Read an Excerpt
An Appetite for Murder
“I can’t wait for the next entry in this charming series.”
—New York Times bestselling author
Diane Mott Davidson
“For a true taste of paradise, don’t miss An Appetite for Murder. Lucy Burdette’s first Key West Food Critic Mystery combines a lush, tropical setting, a mysterious murder, and plenty of quirky characters. The victim may not be coming back for seconds, but readers certainly will!”
—Julie Hyzy, national bestselling author of the White House Chef mysteries and Manor House mysteries
KEY LIME PIE TO DIE FOR
As the last of the coffee burbled and sputtered into the pot, I hurried out onto the dock to retrieve Connie’s copy of the Key West Citizen. I smoothed the paper on the café table in the kitchen and sat down for breakfast. Evinrude splayed out on the chair next to me, grooming his gray stripes into their morning order. I took a sip of coffee and almost spit it out when I saw Kristen’s head shot looming from the box on the front page reserved for the crime report.
Kristen Faulkner, a longtime native of Key West, who had plans to open a restaurant on Easter Island and recently launched Key Zest magazine, was discovered dead in the apartment of a friend yesterday morning. Police have questioned several persons of interest in the suspected murder.
My heart sank with a desperate clunk—suddenly the murder felt real, and my so-called involvement, very scary. Feeling queasy, I stopped reading and flipped over to the living section pages. My byline blared: “Key West Confidential: Key Lime Pie to Die For” by Hayley Snow. Could the timing of such a headline have been any worse?
A Key West Food Critic Mystery
AN OBSIDIAN MYSTERY
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First published by Obsidian, an imprint of New American Library, a division of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
First Printing, January 2012
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Copyright © Roberta Isleib, 2012
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For Ang and Chris,
best friends a writer could have
I offer my humble thanks to all the writers and readers who read drafts and drafts of this book and helped me polish every word: Christine Falcone, Angelo Pompano, Cindy Warm, Susan Cerulean, Hallie Ephron, Susan Hubbard, Mike Wiecek, Mary Buckham, and John Brady.
I’m grateful for the help of Martha Hubbard, chef at Louie’s Backyard in Key West, Florida, who talked to me about real life in a kitchen, and for Steve Torrence and Bob Bean from the Key West Police Department for information about police procedure, and for Jonathan Shapiro for details about arrests from the defending lawyer’s point of view. Any mistakes, misinterpretations, and exaggerations are entirely mine! And thanks to Lyn McHugh for listening to all my stories and making suggestions on cleaning. And to all my Guppy pals for ideas about tarot and book titles. Hank Phillippi Ryan deserves the credit for Key Zest.
The food writing conference at the Key West Literary Seminar came at just the right time—thanks to the universe and the organizers for that!
Thanks again to Paige Wheeler and the good folks at Folio Literary Agency for championing this book—and me. And to my editor, Sandy Harding, and the team at NAL for their excellent advice and enthusiastic support.
I thank my pals at Jungle Red Writers, Sisters in Crime, and Mystery Writers of America for their inspiration and friendship. And I’m so grateful for the booksellers and readers who make writing a joy. To my new friends in Key West—thanks for sharing paradise! Please know that all people and places in this book are either figments of my imagination or used fictitiously.
As always, nothing would happen without the love and support of my family, especially John.
“Because the goodness of the ingredients—the fine chocolate, the freshest lemons—seemed like a cover over something larger and darker, and the taste of what was underneath was beginning to push up from the bite.”
“A hot dog or a truffle. Good is good.”
Lots of people think they’d love to eat for a living. Me? I’d kill for it.
Which makes total sense, coming from my family. FTD told my mother to say it with flowers, but she said it with food. Lost a pet? Your job? Your mind? Life always felt better with a serving of Mom’s braised short ribs or red velvet cake in your belly. In my family, we ate when happy or sad, but especially, we ate when we were worried.
