Excerpt: Simmering Stu

 

Chapter 1: Lifeguard on Duty

 

YOU KNOW HOW sometimes you say something in passing, or someone says something to you in passing, and only later do you realize the statement could be taken more than one way? Like, Wow, he didn’t know how right he was! Know what I mean?

Okay, probably not. Anyway, when Martin McAuliffe turned to me and said, “Jane, I have a feeling this is going to be a memorable night,” I’m pretty sure he wasn’t anticipating the way that night really turned out. Because, I mean, come on. Who could possibly have seen that coming?

He uttered these provocative words while steering his 1966 candy-apple-red Mustang into the parking area of a historic bed-and-breakfast inn called The Cackling Goose, located across the street from the town beach in quaint Crystal Harbor, Long Island. The porch light and first-floor windows of the white clapboard inn glowed in welcome, though it was nearly eleven p.m. Moonlight shivered on the inky surface of the bay.

I can hear you wondering why, since both of us possessed perfectly serviceable homes right there in town, we’d decided to shell out the big bucks for a room at The Cackling Goose.

Well, it was really Martin’s doing. He was the one who’d insisted this grand passion that had been smoldering between us for the past year deserved to be, shall we say, brought to fulfillment at a more romantic and, yes, memorable venue than either his one-bedroom apartment above the pub where he tended bar, or the soulless McMansion I’d kinda sorta inherited the previous year.

Brought to fulfillment sounds so much more genteel than consummated, don’t you agree? (Or any of the earthier synonyms for you-know-what that just popped into your mind. I can, too, read your mind. Deal with it.) In any event, month after month of flirtatious banter and suggestive teasing had brought the slow smolder to a flash point a little earlier that night when Martin and I had shared our first Big Kiss.

I have to admit, after that kiss, he could have fulfilled me in the middle of Main Street and I wouldn’t have complained. But I agreed to do it Martin’s way because I knew it was prompted by a desire to make the night extra-special for me. Plus it was anyone’s guess how long his romantic streak would last—or indeed, how long we would last. There were no guarantees where the inscrutable and commitment-phobic padre was concerned.

That’s right, I call him padre. And lest you get the idea I’d just tangled tonsils with a man of the cloth, let me assure you it’s merely a nickname I’d bestowed, owing to the fact that during our first meeting, Martin had been impersonating a priest.

I know. Awful, right?

What’s that? You want to know what I was doing while he was rocking the priest getup? Well… I might have been attempting to steal a valuable brooch right off a corpse during a wake.

Now, don’t be like that. I was an innocent patsy. The client who’d hired me to swipe it for her had insisted it was a worthless piece of junk whose value was strictly sentimental and that she was the rightful owner. Later I learned she’d fibbed on both counts.

My name is Jane Delaney and I perform tasks for paying clients, tasks that tend to bring me into close proximity with the dearly departed. Which might have something to do with why I’m known locally as the Death Diva. Today you might find me checking up on grave upkeep on behalf of a long-distance relative. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll be helping a family divide cremated remains or arrange a burial at sea. Pretty tame stuff, right?

And okay, so there’s the occasional offbeat assignment, like the brooch thing. Oh yeah, and the time I helped a client cast a death mask of her late husband. Old-school and icky, but nowhere near the ickiest thing I’ve been paid to do. Plus it was legal and lucrative, my two most important criteria. Last year I facilitated the donation of someone’s very old, very dead giant tortoise to the Smithsonian. For that matter, I’ve arranged oodles of pet funerals. Folks have a tendency to go overboard when it comes to their furry family members, and I can definitely relate. Speaking of which…

“Did you have to bring him along?” Martin cast a disgruntled glance at Sexy Beast, whose front paws were propped on the half-open window, his superpowered canine schnoz hoovering up myriad intriguing scents. My wimpy human nose detected only fresh-mown grass on the chilly breeze, overlaid with the inn’s flowering bushes and a hint of brine from the nearby bay.

“The comment period on this issue is officially over, Padre.” Once we’d agreed on our destination, I’d made him swing by my place to pick up a few essentials, including my seven-pound apricot poodle. After all, it was too late to get a friend or neighbor to look in on him, and let’s face it, Sexy Beast—SB for short—was about as needy and neurotic as they came. If I left him alone all night, even with a pet sitter stopping by, he’d be a gibbering basket case come morning. Not to mention, I’d have felt compelled to rush home at the crack of dawn to reassure him and offer an apologetic Vienna sausage or three. I’d had Martin verify with the innkeeper that the little guy would be welcome in our room.

“Just as long as he doesn’t decide to, you know, jump on the bed or anything,” Martin grumbled as he positioned the vintage Mustang between a black Mercedes and a gold Lexus, the only other vehicles in the small gravel parking strip next to the inn. Clearly, not all of the B and B’s eight guest rooms were occupied, no surprise on a Wednesday night in early May.

