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Authors: Nancy J. Cohen

Highlights to Heaven (4 page)

BOOK: Highlights to Heaven
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Don’t go there, she told herself. This is Vail’s territory. It’s up to him to determine motive, means, and opportunity. You don’t even know how the victim died
. Damn Dalton for cutting her off! She needed information, and he was her only source.

No, he wasn’t. He discussed his cases with Brianna. Hoping the girl would call tonight, Marla had kept the phone line free. When it rang at eight o’clock, she snatched up the receiver.

“Oh, hi, Ma,” she greeted her mother.

“Don’t sound so excited. You were expecting Dalton?”

“I don’t think so. We’re not speaking to each other.”

“What happened?” Anita demanded, not one to mince words.

Heaving a sigh, Marla gave the same story she’d told Nicole and Giorgio.

“He’s just going through a phase,” said her mother reassuringly.

“Pay him no mind. He’ll come around.”

“Why are you calling?” Marla asked, changing the subject.

“I didn’t hear from you all day. I started on my new blood pressure medication today. I thought you would care about my reaction.”

“And?”

“No difference. I’m seeing Dr. Schultz next week. He’s in your area, near the salon. If you have a slot free, I’d like to stop in to get a haircut.”

“I don’t have my appointment book here. You’ll have to call in the morning and check with my receptionist.”

“Geez, Marla, even your brother is more accommodating!”

“Michael is a stockbroker. He doesn’t see clients on a continuous basis all day.”

“So? He always has time for me. You’re getting entirely too self-centered. Remember, if you do for others, they’ll do in return for you. That goes for family as well as friends.”

“Thanks, I needed to hear that. I’ve had a bad day, and this conversation is just making things worse. Is there anything else?”

“Roger and Barry want to go to services with us Friday night.”

“Oh no.” The words slipped out before she could stop them.

She heard her mother suck in a breath of disapproval. “I don’t know what you have against Roger, but he’s a delightful man. I have a good time when we’re together, and that should make you happy.”

“I’m glad you’ve found someone, but I find it too much of a coincidence that he enjoys all the same things you do.”

“You think I’m blind? I know he’s trying to impress me.”

“And he eats too much. That guy is a
fresser
.”

“No, he’s not, and that’s a very unkind thing to say. He just enjoys the sensual pleasures in life.”

Marla didn’t dare ask what else her mother was including in that statement. “Good for you,” she murmured, petting Spooks, who had nudged her hand.

“His son is a charming young man, and he likes you. Barry is a good catch, and not someone you should toss off so lightly. Especially if you and Dalton are having a disagreement.”

“I’m not interested in anyone else.”

“We’ll see.”

“I have more pressing matters,” Marla insisted. “My neighbor Goat is missing. I’m surprised you didn’t hear it on the news. Dalton found a dead body in Goat’s house. I know someone who can identify him.”

“Don’t give me that bowl of borscht. You are not involved in another murder!”

“I’m worried about Goat. I want to do what I can to help locate him.”

“Heed my advice,
bubula
. Lock your doors and stay inside.”

Easier said than done. Extricating herself from the telephone, she decided to take Spooks for a last outing before retiring for the evening. She’d hoped to get some bookkeeping done but was too tired. Or maybe disappointment had set in because neither Brianna nor the detective had called.

Next door, she rapped Moss’s brass anchor on his door.

“Ahoy, mate!” Moss responded to her summons. “Any news about Goat?”

She compressed her lips, holding tightly on to Spooks’s leash.

“Detective Vail found a dead man in Goat’s town house.”

“A dead man!”

“It wasn’t Goat,” Marla said quickly, noting the old man’s sudden pallor. “The police want him for questioning, but no one knows where he’s gone.” She paused. “I thought I might check with his customers and associates, if I can locate them.”

A gleam entered Moss’s eyes. “You know, I’ve been wondering what to do about his mail. The box may be near to overflowing by now. He left his spare mailbox key with me.”

Marla winked. “I could clear his box out for him.”

“Yes, you could. Wait here.” When Moss returned, he handed over the key along with a piece of paper. “My latest limerick,” he explained, grinning at the poodle, who kept resisting Marla’s efforts to curb his friendly advances.

Marla glanced down as she read:

Beware the Ides of March

Make sure your shirts have starch

If you want to succeed
,

You ‘II follow the creed
,

Just don’t step on anyone’s arch

A broad smile lit her face. “Very good. You may be right with your warning; it’s the third one I’ve heard today.”

She thought about his poem while walking to the mailbox cluster at the end of their street.
Speaking of March, I have to get Brianna a birthday gift, assuming I’m still invited to her party a week from Saturday
.

