Read an Excerpt
A Fatal Romance
A Twin Sisters Mystery
By June Shaw
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 June Shaw
All rights reserved.
I stood in a rear pew as a petite woman in red stepped into the church carrying an urn and stumbled. She fell forward. Her urn bounced. Its top popped open, and ashes flew. A man's remains were escaping.
"Oh, no!" people cried.
"Jingle bells," I hummed and tried to control my disorder but could not. Words from the song spewed out of my mouth.
"Not now," my twin Eve said at my ear while ashes sprinkled around us like falling gray snow. She pointed to my jacket's sleeve and open pocket. "Uh-oh. Parts of him fell in there."
I saw a few drops like dust on the sleeve and jerked my pocket wider open. Powdery bits lay across the tissue I'd blotted my beige lipstick with right before coming inside St. Gertrude's. "I think that's tissue residue," I said, wanting to convince myself. I grabbed the pocket to turn it inside out.
"Don't dump that." Eve shoved on my pocket. "It might be his leg. Or bits of his private parts."
"Here comes Santa Claus," I sang.
She slapped a hand over my mouth. "Hush, Sunny."
The dead man's wife shoved up from her stomach to her knees, head spinning toward me so fast I feared she'd get whiplash.
"Sorry," Eve told her. "My sister can't help it."
Beyond the wife a sixtyish priest, younger one, and other people appeared squeamish scooping coarse ashes off seats of the rough-hewn pews. An older version of the wife used a broom and dustpan to sweep ash from the floor. People dumped their findings back into the urn. Other mourners scooted from the church through side doors. A boiled crayfish scent teased my nostrils. Someone must have peeled a few crustaceans for a breakfast omelet and didn't soap her hands well enough.
Ashes scattered along the worn green carpet like a seed trail to entice birds.
"Look, there's more of him. I'll go find a vacuum," I said.
The widow faced me. "No! Get out."
"But she's my sister," Eve said.
"As if I can't tell. You leave with her. Go away." The petite woman wobbled on shiny stilettos, aiming a finger toward the front door.
I sympathized with her before this minute. Now she was ticking me off. I'd been kicked out of places before, but never a funeral. "I didn't really know your husband, but Eve did. I stopped to see if she wanted to go out for lunch, and she asked me to come here first. She said y'all were nice people."
"We are!" The roots of the wife's pecan-brown hair were black, I saw, standing toe-to-toe with her, although my toes were much bigger inside my size ten pumps. I was five eight and a half. She was barely five feet. Five feisty feet. "But you're not going to suck up parts of my husband's body in a vacuum bag." She whipped her pointed finger toward me like a weapon. "And you need to stop singing."
I wanted to stop but imagined parts of the man that might be sucked into a vacuum cleaner and ripped out a loud chorus, my face burning. Nearby mourners appeared shocked. Mouths dropped open.
"You don't know my sister," Eve told the little woman who'd just lost a spouse. Actually, lost him twice. "Sunny can't help singing when she's afraid. And that includes anything dealing with sex, courtesy of her ex-husband."
"What does sex have to do with Zane?" The wife's cheeks flamed.
Should I tell her about his privates possibly being in my pocket? Second thoughts said not to. "Who knows? But you don't need to worry. I certainly wasn't having an affair with your husband," I said, quieting my song to a hum.
"Just the thought of sex makes her sing," my sister explained. "Maybe it's a good thing she doesn't think of it often."
The widow shook her finger. "Zane was always faithful to me."
"I'm sure he was," I said, working to get my singing instincts under control. Nodding toward the carpet, I spoke without a hint of a tune. "I'd really like to help you get those pieces of him out of the rug. If we can just find an empty vacuum bag, I'll —"
"Go! Get away!"
I stomped out of the church into muggy spring air. Eve clopped behind me toward her Lexus in the parking lot.
"You told me they were fine people," I said.
"They are. At least he is. Or was." Eve shook her head, making sunshine spread golden highlights over her flame-red waves. Her clear blue eyes sparkled. I was glad few people could tell us apart. "I only met his wife that day I laid their pavers, and Zane stayed and helped a little. When she got home, he introduced us. She seemed pleasant."
"I guess you never know."
"Good grief, Sunny. You kept singing after she spilled her husband."
I lowered my face toward the chipped sidewalk.
Eve touched my arm. "I know, but maybe you can try harder."
I nodded. She knew how long I'd fought to stop the songs that began when a major tragedy threw my life into an unending tailspin. Junior high had been especially painful.
At the next corner, we waited for a truck to pass. I checked my sleeve in the sunshine, relieved that if any ashes had been there, the breeze had blown them off to a better place. "There weren't many people in church."
Eve frowned. She started across the street. "They've lived here less than three years and don't have much family. Zane's job kept him out of town a lot. When he joined our line-dance class, he said his wife was shy and didn't like to dance anyway."
