DEATH IS A BARGAIN

DEATH IS A BARGAIN

by Noreen Wald

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781943390939
Publisher: Henery Press
Publication date: 01/20/2016
Pages: 220
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.46(d)

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Death is a Bargain

A Kate Kennedy Mystery


By Noreen Wald

Henery Press

Copyright © 2016 Noreen Wald
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-943390-96-0


CHAPTER 1

A midget in a tuxedo swung on a trapeze, missing the outstretched arms of a blonde in a bejeweled leotard. The blonde hung by her heels in mid-air. The midget fell fifty feet into a classic red Volkswagen convertible. Kate Kennedy hoped the car was well-padded.

Scrambling out of the Bug's backseat, followed by three full-size clowns, the midget yelled to the cheering crowd, "Welcome to the second-greatest show on earth."

"Only in South Florida," Kate whispered to her dead husband, Charlie, wishing he was with her, feeling for a fleeting moment almost as if he were.

"The ringmaster's cute, isn't he?" Marlene Friedman, Kate's former sister-in-law and best friend since childhood, grinned. "I once had a fling with a Barnum and Bailey midget in Sarasota at their training grounds. It was after I divorced Walter, but before I married Kevin."

After more than sixty years of girl talk, Marlene could still surprise Kate.

They'd been checking out the Palmetto Beach flea market, scouting out the best available space to sell Marlene's "treasures" or "junk" — the description depending on which one of them was talking. Kate allowed that a shocking pink hula hoop circa 1957 might qualify in either category. But both agreed that things had taken over Marlene's condo.

Since Marlene had been stopping at every table to shop instead of making any attempt to select a site, Kate suggested they get out of the relentless April midday sunshine, grab a hot dog, and watch the free two o'clock performance of the famous Cunningham Circus located in a center ring, complete with a Big Top, smack in the middle of the flea market.

It might not be the second-greatest show on earth, but when two elephants wearing pink boas lined up and danced "as good as the Radio City Rockettes," according to the ringmaster, Kate was enjoying herself so much she sprang for a second round of hot dogs and two more orders of truly greasy, totally delicious French fries.

Marlene laughed. "I hope you brought your Pepcid AC."

"I never leave home without it." Kate shook her head. Her digestive system, like the rest of her, wasn't what it used to be.

The elephant trainer, a perky little brunette dressed in a royal blue drum majorette costume, wielded her baton to prod one of the elephants, poking the animal with more force than Kate deemed necessary.

Her half-eaten French fry lost its flavor. An image of her beloved Westie, Ballou, home alone popped into her head. Kate might be overly squeamish, but her delight dissipated, replaced by a vague, nagging concern for animals. Those in the circus might be mistreated. Was she neglecting Ballou by leaving him alone?

She felt relieved when, to the roar of the cheering crowd, "the second-greatest show on earth" came to an end.

"Marlene, is that you, my girl?" They were stalled at the end of a long line trying to exit the Big Top when a clown — Kate thought he'd been the third one out of the Volkswagen — came up behind them and enveloped Marlene in a bear hug.

"Hello, Sean." Marlene attempted to poke her head around his wild red wig and funny hat, getting greasepaint on her cheek. "Kate, say hello to Sean Cunningham. Sean, this is Kate Kennedy, my best friend and sister-in-law."

Marlene never added the qualifying "former" when explaining their kinship. Somehow, that pleased Kate.

"Charmed, I'm sure." The wiry little man spoke in a soft, lilting, not-quite-a-brogue voice.

He removed a huge glove, then awkwardly twisted around to shake Kate's hand. His oversize shoes were firmly planted against the outside of Marlene's sandals, making it impossible for her to move.

Where had Marlene met this clown?

"Do you dance, Kate?" The lilt lingered. Irish born? Or an affected accent?

"We met at Ireland's Inn." Marlene squirmed, trying to get free of his feet. "Back off, Sean. I can't breathe."

