus the usual collection of Elvis impersonators, psychics and unpredictable relatives.

The city of the blues, the King and the mighty Mississippi is about to get steamy. The jailhouse will rock, someone may get caught in a trap, and Harley’s in the middle of it all—taking care of business.

 

Virginia Brown is the author of more than fifty novels, most recently the bestselling Dixie Diva Mysteries and the acclaimed mystery/drama, Dark River Road.

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Excerpt

One

"You da One, baby.” Tootsie grinned, then tossed back a strand of his long auburn hair and inspected his newly painted nails with a critical eye. The smell of Raspberry Soufflé nail polish thickened the air of Memphis Tour Tyme offices. "Now you da famous One,” he added.

"You mean infamous.” Harley tried and failed to be modest. She rustled the front page of the Sunday edition of the Commercial Appeal, Memphis’s only major newspaper. There it was, in black and white and blurred color:

Local Tour Guide Breaks Jewelry Theft Ring and Helps Crack Murder Case, read the large headline. The leading sentence in the article said so much less than had really happened:

Harley Jean Davidson, 27, tour guide for Memphis Tour Tyme, had a narrow escape from jewelry thieves Friday night that ended with an arrest on charges of grand larceny, attempted murder, and two counts of murder. Ms. Davidson was instrumental in capturing the suspect...

She looked up with a satisfied smile. "I just love it when justice works.”

"Don’t get too excited yet,” Tootsie said as he applied a top coat of clear polish over the bright raspberry color on his nails. "A jury could always set him free.”

Harley frowned. That was daunting.

When Tootsie added, "But at least it’s a good photo of you,” she studied the blurred color of the picture apparently taken as she was leaving the warehouse. Her short blonde hair stuck straight up, her green eyes looked red, the man’s tee shirt she wore hung almost to her knees, and she had an expression on her face like she’d just been hit with a stun gun. She’d been so focused on skipping out, she hadn’t even noticed the reporters or photographers at the crime scene. Just her luck. She sighed.

"I bear a startling resemblance to Billy Idol. My hair looks like porcupine quills. And my mouth is open. I think I’m drooling.”

"A natural look for you, baby.”

"That’s unkind,” Harley said, but all in all, wasn’t totally displeased. The article gave her credit for hunting down dangerous felons, which in a way she had, although after running for her life, it’d certainly seemed more like she was the one being hunted. An unpleasant memory, but not without some residual benefits.

"So,” she said as she handed Tootsie yesterday’s paper, "with all this free publicity for Memphis Tour Tyme, I’ll bet Mister Penney is happy.”

Mr. Penney owned and operated Memphis Tour Tyme, and while rarely seen on a daily basis, frequently made his presence felt. Never in a pleasant way.

Tootsie lifted a perfectly arched brow. "The ogre isn’t often happy.”

"How true. He always looks like a basset hound. Sad brown eyes. Floppy ears—did I say that last out loud?”

Tootsie grinned. "You did. I’m trying to picture a bald basset hound.”

"Spare yourself. It’s not pretty.”

"He wants to see you first thing this morning, you know.”

She grimaced. "I was afraid of that. And his mood is... ?”

"Inscrutable. Like the Sphinx.”

"Or the basset.”

"Right.” The phone rang, and he punched a button and gave his usual "Good morning, Memphis Tour Tyme, how may I help you?” spiel. After he transferred the call he handed her a stack of pink message slips and said, "The phone’s rung all morning, people wanting you to find their dog or cat, and one even wants you to find her iguana. No lie. A Mrs. Beasley wants you to find a necklace she lost when she was in high school way back in the sixties. Oh yeah, and your aunt Darcy said she has to speak to you as soon as possible.”

"Aunt Darcy?” Harley blinked. Her mother’s younger sister never called her at work or anywhere else. "I can’t believe she called. She never calls.”

"Not everyone is unappreciative of your talents. Your aunt seemed very impressed.”

Harley took the pink slips of paper he held out, amazed and gratified. If even her family was impressed, then all was not lost. It usually took events of gigantic proportions to impress them. After all, her family knew all her flaws with annoying attention to detail, and they could be counted upon to regale complete strangers with youthful foibles that still had the power to make her cringe. Aunt Darcy was not only not an exception to that fact, she was the poster celebrity for it.

Tootsie lowered his voice to a dramatic baritone. "And Mike Morgan called. I assume that you’ll be returning his call first.”