"I don't think she's shy. I think she was involved in his death."
"What?" Eve stopped. "The man drowned. It was an accident."
I spread my hands. "In his own yard? Why didn't he fall in that pond before now?"
"Because this week he tripped on a cypress knee near the job we did in their yard and knocked his head on the tree and fell in. He couldn't swim. And you don't even know his wife."
No, neither she nor her husband had been home when we created that seating area in their yard. I tugged on Eve's arm to get her across the street so oncoming cars waiting for us could turn.
She kept talking. "Darn it, Daria Snelling might not be the sweetest person right after her husband's ashes flew to the heavens, but that doesn't make her a killer."
"Eve, you know I have good instincts about people. And covers on burial urns are sealed. They aren't supposed to come off." I created a mental picture of what happened. "Besides, she was walking along carpet. There weren't any bumps for her to trip over."
My twin's face pinched up. Not a pretty picture. "How do you know that?"
"Her shoes. When the organ music started and everyone turned to look back, I noticed her shoes."
"I can't believe this, Sunny. You aren't usually that shallow." She stomped off ahead of me.
I strolled faster behind. "You know I can't even pronounce the brands of expensive shoes. I saw she was tiny but looked extra tall, so I glanced at her shoes. Her heels must be four inches. That's really showy for a grieving widow."
"Wearing stilettos make her a murderer?"
"And a bright red dress. Red?" I caught up with Eve. "I think she wanted to dump her husband so his remains couldn't all be buried together."
She threw up her palms. "You are so sick. The man was my friend."
"Geez, you worked for him briefly and saw him a couple of times in dance class."
"That doesn't give you the right to cut down his family."
"And if you hadn't made that dig about my unhappiness with sex, his wife wouldn't have gotten so upset."
Eve knew my limited experience with sex had come with Kev soon after our marriage. If I'd known how unpleasant one man could make the quick chore, I would have started chuckling in bed much sooner. Eve and I were both divorced — she, three times, her choice — and her admiring exes still showered her with gifts. Kevin left me with little and did so after my spontaneous laughter about frightening things escalated to include sex. But he made the intimacy so unpleasant I had begun to dread it.
Watching my sister, I saw myself a little slimmer, wearing dressier clothes and an unpleasant grimace. At thirty-eight, she was fairly attractive in a black knit top and skirt, emerald green jacket, and spike heels. I wore low heels and tan slacks with a white shirt and my favorite jacket, a rust-colored silk. With a pocket that now held parts of Zane Snelling.
"Sis," I said, "do you see any ashes in my hair? Or on my sleeve or other places on my clothes?"
She did a quick inspection of my hair and looked longer at my clothes, while I did the same to her. "I don't see anything anymore." She checked inside my pocket. "Except in there."
"You're clean," I said, voice dull from knowing I still wore parts of a man. I slid my jacket off and carefully folded it, not letting anything escape.
Eve wrenched her car door open and flung herself inside. I slid onto the passenger seat. "Buckle up." She waited until I did before pulling onto the street.
"Do you want to go out for lunch?" I asked.
"My stomach's too upset. I'm going to change clothes and hit the gym."
Positive news came to mind. "Anna Tabor wants us to give her a price to replace the picture window in her den with a glass block one." It wasn't much of a job, but we were still pleased with every one that came in.
"Why does she want that?"
"She said it would be unusual and attractive. I'll do the estimate this evening."
"Okay. I'll check your work tomorrow, and we'll schedule her in."
I nodded. Our deceased father had been an excellent carpenter who made us enjoy working with our hands. We'd done quite a bit of work with him and liked changing the design of some of his jobs. Ever since I convinced Eve to join me to start Twin Sisters Remodeling & Repairs months ago, we were gradually building up our name and earning people's trust. We were both strong and knew how to use subcontractors and power tools. So far my estimates all turned out correct. Still, being dyslexic made me want all written work and numbers double-checked. Early struggles and some teachers' hurtful comments made me still doubt myself.
Most of the sugar cane stalks in fields Eve drove past stood three feet tall. On the opposite side of the highway, the brown bayou lazed along, shielding gators, turtles, catfish, and other water creatures. We sped by shotgun houses dotted between brick homes in our small town of Sugar Ledge and entered our subdivision. Houses were brick and stucco and most of the lawns well-tended, especially on Eve's street. She reached her house, remoted the garage door, and pulled in.
"I shouldn't have snapped at you. I'm sorry," she said.
I leaned over and kissed her forehead like Mom used to do to let us know anytime we were forgiven. "To make amends, can I see what you're working on?"
She considered a minute, then led the way through her picture-book house. The lingering fragrance from vanilla triple-scented candles made me want yellow cake. The spacious den held large windows and pale neutral shades, its main color from Mexican floor tile and Eve's muted-tone abstracts, which I determined she painted when she was between dating or marriage.
