Dirty Harriet

Dirty Harriet

Miriam Auerbach

April 2013  $10.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-259-0

Goodbye mansion, hello Hog. This former Boca Babe is now a Biker Babe with a rap sheet and a license to track down bad guys and solve crimes. Go ahead. Make her day.

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Harriet "Dirty Harriet” Horowitz had it all. Money. Plastic Surgery. Servants. Then her husband raised his fist one time too many, and she shot and killed him. Now, she lives in the South Florida swamps, rides a Harley, and owns a private eye agency. Her best friend—the only friend who makes sense anymore—is an alligator named Lana.

Then the Contessa von Phul, a woman from Harriet’s society days, hires Harriet to investigate the death of a Mayan immigrant worker. With her assistant Lupe—an eccentric civil servant—and a .44 Magnum, Dirty Harriet hits the mean streets of Boca Raton to dig for clues. What won’t she do to uncover the truth? Her search for answers forces her to return to her old world of Boca Babes and McMansions. When she discovers scandal after scandal, will she be able to escape Boca with her life—yet again?

Dirty Harriet, Miriam Auerbach’s debut mystery novel, won a Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award. Miriam can only assume that this is because the heroine kills her husband on page one. In a parallel universe, Miriam is known as Miriam Potocky, professor of social work at Florida International University in Miami. She lives in South Florida with her husband and their multicultural canines, a Welsh Corgi and a Brussels Griffon. Visit Miriam at www.miriamauerbach.com.


"I like this series. A diverse cast of characters complete this great story." -- Ann Klausing of Net Galley

"Harriet takes us on a fun ride with her Harley to solve the murder mystery that no one seemed to care about." -- Jennifer Murphy, Jen Murphy’s Musings

"Hilarious. Fun. Empowering." -- Tara Chevrestt, Book Babe

 "A terrific investigative tale . . . using dark humor and starring a fabulous [character] who deserves future tales."—Harriet Klausner, an Amazon.com top reviewer




I CONFESS. I said it. When my husband raised his fists at me that last time, I said, "Go ahead, make my day!”

He obliged. So did I, putting a .44 Magnum bullet through his heart and putting him out of my misery. Permanently.

Hey, it was a clear case of self-defense, as attested to by the five hundred witnesses at the scene, a wedding reception at the Boca Raton Beach Club (BaR-B-Cue for short). Okay, so I ruined the bride’s big day. Give me a break, will you? The SOB had it coming, trust me.

Well, the press had a field day, dubbing me "Dirty Harriet” in honor of Clint Eastwood’s notorious Dirty Harry character. That suits me fine—there are a lot of similarities between old Harry and me. We both speak softly and carry a big gun.

My real name is Harriet Horowitz. I’m a recovering Boca Babe. No, those aren’t the opening lines of a Boca Babes Anonymous meeting. There is no such beast, and even if there were, groups aren’t my bag.

So what’s to recover from, you ask? Let’s start with personal appearance. The Boca Babe needs: a weekly manicure, biweekly pedicure, monthly highlighting and razor-edge trimming, lip and brow waxing, bikini waxing, a truckload of cosmetics to keep Estée Lauder and Lancôme in business, twice-weekly trips to the mall with the personal shopper, daily sessions with the personal trainer. Had enough? We haven’t even started on household maintenance.

The Boca Babe must be in possession of a McMansion—the six-bedroom, five-bath faux Mediterranean palazzo situated in one of the euphemistically named "gated communities” (translation: walled fortresses). And does this household take care of itself? Of course not. You need a gardener, a housekeeper, a pool service person—minimum. Those are your regulars. Then there’s the other help you call in for special occasions, such as hosting your son’s bar mitzvah or your parents’ golden anniversary. This requires a party planner, a caterer, a wardrobe consultant. Well, you get the picture.

Now, let’s face it, most women cannot acquire all of this themselves. But there’s one surefire way to achieve this fairy tale, and that’s to marry a rich American prince.

My prince was named Bruce. I’d met him when I was attending one of those prissy women’s colleges up in New England. My mom had sent me there, not to get any useful education, mind you, just to become the right kind of woman to snare the right kind of man. And Bruce was it. He was a law student at Yale. He was hot, smart, charming, connected, and soon to be rich. A budding Boca Babe’s dream. Sure, there were the usual warning signs of incipient abuse—the moodiness, the possessiveness, the volatility. But just like most women, l didn’t put two and two together, or maybe I repressed whatever doubts I may have had, because I just had to have him. After all, you can’t be a Boca Babe if you’re manless.

