I was going too fast. Gravel was spinning out from under the wheels of my pickup and I could feel the tires slipping, threatening to launch me into the grove of prickly pear cactus that ran the length of the curvy road. Or was it cacti? Blast. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get this over with. I tightened my grip on ten and two and pressed my slippered foot down on the gas.
When a mailbox appeared, I hung a hard left and steered up a rock-lined drive until it opened into a field. A rickety two-story farmhouse popped into view for a second before I spun the truck till I was facing the main road again and slammed on the brakes. My purse took a nose dive off the bench seat and spilled its guts all over the floorboards.
I really had to start zipping that thing. My wallet, cell phone and assorted bits of life were now buried ankle deep in the stuff that normally lived in the no man’s land under the seat. I’d have to pick through it all later. For now, I wiggled the rearview mirror till I had a good view of the narrow steps leading up to the front door and laid on the horn. The sound scattered a flock of doves from a cluster of scrawny mesquite trees in the front yard and I instinctively ducked as they flew over the truck.
Somewhere, deep in the pile of stuff, my cell phone rang. I kicked my feet around and hit something solid. Instead of a phone, I found myself holding a pocket-sized volume titled, 20 Minutes to Death: 12 Fatal Black Mamba Encounters, by Dewey Nash, star of television’s number one nature show, Gone Herpin’! Ah, my prolific twin brother. He really knew how to grab his audience. In the three years since the show had made him an international TV star, he had written eight bestsellers.
As my cell continued to ring, I flipped the slim book over and looked down at the photo of Dewey. A pair of cloudy gray eyes peered out from under locks of shoulder-length, curly black hair, while the upturned collar of a brown leather jacket protected against an imagined breeze. Above the photo, a series of blurbs sang praise for the author. All were filled with words like thrill-seeker and daredevil and prominently featured some play on the words sex appeal.
While my brother and I aren’t identical, it’s easy to see that we’re siblings. We’ve got the same hair. Though mine is usually contained in a thick ponytail. Same face. Same eyes. On my brother the image evokes an air of mystery and romance. On me? The urge for people to ask if I’m lost.
With a grunt, I tossed the book on the passenger floor and kicked my feet around till I found my phone. I managed to unlock the screen and answer before it stopped ringing.
“June, you need to come inside,” Dewey said.
I really didn’t need to do anything of the sort. This was Morgan’s place and my no-Morgan streak was holding strong at nine years, eleven months and seven days. There was no way I was going to break that when I was so close to an even decade.
“I have office stuff to get back to,” I said. And I did. As Dewey’s personal assistant, I answer his fan mail, set up his appearance schedule and run interference from his hardcore fans, the Dewzers. And while it might not sound like much, it easily fills my days. Till this morning, we’d been in Costa Rica on a three-week shoot, and I hadn’t been able to check my messages or log into my email because, as it just so happens, there’s no Internet in the jungle. We’d landed at two in the afternoon. Dewey had mumbled something about…something. Maybe children with eating disorders. I hadn’t really been listening. He’d taken our suitcases and disappeared into a waiting cab for home. Since I was never really off the clock and since there was a big twenty-city book tour coming up, I’d gone straight to my favorite dive for a greasy cheeseburger and a relatively stable WIFI connection. I’d only waded through a quarter of my messages when Dewey had texted, meet me at Morgan’s. I’d ignored him. All I wanted to do was finish my work, so I could get home and jump in the hot tub. I desperately needed to soak a few layers of rain forest out of my pores. And of course, there was my no-Morgan streak to consider. Dewey’s next text said my job was at stake, so here I was.
“You need to start leaving your Mustang at the airfield,” I said.
When Gone Herpin’ became the number one show on the Roar and Soar network, Dewey’s agent had negotiated not only the use of a private jet, but also a salary ridiculous enough that Dewey could live anywhere he wanted. In the blink of an eye, my brother had us back in the sleepy little town where we’d grown up, nineteen dusty miles from the Mexican border, the Village of Horseshoe Bend, Arizona. Population 2,627. It wouldn’t have been my first choice but he likes wandering the hills looking for reptiles and I like the money he pays me to be his assistant, so Horseshoe Bend it is.