A flutter in the pit of her stomach reminded her of the lazy Sunday spent lying in bed with the gorgeous man who’d ended her months of celibacy. Who could have foreseen that she’d enjoy it so much? What a delicious way to celebrate still being alive. And with a souvenir which still leaned against her bedroom mirror, a reminder of her narrow escape and life’s possibilities. It had been pretty harrowing, running for her life in a warehouse crowded with cheap wooden statues and china dogs, especially when the man chasing her had no scruples about shooting her. Fortunately, she’d been able to hide behind a wooden statue with an astounding erection that did not prove to be impervious to bullets. It did, however, make an interesting souvenir. Somewhere there was a fertility god without his goods.

"Why would you think I’d call Morgan first?” she asked out loud, and Tootsie gave her a knowing look and pursed his lips.

"You have that just laid look, baby.”

"Bitch,” she said fondly, and went down the hallway to use the phone in privacy. She’d have to remember to bring him the dress she’d promised last week when he’d used his computer hacker talents on her behalf. Tootsie really should utilize his mind and talents in a better job, but he said this one suited him very well. Harley had often wondered just how the conservative Lester Penney had been induced to hire a man who spent his spare time dressed as Cher or Julia Roberts, but that wasn’t really any of her business. If someday Tootsie wished to share his secrets with her, fine, but she cherished him as a friend too much to intrude on his privacy and ask.

Besides, since he was only a little taller than her five-six, and his extra thirty pounds were distributed quite differently on him than her one-hundred and twenty—one-fifteen on good days—were on her, sometimes they swapped clothes. She had leftover dresses from her days of wining and dining as a corporate banking employee, and Tootsie had some cute tee shirts that he rarely wore. He liked silk, she liked cotton. It made for a symbiotic friendship.

The tiny office down the hall, which was used by all the drivers, had been a storage closet in another life. It could be a tight fit, but she managed to wedge herself behind the oak teacher’s desk that had come from a Memphis School District surplus sale. Reminders of its former use were in the form of insults and obscenities carved into the sides and top. City school teachers had to be tough to survive. The old wood chair squeaked a loud reminder to feed it WD-40 as she sat down and reached for the phone.

Like Tootsie had predicted, she called Morgan first.

"You aren’t answering your cell phone,” he said, his low, raspy voice making her tingle all the way to her toes.

"I know. It’s broken.”

"Oh yeah. I’d forgotten. How many does that make in less than a week?”

"Three. I have insurance. Not that it helps much. Apparently there’s a limit on how many times they’ll pay for new phones.”

He laughed, and Harley’s toes curled inside her Nikes. Honestly, he made her tingle in places she didn’t know could tingle. And it’d be emotional suicide to let him know that.

"Maybe I should buy stock in Nokia,” he said. "At the rate you go through cell phones, it should make a nice profit.”

"Right. So what’s up?”

"Baroni’s through with the stun gun if you want it back. It’s not needed as evidence.”

"Mr. Penney will be delighted. Not that it did me any good. I didn’t even get to use it.”

"Better luck next time.”

"Oh no,” she said. "There won’t be a next time. I’m leaving police work to the police. I’m not cut out for it.”

"Yeah, I didn’t want to point that out to you. Glad you got there on your own.”

"Hey, at least I proved Yogi didn’t kill Mrs. Trumble.”

"We’d have gotten there eventually. What are you doing for dinner tonight?”

"Any suggestions?”

"Oh yeah. And one of them even involves food.”

There went that tingle again. "Taco Bell,” she said. "Burrito. Extra sour cream on everything. And no beef.”

"You’re a vegetarian?”

"That’s Diva. I just happen to prefer the bean burritos today. And yesterday. Probably tomorrow.”

"You frighten me. See you around seven.”

When she hung up, she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the large mirror on the small wall. Where had that big smile come from? It stretched from ear to ear and made her look like an idiot. Not that another bad hair day didn’t have the same effect. Her short hair usually stuck up in gelled spikes that she considered attractive, but today she had more of an early Meg Ryan look. The "just laid” look Tootsie had mentioned.

Jotting down a note to replace her broken cell phone, she dialed her aunt.

Darcy Fontaine answered on the first ring. "I’m so glad you called,” she said in a rush, or what passed as a rush for her normally slow Southern drawl, which had sped up to an almost normal tempo. "I need to talk to you privately. Not now. It’s too—dangerous.”

Dangerous? How melodramatic. "Well, I’ll be at Grandmother’s for lunch Saturday. We can talk then.”

"No. I can’t wait. Harley, it’s vital I speak with you soon. And this has to be kept between us, all right?”

Harley sighed. "Okay. So, what is it?”

"Well for heaven’s sake, we can’t discuss it over the phone. Meet me for lunch today. At The Peabody. I’ll be wearing red.”

She made it sound like international espionage. Harley swallowed another sigh. "I’m at work, Aunt Darcy. And I can’t afford The Peabody anyway.”

