When established house flippers Jazzi Zanders and her cousin Jerod donate a week's worth of remodeling work to Jazzi's sister Olivia, they're expecting nothing more than back-breaking roofing work and cold beers at the end of each long, hot day. With Jazzi's live-in boyfriend and partner Ansel on the team, it promises to be a quick break before starting their next big project-until Leo, an elderly neighbor of Olivia's, unexpectedly goes missing . . .
When the friendly senior's dog tugs Jazzi and the guys toward the wetlands beyond Olivia's neighborhood, they stumble across a decomposing corpse-and a lot of questions. With Jazzi's pal Detective Gaff along to investigate, Jazzi finds her hands full of a whole new mystery instead of the usual hammer and nails. And this time it will take some sophisticated sleuthing to track down the culprit of the deadly crime-before the killer turns on her next . . .
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Sweat dripped in Jazzi's eyes. It stung. She swiped the rest off her forehead. When you roofed a house in Indiana in late August, being closer to the sun only made you cook faster. She glanced at Ansel and Jerod, her boyfriend and cousin, their T-shirts drenched and stuck to their skin, just like hers. Muscles rippled as Ansel spread another layer of shingles over the last row and hit them with his nail gun. Tat, tat, tat. The guns beat out steady rhythms. Usually the sight of her beautiful, blond Norseman in a tight shirt set her hormones atwitter, but not today. He looked just as salty as she felt.
She was keeping up with the guys, the three of them roofing as fast as they could while Thane — who'd bought this long, sprawling ranch-style house with Jazzi's sister, Olivia — had the unfun job of carrying shingles up the ladder to them. It was his house, after all, and they were doing him the favor. The shingles were so hot, they wore gloves to protect their hands.
Jazzi, Jerod, and Ansel had promised to help with renovations between their regular fixer-upper projects. They'd just finished the Victorian on Lake Avenue and sold it before they put a sign in the front yard. They could stall on starting the big, old house they'd bought off Anthony Boulevard. Since Thane's biggest worry had been the ranch's roof, they'd packed their gear on Thursday and shown up here early Friday morning.
The temperatures had been in the seventies when they'd made their promise. Now the heat had climbed into the high eighties, and it was only ten in the morning. They'd started work on the double garage at seven. It took more time than planned, because they had to strip three layers of old shingles and replace most of the plywood beneath them. It was finished now, but the house was so long and angled that they'd be lucky if they got half of its roof done today.
Jazzi smiled when she heard kids' voices, yelling and laughing, on a recess break. A private school bordered the end of Olivia's subdivision. Jazzi loved the sound of kids playing. How teachers could keep their attention on hot August days was beyond her.
She finished her row of shingles, and Thane dropped another stack for her to start on. They kept roofing for another hour before Thane called, "It's too darn hot. We need a couple of beers to cool off."
Finally. A break. They started down the ladder to go inside, the guys first, Jazzi last. When she reached the bottom and turned around, Jerod and Thane were already on their way into the cool air-conditioning, but Ansel was standing there, waiting for her.
"Was I that slow?" she asked.
"You can take all the time you want. I was just enjoying the view."
Her tall Norseman was nothing to snicker at, either. She'd noticed women coming outside to pick a weed here and there just to gape at him. She didn't blame them. Hooking her arm in his, she headed inside for a beer.
The smell of fresh paint smacked her. Voices came from the back rooms. Jazzi's mom and sister were painting the four bedrooms — the only rooms in the entire place that didn't need serious updates. But that's why Olivia and Thane had gotten the property for such a good price. It needed TLC.
They huddled around the kitchen island — a sturdy wooden worktable. Ansel's pug, George, who went everywhere with him, raised his head off the kitchen tile to look at them. The dog might pout if he was left at home, but he wasn't devoted enough to lie outside in the shade while they worked.
Ansel ran a critical gaze over the open floorplan for the kitchen, dining area, and living room — all carpeted. He shook his head. "Who carpets a kitchen?"
After the roof, that was their next project, to rip up all the worn, plush green pile and matching indoor/outdoor kitchen carpet and install wood floors. Jerod grimaced at the worn spots and stains. "I'd do the whole house and get it over with. That way, all the wood would match."
Thane reached for his second beer. "If I were swimming in greenbacks, I'd agree with you, but the bedroom carpets aren't as bad as these. We want to save money and do them later."
Jazzi had been lucky when she remodeled her house. When she and Jerod had bid on the stone cottage in the summer, they got it at a bargain price. They'd meant to sell it as a fixer-upper until she fell in love with the place. Its value was so high, she could borrow enough to redo everything she wanted and still have decent mortgage payments. And then she'd gotten the cherry on top of the cake — Ansel had moved in with her.
Ansel studied the carpet in Thane's hallway that led to the baths and bedrooms. "Jerod's right. All of that plush is going to need to be replaced, but no one wants you to be house poor."
Thane clinked his beer bottle against Ansel's in a salute. "I need enough fun money to go out with you every Thursday while Jazzi and Olivia do their sister supper thing."
Ansel glanced at Jazzi, a smirk on his lips. "Our girls need to bond once a week to be able to put up with us."
