Return to Fender

Return to Fender

Virginia Brown

May 2013 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-290-3

Book 4 of The Blue Suede mystery series

 
Our PriceUS$14.95
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

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Find out who’s trying to kill one of the best-known drag queens in Memphis? No problem. Harley’s on the case. Until someone decides she’s getting a little too close to the truth . . .

Halloween’s just around the corner, and business is brisk at Memphis Tour Tyme. Harley doesn’t need an extra job, but when her pal Tootsie asks her to help Jordan Cleveland, his fellow drag queen, she can’t resist poking around in the mystery. How dangerous could it be for her? After all, Jordan’s the target of the threats, not her. He’s had his brake line cut, a concrete flower pot dropped over his head, a pickup truck nearly ran him down, and someone tried to push him off a sidewalk into heavy traffic. He and Harley think his ex-wife is the most likely culprit, but after Jordan is sideswiped by a car and ends up in the hospital, trouble starts to turn Harley’s way. The next thing she knows, she’s dangling off the side of the city’s famous Peabody Hotel while an anonymous thug tells her to mind her own business . . . or else.

Things can only get worse, and she ought to heed the demands of her hunky police boyfriend, Mike Morgan, who’s really worried. Even the guests at a local Halloween party start to look like suspects. Maybe the guy dressed up as Jay-Z is out to get her. Or one of the Kardashian sisters.

But how dangerous can it be to leave the party just long enough to retrieve her brother’s coveted Fender guitar from Tootsie’s empty house? Harley will return safe and sound, right?

Virginia Brown is the author of more than fifty novels in romance, mystery, and mainstream fiction. In addition to the Blue Suede Memphis mysteries, she writes the bestselling Dixie Divas mysteries.


Reviews

"The story is good…I couldn't guess who it was right up 'til the end. It's…a humorous mystery." -- Laura Jennison, Through Razzberry Colored Glasses


Excerpt

 

Prologue

DISASTER...

It had to be a joke. Right? This wasn’t real. It couldn’t be real. It had to be a joke. A loop of gauzy spider web flapped at her, tendrils streaming like long fingers.

Harley shivered. Fuzzy light from the full moon flirted behind clouds. She didn’t want to believe her eyes, but the evidence lay right before her: a familiar hat and a corpse, feet sticking up out of the ground, the head still under a mound of dirt. A weathered-looking headstone poked up behind it, leaning drunkenly; thick spider webs strung from the top of it to the bony hands of a plastic skeleton propped up against a nearby oak. It was only forgotten Halloween decorations. The grinning head tilted to one side, and a black rubber spider as big as a dinner plate dangled from a tree limb. It swayed in the wind and cast eerie shadows over the cemetery. Fog hovered above the damp ground.

It was a scene straight out of a horror movie. Cemetery Man. I Sell the Dead. Grave Encounters 2. And the classic, Pet Sematary.

It was a joke, right? But what if it wasn’t? What if—no, it had to be a joke. A prank. Someone was trying to punk her. Probably Eric to get even with her for the ferret thing. That’s all it was. A joke. And yet... it looked so real.

Harley shook her head. This was ridiculous. Why be afraid when it was just a prank? She took two bold steps forward. Okay. She’d play the game, and then she’d get even. Still, her heartbeat escalated, and her mouth went dry, and she had to force her knees to bend as she knelt on the damp earth. Her fingers skimmed the turned clods of black dirt. Clumps stuck to her fingertips, and she carefully brushed them away. Slowly, the face emerged. Her stomach dropped. It wasn’t a joke.

"Holy hell!” Harley yelped and tried to stand up and leap backward at the same time. She didn’t make it. Her feet slipped in the slick mud. Her arms pinwheeled, but it didn’t save her. She landed on the ground with a splat and sprawled on her back. Fear and disbelief clogged her throat and made her heart beat so hard her ribs ached. The urge to run like hell was overpowering. She kicked at the ground to wriggle as far away from the corpse as she could get. Panic set in when she got tangled in clingy filaments of the fake spider web. It clung to her like Silly String. The more she batted at it, the more entangled she became. Finally, with a mighty yank, she freed her hands of most of the web.

