Murder in Musiclandby Diana Kirk
#1 Best Author on the Internet, 1999 Preditors and Editors Readers Poll! Ordinarily, there isn't much business for a private investigator in Branson, Missouri. Especially a fifty-five year old retired police officer. But business is about to pick up! July in the Ozarks is brutal, especially around the Table Rock area. The air is a mixture of hot and steamy an on that particular night after fighting the killer tourist traffic, I went into my kitchen, mixed a stiff gin and tonic, and stepped out onto the deck. A cool breeze drifted off the water and brushed gently over my face. The moon, nearly full, danced over Lake Taneycomo with shimmering brightness. Two days until the fourth of July and I had my own show right here. I strolled over to the end of the deck and faced the orange neon glow doming the business district. The stars were big, bright, and kissed the lake. I sipped away, trying to remember why I'd moved down here into country music heaven. Late night shadows can play tricks. I could have sworn there was movement in the mimosa bushes. One ones beside my driveway, down toward the road. But the breeze wasn't strong enough to move its branches. Or was it? Funny I'd never noticed that before. I laughed at my skittishness. I edged back where I could enjoy the dancing moon and listened to the water lapping softly against the shoreline. Sometimes I take things for granted, especially at night. Like not looking where I'm stepping on my own deck. A whiff of stale beer and tobacco drifted past. I wasn't alone. Turning around, I tripped over a silhouette sitting in my chaise. I'm not given to panic so I backed up, swallowed hard, and stifled a yelp. Startled out of a sound sleep, the dark figure bolted upright and pointed his weapon at me. In the moonlight, I couldn't exactly make out the caliber, but I know the outline of a gun-barrel when I see one. Especially when it's stuck in my face....
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Winter's not as cold here in Branson as in Nebraska, so I can still bend my trigger-finger, and the summers, well... I've been content and happy here, except for that nasty Castle affair.
I should've known better the night Biff Newton asked me to track down his platinum-haired, very young, very sleazy wife. Twenty years too young, in fact. Biff was a semi-successful Country-Western singer, and it was rumored that his better half, Silica, had been keeping a beat with his drummer, Frankie Payne. And, now, Biff knew it, too. Living in my little lakeside cabin is a pleasure I've waited for all my life, and the scenery is relaxing and quiet. I've got a few neighbors, but they're not too close, and anywhere I want to visit in the Ozarks is within a day's drive.
Sorry, I forgot what I was saying. Oh yeah. July in the Ozarks is brutal, especially around the Table Rock area. The air is a mixture of hot and steamy and on that particular night, after fighting the killer tourist traffic, I went into my kitchen, mixed a stiff gin and tonic, and stepped out onto the deck. A cool breeze drifted off the water and brushed gently over my face. The moon, nearly full, danced over Lake Taneycomo with shimmering brightness. Two days until the fourth of July and I had my own show, right here.
I strolled over to the end of the deck and faced the orange neon glow doming the business district. The stars were big, bright, and kissed the lake. I sipped away, trying to remember why I'd moved down here into country music heaven.
Nowadays, being in my fifties, I'm still considered prime as in well-aged beef. I'm Phyllis M. McPhee, kind of a perky, redheaded SophiaLoren, or that other Lauren--Hutton. Yeah, right. In my dreams. But, even at my age, I can still draw a glance, maybe even two, from the boys.
Late night shadows can play tricks. I could have sworn there was movement in the mimosa bushes beside my driveway, down toward the road. But the breeze wasn't strong enough to move its branches. Or was it? Funny, I'd never noticed that before. I laughed at my skittishness.
I edged back to where I could enjoy the dancing moon and listened to the water lapping softly against the shoreline. Sometimes I take things for granted, especially at night. Like not looking where I'm stepping on my own deck. A whiff of stale beer and tobacco drifted past. I wasn't alone.
Turning around, I tripped over a silhouette sitting in my chaise. I'm not given to panic so I backed up, swallowed hard, and stifled a yelp.
Startled out of a sound sleep, the dark figure bolted upright and pointed his weapon at me. In the moonlight, I couldn't exactly make out the caliber, but I know the outline of a gun-barrel when I see one. Especially when it's stuck in my face.
"What? W-who?" he stammered and lowered his shaking gun-hand. "Oh, Ms. McPhee. I--I didn't realize..."
I backed up three steps and fisted my hands on my hips. I recognized that voice. I'd heard it a million times on the radio. "And to what do I owe your illegal presence on my balcony, Biff Newton?"
Biff sheepishly holstered his revolver and hung his head. "Jeez, I'm sorry, Mrs. McPhee. You scared the crap outta me."
"Yeah? Well, guess what's running down my leg?" I'd been just as startled when I realized I could've been shot if he'd had a happy trigger finger. "You scared me out of what little naturally red hair I have left, Newton."
He continued his profuse apologies until I'd had enough. The encounter wasn't that traumatic. I'd only tripped over him, and after twenty-five years on the police force, I wasn't given to hysterics, so why was he so worried about my well-being? Maybe he viewed me as a weak, old lady. God. What a sickening thought. That'd be the day. I wasn't old, just well trained and experienced. I still had a few surprises for him.
