Read Nothing to fear but ferrets Online

Authors: Linda O. Johnston

Nothing to fear but ferrets

Table of ContentsTitle PageCopyright PageDedication Chapter OneChapter TwoChapter ThreeChapter FourChapter FiveChapter SixChapter SevenChapter EightChapter NineChapter TenChapter ElevenChapter TwelveChapter ThirteenChapter FourteenChapter FifteenChapter SixteenChapter SeventeenChapter EighteenChapter NineteenChapter TwentyChapter Twenty-oneChapter Twenty-twoChapter Twenty-threeChapter Twenty-fourChapter Twenty-fiveChapter Twenty-sixChapter Twenty-sevenChapter Twenty-eightChapter Twenty-nineChapter ThirtyChapter Thirty-oneChapter Thirty-two EpiloguePraise forSit, Stay, Slay“A brilliantly entertaining new puppy caper, a doggie-filled who-done-it . . . Johnston’s novel is a real pedigree!”—Dorothy Cannell “Pet-sitter sleuth Kendra Ballantyne is up to her snake-draped neck in peril in Linda O. Johnston’s hilarious debut mystery,Sit, Stay, Slay. Witty, wry, and highly entertaining.” —Carolyn Hart And for the novels ofLinda O. Johnston“Exciting romantic suspense with a strong emphasis on . . . intrigue. Linda O. Johnston provides a first-rate action-filled tale [for] fans of romance and suspense thrillers.”—Midwest Book Reviews “Imaginative and clever, this book is a true page turner.”—Affaire de Coeur “Colorful characters . . . This book will add spice to a boring day.”—Rendezvous “Readers [will] be immediately caught up in the action . . . [and] relish this delightful tale.”—Romantic TimesTHE BERKLEY PUBLISHING GROUPPublished by the Penguin GroupPenguin Group (USA) Inc.375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USAPenguin Group (Canada), 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario M4V 3B2, Canada(a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.)Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, EnglandPenguin Group Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.)Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia(a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.)Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi—110 017, IndiaPenguin Group (NZ), Cnr. Airborne and Rosedale Roads, Albany, Auckland 1310, New Zealand(a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.)Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196,South Africa Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content. NOTHING TO FEAR BUT FERRETS A Berkley Prime Crime Book / published by arrangement with the author PRINTING HISTORYBerkley Prime Crime mass-market edition / August 2005 Copyright © 2005 by Linda O. Johnston. All rights reserved.No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form withoutpermission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation ofthe author’s rights. Purchase only authorized editions.For information, address: The Berkley Publishing Group,a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.eISBN : 978-0-425-20373-6 Berkley Prime Crime Books are published by The Berkley Publishing Group,a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.,375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.The name BERKLEY PRIME CRIME and the BERKLEY PRIME CRIME designare trademarks belonging to Penguin Group (USA) Inc.  

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To pet-sitters and pet lawyers and lawyers who love pets. To ferrets, whether maligned or justly illicit in California. To Cavaliers and Cavalier lovers, most especially Joan and Harold Letterly, who were Lexie’s first humans. And to Fred, who learned a lot of years ago that, to love Linda, he had to learn to live with, and love, her many Cavaliers. —Kendra Ballantyne/Linda O. JohnstonChapter OneLIFTING HER FUZZY face, Lexie gave a ferocious growl.Ferocious, at least, for a Cavalier King Charles spaniel who’d wakened from a sound sleep while curled into a compact ball on my shorts-clad lap.“What, girl?” I murmured, paying a lot more attention to the study guide before me on the tiny kitchen table than the complaining canine now standing on my bent legs.After all, the Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam, which I’d take in about a week, was all that stood between me and my ability to resume practicing law.Not that I should have had to take the ethics exam. My law license had been suspended owing to accusations of unprofessional conduct, but I’d recently been able to prove, beyond a hell of a lot more than mere reasonable doubt, that I’d been framed for that and more, including murder.Maybe you heard of my triumph. I’m Kendra Ballantyne, attorney at law, and the blasted media trumpeted the story of how I’d discovered who’d set me up almost as loudly as they’d blared my fall from glory in the first place. But that hadn’t boosted me beyond the hurdle of the Multistate.I blinked as Lexie leapt from my lap, faced my apartment door, and growled again—hackles on her furry black-and-white back raised ominously.This time, I paid attention.I closed the outline and stood barefoot on the tile floor, my own hackles playing hopscotch along my spine.Still, I heard nothing. At least nothing out of the ordinary: the refrigerator motor, traffic in the distance, a few cawing crows outside. It was one of those regretfully rare evenings when my renter, Charlotte LaVerne, and her boy-toy Yul, who occupy the main house on my property, weren’t throwing a party. Both were showbiz wannabes, and Charlotte was actually a persona of sorts, an alumna of one of those absurdly popular reality television shows. My tenants’ ingenuity at creating excuses for celebrations far exceeded all talents that I’d discerned in other areas. When they were home, noise was the norm around here, though seven P.M. wasn’t exactly their prime time for partying.Even so, I continued to listen . . . nothing.I Knelt to stroke the soft back of my pointing pup, who put down her lifted paw and looked up at me like I was nuts not to be as nervous as she was. Her red brows curved in consternation I still couldn’t decipher. She was a tricolor Cavalier—mostly black and white but trimmed in chestnut here and there, like those persuasively puzzled brows.“What is it, Lexie?” I asked softly.She ran toward the door. I stood and followed, by habit grabbing her leash from its hook on the side of the nearest cabinet. I bent to snap it on her, fast. If there was trouble outside, I didn’t want her bounding down the steps headlong into it. In fact, in anticipation, I scooped Lexie into my arms.I stood for a moment on the platform at the top of the stairs outside my apartment, surveying the situation. I didn’t see diddly out of place. My beloved BMW sat in its parking place beside the garage below. Then there was my sprawling château beyond my blue, inviting swimming pool in which I was no longer invited to swim. Its availability was attached to my home, which I’d leased out to stave off having to sell it during my prior misfortunes.Inside the tall wrought-iron fence was lush landscaping: a gloriously green lawn, some eucalyptus, a lemon tree, and—Crash!Lexie, in my arms, struggled so hard I nearly dropped her at the noise and my own panic. What the heck was that? It sounded as if someone had set off something a lot more frightening than a firecracker, really close by.Like at the other side of my adored house.The air still reverberated with the noise.Still holding the squirming Lexie, I sped down the steps, along the driveway to its end, and stopped.There it was, the source of the noise. It was a lot worse than misfired fireworks.A big vehicle had plowed right through my wrought-iron fence and into the side wall of my house, about where the living room was. Or maybe the den. Or right between.“Oh, no!” I cried aloud, hurrying forward. Was anyone hurt?But when I peered inside the huge intruder—a Hummer—I saw it was empty. That was the good thing. Sort of.Had it been occupied, perhaps this accident wouldn’t have occurred.Lexie must have recognized the sound of the unbraked vehicle hurtling downhill as something bad. She’d tried to warn me. If she’d spoken English, she would have. But try as I might, I was a failure at understanding barklish.One day, I meant to try one of those gadgets from Japan that was intended to translate a dog’s every comment. It would even help with my interim profession, and possibly permanent sideline, pet-sitting.But for now, I had a Hummer in my house to contend with.It wasn’t the first time someone’s brakes had failed on my two-lane, twisting street. But it was the first time my house had fallen victim. There was no indication the vehicle had been stolen and smashed like my own car was a few months ago. And now that I knew I hadn’t a corpse to contend with—I’d seen too many lately—nor even an injured body to hustle to the nearest hospital, I let myself get mad.“Damn it!” I exclaimed, still hugging the wiggly Lexie. I’d no idea whose Hummer this happened to be. Well, the cops could figure it out, and this was definitely a reportable incident. And I’d need a copy of the cops’ report to hand to my insurance company when I made a claim.Was I insured for runaway Hummers battering my fence and my house? More important, was the outsized auto insured? I certainly hoped so.But I’d dealt with insurance companies in my capacity as litigator. All too often, clients’ claims were stymied by small print in policies provided to them at hefty prices. Too many insurers were pleased to take people’s money, but choked on the concept of making good on policies’ promises. Most likely, I’d be in for a fight against one company or another.“Kendra? Are you okay?” a female voice shouted from some distance.I turned to see my next-door neighbor Tilla Thomason hurrying toward me—as much as hefty Tilla could hurry up the winding street from her home down the hill from mine. I gauged her to be about fifty, and she’d apparently added an extra pound for every year of her life.“I’m fine,” I yelled back. “Can’t say the same for my house, though.” I hadn’t grabbed my cell phone, so I needed to go inside to call the cops. An extra five minutes wouldn’t matter much, though. I waited, still squeezing Lexie, till Tilla reached us.By the time she did, a few other neighbors were gathering, shaking their heads and offering unhelpful advice.
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Lyle Urquard, our local mountain biker, braked beside me, skidded to a stop—and fell, bike and all, onto his side. He wore a helmet, which would have helped had he landed on his head. However, his legs were bare between bright green spandex shorts and the tops of socks extending up wide ankles from blue and white athletic shoes.Lyle biked at least twice daily. I’d seen him fall before. Scraped, bleeding legs were as much an adornment as his bulging belly beneath his snug shorts. How he didn’t manage to ride off his extra pounds remained a mystery to me, especially considering the admirable effort he made to pedal up our steep slope—on the San Fernando Valley side of the Santa Monica Mountains, a few blocks from Mulholland Drive. I didn’t know what he did during non-biking hours, but I’d heard he was in construction.“Are you all right, Kendra?” was the first thing he said after several of us, including Tilla, helped untangle him from his bike and set it and him upright. Sweaty hair peeked from beneath his helmet, and he flexed hands clad in gloves that covered his palms but left his fingers free.“Better than you,” I observed.His wide grin, lower jaw obscuring upper lip, looked sheepish as he thanked those who’d dived to his assistance. “I’m fine. Really.” He glanced around. “How about your tenants? Are they okay?”“I don’t think they’re home,” I answered.“Oh. Well, where’s Ike?”“Ike who?” I asked, wincing as the words came out like a weak sneeze.“Ike Janus.” He looked at me as if I should know the name.I didn’t.“Isn’t he the guy who moved into the Blaskeys’ old house a few months ago?” Tilla asked. She still panted from her climb, and her plump face shone with perspiration.“That’s right,” Lyle said. “This is his car.” He pointed short, blunt fingers, extending from his gloves, toward the Hummer that had hit my house. A FEW MINUTES later, the cops were on their way. Phil Ashler, my retired across-the-street neighbor, had his cell phone with him and had called 911. Was this incident worthy of an emergency call? Too late to worry about it now.I’d seen as much damage as I could from outside looking in, but I itched to go inside my dream home to see what nightmare the Hummer had created there.Hey, it was my house. This was an emergency—by police definition or not. I owned the place—my impatient bank and I. These days I didn’t live there, and as the mere landlady, I had no right to roam inside at random. Still, my lease with Charlotte and Yul permitted me entrance without notice in an emergency, and they clearly weren’t here, and—Okay. I’d talked myself into it.I asked the crowd of neighbors to watch for the cops.“Are you going to check out the damage inside?” Tilla asked.“Yes,” I admitted.“Need any help?” Lyle asked. “I mean, can you get in okay? You’ll need to watch out, in case the structure’s damaged, or there’s something else dangerous that you can’t see.”“I’ll be careful,” I said.“I’d be glad to go with you,” Tilla said. Obviously my nosy neighbor couldn’t wait to check out the chaos and report back.“Thanks anyway.” I led Lexie to our apartment over the garage. I grabbed my extra keys from a kitchen drawer, and we slipped down the steps and around the house to the back door.It had been weeks since I’d been in my house. The last time, I’d merely stood in the magnificent main entry and nosed around nostalgically. I’d let Yul in after he’d forgotten his keys and needed to hunt for Charlotte’s passport for an impending trip. It had taken him all of two minutes to find it and flee.I’d been invited to some of their parties but had always found excuses not to attend. It was just too torturous to enter my home now that I didn’t live there.Entering through the back door, I stood in the kitchen. Lexie barked impatiently and tugged on her leash, as if she’d scented something enticing. “Hold on,” I told her.One thing I could say about my tenants: They were good housekeepers. The kitchen was as clean as a restaurant rated “A” by the health department. My beige tile counters trimmed in Mexican designs of blue, red, and yellow looked immaculate. So did their matching counterparts on the floor. The textured beige refrigerator door sparkled, as did the stainless sink and faucet.I had not held a lot of parties myself in the couple of years I’d lived here before—life as a litigator didn’t allow time for much recreational socializing—but my kitchen had always been a gathering place for my occasional guests. I didn’t have time, though, to stand here and nostalgically study my once—and hopefully, someday, future—domain. I had to find what damage the wayward vehicle had wrought on the rest of my house.From outside, I’d gathered that the Hummer had hit the living room at the far side of the house from where we stood. Or maybe it was the den next to it that I’d used as an office, though I didn’t know what use my tenants made of it.Lexie continued pulling, and I tugged on her leash, trying to get her to do a facsimile of a heel, which she was not inclined to obey. We headed toward the far side of the kitchen.And stopped. Rather, I stopped, slamming down my left foot audibly as a signal to my tugging pup to follow my lead, but she didn’t heed. In fact, she acted as if she’d never had any training, the way she strained at her leash to be let loose. Her nails clicked on the kitchen tile as she futilely tried to pull me faster and wound up spinning her paws like tires on rain-slicked cement.I hadn’t thought anyone home. Now, though, after I opened the door from the kitchen to the rest of the house, my ears were bombarded by a shrill sound, as if a child was crying somewhere.But Charlotte and Yul didn’t have kids. No one else was authorized to stay here, and even if they’d violated the lease, they wouldn’t leave an infant here alone.It could be Yul, though. He had a voice I’d term baritone, but the last time I’d come into the house, with him, I’d called out a question and hadn’t been able to make out his shrill reply.Was he here and hurt?All the more reason not to let Lexie explore on her own. Hanging on with difficulty, I let her lead me to the source of the sound.Unsurprisingly, it was from the room whose outer wall had been stoved in by the Hummer—the den.My roomy, efficient, sorely missed home office.As I said, I’d no idea what Charlotte and Yul used it for now. If I’d known, I’d have given them written notice to cut it out—a California statutory notice to cure a lease default or quit the premises.For they were definitely in default under the lease, namely the no-pets-without-permission-and-a-stiff-security-deposit clause.Plus, I’d believed that showbiz brassy Charlotte—who hugged every person she met as if embracing the entire human race—hated pets. She’d unabashedly avoided my adorable Lexie. And there had to be something really wrong with someone who refused to cuddle Cavaliers.But Charlotte obviously didn’t have a phobia against all pets. The waist-high luxury wire and carved wood cage that occupied the room wasn’t just for show.I bent and lifted my Cavalier into my arms as Lexie lunged toward the cage. Fortunately, it was along the inside wall—opposite the heaps of drywall that now littered the floor beneath the wreck of the wall where the Hummer had hit.The shrill, scared sounds emanated from the enclosure. I couldn’t tell from where I stood what kind of animal made them. Still holding Lexie, I drew closer, bent down, and looked.The cage’s occupants were long, furry, and masked, and had pointed snouts. Kind of cute. But . . .Weasels? Did anyone keep weasels as pets?I didn’t know, but I was aware that some people made pets of a similar-looking little beast. Though not in California. At least not legally.“You’re ferrets!” I exclaimed to the five chattering, nervous little mammals that scurried around the crate in a parody of a person’s perturbed pacing.None denied it.Though I’d never had a pet-sitting client that kept ferrets, I’d heard of people who did. I’d also heard of a movement to legalize the little critters in California. One particularly avid ferret fan had even run for governor on a “free the ferrets” ticket. But then, in California everyone runs for governor, and sometimes the most celebrated wins. And if I recalled the brouhaha correctly, the ferret fanciers, some months back, had succeeded in convincing both houses of the state legislature to agree on an amnesty bill, but our celebrated governator had vetoed it, invoking the need for further environmental evaluation.So owning ferrets remained a felony. Or at least a misdemeanor—I’d never checked. I might have to now, though, when I gave written notice to my tenants to chuck the ferrets or cancel the lease. I hoped it wouldn’t be the latter, since they paid me a healthy rent—enough that I had a little to spare beyond my mortgage payments.Sure, I’d be entitled to compensation for their default, but I preferred to continue receiving rent . . . without the illegal aliens now occupying a valued corner of my home.I stood there attempting to control Lexie, who wanted in the worst way to make the little beasties’ acquaintance up close and personal. I pondered what to do with my battered den wall. I deliberated what this particular lawyer should do with such a gross violation of lease and law right in her own home.And then a call reverberated through the entire downstairs of the house. “Is anyone in there? This is the police!”Chapter TwoDAMN! THEY’D WANT to see the damage. What should I do? Expose my tenants’ possession of illicit pets?They deserved it.I put Lexie down, leaving the loop of her leash over my arm. As she stood on hind legs and sniffed, I lifted the large but fortunately portable cage from the floor, scaring the four long and furry ferrets all the more. As they skittered futilely to maintain their balance, I hurried them from the room.The den abutted a hall that also led to the rear of the house and the laundry room. I aimed my awkward and unhappy baggage there, hoping the cops wouldn’t barge in without invitation.Was there any way to hush a bunch of small, squealing creatures? If so, I didn’t know it. “Just a minute,” I called in a feigned falsetto over the din. “Be right with you.”I reached the laundry room and deposited the cage on top of the adjacent washer and dryer. I then lifted Lexie, who was fascinated by the ferrets, back into my arms. She squirmed, obviously eager to further her acquaintance with them. Holding her as tightly as I could manage a protesting pup, I fled the utility room, closing the door behind us.A short while after I’d moved into my beloved home, I’d been so irritated by the gurgles, groans, and belches of my electrical servants that I’d insisted on adding insulation to this utility room to keep the offensive noises inside. Thank heavens. That would hopefully muffle the ferret sounds, too.Only then did I think about what I’d done and begin to cringe. I’d made myself an abettor, an accessory to breaking whatever law forbade harboring ferrets in California.Oh, lord. Before, when accused of a laundry list of nasties, I’d been innocent of them all. This time, I was actually committing a crime. Would I ever again see my license to practice law? Not at this rate.Not if I was caught.“Hi, police,” I cried out. “I’m coming.”As I’d figured, they were at the front door, two patrol guys in uniform. I was relieved not to see my suit-sporting nemesis on the L.A.P.D., Detective Ned Noralles, especially since Noralles was a homicide detective. For once, the police were around for something other than my discovery of a body whose untimely demise might be blamed on me.“Sorry for the delay,” I said. “This whole mess got my stomach churning and—well, no need to be graphic about it, though I wouldn’t be surprised if you heard . . . Never mind.” I daintily lifted a hand to my mouth, no easy trick while still grappling with Lexie. “Would you like to see what that darned Hummer did to my house?”“Okay,” said the younger of the two cops. His badge identified him as Officer Sallaman. His partner, Officer Elina, looked weathered, jaded, and bored, as if I couldn’t show him anything here that he hadn’t seen a hundred times before.Both examined the mess that was the residue of my den wall, including rubbled piles of plaster, window glass, and broken sticks and fabric that were once Charlotte and Yul’s furniture. A hint of Hummer fender showed through the hole.Officer Sallaman made notes, while Officer Elina asked a few perfunctory questions: Who owned the house? Who lived here? Had anyone been home? Was anyone hurt?I soon accompanied them back outside, Lexie leashed and trotting beside me. A greater crowd had gathered. Most, still, were neighbors.A couple were reporters.Damn.I despised reprehensible reporters. Despite my later redemption, they’d first turned my life into a public free-for-all months ago in the guise of getting a juicy story about a lawyer who’d thrown her own case by handing a strategy memo to the opposing party. And why had she done such a dastardly deed? Because she was peeved at her client or because the opposing party had bribed her, or both.Or so had gone all the false accusations against me.But that’s another tale. One I’ve tried my damnedest to put behind me, despite all the gory details I won’t go into now.That was the main reason, though, that when microphones were thrust before my mouth, I forbore from chewing on them, simply smiling secretively and saying, “No comment.”No better way to irritate irascible reporters.Instead, I went over to where a group of neighbors had gathered—Tilla Thomason and her husband, Hal, who obviously enjoyed eating as much as his happily stout spouse; Lyle Urquard, the mad bicyclist; Phil Ashler, the sweet old guy from across the street; and a few I didn’t recognize.
