Pissed-off murder suspect or not, I had other things to i worry about. Notice I didn’t say bigger things. Just other. Other big things. Like the fact that even as I walked out of the memorial-still in shock and with my head spinning-I saw that our guests were arriving. In return for their twenty-buck donations, they were hoping for something more than just fruit, tiny glasses of wine, and nibblers. At Mae’s, they’d gotten fancy brownies and a taste of the high life. From us-
We needed a Plan B, and we needed one fast.
Lucky for me, I’m quick on my feet, and nothing if not resilient. In the time since I’d become PI to the dead, I’d faced worse problems than a messed up art show, and I’d never let them beat me.
With that in mind, I swallowed down my panic, went through my mental Rolodex for every way I’d ever seen anyone-anywhere-raise money, glanced over my team, and reminded myself how fine they all looked that evening, and-
Yes, I am a genius. Which is why when I blurted out my plan to Ella, I fully expected her to jump up and down with joy. Instead, she stared at me a little slack-jawed for a moment, before she said, “I’m not sure we can do that.”
Fifteen minutes later, I was still trying to persuade her with the whole Pepper-is-brilliant argument. She was still not so sure. We were back out on the flagstone veranda, and it was Ella’s turn to pace. She was also wringing her hands. For the record, I was no less nervous, I just wasn’t going to let it show.
I patted her shoulder. “Not to worry. It’s not like we’re desecrating the president or anything. We’re not inside the memorial.”
“No…” Her gaze drifted toward the steps and the wide expanse of lawn that surrounds the building. Lucky for us, it was a beautiful summer evening, blue skies, warm without being sticky. Sunlight dappled the grass and added golden highlights to the headstones and mausoleums that surrounded the memorial. There was a pleasant breeze out of the north. It was perfect. Even if we did make the caterers scamper to find a place they could put the food and our guests did look a little perplexed as to why they were being kept outside. “But if the cemetery trustees find out…” Ella squeaked.
“By the time they find out, it will all be over,” I said, and I wondered just how prophetic I was being. All over? Was I talking about our fundraising event? Or my job at Garden View Cemetery?
I knew that Bianca would be there that night, and I reminded myself that I looked like I just stepped out of the display window at La Mode, and that, oh, by the way, I’d never much liked working in a cemetery, anyway.
Which meant I didn’t have anything to lose.
Except the Cemetery Survivor contest, of course.
And there was no way I was going to let that happen.
“It’s going to be fine.” It was like the hundredth time I’d said this since I made up my mind about how we were going to keep people entertained now that our art show was ruined. “I asked them. You saw me go over and ask them,” I reminded her with a look over to where Absalom, Sammi, Reggie, Delmar, and Crazy Jake waited. “My team’s all for it, and it’s going to bring in a boatload of donations. How can anybody fault us for that? It’s what we’re here for, right? We’re supposed to be raising money to give to the Monroe Street Foundation. No way our trustees can complain when that’s exactly what we’re doing. And we’re doing it with class and style! And this is going to give the restoration project even more publicity, and Garden View, too. It’s perfect, Ella. We should have thought of it sooner. We’re going to create a sensation!”
“Yeah, a sensation.” Ella was paler than any ghost I’d ever met, and her voice was no more than a terrified whisper. When a tuxedoed waiter passed carrying a tray of glasses filled with wine, she grabbed one and downed it. Her cheeks flushed with a color that matched her outfit. Her shoulders shot back. “Let’s do it,” she said.
And before I could talk myself out of what I’d already talked myself into, I hurried to stand on the steps right outside the main doors into the memorial.
I figured there was no need for a lengthy introduction or an explanation of any kind. How do you explain that some whacko with a cheap tube of lipstick ruined days and days of work? And why would I want to give the nut job that kind of spotlight, anyway? Of course, that didn’t stop my mind from racing or my gaze from wandering the crowd.
Who had engineered the destruction?
Maybe I needed to start being careful about what I wished for. As I scanned the crowd, my heart bumped to a stop. The used car dealer owner, Bad Dog Raphael, was in the front row, looking as suave as ever in a tux. He lifted his wineglass, and the smile he shot in my direction glistened like the evening light.
I was too nervous to do more than acknowledge him with a tip of my head. And pretty surprised when I realized the reporter Mike Kowalski was standing right behind him. He looked me over like a starving man in line at the local Ponderosa.
