Flamethrower (Ruby Murphy Series #3)

Flamethrower (Ruby Murphy Series #3)

by Maggie Estep

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Overview

In the newest Ruby Murphy mystery, New York’s inadvertent sleuth discovers more about her shrink than she could have ever imagined as the doctor turns the tables, enlisting her help in the hunt for a one-legged man who’s been kidnapped and hidden in the Rockaways. Life gets even stranger when Ruby is inexplicably fired from her job at the Coney Island Museum, her friend Violet’s best racehorse is suddenly put up for sale, and a blue Honda begins shadowing Ruby’s every move as she journeys into the wilds of Pennsylvania in search of the woman she always thought had all the answers.

Between her apartment that is spitting distance from the Cyclone rollercoaster, the barn deep in a no-man’s-land where she stables her horse, and the racetrack that is consuming her boyfriend, Ruby already knows her share of eccentric New York misfits. But in Flamethrower, she may have finally met her dangerous match.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307523815
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 03/31/2010
Series: Ruby Murphy Series , #3
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Maggie Estep is the author of five works of fiction: Diary of an Emotional Idiot, Soft Maniacs, Love Dance of the Mechanical Animals, Hex, and Gargantuan. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Visit her website at maggieestep.com.


From the Trade Paperback edition.

Read an Excerpt

Flamethrower


By Maggie Estep

Three Rivers Press

Copyright © 2006 Maggie Estep
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1400082730

1.



If the day had been any brighter, it would have exploded. Ruby pushed her five-dollar sunglasses so far up the bridge of her nose that her eyelashes smashed against the lenses. This didn't help. She still felt invaded. Seemed like post-Giuliani Manhattan just kept getting garishly brighter, like the whole damn town was ready to blow.

Ruby stood tapping her foot against the sidewalk in front of the doctor's office. The Psychiatrist was uncharacteristically late, and Ruby started hoping Dr. Jody Ray had forgotten their appointment. Two more minutes and Ruby would gladly give up and go home to Coney Island, where, in spite of the bawdy amusement park and the broadness of sky over ocean, Ruby didn't need sunglasses even when walking on the beach at high noon.

Today wasn't a hot day. Anything under 80 and Ruby, who speculated that her personal genetic code was less removed from that of lizards than most people's, tended to get a chill. This day, weighing in around 75 degrees, was bearable but not the kind of bordering-on-tropical heat that made Ruby feel good all over. She was barely warm enough in a red halter-top and jeans.

Ruby considered lighting a cigarette but decided against it in case The Psychiatrist did suddenly appear. It would be one more thing to discuss. Ruby's total lack of regard for the well- being of her lungs. Truth of the matter was, Rubyliked her lungs fine, but she liked cigarettes even better. There had been valiant attempts to quit. Entire weeks spent putting in extra miles on her bicycle, gnawing a huge wad of Nicorette gum, breathing hard through her nose when the urges came. Eventually, some minor life detail would catch her off guard. The tension would build and, after a ten-minute moral struggle, Ruby would hightail it to the bodega at the corner of Surf and Stillwell to buy a pack of Marlboro Lights. She would barely make it out of the store before frantically ripping through the cellophane, extracting a cigarette, lighting up, and inhaling deeply, savoring the violation of her lungs. Afterward, Ed would smell the smoke on her and complain. Why? he'd ask, giving her that pained look. Ed liked Ruby's lungs too. In theory, Ed liked the entire five feet and four inches of Ruby Murphy, but it hadn't felt that way to her lately. Another thing to avoid telling The Psychiatrist. Providing Dr. Jody Ray ever showed up.

A whisper-thin young woman walked by, talking on a cell phone as her small white dog strained on its leash. The animal pulled its way right over to Ruby and began wagging its abbreviated tail, looking up at Ruby with limpid brown eyes. As Ruby bent down to pet the dog, the young woman yanked at the leash.

"It's okay. I love dogs," Ruby said.

The woman looked at Ruby blankly, said, "Hold on, Jerry," into her phone, then reached down, scooped the dog under her arm, and walked away, angry at her pet's forcing an unscheduled human interaction.

Ruby reflected that she'd like to have a dog. Instead, she had four cats. Furry sociopaths. It was slightly embarrassing. Even the pet food store people spoke to her gently, as if she weren't firing on all cylinders. It hadn't been Ruby's idea to have four cats. Two were hers; the other pair belonged to Ed. He had moved in a year earlier, mingling his few possessions with hers and adding his two cats to the tally. It was like a farm in their apartment. A farm above a Russian furniture store within spitting distance of the Cyclone roller coaster.

A cab suddenly veered to a stop a few feet in front of Ruby, its nose coming within inches of ramming a hydrant on the sidewalk. The back door was flung open and out came Dr. Jody Ray. She was all legs and white skirt suit. Her natural red hair caught the sun and held it.

