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Sunrise in a Garden of Love & Evil
By Barbara Monajem
Dorchester PublishingCopyright © 2010 Barbara Monajem
All right reserved.
Chapter OneVampire: a human being with a genetic mutation characterized by, among other things, the appearance of fangs at puberty, an intense craving for human blood, and an irresistible magnetism for the opposite sex. Judging by legend, this particular mutation has existed for millennia, but is still sufficiently rare that most people don't believe such beings exist. D. Tull, Society for the Protection of Not-so-mythical Beings
Ophelia Beliveau jammed her fangs back up where they belonged, puncturing her thumb, so the goddamned things slotted right back down. She sucked on the tiny cut and glared at her devastated garden. Insults? Just words. A dead cat on her doorstep? Disgusting, not to mention creepy, but she should have buried the poor animal earlier when she'd had the chance. But nobody-damn it, nobody-would get away with destroying her garden.
She sealed the wound in her thumb and pushed the fangs back more carefully into their sockets, at the same time running through her options. Smash the guy's garden in return? She couldn't do that to a lot of defenseless plants, although in their current state of neglect they'd soon be candidates for a mercy killing.Maim the bastard? That would just add to the burden for his wife and daughters. Kill him? That had its upside, but where would that leave her own plants while she rotted in jail? Trashed and lonely and unloved. No way. Her garden deserved better.
Ophelia thought and rethought and twisted up inside, and then did what she had sworn never, ever to do. She called the cops.
Gideon O'Toole yanked the cell phone away from his ear. "Artemisia, I can't investigate blackmail unless someone comes forward. Nowhere to start."
The speaker crackled with the force of his sister's voice. "She's scared to!"
"That's why blackmail works," Gideon replied, but Artemisia talked on and on. I am a man of infinite patience, he told himself as he sped down the straight-as-an-arrow Louisiana country road, letting his thoughts wander toward a late lunch at home, toward beer and a steak in the company of his three dogs. "Gotta go, Sis," he said, when she'd had long enough. "Vandalism call. Talk to your neighbor, get her to fess up. There's no other way."
At least his destination was close by: an old trailer on concrete supports with a flower garden, a highly tended lawn, a greenhouse with a row of compost piles stretching behind it toward the woods, and a lot of potted plants. And a shiny green truck with a magnetized sign on the side. All the owner's money must be invested in that truck, Gideon thought, to make the business look prosperous whenever the dude goes to see customers. He'd noted signs advertising Beliveau Landscaping in a few gardens around Bayou Gavotte. Healthy-looking gardens. Well, only an idiot would show off his failures.
Gideon turned his old maroon Mercedes sharply at the Beliveau driveway and pulled in behind the green pickup, startling a gray tabby from underneath to bound rabbitlike across the perfect lawn. Beyond the truck a woman stood in a patch of mud among shattered pots and scattered plants, holding a double-barreled shotgun in her apparently capable hands. She didn't exactly level it at him, but clearly wouldn't hesitate if the occasion arose.
Gideon studied her through the windshield and decided as usual to dispense with proper procedure; she wasn't going to shoot him. He turned off the car and opened the door.
"Who the hell are you?" the woman demanded in a soft, low voice. She glared at him with the coldest eyes he'd ever seen. But that was the only cold thing about her, and as he got out of the car and gaped, his reaction was immediate and overwhelming.
Uncharacteristically disconcerted, he reached awkwardly into his jeans and tried to pull out his ID. He couldn't keep his eyes off her, even while she watched him with patent disgust. "Gideon O'Toole, Bayou Gavotte Police," he said with a fair approximation of poise, and then gave up on that and laughed, bringing the slightest twitch to the woman's lips. Her eyes warmed a fraction, too, though her grip on the shotgun never wavered.
"I suppose you have this effect on all the men you meet, Mrs. Beliveau," Gideon guessed, trying to keep from squirming while he waited for his erection to subside. Ophelia Beliveau-if this was indeed who had called him in-wasn't what he'd call gorgeous. Pretty, with red-brown curls, ripe lovely lips, and a good figure. He liked the look of her, for sure, but she wasn't movie-star material. And she wasn't dressed to attract. She wore a sweat-soaked T-shirt, baggy shorts, and battered work boots, and had dirt on her face and hands, even under her nails. She didn't seem to be smoldering on purpose, unless this was a damn good act. But she gave off such heat, such an air of sexual promise ... Jeez, her husband was a lucky man.
"Damn it," she said, interrupting his thoughts, the ice back in her eyes. "I wanted a uniform and a patrol car. Don't you at least have a flashing light to put on your roof?"
He collected himself. "Sure, but what difference does it make?"
"The difference," she said impatiently, gesturing with the shotgun, "is that I want my jerk of a neighbor who made this goddamned mess to see that I called the cops."
"You know for sure who did this?" Reluctantly, Gideon looked away from her to grimace at the chaos, then at the white contractor's truck next door, and finally at the house. A curtain at the window fell immediately into place. "He's watching us. Did you catch him at it?" Gideon reached through the open window of his Mercedes and retrieved a bubble to set on the roof, blue light flashing.
