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Authors: Nancy J. Cohen

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BOOK: Highlights to Heaven
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“I have news,” he said curtly.

“Go ahead. Barry knows about the case involving Goat.”

Vail cast him a dark look. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather keep this private.”

“Marla is still recovering,” Barry said, unfazed. He leaned against the wall, hands in pockets. “She shouldn’t hear anything upsetting.”

“This is police business. I’ll decide what she can hear.”

Marla bit her lip to keep from smiling. “Barry, I’d really like a cup of coffee,” she told him pointedly.

“Oh. Well…whatever you wish.” He darted a glance at Vail. “
K’nacker
,” he muttered on his way out. Marla heard banging pots and pans when he reached the kitchen.

Vail speared her with a suspicious glare. “What did he call me?”

A wise guy
. “Nothing you need to know.”

He squared his shoulders. “Barry calls himself your friend. Just how close are you?”

“He’s Roger’s son. I’ve seen him a few times, when Roger and Ma were together.”

“What does he do?”

“Barry is an optometrist. What does it matter?”

Vail folded his arms across his chest. “It doesn’t. I have no say over what you do, just as you have no say over how I raise my child.” A pained expression came into his molten eyes, and he lowered his voice. “I had thought, though, since you and I became close, that you had a commitment to our relationship.”

His words stirred her in places she’d rather ignore. “I’m not dating Barry. Anyway, I thought you were mad at me.”

He kicked the door shut, came over to the bed, leaned over and kissed her. “We’ll discuss my being mad another time. How’s your head feel?”

“It still hurts.”

“Dizziness?”

“Gone, but I’m weak when I walk around.”

“That’s from staying in bed too long. I picked up your Toyota from Sears. It’s parked at your town house.”

“Thanks. How is Spooks doing? Are he and Lucky okay together?”

“They’re fast friends. Brie is getting a kick out of training your poodle to do some new tricks.”

“I’m glad she’s all right. Is that your news?”

“No. I spoke to the witness from your accident. He said that white car cut you off. It pulled into the lane just as you were switch-ing.”

“That doesn’t prove anything. It was an accident.”

“I’m not so sure. If you’d been killed, you would have been the third stylist from the Fort Lauderdale area to die within the past couple of months. Strikes me as an odd coincidence.”

Wanting to chase away the memories, she closed her eyes. “Did you learn anything new from Cutter?”

“He told me his cousin Evan breeds birds and sells them to local pet stores and tourist attractions. He denies any partnership between the two of them. Nor does he acknowledge a relationship with the dead man except in a professional capacity.”

“He’s lying. One of the staff members told me they were close. That means either they had a gay relationship or they were scheming.”

“I learned something else that’s interesting. I asked Jill to sniff around at Stockhart Industries since she works there. She said Yani often consulted with another researcher, a Chinese man. I spoke to him. He acted nervous during our interview.”

“So?”

“Many of the dog- and cat-fur items come from the Far East.”

Her head throbbed from the effort of memory recall. “You still believe Goat was involved in a pet-fur caper? I don’t believe he’d stand by while animals were hurt.” Something niggled at her brain. “The director of my beauty school said she’d seen Cutter at a hair show with another male stylist. Remember Goat’s interest in Martha Matilda Harper? I visited some of my school classmates. They reminded me of an episode where we played a prank on one of our own. It makes me wonder if someone from my class is working on a hair-growth formula.”

Vail frowned. “Explain.”

“You know how you’ve seen dead animals with patches of fur missing?” In addition to the skinned creature in Goat’s backyard, he’d told her of finding a cat with part of its coat shorn. “What if it has nothing to do with shady products? What if it has everything to do with animal testing?” She sat up excitedly. “Cookie Calcone taught me about it when we were working on Jolene’s case. The skin-irritancy test is often done as part of the approval process for cosmetics and household products. To test whether a substance irritates the skin, researchers shave sections of an animal’s back. The test chemical is applied to the skin. They look for signs of redness, swelling, or blisters to determine toxicity.”

“I don’t get your point.”

She leaned forward. “Rabbits are usually used for these tests, but what if someone is trying an experimental compound on dogs and cats?”

Vail rotated his shoulders. “Tell me more about this prank you played.” His tone of voice told her he didn’t believe it could be anything serious.

When Marla finished relating her tale, she regarded him curiously. “Wyeth Holmes was not listed on the class roster the director gave me. How do you think his name disappeared? Could he have anything to do with the attacks on myself and the other two hairdressers?”