Maybe it was the yank that put her off balance. Maybe not. It felt like she was pushed. Her cell phone flew out of her hand and into the air, and she went backward, tried to catch herself, but her hands skidded in the slick mud, and she slid from the mound and down into a deep hole. She landed with her shoulders at the bottom, her head tilted to one side, and her legs wedged up against the wall over her head. A little dazed from the fall, she blinked a few times, squinted up at a fuzzy patch of light about five feet above her head.

As she lay there looking up at the small, rough rectangle of dim light, it dawned on Harley that she’d fallen into an open grave. Nightmare. Why hadn’t she paid attention to that little voice inside that had told her to stay home tonight? Or to Diva? But no. Now here she was in a grave. And no one around. This was not good.

She wriggled around and tried to move, but her body only wedged tighter into the soft dirt. Spider web threads still clung to her face and snagged on her hands as she sank deeper into the mud and muck at the bottom. This wasn’t doing it. She’d end up here for the entire night if she didn’t figure a way out—and she had to get out. Whoever had left that body might come back. Now she was certain she’d been pushed. A sense of urgency prodded her to desperation. She clawed frantically at the dirt, succeeding only in freeing clods that fell on her head and tasted awful. She shuddered, then tried again.

After several minutes of struggle, Harley managed to worm around enough to relieve the pressure on her twisted neck. It was cramped in the hole. Her feet still stuck up in the air, shoved up against raw earth, and her knees were practically under her chin. If she could just get her feet under her, she could stand and pull herself upright, then out of this dank, dark hole. Dammit, what were the odds of falling into an open grave? About par with an actual Elvis sighting, she figured. Yet here she was on her back in an open grave the size of a postage stamp and unable to get out.

A shadow above her head caught her attention, and she tilted back to squint up at the ragged opening. Nothing but hazy moonlight shimmered at first, but then she caught an unmistakable glimpse of movement. Rescue!

"Hey!” she shouted, "Hey! I’m down here and can’t get out!”

There was no reply, no concerned face peering into the hole. After a moment the light disappeared behind a huge shadow, and then a load of dirt crashed down on her.

Stunned, she scraped it off her face with her free hand and opened her mouth to loudly protest, but another load of dirt dumped into the hole. Harley spit dirt from her mouth, gagging a little. Damn them! What the hell? Suddenly she knew that whoever was up there knew she was down here—and intended to keep her here. Buried alive.

Why hadn’t she listened to the inner warnings? Why hadn’t she listened to people who had tried to tell her to back off? But she hadn’t. Oh, no. She had to do it her way. Now look. And it had all started out so simply and safely...


 

 

Chapter 1

DISASTER IN Harley Jean Davidson’s life usually started out quietly. Then a simple decision on her part would trigger complications of monster proportions. She didn’t know how she had come to acquire this talent, but it was almost always a source of annoyance to her friends and family. Except her great-grandmother, who considered Harley a lively source of entertainment. However, since Nana was prone to odd behavior on occasion, her opinions were not always to be trusted.

This muggy October day Harley was late for work, dodging traffic on Poplar Avenue in her little silver car while she listened to Nana protest the weather. A cell phone was not always a good thing.

"A hurricane is coming our way,” Nana said with absolute conviction.

"Nana, I doubt a hurricane will hit us. We’re too far from the coast. Memphis just gets rain and wind.” Harley wedged her new cell phone between her shoulder and ear and tried to shift gears, but the phone was about the size of a credit card. It defied her efforts to hold steady and shot out like a greased missile, fell to the floorboard and slid under the clutch pedal. It could have been a bigger problem, but it helped that she’d reached her destination. She wheeled into the parking lot behind the office, put her car in gear, turned off the ignition, retrieved her phone from the floorboard, and resigned herself to waiting out Nana’s "time for meds” conversation.

Nana hadn’t noticed her brief absence. She was in the middle of blowing a rather rude raspberry, quickly followed by the end of her peeved sentence, "... and you know I meant a tornado.”

Harley rolled her eyes. "Sorry, my deductive powers are a bit slow today.”

"Well, get with it. Rico was certain he saw a funnel cloud, and he’s so panicky he’s making me nervous. Look at the clouds and tell me what you think.”

Rico was Nana’s companion of the moment. Who could have known a retirement village doubled as a match-making service?

Harley peered out the car window. To the west, a thick bank of dark clouds churned over distant Arkansas rice fields and the Mississippi River, racing east toward the offices of Memphis Tour Tyme. The ominous clouds did look like they could hold possible tornados. Nana might be right. Harley decided not to admit it.