The brand-new Key Zest magazine in Key West, Florida, announced a month ago that they were hiring a food critic for their style section. Since my idea of heaven was eating at restaurants and talking about food, I’d do whatever it took to land the job. Whatever. Three review samples and a paragraph on my proposed style as their new food critic were due on Monday. Seven days and counting. So far I had produced nothing. The big goose egg. Call me Hayley Catherine “Procrastination” Snow.
To be fair to me, some of the blockage could be traced to the fact that Kristen Faulkner—my ex’s new girlfriend and the woman whose cream sauce I’d most like to curdle—happened to be the co-owner of Key Zest. What if she judged the restaurants I chose impossibly lowbrow? What if she deleted my application packet the minute it hit her inbox? Or, worst of all, what if I landed the job and had to rub shoulders with her ice-queen highness every day?
My psychologist friend Eric had suggested ever so sweetly that it was time to quit thinking and start eating. Hence, I was hurrying along Olivia Street to meet him for dinner at one of my favorite restaurants on the island, Seven Fish. Of course, I’d left my roommate’s houseboat late because I couldn’t decide what to wear. I winnowed it down to two outfits and asked Evinrude, my gray tiger cat, to choose. Black jeans and a form-fitting white T-shirt with my shin-high, butt-kicking, red cowgirl boots? Or the cute flowered sundress with a cabled hoodie? From his perch on the desk, the cat twitched his tail and said nothing. But I bet Kristen would never go for “cute.” I shimmied into the jeans, scrunched a teaspoon of hair product into my still-damp auburn curls, and set out at a fast clip.
Eric also pointed out not too long ago that I didn’t seem to have the knack for figuring in the time it would take to get somewhere when I made plans. Did I think I would get airlifted from one place to another instead of walking or driving my scooter? I pointed out that if he wanted any friends left, he might want to save his psychoanalysis for his paying customers. But I doubted either of us was going to change.
Tonight was the kind of night that made people pine for Key West if they’d ever spent time here and left, and celebrate the good decision making that brought them if they’d stayed. The small, side-by-side conch-style homes I passed along Olivia Street weren’t fancy, but a fringe of palm trees and pink bougainvillea wound with twinkling white lights made them look like fairy tale material. Add in weather just cool enough for a sweater, the gentle burbling of hidden fountains, and a couple of roosters pecking in the dust alongside the road, and it definitely felt like paradise. My slice of paradise. Light-years from a gray and dreary New Jersey November.
I broke into a trot as I approached the cemetery on the right, its listing, weathered stones protected by the iron bars of the surrounding fence. Despite the fascinating history of the tombs, which I’d heard as I rattled by on a conch tour train when I arrived three months ago, the place spooked me out. Town officials did their best to keep folks out of the cemetery at night, but still, our local paper, the Key West Citizen, reported regular incidents such as headstones being tipped over and encampments of homeless teenagers. Each fluttering shadow made my heart jump.
And then one shadow came to life. I let loose a screech loud enough to be heard all the way to Miami.
“Easy, miss,” said a skinny man in a battered cowboy hat. “Could ya spare some change?”
I knew you weren’t supposed to give money to bums, especially ones that smelled like a day’s worth of drinking, as this guy did. Editorials in the newspaper insisted that only perpetuated the problem. The cowboy moved closer, wheezing his boozy breath and smiling to reveal two missing incisors. My heart thrummed faster and I clutched the strap of my shoulder bag. There but for the grace of some capricious God could have been me.
“I haven’t eaten since yesterday,” he said.
Now I felt sick at the prospect of gorging myself at a nice restaurant while he, drunk or not, went hungry. I dug in my pocket and dropped a crumpled dollar bill and some loose change into his dirty palm, wishing I had more, but that’s all there was. Then I waved off his mumbled thanks and rushed by.