"I'm so sorry, Ruby. There was terrible traffic," The Psychiatrist said.

"That's fine," Ruby drawled even though she'd rushed to make it there on time.

Ruby watched The Psychiatrist descend the three steps to the office door. Ruby felt mischievous and asked, "How are you?" Knowing full well that Dr. Jody Ray would deflect the question.

The Psychiatrist pivoted her head, looked Ruby in the eyes, and said: "Fine, thank you."

Ruby was delighted. For the first year of the doctor/ patient relationship, Jody Ray had refused to answer direct questions and had invariably thrown questions back at Ruby in a cliched way that stank three states away. The Psychiatrist still didn't volunteer many personal details, but she'd at least conceded to giving Ruby a ballpark figure of fine or very well. Even if it was a lie. Which, in this instance, it would prove to be.

As Ruby followed Jody Ray into the waiting room, she felt very tired. Ruby was no longer young. Well, to someone living in a retirement community she was. To herself, she was of moderate age. To the casting agent Ruby had once met with for three minutes (at the urging of an actor friend who'd been convinced that Ruby's slightly odd but intriguing looks could yield lucrative bit parts on television shows), Ruby had been very old. When Ruby admitted to being thirty-four, the casting agent made a horrified face that savaged fifty grand worth of plastic surgery, and, in a stage whisper, urged that Ruby never admit to this again.

"You're nineteen," the casting agent said. Ruby laughed. The casting agent never called, and Ruby continued in her downwardly mobile job at the Coney Island Museum. The job had gotten more interesting lately. Her boss, Bob, who ran both the sideshow and the museum, had decided to start a sideshow school. For a nominal fee, a civilian could learn to eat fire, drive nails up his nose, or walk on broken glass. The small but endless parade of applicants enlivened the atmosphere of the dusty little museum. There were worse fates than working there. And Ruby had experienced some of them. For example, one of her lovers had been murdered in front of her eighteen months earlier. Which was why Ruby first came to knock on Dr. Jody Ray's door. Ruby's life was not always easy, but it wasn't the sort of life where murder was commonplace. She would never get over it completely. She needed help.

The Psychiatrist was now standing in the middle of the waiting room, hunting for something in her yellow leather purse. Ruby let her eyes drift over the room. The walls were still a flat white. The loveseat was, as ever, covered in flower-motif brocade. To its right was a low table on top of which sat an immense fish tank, its inhabitants swimming and occasionally puckering their mouths. There were three office doors off the waiting area, but Ruby seldom saw the other psychiatrists whose names were engraved into a brass plaque on the front door. Ruby occasionally bumped into their patients in the waiting room and vigorously speculated about what might be wrong with them, but she almost never saw the other doctors.

The Psychiatrist seemed confused about which key opened her office door. As Ruby watched this uncharacteristic fumbling, she observed that Dr. Jody Ray's fingernails were chewed down. Ruby thought it was strange that she'd never noticed this before, stranger still that The Psychiatrist was a nail-biter. She was such a poised woman. Ruby was tempted to comment on the bitten nails. To ask exactly how a woman who evidently felt compelled to chew herself might be qualified to uncloud anyone's subconscious. Ruby stifled the urge.

The Psychiatrist at last fitted the correct key in the door and pushed it open. Ruby followed her in then flopped into an overstuffed armchair. She closed her eyes and listened to The Psychiatrist rustling as she settled herself. Familiar, soothing sounds. A depositing of the purse on the small bookcase under the window. The barely audible smoothing of the skirt. A shifting of weight as The Psychiatrist made herself comfortable.

Ruby waited ten or so seconds after the settling sounds had stopped. Then she waited longer. She enjoyed forcing The Psychiatrist to speak first.

"So," The Psychiatrist finally succumbed, "how was your week, Ruby?"

"Oh fine," Ruby said, wondering why she was lying. "How was yours?"

There was a tiny intake of breath followed by a startling response. "I've had better weeks, to be quite frank."

"Oh?" Ruby said, feeling a small thrill at the revelation.

"Yes. But please talk about yourself now." The Psychiatrist scowled at Ruby and, in that moment, looked old. Though the casting agent would have urged Jody Ray to claim herself barely thirty, The Psychiatrist, Ruby knew, was forty-five. Dr. Jody Ray took excellent care of herself. There was probably an exercise regime, vitamins, regular full-body exfoliation, and vigorous use of a drawer full of sex toys in addition to the appealingly dark and scruffy husband Ruby had met once. Ordinarily, Jody Ray looked to be in her mid-thirties. But just then, with a beam of afternoon sun snaking its way through the venetians, spotlighting a network of wrinkles around The Psychiatrist's eyes, Jody Ray looked old.

Ruby started feeling like a heel for playing games with The Psychiatrist. She launched into the first complaint.