"Sorry, my pet." Sean two-stepped in reverse, almost knocking Kate over. How did he walk in those clodhoppers?

"Ah, yes. Ireland's Inn. Great music there. I'm what you might call a regular. On more than one happy occasion, Marlene and I have shared a slow dance and a wee drink." Sean winked at Kate. "You'll have to stop by sometime. I do a mean cha-cha."

"I don't dance," Kate lied, sounding cold and convincing.

Marlene glared at her.

Sean, seemingly unfazed, smiled. "What brings you two lovely ladies to the circus?"

"Junk." Marlene laughed. "We're looking for a table or a booth in the flea market where I can get rid of mine. But I'm a junkie, so I kept buying, until Kate dragged me to the matinee."

"Admitting your addiction is the first step." Kate, guilty as charged of compulsive neatness, felt her sister-in-law had just made a major breakthrough.

"Yes, I guess I'm ready." Marlene sighed, then licked her lower lip. "Say, Sean do you know of a good location?"

"It would be my great pleasure to assist you. Why, I have the perfect spot in mind, don't I?" Sean, not without difficulty, turned full circle, aiming his big shoes toward the exit. "Follow me, girls."

Any illusion of glamour had vanished with the human and animal performers. The center ring, shorn of fancy costumes and colorful banners, looked gray and grimy.

With the stadium-style seats empty, the smell of manure trumped the odors of half-eaten hot dogs, crumpled, grease-stained containers, and the remnants of relish, mustard, and stray pieces of popcorn littering the dirt floor.

From behind a red velvet curtain, Kate heard a muffled moan. Could it be the elephant the trainer had prodded? Or had she only imagined the sound?

She tripped over a crushed Coke can and, though the open space was vast, felt trapped. She'd never forgotten I Love You Honey, But the Season's Over, a book she'd read decades ago, chronicling a small-town girl's doomed love affair with a handsome, itinerant circus performer.

To escape the Big Top — this very minute — Kate Kennedy would have followed Sean Cunningham to Hell.

CHAPTER 2

Compared to what Kate had seen of the rest of the flea market, the spot Sean led them to seemed like heaven.

They'd exited into a clean corridor under an air-conditioned, canopied tent only steps away from the circus. The air felt crisp and comfortable, motivating the, though junk-food fed, well-entertained circus patrons to stop and buy from the vendors.

The setting may have improved; however, the clown's deteriorating appearance had gone from distasteful to disgusting. Makeup had caked in the deep creases on his cheeks and when he wiped his still sweaty — despite the burst of cold air — forehead, he removed most of his left eyebrow and stained the back of his right hand.

Kate tried not to recoil, reminding herself that first impressions can be misleading, that Sean was probably a fine man, and that she was too damn fussy and fastidious for her own good.

Her upset stomach, its level of acidity a strange but often accurate harbinger of trouble, suggested a different scenario.

Could the cause of her distress be the empty table?

Six tables/booths were positioned, three on each side of the busy corridor. Five were drawing long lines of customers, so dense that Kate couldn't see the vendors. One table was barren, its metal top exposed and ugly in its nakedness. No merchandise. No seller. No buyers.

"Prime space." Sean pointed to eager shoppers, still queuing up. "Hundreds of folks pass through here every day on their way to and from our circus." He sounded proud of the family business.

"The location manager never mentioned this area." Marlene beamed, seeing the same dollar signs as Kate.

"He's not a Cunningham, is he?" Sean yanked a large, none-too-clean handkerchief from a deep pocket in his roomy plaid pants and took another swipe at the greasepaint. His face now resembled a Dalí painting. "We decide which vendors work the corridors off the circus."

Beware of clowns bearing gifts. Kate's stomach lurched anew.