“Just come inside.”
“Why the drama?” I asked. “This isn’t about me and Morgan, is it?”
In the three months that we’d been home, Dewey had been on a non-stop crusade to get me to bury the hatchet with his best friend.
“Just hurry up.” He disconnected before I could say no.
“Blast.” Dewey’s popularity and my mouth made steering clear of going viral a constant challenge. I’d been trying to cut back on my cursing since I’d come to work for my brother. You never knew when a tirade was going to end up on Youtube, autotuned by a creative fan.
I got out and slammed the truck door.
The doves, who’d settled on some feeders in the side yard, took off with an angry fluttering of wings. I caught a flash of red among the brown bodied birds and shielded my eyes for a better look. When the flock turned into the burning intensity of the desert sun, I flinched and looked away. It was probably somebody’s lost macaw.
At the front porch I ignored the black metal railing that looked as unstable as the house, took the concrete steps in two strides and pounded a fist on the door. It wasn’t latched and as it swung wide, I choked. The inside of Morgan’s house smelled like an active sawmill.
“Dewey?” My eyes didn’t want to adjust to the blackness of the front room. I leaned in the door to feel around for a light switch and came up empty. Blast. Who didn’t have a light switch next to their front door? “Dewey, I’m here.”
There was no answer.
If he thought I was hanging around all day…. I stormed in, expecting to sink into a couple of inches of sawdust. Instead, I skidded over some sort of sticky mess, went head over heels and landed hard on my right hip and hand. A thin layer of goo squished under my various body parts as I pushed myself up off the bare wood floor. Eww. What were the boys doing in here?
“June?” Dewey sounded far away. And then pounding footsteps brought his voice closer. “Did you fall?”
“There’s something sticky all over the floor.” I wiped my fingers on my shirt and they bounced down the fabric.
“Don’t move, you’ll track it all over,” Dewey called out. “Just give me a second. There’s a switch in the hall here somewhere.”
I flashed on the idea of Morgan coming home with a bag of groceries and dropping a gallon jug of syrup on the floor. He’d always been a bit of a klutz as a kid. No. His dog would have had fun with a mapley spill. Wait. His dog. Morgan had a dog. And while she sounded like the sweetest thing in the world, she was, from all accounts, the dumbest. Her longest running issue was remembering how a doggie door worked. After cleaning up the umpteenth puddle of piss, left on the floor directly in front of the escape hatch, Morgan finally gave up and started leaving the backyard sliding glass door open. All the time.
Since whatever I slipped in was too thick to be pee, I started thinking about the other thing that comes out of dogs. And just like the fool who touches a hot plate, I lifted my fingers to my nose and sniffed. Instead of the expected doggie by-product though, I inhaled the distinct aroma of hot pennies.
My mouth went dry and my stomach tried to crawl up my throat. I was the daughter of a nurse. If you weren’t rolling change, the smell of copper meant only one thing.
“Found it,” Dewey called out.
I blinked when the tiny entryway filled with light. And then I screamed.
I was standing in a drying pool of blood.
“Shut up, June.”
Was I making that dreadful noise? I swallowed the rest of the scream and opened my eyes. An oversized metal claw snapped dangerously close to my nose. It was at one end of a three-foot pole. Dewey was at the other.
“You’re okay.” He snapped the snake tongs at me like that decided it.
Was I okay? I didn’t think so. I was thinking I needed to scream some more.
Dewey read my mind and shook his head. “You’ll be fine.” He threw the tongs into the hall and then dug his cell phone out of a pocket. His right thumb danced over the keys as the other hand wagged a finger at me. “Don’t look down.”
Of course, I immediately did. Hey, where were my slippers? I turned and followed the reddish brown smears back to the door. There they were. Where I’d just been. In that sticky puddle. Of blood.