"Not that neighbor," Ophelia said. "Willy Wyler did it. Lucky for him I didn't catch him. He lives two doors down." She aimed the shotgun at an imposing Colonial house set back from the road, eyeing it through the sights. "I'd shoot him and get it over with, but unfortunately that's illegal, so ..." She lowered the gun and shrugged. Beautifully. "I called you."
Gideon pulled himself together. What was he thinking? She was someone else's wife. He had a way with women, but not other people's. "Willy Wyler. Huh." Lame, incredibly lame.
The shotgun wandered in his direction. "I don't believe this," its owner said bitterly. Beautifully.
He must be going out of his mind. No, his mind was still here, harking back to the beer, the dogs, and the steak. It was his body that was totally screwed-or wanted to be. Damn it, this was a professional call! Stay cool. Ignore the gun. Get the hell out. He closed his eyes briefly. "What don't you believe?"
"I know the cops are in cahoots with the clubs in Bayou Gavotte, but I didn't think the protection extended to drunken has-been musicians. Fortunately, I don't expect you to really do anything." She waved the shotgun toward Gideon's Mercedes. "Do you have a crime-scene kit? All the paraphernalia for making plaster casts? Wyler's already a little scared of me, and if he sees I called the cops, if he sees you making a plaster cast of his tire tracks ... Well, it won't hurt and it might help. So if it's not too much to ask-"
Way too much, under the circumstances. Although they tacitly accepted the fact because of Bayou Gavotte's resultant prosperity, ordinary citizens rarely understood the delicate balance between the cops and the club-controlling underworld. Which was fine, as long as they kept their mouths-luscious or otherwise-shut.
Gideon slowed his already-lazy speech into a thicker drawl. "Yes, I do have a kit in my car, because I make a point of being prepared. You lucked out. You got a detective, when all you needed was a patrol. But if you want my help, you'll drop the crap about police corruption. Right now."
The woman blinked at him with something resembling surprise. "Okay," she agreed pleasantly enough, and turned to walk up the driveway to the vandalized garden.
Laying the shotgun in the bed of her truck, she scowled at the havoc around her. Clay flowerpots sat devastated beside the driveway. Plastic ones had been stomped on and strewn halfway across the lawn. Plants dumped from their containers clung together in a pathetic heap of roots and dirt. "That used to be my vegetable garden," she said of a slew of crisscrossed tire tracks in the mud. "Good thing some of the inventory was inside the screened porch."
Gideon approached. "You keep a lot of stock on hand, Mrs. Beliveau?"
"Not usually. Last week the nursery cut a good deal." She squatted by the pile of dispossessed plants and separated them with strong, deft fingers. Gideon watched through half-closed eyes.
"Why don't you get on with that plaster cast." An order, not a question. Her voice cut into him.
He collected the plaster kit and camera from the trunk of his Mercedes and returned to Ophelia, holding two buckets out with his own unspoken command. Without a word, she took it. He let himself enjoy the sight of her striding toward the hose coiled neatly on the end of the trailer, then turned to survey the three hundred square feet of mud and crushed plant life. It was only the beginning of April, but the Beliveaus had started their new vegetables early and were still reaping the end of the fall plantings. Maybe a few turnips could be salvaged, Gideon decided, although they would probably be leather-tough. Only a few meager plants had been left undamaged. Gideon's eyes widened as he noted the plants at the edge of the garden. Marijuana. Well, well.
By the time Ophelia arrived with the water, he had taken two photos of the cleanest tire track from above and sprayed the track with fixative. He felt her eyes on him as he mixed the plaster, set a wooden frame around the track, and poured the plaster gently in, breaking the flow with his stir stick, adding leaves, pine straw, a few twigs, and other debris to the cast. Too bad the attention was nothing to get hyped about. Everyone thought plaster casts were cool.
"Relatively new tires," Gideon noted, frowning across at Ophelia's truck. "Unlike yours."
"I hope he's watching," Ophelia replied. "Maybe he'll get scared enough to waste four hundred bucks on some more new ones. Well, what do you know!"
A middle-aged, faded blonde, pretty in a haggard way, sidled across the next-door neighbor's lawn. She leaned tensely over the property line as if it were a cliff edge, and came out with a rigid, high-pitched babble. "Ophelia, I'm sorry to bother you if you have company, but I need a cup of sugar."
"Of course you do," Ophelia said. "Lisa Wyler, this is ... What was your name, officer?"
"Gideon O'Toole, Bayou Gavotte Police Force," Gideon repeated, reflecting ruefully that he hadn't made much of an impression if she didn't remember his name. He stood up, stretching, and nodded at Mrs. Wyler, who returned a nervous smile fraught with meaning. She took in the plaster cast and slid her gaze over to the trampled garden, where it briefly lingered on the bedraggled marijuana plants before returning to his face.
