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Alex Peres Mystery 5 - Losers, Weepers.docx
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Losers, Weepers

A million dollars…or else!” Shortly after beautiful, slightly wild, 17-year old Zoe Catlett shocks her family with the news she is a lesbian, they receive a phone call demanding her ransom. Zoe’s stepmother is convinced the “kidnapping” is a ploy. Zoe’s father has plenty of money, but Zoe wants to go to acting school, not the Ivy League institution he has picked out. Even so, it might not have been wise to tell the threatening caller, We don't have a million dollars handy, so I'm afraid you'll just have to keep her. It’s the more sensible grandmother of the missing girl who contacts Private Detective Alex Peres for help. Alex no sooner takes up the case when a dear friend’s death leaves her with another mystery on her hands. Names and family secrets between the two cases overlap, as do plenty of people with motive for mayhem—and maybe even murder. No longer convinced her friend’s death was suicide, Alex finds herself neck-deep in a complex and emotionally draining web of danger and deceit. Can she solve one case without doing irreparable harm to those involved in the other—and herself?

Chapter 1

So Cindy had left us.

It had been less than an hour, and already the house seemed empty and rather chilly. Strange. Unless I had an early appointment, Cindy left us every morning about this time—Monday through Friday—and I simply poured another cup of coffee and mentally planned my day. Certainly, I did not usually feel bereft and at loose ends, as I did now.

The weather wasn’t helping. Whoever wrote the Chamber of Commerce blurbs would probably have called the slow, endless light rain a romantic mist. I called it a miserable all-day drizzle.

I don’t know what Wells called it. She had disappeared. Probably I would find all twelve pounds of her when I made the bed. If I made the bed. She was now a sleek and lovely black and white cat, but I smiled as I remembered the first time I saw her, as a scrawny, bedraggled, but feisty, little stray. She bopped Fargo on the nose when he asked her to play and then she leaped for the protection of Cindy’s arms—leaving Fargo with wounded nose and pride.

I don’t know what Fargo called the rain, either, but he sighed heavily and flopped into his bed, ninety pounds of dismal dog who knew he would not be going to the beach this day. Fargo was my partner, my pal, my clown, my confessor, my protector against all things bad... a black Labrador with a heart of gold, not steel, but we didn’t worry much about that.

As a puppy, not much larger than Wells is now, he had quickly learned that when loud noises occurred or large cats hissed or strange people seemed to menace . . . the best place for him to protect me was cradled in my arms, and there he leapt, barking shrilly, and there he remained until the situation was resolved to his satisfaction. A fifteen-pound puppy I could handle. A ninety-pound dog usually put me flat on my back in a state of considerable embarrassment, not to mention at considerable disadvantage for any physical encounter.

But we didn’t discuss it much. After all, he never mentioned the time I forgot to set the car brake, and it rolled slowly across old lady Fratos’s flowerbed, onward across Commercial Street and onto the beach, with Fargo in the driver’s seat looking keenly competent. He didn’t rat on me the time I accidentally put laundry soap in the dishwasher, either. So we each had an unflattering secret or two . . . what love affair doesn’t?

My lover Cindy was a different matter. This morning she came into the kitchen, did a little dance step and a brief chorus of “Singin’ in the Rain,” and then asked, “What’s wrong with you two? A mere cloud and drop of rain got you down? Do something constructive. Organize your office, my love. See what all is buried under the cushion in your doggie bed, my other love. And smile.”

I looked over at Fargo and said, “Kill.” But he was too depressed to move. “What are you so happy about?” I asked. “Have you figured out how to get around the security system in the bank?” Cindy was head of Fishermen’s Bank’s Personal Investments and Financial Planning Department. She loved her job, but usually not this much.

“In fact,” I reminded her, “You should be teary-eyed. You are leaving us, aren’t you?”

“Yes, but only till Tuesday, darling. Just think, you and Fargo can live on pizza and Chinese take-away. You don’t have to make the bed, and if you get lonely, you can go cry on Joe’s shoulder at the Wharf Rat Bar.”

