Jane Kelly is through following men. She left Southern California for the murky quaintness of Lake Chinook, Oregon, apparently so she could trade her bartending skills for much more glamorous work process serving. And the boyfriend, of course, is long gone. But things have been looking a little brighter lately. Her hobby doing PI work is kind of fun, especially when she lands a real case – that pays real money. But the case is about Bobby Reynolds, best friend of Tim Murphy, the only guy she’s never gotten over. Everyone except Tim believed Bobby murdered his young family – isn’t that why he vanished? Now Tim’s coming home and Jane’s on her way to talk to Bobby’s father. Looks like Jane’ll be trailing men after all – this time with a tape recorder and a camera. To top it off, she’s being trailed by a homely pug named Binky, left to her by a distant relative. With a job she’s learning as she goes along and her ex back in town, Jane’s life just went from stress-free to completely stressed-out. And then there’s the dead body…
Candy Apple Red
If I’d known they were about to find a body at the bottom of Lake Chinook I never would have gotten myself into the whole mess. The lake’s deep in places and the Lake Corporation only drains it every couple of years to check the sewer lines running along its muddy bottom. The thought of the little fishy things trolling the waters, chewing off teensy nibbles of human flesh, would have been enough for me to say, “Hasta la vista, baby” and I would have exerted great haste in making tracks.
But I didn’t know. And I also didn’t know my whole life was about to change. The day I spoke with uber-bitch/lawyer Marta Cornell I was blissfully ignorant of the events in store for me which was just as well. Don’t ever tell yourself you’re happy with the way things are because that’s when everything changes in seconds flat. And not necessarily for the better.
“Jane!” Marta boomed over the phone. The woman was over six-feet-tall with a voice to match. She could deafen with one word. I yanked the phone from my ear and hoped I still possessed my hearing. “I have a client who has an unusual request and I think you’re just the person to help.”
“What unusual request?” I asked.
“It’s about Cotton Reynolds.”
My heart leapt. Christ, I thought a bit shakily. I’d just been thinking about my ex-boyfriend, Tim Murphy, who knew Cotton well. Had thoughts of Murphy actually triggered the past? “What about him?” I asked, trying to hold my voice steady.
“My client wants some follow-up on… Bobby Reynolds.” Marta hesitated, unlike her to the extreme. “She wants you to interview Cotton.”
I stared at my office door and instead of its scarred, paneled wood saw the white-haired man who happened to be one of the wealthiest in the state of Oregon. Cotton Reynolds lived on the only island in Lake Chinook, less than a mile from my bungalow. By boat, I could be there in ten minutes, if I wanted to. By car, it would be trickier. The island was private and Cotton’s was the only house on its three acres. If I dropped in to say hello, I wouldn’t get past the huge, wrought iron gate nor the island’s guard dogs, two ill-tempered Doberman’s.
But interviewing Cotton wasn’t what was on my mind. Following up on Bobby Reynolds was. Murphy’s close, high-school friend. His best buddy.
I almost hung up right then. I probably should have. A shiver slid coldly down my spine; someone walking on my grave.
Bobby Reynolds had murdered his family and left their bodies lined up in a row — wife Laura; Aaron, 8; Jenny, 3; and infant Kit – somewhere in the Tillamook State Forest, just off the Oregon coast. Bobby Reynolds was a ‘family annihilator’: a man apparently overwhelmed with the responsibility of his family so he chose to send them to a “better place”. He shot them each once in the back of the head, then drove away. He dumped his Dodge Caravan on a turnout off Highway 101 which meanders along the west coast throughout Washington, Oregon and into California, then disappeared without a trace, though he’d been rumored to have been seen as far north as the Canadian border, and as far south as Puerto Vallarta. To date, after four years, he was still very much a fugitive. The murders – disputed by Murphy who simply could not believe his friend capable of cold-blooded homicide – had driven Murphy away from Lake Chinook, the tragedy and me.
I cleared my throat and asked, “Who is this client?”
“Tess Reynolds Bradbury.”
“Cotton won’t talk to her about Bobby or anything else. They haven’t spoken civilly in years. When it was all over the news they had words, but it wasn’t exactly what I would call communication.”
“I remember,” I said, recalling how Cotton’s ex, with her blonde bob, hard eyes and angry mouth had been bleeped out by the local news, time and again. Cotton had been silent and stony, although my impression was that it was a mask for deep, deep pain and shock. I’d try to talk to Murphy but he’d gone to a place inside himself, as distant as a cold moon, before he’d left for good.
“Why does she want me to talk to him?” I asked, baffled. “The police and F.B.I. and every news channel around has been on this since it happened. What could I learn? I don’t even know Cotton.”
“You’ve met. You were Tim Murphy’s girlfriend.”
“I wouldn’t call myself his girlfriend,” I said carefully. “I knew him.” Not as well as I thought I did, as it turned out.
“Murphy was close to Bobby and Cotton. Tess thinks you can use that connection–“
”No,” I said again, with more force. “I’m outta this. I’d be useless.”
“She stopped by my office the other day, and we started talking about Bobby, a little. She never could before. But it’s like she’s suddenly gotta get it out. Along the line your name came up. She remembered you.”
If I hadn’t been so overwhelmed I would have been surprised. Tess had barely seen me. She’d been divorced from Cotton in those few months before Bobby’s deadly deed was discovered. I hadn’t known Bobby very well, as he and his family had moved to Astoria. I mostly knew about them through Murphy. I’d only met Bobby and his wife Laura a few times, so when their pictures were in the paper they’d looked like the strangers they were to me. I said, “It would be a miracle if Cotton remembered me.”