“What would be his motive? You screwed with his hair years ago. But for all you know, it might have grown back after that episode. Or even if it didn’t, why would Holmes wait until now if he held a grudge?”

“Good question. Or maybe Cutter is the guilty party. He could be working on the formula. If it’s valuable, he wouldn’t want anyone else to stake a claim. Suppose he did away with Wyeth before going after Louise and the rest of us.”

Vail snorted. “If so, what does this have to do with Goat?”

“Goat must have found out something significant, and that’s why he was reading up on Harper. But I can’t figure out the connections. How did Yani end up at Goat’s house?”

“We’re still missing a lot of pieces,” Vail acknowledged. “I’ll check on those two stylists who were killed in accidents. As soon as you’re better, let’s take that ride to visit Goat’s sister. Your neighbor is the key to whatever is going on.”

Chapter Ten

“Don’t think, you’re getting off the hook so easily,” Vail said to Marla on the drive to Mount Dora. “You nearly got my daughter killed. I realize why you brought her along, but you have to understand something. Brie needs a parent more than a friend.”

Marla compressed her lips. She’d had enough aggravation getting her life back to normal without having to deal with the guilt Vail’s words brought. “I know I should have checked that you’d given her permission to come with me. If you can’t accept my apology, then maybe you should turn around and take me home.”

His brooding silence pierced her heart with fear. Although he’d been solicitous during her recovery, had she totally blown any chance for further intimacy between them? Then again, did she even want to get closer, knowing how pigheaded he was about his daughter? But maybe, as a father, he truly knew what was best for his child.

He gave a long sigh, then cast her a look filled with regret. “I realize you meant well. You tend to be impulsive, and that brings to mind a question I’ve wanted to ask you. How did you know about Evan Fargutt?”

Marla swallowed. “I needed to talk to Cutter, but as I approached his salon, he was leaving. I followed him to Evan’s ranch.” Her glance caught the view in the side mirror. Orange groves stretched into the distance, rows of trees laden with small green fruits.

“So did you talk to him there?” Vail’s steely gaze was fixed on the road.

Marla fortified herself with a deep breath. Confession time. “No. He was talking to his cousin and another man, Wake Hollander. I overheard Evan mention something about a shipment being delayed. Wake wasn’t happy, said his boss Tiger would be upset. Evan offered several birds as an incentive for them to be patient.”

Lines of concentration creased Vail’s forehead. “What kind of shipment?”

Whew
, Marla thought.
At least he isn’t yelling at me for trespassing
. “Exotic birds? He breeds them, but maybe the ones he ships in are illegal varieties. Cutter didn’t seem to approve of his cousin’s activity. After the others left, Evan offered to show Cutter his progress in the lab.”

“A lab on the ranch? Or related to Yani’s work at Stockhart Industries?”

She raised an eyebrow. “I assumed he meant a place on the ranch. I went to look for it, but Jimbo got me.” A shudder ran through her. “Don’t worry, I escaped before Cutter or Evan learned I was there.”

“Who’s this Jimbo fellow?”

“One of the ranch hands.” Her throat constricted. “If Cutter figured out it was me, do you suppose he could’ve been the one who ran us off the road?”

“Possibly.”

She plowed on despite his disapproving scowl. “If the deaths of those other stylists are related, it’s logical Cutter is responsible. But the only motive I can gather harkens back to that prank my classmates and I pulled. If Cutter is developing the hair-growth formula, that would explain Yani’s involvement. Cutter doesn’t have the scientific background.”

“And what about Goat?”

“He could have been protecting the animals they used as test subjects.”

Vail squinted. “How did Cutter and Yani become associated with Goat?”

“Hopefully his sister can tell us.”

“I ran a background check. Kyle Stanislaw has a rap sheet. Mostly stuff like check forging and conning old ladies out of their money.”

“No!”

He gave a wry smile. “Your neighbor isn’t the innocent lamb he appears to be.”

“Maybe so, but he’s not a murderer.”

“We’ll see.”

She resisted the urge to swat his smug smile away. “Jenny mentioned something about Goat having a problem with one of our neighbors. Do you know more about it? You spoke to everyone in the neighborhood.”

“Most of them think Goat is a crackpot. Hector was the only one who sounded less than amused. I thought he might be holding something back by the way he kept scratching his jaw during our interview.”

She chortled triumphantly. “You see? Something must have happened between them.”

“If Jenny says her brother might be on Siesta Key, what do you want to do?” He glanced at the dashboard clock. “It’ll be lunchtime when we arrive in Mount Dora. Visiting Jenny might take more than an hour. We wouldn’t be able to swing over to the West Coast, then come home at a reasonable time.”

