Copyright 2000

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centerChapter Five/center

When I woke up the next morning, it was around ten. Although the weather had gotten worse, and I could see huge waves in the gulf from our window, Lou had still had to go into work. At least he had left in a good mood.

While I ate breakfast, I wondered if I should call Kit and Kat to see how Kit was. I decided against it. They were probably at the hospital anyway.

After I was done with breakfast (a big one so Lou wouldn't be able to make fun of me for my British in the near future), I went to the front desk and collected the messages from the previous day. One was a message from the photo shop saying that the photos I had taken were ready. I had forgotten all about them. The only other message was from Lou, telling me to stay off the case, but he and I knew full well that he would have to tie me to a tree in Timbuktu if he ever wanted ithat/i to happen.

I took Molly's car to the photo shop and retrieved the pictures. I noticed that the teenage girl who handed them to me after I paid for them didn't hold me in very high regard. I saw why later. I only had two pictures worth a lick. One was a close up; the glare from the flash was cut off right above the man's head. You could see the girl and Martha. The other photo was one of the overviews I had taken. I'd gotten the lighting right (It's a miracle!), but I'd been too far away. You couldn't make anything out except the frame to hold the photo.

I drove to a sandwich store, got a Coke, and sat at one of the sticky tables, pondering what to do next. Finally, I picked up the one good photo I had and studied the man's face. The man, if you added a number of years, would look like the one who had tried to kill me, but that was pretty much a given. It was old news. Not only that, but since I didn't even know the man's name, it didn't help me at all.

Biting my lip, I dug through my purse, looking for Martha's notes. I hadn't been able to give the folder back to Lou. Not that I had even thought about them when we got back to the room...

I opened the folder and flipped to a page at random, scanning the page. The man's name had been Mac. Mac Hanlon. I shook my head. This was not helping at all.

Still, the feeling that I was missing something was back and with full force. I sipped at my Coke steadily, willing the answer to present itself.

Authors love wordplay. I mean, look at J.K. Rowling. "Lupin" means "wolf-like." In the third Harry Potter book, Lupin was a werewolf. I'd read a time-traveler series once where the author had found the roots to the names of the bible and had used some of those. I had even done it a few times in the past. So far, none of my classmates had figured anything out and sued, so I suppose that was a good thing.

The question was, had Martha done the same thing?

My thoughts were interrupted when my cell phone rang. "Yes?" I asked, picking it up.

"I've got a problem," Renee said.

I sighed. Lou was right. Having Renee under my feet was much like me being under his. "What is it?"

"I went by to investigate the scene of the crime from yesterday, you know? Well, I've got a flat tire, and the storm is coming, and it's really windy. Could you please come pick me up? You know how I hate being stranded in the middle of nowhere."

"Sure. Where are you?"

"Crime scene last night. Stay on the road to Martha's house, and you can't miss it."

"Renee-"

"Please hurry. I swear I just heard something. What if the killer's coming back to finish me off, huh? It's happened before. Whenever private investigators get too close, people always try to knock them off somehow." She whimpered.

"Renee, it was probably an owl. I'll be right there. Just sit tight."

"Please hurry."

I shook my head out of pity for her and hung up.

I went outside, already wishing that I could just stay where I was in the cozy sandwich shop, drinking delicious icy cold Cokes. Instead, I had to go and save a private investigator from a murderous owl who might peck her to death.

I followed her directions and went past Martha's house. The wind had picked up considerably, whipping tree branches around. I was driving at a much slower pace, expecting a huge tree to land in front of me across the road. It was already close to one in the afternoon. I remembered how Lou had said the storm would come this afternoon at the latest. I shivered as I remembered a storm from my younger years, Hurricane Opal. The meteorologists had predicted that the longer it stayed over water, the stronger it would get. Would this tropical storm be the same way?

A short while later, rain had started to fall gently. I was at the scene of the crime from the night before. I risked getting hit by hail to go outside the nice compact and inspect the scene myself.

Renee's car wasn't in sight. There were pieces of a tire, but I doubted Renee's car would have been too far away unless she had a spare and had called me for nothing. I grimaced as I realized that was probably precisely what had happened. Renee didn't think right in some situations. When she had given into her phobia of bloodthirsty, homicidal owls with a hunger for human carnage, she couldn't do much more than whimper. Hell, she had probably driven away with or without a spare tire. Maybe I had just missed her when coming to Martha's house.

I studied the crime scene, even though Lou and his pals had cleaned it up so thoroughly they hadn't even felt the need to leave the yellow tape up. All that was left was a bit of dried blood being carried away by the rain and deep ruts where the truck had been resting.