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As we stood there, the others commiserating with my mess and clearly grateful it wasn’t theirs, a jogger bolted down my street. Only he wasn’t in sweats or any other exercise outfit I’d ever seen. In a suit and tie and polished shoes, he slid on the sidewalk and braked himself to a halt in the midst of my local pity party.And stared at the Hummer and my house.He cried out, “Oh, no.”Lyle stepped toward him, motioning Lexie and me to follow. “Er . . . Ike, have you met Kendra Ballantyne? This is her house. Kendra, this is Ike Janus.” He pointed a long, scraped finger toward the nearby disaster area. “And that,” he said, “is Ike’s Hummer.” IN MY LIFE as a litigator, I’d come across all kinds of clients and opponents. Cynically, I’d concluded that most people should have been born with more than two index fingers, to give them more digits to point accusingly at others. I mean, I wouldn’t have been shocked if Hummer Ike had dredged up a defensive argument that somehow I was at fault for putting my house in the path of his runaway car.To my delighted surprise, though, Ike turned out to be an okay guy. Sheepishly, he answered my questions about how the Hummer had flown, with a tale of a forgotten cell phone, a missed message demanding immediate response, and a car idling in neutral on a hill, its parking brake unset.Ike still hung around my house a couple of hours after its Hummer encounter, directing construction types he’d called in to do a temporary fix to my outer walls—mostly a frame of nailed boards to which heavy plastic had been stapled. Plus, the wrought-iron fence had been propped up. It was all a jerry-rigged fix, but would do for now to keep out early-season rain or opportunistic looters.Not a designer’s dream, though. My sprawling stone-façade château looked like a guy who’d treated a gash in his arm by hiding it beneath a big ugly bandanna instead of seeking stitches and cosmetic surgery.“My insurance adjuster will be here tomorrow,” Ike told me as his workmen made motions as if done for the day. “I spoke to a manager, and got his promise.”Ike Janus didn’t look like the kind of man to choose a Hummer. I’d always figured that people who picked huge, hulking, military-type vehicles were huge, hulking military types. On the other hand, a Hummer might be just the thing for short, bespectacled, suited sorts like Ike to manifest their masculinity. Or maybe Ike was the corporate CEO that his air of authority seemed to suggest. He certainly got things done. Fast.“Thanks,” I told him, barely noticing my own less-than-authoritative garb of faded green USC T-shirt over ragged denim shorts, floppy thong sandals held tight to my feet by my curled toes. At five-five, I was only a couple of inches shorter than Ike. Dashing from my apartment at the sound of the crash, I hadn’t taken time to tame the frizzies in my hair, which had resumed its natural dark brown shade. I’d halted highlighting it during my prior troubles, which had left me, for a while, without a means of making a living. “What’s the name of your insurance company?”I got the particulars, including his personal list of phone numbers—home, office, cell, secretary—and promised to call if I hadn’t heard anything from the adjuster by this time tomorrow. Hell, yes, I’d let him know. In my experience, it’d take more than a call from an insured to get the wheels grinding at an insurance company faced with the likelihood of coughing up cash to settle a claim.On the other hand . . . “In case they ask, where is it that you work?” I was only taking a stab at being subtle in my inquiry.Ike named a local baking company. Not just a little neighborhood store, but a major firm that distributed brand-name bread and pastries to all the supermarket chains.“I don’t just work there,” he said. “I own it.” He smiled.So did I. Hewasthe CEO I’d taken him for. And between him and his insurance company, he was bound to have the bread to cover my loss.And another good thing about Ike: He liked dogs. At least he liked Lexie, who behaved admirably as she sat at my side on her leash. While Ike watched the men at work, he’d bent over often to stroke behind her long black ears. That never failed to set her furry black-and-white tail happily wagging.A neighbor to esteem, even if he didn’t set his brakes as often as he should.“Do you have any pets?” I blurted.“A couple,” he said. “Dogs. Mutts, actually, a lot bigger than Lexie, part sheepdog and part whatever.”“They sound cute.” I reached into my pocket and . . . Yes, I hadn’t left home without one. My card. The handy little business card I’d devised for my pet-sitting business. I handed him one. “In case you ever need someone to walk them, or to watch them while you’re out of town.”He tilted his head to stare down the bottom of his bifocals to read the card, then grinned. “You’re a professional pet-sitter?”“Among other things.” I wasn’t about to tell him my whole life history, even if he wanted to hear about a temporarily defrocked attorney who’d taken up something fun to earn her living while waiting to figure out what was next.“That’s great. I’ll definitely be in touch. And, Kendra, I really am sorry.”“Apology accepted. Again.”We exchanged smiles, and he turned to trudge back up the hill.A tow truck from the Auto Club had already taken his Hummer. With nothing sensational remaining around here, the battery of barracudas—er, the group of reporters—had disappeared long ago. Most neighbors, too, although Phil Ashler from across the street had returned now and then to check on the patching’s progress.At that moment, Lexie and I stood there alone.But not for long. A big black Escalade pulled up to the curb and parked. Lexie leapt to her feet and yapped in pleasure. That SUV was familiar to her. It contained her best friend, an Akita named Odin.It also contained a friend of mine. A client.A lover, at least when it suited us both.I’d called Jeff Hubbard soon after the Hummer hit my house, mostly to talk about the unpleasant occurrence, but also to let him know I’d be late for the dinner we’d planned on grabbing together that evening.A private investigator and security consultant by profession and a man who thrived on taking charge, Jeff had insisted on dropping over to make sure I was okay, though he couldn’t get here right away.I didn’t need him here professionally, but I hadn’t dissuaded him from coming.And now, as he leashed Odin and they exited his SUV, I welcomed the six-foot-tall hunk to my hammered house, which I let him examine before I led dogs and him upstairs to my humble apartment abode.Jeff liked to help solve problems. Which was fortunate, for I had a substantial one to fling at him.What the heck was I going to do about those ferrets?Chapter ThreeTHAT NIGHT, JEFF and I dined on deep-dish pizza with the works on top. The dogs devoured doggy food spiced with just a soupçon of pizza scraps. I admit it. I’m a soft touch for big, begging doggy eyes.Over dinner around my cramped round table, we—the humans, not the canines—nibbled for a while on the progress of Jeff ’s current P.I. cases, then gnawed on my Multistate studies and pet-care tribulations. We tried to sink our teeth into my distasteful ferret dilemma, though no savory solution came to either of us.“Kick ’em out,” he said, taking a swig of Sam Adams from one of my heftiest beer steins. “All of them—tenants and animals.”“You’re kidding.” I scowled at the now-familiar face full of masculine angles that had character and class—and, when added to the hint of irrepressible golden beard beneath, was the most magnetic male visage I’d ever viewed.His twinkling blue eyes acknowledged he was teasing. “Yes, but you’d better handle your dilemma sooner rather than later. You could always whisk the ferrets away and say they got stolen in the confusion.”“No, I won’t lie about it. If I whisk them, I’ll have to tell Charlotte and Yul where they’ve been swept. And I’ve no idea what to do with the illegal little buggers without getting myself in deeper.”“Send them to ferret heaven?” Jeff suggested.“Bite your tongue.” I stuck mine out at him, hoping it wasn’t coated in unappetizing pizza glop. “You’re talking to a professional pet-sitter. I’d never do anything so nasty to someone’s beloved babies.”Taking advantage of my mugging, Jeff leaned forward and tickled my tongue with his. He tasted as spicy as pepperoni, as intoxicating as prime ale . . .Okay, dinner was over. Time for Jeff and me to adjourn to my compact bedroom with its big-enough bed so we could feast on each other that night. Multiple courses. Delicious leftovers for breakfast, too.Gourmet’s delight. EARLY THE NEXT morning, after extracting my commitment to care for Odin when he traveled the next week, Jeff left for work. Me, too.Leaving Lexie at home, I spent the A.M. walking dogs, feeding cats, and visiting one of my favorite charges to make sure his defrosted mouse of the week suited him: Pythagoras, the ball python. Py had recently done a good deed for me, so I had a soft spot in my heart for the young blue-and-magenta reptile. He seemed well, and his mouse had apparently been devoured. “See ya, Py,” I told his lethargic coiled carcass and headed for the next home.My first break came at noon, and I headed to Doggy Indulgence Day Resort on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City.My best friend in the world, Darryl Nestler, owns Doggy Indulgence. He greeted me at the door, hanging on like the expert he was to the squirmy Pekingese in his arms. “Hi, Kendra. You really are okay?”“Sure.”He nevertheless eyed me up and down behind his wire-rims. I’d called this morning to assure him I was fine. The Hummer hitting my house had been eclipsed in the early news by some local political lunacy, which suited me fine. Still, I figured someone would hear about it and tell Darryl, so I preempted his concern by phoning him first.Apparently satisfied that any injuries I’d suffered were internal, invisible, and inconsequential, he said, “Hold on a sec,” which he was having a hard time doing with the increasingly wriggly Peke. He turned and let the furry red ball down on the linoleum floor. “There you go, Bruiser.” He watched for a second as the miniature sumo wrestler bounded toward one of the spa’s special areas for pampered pets, the one filled with human furniture. Bruiser leapt onto a sofa and settled down.“No Lexie today?” Darryl asked as he turned back toward me.Darryl’s lean and lanky, and not a lot taller than I am. As usual, he wore one of his dark green Henley-style shirts, with the Doggy Indulgence logo on the pocket. It had strands of red Bruiser hair on it, which I began to pick off.“I left her home today. Don’t tell her I was here, next time you see her. She’ll be crushed I didn’t bring her.”Before, when I was a preeminent litigator, I’d left Lexie here a lot on weekdays so she’d never suffer from lack of attention. When my law license was suspended, I could no longer afford Darryl’s lavish rates. He’d offered to let Lexie hang out here anyway, but I’d kept it to a minimum. I hadn’t wanted charity, even from a chum as dear as Darryl.Now, with Darryl’s help, my pet-sitting gig flourished, and though I wasn’t getting rich, I could afford Doggy Indulgence again. But my schedule often allowed me to take Lexie to jobs, so she didn’t need day care as much. I nevertheless left her here a few times a week, just for the fun of it.“So bring her next time,” Darryl said. “How’s the studying coming?“Fine. Have a minute?”“For you, I have . . .” He looked at the big black watch on his skinny wrist. “Five. Come into my office.”As usual, I ignored the too-sweet scent of pet odors sublimated by pine cleanser and followed him.Darryl’s small office had a major picture window that let him keep an eye on his four-footed charges while they were pampered by his pet-specialist employees. He motioned me to the comfortable chair that faced his cluttered desk. I slung the strap of my habitually huge purse over its back.“What’s up?” He knew me well enough to recognize when I was requesting a simple social visit and when I needed a pal’s candid opinion.“Ferrets,” I replied, without pussy- or ferret-footing around. “What do you know about them?”“Cute little critters. Has someone asked you to ferret-sit? You know they’re illegal to keep as pets in California, don’t you?”“Sure, if you like creatures resembling elongated rodents, no, and yes,” I rushed out in response to all his queries.“Rodents? That’s an insult to ferret lovers everywhere.” He leaned back on his desk chair and crossed his hands beneath his head, obviously not a member of the offended fan club.“I didn’t say theywererodents, only that they resemble them.”“Not to me. Think weasel family. Or badgers. Or skunks.”“It’s their owners whose actions stink,” I retorted. “Or who’re the weasels, sneaking them in like that.”“Like what? Which weasels are we talking about?”“The tenant kind.”Darryl sat up straight, brown eyes wide behind his spectacles. “As in reality show Charlotte and her not-to-be-believed boyfriend?”“You got it. So what do you know about the law against ferrets?”“That’s your job,” he reminded me.“True. And I’ll do research when I have the chance, including how stringently the statutes are enforced. But what I need from you is advice. I mean, I have a clause in my lease with Charlotte that she’s not to keep pets without my written permission, and to get it she’s got to pay me a substantial deposit. She’s violated it.”“So give her notice and kick her out.”I scowled at him. “Easy for you to say. But she’s paying premium rent. What if I can’t find another renter as generous?”“Then let her stay but get more money from her.”
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“But what if someone learns there are ferrets in my house and I’m abetting a lawbreaker? Here I am, trying to get my law license restored, and you’re suggesting that I allow someone to break the law on my own property?”His sparse eyebrows slanted, Darryl stood and scooted his skinny jeans-clad butt onto his desk next to where I sat, deftly avoiding the mounds of paperwork. “Kendra, my friend, you don’t want my advice. You just want me to listen while you figure it out for yourself.”“Who says?” I grumbled, not meeting his eyes. Hewasright, of course. I’d come here not to listen, but to talk. I’d wanted a sounding board who echoed back my ideas without an opposing opinion of his own.Which was unusual, when it came to Darryl. Most often, when he spoke, I listened. The guy had more common sense than ninety-nine one-hundredths of the obfuscating attorneys I knew.“Your old buddy Darryl says. And I think you already know what to do, don’t you?”“I guess.”“AndI’llguess what it is. You have to go talk to Charlotte and tell her to chuck the ferrets.”I sighed.“Hey, you’re the silver-tongued lawyer who’s nearly never lost a case in court. You’ll figure out a way to tell Charlotte to lose her illegal little housemates without offending her. Piece of cake.”“Right.” I stood and smiled in unqualified appreciation.Yet why did I have such a sour taste in my mouth when I considered the coming confrontation?Chapter FourFRAN KORWALD CAME through the door as I was heading out. Her pug Piglet, on a leash, trotted amiably at her side.“Hi, Kendra,” Fran said with a huge smile. Though at least in her late forties, Fran dressed in snug, short, and suggestive clothes like a fashionable twenty-year-old, and looked adorable in them. Even the curls in her cropped dark hair added to her incredible illusion of youth. Today she wore an off-the-shoulder green T-shirt over short short-shorts.She was a massage therapist and I’d made great use of her services. At a reduced rate.But she was the one who was grateful. To me. Though I wasn’t able to practice law, that didn’t mean my scheming litigator’s logic took a hiatus, too. A few months ago, I’d helped Fran resolve a custody matter with her ex-husband. Not over kids, but Piglet.“How are you, Fran?” Still inside the door, now closed, I stooped to pat Piglet, who wriggled happily beneath my hand.“Never better, but I have a friend who’s going to call you. Marie Seidforth. She’s not doing well at all.”“What’s wrong?”A couple of Darryl’s charges from the doggy play area across the room bounded up to assert their alpha-ness to Piglet, the newcomer. Piglet scooted closer to Fran, who picked him up, and the interlopers were soon swept away by one of the alert attendants. As I watched them head back to the fenced area full of dog toys, I noticed that Darryl was now behind his big reception desk on the phone. He waved goodbye, but I didn’t go.Fran kept talking. “My friend has a house in a development in Santa Clarita. You know, the kind where you pay dues to an association, and they’re supposed to keep the development nice for all the neighbors?”I nodded my understanding.She shook her head in perturbation till her curls bobbed. “Poor thing has been breeding boxers for years. No one minded, because she takes good care of them and keeps her yard clean, nothing for anyone to complain about.”“But someone’s complaining,” I surmised.“Right. A new next-door neighbor who’s made it clear she wants to run for president of the association next year. She’s made my poor friend and her dogs a campaign issue, since the association’s rules say only two dogs per house.”“And your friend has how many?”Fran shrugged a slender shoulder, lifting her snug T-shirt slightly. “Depends on when. She had a new litter of puppies a few weeks ago. Rather, her prizewinning mama boxer Vennie did. I told her what a miracle you’d worked to let me keep Piglet, so she wants to talk to you.”“I still don’t have my law license back,” I cautioned. “What you’re describing could be a legal matter, and I can’t offer that kind of advice.”“A custody battle’s a legal matter, too, and you helped me by common sense, not a lawsuit. I’m sure she’ll be in touch.” “OH, KENDRA, YOU’RE right on time,” gushed my tenant after I’d gotten home. A pretty lady, Charlotte LaVerne was a would-be starlet who’d gotten her start in one of those reality TV shows that took the country by storm. I’d never figured out whether she’d survived or selected a mate or eaten silkworms, but apparently she’d been successful at it—for she could afford my top-dollar rent.It was early evening, and I stood outside the carved oak front door of my big, beautiful rented-out house. While scooting from one pet I tended to the next that day, I’d taken the long way around often, to pass by here and see if my tenant had returned. Only when I’d headed home for the night did I find cars back in the driveway, lights on, my main house reoccupied.Facing me from inside the door, Charlotte was clad in a silky blue tunic over matching harem pants, all beneath a big, frilly white apron. Though her look suggested food, her smell was her usual costly signature scent. I had to look up, from my five-five, to meet her sparkling blue eyes.“On time for what?” I responded cautiously to her comment.“For our party. We’re celebrating that Yul and I are home from our trip to Palm Springs, and that the damage to the house wasn’t worse. I’m so glad you’ll be able to join us.”“But—” I found myself addressing her back, where her long black braid swung smoothly in the opposite direction of her swaying hips.I knew that Charlotte and Yul took every opportunity to toss bashes, celebrating everything from moving in to six weeks after the summer solstice. Return from a vacation? Sure. But exultation over the injury to my beloved home?Well, she had said they were rejoicing it wasn’t worse.And she was obviously too busy to focus on ferrets . . .Ferrets. Where were they now? What would she do with them while her home was filled with nosy neighbors and flighty friends?Would the cops come to celebrate—and to cart me off to jail for abetting a law-breaking tenant?Oh, wouldn’t my nemesis, Detective Ned Noralles, love that?Fueled by my ferret dilemma, I followed her inside. My kitchen wasn’t as spotless as when I’d passed through yesterday. Trays of food and bottles of wine were strewn on every surface. Charlotte, now by the big, useful island in the middle, wasn’t the only one wearing an apron. A few unfamiliar women wore identical black dresses, and they wore aprons with a catering company’s logo. The women picked up armloads of dressy tableware and waltzed from the kitchen.Yul remained, though. Charlotte’s golden-haired prize hunk didn’t wear anything to shield his black silk shirt, but he studiously sliced salad ingredients and stuck them into a big metal bowl. “Hi,” he mumbled as I walked by. The guy never talked much. I’d learned to take what mutter I could get.“Charlotte, I need to talk to you. Yul, too.”“Great,” she enthused. “We’ll talk and cook at the same time.”Damned if she didn’t put me to work stuffing mushrooms.A few minutes later, my fingers full of gooey cheese cactused with sticky herbs, I considered how to approach the subject. The hell with it. I flew right in. “When I came in here yesterday—an emergency, because of the accident—”“The Hummer,” Yul interjected.“Right,” I agreed. “Anyway, I happened to—”“Oh,you’rethe one who moved our little friends. Thank you so much, Kendra.” Charlotte closed the few feet between us and gave me a big, gushy hug, as my too-friendly tenant was wont to do. I tried not to get any cheese on her. “They’re still traumatized over the accident, but at least they’re in a different room, though the laundry isn’t the best environment for them. I keep them mostly confined when we’re out or entertaining, though they love to wander.”As soon as I could, I stepped back. It would be hard to threaten a tenant while being embraced enthusiastically by her. “Charlotte, your lease says no pets without my permission.”She gave me a huge, toothy smile. “May I have your permission, Ms. Landlady?”She apparently hadn’t a clue. Or didn’t want me to know how many clues she did have. “No, I’m sorry, you can’t. Keeping ferrets as pets is illegal in California.”She frowned. “Well, sure, but everyone has them.”“Not everyone,” I contradicted, then rephrased in case she hadn’t understood. “It’s against the law to keep them.”“But all the pet stores sell ferret food. No one pays attention to that silly old law.”“They’re mine,” said a deeper voice over my shoulder before I could protest again.I turned to face Yul and had to look up to find that gorgeous, if vacant, face. “Then you’re the one who’ll have to get rid of them,” I said.“Oh, Kendra,” Charlotte protested, taking her place at Yul’s side and holding his hand. They made a gorgeous couple. And this particular gorgeous couple was ganging up on me. “No one will ever know.”I sighed. “Iknow. And I’m a lawyer.”“Not now,” Yul said, drawing his big, bold brows together into a scowl.“Yes, now,” I contradicted, struggling not to shout at him. “I’m working hard to get my license unsuspended. And that’s all the more reason I can’t allow something illegal in my house.”“Our house,” Yul protested. “We rent it.”I swallowed my sigh. I wasn’t about to get into a lecture on real property law with this good-looking nitwit.Or was he? Something deep in his brooding dark eyes suggested a twinkle. Was he toying with me?The doorbell rang.“The rest of the guests are coming,” Charlotte said. “We’ll talk more later, Kendra, I promise. And if we have to give up our little friends, we will. As soon as we find them good homes. Now, come help me answer the door. Wait till you see who I’ve invited.” I DIDN’T WAIT, but I did decide, just this once, to partake of Charlotte’s hospitality. Why? Who knew? I slid out the door as some strangers came in, went up to my apartment, and changed from pet-sitting grunge to party casual.After soothing Lexie’s hurt feelings, I headed back down toward the house.A guy in a navy sport coat came up the walk at the same time I did. “Hi,” he said, holding out a hand. “I’m Chad.”He was tall and broad-shouldered and had a chiseled, Roman-nosed face that could have held its own in a handsome contest against any of Hollywood’s latest male celebrities and won, hands-down and thumbs up.I gladly shook his hand—and of course his grip was firm and sexy—and accompanied him to the front door, which stood wide open. He stood back to let me enter first. Very gallant.“Are you from around here?” he asked. All that, and friendly, too.“Yes,” I said, but chose not to exert any explanations of my landlady status. “And you?”“Kind of,” he said. “Now at least.”He halted for a second inside the door, then threw his shoulders back. I had the impression he was bracing himself for something. Was the guy a closet wallflower who panicked at parties? What a shame that would be, but . . .“Have a good time,” he said, then hurried down the hall with a purposeful stride.“You, too,” I called. I watched his hunky body disappear around a corner and sighed, as if suddenly deprived of a treat I’d promised myself.I shrugged away Jeff Hubbard’s sudden glare in my imagination.As if you’ve stopped appreciating gorgeous women just because we’re sleeping together,my mind shot at him, and his visage vanished.Chad wasn’t my type. Assuming I had a type.But even so I hoped for a chance to talk to him some more.Chapter FiveIF I’D BEEN a reality-show junkie, I’d likely have recognized a preponderance of the other people at Charlotte’s party that night. As it was, I felt glad that a few familiar neighbors were also guests. At least not everyone was a stranger. But Charlotte hadn’t asked them here for my sake.The cynical little demon on my shoulder, my personal Mr. Hyde who reached in to control my mind a lot lately, told me Charlotte was just being smart. I mean, what neighbor who was a blissful participant at the party would complain about too many cars usurping precious parking spots on the narrow street, or the ear-splitting music rending the night air?Only, if I’d known better, I wouldn’t have let myself wind up in the same room as Tilla Thomason, let alone sit beside her.My older neighbor from down the hill wore a silky floral muumuu that did little to hide her girth, which hung over both sides of her folding wooden chair beside mine. Neither of us had gotten to the living room in time to occupy the ghastly overstuffed white-and-black sofa or matching chairs that Charlotte had stuck there in what I considered a travesty of decorating. But hey, she could turn every room in the house horrendous if she chose.It might be tasteless, but at least it was legal.Most of the others chattering with exuberant animation over the amplified music were beautiful people, young—or youthful by age-defying artifice. Chad would have fit well among them, but I didn’t see him. All were arrayed in designer outfits—a bit much for a party celebrating a hole in the side of a house, but who was I to judge?My den, the room harboring that hole, had been sealed off with yellow tape that resembled the kind cops used at a crime scene. I knew that from experience. But this tape instead said simply, NO ENTRY. It was the big sign on the door, though, that would keep everyone out. UGLY ACCIDENT SCENE, it proclaimed. ANYONE WHO ENTERS HERE WILL BE INSTANTLY STRUCK UGLY.