“You said Brianna was sleeping over a friend’s house tonight. She’ll be in school tomorrow. I don’t have to go into work, so there’s no rush to return.” Sundays and Mondays were her days off. “What do you have in mind?”

He kept his glance straight ahead. “We should stay overnight and drive to Siesta Key in the morning. There’s another stop to make on the way home. Yani Verkovich’s family owns a vineyard on Route Eighty. His uncle is the one who ID’ed the body. I have more questions to ask him.”

“I didn’t bring anything for an overnighter.”

His grin made her heart flutter. “You can buy a toothbrush. You don’t need any extra clothes.”

Heat rose from her toes to her scalp. Despite their differences, he still wanted her. That knowledge imbued her whole body with a heightened sensitivity. Every movement he made for the rest of their trip made her squirm. Each glance he sent in her direction made her breath come short.

Stop it
, she told herself.
You’re here on a mission
. Yet if she could use this occasion to earn back his regard, she’d jump at the chance.

By the time they neared their destination, it took every ounce of willpower not to touch him. She craved proof of his forgiveness, but he wasn’t ready to give her that satisfaction. Instead, he teased her with studied glances at her figure and verbal innuendoes.

She straightened her blouse and slacks as they approached the town via State Road 46, an eighteen-mile stretch of road west of 1-4. Plant nurseries yielded to miles of undeveloped land dotted with palms and pine. A “Bear Crossing” warning sign made her peer into the Seminole State Forest, but the trees were too thick for her to spot wildlife. Cow pastures, horse-rental stables, and lakeside vistas met her wistful gaze. She rarely encountered rural Florida and was appreciating what she’d missed.

Mount Dora delighted her as they cruised past residences dating back to the 1800s and entered a downtown area filled with enticing boutiques and restaurants. Mindful of Brianna’s chess piece in her purse, Marla hoped they would have time for shopping.

“We’re too early for our appointment,” Vail remarked. “Let’s find a place where we can eat.”

She didn’t feel like wasting time at a sit-down restaurant. “How about stopping at the Dickens-Reed Books and Cafe? We could probably grab a snack there, and it wouldn’t hurt to ask around about Goat before we see Jenny. Someone in town might have spotted him.”

“You’re right.” He drove through the streets searching for a parking place. Spaces were free, unlike metered Fort Lauderdale, Marla noted with approval.

“Look, there’s Lake Dora,” she said, pointing to a large expanse of water glistening in the sun. Its surface reflected live oak branches garnished with Spanish moss that gave the town a lazy, Southern ambiance. Alligators and raccoons inhabited Palm Island Park, an elevated boardwalk through an adjacent swamp replete with cattails wrapped with spider webs. Getting a glimpse of the brown murky water, she shuddered.

“I’ll see if we can get a room at the Lakeside Inn,” Vail said as they passed the hotel. “Pam always wanted to stay here. Friends told us about it.”

She studied the yellow buildings with their verandas, paddle fans, and rockers but would never admit to Vail that the place looked inviting. “There’s a railroad depot with train rides,” she said to distract him from thoughts of his dead wife. “That white building with black shutters is on the National Register of Historic Places. It was built in Nineteen fifteen for the Atlantic Coast Line.” Across the street was the Gables Restaurant and a row of shops. “This town would be fun for a couple of days.”

“Uh-huh.” He pulled into a free space and shut off the ignition.

She spared a moment to study him before they started on their way. Rarely did she see him out of his customary suit. He wore a plaid cotton shirt, long sleeves half rolled up his sinewy forearms, and hip-hugging blue jeans. His mouth curved as he caught her regarding him.

“Maybe we should check into the hotel and skip the interview,” he suggested with a wink.

“Tempting, but not a good idea. Let’s go.” Moistening her lips that seemed too dry, she quickened her pace to keep up with his faster stride.

The bookstore cafe was located on Fifth Avenue in the heart of the downtown shopping district. Its cozy atmosphere included a mixture of old and new books with an area set aside for dining. Marla ordered a tuna salad with potato chips while Vail got a barbecued pork sandwich. Sitting across from him, she couldn’t help her expression of distaste.

“What is it?” he said between greasy bites.

She swallowed a forkful of tuna. “I don’t eat pork. It’s not kosher.”

His eyebrows lifted in surprise. “Since when do you follow the rules? I’ve seen you order shrimp at restaurants.”

