Free Kindle Nation Shorts -- February 1, 2012
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In This Issue
About the Author: Colleen Collins
KINDLE FIRE Giveaway Sweepstakes!
Five More For Kindle by Colleen Collins
An Excerpt from THE ZEN MAN by Colleen Collins

 About theAuthor:  Colleen Collins

 

 

 Colleen Collins is an award-winning author who's written 20 novels and anthologies for Harlequin (including a romantic paranormal thriller for Dorchester, writing as Cassandra Collins). Her books have placed first in the Colorado Gold, Romancing the Rockies, and Top of the Peak contests, and placed in the finals for the Holt Medallion, Coeur de Bois Readers Choice, Award of Excellence, More than Magic, and Romance Writers of America RITA contests. 

 

After graduating from the University of California Santa Barbara, Colleen worked as a film production assistant, improv comic, telecommunications manager at the RAND Corporation, technical writer/editor, speech writer, and private investigator. All these experiences play into her writing.

  

She's a member of the Mystery Writers of America (MWA), Private Eye Writers of America (PWA), the Romance Writers of America (RWA), Novelists, Inc. (NINC), and sits on the board of the Rocky Mountain MWA. She's also a member of the National Council of Investigation & Security Services (NCISS) and the Professional Private Investigators Association of Colorado.


When not sleuthing, Colleen's working on a time-traveling PI series, co-teaching "Writing PIs in Novels" with her investigative business partner, and envisioning how Nick and Nora would behave in the 21st century.   

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Zen Man

An Excerpt from

The Zen Man

 by

Colleen Collins

In the tradition of Dashiell Hammett's Nick and Nora Charles from "The Thin Man," meet Rick and Laura in today's 14,000-word Free Kindle Nation Short.

 

PI Rick Levine is trying to pull his life together and get re-licensed as a lawyer when he's arrested and charged with a murder.  Out on bail, he and Laura have 30 days to find the real killer.

  

  

by Colleen Collins

5.0  Stars  -  2 Reviews

 

Text-to-Speech and Lending: Enabled

 

Click here to begin reading the free excerpt

 

Here's the set-up:  

 
Just as washed-up criminal defense attorney, life-long Deadhead (nickname "The Zen Man"), and current PI Rick Levine decides to get relicensed as a lawyer, he's charged with killing one and ends up in the slammer with a half-mil bail. 
 
Released on bond, Rick and his girlfriend Laura have 30 days to find the real killer. In the course of their investigations, they dig for dirt among Denver's shady legal backrooms to its tony corporate centers.
 
Weathering shootings, a kidnapping, trumped-up charges, and the FBI's unwanted intervention, Rick and Laura continue tracking key suspects who have motive ... eventually learning that true redemption begins at home.  
From the reviewers:
 
"Move over Sam Spade, Nick and Nora; make room for a Denver who-dun-it, Colleen Collins's The Zen Man. Brilliant and fast-paced writing. I couldn't put it down." - Donnell Ann Bell, Award-Winning Author of The Past Came Hunting 
 
"A book filled with thrills and chills and laughter. A mystery that doesn't hold back its punches. A pace that kept me turning pages. But my favorite part of the book? The main characters: Rick and Laura. Flawed, complex, real...yet they hold onto a wry view of the world (not unlike Nick and Nora). Great read." - DanaB 
 
"What a delightful book!  Colleen Collins makes all the right moves in this who-dun-it, and I loved the characters, especially Rick and Laura.  You won't be disappointed with this one." - deefossen

 

 

 

By Colleen Collins

            

  

 

  

 

  

  

Visit Amazon's Colleen Collins Page

  

  

UK CUSTOMERS: Click on the title below to download  

 
Five More For Kindle 
By Colleen Collins

http://www.amazon.com/How-Write-Dick-Fictional-ebook/dp/B00595K1UK/?tag=ebest


Excerpt    

Free Kindle Nation Shorts - February 1, 2012 

 

An Excerpt from

The Zen Man

By

Colleen Collins

Copyright © 2012 by Colleen Collins and published here with her permission


 

 

 

One

 

"The next person who says Merry Christmas to me, I'll kill 'em."  -The Thin Man, 1934

 

The obstacle is the path.  - Zen proverb

 

Five years of being clean and sober nearly tanked as I watched a bad piece of my past trudging across the parking lot in my direction. She was far enough away that I couldn't make out her features, or her companion's for that matter, but I knew the car parked behind them better than I knew my own soul. Losing that car had hurt worse than losing the house, the marriage, maybe even my career. Funny how a lump of tricked-out metal can do that to a man.

I glanced at the clock. In an hour, Laura and I would start greeting a school of fifty-five sharks from Colorado's Criminal Defense Association-CrimDefs to those in the know-who were spending their annual retreat at our lodge, technically Laura's as she'd put up the dough, the Dinosaur Foot Bed and Breakfast and Hot Springs. We'd wanted to name it something less Barney-like, but this area had been called Dinosaur Foot-after the dinosaur prints and fossils in the region-for generations, going back to the Ute tribe who'd conducted spiritual journeys to the area, so it'd seemed smart to keep the name.

"Something wrong?" Laura stood next to me at the kitchen sink, wiping dry another holly-and-berry etched wine glass for our upcoming guests. She wore tight jeans-the kind of tight that could make a man almost forget his troubles-and a blue cashmere cardigan that matched her eyes. But the best was her face. When she frothed her hair and slicked red on her pouty lips, like she'd done today, she looked like Grace Slick in her prime before Jefferson Airplane nose-dived.

Laura, at thirty-five, was definitely in her prime, too. But underneath that hot-rock-chick Slick surface, beat the heart of a geek who loved tinkering with computers, a skill she'd applied as a senior manager at the telecommunications giant TeleForce, headquartered in nearby Denver, until her recent early retirement. One of those forced situations due to company downsizing.

When I didn't answer, she craned her neck to peer out the window over the sink, leaning so close I could smell her familiar scent, a honey-lavender perfume that, depending on my mood, could craze me or chill me.

"What, those people heading up from the parking lot?"

"Yeah." It was a long trek from the lot, several hundred feet that included a lung-stretching hike up stairs to reach the higher ground of the lodge. I've been tempted to put a sign down there-"Warning 150 steps ahead"-because after making it to the top, one feels like a basketball player at the foul line toward the end of a gut-busting game. Fortunately, after reaching the grounds of the lodge, the only other exertion they'd experience might be hiking in nearby wildflower meadows during the summer, snowshoeing in the winter, or indoor sports all year around in one of the lodge rooms or rustic cabins that edged several natural hot spring pools.

"Probably early arrivals for the retreat," Laura murmured. "Know them?"

"One of 'em."

"You must have super-hero eyesight because all I see is a short blonde and a tall man."

"You're not looking at the whole picture."

Laura glanced over her shoulder at me, her left eye squinting. "What?"

"Check the parking lot."

We call it a parking lot, but it's more like a monster-size circle of chewed-up gravel at the bottom of the hill. Currently, three cars were parked there-Laura's blue Dodge Durango, my gray '90 Pontiac Firebird, and a sleek yellow number that glistened like a molded cube of melting butter under the late afternoon sun.

"Who in their right mind would paint a car crayon yellow?"

"That's no mere car, that's a 2002 Millennium Yellow Z06 Corvette," I said, feeling a creeping tightness in my jaw. "And the color is called competition yellow, not crayon."

A gust of wind triggered a chaotic metallic tune from the wind chimes dangling outside the kitchen window.

She settled back onto the heels of her Skechers, those plump lips forming a small "o" of realization. "So that's..."

"Mellow Yellow." License plate used to say that, too. MLO YLO. From what people had told me, it now read WAS HIS.

Her eyes glistened with a you-poor-little-boy look a thirty-six-year-old man shouldn't like.

It'd been Laura's idea to host the CrimDefs' retreat because it'd be a great way to kick off our grand opening, but I think she was more interested in my having an opportunity to pitch Levine Investigations to potential clients. I mean, what better investigator for a lawyer to hire than a former lawyer? Nevertheless, I'd fought the idea of hosting the retreat at our place with all the fury a decades-long Deadhead can muster-which meant I'd mumbled and shrugged a lot. The problem is ninety percent of the CrimDefs feel one of two ways about me-they either hate my guts or view me as rabidly unstable-so the whole notion of my pitching anything to them was akin to defending myself by tossing veggie burritos to fend off bullets from a firing squad.

But Laura kept reminding me no PI in the state had my credentials, namely eight years experience as a high-profile trial attorney, and that although I couldn't give legal advice to clients, I could anticipate most lawyers' legal needs before they arose. All of which meant I could charge more per hour than my gumshoe competitors. Such money logic inspired me to pitch my services.

That is, until that blonde, my ex-wife, arrived on the scene in Mellow.

In the years since we'd been divorced, one of her favorite pastimes had been announcing loudly and often what an exceptionally irresponsible, deranged asshole I was. I'll cop to some past behaviors, but now that I was clean and sober I liked proving to the world that I had it together again.

"So this means the blonde who'll soon be at our door is Wicked."

Short for Wicked Wench of the West, my favorite reference to said ex. The bad piece of history who'd make damn sure dirt stuck to my rep this weekend just when I'd hoped to sway a little professional sentiment my way. I rinsed another soapy wine glass under the kitchen faucet. Oh, if rinsing off the debris of my past were so easy.

