This is the first chapter from my my new book, Dancing on a Tightrope (A Wolf Mallory Mystery). I’m working on edits for book 2, Can’t Dance Forever, and plotting book 3, tentatively titled Dancing with the Dead Man. I’m also working on a Christmas short story for Wolf as well to be released in time for the holiday. Enjoy!
The girl appeared to be in her mid-twenties. “You see, I have this problem.”
I nodded. My reflection in her mirrored sunglasses nodded back at me. “That’s what Vinnie told me.”
She removed a cigarette from the pack by her elbow and tapped it on the table three times before lifting it to her lavender-shaded lips. An untouched shrimp salad lay before her.
“You sure you want to do that in here?” I asked, indicating the cigarette.
“Damn. I keep forgetting you can’t smoke inside anymore.” She waved the cigarette. “These help me when I’m nervous.” She raised her gold-rimmed crystal glass with her other hand, gazed at the melting ice inside, and asked, “Can I have another drink?”
I nodded and signaled our waiter.
Her name was Vicky Agincourt. Strands of strawberry blonde hair peeked from beneath a wide-brimmed straw hat. Sunlight reflected off her crystal earrings, and a rainbow danced across her cheek. A matching crystal pendant hung from a thin gold chain around her neck. Her fingernails, long and manicured, had miniature shells painted on each red lacquered surface.
I had agreed to a late lunch at Fletcher’s Landing on this sweltering, humid Saturday in late July as a favor to my friend, Vinnie Spano. He had phoned me in the early morning hours, explaining that a friend was in trouble and needed some help. Mostly to get Vinnie off the phone so I could go back to sleep, I’d told him I would meet her and named the time and place. She was already there when I arrived, seated on the outside patio and smoking a cigarette.
In the past fifteen minutes, she’d drunk two Canadian Club and colas, and I still didn’t know what her problem was. I already knew she had some sort of legal difficulty. She was supposedly not guilty of whatever had happened, but Vinnie had been uncharacteristically vague on the details.
When her fresh drink arrived, she stirred it with a plastic swizzle stick bearing the Fletcher’s Landing logo in a circular globe at the top. “That table over there,” she said, pointing to a spot over my shoulder. “That’s where we sat the last time we were here.”
I looked. When I turned back to face her, tears ran down her cheeks. A quarter of her drink was gone.
“It was my birthday,” she said. “Bri brought me here and I had the same thing to eat.” She indicated the shrimp salad with her glass.
“Who’s Bri?” I asked.
She ignored the question, lost in her apparently painful memories. “After dinner, we walked along the beach. It was a beautiful night, and we had the whole beach to ourselves. The stars were out and the moon was shining. Have you ever seen it dance along the waves? It was just like a romantic movie.”
She sipped at the drink and stared at the table she’d mentioned. I took another bite of my seafood linguini and waited. If there was a point, I hoped she’d get to it soon.
“Bri found us a private place among the dunes and sea oats. We drank some more and talked. I watched those moonbeams dance and listened to Bri. He made me feel like I was the most special woman in the whole world.”
She took another sip of her drink. “We went back to my condo,” she said. “Bri stayed over that night. He didn’t get to do that very often.” She turned and stared at the spot across the room. When she spoke again, her words were barely audible. “A few days later, he was gone.”
What little was left of her façade crumbled like a sandcastle in the surf. She grasped for composure and failed. Her face reddened. More tears flowed. The muscles in her long, elegant neck swelled and receded with her sobs. She grabbed her purse and pushed away from the table, mumbled an apology, and rushed toward the restrooms.
Two older women a couple of tables away frowned before returning to their meal. I couldn’t guess if it was the emotional display or Vicky’s attire—a midriff-revealing T-shirt, short-shorts, and high-heeled sandals.
She was attractive. Watching her retreat, I felt myself respond as her hips rolled with a seductive sway under the snug material of her shorts and her long, firm legs carried her out of sight.
And not a moment too soon. I’d been celibate for over a year, not so much by choice as from preoccupation with my own problems.
But I wasn’t dead.
The thought occurred to me that I’d have to watch myself. I had enough common sense to avoid an emotional entanglement. It was too easy to fall for a damsel in distress.
Especially one as beautiful as this girl.
* * * *
“I’m sorry,” she said upon returning to the table. “I thought I could hold myself together better than that.” Her face looked red and puffy, but she’d apparently washed it and reapplied her makeup.
I ate my last bite of seafood linguini and aligned the fork, knife, and spoon on the plate. I wiped my mouth with the linen napkin, folded it into a square, and placed it on the other side of the plate. “Look, Miss Agincourt,” I said, tired of her dancing around the point. “I don’t know what Vinnie told you, but I’m not a therapist.”
“That’s not my problem.” Her voice quavered. She fiddled with her necklace before palming the half-empty glass. When she leaned forward, the crystal around her neck dangled like a large teardrop. “They’ve accused me of killing Bri.”
