Once A Thiefby Suzann Ledbetter
It's all relative.
If there's anything Ramey Burke requires from life, it's harmony. But now her well-ordered existence is shot. Ramey's elderly uncles and aunt, Ed, Archie and Melba Jane Dillinger, are out of the slammer -- and the gang swears they've finished robbing banks for good. The geriatric felons have nowhere to go, so how could/p>/b>
It's all relative.
If there's anything Ramey Burke requires from life, it's harmony. But now her well-ordered existence is shot. Ramey's elderly uncles and aunt, Ed, Archie and Melba Jane Dillinger, are out of the slammer -- and the gang swears they've finished robbing banks for good. The geriatric felons have nowhere to go, so how could Ramey turn them away? Besides, what mischief could they possibly get themselves into now?
But trouble soon arrives when a corpse turns up in Ramey's front yard. Now sexy detective Mike Constantine is sniffing around the scene and Ramey's uncle is looking more like a murderer by the minute. With her own suspicions and family secrets to keep, Ramey finds that her life is definitely more law than order these days. And at the end of the day, Ramey has to decide if she can trust her aged kin -- but she can't help thinking once a thief . . .
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Once A Thief
By Suzann Ledbetter
MIRACopyright © 2006 Suzann Ledbetter
All right reserved.
Morning events will give you a boost toward an aim that you once believed was completely impossible.
Oh really? Ramey Burke rolled her eyes.
Horoscopes were like fortune cookies -- silly, yet strangely intriguing. Reading hers every day in the Plainfield News-Messenger was as much a ritual as reading Dear Abby's advice column and Heloise's household hints. A transition, as it were and was intended, between downer national news and journal-ism's dessert course, otherwise known as the comic page.
Ramey poured a glass of freshly squeezed Florida orange juice made from frozen concentrate, then swigged it thoughtfully. Her list of erstwhile aims included the long-awaited call from NASA inviting her aboard the next mission to the moon. That mutual love-at-first-sight encounter with Robert Redford hadn't happened yet, either. It was his fault, of course, for neglecting Missouri's cinematic potential. It even had a Hollywood, down east in the Bootheel, midway between Arbyrd and Leachville Junction.
Nor had the thirty extra pounds she carried meta-morphosed into sleek, sinuous muscle. Reminders that at under five foot six and maxing out at one hundred and forty pounds, Marilyn Monroe was an inch-anda-half shorter than she was, didn't soothe the self-image as it used to.
The April sunshine streaming throughthe breakfast nook's windows glared off the newspaper splayed on the banquette table. A less frivolous list of goals slithered up from the recesses of Ramey's mind. Funny how something as innocuous as a horoscope could compromise the defenses she'd gradually built, armor plated and welded shut.
She blinked, concentrating her filmy gaze on the cartoon doldrums of Dilbert, then Snoopy, crouched on his doghouse, banging out the Great American Novel on a typewriter.
Cute, but what she wouldn't give for a Calvin and Hobbes revival, or The Far Side. They'd been her husband's favorites, too. Every Christmas she and Stan stuffed each other's stocking with a new Gary Larson desk calendar.
For the past two years, she'd bought her own. He'd been riding a motorcycle he'd just repaired. "A spin around the block," Stan's boss had said. "Same as a hundred other times." Except that day, he didn't come back to the shop.
Whether he blew through a red light, or the tractor-trailer he hit was at fault couldn't be established. Several people heard the collision. Nobody aside from the truck driver actually witnessed it.
Impossible was believing you could survive the loss of your mother to cancer, then your father to a massive coronary, then your husband to a freak traffic accident, all in a three-year span.
But somehow, Ramey had. One day at a time, as the platitude went. Going on eight hundred of them since her husband's funeral. She knew she was healing when she couldn't recall the precise number.
Telling herself the emptiness deep in her belly was hunger, she forced herself up from the cushioned bench. An archway trimmed in fluted oak separated the breakfast nook from a kitchen larger than the average living room. To the right of the sink, the frosted glass cupboard doors creaked wide on seventy-year-old hinges.
Moving back to this rambling house her grandparents built had grounded her. Memories attached to the house where she and her older sister grew up weren't emotional minefields, unlike the duplex she and Stan had leased. It had been his place, then theirs. But this house would always be her home.
Ramey hooked her fingers on the cabinet's nickel-plated catches and peered into the cavernous shelves. Apparently the Muffin Fairy had again failed to deliver a single, frosted apple chunk confection during the night.