"Who's that man she's with?" Laura accepted the dripping glass from me.

"Some dude headed down a feelin-bad road." They'd finally reached the top of the stairs, undoubtedly winded, which accounted for their snail's pace along the curving cement walk to the lodge's front door. As they drew closer, a wave of betrayal mixed with pity washed over me.

"Sam Wexler," I muttered.

Laura froze, holding a half-dried glass mid-air. "Your former law partner?"

I grunted affirmatively.

"Wicked is Sam's date this weekend?" She frowned. "Isn't he married?"

"Guess wifey's out of town."

I thought about Sam's wife Fern and her uncomplicated, small-town ways. She canned peaches, knitted sweaters, raised the children. Just add water and mix the perfect housewife, which is why I'd always thought he'd married her. She was the earth while he played with fire.

Laura shook her head slowly as she set aside the dried glass. She despised people who cheated on their partners, a fact I knew 'cause that's how we met. Almost a year ago, she'd found me in the online yellow pages under "private investigators" and hired me to follow her fiancé, whom she suspected of cheating. He was, she dumped him, and I promptly asked her out. Best snap decision I ever made.

"Wicked's a lawyer, right?"

"Criminal defense, just like Sam and everyone else registered for the retreat." Just like I used to be.

"Considering how many CrimDefs didn't want to attend because of-"

"My drug-addled rep-"

"Actually I was going to say due to winter travel...anyway, considering Wicked's unresolved anger over your divorce, it surprises me she decided to show up. Of course, there's plenty of room."

With six chalet-style cabins that accommodated four to six people each, and twelve guest rooms upstairs, all with fold-out couches, we could've easily fit another dozen or so attendees.

"No wonder Sam reserved an entire cabin for himself," I mumbled. Poor Fern.

"If Wicked plans to stay for the entire retreat, I'll add an extra charge to his room."

"Make it enough to cover the mortgage."

Laura laughed, a throaty, unrestrained sound that always gave me a rush.

"I'm sorry she and Mellow showed up." She brushed a light kiss against my cheek. "Didn't you say a few days ago that the world is ruled by letting things take their course?"

"Stole that line from Lao-Tzu, who obviously never had Wicked steamrolling toward his front door."

Laura smiled knowingly. "This weekend will be okay. Trust me."

Anxiety did a mean little tap-dance on my nerves. I might quote the cool dudes, but I'm a worrier at heart.

The doorbell rang.

Our Rottweiler Mavis, named after Mavis Staples of the Staples Singers, ran helter-skelter into the kitchen, her nails scrabbling against the linoleum floor, barking and snarling. If looks could kill, Mavis would be a serial murderer, but she was actually the biggest wuss I'd ever met, human or canine.

"We can't have Mavis greeting all our guests like that," Laura murmured, wiping her hands on a dish towel.

"No, just select ones."

Mavis continued the vicious-beast act as all three of us headed into the adjoining room, the foyer of the B&B where people checked in. Laura had decorated this entrance-way with a dinosaur motif-Jurassic foliage wallpaper, dinosaur foot stools, even a 3D T-Rex coming out of the wall. Within the opening of its mouth she'd inserted a red-covered table which looked liked the dino's tongue, on which she'd laid brochures and giveaways for guests. In somebody else's hands, this could've looked like Jurassic Park on Crack, but ever-capable Laura had managed to give it, as well as the guest rooms and cabins, a classy prehistoric ambiance.

I plastered on my best smile and opened the door.

Winter breezes swirled through the doorway, carrying scents of pine and Sam's pricey cologne, an oriental cedar number I recalled from our shared law-office days. I'd never needed to ask our receptionist where Sam was because that scent had always announced his comings and goings.

He towered over us at six-three, maybe four. But then when you're five-eight, anything over six foot is gratuitous. He wore a designer look that screamed I'm hip and make big bucks, which meant Sam had come straight from court. He'd always had the tall, dark, handsome angle going for him, although if I wasn't mistaken he'd started dying his thinning hair. Made me feel smug about the thick, curly mass on my head, even if it was prematurely gray.

"Hey, Zen Man." Sam smiled sheepishly as he put his arm around Wicked's shoulders.

She wore cream-colored slacks that didn't match her beige sweater, which was too low cut and clingy for court so I guessed she'd gussied up for her date, tryst, whatever was going on with Sam. I almost felt sad seeing the bloat in her face and the watery red in her eyes. Drinking too much again, chased with a favorite pill or three. Used to be one of our favorite pastimes, getting plastered as an antidote to the stress of trying tough cases and managing demanding clients. Or so we'd told ourselves.

"Zen Man?" asked Laura, a funny smile on her face.

I shrugged. "You know how I sometimes toss off Zen quotes." Hadn't been called the nickname in so long, I'd almost forgotten about it.

"But it wasn't just the quotes, it was the je ne sais quoi you gave them that made you the Zen Man." Sam's wide mouth elongated into a smile. "Remember?"

"Sort of."

"Oh." The smile leveled out. "I guess you were too..."

"Yeah. Probably."

I watched Mavis sniff the pocket of Sam's jacket as he introduced Wicked to Laura, explaining how it was a last-minute decision for her to attend the conference, she'd be staying in his cabin, blah-dy blah-dy.

"Nice to meet you," Wicked cooed, extending a red-nailed hand to shake Laura's. A stack of bracelets on her wrists jangled, reminding me how she'd always worn too much jewelry, as though to show the world how successful or loved she was. When our gazes snagged, I swore I caught a frightened look in her eyes. Took me by surprise. Couldn't recall ever seeing Wicked frightened of something, except the possibility of missing a shoe sale at Nordstrom. But the look quickly disappeared, like the flash of a shark's fin in deep waters.

"Merry Christmas, Rick."

"Thanks, but I'm still Jewish."

Wicked hic-cupped a laugh. "Sorry. Silly of me. Happy Chanukah."

"Yes, right, Happy Chanukah, old chap." Sam clapped me on my shoulder. "Cheers."

"Since when'd you go Franco-Brit, dude? Thought you were a Colorado native." I could handle a lot of weird, but this little meet-and-greet had taken a U-turn at the Milky Way and was warp-speeding to a distant planet. Plus, I was still pissed off they'd driven up here in MLO YLO.

"If I recall," countered Sam, "you used to end every conversation with 'Ciao, baby' and you'd never set foot in Italy."

I opened my mouth to say something decidedly un-Zen, but save-the-day Laura cut me off with some pleasantry about Sam's hand-painted silk tie, which didn't hold a thread to any of Jerry's, whose J. Garcia brand was still a seller. Sam thanked her, offered a return compliment about the dinosaur motif, made a lame joke about a girl on her Triassic period. Laura laughed politely. I barely held back a grimace, wondering how many dino jokes I was doomed to hear over the coming years.

Little did I know, I was doomed to hear far worse over the coming hours.

 
 

Two

 

"Stuff that's hidden and murky and ambiguous is scary because you don't know what it does."  -Jerry Garcia

 

By eight-thirty that evening, the Dinosaur Foot dining hall had morphed into a disco, awash in booze and music from the seventies that was putting a crimp in my belief of a divine force governing the universe. Not that I'm totally anti-seventies tunes-hey, I'm a Deadhead-but it's one thing to listen to a thought-provoking China Cat Sunflower by the Dead and another to watch a bunch of inebriated, megalomaniac sharks gyrate to Venus by The Shocking Blue.

I'd had hours to adjust to Wicked being here, and I suppose I might've done a better job adjusting if I hadn't seen her doing the head-to-head thing with various CrimDefs, obviously sharing dark, tawdry details about my worthless self based on the furtive, wide-eyed looks in my direction. Therefore, I'd decided pitching my services was better done at another time, like months after this retreat ended. In the meanwhile I'd hang, play host, and set a living example of how I'd transcended my reputation

Honey-lavender tinged the air. Laura had sidled up next to me, wrapped her arm through mine. She batted those Grace Slick eyes, and suddenly the seventies didn't seem so bad.

"Hey," she said, raising her voice to compete with the music.

"Hey."

"Pitching your services?"

"Yes." I smiled tightly. "No."

I hated lying to Laura. Plus she always knew when I was, so why bother?

She bobbed her head in time to the music as she perused the room. A mirrored ball spun slowly overhead, splattering the gloom with sparkles of light. But even in this bad-flashback lighting, I caught the concerned look in her eyes. Probably wondering if she'd done the right thing by forcing me to hob-nob with people who, for the most part, wished me dead or at least severely maimed.

When the music stopped, she leaned close to my ear and whispered, "We could use more hors d'oeuvres."

There was a flash of light to our left. A guy with a digital camera was taking pictures of several drunk female CrimDefs lesbo-kissing. I'd call it real lesbo if they looked as though they were into it, but considering their butts were sticking out as though some other body part might accidentally touch, it was definitely pretend lesbo. Wonderful. The retreat was devolving into a warmed-over Studio One 70s bi-experience. Only thing missing was a gay guy in Liza drag. Time for the Zen Man to chop veggies.

"I'm on it."