I brought Bruce home to Mom in Boca. She thoroughly approved, so we got married and started living the high life. Bruce became an associate, then a partner, in Boca’s leading law firm, representing pharmaceutical companies, health insurance companies, and the tobacco industry against people who claimed they’d suffered injury or loss of a loved one due to the corporations’ negligence or malfeasance. Was it lucrative? Hell, yes. Moral? I didn’t want to go there. I was too busy spending the money. Every time a little voice of conscience started nagging at me, I’d suppress it by going on a shopping spree with my friends.

While I was shopping, Bruce was working and hanging with Boca’s power brokers, fueling his energy and ego with cocaine. And as his blow use increased, so did his blowups and put-downs. In his eyes I’d gone from being a brainy babe to a babbling bimbo. Pretty soon the shoving, slapping, hitting, and kicking started. But while he was addicted to the coke, I was addicted to the money and the image it brought. So for ten years I put up with his verbal and physical abuse to "keep up appearances.”

My road to liberation started when my personal trainer suggested I take up the Israeli martial art Krav Maga to get my ass into shape. In the process of toning my backside, something else happened. I began to grow a backbone. As my self-defense skills increased, I started to ask myself: Did I really need to be a punching bag in order to keep the McMansion, the Mercedes, the manicures, the whole shebang? For that matter, did I really need the McMansion, the Mercedes, the manicures, and the whole shebang in the first place?

Yeah, I know what you’re thinking: why didn’t I just divorce the schmuck—did I have to whack him? Easier said than done. You know the story. I left a couple times, he came and dragged me back, threatening to kill not only me but my mom if I ever left again. And then there was the response of the cops and the courts.

One time Bruce was arrested after he threw me to the ground outside a five-star restaurant. But he was buddies with the police chief, who personally went to the jail at three a.m. to release him and drop the charges. Another time he beat me so badly I had to go to the hospital. We almost made it to court on that charge, but then the hospital records documenting my injuries mysteriously disappeared, and the case was dismissed for lack of evidence.

By then Bruce had incurred some serious debts with his drug habit. Some really shady characters started hounding him. Bruce bought himself a gun. He just didn’t figure that someday I’d use it on him. Neither did I. Until that night.

That was four years ago, when I was thirty-five. After the shooting, I spent a few nights in the county jail overlooking Donald Trump’s golf course in West Palm. Finally, the D.A. decided it was justifiable homicide and let me go. So, I unloaded my Boca Babe lifestyle—the house, the car, the clothes, everything—and decided to start over as far from there as I could. Well, inasmuch as l hate winter and love Florida, I didn’t venture allthat far. Just to the edge of the Everglades.

Now, home is a two-room wood cabin up on stilts in the Glades just west of Boca. Basically, I’ve moved from swank to swamp. You know that magazine you see in checkout lines at the grocery store, Real Simple? That’s just for starters. I’m talking the real thing. No electricity lines (just my generator), no land phone (just my cell), and no neighbors (just Lana, the six-foot gator that lurks around my front porch). No roads, either—just my airboat.

Now, if all that seems like a drastic change, it is. Here’s why: with any kind of recovery, you’ve got to go cold turkey. You’ve got to change playgrounds and playmates. There’s no doing it half-assed, or you get sucked right back in to where you started. So I had to reinvent my life. And just moving to a different city wouldn’t cut it. I wanted to meet the challenge of total independence.

The only obstacle was money. I had no kids—neither of us had ever wanted them—so that’s one worry I didn’t have. But as a Boca Babe, I’d spent my husband’s income as fast as it came in. And he did, too. Even the house was mortgaged to the hilt. So I was left with nothing but my jewelry, which I sold to buy my one treat to myself, my Hog—a 2003, 100th anniversary, 883cc Harley Hugger. That Evolution engine represents my own personal evolution. For some people there’s therapy, for me there’s my Hog.

Anyway, I needed to support myself, so I went back to school and learned some skills for real life, as opposed to the twisted fairy tale I’d been living. Then I answered an ad in the paper for someone with computer skills, which turned out to be for a private eye agency, doing skip traces and background checks. When my boss learned that I also possessed a whole slew of Boca Babe skills, he sent me out on cases as a decoy, enticing cheating husbands into making a pass, then getting the whole thing on tape. It was pretty sleazy, but it gave me a start in the business. A year or so later I was able to get my own license and open my own agency, ScamBusters. And I set out to expose the steamy underbelly of Boca.

