But the case is about Bobby Reynolds, best friend of Tim Murphy, the only guy she's never gotten over. Everyone except Tim believed Bobby murdered his young family--isn't that why he vanished? Now Tim's coming home and Jane's on her way to talk to Bobby's father. Looks like Jane'll be trailing men after all--this time with a tape recorder and a camera. To top it off, she's being trailed by a homely pug named Binky, left to her by a distant relative. With a job she's learning as she goes along and her ex back in town, Jane's life just went from stress-free to completely stressed-out. And then there's the dead body. . .
"Jane will win readers' hearts as she tries to sort out a crime, her love life, and the aspirations of a pug named Binky." --Carolyn Hart
"Funny sex scenes, good drinks and a likable dog lift Bush's first Jane Kelly mystery." --Publishers Weekly
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If I'd known they were about to find a body at the bottom of Lake Chinook, I never would have gotten myself into the whole mess. The lake's deep in places and the Lake Corporation only drains it every couple of years to check the sewer lines running along its muddy bottom. The thought of the little fishy things trolling the waters, chewing off teensy nibbles of human flesh, would have been enough for me to say, "Hasta la vista, baby" and I would have exerted great haste in making tracks.
But I didn't know. And I also didn't know my whole life was about to change. The day I spoke with uber-bitch/lawyer Marta Cornell I was blissfully ignorant of the events in store for me which was just as well. Don't ever tell yourself you're happy with the way things are because that's when everything changes in seconds flat. And not necessarily for the better.
That particular morning — let's call it The Day Jane Kelly's Life Changed, Not Necessarily For The Better — I walked through the front door of the Coffee Nook, breathing hard from the two-and-a-half mile run from my bungalow. I had nothing more in mind than a cup of coffee and maybe a little conversation with friends. I slid onto my usual stool and Billy Leonard sat down next to me.
He said, "How ya doin'?"
I nodded. "Good."
We both ordered basic black coffee. Billy, an ex-I.R.S. man and current C.P.A. whom I turn to for advice about my modest finances, seemed a bit preoccupied. I assumed it was over his kids. Billy has this theory about why there seems to be less ambition and direction among young people in general, and his boys in particular.
As I blew across the top of my cup, Billy said, "I'm a fisherman, y'know? I mean, I fish." He pretended to cast out a line with an imaginary fishing pole.
Maybe I was wrong as Billy appeared to be heading onto a new topic. I carefully tested my drink. Steaming coffee. Sometimes the damn stuff is so hot it burns off the taste buds and a few layers of tongue underneath.
"When you've got a wild salmon, a Coho, on your line, it's like zziinnnggg!" He cast again, this time with more body English.
I watched his invisible line grab an equally invisible Coho. Billy rocked and twisted and generally acted as if Moby Dick himself had swallowed the bait.
My eye traveled past him to a newcomer to the Nook, a woman I didn't recognize. She was thin and small and her hair was completely wrapped in a virulent pink scarf. Wide, round sunglasses covered much of her face which was perched upon a long, white neck. She was a passable Audrey Hepburn. She stood to one side and pretended interest in the glass case of pastries, but I could tell her mind was on something else. I could swear she was playacting, pretending to be thinking over a purchase.
Billy continued, "I mean you know it, y'know? It's fightin' and fightin' and you're rockin' and rollin'." He twisted to and fro and nearly fell off his stool. "Those fish are tough. Really tough. But sometimes you cast out ..." He reeled in again. Actually reeled in. And for just a moment I almost forgot it was all illusion. Once more the imaginary line sailed toward the heads of the other customers whose blank oblivion said more about the hour of the morning than any disinterest in Billy's story. "You get a bite and it's kinda like ... ugh." His shoulders drooped. He jiggled the line with a slack wrist. "He's on, y'know? Grabbed it big time. But there's just no zzziinnnggg." He grimaced and nodded. "Hatchery fish."
Julie, the Coffee Nook's proprietress, asked "Audrey" what she would like. I realized with a jolt that Audrey seemed to be staring across the room at me. She saw that I noticed and quickly murmured something to Julie, then hurriedly walked out of the Nook. Julie shrugged.
I sipped my black coffee. It's a shame, but I struggle with both caffeine and lactose. I'm determined to give up neither. If I ever have to give up alcohol I'll start smoking or doing drugs or indulging in weird sex acts. If I can't have a vice I just don't want to live.
Billy continued, "They don't quite have that survival instinct, y'know?" He sighed and wagged his head slowly, side to side. "Just can't really make it out there. And that's the problem with our kids. They're hatchery fish."