"Tell Rico to relax. Besides, Nana, you’ve never been scared of anything in your entire life. Especially rain, thunderstorms, or tornados.”

"It could be a hurricane. I’ve never been in one of those.”

Sometimes Nana’s memory needed a nudge. "We don’t get hurricanes this far from the coast, remember?” Harley reminded.

"There was Hurricane Elvis. It tore up most of the trees and left people without electricity, walls, and roofs for months.”

"Those were straight-line winds, not a hurricane. The media called it Hurricane Elvis because it sounded catchy. Trust me.”

Nana got a bit testy "You might be right. If you’re wrong and this is a hurricane, I’ll be pretty pissed at you.”

"If I’m wrong, we’ll have bigger things to worry about.”

"You got that right, chickie.”

Nana hung up, and Harley laughed. You’d think a great-grandmother in her eighties would sit in a rocker at the home, nodding in the sunlight. Not Nana McMullen. She was a pip.

It was one of her life’s great mysteries that Harley’s maternal grandmother, Grandmother Eaton, was so different from her own mother, Nana McMullen. But then, Diva, who was Grandmother Eaton’s daughter, was nothing like her mother, either. It wasn’t a criticism; that’s just the way it had turned out. Nana could still shoot out the windshield of a killer’s car. Grandmother Eaton’s idea of danger was putting out her good china. And Diva trusted in psychic energy and karma. Go figure.

Harley had long ago decided that her gene pool was a direct blend of Nana and Diva. It could be a good thing. Or not.

She grabbed her backpack and got out of her newly repaired ’91 Toyota, locked it, and walked across pavement that still sent up waves of heat. It’d been a while since it had rained. A good rain might end the drought. The weather was unseasonably warm and dry for October.

A gust of cool wind and boom of thunder made her move faster to get to the two-story office building Memphis Tour Tyme called home. She didn’t make it. Rain broke overhead, pelting her in hard drops. She finally reached the dry safety of the building before she drowned and ran up the back stairs instead of taking the elevator. It was one way to work off her addiction to Taco Bell’s bean burritos. Plus side orders of nachos.

Thomas "Tootsie” Rowell sat behind a receptionist desk booking tourist runs and limo pick-ups. He looked up when she came in, waved, and kept talking into a headset and clicking on computer keys. Harley picked at her wet tee shirt to get it away from her clammy skin as she leaned against the four-foot high receptionist counter.

After a few minutes and three more calls, Tootsie swiveled in his chair and rolled closer to her. He looked at her with a big smile. "I’m so glad you’re here.”

Immediately suspicious, Harley braced herself. "I have a feeling I shouldn’t ask, but why?”

Tootsie ignored her melodramatic clutch at the receptionist desk. "I need you to take over the desk for a few minutes. My cell phone is out, and I need to help a friend.”

Harley raised an eyebrow. "You have a friend?”

"Don’t be bitchy. Yes. He performs in the same club I do.”

Tootsie liked to dress in women’s clothing and sing on-stage. Truth be told, he was more glamorous than most women. Harley had given him all of the evening clothes she had once reluctantly worn. She didn’t mind seeing them go. Besides, she could never pull off that whole beauty queen thing. Tootsie made it look easy. He had auburn hair that he wore in a long ponytail down his back and fine-boned features. Like her, he was fairly slender and right around five-six, only he looked much better in sequins and satin.

"I’m intrigued,” she said as she put her elbow on the desk and propped her chin in her hand. "Does he need help with his make-up? A wig won’t stay on? No, I have it—he can’t get his boobs taped into a deep enough cleavage, and he needs your help.”

Tootsie gave her one of the looks he used when she was annoying. She smiled. Sometimes he was so easy.

"No, Harley. Jordan is quite adept at taping his own boobs. This is important.”

"Important? Now I’m really intrigued. What kind of important?”

Tootsie pursed his lips. "I do notintend to tell you. You might want to help.”

"Well, really—no need to be insulting. I’m an expert when it comes to important.”

"You’re also an expert at mucking things up and almost getting yourself killed.”

"How unkind of you to mention that. I’m always successful in the end, aren’t I?”

Tootsie closed his eyes and sighed. "There are many definitions of successful. You defy them all.”