"I’ll buy, and it doesn’t matter what you look like, either. Just meet me in the lobby at twelve-thirty, okay?”

Without waiting to hear if it was okay, she hung up, leaving Harley listening to a dial tone and scowling. That was so... Darcy. No one else’s plans ever mattered. And of course, she just assumed Harley was dressed inappropriately. She was, but it probably didn’t matter anyway because they’d never leave the lobby bar. Aunt Darcy liked to drink her lunch. Gin and tonic. Or just plain gin.

With that in mind, Harley decided she might as well get the interview with Lester Penney behind her. Monday mornings were quite often fraught with peril anyway. If she saw Mr. Penny now, the rest of the day had to be better.

It was a short walk down the corridor to Mr. Penney’s corner office. She tapped on his closed door, then went in when he responded with what sounded like an invitation, but he could have been just clearing his throat.

Lester Penney was on the phone, and he looked up with an irritated frown that wrinkled his forehead in another reminder of a puzzled basset hound. Harley took the chair he indicated with a wave of his hand and looked idly around the office while he conversed in monosyllables.

It was a large office, in stark contrast to the other tiny cubicles. Not that office space was a high priority, as most of the employees drove the vans or busloads of tourists and didn’t require desks. Tootsie, as office manager, scheduler, and receptionist, had the second largest workspace. Rhett Sandler, in the other office, did payroll and accounts receivable. Harley thought he had the personality of a doorknob, but since he was in charge of handing out the money, she’d never said that aloud. Apparently, he did a good job, and at least he didn’t embezzle funds like the last guy had.

"Yes. No. Not at all.” Penney leaned back in his chair with a loud squeaking sound and swiveled to stare out the window.

From the two-story buff brick building that housed Tour Tyme, his view consisted of tree tops and the edge of a huge Taco Bell sign. Poplar Avenue separated the building from Taco Bell, an often perilous crossing of endless traffic. But Harley’s reward was always a hot bean burrito and maybe nachos. Depending on money and appetite.

As the conversation continued, Harley began to fidget. Sunlight from the corner windows gleamed on Penney’s balding head, highlighting the fuzz that sprouted like random weeds. In contrast, his thick, busy eyebrows bore a striking resemblance to animated caterpillars, going up and down in a rhythm matching his terse responses. Overlarge ears bent slightly forward at the tops, really looking like dog ears. Elementary school must have been hell.

Finally he hung up the phone, linked his fingers together atop his desk blotter, and gazed at her with a riveting stare that only increased her discomfort.

"So,” he said finally, "quite a weekend for you.”

"You could say that.”

"Indeed. There are many things I could say.”

This didn’t sound at all like a congratulatory interview. She nodded. "I’m sure you can.”

Penney seemed determined. After an awkward pause, he said, "I trust your parents are doing well now.”

An unsubtle reference to the fact her father had recently been a murder suspect.

"They’re very resilient,” she replied.

An understatement. She didn’t think her mother had batted an eye, but then, Diva had complete faith in her own psychic abilities even when others were skeptical, and she had predicted a good outcome, so perhaps that was understandable.

"Perhaps next time, you’ll request authorization before you borrow company property,” Penney said then, and Harley felt some sort of explanation was necessary.

"I should get the stun gun back this evening. It was part of the investigation, but not a vital part, so I’ll bring it back in tomorrow, as good as new.”

"And, um, ahem—the stun guns are only for emergency use, Miss Davidson. I trust you are fully aware of that? And they’re not to be used on paying tourists unless the situation is dire.”

"I’ve only had to use it once, and the circumstances were what I considered pretty dire. He was drunk and terrorizing the other passengers, and he nearly caused me to wreck. It was the only way I could control him.”

Penney’s caterpillar brows lowered slightly. "Yes, though the insurance company was not especially impressed, it did seem necessary in that instance. And he did have a criminal record.”

He clasped and unclasped his hands, and Harley had the distinct impression he wanted to say something else but didn’t know if he should. She waited. Sunlight slanted through windows to heat the room, backlit the fuzz atop his head, and made her squint. Finally he nodded again.

"New rules are being implemented, and we are requiring all employees to take a short course in safety per our insurance company’s request. You’ll be notified of the dates and times, as will our other drivers.”

Oh, that’d make her popular with the other drivers.

All in all, it wasn’t exactly the kind of reception she’d expected. A little more excitement would have been nice. Appreciation, perhaps. Not that she was too surprised by his reaction. She had experienced something similar from Bobby Baroni, who hadn’t been quite impressed about her participation in the capture of jewelry thieves the police had been after for months. His reaction had been more along the lines of... irritation. But as a detective in the homicide division of the MPD, Bobby wasn’t easily impressed. He’d been that way when they were kids, too. It took a lot to impress him. Unless you were a stripper with a 36DD cup.