I’ve been in business a little over a year now, and let me tell you, it’s booming. Boca has scams aplenty. This is South Florida, after all. You didn’t think all that crisp new money floating around here was earned by honest hard work, did you? Insurance scams, investment scams, immigration scams—you name it, we’ve got it.

But the last thing I expected that February day when the Contessa von Phul walked into my office was a murder case. I guess even I hadn’t known just how ugly things could get in beautiful Boca Raton.



Chapter 1

THE CONTESSA walked into my office on a Tuesday clad in Chanel from head to toe—the pink suit with white trim, the pearls, the black-toed shoes, the white quilted bag with the chain strap—with her Chihuahua, Coco, ensconced on her left arm. The scent of Chanel No. 19 wafted in with her. Eau de parfum, eau de dog and eau de dollars hit me at once. My sinuses rebelled immediately, and I went into a sneezing fit.

Glancing around imperiously at my barren office as she flipped back her mahogany pageboy hair, the contessa pronounced, "Harriet, what you need in here is some foliage. You know, the leaves absorb the toxins, oxygenate the air, clear those allergies right up.”

I just love it when people tell me what I need, don’t you? She could take that little rodent-disguised-as-a-canine and—

"Yes, Your Excellency,” I said. I learned long ago that you don’t mess with the contessa. She was aristocracy, after all. The Boca version, that is. Her true origins were unknown. Whether she had acquired her title through birth, marriage, or purchase, no one knew. There was no count in her present, and she didn’t speak of her past. Many believed that she had to be the real thing, since who would actually pay for a name like von Phul? Personally, I wasn’t so sure. I happened to know she was a crafty one—she could well have bought the name, figuring people would think exactly that—there was no way anyone would buy it. Faking everyone out with a double negative, so to speak.

I knew the contessa from my former Boca Babe life. We had served on several charity committees together. She was the senior version of the Boca Babe—the Botox Babe. Seventy going on fifty. Yep, we have some of the world’s best surgeons right here in Boca.

She hadn’t finished with her critique of my lifestyle yet. Her eyes did a full-body scan as she checked me out. A Babe compulsion—they just can’t help themselves. She took in my buff butt and biceps, big boobs, big dark hair, and big dark eyes. She did miss my big-ass Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum gun, which I had license to carry concealed and kept stashed in my boot.

"It wouldn’t hurt you to spiff up your wardrobe a little,” she declared, peering at me down her hawkish nose.

I had on my usual post-Babe uniform—all black, all stretch tank top and boot-cut leggings. She clearly wasn’t impressed.

"I’ve simplified, Contessa,” I replied. "Besides, S and L are a girl’s best friends.”

She looked confused. Her brow would have wrinkled, but the Botox wouldn’t let it.

"Savings and Loans?” she asked.

"No—Spandex and Lycra.”

She rolled her green eyes and looked around for a place to sit.

She brushed some imaginary dog hairs off of one of the two Naugahyde chairs in front of my desk and gingerly placed Coco on it. Coco did a body shake and deposited some non-imaginary hairs. The contessa settled her tall frame into the other seat.

"Harriet, I have a case for you,” she said, cutting to the chase. "An unsolved murder.”

"But Contessa,” I said, "I don’t do murder. I do scams. My motto is ‘They scam ’em, I slam ’em.”’

"But Harriet,” she said, "this is a case that cries out for justice. And you are just the person for it.”

"Why is that?” I asked, astounded.

"You will care about this case like no one else. You won’t let go until you’ve solved it, because a part of the victim is a part of you.”

"Oh, yeah? Which part is that?”

"That’s for you to discover.”

She was trying to get to me, I could tell. And she was succeeding, damn her.

"Go ahead,” I said grudgingly.

"As you well know, I am benefactress of the Central American Rescue Mission.”

How could I not know? For that matter, how could anyone in Boca not know? The contessa’s name and face were plastered all over the place promoting her pet charity. She was in the papers, in Boca Raton magazine, on flyers in the Publix grocery, everywhere. The Central American Rescue Mission provided assistance to refugees who had fled to Florida from the war-torn countries of the south. The contessa’s interest was thought to derive from her own childhood experiences in wartime Europe, though of course no one really knew.