"Cut to the chase, Newton. What in the holy hell are you doing out here on my deck?"
"I want you to find Silica." He sat down on my porch swing and swung his feet back and forth. I studied him for a few seconds. "Mrs. McPhee..."
"That's Ms., Mister."
"What? Oh. I'm...ah...sorry. I was referred to you by Collin Jackson."
"You know, Collin Jackson, Branson's own Mr. Country-Western. He said you tracked down an assistant who'd embezzled some money from him. I--I wondered if you'd do a similar job for me?"
God, I hated referrals. They usually resembled the blind dates my so-called friends stuck me with. Boring, not worth much, and an evening that dragged on forever.
"On the job." This guy sounded real desperate, but there was an undercurrent of something else in his voice and it was that something else that always got me in trouble.
"I need you to find my wife."
"Sounds simple enough. I get thirty-five an hour, plus any additional expenses. I don't carry a gun, so if there's any rough stuff involved, count me out."
"Then how can you--" As if he'd been struck by lightening, he said, "What expenses?"
"You know. Like parking, towing, lunch, out-of-town travel, all that stuff." This guy was already on my nerves. If I hadn't needed the money this time, I'd have let it pass. But, still, there was something in his voice that piqued my curiosity. And you know what curiosity did to the cat.
Finally, he got around to asking about my credentials and my age, and I made the capital mistake of telling him. Hey! I like a joke now and then.
"Do you have a license?" he asked glancing up and down at me like I was hanging in the meat market. "How do I know you can handle the job?"
"License? Well, Bub, it's late and I need all the beauty sleep I can get, so I'll say this once and you can take it or leave it. Just because I wear a skirt doesn't mean I can't handle the job. I've got over twenty-five years experience as a cop and a good many more as a P.I. Don't you worry, I'll handle the job."
He studied me for a minute, his face lit in the glow of the moon, and a smile broke across his face. "Yeah, but won't those earrings get in the way?"
"You mean these?" I batted my miniature footballs that had become a permanent part of my head. "So sue me, I'm from Nebraska. I'm a hopeless Husker."
"Yeah, but how do you ever get anybody to take you serious?"
I slammed my drink down on the railing. "Look Newton, for your information, people take you very serious when you're pointing a thirty-eight in their face. Can I handle myself? It's really none of your business how I do my job as long as I do it. If I don't, you don't pay me. It's as simple as that. So, if you want your wife found here in Branson, you'll use me, 'cause I'm the only shop in town other than the Sheriff."
That must've gotten through to him because his questioning stopped. Why didn't he want Sam to know anything about his missing wife? Curious.
"Well, I don't know," he said.
I can't stand middle-of-the-roaders. "Think about it. If you want, call me. If not, it's been real."
Not giving him a chance to reply, I stood, gave his hand a quick shake, and turned to go inside. That's all you can do with the uncertain type. He'd have kept me out on the deck for hours until he made a decision.
He grasped my hand. "Please."
"Oh. Change your mind already? You think I'll be able to handle the case?"
"Look, I'm sorry if I offended you, Ms. McPhee."
"Call me Phyll."
"Sure, Phyll. I just needed to check you out. That's what 'Sixty Minutes' says to do."
"Am I to consider me checked?"
"Yes, Ma'am. Will you take the case?"
I picked up my drink and sipped. There was something about this guy that brought out the mother in me. "I don't know. Do you agree to my financial terms?"
"Sure thing. And here's five-hundred to start the process."
He pulled out a roll big enough to choke a Silver Dollar snake and peeled off five crisp bills. In the darkness I couldn't see exactly, but I hoped they were hundreds. Funny, I'd almost asked him if that was real money in his pocket or was he just glad to see me, but it's been done to death, and I didn't want to ruin my current job opportunity. Country singers were always rolling in dough. No sooner had the tourists discovered Branson, than the proprietors were scheming up new ways to separate them from their dough. To my dying day, I'll always remember Biff Newton, mediocre Country-Western singer, peeling those greenbacks off his wad.
I reached out and took the money. "Well, Biff, that's pretty good for starters."
"Whatever it takes, I need to find her and fast."
"Okay. Now that we've got the business end of things taken care of, sit down and tell me everything." I motioned him back to the chaise he'd just napped in.
What started as a recounting of Silica's last week turned into a three-hour life story. A groupie at the age of sixteen, she'd gained entrance to his back stage entourage by promising favors to all the roadies, including some of the local cops, and ending up with him. By the time he'd finished his story, I checked my deck to see if his pacing had worn a hole. I wondered how a guy could stomach a woman like that. But Biff explained it away, stating that he'd been drunk the first time he met her. Oh, sure. An ideal love-match.
"How old was she when you married her?"
"Sixteen. Hell, it's legal at fourteen, in Arkansas."
"Yeah, so's marrying your brother."
He continued, unfazed by my remark. "We considered running away, but her mama...she had her heart set on Silica getting married in Las Vegas." He dug his toe into the deck and sat back down in the chaise. "So we waited--"
I had a hard time keeping a straight face, but Biff's worried expression dampened my sense of humor. "When did your trouble start, Biff?"
