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"Wicked" Women Whodunit
By MaryJanice Davidson
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Kensington Publishing Corporation
All right reserved.
Chapter One"This is all Jeannie Desjardin's fault," Caro declared to the people in the hallway.
Lynn Myers blinked at her. "Who-who's Jeannie Desjardin?"
"My friend. She's this awesomely horrible woman who generally revels in being bad. You know—she's one of those New York publishing types. But every once in a while she gets an attack of the guilts and tries to do something nice. Her husband and I try to talk her out of it, but ... anyway, this was supposed to be her Maine getaway. But she gave me the tickets instead and stayed in New York to roast along with eight million other people." And the yummy, luscious Steven McCord, Caro thought rebelliously. That lucky bitch. "And now look," she said, resisting the urge to kick the bloody candlestick. "Look at this mess. Wait until I tell her being nice backfired again."
"Well," Lynn said, blinking faster—Caro suspected it was a nervous tic—"we should—I mean—we should call the—the police. Right?"
Caro studied Lynn, a slender woman so tall she hunched to hide it, a woman whose darting gray eyes swam behind magnified lenses. She was the only one of the group dressed in full makeup, pantyhose, and heels. She had told Caro during the first "Get Acquainted" brunch that she was a realtor from California. If so, she was the most uptight Californian Caro had ever seen. Not to mention the most uptight realtor.
"Call the police?" she asked at last. "Sure. But I think a few things might have escaped your notice."
"Like the fact that the storm's cut us off from the mainland," Todd Opitz suggested, puffing away on his eighth cigarette in fifteen minutes.
"Secondhand smoke kills," Lynn's Goth teenage daughter, Jana, sniffed. She was a tiny brunette with wildly curly dark hair, large dark eyes edged in kohl (making her look not unlike an edgy raccoon), and a pierced nostril. "See, Mom? I told you this would be lame."
"And secondhand smoke kills," the teen added.
"I hope so," was Todd's cold reply. He was an Ichabod Crane of a man, towering over all of them and looking down his long nose, which was often obscured by cigarette smoke. He tossed a lank of dark blond hair out of his eyes, puffed, and added, "I really do. Go watch Romper Room, willya?"
"Children," Caro said. "Focus, please. Dana's in there holed up waiting for les flic to land. Meantime, who'd she kill?"
"What?" Lynn asked.
"Well, who's dead? Obviously it's not one of us. Who's missing?" Caro started counting on her fingers. "I think there's ... what? Maybe a dozen of us, including staff? Well, four of us—five, if you count Dana—are accounted for. But there's a few of us missing."
The four of them looked around the narrow hallway, as if they expected the missing guests to pop out any second.
"Right. So, let's go see if we can find the dead person."
"Wh-why?" Lynn asked.
"Duh, Mom," Jana sniffed.
"Because they might not be dead," Caro explained patiently. "There's an old saying: 'A bloody candlestick does not a dead guy make,' or however it goes."
Jana was startled out of her sullen-teen routine. "Where the hell did you grow up?"
"Language, Jana. But—but the police?"
"Get it through your head," Todd said, not unkindly. "Nobody's riding to the rescue. You saw the Weather Channel ... before the power went out, anyway. This is an island, a private island—"
"Enjoy the idyllic splendor of nature from your own solitary island off the Maine coast," Lynn quoted obediently from the brochure.
"Don't do that; it creeps me out when you do that."
"I have a photographic memory," she explained proudly.
"Congratufuckinglations. Anyway," Todd finished, lighting up yet another fresh cigarette, "the earliest the cops can get here is after the storm clears, probably sometime tomorrow morning."
"But they have helicopters—"
As if making Todd's point, a crack of lightning lit up the windows, followed by the hollow boom of thunder, so loud it seemed to shake the mansion walls. The group pressed closer to each other for a brief moment and then, as if embarrassed at their unwilling intimacy, pulled back.
"They won't fly in this weather. We're stuck. Killer in the bedroom, no cops, power's out. The perfect Maine getaway," Todd added mockingly.
"It's like one of those bad horror movies," Caro commented. "Caro's right."
"About the horror movies?"
He shook his head. "Let's go see who's dead. I mean, what's the alternative? It beats huddling in our rooms waiting for the lights to come back on, don'cha think?"
"What he said," Caro said, and they started off.
Chapter Two"Did you used to be a Boy Scout?" Caro asked Todd, who was briskly handing out large flashlights.
"No. When you're a smoker, you get to know the lay of the land pretty quickly."
"Secondhand smoke—" Jana cut herself off as the blond man glared down at her.
"Anyway," he continued, "when you have to sneak around to take your cigarette breaks because the entire fucking world has gone crazy over cigarettes—don't start, you guys, I know it's bad for me; nothing that feels so good could ever be healthy—you get to know the place you're staying at pretty well. I found this little pantry the first hour I was here."