What about her date with Dalton this weekend? She assumed that was off, a conclusion that left her feeling distinctly bereft.

She opened Goat’s mailbox and retrieved his correspondence. Juggling a large manila envelope in one hand together with the dog’s leash, and a stack of assorted items in the other, she proceeded along the dimly lit sidewalk. Words scribbled on the front of the large envelope jumped out at her as she let out the line so Spooks could do his business.
Articles on Harperites enclosed
. How strange. Had Goat sent for these? Why was he interested in information on Martha Matilda Harper’s followers? According to the return address, the sender was a woman, Jenny Stanislaw, in Mount Dora.

This case got more curious by the moment. Goat, reading up on a famous icon in hairdressing history, associated with a dead man who might have been connected to Cutter Corrigan, master stylist. Did the past provide some sort of link between the three of them?

She signaled Spooks it was time to move on. They’d only stepped a few paces ahead when something slammed into her shoulder blade with the force of a deranged flamingo.

Chapter Four

Marla stumbled forward. Pain and numbness coursed from her right shoulder down her arm. Her nerveless fingers lost their grip, and the mail she’d been carrying fell to the ground. Before she could regain her balance, her hair was caught in a vise, and she was yanked upright by its roots. A cry of pain escaped her lips.

Stunned, she became vaguely aware that Spooks’s leash was no longer in her left hand. Blood thrummed in her ears, competing with the dog’s wild barking.

“Get lost, pooch,” a raspy voice said. In her peripheral vision, she saw a man’s leg kick viciously at her pet. Spooks, whimpering, ran off, the leash trailing after him. “Now it’s your turn,” said her assailant, tightening an arm around her throat until she could only gasp for breath.

Through her sweater, she felt the wide girth of his chest and the strength emanating from his sinewy form. Remembering her women’s defense training, Marla attempted to stomp on his instep, but he jerked her backward, avoiding her effort.

“Lucky for me you went out for a stroll tonight,” he spoke into her ear. “It’s the last walk you’ll ever take.”

If only she could scream to draw her neighbors’ attention. Her vision narrowed as she labored to suck air into her lungs. Going limp didn’t help, either. He seemed attuned to her moves. But as he bent to secure his grip on her, she heard a sharp intake of his clove-scented breath and saw his gloved hand snake down to snatch the manila envelope from the ground.

Taking advantage of the opportunity, Marla shifted her stance and rolled him over her hip, shoving him to the ground in a move learned in self-defense class. He landed on his back, beady eyes glaring up at her. She couldn’t see the rest of his face, hidden inside a ski mask. Nor did she care to linger. Screaming for help, she sprinted toward her house.

Doors opened, and neighbors poured into the street. This was one community where people didn’t hide behind their own security. An engine revved, and a motorcycle whizzed past, wheels squealing as it rounded the curve.

Marla stood frozen. She hadn’t even gotten a glimpse of the model.

“What happened?” called Craig as he ran toward her, his surf-blond hair in disarray. Lyn, his wife, remained uncertainly on their doorstep, holding the hands of their two children.

“Marla, are you all right?” Hector said, reaching her side just as Moss and Emma emerged from their place.

Brushing a trembling hand through her disheveled locks, Marla forced words from her mouth. “I…I was attacked. Spooks got loose. Has anyone seen him?” She glanced around, praying he hadn’t been in the street when the motorcycle tore through.

“He’s on your front doorstep, mate,” hollered Moss.

“Thank goodness.” Marla wrapped both arms around herself, suddenly feeling chilled to the bone. Her teeth chattered, and she couldn’t stop shaking from head to foot.

Sirens wailed in the distance. “Do you want to come inside?” said Hector. “Amada called the police. She is quieting the baby, but she would be glad to help.”

“No thanks, I’m all right.” Taking solace in activity, she stooped to gather Goat’s mail, which lay scattered on the sidewalk. Missing was the envelope containing articles on Martha Matilda Harper.
How interesting
, Marla thought. Had her attacker been after her or the mail?

She brought up the question to Detective Dalton Vail when he arrived to survey the scene. Despite their earlier disagreement, she couldn’t help feeling a swell of relief at the sight of his brawny figure. Greeting him on her doorstep, she allowed herself a moment of respite by studying his angular features. Skimming over his peppery hair, parted neatly to one side, she noted his firm jaw with its five o’clock shadow, and his steely, determined gaze that bore a hint of disapproval directed at her over his hawklike nose.

“Come in, Lieutenant,” she said formally, thinking it seemed that they were destined to meet under less than favorable circumstances.