"Somebody vandalized my garden," Ophelia said softly. Her tone almost made Gideon's flesh crawl, and it totally spooked Mrs. Wyler; the Beliveau woman certainly knew how to deal out cold and more cold. Gideon controlled the urge to laugh again and thoughtfully regarded the neighbor.
"This lovely policeman's making a plaster cast of the vandal's tire tracks," Ophelia continued, moving closer to Gideon and resting a playful hand on his shoulder. "Isn't that sweet of him?"
Gideon grinned at Mrs. Wyler. He hoped it passed as an evil grin and wondered what the neighbor expected him to do-clap handcuffs on Ophelia then and there because of some weed? Not likely. He had a feeling bondage wasn't her thing.
"I-I gotta go," said Mrs. Wyler, and ran off.
"What about the sugar?" Ophelia called after her.
"I'll ... I'll make do without."
Gideon gave in to some low, delighted laughter, and continued to chuckle softly as he packed up his kit. He wiped the sweat off his brow and smiled at Ophelia. "In this humidity it takes a good while for the plaster to dry. How about if we sit down and you tell me all about it?"
The enjoyment vanished from Ophelia's face. "I don't need you to actually do anything with that tire print, officer. I just wanted to freak Wyler out a little. In case you haven't figured it out, that was his fool of a wife." A trace of regret crossed her features. "I shouldn't have scared her like that. She's a screwup with a drunk for a husband. I'm not usually so unkind."
"I suppose you don't usually call the cops to suit your own purposes, either?" Gideon started laughing again. "Well, you have the act down pat, lady. Right out of a horror movie. You sound like the devil, even if you look like love."
Her reaction was immediate. "Love? That's bullshit. Sex is what I look like, and you know it and so does every other man in this goddamned world." Her eyes narrowed and her voice brimmed with anger-at him, at herself, at her neighbor or whomever, Gideon didn't know.
"Sometimes they go together, sex and love," he suggested, adding after a moment, "or so I've heard. But whatever you look like, I have to fill out an incident report. I'll need a little more information." He returned the kit to his car and brought out the appropriate forms, and she led him willingly enough to a couple of plastic chairs and a table out of the afternoon sun, under an awning at the end of the trailer. He settled himself across from her. "What makes you so sure Willy did this?"
"He's pissed off at me." Ophelia's eyes followed Lisa Wyler into the Colonial. "Looks like such a respectable place, doesn't it? But not all trash lives in trailers."
"He calls you trash? Is that why you're so bent out of shape?"
Ophelia responded with incredible cool. "Like I care what he thinks of me." She snorted, reached under the trailer, and pulled out a pile of half-gallon plastic pots. "I'm bent out of shape because ... because he and his musician friends think they can have any woman they want. I have made it plain to them that this particular woman isn't available, but they don't like to take no for an answer." She separated the pots and set them in two neat rows beside her chair. "This mess is their petty revenge."
Gideon blinked, his brain starting to hum. Wyler and his friends might well want Ophelia-who wouldn't?-but he'd also seen her hesitation. "Is that the only problem?"
"That's not enough?" She was challenging him, smoldering on purpose now, just a touch, just to show him. Damn. Wars would be fought for this woman.
Still, things didn't add up. "What about your husband? Why would Wyler think he can sleep with you?"
"I'm not married," Ophelia said. "And no, I don't have a boyfriend either. I live here alone."
"Oh," Gideon said. "I thought-"
The icy stare was back, this time mixed with resignation. "Of course you did. I'm Beliveau Landscaping. Me, myself, and only I, with occasional help when I need it for installing fountains or planting big trees or laying sod."
"Sorry," Gideon said. "I assumed you were just into gardening, and that's why you're up to your elbows in dirt. I guess you just got back from work." He shifted and repeated with genuine contrition, "Sorry."
She gave a tiny nod that might have been acknowledgment. "Sexual stereotyping is the least of my problems. Anyway, that turd thinks I should be fair game, but I'm not, and he can't handle it. He's on drugs and he's a total dud, and I suppose even the musician mystique can't get him willing partners anymore."
"Trashing your garden seems like a stupid move. There has to be more to it."
"He's a stupid man," Ophelia said with a shake of her reddish brown curls. "I don't want to go into this any further. Thanks for your help. You can go now." Standing, she turned to watch a shiny red pickup head down Wyler's driveway to the road. It turned in the direction of town. "Well, what do you know? Maybe he is going to get new tires! It was worth it to call you, if only for that."
Gideon sauntered back to his car and got on the radio. "Jeanie," he told the dispatcher, "I'm still at Beliveau's place. If there's anyone between here and downtown, tell them to keep a lookout for a red Ford 350 pickup owned by Willy Wyler, who lives a few doors down from Beliveau. Follow him around, see what he's up to. If he tries to buy new tires, get the patrol to hover, make like he wants to see the old ones."
Excerpted from Sunrise in a Garden of Love & Evil by Barbara Monajem Copyright © 2010 by Barbara Monajem. Excerpted by permission.
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