When they all had flashlights—with working batteries, for a change—Caro set off, and after a moment the others fell into step beside her. She had given up her vacation as ruined, but setting that aside, she had an urgent need to find Dana's victim. Sure, there had been blood, but the human body could lose a lot of it and still live to play poker the next day. She had seen it.
"First thing, we find who Dana clocked with the candlestick," Caro said, leading them down yet another long, carpeted hallway. She could hear rain beating against the windows and followed the signs to the main dining salon. "See if he—or she—is okay."
"You're a nurse, right?" Lynn asked.
"Uh-huh. Maybe I can do something."
"Raise the dead?" Jana muttered.
Caro ignored that, pushed through the double doors to the dining room, and immediately shivered. All the windows against the far wall were open, as were the French doors leading to the large balcony where they'd had a pleasant lunch—was it only eight hours ago?
"Then we try to figure out how come."
"How come what?" Lynn asked.
"Well, why did Dana kill whoever-it-is? She must have had a reason, unless she's a sociopath. And she didn't strike me that way at lunch. And—eesh, this is megacreepy."
White curtains billowed and plumed out from the windows, and another crack of lightning lit up the room. Caro hurried through the doors—
"Careful!" Todd said sharply. "Don't slip."
—and skidded to a halt right before the waist-high stone railing. She looked over ... and nearly fell herself.
"There!" she said, pointing with her flashlight. "Down on the rocks! Oh, Jesus, what a fall ..."
The others crowded around her, their flashlight beams poking like long white fingers. Far, far below, a body was washed up on the rocks. It was so far below, and so battered by the waves, it was impossible to tell if it was even a man or a woman. The head was so tiny, you couldn't tell the length of hair or even the color of the hair—the rain could have made a blonde brunette, could have made a brunette more of a brunette, could have made a redhead mudcolored.
The setting sun set a bloody, broody glow over every thing through the clouds, the perfect horrible creepy touch—not that one was needed.
"Oh, my God," Lynn peeped.
About the only thing she could tell for sure was—
"Well, that poor bastard's deader than shit," Todd declared.
"Very helpful," Jana said acidly.
"Oh, why don't you go try to put this place on the market? That's what you do, right?"
"I'm the realtor," Lynn said. "Jana works in a CD store."
"Well, go listen to Trent Reznor's latest, then."
"Quit it, children," Caro said absently. "Why is he—or she?—naked?"
Jana shuddered. "I don't even want to think about it."
"Why would Dana undress the victim?" Caro said to herself.
"To keep us from knowing if it's a man or woman?" Lynn ventured.
"Maybe ... but why?" Caro frowned and stepped back from the railing. "Why let us know she killed them, but not tell us who it was? I mean, pardon my French, but what the fuck?"
"She's a model. That's what she said at lunch earlier, right? Well. They're capable of anything." Todd shuddered. "Anything."
Caro ignored the sarcasm. "Boy, there's just no way to get down there without breaking our necks, is there?"
"Get down there?" Jana's wild curls were plastered to her head in the driving rain, and she had to shout to be heard over the thunder. "Get down there? Have you lost your mind? We're not cops! I vote we all go back to our rooms and wait for the police to get here and take Dana back to the mainland."
"Yeah," Lynn added with a mighty sniff. She dashed rain out of her eyes and looked away from the body.
"Forget that," Todd said. "Just leave that poor schmuck down there on the rocks all night? For the birds and the fish and the—the whoever to do—you know. How'd you like it if it was you? Besides, he—she—they might be alive."
Caro didn't say anything. She certainly wasn't going to argue with him, although his initial assessment had been correct: whomever-it-was was deader than shit. Not that she was going to take that road ... she and Todd were on the same page—she wanted to get to the body. Skulking in her room waiting for rescue didn't exactly appeal. She wasn't happy to be in the middle of this, but by God, she was in it.
"Look at this," she said, pointing. There was blood on the stone railing, blood that trailed all the way back into the dining room. "That's Dana, carrying the candlestick. She clocked this poor guy, shoved him—or her—over, then walked back to her room."
"Naked," Lynn added. "Shoved them naked."
"Barf out," Jana said with a grimace.
"Then told us she did it," Todd added. "In the movies, the killer usually tries to, you know, cover up."
"She forgot to leave the candlestick behind—shock, probably," Caro continued, picturing it. "Didn't even remember holding it until she was talking to us. That's why there's a trail of blood."
"How handy for us," Todd said, trying unsuccessfully to light a new cigarette in the downpour. "Explains the blood in the hallway, too, huh, Sherlock?"
"Are you smoking those things, or eating them?"
"Hey, I'm stressed, all right?" he snapped back. "This isn't exactly my idea of a luxurious Maine getaway."