My feet kicked into action. I skidded and skipped and another scream, probably one of my own, chased me past a steep wooden staircase and down a cramped dark hall to the first door on the right. I reached for the knob as my shoulder hit the door. It flew open, hit the inside wall and bounced back into my face. My scream dissolved into a squeak and I dropped onto my butt.
A shaft of soft light cut into the hall and I glanced up as the bathroom door drifted back open. Inside, I caught sight of the faded yellow shower curtain and for a hot second I was ten again and Morgan’s mother was dead drunk, sprawled out in the tub, a spilled bottle of booze on the floor near the mat. She hadn’t even raised her head when I’d flushed the toilet.
Tingling brought me back to reality. I lifted a hand to touch my sore nose and I caught sight of the red stuff on my fingers. Then I remembered why I’d headed this way in the first place and I scrambled to my feet.
I was torn between showering and puking. The former won out and I threw a foot over the edge of the tub, lost my balance and fell into the curtain.
The more I tried to get free, the more it seemed to fold itself around me. No. Wait. Someone was trying to wrap me up. Fists formed. I punched wildly connecting at least once before I was pushed against the wall of the shower with my arms pinned over my head.
“Hold still June, you’re tangled in the curtain.”
The plastic peeled away from my face and I focused my eyes on the tin star above the breast pocket of the sheriff’s uniform.
“Is Mom with you?”
When Dewey and I were little, and Sheriff Warren Mitchel was a fresh-faced deputy, he spent a lot of time at the clinic where our mom worked as a nurse. While our little town wasn’t exactly filled to the brim with criminals, the ones we did have tended to take the saying don’t go down without a fight to heart. And Warren was always happy to oblige. Mom patched him up so often that it didn’t surprise anyone when she started bringing him home for coffee. Dewey and I weren’t the swiftest of kids. It was quite a while before we realized what that meant. Twenty years later, Mom and Sheriff Mitchel were still having coffee a couple of times a week.
“It’s just me.” Warren sighed and rubbed at his eye with the back of his wrist. “You got me pretty good,” he said. “How’s your hand?”
I looked down. My knuckles on my right hand were bright red. “Should that hurt?” I asked.
“It will. You’re in shock.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Your brother had sense enough to text me.”
“And you were nearby?” There was nothing near Morgan’s house. Except Mom’s. Her backyard was less than a football field away. Oh jeez. Dewey and I had interrupted a pot of coffee. I could feel my face flush and I dropped my eyes.
“You mother wasn’t home. I was just leaving her a note…hey,” Warren grabbed my arms and lifted them up. “Don’t put your hands in your pockets.”
“Why?” I looked down at my fingers. Oh yeah, I was covered in blood. My stomach gurgled and I launched myself at the toilet conveniently wedged between the shower and the sink.
“No!” Warren caught my shoulder, stopping my forward motion and snatched the hat off his head. He swung it under my mouth just as I gave up the burger I’d scarfed earlier at Millsie’s. When my stomach was empty, I straightened up.
“Sorry,” I said. “I was aiming for the toilet.”
“I know,” he said. “I can’t have you contaminating my crime scene.” He eyed the mangled shower curtain, now lying across the edge of the tub and added, “anymore.” He stared at it for a bit and then let go of me to dig his cell phone from a pocket. While he studied the screen, I crouched down in the shower and shut my eyes. I felt loopy, like I’d had too many shots of Zacapa on an empty stomach.
“June? Are you okay? You’re not going to faint, are you?” Warren’s voice had a panicky edge to it and I almost smiled. It had been a while since he’d played the part of surrogate father. I hadn’t realized how much I’d missed it.
“One of my guys needs to collect evidence. It’s going to make things difficult if you faint in there.”
So much for substitute dad. But I suppose the cop-flavored worries took precedence.
“You want to open your eyes?” he asked.
“You want me to puke again?” I had a good feeling I could go the distance.
“I’ve only got one hat,” he muttered. “Keep ‘em shut.”