Tootsie looked up when she went back into the reception area. "From the expression on your face, I’m guessing you didn’t get a bonus.”

"Unless you want to look at a required safety course as one, no. Not that it matters. I still have the Crimestoppers cash as a bonus.” Harley slumped against the edge of Tootsie’s desk. "Being famous isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

"So I see. Don’t worry. Fame never lasts.”

The lobby of The Peabody Hotel on Union Avenue in downtown Memphis always teemed with tourists in shorts and tee shirts. They crowded around the elegant marble fountain in the center, taking pictures of the ducks that paddled around and around. It was also a meeting place for the business lunch crowd, and it took Harley a few minutes to find a seat that wasn’t so near the fountain that she’d get splashed or elbowed by a fanatical tourist with a Nikon. It seemed somehow fitting that the hotel’s custom of keeping plain mallard ducks in the fountain had begun with a drunken hunter. The Peabody had made the fowl their mascots and sold everything from duck-shaped mints to duck shoehorns in the gift shop. The one thing not served on any menu in their restaurants and delis, however, was duck. They limited duck to the ones treated royally in the marble fountain during the day, and in a palatial duck house at night. A marketing tool that was a huge success. The Peabody liked to advertise that it was the "Meeting Place of the South.” Probably true. At any given time you might see Hollywood actors or Saudi sheiks in the lobby.

Subdued lighting, plush carpeting, lots of gold gilding, hanging crystal chandeliers, and marble-topped tables surrounded by comfortable chairs and cushioned couches made waiting in the lobby easy, if not timesaving. Aunt Darcy was late as usual.

A perky waitress bounced over to take her order, and she asked for a Coke. Aunt Darcy arrived at the same time as the Coke, and she ordered a gin and tonic as she kissed the air beside Harley, then took a chair next to her. She wore an exquisite red silk suit that complemented her slender frame, fair features and short blond hair. Gold gleamed at her throat and wrists, equaled only by the flash of diamonds on her left hand. A drift of Chanel wafted above the round marble table, but it was quickly eradicated by a cloud of cigarette smoke as Darcy lit up.

"You don’t mind, do you?” she said, and before Harley could say yes, went on, "I’m just so nervous. It’s so trying. I had no idea you’d be of any use at all, but when I read the article this weekend, I knew at once that you were the answer. It has to be kept private, you see, and I didn’t want to risk dragging in outsiders. You know how people can be, I’m sure, always talking and saying things, because they’re jealous or envious or just spiteful. Well, on top of everything else, I surely don’t need that, Harley, and so decided that I’d just get you to fix it. You can find out if it’s true, and if it is, why then you can just get that friend of yours, the Italian boy, to make him stop and everything’ll be just fine after all. Don’t you think?”

"Uh...”

"I knew you’d agree. Now, don’t you say a word to Mama about this, because she’d never understand, especially when she told me I shouldn’t have a partner at all, that I should keep it all in my own name and hands, but you know how it is nowadays, with the economy and all. I swear, I don’t know what the world is coming to with all those Republicans in Congress. It’s just a shame, is all, a dreadful shame. We’ve been Democrats all our lives, and even with that scandal—well, he was still better than a Republican, don’t you think? Though it was such a nasty business with that cigar and all, and so unnecessary. Maybe—oh well. Not that it matters. This isn’t about politics.”

"Well,” Harley finally got in, exasperated that a woman who talked so slow could say so much so quickly, "what is it about, Aunt Darcy?”

"Why, sugar, it’s about illegal smuggling. Didn’t I say? Someone is smuggling illegal goods into my shop, and I think my partner is behind it.”


 

Two

It had started out to be such a nice day. She’d felt so good when she woke up, being famous and richer by a few bucks. Solving a crime and snagging a hot guy just made things so much better she hadn’t even cared that she still had bruises and scratches from her ordeal. How quickly things could go to hell.

"Aunt Darcy,” she said patiently, "you need a private investigator. Or a cop. I’m a tour guide. It’s not at all the same thing.”

"Don’t be silly. It’s in all the papers. Of course you investigate things, just like that woman on cable television—the book writer. What’s her name? Oh, it doesn’t matter. You were able to solve the jewelry thefts and caught the man who murdered that elderly woman, and I’m sure if you can do that, you can do a simple thing like find out who’s smuggling things into my shop. I could lose everything, Harley, if the police found out about this. Just spy on Harry and tell me if he’s in on it. I think he knows who’s doing it and just won’t tell me.”

"And Harry would be—?”