“I don’t eat pig products. I grew up in a kosher home, and even though I don’t keep kosher myself, I can’t eat pork or ham.” She hesitated, wrapping her hand around her mug of coffee. “I won’t have them in my house, either. Would that be a problem, if you and I ever, you know, got together?”

“I suppose Brie and I could manage, if you’re thinking about moving in, although I sure do like a juicy pork tenderloin. Pam used to cook-”

“Look, do you realize how it affects me whenever you mention her? This is not about your former marriage; it’s about us.”

His gaze chilled. “Pam will always be part of my life and Brianna’s.”

Marla’s meal settled like lead into her stomach. “I know,” she said quietly, “and it’s right for you to honor her memory, but if you want to have a relationship with me, you have to stop comparing us.”

“It’s not an issue of comparison.” He put his fork down.

“Well, I feel it is. Just as things get more serious between us, you mention her name more often. As for me moving in with you, your house is like a mausoleum. I don’t think you’ve changed anything since she passed away. Could you accept it if I wanted to replace her antiques with more modern furniture, or store her collections? You need to clean out the cobwebs of the past before you’re ready for the future, in my opinion.”

Throwing his napkin on the table, he rose. “This conversation is getting nowhere. Let’s go see Jenny.”

Marla almost wished she hadn’t come. Why did she always make things worse between them? Maybe Ma was right, and their differences were just too great for it to work.

They walked silently along Fifth Avenue, past the Princess Antique Mall and a stained-glass emporium. At the corner of Donnelly Street, she pushed the button for the crossing signal. The sound of birds chirping puzzled her until she realized it accompanied the green “Walk” sign. Traffic zoomed by, fumes mixing with the scent of gardenias in front of a restaurant.

“Wow, these are real hills,” she remarked as her heartbeat increased with the incline. They turned left on North Baker Street and passed City Hall, a Mount Vernon-type white colonial structure. She watched her footing on the cracked sidewalk, grateful for the shade from leafy century trees, palms, and oaks dripping with moss. Her sense of peace broke with the hiss of a pressure cleaner from a man cleaning his car.

Finally on Tremaine Street, they found Jenny Stanislaw’s address. The single-story house, painted sandy brown with dark green shutters, had a covered carport that led to a screened patio. Like the neatly manicured lawn landscaped with blue plumbago and ferns, the front door appeared well maintained, boasting a recent coat of varnish.

Jenny opened the door at their first ring as though she’d been waiting behind the vestibule. Marla grinned at the woman’s prim appearance as she made introductions. The librarian looked the total opposite of her brother. Images of Goat’s scraggly beard, wild outfits, and odd demeanor came to mind.

In contrast, Jenny wore her straight blond hair plunging down her back. Little makeup adorned her square-jawed face and Viking-blue eyes. Her basic black slacks and sweater indicated a life of practicality with few embellishments. She swept them inside to a living room decorated in generic contemporary style. Her furnishings reflected her personality even less than her clothes. Or maybe simplicity was her style.

“May I get you something to drink?” she asked in a tight voice.

“No thanks. We just ate lunch.” Vail plopped himself down on the sofa, taking up half its width. Marla and Jenny chose armchairs. He pulled out a notepad and regarded their hostess. “I hope you don’t mind that I came with Marla. I have some more questions to ask you.”

“Go ahead, Lieutenant.”

“Have you heard from your brother since I last spoke with you?”

Jenny clasped her hands in her lap. “I did get a call. Kyle was in a rush, and his voice sounded strained. He warned me not to talk to strangers.”

Vail leaned forward. “Did he mention any names?” When Jenny shook her head, he posed another question. “Where was Kyle phoning from?”

“I heard music and background noise, like he was in a bar or restaurant.”

“Do you have Caller ID?”

“Sorry.”

“At least he’s all right,” Marla said reassuringly, “and he’s worried about you. Has anyone other than Detective Vail contacted you about him?”

“Not so far. What else can you tell me? All I know is that Kyle was involved in a murder.” She glanced at Vail. “You told me a man’s body was found in his town house. Kyle may have witnessed the crime, in which case the bad guy might be after him. That could be why he’s running scared. I don’t believe he’s guilty. Kyle has gotten in trouble before, but nothing so serious. He wouldn’t hurt anyone.”

Marla nodded. “I agree. I feel bad about not getting to know Goat-Kyle-better. I’d like to help him.”

“Kyle means well; he’s just keeps falling in with the wrong crowd. I suppose this is what happened again.”

Glancing at Vail, Marla noted his impassive expression. Apparently, he was content to let her carry the ball. “Tell us about Kyle’s background.”

BOOK: Highlights to Heaven
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