With great relief, I crossed into the foyer, exhaling a pent-up breath as I exited the seventies and re-entered the present through the room that doubled as our kitchen and den.

The left side of the room was your basic kitchen, with a nod to being green with its recycled glass countertop. The colors varied from the warm amber of beer bottles to the cobalt of my former favorite vodka bottle. Next to the counter was a door to the outside, which we preferred to use over the more formal entrance in the foyer.

In the center of the room sat a sturdy oak table over which hung an assortment of pots and pans. This was where we cooked-or Laura cooked and I occasionally chopped. Thanks to her culinary skills, this could truly be a bed and breakfast. Left up to me, it'd be a bed and beer nuts.

The rest of the room was more like a den with comfortable chairs, one of which was my worn leather recliner that Mavis had claim-jumped the first week after we brought her home from the rescue. Set in the far wall was an impressive rock fireplace, in front of which sat a small, portable wet bar where Laura concocted her nightly martini. The pièce de résistance was an entertainment center that boasted a forty-eight inch flat-screen TV that Laura thought was overkill and I thought should be bigger. Which said a lot about our different views on life-she dug the details while I grooved on the big picture.

In the back was a door to a small bathroom and stairs leading to the rooms on the second floor. If we could've crammed a bed into the kitchen-den, we'd live here twenty-four-seven. As it was, we slept in a corner room upstairs with an awesome view of the Rockies foothills.

I pulled out a tray of washed veggies and a can of root beer from the fridge-a silver, monolithic number that looked like stainless steel on steroids-and laid the tray on the oak table. After popping open the soda, I fished around in a drawer for a knife, then turned on ESPN and began chopping a carrot while watching the Patriots trounce the Saints.

"Hi Rick."

Wicked stood in the doorway, her hip thrust out at an unflattering angle. Her face was flushed, strands of blonde stuck to her shiny forehead. She'd been working up a sweat dancing, and I guessed that glass of wine in her hand was her fourth or fifth. Back in the day, she'd go through a bottle as though it were an aperitif.

"Mad I showed up?" She was over-enunciating to compensate for the noticeable slur.

And to think I'd been relieved to escape to the kitchen.

"Let's see," I said, ignoring the little voice that warned me to keep my trap shut, "showing up at my place uninvited, driving the car I loved and lost, trashing me to anyone who'll listen is kinda...oh...in your face, wouldn't you say?"

Her chin shot up. "Who says I'm trashing you?"

I didn't answer.

"Sam thought I should come."

"And you offered to drive Mellow?"

She blew out a snort of disgust. "God, you and that car. What does it matter how I got here?"

According to Sam it hadn't been his idea for her to come, but I didn't say anything. The last thing I wanted to do was tangle with an inebriated Wicked. Been there, done that. Chop chop chop.

She moved closer. "Remember my grandmother's diamond and ruby necklace?"

I looked up, frowned. "What?"

She repeated the question.

"No."

I glanced past her at the door, wishing to hell the ghost of Christmas past would float in here and whisk Wicked back to the seventies.

"Thought you'd remember." She spilled some wine on the black-and-white patterned linoleum as she gestured. "I used to wear it with that red velvet dress to our firm partish."

Ah, our firm. Levine & Levine, LLC. I scraped the knife along the side of a carrot, recalling the blood, sweat, and even a few tears I'd poured into making that two-person firm a success. Which it might have been if more than one of us had actually worked. Her idea of being a partner had been to play dilettante lawyer doing lunches, going shopping, taking spa treatments. Not that she'd say that's what she was doing-her M.O. was to make unexpected, critical announcements like "God, that fax machine sucks, I need to buy us a new one" or "We ran out of staples, darling, be right back" and off she'd go to la-la-pamper-me land. Oh, she had clients, but her idea of legal representation was to talk them into taking plea bargains instead of actually negotiating well or even trying their cases.

I wondered if she were trying to talk me into something right now.

"What about that necklace?"

"It's missing." She took a sip of wine, her eyes fighting to focus on mine over the edge of the glass. She lowered the drink. "I think you shtole it."

Shtole. I gave my head a slow shake. "I haven't lived with you in what-seven years?-haven't even set foot in our former home for at least five of those seven, and you're accusing me of stealing your jewelry?"

"You know where I keep the key."

I had to think about that for a moment. "You keep the key in the same place you kept it seven years ago?"

She nodded.

"That's crazy. Even if I'd known that, for starters that'd be the last place I'd break into. Even if I went temporarily insane and thought it'd be a good idea, we both know breaking and entering would set me up for four to twelve and destroy any chance of my getting relicensed as a lawyer." I hadn't practiced law in almost six years, but I could still rattle off penalty chart stats. Furious and agitated, I chopped the hell out of piece of carrot. "Not to mention if you just happened to be home during this hypothetical psycho adventure, you'd likely grab that Saturday night special you probably still keep in your closet and shoot me, citing the Make My Day statute."

She opened her mouth to speak, but decided to take another sip instead.

I tossed the decimated carrot aside, grabbed a celery stalk. "Even if I had known where you kept your grandmother's necklace, what would I have done with it? Pawned it? C'mon, you've handled dozens of theft cases and know the police nail fifty percent of unique, antique stolen property hawked at pawn shops, so I'd have been caught and tossed in jail." I was clutching the celery in one hand, the knife in the other. "Now, please go back to your party because I have important chopping to finish." I went at the celery, slicing off its green bushy head with a loud whack.

But Wicked didn't move. Knowing her, she had something else on her mind. It'd always been her style to attack on one issue that ran parallel to the real one. Although what the hell ran parallel to that damn necklace was anybody's guess.

I set down the knife, picked up my root beer and took a long swig. The carbonation made my eyes sting. Setting it down, I met her gaze and resisted the urge to burp.

"Anything else?"

She swiped at her forehead, as though releasing whatever held back her thoughts. "You fucking addict loser thief...lazy worthless hippie...sucking off your girlfriend...stealing from the rest of us."

"You're trying to pick a fight. Well, I'm not the whacked-out guy I used to be. Don't do drunken, messed-up anymore. The only person you're embarrassing is yourself. Please...just leave."

The flush in her face deepened, her features shrinking into a tight mask of ugly. Her pudgy red-tipped hands tightened into balls.

"Deborah, you don't have to-"

Too late. With a guttural screech like a raptor on crank, she lunged. The wine glass smashed against the butcher table, wine and shards of glass flying.

For an instant, I couldn't move, too stunned at the hysterical drama unfolding before my eyes. But as she raised her hand with that jagged glass, fear jolted me into action. I scrambled back several feet, putting more distance between us before that glass ended up embedded in my flesh.

Wicked stumbled forward, slashing the air with the broken glass. Backed up against the rock fireplace I held up the knife in self-defense. Mavis was up on all fours, standing on the seat of the recliner, barking. Once in the kitchen on that damn chair, the dog refused to leave it. This time, I was glad. Didn't need to be protecting both of us against Wicked.

"You sonofabitch," she screamed, blindly waving the notched glass. "That was my grandmother's necklace, worth thoushands! You junkie, you stole it for money for your drugs!"

That tune was old, but it was falling on fresh ears that crowded the doorway-an ensemble of criminal defense lawyers ogling what might be a potential case. From the other room, the bass-thumping, horn-heavy "Jungle Boogie" by Kool and the Gang swelled. I was starring in a bad remake of Pulp Fiction.

"What's going on?" one of the CrimDefs called out. Another yelled, "You okay, Deb?"

Nice. Watching out for good ol', pure-as-driven Deb.

Her back to them, she hadn't been aware she had an audience. But now that she did, somebody start polishing her Oscar. Half-turning, she dropped the glass. It hit the floor with a solid thunk, a shiny piece breaking off and scuttering across the linoleum. She raised a trembling hand to her face and began crying softly.

Jungle Boogie.

"Rick, please put down the knife," she said between sobs, "you're frightening me."

I was pressed so hard against the rock fireplace, a jutting piece of stone threatened to separate my shoulder. I kept holding up the knife, stained with celery and carrot juice, unsure if I was shocked or impressed with her performance. With talent like that, she'd missed her calling by pleading out all those cases instead of trying them in court.

Then, like a hero to save her day, Sam stepped through the crowd in the doorway. He'd lost the jacket and tie. His blue-striped Hugo Boss shirt sleeves were rolled up, a shiny Rolex on his wrist. He scanned the scene, his gaze halting on my knife.

"Can somebody please escort Ms. Levine out of the room," he intoned in a take-charge voice.

A woman I recalled practicing with back in my public defender days-Iris? Irene?-scurried across the room to Wicked as quickly as her Birkenstocks would let her. With that khaki skirt, Lennon glasses, and frizzy gray hair, I half-wondered if the seventies feminist movement had come alive in the other room as well. I called out to watch for broken glass. Iris-Irene flashed me a go-to-hell look as she wrapped a skinny, but surprisingly toned, arm around the over-wrought Wicked. Sisters saving sisters.

As Iris-Irene and Wicked shuffled and sniffled out of the room, "Jungle Boogie" ended with a funky grunt and a tripped-out bass.

 

 

Three

 

Nick Charles: Now my friends, if I may propose a little toast. Let us eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.  Nora Charles: You give such charming parties, Mr. Charles.

Nick Charles: Thank you, Mrs. Charles.