“He knows Murphy. That’s all that matters.”
I didn’t like it. It was sneaky and wrong. Oh, sure, I can be a snoop, but this tragedy was epic in size. I felt small and mean even talking about it with Marta. “What kind of information does she expect?” I asked. “I don’t get it.”
“Whether she’s right or wrong, she thinks Cotton’s been in touch with Bobby. I know the police and F.B.I. have wrung him dry, and he’s been more than cooperative. I’m just telling you what she wants. And she’s willing to pay well.”
“I’m not a private investigator.”
“As good as,” Marta dismissed, but then she was always saying things like that when she wanted something.
“How much is she willing to pay?” I asked cautiously, lured in spite of myself. I inwardly shuddered. It was like dipping a toe in cold, cold water.
“An initial five hundred dollars and then whatever you work out. She wants you to develop some kind of relationship, Jane,” Marta went on. “She says Cotton always admired you when you were there with Murphy. She thinks you could….have some sway.”
“I doubt it.”
“Are you saying you won’t do it?”
I didn’t know what I was saying. I was out of my depth and I knew it. I’m not all that hot at self-delusion. If I were really thinking about taking the jump to information specialist/private investigator I’d sure as hell like to start with something smaller. Like grand larceny. Or….corporate tax fraud. Or that Erin Brockovich deadly chemical thing. I did not want to be personally involved in the investigation, no matter how distantly, as I was in this one.
“Cotton does remember you,” Marta insisted. “Bobby told Tess how his dad liked you.”
“Bobby told his mother that his dad liked me? That’s just great. When was that, Marta? I was only here for a few months before it happened.”
Marta sighed at my obstinance. “Are you going to do it, or not?”
“All signs point to ‘not’.” I paused, belatedly hearing some innuendo between the lines. Why did Tess want me to get close to Cotton? My thoughts took a turn toward the salacious. “I’m not going to sleep with him.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Jane. Tess just wants you to suck up to him a little, show some interest in the guy. He’s been living like a hermit with his young wife ever since Bobby slaughtered his family and ran.” I cringed at her words. “Tess thinks this is the perfect time to lend a sympathetic ear.”
“I won’t get any results the police haven’t.”
“Five hundred dollars plus, whether you learn anything or not,” Marta coerced.
Five hundred dollars plus. My brain started calculating, taking a trip of its own, as I wondered how many “sessions” I could squeeze out of the deal. It’s hard to turn down pure, cold cash. My mentor Dwayne Durbin would be proud of my way of thinking.
“Cotton’s having a party next Saturday night.” Marta sweetened the pot. “I can get you an invitation.”
“Well…Murphy’s been invited. He’s coming into town this week.”
I swore beneath my breath, loud enough for Marta to hear. Murphy? “What a set up. I’m not interested, Marta. Not one little bit.”
“He knows you might be there. He wants to see you.”
“Not a chance.” Marta knows what she’s doing at all times. She’s an operator, someone who sees what she wants and goes after it, no matter how many souls she grinds into the pavement along the way. I almost admired her.
“Murphy still talks to Tess,” Marta went on. “He mentioned you the other day. That’s what got Tess thinking.”
“Murphy and I don’t talk.”
“Jane, Tess is going to be in my office at three today. She’d really like to meet you.”
“You’re railroading me. I can hear the train whistle.”
“I thought you might want to see him.”
“Bullshit. You thought of a new way to squeeze money out of a client. How much is Tess paying you for this setup?”
“Plenty,” was her equable answer. “Tess is a grateful client.”
I almost laughed. I could imagine how well Marta had put the squeeze on Cotton as Tess’s representative in their divorce. Her unabashed greed appealed to me, maybe because deep inside I’m a kindred spirit. Okay, maybe it’s just that I’m not that deep inside.
She seemed to sense my lessening fury. “Is that a yes?”
I had an instant memory of a hot midnight on Murphy’s boat, illegally docked in the shelter of Phantom’s Cove, the deepest part of Lake Chinook, two hundred feet beneath the houses perched on the bluff above, hidden by the canopies of oaks and firs which kept the cove under shadow most of the time. I remembered fevered bodies wrapped tightly together, sweat and silent laughter that remained caught in the back of my throat. And pleasure.
An ache filled me inside. I’d fallen in love once in college, but Murphy was the next, and last, man who’d ever filled my senses so completely. I half-believed now that it would never happen to me again. Maybe it would, but right now it felt impossible.
The thought that he might actually be at this party was enough to send me into the kind of female panic I loathed seeing in others. I couldn’t go. Even if I met with Cotton, I couldn’t go to this party if Murphy was going to be there.
I said as much to Marta. At least I think did. But she responded with a quick overview of how much income this could provide me. I turned her down over and over again, I swear. Yes, dollar signs danced in front of my eyes, but the thought of clapping eyes on Tim Murphy again was something my system couldn’t take. I told myself I would rather live in destitution for 1000 lifetimes than go another round with Murphy.
“..we’ll see you at three, then,” Marta said happily and hung up.
I was left staring into space, my jaw hanging open. Slowly, I brought my lips together again and clicked off my cell phone. There was no memory in my mind of my agreement to meet with Tess, but somehow I’d managed to say yes.