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With this chic crowd, that was a definite deterrent.Were the ferrets again in that room? If so, since Charlotte was entertaining, they were hopefully confined. But had they been struck ugly? Though I’d dickered with Darryl about them, they’d struck me as fairly cute, even if their presence was anathema in this state.On Tilla’s other side, Lyle Urquard sat speaking with someone else, his back toward us. I hardly recognized my athletic neighbor without his bicycle and helmet. Or his usual Spandex, for tonight he wore an ordinary white shirt and gray slacks that bulged in front where his belly lay beneath. His sandy brown hair didn’t look the least bit sweaty, either.Ike Janus wasn’t there or I’d have told my take-charge bakery-owner neighbor that I hadn’t heard from his insurance adjuster that day.As I sipped Chablis, I held the plastic glass with my left hand. Tilla had control of my right arm, screeching softly into my ear with pleasure each time someone connected with Charlotte’s show sashayed in.“Oh, heavens, that’s Philipe Pellera,” Tilla shrilled as a tall, slender guy with dark hair and darker features shimmied into the room, his shiny black trousers tighter than his neon red shirt. I recognized him myself from my occasional forays into music video TV stations. His singing voice was sensational, his gyrations the stuff of sensual legends. He was the latest Latin singing sensation, and with the way he humped his hips, his music videos should have been rated NC-17. Those bumps and grinds were dangerous.I also remembered having seen a box of client files with Pellera’s name on them in Jeff Hubbard’s house, at a time I felt ethically encumbered from sneaking a peek. Now, seeing that sex symbol in piquant person, my curiosity was piqued even more—why had he needed an expert P.I.’s services?Pellera took a seat on the couch, surrounded by sycophants who made room for him.Before I’d recovered from my vision of Latin sensuality, Tilla gushed again. “That’s Sven Broman.” She pointed to a tall blond Viking in a tan sportcoat. “He was the next-to-last guy, the one Charlotte dumped for Chad Chatsworth. Chad was the winner, if you could call him that, since at the end of the final show, Charlotte took the money and gave Chad the boot.”Oh, really? Was that the Chad I’d met?Earlier, most others who lived on our street had rolled their eyes as Tilla gossiped away, except for Lyle, and even he stayed occupied elsewhere. I’d gathered from some of their comments that they’d attended previous parties of Charlotte’s where Tilla had identified reality show celebrities to the oblivious and uncaring, ad nauseum. None wanted to hear it anymore, even Tilla’s husband, Hal.EspeciallyTilla’s husband, Hal, who stood in a corner speaking with Phil Ashler.Having assiduously avoided Charlotte’s soirees before, I was a new body for Tilla to bombard with info I found less than fascinating. I’d been considering a courteous way to slip out of her grasp. Till now. Tilla had just hit on some stuff that snagged my interest. “How much money did she get?” I asked.“A million,” she replied, eyes huge in her drink-pinkened pudgy face. “And that’s not all. Part of the prize was that she’d help with the producer’s next reality show. Brainstorm it, pick candidates, even get paid for it. I mean, what woman could resist that?”“Right,” I agreed. Okay, she’d succeeded in snaring my attention. For one thing, I now knew which kind of reality show Charlotte had been on.Tilla pushed her big moist lips closer to my ear. I stiffened as she said, “That Yul is one gorgeous guy, isn’t he? I mean, Charlotte didn’t do bad, dumping Chad and winding up with all this and Yul, too.” She gestured with her empty glass around the glitz- and glamour-filled room.“Maybe she’s also got Chad,” I said.“No way!” Tilla sounded scandalized. “To prevent someone in Charlotte’s position from getting it all—the guyandthe money—it’s a condition of her keeping the prize that she never see Chad again.”“Interesting,” I said. “Then why . . . ? Never mind.” I stifled a yawn. Chad’s visit wasn’t my business, and Tilla’s dose of reality programming was now enough to last me a lifetime. “You know, I’m a little tired. I think I’ll head to my place.”“Well . . . Okay.” Tilla stood when I did, blinking as she scanned the room for my replacement. The obvious one would be Lyle, but he was slipping out the door, followed by Hal and Phil.I guessed where they all headed: the kitchen, which served as the makeshift bar. I joined them, hoping to find my host and hostess to make my farewells. They weren’t there.That gave me a good excuse to meander about my house, hunting for them. And if I happened to spot something not being taken care of well, well . . . I already had to put them on notice to get rid of the ferrets. Adding more to it would be no trouble.And maybe I’d see that Chad again, too. I was curious why he was there.I went upstairs to case the bedrooms. Everything looked fine—except that the tasteless decorating had expanded to the second floor.I headed back downstairs and along the hall between the living room and kitchen.As I reached the door decorated with police-type tape and dire warnings, I heard voices. Startled, I stood still. So did the few other guests who traversed the hall with me.“Someone’s getting ugly,” commented a pretty starlet-sort who kept going.“Not me,” said the blond Viking whom Tilla had ID’d as the reality also-ran Sven Broman. He followed the star.My neighbors, just returning from the kitchen, glanced toward the closed door. Before any of us said anything snappy, the door banged open. Charlotte burst through it backward, but she continued staring into the room.“Get out, Chad,” she screamed. “I don’t know what you think you’re doing by coming here, but I want you gone.”Uh-oh.“Get your lapdog away from me,” shouted a male voice from inside the den. Lapdog? At least he wasn’t howling about ferrets.“I’ll get away when you’re out of here!” I recognized that voice, too, though the bellow and the high number of words in one sentence were unusual. Yul.The Chad I’d strode in with erupted from the room. He plowed through the interested crowd in the crowded hall—me among them—with no sign of recognition on his furious face. “This isn’t over, Charlotte. Like it or not, you’ll see me again.” He shouldered his way into the kitchen, and I heard the outside door slam.Charlotte’s usually perky face was pasty, and her white-toothed grin was as false as her measurements probably were. “We have something else to celebrate now, everyone,” she said a lot too brightly. “Chad’s gone.”I didn’t know until a few days later how prophetic those words would be. I WAS EXHAUSTED that night, so sleepy that I dropped off fast despite the din still pealing from next door.The following morning, though, I woke up early and took Lexie for her walk. Though a couple years old, she was full of puppy energy, and I figured she was primed for more attention than a few fast minutes. I took her along on my rounds. It was Saturday, after all. A lighter day than the norm, since some of my professional pet care involved dog walking on days my human clients were at work. Unfortunately, Jeff was on a stakeout for one ofhishuman clients that weekend, so we weren’t getting together.Same thing on Sunday—Lexie assisting me, Jeff unavailable, me studying for the ethics exam in my spare time. I also researched ferrets on the Internet. Interesting creatures. A lot of websites suggested people adored them as pets. Their problem, though, was that if they escaped into the wild, they allegedly enjoyed endangered bird species as lunch. Hence, their illegality in California. Why not other states? Good question.The following day was Monday. Lexie and I had had such an enjoyable weekend, I asked her after our own early walk, “Do you want to come with me again today?”Her black-and-white long-haired tail wagged eloquently as she stood on her hind legs and leaned her furry white paws on my shins. I knew that if she could speak English, her response would be a resounding, “Yes!” So, obeying as if she were the alpha of our pack, I hustled her downstairs and into my Beamer as I prepared to head off.My Beamer was a leftover from my days as a successful litigator. I’d treated myself to it from the bonus I’d received after winning my first case for Marden, Sergement and Yurick, the law firm where I’d worked. The case that my mentor and then-lover Bill Sergement, whom I not-so-fondly referred to as “Drill Sergeant,” had all but turned his back on as a big loser. Though we hadn’t been lovers for a long time before I left the firm, Bill had turned his back onmewhen I’d been accused of handing a confidential memo to the other side in a more recent important case.As I mentioned before, my usual penchant was to choose lovers of the loser persuasion.In any event, despite some later unanticipated repercussions, the good part of that case almost ten years ago had been my winning my first courtroom combat, followed by the acquisition of the car that had stayed by my side despite my recent bankruptcy. And after its theft and wreck a few months ago, I’d had it restored to near-perfection.Now, Lexie and I made my pet-sitting rounds of the day. I even dropped her with Darryl when I got to his neighborhood, so she could spend a few hours fraternizing with friends of the canine kind.And then we headed back to our own digs.As soon as we exited the Beamer, Lexie started acting excited. Though leashed, she leapt around similarly to the way she had a couple of days ago when the Hummer had hit the house, barking and tugging and behaving in general as if something significant was on her mind.And a Cavalier with something on her mind was a dog to be heeded.“What is it, Lexie?” I asked, half expecting to hear another rumbling engine of a runaway vehicle on our street.But other than distant traffic, the drone of an aircraft overhead, and a few birds, I heard nothing.Lexie tugged me toward the back door of the big house.“Just a sec,” I said. I pulled her toward the garage, and peeked in a window. Neither Charlotte’s nor Yul’s car was there.I headed for the front door, Lexie leading me, and rang the bell. Waited for a while, but no one answered.Lexie’s nose, in the air, kept sniffing noisily till she stood up on hind legs and scratched at the door.“Lexie, off!” I commanded, not wanting her little doggy nails to chink gouges into my cherished oak front door.They didn’t have time to, for that same door swung open with no one behind it. I hadn’t noticed that it was ajar.“That’s weird,” I told my canine, who had tautened her leash as she lunged inside.Lexie barked, straining on her nylon leash so strongly that I decided to let her lead while I followed. She headed through the entry, past the living room, and down the hall toward the closed-off den. The KEEP OUT tape now dangled down from one side. The door was shut, and Lexie lit into this one, too, with her burrowing paws. It didn’t open for her.It did for me, once I turned the knob.And stopped with a gasp.The ferrets were loose from their cage, and the long little varmints scrambled to stay out of the growling Lexie’s way.The stench was sickening. And in the middle of the room, Friday night’s uninvited guest, the hunky, genial, and temperamental Chad Chatsworth, lay on his stomach, head turned toward the side. His clothes were in shreds, and so was he. Blood was spattered everywhere. Was he dead?“Chad?” I whispered, crouching on the floor to find out.I didn’t sense a shred of a pulse.But I did see a lot of what looked like small dog food chunks scattered all over Chad and the floor—and a bunch of blood puddled around Chad’s throat.It was 911 time. Déjà vu all over again, for Chad’s wasn’t the first body I’d stumbled upon in the last several months. But I was certain that the culprit in those cases was incarcerated.And it appeared, since Charlotte and Yul weren’t home, that the culprits in this case might have escaped from their wire prison before committing this direst of crimes.Had Chad been their lunch?Chapter SixI CALLED 911 and Jeff, in that order. I had a feeling I might need my own private private investigator. Unfortunately, I got Jeff ’s voice mail, so I left a veiled message. I didn’t exactly want to blurt out over one unsecure cell phone to another that I’d just discovered a dead body—in my own house this time.After blocking the barking Lexie in the kitchen, I tried, briefly, to coax the ferrets back into their cage—carefully keeping far from their teeth, as poor Chad apparently hadn’t.It was like trying to talk water into meandering up a mountainside. “Not bloody likely,” the small, furry fellows screeched at me from beneath den furniture that was already partly mangled from the Hummer incident. Or at least I assumed that was what they were saying. It didn’t help me to stay calm and convincing to see them speckled with Chad’s blood.Nor to have Chad’s obviously deceased cadaver lying on the floor not far from me. And by doing anything at all about the ferrets, I was contaminating a crime scene, so I quickly decided to leave them alone.I supposed that if I’d spoken ferret, or they understood English, I’d have explained the legal system to them. No matter how bad things looked, they were entitled to a good defense.Weren’t they?I was reminded of a short story I’d read in my youth, “Sredni Vashtar,” by Saki, the pseudonym of H. H. Munro. In it, a young boy had hated his guardian and supposedly sicced his surreptitious pet ferret on her, killing her.I felt just terrible for Chad. No matter what the beef among Charlotte, Yul, and him, he’d seemed nice to me—not to mention alive.
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I soon heard a rapping from the direction of the open front door. “Police,” someone shouted. I headed that direction to greet them. It was a couple of patrol officers—a male and female this time—who’d followed the usual protocol of answering a call about a potential crime. When I showed them the body, they agreed a crime had been committed and called for backup.Why wasn’t I surprised, a while later, to see that the head of the detective detail at my front door was my old nemesis Detective Ned Noralles?Maybe it was because he was a top-rung homicide detective, and this was definitely the kind of case that rang his chimes.The hell of it was, despite my complete exoneration last time, Noralles didn’t look surprised to see me, either. “Hello, Ms. Ballantyne. I received a call about a possible homicide here. Would you know anything about that?”“I’d know about the homicide, Detective,” I told him. “But not how the victim got that way.”“Of course,” he said in a voice as smooth as his brown tweed suit. Detective Noralles was one good-looking African-American. He was also one good, determined homicide detective who clearly refused to let any case grow cold. He’d certainly kept the heat on me before, when he’d tried hard to prove I’d killed two of my favorite pet-sitting clients. He’d seemed a good sport afterward, when I’d not only proven my innocence but handed him a real, live, guilty suspect.Maybe I would this time, too. Or rather, I’d let him go scrounge on the floor for the ferrets.As I showed him and the two other detectives with him down the hall to the area already under scrutiny by the patrol cops, he said, “Care to tell me what you’re doing in this house? Does it belong to another of your endangered pet-sitting customers?”“No,” I retorted. “It belongs to me.”That shut him up long enough for me to lead him to the discombobulated den.“Hey, Detective,” said the female cop from the patrol pair who’d first taken charge of the site. “Looks like the victim might have been chewed to death.”“Chewed? By what?”“These little critters.” Apparently the cops were cagier than I’d been, for they’d managed to round up the ferrets and deposit them back in their cage. I wasn’t permitted to put a toe into the room, so I peered in from outside the door.“What are they?” Noralles asked me.“Ferrets,” I responded with a sigh. His dark brown eyes glittered much too cheerfully, so I beat him to the punch-line. “Yes, I know they’re illegal to keep as pets in California. They’re not mine. They’re my tenants’, and I’ve already put them on verbal notice to get rid of them.”I’d hoped they’d have time to do it in an orderly manner, find the ferrets a good out-of-state home. I had nothing personal against ferrets, and I’d take a lot of animals over people as friends any day.But now . . .“You’re the pet expert,” Noralles said. “Care to tell me whether ferrets are outlawed because they’re considered dangerous?”“To endangered species,” I said.“Not people?”“I don’t think so.” No website had suggested “Sredni Vashtar” was a true story, and I didn’t mention it.Noralles glanced back into the room, where police took photos and placed little numbers down to show the spots where they’d removed and bagged potential evidence. “Looks liketheseweasels may have been dangerous, although . . . Is the victim one of your tenants?”“No.” I decided to revert to what I’d learned as a litigator: When you answer a question, never volunteer information. It only leads to more questions.“Do you know the victim?” His tone was a touch more severe, as if he’d figured what I was up to.“Not really.”“Then do you know who he is?” exploded Noralles, with no attempt now to keep his cool.“Yes.”“Ms. Ballantyne,” he said through gritted teeth, “since this is your house, do you know of somewhere in it where we can go to talk? No, let me rephrase that.” He obviously knew that my answer would have been a single-syllable affirmative. “Let’s go somewhere where we can discuss this situation.”“All right,” I agreed with resignation.I led him into the kitchen, where Lexie greeted me with enthusiasm, though she eyed Noralles suspiciously. Did she remember him from our last ugly encounters? Who knew what went through her sharp canine mind?I started to sit on one of Charlotte’s kitchen chairs till Noralles nixed it. “This room needs to be examined for evidence,” he said, “in case you killed him here.”I glared, and he had the gall to grin.“Let’s go outside,” he said, all serious again.In my backyard, enough landscaping hugged the wrought iron surrounding my estate to provide privacy.Over the fence around the swimming pool hovered the top floor of the garage—my apartment and home. Since the Hummer had hit the house wall nearest the street, its effects weren’t in evidence here.Turning, I’d the ill fortune to find Noralles still behind me. Without asking his okay, I strolled to the fence near the pool and leaned on it.I commanded Lexie to lie at my feet, which she did for five seconds before popping up again. I lifted her into my arms, which was good for a few moments of canine calm.Noralles stood beside me. “Now, we can do this in a game of twenty-plus questions, or you can just tell me what you know. Which will it be?”I preferred the former, but it would take extra time and piss him off even more. Besides, even with a suspended law license, I was an officer of the court. That meant I had to cooperate with the law, like it or not.I therefore latched on to Noralles’s latter suggestion and told him, “I believe the victim is a man named Chad Chatsworth.”“But you don’t know him, even though he’s now dead in your house?”“Not really, though I met him here on Friday night.” I told Noralles that I still I rented out the large house on my property owing to economic necessity. I described the Hummer accident, and how I’d found the ferrets. Then I told him about the party. “Chad and I happened to walk in at the same time. Later, one of the neighbors who watched the show my tenant Charlotte starred in said that Chad Chatsworth was the guy she dumped in favor of money and future TV projects.”“And Chatsworth was a guest at the party?”“I think he crashed it. The neighbor also told me that one of the rules that allows Charlotte to keep her prize is that she can’t have contact with her dumpee.”“You came in with him?”“Kind of. I saw him first on the front walk. He introduced himself as Chad. No one greeted us at the door, so he just walked in. Me, too. I lost track of him and later heard Charlotte and her boyfriend, Yul, ask him to leave.”Okay, so I spoke euphemistically. But I’d been the subject of a couple of Noralles’s murder investigations. I wasn’t about to sic him on my tenants just because they’d had a falling-out with the victim.Of course, that victim was found dead in the house they rented, after he’d been told never to darken its doorstep again.But Charlotte a killer? Yul?Ferrets?What if Charlotte actually had been having a relationship with the guy who’d won her heart on that reality show—and tried to keep it from the world so she could keep her financial winnings, too? Did he threaten to out their relationship and jeopardize her juicy prize?Did Yul find out about said relationship and get peeved enough to pull a Sredni Vashtar on Chad?Or did the freed ferrets do it on their own?If so, who’d freed them? Chad? And then he’d lain down on the floor so they could chew him to death? I didn’t think so.Could it have been an accident—Chad tripping, falling in a way that scattered both ferrets and their food while hitting his head and falling unconscious?Then the ferrets, while scarfing up their spilled food, scarfed up some of Chad’s flesh, too?Seemed pretty far-fetched.Before Noralles could bombard me with more questions than I’d asked myself, a woman wearing latex gloves slipped out through the kitchen door. Lexie squirmed in my arms, but I held her there. “I’d like to go over a few things with you where we found the victim, Detective. It looks as if he was attacked by those ferrets—all over, but most severely at his neck. His carotid artery was severed, and he died from loss of blood.”“Have you called L.A. Animal Services?”“Yes, and a couple of their officers are here now.”I followed Noralles back inside the house, Lexie still wriggling under my arm. I watched as a guy and a girl in blue shirts and light pants who’d collected the ferret cage maneuvered out the den door as Noralles stood back to let them pass.“What’s going to happen to them?” I asked, holding the fascinated Lexie all the tighter.“We’ll hold them pending the outcome of the investigation into this incident,” the woman said, stopping just outside the door and effectively blocking Noralles from entering the den. Though she was slighter than her male counterpart, she seemed to be having an easier time holding up her end of the cage.“If it turns out that the ferrets were guilty only of chewing a corpse and not committing the murder, what will happen to them?”“We’ll call a ferret rescue group to come get them,” the guy said, panting a little. His shirt showed a damp stain at the armpits.I hated to ask, since I figured the answer was obvious, but said, “And what happens if the conclusion is that they killed the victim?” I didn’t meet Noralles’s eyes, though I knew they were watching me.“Then they’ll be humanely euthanized,” the lady said, and the two continued toting the cage from the house.Humanely euthanized. Sounded like an oxymoron to me. Ferret capital punishment.“But why would he have let them chew his neck like that?” The words burst out before I could contain them.“I’m wondering that, too, Ms. Ballantyne,” Noralles said, entering into the conversation, then exiting as he eased past the animal control people and disappeared through the door.I heaved a sigh as I watched out the front door while the animal control truck took off. A coroner’s truck still sat behind the vacated space and in front of my wrought-iron fence.The killings before had involved me because my pet-sitting clients had been the victims.This killing involved me, too, since it took place on property I owned and loved. Plus, I’d met Chad . . . sort of.My tenants might be involved, although I hated to imagine that. But one way or another, their ferrets were at best witnesses, at worst small murderers.The investigator on the scene had implied that Chad was chewed to death. But I had too many questions just to bite into that as the answer. It sounded as if Noralles did, too.One thing I knew for sure. After all I’d already gone through, I wasn’t about to let anyone get framed for something she didn’t do.Not even those weaselly little ferrets.Chapter SevenIF A LITTLE thing like a Hummer hitting a house brought out the neighbors in force, imagine what an assemblage of law enforcement vehicles, including a coroner’s van, did.As Noralles finally left Lexie and me standing alone outside, the same group who’d gawked at the damage to my home descended. My pup and I headed outside the fence toward the street, to prevent them from sticking their noses closer to the crime scene.Phil Ashler, the retired guy from across the street, appeared as if the excitement had interrupted his dinner, for he clutched half a submarine sandwich in one hand and a water bottle in the other. Thin enough to fit nearly anywhere, he insinuated himself at the forefront of the crowd. Lexie sniffed the air, obviously enthralled by the scent of his snack, but I held her tight at my side to prevent her angling for handouts.“What happened, Kendra?” demanded Tilla Thomason, usurping my other side. I winced, recalling her gossipy tirade at Charlotte’s last party. Though Tilla’s face was a plump frown of concern, a potential new scandal brought a gleam to her watery brown eyes.Not about to ignite a conflagration that would undoubtedly consume the neighborhood anyway, I simply said, “There’s been an accident. Someone got hurt inside the house.”“I’ll say,” said Tilla’s husband, Hal. Daylight revealed even more that though he was not as overweight as his wife, his girth straining his white knit shirt suggested he was a proud participant in the culinary largesse that added to her mass. Hal stared at the gurney being wheeled out of the house. On it was a closed body bag, and every eye in the area joined his in watching as it was loaded into the coroner’s vehicle.When I turned back, I saw Hal eyeing Tilla expectantly. Dutifully, she began barraging me with questions. “Accident? Are you sure? It looks as if someone died. Who was it? How did it happen?”“Sorry,” I said. “As you can see, this is a police investigation. I can’t talk about it.”She screwed her features up to prepare a protest, but I was saved from it by the screech of bicycle brakes as Lyle Urquard stopped abruptly, sliding to a stop at the curb so fast that his cycle slipped. So did he. I grimaced in empathetic pain as the already bloody sides of his legs slid along the pavement. Again. This time not even his helmet had helped, for his cheeks were scraped, too.All we needed was Ike Janus and his Hummer to make our little horde complete. Or maybe that wasn’t irony oozing from my thoughts, for the guy had seemed the take-charge sort. Maybe he could have taken charge of this horrible situation, dispersed the crowd, and gotten the cops to hurry.Sure. Like he’d gotten his incommunicado insurance adjuster to hurry. He’d sworn he was on top of it when I’d called to remind him, but still no one had contacted me.Right then, I needed air. I needed privacy. I needed for the whole horrible situation not to have happened.