"Maybe you remember from the papers, Harriet, that one of my girls was killed about a year ago,” she continued. All the Rescue Mission’s clients were her "girls” and "boys.”

"Yes, I do vaguely remember something. A body was found in the tomato fields west of here?”

"Not a body,” she admonished. "A person. Gladys Gutierrez. Yes, they found the poor soul strangled last February. Just think of the irony, Harriet. This sweet girl had escaped the killing fields of Guatemala only to wind up dead in the tomato fields of South Florida. And she was just on the verge of starting a new life. She was learning English, she’d just gotten a new job, her future was bright. Tell me, where is the justice in that?”

"What about the police?” I asked.

"Well, of course they tried. But you know how it is. More pressing matters came up, and Gladys has been shelved.”

I knew what she was talking about. Boca had been rocked by a few upper-crust scandals lately. The former president of the local public university had been accused of accepting a brand-new, red Corvette bought with university foundation money that had been laundered through his wife’s interior decorator, while the local private college was accused of illegally procuring cadavers for its funeral services program without the families’ consent. So I could see how a pesky little problem like the murder of a Guatemalan refugee had taken a back seat.

"I didn’t want to interfere with the official investigation,” the contessa continued, "but it’s been a year now, and I had my own internal deadline. I decided I’d give the police that long, and if they didn’t make an arrest by now, I’d take matters into my own hands. Now I’m putting it in yours.”

There were plenty of other P.I.s in town she could have picked. But she was getting to me. I could see the writing on the wall—if I didn’t solve this case, no one ever would. Not that I have an ego or anything.

There was another thing, too. I figured I kind of owed the contessa. When I’d been in the slammer after offing my husband, most of my Boca Babe friends had dumped me like toxic waste, but not the contessa. She had been one of the few to visit me and had even made public statements in my defense. In fact, I sometimes wondered if she’d had anything to do with the charges being dropped.

"Okay, I’ll consider the case,” I muttered.[B1]

"Of course you will,” she said. She whipped a sheaf of papers out of her Chanel bag. "Here is a copy of the police summary of the case. I will see you at the Rescue Mission tomorrow morning at nine.” She picked up Coco and headed for the door.

The gall! She had obviously decided before even coming in that I would take the case. I glared out the iron bars covering the plate-glass window as she pulled out in her Rolls.

I took a deep breath. The contessa had put her faith in me, big-time. No one had ever done that before. Trust me to attract someone’s adulterous husband? Sure. Catch a con artist? Sure. But solve a murder? Not. The contessa was putting me to the test, and I had to meet the challenge. I couldn’t let her down.

IT WAS GETTING late in the day, so I decided to pack it in and head home. I would read the case file tonight. I shut down my computer, turned out the lights, and stepped outside. I locked the door, then the wrought-iron gate that serves as my security.

My office is located on the seedy side of Boca. Yeah, there is one. Of course you know that everything glitzy in life is just a facade. Boca’s backside, or at least one of them, is along its southwestern edge, on Highway 441, technically outside the city limits. This is strip mall city, with rutted parking lots and dusty barren roadways in place of the manicured hedges and fairways to the east. ScamBusters is in one of these strips, wedged between Tony’s Tattoos and Carl’s Checks ‘R’ Us check-cashing store.

Actually, the location is a business advantage. Think about it. My typical clients from east Boca wouldn’t be caught dead walking into ScamBusters, since that would be tantamount to a public announcement that they’d been conned. So by driving a couple miles out of town, they don’t have to worry about being seen and having their country club know their business the next day. Here, all they have to worry about is getting their Mercedes or their Beemers carjacked.

I put on my leather jacket, chaps, gloves, and helmet and settled onto the seat of my Hog. I turned the ignition key and pushed the starter button, and the engine roared to life. I pushed my way back out of the parking space, then opened up the throttle and took off. As I headed west on Glades Road and left the traffic behind, everything faded out of my consciousness except the familiar four-stroke rhythm of the V-twin engine. You know that sound—the one you get only from a Harley. But maybe you don’t know the feel. Let me put it this way: it’s a five-hundred-pound vibrator between your legs. And people wonder why a woman would ride a bike.

