Authors: Wyborn Senna
He looked around at the walls plastered with metal signs from bottling companies and gas stations. Some were reproductions and some were originals. His gaze stopped as he focused on an old Coca-Cola sign above the door. He examined the lettering, advertising “Ice Cold
Sold Here!” in white, green, and red.
Darby lost his train of thought.
P.J. got up and walked to Darby’s fridge. There was nothing edible in the stone-age white Frigidaire aside from a half-full jar of Vlasic pickles, a half-gallon of Alta Dena Milk, and a grimy jar of Peter Pan creamy peanut butter. A loaf of potato bread, wedged far in the back, was now grayish-green with mold. On the lowest shelf above the crisper bin slots, there were dried orange blobs that had fallen from a nearly empty, uncovered bowl of tangerine Jell-O. There wasn’t much she could do except continue to supplement Darby’s $998 monthly disability checks that arrived every month on or near the sixteenth. The apartment, which he insisted on keeping to himself and not sharing, ate up $650 of that. The rest went to Internet service, cable TV, food, and cigarettes. Sometimes he took an odd job or helped out friends and came home with a spare bill or two, but it was all P.J. could do to keep from worrying about whether or not he could survive without her.
She walked back into the living room, feeling the snagged and tattered holes in the steel gray carpet beneath her toes.
She stared at her half-brother. He had fallen asleep, his Lakers cap now floating around his thick light brown hair like a halo pinned against the back of the chair. Yes, he had their mother’s eyes, but his mouth was thinner lipped and his chin was much more prominent. Of the two of them, she had lucked out with the looks.
P.J. took a moment to quietly head upstairs. Darby’s mattress lay on the floor, covered by one baby blue blanket, sticky yellowed sheets, and a flat pillow. She stared out the window at the 2 North. Cars were zipping onto the Glendale Freeway, heading up to Montrose and points beyond. Maybe she should work on the next murder by herself. She could think of countless women who deserved to die. For starters, there was Hailey Raphael in Tucson, Time Taylor in Oak Harbor, and Zivia Uzamba in Las Vegas—and those were just the names at the top of her list.
P.J. smoothed back her blond hair and pressed her nose against Darby’s cool windowpane. When she grew tired of watching traffic, she headed downstairs, grabbed a piece of paper from the top drawer of Darby’s desk and yanked a pencil stub out of a cup. After writing, “Bro, I love you!” in her spidery scrawl, she peeled a scrap of masking tape from the corner of the desk and stuck the note to his monitor.
She stood back to admire it. It was centered perfectly.
Time to retrieve her loafers and put them on.
She left, her half-brother comatose in his favorite ratty chair.
The next day at work, Caresse headed to the Best Barbie Board to investigate the death of Gayle Grace. There was no better place online to chat with fellow diehard Barbie doll collectors and fans. There was a search function, so she entered the word “Grace” and found what appeared to be the first mention of Gayle’s death.
The first note, posted hours after the initial news reports, came from Ilene Lynch, who also lived in Oswego and belonged to the same Barbie club Gayle had helped start five years earlier. Her user name was COLORMAGIC, a nod to the 1966 Barbies with hair that could change from Golden Blonde to Scarlet Flame or Midnight to Ruby Red, thanks to packets of color-changing solution.
The Best Barbie Board gave members the option to post either a photo of themselves or an avatar. The postage stamp-sized picture Ilene provided was a headshot of her favorite Color Magic Barbie, a Midnight beauty, splendid against the lavender backdrop of her original plastic case.
COLORMAGIC: Just heard word of a shocking tragedy. Gayle Grace and her husband are gone. A car bombing, they say. At SUNY Oswego, of all places. They were just leaving work and their Saturn blew up right there in the parking lot. Inside word is, the car was rigged. It doesn’t make any sense. I am in shock
Sabeana Moss, moderator of the BBB and a pretty, thirty-something strawberry blond according to her tiny online photo, was first to reply.
SMOSS: Ilene, I am so sorry to hear Gayle is gone. It doesn’t make any sense, does it? If you hear any more from the locals, please keep us posted. And if you talk to Megan, please give her our best
Ilene had not replied.
Caresse did a search for follow-up conversations. It was long past lunchtime, when the office was usually calm, but she couldn’t shut out the fact that her boss Seth was red-faced and pacing between the head copy desk and his own. By the time his moon-shaped glasses started to fog, she realized there must be a last-minute change to the afternoon edition in the works.