There was no bread left for toast, either. The last two reduced carb, wafer-thin slices had anchored the tuna sandwich she'd eaten for lunch yesterday. Peanut butter and crackers would be great, if she had any crackers.
A trip to the supermarket was well overdue, except food shopping when you're starved was like an ex-smoker bumming a cigarette for old times' sake. One whiff of the bakery at Trantham's IGA would induce a doughnut binge of epic proportions. Just thinking about it made Ramey's mouth water.
Losing weight was easy. Don't eat or drink anything worth swallowing for the rest of your life and allakazam. Goodbye fat and jolly. Hello lean and mean.
Would the bathroom scale ever top out again at a hundred and twenty? Sure, if she lay across it instead of standing on it. On the other hand, tearing hell-bent to the grocery store for maple bars probably wasn't the type of "morning event" Madame Astrid's horoscope implied.
Besides, it'd be noon in a mere four hours and fifty-seven minutes. The reward for breakfast deprivation would be a justifiable deluxe cheeseburger, fries and a diet soda for lunch. If she held out till one-thirty or so, there could be onion rings.
Armed with a bowl of baby carrots, black coffee and the News-Messenger"s Wednesday classified section, Ramey started up the stairs to her home office.
Some people choose a career; sometimes careers choose them. Ramey's older sister, Portia, was so enamored of Gerald O'Hara's declaration, "Land is the only thing in the world that amounts to anything" in Gone With the Wind, she'd decided at the tender age of twelve to become a real estate agent.
How her identification with a fictional, Irish plantation owner translated to listing properties and schlep-ping prospective buyers to them defied explanation. Ramey admired her, though, for knowing what she wanted to be when she grew up before she actually did.
Ramey's own childhood dreams of interplanetary exploration and a fleeting interest in dinosaurs dead-ended at a series of retail sales and secretarial jobs, until the fateful day she'd tagged along with Portia to view another agent's listing. The house was a three-bedroom, single bath horror. Saggy foam-backed drapes covered every window, trapping the stench of fried fish, cigar smoke and dust. In the galley kitchen, stencils of somewhat menacing teapots cavorted on the bulkheads and walls. The bathroom's leaky sink was frothed in lime deposits. Mildew crept up the tub surround.
"Sad," Portia said. "The asking price is right for the neighborhood, but if the old man who owns it even gets an offer, it'll be thousands below what it's worth."
"Why?" Ramey asked. "All it needs is a lot of scrubbing, a plumber, nice curtains and a few gallons of paint."
"From your lips to the seller's ear. His real estate agent hinted that it needed a good cleaning, but there's a fine line between a good cleaning and a miracle. The poor guy tried, but his eyesight is failing."
"Okay," Ramey allowed, "but if I can visualize its potential, you'd think a buyer would."
"Potential, as in money pit, is the problem." Portia ticked off on her fingers. "Most prospects want a home, not a mortgaged renovation list. They can't see the bay windows for the dirt and grandma's god-awful drapes. The floors are cluttered and that paneled hallway looks like the tunnel of doom. Deferred maintenance, like drippy faucets, sound a warning that the plumbing is shot."
Portia gave the murky living room a final, dejected appraisal. "Every agent in town has mutts like this one. If I had the talent and the tact, I'd make as much money grooming these ugly dogs as I do trying to sell them."
For days, her comments nagged at Ramey. Her mind regrouped furniture, repainted walls, envisioned inexpensive white sheers billowing in the breeze.
Interior design wasn't her thing, yet she did have an affinity for decorating on the cheap. Where Portia loved perfectly coordinated rooms, Ramey's taste leaned toward shabby chic years before the nicked and slightly threadbare was fashionable.
On something between a whim and a dare, she revisited the grungy house with an array of paint chips, a tape measure and a notebook, then made the owner a deal he didn't refuse. If her cosmetic improvements brought an acceptable offer within two weeks, he'd pay her two-hundred-and-fifty dollars for labor and materials. If his ugly dog still didn't hunt, he wouldn't owe her a penny.
From a hallucinogenic paint-fumed fog emerged the idea to host an open house and invite all the local real estate agents. Life being a persistent font of humility, a steady rain began to fall at dawn that Sunday. By noon, the front lawn resembled a rice paddy.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Portia had her own open house to tend to that day. The majority of her peers were no-shows, as well, but the listing agent arrived with a young couple who'd toured the house at its worst. Within an hour, the trio waded off with homemade cookies and a signed contract -- for the full asking price.
