Now in the center ring... murder!
Newly-minted private detective Charlotte Morgan, resident orphan of the Pineapple Port 55+ community, discovers she might not be an orphan after all. Stunned by the news, she distracts herself with a cat burglar who left a smear of make-upped whiskers on a sliding glass door, and a path straight to "Clown Town" a retirement community for retired circus performers. When a fortune-teller doesn't see her own death in the cards, Charlotte's burglary becomes a murder investigation!
Charlotte's neighborhood moms, Mariska and Darla, can't help with this one. They're busy infiltrating an underground golf cart racing ring, led by a shady operator and her toady sidekick...
When another circus performer falls victim to the Big Top Killer and Stephanie goes missing, Charlotte finds herself walking a highwire of danger...this killer isn't clowning around!
WARNING! Fans of the series will be particularly shocked by the breathless ending! (though every book can be read as a standalone).
Pineapple Port Mysteries by Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling author Amy Vansant, is a funny, clean, and gore-free small-town, female amateur sleuth series, but with all the pulse-pounding excitement of a detective thriller.
Release date: September 2, 2021
Publisher: Vansant Creations
Print pages: 257
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Pineapple Circus: A Pineapple Port Mystery: Book Thirteen
by Amy Vansant
©2021 by Amy Vansant. All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form, by any means, without the permission of the author. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Vansant Creations, LLC / Amy Vansant
Baroness von Chilling took her heart medication and tugged at the nightdress pinching her middle. The cat she’d adopted during her tenure working in the Boudreaux & Bo's Family Circus’ fortune-teller’s tent lay curled on her bed.
Kitty purred as she approached her.
Breathless, Baroness sat resting, preparing for the effort it would take to swing her dry-skinned, dimpled legs beneath the sheets. A sharp clacking noise, something like tiny plastic boulders bouncing down a metal mountain, clattered in the adjacent room.
I thought I turned off the ice maker...
She enjoyed the open feel of her small modular home in The Big Top fifty-five-plus community for retired circus performers, but every noise could be heard everywhere. In her opinion, whoever dreamed up open plan deserved to be burned at the stake.
Whenever she complained, neighbors suggested she close her bedroom door.
As if she hadn’t thought of that.
If she closed her bedroom door, Kitty scratched and howled to get out. If she opened it, the cat went right back to bed. They’d been playing this game since they first met.
Baroness pushed away from the bed, steadied herself on her arthritic feet and shuffled toward the kitchen, hips aching. A lot of good the clairvoyance gift she’d inherited from her mother had done her. If she could have predicted the pains in her eighty-six-year-old joints, she would have put stones in her pockets and walked into the sea at seventy-two.
A voice spoke in the darkness.
Von Chilling gasped and wobbled on her feet, reaching out to steady herself on the back of the sofa.
It wasn’t the ice.
A shadowy figure stood inside her front door, large and triangle-shaped. It took her milky eyes a minute to adjust before she realized the intruder wore robes.
She recognized the stars and moons she’d Bedazzled on the dark fabric decades ago.
“Who are you?” she asked, pointing with a crooked finger. “Be gone before I curse you for eternity.” She used her scariest voice, one heavy with portent and husky with seventy years of smoking. A Romanian accent dripped from every word, though she’d grown up in Newark, New Jersey.
The figure took a few steps forward into the light cast by the moon through her skylight.
“You know me?”
She squinted. “No. Who—”
More of the face slipped into the glow cast by the streetlights outside her kitchen window.
I do know that face.
“What are you doing?” she demanded to know, convinced no answer could make her feel more at ease.
The figure spoke again.
“How’s it feel to be judged?”
Baroness turned to run. Hands fell on her shoulders before she’d taken two shuffling steps. Fingers tightened around her throat. She collapsed beneath the weight of her attacker, who rolled her onto her back, pinning her to the ground.
With a knee on her chest, Baroness couldn’t breathe. She squirmed to free herself. She clawed at the thumbs pressing at her windpipe.
The irony of her sudden urge to live wasn’t lost on her.
It was almost funny.
As the darkness closed in around her, she shifted her attention to the bedroom.
Kitty was nowhere to be seen.
The creature she’d saved couldn’t be bothered to do the same for her.
The fingers around Baroness’ throat released, and she took a gasping breath. From beneath the robes, her attacker produced a crystal ball—her crystal ball—and held it above her skull.
The intruder spoke as the crystal ball raised higher.
“Not so powerful now, are you, Baroness?”
Abby, Charlotte’s soft-coated Wheaten terrier, was the first to see the truck pull up to Charlotte’s house. She barked once, and Charlotte jogged from the kitchen to the window, stopping only to set a small platter of crackers, cheese, and pepperoni on the living room table.
She peered through her curtains, trying hard not to look like a lunatic.
At the curb, a woman and a man sat in a truck, talking.
Her mysterious Aunt Siofra “Shee” McQueen had arrived.
Shee had called a day before to arrange a visit, but Charlotte didn’t mind the impromptu nature of the self-invite. She couldn’t be any more excited. Shee was her only link to her parents and a life she barely remembered. She’d been young when her father died in an accident. She’d lost her mother later to cancer. After that, she’d been shipped to her grandmother Estelle’s modular home in the fifty-five-plus community of Pineapple Port, only to have her grandmother die soon after that.
Even with all that tragedy she’d been lucky. The community raised her, mothering spearheaded by the neighbor across the street, Mariska.
She couldn’t have asked for a better substitute mother to raise her. Thanks to Pineapple Port, she had a family larger than most.
Still...to find out she had blood relatives left...
She was excited.
In addition to meeting Siofra, she’d discovered her grandfather Mick was still alive, though he lay in a coma on the opposite side of Florida.
Shee was the only speaking link to her past.
From what she could divine from the brief time she’d spent working a kidnapping case with Siofra in Jupiter Beach, her aunt was a certified badass. She didn’t know the whole story but hoped to learn from her. Anything Shee shared could only enhance her own burgeoning private investigation skills.