After a moment, I could hear shuffling around the room and then I was poked and prodded. And possibly bathed. I hummed to myself and tried to think about anything but blood. Of course, all I could think about was blood. Okay. New tactic. How did that song go? When you’re freaked out and probably in shock, count all your favorite things? What were my favorite things? There weren’t a lot. Dewey and I always seemed to be working. Though there was that time engine trouble stranded us in Cancun. I flashed back to the beachfront hotel. That was one. The heated pool with the swim-up bar. That was two. The smooth smoky rum poured into tall, tinted shot glasses. Three. The bartender who was getting off shift in fifteen minutes. Four. The hand-in-hand stroll toward that secluded spot through the coconut palms…
“Five,” I muttered.
“What?” Warren sounded concerned again.
Blast. Had I said my list out loud?
“June. Can you take off your clothes?”
My eyes popped open. That had been the next thing on my list but it certainly wasn’t something I wanted to hear my mom’s friend-with-benefits say to me.
Warren cleared his throat and looked away. “We need your clothes.”
I glanced over at the deputy crouched down in front of what could have been a giant tackle box and shook my head. “So do I.”
“You can put these on,” Warren said.
I squinted at the neon orange fabric in his hands. “I don’t think so. What’s going on Warren?” I swallowed and bobbed my head in the general direction of that sticky puddle of blood. “Where’s Dewey? Is he okay?”
He ignored me and shouted at the hall, “Is Stober here yet?”
He gave me a healthy dose of cop face and I shut up. There was no point in trying to talk to him when he was like this.
A woman about my age stepped into the room. Her tall athletic body was decked out in a black leather ensemble that got a sideways glance of approval from the deputy: over-the-knee boots, mini skirt, vest, and long, blond hair woven into a braid that hung down the back of her waist-high jacket. The only things about her that screamed crime scene were the purple booties and gloves. And maybe the huge duffel bag she was carrying that had the Horseshoe Bend Sheriff’s department logo embroidered on the side.
I must have been staring. She smoothed an imaginary wrinkle in her skirt and muttered,
“I was off duty.”
Warren cleared his throat. “Stober will collect your things.” Then he wagged a finger in my face. “Do not take forever. Do not get back in the tub.” Hey, how’d I get out of the tub? “And above all, do not touch anything else.” He laid the neon stuff on the strip of butcher paper that was now covering the bathmat and disappeared out the door. The deputy lingered just a moment.
“You should talk to your doctor about your exposure to unknown blood. Preferably today.”
Great. Not only was I possibly contaminated in some death-inducing way, but if I checked in with my own doctor, Mom was sure to find out, determine this was all my fault and then lecture me till I died from whatever I’d been exposed to. My only hope was the clinic on 27th street. Mom and the lady who ran it weren’t currently on speaking terms. Something about…something. Maybe soccer? I hadn’t been paying attention to the rant when I drove Mom home from the bar fight. And just in case the two had made up, a reasonable cash donation to the clinic would help keep the gossip from Mom’s ears.
I realized the woman in leather was still standing there staring at me. I’d already forgotten her name so I just gave her an uncomfortable head bob. Was she going to stay?
“I have to confirm the chain of custody for your clothes,” Leather Girl explained.
So that was a yes.
I never considered myself a prude but I guess I am because I did a half turn before I started stripping, handing stuff back over my shoulder as I went. My jeans, a low-cut, tight, v-neck t-shirt that worked best when I was bra-less, a brand new blueberry-colored thong, and my favorite hoodie were all probably ruined. On the other hand, skin that had been covered with clothing appeared to be blood free. So a win for me, I guess.
The neon stuff that Warren had left turned out to be running pants and a short-sleeved t-shirt that promoted a Halloween themed 5K. The fit was adequate but the hue was so bright that I could make out my reflection in the shower tile.
I heard Leather Girl’s duffel bag zip. When I turned around she’d been replaced by Warren.
“Foot,” he said.