"You're lucky it's only once a week," Jazzi shot back. She was just blowing smoke, and he knew it. She didn't think she'd ever get tired of her Viking.
Jerod stood and patted the top of her head. He was almost as tall as Ansel, but bulkier. "You don't appreciate the fact that you're looking at three prime male specimens. All over six feet. All decent-looking. And all holding down good jobs. I hope you girls genuflect and say thank- you prayers every night of the week."
She snorted. Half of what her cousin said was only to bait people. "I'll be sure to mention that to your Franny. Maybe she'll want to light incense and build a shrine." Franny was pregnant with Jerod's third child and was hot and miserable. Worshiping him might not be high on her list of things to do.
Jerod threw back his head and laughed. "Maybe not right now. She'd be tempted to throw something at my head." He started to the door. "Let's hit the roof again. I want to reach the peak sometime today."
She drained the last of her beer. The guys had already finished theirs. The minute they stepped outside, the heat and humidity hit them. They went straight to the ladders. Time to sweat again.
Jazzi glanced at the street and noticed a man — gray-haired, with stooping shoulders — who'd been walking a chocolate Labrador, standing there watching them. He wore a blue, button-down, long-sleeved shirt and tan slacks. A brimmed cap perched on his head. "A neighbor?" she asked.
Ansel and Jerod followed her gaze. The old guy didn't look like he meant to move anytime soon. Ansel and Thane had plenty to say around friends but tended to be quiet around people they didn't know, so they both shrugged and started to the roof.
"Better see what he wants," Jerod told her.
Really? It wasn't her house, but the man was probably just curious. Jazzi walked toward him. "Hello? Can I help you with something?"
When she got close enough, he said, "I'm Leo. I live in the third house across the street, the dark blue ranch with the deep front porch. This is my dog, Cocoa."
She gave a brief smile. She'd like to hurry this along. "I'm Jazzi. My sister and her boyfriend just bought this house. My friends and I came to help them renovate it."
Leo nodded. He was her height, five-eight, and thin. "I always liked the deep red clapboards and the limestone at the double-entry doors. You're not going to change those, are you?"
"They're not in the plans."
"Good. The house needs some work. I understand that. It's in good shape, just dated, like ours. That's what happens when you get old."
Jazzi gave another smile and turned to walk away. "We have plenty to do, but it was nice to meet you." Leo didn't budge. She hesitated. "Is there something you wanted to ask?"
"No. I'm not nosy, you know. Some people accuse me of that, but I just like to keep an eye on things in the neighborhood. I take Cocoa for a walk every morning and late every afternoon."
"Dogs need exercise." She was running out of things to say to him and wanted to get back to work, but he looked sort of lonely and disoriented. She didn't want to brush him off. "How long have you lived here?"
"Fifty-some years. The school wasn't private back then. Our daughter went there. And I played golf every weekend."
When she was on the roof, she'd seen the golf course. It started behind the school and stretched the entire length of the connecting neighborhood. A chain-link fence separated it from the houses. The area's layout was a little odd. Olivia's small addition connected to another one by a narrow, one-lane patch of asphalt, and that neighborhood connected to another that connected to another until an open field stretched to businesses that faced Jefferson Street and heavy traffic. Somewhere, on the far side of the subdivision, Thane said there was a woods and a wetland that led to another busy street.
Jazzi studied Leo. "Do you walk very far?" He looked too frail. Cocoa could drag him behind her if she got too excited.
"Sometimes Cocoa and I make it to the field before we turn around." A decent distance. He must be more fit than he looked. "We both like to walk, and it's nice to get out of the house a bit. My wife's wheelchair-bound. She can stand but not walk. I take care of her, but we both like a little alone time a couple times a day."
It would be hard living with an invalid — for both of them. "I'm sorry to hear about your wife. Caring for her must be a huge responsibility."
He shrugged. "She was in a car accident four years ago. Louisa and I have led happy lives. We have plenty of wonderful memories, and we still have lots of interests."
"That's good." She glanced back at the guys on the roof, nailing down shingles.
He tipped his head, taking the hint. "Better start walking or Cocoa's not going to be happy with me. It's so hot, not many people will be out today."
She almost asked if he stopped to talk to each person on his route. "This is a nice neighborhood. I bet you meet a lot of friendly people on your way."
His expression grew serious. "We're all still a little shaken about Miles. You must have heard about it on the news."
Miles? She tried to remember, but failed.
He said, "Three weeks ago, Miles disappeared from a neighborhood two subdivisions down. Police knocked on everyone's doors. We all knew him, watched him ride by our houses a few times a week. He lived with his parents, and everyone tried to keep an eye on him."
Jazzi shook her head, confused. "How old was he?" She hadn't heard about a child going missing.
Leo pressed his lips together thoughtfully. "In his thirties, but an innocent. He'd suffered a head injury."
How awful. Jazzi had heard something about it. An attractive young man's face had been flashed across the TV screen for a few days, and the police were asking people to report any sightings of him. "He packed all of his things and just left without a good-bye?"
Leo shook his head. "Walked out the door and never came back."