Charlotte watched her visitors through the window, giggly with anticipation.
Get out of the truck...
The couple sat.
Is that her?
The woman in the passenger seat looked like Shee, but who was driving? She hadn’t said someone else was coming. Was it Mick, her grandfather? Was he better?
The woman glanced at the house.
Okay. That’s definitely Shee.
She could see enough to tell the driver was a man, a big one, but little else.
Charlotte looked at her watch.
They’d been sitting in the truck for five minutes.
She heard a click and watched, enthralled, as the couple climbed out of the truck and started toward the house.
Squelching a squeal of excitement, Charlotte placed herself behind the door.
They’d reached the stoop. She heard them talking outside.
Minutes went by.
Charlotte opened the front to find her aunt standing there, her fist raised to knock.
“Hi,” she said.
She bent to grip Abby’s collar, pulling the curious dog back to make room as she unlatched the screen door.
Shee smiled and glanced at her big friend.
“After you,” said the man.
The couple walked inside, navigating the excited terrier. Charlotte scrambled for something to say. She motioned to the dog.
“This is Abby.”
I sound like an idiot.
She eyeballed the man. Handsome, probably Shee’s age—he was built like someone who’d spent a long time doing things that required strength. She nearly asked him if he were an actor, but she suspected even an action-star wouldn’t radiate with such genuine toughness. He smelled good and looked well-groomed, but his visible scars belied a life not spent in the lap of luxury.
She thrust an open palm toward him. “I’m Charlotte.”
He stared at her hand as if he wasn’t sure what it was.
“I’m sorry, this is Mason,” said Shee, bumping him with her elbow.
He seemed to awake from a trance. “Hi,” he said, smiling and shaking her hand.
Charlotte motioned to the sofa. “Have a seat. Can I get you something to drink? Iced tea? Water?” The dog’s attention shifted to the pepperoni on the platter and Charlotte pushed her away with her leg.
Shee mumbled something she didn’t hear.
“Iced tea would be great,” said Mason.
Charlotte flashed a smile and slipped into the kitchen. Sliding the iced tea from the fridge, she took a deep breath.
Why am I so nervous?
She realized she really wanted her aunt to like her. No—more than that—she wanted her to respect her as a fellow crime solver. She wasn’t sure what Shee was—she could be CIA for all she knew—but she had skills.
She took another second to let her heartbeat slow and then toted the teas to the living room. Abby sat beside Mason, getting pets beneath his own giant paw.
“We’re kind of in brunch territory, so I put out this stuff,” Charlotte said, nodding at the plate of crackers. “If you’d prefer something more breakfasty—”
“No, this is fine,” said Shee.
Charlotte placed the glasses on the living room table her boyfriend, Declan, had given her from his pawn shop. She looked around the room. All her furniture was from the pawn shop.
Can they tell?
Charlotte realized Mason was staring at her, his jaw cracked open. Unsettled, she looked to Shee and noticed for the first time the bruises on her aunt’s face. One eye was blackened, and she had a smattering of small cuts on her face and arms.
How did I miss that?
“What happened?” she asked, gesturing to her aunt’s face.
Shee’s hand fluttered to her bruises. “Oh. Little car accident.”
“Oh no, are you okay?”
She nodded. “Air bag did more damage than anything else.”
“So, to what do I owe the visit?” Charlotte asked. “How are things at the Loggerhead?”
“Good...” Shee jumped in her seat. “Oh, Mick—your grandfather—he’s awake. Out of the coma.”
Charlotte gasped. “He is? Oh, that’s great.”
“Yeah, I’m sorry. I should have told you sooner...”
“Is that why you came?”
“To let me know?” Charlotte glanced at Mason.
He was still staring.
She couldn’t put her finger on his expression. It wasn’t wolfish. He seemed...stunned.
Shee put her hand on his knee. “Um, yes and no. We have something else we have to tell you...”
Mason cleared his throat and nodded. “We do.”
“We do,” echoed Shee. “There’s no easy way to say this, so I’m just going to do it.”
OMG. It hit Charlotte where this was going. Her grandfather had awoken, but something else was wrong.
“Is he okay?” she asked.
Shee seemed confused. “Who? Mason? Sure. He’s just—”
Charlotte shook her head. “No, Mick.”
“Oh. He’s fine. Sorry, I can see how you thought that’s where I was going. It’s not him—”
“I’m your father,” blurted Mason.
Charlotte looked at the giant, certain she’d misheard him.
“What?” she asked.
He hooked a thumb at Shee. “She’s your mother.”
“What?” Charlotte followed his gesture to watch Shee close her eyes.
A laugh spat from Charlotte’s lips. She felt her shoulders un-bunch a notch.
I get it. They’re kidding me.
She was about to speak when she noticed the look on Shee’s face. It seemed awfully serious for a person in the middle of a joke.
“This isn’t exactly how I had this planned...” Shee glared in Mason’s direction. “But it’s true. We’re your parents.”
Charlotte blinked at them.
Shee continued. “I found out I was pregnant with you right before he was deployed—”
“I didn’t know,” said Mason. “I’m in the Navy. Was. Was in the Navy.”
Shee squeezed his leg. “Anyway, my sister Grace couldn’t have a baby and I wasn’t ready, so I gave you to her—”
Her mother’s name was Grace.
She’s not kidding.
“I didn’t know,” said Mason again.
Charlotte looked at him.
Shee plowed on. “When Grace died, I was in hiding, so I couldn’t take you back. Someone was after me, and it would have been too dangerous. Long story. Anyway, Mick gave you to Estelle—”
“I didn’t know,” said Mason.
“She’s got it,” snapped Shee.
Charlotte heard her grandmother’s name, and everything became even more real to her. All the facts were right. The story checked out.
This can’t be happening.
Mason cleared his throat.
