“You’re sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong, Y bitch.”
The man’s words scraped against my ear. The blade of his knife nicked my skin. I felt a wet, warm drop on my neck, and I didn’t have to think twice to know what it was.
I would have gulped, but I was afraid if I did, my throat would end up even closer to that knife blade.
One of my attacker’s arms was around me, and he yanked me back so fast, my head snapped. “Stay out of it,” he said.
And what did I do? Well, that’s the weird thing, and I guess it means I’ve been in the private investigation business a little too long. Instead of being scared out of my mind like any normal person would be, I was busy trying to think if I’d ever heard his voice before.
I couldn’t place it, and a second after I realized it, I also knew it didn’t matter.
What did matter, see, was me getting out of this little predicament alive.
As far as I could tell, the only way to do that was to take matters into my own hands.
I am not athletic, but remember, I had once taken years of dance lessons. I liked the costumes and, of course, the spotlight, but I could never keep the routines straight, and I hated to practice. Poor Mademoiselle Adrienne, my dance instructor, had despaired of me. Yet somehow, in this the most unlikely of moments, it all came rushing back. In one quick movement (more lurch than en avant), I shot forward just enough to give myself a little momentum, then stepped back with that little ballon bounce Mademoiselle always wanted from me and never got, and slammed my foot against my attacker’s instep. He was caught off guard just long enough to loosen his hold, and when he did, I darted forward, spun around with as much pizzazz as if I was executing an allegro, slipped my purse from my shoulder, and swung. Hard.
Thank goodness for that box we’d snarfed out of the Team One picnic basket. It was nice and hard, and the one side that wasn’t rotted away had a pointy corner. The guy was wearing a ski mask so there was no way I could see his face. I could, however, watch his eyes spin when I hit him in the side of the head.
He grunted a curse, and I took off like a ballerina bat out of hell. I wasn’t dumb enough to stop and try to unlock the door into my apartment building. Instead, I raced straight ahead to the corner where my street intersected with Mayfield Road, the heart of Cleveland’s Little Italy neighborhood. It was a beautiful Thursday evening in the middle of the summer, and I knew the restaurants and bars up and down the street would be busy with tourists and diners. There was safety in numbers, and feeling safer in an area where bistro tables lined the sidewalks and people all around me chatted and sipped wine, I stopped long enough to look over my shoulder.
There was no sign of the man with the knife.
That was the coda of my little performance.
Mademoiselle Adrienne would have been proud.
The next morning I had a meeting with Ella at Garden View to discuss the art show set up, and I got there early. I sat at my desk, thinking about what I’d been thinking about all night: Who had I offended? I pulled out a yellow legal pad and wrote down my theories while I fingered the tiny round bandage I’d stuck on my neck to hide the nick from the attacker’s knife. Between him and Sammi, my neck looked like I worked the women’s wrestling circuit.
Did Bad Dog Raphael send the guy with the knife?
I wrote that at the top of page one.
Or was it Reno Bob, feeling a little nervous thanks to all the questions I’d asked?
That was the heading I scribbled on page two.
Did the attack outside my apartment have something to do with the box and the coin I took out of my purse the minute I got home and hid under my bed?
I wrote that on page three, then crossed out the line about where the box was hidden, just in case somebody who might be after the coin got a look at my legal pad.
Maybe Team One has a hit man on staff and the nerve to send him to snuff me out because we raided their precious picnic baskets?
I tore page four from the pad, wadded it into a ball, and tossed it in the wastebasket. At the same time, I stifled a yarn.
In spite of the heroic (not to mention artistic) stand I’d taken against that knife-wielding creep, I’d spent most of the night too wired to sleep and feeling like a victim. Believe me, I didn’t like it one bit. Helpless and frightened does not look good on me. But facts are facts, and the fact is, once I was safely home, I checked three times to make sure my door was locked. I pushed my couch up against it so nobody could kick it down and get to me. I slept with one eye open. And the lights on. And the blinds shut. And the curtains closed.
The good news is that, apparently, even feeling like a victim has its upside. It made me think like a victim, and thinking like a victim, I just naturally thought about Vera Blaine.
What if Vera’s death didn’t have anything to do with Jefferson Lamar?
I wrote this at the top of a new page.
What if Lamar was just the unlucky sucker who got blamed? What if no one wanted to frame him? What if…
I chewed on the end of my pen, thinking about the right way to word my question so that it would stay clear in my head.
What if someone really just wanted Vera Blaine to die?
This was not a new thought. It had first occurred to me during the long, restless night. When I finally gave up even trying to fall asleep, I went into my kitchen, grabbed a pint of Ben & Jerry’s Cherry Garcia (it was Quinn’s favorite, but since it didn’t look like he was going to be around to eat it any time soon, I figured I might as well), and went through the police file about Vera’s death one more time.