Ann explained that they were set to run a sports feature that day, singing the praises of an eighteen-year-old seven-footer from Minneapolis who, courtesy of a full basketball scholarship, was ready to make waves at Cal Poly in the fall. But a few hours earlier, the kid was arrested in Wisconsin for driving the getaway vehicle for his sixteen-year-old accomplice, who entered a bank with a sawed-off shotgun and quietly told a teller to hand over all the money in her drawer.
The young man’s high school coach, the Cal Poly Mustangs’ coach Kevin Bromley, and Cal Poly Media Relations Director Brian Thurmond were reeling. The typical comments about him being a nice kid, a quiet kid, a kid with a solid background did nothing but salt the wounds of those who had held such high hopes for his college career.
“Can’t run a fluff piece about how fabulous he is if he’s gonna be
court instead of
the court this fall,” Ann quipped.
Seth slammed down his phone. “Caresse,” he screamed. “Go back, locate Skip, and find out if D section has run. We’re going to yank it.”
Caresse jumped out of her seat and ran toward the back of the building. In her wake, she heard Seth screaming at Bo in Sports to find something on the wire to replace the pulled feature.
The machinery in the pressroom roared like King Kong.
Caresse looked around wildly. Finally, she spotted Skip.
“Stop!” she screamed.
Skip peered at her through his dense goggles and frowned.
“Stop!” she repeated.
Skip was talking to a man whose back was toward her, but she could tell even from his backside that A, he was a stranger to the pressroom, and B, he was ridiculously handsome. She ran up to Skip and dragged him to the open garage, pulling him down the ramp, away from the noise. Less than a minute later, he flew back inside and threw the switch that halted the run.
Her job now done, Caresse had a chance to scope out the stranger. He looked just like Andy Childs. He could be Andy Childs’ brother, so close was the resemblance.
“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she replied, walking over to him. She was 5′10″ and still only came up to his shoulders. His blond hair was lighter than his beard, and he wore a t-shirt underneath a classic striped button-down with jeans.
Returning to her computer to read more about the Barbie murder was now temporarily on the back burner. If she had to go on dates for the Valentine feature anyway, she’d found a great excuse to ask this hottie out.
P.J. grabbed her suitcase and her empty duffel and got off the Sunset Limited at the Tucson, Arizona Amtrak Station on East Toole shortly after noon the last Sunday in January.
She wandered around the station building for a moment to get her bearings. It had been renovated in recent years and had white tile floors in the ticketing and waiting areas that gleamed beneath inset fluorescent lights. Outside the pillared building, on the platform side, the name of the city was spelled out in capital letters.
P.J. sighed with pleasure as the sixty-degree midday winter warmth surrounded her. This was so much better than the journey to Oswego that she could scarcely compare the two. She had decided to alternate her killing technique between Darby’s ideas, which mostly involved complicated wiring, rigging, and explosive devices, and her own hands-on approach.
Hailey Raphael had earned P.J.’s enmity the year before when P.J. shared pictures of her blond, freckle-less Midge on the Barbie boards and Hailey accused her of having removed the doll’s freckles with nail polish remover.
P.J. remembered the exchange vividly.
HR: Thanks for sharing your pictures, P.J., but that isn’t an authentic freckle-less Midge. If it were, her hair would be longer. Are you sure someone didn’t apply a little nail polish remover to her face? ;-)
PJ-RULEZ: Thanks for your note, Hailey. This is an authentic freckle-less Midge. I have had her since childhood. In fact, she was my first and favorite doll, given to me by my Aunt Liz. I am aware some people try to pass off dolls with removed freckles as the real deal, but this is not the case with me
HR: It’s not that I’m calling you a liar, P.J., but something smells fishy. If she was your favorite doll, are you sure the freckles didn’t just get rubbed off from constant play? Maybe you were playing next to a bottle of open nail polish remover?
PJ-RULEZ: LOL. Not funny
HR: You say you got your Midge from your Aunt Liz? Maybe she removed the freckles?
PJ-RULEZ: Not likely. As I’ve told everybody here before, my Aunt Liz worked for Mattel in the Sixties and brought home something from the employee store in El Segundo nearly every week. This Midge was in her box, with stand AND booklet AND wrist tag intact, wearing her two-piece blue swimsuit and white heels
HR: Hmm. I think your Aunt Liz was having a little fun with you
After that last note, P.J. was too angry to respond. After her silence, everyone thought she had let it go. Instead, Hailey ended up on P.J.’s list—and now she was here to kill her.