Wiping water out of my face, I went back into Molly's car. I sat behind the wheel, wondering whether I should go straight back to New Orleans or hang out in Martha's house for a while. It wasn't my favorite vacation spot to hang out in, but it was a whole lot better than having a huge chunk of hail fall onto your head and then a boyfriend/cop asking what the hell you had been doing out of your hotel room if you woke up.

Decision made, I pulled into Martha's driveway.

Praying that the front door was unlocked and that there was plenty of food in the kitchen (and no salad), I ran to the porch. Still praying, I twisted the knob and pushed the door open. I grinned slightly. My lucky day. I was stuck in an empty house where someone had died. After thinking about it for a few seconds, I decided that it would be right of the Fates' alley to have nothing but salads in the kitchen.

I heard a thump from upstairs.

All right. My day had just improved. I was stuck in the house with a ghost.

"Hello?" I called, hoping the sound had merely been hail falling on the roof.

"Eve? Is that you?" I wrinkled my nose at the echoes through the house, trying to identify the speaker.

"Dee?" I called back.

"Oh, thank goodness. You scared me!"

"Where are you?" Please be in the kitchen. Please be in the kitchen.

"Upstairs. In Martha's office."

Drat.

"Come on up," she called. "I'm investigating."

I shook my head, appalled at authors these days. They just thought they could butt into people's homes and start searching through dead people's things. Not only that, but they were also intruding in official business. Dee was really going to get it when Lou caught her.

I considered it, and then thought against calling Lou. He'd want to know why I was there, and I had a feeling that he wouldn't be thrilled with "I didn't want to make you wait to give me a lecture in the hospital."

Instead, I called out to her "I'm coming!" and started climbing the stairs, skirting past the spot where the man had fallen and rolled to the bottom. Reaching the platform, I made my way to Martha's office.

Dee was in the wooden chair, shifting through the folders. She looked up as I walked in and breathed a sigh of relief. "Please," she said. She waved a hand to indicate the couch. "Sit down."

I walked over and graciously (note igraciously/i) took a seat on the couch, trying not to show my disgust. My office back home would inever/i look like this. I had a mess all over the place of stories I had never finished, stories I ihad/i finished and never liked, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I couldn't even remember.

"Can you believe this office?" I asked Dee in astonishment.

She shook her head without looking up.

I, however, had not wanted come up here. I'd have rather been in the kitchen, chowing down on whatever I could find in there. I was going to make the best of this. We were going to have a conversation, whether she wanted to or not.

"Where were you when Martha was killed?"

"Downstairs," she murmured, taking a folder out and studying it. She realized what she had said and countered, "Where were you?"

"On the side porch," I said easily.

All right, I reasoned. This was getting way too weird. What was weird about it? The only thing that was getting me edgy about this whole thing was the fact my stomach was doing somersaults. Fine, she had admitted to being downstairs. I had been downstairs too, on the porch. She hadn't said "In the kitchen." Still, though, I wasn't enjoying this one-sided conversation.

I stood up and stretched. "I'm going down to the kitchen," I said. "Want something?"

She shook her head, absorbed in the folders.

I walked downstairs, gaining speed as I went. While I was rummaging through the fridge, I took my cell phone out of my purse and called Lou on speed dial.

"Why aren't you in your hotel room?" he asked after we had exchanged pleasantries.

"Renee called me to pick her up. She had a flat tire. I have to stay in Martha's house unless I want to get squashed by a piece of hail the size of a boulder. But you'll never believe-"

I stood up, balancing a two-liter bottle of Coke with cold hot dogs (uncooked and ready to go into the microwave for a few minutes).

I gasped as Dee hit my phone out of my hand. I was about to shout at her, or at least hit her back, but then she lifted up a gun and shot at my phone. She pulled the trigger, and I heard a metallic ping. I blinked. When I opened my eyes again, my phone was in pieces.

"Why don't I ever insure my phones?" I wondered aloud.

"Hope you got life insurance."

I carried my snack to the counter and set everything down. "Do you want anything?" I asked conversationally as I stuck two hot dogs on a plate and shoved them into the microwave.

"Yes, actually. The folder."

"What makes you think I have the folder?"

"When Kit, Kat, the PI, and I were arrested for breaking and entering- among other things- I chanced to look out the window and saw you and Tim McCoy running to his car. Tim McCoy didn't have the folder. You must have it."

"Brilliant detective work," I complimented her. "Sorry to tell you this, but I was already done with the folder. I gave it to Lou last night."

"Then I'll have to kill you."

"Let me enjoy my last hot dog, all right?"

Dee played with the gun in her hands as if it were a toy. "You're stalling for time," she said wisely, correctly deducing what I was trying to do as well as what I had done.