Warren reached down and lifted my leg by the ankle. He pulled something purple from his pocket and slipped it over my bare foot. “Other leg,” he said and tapped a hand against the calf. A little hop and my other foot was buried in purple too. “Put these on,” he said and my hands disappeared into matching gloves.
“Walk.” He steered me out into the hall and pushed.
Somebody had turned on all the lights. I glanced over my shoulders looking for Dewey and caught sight of the trail of bloody footprints that led back to the front room. My bloody footprints. Blast. How did I get in the middle of whatever this was? And where was Dewey?
“Where’s my brother?”
Warren ignored the question. “Walk.” And then he twisted me away from the blood.
The booties were made to cover shoes so I had to scrunch my toes to keep them on. As I stumbled along, something nagged at the back of my brain. What was I forgetting? As we passed an open door, I dug in my heels and Warren almost tripped over me.
I let out a low whistle and stared into what could only be described as a hoarder’s paradise. Snakes wiggled in dozens of cages that lined all four walls, floor to ceiling. In the center of the room, a table was covered in the same stuff that was always laying around Dewey’s house: hooks on long handles, small pieces of gnarly twisted wood, empty water bowls in various sizes, and red light bulbs still in their protective packaging. A few bags of aspen shavings were stacked near the door. Dewey used that to line the cages for his creepy crawlies too. But his collection was nothing like this. Which explained why the house smelled like a sawmill. And why my brother had spent so much time here since we’d come back to town.
And then I remembered what I’d forgotten. Morgan. Where was he? After I’d fallen in the blood, and Dewey had come running from the back of the house, he’d been alone.
“Where’s Morgan?” I wasn’t sure I wanted an answer.
And from the look on Warren’s face, I knew I wasn’t getting one. He tightened his grip on my arm. “Come on.”
We passed two more critter stuffed rooms before Warren stopped us outside a bedroom that looked like it would have fit into any normal house. “Did you open that slider?”
I peered in the cage-free room. Hey, was that Dewey’s suitcase sitting next to the open slider? I leaned around the edge of the door for a better look. And there was mine on the floor of the master bath. The idiot had come here straight from the airport. Blast. Practically everything I owned was in that suitcase.
“That’s mine,” I said pointing, “do you think I could just….”
His look told me no.
“What?” Oh yeah. “No, I didn’t open that slider.”
Warren nodded and we continued on our way. At the end of the hall, he opened the side door, lifted up a strip of yellow crime scene tape and gave me a gentle shove. I stepped out onto the tiny porch and sighed. The sun was about to set and I was stuck in short sleeves. I gave my arms a preemptive rub.
“Are you cold?” Warren asked. “Have you got a sweater in your truck?”
I knew there was one in my suitcase. “Maybe.” There was a lot of stuff in my truck.
“Go have a look.” He gave me another gentle push and I was halfway down the stairs before I remembered why I was about to be freezing in the first place.
“No, wait. What’s going on?”
“That’s a good question, isn’t it?” Warren asked. “I was having a nice quiet afternoon and the next thing I know I’m finding you and your brother at the scene of a possible crime. There’s at least three liters of blood on that floor. You have any idea how it got there?”
“No. Ask Morgan.”
“I’d love to.” Warren dug a little notebook from a pocket, freed a short green pencil from the spiral binding and flipped to an empty page. “You have any idea where he might be?”
“He’s not here?” I flashed on the sticky red puddle.
“When was the last time you saw him?”
Three liters of blood. How does somebody walk away from that?
I shook away the image that was trying to form in my brain.
“When was the last time you saw Morgan?”
“I don’t know. Graduation.”
“From college?” Warren asked.
“From high school,” I said.
Warren looked surprised. “You haven’t seen Morgan once in the ten years since high school? You three were inseparable as kids.”
Only out of necessity. Dewey liked hunting for snakes, Morgan had a car and I tagged along because it took me away from Mom’s constant need to lecture me about pretty much everything I was doing wrong with my life. It had been a great arrangement.
Till Morgan decided to be a jerk. The image of a broken, bloody body tried to creep back into my brain. I shook it away.