-The Thin Man

 

"Want to tell me what the fuck all that was about?" Sam settled his tall frame onto one of the bar stools at the oak table. His legs were too long to bend comfortably so they bent at hard angles, the jointed appendages giving him an arthropodan look.

In the few minutes since the nominee for Best Actress had been helped out of the room, the hangers-on had vacated their watch at the entranceway, leaving Sam, myself, and the wannabe security dog Mavis alone in the kitchen-den. I'd been sweeping wet shards of glass off the floor, not sure if I felt more confused or pissed at Wicked's accusation that I'd stolen from her, but definitely embarrassed by the resulting drama. That's the thing with having made a train-wreck of your life-sooner or later you have to face the debris of your past. The trick is putting the pieces back together so the locomotive can chug along life's rails again.

"Ignoring me?" asked Sam.

"Nah, heard you." I stepped on the pedal to the trash can. The silver lid yawned open. "Not everything that counts can be counted...and not everything that can be counted counts." I tipped the dust pan. Pieces of glass clattered down the bin.

Sam made a disgruntled noise. "Should've known the Zen Man would answer with a fucking Zen quote. Got any scotch in that bar?"

"For the record, that was Einstein." I released my foot-the lid shut with a thump. "I believe Laura stashes some scotch in there, and to answer your other question, I have no idea what the fuck that was about." As I hung the dust pan in the utility closet and washed my hands, Sam poured himself a drink.

"Look," Sam said, sitting back down, "I had no idea she'd carry on like that. If I'd known she was prone to alchy rages, I'd never have brought her." He glanced at Mavis, curled up in the recliner. "Some dog. Greets unarmed guests snarling, refuses to get off that chair when people are wielding deadly weapons."

"Yeah, she'd probably benefit from some reverse psychology."

"Where'd you get him?"

"Her. Rottie rescue."

I returned to the table and took a swig of my root beer. Under the fluorescent lights, Sam's face looked gray, haggard. Almost felt sorry for him that he'd hooked up with Wicked.

"Has she mentioned a ruby and diamond necklace?"

He frowned, which deepened the stress lines between his brows. "No. What about it?"

"Wicked thinks I stole it."

"Who?"

"Deborah."

He did a mild double-take. "You call her...Wicked?"

"For Wicked Wench of the West, but after tonight's incident, I'll ask you to keep that to yourself. I'd really like the rest of this weekend to be incident-free."

"Wicked Wench of the West." His mouth twitched in a grin. "Only you, Zen Man." His gaze dropped to the knife on the table, back to my face. "Menacing with a deadly weapon can get you one-to-four."

"If I was menacing anything it was a celery, not a person."

"Right, I know." He took another sip. Setting down his drink, he continued, "You're a big bad PI now, so what do you carry for protection?"

"Besides my rapier wit, a stun gun. Keep it under the front seat of the car."

"Use it often? I mean, the stun gun?"

I feigned a laugh. "I see dating my ex hasn't damaged your sense of humor. I waved it once at some punk kids to scare them off, but that's it. Been dormant for so long, probably doesn't have any charge left."

"Never carry the real thing?"

"Never."

"Some Sam Spade you are."

"Think Rockford. Kept his in a cookie jar. Don't need to carry a big stick to be a tough boy."

Sam swirled his drink, the lines in his face waning. "Shouldn't have made that menacing comment. Just watching your back, Rick."

This was the old Sam I knew. He could be an arrogant, insulting bastard, but underneath that scaly shark skin he had a soft spot for his pals. Years ago, after my marriage had crashed, I'd moved into the Bates Motel-named after Katharine Lee Bates who wrote America the Beautiful for Pike's Peak. Most people thought Bates stood for the Hitchcock thriller, and for that reason alone you'd think the owner would've changed the name, but he never did. So at the macabre-sounding Bates Motel, I lived on matzo crackers, cheese, vodka, and enough ganja to stun a moose. Sam would show up with take-out and encourage me to get my act together, partly because I was his law partner, but he also didn't want my life to unravel. It did anyway.

"If we're watching each others' backs, RoofTop, I have to admit I'm surprised you got involved with her."

"Nobody calls me that anymore."

"Yeah, well, Zen Man was news around here, too. So, how long you two been happenin'?"

From the other room pounded "Play That Funky Music, White Boy," punctuated by drunken, loud whoops. How quickly the CrimDefs recovered from homicide attempts in their midst.

"A few weeks." Sam's face seemed to lengthen before my eyes, as though some external force was weighing him down. "Fern and I are separated."

"For how long? A few weeks?"

"Look, I'm technically single, things happened with Debby, and my only crime in bringing her here was I didn't tell you first." He paused. "You're pissed about Mellow Yellow."

I rapped the bottom of the can on the table. "I still dream I'm driving that car sometimes. At least she didn't paint it green."

"Fitting color to match your jealousy."

"Yeah, okay," I said, nodding my head. "I'll accept that. But what I can't accept is you calling her Debby. She's a Debby as much as Lady MacBeth's a Bethy."

He raised his drink to me. "What can I say, I like strong women."

The antithesis to Fern, no doubt. I checked the doorway to ensure we didn't have any imminent visitors. "I have a bigger issue with Debby than just the car," I said, lowering my voice. "I'm afraid she'll screw up my chances to make nice with people who could be potential clients or, God willing, put in a good word for me with the Attorney Regulation Board when I re-apply for my law license."

A chorus of voices sang "Play that funky music, white boy" along with the music. I tried to recall if any of them were any color other than parchment.

"I'd heard you were going after your law license."

"Yeah." I meant to say something about how I'd paid my dues, was ready to tackle the game again, but instead what came out of my mouth surprised even me. "Can't believe I threw it all away."

He nodded. "Can't believe it, either. You were one of the best, Rick. Before we joined forces, I hated being pitted against you. Don't let this go to your Deadhead, but your brilliance intimidated me in the courtroom."

"Sam Wexler, intimidated? I'm flattered."

"Then you started partying too hard...and we lost you."

We. At first I pondered who exactly comprised we, then decided it included just about everyone we knew. I knew. In my spectacular fall, I'd even alienated my own mother.

"I've been clean and sober five years."

"Documented?"

"Taking weekly UAs for the last three years. Have passed them all with flying colors." Urine Analysis, UA, tests. The Attorney Regulation Board required two years clean tests, no missed weeks, to return to the fold, but I kept taking UAs because I liked a provable track record. More for myself than anyone else.

Sam gave me a long, calculating look. "Been thinking a lot about what I'm going to say next. Don't need to give me an answer right away, just ask that you think about it. After you pass the bar, I'd like us to set up shop again, just like the old days."

I nearly choked on my root beer. I swallowed, set down the can, stared at Sam over the table.

"Problem with that?" he asked.

"Aren't you afraid what others will think, taking in a reformed junkie?"

Sam shrugged, lifted his glass. "I'll need your clean and sober brilliance when we tackle the re-trial for that class action suit."

"Re-trial."

"The class-action suit brought against TeleForce six years ago. Our clients, the plaintiffs, just won their appeal, asked me to represent them on retrial." When I didn't say anything, he added, "Thought you knew."

I rolled the cold root beer can between my palms. "First I heard of it. But then, I don't keep up with cases I fucked up."

"We both lost that case."

"Yeah, but if I hadn't been snorting lines in the bathroom before court, we'd have had a better chance of winning."

He winced. "In the courthouse bathroom? How'd you get it past the guards?" He waved his hand. "Don't explain. What's important is that's behind you. Us. We have a second chance. Next bar exams are in, what, February?"

I nodded. "Late February. After the new year, I'll be studying my ass off."

"When do they post the results?"

"May, I think. Then I need to first pass a hearing in front of the Attorney Regulation Board. They want to be certain that I'm an upstanding citizen."

"You'll pass. Which means you'll be relicensed by August, can sit second at the trial. Until then, you can do litigation support, help me sift through discovery, re-interview witnesses." He paused. "You in?"

In? I was signed, sealed, delivered, but being a legal eagle at heart, I had to negotiate.

"On one condition."

He arched a questioning brow.

"At some point this weekend, steal those car keys and let's take a spin in Mellow Yellow."

 

 

Four

 

"Now don't make a move or that dog will rip you to shreds." - Nick Charles

 

At nine-thirty, Laura walked into the kitchen carrying her near-empty martini glass to check on Rick. After hearing about his run-in with Wicked, she'd dropped by, saw he and Sam sitting at the table laughing, so she'd returned to her hostess duties in the dining hall. They hadn't appeared to be so fond of each other earlier, so it'd been a relief to see them getting along.

She noticed his Denver Nuggets jacket was missing from its peg next to the kitchen door. Maybe he'd taken a stroll to get away from the music and partying, although normally he'd take Mavis with him. Or maybe he'd stepped outside with one of the CrimDefs who smoked as it wasn't allowed inside the lodge or guest rooms, and the two of them were discussing a potential case for Levine Investigations. She hoped the latter. Although she liked his help around the lodge, it wasn't his thing. He needed to dig into cases, problem-solve them.

She drained the last of her martini, popped its olive into her mouth, savoring the chewy mix of salt and sour infused with vodka. Heaven. She looked over at the Rottie curled up in Rick's favorite chair.