My stomach was already doing flip-flops, so I didn’t want to think about what he was obviously thinking about. I looked away-and saw Reno Bob Oates on the other side of the crowd. When his eyes met mine, they narrowed. Reno Bob bit through the finger sandwich he was holding.
Never one to back down from a plan I was convinced was a good one, I pasted a smile on my face and refused to look around further. The crowd quieted and all eyes turned to me.
I waved. “Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Team Two’s fundraiser. We’ve had a little change of plans. So gather around, grab a glass of wine, and I hope you brought your checkbooks. We’re about to begin…” I paused for a moment to add to the drama, “the first ever Cemetery Survivor bachelor auction!”
That one moment of total and complete shocked silence, and all those opened mouths made me wonder if I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life. I was about to stammer an apology and tell them all it was a joke when Reggie sauntered up the stairs to stand next to me.
And guess what? The ladies in the crowd went wild.
Three cheers for Reggie. He’d begged, borrowed, or stole (I didn’t want to think which) a black suit for the night, and between that and the tie with a pit bull painted on it (an exact match to the tattoo on his forehead), he looked like a Wall Street broker gone way bad. As I’d said to Ella, there were a lot of women who liked that sort of thing. They proved it, too. Absalom stepped front and center to take over the proceedings, gave the crowd a rundown of the ground rules we’d made up on the fly (like making it very clear how the winner was only paying for each team member as an escort for the rest of the evening), and the bidding started.
“One hundred dollars!” A woman at the back of the crowd called.
“One-fifty,” said another.
“Two hundred dollars!” The voice was familiar, and no wonder; Ella jumped up and down, waving her checkbook like there was no tomorrow.
All for a good cause, I reminded myself, and stepped to the side of the building so that I could grab a glass of wine in peace.
So much for that plan; I wasn’t exactly surprised to find Jefferson Lamar there waiting for me.
“You call this conducting an investigation?” I wasn’t imaging it, his nose really was in the air when he looked toward the front of the building where Reggie was having the time of his life. Reggie strutted and posed. He paraded and pouted. And when he stripped off his suit jacket and tossed it over one shoulder, the bidding shot from three hundred to four-fifty in a heartbeat. “This is tomfoolery!”
“Yeah, whatever. It’s not like I had a lot of time to come up with a Plan B. Besides, nobody seems to mind.” I listened as the bidding hit seven hundred dollars.
“Going once!” Absalom called. “Going twice. Gone!”
Was I surprised when I saw Ella dash out of the crowd and grab Reggie’s hand?
“I can’t spend all my time on your case,” I said, turning back to Lamar. “I’ve got a real job to do, and real people who are going to ask questions if I don’t do it.”
“I know. I know.” It must have been the night for pacing. He marched along the perimeter of the veranda and back again. “You’ve had time, though. You haven’t even gone to see Dale Morgan yet.”
“I worked on the art show twenty-four, seven.” I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him. “I can’t do two things at once.”
“You have to concentrate. What about the file you have? The evidence? The newspaper articles?”
This was one place I could use a little one-upmanship, and I didn’t hesitate. “As a matter of fact, I talked to Mike Kowalski. You must remember him. He interviewed you like a million times.”
Lamar remembered, all right. I could tell because his brow furrowed. “Scandalous lies. Yellow journalism.”
“The guy’s like a hero or something,” I said. “He’s got a great reputation, and he wins all kinds of awards. Not the kind of person who would make stuff up. Only…”
Lamar leaned nearer. “Only…?”
“Only something about him gives me the creeps. I mean, something more than just that he’s a creepy old guy, and that’s creepy enough. But he’s…” I shrugged. “I dunno. For a guy who’s supposed to be the second coming of Geraldo, he’s a big zero.” I thought about the way Kowalski’s stomach sagged over the waistband of his khakis. “And I do mean big.”
“And Kowalski, he says-”
“Nothing new, so nothing you’re going to want to hear.” Lamar didn’t take the hint. He stood there waiting for me to say more, and I figured since he apparently wasn’t careful about what he wished for, either, he was about to get what he deserved.
“Kowalski says exactly what he said back then: the desk clerk swears you and Vera were at the Lake View plenty of times.”
Lamar’s cheeks got dusky. “I remember that from the newspaper. It’s preposterous, of course. I told the police that. Why would the man lie?”