"My partner. Harry Gordon.” Darcy took another puff of her cigarette, a long brown thing that smelled vaguely like cloves and reminded Harley of the pot her brother Eric smoked. "Harry’s supposed to be a silent partner,” her aunt continued, "but he’s been coming in to the shop a lot more the past year, and then—well, I just found it this past weekend.”

"Found what? Drugs? Weapons?”

Darcy blinked, her long lashes batting over eyes that seemed an unnatural turquoise. "No, nothing like that. Illegal imports. Endangered animal skins. Ivory. Things like ancient artifacts that I know can’t be legal. Statues. Vases. Some kind of powder. It isn’t drugs. It just isn’t legal. Powdered rhinoceros horn or something like that. The federal government banned these things, and I don’t know who is doing it or how they’re getting them through Customs. But if my clients found out I was involved in any kind of illegal business, I’d be bankrupt in a week.”

The waitress brought Darcy’s gin and tonic, and she held up two fingers to indicate another one as she pulled the first one toward her.

"So you see, don’t you,” Darcy continued, somehow managing to smoke and talk and drink in almost the same breath, "why it must be kept very, very quiet?”

"Aunt Darcy—”

"I’ll pay any expenses you may run into, of course. And I’ll buy your lunch. Order anything you like.”

"It’s not that I don’t appreciate your confidence in me,” Harley began, "but—”

"Listen here, Harley Jean Davidson, we’re family. Family always sticks together. If you can help find out who killed some strange old lady, you can certainly help me find out who’s trying to ruin my business!”

It was the strangest thing about Aunt Darcy; just when you thought she was three bricks shy of a full load, and a wilting violet to boot, she turned into Raging Bull.

Harley groaned. "Fine. I’ll see what I can do, but don’t expect miracles.”

The frown that had briefly distorted Darcy’s face vanished, and her smile was serene and reassuring. "Now, sugar, I know you’ll find out who it is. Come to the shop tomorrow and I’ll tell you everything you need to know. You can do one of those stinger things, like the police.”

"Sting. Stinger is a drink. And no, I don’t—” She paused. Aunt Darcy had stopped listening so there was no point in even trying. The waitress delivered her aunt’s second gin and tonic, and she scooped it up. How did the woman suck down so much gin and not fall out onto the floor? If she drank like that, she’d end up paddling in the fountain with the ducks.

Aunt Darcy glanced at her watch. "Oh, I’ve got to run, Harley. I’m supposed to meet a client at their house in Harbor Town. A new job, very expensive. Remember now, not a word to anyone. If it got out, I’d be ruined.”

Kissing the air beside Harley, she left in a flurry of clove cigarette smoke and lingering perfume. Harley got stuck with the check and no lunch. Sixteen dollars for a Coke and her aunt’s two gin and tonics? That was too pricey for her budget, but it wasn’t the waitress’s fault and she left a tip as well. Twenty bucks to listen to some ridiculous story that would prove to be just a mistake.

It wouldn’t be the first time her aunt had thought someone was trying to ruin her business. Last year, she’d been convinced a rival design shop was stealing her clients by telling lies about her all over town, and she threatened to sue for libel. That had turned out to be a mistake. And the year before that, there’d been the disagreement with furniture manufacturers—well, no point in dredging all that up now. She’d go just to keep peace. And to recoup her twenty dollars.

After stopping at Taco Bell to pick up brunch, she crossed Poplar to the office parking lot with only one near crash. There was a parking space in the shade and she grabbed it. Leaving her car’s windows down would be an open invitation to steal it, but parking in the sun meant the temperature inside might reach a hundred and fifty degrees in the summertime. Even though it was still relatively cool, no point in taking unnecessary chances. Toyotas, especially older ones like hers, were prime targets for chop shops, one of Memphis’s major business attractions for budding young entrepreneurs.

Air conditioning inside gave her a spurt of energy. If she ran up the stairs to the second floor instead of taking the elevator, it might work off some of the junk food she’d eaten lately.

By the time she reached the Tour Tyme offices, she was out of breath. Staggering into the reception area, she hung over Tootsie’s desk for a moment, gasping for air. He didn’t look up.

"You’re still on call. I didn’t put you on the schedule since I didn’t know when you’d be back. There’s a Graceland run,” Tootsie said. He’d filed his fake nails into a perfect oval. "You can take that tour if you want. Tourists from Nevada. What do you think of this color?” He held out his nails for her to inspect. He’d changed colors already, a deeper shade of purple.

She leaned forward as the black dots in front of her eyes faded. "Nice. Perfect Plum?”

"Claret Craze. I went to Stein Mart on Sunday and found a gorgeous dress in a deep claret. Very Jennifer Aniston. Do you think my hair would look good cut like hers?”

