Authors: Olive Balla
An Arm and a Leg
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales, is entirely coincidental.
An Arm and a Leg
COPYRIGHT © 2014 by Olive Balla
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission of the author or The Wild Rose Press, Inc. except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.
Contact Information: [email protected]
Cover Art by
Tina Lynn Stout
The Wild Rose Press, Inc.
PO Box 708
Adams Basin, NY 14410-0708
Visit us at www.thewildrosepress.com
First Mainstream Mystery Edition, 2014
Print ISBN 978-1-62830-607-1
Digital ISBN 978-1-62830-608-8
Published in the United States of America
To the men in my life:
my husband Victor
my sons Kevin, Patrick and James O’Donnell
—my fiercest cheerleaders
Dr. Dennis Burns, Professor of Pathology;
APD Detective Christine Munsey;
Author Bonnie Tharp;
Proof Reader Susan Welch;
Beta Readers Vivian Maheu and Nancy St. John.
And special thanks to my amazing editor,
In an empty house.
Certainly not what Frankie O’Neil had intended. But then, not much of her life had turned out as she’d intended. She stood in the center of the room that would become her den, sighed and chewed on her thumbnail.
She should be filled with euphoria at the purchase of her first home. Should be flitting from room to room, arms and hair flying in joyous celebration. And she would have been, had there been someone special with whom to share it.
But that chapter of her life was done. Done and best left in the past. Especially since it was her fault, her failure that had brought her here. Step right up folks and take a gander at the life lesson in her solitary habitat.
At least, Frankie told herself, she was making progress. She was moving forward, getting on with her life, making better choices. Just, by gosh and by golly, getting better and better every day and in every way. She snorted at her bastardized version of the old mantra, the derisive sound reverberating through the empty room.
The house itself was the perfect oasis. With eighteen-inch-thick adobe walls, arched doorways, and a heavy pole-beamed ceiling common to Albuquerque during the early 1900s, Frankie had loved the eighty-year-old house on sight. The lot on which it sat, a tad over an acre, was located just where the Albuquerque city limits curved upward toward the Sandia Mountains. Those mountains, bathed red in the afternoon sun, had called to her, and she’d plunked down most of the cash inherited from her Uncle Mike as a down payment. She’d had just enough money left to buy curtains and a few items of furniture.
The ringing Big Ben doorbell interrupted her thoughts. The unexpectedly loud sound reverberated through the empty space and sent her heart rate into the stratosphere.
Making a mental note to dial down the bell’s volume, she pushed an auburn curl behind her ear, stood on tiptoes and peered through the peephole. She slid back the deadbolt and opened the door.
“Hey, Little Brother, you’re up early this morning.”
“Hi, Sis. Got a minute?”
“Sure.” Frankie stepped to the side, pulled the door open wider and held it while her brother crossed the threshold. “Come in out of the cold.”
Tim O’Neil tossed his car keys into a wooden bowl on the floor next to the front door and headed toward the living room. His usually squared shoulders sagged, and his short brown hair looked like a well-worn pot scrubber. His shirt and trousers, always immaculately pressed, looked as if they’d spent several weeks stuffed inside a too-small box. With red-rimmed gray eyes and a stubble-stippled face, he bore little resemblance to the well-known and respected doctor he was in the process of becoming. The oddly-shaped, ratty duffel bag he carried added to the down-and-out image.
He crossed to the stucco fireplace and sat cross-legged on the bare, red brick hearth in front of it. The duffel he placed on the floor beside him.
“Still no furniture?” His voice echoed through the hollow space.
“Everything was supposed to be here yesterday afternoon.” Frankie pursed her lips. “But some of it’s been back ordered. At least the electricity’s on and I have appliances. Most of my clothes and things are still in boxes in the garage.” She shrugged. “I told the furniture store to hold the new stuff until after I get back.”
“About that.” Tim ran his hand through his hair several times, mussing it even more. “I know it’s your vacation, but I’d like to tag along just for a couple of days.”
“Of course, it’s your cabin too.” Frankie looked more closely at her brother’s ragged face. “If I didn’t know you better, I’d swear you’ve just come off a bender. What’s going on?”
“Nothing I want to talk about.” He hunched his shoulders in his bullheaded mode.
“Okaaay.” Frankie’s voice became playful in an effort to lighten her brother’s mood. “Let me guess, you decided to drop out of medicine and travel the world to find yourself.”
She was surprised to see the strain around Tim’s mouth when he raised his head and swiveled it toward her. “What part of ‘I don’t want to talk about it’ don’t you understand?”
Frankie’s smile dissolved like an effervescent cold remedy in water. “What the hell. Where’s all the defensiveness coming from?”
Tim blew out a long breath through puckered lips. “Look, I didn’t come here to get into an argument.” He stood, lifting the duffel by its straps. The weight of whatever was in the bag pulled the nylon handles taut. “Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.”