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Just like Chad would have said, had he been able.“But, Kendra,” Tilla protested, “you’ve got to warn us. This is our neighborhood, too. If someone’s been attacked by a burglar or something, we all need to know so we can stay alert.”“That’s right,” Phil Ashler seconded, his mouth full of sub sandwich.I doubted they needed to fear ferrets sneaking in during the night to feast on them. But I still hesitated to cast verbal stones at the furry little creatures.“I don’t know what happened,” I dissembled, though it was far from being a big, fat lie. “I’m sure the police will tell us what they can.” Nowthatwas a large, obese prevarication.“We need to call a Neighborhood Watch meeting,” Lyle suggested, still blotting his bleeding leg with a tissue.“As soon as we know what to discuss,” Hal Thomason agreed.They all stared at me once more.This time, what saved me wasn’t an awkward bicyclist but an even more awkward situation, for a small sports car came up to the driveway and the gate began to slide open.Charlotte and Yul were home.Yul was driving, and I stood nearer the passenger side as the car started through. The window rolled down, and Charlotte shouted out, “What’s going on, Kendra?”I wasn’t about to reply in front of this entire assemblage that someone she’d argued with had died in her den.I didn’t need to, for even as I inched forward after the car, the front door opened and Detective Ned Noralles leached out. Even from this far away, I could make out the crocodile-snide smile on his face.“Oh, Charlotte,” I whispered after them. “Yul, too. I don’t envy you your next few minutes.” Or days. Or even weeks.Even though I’d not become best buddies with my huggy, gushy, rich reality show graduate tenant or her strong, silent, and possibly smarter-than-he-acted boy toy, my sympathy definitely swayed me, for now, into their corner.But if it eventually turned out that either or both had actually conspired to kill someone in my beloved house, heaven help them! NOT THAT I was surprised, but less than five minutes later the media descended. Actually, I wondered what had kept them.The vans that appeared looked prepared to lift off and hover if their dish antennae on top started rotoring like helo blades. They jostled for the few remaining prime parking places on the constricted, twisting lane. Before they could negotiate the street or settle their pecking order, swarms of reporters leapt out and thrust microphones in front of whoever didn’t thrust them back. Camera jockeys followed, gesturing cues to their on-screen personalities.My cue to leave.“Let’s go, Lexie.” I gave my trained pup a small jerk on her leash to let her know to stand and heel.That apparently was a cue for one of the untrained reporters to swoop and shove a mike at my mouth.“You’re Kendra Ballantyne, aren’t you?” The short-skirted TV newsmonger flashed me a nasty grin of the Cheshire cat variety.“Never heard of her.” I turned my back.“What happened, Ms. Ballantyne?” came the shout from behind me. “Was someone killed in your home? Who was it?”Too bad it wasn’t one of you,I thought, immediately retracting the ungenerous thought. Dead was dead, and I’d seen enough death lately to last for several litigators’ lifetimes. I didn’t wish permanent termination on anyone, even my worst enemies—which included reporters.A little well-directed damage, though, like someone else snatching up their news scoops . . . that was a taste of just deserts that I’d eat up, given the opportunity.I hustled Lexie and me back inside through the gate, ignoring the hapless uniformed officer assigned there to hold back the hovering hordes.“Hey,” he called, hurrying after me.“Sorry,” I said to him softly. “I live right there.” I gave a fast gesture with my head toward my upstairs apartment. “Feel free to check with Detective Noralles.”“I’ll do that.” Harried dismay turned the young man’s forehead into one big frown as the reporters took his momentary distraction for invitation and started spilling through the gate.Ignoring me, he gestured for backup and began shooing them all back again, his hand hovering over another item on his belt—his holstered weapon—that attracted everyone’s attention a lot more pointedly than his radio. The group began to recede.For that moment. But cops would be combing my property for clues for the rest of the night. And wherever law enforcement engaged in a homicide investigation, the media wasn’t about to slink away.I had a phone call to make. Only, my wall phone rang even before I’d let Lexie off her leash.Did I dare answer? My only caller ID was on my cell phone. One of the diehard reporters could have somehow latched on to my unlisted number, and simply saying hello could lead to beating off a whole new barrage of questions.But I was once a litigator. Would be again, soon. My mouth was my most skilled instrument, and I readied it to spew curses and threats if the caller was someone I didn’t want to hear from. I snatched up the receiver and growled, “Yeah?”“Kendra?”My braced body nearly buckled. “Jeff, I’m so glad it’s you.”“I’ll bet. What’s happened? The news is full of pictures of your house and speculations you’re involved in another murder.”“Tell me about it. No, on second thought, don’t. I’ll tellyou.At your house, in about half an hour. Do Odin and you feel like a couple of overnight guests tonight?”I could hardly have felt more relieved when he assured me they did.Chapter EightOTHER THAN WHEN Jeff had initially hired me to pet-sit for Odin—he’d been my first customer when I’d begun to wonder whether Lexie and I would wind up begging on street corners—I can’t recall a time I’d been so happy to slip my Beamer into the driveway at Jeff ’s home.The pseudo Mexican ranch-style house was located in the flats north of Ventura Boulevard in Sherman Oaks. It had become my home-away-from-home, even when—especially when—Jeff was out of town, since I was Odin’s surrogate human and usually moved in to look after the Akita along with my Cavalier.Of course there were many times since initiating our business relationship when I’d been more than a little happy to see Jeff himself. Even aside from the sex, he’d become pretty important to me.And counting our definitely delightful sexual exercises, he was evenmoreimportant to me. But who was keeping count?Odin greeted Lexie at the door with a woof and a house-thorough romp. Jeff greeted me at the door with a glass of wine and a kiss that tossed into oblivion the day’s most terrible trials and tribulations. Temporarily.“Do you want to talk first or eat first?” he asked. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled up unevenly, exposing unmatched lengths of hair-sprinkled arm. Sexy.Then there were his faded jeans, snug in all the sexiest places. Okay, so it wasn’t just refuge and a repast on my mind. Not after that kiss.“Let’s talk while we eat,” I replied, tearing my stare from his big and beautiful bod.For an instant, I thought of Chad and how good-looking he’d been. What a waste—even if he hadn’t been the great guy my initial impression suggested.Jeff had brought in Peruvian takeout, somelomo saltadosautéed beef for him, andpescado sudado,steamed fillet of fish, for me. Good stuff, and filling, with aromas obviously enticing to our respective imploring canines.But unlike Lexie and Odin—whom we made settle for simple dog food despite their exceptional begging efforts—I hadn’t a huge appetite as I told Jeff about Lexie’s earlier excited behavior, leading to the discovery of Chad’s unenviable end.“Ferrets?” he said after swallowing a chunk of bread. “Chewed on a corpse?”“Or converted a living person into a dead one,” I replied.“Is that in their nature?”“Doubtful, but . . . have you ever read ‘Sredni Vashtar’?”Unsurprisingly, he hadn’t, so I described the century-old story that had been circulating through my synapses since I’d discovered Chad Chatsworth with the ferrets in my den.“And the ferrets killed the kid’s guardian?” Jeff said as I finished, his dusty blond brows dipped dubiously.“That’s the implication.”“We’ll see.”I wondered for a minute if he intended to find a few ferrets and test their fondness for human flesh—not an easy task in a state that turned ferrets into fugitives.Instead, he headed for the Internet, used some of the most-sought-after search engines, and spent an hour checking out ferrets on some websites I’d visited before and many I hadn’t.We learned that ferrets are in a classification of mammals known as mustelids, along with weasels, wolverines, badgers, polecats, and similar sorts.Like their cousin skunks, they have simply awful smells unless their scent glands are removed, which is often done when they are pets.Fortunately, the ferrets Charlotte and Yul had brought into my house had apparently been deskunked, since I hadn’t smelled anything putrid the first times I’d seen them. And the last time, what I’d smelled had most likely been human corpse.Speaking of which, we found nothing at all that suggested that ferrets are lethal to anything but small animals such as rabbits and birds, including some endangered species of the latter—which I’d already learned was what rendered ferrets unwelcome in California. But the long, furry, mostly masked-looking little buggers are definitely adorable.And are not reputed to be homicidal.Eventually, we got our fill of finding out about ferrets. Especially when, sitting beside him, I rested my chin on Jeff ’s shoulder. He turned, I turned, our lips locked and . . .Well, you can guess what we did for the remainder of the evening. THE NEXT DAY, Tuesday, I got up later than I should have—I was distracted from getting dressed upon awakening in Jeff ’s bed—and kissed him goodbye. Lexie and I practically flew out the door toward my pet-sitting rounds.I’d be more prompt next week, I promised myself, when I’d wake up only with Odin and Lexie around. Jeff would be gone on business.The early routine went well, despite a couple of disgruntled housebroken hounds all but attacking to get outside to do what they’d been waiting for.Late morning snuck up on me all too soon. I’d picked up a new client a couple of weeks before—a cute terrier mix named Widget. Widget’s temperament was of the manic kind, which was why I’d been hired to step in a few afternoons a week to give him a midday walk. Better yet, a run, to burn off his excess energy. Heck, the ten-month-old pup wasallexcess energy. And unfortunately, the wordtraininghad eluded his owner’s vocabulary, so Widget bounced all over the place even on a leash.That meant leaving Lexie at home or dropping her at Darryl’s while I dug in for a little Widget discipline. That day, she was already along for the ride. Since I didn’t want to take more time fending off any dawdling reporters with manners worse than Widget’s, I eschewed my apartment and left Lexie at Darryl’s doggy resort. He was out when we got there, probably a good thing since I still needed to hurry.I’d cry on his shoulder later about finding Chad Chatsworth among the unwelcome ferrets.Widget’s owner lived in a small stucco home in the northern Valley. That house, and all its identical neighbors, abutted a flat, broad boulevard with a nice-sized sidewalk. That day, I felt especially energized when the whiskered black fireball that was Widget finally sat, for the first time, on my command. Not that he stayed more than a millimoment. But Widget’s temporary obedience hyped my pet-minder’s self-confidence nonetheless.Too bad it didn’t carry over to my lack of confidence about the pending ethics exam. I’d passed it before, years ago, as part of the California Bar Exam. That was right after I’d graduated from law school and was still used to studying—and nothing in my life interfered with my immersing myself in the study guides.Certainly nothing like a murder in my own off-limits house.“Okay, Widget,” I finally said to the terrier, who was tugging so hard on his taut nylon lead that he was choking himself on the training collar.I scooped the wriggling thirty-pound pup into my arms. My annoyance with his wayward disregard for my training evanesced when he looked at me with his huge brown eyes and licked my chin.“You’re welcome,” I said with a laugh, settling him back in the small storage room that was also his dogdom when his owner wasn’t home.Then it was time to retrieve Lexie from Darryl’s.I delayed leaving there when he pulled me into his office to ask questions about the latest newsworthy incident to impose itself into my life.“Yes, another murder,” I told him, rolling my eyes and spilling my guts once again. I explained who Chad Chatsworth was and how I’d found him.“You’re not a suspect this time, are you, Kendra?” Darryl demanded, holding the edges of his desk with bony fingers as if to brace himself.“Only if Detective Noralles gets stumped and needs a scapegoat,” I said with a sigh. “But before me, he’s got some ferret suspects. And their owners, since they’re the ones with easier access to the house where Chad was found, plus a grudge against him. Or at least that’s what I gathered at Charlotte’s party.”“So Charlotte LaVerne might have offed the guy she’d once chosen as her perfect lover? You really believe that?” Darryl’s thin brows rose skeptically over his wire eyeglass frames.“To keep a million dollars and the possibility of a lot more? I’d hate to think so,” I said with a sad shake of my head, “but that’s easier to believe than the ferrets decking Chad and chewing him to death on their own.”
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 BUT A FEW hours later, back at my home, I decided that my acceptance of Charlotte as a viable suspect would be more unlikely than I’d thought.Lexie and I had just arrived. I’d driven around slowly before pulling the Beamer into its spot, making sure no reporters still lurked to spoil our constitutional. I intended to take Lexie on a neighborhood walk of our own before settling down to study till Jeff arrived.I’d peered into the garage window before heading upstairs to our apartment. No cars had been inside.Had Charlotte and Yul fled?Nope. I learned they hadn’t as I heard an engine and peeked out to see Yul pull onto the property. I soon felt my floor vibrate as he drove his grumbling sports car into the garage below. He was alone. No Charlotte riding shotgun.I waited till he was inside the house before leashing Lexie and heading downstairs. I wasn’t in the mood for a single-syllable conversation about what had happened to Chad Chatsworth.No sooner had Lexie and I gotten to the front gate than it began to open for Charlotte’s brand-new brilliant red luxury sedan. As she pulled in, I waved.She stopped. Her window rolled down.So did her tears. I’d never seen the perky brunette with perfect makeup so upset. “Oh, Kendra,” she sobbed, laying her head down on her steering wheel.Only she hadn’t parked yet, and the car crawled forward, not to the right, toward the garage, but straight toward the parking space beside it.“Be careful, Charlotte,” I called to her. I cringed as her auto approached the rear bumper of my Beamer. “Charlotte!” I shouted. “Stop your car!”She did, maybe an inch away from stoving in my poor Beamer’s butt.Giving Lexie a little tug to tell her to follow, I hurried back up the drive toward her stopped car.The driver’s door stayed shut.As I looked in, I beheld Charlotte, head still down, crying uncontrollably.“Sorry, Lexie,” I murmured. “Looks like our walk will have to wait until later.” To Charlotte I said, “Let’s get you into the house, okay? Then you can tell me all about what’s wrong.”As if I couldn’t guess.Chapter NineTO MY SURPRISE, Charlotte invited herself upstairs. My usually high-flying tenant had never before seemed interested in visiting my modest second-story flat. All our landlord-tenant interaction had been in my much-missed mansion or on its grandly maintained grounds.She even led the way, Lexie and I bringing up the rear as we all mounted the garage-side steps. I held back to make sure thatherrear, sashaying from side to side as she scaled the steps, stayed far from my face. I had to catch up and squeeze around her, though, to unlock the door.My little kitchen would have fit into one corner of my much more magnificent culinary environment in the main house, but it was still where I did most of my meager entertaining. I showed Charlotte to one of the chairs at my round table, and sighing, she sank into it, resting her small chin on trembling hands. Her perfume began to permeate my apartment, and I made a mental note to open some windows later.“Would you like something to drink?” I asked. “I’ve water, apple juice, diet soft drinks, red wine—a nice Bordeaux, I believe—amber beer or—”“Rum and cola, if you have it,” she ordered. “Mostly rum.”I turned before she could see how my brows reached for my hairline. I considered joining her in something strong. I had a feeling that whatever she was about to spill to me wouldn’t be easy to imbibe. I settled on a beer.A little later, Lexie at my feet, I sat across from Charlotte at the table, watching her swig her strong rum concoction as if she were an overheated runner just handed a bottle of water. I sipped my Sam Adams from a mug to brace myself, then began, “Tell me why you’re so upset, Charlotte—though of course I can guess. I’m sorry about your friend Chad. It must have been a shock to learn what happened. Especially because it was in the house where you’re living.” I’d developed tremendous tact as a litigator. The idea was to start the wheel turning with what I intended to learn, then let her respond with her own spin on it.“I feel terrible that he’s dead, even though he wasn’t my friend anymore,” she said, sounding surprisingly sad after what I’d witnessed the other night.“Chad crashed your party,” I said to Charlotte, “so I wondered how close you were. Especially since you and Yul didn’t welcome him with open arms. But I heard that Chad and you were an item not long ago.”“Only in front of the cameras,” she shot back, the glare from her blue eyes so pointed that I felt the stab in my cheek.“But from what I gathered, he was the last guy standing on a show where you had to choose the supposed love of your life.”“Well, yes.” She shrugged a slender shoulder beneath a snug, white shirt whose hem barely met the top of her gray sweatpants. Then she took a good stiff swig of her drink.“Were you just acting for the camera?” I pushed.“Not really.” She sighed. “He was the best of the fifteen-man pool I started with. I knew that right off. And . . . well, by the end I actually was in love with him.” Another hefty swill.“I see,” I claimed, while my mind mulled over this revelation. “Did you know you’d have to choose between him and a bunch of money when you picked Chad?”She shook her head. “No, but there’ve been a lot of reality shows that have a catch. A few made the main player choose betweenmuchomoney and supposedly true love. Some shows were straightforward about their endings, some weren’t. I figured something like that could happen in this one, too, and I was fully prepared to pick love over money.”I felt floored. That wasn’t what I’d anticipated. Charlotte had Yul now and a whole lot of loot. Plus a burgeoning career in reality TV.And she’d chewed out Chad but good at her party, without hiding it from any of her house full of guests.“But you dumped Chad on the last day, right?” I asked.She nodded sadly. As she spoke, her speech was slurred. “That was when I found out he was really in it for the fame and fortune. Not thathewas offered money and a show to dumpme,but he accidentally let slip about his girlfriend from home, how his being on the show had been her idea, and how she was still in the picture.”“That doesn’t make sense.”“Sure it does, sort of. Hardly any couples in these shows actually stay together long enough to still be an item months later, let alone get married. But most major contestants became media celebrities, at least temporarily. There’s lots of money in that. It’s what Chad and his girlfriend apparently counted on—together. Only when I found out, I decided that if I couldn’t have him, I might as well settle for fortune and fame, and a reality show of my own.”“Might as well,” I agreed. My mind was definitely boggled. I’d already decided that, huggy habits or not, Charlotte was probably a mercenary queen, ready to kick a guy who was down on his knees to propose to her right in his impoverished teeth.Instead, she’d settled for a bushel of money as second best.“And then Chad showed up at your party. Didn’t his visit threaten what you’d gotten?”“Yes,” she acknowledged. This time, she just took a sip, maybe because her drink had nearly disappeared. “I was pretty damned mad about it, especially since he and his girlfriend nearly made a fool of me. I guess I made a spectacle of myself.”“Everyone understood,” I said sagely, then added, “Of course it also gave you a good motive to kill him.”“Kendra, you can’t believe that!” she squealed. “I mean, that nasty detective said the ferrets had human help, but not even he has accused me of having anything to do with Chad’s death.” She paused, eyes rolling upward as she pondered. “Not directly, at least. He really upset me.”Hence her histrionics in the car? Maybe.I’d found out the hard way that Noralles wasn’t a nitwit. I wondered how he’d become certain the ferrets hadn’t acted alone in killing Chad—the autopsy?And whom did he suspect, if not this possible perpetrator who’d had motive, means, and opportunity? Or was he playing cagey with Charlotte, waiting for her to implicate herself?“I suppose, by ‘nasty detective,’ you’re referring to Detective Noralles?” I asked dryly.“You know him?” She looked at me in confusion till her blue eyes narrowed in understanding. “He was the one who tried to pin those murders on you, wasn’t he?”“The same,” I acknowledged with a smile as wry as I could grin it. “What has he asked you?”“Mostly about ferret habits.” She swung herself to her feet. She had to hang on to the table, I figured, since she’d chugged the hefty helping of rum in less than a minute. To make sure the table and Charlotte stayed erect, I held on, steadying it, feeling it tilt in my tenant’s unstable grip. My beer stein was nearly drained, but I set it on the floor anyway to ensure it didn’t slide off and smash. She went to the counter and refilled her glass with rum, not even a hint of cola this time.“Like what?” I asked.“Their favorite food, for one thing.” She sat once more, swaying unsteadily in her chair and taking another swig. “But he knows that. It was all over the place. I askedhimquestions, too. Sure, the ferrets chewed on Chad, but whoever killed him dumped ferret kibble all over his body, especially around his neck. Of course the poor little creatures would chew on what they thought was just an extension of their food.”My sudden shuddering segued into a valiant attempt to deactivate my gag reflex. I croakingly continued, “Then the police believe someone killed Chad and set the ferrets up—scattering food to make them feast on him, and hoping the evidence would indicate they did it all?” As much as I hated discussing the disgusting details, that sounded feasible. More feasible than pinning the murder on the ferrets.“Yes, poor, innocent creatures.”Well, not totally innocent. I’d seen some treacherous teeth marks. My voice shook as I said, “Did you ask if there were any marks on Chad to suggest someone killed him before he sank to the ferrets’ level?”“I kind of asked, but the detective didn’t answer.”“So I don’t suppose he told you who they think would do such a thing.”“Like I said, the detective didn’t tell me much, but some questions he asked make me sure he thinksIdid it. Or Yul did.”Big surprise. Only, wasn’t that a little too obvious? Okay, maybe I was doing an about-face, but my suspicions were turning elsewhere, to suspects as yet unknown.Chad had been killed in the house Charlotte and Yul rented, after a party where they’d all but punched him out. The ferrets may have been set up to take the fall. But would either Charlotte or Yul have tried to do that to such prized pets?Probably, if it would eliminate them as suspects.Which it apparently hadn’t.Charlotte’s mind seemed to stagger along the same initial lines but stopped short of what I’d concluded. “We wouldn’t do that to the ferrets. They’re Yul’s, but I adore them, too. And now they’re in ferret prison.” Her voice broke, and her eyes brimmed with tears. “I don’t know whether the cops have determined yet how much the ferrets actually did contribute to Chad’s death. The best scenario for them will be if they’re found totally innocent. Then, they’ll be shipped off to some ferret rescue place, probably in another state. The worst case . . .” Her voice trailed off as she dropped her face into her hands.She didn’t have to finish. I heard the Animal Services lady in my head:They’ll be humanely euthanized.Charlotte’s tears became contagious, though I contained mine in moist eyes.Shaking so hard that the table between us started to shimmy on the tile floor, Charlotte swept her hands from her head and stood again. Her reddened eyes grew grimmer. “The thing is,” she said hoarsely, “that even if the ferrets are cleared, the police will still want to know who killed Chad in the first place . . . and that detective might accuse Yul. Or me. But we didn’t do it.”I genuinely hoped they hadn’t. Either of them. “You’re sure Yul—”“We’re each other’s alibis, for whatever good that’ll do.” Though her sigh was soggy, she took yet another swig of rum. “We’d gone to Vegas for the fun of it, but I was supposed to have a meeting on my show ideas yesterday so we didn’t stay overnight but decided to come back. The thing is . . . Well, you might have noticed that Yul’s a sexy-looking guy, and in this case looks aren’t deceiving. We took a little detour, pulled off the road, and spent the night . . . I’m sure you get the idea, but we won’t be able to prove it.”I chose not to pursue questions about where they’d been or what they’d been doing. A picture glowed graphically in my mind, though, till I switched to something else. “Did you have any idea Chad would be in the house when you were gone?”She shook her head so vehemently that her long braid gave a whiplike lash. Her ensuing unsteady blink suggested her drinking, plus her head movement, had made her dizzy.“And do they know how he got in?”“The police shed . . . er, said, that some of the plastic stuck to the wall that the Hummer smashed in was loose.” She slurred an occasional word despite the clarity of what she said.When I’d arrived, the front door was ajar. How had it gotten open in the first place? Maybe the killer and Chad came in through the plastic and only the killer exited from the front . . .“Chad had no business being there,” Charlotte continued. “He knew I never wanted to see him again, and I told him that once more at the party. But he wanted to ruin everything, out of revenge. Only he was the one who hurt me, you see?” She paused till I nodded. “Never mind that he’d planned all the time to stay with his girlfriend. He was so pished . . . pissed off after I dumped him on the last show that he made it clear he’d do anything to convince the producers I was really madly in love with him and intended to see him secretly. And he knew full well that my seeing him would mean I wouldn’t get to keep the money or be able to help develop new shows. Spite, that’s all it was.”