"Mavis, honey?"

The dog flickered opened her eyes.

"Can't live in that chair. Dogs must go outside occasionally."

The hammering piano rift of "Crocodile Rock" started up in the other room. Laura groaned. She'd never liked Elton John's bubble-gummy music-all the more reason to take a break now.

"Mavis, girlfriend, I'm talking to you." Laura set her martini glass on the table. "Get up. Now."

She headed to the door, retrieved her fleece jacket from its peg. Behind her, doggie paws clickety-clacked across the linoleum.

Laura opened the door. "After you, Princess."

Mavis stared at the darkness outside, tilted her head to one side as though seeing it better from that angle.

"It's called nature, Mavis." She gave the dog an encouraging pat on her ample behind. "You need more exercise, girlfriend. Plus I want you to do your doggy duty 'cause when I hit the sack tonight, I want to sleep, not be waking up at all hours to play outdoor escort."

Although Rick typically did the escorting, not Laura. Being a city girl at heart, Laura was still growing accustomed to living in the smack of nature. Not that she wasn't game to taking hikes or digging in dirt or soaking in a hot spring pool, but given her druthers, she'd rather be at a computer or testing a new recipe any day. Logic and instructions were far more comforting than the unpredictability of stumbling into an old, abandoned mine or coming darn near face to face with a coyote, both of which she'd experienced in the six weeks since she and Rick had moved here.

With an indignant snuffle, Mavis finally left the warmth of the kitchen and ventured into the cool night. Zippering her jacket, Laura followed, the door closing with a sucking sound.

It was one of those still, cloudless winter nights. The moon so big and bright, it dimmed the light from the stars. Mavis trotted ahead a few feet, then stopped abruptly, her body tense. She raised her head and sniffed the air.

"What is it, girl?"

With a chuffing sound, Mavis charged into the night.

Laura stared into the darkness where the dog had bounded, trying to ignore the clenching in her stomach. Rick had told her repeatedly that mountain lions and bears rarely, if ever, showed up in this area, especially near the lights of the lodge, but she still got jumpy out here in the dark. Something moved in her peripheral vision and she jerked her gaze to her right. One of the resident bunnies flashed a white tail as it hopped into the sanctuary of a shrub.

Blowing out a puff of breath, she continued walking. The rocks under her feet crunched as she moved along the path, lighted by strands of tiny white lights that wound up the hill toward the guest cabins and hot spring pools. To the east, she could almost make out the red sandstone hogback mountains-spiky rocks like the bumpy spine of a razorback hog-that separated Morrison from its metropolitan neighbor Denver. A popular spot for cyclists and tourists, millions of years ago that ridge-now called Dinosaur Ridge-had been a beach on a vast inland sea where dinosaurs migrated and left their footprints in the sand.

She never thought she'd know the difference between an Iguanodon and a Stegosaurus, but now she enjoyed learning about the prehistoric history of the area. With the thousands of dinosaur enthusiasts, students, and nature aficionados who visited Dinosaur Ridge each year, it'd help her business to be able to dino-chat.

Crocodile Rock finally ended. "Good riddance," she muttered, wishing Elton John's music would go the way of the dinosaur. At the rate these people were partying, it'd be the wee hours before they staggered off to their rooms. Fortunately, staff would be here at six A.M. to help clean up the dining hall and transform it into a breakfast-buffet and workshop room. She and Rick had tomorrow night off as Rocky Mountain Mobile Caterers were handling all dinner preparations and cleanup.

Off to her left, something crashed through the bushes.

She halted, stared at the dark bulk of land and trees. Now that definitely hadn't been caused by a bunny.

"Mavis?" Her voice came out like a scratchy whisper. She sucked in a breath, called louder. "Mavis! Get back here, now!"

A series of short, energetic barks was followed by the thumpity thumpity of paws hitting earth. In a rush of movement, Mavis, panting, her tongue hanging out the side of her mouth, emerged.

Laura grabbed her collar, fumbled, caught it again. She tugged the dog close, rubbed it behind its ears. In the dim light, she could see Mavis's big doggy smile, which made her feel silly about her fears.

"Run into a pal out there?" The neighbors had two golden labs, Vice and Versa, who roamed the area at all hours. "C'mon, let's go back inside."

She straightened and turned. Stopped. The fuzzy yellow light from one of outdoor lanterns illuminated a form in a pool twenty or so feet away. Probably a partying lawyer who'd wandered outside for a soak. Laura's jaw tightened. She'd told Rick that their posted signs warning guests to not soak alone after dark weren't enough, and sure enough she was right. The last thing they needed was a lawsuit from somebody, especially a lawyer, slipping or worse. They needed to erect fences around the pools, keep them locked after nightfall.

She took a few steps, pausing to listen to the bubbling water in the pool. Otherwise, it was so quiet...too quiet...

Mavis whined.

"Shh, girl..."

The person's head was resting on one of the flat rocks that lined the pool. So still, no movement. Laura was going to feel like a fool bothering the guest if they were simply trying to enjoy a quiet moment...

But they didn't move.

So still.

Maybe they'd fallen asleep...or had passed out.

Needed to roust them, get them out of the water. Stepping off the rock path, she crossed a patch of ground. Closer, the yellow lantern light was brighter, revealing the pale mounds of a woman's breasts breaking the water's bubbling surface. The face was turned away from her, the hair spilling over a rock.

"Ma'am?" asked Laura, "are you all right?"

A breeze shuddered past, carrying the scent of sage, and something else. Wine. Too much to drink. Just as she'd thought. Passed out.

Mavis paced the edge of the pool as Laura kneeled next to the woman.

"Ma'am, wake up. I need to get you out of this pool."

Damn. Wished she'd remembered her cell phone so she could call Rick, get him here to help. It wasn't going to be easy lifting a drunk out of the water. She touched the woman's face. Strands of wet hair clung to her fingers as she gently grasped the woman's head and turned it.

Laura gasped.

Deborah's dark, unblinking eyes stared at her.

 

 

Five

 

"The murderer is right in this room. Sitting at this table. You may serve the fish."  -Nick Charles

 

"Death brings out the voyeurs," I muttered.

"As though none of them haven't seen it before," added Sam, his voice wooden, distant. He shivered, mindlessly buttoned his suit jacket.

It was ten-thirty at night, but the high-pressure sodium lamps made it look like high noon around the pool where Wicked's body lay. The well-meaning Jefferson County coroner types had erected monstrous blue plastic sheets to afford her some dignity from scrutiny, but there were gaps between the sheets. Like chinks in the law, the CrimDefs had found them. They stood in clusters talking and smoking, their vantage points providing surreptitious peeks at her naked, waxy body, her eyes forever staring at the night sky.

"Assholes," Sam mumbled, crinkling a plastic package. He held it toward me. "Gum?"

I helped myself.

"Christ, she'll be half-boiled by the time they get her to the coroner's." Sam set the gum into his mouth as though it were a communion wafer.

Al Benning, the Jefferson County Sheriff, had arrived twenty minutes before William Lashley, the new coroner for Jefferson County, and none of us, especially Benning, had been happy with his tardiness. While waiting, Benning had ordered his deputies into action, stringing the yellow crime tape, taking video, scouring the area for footprints. They'd also found the possible murder weapon, a knife, in some bushes near the pool. Later, the medical examiner would determine if that type of weapon had caused the wound to her heart.

Now some deputy coroners, their hands in latex gloves, were lifting Wicked's fat, limp body from the water. That brassy blond hair that she loved to curl and tease stuck in wet clumps around her face. She had a startled look, probably the one she'd had the moment she'd faced her murderer.

I felt bile rising in my throat. I spit out the gum.

Sam laid a hand on my arm. "Want to go inside?"

"No." In the surreal lighting, Sam's stricken face looked as though the blood had been drained from it. "You?"

"No."

"I mean, she's my ex. But the two of you..."

He waved off my comment, looked around. "Where's Laura?"

"Damage control." She'd been circulating among the CrimDefs, asking if they wanted coffee, making arrangements for refunds, avoiding questions about what she'd seen when she stumbled upon Wicked's body. The latter I'd warned her about, although she had enough common sense to know better.

The deputy coroners finally hoisted Wicked's body onto a gurney. After covering her with a blanket, they began transporting her over the uneven ground, the gurney rattling and clattering its way past the voyeurs. The blanket didn't quite cover her feet, and I noticed her toes had been painted a bright crimson, like her nails. Struck me how both were the same color as the stab wound in her chest.

Sam crossed himself.

I murmured a few words of El Maleh.

Loud, staccato bursts suddenly split the air. One of the deputy sheriffs standing guard at the crime tape dove for cover, another reached for his gun. When a heavy bass rift kicked in, I recognized the opening for the old Knack tune "My Sharona."

Nervous laughter rippled through the crowd as others recognized the vintage rock song, except for the deputy sheriffs who looked uniformly pissed. Didn't blame them. For all they knew that opening drum solo could've been the crazed killer shooting at the group, although they probably wouldn't have minded a few more lawyers passing into the ever-after.

"Christ." Sam looked down the hill at the dining hall. "What asshole pulled that stunt?"

"Some drunk CrimDef who couldn't handle this scene."