“Sounds ghastly,” I muttered untruthfully. Actually, at that point, it didn’t sound all that bad for a day or so.

“Seriously, Alex, I’ll be at work till noon-ish today, then drive down to Providence and back to work Tuesday morning early. I’ll be home after work Tuesday, darling, and I’ll call you tonight.”

Cindy’s brother and his wife—mainly his wife, of course—had just had a new baby. Cindy was going down to take care of their two older children while Pete and Karol got used to their new daughter, named Hillary—either for her paternal grandmother or a U.S. Senator. It sounded like a trip to hell to me, but Cindy was all excited, so I tried to be, too.

“So you’ll have three full days to admire Hillary—with any luck she’ll look more like the senator than like Grandma—and play with Ken and Barbie, uh, I mean Butch and Abby. Have fun. My regards to your family.” I carried Cindy’s bag out to her car while she struggled into her raincoat and said fond farewells to her other darling and to Wells. She came out and we kissed good-bye. She got in the car, turned to me and caroled the ancient Al Jolson song about April showers bringing May flowers.

“It’s September tenth.”

“So it is.” She put the car in gear and pulled away as she bellowed out that never-to-be-forgotten Broadway bit about the sun coming out tomorrow.

I loved her to pieces.

But not enough to turn my office into some pristine executive suite. I knew where everything was—that was what counted. Actually, I was bone-tired. We’d had a bunch of actors living next door for most of the summer, and their antics, added to the murder of two of their number over Labor Day, had left me physically and emotionally a bit drained.

I was glad I had no cases active at the moment. I really wasn’t sure I had the energy. Cases? Oh, I’m a private investigator. I handle mostly insurance fraud. While the majority of tourists spend money on vacation, there are some who try to make a tidy sum by claiming injuries that never really happened. At least not in the way they present it.

They think up clever accidents, cases of unlikely food poisoning, or get “clipped” by cars racing along Commercial Street at three miles an hour. I try to separate the barely possible from the purely frivolous. At other times, I investigate job applicants for local businesses—or current employees who seem to have invented tasty recipes for cooking the books. I look for runaways and occasionally for unfaithful spouses. Although I enjoy neither of the last two activities, they help when it’s time to pay the bills. You get the picture.

Actually, it is pictures that I enjoy the most. My second career is that of nature photography, and I’m getting better at it. Fishermen’s Bank now has several of my photos on display in their conference room. Four of the best galleries in the area now handle my prints—signed and numbered, I’ll have you know. And Fargo and I have a great time on the beach and in the pine or beech woods taking them. Maybe someday I’ll be good enough to switch which career comes first.

I lazily poured a second cup of coffee, tossed Fargo a biscuit and Wells a couple of crunchies. I let my thoughts wander to such deep matters as why the Red Sox can never seem to make it two years in a row. Could there really be a curse? And I wondered how unlikely people such as Andre Agassi manage to make such beautiful farewell speeches with just the right amount of tremor in their voices. Maybe having all that money helps.

At that moment, the doorbell rang, startling all of us. Fargo ran toward the front door with his muted announcement bark, and I followed quickly. Wells peeked around the dining room door. It was early for guests, and I anticipated no bill collectors. But I had the feeling that all three of us were so bored, we’d welcome almost anyone not stark naked and carrying a bloody axe.

As I looked through the glass-paneled door, I saw that the lady standing on our tiny front porch was fully clothed and carried no axe. She did not look in the least threatening. In fact, she looked rather sweet, and I placed my hand lightly on Fargo’s shoulder to quiet him.

My visitor appeared to be around sixty, and was wearing a raincoat, hat and a tentative smile.

I returned the smile as I opened the door. “Good morning. What may I do for you?” She looked vaguely familiar to me, but I could not quite make the connection. Maybe a friend of Aunt Mae’s.