Harley rolled her eyes and collapsed in an office chair next to Tootsie’s computer desk. "You can be so tacky.”

"Not to mention truthful.”

"There are many definitions of truth. So.” She sat forward in the chair and wheeled closer to the desk. "What kind of important? Dangerous kind of important?”

"Harley...”

"Oh, for heaven’s sake, I don’t really want to get mixed up in your friend’s life. I’ve given up my crime fighting career.”

"Crime fighting career? That sounds so Cat Woman.”

"Doesn’t it? I’m just too modest to admit it.”

Tootsie ignored that. "Actually, the expertise I’m really interested in is that of Bobby Baroni.”

"He can’t help you. He works Homicide, and your friend isn’t dead.”

"How astute of you. I would like to keep it that way.”

"Aha. It is a dangerous kind of important. Is someone trying to kill him? Did he murder someone? Is he about to murder someone? Is it all of the above?”

"You don’t need to know.”

"That’s all right. I don’t need you to tell me anything. If you’re talking to Bobby, then it has to have something to do with murder.”

"You really are annoying, darling.”

She nodded sympathetically. "I know. It’s one of my many talents.”

Tootsie stood up and pushed his chair toward her. "I’ll use the phone in the back office. Sit down and answer these phone lines, please.”

"I’ll find out, you know. I always do.”

"Heaven forbid. Here. This is a message pad. This is a pen. This is the phone console. When it lights up, punch the button and say, ‘Memphis Tour Tyme. May I help you visit the real Memphis?’”

"That is so hokey,” she said as she plopped down in the chair. "And I hope it isn’t a reference to the real Memphis they’d see in Orange Mound. That’s hardly a tourist stop. Unless they’re into street drugs, of course.”

"It’s no worse than any city of this size. Besides, the police have done a great job cleaning up the streets. All they need is more time and manpower.”

"Good luck on the last. And you only say that because your alleged significant other is a cop. I say alleged because no one has ever seen him, but you claim he exists.”

"You haven’t met him because there are some things even an experienced officer shouldn’t have to encounter. Steve deals with enough on the streets.”

"So why aren’t you calling him to help you instead of Bobby?”

"He isn’t in Homicide.”

"Or he doesn’t exist. I rest my case. A button just lit up. Should I answer it?”

"Please. Don’t touch anything else.” He paused just beyond the desk and turned to look sternly at her. "Do not touch the computer.”

Tootsie disappeared down the hallway.Harley slipped the phone headset over her still-damp blonde hair and punched the lit button. Really. He acted as if she’d blow up the computer. It wasn’t as if she’d never worked on a computer before. In her past life in corporate America that was almost all she had done all day. Another reason why driving a tourist bus was a lot more fun. She took the call and a message for Mr. Penney, and when the phone went silent again she stared blankly into space. It was too quiet. The bank of fluorescent lights overhead flickered dimly. The only sound in the office was rain against the windows, and she began to get drowsy.

Since nature abhors a vacuum, she told herself, she reached for her backpack and rummaged inside to find her MP3 player. She found it, set it on the desk, thumbed it to play random songs, then reached for a magazine. It was PC World, and she immediately closed it and tossed it back to the top of the desk. Way out of her element. Cosmoor even People would have worked, but technical stuff was boring.

For the next few minutes she answered calls and listened to music in between. It was her opinion that it’d be a lot more efficient to have voicemail, but Mr. Penney—referred to as The Ogre when he was out of earshot—thought it was more personal for prospective clients to talk to a real person.

Really, Tootsie underestimated her. This wasn’t difficult at all. Punch a line, rattle off that hokey greeting, take a message, then wait for the next one. This wasn’t exactly the busiest time of year for tourism. Elvis mania was over until his birthday in January, and the Memphis in May BBQ competition was still seven months away. The Oktoberfest downtown was mostly for locals. Thanksgiving and Christmas tourism hadn’t started yet. She yawned. Good thing she could do this in her sleep.

Another button lit up, and she stopped yawning to answer. "Memphis Tour Tyme. May I help you visit the real Memphis?”

A woman with a distinctive accent said, "Hello? Memphis Tour Tyme?”

Why was it that no matter what was asked or said, the English always sounded so cultured and intelligent, she wondered.

"Yes, this is Memphis Tour Tyme. May I help you?”