Up ahead on the left-hand side of the street, a cluster of people holding wineglasses milled on the sidewalk in front of an unassuming glass and concrete block building—home of Seven Fish. Eric was already there, wearing his white Oxford shirt and nerd glasses—he would never be late worrying about how to dress because his outfit was always some version of the same thing. He carried two glasses of wine: one red, one white.
“It’s a Spanish Albariño,” he said, handing me the white and pecking me on the cheek. “They’re just clearing our table now.” He snuck a glance at his watch but managed not to mention my lateness. I got the point.
“Brilliant.” I sipped, tasting overtones of apricot and peach. “Hope you’re hungry, because we need to try a lot.”
Which I didn’t have to say because he knew the deal: He was in charge of making the reservations just in case someone might recognize me as a potential food critic (in my dreams) and I’d order for both of us so I could sample a range of their dishes. A dark-haired man swathed in a chest-to-knee white apron called out Eric’s name. We followed him inside, past the four-seater bar to a room no bigger than my houseboat, and plainly furnished, without my roommate’s tendency to tropical upholstery. He deposited us at a tiny table at the far end of the room. I took the seat facing the iron fish sculpture on the back wall so I wouldn’t be distracted with people-watching—or, even worse, absorb their opinions about the food.
Within minutes, the waiter came around and described the specials, including yellowtail in a mild curry sauce and sautéed grouper sushi rolls. I salivated with anticipation like a rat pressing a lever in a psychology experiment. “We’re good to go,” I said, and began to list the dishes I needed to try. “We’ll start with the fish tacos, the grouper rolls, and a small Caesar salad with a crab cake on the side. For the main course, the gentleman will have the chicken with bananas and walnuts”—I grinned as Eric’s face fell—“and I’ll try your special curried yellowtail. And we’ll have a meat loaf for the table.”
“Anything else?” asked the waiter, deadpan.
“Two more glasses of wine. And no bread please.” I smiled and handed him my menu. “Oh, what the heck, add the grilled mahi-mahi with roasted potatoes, too.” He finished writing and swished off toward the kitchen.
Eric leaned forward to whisper, “He has to know something’s up.”
“We could be very, very hungry.” I thought of the cowboy lurking near the cemetery.
Eric excused himself to hit the men’s room. I whipped out my smartphone to check e-mail just in case one of the freelance articles I’d submitted on spec to the Key West Citizen had been accepted. The subject line of the third message down jolted me hard: “Food critic applications due Friday.” The deadline for application packets had been moved up. Staff at Key Zest would only consider those that arrived in the office by five p.m. Friday. Signed by Kristen Faulkner.
My pulse hammered like an overloaded food processor. How could I possibly meet that deadline? Friday was only four days away. This was my first official restaurant visit. I’d counted on having the weekend to write and rewrite and rewrite again, and hope that the paragraph about my so-called style would make a miraculous appearance. Besides, every time I heard or saw Kristen Faulkner’s name, I lost a little confidence.
Eric returned and I thrust the phone at him. “Maybe I should forget the whole thing. It’s too much pressure. It’s a message from the universe saying ‘Just go home.’ It’s—”
“Ridiculous.” He skimmed the message and then squeezed my hand. “Finish this one tonight and you have all week for the rest.”
Eric’s been an optimist for as long as I’ve known him—almost fifteen years since my mother first hired him to babysit me. Even during his awful college years, as he struggled with the realization that he was gay, we stayed friends. He was one of the reasons I had the guts to follow Chad Lutz—a guy I barely knew—to this is-land. Eric would always be there if things got rough. And they had.
I’d met Chad last summer in the “mystery and thriller” section of the New Jersey bookstore where I was stocking shelves. He was picking up the latest Mary Higgins Clark novel—signed by Ms. Clark herself—for his mother. He looked so adorable in his distressed brown leather jacket, flashing his dimples and talking about his mom: I fell for him instantly. And to seal the deal, my tarot card reader back home had predicted a big event in my love life only days earlier. So after some steamy, long-distance back and forth, I moved south to live with him in Key West. We had four sparkling weeks, and five that were a lot less shiny, and then twenty-one days ago, I’d found him in bed with Kristen Faulkner. (But who was counting?) I hadn’t laid eyes on him since.