"What, it's ours? I could be in Minnesota right now, fishing on a lake."
"I could be in wine country," Lynn said mournfully.
"I could be indulging in minor property damage with my friends," Jana sighed.
"Aw, shaddup, you guys. Be nice or I won't tell you where the boathouse is."
"I had a cigarette there earlier."
"Where haven't you had a cigarette?" Jana snapped. "Your lungs must look like a couple of pieces of beef jerky."
"Aw, shaddup. Look," he said, turning back to Caro, "we could take the little outboard, maybe try to rescue the—maybe try to get the body. Or whatever."
"Forget it," Jana said.
"Fine. Stay here. Alooooone," Todd said, wiggling his brows in a meaningfully scary way. "Hopefully Dana won't come out of her room and decide to decorate your head with another candlestick."
They stared at each other in the rain. Nobody consulted Lynn, but then, why start now?
Mother and daughter exchanged a look. Then, "So, where's this boathouse?" Jana asked, resigned.
Chapter Three"... just through here ... a little bit farther ..."
"That's what you said ten minutes ago," Caro pointed out.
"Well, we're getting close."
Under ordinary conditions—which was to say, when they weren't looking for a dead body in the steadily deepening dark, worried about the killer up at the mansion and being lashed by torrents of rain—this was probably a pleasant little path to the boathouse.
Not so much right now.
"It's just down there," Todd said, pointing. "See?"
They could see a small, squat building with a green roof just at the end of the path, and beyond that, a river gurgled alongside. Caro guessed the river must lead directly to the sea, and they could take the boat around to the back of the mansion, fish the body out, and then ...
She'd worry about that later.
"Is there a reason we aren't leaving this to the owner of the mansion?" Lynn ventured, stumbling in her pumps.
"He might be the dead guy," Caro replied. "And it's a big place. He could be anywhere. Heck, he could have gone back to the mainland after supper for all we know. I don't want to waste time looking for someone we don't even know is alive. I'd rather get to the victim."
"It's touching, yet a little on the creepy side," Todd said. "I'm sure it has nothing to do with your obsessive need to be in charge."
"Here we—ow! Son of a bitch!" Jana cursed and shoved the branches out of her face.
"Jana!" her mother gasped. "Watch your mouth."
"That probably stings like crazy," Todd commented, smothering a snicker.
"Does anyone know how to drive a boat?" Lynn asked timidly.
"I can do it," Caro said. "I used to go fishing with my old man on the Mississippi all the time."
"Aw, that's so cute," Todd said. "And when I say cute, I mean lame. Uh-oh."
Caro didn't ask what uh-oh meant. She and the others had reached the door to the boathouse ... and the lock was smashed and hanging open.
"Dana's smarter than I thought," Todd said. "And that's really saying something—didn't she say she was a teacher?"
"What's so dumb about that?"
"She teaches modeling."
"Her evil knows no bounds," Caro said. "And she knows a few other things, too." Caro poked at the broken hasp. "Well, let's go see how bad it is."
She pushed the door open with tented fingers and walked in. Part of her couldn't believe this was happening to her, would-be author and pediatric nurse. Tramping around in the dark, in a spooky damp boathouse where she could barely see her hand in front of her face. Followed by the three musketeers: Larry, Moe, and Curly. Oh, Lord, what a day. Next time, she told herself grimly, stay home or stay in bed. Possibly both.
She took a deep breath and went in a little farther, feeling like every stupid horror movie heroine ever conceived. She could practically hear people yelling at the screen, "Don't go in there, dumb bitch!"
She kept her flashlight trained in front of her, which was why she didn't see the body at her feet and went sprawling.
"Ouch," Todd said, looking down at her. "That looked embarrassing."
Chapter FourCaro scrambled back, away from the body. She could feel wet muck sliding down her shorts and didn't care. Wet snakes could be sliding down her shorts and she wouldn't care. The body on the floor ... she cared about that.
"Oh, gross!" Jana cried.
"Another body," Lynn gasped.
"Dana's been a busy girl," Todd said. "Where's my lighter?"
"You dropped it on my back," the body said, rolling over and sitting up. The four of them screamed in unison. "Ow! Not so loud ... my head ..."
"You're alive!" Caro blurted. It was the first thing they taught in her nursing courses: determine if your patient is living or dead.
"Unfortunately, yes." The body rubbed the back of his head and squinted up at all of them. "Hey, thanks for coming to get me, you guys. I thought I was a goner when she nailed me."
He got to his feet with some care, then bent, winced, and helped Caro to her feet. She couldn't help staring at him. He was mussed and muddy and a little pale from the blow to his head, but for all that, yummy besides.
Excerpted from "Wicked" Women Whodunit by MaryJanice Davidson Copyright © 2005 by Kensington Publishing Corporation. Excerpted by permission of BRAVA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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