“How the hell did you let something like this happen?” he demanded, following her inside and shutting the door. He’d left his officers scouring the street for evidence against her assailant.

“How did
I
let this happen? Like I invited someone to attack me?” Fury shook her, or else she was still reacting to the assault. She couldn’t seem to get a grip on herself. Spooks, freed from his leash, nudged her ankle. When she didn’t respond, he trotted to Vail and sniffed his trousers.

Vail ignored the poodle, addressing Marla. “You’re the one who belongs on a leash,” he growled, drawing her into his arms and lowering his head before she could protest. He kissed her fiercely, as though wanting to drive home an understanding of his fear for her.

“You can’t protect me from everything,” Marla said after disengaging herself. Being in his arms turned her into a mound of styling gel. She needed her wits if she was to think clearly.

“I shouldn’t have to be your protector. You’re just too stubborn to stay out of trouble.”

“I haven’t done anything! I was in the salon all afternoon; then I came home. Someone must’ve been watching Goat’s house.”

“Oh yeah? Tell me why
you
were his target.”

“I picked up Goat’s mail. You must have missed collecting this afternoon’s delivery from his box. Anyway, the man who attacked me took an envelope. Maybe he’d been expecting it, and I presented the opportunity for him to grab the item.”

“Do you really believe that?”

She lowered her head, averting her gaze. “No. He said it was lucky for him that I was out for a stroll.”

Vail’s jaw tightened. “That sounds more like he was watching you. I’m afraid you’ve stirred up a hornets’ nest. If Cutter Corrigan is involved in Verkovich’s murder, you’ve set yourself up with a big red bull’s-eye.”

“Have you confirmed the dead man’s identity?”

“It appears you’re right. We’re waiting for an uncle to visit the morgue, but Verkovich didn’t show up for work this week, and he fits the description a colleague gave us.”

Giorgio’s warning surfaced in her mind. Louise Cunningham, presumably a former classmate, had been a hit-and-run victim. Another stylist had drowned last month. Now she’d been attacked. Was there a connection, and if so, how did it relate to Goat’s disappearance? Her assailant had taken the envelope containing articles about Harperites, she reminded herself. How could historical documents regarding a legendary hairdresser affect people today?

“There’s something else you should know,” Vail mentioned after they were seated at her kitchen table, nursing mugs of steaming coffee. “This is confidential. I found a stash of cash in Goat’s house. Twenty-five thousand, in hundred-dollar bills.”

“What?”

“You heard me.”

“What would Goat be doing with so much money?”

Vail hunched forward. “Let’s say he made a deal with this Verkovich fellow, and it fell through. Goat killed him, panicked, and ran out through the patio door.”

Marla sipped the hot brew. “What kind of deal? I can’t conceive of Goat killing anyone over a bad business proposition.”

“They may have been involved in the pet-fur trade.”

She shuddered with revulsion, remembering the thing she’d discovered in Goat’s yard. “Tell me more.”

His tone deepened. “It originates in the Far East, mainly China and Korea. People there don’t value domestic animals like we do. Folks eat them, despite a law prohibiting human consumption of dogs and cats.”

“Tally told me she saw skinned dogs hanging in a market when she and Ken visited the Orient. She saw the head of a dog with its legs stuffed into its mouth. Others were for sale in cages, still alive.”

Vail nodded. “A Humane Society report told about dogs being skinned alive and cats being strangled for their fur. The article said it takes maybe twelve dogs or twenty-four cats to manufacture one coat. They estimated two million dogs and cats are killed annually for their pelts. In the United States, imported fur is used on clothing, novelty items, and stuffed animals. Major store chains plus smaller boutiques are involved. Just as an example, investigators found coats at a well-known store with fur trim that came from dog fur.”

Bile rose in her throat. “Isn’t it illegal in this country?”

He scratched his jaw. “There was a bill introduced in the Florida legislature to make the import and sale of this stuff against the law. As far as I know, the measure didn’t pass the Florida House.”

“So if this nasty business is considered allowable, why would anyone kill over it?”

“Because if the bill does eventually pass, penalties will be instituted. It could be a third-degree felony to kill cats or dogs to sell their pelts. There’s a proposed bill in Congress that deals with the same subject. Meanwhile, we can get those involved charged with animal abuse.”

“How can you tell you’re buying these products?”

“DNA tests. Forensic analysis can determine the origin. Otherwise, you have no way of knowing. The cleaning and dying process makes cat fur look like it comes from a rabbit. Scuttlebutt says that a government minister in China said he would label it anything we wanted. Consumers should ask for a statement of origin if they buy these things.”