I chewed back a grin. So that’s what had the padre vexed—the fear that our long-anticipated (insert your favorite euphemism here) might be interrupted by an adorable yet attention-hogging toy poodle, eager to join in his alpha female’s fun new bed game.

Yeah, new. Because let’s face it, it had been so long since yours truly had played this particular game, I’d almost forgotten the rules. If any new ones had been invented during my downtime, I was confident Martin would get me up to speed before this momentous night was through.

“Not to worry,” I assured him as I exited the car and reached into the backseat for Sexy Beast’s plush bucket bed, crammed with his toys, snacks, and supplies. The little dog, meanwhile, tested the limits of his leash, avidly exploring. “Once we get settled in, SB will conduct a swift but thorough reconnaissance and be snoring within seconds. It’s way past his usual bedtime.”

The padre appeared unconvinced. Moonlight glinted off his short, sandy hair as he retrieved my small duffel from the trunk, along with a knapsack I hadn’t noticed earlier. I could only conclude he kept a few overnight necessities packed in anticipation of last-minute sleepovers. I found that particular conclusion more than a little irksome, so I decided not to think about it.

We stood there staring at each other for long moments. The padre’s pale-blue gaze felt like a sensual caress as it traced my features, making me wonder how I appeared to him in the moonlight. He shouldered the straps of our bags and reached out to lightly stroke my strawberry-blond hair, which fell in soft layers just past my shoulders.

He leaned down and lightly brushed his lips over mine, a teasing hint of what was to come. Dear Lord, this man could make even that seemingly innocuous gesture seem triple-X-rated. He placed a warm hand on my back and steered me toward the inn’s big wraparound porch.

Reluctantly I halted in my tracks. “You know what? I’d better give this little troublemaker one last potty break. You go ahead and get us checked in. I’ll be around back.” I handed the bucket bed to Martin and checked the pockets of my suede jacket to make sure I had a plastic doggie-waste bag before leading Sexy Beast through the parking area and around the side of the big house. He marked a rosebush, a bird feeder, and a wooden fence post before we made it to the huge backyard.

The Gabbling Goose, which occupied three and a half acres of prime Crystal Harbor real estate, began life as a private home in 1652. Remarkably, the property had remained in the same family during the ensuing centuries. The original structure was left intact even as expansions and renovations turned it into the elegant establishment it was today. A couple named Shelley and Aubrey Nagel had managed the B and B since the mid-1980s with minimal staff, though they had to be getting on in years.

As I rounded the house, I saw that a multilevel wooden deck hugged the back of it. Porch lights revealed upholstered seating areas with umbrellas and a fire pit, a glass-topped dining table with a dozen chairs, a large gas grill, and an assortment of potted plants.

Beyond the deck, the manicured lawn lay in moonlit gloom, a landscape of shadows within shadows. The one exception was the freeform swimming pool some distance away, which glowed a shimmering blue-green, courtesy of underwater lights. The pool looked so inviting, I couldn’t resist ambling over to check it out. Naturally, Sexy Beast had to investigate every plant, rock… heck, every blade of grass, it seemed. I was happy to let him if it meant he’d sleep even more soundly.

A stone apron added to the pool’s rustic appeal, making me wish it would be warm enough the next day to take a dip. The forecast, however, was for a typical early spring day in the Northeast: partly sunny and just a bit too cool for swimming. I walked along the edge of the pool, squinting through the gloom, and was happy to spy what appeared to be a hot tub at the far end. I smiled, picturing the padre and myself lounging in the steamy spa tomorrow morning, sipping restorative mimosas while water jets pummeled our happily sleep-deprived bods.

Sexy Beast seemed to have run out of gas or, um, something and was no longer marking this new territory of his. He was still sniffing like crazy, of course, but I mean, he’s a dog. When I came within a few yards of the hot tub, I realized that not only were the water jets on, but it was occupied.

“Oh!” I said. “Sorry, I didn’t mean sneak up on you.”

The man didn’t react, and I bit back a chuckle, realizing he’d fallen asleep in the warm, churning water. The empty cocktail glass on the tub’s rim might have had something to do with that. He sat facing me, comfortably slumped with one arm thrown lazily over the spa’s stone coping, his head tipped back.

As much as I hated to disturb this guy’s snooze, I felt I had no choice. I imagined him sliding down into the tub, and I mean, who knew how much he’d had to drink? Did anyone else even know he was out here?

“Excuse me?” I said. No response. I moved a little closer to the tub. “Sir!” I snapped, with crisp authority. “Hello!” Nada. “Oh, for heaven’s sake,” I griped.

Sexy Beast hung back, straining against the leash and doing some griping of his own. I didn’t have time for this. I had things to do. Important things.

I can hear you snickering. Let me assure you, if you’d ever laid eyes on Martin McAuliffe, you’d know just how important those particular things were.