"Look, we've got all night. The cops can't come because of the storm, and the storm isn't going anywhere except in our direction."

Dee still looked doubtful.

I played my last and final card. "Do you really want my body stinking up the place?"

That got her. The thing was, it got me too. Lou wouldn't be able to make it here in the storm. It was too dangerous. If I was stalling for time, what was I stalling for? There wasn't any knight in shining armor to come to my rescue. I didn't even know if there was insurance for cell phones.

"Well," I said as I dug through the fridge and got out ketchup, mustard, and mayonnaise, "we might as well talk. Are you sure you don't want a hot dog?"

"I'm sure."

I set the toppings on the counter. "Not even with relish?"

"I don't iwant a hot dog/i." She held the gun menacingly and glared at me like a three-year-old who was being offered spinach. I had never liked spinach much myself. It wasn't like I'd be eating much of it ever again, either.

"All right, all right," I said softly. "Sheesh."

"What do you want to talk about?" she asked grumpily.

"What do you want to talk about, Desire?"

She looked at me, grinning slightly. "Did you just now figure that out?" I nodded. "Sure took you long enough. You must have read the folder." I nodded again.

When she failed to elaborate, I asked, "So why did you kill your mother?"

Dee scowled. "She wasn't my mother," she said with a pout. I wondered if I had ever treated Lou that way. If I ever had, I regretted it deeply. "My dad was in the force," she said thoughtfully. "I was really proud of him, too. I remember how he used to go into the living room late at night and just sit there. They didn't let him keep the badge, but he managed to keep the gun. He would sit there all night long, just looking at the gun, reminiscing about the better days." Her face once again became distorted. "He got kicked off the force because of iher/i."

"Why did you kill Tim McCoy?"

She shrugged. "We knew Martha had written a story about us. That was how we found out she was an author. So we started writing a long time ago, working as a team. We were always a team. But after I killed her, we realized that she probably had notes hidden away somewhere. All authors have notes. Don't you?"

I nodded, trying not to cross my fingers.

"Anyway, I told Daddy about seeing you and that Tim McCoy running from the side of the house to his car. He said we should look into it. So we called Tim McCoy and told him that he absolutely ihad/i to get to the house right away, and bring you with him. He didn't come, so we killed him in his room. Then we tried to get you and that Clifford guy, but instead of bringing you, he brought that loudmouth with him, Clara Staples. Who has a name like Staples, anyway? It makes you think of the Office Depot!" She laughed at her own wit and fingered the gun. "What kind of name is Harding?" she mulled.

"My ex-husband's," I said, struggling to keep a conversational tone. So far, I was doing it well. In five minutes, well, who knew?

"Why'd you divorce him?"

"Hated his guts."

"Hmm. Maybe I can pin this on him?" She looked at me to see how I felt about such a thing.

I shook my idea. "As much as I like the idea of dear Joseph doing life for my murder, he's already doing time."

"Really?" Her interested had already perked up considerably.

I nodded. "Really. Statutory rape. Sometimes I regret that none of those girls ever hit him over the head with something really heavy."

"What was he?"

I groaned. "News reporter."

"Oh, I get it. You ditch the reporter, go to the cop to be closer to the facts, right?"

I frowned at her and shook my head. "That wasn't the way it happened at all."

"Yeah, but it'll make a great story. The cop comes, finds you in the house. He gets so angry at you for breaking and entering that you two get into this huge fight, right? Anyway, you tell him that the only reason you claimed to love him was that you wanted more interesting stuff for your story. He kills you. It would be good to get the two of you off my back."

I didn't like the idea of her blaming Lou for my death.

The microwave bleeped, making us both jump.

"That photo... Were you blackmailing Martha?"

Dee mulled over it. "Not exactly. I probably could have. I mean, she had built up a reputation for herself, and I could have taken it away from her in the blink of an eye. I'm ashamed to say that I never even thought of threatening her for money. I just wanted to scare her a bit."

I thought about any more questions I might have. "What about your clothes? Surely you got blood all over you when you stabbed her."

She smiled. "I must admit that I have you to thank for that."

"Me?"

"Yeah. Which reminds me, would you please take your purse off and set it on the counter?"

Confused but not willing to hesitate too much with a gun-wielding psychopath right in front of me, I took my purse off and set it on the counter as I had been asked so reasonably to do.

"Good," she congratulated me. "See? Your purse is huge. It's so useful, too." She opened it and stuck her hand in, keeping the hand with the gun in it right in front of me. "You can stick pens, pencils, a wallet- which I might like to keep by the way. It's nice.- a laptop, and, oh! Look! Even a folder in it! It can also be used to carry clothes in," she informed me. She lifted the folder as I pursed my lips, getting ready to fall to the ground if I had to. She set the folder on the counter, lifted my purse, and threw it through the doorway.