"Oh, yes, please. This is Audrey Thornton, agent with London Town Tours. We are in a bit of a twist here. I wish to book my clients on tours of Graceland, Tupelo, Sun Studios, all the Elvis sights. They are due to arrive in Memphis Friday next. Would you have accommodations for a group of twenty-two during the following week?”

Not quite willing to disappoint or dismay the agent, who already sounded stressed enough, Harley hesitated. "Our scheduler is away from his desk,” she said, "but I’ll be glad to give him a message when he returns.”

"Oh, dear. This must sound dreadfully cheeky, but will he be long?” Dismay in her voice had altered to an unmistakable tone of desperation. Harley was pretty familiar with desperation.

"I don’t know,” she said honestly. "I don’t think so.”

There was a hesitation on the other end, then a sigh. "I must give my clients an immediate answer. We had already booked, you see, but the other tour company in your area has gone out of business, so we now have no transport available. My clients are due to depart Gatwick in only five days. Any delay may prove quite unfortunate.”

Harley considered calling Tootsie in the back office, but the light to that phone still glowed. He’d be irritable if she interrupted him. She glanced at the computer.

As luck would have it, the program for booking tours and for checking the availability of buses and vans glowed at her from the monitor. The cursor winked an open invitation. Surely he wouldn’t be angry if she booked this group. It wasn’t as if it was all that difficult. She’d watched him do it often enough. Harley took the chance. She tapped a few keys, and the information popped up.

"We have a large enough vehicle. I just have to see if it’s already reserved... ah, it’s available. Shall I take your information and make the reservations?”

Relief hummed on phone lines all the way from London. Gratitude fairly gushed from the agent, so that Harley basked in its warm glow. She entered all the information, reserved their mini-bus, gave the woman not only a confirmation number but a promise to fax that confirmation immediately, and when they finally "rang off,” she was quite pleased with herself. Tootsie would be so amazed. And it was always nice to be able to accomplish something he didn’t believe she could do.

"Piece of cake,” she said aloud.

Smiling, Harley hit the Print button. A box popped up. It gave her the option of faxing, which seemed much more efficient than printing off a hard copy and taking it to the fax machine on the other desk. A phone line lit up, then two. She clicked on the link to fax right before she hit the top button for the phone line. Or maybe right as. Afterward, she could never quite remember the sequence of events.

Lights flickered. The phone went dead. A strange howling noise permeated the office. Horrified, Harley watched the monitor screen go dark. Very dark.

Frozen, she just stared at it. One hand still hovered over the phone console, her forefinger still poised over the formerly flashing button. The only things left blinking were her eyes. What happened? The MP3 player suddenly sounded way too loud, a song by Rihanna wailing into the silent office. No, no!

She stood up. Wheels clacked loudly as the chair rolled away. Down the hall a door banged, and Birkenstocks slapped against cheap linoleum. Survival instinct took over. She made a leap for freedom, only to be jerked back by something tethered to her head. Panic rose in her throat, but then she remembered the headset. It had probably stuck to her hair gel. She clawed it free just as Tootsie rounded the corner and came to a sudden stop.

He looked at the dark computer, the dead phone console, then at her. His mouth formed an O, his arms rose slowly, and he pressed a palm to each side of his head. No sound came from his mouth. He looked very much like the guy in the famous painting of The Scream.

"I was just coming to get you,” she lied. "Something happened.”

Still silent, he stared at the computer. His expression didn’t change from horror. Complete horror. What should she say? Should she say anything at all? Should she leave? Yes. She took a furtive step toward the other chair. It held her backpack. And her car keys.

"Don’t move.” His voice sounded odd. That made her a little nervous. So did the way he kept staring at the computer with a hand to each side of his face. How long was he going to do that?

On her MP3 Rihanna sang "I love the way you lie” as Harley tried to think what to say next. When Tootsie still stared at her, she said, "I’ll be right back. Really. I just thought of something I forgot to do.”

Tootsie moved at last. His arms slowly lowered, and he lurched forward in a gait quite similar to that of a three-legged rhinoceros. Or so she imagined. For a moment she didn’t know whether to stand her ground or run. She hated it when people yelled at her.

"What did you do?” he asked calmly.

Not trusting him to be as calm as he sounded, she eyed him warily. "Do when?”