“Who is Bri?” I asked again, my growing irritation bubbling to the surface.
“Brian Clausen. I was his executive assistant and we were lovers. I didn’t do it, Mr. Mallory. I loved him.”
Finally, we were getting to the root of the problem. I remembered reading about the murder. It had occurred last December, three months after I had moved to Porto Cielo, a retirement town between Sarasota and Fort Myers on the Gulf coast of southwest Florida. Clausen was a powerful real estate developer in Sarasota, with connections throughout the southern portion of the state.
Early one morning in late December, two fishermen out to test their luck had discovered Clausen’s body in his car in an overgrown, undeveloped area of Sarasota County. The press had reported it as a crime of passion.
“What does your lawyer say?”
“He’s got some sort of a deal worked out. Tells me I’ll get out in five years if I plead guilty. Why should I do that? I didn’t kill him.”
The girl removed her sunglasses to dab at her intense, dark grayish-green eyes with a tissue. “Please, Mr. Mallory. Nobody else believes me. I need your help.”
This sounded like a scene from an old movie. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings, since she seemed sincere in her distress. “People usually aren’t released after serving only five years for murder. I don’t know how he did it, but it sounds like your lawyer got you a good deal.”
The girl finally lifted her fork and poked through the salad. “I told you—I didn’t kill him.”
“You should give his advice serious consideration.”
“Please. Vinnie said you could help. He said sometimes you do favors for friends…” She hesitated. “Kinda help them out, like, when they’re in trouble.”
I sighed. Damn Vinnie and the way he’d raised this girl’s hopes. “What do you want me to do, Miss Agincourt?”
“Prove I didn’t do it. My attorney’s investigator, he thinks I did it. He’s not even trying to prove I didn’t.”
She directed the full power of those unsettling eyes at me. They were almost the shade of the Gulf during a tropical storm. I gazed into them, studied them, drowned in them.
Outside, the unrelenting sun beat down from a cloudless blue, postcard-perfect sky. It glinted off the breakers rolling onto the beach. To the tourists, this was the Florida from travel brochures—sun and water, water and sun. Prime tanning conditions. From my second-story perch, it appeared that our county had garnered its fair share of all the state’s tourists.
Gaily striped umbrellas in blues, reds and whites dotted the beach. Scantily clad men and women—some needing more cover than they chose to wear—lay on blankets and towels on the white sand. Children built sandcastles, looked for sharks’ teeth, splashed in the surf, or swam in the breakers. Two elderly women with bent heads walked along the shore, searching for shells while the surf curled around their ankles. Long-billed sandpipers trailed behind, their beaks darting into the sand after a lagging meal.
I’d been a hermit for the past twelve months, sheltered from the world and its difficulties and troubles and problems.
My difficulties and troubles and problems.
Even hiding down here, near the end of the country, they still followed me. Not that I had any choice in the matter.
The FedEx parcel I’d received the day before proved that.
Maybe it was time to exit my shell. Unless Washington DC disappeared, the congressional hearing would not vanish. The process could continue for years.
Did I intend to remain in seclusion all that time?
The girl watched me with moist eyes as her fingers played with the crystal pendant hanging from her neck. She would be about the age of the child Gwen and I never had.
What the hell? I’d chased more forlorn causes than this.
“I knew you’d do it,” she said. “My crystal told me so. It’s got a warm glow. Here, feel it.” She leaned over the table, extending the pendant toward me.
I declined. I wasn’t interested in her New Age rosary, which was all it amounted to. I wanted facts I could use. “Tell me about the murder.”
She eased back into her chair. “Does this mean you’ll help me?”
“I want to hear your side first.”
“There’s not much to tell. Bri and me, we’d been seeing each other for over a year. It was difficult with Bri being married. We tried to keep it secret.” When tears cascaded down her face again, she grabbed her linen napkin and pressed it to her eyes.
“I’m sorry. I loved him so much and now he’s gone, and, and…” She bowed her head so I couldn’t witness her misery. “I feel like my life’s a disaster,” she said to her salad.
“Did his wife know about your affair?”
Vicky shook her head. “I didn’t think so at the time, but I found out later that she did.”
“Where were you when—”
“At home. We’d been together that evening. Sort of an early Christmas celebration.”
“How long did he stay?”
“I don’t know. Four, maybe five hours. Then Bri checked the messages on the answering machine, made a telephone call, and left. When he didn’t come back, I figured he’d gone home. Like I said, he didn’t spend the night very often.”
The waiter approached and inquired about our drinks. Vicky ordered another Canadian Club and cola and I said he could refill my coffee.
Alone again, Vicky continued. “The next morning, Bri didn’t come to the office. I got worried and called his house. The cleaning lady answered. She sounded funny when I asked for Bri. She told me Mrs. Clausen was busy at the moment, and asked if she could take a message. I told her why I was calling and asked her to have Bri call.”
