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By LINDA LADD
Copyright © 2008 Linda King Ladd
All right reserved.
Chapter One Twisting the ignition key, I fired up my black Ford Explorer and backed out of my parking space at the Canton County Sheriff 's Department. It was a dull, uneventful, but beautiful early April day at Lake of the Ozarks, here in mid-Missouri, so my partner and I decided we'd stir up some excitement with one of our famous competitive shooting matches. We're headed now for the department's target range out in the boonies north of the lake, the winner buying the loser the most extravagant meal on the McDonald's drive-up menu on the way back into town. That's because we're both such big spenders.
Not that I'm complaining about the lack of excitement around here. Almost four months ago, we'd had a case straight out of hell, a pretty hairy affair with a couple of deadly psycho types fond of various and sundry poisonous creatures. Bud had nearly died in that one, and I was sporting a rather distinctive scar on my leg from a brown recluse spider bite that gives me the heebie jeebies to this very day.
But Orkin men visit my place regularly, and a can of Raid visits my Explorer regularly, and I haven't seen a single creepy, crawly critter since last Christmas. I don't think often of last summer either, when another case got pretty damn ugly in its own right, or at least, I try not to think about it. Unfortunately, my dreams don't always cooperate. Nightmares I do have, often and awful. And to think I thought thisrural beat was going to give me some peace and quiet after my stint with the LAPD. Ha ha, joke's on me.
"Say, Morgan, how's the .38 Harve got you shootin'? Pretty good?"
That came from my aforementioned partner, Detective Budweiser D. Davis, Bud to everybody who knows him, on threat of death, at that. He was slouched in the passenger's seat, dressed down in a plain black departmental T-shirt and boot-cut Levi's. Usually he was all gussied up in designer suits and crisp, starched shirts, à la Armani and that ilk. The sleeves of his T-shirt did have ironed creases, though, of course, the guy was anal that way. I glanced at him as I swung right, took the SUV onto Highway 54, and accelerated toward the nearest bridge span. Atlanta born, handsome as Rhett Butler, with a killer Georgia drawl and intense gray eyes, Bud wowed the ladies like all get-out. He knew it, too.
I said, "Shoots good. Never take it off. Learned not to the hard way." I could feel the heft of the .38 now, strapped to my right ankle under my own boot-cut Levi's, just above my trusty black-and-orange high-top Nikes.
See, my best friend and former partner out in LA, Harve Lester, gave me this sweet little .38 Smith and Wesson for Christmas, one sporting its own brown leather ankle holster, and one that had come in pretty damn handy right off the bat. In fact, it saved my life when I was in a particularly vulnerable situation way down in a very creepy, dark place, so I don't take it off anymore, except to shower and sleep, and believe you me, it stays close at hand, even then. I rarely take off my trusty Glock 9 mm semiautomatic, either. It's snug in its shoulder holster under my left arm, just waiting for trouble to find it. Today, it didn't have long to wait.
Bud's cell phone started up, an annoying chimed rendition of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony; he's pretentious sometimes that way, but I betcha he keyed it in place of his former selection, "Friends in Low Places," which I totally preferred, only to please his girlfriend, Brianna Swensen. He fished the phone out of the pocket of his black windbreaker, checked caller ID, and I ascertained who was on the line immediately from his cheesy, pleased-as-a-monkey-in-a-banana-tree expression.
"Ah, looks like Brianna misses me, poor girl."
Brianna was his newest squeeze, and he was squeezing her long and often. I used to call her Finn because she looks like she could've been Miss Finland in the Miss Universe Pageant, actually could've won that galactic contest hands down, if you ask me. You know the type-long, silky legs, flowing natural blond hair, a face like a Rodeo Drive window mannequin modeled after a taller, willowier Jessica Simpson. Yep, Bud loitered in the halls of Valhalla most of the time now, grinning and beating his chest with doubled fists.
He answered the phone like a true goner. "Hi, babe, I miss you, too."
Yuck. And more yuck. So I busied myself with driving. Actually, I knew how he felt, I mean that silly grin and stuff. I was doing some rather inane smiling around myself of late, ever since I'd hooked up with the famous Nicholas Black, a rather fabulous-looking psychiatrist to the stars, who had begun to spend a lot of time ringing my bells. In fact, when we jumped into bed together, it sounded a lot like the Hallelujah Chorus on speed.
I passed over a bridge, admiring the spectacular view of Lake of the Ozarks off to my left. The water sparkled and glittered like a blanket of diamonds under a cloudless blue sky. It was a lovely, sunshiny morning, and fairly warm but still with a bite to the air. Flowers sprung up everywhere, azaleas, daffodils, tulips, dogwood trees. Made me want to go out and buy a trowel. But no one had killed anyone in our vicinity since the New Year, and we, the two ranking homicide detectives, were feeling pretty good about our little orderly corner of the world. Domestics and burglaries and shoplifting we could handle, armed to the teeth as we were. No problemo.
Bud said, "What?"
His concerned tone made me shoot him an inquiring glance. He was frowning. Uh-oh. Trouble in paradise. Maybe I had spoken too soon.