Two more glasses of wine and the first wave of appetizers arrived. I thanked the universe—and the waiter—for sending food to distract me from my deadline problem and yet one more swell of regret about losing Chad, and we dove in. The fish tacos were divine—no stale Old El Paso–style tortillas here—accompanied by shredded red cabbage and a spicy cilantro salsa. The grouper rolls were even better: a mélange of sweet, fresh fish, buttery avocado, and sauce-absorbing rice, wrapped in a crispy tissue of seaweed. We finished all of them before the Caesar salad was delivered, which I knew a real food critic would never do. A true professional would take a bite of this, a second nibble to confirm impressions, saving space and palate to try all of the dishes. Too late. This stuff was too good. And besides, eating calmed my nerves—and boy, did they need calming.
The server returned to remove our empty plates and then the main courses rolled in. I tasted each, jotting notes on the phone in my lap as I went. Three bites into the meat loaf, I had to unbutton my pants.
The waiter cleared the dishes and invited us to consider dessert. “We have strawberry whipped cream pie in a chocolate graham cracker crust. Or key lime cheesecake. Bananas flambé? That’s on the light side.” He grinned.
“Uncle,” I groaned. “Just the check, please.”
He delivered the bill and Eric paid with the cash I’d given him yesterday. As we stood to leave, the expression on Eric’s face changed from happily sated to disgusted.
“Chad Lutz alert,” he said through gritted teeth. “He’s sitting at the bar. Just walk past him and don’t say a word.”
I gulped, sucked in my stomach, and rebuttoned my pants. There was no way out other than passing right by him. I could say nothing and avoid eye contact, but that would be just what he’d prefer. Was I going to make this comfortable for him? Not a freaking chance. Meek and mild had gotten me nowhere. “Is Kristen at the bar, too?” I asked Eric.
He nodded his head and grimaced. Yup. I snuck a look and saw Chad’s sandy hair leaning into Kristen’s, nearly white blond. Then I rolled my shoulders like a boxer facing the ring and barreled toward the exit.
“How’re ya doing?” I asked Chad, clapping him on his sculpted shoulder and squeezing. His muscles tightened under my fingers. “Long time no see.”
“Hello, Hayley.” He kept his gaze pinned on the mirror behind the bar, but he couldn’t avoid me in its reflection. I was glad I’d worn the tight jeans and the red boots—he hated those boots. He thought they made me look like a tough from Trenton, which I interpreted as meaning sexy to the point of scary. Besides that, they added two inches to my five foot four. Even so, if Kristen stood up, I’d look like a shrimp in comparison. A slightly chunky crustacean, after the meal we’d just devoured.
“Hello, Kristen,” I said, in a voice like molasses—treacly sweet with a little bite underneath. “This is my good friend Eric Altman.” Kristen tucked a strand of glossy hair behind her ear, revealing the mother of all diamond earrings. Then she flashed a cool smile at Eric, but said nothing to me.
“Nice to see you,” said Chad.
Eric poked me in the back—time to move on. But I wasn’t quite ready.
“I saw the deadline for the food critic application has been moved up.” I barely recognized my voice, squeaky and high. “Mine will definitely be in the Key Zest inbox by Friday.”
Kristen still looked at Eric, that phony smile frozen on her face. “We have some excellent applicants,” she said after a pause. “We’re not encouraging amateurs without significant experience to waste their time.”
Eric grabbed my hand and pulled me toward the door.
“Enjoy your meal,” I warbled over my shoulder. “We recommend the crab cakes.”
Which we didn’t. They had a larger ratio of cake to crab than I preferred.
But I got a prick of guilty pleasure imagining Kristen ordering the only ho-hum item on the menu. Pathetic.
“All it really takes to be a restaurant critic is a good appetite.”