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“And a good motive,” I muttered.She shot me a horrified, if fuzzy, stare. “You don’t think I did it, do you, Kendra?”“Of course not.” I wished I was as convinced as I hoped I conveyed.“Honest,” she said, holding up some fingers unsteadily, as if she was either attempting a Girl Scout oath or was too soused to sense that the bird she flipped me wasn’t flying. “I didn’t know Chad was there the night he died. Neither did Yul. He must have sneaked in to try again to sabotage everything for me.”“So you killed him. Okay, okay, I’m just playing devil’s advocate,” I said in response to the look of horror on her face.“You’ve got to believe me.” Charlotte’s grasp was firm, her unfocused blue eyes beseeching. “The ferrets may have been framed, but if those sweet little guys get off altogether,we’llbe framed instead. Please help us. I’ll hire you, because I know that, of all people, you’ll understand. You went through the same kind of thing, didn’t you?”“Yes,” I admitted reluctantly. “And I agree you need a lawyer. I can give you a referral, but you can’t hire me, Charlotte. Even if I had my law license back, I’m a civil litigator, not a criminal defense attorney.”“We don’t need a lawyer, at least not yet. You solved the murders in your own case. Can’t we hire you to find out what really happened?”“I’m not a private investigator, either.” Although I knew a damned good one. One whom, if I asked, would help me figure out what really went on among Chad, my tenants, and their ferrets.Hey, I was actually considering it. Did I buy her story?My pondering must have been legible in my expression, for Charlotte cried, “You will help us. I know you will. You believe me, don’t you?”“What I believe is that I’ve got a lot of questions that need to be answered before—”Before I knew what she was doing, Charlotte had sprung to her feet and drawn me into one of those hugs that had so repelled me when I’d first rented my adored house to her.The movement must have startled Lexie awake, and she leapt up, woofed, and lapped excited circles around Charlotte and me.My mind began to churn inside my skull. When, over the last few months, had I actually begun not to loathe my bubbly lessee? And when, over the last few minutes, had I started to sincerely entertain that she might be telling the truth?“No guarantees, Charlotte . . .” I finally said to her slowly, my mouth muffled against the thin shirt over her bony shoulder. She was at least five inches taller than my five-five. “But I’ll try to help figure out who really killed Chad.”Even as I said it, I wondered what the heck I was letting myself in for.Chapter TenMY ANXIETY WAS as high-strung as a tennis racket by the time I reached Jeff by phone that evening. Or rather, he reached me, on my cell.I’d planned on an intense night of study at home alone, since the ethics exam was only days away. But right now, my head was too hyper to let me focus.“Where’ve you been?” I demanded without preamble when he finally responded to my multiple messages. Lexie and I were just scaling the steps again to our apartment after her latest evening constitutional. And mine. Walking was supposed to have helped me clear my chaotic mind.Right.“I’m delighted you’ve missed me.” Jeff’s reply was far from an answer to my inquiry.“I need to talk to you,” I said.“Good. I need to talk to you, too. Why don’t Lexie and you come over to my place and plan to spend the night?”“Why don’t Odin and you come to my place?”“Uh-oh. A power struggle. Want to compromise and book a hotel room?”“With the dogs?”He laughed. “Obviously I can’t win. I’ll come there.”“No,” I grumbled perversely, “I’ll go there.”“Okay.”The fact he let my offer stand elevated my dander even higher. But I was tired of this discussion and let it drop.Besides, I needed a change of scenery. What if I ran into Charlotte and Yul before I’d had a chance to vent about my quasicommitment to them?“I’ll bring takeout,” I said. “Thai?”“How about . . . Never mind. Throwing in another nationality for consideration will only start us off again. Thai it is.”Forty-five minutes later, Lexie and I parked my Beamer in Jeff ’s driveway, and I bent back in to pick up the bags of aromatic Asian dinner delights. I knew Jeff ’s preferences in Thai foods, as he knew mine.Odin wagged his curled tail as Jeff let us in the door. Our host’s cargo shorts did justice showing off his hairy male legs, and his snug black Malibu T-shirt made me feel glad I hadn’t changed from the similar stuff I’d thrown on in anticipation of studying. Only my shirt said CABO SAN LUCAS, it was green, and the bulges it hugged on me were boobs, not biceps and pecs.I caught Jeff ’s appreciative ogle as he took one of the bags from me, and I figured my bulges blossomed in all the right places.The two pups sniffed each other, then swooshed off for a romp through the house. I knew they’d end up in the kitchen with us. The aroma of food would be too hard to resist, even if the nasty old humans refused to share.Which we didn’t. Not totally. I’d opted for our usuals of pad Thai and mee krob, but had also gotten an order of barely seasoned sticky rice thrown in. Rice is good for a sick doggy’s stomach. Neither of our pets needed that kind of pampering, but I nevertheless figured I’d let them join us for more than their usual food.Over dinner on Jeff ’s round kitchen table, I related my conversation with Charlotte, finishing with the pièce de résistance: my promise to help find who killed Chad and tried to frame the ferrets—and thereby, at least peripherally, Yul and her.“Did she give any details about how the cops think Chad really died?” Jeff asked when I was finished.“No details, I gathered. Only innuendoes.”“Okay, so some unidentified suspect did something to Chad, then let the ferrets out to hide what really happened. Why wouldn’t that be Charlotte or Yul?”“Because,” I said, “Charlotte wants to hire me to figure out who it really was.”Jeff laughed. “Maybe that’s because she figures you’ll fail.” I stood and scowled, till Jeff threw his hands up. “Okay, let’s assume you’re right and they’re innocent. How did you plan to figure out who the real killer was?”I sat once more, but stayed on the edge of my seat. “The way I did it before—make a list of candidates, then go corner all of them and see where it leads.”“It nearly led to your own murder the last time.” It was Jeff ’s turn to scowl, and it had nothing to do with the fact he’d just swallowed a big bite of the sweet-and-sour noodle concoction that was mee krob.“But I survived. Not only that, I figured out who was framing me.”“And that makes you an expert.”“No, but I have one who could advise me, if he decided not to be an insulting and conceited jerk about the whole thing.”“What if he’s a concerned jerk?”I sighed as our eyes caught. His were blue and shadowed by his straight brows, and right now they radiated the concern he’d chucked out between us. He had me there. My righteous irritation puddled into a big glob of gooey happiness. “No need to worry about me, Jeff,” I said softly.“Yeah, there is. Besides, I’m going out of town again tomorrow, unexpectedly. Can you stay here and take care of Odin?”I nodded. “I’ll get your advice by phone.”“You’re not a licensed investigator, Kendra.” He’d dredged up another dilemma in his attempt to dissuade me. “There’s a lot of looking around that you can’t do.”“A P.I.’s employees who are learning how to become the real thing don’t need their licenses right away,” I reminded him. “You even suggested hiring me before, when I successfully investigated my own case.”“But you said no. And now you want to be a P.I. rather than an attorney?” He shook his head in skepticism.“No, but I can say I’m on your staff if anyone questions me.” Before Jeff could craft a denial, I continued, “The thing is, if Charlotte and Yul are being framed, directly or indirectly, well . . . after what happened to me, I can identify with their fear, the sense of fatalism, the whole scary scenario. I have to help them, Jeff, assuming they’re innocent. And even if they’re not, either way I’ll hand over whatever evidence I find to Noralles.”“But—” Jeff bit off whatever he was about to blurt out, replacing it with a bite of rice. “Okay. Whatever I say, it won’t change your mind. So all I can do is to tell you again to be careful.”“I will.”Later, we both rinsed dishes, stuck them in the dishwasher, and went outside for our final romp with the dogs for the night.And then it was time for bed.When I’d first started pet-sitting for Jeff, my space had been a guest bedroom he also used for storage. The boxes he kept there had stoked my curiosity. Still did, truth be told. One of them was labeled PHILIPE PELLERA, and now I’d actually met—well, seen from several feet away—the Latin singing sex symbol.But my legal ethics, though unjustly besieged, hadn’t let me look in those boxes before.And now my spot in Jeff ’s home was with him, the dogs resting near each other on the floor by the bed.We showered together, then dove headlong into bed for recreation of the most creatively sensual kind.Later, worn out, we wound limbs around each other and waited for sleep to snatch us mentally apart, but physically, for tonight at least, we were together.“Where are you going tomorrow?” I asked.“Chicago,” he murmured drowsily into my ear. His breath against me there made me consider waking once more, but I was too drained to tender the idea. “You’ll stay here with Odin?”“Mmm-hmm,” I assured him sleepily. “Or I’ll bring him home with Lexie and me.”“Why don’t you just move in here?” he asked. “And not just while I’m away.” He sounded a little less dream-beguiled, and I froze, priming myself for the punch line.It didn’t come.“Did you hear me, Kendra?” he asked. “This isn’t just pillow talk. I’ve been thinking about it. You know there’s plenty of room even when I’m here, and it’ll give you distance from your new sort-of investigative clients who happen to be your tenants, too.” Not even a hint of haziness remained in his tone.He was serious.I didn’t let myself move, for fear I’d roll away so far we’d never come together again. “We’ve only known each other a few months, Jeff,” I reminded him.At the same time, my own mind reminded me that I’d finally begun to feel that my taste in lovers had vastly improved lately.Yeah, but was I ready to make it permanent?Moving in didn’t make a lifetime commitment, announced my bold internal devil’s advocate.But it did imply some kind of commitment, my shivering sense of self-preservation countered.“It’s been an intense few months,” Jeff said, starting to nibble my neck all over again.“That’s for sure,” I agreed.“You don’t need to give me an answer now,” he said, still nuzzling. “Just think about it.”“Oh, I will,” I said, and turned to meet his mouth with mine.Between kisses, Jeff murmured, “I love you, Kendra.” At least I thought he did. He didn’t repeat it. I didn’t meet it with a pronouncement of my own.But even long after, when we’d made luscious love yet again, that soothing dream state I’d been in failed to return.And it wasn’t just whether my tenants’ ferrets were being framed that frazzled my wide-awake mind.Move in with Jeff?Love?Oh, Lord, this freight train was moving too fast! WE SAID GOODBYE with another big kiss the next morning before Lexie and I headed for our day’s pet-sitting assignments.It hadn’t been just pillow talk, since Jeff pressed me with a reminder after escorting us to the Beamer. “I could always move in with you,” he said, “but we’d be a little cramped.”“Say hi to Chicago for me, Hubbard,” I countered.“I won’t tell you again to think about it,” he said. “You will.”“Yeah,” I admitted, “I will.” And then I backed the Beamer out.I stopped home to change my clothes.My home. My little apartment beside the big house that had been my home. The big house now occupied by Charlotte and Yul, who needed my help to seek out who’d really killed Chad Chatsworth—if it wasn’t them.That’s what I needed to concentrate on.And having Charlotte come dashing out of that very house in a slinky peach silk nightgown was a good reminder. She wore matching floppy mules trimmed in feathers, too.“Have you found anything helpful yet, Kendra?” she began breathlessly. Her hair wasn’t braided at this hour, but its black length was held back from her face by—what else?—a matching peach ribbon. I had never seen her without makeup before. She was still pretty, but didn’t appear as glamorous as usual.“No,” I admitted, “but I’ve gotten expert advice from a private investigator I’ll be sort of working for while I help the ferrets and you. Right now, I want you and Yul to make lists of people who don’t like you much. You don’t have to focus on bitter enemies, though you can asterisk their names so I’ll know.”“The bitterest was Chad himself,” Charlotte said gloomily.“Well, think about who else. Leave the list in my mailbox. I’ll come back for it later, though I’m going to be spending the next few nights at a client’s, watching his dog.” Or a lover’s, deciding whether his home would become my concurrent castle . . .Lord, Jeff hadn’t lied. His unanticipated invitation was already messing with my perturbed mind.Chapter ElevenAS SOON AS I’d hurried through my early-morning routine of rounding up cats, raking out their litter boxes, and feeding them, plus walking dogs and watching them inhale morning meals, Lexie and I sped toward Darryl’s doggy spa.
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Lexie was full of extra exuberance since I’d mostly left her locked in the car, parked in the shade, windows carefully cracked, during my morning pet encounters. The problem was, her presence, though always a pleasure, never failed to impede my intended quick progress.I figured she’d dash around Darryl’s and work off some of the energy that caused her to bounce from one side of the Beamer to the other. More often than not, she landed smack on my lap, mostly while I attempted to navigate the most challenging of turns on San Fernando Valley streets. At least, with my current cadre of clients, I mostly steered clear of freeways.But it wasn’t only because of Lexie that I needed a Darryl fix. I craved his company. I required his counsel. I was the lawyer, but he had more common sense than a courtroom full of arguing attorneys.It was okay for me to say that, since I was previously a proud member of that much-maligned clan. And I intended to engage again, as soon as the ethics exam allowed.The ethics exam. Oh, heavens, it was coming up in just days, and I was far from comfortable that I’d do well, and—At the same moment I was angsting over that thought, I negotiated a left turn on a yellow light through a well-traveled intersection onto Ventura Boulevard, Lexie leapt on my lap, and my cell phone signaled a call coming in. My cell used to sing the “Ode to Joy,” but I’d grown jaded about so much joviality. It now blared a rousing rendition of Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life.”Fortunately, there was a gap in the parallel-parked cars along Ventura, and I slid the Beamer into it. Phone still shrilling, I gently shoved Lexie onto the passenger’s seat and said, “Stay.” Only then did I feel undistracted enough to reach for the phone. The caller ID showed a local number but I hadn’t an inkling whose it was.“Kendra Ballantyne,” I answered as smartly as if I’d slid back a few months and sat in my law office accepting client calls.“Hello, Ms. Ballantyne. My name is Jon Arlen. I’m a friend of Fran Korwald’s. She referred me to you.”I remembered running into Fran at Darryl’s. She’d said she was sending someone my way who needed help handling a homeowners’ association complaint. But wasn’t that someone a she, not a he?“Hi, Jon. What can I do for you?”“Well, it’s kind of a difficult situation. Would it be possible for us to meet to talk about it?”“A homeowners’ association dispute?” I asked.“No, no. That’s not me.” Jon Arlen’s chuckle sounded like static over the cell phone. “You’re thinking of a mutual friend of Fran’s and mine, Marie Seidforth. Have you heard from Marie? She’s afraid that getting an outsider involved will only make things worse, though Fran and I tell her they can’t get much worse. Not if she wants to keep living where she is and not get rid of her house full of boxers.”“No,” I said, “I haven’t heard from her. And the thing is, Jon, I hope Fran told both of you that though I’m an attorney by background, I’m temporarily not practicing law.”He chuckled again. “Fran’s so enthused that she’s talked about little but you and your background lately. She told us you helped to psych out that psycho ex-husband of hers so she got custody of her pug. You’re the famous lawyer who was in all the papers not long ago. You had your license suspended for something you didn’t do, and when you set out to prove your innocence, you also solved some murders. Right?”“Something like that.”“And your license hasn’t been restored yet? That sucks.”I suddenly liked this guy a lot. “Sure does,” I said. “As long as you understand I can’t give legal advice, I’ll be glad to get together with you to talk over your problem.”“Tomorrow?” he asked.“Sure.” I set it up for him to meet me at Darryl’s, since Fran had referred him there, too, and he was going to start leaving his dog during the day.I slipped the cover shut on my cell phone and sat grinning, till Lexie leapt over and gave me a slobbery kiss on the cheek.“Okay,” I told her. “Next stop, Darryl’s.” AFTER LETTING LEXIE off her leash so she could zoom around the playroom, I asked Darryl for an audience in his office.“Sure, Kendra.” He motioned for me to take my regular seat in the chair facing his overloaded desk. “What’s up this time?”“Are you ever going to dump your problems on me?”“You wanted to see me to ask me to dump on you?”I grinned. “Not hardly. I’m here to dump on you. I just thought I’d give you the chance to get back at me first.”“Dump away.” He nudged his wire-rims down his thin nose and peered at me over them.I informed him about my call from Fran’s latest referral, and asked if he knew anything about the matter Jon Arlen had in mind for my sage nonlegal counsel. He didn’t, and since Fran hadn’t left Piglet at the resort today, he wouldn’t be able to ask.He seemed amused that Fran kept recommending me. Not that she was the sole client he’d sent my way for services beyond pet-sitting.Take a doggy stud fee disagreement, for example. About three months ago, soon after I’d helped Fran resolve her problem with Piglet’s custody, Darryl had directed to me a different resort customer’s dilemma. Cheryl Sallar’s champion Bedlington terrier, Lamb Chop, had retired from the show ring in favor of showering stud service on panting female Bedlingtons . . . for a fee, or pick of the litter. In this case, it had been the latter, but the damned owner of the Bedlington dam had reneged. Even if I’d had my law license back, it didn’t make economic sense for Cheryl to hire an attorney to recoup the stud fee or the prize puppy, though the principal of the dispute drove her to desperation. So of course I had to help—indirectly. I’d suggested that Cheryl sue for the disputed pick-of-the-litter’s value in small claims court. And sure enough, the clash was quickly resolved once the filed action was served on the bitch’s bitchy owner.Then I told Darryl of the quasicommitment I’d made to Charlotte. “I think Jeff’s decided I’m nuts. He’s willing to let me play P.I.-in-training under his license—or at least he didn’t order me not to—but he doesn’t seem to understand how much I don’t want to see someone else, even ferrets, get framed for murder.”Darryl pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose again and leaned his lanky body back in his chair. “Oh, I think he understands just fine. The guy’s crazy about you, Kendra. He doesn’t want to see you get hurt, that’s all.”“That’s too much,” I grumbled, almost spilling my guts about Jeff ’s invitation to cohabit. But to my surprise, I wasn’t ready to spill those particular beans yet, not even to my dear buddy Darryl. “Anyway, I’m going to do what I can to help Charlotte out.”“I thought you didn’t like your ditzy tenant.”I admitted to Darryl that she’d grown on me. “The main thing, though, is that since I was there myself—”“You hate the idea of anyone being railroaded. I get it. So how are you going to investigate, Ms. P.I.?”“Jeff’s going out of town, so though I’ll get some help from him, I’m mostly on my own. Care to brainstorm?”He did and we did, and though we didn’t come up with much I hadn’t mulled over myself, I appreciated the opportunity to solidify my strategy.I took notes to rearrange later into one of my more interesting lists. As I’ve said, I’m a confirmed listaphile. It’s how I got through my days as a litigator, and the practice assisted immeasurably in keeping a log of my pet-sitting clients.Besides, strategically speaking, sticking all my ideas onto a list helped me keep track of them.I gave Darryl’s skinny bod a big hug when we were done. And then I looked for Lexie. She was lying in the area filled with human furnishings, finally worn out enough to sleep on the sofa.“Do you want to leave her awhile longer?” Darryl asked.“Thanks, but not today. I have to go give Widget his midday walk, and then Lexie and I are going to take our own stroll around the area where Chad Chatsworth lived, assuming Charlotte knows where it is.” SHE DID. WHILE I sat in the shade in the Beamer, outside Widget’s home with Lexie in my lap, Charlotte also gave me a preview over the phone of the lists of potential enemies that Yul and she had been preparing. She was underscoring those she particularly considered ferret foes.In addition, she prepped me on the identities of some important people in Chad’s life, or at least those he’d told her of while off camera during the throes of their reality show.“He has an apartment mate. They’ve been in the same flat together in the Palms area—on the west side—for about a year. His name’s Dave Driscoll, and he’s a techy nerd. Not even interested in The Industry.” Charlotte made it sound as if anyone not totally immersed in the business that was Hollywood had to have a screw or two loose. Or maybe, since the guy was apparently a computer geek, his silicon chips were cracked.She gave me the address in Palms, and I planned to head there next.“Anyone else I should know about?” I asked.She mumbled something I couldn’t quite make out over the phone.“Pardon?”“That damned ex-girlfriend of his,” Charlotte grumbled again, this time loud enough that I could hear. “Or not so ex, as it turned out. Her name is Trudi Norman.”“And where does she live?”“In la-la land.”“Where in L.A.?” I prompted.“Not Los Angeles.Herla-la land is in her head. The woman is just too sweet to be believed for a dirt-bag, scheming bitch.”Charlotte had said that Chad plotted with his girlfriend to reach the top male spot on their reality show, planning all the time to shun what was to appear as true love for reality show fame and fortune.Might she have had a reality of her own that caused her to kill her fellow plotter, the handsome cad Chad?“I need a better address,” I told Charlotte. “Phone number, too, if you can get it.”“I’ll try,” she said with a sigh.I gave her a bracing pep talk to buck up her obviously sagging morale, then hung up.Commanding Lexie into her copilot’s place in the Beamer, I checked my map book and proceeded south toward Palms.Chapter TwelveTHE STREET IN Palms where Chad Chatsworth lived before becoming an alleged ferret feast was an apartment-laden urban avenue.I squeezed the Beamer into a spot barely longer than its bumpers, snapped Lexie’s leash securely to her collar, then slid out, Lexie leaping over me to be first.I noticed right away that a couple of the scanty parking spots were occupied by police units—a marked vehicle and a crime scene van.I figured the police presence was related to the investigation of Chad’s murder and then was convinced of it when I saw one cop head out of the building where Chad had lived and another go inside. I doubted I’d have any luck checking out his flat and neighbors sans hassle, so I decided, for now, to walk the streets to see what I could learn. That tactic had served me well before, while searching for clues in the murder investigations I’d conducted to save my own skin. Plus, I’d gained another pet-sitting client that way, as well as the idea that had helped me solve Fran Korwald’s pug custody problem.Lexie and I started strolling the sidewalk.Greenery and flowers were scarcely to be seen, though some property managers had gamely attempted to grow gardens in the narrow setbacks between sidewalk and buildings. The five- to six-story structures were distinguished from one another mainly by the shade of beige of their stucco facades. The smell was of musty heat radiating from the irregular pavement, interspersed with diesel fumes from delivery trucks rumbling by.Surprisingly, no gawkers blocked the area. Maybe parked crime unit cars were so common around here that a couple more failed to capture an excited crowd.I, on the other hand, needed to get a dialogue going with someone with something helpful to say. I noticed two sweats-clad women striding determinedly toward us on the sidewalk. Their quick clip—despite the fact they each pushed baby strollers—suggesting they were out for exercise. I took a small step to plant Lexie and me in their path. Ignoring their irritated stares as they separated their strollers to swing around me, I called, “Is that where that poor Chad Chatsworth lived?”That stopped one in her tracks—the one whose hot athletic outfit blazed magenta. She was maybe mid-thirties, with blond hair that might have looked natural if not all a single shade, and large brown eyes with laugh lines scoring her skin. Only she wasn’t laughing now. The kid sitting in her stroller looked about two, and his hair was definitely dark.“Oh, yes,” the woman said. “He was quite the neighborhood celebrity. It’s so hard to believe he’s gone.”“Did you know him?” I maneuvered Lexie a little on her leash, then gave her the signal to sit so she wouldn’t get trampled if the strollathon continued without my leave.“Who didn’t?” she asked, looking infinitely sad, as if she’d lost her best friend.The other woman glared at her and grumped, “Youdidn’t, Dee. Unless you call waving as he jogged by knowing him.” She was shorter and younger-looking. Her black hair formed a wind-tossed cap, and her sweats were a nondescript gray—like her attitude. Her kid was a sleeping baby in pink.“You could have introduced me,” Dee countered. She turned back to me. “Helene lives in his building. She knew him well enough that he and his roommate invited her to a party once.”I must have reacted without realizing it, since Helene said defensively, “We’re both single mothers.” Only then did I dare a surreptitious glance toward her empty ring finger.I definitely liked Dee better than her chum, for she moved past her stroller, stooped on the sidewalk, and held out a hand for Lexie to lick—giving me a glimpse of her bare finger, too. “You’re so sweet. Look at the doggy, Tommy.”