“Exactly what I want to know. Only, the thing is…” A roar went up from the crowd and new commotion started when Sammi’s auction was concluded. I don’t think I was imagining it when I saw Virgil race up the steps to claim her. After the fights that had been so prominently featured on Cemetery Survivor, nobody else had the nerve to do much bidding. He got her for a song: three hundred bucks. “The desk clerk never talked to the cops. He never testified. He seems to have conveniently disappeared.”
“And that means…?”
“The hell if I know!” Crazy Jake’s auction was next, and I could see he was having the time of his life taking pictures of the crowd, even if he did go for only seventy-five dollars and the woman who won him looked enough like him for me to figure out it must have been his mother and she knew nobody else was going to bid.
Delmar did a little better and brought in another eight hundred.
I did some quick calculations and hoped my math was right. We were still behind Team One’s five thousand one hundred and twenty dollar total. I hoped Absalom had fans.
Rather than obsess, I concentrated on the case. “I’d like to know which of them was lying,” I said, and big points for Lamar, he was a quick study.
“You think Kowalski made up the quotes from the kid? But why?” He must have seen Kowalski earlier, just like I had, because he scanned the crowd. I looked that way, too, and saw that if they weren’t eagerly participating in the auction, at least most of our guests looked like they were having fun. I didn’t see Reno Bob, but Kowalski was over at the food table, loading a plate. Was it a coincidence that Bad Dog was standing right behind him in line?
I watched them chat and wished I had super powers for super hearing. “You could just like, pop up over there, couldn’t you?” I asked Lamar. “I’d love to know what they’re talking about.”
“Too crowded. Not enough space.” He shook his head. “If I get close enough to hear them, someone will get frozen solid.”
I might have been willing to take the chance if Bianca wasn’t in line, too. And if I didn’t hear a voice calling my name from out in front.
“What about Pepper?” It was Absalom. Apparently, the bidding for him was over, and I hadn’t been listening to hear how much he’d gone for. When he didn’t get enough of a reaction from the crowd, he boomed the question again. “What about Pepper? Let’s get her out here!”
The crowd cheered and my stomach went cold. “Oh, no!” The last person who cared was Jefferson Lamar, but he was the only one I could complain to. “I told them I wasn’t going to participate. I told them, no auction for me.”
“It’s for a good cause,” he said, and I guess he didn’t want to hear what I was going to say about that, because he winked out.
I thought about climbing the wall that surrounded the veranda, scaling down the side of the monument, and getting out of there, and I might have done it, too, if Absalom hadn’t come around to the side of the building and latched onto my hand. When he took me out front, the cheers intensified.
“She’s a mighty fine woman,” Absalom said, holding me at arm’s length so the crowd could get a good look. “What do I hear for the captain of our team, Pepper Martin?”
“Fifty dollars!” The voice was small and tentative, and one I didn’t recognize, a man’s. It came from the back of the crowd, but though I was standing on higher ground, I couldn’t see him. Of course, that wasn’t going to stop me from sending a scathing look in that direction. Fifty bucks? For me? Please!
Not to worry, the auction got more lively from there. “One hundred!” someone called.
“Two hundred,” another countered.
“Six hundred.” It was the first I realized that Bad Dog had returned to the front of the crowd. He grinned when he called out his bid.
I reminded myself the whole thing was in good fun.
“Seven hundred.” This from Mike Kowalski.
I shot a panicked look at Absalom, but he was having too much fun to notice. He looked over the crowd. “Only seven hundred dollars for this gorgeous lady? How about eight?”
“One thousand dollars,” Bad Dog yelled.
Yeah, it was only for the rest of the evening. Yeah, it was so the cemetery restoration could be completed. No, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend my evening with ex-con Bad Dog Raphael. He was better looking than Kowalski, that was for sure. But he was one of my suspects, remember. Traditionally, guys who arrange hits on girls wearing jelly bracelets do not make good dates.
I had my hands at my sides, and I was sending Absalom little signals to keep the bidding going when a voice called out from the back of the crowd. “Three thousand!” it said.
Oh yeah, Quinn knew how to make a dramatic entrance, all right. He looked like a god in a navy suit, a white shirt, and a plum silk tie with swirls of navy in it, and he strode through that crowd like he owned the place. When he sauntered up the steps, he had a check all written out and in his hands. He handed it to Absalom.