“Yuck.” She felt a surge of sympathy for rabbits and goats. They weren’t on anyone’s forbidden list.

“We’ve been concerned a cottage industry may be operating in the area, meaning dogs and cats are being used for this purpose. That’s one reason why I’d like to get hold of your pal Goat.”

“Goat loves animals. He wouldn’t harm them.”

“How do you know? Just because he keeps a few pets?”

“He took care of that goat that was in his yard.”

“A scrawny thing it was, too. Maybe he kept it for a supply of milk.”

She shoved her mug away. “Bless my bones, you’re convicting him before he’s proven guilty. If Goat was involved in this pet-fur trade, he wouldn’t have left his bag of cash behind.”

“Murderers don’t think clearly. His only goal might have been to escape. I found some receipts in his place, too. From an exotic bird breeder made out to a local pet store.”

“Maybe Goat buys his grooming supplies at the store. I’m sure when you find him, you’ll learn the truth. I think he’s running scared because he knows who killed Yani. He may have witnessed the crime.”

“All the more reason to find him quickly.” Vail rolled his shoulders forward, then pushed himself out of his chair.

Marla washed their mugs at the sink as an awkward silence descended. “When do you plan to talk to Cutter?”

“I’ll get to him tomorrow. I want to finish interviewing your neighbors first. They may have something to add after your episode tonight. It also occurred to me that Yani may not have been the prime target.”

Wiping her hands on a towel, she turned around. “How so?”

“If you’re right, and Goat didn’t do it, then either he was the intended victim or else he’s being framed. You see,” he said, grinning smugly, “I do consider all the angles.”

Her heart flipped as his smile transformed his face. “That means you need to check into Goat’s background along with the victim’s. You’ll be busy.”

He folded his arms across his chest. “So will you, with your work at the salon. You’re not to play sleuth anymore, understand?”

She gave him a sly glance. “You make your opinion very clear. Are you sure you don’t need help with Brianna’s party next week?”

“No thanks, we’re all set. That reminds me, I have a gift for her. I’d appreciate it if you’d wrap it for me. I’m not good at that sort of thing. I’ve been carrying it around in the trunk of my car for the past week. Wait here.”

Marla was surprised when he presented her with a hand-carved wooden chess set. She’d expected something more personal or a new electronic gadget. “Does Brianna play chess?” she asked uncertainly. The girl hadn’t struck her as the competitive type.

“Brie will after I teach her. Pam and I bought this on a trip to Switzerland,” he explained, referring to his deceased wife. “Pam picked it out. I think it’ll mean a lot to our daughter.”

“Oh. Well, I’ll do my best to wrap it up real nice.” As she set the box on a side table in the living room, the diamonds sparkled on her amethyst ring.
Gads, I hope this didn’t belong to his dead wife, too
. Shoving aside the uncomfortable notion, she thought about what she should buy for Brianna. Marla would rather buy the girl some hot designer duds, a Kate Spade bag, or the latest CDs. Something a teen could use, not a gift to store away as a sentimental treasure. She hoped Brie was going to appreciate Vail’s gesture.

“About this Saturday night, I don’t think I’m going to make our date,” she said, facing him in her foyer. “Family obligations,” she offered as a feeble excuse.

He stared into her eyes as though he could pierce her mental armor. “All right.”

She shuffled her feet. “Brianna-”

“Is my daughter. I make the rules where she’s concerned.”

You make the rules for everyone
. “Will you tell me if you learn anything new about Goat?”

“I may, if you stick to your business and let me do mine.”

Marla fumed, curling her fingers. First Cutter had told her to mind her own business. Then Giorgio cautioned her to steer clear of trouble. Dalton had added salt to her wounds.

“Keep in touch,” she said coolly. “Thanks for the assistance tonight.” Not that he’d done much except drink her coffee and accuse her neighbor of wrongdoing.

He opened his mouth to say something, then apparently changed his mind. Nodding curtly, he left.

Marla performed her nightly preparations in a daze. Still traumatized by the evening’s events, she armed her newly activated security system after making sure all doors were locked. Then she allowed herself the luxury of a hot, soaking shower. While she was towel-drying her hair, the phone rang.

“What’s up?” her friend Tally said at the other end.

Marla, fastening the sash of a terry-cloth robe around her waist, sank onto her bed. “Do I have things to tell you!” She proceeded to relate the day’s events.

“Wow, you’re just not content to stay put behind the salon chair, are you?”

“You sound like Cutter. I wonder if Dalton will find out any more when he interviews him tomorrow.”

BOOK: Highlights to Heaven
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