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The kid repeated “doggy” and his mom laughed.“So Chad had a roommate?” I asked to get back on the subject, knowing the answer. “Was his roommate in show business, too?”“Hardly,” huffed Helene. “I never did figure out why someone as good-looking and charismatic as Chad roomed with a boring computer geek like Dave Driscoll.”That conformed with what Charlotte had told me.“Probably because the last guy standing onTurn Up the Heatdidn’t want any competition,” Dee said drolly, earning her a glare from her companion.Turn Up the Heat.Sothatwas the reality show Charlotte had been on. I’d not paid much attention to it while it was airing, and had other things on my mind when I’d taken her application to lease my house. But I’d definitely heard about the show. A lot about it. Who, with any hormones, hadn’t?Helene confirmed my impression of it in her next aggravated riposte, one hand on a skinny hip. “Well, there isn’t much competition for Chad Chatsworth . . . or wasn’t.” Her blazing gaze dimmed again to gloomy. “I mean, he was definitely the most creative of all the guys on that show as far as coming up with sexy and romantic dates to tempt Charlotte.Iwas certainly tempted, and I wasn’t even there.”“Do you think she actually sampled all the contenders on the show?” Dee asked with interest. Her son stretched his hand out toward Lexie, who sniffed it.“That was the whole point,” Helene said scornfully. “Of course she did.”“That makes the producers of the show p-i-m-p-s, then, don’t you think?” Dee said, glancing down as if assuring herself that her son hadn’t comprehended.“Of sorts,” Helene agreed, with the first grin I’d seen on her otherwise dour face. It disappeared promptly.“I’m sure the speculation didn’t hurt the ratings,” I chimed in, then faced Helene. “At the party you went to, was anyone from the show there?”Before she replied, I noticed a few people exit Chad’s building—in suits. Cops? Could be—the detective kind. I kept my eyes peeled for my old nemesis Detective Noralles. But this area was in a different L.A.P.D. division—West Bureau, I thought. I was unlikely to be recognized by anyone there.“Not Charlotte, that’s for sure,” Helene said, answering my question. “Did you see the last week? It was really something. Talk about hot—and I don’t mean sexy. Hot tempers, because of a lot of cool cash.” Her baby fussed, and she bent down.“But Chad had no hint ahead of time that being the last guy standing wasn’t enough?” I persisted. I wasn’t sure how well she’d known her neighbor, but she might have heard some gossip and snickers while at the party at his place.“No.” Helene stood, her baby in her arms. Cute. Even cuter, the tot wasn’t crying. “The guy really seemed upset at being dumped like that, and who could blame him?”Yeah, but was it real or just for show? Or had he been upset because it ruined his well-conceived plan—the one he’d made with his real girlfriend?“How well did you know him?” I asked Helene. “Did he live around here long?”A uniformed cop by the car glanced toward our neighborly conclave. I bent toward the still-occupied stroller, not eager for him to notice me, let alone describe a loitering pet-walker in his report.“Actually, no,” Dee said, kneeling at her kid’s other side. “He moved here between the time the show was filmed and when it aired. At least that’s what everyone here who met him said.”She looked up at Helene, who nodded haughtily, as if she felt her importance was being usurped by a blabbing interloper who’d never even met the man. Still, she stayed quiet.“Everything was taped ahead but the end of the last show,” Dee continued. She stood again, and I did, too. “Charlotte had already chosen Chad, but they weren’t allowed to get together till the final episode was aired for fear they’d give the ending away. But neither knew the final twist till the live part at the end, after they showed the clip where Charlotte chose Chad. Did you see it?” She looked at me.“Sorry, no, but I wish I had.” Both women eyed me as if I’d claimed not to have showered for a week.“Well,” Dee continued, “there he was all over Charlotte, pleased as punch to see her again, vowing eternal love. And she seemed happy, too. Who wouldn’t? I mean, she’d made the best choice. Chad was a total hunk, and I figured she’d had sex with him before the last episode. But then, in that last show the host came in and told her about her final choice. So what if the sex had been super? Chad became history immediately.”“How sad,” I said, then turned to Helene. “Did he tell you at the party how awful it felt when he thought he’d won the woman’s heart, and instead she booted him for the booty instead? Embarrassing, wasn’t it? In front of the entire country—maybe the whole world.”“I didn’t know him well,” Helene admitted. She swayed back and forth as her baby’s little hands clenched the air. “But at that party—it was Dave Driscoll who invited some neighbors, to make sure the place was packed. He didn’t want Chad to feel worse because no one wanted to come to his condolences get-together. Anyway, Chad seemed depressed. Drowned his sorrows in so many pints of Guinness that I lost count. Kept talking about how much he’d cared for the Big Bad Bitch—his words, not mine.” She flushed a little and gave a guilty look toward her sweet-faced daughter. “His old girlfriend showed up to try to make him feel better, but I don’t think that helped.”Aha! The co-schemer, Trudi, right on the spot.“Since it sounds as if he was pissed at the Big Bad Bitch,” I said, not reluctant to repeat her epithet and run with it, “any idea why he happened to show up in that same bitch’s house?” Alive first, then dead, though I didn’t say that.“Revenge,” Dee crowed. “The rules said they weren’t to see each other afterward or Charlotte would forfeit everything.” Nothing new in that. “He probably wanted to latch on to her like glue so she’d wind up with nothing, too. Charlotte would have been furious. No wonder she killed him.”Which was the conclusion probably the entire viewing world would draw, even with ferrets sitting there like furry scapegoats.I turned again toward Helene, who seemed to grow noticeably cool in her warm sweats despite bouncing her increasingly fussy baby. “Did anyone mention at the party Chad’s roommate threw—?”“Are you from around here?” she suddenly demanded. “I don’t remember seeing you before.” She must have realized they were wasting perfectly good gossip on a total stranger.“Actually, I live in the Valley.” I waved vaguely north. No way did I intend to spill that Charlotte, her boyfriend, and the suspect ferrets were my tenants. “I’m a pet-sitter,” I continued truthfully, pulling on Lexie’s leash so she stood and eyed me attentively. “Do either of you have dogs you’d like walked during the day? Or pets that need care while you travel?” Were they stay-at-home single moms?Didthey travel? For once, I hoped for a nice, nasty negatory. Not that my business cards contained an address that would arouse anyone’s suspicions about my unrevealed ulterior motive, since I only had my cell phone number printed on them. Still, I’d kept my pet-sitting services confined to the Valley, for ease of jaunting between clients as fast as possible. Palms was way too many miles away to take on assignments here.“Not me,” Helene sniffed. “Allergies.” She looked around her kid and down her long, mean nose at Lexie, who took a step backward before settling into a sit.Dee let out a sorrowful sigh. “I had a cat, but she was old and I had to have her put down last year. I think Tommy was too young to understand and haven’t wanted to take on that heartache again. But if I ever do, I’ll be sure to think about you. Do you have a card?”Discretion seemed a better course than truth. I patted one pocket, then the other. “Not with me, but next time I’m around I’ll bring them. Hopefully we’ll run into each other again.”They’d given me a lot of food for thought. Would I need a second helping from them? Brazenly, I asked for their last names and addresses.Wisely, both demurred giving out vital statistics to this nosy nonneighbor.Well, I’d probably gotten all I could from these particular people. They’d mostly known Chad from his fleeting stardom.I’d need more than awed fan info to figure out his murder.Chapter ThirteenBACK AT THE Beamer, still sitting in the tight parking space, I let Lexie leap into the front passenger seat beside me. I turned the engine on long enough to crack open the windows to let in some air, for despite fall’s having supposedly arrived weeks ago, the car’s interior had morphed into a ceramics kiln while we were out canvassing the neighborhood.I reached beneath Lexie’s seat to extract notes I’d been accumulating in response to Charlotte’s appeal for assistance. I added the namesHeleneandDeeto my growing list of players in the Chad Chatsworth ferret fiasco.Not that they were suspects, but they were witnesses of sorts. Maybe their kids, too—but they weren’t talking. Helene and Dee had added to my short supply of information that might eventually clear Charlotte and Yul and their little furry buddies.The ferrets. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for them, too. They’d gnawed Chad, sure, but they’d most likely been set up. I wanted to visit them in their ominous incarceration, ensure they were being treated humanely.Humanely euthanized. The phrase from the animal control officer reverberated in my miserable mind. No, that had to be a last resort, only if they were found guilty in the court of animal control evidence of more than chewing the food left for them.I was eager to rescue them, if humanly possible.But not now. This afternoon, I had a person with a pet problem to talk to—Jon Arlen, Fran Korwald’s friend.And as I studied my schedule, I was bluntly bashed in the face with one little calendar detail that I’d unsuccessfully attempted to store deep in the recesses of my mind.This was Wednesday. The Multistate Professional Responsibility Exam—the test that had for so long seemed much too far off for me to wait to resume my law license—was now only two days away. It was scheduled for the second Friday in November, starting early afternoon. I’d elected to attack it at the Cal State Northridge campus.Or rather, it might assail me, with lots of questions I might not be able to answer, particularly without adequate preparation.“Let’s go, Lexie,” I said with a shaky sigh. Her black-and-white tail beat a keen cadence that showed her pleasure at being addressed. I started the car like I meant it this time, and slowly eased my Beamer from its tight space.Before I stepped harder on the gas, I glanced at the clock on the dashboard. Time for Widget’s early-afternoon walk. Then, to Darryl’s for my meeting with Jon Arlen. My discussion with him would be the final frolic and detour I’d undertake before immersing myself for final hours of uninterrupted ethics study. Or rather, interrupted only by scheduled pet-sitting services.An excellent reason to ignore one big gorilla-like invitation that had been constantly crouching at the edge of my thoughts, even when I’d purposely turned my focus in far-away directions.Should I move in with Jeff?Bad idea. Hadn’t I already convinced myself that my preferences in picking lovers were the pits?But I’d also asserted to myself that Jeff was the exception. He was a great guy. A super lover. Someone unlike my last long-term lover, “Drill Sergeant” Bill Sergement, who’d used his influence as mentor at my former law firm to seduce new female associates, including me and many since I’d extracted myself from his attentions. He was a louse. A user.And I was already living a lot of the time at Jeff ’s. Lexie and I both were, since it was the optimum place to be while watching Odin.Was I honestly considering it?Maybe. But not now. I had Widget the terrier to tame for a while, a meeting with someone named Jon Arlen, more pets to tend, then total immersion in studying.That was enough to fill this fool’s thoughts for the next few days. AS I LEFT Widget’s later and headed for Darryl’s, my cell phone sang out, “It’s My Life!” I hummed along as I lifted it and said, “Hello.”“Kendra, it’s Avvie. How are you?”“Fine,” I answered, surprised. I hadn’t heard from my former protégée at Marden, Sergement and Yurick since I’d made it clear that, once my license was restored, I had no intention of returning as an associate to the law firm that had been less than supportive during my prior problems.Not that they’d actually offered . . .I’d called Avvie a couple of times after our last get-together, tried to schedule another lunch, but she’d always been too busy.Firm loyalty, I’d figured, won out over our friendship.“Are you still pet-sitting?” she asked.“Sure,” I said. “Unless you’re calling to offer me my old job back.” I knew full well that Avvie wouldn’t have the authority to tender that offer, even if I was tough enough to want it. I was just having fun at her expense. Mainly because I was irked. She’d acted so supportive before, then had absented herself from my life for months.Of course, that might have something to do with the fact that, last time I’d seen her in person, I’d all but accused her and her lover, Bill Sergement—yes, Avvie was one of his current associate conquests—of being involved with the murders I’d been trying to solve.I had intended to upset them then, hoping one or both would spill something helpful. Like a confession.As it turned out, something Avvie said had in fact helped me figure out who’d done it.“Are you really interested in coming back here?” Avvie asked. “If so, let me warn you. Things aren’t great.”“No?” So much for my assumption of firm loyalty. I’d have thought she would be singing the Marden firm’s theme song while standing on her head, if it would help her stay on partnership track.