—A. J. Liebling
My plans for writing up the first review had flown out the window after seeing Chad and Kristen in the restaurant. Instead I’d gone home with Eric and shared a third glass of wine with him and his partner, Bill. I needed the company to distract me from running the emotional script of the meeting over and over like a lousy sitcom—the helplessness, the outrage, the impotence. A million things I could have said to Kristen and I chose crab cakes?
But this morning I regretted the headache and the looming deadline. With my roommate, Connie, off to work early, I had no excuse for not pounding out the article. I poured a second cup of coffee and retreated to my tiny bedroom to work. Evinrude dozed on the bed, whiskers twitching and motor running.
As I settled at the desk, the cat quit purring and his ears stiffened to alert. I got up and peered out of the porthole. No one there.
Evinrude and I certainly hadn’t planned to end up living on a houseboat in Key West, but my freshman-year college roommate, Connie, took us in when Chad left me in his dust, just like Dad left Mom. Except Chad had my stuff packed up and put out in the hall literally hours after I found him with Kristen—like I was the one who’d been caught cheating.
Sometimes living on a boat turned out not to be as idyllic as we’d imagined. Every sound carried on the water, from the sloshing of the Garrison Bight to random voices to the traffic on the causeway, ferrying tourists to their alcohol-infused oblivion in the tackiest bars on Duval Street.
Last night, my bed provided a front-row seat to the Renharts’ squabbling on the next boat over. Money was tight and he hated the way she squandered it, and she insisted if he’d try the tiniest bit harder he might find a job that stood a chance of covering the bills. And so they spiraled off as he reminded her it was Key West, and the economy sucked and there were more people panting for every job opening than anyplace else on earth. Because everyone wanted to live in paradise—and wasn’t it a damn shame that this was what paradise came down to—a shrieking wife on a stinking tub.
Then she cried because he’d gone too far—which drove him nuts, so the make-up sex ensued, the details of which no one outside the couple really wanted to hear. I had trouble looking them in the eye this morning when I went out for the paper. And besides, all that reminded a girl who’d been recently dumped of exactly what she was missing.
I dragged my mind away from that personal sinkhole and back to my computer, staring at the blank screen that should have held the draft of my first review. Food criticism has had a tradition of showing the restaurant’s setting, which made sense to me. People wanted to know what they were in for—how comfortable they’d feel spending their hard-earned bucks. I could start there.
After you’ve turned off Duval and stumbled four blocks down one-way, residential Olivia Street, you’ll come upon knots of hungry would-be diners sipping wine on the sidewalk. You’ve reached your destination: Seven Fish Restaurant. But don’t be put off by that unusual introduction—once the first bite of dinner melts in your mouth, you’ll never mistake Seven Fish for a Duval Street tourist trap. Inside, the decor is bare-bones and the room is always packed and loud enough to make your eardrums vibrate (my kingdom for a few yards of noise-absorbing fabric on the ceiling), but those quibbles shouldn’t keep you from a delightful meal.
I stopped writing, struck with a jolt of terror about describing the restaurant as “loud.” This was one of my favorite places: Would they refuse to serve me the next time I came in? Would my review turn away customers and ruin their business?
Eric had reminded me sixteen thousand times that I couldn’t worry about these things if I wanted the job. So I scrolled through the notes I’d taken last night until I reached the appetizers—in my book, the best part of any meal. I began to salivate as I pictured the attributes of the sautéed grouper roll, and wrote all of them down.
My stomach rumbling, I got up and went to the galley kitchen to rustle up a snack. I could already spot the downside of food writing—I’d spend my days hovering in a constant state of starvation while describing what I’d eaten the night before. Possibly even be forced to join a gym or take up jogging in order to combat my expanding waistline. But I’d be willing to do all that and more to land this job.