"This year’s cut or last year’s?”

"Last year.” He tugged at the end of his pony tail, soft auburn strands curling around his palm. "I’ve been thinking of cutting it a little shorter, since every so often I like to go as Cher. She can be a refreshing change, but I have to wear wigs and they get hot.”

"Keep it long,” Harley advised, "it’s more flexible.”

"Right. It’s a mystery to me how you can know about nail polish colors and hair lengths when you so obviously don’t apply it to yourself.”

Inspecting her nails—or where they’d be if she didn’t bite them—she said reflectively, "Cami has never given up hope I’ll turn into a girly-girl. She keeps me updated. If I had polished nails they’d have to be in bubble gum flavor. Or bean burrito.”

Tootsie ignored the last. "So Charlsie’s van broke down. How about a one o’clock pickup at the Radisson? Only four women from up in Michigan, but they want to go to Victorian Village.”

"Great. I like going to the Village.”

She took the log book down the hall to catch it up since she hadn’t entered her mileage or time last week. There had been other things on her mind, like finding her parents after King, their neurotic dog, had been abducted and the neighbor responsible for the dognapping was murdered. Of course, the police had immediately suspected her father had killed the neighbor, so he and her mother had gone on the run. And then there was Harley’s narrow escape from jewel thieves and psychotic murderers when she tried to get evidence to clear her father. That still made her shiver when she thought about it. Why had she thought changing jobs would eliminate the stress in her life? It’d obviously followed her. But at least being a tour guide was less stressful than working in marketing for a corporate banking firm whose managers talked like drill sergeants to their employees. It’d do for now. She looked at it as a working vacation. And time to decide what she really wanted from life.

Here she was, closer to thirty, unmarried, with no kids or mortgage or even a steady boyfriend, drifting through life as aimlessly as a dandelion thistle in the wind. Diva said she was a late bloomer, but her mother had no expectations for Harley other than that she be happy in whatever she chose to do. It was a simplistic view of life that often bumped up against the harsh corners of reality.

But then, that was how Diva was, an idealistic dreamer with a proclaimed connection to the psychic world that was uncannily accurate at times. Enough to validate her beliefs in her own abilities, anyway. Harley wasn’t always so sure. There were the times Diva was right on the money with a prediction or warning, or even just a certainty about someone. Like last week, when she’d been so sure Bruno Jett was connected somehow to their dog’s disappearance. It’d turned out that he was, though indirectly. And Diva had been sure all would turn out well in the end, which it had, but not without a lot of stress. And panic. But both those predictions could be explained away as coincidence.

Then there was her warning about the Chinese pug... that one was harder to explain away. Diva couldn’t have known that Harley would almost be hit in the head with a heavy ceramic pug. It was just that kind of obscure thing that made Harley wonder if her mother really did use a sixth sense at random moments. Practicality demanded Harley apply rational explanations to the unexplainable. There were times, however, it was impossible. Diva often defied logic.

When the phone rang, Harley wasn’t surprised to hear her mother on the other end say, "When Darcy asks you to help her, consider it carefully. It will set you on a different path.”

"Aunt Darcy already asked. I didn’t fully agree, but I didn’t refuse. And how’d you know about it?”

Ignoring that, Diva said, "It’s your choice, Harley. Just be sure it’s what you want to do.”

Diva’s low alto vibrated softly in her ear, and Harley toyed with the impulse to ask her advice. Then the moment passed, and she said only, "I’ll be sure.”

It was a lie, of course. She’d been roped into it with cords of familial guilt, lassoed by a master. Jewish mothers had nothing on Southern women, and a Southern Jewish mother was a force to be reckoned with. She should be grateful, she supposed, that Aunt Darcy was Methodist. Otherwise, there was no telling what Harley might have agreed to do for her.

Just checking out shop inventory or shipping manifests couldn’t be too bad. Nothing more complicated than a few boring hours on a Tuesday afternoon when she’d rather be doing anything else. Then she’d present dear Aunt Darcy with a bill, including the twenty dollar charge for drinks at The Peabody.

Life had its perks. She’d try to keep that in mind while she went through the motions of finding Aunt Darcy’s imaginary smuggler. Really. She’d probably just forgotten she’d ordered fake zebra skins or bath powder and imagined the worst. It was probably due to the gin she kept hidden in bottles for a little pick-me-up. A wee nip here, a wee nip there, and by the end of the day she’d pickled her brain. It was amazing no one had caught on in all this time, but if they had, it was one of those things that went politely unmentioned in the family. Like inherited insanity. Most of the time she thought her entire family was nuts. It was uncomfortably close to the truth.

But this was nothing like her last foray into thievery and flying bullets. This would be quick and easy. And profitable. Her favorite things.