Aha ... he'd managed to pull the allegory back to his favorite subject. Billy's boys were in college, taking a jumble of courses with no clear career path in sight. Most of their friends were in the same boat. I grimaced. Even though I hit the big 3-0 this year and consider myself long finished with higher education, I'm not convinced that I won't be tossed in with these shiftless souls Billy seems to know so much about. My job situation alone might drop me into the loser bin.
"But they'll — they'll figure it out," Billy added. He nodded jerkily as if to convince himself, then ran his hands through his hair, making it stand straight off his head. Billy always looks like he just woke up after a two-week bender. He's so not the three-piece-suit type that his choice of profession almost awes me. But then, I've changed professions so many times that sometimes I think I should tack Misc. after my name. Jane Kelly, Misc.
I asked Julie, "Do you know who that woman was? The one dressed like Audrey Hepburn?"
She shook her head. "Never seen her before. She didn't want anything."
I decided to forget about her. If I started thinking people were watching me, I would become as paranoid as the rest of the world. I turned to Billy and said with conviction, "My brother's a hatchery fish."
"Yep." I hoped this deflection would take the light off me since I definitely preferred the idea of being a wild Coho to a hatchery fish.
Billy considered. "Booth's all right."
I snorted. My twin was a source of irritation to me. Path of least resistance, that was Booth. Christened Richard Booth Kelly, Junior after my shiftless, deadbeat father. Mom, in a moment of belated clarity, decided she couldn't have her children be Dick and Jane and so Booth became Booth.
"Hey, the guy's got a job," Billy remarked.
Yes, Booth was part of the Portland Police Department. I, on the other hand, felt like a poser. I pointed out dampeningly, "The L.A.P.D. breathed a sigh of relief when he left."
"Nah ..." Billy smiled and clapped me on the shoulder. He loves it when I'm grumpy.
My brother did choose a career path while I've seesawed around the whole issue for years. But Booth's reasons are so wily that I can't trust anything he does. During his stint in L.A. I'm sure he spent most of his time patrolling the area around the University of Southern California and hitting on the sorority chicks on 28th Street. I don't think he ever got lucky, but it wasn't for lack of trying. I suppose I should look on his following me out of So-Cal north to Portland, Oregon, as a move in the right direction, but with Booth, you just never know. This isn't to say I don't love him. Family is just a pain in the ass. Ask anyone.
Billy said, "You're a process server, Jane."
I just managed to keep myself from saying, "You call that a job?"
Billy shrugged. A friend of mine Dwayne Durbin, an "information specialist" (current buzzwords for private investigator) fervently believes I have all the earmarks of a top investigator, which means he thinks I'm a snoop. He wants me to hone these skills while learning the biz through him. The idea makes a certain amount of sense as I took criminology courses at a Southern California community college with just that thought in mind. Well, okay, there were other reasons, too — reasons that had everything to do with blindly following after a guy who had a serious interest in police work and whom I was nuts over and who subsequently dumped me. But regardless, I've done a fair amount of classroom training.
As I sat at the counter, I truly believed — at least in that moment — that I could become an information specialist. I had training and a mentor who would guide me into that world. Why not just go for it? I'd been resisting the full-on private investigator gig all the while I'd been in Portland. I'm not sure why. Self-preservation, I guess.
However, for the last six months I'd been working as general dogsbody to Dwayne who sometimes needs to be in two places at the same time. The fact that Dwayne thinks I have the makings of a first-class information specialist worries — and yes, flatters — me. Dwayne's cute in that kind of slow-talkin' cowboy way, but I'm not sure he's really on the level sometimes. Half the time I get the feeling he's putting me on. Sometimes he's enough to make me want to rip out my hair, scream and stamp my feet. (I also have a problem with a name that begins with Dw. I mean ... Dwayne, dwindle, dweeb ... None of those words conjure up an image of a guy I want to hook up with, even professionally.)
But between doing background checks for Dwayne and process serving for some of the people he knows — mainly landlords — I've kept my head above water financially speaking. I keep toying with the idea of selling the Venice four-unit I own with my mother, but that would mean dealing with her in close contact and I've already voiced my feelings on family. Mom lives in one of the upstairs units, and though I love her dearly she's not exactly on my wavelength about a lot of things. Sometimes we struggle just getting through to each other. She's talked about selling the units, but selling entails moving, and she's dropped more than a few hints about making a move from So-Cal to Portland, and I'm damn sure I don't want her to be the next member of my family to follow me north. Booth's bad enough. I'm just not good with either of them. (I'm very self-aware, especially about my failings. Not that this has helped me much, but if pushed to the wall, I'll pull it out as some kind of badge of honor.) I've reminded my mother of this fact many a time. She always looks at me half-puzzled, as if she can't understand how she could have given birth to me. Luckily, she seems to feel the same way about Booth so I've never worried that he was her favorite.
"You were a bartender in Santa Monica, right?" Billy said on a note of discovery. "What was the name of that place?"