"Before the phones and computer died. Tell me your every action, Harley.”

Despite his patient tone, she still didn’t quite trust him to remain calm. It wouldn’t hurt to keep a few feet between them in case he had a meltdown and started yelling. She really hated yelling.

As he wobbled toward the computer desk, she circled behind him. Just out of reach lay her backpack. The four foot expanse seemed to stretch a city block.

"Harley?”

"My actions? Let me think... uh, I took some messages. There they are on that little pink pad. People are already starting to book limos for Christmas parties. See?”

He nodded, put both hands on his hips and pursed his lips. "And after that?”

"Let’s see... well, an agent from London called about a group coming in ‘Friday next.’ Don’t you love the way the English talk? I do. They always sound so aristocratic no matter who they are, even if they’re garbage men. Or politicians.”

"Harley?”

"First, promise you won’t be mad. You know how I hate it when you’re mad at me.”

"All right. I won’t be mad.”

"You’ll yell at me. I don’t like yelling.”

Tootsie rolled his eyes. "No, I won’t.”

"If only I knew that for sure.”

"I won’t be mad at you. I won’t yell. I promise. Just tell me what you did.”

"I have no idea.”

He rolled his eyes again and sighed. She kept the desk chair between them in case he went ballistic, but he only sat down in it and wheeled up to the desk. Rihanna stopped singing, and Nicki Minaj started a new song. It sounded way too loud.

Tootsie didn’t even seem to hear the music. For a long moment he just stared at the computer with his hands on his knees. His fingers twitched like he was pecking on the keyboard with his long, hot pink painted fingernails.

A door opened down the hall. Rhett Sandler. The accountant rarely left his office except to go home. If he did go home. For all she knew he hung like a bat from his office ceiling every night. She wouldn’t put it past him.

Sandler appeared at the front desk. A small man, he had curly dark hair that was receding from his forehead, a thin nose, and non-existent lips. There was usually just a slit where his lips should be. He also talked in a monotone. "My phone isn’t working.”

"Welcome to my world,” Tootsie said. "None of them are working.”

Sandler looked at Harley as if expecting her to claim responsibility. She narrowed her eyes at him, and his gaze went back to Tootsie. "My computer isn’t working.”

Tootsie lifted his hands from his knees and reached for a wire that led from the computer to a big box. "Neither is mine. And why is it so dark in here?”

"Turn Me On” blared from Harley’s MP3 player. It seemed very inappropriate.

"It’s always dark in here,” said Harley. "The new bulbs don’t put out any light.”

As Tootsie unplugged the computer from the power source, Sandler stood there a moment longer. When it became clear to him that he’d gained all the information he could for the moment, he pivoted and walked back down the hallway. Harley stared after him thoughtfully.

"Ever notice that Sandler walks like a penguin?” she mused aloud.

"You’ve said that before.” Tootsie was under the desk now. The thick soles of his Birkenstocks stared up at her. She squatted down just behind him and peered over his left shoulder.

"Are you opening the computer box?” she asked.

"Don’t you have to be somewhere?”

"Not yet. Besides, I want you to know I’m here for you.”

"Try being over there for me. Way over there.”

It was a bit too soon yet to be sarcastic, so she stood up and moved to the chair that held her backpack.

Tootsie hauled the bulky computer brain out from its cubby hole and to the desk top. It had lots of slots in the front for flash drives to save information. If she was lucky, he had already saved all valuable information. Oh, no. What about the reservations she’d just taken? Would the English tourists be disappointed once more?

"By the way, I went ahead and reserved the mini-bus for the group from London. Twenty-two people. I promised we’d fax them a confirmation,” she said.

"How premature of you. Wait. You touchedthe computer?”

"Just a little. The program was open. It was easy. I tried to fax the confirmation, but it all went dark on me.”

"I’m speechless. No, I’m not. What have I told you about touching my computer? I have frightening memories of the last time you touched it. I never did fix one of the software programs you corrupted.”

"Sorry. Really. I don’t know what I did wrong.”

He pressed a hand against his forehead and closed his eyes. "Which time? There are so many incidents to choose from I hardly know where to begin.”

She was still sighing over that when the outer office door opened. Bracing herself for a Q&A from The Ogre, she was pleasantly surprised to see Mike Morgan. He had a way of making stomachs flutter. If stomachs could flutter. Hers usually just got all warm and squishy.