“Good morning, Alex. You may not remember me, but I’m Marie Catlett, your . . .”

“... my fourth-grade teacher. Of course, Mrs. Catlett, please come in. Let me take your coat.”

“Thank you. Alex. Do you have a few minutes to talk to me? I think I am in bad need of your help.”

Nothing like a cheery reunion. “Certainly I have time. How about some coffee and something to nibble on?”

I settled us at our table-for-two in the corner of the dining room, overlooking my bed of rain-drooped asters, cosmos and chrysanthemums. With croissants and coffee served Cindy style—that’s elegantly—I sat down. “Now, let’s see if I can be of help.”

It was not to be a short explanation, and several times I tried to push her along a bit. On the other hand, I figured whatever crisis there was, it was bound to be over by the time she got to explaining it.

“You remember my son, Reed?”

She looked over her rimless glasses at me, waiting for a reply, and for an instant, I felt I was nine years old again. I almost stood up to answer.

“Sure. He’s now an architect here in town, quite successful, too, I believe.” I knew. With all the new buildings and renovations up and down the Cape, the talented Reed Catlett had made a bundle and then some.

Mrs. Catlett sipped her coffee and continued. “He has three wonderful children. Starting with the oldest—Rob is nineteen and on his way to college. Zoe is just seventeen, extremely bright and a real beauty. Zoe is also a handful.” She smiled. “Not a bad girl of course, just . . . adventurous. And then there is Marvin, age fourteen, our scholar with a military bent.”

Where the hell were we going with this? It began to resemble a TV script. “It sounds like a lovely family,” I cooed.

“It is. And naturally, you recall the tragic death of Reed’s wife, Frances, some years back?”

“Uh, yes, surely.” A plane crash. A bus, maybe a train. Something violent, but not criminal.

“Well.” Mrs. Catlett rested in this saga long enough to take a bite of croissant, and I took the opportunity to top off my cup. “They were all just devastated, especially the children, as you would surmise. Reed had his work. His work has always been a passion for him. And at the time, in his grief, he simply threw himself into it. I was around whenever possible. And naturally, we leaned heavily on Mrs. Hengel, the housekeeper/nanny for the kids.”

Naturally. I had a feeling that by the time this tale was told, I would be old enough to need a nanny.

“ . . . evangelical pastor with a little church off Shank Painter Road. So good with runaways, you know.”

I was totally lost. Where had I been? Where had she gone?

“You mean Larry Bartles?” I asked. Surely I wasn’t going to have to tangle with him again.

“Yes. Well, it seems that an old school friend of Mrs. Bartles came to visit and somehow got introduced to Reed at some charity event. It must have been love at first sight, for the next thing you know, Reed and Merrilou were married . . . about six months ago, now.”

“How wonderful for them.” I gushed.

“Possibly. She’s very attractive.” Mrs. Catlett paused, seeming to expect an answer, so I gave her one.

“Ummm,” I said with deep meaning.

“And very southern . . .” Another pause.

“Aha.” I nodded as if that explained everything. Apparently my answers were correct, and she continued.

“But it seems the trouble with the children started with the new marriage. I suppose it’s only natural the children felt some resentment against Merrilou. And I must admit, she doesn’t seem a particularly maternal type who would know to accept that and slowly change it to affection, or at least tolerance.”

“You mean there were quarrels, or unpleasantness?” I asked earnestly, as if I really cared.

“On the contrary. Everyone has been operatically correct.” She mimed a bow and a curtsy from her chair.

“But shortly after the wedding, Rob decided that he is going all the way to the University of Tennessee for his forensic geological studies instead of the University of Massachusetts. It’s so far away, he’ll almost never get home,” she added sadly. “It was then that Marvin shared his absolutely stunning plans to join the Marines at age eighteen and to attend some Marine-oriented boys’ summer camp every year until then.” She sighed and raised her hands as if in supplication.

“And it’s when Zoe announced she is a lesbian.”

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