This time, I read her obituary carefully and found out she was the daughter of George and Natalie Blaine, that she didn’t have any siblings, that she had once been a Girl Scout, and-most important-that she was buried right there at Garden View.
Which explains why I was at the cemetery a full hour and a half before I was supposed to meet with Ella.
I flicked on my computer and looked up Vera’s burial information, found the section and grave number, printed it out so I wouldn’t forget, and headed outside. That early on a Friday morning, there weren’t any visitors around, but I heard the hum of the motors as the grounds crew cut the grass.
They were working in the oldest sections of the cemetery. I headed in the other direction and found Vera’s grave tucked between a row of evergreens and a bank of rhododendrons long past blooming. It was marked by a simple blush-colored slab of granite with the inscription: OUR DAUGHTER, VERA BLAINE. 1962-1984. There was no mention of murder.
As ready as I’d ever be, I rubbed my hands together, drew in a breath, closed my eyes, and whispered, “Vera?” Yeah, I’ll admit it, I felt goofy standing there trying to communicate with the dead. Until I reminded myself that if anyone has the right, it’s me. I carry the burden of this stupid Gift. The dead bug me all the time. The least they can do is show up when I need them.
Only Vera didn’t.
I swallowed down my irritation and tried again. “Vera, it’s me, Pepper Martin. You might have heard about me over on the Other Side. I need to talk to you.”
Before I could even stop to think about what I was doing, I found myself wishing Dan Callahan was around.
Right before I told myself to get a grip.
What? I’ve never mentioned Dan? Well, that’s hardly surprising. Dan’s basically the reason I got shot back in Chicago, so I’m justified having issues when it comes to him. Dan’s also…
Honestly, I can’t say what Dan is. He’s a friend. He was almost a lover. He’s been a pain ever since I met him because he lied to me about who-and what-he really is.
Try as I might to think logically, when I thought about Dan, logic flew out the window.
At one time, I thought he liked me, then I figured he was just following me around because he suspected I could commune with the dear ol’ not-so-departed, then I found out he really did like me, a whole lot. Only by that time it wasn’t really me he really liked, it was someone he thought was me, and-
Anyway, the whole thing is pretty complicated. What mattered at this point, though, was that Dan knew a lot about the way the woo-woo world works. If he were there with me, he might have been able to help me scare up Vera. But he wasn’t. That’s because after all that ugly stuff went down in Chicago and I finally confessed about my Gift, I thought Dan would be all over me, ready to tap into it and use my special talents.
Only he didn’t.
In fact, he told me he understood that I needed some space, and some time to recover from everything I’d been through-right before he left the country.
And I’m supposed to stay mad at a guy as sensitive as that?
Warm and fuzzy feelings aside, Dan would know how to get in touch with Vera, and that’s what I needed, someone who could give me firsthand information about why she’d really died.
I’d already given up hope of that ever happening when a car pulled up the road and parked behind mine. Two people got out, a man and a woman. The man was tall and balding. He was wearing plaid pants and a golf shirt. The woman was dressed in a summery printed skirt and a T-shirt as white as her hair. She was small and so frail-looking, I worried that the next brisk wind might blow her right away. They headed in my direction.
What were the chances I’d just gotten the answer to my prayers? Slim and none, I suspected, but I waited anyway. It must have been my lucky day. The woman carried a bunch of daisies and a bottle of water, and she filled the flower holder next to Vera’s grave and set the bouquet in it.
I stepped forward. “Are you Vera’s parents?”
The woman nodded. “I’m Natalie.” She looked at the man at her side. “This is George. And you…” Natalie studied me through filmy eyes. “You’re not one of Vera’s friends. You can’t be. You’re too young.”
“Actually, I work here at Garden View. I’ve been doing some research about Vera. About her murder.”
The word was enough to cause George to wince and make Natalie suddenly look older and as fragile as the flowers in the vase at our feet. George’s expression was rigid. Natalie blinked away a tear. “She was a beautiful girl,” she said. “Everybody loved her.”
“Not everybody.” George didn’t like my comment. I could tell from the way his jaw tightened. Natalie brushed her hand over her cheeks. I couldn’t let that stop me. “The fact that she was murdered pretty much means somebody didn’t like her,” I said.
Natalie shook herself away from the memories, and with George’s help, she got down on her knees and pulled a couple clumps of shaggy grass away from Vera’s headstone. “Someone went to jail for it.”
“You said someone. You didn’t say the killer.”
Her head snapped up. “He was tried and convicted.”
“But you don’t think he did it.”