Shee took a deep breath. “You grew up here. You know that part. I stayed in hiding. We just stopped the guy who was after me and now I’m here—”
“We’re here,” said Mason. “I just found out about you. Like a week ago.”
Charlotte looked at him. Somehow, his repetition had broken through her shock.
“You didn’t even know I existed?” she asked.
He shook his head.
She looked back at Shee. “Why didn’t you tell him?”
Shee stared at her, much the way Mason had earlier—jaw slack.
Shee closed her mouth. “Um, at first, I was afraid the news would distract him. Get him killed. Then, after a while, I guess it just felt like it was too late.”
Charlotte found herself speechless.
“It’s not like he could have taken you instead of Estelle,” Shee added.
Mason sniffed. “I don’t know, maybe if someone had offered me the chance—”
“This was a better option.” Shee growled the words.
Shee took a deep breath and turned her attention back to Charlotte. “I know this is a lot to digest.”
Charlotte nodded and said the sentence repeating in her head.
“You’re my parents.”
Shee and Mason both nodded.
Charlotte stood. She wanted to run. She needed to process. She wanted them to leave, but she wanted them to stay—
“I actually have to be somewhere,” she said. She didn’t, but the words came out of her mouth anyway. “But maybe we could have dinner or something?”
Shee and Mason both jumped to their feet.
“Absolutely. Our treat. You pick the place,” said Shee.
Charlotte bit her lip. It felt as if she had locusts buzzing in her brain, under her skin—
Dinner. Arrange the dinner. I eat dinner. I eat dinner with—
That was it. She needed her people around her to help buffer everything.
“Could I bring a few people?” she asked. “There are people I’d like you to meet. People who raised me, and my boyfriend...”
“Absolutely,” said Shee. “Anyone. Everyone.”
“Absolutely,” echoed Mason. “Anyone.”
Charlotte nodded. “Okay. Maybe around five?” She offered them a sheepish smile. “We eat kind of early around here.”
“Sounds good.” Shee pushed Mason out from behind the table.
Charlotte walked behind them as they moved to the door.
They’re leaving. What if they run? What if I never see them again?
“Wait,” she said.
The couple turned.
Charlotte opened her arms and moved in for a hug. Shee did the same, gripping her.
“Charlotte...” she said.
Okay. Too much. Move on.
Charlotte released her mother to hug Mason. When she stepped back from him, Mason put the side of his fist against his lips and looked away.
Shee jumped ahead to open the door and then spun on her heel to turn back, her shoulder bouncing off Mason’s chest as he shadowed her too closely.
“We’ll see you tonight,” said Shee, glowering at Mason, who flashed a quick, awkward smile.
Charlotte nodded. “Okay. See you tonight.”
“Bye,” they said in unison as they exited.
Charlotte waved and then shut the door, unsure if her heart was beating so fast she could no longer feel the individual thumps, or if it had stopped altogether.
What just happened?
She leaned her back against the wall, sliding until her butt hit the floor.
Abby licked her face. She put her arms around the dog and squeezed, staring at the opposite wall, her whole body vibrating with nerves.
After a minute, she released the terrier, clambered to her feet and glanced at her watch.
Dinner with my parents at five.
She had seven hours to find some way to distance herself intact from the train that had just hit her.
Pineapple Port’s orphan had parents.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amy Vansant is a Wall Street Journal and USA Today best-selling author who writes with an unique blend of thrills, romance and humor.
Books by Amy Vansant
Pineapple Port Mysteries
Funny, clean & full of unforgettable characters
Shee McQueen Mystery-Thrillers
Action-packed, fun romantic mystery-thrillers
Kilty Urban Fantasy/Romantic Suspense
Action-packed romantic suspense/urban fantasy
Slightly Romantic Comedies
Classic romantic romps
Have you read book one?
A Pineapple Port Mystery: Book One – By Amy Vansant
Charlotte jumped, her paintbrush flinging a flurry of black paint droplets across her face. She shuddered and placed her free hand over her heart.
“Darla, you scared me to death.”
“Sorry, Sweetpea, your door was open.”
“Sorry,” echoed Mariska, following close on Darla’s heels.
Charlotte added another stroke of black to her wall and balanced her brush on the edge of the paint can. Standing, her knees cracked a twenty-one-gun salute. She was only twenty-six years old, but had always suffered bad knees. She didn’t mind. Growing up in a fifty-five-plus retirement community, her creaky joints provided something to complain about when the locals swapped war stories about pacemakers and hip replacements. Nobody liked to miss out on that kind of fun.
Charlotte wiped the paint from her forehead with the back of her hand.
“Unlocked and open are not the same thing, ladies. What if I had a gentleman caller?”
Darla burst into laughter, the gold chain dangling from her hot-pink-rimmed glasses swinging. She sobered beneath the weight of Charlotte’s unamused glare. Another pair of plastic-rimmed glasses sat perched like a baby bird on her head, tucked into a nest of champagne-blonde curls.
“Did you lose your other glasses again?” asked Charlotte.
“I did. They’ll turn up.”
Charlotte nodded and tapped the top of her head. “I’m sure.”
Darla’s hand shot to her head.
“Oh, there you go. See? I told you they’d show up.”
Mariska moved closer, nudging Darla out of the way. She threw out her arms, her breezy cotton tunic draping like aqua butterfly wings.
“Morning hug,” she demanded.
Charlotte rolled her eyes and relented. Mariska wrapped her in a bear hug, and she sank into the woman’s snuggly, Polish-grandmother’s body. It was like sitting in a favorite old sofa, rife with missing springs, and then being eaten by it.
“Okay. Can’t breathe,” said Charlotte.
“I’m wearing the top you bought me for Christmas,” Mariska mumbled in Charlotte’s ear as she rocked her back and forth.
“I saw that.”
“It’s very comfortable.”
“This isn’t. I can’t breathe. Did I mention that? We’re good. Okay there…”
Mariska released Charlotte and stepped back, her face awash with satisfaction. She turned and looked at the wall, scratching her cheek with flowered, enameled nails as she studied Charlotte’s painting project.