Then he said, "You gotta be kiddin' me." Not that I was eavesdropping or anything-but then he laughed, but sobered pretty damn quick. "Okay, got ya. I'm with Claire. We'll head over there right now. Keep everybody calm."
"What?" I said, not one to waste time idly wondering about things and truly hoping for a bit of mundane excitement to rev us up a bit. "And what'd you mean 'keep everybody calm'?"
"There's an incident goin' on over at Mr. Race's Beauty Salon. And Bri's caught right in the middle of it."
I gave him a look, you probably know the kind I mean. I said, "What's up over there? Somebody get the wrong color nail polish and shoot up the place?"
"Hey, Morgan, give me a break here, would ya? This is serious. Bri's real upset."
"That's the place you gave me that twelve-month gift certificate to for Christmas before last, right? You know for hair styling and facials and pedicures, stuff like that?" The one I only used once. Couldn't abide being called girlfriend fifteen times during one haircut.
"Yeah. Mr. Race cuts my hair. He's the best around here."
Yeah, right. I remember the guy well. Mr. Race was not one you easily forgot. A bit sissified, if you get my drift, gelled blond spikes, black silk shirt artfully undone to midchest. But Bud had discerning tastes and impeccable grooming. I could learn something from him, if I cared how I looked. "Okay, Bud, I'll bite. What's going on?"
"No, I won't."
"He's bein' held hostage by an irate customer, and Brianna doesn't know what to do."
A gut laugh did tickle my innards, but I made myself not give in to it. A promise is a promise. But I had a rip-roaring good time inside myself for a second or two. "So it was a nail polish thing? What, somebody got fire-engine red instead of tomato bisque and freaked out?"
Bud shook his head as I pulled into the next blacktopped lake road, backed up, and then headed back the way we'd come. Hey, a call was a call. We were getting bored with all the law-abidingness in the land.
"Apparently this girl's a contestant in that Spring Dogwood Beauty Pageant that Nick's hosting over at Cedar Bend Lodge, and Mr. Race burned her hair with his new flatiron. She's goin' all ballistic and raisin' hell."
"Oh, for Pete's sake, Bud, you can't be serious."
"Just bear with me here, Claire. He's supposed to color Bri's sister's hair for the pageant rehearsal, and this is runnin' all his other clients late."
"Oh, now I get the urgency. We better call in backup for this one. Kansas City SWAT, too, maybe. Glad I've got both my weapons loaded and ready."
Jeez, what some male detectives were willing to do for beautiful, leggy girlfriends who looked like they hailed from Scandinavia. Go figure. But, I have to admit, the call did sound rather interesting, more so than anything else we've tackled in the last few months. And as long as it doesn't include nests of spiders or severed heads, I'm good to go. I shuddered at those dark thoughts and then shoved some extremely ugly mental images out of my mind.
I made a beeline for Mr. Race's Winning Locks, The Salon and Spa for the Discerning. Yes, that really is the name of the place. Yes, cockamamie it truly is. But it is also the premier beauty shop on the lake, located in its own luxurious digs in downtown Camdenton, less than a block down the street from the Sheriff 's Department. As we drove past our office, I hoped the other guys didn't find out where we were going and why. I could already hear them laughing and fast-drawing combs out of their holsters.
I pulled into the parking lot, which was jam-packed with flashy little sports cars and big shiny SUVs, most of which were filled with sequiny evening gowns draped artfully across backseats and sparkly tiaras hanging from rearview mirrors. Mr. Race must have garnered a corner on the Girls with Glittery Crowns market. No wonder Bud liked to get his hair cut there. I patronized Cecil's Barber Shop for Men in Osage Beach. Cecil deemed me an honorary member despite my female gender, the thought of which reminded me that if my hair was long enough to pull back in a ponytail, I needed to cut it off ASAP. Black wouldn't like that, but he didn't like the T-shirts and jeans with ripped knees I wore much, either. It didn't seem to keep his hands off me, though.
Winning Locks was an ultramodern establishment with lots of silken drapes of varying shades of turquoise, green, and cobalt hanging in two gigantic front windows. Mr. Race hid rotating fans around inside that kept the fabric flowing in continuous motion and gave the effect of an underwater seascape. Big tanks of tropical fish finished the illusion. The front door was made of mahogany and beveled glass that blurred the interior. As we pulled it open, loud, and I mean headache-inducing, cringing-to-the-knees loud, feminine screeching quivered our goose bumps into marching order. Crystal stemware beware. Eardrums brace yourself. Even Celine Dion couldn't hold a candle to this pitch range. Actually, the racket was coming from Mr. Race himself. Yes, inside was a scene straight out of Dante's Inferno, salon style.
Bud took charge with his usual official aplomb. "Hey, cut out that shrill crap, Race. You sound worse than a stuck pig."
The girly squeals stopped abruptly, followed by sobs that sounded a bit more manly, but didn't exactly rise to the machismo level. I decided that this altercation was Bud's baby and he could handle it. I'd stand around and be his backup and pull both my weapons if anybody started throwing brushes and pomade at us.