It wasn’t a question, but I hoped they’d answer it, anyway.
“We told the police about Steve,” George said, his gaze fixed to the horizon. “I guess they didn’t listen.”
“Steve. Steve Ganley.” I’d seen the name listed in the file of people who’d been interviewed after Vera’s murder. “He was-”
“She called him her boyfriend.” Natalie rumbled a little harrumph, and I knew exactly what that meant. I’d heard my mother use that same tone when she didn’t approve of whatever boy I’d been dating at the time.
“You didn’t like him.” I didn’t care which of them answered, so I looked from Natalie to George.
“Had a temper.” George jingled the change in his pocket. “We told the police that, too. We thought once she moved away from Cleveland and took that job down there at Central State-”
“We thought they’d stop seeing each other. But Vera…” As if she still couldn’t understand it, Natalie shook her head. “There’s no accounting for taste. That’s what I always told George. I told him that maybe there was something about Steve we just didn’t understand, some good qualities Vera had discovered.”
“But you never saw any of them.”
The jingling from George’s pocket grew louder. “Never saw much of anything from him,” he said. “He wouldn’t show his face around our place, not after the first time we saw bruises on our Vera’s arm.”
“He hit her?”
Natalie chewed her lower lip. It was up to George to tell the rest of the story. “Vera said it was an accident. She said he didn’t mean it. But I think-”
“We told her she should stop coming back and forth to Cleveland to see him.” Natalie struggled to haul herself to her feet, and I gave her a hand. “We begged her to stop letting him go down to her apartment near Central State to visit. I don’t think she ever listened.”
“So you think he was the one she was meeting at the Lake View Motel that night?” It was a sensitive question, but I couldn’t afford to shy away from it. “Did you tell the cops that?”
“We told the police everything. They said…” George shrugged. “They said it wasn’t him.” He swigged his nose. “Doesn’t matter anymore. None of it. Not anymore.”
I didn’t argue with him, even though I knew he was wrong. What really mattered was that he’d given me another piece of the puzzle that was Vera Blaine’s murder, and another name I could check in the file I’d left at home.
Until then, I went back to the office and got back on the Internet. I didn’t know if the Steve Ganley I found in the Cleveland phone book listing was the same man who’d once bruised Vera Blaine’s arm, but I intended to find out. I wrote down the business address listed, tucked the paper in my purse, and met Ella in the conference room to go over the details of the art show.
She was predictably ecstatic about the idea, and when she volunteered to do all she could to help promote the event, I wasn’t about to argue.
I had other things to take care of.
I left Garden View and stopped at Monroe Street long enough to let my team know I had someplace to go and I’d be back in an hour or so. All would have gone as planned if they hadn’t just planted a couple shrubs. The dirt was newly turned, the sprinklers were on, and my feet went out from under me. My purse flew in one direction, and I went down in the other. In a heap, right in the mud.
Absalom was standing close by. He grabbed my arm, and with one hand, lifted me out of the muck.
I looked down and groaned. Mud covered my khakis and caked the once-pristine emerald green shirt I’d worn with them that day.
“You say you had somewhere to go this morning?” Sammi cringed when she looked at the filth that covered me. “I might have something in the car you could put on.”
I knew better than to say yes, but what’s that saying about desperate times and desperate measures?
Within ten minutes, I was wearing a denim skirt that would have been short on Sammi. On me, it was minuscule. On Sammi’s small frame, the purple T-shirt with St. James emblazoned on it would have been snug. On me, it was just about obscene.
I squirmed. “I can’t go out in public like this!”
“I dunno.” This from Reggie, along with an appreciative look that made my skin crawl. “You’re looking pretty awesome!”
“Pretty something. But not awesome.” I tugged at the skirt.
“You’ll be fine.” Absalom had rescued my purse from the mud, and he wiped it down with a wet paper towel. When he did, it opened, and the paper I’d tucked inside it at Garden View fluttered out. He picked it up, looked it over. “Steve Ganley?”
“Steve the Strip Man?” Reggie darted forward and plucked the paper out of Absalom’s hand. “You’re going to see Steve the Strip Man?”
I wasn’t liking the sound of this, but I wasn’t about to back down, either. Not even when Reggie looked me over one more time, whistled below his breath, and said, “You’re dressed just right!”
I was hoping Steve the Strip Man refinished furniture. Or painted cars. Those hopes were dashed when I pulled up to the address on my computer printout and saw a hot pink neon sign that said: THE THUNDERING STALLION, A GENTLEMAN’S CLUB.
I laid my head on my steering wheel and groaned.