"Sting Ray's. Ray being the owner."
"My old man owned a bar. Did I tell you?"
I nodded. On numerous occasions. About as many times as I've told him I used to bartend. Neither Billy nor I worry that we recycle conversations. I also never have to worry that he'll get pissy over my inherent lack of attentiveness. Hey, I was ADD before it was even popular.
"Evict anyone I know lately?" he asked, grinning.
This was a long-standing joke between us. The scary part was that his question might one day become reality as Billy knew a wide, wide range of people around the greater Portland area.
He slid off the stool and turned toward the door. At the last moment he said, "Hey, I ran into Marta last night at Millennium Park. She wants you to do some work for her."
"What kind of work?"
Billy shrugged. "Said she had a job that required tact. You any good at tact?"
"About as good as you are," I said.
"You hear about that kid fell in the lake? He's in a coma in the hospital."
Billy's good at shifting subjects faster than warp speed. I may be ADD but he takes the cake. "What happened?"
"Buncha kids screwing around in a boat." He shrugged. "He fell somewhere and was trying to get back in the boat. Think it happened on the island."
There is one island in Lake Chinook. Circling it is a footpath and guarding this footpath is a black chain-link fence. Enterprising teenagers make a habit of leaping the fence and racing the perimeter, trying to speed all the way around before the island's Dobermans catch their scent.
"He was running around the island?"
"Probably. Mighta tried to jump in the boat from the island. There are a lot of big rocks around that one side. But kids are tough. Don't know what his name is. Julie ... you know?"
"What?" Julie was deep into the whir of a latte, staring into a fat silver cylinder where foam lifted and fell in white waves.
"What the Coma Kid's name is?"
She shook her head. "Everyone's been talking about it this morning. I hope he's okay."
Billy nodded, then waved a good-bye as he headed out. I sent a silent wish that the Coma Kid would be all right. Hadn't we all done something dangerous and stupid in our youth that might have killed us?
I drank some more coffee and my thoughts turned to Marta Cornell. She was the best and baddest divorce lawyer in the city of Portland and probably the entire state. Come to that, she could probably rival anyone in the region. Dwayne was her information specialist of choice, and I'd done a bit of work for her through him. Not pretty stuff. Divorces were messy and ugly and, personally, I'd rather be a process server and evict crack dealers armed with semiautomatic weapons than deal with one of Marta's jobs. (This is a lie as guns generally worry me, but you get the idea.)
But Marta pays well. Dwayne says he'd put her first for money alone. This makes him sound mercenary and maybe he is a little, but you'd never be able to tell by his minuscule cabana off North Shore which makes my bungalow on West Bay look like a palace. Dwayne wants me to move my business to his cabana, but I fear for my independence and my soul. Not to mention I can't see myself working cheek-to-jowl inside Dwayne's living space. This is where the guy resides, after all, and Dwayne just doesn't strike me as the kind of guy I want to get that close to. I have this sneaking suspicion I will turn into his cleaning woman/coffee maker/receptionist and God knows what else.
I finished the rest of my coffee. Every muscle felt stretched out of whack from my run. I don't think exercise can seriously be good for you, but I sure as hell have to keep up with it. The last time I process-served, the woman opened her door, reluctantly accepted the eviction notice I thrust into her hands, gave it one look and howled as if I'd hit her. She then grabbed a broom and whacked me once, hard. I left with one shin smarting and my pride bruised even worse. Talk about killing the messenger. I don't plan on being taken by surprise again.
I wondered what Marta had in store for me. Her jobs tend to be a little more involved than mere process serving. I'd once been asked to drive to Baker — a city plopped way off in eastern Oregon and miles and miles from anything else — and question the locals about the habits of a Portland businessman who'd suddenly grown a hankering for ranch life out in this remote windblown part of the state. His wife wanted to know whom he was ranching with and what she looked like. It turned out the lady in question was surprisingly plump, sweet and homegrown, and I didn't blame the guy one bit when I met the real wife, Marta's client, who was thin, grim, long-nailed and tense. It sorta bothered me to be on her side, so to speak. But, once again, it paid well.
With a last gulp of now cold coffee I gathered up my energy and jogged back to my rundown 1930s bungalow on West Bay, the small body of water on Lake Chinook's westernmost tip. Once upon a time wealthy Portlanders owned summer homes on the man-made lake. Lake Chinook was created by Chinese laborers who dug a canal in the late 1800s and connected the sluggish nearby river to what was by all accounts little more than a large pond, beautifully named Sucker Lake. Now the town thinks it's beyond upscale, and though Lake Chinook is a nice community, I think it's good to remember one's roots.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Candy Apple Red"
Copyright © 2005 Nancy Bush.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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