Mr. Race was breathing hard, chest heaving under his signature black satin shirt, and yes, it hung open, revealing his manly chest. Not a single hair was visible there, but it could've been hidden behind the big silver medallion he wore, one about the size of an IHOP pancake. His thin lips were trembling like crazy. I observed and analyzed the situation as I had been trained to do. His irate client had him bound to the swivel chair at his own red velvet-draped, thronelike styling station. One of his personalized black plastic smocks with Mr. Race's scribbled, hard-to-read signature emblazoned in silver script bound him bodily to the back. He seemed most relieved to see that armed law enforcement officers had arrived on the scene.
"Bud, Bud, oh, thank gawd, it's you. Corkie says she's gonna throw hair bleach right in my face. And she dumped in some permanent solution, some real potent stuff! You gotta stop her, Bud. It'll damage my skin for sure, and look, my nine and nine-thirty are both here waiting. This is really putting me behind."
I edged around Mr. Race's plump manicurist, a lady I hadn't been introduced to, but whose name tag identified her as Flash. She was dressed in a purple-and-pink tie-dyed shirt and bright yellow Capris and was calmly buffing the nails of a bouffanted, blue-haired octogenarian wearing a coral-and-gold lamé jogging suit. The old lady had chosen to polish her long clawlike nails the color of a very ripe eggplant. All ten nails were also adorned with little red stickers shaped like hats, identifying her at once as a member of the famous Red Hat Society, a group notorious at the lake for their wild monthly dinners at Applebee's, during which they all wore red or purple feather boas and took lots of pictures of each other. A good, wholesome group, however, who rarely caused trouble for the police.
Flash and the old lady were ignoring the commotion with Mr. Race and Corkie. But no wonder. The Young and the Restless was playing on a big-screen plasma TV hanging on the opposite wall. It was festooned in red velvet, too. Mr. Race's clients were obviously immune to dangerous hostage situations. On the other hand, some very amorous bedroom gymnastics were going on between Victor and some blonde young enough to be his great-granddaughter, maybe even great-great-grand-daughter. And she looked pretty great, too. Not that I watch that soap, but I remember being titillated a time or two during my college days at LSU. I watched for a moment, in spite of myself. Victor was quite the Casanova, bending the gal backward over a couch and trying to kiss her. She was responding and all, but then again, he was holding a gun to her temple as incentive, so there you go.
Bud decided to take time to kiss Brianna's cheek and comfort her with a full-fledged body hug. Seemed like everyone was taking Race's dilemma in stride. Bud didn't seem particularly intent on letting go of Finn any time soon, so I decided that was my cue to get involved.
I said, "Okay, now, let's all get a grip here. Bring it down a notch." I addressed the irate red-haired young twenty-something holding the weapon. "What seems to be the problem, ma'am? Surely whatever it is, it's not worth all this commotion."
"Maybe not to you." She commenced with a severe blinking thing going on, holding back a flood of distraught tears, I presumed. I inched toward her, watching the white plastic bowl of caustic-smelling liquid she gripped in one hand. I sure as hell didn't want that stuff on my favorite black Remington T-shirt. She sobbed a couple of times then said to me, "Just look at it, my hair. Look what he did to me! There's no way I can compete now, and the pageant's getting ready to start! I've been rehearsing my baton-twirling routine for a good six weeks." More boo-hooing commenced.
I observed her hair. True, it was extremely frizzy on one side, and all broken off, and not a shade of red that was easy on the eyes. Maybe more like a bright shade of orangey pumpkin. Actually, she was sporting a do and hue closely akin to a Halloween Ronald McDonald after a drunken binge.
Always the diplomat, I said, "I think you look just fine, ma'am."
"Are you freakin' serious? It looks like a freakin' jack-o'-lantern and he burned the hell out of one side of it. It's not even two inches long!"
True, alas, all true. While I tried to come up with a comforting word or two, Bud managed to get over Brianna's lush curves long enough to join the negotiations. "It doesn't look that bad to me, either, uh, what's your name again, miss?"
"Corkie? Seriously?" To give Bud credit, he didn't even grin.
"Yeah, so what?"
I knew a Corkie once, but he was a dog. I didn't mention that observation, either. I said, "Know what? I think you might be overreacting just a tad, Corkie. Put down that stinky stuff, whatever it is, and let's talk about this in a calm, adult manner. That smell's making people nauseous."
Corkie hesitated, thought about things a second or two. She said, "You just don't get it, do you? Just look at you. You look pretty without a dab of makeup on, and you obviously didn't take time to do a thing with your hair either." She eyed me critically with fierce beauty contestant acumen. "You'd look a lot better if you got some highlights, you know. Probably not ash, but not too gold, either, though. It'd really bring out that honey color. Really, you oughta consider it." Then she remembered her plight. Her grip tightened on her weapon. "But not here. Not with him doing it. Look at me, I'm ruined!" (Continues...)
Excerpted from DIE SMILING by LINDA LADD Copyright © 2008by Linda King Ladd.Excerpted by permission.
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