Time to get back to work and put the weekend’s ordeal behind her. She finished logging in her time for last week, then took the elevator down two flights to the ground floor and parking lot where her trusty little ’91 silver Toyota waited in the shade. Good transportation, one of those cars that were fuel efficient and comfortable. Best of all, it was paid for.

First, she decided as she juggled the keys and brown backpack she used as a purse, she’d replace her broken cell phone. That was imperative. It was her link to the world.

Poplar Avenue was busy as always, traffic snarling up on occasion, and she shoved the car into second gear and shot through an orange light at Perkins, clicking on her right turn signal just before reaching the cellular phone store.

By the time she left, she was nearly two hundred dollars lighter and thirsty. She’d stop for a Coke first, then sign out the van by noon to make her Radisson pickup on time. Tour Tyme housed the company vehicles in a rented garage off Poplar, not far from the main offices. The size vehicle used depended on the size of the tourist group. No point in wasting gas.

After picking up the van, she headed downtown to the Radisson to pick up her group. They’d be waiting for her in the open-air lobby divided with walls of old brick. Victorian Village wasn’t far from downtown and the river. It was a remnant of life in the nineteenth century. A few houses had been donated to the city and kept up with city funds as a reminder of what life had been like over a hundred years ago. Somehow, the incongruity of the tree-shaded elegance in a tiny pocket right next to Juvenile Court never quite registered with city officials or visitors. Still, the three-story homes held an aura of times gone by, of what it was like to live without modern amenities if you were a wealthy family. None of the hovels from the Pinch District on the river had been restored, she’d noticed. That area had been settled by Irish immigrants in the early- to mid-eighteen hundreds, called Pinch or Pinch-back for the look on residents’ faces and their sunken bellies, a pinched look of hunger and deprivation. Her ancestors had probably been among them at one time. Fortunately for them, not on the nearby slave block, however. A historical marker was the only remnant of the auctions of human beings that used to take place near a backwash of the Mississippi River. A lamentable part of Memphis history.

It was a nice afternoon, and the women from Michigan were a fun group that enjoyed the sights and made Harley laugh. They were there to enjoy themselves, and had no qualms about saying what they didn’t like. The Magevney House, furnished in period pieces and with an elegance visible despite the under-funding in recent city cutbacks, was always a favorite. There were even delicious rumors of lingering ghosts, and the women were disappointed they didn’t make an appearance during their tour.

Afterward, Harley took them back to the hotel across the street from the Redbirds’ new baseball stadium. She gave them advice on which sights she thought they’d be more interested in seeing, which Blues clubs on Beale Street they’d enjoy, and reminded them to get to the lobby of The Peabody Hotel before five if they wanted to get good photos of the ducks marching from the marble fountain up the red carpet rolled out to the elevator that would take them to their penthouse home for the night. Then they could go on the roof to see the ducks basking in their twenty-five thousand dollar cage complete with oil murals on the back wall, elaborate beds, a wading pool, and plenty of food. The ladies liked that suggestion best, and Harley left them buying more film in the gift shop.

It was after six by the time she left the van at the garage and the keys at the office, and the car wash would be closed. She’d intended to wash away any traces of King’s brief travels left in the back seat of her Toyota while her parents had been cruising around town avoiding the police. Removal of the dog’s hair and potent canine fragrance would have to wait.

It was a fairly short drive from the Tour Tyme garage down Poplar Avenue, one of the main thoroughfares in Memphis, to Kenilworth Street. Her apartment was an upstairs flat in a renovated brick house across from the zoo, convenient to peacocks, monkeys, and Overton Square, a fading intersection of restaurants, quirky shops, and a New Orleans style hotel.

Harley parked in back of the apartment house on a pea-gravel slot that ended in a railroad tie bumped up against a gigantic oak tree. The other residents had garage space, but one of them would have to move or die for her to get one. That was all right. Her Toyota was built to last.

A wide hall with a tiled foyer led to all the apartments. The spacious staircase in the middle rose to the second floor and her apartment on the north side. Two doors opened off the foyer into downstairs apartments, and a door under the staircase led to the basement laundry room. All the conveniences she needed, plus indoor plumbing. The last hadn’t always been handy in her younger years.

Lugging her backpack by one of the straps, she tackled the stairs at a run. Exercise of any kind helped keep her in shape, particularly since bean burritos had a way of adding a little fat if she didn’t watch it.