"Who said we had trouble?" He jumped to his feet again and retraced his steps. "I know what it looks like, but she ain't really all that bad. Silica gets bored easy. She needs excitement. I guess I'm a little too old for her."
An understatement, but the first intelligent thing he'd said all night. This guy needed a reality check and I'm afraid I had to be the one. "Just how old are you, Biff?"
"Forty-seven. I guess I'm more your age, huh?" He eyed me and my empty glass. Touche'. He had me with that remark. Suddenly, I realized he needed a drink. Holy hell, I needed one, too.
"I'm sorry, Biff, I guess I left my manners in Nebraska. Want a beer? Or," I lifted my glass, "something stronger?" Biff followed me into the kitchen like a beaten coon dog.
"Sure, a beer'd be fine. Thanks, Phyll...I mean...Ms. Mc--"
"You had it right the first time, call me Phyll." How'd I know he'd be a beer drinker? Ninety-five percent of Branson's population drink beer. Not just any ole beer, but Dixie brew. That's the drink of the south. I pulled a cool one from the fridge and handed it to him.
I noticed when he reached for the suds, his hand shook, but steadied out after a couple of pulls from the bottle. I freshened my drink--only this time I left out the gin.
"Now that we're all comfy, let me rephrase my original question. When did you last see your wife?" I thought it best to tread lightly. This guy was overly sensitive where Silica was concerned. "Was there an argument? Anything unusual that you'd suspect?"
"Not exactly." He downed his beer in two swigs and stood leaning against the post, needing another. I gave it to him. Maybe it'd loosen his lips. "I--I needed some papers she took--I mean--had. She said she couldn't find them and I accused her of stealing. I should've realized--"
"What kind of papers?" I had visions of Silica's coquettish, artificially-tanned brown body stretched out in front of Biff teasing -- waving handfuls of papers before his nose just like the scene in Indecent Proposal where what's-her-name rolls around in the million dollars. I was positive Silica couldn't read, so she couldn't have wanted papers, unless somehow, she knew they were valuable...but the drummer. Now that was another story. Did Biff suspect?
"Real estate titles. I'm selling some of my land, and for tax purposes I'd put some land in her name."
Tax evasion purposes, I was sure. "What land is that?"
He pointed his bottle in the general direction of town. "My land, over there, back of The Strip, just west of Shepherd of the Hills, off Seventy-Six. I'm kinda short on cash, right now."
"Yeah, sure. Like every developer and C-W star is short on cash?"
"Look, McPhee. I know you don't think much of me and my kind--"
"You've got that part right." I smiled and gazed out over the lake. Before I could even get started, she'd be back, and they'd be all lovey-dovey and stiff me when I sent them the bill. This whole scenario was clearly a waste of time, but what the heck, his money was just as green as the next guy's. "I'll see what I can do."
He took another long guzzle from his bottle, wiped his sleeve across his lips and gazed up at me. The moon lit his face and from the look in his eyes, he seemed really upset.
"We had words, Ms. McPhee."
"What kind of words?"
"I accused her of sleeping around and giving my deeds away."
"Just some guys I know... It don't matter now, she's gone. Them titles are worth everything I got." As if an afterthought, he added, "I just hope she ain't been hurt."
He downed the rest of a third beer, jammed his hands into his already skin-tight jeans, and slumped back down into the deck chair. For a minute, I felt kinda sorry for him. "Like I said, let me see what I can do, Biff. I'll do some checking and call you. Now you go home and get some sleep."
"Then you'll take the case?" He set the brown bottle on the railing and edged toward the stairs.
"Well, Biff, looks like you've got yourself a deal." I gave him a friendly slap on his back and pushed him along. "You try and get home without the deputies finding you driving with those three beers on your breath."
"Sure thing, Ms.-- Phyll. I really appreciate your doing this for me."
"Yeah, sure. Just remember that when the bill comes in. If Silica shows up, you call me right away. You hear me?"
"You bet." Biff slid down into his foreign sports job--red--just like every other poor little rich singer in Branson. He revved the engine about eight times and sped off into the night kicking up gravel in his wake. If he made it home, it'd be a miracle. If not, I'd be out some serious money. And all for a routine job. If I was lucky and Silica stayed lost for a while, I could milk this one for a couple thousand. Enough to spend next winter someplace really warm.
On that happy note, I poured another glass of plain tonic water and sat down in the chaise to appreciate what was left of the night's moon, shimmering on the glassy surface of Lake Taneycomo. Yesiree. If I played my cards right, I might just make some real money.
Ordinarily, there isn't much business for a private investigator in Branson, Missouri--especially a retired female cop. But a divorce or two keeps the checks coming in. I really don't care all that much, since my pension from the Police Department does me fine.
Of course, I should've known from past experience that this case wasn't routine. Now, when I think of all the stupid mistakes I've made in my life I wonder if I 've learned anything at all.
Copyright © 1997 by Diana Kirk
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This was an embarrassing editing job. Thin plot and one dimentional characters. And this author is a writing teacher. Not worth the reading time.