The grateful seller paid Ramey's fee, plus a hundred-dollar bonus. Minus expenses, she figured she'd cleared a dollar and seventeen cents an hour.
Live and learn. Trial and lots of error. After several years of both, the profits of accidental self-employment were still far below Portia's commissions, but Ramey loved being an independent contractor of sorts.
These days, her style of sweat equity even had a name -- home-stager. Cable TV popularized the term and concept, but seriously skewed the expense and labor involved.
Although four stagers' boxed ads had joined Ramey's in the Plainfield phone book, she still received more referrals than she could handle.
Excerpted from Once A Thief by Suzann Ledbetter Copyright © 2006 by Suzann Ledbetter. Excerpted by permission.
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Ramey Burke and her sister Portia Carruthers live in Plainview, Missouri. The sisters are the daughters of former Police Chief Bill Patterson. Nothing much happens to Ramey. Until one morning. There on her doorstep are three seventy plus visitors, only these visitors are relatives. The old codgers are her maternal Uncle's Ed and Archie and her Aunt Melba Jane, also known as the Other Dillinger Gang. Ramey's geriatric relatives have just been released from prison after having served thirty four years. It seems the trio had taking a liking to relieving banks of their money. The Burke household settles in to a routine. Ed and Archie busy them selves with much needed repairs while Melba Jane took over the cooking. A disacovery one night changed everything. Returning from one of his nocturnal wanderings, Ed discovers a body by the driveway. He fears that he, his brother or Melba Jane will be accused of the dastardly deed because they are ex-cons, He drags the body out back and places it underneath a brush pile. Ed is unaware that he was observed from the house by his brother. While Ed returns through the front of the house, Archie goes out the back. Once again the corspe is moved. This time Archie puts the remains in a trench out back. As he re-enters the house and goes to their upstairs bedroom, Melba Jane exits the house. Now it is her turn to transport the corspe. She wraps the victim in an old rug and drags it to the curb for the garbage man to take. This brings to Ramey's door Detective Sergeant Mike Constantine. Uncle Ed becomes the primary suspect because he was the first person seen dragging the corspe out back. Mike takes Ed in for questioning. Before the two leave for the station, Ramey calls her brother-in-law Preston Carruthers to represent Ed. He is not a trial lawyer but Ramey figures he is better than nothing. Sergeant Constantine learns very little from the old man. Soon he is released. Ed is not the only suspect. There is Don Blevins, who wanted to be more than a friend to Ramey but she rebuffed him. Also Howard Chinn, the victim's stepson who stands to inherit from a life insurance policy. And of course there are the remaining Other Dillinger Gang members. Through some good detective work, Constantine collars the murder and the reason for the killing. Suzann Ledbetter gives us a light hearted mystery that makes you want to curl up in your favorite chair to read the day and night away. Suzann Ledbetter must have a good time writing ONCE A THIEF because I enjoyed reading it as I chuckled my way through it.
In Plainfield, ¿home stager¿ Ramey Burke knows she is all alone as she has been for a few years since her spouse and parents are gone and her living relatives are behind bars. Though feeling overweight, Ramey likes her current serene lifestyle in which she is involved with no one except clients when she finalizes the clean up of a house before it is placed in sale. --- That is she was all alone, but now the state has freed elderly Aunt Melba Jane and Uncles Ed and Archie, who move in with Ramey. The Dillinger trio enjoys discussing the good old days of professionally robbing banks, which Ramey finds appalling and fascinating. However, when Ramey finds a corpse of a colleague of her live in relatives, the Plainfield police immediate suspect the Dillinger trio killed the victim. Ramey knows her felonious relatives would never murder anyone so she begins to investigate. That makes lead police detective Mike Constantine worried for her safety though he welcomes her intelligence and insight as she proves more than capable as a sleuth and definitely kissable though the case comes first. --- ONCE A THIEF is an amusing lighthearted romantic mystery starring likable lead characters and her zany relatives. The whodunit is fun to follow as Mike realizes quickly that Ramey is more than just an asset on the case as he uses her help almost as much to keep her safe as for her insight. Suzann Ledbetter writes a comical wacky tale that her fans will fully appreciate. --- Harriet Klausner