Muttering something about nobody respecting the fucking dead, he took a step as though ready to head down there and bust some heads when Iris-Irene bustled past, her skinny arms pumping furiously like wind turbines feeding energy to her strident walk.

"I'll take care of this," she barked, and I believed her.

Ma-ma-ma-my Sharona.

"What's her name?" I asked, watching the gray frizz on her head bouncing fiercely as she strode away.

"Iris DaCosta. Up for a judgeship."

Despite those leather pumps, Her Almost-Honor made it in record time over the bumpy, rocky ground to the front door. Within moments after disappearing inside, The Knack's driving bass line abruptly stopped.

I thought about the last time I'd seen Iris this evening, when she'd escorted the sobbing, much-maligned Wicked out of the kitchen. That had to be around eight-forty or so. Where had they gone after that?

Now that The Knack had been stilled, the night air began filling again with the buzz of voices, Benning's snarled commands, and the distant hush of traffic along highway 285. I caught the scents of juniper and pine, a sad reminder of the natural simplicity this locale was supposed to be about.

Farther up the pebbled path, next to one of the other pools, I noticed a buffed Hispanic dude in a Jefferson County deputy uniform talking to Laura. She stood erect, her hands clutched together. Nervous, but professional.

"They're interviewing Laura."

Sam followed my line of vision. "She all right?"

"Yeah." She was nodding affirmatively to something the deputy had said. I felt a stab of guilt about what this was doing to her, might do to the lodge. The inevitable press could attract the ghoulish variety of customers, but more likely it'd scare people away. She shouldn't have sunk everything she had into this place, but the price had been slashed for a quick sale, she'd been losing her mind being jobless for the first time in years, and running a business that required both her people and management skills had seemed a perfect fit.

A couple of CrimDefs walked by, paused.

"Rick, how you doin', man?"

"Fine."

"Still a Nuggets fan, eh?"

I looked down at my jacket, back up. "Gotta love a team that's working its way back from the gutter."

In the following awkward pause, Sam bit back a smile.

"Well," my questioner continued, "you're lookin' good."

"Helps to not be drinking and doing drugs."

One of them did a bad job suppressing a grin. The one talking, Dan Steiner, a former classmate at D.U., gave me a hard sizing-up, seemed to believe me.

"Need help, give a call, okay?" he said.

"Sure thing."

Sam watched them leave, his arms crossed. "Didn't know you and Dan were friends."

"We aren't."

"Watch out for him. He only wants the media case."

"I guessed as much." If the Jeffco sheriffs didn't find evidence pointing at someone else as the murderer, I'd be their poster boy. Suspended lawyer-junkie turned gumshoe whose ex-wife is found brutally murdered on his property...it'd be a feeding frenzy for the media. Any lawyer representing me would benefit big-time from all that free PR. Make enough money and gain enough glitz to propel him or her into the upper echelon of high-priced, in-demand lawyers.

And to think Laura had hoped this weekend would be about me getting more jobs.

Laura.

"I gotta protect her, somehow," I murmured, staring at her. "She can't afford to lose this place."

"Look, Rick, if things get..." Sam patted me on the back. "...well, just know I'll represent you two, pro bono."

I wasn't sure how to respond. Or maybe I was afraid that responding made the fear real.

I heard Laura's throaty laugh. Looked over to see the detective flashing her a grin. I suppose if he hadn't had that Mario Lopez thing going for him, I could've cared less.

"They're only laughing, Zen Man."

"Hot-shot deputy should move on, do his job. Killer is probably still here."

"I've been thinking the same thing." Sam scanned the crowd. "Only a criminal defense attorney could commit the perfect crime."

Grudgingly, I looked away from Laura and Mario-Dude. "I'm not sure this is such a perfect crime. Too exhibitionist, show-offy. As though some narcissistic, megalomaniac psycho is thumbing his nose at his peers. Hey, look what I did right in the midst of you, and nobody caught me."

"Think it's a he?"

A loud clang, followed by a curse, cut through the night. At the top of the stairs that led down to the parking lot, the deputy coroners were wrestling with the laden gurney. It was going to be one hell of a descent. Just like Wicked to be the center of attention until the bitter end.

I returned my attention to Sam. "Doesn't seem like a woman would do it to her while Wi-Deborah was naked."

"But naked and alone, that is when she was most vulnerable-prime opportunity if one is bent on killing her, whether they're a man or woman."

I thought about the stab wound in the heart area. Why hadn't the killer just stuck the knife into her brain stem? Or done it prison style, which any good criminal defense attorney would know, by stabbing repeatedly and quickly for max blood loss? Brain stems. Prison style. Ways a man might do it. But as I well knew, women attorneys had balls, too. Sometimes bigger ones.

I checked out the clusters of lawyers, sizing them up. In one clump of baby sharks, a wiry dude was smoking and chattering to a pal. His embroidered coat and paisley tie were a clash of patterns and color, making me wonder if that's how he'd planned to dress or if he'd run out of clean clothes that matched.

I shifted my gaze to another group of heftier, older CrimDefs, none of whom wore paisley. One of the men in the group, Max Cameron, was in a twelve-step group I used to attend in Denver. He'd kicked a bad crack habit fifteen years ago, which included time for selling drugs to an undercover cop. That he'd rebuilt his life and practice was a success story among us recovering junkie-lawyers.

"If only I hadn't let her talk me into bringing her," Sam said, staring at the deputy coroners folding one of the blue plastic sheets.

"She said it'd been your idea."

He shook his head slowly, side to side. "Never knew with her what was real."

"True. I think she was determined to be here, maybe to confront me although I'm not sure it was really about that necklace. You know her, talking stuff up before it's a done deal. Probably had announced to all kinds of people she'd be here. Unfortunately, one of those people was the killer."

"Premeditated? I don't know. Stabbed through the heart sounds like a crime of passion to me." He made a shushing sound. "We have a visitor."

Footsteps crunched to a stop. "Richard Levine?"

A petite redhead in a Jefferson County sheriff's uniform, topped with a zipped-up leather jacket, stood in front of me. Her short, curly red hair, big eyes, and oversized mouth reminded me of a Raggedy Ann doll.

"Yes."

"I'm Sergeant Friesen. Sheriff Benning asked me to interview you-mind answering a few questions?"

"He won't be doing that," interrupted Sam. "I'm his lawyer and he's invoking his right to remain silent."

I needed help, yes, but I'd been around the block enough times to know it made me look better, as in innocent, if I answered questions now. "It's all right, sergeant, I'm happy to comply."

"But..." Her eyes shifted from me to Sam and back. "...he says he's your attorney. Is that correct?"

"I am." Sam edged his tall frame between me and Red. When I started to speak again, he made a halting sign with his palm.

"Especially, sergeant," he said, regarding her like a cockroach that needed to be stepped on, "since you know that once he says he wants an attorney, you have to head for the door, figuratively speaking. It's called the Sixth Amendment. It's good reading, and for your benefit, it's short." He extracted a business card from his breast pocket. "Let me write my cell number on the back." He frowned, patted his shirt pocket again, then reached into his pants pocket. He scanned the ground at his feet.

"Problem, counselor?" asked Red, those big eyes narrowing.

"I seem to have, uh, misplaced my fountain pen."

Oh, this was working out well. Sam had aggressively stepped in, damning her perception of me with that Sixth Amendment jab...and now he was fretting over some goddamn fountain pen. Just the kind of representation I'd always dreamed of while on the brink of being charged with first degree.

For the first time in a long, long time I craved a drink. Or a toke. I cleared my throat. "I'd like to explain-"

"I'm taking him down to the station," Red called out to the Mario Lopez deputy charging our way.

Laura was also speed-walking toward us, her face tight with worry, obviously concerned by what she saw coming down.

"He's lawyered up." Red explained to the deputy, who'd halted next to her, one hand hovering over the butt of his gun as though I might go loco any moment.

"Turn around, sir," she said to me, pulling her handcuffs off her belt, "and put your hands behind you."

Only a fool wouldn't have done as told. As I turned, I muttered to Sam, "Get me out of this."

"You're retaining me?"

I nodded stiffly.

"Then shut up," he said, clapping me on the back. "I'll do the talking from here on out, old chap."

 

 

Six

 

It is just as is and ain't no is-er.  -Rural American Zen

 

It was Sunday morning and I was fucked.

Incarcerated on first-degree murder charges for an ex-wife I despised and had successfully avoided for the last five or so years, then the one time she steps foot on my property, she's murdered with an alleged object I'd been waving at her in self defense an hour before her ugly demise. I'd had plenty of time sitting in the cell to ponder what could be worse than my being fucked on trumped-up charges, and hadn't come up with anything other than my own death, which meant I was about as fucked as they come.

Such thoughts weren't exactly on the enlightened top ten for the Zen Man, but when you're incarcerated in a cold, impersonal Jefferson County Detention Center cell where everything's bolted down, even the toilet, with walls painted the color of that green shit that flew out of Linda Blair's mouth in the Exorcist, Zen thoughts fly outta your head, down the hall, into the visitors' waiting area, and out the door to the light, breezy, sun-filled outdoors that you begin to wonder if you'll ever see again.