"Hey!" I shouted at her. I almost made a run to check on my laptop, but Dee waved her gun at me.

"Leave it," she ordered. "It's not like you'll be using it."

I sat down, admitting this fact to myself.

Dee opened the folder. "You might want to start making that hot dog," she commented.

Biting my lip, I went to the microwave and pulled out my steaming, slightly burnt hot dog. I placed it down on the counter, trying not to make enough noise to tick off Desire. Desire, who desired to kill me more than she desired a hot dog. How did vegetarians live?

I shook the ketchup bottle, intent that my last hot dog would also be the most delicious. Dee was reading through the folder with avid interest. Suddenly, I had one single hope. A very dim light at the end of the tunnel.

"Dee?" I asked. I opened the hot dog bottle. It was one of those squeeze ones, and nearly full.

"What?" she murmured. She continued to study the papers.

"Are you sure you don't want a hot dog?"

This time she looked up, looking outraged. Before she could aim the gun at me, I leveled the ketchup bottle and aimed it at her eyes.

She screamed. Instinctively, I ducked. I heard more metallic hollow pings and watched as reasonably sized holes appeared in the refrigerator door. I decided that I had better move. A few seconds later, the shooting stopped, but there wasn't any sound of someone squeezing the trigger to tell me she was out of bullets. I plastered myself to another side of the kitchen island as Dee avidly cursed me.

I listened, frozen, as I tracked her footsteps around the room. They became softer, but I wasn't fool enough to think she had gone into another room. I heard something to my left and looked to see the gun pointed at me. Without thinking, I grabbed whatever might have been behind it and pulled.

"OW!" Dee shouted. I realized that she had climbed onto the island to search for me. I stood up, trying to wrestle the gun away from her. Not being successful in that, I turned and hit her head against the counter.

"Stop it!" she shrieked.

"You're the one who tried to kill me," I retorted.

Instead of saying "Bygones," she started firing with her pistol again.

"How many bullets does that thing ihave?/i" I shouted at her, exasperated.

"Enough to kill you," she retorted.

Trying to keep the gun from being aimed in my direction, I searched desperately for a weapon. I grabbed the plate I had been using for the hot dog. Without even looking, I raised it and slammed it down against something soft. The gun stopped firing, and the fingers holding it went limp. I breathed for the first time in what seemed like an eternity.

I took the gun with me when I went upstairs. I found some shoelaces and carried them back to the kitchen, where I did a spectacular job of not running to my laptop's side to nurse it back to health. Dee, or rather Desire, was still conked out of the kitchen island's surface. I shoved her over onto the floor mercilessly.

Walking over to her side, I kept the gun nearby as I tied her hands behind her back and tied her ankles together as well. After I had done that, I dragged her into the family room.

Once I had done all that, I went back into the kitchen and poured myself a glass of coke. I made sure my laptop was okay. Finding a phone, I lifted the receiver and wasn't surprised when I found out that the line was dead.

Several minutes later, while I was quietly sipping away at my Coke, watching Dee carefully and keeping the gun in my lap, the door opened. At first, I thought it had been the wind. I stood to close the door as Lou came into the room.

"Lou?" I asked.

Without saying a word, he ran to me and hugged me. I felt tears in my eyes. "It took you long enough," I told him crossly.

"Renee, your meddlesome private investigator, said that she had called you and asked you to pick her up. The storm was coming, so I had already started out here when you called. I thought you might get into trouble with the storm. Still, I think you owe Renee quite a bit." He saw Dee on the couch. "What happened?" he asked. "She's tied up, too."

I told him what had happened. "And I'm bloody hungry," I concluded.

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Two days later, much to the dismay of several bookstores in New Orleans, I returned home with Lou in tow. The first thing I did was check my mail. Marie had left a note, inviting Lou and I to her place anytime we felt like it. She was the head nurse of a Saint Someone's hospital.

New Orleans after the storm had been pretty boring. Without a case, Lou and I had done nothing but tolerate each other (and quite well, I might add). We had done all the things tourists did, except for the fact that most of the tourist places were closed.

Lou and I arranged to have dinner at my place that night. It wasn't all that romantic, actually. We had Italian pasta, courtesy of Vittorio's, a takeout Italian place. Gary called in the middle of the baseball game to yell at me about something or other, most likely the way I canceled quite a few book signings back in wonderful New Orleans. He did say, however, that my book would be out the following month.

I told him off for yelling at me and hung up the phone.

Dessert was pretty good.