“You and Dewey have been back almost three months. This is a small town. How could you not have seen Morgan?”
Warren frowned at me and I shrugged.
“I don’t know. I just haven’t.” I looked around for something else to focus on. The wooden fence that hid the backyard. Doves at the feeders. The path to my mom’s house that cut through the field covered in prickly pear cactus. Cacti. Cactus?
“Yeah?” I turned back to Warren.
“I thought Morgan was helping out on Dewey’s show?”
“He is. He’s doing PA work on local shoots.”
The pencil paused over the paper. “PA?”
“Production Assistant. He helps out with whatever the guys on the shoot need help with. Carrying stuff, running errands….” Bleeding to death, alone and afraid. Blast. I hated Morgan. I really did.
“If he’s Dewey’s PA, why haven’t you seen him at work?”
“I don’t go on the local shoots.”
“Okay.” He started writing again. “You know anyone who had a beef with him?”
“No.” Suddenly, my issues with the idiot didn’t seem all that important.
“How about anyone he might have had a beef with?”
“Wait,” I almost missed the emphasis. “Do you think that might be somebody else’s blood?”
“One last question. What time did your plane land today?”
“I don’t know.” I’d had a watch when we’d left for Costa Rica. I forgot to zip my tent on day three and some sort of monkey snatched it. Along with the only bra I’d packed. “I didn’t check. I just went straight to Millsies.”
“I’ll need to verify that with Alvaro.” He stowed the pencil in the notebook’s spiral binding and both disappeared back into his pocket. “Do you need a ride?”
“Do you really think that’s Morgan’s blood in there?”
All I got was cop face. “Do you need a ride?” he repeated.
I folded my arms. “I’ll wait for Dewey.”
“I think he’s going to come down to the station with me.”
“You’re arresting him?” This was not good. Dewey didn’t like being cooped up. It’s why he was always wandering the hills. The critters he found were just a bonus. And then I had a truly horrifying thought. An arrest meant publicity and most networks didn’t like it when their talent appeared on the news wearing handcuffs. Even when they later turned out to be innocent. If Dewey lost his best friend and his show….
“Did I say anything about arresting anyone?” Warren actually looked insulted. “I’m still trying to figure out what happened here. If you want to put a label on it, let’s call your brother a person of interest.”
“Dewey would never hurt anyone, especially Morgan. They’re best friends.” Despite my best efforts.
“That doesn’t mean a lot in my line of work,” Warren said. “I’ll be in touch if I have more questions. For now, you can go.” He disappeared through the door and I heard the lock click behind him. I peeled off the gloves and hung them over the railing.
Warren was crazy if he thought he was getting rid of me that easily.
Warren’s patrol car was in the driveway next to my pickup along with two other cars I didn’t recognize. Someone had strung more of the yellow Crime Scene Do Not Cross tape around the edges of the yard. Not that there was a crowd threatening to cross. After mom’s, the nearest house was probably three or four miles away. It was another reason we’d all spent so much time together as kids. You make do with what you got.
Morgan’s front door was propped open and Leather Girl was on the steps, leaning into the house, talking to someone inside. She’d thrown a wind breaker over her outfit. One hand clutched the wrought iron railing while the other tugged at her skirt which was creeping up in back and threatening to give me a view I wasn’t interested in seeing. Though, it would make us a tad even.
I tiptoed around to the back of my truck, silently cursing both the thin vinyl booties covering my feet and the chunks of gravel beneath them and peeked into the cargo bed. Maybe Dewey or I had thrown some footwear back there at some point in the past. Aside from a spare tire and some jumper cables, it was empty.
“June.” Dewey’s voice was muffled, as if he was underwater. Or one car over in the backseat of Warren’s cruiser. I step hopped around to the front, throwing a few of my favorite words down at the sharper stones chewing up the stupid purple booties. and ripped open the driver’s door.
“What’s going on, Dewey?”
“I don’t know. I swear. I didn’t see the blood until you fell in it.”