"The Dewar's guy died Sunday night." Sean jerked a thumb at the bare table. "We removed his shelves and packed up his wares yesterday. A great loss. We're all going to the service on Thursday. Both the corridor and the circus will be closed in honor of our very own Whitey Ford. His real name was Bob, but his nickname was a no-brainer, he looked just like the Yankee pitcher. Same blond hair. Same slim frame. And, funny enough, Whitey had the largest collection of Dewar's pitchers in the country."

"How did Whitey die?" Kate remembered seeing the real Whitey Ford pitch at Yankee Stadium, Charlie cheering so loudly he'd lost his voice.

"According to the cop who called me, he'd been lounging in the bathtub watching a Seinfeld rerun. The TV fell in the tub." Sean shrugged. "Curtains."

"An accident?" Marlene ran her hand across the scarred metal table.

"Yeah." Sean nodded. "An accident."

Kate found his nod oddly eager, like a naughty puppy looking for approval.

"Whitey had been drinking. The cops found a pitcher half-filled with scotch and an empty glass on the top of the hamper next to the TV."

Kate had read the story — buried on the bottom of page four in this morning's Sun-Sentinel — just a few lines about a man with no family dying at home alone. Nothing about Bob Ford's Yankee nickname. Nothing about his passion for Dewar's pitchers. Nothing about his booth in the flea market.

"Let's go over to the office and sign the lease." Sean grabbed Marlene's elbow. "By the time we get you all set up, the matinee crowd will be gone, and I'll introduce you to the ladies and gentlemen of the corridor."

"Sean, wait up!" A high-pitched voice stopped their slow procession toward the tent's flap.

The young animal trainer — she appeared to be about twenty, the same age as Kate's oldest granddaughter — had changed from her blue satin majorette outfit into jeans and a tight black t-shirt with requisite midriff exposure, and was weaving her way to Sean's side.

"Donnie, what do you want?" Under the grotesquely smeared makeup, Kate watched Sean's face light up. No fool like an old clown.

The girl thrust a damp towel and a jar of cold cream at Sean.

"Clean your face, Mr. C, or these ladies will be embarrassed to be seen with you." She smiled, showing small, even white teeth, and held out a hand to Kate. "I'm Donna Viera, ma'am, pleased to meet you."

And Sean calls you Donnie, Kate thought. Before she could respond either with a handshake or a greeting, the girl had moved on to Marlene.

"Mrs. Kate Kennedy and Ms. Marlene Friedman," Sean paused, as if seeking approval from Marlene for remembering to call her Ms. Score one for the clown. Marlene so disliked being addressed as Mrs. or, God forbid, Miss. "Say hello to South Florida's finest animal trainer."

Kate started as Marlene shook hands with "South Florida's finest animal trainer."

"What's wrong, Mrs. Kennedy?" Though Donna's tone conveyed concern, her navy blue eyes were cold.

Should Kate wave a red flag? Why not? She'd discovered one of the true joys of growing older was the ability to speak her mind and damn the consequences. "I was thinking about a cry I heard just before we left the circus. It sounded like an elephant moaning."

"You have good ears, Mrs. Kennedy." Donna's eyes flashed. "Edna, our youngest dancer, had a thorn stuck under her big toe. I removed it right after the show. She did moan a bit, I'm afraid."

"No anesthesia, I gather." Even to herself, Kate sounded like a prosecutor.

Donna laughed. It sounded cold. "Would you use anesthesia to remove a splinter, Mrs. Kennedy?"

Knowing when to fold, Kate said, "Only a local on my son, Kevin. Though he grew up to be a firefighter, he hated to have a splinter removed. I guess nursing a frightened child has left me overly sympathetic."

"Well, if you like, I can arrange for you to visit the patient."

Snide, Kate thought. "Yes, thank you. I'd love to." Kate kept smiling. "Maybe when we return from signing our lease."

"Maybe tomorrow, Mrs. Kennedy." Again Donna's dark eyes belied the lightness of her words. "I still have to groom the animals. And we have another show tonight at seven thirty."