“What are you doing there? Painting your wall black? Are you depressed?”
Charlotte sighed. Darla and Mariska were inseparable; if one wasn’t offering an opinion, the other was picking up the slack.
“You’re not turning into one of those dopey Goth kids now, are you?” asked Darla.
“No, it has nothing to do with my mood. It’s chalkboard paint. I’m making this strip of wall into a giant chalkboard.”
“Why?” Darla asked, her thick, Kentucky accent adding syllables to places the word why had never considered having them. Her mouth twisted and her brow lowered. Charlotte couldn’t tell if she disapproved, was confused, or suffering a sharp gas pain. Not one guess was more likely than any other.
“Because I think I figured out my problem,” she said.
Darla cackled. “Oh, this oughta be good. You have any coffee left?”
“In the kitchen.”
Darla and Mariska lined up and waddled toward the kitchen like a pair of baby ducks following their mama. Mariska inspected several mugs in the cabinet above the coffee machine and, finding one, put it aside. She handed Darla another. Mariska’s mug of choice was the one she’d given Charlotte after a trip to Colorado’s Pikes Peak. She’d bought the mug for herself, but after Charlotte laughed and explained the double entendre of the slogan emblazoned on the side, I Got High on Pikes Peak, she’d thrust it at her, horrified. Mariska remained proud of her fourteen thousand foot spiraling drive to the peak however, so she clandestinely drank from the offending mug whenever she visited.
Charlotte watched as she read the side of the mug, expelled a deep sigh, and poured her coffee. That heartbreaking look was why she hadn’t broached the subject of Mariska’s I Got Baked in Florida t-shirt.
The open-plan home allowed the two older women to watch Charlotte as she returned to painting the wall between her pantry door and living area.
“So are you pregnant?” Darla asked. “And after this you’re painting the nursery?”
“Ah, no. That’s not even funny.”
“You’re the youngest woman in Pineapple Port. You’re our only hope for a baby. How can you toss aside the hopes and dreams of three hundred enthusiastic, if rickety, babysitters?”
“I don’t think I’m the youngest woman here anymore. I think Charlie Collins is taking his wife to the prom next week.”
Darla laughed before punctuating her cackle with a grunt of disapproval.
“Stupid men,” she muttered.
Charlotte whisked away the last spot of neutral cream paint with her brush, completing her wall. She turned to find Mariska staring, her thin, over-plucked eyebrows sitting high on her forehead as she awaited the answer to the mystery of the chalkboard wall.
“So you’re going to keep your grocery list on the wall?” asked Mariska. “That’s very clever.”
“Not exactly. Lately, I’ve been asking myself, what’s missing from my life?”
Darla tilted her head. “A man. Duh.”
“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, last week it hit me.”
Darla paused, mug nearly to her lips, waiting for Charlotte to continue.
“What hit you? A chalkboard wall?” asked Mariska.
Charlotte shook her head. “No, a purpose. I need to figure out what I want to be. My life is missing purpose.”
Darla rolled her eyes. “Oh, is that all? I think they had that on sale at Target last weekend. Probably still is.”
Charlotte chuckled and busied herself resealing the paint can.
Mariska inspected Charlotte’s handiwork. “So you’re going to take up painting? I’ll take a chalkboard wall. I can write Bob messages and make lists…”
“I’ll paint your wall if you like, but starting a painting business isn’t my purpose. The wall is so I can make a to-do list.”
Darla sighed. “I have a to-do list, but it only has one thing on it: Keep breathing.”
“I’m going to make goals and write them here,” said Charlotte, gesturing like a game show hostess to best display her wall. “When I accomplish something, I get to cross it off. See? I already completed one project; that’s how I know it works.”
There was a knock on the door and Charlotte’s gaze swiveled to the front of the house. Her soft-coated wheaten terrier, Abby, burst out of the bedroom and stood behind the door, barking.
“You forgot to open your blinds this morning,” said Mariska.
“Death Squad,” mumbled Darla.
The Death Squad patrolled the Pineapple Port retirement community every morning. If the six-woman troop passed a home showing no activity by ten a.m., they knocked on the door and demanded proof of life. They pretended to visit on other business, asking if the homeowner would be attending this meeting or that bake sale, but everyone knew the Squad was there to check if someone died overnight. Odds were slim that Charlotte wouldn’t make it through an evening, but the Squad didn’t make exceptions.
Charlotte held Abby’s collar and opened the door.
“Oh, hi, Charlotte,” said a small woman in a purple t-shirt. “We were just—”
“I’m alive, Ginny. Have a good walk.”
Charlotte closed the door. She opened her blinds and peeked out. Several of the Death Squad ladies waved to her as they resumed their march. Abby stood on the sofa and thrust her head through the blinds, her nub of a tail waving back at them at high speed.
Mariska turned and dumped her remaining coffee into the sink, rinsed the purple mug, and with one last longing glance at the Pikes Peak logo, put it in the dishwasher. She placed her hands on her ample hips and faced Charlotte.
“Do you have chalk?”
She’d been annoyed at herself all morning for forgetting chalk and resented having it brought to her attention. “I forgot it.”
Darla motioned to the black wall. “Well, there’s your first item. Buy chalk. Write that down.”
“Oh. Good point.”
“Anyhow, shopping lists don’t count,” said Charlotte.
Darla chuckled. “Oh, there are rules. The chalkboard has rules, Mariska.”
Mariska pursed her lips and nodded. “Very serious.”
“Well, I may not have a chalkboard, but I have a wonderful sense of purpose,” said Darla putting her own mug in the dishwasher.
“Oh yes? What’s that?”
“I’ve got to pick up Frank’s special ED pills.”
She stepped over the plastic drop cloth beneath the painted wall and headed for the door.
“ED?” Charlotte blushed. “You mean for his—”
“Erectile Dysfunction. Pooped Peepee. Droopy D—”
“Got it,” said Charlotte, cutting her short.