“Warren just asked me if I knew where Morgan was.”
“He asked me too.”
“And do you?”
“I don’t have a clue.”
“Did Morgan say where he was going?”
“Did he just leave suddenly?”
“Actually, I’m not sure he was ever home.”
“What?” My voice echoed and I could see Leather Girl straighten and look out into the yard. I ducked down and waited till she turned back before I dropped onto the seat and slowly pulled the door till it clicked shut. “Okay. So when you got here, the blood wasn’t there.”
“I don’t know, I went in Cyrano’s door.”
“Cyrano. Morgan’s dog. I told you he leaves a door open cause she’s got issues with the doggie door.”
Oh yeah. The open slider in the bedroom.
“Was the dog inside?”
“I don’t know.”
“Come here,” I motioned to Dewey. He leaned toward me and I flicked him on the forehead.
“Why did you go in the house if Morgan wasn’t there?”
He rubbed his forehead with a palm. “He’s got a bunch of new clutches. I wanted to see the triaspis.”
I had no earthly idea what that meant so I did what I always do when I don’t know what he’s talking about. I offered a grunt and a quick nod.
As always, he wasn’t fooled. “Senticolis triaspis,” he hissed at me. “It’s the scientific name for a Green Rat Snake. Jeez, June, you helped me photograph some for a chapter…” he paused to stare off into space and count on his fingers, “three…no four books ago.” Then he let out a deep sigh. “I write bestsellers. Aren’t you ever going to read any of them?”
I really had no desire. After spending the whole day listening to people talk about creepy crawlies, the last thing I wanted to do when I got home was read about them. I wasn’t about to admit that to him though, so I changed the subject.
“You come here straight from the airport?” I asked.
“That was like three hours ago. No wonder Warren’s calling you a person of interest. How could you spend so much time in that house and not see the blood?”
“I was in with the snakes.”
“All this time? What were you doing in there?”
He shrugged. “A few snakes pooped in their water….” Eww. “So after that I started checking all the dishes. I figure, I’m here, I got time, I may as well clean a few cages and wow, there’s some excellent new specimens in his collection. Did you know that Morgan has a female juvenile Oxybelis aeneus? I’ve been dying to get us out to the Ridge since we moved back but we just haven’t had time.”
Whiplash Ridge. That sent a shiver down my spine. The place was a barren death trap. Steep hills, curvy roads, and a vast empty desert as far as they eye could see.
“Morgan. When did you talk to him last?” I laid my left hand on the passenger seat’s headrest and Dewey eyed my fingers.
“I got a couple of texts. He wanted me to stop by because he was having trouble getting a baby from one of the new clutches to eat.”
“Did he sound upset?” I asked.
“Yeah, it was one of the triaspis,” he said.
“No, I mean did he sound like he was afraid someone was going to….” I flashed on all that blood and stopped myself before I added the words, whack off his head? I shook away an image that was forming. I needed to keep Morgan out of my thoughts. If I didn’t, I was going to lose it. And right now, Dewey needed me. “If you didn’t know about the blood, why did you make me come inside?” I asked.
“I wanted you to see all the baby snakes.”
“Because they’re cute. I thought maybe if you played with them you’d be more interested in what I do.” He leaned back in the seat and shrugged his shoulders. “You don’t like the job. You never have.”
“That’s not true,” I said. Though it was. I hung around because it was Dewey. And he paid me a lot of money. And because it was Dewey.
“You hate all the mail I get, you hate going on location, you hate the Dewzers,” he said.
“I don’t hate…” I wasn’t sure which option to go with. I hated all of it but I didn’t trust anyone else to put my brother’s interests first. “Listen. I love you. As long as you want me around, I’m not going anywhere.”
I opened the car door.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To find Warren. Maybe he’ll let me drive you to the station. I can’t risk anyone seeing you in the back of a patrol car.” I swung my left leg out onto the gravel driveway and caught sight of my purple clad tootsies. If I was going to be hoofing it around Morgan’s gravel-covered yard, I needed a lot more than crime scene vinyl protecting my feet. “Give me your shoes and socks.”