SB’s muttering morphed into sharp barks, which increased in pitch and volume as I snatched him up and stalked over to Sleeping Beauty. This close, the moonlight revealed him to be an older man, of medium build, probably around sixty. His mouth sagged open, but he wasn’t snoring.

I reached for his shoulder, intending to shake him awake, but something made me withdraw my hand. Partly it was my dog’s behavior. Yes, SB was a nervous little dope at the best of times, but outright hysteria for no discernible reason? He wasn’t that far gone.

So partly it was Sexy Beast’s freak-out, and partly it was something on the cool breeze. Something my wimpy human nose finally registered. Something metallic and slightly sweet.

I got a firmer grip on my shrieking dog and gave Hot Tub Guy a closer inspection. He seemed to be peacefully napping, all right, but something about the tub itself looked wrong—the stone exterior, that is, under and behind his head. I peered around and saw that black paint had pooled on the coping and was dripping down the outside of the tub to puddle at its base.

Oh, look at you, so full of yourself. I know what you’re thinking. Jane, don’t you know blood appears black in moonlight? Well, sure, I’d heard that, too, but it’s one of those bizarre factoids you never expect to be able to either verify or disprove.

You will be happy to know I can now verify it, so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

Actually, the primitive, reptilian part of my brain verified it a scant couple of seconds before the civilized, mimosa-sipping part caught up. That was all the time it took for reptilian Jane to stumble away from Dead Hot Tub Guy, trip over SB’s trailing leash, and execute a face-stinging belly flop in the deep end of the swimming pool.

You know what you don’t want to be wearing at a time like that? You don’t want to be wearing a heavy suede jacket. I struggled to tread water, whipping my head around, blinded by the wet hair plastered to my face. “Sexy Beast!” He’d sailed out of my arms as I fell, landing somewhere in the pool. “SB, where are you!”

My poor little dog had never learned to swim. Considering how much he detested baths and ran for cover at the first raindrop, I’d always figured it was a lost cause. And yeah, I know poodles have a long and noble history as water retrievers—well, the big standard poodles anyway. What can I tell you? There weren’t enough Vienna sausages in the world to convince my pampered pooch to get his dainty little paws wet.

“Sexy Beast! Where the hell are you?” Now who was hysterical? Imagine my relief when my panic-stricken cry was answered by a single imperious bark. I finally managed to push the hair out of my face and spied SB at last, halfway down the pool, his little body backlit by the underwater lights.

He was swimming directly toward me, flawlessly dog paddling as if he’d been doing it his whole life. He barked again, in that commanding tone that said: Stay where you are, Jane. I’m coming for you.

Good grief. Well, it would have been hard to argue that SB was the one who needed saving, considering all the flailing and sputtering I was doing. He reached me in record time, latched on to the collar of my jacket, and started tugging me toward the side of the pool.

“What’s all the hollering about?” It was the padre, ambling across the lawn toward us.

Oh good, I was afraid I wouldn’t have an opportunity to completely humiliate myself tonight.

“What are you doing in the pool, Jane?” He reached the edge at the same time I did, and lifted Sexy Beast out. The little furball vigorously shook himself, a spectacular display that progressed from nose to tail. A miracle of physics.

“Sexy Beast fell in,” I said, as I made an ungainly attempt to heave myself onto the stone ledge. “What choice did I have? I had to, you know, go in after him.”

Martin wore a wry smile. “What do you say, SB? Is that how it happened?”

“Shut up and help me.” I was making zero progress on my own.

He grabbed hold of my arms and started to lift me out. In an amused whisper, he said, “Don’t know whether you noticed, but there’s a guy asleep in the hot tub over there.”

“He’s not asleep, Padre. That man is deceased.”

“What?” Martin let go of me and sprinted over to the hot tub, while I tumbled back into the cold water. Sexy Beast muttered something in Poodle and jumped in after me.

I gave up on trying to haul myself out in my sodden clothes. Instead I pulled myself along the edge of the pool to the shallow end and its idiot-proof steps. And yes, Sexy Beast played lifeguard yet again, keeping a firm grip on my jacket collar the whole time. I watched enviously as he gave himself another thorough, highly efficient shake.

Shivering, trailing water in my wake, I joined the padre at the hot tub, where he’d already verified my diagnosis of Very Dead and was finishing up a call to 911.

“I’ll wait out here for the cops.” He was maddeningly calm. “You go inside and let Shelley and Aubrey know what happened. Our bags are still in the lobby. You can change into dry clothes. I have a feeling we’re going to be here awhile.”

But not in the way we’d planned. Dang it all!

“You saw the…?” I gestured vaguely toward the, ahem, black paint.

“I saw.” Martin sighed. “I know this guy, Jane.”

“You do?” I said, wide-eyed. “Who is he?”

“His name is Stu Ruskin. I was his bodyguard.”


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