“Fine. But these pills are special. Want to know why?”
“Not in the least.”
Mariska began to giggle and Darla grinned.
“She’s horrible,” Mariska whispered as she walked by Charlotte.
Darla reached into her pocketbook and pulled out a small plastic bottle. She handed it to Charlotte.
“Read the label.”
Charlotte looked at the side of the pill bottle. The label held the usual array of medical information, but the date was two years past due.
“He only gets them once every two years?”
“Nope. He only got them once. Ever since then I’ve been refilling the bottle with little blue sleeping pills. Any time he gets the urge, he takes one, and an hour later, he’s sound asleep. When he wakes up, I tell him everything was wonderful.”
Charlotte’s jaw dropped. “That’s terrible.”
Darla dismissed her with a wave and put the bottle back in her purse.
“Nah,” she said, opening the front door. “I don’t have time for that nonsense. If I’m in the mood, I give him one from the original prescription.”
Darla and Mariska patted Abby on the head, waved goodbye and stepped into the Florida sun.
Charlotte shut the door behind them and balled her drop cloth of sliced trash bags. She rinsed her brush and carried the paint can to the work shed in her backyard. On her way back to the house, she surveyed her neglected yard. A large pile of broken concrete sat in the corner awaiting pickup. As part of her new life with purpose policy, Charlotte had hired a company to jackhammer part of her concrete patio in order to provide room for a garden. The original paved yard left little room for plants. With the patio removed, Charlotte could add grow a garden to her chalkboard wall. Maybe she was supposed to be a gardener or work with the earth. She didn’t feel particularly earthy, but who knew?
She huffed, mentally kicking herself again for forgetting to buy chalk.
Her rocky new patch of sand didn’t inspire confidence. It in no way resembled the dark, healthy soil she saw in her neighbors’ more successful gardens. Charlotte returned to the shed to grab a spade and cushion for her knees, before kneeling at the corner of her new strip of dirt. It was cool outside; the perfect time of day to pluck the stray bits of concrete from the ground before the Florida sun became unbearable. She knew she didn’t like sweating, so gardening was probably not her calling. Still, she was determined to give everything a chance. She’d clean her new garden, shower, and then run out to buy topsoil, plants and chalk.
“Tomatoes, cucumbers…” Charlotte mumbled to herself, mentally making a list of plants she needed to buy. Or seeds? Should I buy seeds or plants? Plants. Less chance of failure starting with mature plants; though if they died, that would be even more embarrassing.
Charlotte’s spade struck a large stone and she removed it, tossing it toward the pile of broken concrete. A scratching noise caught her attention and she looked up to find her neighbor’s Cairn terrier, Katie, furiously digging beside her. Part of the fence had been broken or chewed, and stocky little Katie visited whenever life in her own backyard became too tedious.
Charlotte watched the dirt fly: “Katie, you’re making a mess. If you want to help, pick up stones and move them out of the garden.”
Katie stopped digging long enough to stare with her large brown eyes. At least Charlotte thought the dog was staring at her. She had a lazy eye that made it difficult to tell.
“Move the rocks,” Charlotte repeated, demonstrating the process with her spade. “Stop making a mess or I’ll let Abby out and then you’ll be in trouble.”
Katie ignored her and resumed digging, sand arcing behind her, piling against the fence.
“You better watch it, missy, or the next item on the list will be to fix the fence.”
Katie eyeballed her again, her crooked bottom teeth jutting from her mouth. She looked like a furry can opener.
“Fix your face.”
Katie snorted a spray of snot and returned to digging.
Charlotte removed several bits of concrete and then shifted her kneepad a few feet closer to Katie. She saw a flash of white and felt something settle against her hand. Katie sat beside her, tail wagging, tongue lolling from the left side of her mouth. Between the dog and her hand sat the prize Katie had been so determined to unearth.
Charlotte froze, one word repeating in her mind, picking up pace until it was an unintelligible crescendo of nonsense.
Skull. Skull skull skullskullskullskuuuuulllll…
She blinked, certain that when she opened her eyes the object would have taken its proper shape as a rock or pile of sand.
The eye sockets stared back at her.
Hi. Nice to meet you. I’m human skull. What’s up, girl?
The lower jaw was missing. The cranium was nearly as large as Katie and a similar off-white color, though the skull had better teeth.
Charlotte realized the forehead of this boney intruder rested against her pinky. She whipped her hand away. The skull rocked toward her, as if in pursuit, and she scrambled back as it rolled in her direction, slow and relentless as a movie mummy. Katie ran after the skull and pounced on it, stopping its progress.
Charlotte put her hand on her chest, breathing heavily.
Her brain raced to process the meaning of a human head in her backyard.
It has to be a joke… maybe some weird dog toy…
Charlotte gently tapped the skull with her shovel. It didn’t feel like cloth or rawhide. It made a sharp-yet-thuddy noise, just the sort of sound she suspected a human skull might make. If she had to compare the tone to something, it would be the sound of a girl about to freak out, tapping a metal shovel on a human skull.
“Oh, Katie. What did you find?”
The question increased Katie’s rate of tail wag. She yipped and ran back to the hole she’d dug, retrieving the lower jaw.
“Oh no… Stop that. You sick little—”
Katie stood, human jawbone clenched in her teeth, tail wagging so furiously that Charlotte thought she might lift off like a chubby little helicopter. The terrier spun and skittered through the fence back to her own yard, dragging her prize in tow. The jawbone stuck in the fence for a moment, but Katie wrestled it through and disappeared into her yard.
“Katie no,” said Charlotte, reaching toward the retreating dog. “Katie—I’m pretty sure that has to stay with the head.”
She leaned forward and nearly touched the jawless skull before yanking away her hand.
Whose head is in my garden?
She felt her eyes grow wider, like pancake batter poured in a pan.
Hold the phone.
Heads usually come attached to bodies.