Frankie stepped toward her brother and touched his arm. “Lighten up. You know you’re welcome to come with me. I won’t ask again, but if you want to talk, I’m here.”
Tim’s face relaxed a bit and he breathed out a long sigh. “I’m sorry, Sis. Got a lot on my mind.”
“No harm done. At least your timing’s good. Let’s get a move on. I want to get to the cabin by mid-afternoon.”
She walked to the hall closet. Careful to position herself between Tim’s line of vision and the boxes, cans, and bags of food stacked there, she opened the door only enough to slip an arm inside and retrieve her nylon windbreaker. It wouldn’t do for Tim to catch a glimpse of her collection of provisions. He’d just start asking questions, and she was neither in the mood to come up with a reasonable explanation nor to scramble for words to defend herself. People get hungry, plain and simple.
Sliding her eyes in her brother’s direction, Frankie whispered a sigh of relief to see he’d moved out of view. She opened the closet door wider, stood on tiptoes, and pulled down the pet carrier for Collette, a cat she’d agreed to babysit for a musician friend on tour with the Albuquerque Symphony Orchestra.
After managing to corner the animal, she put the grumbling kitty into the carrier, slipped her hand through the handles and headed back toward the living room. Tim was just returning from the direction of the kitchen—the duffel bag was gone.
“Hope it’s okay for me to leave that in your freezer for a couple of days.”
“Sure.” Frankie shot a quizzical look at her brother. “What is it?”
“Just something I picked up. It’s too big for the tiny thing above my fridge. I’ll get it when we come back on Monday.”
Mi casa es su casa
.” Frankie moved through the house, checking locks and making sure lights were turned off. “I’ll get the Jeep while you get your stuff,” she yelled from the kitchen.
After Frankie backed out of the garage, Tim stood at the open passenger door and stared into the idling vehicle’s interior. “Holy crap, Sis. Planning on feeding the Denver Broncos?” He scrunched his small travel bag into a ball and struggled to find an empty space. “And since when do you eat those god-awful canned sausages?”
Frankie cleared her throat. “They’re protein. Never know when we’ll lose power at the cabin and have to survive on non-perishables, especially this time of year.” Grateful her brother could neither see her face nor read her mind, she attempted a light-hearted chuckle. “I’d hate to have to raid a squirrel’s nest for breakfast.”
“Ouch.” Tim flapped his hand. “Damn. Jammed my thumb on a case of freaking tomato sauce. Tomato sauce and sardines, now that sounds yummy.”
After a couple of minutes and several muttered imprecations, Tim finally managed to stuff his bag into a tiny space atop two boxes of ramen noodles. He climbed in and buckled up as Frankie backed into the street.
They delivered the cat to a pet boarding establishment and headed north on Interstate 25. A pickup merged onto the highway behind them, its front bumper so close to the Jeep’s rear that its grill was hidden from Frankie’s view. She goosed the accelerator to put some distance between the two vehicles.
Scenery flowed past the windows in flashes of color. The tan and ochre of the high desert gave way to green-splotched hills peppered with wildflowers and piñon trees. The dry, herbal fragrance of prairie grass, juniper, and sage brush became the loamy, earthy smells of scrub oak and conifers. Fluffy thunderclouds flattened and condensed into a low-hanging gray ceiling. A few tentative drops of rain turned into a torrent, and the fragrance of precipitation in the mountains seeped through the air vents.
Traffic thinned as they turned onto the Santa Fe Bypass and the road to Eagle Nest. Thankful for the Jeep’s four-wheel drive, Frankie turned onto the muddy unpaved road that would take them the remaining few miles to the cabin. Again, she picked up speed to open distance between them and the only other vehicle on the road.
The beginnings of alarm buzzed up her neck when the other driver also sped up. She slowed to allow the guy to pass, but he slowed as well. Jerking her eyes back and forth between the highway in front of her and the images in the rearview mirror, she alternately sped up and slowed down, only to have the other vehicle duplicate her moves.
“Do you know someone who drives a dark green pickup?” Frankie turned her head slightly toward her brother.
“A green pickup?” Tim’s face reflected surprise. His voice sounded high-pitched and tight. “Are you…” He started to swivel his head back over his shoulder.
The move was never completed. The sharp report of a rifle sliced through the silence, and the front and rear windows exploded almost simultaneously. Red and pink liquid sprayed the dash in front of Tim as the sudden smell of copper suffused the air. Without comprehending the reality of what she was seeing, Frankie looked first at the dripping dashboard, then at her brother.
“Tim? Tim?” Whimper became shriek as it moved through her lungs and exploded through her open mouth. She stared at her brother’s bowed head. This wasn’t real. None of this was happening.
Another shot slammed Frankie’s self-preservation, fight-or-flight instinct into high gear, and she floored the gas pedal.
Tires threw up chunks of brown mud in an effort to gain traction on the rain-soaked dirt road. After what seemed an eternity, the wheels’ impotent whirring stopped and the tires bit into more solid soil. The Jeep shot forward.