A small plate of olive fougasse bread and garlicky cheese spread in hand, I returned to my desk to try to capture Seven Fish’s main dishes in the twenty-five words I had left. How to deftly tackle my mixed feelings about ordering meat loaf or chicken (even with bananas and caramelized walnuts and even if they were outstanding) in a restaurant featuring “fish” in the name?
Evinrude startled again, caroming off the bed and onto my lap. And this time even I heard the hollow thud of footsteps coming down the dock. The clunking stopped and the houseboat rocked on its mooring. Someone had stepped off the wooden planks and onto the boat. Even a landlubber like me knew that climbing aboard someone’s craft without permission was considered extremely poor maritime etiquette.
The intruder rapped sharply on the door. I rolled the indignant cat off my lap and edged into the living room. Outside the flimsy scratched plastic of the front door, located along the starboard side of the boat, a uniformed cop was poised to knock again. A tall man in a tweed blazer stood just behind him, my roommate’s houseplants jutting up around him like a tropical jungle. I straightened my Seven Fish T-shirt over my cutoff sweatpants and crossed the room to crack open the door.
“Are you Miss Hayley Catherine Snow?” the cop asked.
I preferred “Ms.” to “Miss,” but this was not the time to make a correction. I nodded.
“I’m Officer Torrence and this is Detective Bransford. We’d like you to come down to the station.”
“The police station?” I asked, my mouth dry and my knees wobbling. Police had this effect on me though I’ve never committed a criminal action. Except for that speeding forty-five in a twenty-five school zone ticket five years ago, and didn’t everyone have one of those? “For what reason?”
The two men, Torrence, dark and heavyset, and what-was-his-name . . . Bransford, tall and broad-chested, exchanged glances. Bransford tipped his chin. Despite my rattled nerves, I noticed its pronounced and sexy cleft.
“We have some questions about the death of Kristen Faulkner.”
Charles Barkley’s weight loss secret: “If it tastes good, I spit it out.”
After a short back-and-forth on the dock next to my houseboat, the cops agreed to let me change into jeans and a decent shirt, and I agreed to accept their offer of a ride the few blocks to the police station and then back home when we’d finished chatting. I spent my first five minutes ever in the backseat of a cop car trying not to think about who’d been there before me and why they’d been arrested. And what kind of DNA might have been left behind.
And then I wondered what the heck could have happened to Kristen. Surely they wouldn’t need my opinion on a heart attack or a motor vehicle accident. Which left something worse . . . Oh, Lord, I might have said some snarky things about the fact that she stole my boyfriend, but I didn’t hate her enough to wish her dead. Not by a long shot. I told myself there had to be a perfectly good reason the officers wanted to talk to me at the station, rather than at home on the boat.
Detective Bransford parked the car and strode toward the station, while Officer Torrence came around to my side of the cruiser to open the door like a well-trained valet. I hopped out, trying to suppress my jangling nerves, and followed him past an ugly tiled fountain that appeared to be out of commission and then past the public records office, which was designed like the pickup window in a takeout restaurant. Key West residents do as much as possible outdoors and the records department seemed to be no exception. Torrence held the main door open and ushered me inside the pink cement building.
Here the color scheme changed abruptly from soft pinks to a hideous greenish blue. Mental hospital blue, I couldn’t help thinking. The same hue that had covered the walls of the hospital room where my mother took her breather after Dad moved out when I was ten. Not a good memory to have as I worked to keep myself calm.
We shuffled onto an elevator at the back of the building and rode to the second floor. Detective Bransford and another man were waiting in a small room down the right hall. With a lurch in my stomach, I recognized Chief Ron Barnes from his photos in the Key West Citizen. Why was he here?
A little late, it occurred to me that I could be in serious trouble.
“Miss Snow,” said Detective Bransford without preamble, “how did you know Kristen Faulkner?”
I snuck a look at each impassive face, hoping for a little sympathy. They stared back, stone-carved and immovable. “I only met her twice in passing. I can’t say I really knew her, if you know what I mean. But my boyfriend did. Rather too well, if you get my drift.”