Standing outside the station, P.J. realized she must have had a scowl on her face because a concerned-looking, clean-cut man about her age approached and asked if she needed help with her bags. She politely declined and tried to smile, admitting to herself that if she hadn’t wanted to attract attention, she shouldn’t have worn a sheer dress and heels.
After she said no to the man, he moved a few respectful steps away and lit a Camel he’d retrieved from a pack deep in his right front pocket. Out of the corner of her eye, she studied him. He was dressed in navy and was compact and cleft-chinned, with a brush cut. Military or just made that way?
Smoke drifted in her direction and she relished it. She still missed smoking, despite having given up Marlboro Lights cold turkey three long years ago. She caught her reflection in a window on the building. Standing in profile, she admired her model-like frame. Her long blond hair was tucked beneath a print Armani silk scarf, clipped in place at both sides and knotted at the nape of her neck. Her stylish sunglasses, handbag, and Manolo heels were the perfect accessories. Barbie had nothing on her. And here she was in Tucson. P.J. had read about the city and knew she was too early for the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, which would be held in February along with the Tucson Rodeo. She debated visiting the Art Deco Fox Theatre downtown, Reid Park Zoo midtown, or Saguaro National Park in the east. She wanted to head north to check out the boutiques, galleries, and restaurants, but Darby had warned her about being noticed around town, so she abandoned the idea of buying something eclectic and pricey at one of the shops.
A cab pulled up to the curb. She nodded her head, and the squat, balding cabbie jumped out. He picked up her suitcase and empty duffel and threw them in the trunk. She got in the back seat of the cab and told him she needed to go to the Ramada on East Tanque Verde.
“Nice place,” he said, with a thick accent she couldn’t identify. “You bring a swimsuit?”
P.J. studied his ebony eyes in the rear view mirror and read his name off the I.D. tacked to the driver side visor. “Sorry, Avi. It’s still a little too cold. I’ll wait for summer.”
“They got a hot tub,” Avi said. “Nice and bubbly.”
“I’m good.” Her tone was curt.
He took her cue, opting for the most direct route, and twenty minutes later made a quick spin around the circular entrance to the hotel, jumping out of the cab to pop the trunk without hesitation.
Before P.J. could open the back door on the right-hand side, Avi quickly opened it for her, gave a slight bow, and took her hand as she got out.
Somewhat flustered but flattered nonetheless, P.J. waited while he got her suitcase and the empty duffel, to which he gave a momentary second glance. She tipped him five dollars on top of the fare, and he walked her to the large-windowed front lobby. The floors were white linoleum with a high shine, and her heels clicked on her way over to the registration desk. She turned her head to give the cabbie a nod good-bye. He was still sitting out front, waiting, but when she acknowledged him, he broke out in a large grin, started the cab, and drove away.
Checking in was uneventful. She headed up to her room, which looked the courtyard pool. As she sat on the mosaic-print bedspread, a heavy feeling descended on her. She tried to pinpoint the cause, but couldn’t. Was Tucson, despite its pleasant warmth, just one of those cities at odds with her energy?
She found the remote and turned on the Sanyo TV anchored to the dresser. A quick flip through the basic channels guided her to a world news recap.
P.J. sighed, stripped off her dress, kicked off her heels, and threw her suitcase on the bed. Both locks popped with a
and she lifted the soft lid, digging for her blue-and-white print bikini. Yes, she had brought her swimsuit. No, it was none of the cabbie’s business. Slipping into the slinky little flower-patterned suit, she admired her body in the mirror. Then she grabbed two Ramada towels, her sunglasses, and her card key, and headed down to the pool area.
The center courtyard was vacant that Sunday as she stepped into the bubbly hot tub that foamed as though soap had been added. The heat melted her tension as she sank into the churning water up to her chin. She felt as though she could rest in the water forever without getting dizzy from the heat. Looking up at the cloudless blue sky, she felt every last worry dissolve. Tonight was the night. She would head over to Hailey’s house, a straight shot up North Sabino Canyon Road to East Ocotillo Drive. While Hailey’s parents were out for their weekly night of bridge from 8:00 to 10:00 p.m.—or thereabouts, as Hailey had shared on the message boards—P.J. would take a sharp tool from Hailey’s father’s garage workshop (where he kept tools from his former days as a shoemaker, another fact shared by Hailey) and bash in Hailey’s skull.