"Ed is obsessed with that new horse I mentioned last session," Ruby offered. The Psychiatrist nodded slightly. She was used to hearing about Ruby's horse-trainer boyfriend's workaholism. How he lived and breathed horses. How he talked horses in his sleep. How he forgot to eat or bathe sometimes because his head was clouded with horses.

"He's spent two nights sleeping at the barn with the damn horse instead of coming home. I've been thrown over for a knock-kneed horse," Ruby said.

"Knock-kneed?" The Psychiatrist asked.

"Yes. Juan the Bullet is a knock-kneed New York breed. And he's tiny. He's a nice horse, but not that nice. Maybe Ed's obsessed with the horse because there's something missing between us."

Life had come into The Psychiatrist's eyes. She liked horses. It wasn't a girls-and-horses thing. Ruby found the whole girls-and-horses thing offensive and degrading to horses. No. As far as Ruby knew, The Psychiatrist did not walk around harboring erotic feelings for horses. The Psychiatrist's husband owned several racehorses trained by Ruby's friend Violet. It was Violet who'd introduced Ruby to The Psychiatrist after Ruby had watched Attila Johnson being murdered. Yes. Ruby's murdered lover had been named after a Hun. Ruby didn't remember how the original Attila had met his end, but her Attila had been shot by a sociopath. In front of her. After shooting Attila, the sociopath had left the scene of the crime. He had never threatened Ruby herself. He had left her there with her dead lover. There hadn't been a working phone in the place, and Ruby had stayed for hours, cradling Attila's lifeless head in her hands. Afterward, this image had haunted her. The blood from the small, neat bullet wound drying on her fingertips. The once vivid blue eyes paling as death did its work. Now, after sixteen months of visits to The Psychiatrist, the image was beginning to fade. The haunting would never stop, but the image was fading.

"All Ed thinks about is that damned horse," Ruby added after a pause.

"But it's probably not even about the horse," The Psychiatrist offered.

"Well then what?" Ruby asked. "He's sick of me, and the horse is an excuse?"

"Not sick of you. But avoiding something."

"Yeah. Me."

"Maybe you two need to talk."

Ruby shrugged. She felt something then. Something crawling down her neck. Maybe someone was walking on her grave. Maybe someone was talking about her. Maybe Ed was talking about her. Or thinking about her. One could only hope. The crawling went all the way down her spine and tucked itself into her tailbone. She suddenly needed to pee.

"I'm sorry, but I have to use the bathroom," Ruby said, feeling a slight thrill at this announcement. She'd never had to get up in the middle of a session before. This was new turf. Ruby loved new turf.

"By all means, please," The Psychiatrist said.

Ruby rose from her chair. As she pulled The Psychiatrist's office door closed behind her, her tailbone began to throb. She stood looking around at the small waiting room. The couch was in its place. The fish tank rested, as ever, on its low table. Ruby took a few steps toward the fish tank, suddenly feeling guilty over never having cared about the fish. Hailing from a family of borderline personalities who were indifferent at best to fellow humans but obsessively empathetic to creatures great and small, Ruby was supposed to care about fish. But she rarely looked at these or any fish. She made up for this now by staring into the tank. The fish were glorified goldfish. One was white with black spots, like a paint horse. The rest were orange. For some reason, they were all congregating at the bottom left corner of their tank, steering clear of a big thing that was taking up a good portion of real estate. Ruby wondered what the thing was. It was bluish white and, at its end, where it nubbed up against the bright green fish-tank pebbles, there was something that looked like toes.

Ruby's spine was on fire.

At the other end of the thing, the end sticking out of the tank, there was gore. Blood. Ruby blinked and took two steps closer. The fish were in very tight formation, squeezing next to one another as they tried to avoid contact with what appeared to be the lower half of a human leg. It occurred to Ruby that, in spite of the realness of the gore at the end of the leg, maybe this was a plastic leg. A prank by a disgruntled patient--maybe the chatty woman with flowing white hair who often emerged from her appointment with one of the other psychiatrists right when Ruby emerged from hers. Ruby mistrusted chatty people. Their chattiness was either a side effect of psychiatric medication that gave them verbal diarrhea or, alternatively, a sign of profound stupidity. To Ruby, excessive talking was one of the biggest offenses in the book. Right up there with pedophilia and bestiality. Maybe the chatty white-haired woman had snapped at having no one to chatter at and had put a plastic leg in the fish tank to make the world pay for its collective sin of not listening to her.

Ruby took one more step toward the leg. This is no plastic leg, Ruby thought. But it still didn't seem real.

Ruby reviewed her mental pictures of the previous half hour. She remembered glancing at the fish tank on the way into The Psychiatrist's office. There had not been a leg in the tank at that time.

Continues...

Excerpted from Flamethrower by Maggie Estep Copyright © 2006 by Maggie Estep. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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