A puzzled look crept across Torrence’s features.
“What I mean is, she was naked the first time I saw her. In bed with my boyfriend. Skewered.”
I knew as soon as they were out of my mouth, those words sounded bad, like I was trying to throw Chad under the bus. It was just that the shock of that moment could still creep up and pound me like a meat mallet. I scrunched my face to keep from crying.
Torrence looked like he was trying not to laugh, but the other two were still frowning. I continued to babble.
“Other than that, she’s the new co-owner of the style magazine where I’m applying for a job. The writing samples are due at the end of the week. But you can see how acquiring Kristen as my boss wouldn’t exactly be an asset . . .” My words faded. Was it nerves making me yammer foolishly, or fear? Chad would have had my head for talking to these cops without a lawyer. If he cared—and let’s face it, how much clearer could he have been that he didn’t?
“So let me get this straight,” said Detective Cleft Chin. “She had an affair with your boyfriend—”
“Stole him right out from under me,” I said. “Next thing I knew, I had to find a room to rent or head home to New Jersey. That’s why I’m living on my college roommate, Connie’s, houseboat. She said I could work some shifts in her cleaning service in exchange for a place to live until I get back on my feet. My room’s a little cramped—minuscule really—and she uses half my closet space for storing her supplies, so it always smells a little like bleach. But on the other hand, she let me bring Evinrude and not many landlords allow cats.”
Detective Bransford massaged his forehead. “Was your roommate home with you this morning?”
“I can’t say exactly when she left, but she was gone by the time I got up. She’s a hustler—she takes any job she can get—the early bird and the worm and all that—”
The chief flashed a timeout signal and the detective nodded curtly. “Miss Snow, were you aware of anyone else who might have felt animosity toward Kristen Faulkner?”
Anyone else? “Honestly, I barely knew her.”
“Any drug problems? Money problems? History of domestic abuse?”
I shook my head again, fingers pressed to my temples where a headache had begun to pound. “I have no idea.”
“Miss Snow, where were you today between the hours of six and ten a.m.?” asked the detective.
“Right where you found me, Detective, on the houseboat. Just like I told you.” My mouth went dry. “Wait a minute, what is this about?”
“It appears that Kristen Faulkner was murdered.” That pronouncement came from the chief.
The way the questions had been coming, this shouldn’t have been a surprise. Still, a sickening pit yawned in my stomach and for one brief moment I was speechless.
“When did you last see Miss Faulkner?” the chief asked.
“The bed incident,” I whispered. “I never saw her after that.” I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. “Wait, that’s not right. My ex was out to dinner with her last night in the restaurant where I ate.”
Bransford leaned a little closer. “Did you two talk?”
“Not really,” I said. “I said hello and she blew me off. So I suggested they order the crab cakes.”
The cops exchanged glances, as though they’d gotten hold of a real fruitcake, and the detective jotted a note on a pad on the desk.
“You’ve had no contact with her with regard to this magazine you mentioned?” he asked.
“None. So far the application process has been conducted by e-mail.” I twisted my hands in my lap. “She did mention last night that they have some strong applicants.”
For the next fifteen minutes, Bransford led me through my short history of Key West. I spilled the humiliating details of how I’d fallen for Chad in New Jersey, moved down here to be with him, and found myself homeless, jobless, and manless, all inside of three months.
Bransford scrawled a few more lines of notes and then looked up. “So would you say that Kristen Faulkner was responsible for all that?”
“In a way,” I said. “But not really . . . I can’t blame her for everything . . . My father is always telling me I should look before I leap.”
“Did she know that you were involved with Mr. Lutz?”
“How could she not?” I asked. “My stuff was all over the apartment.” My throat closed up and my eyes brimmed with tears. “Until he put it out on the sidewalk. Which didn’t take long.”
Bransford passed me a Kleenex. “Just to review, you say you were on the houseboat all morning?”