My airboat was docked at the road’s end. At that point, civilization stopped and the wilderness took over. It was the place where solid ground gave way to uncertainty. The swamp—neither earth nor water—that murky no-man’s-land that was my home.

I pulled down the loading ramp and rolled the Hog onto the boat. It’s one of those big mothers originally used for toting tourists that’s been specially adapted to carry my bike. I sat in the boat’s driver’s seat. I pushed my foam earplugs into my ears, then donned my soundproofing earmuffs over those. This sucker is loud. I started the engine, and the huge rear-mounted fan began its frenzied spin. I shifted into gear, and the boat took off, the sawgrass seemingly parting before me as I moved ahead.

Two miles due northwest, I reached my cabin. I pulled the boat up to the porch, disembarked, and tied the craft to the hitching post. My own Wild West. I walked into the combination living room/dining room/kitchen and pulled my boots off. At the kitchen cabinet, I took out my lead crystal glass—one of the few remnants of my past life, so I guess I’m not fully recovered yet—and poured myself a shot of Hennessy. I went out to the porch to sit in my rocking chair and watch the sun set. I spotted Lana, the gator, lurking a few yards off to my left.

"Hi, honey, I’m home,” I called. "How was your day?”

She didn’t respond.

I pulled out the case summary the contessa had given me to "think over.”

There wasn’t a whole lot there. The body of a female thought to be in her early twenties had been found in a tomato field outside of Boca on February 19. Exactly one year ago. The victim had been killed by strangulation. Bruise marks around her throat indicated something had been wrapped around it and tightened. She had been dead about four days when her body was discovered.

The crime scene investigation turned up no murder weapon at the scene. Because of heavy rain in the intervening days between the death and the discovery of the body, the crime scene did not provide any further reliable forensic evidence. It was not known whether the death had occurred at the scene or whether the victim had been killed elsewhere and then dumped in the tomato field.

The summary included several crime scene photos. The victim’s body lay facedown in the mud, twisted and crumpled. Her clothes were a simple brown skirt and tan sweater, both soaked through and mud-streaked. But it was her shoes that really got to me. They, too, were mud-covered, but bright white patches of canvas shone through. They looked brand-new. The idea that this woman had just bought a shining new pair of sneakers, probably in hopes of a brighter future, only to wear them once or twice before being brutally murdered, sent a stab of pain right through my gut.

There were also some autopsy photos. In these, the victim lay on a cold steel slab. Her pale face seemed remarkably untouched and peaceful in contrast with the trauma marks around her neck. Again, I felt a wave of sickness at the clearly vicious attack on such a young, innocent-looking woman.

I resumed reading. The tomato fields were home to many Guatemalan immigrants who worked on the local farms. The police had taken one of the autopsy photos of the victim around to the homes where the immigrants lived. The victim was identified as Gladys Gutierrez by a friend, Eulalia Lopez. Working with a Spanish interpreter, the police questioned Eulalia, but she was unable to provide any solid leads on the murder.

The police interviewed the farm workers’ crew boss, Jake Lamont, who stated that Gladys had worked in the fields and lived in the company housing until about two weeks previously. Then she had disappeared, and he didn’t know where she had gone. The police talked with a few of the other residents, but they said they didn’t know much about Gladys.

According to the summary, after the story of Gladys’s murder appeared in the local paper with a request that anyone with information contact the police, the contessa had called them. She informed them that Gladys had been a client at the Central American Rescue Mission and that the mission had placed Gladys in a live-in housekeeping job, which is why she had left the tomato fields. The contessa provided the police with what little she knew about Gladys, but she had no information that could help solve the case.

The police then interviewed Gladys’s new employer, Tricia Weinstein. She stated that Gladys had disappeared from the home on February 15. Tricia had not reported Gladys as a missing person because she assumed that Gladys had simply bailed out on the job.

The summary stopped at that point. Evidently, there were no further developments.

Just as I finished reading the file, the last reddish-gold arc of the sun disappeared on the horizon.

Lana slithered off a rock into the water.

"So what do you think?” I asked her. "Should I take the case?”

She popped her head above water level and looked at me. Did I detect a gleam in her eye? Nah. Anyway, I knew that she knew it was already a foregone conclusion. The contessa, that wily fox, had known exactly how to pique my interest, how to reach into the depths of my soul. Whereas most people had an inner child there, I had something else: an inner vigilante. And it was ready to be set free.


[B1]Hank can you format this to not be so space out?




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