Sitting on my three-inch thick plastic-covered straw mattress, I stared down at my orange jumpsuit-decorated with the letters JCSO for Jefferson County Sheriff's Office-to my tan inmate-issued flip-flops and decided for the nth time that whoever murdered Wicked had picked the CrimDefs retreat to do so because I'd be nailed for the crime. A walking, quacking fucking duck.

Who did it?

I again went over everyone who'd been at the retreat, from Iris to Max to that foppy looking rock star dude to any one of the several dozen other attorneys present that evening. Who had motive? Obviously everyone had opportunity. And means as, from what Sam had learned from the medical examiner's office, the knife stuck into Wicked was the same kind I'd earlier wielded, meaning the killer lifted the knife from our kitchen. If only I hadn't taken that stroll to clear my head and breathe in some mountain air...if only I'd asked Sam to accompany me. Or Laura. Hell, even Mavis...detectives could've pulled physical evidence from her paws, seen the part of the property we'd been walking on, the lack of blood spatter on the fur. Yeah, even Mavis could've been my alibi, but no, I was alone, no witnesses, motive up the wazoo.

A Jeffco detention deputy sheriff whose stomach seriously strained the green fabric of his shirt sauntered in front of my cell. I vaguely recalled grilling the dude in a trial years ago, assault and battery case. From the smug, I-got-you-asshole look on his face, he remembered, too. I had to be his dream-cell fantasy come true. A lawyer in chains.

"Levine," he barked, opening the door. "Visitor. Chop chop."

He secured my leg shackles and escorted me to the visitation cell, a square cinderblock room with a thirty by forty-inch window of thick glass. On the other side sat Laura, looking pale and drawn with circles so dark under her eyes, they looked painted on. I hated what I was putting her through.

"I've missed you," I said into the phone.

"Me, too." She closed her eyes, reopened them. "Cancelled the housekeepers, caterers...even the laundry service. Figured there won't be business for a while."

"Sorry."

"Not your fault." She forced a small smile. "Mavis and I are doing fine, really."

"She must love having my chair all to herself."

"When she's not there, she's lying at the kitchen door, waiting for you to come home."

That got to me. I had to swallow, hard.

She straightened, looked almost eager. "Judge set bail, and I'm working on making it."

Good news, as most people charged with first-degree murder aren't even entitled to bail. But if it was a judge who hated my guts, bail could be higher than Jerry on his eighty-four summer tour. "The number?"

"Half a million." Seeing the look on my face, she quickly added, "We'll be able to post it using the equity in the lodge."

"You can't do that. Even if you could, it's your livelihood. Your home."

I knew what roots meant to her. She'd grown up in a series of dusty, broken-down trailer parks throughout Arizona and California. Her dad had fancied himself a construction worker, and had occasionally even found jobs pounding nails, but the truth was he spent more of his time chasing jobs than keeping them. Which meant Laura and her family were good at packing up the trailer and towing it to another town, another possible job. Her mom had been lonely and depressed, her main outlets bitching about her old man and drinking. Laura was more a mom to her kid sister, Becky, who at fifteen ran away with a boy and was never heard from again. When I'd first hooked up with Laura, I'd tried to help find her sister, but there were no links to her maiden name, I couldn't dredge up a social, and nobody had a clue where she and the boy might have gone.

All of which had left Laura with a yearning to have a stable, predictable home. The very thing she could lose, thanks to me.

I blew out an exasperated breath. "I know how these things work. It'll take several days just to get an appraiser there-"

"Already come and gone."

"They don't work that fast."

"He owed Sam a favor."

So Sam had called in a marker. "Nice of him to set that up. But you just bought the place. There's not enough equity-"

"He appraised it for nearly eight hundred thousand."

Obviously, Sam had suggested that exact figure to the appraiser ahead of time. Which meant he'd rigged our bed and breakfast to have five hundred grand equity-the exact number for bail-above our loan. For all his polish and panache, Sam had the soul of a slick backroom Shylock.

I wasn't gonna ask any more questions. Our conversation was being recorded, so anything else about Sam's tactics we could discuss later in private.

"And the property bond motion has been filed with the court," she continued, "should be approved by the judge tomorrow, next day at the latest I've been told." She paused, her eyes filling with emotion. "Can't believe you're in for murder one."

"Why look any further than the ex-husband with the knife in his hand? Cops look for the most provable, likely suspect, not the truth. We have our work cut out for us."

She frowned, a confused look on her face.

"We're going to investigate my case, baby, and find the real killer."

"Time's up," barked a man's voice.

I glanced over my shoulder at a new sheriff, an older guy with a seen-it-all look in his frosty blue eyes. "Thought visitation was twenty minutes."

"Not today."

I looked back at Laura. "Pull together the addresses for everyone who attended the retreat. Print them out, bring them with you when you pick me up. And bring gloves, for both of us. Love you."

"Gloves?" She glanced up at the video camera, back to me. "Love you, too," she whispered.

As she hung up her phone and stood, a panic spiked in me. I couldn't let this end. Not this moment, or the next, or forever. I tapped the glass.

She paused, arched a questioning brow.

"Marry me," I mouthed.

She frowned slightly.

"Marry me," I mouthed again, this time shaping my words carefully.

When she smiled, I honest to God felt it right through the glass. Maybe it was the sensory Deadhead in me, but that smile was like sunlight, emitting a pleasurable heat that speared its way right down to the core of my pathetically pounding heart.

I smiled back, more confident and hopeful than I had felt in days.

"No," she mouthed.

 

* * *

 

"Hey, Mr. Popularity," barked the shirt-straining sheriff, "ya got another visitor."

I looked up from where I sat on the lower bunk of my bolted-down cell, hoping that visitor might be Laura again. I'd been nursing a serious case of deflated macho ego since her rejection an hour earlier.

"Who is it?"

"I'm not your personal greeter, champ, but I'll give you a hint-not the chick who slam-dunked your marriage proposal."

As he secured my leg shackles, I made a mental note that if and when I got relicensed as a lawyer, no way in hell I'd practice criminal law again. Just didn't pay to piss off half the law enforcement in the state.

Minutes later, I was back in the visitor area, staring at Sam through the glass. He wore a natty sweater that probably cost more than I made in a day as a private dick.

He held the phone to his ear. "Keeping your chin up and your mouth shut?"

"More the latter than the former." I paused. "Laura just visited."

Sam nodded. "She told you the good news?"

"Seems the lodge was quickly appraised for a substantial sum, more than needed, and the property bond is on its way to the judge."

Sam flashed his signature cocky smile. "That's right, old chap."

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. "Who's the judge?"

"Teresa Mancinelli."

"That tight-ass never liked me."

"She's a former prosecutor, you were a defense lawyer, what's to like?" He winked. "No worries. She loves every inch of me."

Appeared Sam had not only been bedding my ex-wife, but also my upcoming judge.

"Heard anything through the grapevine about Deborah acting differently, making any unusual comments, in the weeks before her death?"

"Not a word."

"Who at the retreat had motive?"

Sam quirked a brow. "Off the top of my head, Debby had troubles with Lou Reisman and Iris DaCosta."

"Why?"

"Secrets, why else?"

"Why so coy? We're protected by privilege." Jails couldn't record attorney-client conversations.

"Not being coy. Just didn't want to pry." He checked his shiny Rolex. "I have an appointment in fifteen, so let's cut to it." Leaning forward, he gave me a dead-on, all-business look, the kind I'd seen him give a thousand times to clients. I suppose I once gave it to clients, too, but I like to think mine had a glint of mercy.

"Your advisement is tomorrow, Monday, one-thirty."

"Fast work. Did the judge fax the papers to the jail?"

Sam shrugged. "Don't know. But considering the rapport she and I share, I think things will be moving quickly. I'll call Laura, tell her to have dinner and a suit ready for you."

"You think I'll be out tonight?"

"Good chance."

Talking like a lawyer, all bluster and bravado and bull, but better that than to share doom and gloom with the guy behind bars. I well knew from years representing people like me stuck in jail, it was a crap shoot to guess when the booking and release staff would finish processing the bond papers. All depended on their mood and whether or not the Broncos were on TV. No one ever gets out of jail during a Broncos game.

"What time's the Broncos game?"

Sam was checking his watch again. "How would I know?"

"Well, if it's in Denver, it'll probably be at two, which means I'm either out over the next few hours, or it'll be late tonight."

"Uh-huh," he said, obviously disengaged from the conversation because he had better places to go, women to do.

I almost asked about Mellow, but didn't bother. I knew the answer. Her probate lawyer would've had the car towed to a garage, where it'd stay until her will was probated. If I got out of this mess, I was gonna bid on that car. Not sure what with, but I'd figure out something.

Sam and I said our good-byes, then Sheriff Stretched Shirt escorted me back to my cell. The shackles clanked and jingled as I walked, a weighty reminder that reality was a lot heavier than the frothy news my buddy-lawyer had just shared with me. Maybe I'd be out tonight, but maybe not.

At least those odds were better than Laura's answer had been.

 

 

Seven

 

"Somebody has to do something, and it's just incredibly pathetic that it has to be us."  -Jerry Garcia

 

At one-thirty on Monday, Judge Mancinelli looked out over the courtroom and said, "People of the state of Colorado versus Richard Levine."

"Tally ho, mon ami," Sam murmured, standing.