Now she remembered. She hadn't paid much attention at the time. She'd had enough going on after finding Aunt Lynda's body in her attic and Noah Jacobs's body near the septic tank. She didn't realize that the guy who'd disappeared lived so close to Olivia. "Do the police suspect foul play?"
"Not sure, but folks around here think he has to be dead." The dog tugged on the leash, and Leo sighed. "I'd better get going."
She watched him walk away. What a sweet old man, but Olivia had better be careful. He'd try to snag her every time she left the house. Olivia had mad people skills. After all, she and Mom ran a hair salon together, but Leo was lonely. He'd corner her whenever he could.
Jazzi climbed the ladder, tugged on her work gloves, and started nailing her section of shingles. When they stopped to eat lunch, she told Thane what Leo had said about the missing man. She remembered how hard Noah's parents had searched for him when he disappeared. How awful would it be to not know what happened to your child?
Olivia and Mom had already eaten and were painting another bedroom. Strong fumes hung in the air. Jazzi would have liked to tell her sister about the missing man, but it could wait.
Thane wasn't surprised when she told him. "People think he got in a car with the wrong person."
Jerod frowned. "The guy was in his thirties?"
"Not mentally. He'd be easy to talk into almost anything."
Jazzi meant to ask Thane more, but the guys were ready to get back to work. Every time they left the air-conditioning and walked outside, the heat felt more oppressive. It was sweltering in late afternoon, but they worked through it. Even with frequent breaks for water, they felt wrung-out by the time they reached the peak. Tomorrow they'd finish the other side.
The weather man predicted the same heat as today. Jazzi mopped the back of her neck. Saturday was usually their day off. Instead, they were going to melt again. But when they finished, the roof would be done.
When they gathered back in the house again, Olivia and Mom had finished their painting, and her sister offered to order food for everyone for supper. Jerod shook his head. "I'm going home to jump in our pond and cool off. I told Franny I'd grab something to eat on the way home."
Ansel and Jazzi both shook their heads.
"I feel like a limp dishrag," Jazzi said. "We're hitting our pond, too. Then we're going to throw steaks on the grill for supper."
Mom reached for her purse. "Your dad and I have plans for tonight."
"Thanks again for everything!" Thane called after them as they filed out the door. "See you tomorrow at nine."
"Not me," Mom yelled. "I love my girls, but the painting's finished. Doogie and I are meeting friends in Marshall, Michigan, for a historic house tour."
"We'll be here, on time." Jerod slid into his pickup.
Jerod, Ansel, and Jazzi never worked on flip houses on weekends, but for Olivia and Thane, they'd agreed to cram in as much work as possible until Thane had to go back to his job after the end of next week.
Jazzi loved her sister, and it was a good thing. This was a lot more work than they'd first signed up for. It had started with the roof. Then the floors. And then Olivia decided she wanted a new kitchen. And new bathrooms. But they might as well do it now. What was one more week of work here?
On the drive home, when they turned out of the subdivision onto Sycamore Drive, a tall, thin boy was walking on the edge of the street. Jazzi's heart stopped. When they passed him, she craned her neck to get a better view of him. Not Miles. Too young and the wrong coloring. She thought about Noah, the son Aunt Lynda had given up for adoption, and how relieved his dad had been when he came to River Bluffs to claim his body.
Yes, his adopted son was dead. But at least the family knew what happened to him. They could begin closure instead of playing one horrible scenario after another in their minds. She leaned back against the van's seat and wished the same for Miles's family. She hoped they'd learn the truth ... and soon.CHAPTER 2
Saturday morning, Ansel rolled over and pressed his long body against hers. Mmm. This was the way to wake up! Jazzi snuggled closer. She felt him lift himself onto an elbow. He pushed her long hair aside and nuzzled her neck. Delicious tingles radiated through every nerve of her body.
He lowered his lips to her ear and whispered, "Get your fanny out of bed. We promised to finish your sister's roof today."
She opened an eye to glare at him. "You're a tease!"
Laughing, he swung his legs over the side of the sleigh bed. "It's better than waking up to the alarm, isn't it?"
"The alarm doesn't make promises it's not going to keep."
His voice dropped. "I can keep them." Jazzi's breath caught, and he shook his head. "I'm not going to, though. Move it, woman, or we're going to be late."
And Jerod would give them grief. Lots of it. She waved Ansel away. George stretched in his dog bed in the corner, not quite ready to get up. "Your pug's still sleepy. It's the weekend, and he's ready to chill."
With a chuckle, Ansel dug for some clothes. "When isn't he in relax mode?"
He had a point.
They'd showered last night after cooling off in the pond, so it only took a few minutes to get ready. They'd be drowned in sweat again when they finished work today. On a Saturday. Her day. Their house wouldn't get cleaned this week. Not the end of the world. Dust didn't kill you, right?
Jazzi grimaced at her reflection in the bedroom mirror. Her hair hadn't dried completely by the time they crawled into bed last night, and it looked a little funky this morning. She couldn't tame the waves, so pulled them into a thick ponytail. Ansel finished tying his work boots and came to stand behind her.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Body in the Wetlands"
Copyright © 2019 Judi Lynn.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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