“She didn’t tell you about the murder?”
“No. Right after lunch, two detectives came to the office and asked to see me. We went into Bri’s office for privacy. They told me about the murder. They wanted to know where I’d been the previous night. I didn’t know they knew about us. I was in shock and I lied and told them I’d gone to the movies with a friend.”
Her voice caught. She stopped and finished what was left of the drink. “One of them accused me of lying. Said they knew I’d been out with Bri. Then he asked if I owned a gun. I told them I didn’t. The other one asked if I knew that Bri owned a gun. When I said I did, they arrested me and put handcuffs on me and took me out of the office in front of everyone, just like in the movies. They kept me in jail until the next day. Then my lawyer got me out on bail.”
“Who is your attorney?”
“Paul Del Verona. He’s a public defender. I have his card.” She reached for her purse and searched inside.
The waiter brought her drink and my coffee and asked if we needed anything else. I told him we were fine.
“You mentioned that Clausen made a phone call,” I said after our waiter departed with the used dishes. “Do you know who he called?”
She extracted the business card from her purse and handed it to me. “No. He didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask. I figured if he wanted me to know, he’d tell me. I never pushed him for information. That’s one of the reasons we got along so well.”
I glanced at the card. It listed Del Verona’s name, phone number, and the public defender’s office address in Sarasota. Tucking it into my shirt pocket, I said, “I suppose I could talk to your lawyer. See how strong he thinks the evidence is against you.”
“That’d be great, Mr. Mallory.” A small smile curved her lavender-coated lips. “But we don’t have much time.”
“My trial starts in almost two weeks. August sixteenth.”
I sipped my coffee and wondered why there always had to be a catch once you’d made a commitment. The girl was asking me to find a shark’s tooth in a pile of shells with high tide coming in fast.
“This might help you.” She dug into her purse again and handed me a thick, heavy manila envelope.
“What’s this?” I undid the clasp and found the envelope stuffed with papers.
“Records from Bri’s computer. I was angry when he fired me. I thought if I had copies of the records, I could use them to get back at him somehow, or at least protect myself. I don’t know. I was so upset at the time, I wasn’t thinking straight.”
I tried to digest this information, holding my irritation in check again. “What’s this about you being fired?”
“It happened about two weeks before he—before Bri died.” She lifted the linen napkin to her eyes again. “We had a fight at work and he broke up with me. Fired me. Told me to pack my things. A couple of hours later, a deliveryman brought two dozen red roses for me. There was no card, but Bri came in right behind him. He had the card.”
She smiled at the memory while sipping her drink. “We made up and I unpacked. Two weeks later, he was dead, and Sheila—Mrs. Clausen—fired me.”
I didn’t know if it was her grief, agitation, or the drinks, but making sense of her conversation was like trying to understand an Escher painting after an all-night bender. I didn’t think she deliberately tried to hold anything back, but she wasn’t giving me the information I needed.
“I don’t understand. How did you come into possession of his records?”
“Like I told you. I was angry. I was packing up my stuff and the thought hit me. So I printed a copy in case they tried to say I took some money or something. That way I could prove when I left everything was in order. That was before Bri apologized. I’d stuck the copies in my bag and forgot all about them. I just threw them in a drawer later on because then I didn’t need them.” The green-gray eyes gazed at me. “This morning, I remembered making the copies, and I dug them out. I tried to give them to my attorney before, right after everything happened, but he didn’t seem interested in them.”
“Do you know anybody who’d want to kill Mr. Clausen?”
She shook her head.
“Is there anybody else who knew Mr. Clausen well? Who would know his friends and business associates?”
“Nate Wilhelm. He’s the company’s environmental engineer. He and Bri were close. Bri treated him like a son almost.” She dug into her purse again, retrieved a small notebook, and gave me Wilhelm’s address and telephone number.
“I’ll see what I can do, Miss Agincourt.”
“Call me Vicky, please, Mr. Mallory.”
“You can call me Wolf. That’s what my friends call me.”
“Vinnie called you Wolf last night. I thought I’d misunderstood him.”
She gazed at me with those remarkable eyes while her fingers played with the pendant again. “I talked with my palmist this morning. She told me she had an image of a dog-like creature walking in front of me, snapping at people in my way.”
She dropped the crystal and sat straight back in her seat. “That short haircut and those blue eyes give you a sort of wild look.” A thoughtful expression crossed her face. “Vinnie was right. I think you will be able to get me out of this.”
I tried to keep the impression of her being an air-headed bimbo from cementing in my mind. “Don’t get your hopes up. I’m just going to talk to your lawyer. Get an idea of the lay of the land. I’m not a professional investigator, you know.”
She nodded. “I know. But it would be more than anyone else has done.” She extended her hand across the table. Her grip felt soft and warm and dainty.
While we shook, her eyes mesmerized me again.
“Thank you,” she said.