The Jefferson County Courthouse made ample use of wood-from the walls to the jury's chairs to the spectators' benches-yet the rooms still lacked any warmth whatsoever. Judge Mancinelli's pulled-back black hair and slash of red for lips didn't make the room feel any cozier. From the orange hue of her skin, it appeared she spent as much time in the tanning booth as on the bench.

I followed Tally Ho to the podium. D.A. Brett Crain, who'd been sitting at the prosecutor's long wooden table flipping through a file, stood. He looked like a younger Jimmy Stewart, all earnest and gangly in a navy twill suit. I half expected him to stutter when he spoke.

"Sam Wexler for the defense, your honor," Sam said loudly. "Mr. Levine is present."

I took my place next to Sam. "Good morning, your honor."

She stared at me, Sam, back at me. "Mr. Levine, I'm sure you remember the Fifth Amendment. Use it. That's the last thing you say in this courtroom without Mr. Wexler's permission."

I seemed to be on a run of badly perceived actions lately.

"Brett Crain for the people," said Brett, smoothing his hand down the front of his jacket. "May I approach? I have charges."

"You may, Mr. Crain."

He crossed the room and handed a sheaf of papers to the judge with a flourish worthy of a Shakespearean actor. As much as law enforcement loved fucking with a defense lawyer, a D.A. loved it even more.

"Your honor," he said, "please take note that together with these charges, the people have filed a motion to revoke bail because Mr. Levine is a flight risk and a danger to the community."

My insides curdled. Flight risk? Danger to the community? As Brett walked back to his table, he smirked in my direction.

Then I remembered the Phillips case. Gang banger. First degree. His grandmother depleted her life savings to hire me as his counsel. In the course of our investigation, we discovered a dirty homicide detective had hidden evidence. Judge Hall, a wizened ex-prosecutor who valued perseverance over sleight of hand, had dismissed the case. After that, Brett Crain spent eighteen months doing DUIs in a rural courthouse before the D.A.'s office brought him back to the mother ship.

I may have thought I was fucked back in the jail, but I was really fucked now with a D.A. damn near salivating with his golden opportunity for revenge.

"May I approach for our copy of the charges and the motion to revoke bail, your honor?" asked Sam.

I thought the honorable judge did a lousy job feigning impartiality. I caught a slight smile cracking that orange tan.

"You may, sir," she responded.

Sir Sam brought back the papers, laid them on the podium. "We waive reading of the charges and advisement of rights and request a preliminary hearing that is combined with the hearing to revoke bail."

Any idiot lawyer would waive reading of charges and rights to streamline the proceedings when faced with a judge who would be ruling on his client's freedom in a few weeks.

"No objection, your honor," said Brett.

Mancinelli looked down at her desk. "Checking my calendar, I have the morning of January thirteenth available. Eight A.M."

"Your honor," said Sam, "I have a DUI trial in Gilpin County on that date-"

"Gentleman, that's the date. We're not playing battle of the network calendars here. If you have a DUI in Gilpin County on that date, call a lawyer with three years or less experience to replace you there. I need you here, and so does your client." She looked at me. "Mr. Levine, your bond continues until that date and time. Oh, and no mistakes, Levine. Zero tolerance here."

I nodded, knowing better than to utter a single word.

January thirteen. Thirty-one days from today. Although it'd be nice to think Sam's relationship between the sheets with the good judge might mean she'd smile favorably on me on that date, the opposite was more likely true. No judge wanted his or her reputation sullied by innuendoes of bias. Knowing Sam's penchant for flaunting his infidelities, Teresa Mancinelli would probably be harsher in her ruling to combat any gossip. Which meant if she revoked my bail on January thirteen, I'd be staring at bars until the trial took place, which could be any time from March to September.

Which meant I had thirty days to find the real killer.

My investigations were starting the moment I bolted this inner sanctum of justice.

 

 

Eight

 

"Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills, One man gathers what another man spills."  -Jerry Garcia

 

"What?" The Durango lurched as Laura drove over a speed bump in the Jefferson County courthouse parking lot. "No. Absolutely not. Investigating your case is one thing, rolling in strangers' filth is another."

"Getting down and dirty is part of being a private eye." I looked around the passenger seat. "The gloves?"

"Center compartment."

I pulled out my nylon gloves, noticed she'd brought hers, too-black leather with rabbit lining.

"I'm not dressed for the occasion. This skirt is a Gucci."

Laura's partially open winter coat exposed a black knee-length skirt that matched the color of her low-heeled pumps. Hardly down-and-dirty wear, unless one had a serious school marm fantasy. Which this Deadhead boy might've had if he'd been stuck in jail another day. Instead, I'd morbidly fantasized about her rejection of my marriage proposal. If I'd been released last night, instead of barely over an hour ago with minutes to throw on a suit and race to the courthouse, I'd have already asked her why. Right now, we had work to do.

"Just keep the motor running, I'll do the dirty work." I pointed to an upcoming on-ramp. "Take 6 East."

As she took the exit, I scanned the list of CrimDefs and their addresses that she'd printed for me. Being a third-generation Denverite, I knew my way around the city and its 'burbs the way Jerry knew his way around a riff. Checking Lou's street address, I knew he lived in a cushy suburb of Lakewood, Iris in culturally diverse Wash Park, south of downtown Denver. Lou's address was closer, so he'd be first.

"Those bags will be full of..." She wrinkled her nose. "I'll never get the smell out of here."

"Just crank up the heater and drive with the windows down. After a day or two, you'd never know the Durango went undercover as a trash truck."

"But there'll be...gunk on the back seat."

"Most people put their stuff in plastic bags."

Checking the side mirror, she switched lanes. "Isn't it illegal taking someone's trash?"

"Lakewood and Denver deem curbside trash public property. Of course, we don't know if today's their pick-up day, but it's possible their trash is accessible anyway. If either of them threw out anything after last Friday night that links them to Wicked or her murder, today's a primo day to check."

Fifteen minutes later, we pulled up in front of Lou Reisman's home, a palatial number with rolling lawns and a garden sculpture that looked like a weathervane on growth hormones. All behind a massive wrought-iron security fence.

No visible trash cans. None in front of the other mansions, either.

"Drive down the alley," I said, "let's see if there's a dumpster."

There were none. I gave Laura directions to Iris's home.

Half an hour later, we arrived in Wash Park, a sprawling residential area that boasted the second-largest city park in Denver and the largest number of jogging bodies stuffed into overpriced designer running duds. Back in the day, my dad's bookie had lived a block down. A simple brick home with a view of the park. Had probably sold for a small fortune to some overpaid thirty-something who'd razed the lot and built a glass-and-stone monstrosity that were all the rage these days.

Iris, to her credit, hadn't gone the razing route. Her single-level home was constructed of concrete in an Art Deco style popular in Denver after the Great Depression. Jack Kerouac, my teenage literary hero 'cause he'd hung out in Denver and chased cool, had referred to a similar concrete building in his book On the Road, an eatery that had the balls to not put the sign "white trade only" in its window.

Cacti, yarrow, and yucca crowded Iris's Xeriscaped yard. A closed one-door garage terminated the empty driveway.

I had an idea. "Pull up to that garage door."

"But there's no trash cans."

"They're probably inside that garage."

"She could be home and her car's in there."

"She's a public defender, which means she works eight to five and is at her office or in court." I motioned for her to drive.

"But...opening that garage door is trespassing, right? Isn't that a felony?"

"Misdemeanor."

"Not a felony?"

"Only if we kill someone while opening the door. Now, either you drive up that driveway, or I'm jumping out of this car, jogging up there, and checking if that garage door opens. If it does, meet me down the block in ten."

I opened my door a few inches.

Muttering something about idiots intent on more jail time, she jammed her foot on the gas. The Durango jerked down the driveway, then stopped abruptly. After killing the engine, she began yanking on one of her leather gloves. "With two of us grabbing that stuff, this will go twice as fast."

We got out of the car, careful to shut our doors quietly, and headed to the garage door. I lifted the handle. It rumbled and creaked as I lifted it three, four feet-enough for Laura and I to slip underneath.

Seconds later, we stood in the shadowy room, inhaling the stench of oil and mildew as our eyes adjusted to the bulky shadows.

"She's a packrat," Laura muttered.

The light from underneath the garage door cast bluish shadows on stacks of crates and boxes crammed against the walls, leaving barely enough room for a car to park.

"Trash cans at ten o'clock," I said, pointing to several barrel-shaped containers.

We hustled over, set the lids on the ground, and were lifting out plastic bags when Laura stifled a gasp.

"What?"

"To our right," she whispered.

I turned. My gut shriveled.

Four green eyes, about three feet high, stared at us in silence. From their bulk, the sheen off their short hair, and the massive heads, I guessed them to be mastiffs. Had to be pushing a hundred and fifty pounds each, a fact I knew from a case where my client had been attacked by one, resulting in fifty stitches and a funny gait. Of all the memories I'd lost, hell of a one to remember.

They must have entered from some gargantuan doggie door after hearing us in the garage, but why hadn't they yapped at us like normal, over-zealous dogs protecting their property? Their silence was more foreboding than any crazed barking.

One pair of green eyes blinked.

The other set, followed by a bulky mass of bad, stepped forward.

 

 ... continued ...

 

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