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Or maybe while lying on her back, while Sergement and she . . .Bag it, Ballantyne!“Then you hadn’t heard. I told you before that old Borden Yurick had gone off the deep end. He’s gone through with his withdrawal from the partnership. And he’s taken all his clients with him. The firm tried to stop him, and it’s gotten ugly.”I didn’t want to hear the awful details. Only . . . “So are there any clients left?”“Fewer than half,” she said with a sigh. But then, resuming her perkier self, she continued, “But that’s not why I called. I want to hire you, if you’re still pet-sitting.”“You have a pet?” That was a surprise. She’d enthusiastically visited once while I’d stayed with a mama dog but had acted more excited about meeting Jeff than the pups.“Yes,” she said. “Bill hasn’t had as many evenings free lately for us to stay late and work together.” I was amazed that she said the wordworkwithout a hint of hesitation. “I’ve started taking more things home to do instead of staying in the office, and to keep me from getting too lonely, he bought me the cutest potbellied pig. Pansy is her name.”“Really? That’s sweet of him.” I had to say something nice, after all.“We have a trip coming up—some depositions in Las Vegas.”How convenient. I wondered if Bill’s wife would come along to gamble while the two attorneys diligently deposed witnesses. At least Bill hadn’t been married when he and I had been a clandestine couple.“Would you watch Pansy for me?” Avvie ended pleadingly.“Of course, if I can,” I hedged. “When is your trip, and for how long?”It was next week, for four days. I agreed to make myself available, promised to get the particulars from her, and gracefully gestured away her profound gratitude.She’d be a paying customer, after all.What did I know about caring for a pig?As much as I’d known about caring for a python, before I’d gotten lessons on Pythagorus.Avvie would teach me what I needed to know. WHEN I ARRIVED at Darryl’s, he was in his office convincing an indecisive canine owner that Doggy Indulgence was the Valley’s prime resort for her pampered, pompadoured poodle.I knew this because my thin, spectacled friend, appearing more frazzled than he was prone to, ducked out long enough to greet Lexie and me. He explained his situation and motioned for his most obnoxious assistant, Kiki, the bleached-blond self-styled starlet, to take Lexie to play with the pups in the penned-in sports area at one end of the resort’s big room.Darryl told me Jon Arlen was already waiting. He’d planted Fran Korwald’s latest referral in the kitchen to talk to me. It was the most private area in the place, except for Darryl’s office, which was occupied, and the bathrooms, which were hardly suitable for our meeting.I headed that way. Dwarfing the table in the tiny room where the resort’s staff ate lunch was a very large man with dark, curly hair. He stood as I entered, as did a sturdy russet-and-black dog at his side. The dog had a wiry coat and a squared, bearded face.“Hmmm,” I deliberated. “He’s not an Airedale. And he’s not a wire-haired fox terrier. Give me a clue.”“The breed used to be called black-and-tan wire-haired terriers,” the man said in a rumbled rasp. “They were originally bred for hunting in the British Isles.”“Okay, I’ll bite,” I said. “What is he—he is a he?”“Yes, that’s Jonesy. I named him after Tom Jones, the singer, because—”“Ah!” I interrupted. “That’s the clue I needed. He’s a Welsh terrier.”“You got it!” The man held out his hand. “Jon Arlen. You’re Kendra?”I acknowledged I was as we shook hands. His grip was what I’d anticipated in such a large man: firm, focused, and fast. When it was ended, I knelt to jostle Jonesy a bit, which quickly got out of hand when the dog decided I was fair game for a round of let’s-wrestle-the-human. My kneel soon ended when the pup pinned my shoulders to the linoleum, licking my face proudly with a long, wet tongue.“Jonesy, no!” Arlen commanded.“It’s okay,” I assured him. “He’s just being friendly.” But I didn’t object when Jon jerked his terrier off my face and into a sit.“So,” I said when I’d risen and planted myself on a molded plastic chair, “Fran Korwald suggested that you talk to me?”“Yes.” Jon wore a short-sleeved shirt as wrinkled as the edges of his eyes. Its whiteness emphasized the man’s tan, and if I’d had to guess, I’d deduce Jon’s job kept him outdoors. He rested thick, bare arms on the small slab of wood that was the table. “It has to do with Jonesy, and something he did.”I glanced down at the culprit without yet knowing his crime. His tan tail was covered in wiry hair and stuck straight up. As I eyed him, that tail began to wag, and I had to smile. “And what was that?” I asked.“Well, as I said, Jonesy’s ancestors were bred to hunt. That included badgers, which live in underground tunnels, so—”I guessed. “Jonesy has a digging addiction.”“That’s right,” Jon said.“And he’s pissed off some neighbors or your landlord by leaving holes in their property?”Jon sighed. “If it was something as simple as that, I could handle it. I have a tree-trimming company, so I’m used to dealing with yard issues. I’d work something out.”So I’d been right about his outdoors occupation, but not about his problem.“So what did Jonesy do?” I asked.“He’s discovered some buried treasure,” Jon said, “but it wasn’t buried on my property. I need to figure out how to keep it.”Chapter FourteenI SAT SPELLBOUND at that little table, my mind filled with visions of ancient Spanish doubloons and their valiant and determined doggy digger, Jonesy. Jon’s tale wasn’t complicated, though his dilemma might defy satisfactory solution.“I live in the hills over Cahuenga Pass,” he said. “My home’s near Lake Hollywood reservoir. There’ve been rumors forever that when the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed back in 1847, ending the Mexican-American War in California, some Spanish-ancestry Californians left for Mexico in such a hurry that they couldn’t take all their belongings with them. Supposedly, they buried a bunch of gold.”“And you found it? Rather, Jonesy did?”“Some, at least. The thing is, it wasn’t on our property. Jonesy was digging one day in the yard next door. Fortunately, I found him and was ready to shoo him home and replant the evidence when I happened to look in his hole. And there they were—a bunch of old coins. I dug ’em out, all I could find, took them in small loads to my place, and was just finishing when the neighbor came home. I’d already been calling her Beatrice the Bitch, at least in my mind, since she keeps a dog that howls like a coyote. Andshecomplains about Jonesy’s barking, and his skill at finding ways out of my yard. When she saw Jonesy’s hole that I’d expanded, I thought she’d have a stroke.”“But you offered to fill in the hole with a tree,” I surmised.“Sure, or whatever landscaping she liked. At first, I thought that would satisfy her—till she spotted a coin I’d missed. She picked it up, and like a fool, when she asked if I’d found any more, I admitted I had. She held out her hands for it. Of course, even if I had been inclined to give it to her, she couldn’t have held it all.”My head began to throb. That much unburied loot?“I told her where she could put those greedy hands, and she didn’t like it. She said whatever I found, it had been on her property so it was hers. But I just recited that old adage we all learn as kids.”“Which is?” I prompted.“ ‘Finders, keepers, losers, weepers.’ Of course that didn’t satisfy her. She’s promised to sue me.”I sighed. “Jon, what you’ve described is a legal matter. I warned you over the phone, just as I told Fran. I’m a lawyer, yes, but right now I can’t practice law.”“But Fran said you told her you’re taking an exam this week, and when you pass it, you’ll get your license back?”“The deity of legal ethics willing,” I agreed. “But it’ll take weeks before scores are released, and even then I’m no longer affiliated with a firm.” Which meant no malpractice insurance, and I sure as hell wasn’t going to practice law naked. “I can refer you to someone, but—”“I wantyou,” he interrupted. The way his rasp had turned into a roar, and his body half rose from his too-snug chair, reminded me that this was far from a miniature man. Still, I didn’t feel threatened—too much. “Who wouldn’t? Have you heard Fran Korwald sing your praises? She says you’re a legal genius. And a nice person. And a pet-lover to boot. Plus you helped her put one over on her bastard of an ex-husband—and made him think it was all his idea. Genius!”I’d liked the guy before. Now, I adored what he was doing to my ego. But that didn’t reframe reality. “That was something practical that didn’t involve the practice of law,” I said.“That’s what I’m asking for, too. Something practical that will make Beatrice the Bitch get down on her knees and beg me to keep those old coins Jonesy found in her yard.”“But—”“Besides, this all just happened a couple of weeks ago. I can keep Beatrice busy for now by ducking her phone calls, pretending to play along. Then when you can practice law again, you can send her one hell of a letter on my behalf telling her to butt out. Jonesy found the treasure fair and square.”I should have told Jon Arlen to go elsewhere to endeavor to keep his buried treasure. But the issue was too enticing for me just to throw away.“Tell you what,” I said. “I can’t even think about this until after Friday—that’s when I take the exam. Then I’ll do some legal research—for myself, not you. If I think you’ve a legal leg to stand on, I’ll hand what I find over to someone who’s licensed now, and—”“No,” he growled. “If you find research stuff that’ll help me keep what’s mine, fair and square, then I’ll wait until you can do whatever’s necessary for me to keep it. Deal?”“As long as you understand that if I don’t pass the exam this time around”—Please, no, no, no,shrieked my stressed-out psyche—“you’ll have to hire someone else, then, yes. Deal.” I DON’T WANT to discuss the rest of that Wednesday, or Thursday. I did little but study and pet-sit and nibble on snacks when my stomach grumbled. Sleep was out of the question, except for a discreet doze here and there.And all the while I tried to keep every synapse of my beleaguered brain focused on ethics and study guides and practice exams. Yet too often, things I didn’t want to think about tiptoed in and played kickball against the lining of my skull.Buried treasure near Barham Boulevard in Cahuenga Pass. A gripping legal mind game to ensure that my potential clients, Jon Arlen and Jonesy, got to keep their ill-located treasure trove.And each instant that I studied, despite the fact that he was out of town, Jeff Hubbard’s presence loomed large over my shoulder—even between his evening phone calls to check how we were getting along. It didn’t help that Lexie and I stayed at Jeff ’s to keep Odin company, as part of my paid pet-sitting gig.What if we moved in permanently?Concentrate on civil and criminal sanctions, Kendra!And then the time came for me to leave Lexie at Jeff ’s with Odin and head the Beamer deep into the Valley, toward Cal State Northridge and the ethics exam.It took two tedious hours. All multiple choice—like that TV game show where no one ever wins the million dollars—and I could only conjecture how well I did. In a room full of other aspiring attorneys sweating it out, I read each factual situation as carefully as if my career depended on it—which it did. I anguished over the described conduct, then selected which choice I thought was correct. Would the conduct toss the hypothetical legal professional deep into a boiling cauldron of ethics enigmas, or was it okay to do without worrying about appalling consequences?Usually, two answers seemed conceivably correct. I used my best legal judgment about which eye to close while letting my finger drop onto the response to choose.When done, I felt as drained as if I’d run a thousand-yard dash. How did I think I did? Who knew? I was a damned good litigator, could argue my way through any issue and make a credible showing for a client’s most favorable position. But I couldn’t talk my way out of a multiple-choice problem.Results would be mailed in four weeks. I’d have to wait until then to find out. GOOD THING MY Beamer was filled with gas, for it had all the energy between us late that afternoon. I still had to do normal pet-sitting rounds, and it seemed as if all my charges had saved up their extra energy until a time when I was utterly exhausted. Dogs that had hitherto heeled without balking took up barking on their walks and lunging at cawing crows, who simply took wing and soared off with taunting cackles. Litter-accustomed cats had chosen to shun habitual boxes and leave smelly urine samples all over their owners’ homes.And Jeff would be home that night.I wasn’t ready to face him, for I hadn’t had sufficient time to consider his cohabitation offer. Not that I’d ignored the idea—not when it sat on my back and shrieked for attention at the most awful times. But I’d not come to a decision.And so, when I was finally done with everything pet-related, including an enervating late-afternoon outing with Widget, I fed Odin and scrammed from Jeff ’s with Lexie.We’d spend that night in our own digs. I’d have to face Jeff the next day, but surely it would be easier while wide awake.Only, when Lexie and I reached our home in the hills, it was obvious that Charlotte and Yul had chosen to throw one of their inevitable, irritating shindigs. The front gate was open, against all lease rules. The Beamer’s reserved parking spot was subject to a squatter—a Porsche Carrera that could only give my poor, ten-year-old car an inferiority complex.
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I parked on the street, trying to pump up what energy still resided in my downtrodden body, snapped Lexie onto her leash, and headed home.I was stopped almost immediately by the across-the-street neighbor, Phil Ashler. “Hi, Kendra,” the thin fellow said. He wore a starchy white shirt and beige trousers, and in one hand he carried a bottle of wine. His thin silver hair was slicked back with shiny gel. “Glad you’re here. I wasn’t sure which neighbors might be at this party.”“I’m not—” I began, but the words were smothered inside me by a huge, hard hug from our would-be hostess—Charlotte.“Oh, Kendra, I’m so glad you’re here.” That thought was becoming a bit repetitious. “I’ve invited a whole bunch of suspects in Chad’s murder over tonight. I figure the cops will want to arrest more than a few ferrets and will eventually go after us and anyone else who could have killed in their name. That’s when they’ll arrest one or all of us. Oh, Kendra.” Her voice ramped up into a wail, and she hugged me again, her pale but powerful perfume wafting about us.When Charlotte first rented my nice, large house, I used to shudder each time she graced me with an enthusiastic embrace. Hugging was a showbiz thing—and definitely uncomfortable for a cynical litigator like me.But as I’d gotten to know Charlotte, I came to realize that gusto for everything around her was as natural as the way the long, black braid down her back swayed the opposite way from her rump when she sashayed. Her penchant for throwing parties with the most ridiculous of rationales was still tedious, especially on nights when I had no intention of joining the ruckus but ached for sleep in my upstairs apartment.But a party for possible murder suspects? Talk about bizarre. Especially since Charlotte had chosen to wear stripes. Not the old-fashioned jailhouse kind, at least, but a slinky black-and-white creation decorated with diagonal bands.On the other hand, I’d promised Charlotte I’d see what I could do to take the heat off all my tenants—two-legged and four—as Detective Noralles’s top suspects. For me to question some of the possible perpetrators tonight seemed a good thing.“Am I included?” Phil Ashler inquired of Charlotte, hiding his bottle behind his back.“Sure,” she said, pulling away from me. “Oh, you mean do I think you’re a potential suspect? No, you’re just invited because you’re such a dear neighbor.” Phil’s turn for a big hug, which was fine with me. Him, too, I guessed, by the way his sallow complexion shifted to bright pink. I watched Phil as Charlotte led him inside, then I took Lexie up to our apartment.Suddenly, I’d gotten my second wind. Me, a party animal? Perish the thought. But I had people to watch. I washed my frazzled face, added a smattering of makeup to mask the pastiness, then headed back toward my main house.I realized that days had passed without my hearing squat from Ike Janus’s insurance company about paying to heal my house’s wounds. I’d remind him tonight if he was here. Worst case, I’d wait till my law license was restored and then suggest strongly to the insurer how much I loved to sue.Plus, it had been exactly a week ago when I’d last attended a party at Charlotte’s. That had been post-ferret finding, but pre-Chad murder.Most of the same cast of characters was in attendance. Neighbors Tilla and Hal Tomason and Lyle Urquard had already arrived and tarried in the kitchen with tall glasses in their hands. This time, when I went into the living room, I recognized a couple of reality-show players whom Tilla had eagerly identified to me, including the south-of-the-border music phenomenon Philipe Pellera and the next-to-last-guy-standing in Charlotte’s show—tall, blond Sven Broman.“There are a couple of people I want to introduce you to,” said a soft voice in my ear. I didn’t have to turn to know it was Charlotte, for I recognized her signature costly scent. “Just in case, though, can you recommend a lawyer to me? That Detective Noralles keeps smiling at me every time I see the guy, so I figure he either wants to do a reality show with me or he’s waiting for me to confess and clear the sweet little ferrets altogether. Either way, I’m afraid it’s about time I hired a lawyer.”“Sure,” I told her. I jotted Esther Ickes’ number on a cocktail napkin. Esther was an incredibly effective attorney who’d kept me from being arrested for murder when I’d skated on the thinnest of criminally laced ice. Since I still didn’t seem to be a suspect this time, I figured I could share her.Charlotte then urged me to the conversation area where Yul stood among a crowd. He was clad in a shiny black sport coat that contrasted sexily with his sleek golden hair. In this crowd, his height didn’t stand out, but he still was a handsome hunk.“Everyone, here’s Kendra,” gushed Charlotte. And then she introduced me to a plethora of people, most of whose names I forgot as fast as she fed them to me.Except for two. One was Dave Driscoll, the guy I knew was Chad Chatsworth’s former apartment mate. The other was Trudi Norman. She was the girl Chad had allegedly left behind to find fame and fortune on the West Coast. Instead, if Charlotte was to be believed, Trudi had plotted every instant of Chad’s reality TV career. Had she plotted his murder, too?Dave was as geeky as I’d been led to believe—not very tall, very bespectacled, and teeth as buck as a bunny rabbit’s. He stuck out a hand that turned out to be clammy and shook mine with a smile. “Welcome to my roommate’s unofficial wake, Kendra,” he said. His voice was nasal but not unpleasant. “And also the first meeting of the Chad Chatsworth Murder Suspects Pre-Prison Fraternity.”“That’s not funny, Dave,” snapped Trudi. She was about my height—that is to say, five-five, considerably shorter than Charlotte. Her hair was an even mousier brown than my natural, unhighlighted shade, the way I currently wore it now that my income was no longer litigator-enhanced. Where mine was shoulder-length and somewhat sassy, hers was blunt cut and rather blah. But she had a sweet face, makeup-free except for some soft lip gloss, and a smattering of freckles across her nose. Sweet and wholesome-looking. Were her looks deceiving?“Who’s laughing,” Dave countered, then bent down and gave her a fast, loud kiss on the cheek.And then it was Trudi laughing, if a little.No better time than the present to form an opinion about her involvement. I sidled my way beside Trudi, then said to her softly and sincerely, “I understand that Chad and you were close.”She nodded, tears in her pale brown eyes. “I even encouraged him to try to get on one of those shows, since it was his dream.” Or hers? Charlotte had said his old girlfriend pushed him into it. That same old girlfriend sighed and stared down at the floor. “What a nightmare.”“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, not totally swayed by her show of sorrow. “I’m the one who found him, you know.”She glanced up immediately. “No, I didn’t know. Was he—I mean, the police haven’t said much, and the media always exaggerate. But I heard there were some awful little animals all over him.” Her voice rose before she choked it off and took a stiff shot of whatever clear liquid was wetting the inside of her glass. By the smell of it, it wasn’t water.“I think the ferrets got a bum rap,” I told her. “Have you ever seen any? They’re actually kind of cute.”“If you happen to like weasels,” she countered with a shudder. “Where I come from, they’re sometimes shot on sight to keep them from getting in with the chickens.”“Oh, do you live on a farm?” If so, no matter what she seemed to think about the “awful little animals,” if she’d been raised near livestock, she might not have been loath to loose the ferrets and scatter their food over the remains of the rascal who’d loved, and possibly left, her.“No, though there are a lot in the area in Nebraska where I grew up. I work at my father’s plant nursery. So did Chad. That’s where we met.”“I see.” Well, that didn’t foreclose the possibility that she had the fearlessness of a farm girl.“A toast!” came a shout from nearby, and Dave Driscoll raised his glass. Geek or not, he was the life of tonight’s party, especially when he proposed his paean to his former roommate: “To Chad Chatsworth, reality show winner, loser in love, and loser in life. Chad, wherever you are, we miss you.Imiss you, though I have to say I don’t miss your puking in our powder room all night after drinking and singing ribald songs to Charlotte in the solitude of our apartment, songs she’ll never hear—and a good thing, too. Anyhow, the joke’s on us, roomie, since every one of us is a possible suspect in your murder. Care to say a few words, Chad, and let the rest of us off the hook?”Dave grew silent, as did the crowd around him. In a moment, though, the silence was broken by a crack from none other than Yul Silva, who almost never said more than a word or two at a time. “You forgot some witnesses, Dave.” His speech was slurred, and I realized he was breaking his own tradition thanks to courage cadged from a bottle. “Here’s to my poor pals the ferrets. If we don’t figure out who really killed you, Chad, you may wind up with ferret companions in hell, and though you belong there, they don’t. Now, Chad, is the time to speak up.”Again, silence.Again, no chatter from Chad’s unseen shade spewed out to identify his slayer.Fascinating evening, I thought. But I doubted I’d learn anything more now to help me keep my promise to figure out what really happened.But I had made some interesting acquaintances. I’d consider whom to follow up with, and how.I hung out only a short while longer before heading to my apartment, where Lexie was waiting. MUCH LATER, AS I lay in bed and Lexie lay on me, my phone rang. I answered.“Kendra, it’s Jeff.” As if I couldn’t tell. “I was hoping you’d be here waiting for me tonight.”I didn’t want to explain the real reason I’d fled his domicile that evening, so I told him about Charlotte’s party. “I need more information to figure out who set up the ferrets that night,” I finished. “I’ve a few more suspects in mind now, thanks to Charlotte’s ingenuity.”“And you think you’ll be able to keep the ferrets from being put down and Charlotte from being arrested?”“I’m going to try,” I said. Gad, but it was good to hear his voice. I wondered if I’d made a mistake after all, still leaving miles, though fewer, between us this way.As if reading my mind, or sharing my sentiments—maybe a bit of both—Jeff said, “I’ll miss you tonight. Have you thought about what I said?”“I sure have,” I admitted. It was a good thing he didn’t urge an answer right then and there, or I’d have agreed to nearly anything. And I wasn’t sure I wanted that kind of commitment—was I?“Well, we’ll talk about it tomorrow night when we’re together. Okay?”“Okay.”And maybe then, when I was rested and rational and ready to think, I’d nevertheless say yes.Chapter FifteenI ALMOST OVERSLEPT the next morning. That’s what came of trying to get to sleep with so much on my mind—tryingbeing the operative word till three A.M. or after.With my pet-sitting charges stuck in their homes, legs crossed and tummies rumbling, I had to speed my own spaniel through her morning routine. I apologized profusely to Lexie as I plopped her bowl of premium breakfast kibble before her even as I climbed into my clothes. Good thing she already wore her fur coat without my help. Of course, I owed it a firm brushing, but that could wait till later.Her usual moderately long walk turned into a fast near-run on the hills around our street. As we returned, I saw someone sneaking around our gate. A thief breaking in?No, a guest from last night breaking out, or at least so it appeared. Philipe Pellera, Latino singing legend, gyration king of the cosmos, was finally leaving Charlotte’s party.An opportunity for me to ask about his knowledge of Chad Chatsworth?Why not? I ignored the biggest reason, apologizing mutely in my mind to all the animals in my care. My errant late-night attention was focused on the suspects I’d spoken to last night, including his former roomie Dave Driscoll, and his ostensibly dumped damsel Trudi Norman. I’d not talked to Philipe about any interest he might have had in framing the ferrets while seeking Chad’s demise. Till now.“Hi.” I edged up to him at the gate. He wore the same white shirt and dark trousers as last night, the oodles of wrinkles in both suggesting he’d slept in them. “Guess I left the party too early. Are Charlotte and Yul awake?”I looked into his dark bedroom eyes and wondered if I ought to have hung around for last night’s orgy. If there’d been one. But what woman could have resisted, having Pellera not only in their dreams but in the same house?“I think so,” he said in his sexy Spanish accent. “I did not want to disturb them, though, so I just snuck out.” He gave me a cute conspiratorial smile that made my insides turn sloppy.“Silly reason for a party, though, don’t you think?” I managed to maneuver Lexie and her leash so we blocked Pellera’s path to the street. “I mean, inviting everyone they knew who could have cheered on the ferrets.”“The ferrets did nothing wrong, Kendra, and you know it.” The deep male voice that slapped at me hadn’t a hint of Spanish in it. I looked beyond Philipe to see Yul stalking toward us, jeans hugging his hips beneath his tight tank top. I knew he was annoyed from the number of words he’d hurled into his sentence.“Hey, I saw what I saw,” I replied truthfully and with a wince. As much as I’d like to clear the ferrets from all accusations, theyhadgnawed on Chad. What I didn’t know was whether they’d be made to pay. “Did you know anything about Chad that would cause you to kill him, Philipe?” I knew what Yul’s answer would have to be. “I mean, if the ferrets were really framed.”I grinned at the obvious humor on the performer’s face. “Do you think I would tell you if that was so?” He gave me a wink that made my tibia and fibula go flaccid.