I nodded quickly and recovered my voice. “Connie, who owns the boat, wouldn’t be able to verify it, but I swear it’s the truth.”
Chief Barnes broke in. “Won’t it be easier for you to get this magazine job that you want so much with Miss Faulkner out of the way?”
My mouth dropped open as I took in what he was suggesting. “Oh my God . . . Listen, I disliked Kristen Faulkner right down to her plucked eyebrows, but I never would have killed her. Never. No matter how much I wanted to land that job.” At this point, no amount of face scrunching could have stopped the tears. I blew my nose into the crumpled tissue. “Do I need a lawyer?”
The detective rose to his feet and hulked over me. “Miss Snow, you are not accused of anything. Yet. But we’ll need to be in touch with you again soon. That means do not leave the island without contacting us first. Not even over the bridge to Stock Island. You can understand that we need you to make yourself readily available until we complete this investigation.”
I didn’t really understand what else I could contribute, but I gulped and nodded. The other men got up too, and I bolted from the room and scurried down the hallway, out into the bright sun.
“I’d just as soon walk home,” I told Torrence, who followed me out. It was only a quarter of a mile, but he looked at me as if I’d said I’d be hiking back to Jersey. Finally, he dipped his head and I jogged out of the parking lot toward Roosevelt Boulevard.
“Free at last,” I called dramatically as I ran, throwing my arms open to the sky. Which probably sounded a little silly if anyone was listening, but I’d felt like I couldn’t breathe in that police station. Good God, Kristen had been murdered. And they were questioning me. So then I punched Chad’s office number on my speed dial. He wouldn’t take my call, but his assistant, Deena, would. And she knew every lawyer in Key West.
Unfortunately, Chad—who never answered his number if he could get someone else to do it for him—picked up.
“It’s Hayley,” I stammered. “Sorry for your loss.” I was sorry. A little.
“I don’t want to talk to you right now,” he answered. “In fact, I don’t want to hear from you again, ever. I can’t believe—”
“I didn’t call to talk to you,” I said. “I called for Deena. The cops hauled me down to the police station to interrogate me about Kristen. They seem to think I might have killed her. I was going to ask Deena if I needed to hire a lawyer.”
“I can’t help you,” said Chad, “and neither can she. As you can very well imagine, this is not a good time for me.”
“It’s not such a good time for me, either,” I said, my desperation gathering momentum by the second. “Would there be any chance you would please, please call them and tell them I had nothing to do with Kristen dying?”
“I don’t know that,” said Chad in an ice-cold voice. “How would I know what you’re capable of?”
My gut clenched as I realized he might have actually fingered me. After I moved from New Jersey to be with him and two months of living together—his having to carry spiders outside because I couldn’t bear the thought of murdering them when they might have a family—he believed I’d kill a real person? That made me feel helpless—and mad. I flashed on the belongings he’d failed to return, and that made me madder.
“Since I’ve got you on the line, could you at least give my stuff back? I’ve sent you four e-mails over the past two weeks and Deena swears your server is working just fine. You can stick the box out in the hall, as far as I’m concerned.”
“I haven’t kept anything of yours.”
“Have a heart, Chad. You’ve got my books and my Japanese knives and my grandmother’s recipe box—”
No answer from Chad, just the lonely void of a dead connection. Rat bugger.
I squeezed the END button. Almost home now, I dialed up Connie to see if she was free to help drown my sorrows while we thought of a plan. But my call went directly to voice mail. So as I made my way down the dock past Miss Gloria’s little yellow boat and then the Renharts’ boxy two-story, I called Eric, who on Mondays closed up his psychotherapy office at four thirty.
“Meet me at the Green Parrot? I’m buying.”
He hesitated. “I’m beat. I had six patients scheduled and two extras had crises that couldn’t wait. One of them involved decorating choices. White or beige?” He sounded annoyed and exhausted—he never talked about the details of his patients. The town was too small to risk spreading gossip. The coconut telegraph, he called it.