Were there more bones?
What was worse? Finding a whole skeleton or finding only a head?
Charlotte hoped the rest of the body lay nearby, and then shook her head at the oddity of the wish.
She glanced around her plot of dirt and realized she might be kneeling in a whole graveyard. More bones. More heads. She scrambled to her feet and dropped her shovel.
Charlotte glanced at her house, back to where her chalkboard wall waited patiently.
She really needed some chalk.
The Sheriff’s deputies allowed Charlotte to stay in her home while they oversaw the removal of human remains from her garden; the garden she now lovingly referred to as The Garden Never to be Touched Again. It wasn’t as catchy as The Garden of Eatin’; the nickname one couple in Pineapple Port had dubbed their screened-in porch area, but it would have to do. It was still better than lanai. Everyone in Pineapple Port had a lanai. Outside of Hawaii, calling a porch a lanai smacked of Sun Belt snobbery. As if Florida sun porches were more exotic than those in Maryland or Vermont. Maybe they are. Her fellow Floridians could grow palm trees and dwarf fruit trees in their southern porches. Maybe it was okay to call a porch a lanai. I mean if it makes everyone happy…
Charlotte rubbed her eyes.
No wonder I never get anything done. I spend time thinking about the dumbest things. A human head was sitting in her garden and all she could think about was whether she had the right to call a porch a lanai.
Priorities, Charlotte, priorities.
Outside, two young deputies stood in drab tan uniforms watching the dig with little interest. Frank Marshall, Darla’s husband and the Manatee County Sheriff, stood beside the diggers, clearly wishing he could be anywhere but standing in the Florida sun watching nerds excavate a body one brushstroke at a time. Whenever Charlotte trotted water to the crowd in her backyard, Frank released an exasperated sigh that conveyed his deep preference for ice-cold beer. When she offered him a bottle, he glanced at his young companions and declined.
“I couldn’t possibly have a bottle on duty Charlotte,” he said, retrieving a handkerchief to swab his sweaty forehead. “Not a bottle this early.”
Frank tilted his head and peered at her from beneath his brow, encouraging a second guess.
Charlotte considered the emphasis Frank had put on the word bottle.
She popped back into the house, poured the bottle of beer into a coffee mug, and returned.
“How about coffee?” she asked, handing Frank the mug.
“Oh, sure,” he said, glancing at the younger officers. “I would love some coffee.”
“It’s good, I grind the beans myself.”
“Do you, now?”
“They have a nutty, almost hoppy taste, don’t you think?”
Frank glared at her. “Mm,” he grunted, taking a sip. “You should probably go back in. I don’t want you contaminating the scene.”
She grinned and went back inside. Abby barked as she entered and ran toward the front of the house. Charlotte followed her.
“What is it girl? Is Timmy down the well?”
The police had stretched a length of yellow crime tape across Charlotte’s front gate and a line of chattering neighbors stretched from one side to the other. The police might as well have sat in the front yard with a bullhorn screaming, “Scene of the crime! Come see the scene of the crime!” Like sharks to blood, the people of Pineapple Port smelled gossip fodder from miles away.
Charlotte wasn’t only the youngest resident of Pineapple Port, she was the most famous. Growing up in a retirement community made her the local oddity. If she purchased a different brand of coffee, within two hours, the whole neighborhood knew. Crime tape was overkill.
She’d moved to Pineapple Port with her grandmother, Estelle, at age eleven, following her mother’s death. Estelle died nine months later. Mariska and Darla were her grandmother’s best friends, and they conspired with Darla’s husband Sherriff Frank, and Pineapple Port’s founders, Penny and George Sambrooke, to allow Charlotte to remain in her grandmother’s home. She spent most of her time at Mariska’s, until her teens, when she officially moved back into her grandmother’s home. Though she lived alone, she had everyone in the community as foster parents, with Mariska and Bob, who lived directly across the street, as primary caregivers.
Growing up in a fifty-five-plus community had pros and cons. The con was having endless other nosey grandmothers watching her every move. The pro was access to golf carts. Everyone in the neighborhood had a cart, some quite fancy. Access to souped-up golf carts was a child’s fantasy, and as a child, she’d dreamed of becoming a professional golf cart racer. She’d been horrified to discover there was no such thing. All other career options paled in comparison.
As an adult the pros and cons of living in the Port shifted. The neighborhood scrutiny contributed to her lackluster love life. That was a huge con. The one time a man spent the evening at her home, she’d been greeted by winks or scowls by nearly everyone in the neighborhood the following day. In retrospect, she wished she’d worn a t-shirt that said, He got to second base and then slept on the sofa.
On the pro side, she never wanted for jams, jellies or crocheted items of any kind. People without an endless supply of homemade jelly really didn’t know what they were missing.
Charlotte returned to her kitchen and watched them dig, drinking the rest of Frank’s beer from her own coffee mug to calm her nerves. The Sheriff wasn’t the only one trying to avoid scrutiny. Frank looked through the window and she held up her mug in cheers. He reciprocated.
As they enjoyed their beers, the forensic team removed and labeled each part of a skeleton. Charlotte watched a tech dust and place what looked like a toe bone into a baggie. She took another sip from her mug.
“I’m her mother.”
Charlotte’s head swiveled toward her front door. She heard arguing. She recognized one voice as that of the female officer guarding her front door. The woman had a terrible demeanor, and her sharp bark was undeniable. The other voices sounded more familiar, particularly the one claiming to be her mother.
She drained her mug.
Charlotte walked to the front door to find Darla and Mariska on her porch, their faces twisted in agitation. From the conversation, she deduced the two were attempting to gain entry by claiming to be her mother and grandmother, but they’d forgotten to agree upon who would play which role, and neither wanted to be the grandmother.
“So, you’re both her mother?” asked the officer. “Or you’re both her grandmother?”
Charlotte opened her door just as two other neighbors, Penny and Bettie, joined Mariska and Darla on her stoop.