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“Probably not,” I admitted as Charlotte and Yul formed a phalanx around their former guest. “But I promised Charlotte I’d try to help her learn what really happened.”She wore a different dressing gown from the one I’d seen her in the other day. Instead of peach with matching mules, this one was nearly diaphanous white, which again put me in mind of whether I’d missed one heck of an orgy.And then I recalled another, larger part of what had kept me from sleeping in the first place—Jeff. Good thing I’d hung out at my own place after all. Participation in an orgy with the nearest beautiful people would only have complicated my consideration of his offer even further. And after all, I hadn’t even been invited to that part of the party.“I do not want Charlotte or Yul to take any blame,” Philipe said. “Or the ferrets, for that matter.” I looked at him sharply, for his words and tone suggested he wouldn’t want them to take the blame forhim.Or was that simply my interpretation of his nonnative English? He turned to look at his friends. “But that new deal Chad was working on, Charlotte, that he wished for you to join him in—it could have made you a lot more money than your staying away from him to keep your reality show winnings, right?”“I wouldn’t know,” she said frostily, looking down her perfect nose at Philipe. Which was hard to do, since he had her by at least half a foot. “I didn’t let him tell me about it.”“He told me,” Yul said. “Too speculative.” Wow, a big word for him. “Possibilities, yes. But no guarantees his deal would be better than Charlotte’s for another reality show. Who knew?”“Who indeed?” I queried. “And you described his ideas to Charlotte, I trust?”“Of course he did,” she replied.“And they were . . . ?” I prompted, curious.“Private,” Charlotte responded.Oh, well. “So who do you think killed Chad if it wasn’t Charlotte or Yul setting up the ferrets?” I asked, turning back to Philipe.He put his long, elegant fingers up to ward off any insinuations on my part. “Not me, of course,” he said.“Of course. But you knew him?”“Yes. He had approached me with his ideas, too.” His dark eyebrows rose. “They had possibilities—several different ones, of course, to let the producers choose, but all, he said, would lead to a different kind of reality show. And all would star me.”“Not Chad himself?”“I would draw a bigger audience, because I am more famous,” he said with a glorious smile. “Or at least I was, until he was killed in so interesting a manner.”Surely that wasn’t envy I heard. “What will happen to his ideas now?” I asked.He shrugged sexy shoulders in an expressive gesture that would make his fans swoon. “I don’t know. He fired me from his ideas before they got this far.”Ah-ha! He did have a motive for murder—maybe.“Did he get another singer involved?”“Sure did,” Yul cut in. “The guy was a bastard.”I didn’t deign to ask if he meant figuratively or literally. Philipe was working his way around Lexie and her leash, and I was fast losing my opportunity.“Are you still having security problems?” I blurted out.That stopped him. “What do you mean?”“I happen to know you hired a private investigator who specializes in security matters. Is everything all right?” Of course, I was taking a stab without having all the facts—just the sight of Pellera’s name on a file box at Jeff ’s that I hadn’t dared to peek into. Could have meant anything. Still . . .“Everything is fine,” Pellera retorted in a tone that contradicted his comment. “I will see you soon, Charlotte and Yul.” With that, he managed to disentangle himself and dash away—nearly into the path of bicyclist Lyle Urquard.Of course Lyle’s wheels slipped out from under him, and he slid on the street. Lexie and I dashed toward him, just in time to keep him from totally dumping off his cycle.When he was steadied, he slid off and thanked me, then hurried to the still-open front gate. “Hi,” he called to Charlotte and Yul. “Thanks again for inviting me to the party last night. I had a great time.” He reached Charlotte and said with a huge, jaw-stretching smile, “When’s the next one?”“Soon,” she replied, though she looked more glum than glad about it. “If we’re not arrested first. Thanks for trying, Kendra, but I think Lexie and you are barking up a lot of wrong trees.” She slid the corner of her mouth up as if in appreciation at her own lame jab at a joke, then said, “I’ll let you know about the next party, Lyle, if there is one. Come on, Yul. I want to get dressed.”And I needed to get my pet-sitting day started. I warned Charlotte that a contractor was coming to look at the Hummer damage. Amazingly, Ike Janus’s insurance company had finally returned a call and told me to expect an adjuster, since they needed an estimate.And then, with a few amenities hurled at Lyle, I bundled Lexie into the Beamer and we were off. FORTUNATELY, ONLY A few manageable messes awaited me despite my lateness. I left Lexie locked in the Beamer at each house, since combining her with my charges always took more time. Because it was November, with rain threatening even this early in the season, I didn’t have to find shade for her. As far as I could tell, the Los Angeles basin wasallshade, thanks to the layer of low-level clouds shrouding it. The air was comfortably cool.As I cleaned, fed, walked, and chatted with my charges, I also kept my mind on my three most major dilemmas of the day—which I’d also stuck, in order, on one of my inevitable lists. Though I left the list in the car with Lexie, I’d updated it on my way while stopped at traffic lights, so its contents remained fresh in my memory.Could I solve Chad Chatsworth’s murder? My queries last night and this morning had seemed lame. Just because Charlotte was in an odd mood and had invited everyone she figured might be a suspect didn’t mean thatallpossible killers had made her guest list. But it had included everyone I could think of, too—each inserted on my jotted agenda for investigation.Except, of course, the ferrets. I didn’t know them by name, assuming they had names. I’d have to check with Yul.Which would also slip me an opening to talk to him further about his ferrets. I didn’t know all that Noralles did about Chad’s death, but how much could the little critters possibly have contributed to the act? I’d ask when I found Yul separate from Charlotte—a rare occurrence.“Okay,” I told Lexie as I slid into the Beamer and started the engine. “We’re making progress. Halfway through our visits, I think. Maybe we’ll have time to stop at Darryl’s later.” I slid us out of our parking space and onto the quiet residential street toward our next stop. My mind continued to maneuver around its issues du jour.My Jeff situation would continue this evening, since he was in town and so was I. I could no longer use studying as an excuse to keep clear of him, even if I wanted to. Which I didn’t. I had to face him and the quandary he’d stuck me in. I wouldn’t necessarily need to hand him an answer yet. But I did have to hang out with him with the question dangling in my mind, to see how I reacted. How he did, too. He could have changed his mind by now. It had been days since he’d blurted out his proposition. Maybe he’d already decided it was a blunder.As if he’d make it that easy for me.There was nothing I could do now about my ethics exam, so it hadn’t made it to the big three on my list. No, it had been jostled off by Jon Arlen and his digging dog, Jonesy.Buried treasure. Wow, what an exciting legal issue!Too bad I wasn’t, at this moment, a practicing attorney.On the other hand, nothing said one had to have an active law license to leap into some legal research—one of my favorite practices. I loved to perform research and craft clever arguments, argue them in court, and outclass the opposition. I only hoped my brain and tongue weren’t atrophied from disuse.Now that I wasn’t with the Marden firm any longer, my subscription to online legal research services was as dead as my former livelihood. I needed access to Lexis or West-law to extract legal precedent about real property law and buried treasure—better access than I could get on my own at this moment.It was Saturday. If I gained an entrée to the Marden offices, I was unlikely to meet up with anyone I wanted to avoid. “I’ll call Avvie,” I told Lexie as I pulled up to the next house—Py the python’s place. He wouldn’t mind my being another couple minutes late. He’d already ingested his mouse of the week. I was just stopping to say hi and make sure his habitat remained at comfortable temperatures for a being as cold-blooded as he.I used my cell to call Avvie’s home. I owed her a visit anyway, to meet her pig that I’d play with when she left town.“Oh, hi, Kendra,” she said.I confirmed that she’d be in town till next Tuesday, though I suggested I stop over earlier to learn my porcine duties.“Absolutely, but not today,” she told me. “I’m buried in the case that Bill and I will be doing depos on when we’re out of town. Tomorrow afternoon? I’ll introduce you then.”“Fine,” I said, then asked, “Are you heading for the office today?” I crossed my fingers, for that would be a fine opening for me to join her and log on to the legal websites.“No, I’m working at home.”I decided to dump my problem on her anyway—in general, since I had no intention of even hinting about my specific treasure-bound legal issue. I explained I’d found a nonlegal way to help a friend of Darryl’s out of a dilemma, and since then others had asked for my assistance. “There’s a problem that contains legal issues. I won’t advise the guy, of course, but I’d like to learn the law myself so I can steer him to the right attorney if he needs it. That means I have to get in some computer research time. Is there any way you can get me hooked up—preferably today?” I could pay by the search for an online legal research service, but I’d fare better financially by using a law firm’s rate.A pause as she pondered. Was she thinking of a way to let me down easily since she needed my pet-sitting services? But no, when Avvie finally spoke, she had a solution.“I’d bring you into the office today if I could, but I can’t. But I visited Borden Yurick’s new place yesterday to discuss a couple of matters that he’s taking over.”She didn’t sound happy about it, but she’d already explained that the former Marden partner had had the temerity—obviously because his brain was mush after his mental breakdown—not only to leave his former firm but to take his clients with him.“He’s leasing a suite in Encino. You’re in the Valley, aren’t you? I’ll give you his number. You can ask if he’ll let you use his online service. In fact, maybe you can work out using one of his offices and other facilities in exchange for doing work for him when you have your license back. At least that way he’ll have someone competent looking over his shoulder.”Hmmm. Avvie might have something there. The exchange, not the competency. I wasn’t about to brand Borden without checking his mental state for myself. Though as to the rest . . . “Isn’t he soured on everyone from the old firm?” I asked. “He might not even want to see me, since I’m not handing over files or information.”“He specifically asked about you when I was there,” Avvie said. “It won’t hurt to approach him.”Assuming he was even in on a Saturday. On the other hand, since he was just opening a new office, maybe he’d be about. I got his phone number from Avvie, thanked her, and set up a time to pop in at her place the next afternoon to meet Pansy.And then I called Borden.Chapter SixteenI WAS DELIGHTED with Borden’s new digs.Whereas the Marden offices were the stuff of stuffy big-firm lawyers, Borden’s was a former single-story restaurant in a trendy area of Encino, on Ventura Boulevard. Its nearly empty parking lot was as shady as the rest of L.A. that day, plus a large picture window overlooked it from the building. It seemed safe enough to leave Lexie in the Beamer, though she obviously wasn’t in love with the idea. In fact, if she’d spoken English, I suspected she’d have told me off in no uncertain terms for leaving her in the car so much that day.As it was, she simply ignored my command to stay, and I had to scramble from the car carefully so as not to let her loose. “I’m sorry,” I told her. “I’ll try not to be too long.” Which might be hard if Borden was kind enough to let me sponge off his online research service. There was a lot I wanted to look up.But it all didn’t need to be done today. I’d just have to gauge how amenable Borden might be to seeing more of me.In the meantime, Lexie announced her displeasure at being left alone by barking after me as I followed the path from parking lot to entrance. I sighed, wishing I could reason with her, but I fully forgave her temper. I’d make it up to her later, with a nice long walk, just her and me.And maybe her best friend, Odin, and my biggest conundrum, Jeff . . . ?On the street side, no big sign designated the eatery’s name, but a simple plaque near the door stated, OFFICES OF BORDEN YURICK, ATTORNEY AT LAW. Opening the portal, I popped in.I gathered that the office’s reception area was once where the restaurant’s hostess had awaited patrons. It was part of a larger open room, with a door to the right that had led to the bar—the drinking kind, not a lawyers’ group. From here I saw a long counter of wood but no booze behind it. No aroma of spilled liquor or cooking food, either. A hint of cologne, though, wafted from behind the reception desk, where a perky young person sat up straight and smiled at me. “Can I help you?” she sang.“My name is Kendra—”“Ballantyne!” she cut me off with a squeal. “Bordon said you were coming. It’s so nice to meet you.” She shot around her desk and stuck out a hand tipped in red nails that looked razor sharp. The auburn curls surrounding her face didn’t stop bouncing until she did.
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“Thanks,” I said, feeling foolishly at a loss. “What’s your name?”“Mignon. As in filet.” She giggled, rolling dark-lined blue eyes as if this was a joke as old as she was—which couldn’t have been more than twenty-two. “It means ‘dainty’ in French, which is kind of silly, don’t you think?”I had to agree, for though she wasn’t exactly overweight, certain parts of her were curvy enough beneath her frilly white shirt and pencil skirt to bring to mind someone not dainty butzaftig, a term I heard sometimes from Yiddish-speaking cronies. Meaning “built.”“Anyway, it’s so great to meet you,” she said again. “I mean, I saw you in the news when you were all over it because of those murders you supposedly committed, and then you proved who really did it! And today Borden said you were coming and that you used to work with him and—”“Down, Mignon,” commanded a soft voice from somewhere behind her. I looked over her shoulder to see Borden Yurick coming toward us from what had once been the dining room. I’d been used to seeing him in suit coat or sweater, and always with a tie. Now, he was clad in one of those soft-looking Hawaiian shirts where the material is turned inside out, and beneath it he wore white pants. All he needed was a lei around his scrawny neck to complete the effect. “Kendra. Welcome.”I’d pondered how to approach an aging man who’d recently had a mental breakdown. Supposedly. I hadn’t really been able to learn whether that was solely a fabrication of his former Marden partners to explain his defection. I figured I’d treat him as I always had—professionally polite.Which was soon squeezed out of me when he threw his arms around me and constricted me in a heartier hug than anything Charlotte—or even Py the python—had ever tried on me.“Good to see you, my dear,” he said, stepping back. His smile was as sweet and lopsided as ever, and was his third most prominent feature, after old-fashioned large-framed bifocals beneath a huge shock of silvery hair. “Come into my office. Mignon, please get us some coffee, would you?”“Right away, Borden,” she chirped.He preceded me through the former dining room, which was now refitted with an assortment of empty cubicles on the inside, with offices framed in as-yet unfinished wood toward the walls. I heard noises from inside a couple and figured they were occupied.“I’m still remodeling,” Borden remarked unnecessarily. His office was at the end, and its walls were well established, lined with oak paneling. His desk was an antique, his client chairs an eclectic assortment probably bought with the restaurant building. “Take your pick,” he told me as he took his own place behind his desk. “So what have you been up to?” he asked. “Besides what I read in the papers.”“Depending on which papers you read,” I told him, “you probably have a pretty good idea.” He hadn’t asked why when I’d asked to see him in our phone call earlier, so I decided to lead into it. “You haven’t been around the Marden offices for a while, so you might not have known when I was accused of turning over a strategy memo to the other side in some litigation. That led to the suspension of my law license. I took up pet-sitting to earn some money while figuring out what to do next, and really liked it. I’m still doing it, though I just took the MPRE yesterday, the last step in getting my license reinstated.”“And you’re not going to mention all those murder victims you keep stumbling over?”“No,” I said. “Sounds as if you heard about them anyhow.”He laughed. “At least my problems weren’t made public,” he said. “And no, before you ask, I didn’t really have a mental breakdown. It was something my esteemed colleagues made up to explain why I was cruising around the South Pacific when there were so many clients clamoring for my attention at home.” He held up a thin, bony hand. “Oh, I worried about them, all right, when I thought about who was going to be taking care of their legal matters in my absence. Bill Sergement.” He grimaced. “Royal Marden.” His grimace grew uglier as he shuddered. And then he grinned again. “I was burned out. I needed some time to get my head on straight. Isn’t that the current phrase?”“Sure,” I said.We paused in our conversation to take a couple of big, steaming mugs from Mignon. “Call if you need anything else,” she sang, then left.“So when I came back,” Borden continued as I took a sip of deep, dark, delicious coffee, “I knew exactly what I needed. That’s when I withdrew from the partnership and contacted the clients I’d brought in. And do you know, nearly all of them decided to stay with me, despite the bad-mouthing I’d received while away and especially when I returned.”“So I heard,” I replied.“Of course, everything’s still in transition. I’ve got some old—and I do mean old—law school friends coming out of retirement to join me here. We’re going to have a lot of fun practicing law. That’s what I want.”I laughed. “What an oxymoron!”“Anyway, what can I do for you, Kendra? I assume you’re not here to try to keep clients for the Marden firm.”“Not hardly,” I huffed. “I’m through with them, too. Talk about unsupportive to a junior partner they should have backed. They’re lawyers, for heaven’s sake. Didn’t they ever hear about being innocent till proven guilty?”“Only when it’s convenient for them.”“Anyway, I have to admit that Avvie was the one to suggest I call you. I intend to rent access to one of the online legal research services but I don’t want to subscribe till I have my license back and settle somewhere to practice law again.”“You mean you’re dumping pet-sitting?”“I didn’t say that. But it’s led to some other stuff.” I told him about how I’d helped Fran Korwald resolve her pug custody problem, which led to referrals of others whose issues were pet-related. “I’ve got something I might have to refer to someone with a license if things break before mine’s back, but for now I’ll do the legal research without providing advice.”“So you’d like to use my Lexis hookup?”“Yes,” I admitted. “I’ll reimburse you for the cost.”“No need. I have a flat rate. Only one little fee to you.”“Which is?”“Tell me the kind of issue it is.”“One that’s utterly fascinating,” I said, wanting to tantalize him without telling him too much. “Believe it or not, it’s about buried treasure.”He laughed, then leaned toward me, pushing his large glasses back up his elongated nose. “Okay, I’ll have Mignon give you office keys. Come in anytime to do research, at least till I tell you to stop. The only charge will be that you’ll tell me everything that client confidentiality will allow. Deal?”“Deal. Borden, you’re a dear.”“Tell that to the Marden firm folks,” he said with one of his sweet, signature grins. I SAT IN one of the makeshift offices, choosing a parking-lot view as I used one of Borden’s brand-new computers. Lexie had apparently given up trying to bark her way out of the Beamer, for I only occasionally saw her stick her nose by one of the windows I’d left cracked open.Because it was late and I still had clients to cater to, I didn’t get far into the law of treasure trove. The initial stuff, though, didn’t bode well for Jon Arlen.California Civil Code Section 829 provided that the owner of land has the right to the surface and to everything permanently situated beneath or above it. At least buried treasure was unlikely to be considered a permanent fixture by the courts.Then there were the laws relating to trespass. Jon Arlen and his dog probably had no right to be on the property where Jonesy had dug up the long-buried goods.But I was a lawyer, even if I wasn’t a practicing one at that point. Past experience, not to mention my passion, convinced me: I’d come up with excellent arguments on behalf of my client somehow—though I wasn’t sure yet what they’d be. Maybe something would come to me by the time my license was actually held once more in my eager hands. In the meantime, I’d take advantage of Borden’s kind indulgence as often as I could.While I was there, I usurped the use I’d previously made of Jeff ’s top computer geek, Althea, and also took advantage of the special subscription databases to do searches on people in Chad Chatsworth’s sphere who might’ve had cause to kill him. Not that I had the hacking prowess I posited that Althea had. I printed out pages to study later, since I was running late.I needed to go wind Widget the terrier down with his afternoon training. And then I’d get busy with the rest of my evening rounds.But I was ever so grateful to Borden for granting me the right to return at will to do whatever research I wanted, gratis. I WALKED—OR rather ran—Widget. My other pet-sitting clients had been tended to. I was about to call Jeff, to let him know Lexie and I were on our way.What would I tell him? I hoped I’d know it before I said it. But before I dialed Jeff on my cell, it sang out, “It’s My Life.” I lifted its cover.“Kendra?” A female voice blasted hysterically into my ear, and I had to pull the phone back to listen.“Yes?”“It’s Charlotte.”“Oh, good. Did the insurance adjuster come today? Did you let him in?”“Yes, of course. But that’s not why I’m calling. Please come home. That awful detective is on his way here, and I think he’s going to arrest me. Please help me.” And then she hung up.Chapter SeventeenTIME TO CALL in the big guns. And that wasn’t me.First, while driving east down Ventura, ducking cars slipping in and out of parallel parking spots, I phoned Charlotte back. She was crying too hard to hear me, so I demanded that she hand her cell to Yul.“Has she called Esther Ickes yet?” I demanded.“Who?”“Esther Ickes. The criminal lawyer who helped me when I was dangling by my fingernails, trying my damnedest not to get arrested for murder. Among other things.”“Ickes?”Yul was up to his old single-syllable tricks. “Esther Ickes,” I repeated. “Do you have a pen and paper?”“Yes.”I gave him Esther’s phone number. “Call her now,” I commanded. “Use my name and tell her the problem. As long as she’s not in court, she’s the kind who’ll drop everything and be there for a client, new or old. Got it?”“Yeah.”I edged the Beamer onto the freeway on-ramp, then juggled the phone while I merged and called Jeff. I was pretty adept at patting my head and rubbing my gut at once, when I had to. Multitasking was my middle name.“Hi, Kendra,” Jeff said immediately, obviously extracting my identity from caller ID. “Coming over tonight?” His voice was sweet, deep, and seductive, and it made me remember exactly why we had to talk—and told me what my answer should be.But not yet. “Yes,” I said, “but right now I’m calling to beg a bit of your P.I. expertise.”“You’re not solving everyone’s problems on your own?”“Don’t get smart. But do get over to my place, right away.” I filled him in on my conversation with Charlotte.“My old buddy and yours, Detective Ned Noralles?”“None other. No wonder the poor woman needs help.”“And you’d like nothing better than to show him up again on another murder investigation.”“Wouldn’t you?” I countered.“Come to think of it . . . See you at your place in a bit.”Lexie and I beat Jeff there. Esther, too. But not the neighbors, for with all the cop cars clustered around the place again, they’d begun to gather once more.“What’s going on, Kendra?” Tilla Thomason demanded as I wended slowly through them, car window open so I could call out to people to get out of my way. I’d have honked and scared them out of their skins, but they were, after all, my neighbors. I’d leave their skins—and nerves—intact.“I don’t know,” I called to Tilla. Which was somewhat true. Charlotte could have been wrong about her impending inquisition or arrest. Though if Noralles was involved, I doubted it.I parked the Beamer in its usual spot and left Lexie upstairs at our place. Then I headed for the main house.I was just in time to find a way to finagle a path for Esther Ickes to join me. She’d parked her jaunty red Jaguar somewhere on the street and seemed lost in the middle of the massing crowd. I knew better, of course. Esther might look like a frail septuagenarian, but she had the street smarts of an alley cat. Better yet, she knew her way around a court better than the criminal attorneys of which legends were made.I slunk back through the opening in my wrought-iron fence and led Esther in. As always, she was clad in a suit, this one lime green and long-skirted. Her blouse was cream crepe, which only underscored the abundance of wrinkles that added character to her aging face.“Kendra, my dear, what a delight to see you,” she said as cool as if the crowd that had grudgingly parted to let her pass weren’t there at all. “This isn’t about another legal problem of yours, is it?”“Don’t you think that after bankruptcy, alleged ethics violations, and murder accusations, I’ve had more than my share?”“Absolutely.” We reached the house’s front door. “So this isn’t about you? The man who called wasn’t clear what he wanted, but he said it was an emergency and dropped your name.”“No, it’s not me. It’s my tenant, Charlotte LaVerne.” I gave a one-minute overview of her reality show results, Chad Chatsworth, and his demise here in my house, complete with the presence of ferrets.Esther nodded sagely, causing the wattle of skin beneath her chin to bob. “I wondered. I’ve been reading about how those nasty little animals killed someone around here, but I didn’t realize it was actually at your house.”“I’m sure they were set up, and I suspect Charlotte’s soon to follow, if we don’t help her.”“We? Do you have your law license back now?”I felt myself flush. “Well, no, though I’m hoping it’s only a few weeks off, since I just took the MPRE. But Charlotte asked for my help, and I’m kind of acting as a quasi-P.I. In fact”—I stared over her shoulder at the big black Escalade creeping up the street amid the crowd—“I’m helping Jeff Hubbard. Or maybe he’s helping me. That’s him now.” I pointed behind her, and she turned.
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