It would take more than grand romantic gestures to make me cave, but I couldn’t control a smile, and I guess that told Absalom all he needed to know. “Going once, going twice, gone!” He sped through the technicalities, grabbed my hand, and put it in Quinn’s, who promptly shot me a grin as hot as the deepest fires of hell.
“You’re mine for the night,” he said.
I smiled politely. “I’m surprised to see you. It’s been a while.”
“Too long.” He led me down the steps. Now that the auction was over, our guests were scattering to chat and stand in line for food. I guess Quinn figured being the big spender got him special privileges. He went right to the front of the line, got a glass of wine, and handed it to me. “Would you believe it if I told you I missed you?”
I wanted to. But then, I saw the curt nod Quinn gave Ella when she walked by. I clutched my wine in both hands. “Ella called you. How else would you know about the fundraiser?”
“Are you kidding? I haven’t missed an episode of Cemetery Survivor.” There was a twinkle in his eyes that would have been sexy if it wasn’t so darned annoying. “I’m a huge fan. I loved the episode where you and Sammi were arguing about lord knows what. I’m not sure you two did, either. And I especially liked it that day you went down in the mud. If I’d known you were into mud wrestling, I would have-”
Quinn leaned nearer, all slick smiles and smelling like Flavio. He was too hot to handle, at least in public. In an effort to stay sensible and stay off Greer’s radar except to smile, wave, and look good, I stepped away from the table and out onto the lawn where the crowd wasn’t quite as heavy and there was more room to keep a safe distance. “Ella told you what happened to the art show, didn’t she?”
“Which doesn’t mean I didn’t miss you.”
“Which you could have proven like a hundred times if you’d just picked up the phone and called.”
“Been busy.” He sipped his own glass of wine.
“Been annoyed.” I smiled sweetly.
“It’s always good to get all that messy stuff out of the way right up front.” He offered me his arm, and I took it. “I suppose you’ve got to stick around, right? Meet and greet, that sort of thing?”
“I do.” We did a turn around the lawn, and I smiled and nodded to the fans around us. “I suppose you want to know more about what happened to our art show.”
“You realize this is serious, don’t you? Ella says she can’t imagine who could have done it. But she’s worried. She says she thinks you might have a stalker and-”
“I knew that’s why you were here.” I couldn’t help it; disappointment seeped into my every word. “Or does your showing up have something to do with Bad Dog Raphael being here?”
He looked over his shoulder, found Raphael in the crowd, and took a careful look. “It does seem odd. One day, you’re asking way too many questions about him, the next, here he is, live and in person.”
“Maybe he’s a Cemetery Survivor fan, just like you.”
“Maybe.” In one smooth maneuver, Quinn dropped my arm and stepped in front of me so that we were face-to-face. His voice dipped. So did his gaze. When he was done looking me over, he looked me in the eye. “Maybe I wanted to see you. Maybe I really did miss you.”
It was (almost) a remarkably straightforward comment from a man who was usually anything but. Is it any wonder I wasn’t willing to accept it at face value?
“You wanted to know more about the gifts I’ve been finding at the cemetery.” I could have kicked myself for letting that slip.
Especially when Quinn’s eyes lit. Once a cop, always a cop, even at a fundraiser. I could practically see him turn from mildly interested to plenty worried. “Gifts? Ella didn’t tell me.”
“Ella doesn’t know.”
“You’re being careful?”
I laughed. “I’m carrying a voodoo doll with me everywhere I go. Does that count?”
“I’m not kidding.”
“Neither am I.” My purse was inside the memorial so I couldn’t prove it by getting the doll for him to see. “I didn’t realize I had a problem until tonight. I’ll be careful.”
“Good.” He nodded. “Look, if you’re not busy later…”
We were on surer footing now. Or at least we would have been if I knew where I stood with Quinn. “I hope you don’t think that’s what you bid on,” I said.
He was not so easily put off. “Three thousand dollars is a lot of money,” he reminded me.
“And I’m worth every penny.”
Quinn backed away. “I bet you have people you’re supposed to be talking to.”
“And you? What are you going to do?”
He pursed his lips. “Oh, I think I’ll wander over and chat up Bad Dog. And while I’m at it, I might as well talk to some people and see what I can find out about the vandalism inside the memorial.” He looked in the direction of the long drive that loops around that part of the cemetery. “My car’s parked over there. I’ll meet you later.”
It wasn’t a question.
But then, he didn’t need an answer.