It was early, but according to the sign up front, the Stallion thundered twenty-four, seven. When I walked in, there were a couple men sitting at the bar and a girl on stage in a G-string, sequined pasties, and stilettos so high even I wouldn’t wear them. She looked bored, and hardly old enough to be there. The dozen or so guys in the audience didn’t seem to care.
The beefy bouncer at the door pointed me in the right direction, and I found Steve Ganley in a corner pouring over a pile of papers. He was a middle-aged guy with a paunch and a comb-over. There was an open bottle of scotch on the table in front of him.
He looked up briefly when I approached. “Auditions only on Tuesdays,” he grumbled.
I tugged at my skirt. “I’m not here to audition.”
I guess he didn’t believe me. I guess I couldn’t blame him. He sipped his drink and looked me over. This time he paid more attention. To the skirt. To the top. To the way every inch of Sammi’s outfit hugged every inch of my body in ways nobody’s body should be hugged. Unless the body in question belongs to a body who’s selling her body. “You sure?”
At least if I sat down, there’d be less of me to ogle. I slipped into the chair across from his. “I’m here to talk to you about Vera Blaine.”
His eyebrows were bushy and met in the middle of his forehead. They dipped. “She ever dance here?”
“You used to date her.”
In spite of the sign in living color right above his head that said it was illegal to light up in a public establishment in the state of Ohio, Steve pulled out a cigarette and a silver lighter. He fired up, took a drag, and blew a stream of smoke. “She’s dead.”
“I know that. That’s why I’m here. I’m trying to figure out who killed her.”
Anybody else would have mentioned that Jefferson Lamar was convicted of the crime and asked why the hell it was any of my business, anyway. Not Ganley. All he said was, “It wasn’t me.”
“I didn’t say it was.”
“Why else would you be here?” He poured another inch of scotch into his glass, downed it, and plunked the empty glass on the table. “I had an ironclad alibi.”
“Because Vera and me, we hadn’t seen each other in months. She was pissed at me, see. She said I was irresponsible, that I’d never amount to anything.” He looked around and chuckled. “If she could see me now, huh?”
I thought it best not to answer.
“As a matter of fact, though…” He took another drag on his cigarette. “I talked to her that morning. You know, the morning of the day she got killed. Told the cops about it, too. Me and Vera, we were thinking about getting back together again.”
I gave him a level look. “What, so you could beat her up again?”
He stabbed out his cigarette. “Don’t know who’s been telling you that. Ain’t true.”
“Is it true you talked?”
“That morning?” He grinned. “Gospel.”
“And she wanted to see you the next day? She didn’t mention she was coming to Cleveland that evening?”
“Said she was busy. Couldn’t see me that night. That she had a prior commitment.” The way he accentuated the words made me believe he was quoting Vera.
“Do you think she was in town to see a man?”
He sloughed off the thought. “I figured she was seeing somebody else. Otherwise, why would she break up with me? But like I said, we talked. She said she’d had a change of heart. I swear to God, that’s the exact words she used.”
“Did she explain what that meant?”
“Not a clue.” He swirled the ice cubes in his glass. “I figured she was thinking of breaking up with the guy she was seeing. Figured she realized she was missing out on a good thing. So you see…” Ganley added another inch of scotch to his glass and downed it in one gulp. “I didn’t have any reason to kill Vera.”
“Not even because you were jealous of the other guy?”
He shrugged like it was no big deal, and I wondered if he was that nonchalant about the whole thing twenty-five years earlier. “She obviously came to her senses. Too bad she got offed before I got her back in the sack.”
“That’s very romantic.” I hoped he realized I didn’t mean it, but the way his eyes glittered in the reflected glow of the stage lights, it was hard to tell. The dancer made her way around the audience so she could collect tips in her G-string, and Ganley watched her. I had to keep him on task, or he’d start tallying up the total so he’d be sure to get his percentage. “You’re telling me your ironclad alibi is that you loved Vera?”
He swiveled his gaze to me. Or more precisely, to the front of my purple top. When he laughed, it made my skin crawl. “Hell with love! I couldn’t have killed Vera because not three hours after I got off the phone with her, I got nabbed on a drunk and disorderly. I was a little down on my luck at the time and I couldn’t afford bail. So you see, the night Vera was killed, I was in the county jail, locked up good and tight.” He picked up the scotch bottle and offered it in my direction, and when I declined, he poured himself a little more. “Satisfied?” he asked.
I was. In a disappointed sort of way.
I’d already gotten up and turned toward the door when he called after me.
“You’d bring ’em in by the hundreds, honey. If you change your mind about that audition, give me a call.”
In my sweetest voice, I told him I would.
When hell froze over, I joined a convent, or I was dumb enough to step out in public again in another Sammi Santiago original.