"Then we're off, ladies." Sean had cleaned up, his naked face a pudgy mass of freckles, wrinkles, and jowls. "They close the office at five."

"Whoa," Donna said. "Are these ladies taking over Whitey Ford's spot?"

"Well, yes." Kate thought she heard a quiver in Sean's voice. Why would an employer be afraid of an employee?

"You can't even wait until the body's cold to turn a profit, can you?" Donna grabbed the dirty towel and the cold cream jar. "Shame on you, Sean Cunningham. You're no better than a ghoul!"

CHAPTER 3

While Sean had appeared intimidated by Donna Viera, the Palmetto Beach Flea Market's location manager, a Hobbit-like middle-aged man, fawned over Sean. His many variations of "Yes, sir, Mr. Cunningham" took pandering to a new low. As Marlene signed the "special conditions" — short-term, low-rent — lease, Kate wondered if the Cunningham family owned a controlling share of the flea market as well as the circus.

The small, ordinary business procedure, with handshakes all around, capped with Marlene's flowery Palmer Method-style signature, stirred up memories of Charlie, who'd died clutching the pen he'd used to close on their Ocean Vista condo.

A heart attack. Alive one moment, gone the next. And a big chunk of Kate's heart had gone missing too. Oh, she could feel emotion. She fiercely loved her two sons, adored her two beautiful granddaughters and her dearest friend, Marlene. She even, if in a more limited fashion, loved her daughter-in-law, Jennifer. But romance — any semblance of real passion — had died with Charlie. After almost a year, that void still hurt.

Walking back from the shoddy trailer that served as the flea market's office to Marlene's and her new place of business, Kate felt a sense of excitement. A poor substitute for passion, yet the spark tingled. She hadn't held a job for over forty years, not since she'd flown as a stewardess. She and Marlene had agreed that 30 percent of the profit would be hers. She couldn't wait to get to work. Or to get out of the oppressive heat and humidity.

The South Florida sun, even at five thirty, remained strong. Kate, so fair-skinned she always wore 40-plus sunscreen, pulled the brim of her soft straw hat down over her ears and stared at the scorched-to-brown grass.

But what a day. They'd driven into the flea market under a bright yellow arch reminiscent of a supersized McDonald's. The entrance, located off Neptune Boulevard several miles west of I-95, led into a field of crisp green grass, thick and trimmed. At nine forty-five a.m., their receipt, marked "642," indicated that 641 cars, with God only knows how many passengers, had beaten them to market.

The outdoor tables closest to the arch and the parking lots sold pretty things: flowering plants, their blooms a riot of hot pink and purple. Hand-painted, ceramic Chinese garden seats. Antique — or created to look antique — Chinese fish pots. White enamel rocking chairs and small end tables, designed to remind the buyers of furniture once found on grandma's front porch. Everything reflected the shabby chic so popular in the late nineties and remaining in demand at this flea market.

A wide-striped canvas deck chair had caught Kate's attention, flooding her with memories of long-ago lazy summers and the blue and white horizontal stripes on the chaise-like beach chair her father had set up every Saturday morning on the sand at Rockaway Beach more than half a century ago.

Marlene, seemingly enchanted by the array of merchandise, had said, "Shouldn't we get a table here?"

Kate had asked and learned that these vendors parked their vans in the lot nearest the entrance. They had a mighty long haul every morning at seven, moving their wares from the vans to the market, then setting up those attention-getting displays. Marlene concluded she and Kate absolutely had to have an indoor location.

Trekking through the air-conditioned tents, Kate had worried about profit versus operating costs, while Marlene shopped. How would Marlene's "junk" or even her "treasures" generate enough income to defray the rent on an inside table/booth? These out-of-the-sunshine vendors sold upscale items: fine jewelry, cashmere sweaters — oddly enough, very popular in South Florida — and designer shoes and handbags. Or damn fine imitations.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Death is a Bargain by Noreen Wald. Copyright © 2016 Noreen Wald. Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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