She kept most of her home with a colorless feel like a blank canvas, letting her imagination soar. Pulling a key from the second drawer of an end table beside the white marshmallow-leather sofa, she unlocked a door off the den.
Shell-shocked. Her studio made me feel that way even more so than usual. While the rest of her house gave off a bland feel, this room was infused with color, especially on a huge canvas on an easel in the center of the room. Splashes of color and bright dots of varying sizes filled almost every inch of the canvas.
"Intriguing," I said. "Who does it represent?"
"Dave Price. That man is terrific."
"I can tell. Y'all must have an explosive relationship."
"I only know him casually. Of course I'm planning to change that." Her grin widened. "This is how I'm expecting our relationship to become."
The other dozen or so paintings on easels and standing on the floor represented men she'd dated or married. Some wore drab shades. A couple of canvases showed small vases. Others held crudely-drawn flowers or apples. She wasn't a proficient artist, but while our business grew, this gave her something to do with extra time besides line dancing once a week and working out at the gym. She didn't get to see her daughter in Houston often enough. A sex therapist would enjoy analyzing what she did in here.
"Thanks for letting me see your latest work. Sorry about the funeral ruckus."
"You didn't cause it." The fair skin between her eyes creased. "I'd like to know what happened after we left the church."
I'd prefer to know what really happened to the dead man before we went there. "Maybe you'll find out. See you later." I locked the stained-glass front door on my way out.
Ambling alongside her taupe stucco house, I paused in back to admire the fountain burbling on her patio. Inside it, a stone angel poured bleach-scented water. Again, I wished the fountain held live fish instead of the almost real-looking plastic gold ones. Angling through the little grass path between the yards behind her house, I passed a dog-eared cedar fence on the right and white solid vinyl fence panels on the left. Then I stepped across the next street, which was mine. Yards and cars here were less fancy than on hers. A couple of clunkers sat in circular drives. Even the air smelled less pure.
"Your petunias still look good," I told Miss Hawthorne, kneeling beside the purple blossoms lining the concrete path to her front stoop.
"Thank you. Oh, Sunny, look. The girdle you sold me still works great. Two years old and still holding me in." She struggled up to her feet. Miss Hawthorne was probably older than my mother and didn't like help. She'd insisted on a girdle, not that newer stuff she said was smaller than her gloves, and bought it from me while I still worked at Fancy Ladies, our town's only upscale dress shop. I'd needed to quit that job since I had developed excruciating heel spurs that wouldn't get better until I stopped standing all day every day, and surgery wouldn't correct them.
The top of Miss Hawthorne's plump face hid beneath the wide floppy brim of her straw hat, which didn't hide her pleasant smile. Dirt tumbled off the knees of her slacks. The girdle pushed her stomach up and made the thick roll above her waist more pronounced through her knit shirt. I'd learned to notice details while I fitted ladies with undergarments and determined she had gained fifteen pounds since I sold her that girdle.
"You look good, Miss Hawthorne. But next time you're at Fancy Ladies, you might check out the newer styles. You could find a control panty or shaper that's more comfortable."
"Oh no, hon, this works just fine."
"Good. I'll see you later." I strolled off, pleased to know her smile finally returned after her misery because a relative's pet she had been keeping escaped from her fenced backyard.
A couple of houses to the left, I reached mine, a gray brick with a darker gray stucco entrance. I entered, experiencing the same stir of unpleasant emotions as every other time I returned from Eve's. My place was pleasant, yet now felt like it held too much clutter, even if there wasn't much extra. The house even smelled dull. I plugged in a vanilla-scented air freshener.
Standing beneath the foyer light, I yanked my jacket pocket wide open. Course grayish bits of a man lay inside. I strode to my kitchen trashcan and stepped on the pedal to pop it open, ready to turn my pocket inside out.
No, that wouldn't be right. I let the can's top close. Where else might I put these powdery flakes? I couldn't dump them in my yard or even think of flushing them.
This was part of a person that needed to be treated with respect. I hung the jacket in the foyer, grabbed a phonebook, and looked up a number, relieved to find the person listed. I punched in numerals and listened to the phone ring. A click sounded.
"Snelling residence," a woman said. "We can't get to the phone now, but we will return your call as soon as we're home if you leave your number." Daria Snelling sounded much more pleasant on the machine than she had in church.
I hitched up my chin and tried to sound cheerful. "Hello, Mrs. Snelling. This is the tall redhead who blurted a song this morning at St. Gertrude's. I'm sorry I sang and really sorry about your husband." I cleared my throat. "I called to tell you I have something of his. I'm sure it's something you'll want." I gave my number in case she didn't have caller I.D. and hung up.
Excerpted from A Fatal Romance by June Shaw. Copyright © 2016 June Shaw. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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