“Charlotte, dear,” said Mariska. “I was so worried for you. What’s going on? Tell Mama.”
Darla glared at Mariska.
“What’s going on?” asked Penny. “I demand to know what’s going on.”
Charlotte knew she’d have to tell Penny everything. Pineapple Port’s matriarch ruled all the important committees and planned all the events worth attending. Those who disappointed her were doomed to a lifetime of weak bridge partners.
“Your grandmother and I are very worried,” said Darla, stepping on Mariska’s toe.
Behind the three louder women stood five-foot-nothing Bettie “Bettie Giraffe” Dahl, adorned in her trademark giraffe-print blouse.
“Hi Bettie, you’re back,” Charlotte said, unsurprised to see her. Bettie had no permanent place of residence. She visited friends until it was time to hop to the next host home, and appeared in Pineapple Port two or three times a year.
Bettie waved. “You look beautiful, Charlotte.”
Bettie never had a bad word to say about anyone, didn’t mind if other people did all the talking and her obsession with giraffes made holiday shopping for her a breeze. Her collection of friends was no mystery.
The officer turned to Charlotte, her thumbs hooked in her belt and her demeanor hovering somewhere between annoyed and simmering volcano. She was clearly a woman of many moods, all of them variations of cranky.
“Two of your mothers are here,” said the officer. “Should I be on the lookout for any more?”
Charlotte shook her head and stepped outside, leading her four visitors away from the door and toward the crime-taped gate.
“What’s going on?” asked Mariska, as Charlotte half-beckoned, half-dragged her away from her front door. She herded the three instigators until they arrived on the edge of her property, as far from the officer as possible. Bettie, Charlotte knew, would follow wherever the others went.
“Are you okay?” asked Darla. “There’s tape everywhere. We thought you were murdered.”
“I’m fine. I was going to call you, but they showed up so fast I didn’t get a chance. Did you read the tape?” Charlotte pointed to the yellow strips draped across her gate. “It says, Do Not Cross.”
“It’s on the fence,” said Penny, punctuating her comment with a sniff. She had a sniff for every emotion, from a level one Not Really Listening to You to a level ten Fury. This was a about a two: Don’t Waste my Time. “They didn’t go across your door with it. It’s a mixed message at best and a fine symbol of their infinite incompetence.”
Charlotte paused, waiting for a level five Why is Everyone so Stupid? but Penny instead chose a well-timed hair flip, which, according to the body-language thesaurus, landed somewhere between a sniff and an eye-roll.
“We didn’t cross the tape,” said Darla.
“We didn’t cross it,” echoed Penny.
“I didn’t cross it,” said Bettie. She looked at Charlotte with large brown eyes. “I didn’t, did I?”
Charlotte smiled and patted Bettie on the shoulder.
“No, you didn’t cross it, Bettie. None of you did. But we need to disperse this crowd. You’d think Justin Bieber was throwing a concert in my backyard.”
“Who?” asked Penny.
“Oh, he’s that awful Canadian kid,” said Darla. “Needs a good kick in the pants.”
“But what’s going on?” asked Mariska again.
Charlotte looked around to be sure no one but her immediate crowd stood within hearing distance.
“After you two left this morning I went to work on my garden and found bones.”
Charlotte said found bones in a dramatic whisper. She didn’t mean to; the word bones just inspired drama.
Mariska’s eyes grew wide as silver dollar pancakes (one of the dollar-fifty specials at the local diner, half-price on John F. Kennedy’s birthday.) Charlotte knew all the deals in town. She didn’t mean to; she just naturally absorbed that sort of information living in the Port. Coupons, promotions and deals made up twenty percent of local small talk. Fifty percent was medical related; the remaining thirty was a mixture of bragging about grandkids, disapproval, gossip and recipes.
“Whaddya mean, bones?” asked Darla.
“Dog bones?” asked Bettie.
Bless her heart.
“Well, it was Franny’s Cairn who did the actual finding, but no, human bones. Definitely human bones. A skull, to be exact.”
All four women put their hands to their mouths, except Penny, who put her hands on her hips and cocked her head hard enough to send her short bob haircut swinging.
Charlotte shrugged. “It’s true.”
“There was a body in your yard?” asked Bettie. “A whole body?”
“No skin or clothes, just bones, but yes. When they removed the concrete for my garden, the bones were underneath. They’re old. The police and some forensic guys are back there processing the scene.”
“Ooh, is Frank there?” asked Darla. “I’ll get the whole story from him.”
“He’s there. He isn’t happy about it, but he’s there with two other officers.”
“Two policemen?” asked Bettie, touching her hair. Bettie was an incorrigible flirt.
“Did they bag and tag him yet?” asked Darla.
Darla watched an inordinate number of crime shows. Charlotte could see she was giddy at the opportunity to use her crime slang. Telling food store employees to bag and tag a sack of potatoes just wasn’t as satisfying.
“Are you a person of interest?” asked Penny.
Charlotte realized the local gossip mill would have her labeled as an escaped convict/serial killer before Jeopardy! aired that evening. Even sharing what facts she could would spare her little in the imaginations of bored retirees.
“From what I’ve overheard, the bones are at least ten years old,” Charlotte said, taking a moment to make eye contact with each of the women, except Bettie, who had already lost interest and was watching a Blue Jay hop around the azalea bushes.
“And I can promise you they’re at least fifteen years old, because that cement has been there since my grandmother moved in. When I was eleven. I didn’t kill anyone and tunnel them under my grandmother’s porch like some kind of psychotic Lord of the Rings dwarf.”
Penny squinted at her, her expression cold. “You were always a precocious child.”
“Is it a man or a woman? What age?” asked Darla.
“I hope it isn’t a child,” said Mariska.
“I think I heard one of the nerds say the bones were female, but to be honest, I’m not sure. I can tell you the skull was a normal adult size.”
“Oh, that’s good,” said Mariska. “I mean, not good, but better.”