Dewey’s boots were a couple of sizes too big so I stuffed the crime scene booties in the toes and tied the laces extra tight. As I got out, I wagged a finger at him. “Slouch down back there just in case somebody drives by and gets curious.”
Over at the front door, Leather Girl was still distracted by whatever was happening inside the house and never heard me climb the porch steps. At the top, I leaned around her trying to look for Warren. I didn’t see him but I did spot my high school chemistry teacher, Mr. Falito, headed my way. The name badge on his pocket had a big CS on it so I guessed he’d either moved onto a new career or was moonlighting. We made brief eye contact and then he quickly looked down. Blast. Did he think Dewey had something to do with all that blood too? As Mr. Falito stepped into the doorway and maneuvered around Leather Girl, he lifted his arm and I got a close-up view of the notes on the paper bag he was holding. The name Dewey Nash was neatly written on the line marked suspect. “What the hell?” I grabbed his arm for a better view.
Leather Girl, who’d been unaware of me, spun around and bumped into my former teacher who teetered on the lip of the top step before he lost his balance. I was left literally holding the bag as his arms swung wild, hands desperately grabbing at the air. He ended up with her wind breaker clutched in a fist and I could hear fabric rip as the two of them took out the porch railing and fell to the ground below in a tangled mess.
“June.” Warren filled the open door.
“Dewey’s a suspect now?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he took the evidence bag from me and dropped it into a box just inside the door. Then he gripped my shoulders, helped me down the stairs and twisted me in the direction of my truck. As I glanced back, Mr. Falito was making the mistake of trying to help Leather Girl adjust the skirt that had settled up around her waist, exposing her tiny yellow thong. Okay, now we were a tad closer to even.
“June, I’d like you to leave my crime scene now,” Warren said.
I looked over at the cruiser. Dewey had his face twisted up against the back window, trying to keep us in sight and I thought about the reviews on the back of his last book. My daredevil brother looked more like a scared little kid and I needed to do something to help him. Trouble was, I had no idea what that something might be. I decided to stick with my best trait. Anger.
“What the hell, Warren. Five minutes ago Dewey was a person of interest. What changed?”
He planted his hands on his hips and gave me more of his cop attitude. “I’m not going to discuss my crime scene with you. My relationship with your mother does not give you special consideration.”
“Relationship?” That was the first time I’d ever heard either of them refer to their coffee sessions as a relationship.
Warren wagged a finger at me. “Now don’t go reading more into that than there is. If you want to do something to help, you can get in touch with your mom’s friend Harrison Kim. Let him know what’s going on.”
“Dewey needs a lawyer?” Blast. That should have been my first thought.
“It’s in his best interest.” He spun me around and pushed me in the direction of my truck. I glanced back and he made a motion to keep going. Since it looked like there was nothing else I could do, I raised a hand toward the patrol car. Dewey returned the wave.
Over at my truck, I discovered that my keys were still in the ignition. I cranked the engine, gripped the steering wheel and yelped in pain. My knuckles were finally starting to hurt. I blew on them a couple of times and shifted into gear. As the truck roll forward, I could see Warren in the rearview mirror. He had his cell phone pressed to his chest and was waving at me. I slammed on the brakes and rolled down the window as he jogged over.
“I need you to go pick up your mom.”
That was not something I wanted to do. “How about you take me to jail and Dewey goes and gets her?”
“She has her own car.”
“Your mother is about to find out that her child is a person of interest in a possible murder investigation,” Warren said. “She shouldn’t be driving at a time like this.”
“And I should? I’m the one who was rolling around in a pool of blood.”
“You want to tell her that?” Warren asked.
He waved a dismissive hand at my truck and put the phone back to his ear. “Wendy, hang on, there’s something I need to tell you.”
As I watched him walk away, I hoped he realized that if he arrested Dewey, he’d be having coffee by himself for a very long time.