Wet, dark hair clung to his head. On some men it would look awful. On Morgan it looked delicious. So did the way his wet tee shirt clung to his chest, outlining hard pecs and washboard abs. Harley envisioned Mike without a tee shirt. Really, she should avoid that direction of thought. She might lose control and assault him on the cheap flooring of the reception area. Nicki Minaj singing, "Turn Me On” suddenly sounded appropriate.

"Everything okay here?” he asked.

"That’s a loaded question,” Harley said with a glance at Tootsie. "There are many definitions of okay.”

Morgan grinned. Her stomach did that warm and squishy thing.

"I take it there’s a problem?”

Since he said it as a question, Tootsie answered before Harley could. He sounded quite peevish. "That would be putting it mildly. It’s more than a problem. I should have known better than to leave Miss Disaster in charge for even a minute.”

"Don’t be bitchy,” she said. "It doesn’t become you.”

"It becomes me very well, and you know it.”

"I’d ask what she did, but I’m not at all sure I want to hear the answer.” Morgan raked a hand through his wet hair to keep it from dripping into his eyes. "I just dropped by to see if the tornado did any damage.”

Harley sat up straight. "Tornado? There was a tornado?”

"Yeah, it touched down not far from here, tore up some trees and knocked down power lines. That’s why your lights are out.”

Harley glanced up at the ceiling light fixtures. The new bulbs in the fluorescent lighting usually flickered so much it was never very bright anyway, but the light on the desk was out, too. She should have noticed. Tootsie should have noticed.

Crossing her arms over her chest, she tapped her foot on the floor and stared at Tootsie. "I expect an apology,” she said when he remained silent.

"Don’t hold your breath. You must have done something. The battery back-up should keep the computer up for at least forty-five minutes.”

"Well, it didn’t this time.”

"So you must have done something to it,” said Tootsie.

"You have such faith in my super-powers. I’m going to check on my parents. If everything’s okay, I can be back in time to pick up the group at the Marriott for their tour to Beale Street and the Ornamental Metal Museum.”

"They cancelled earlier this morning. Take the day off. I can’t do anything until I have the computer up anyway.”

"I didn’t do it. It’s not my fault this time.”

Tootsie peered at her over the desk. "It usually is, so forgive me for jumping to the obvious conclusion.”

"Girls, girls, no need to quarrel.” Morgan looked from Tootsie to Harley. "I just happen to have some free time if you want me to go with you.”

"That’d be great. I can see my presence here is no longer needed.”

Tootsie muttered something she couldn’t hear, and since it was probably best she didn’t, she picked up her backpack and slung it over her shoulder. She reached over the top of the desk and snagged her MP3 player as Adele sang about setting fire to the rain. "I’m ready. And if all is well with my parents, we can have lunch somewhere.”

"Not with your parents,” said Mike. "Or at Taco Bell.”

"Okay. Somewhere private and cozy.”

"Good. We have to talk.”

Uh oh. She hated that phrase. It usually presaged a break-up or some other kind of disaster. "Is this about me and you?”

He opened the office door to the corridor. "Why would you think that?”

Okay. It had to be about something else. She was pretty sure she knew what. "Is this about my traffic ticket?”

"Sometimes you are so wise.”

She sighed, turned off her MP3 player, and headed toward the elevator. "I can’t get another ticket, or my insurance rates will go up too high, and I’ll have to live in my car,” she explained.

"Stop using my name to get out of tickets.”

"But it worked.”

He stopped, turned her around, and put both hands on her shoulders to look deep into her eyes. "Look, it’s bad enough that my girlfriend goes around tripping over dead bodies all the time. Using my name to get out of speeding tickets does not make my life any easier. Capice?”

"I love it when you speak Italian to me. Yes. I understand. I won’t keep tripping over dead bodies.”

Mike frowned slightly. Then he released her shoulders, took a step back, and sighed. "I wish I could believe that. Right now I’ll settle for you paying for your speeding tickets. The elevator doors are open. Step inside, Harley.”

She smiled. "Wanna frisk me for contraband? I’ve never had that done in an elevator.”

"Which leads me to wonder about the locations where you have been frisked. No, I just want you to stop finding dead people and using my name to get out of speeding tickets.”

"Sure. No problem. Piece of cake.”


 

 


 

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