Even with her apartment still showing signs of being ransacked, looking more like the bottom of a trash barrel than her usually neat, free-of-kitsch refuge, it was good to be home again. The cupboards in the kitchen had been emptied out, drawers dumped on the floor, couch cushions tossed, and her mattress dragged off the bed. There had to be something that would take out the smell of the olive oil spilled everywhere before it turned rancid in the heat. She’d already scrubbed it off the floor, but it had left a definite residue. She’d cleaned up the bath powder dumped in the bathroom, refolded towels and put them away, but it needed deep cleaning and she didn’t feel like it. Especially since Morgan would show up at any moment.

She opened the French doors leading to the balcony and turned on the ceiling fans to circulate fresh air. White sheers in front of the open doors fluttered in the breeze that brought in the fragrance of newly mown grass and the lemony sweet scent of magnolias in bloom. It also allowed in the faint roar of lions and snarl of tigers from the Overton Park zoo across the street. It was a simulation of the African delta that she rather enjoyed most of the time.

By the time Morgan arrived, she’d managed to vacuum the living room and replace books on shelves, restoring a good portion of the former order she craved. If she wasn’t a neat freak, she still preferred things tidy. A rebellion against her childhood, Tootsie had once told her. He loved to psychoanalyze everyone, including himself. Self-analysis would certainly be a pip in his case, with multiple-choice reasons for Tootsie’s preference for women’s clothing.

"Hey you,” Mike said, coming in her apartment door with Taco Bell sacks and smelling delightfully of hot peppers and cumin. "I brought extra nachos.”

"Yum. I smell sour cream, too. You can stay.”

"You’re so easy.”

When he grinned like that, her heart did a little flip. Relationships had never worked out for her, and she didn’t know if this one would, either. After all, they’d had less than a happy start, what with her thinking Mike was a jewelry thief, and him thinking she was mixed up in the thefts herself. It’d only been a week since they’d hooked up. You need to keep your distance, logic warned again. But when had logic ever done anything for her?

"Only for a man who brings me extra nachos,” she said. "I’ve got the plates ready on the coffee table. Beer or Coke?”

"Coke. I’m on duty in a little while. Late shift.”

"Oh.” That was a bummer. "Another sting operation?”

His shrug indicated unwillingness to confide details. That was the thing about cops who worked undercover. They could be damnably tight-lipped when they wanted to be.

The bean burrito with extra sour cream beckoned beneath the paper around it. It was a staple in her diet. Halfway through the flour tortilla and beans, she looked up at Morgan. Damn. He looked good enough to eat, too. Six-two with dark hair and killer blue eyes, he had a body like one of those naked marble statues that were popping up in Memphis gardens—perfect. And the tight black tee shirt and snug black jeans displayed his potential. He’d gotten a haircut. It barely touched his collar in the back. His face was all hard angles and planes except for his mouth. It had a sensuality to it that promised a woman all kinds of delicious things without him saying a word. A small scar right below his bottom lip showed white against the color of skin no one could get in a tanning booth or lying on the beach. Oh yeah. Definitely delicious stuff. Any man who could give her the shivers just by looking at him had to be lethal.

"So, how was your day?” he asked when they’d polished off one Taco Bell sack and started on the other one. "Find any bodies?”

"You really need to get over that. It’s not like I make a habit of it.”

"God, I hope not. So, get a raise?”

"You’ve gotta be kidding. I hope you brought the stun gun back. Penney is more irritated about unauthorized use of it than impressed by anything else.”

Morgan didn’t look surprised. He rarely looked surprised by anything, probably a sideline of his job, to look like he’d seen everything.

"Yeah, it’s in my car.”

She licked a glob of sour cream off her fingertips. "Don’t suppose you can fix my tickets after all, can you?”

"Harley—”

"Never mind. Just thought since I was instrumental in capturing jewel thieves, the MPD might want to overlook a couple of minor traffic offenses.”

"Another time. So, what’s your next plan?”

"As soon as I finish off these nachos, I’m going to finish cleaning. Care to help with the heavy stuff?”

Morgan stood up and stretched, an intriguing sight. What a body. Hard abs, great pecs and lats—oops, there went that flutter in the pit of her stomach again.

"So where do we start?” he asked. "Looks like you’ve got a lot done in here.”

"The bedroom. Whoa, sport. Don’t get excited. My mattress and box springs came off the frame again and I can’t get them back on right by myself.”

He grinned, and something dark and sexy glittered in his eyes. "Oh yeah, we’ll fix it and then test it.”

"I thought you were on duty.”

"Always. I may have to frisk you for contraband.” He moved close, ran his hand over her tee shirt, and gave her a wicked leer guaranteed to summon goose bumps and anticipation. "Committed any crimes lately?”

"I’ve been bad,” she whispered when she could catch her breath, "very bad. Arrest me, copper.”

"My pleasure, lady. And yours.”

That was one of the things she liked best about Morgan. He always knew what to say.


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