“Do you think we all have bodies in our yards?” asked Darla, glancing down the street toward her own house as if it were a party guest she’d just found lurking near her good jewelry.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” said Penny. “This land was nothing but swamp when George and I expanded Pineapple Port, not a grave site.”
“I told you not to build this place on an Indian burial ground,” said Charlotte.
Mariska gasped. “What? It was?”
“I’m just kidding. Poltergeist reference.”
The women stared at her with blank expressions.
“You know… Little girl gets sucked into the TV? Their house was built on an Indian—”
“Precocious,” muttered Penny.
Charlotte sighed. “Look, never mind. Bottom line is I don’t know much yet, but I’ll tell you everything when I find out. You all go home and let me do the snooping. Maybe if you leave, some of these others will wander off.”
Charlotte watched a woman slowly pass her house, Dachshund in tow. It was the tenth time she’d passed by and the stubby-legged dog looked tired. One more circle and the poor thing would be dragging behind her like a deflated party balloon.
None of the women moved.
“Hello?” said Charlotte. “Did any of you hear me?”
Darla and Penny remained planted on the sidewalk just outside Charlotte’s gate, trapped in a contest to see who could purse their lips more tightly. Bettie’s attention wandered down the block, and Charlotte followed her gaze to find a tall, athletic-built man headed in their direction. He had dark hair; not shaggy, but long enough that Charlotte suspected it took real effort to keep it so perfectly in place. As he neared, his mouth curled into the sort of charming grin that could melt the icing off the ladies’ best church bazaar cupcakes.
He made eye contact with each woman, spending no more or less time on each, and then glanced at the yellow tape half-heartedly hugging Charlotte’s picket fence.
“This must be the place,” he said.
The four women watched, silent, as the young man slipped past them and walked toward the stoop. The grim keeper of Charlotte’s doorstep turned toward him as he approached, preparing for battle.
Good luck with her.
After a short conversation, the officer stepped aside and allowed the tall stranger to enter her home, her dour puss replaced by two rows of teeth arranged in the shape of a genuine smile.
She giggled as he passed.
Charlotte would have bet money the woman had never giggled in her life.
Noticing eight eyes upon her, the officer’s face collapsed like window blinds, shifting back to her usual mask of disapproval. She crossed her arms over her chest. Charlotte wondered if the officer had just given her home to the dark-haired man and now planned to keep her out while he redecorated.
“Who the hell was that?” Charlotte said aloud, not expecting an answer.
Darla, Penny and Mariska all answered in unison.
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The Girl Who Wants
A Shee McQueen Mystery-Thriller by Amy Vansant
Three Weeks Ago, Nashua, New Hampshire.
Shee realized her mistake the moment her feet left the grass.
She’d watched him drop from the side window of the house. He landed four feet from where she stood, and still, her brain refused to register the warning signs. The nose, big and lumpy as breadfruit, the forehead some beach town could use as a jetty if they buried him to his neck...
His knees bent to absorb his weight and her brain thought, got you.
Her brain couldn’t be bothered with simple math: Giant, plus Shee, equals Pain.
Instead, she jumped to tackle him, dangling airborne as his knees straightened and the pet the rabbit bastard stood to his full height.
The math added up pretty quickly after that.
Hovering like Superman mid-flight, there wasn’t much she could do to change her disastrous trajectory. She’d felt like a superhero when she left the ground. Now, she felt more like a Canada goose staring into the propellers of Captain Sully’s Airbus A320.
She might take down the plane, but it was going to hurt.
Frankenjerk turned toward her at the same moment she plowed into him. She clamped her arms around his waist like a little girl hugging a redwood. Lurch returned the embrace, twisting her to the ground. Her back hit the dirt and air burst from her lungs like a double shotgun blast.
Wheezing, she punched upward, striking Beardless Hagrid in the throat.
That didn’t go over well.
Grabbing her shoulder with one hand, Dickasaurus flipped her on her stomach like a sausage link, slipped his hand under her chin and pressed his forearm against her windpipe.
The only air she’d gulped before he cut her supply stank of damp armpit. He’d tucked her cranium in his arm crotch, much like the famous noggin-less horseman once held his severed head. Fireworks exploded in the dark behind her eyes.
That’s when a thought occurred to her.
I haven’t been home in fifteen years.
What if she died in Gigantor’s armpit? Would her father even know?
Has it really been that long?
Flopping like a landed fish, she forced her assailant to adjust his hold and sucked a breath as she flipped on her back. Spittle glistened on his lips, his brow furrowed as if she’d asked him to read a paragraph of big-boy words.
His nostrils flared like the Holland Tunnel.
There’s an idea.
Making a V with her fingers, Shee thrust upward, stabbing into his nose, straining to reach his tiny brain.
Goliath roared. Jerking back, he grabbed her arm to unplug her fingers from his nose socket. She whipped away her limb before he had a good grip, fearing he’d snap her bones with his Godzilla paws.
Kneeling before her, he clamped both hands over his face, cursing as blood seeped from behind his fingers.
Shee’s gaze didn’t linger on that mess. Her focus fell to his crotch, hovering a foot above her feet, protected by nothing but a thin pair of oversized sweatpants.
Scrambled eggs, sir?
Shee scuttled back like a crab, found her feet and snatched her gun from her side. The gun she should have pulled before trying to tackle the Empire State Building.
“Move a muscle and I’ll aerate you,” she said. She always liked that line.
The golem growled, but remained on the ground like a good dog, cradling his family jewels.
Shee’s partner in this manhunt, a local cop easier on the eyes than he was useful, rounded the corner and drew his own weapon.
She smiled and holstered the gun he’d lent her. Unknowingly.
“Glad you could make it.”
Her portion of the operation accomplished, she headed toward the car as more officers swarmed the scene.
“Shee, where are you going?” called the cop.
She stopped and turned.
“Home, I think.”
His gaze dropped to her hip.
“Is that my gun?”
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