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Authors: Sarah Strohmeyer

Bubbles Ablaze

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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.

 

Bubbles Ablaze

 

A
Signet
Book / published by arrangement with the author

 

All rights reserved.

Copyright ©
2003
by
Sarah Strohmeyer

This book may not be reproduced in whole or part, by mimeograph or any other means, without permission. Making or distributing electronic copies of this book constitutes copyright infringement and could subject the infringer to criminal and civil liability.

For information address:

The Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

 

The Penguin Putnam Inc. World Wide Web site address is
http://www.penguinputnam.com

 

ISBN
978-1-1012-1003-1

 

A
SIGNET
BOOK®

Signet
Books first published by The Signet Publishing Group, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc.,

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014.

Signet
and the “
S
” design are trademarks belonging to Penguin Putnam Inc.

 

Electronic edition: August, 2004

Also by Sarah Strohmeyer

Bubbles Unbound

Bubbles in Trouble

For Elaine and Wendy,
for sending me to the Patch
And for Dad

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

A
s the Great Depression loomed, the grandfather I never knew, a Lithuanian and a coal miner in Kingston, Pennsylvania, lost his job when the mines closed. Unlike many of his neighbors, who returned to the hills and dug their own holes, he hanged himself and left his impoverished family to plow its own fate.

This might not sound like the proper acknowledgment for a humorous mystery involving a deceptively ditzy hairdresser, yet it is. Because out of those hills and those hard times come some of the craziest characters I've ever met. For those stories I thank Rachel Sweterlitsch and her daughter, Lisa, who introduced me to the fictional Koolballs and their kin.

Elaine Urban, owner of Elaine's Hair World in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and Wendy McCole, originally from Shenandoah (pronounced “Shen-doh”), Pennsylvania, first proposed that coal country might be an interesting place for Bubbles to investigate a murder (or two). Visits to the smoldering town of Centralia cinched it. Thanks to the miners at the Pioneer Coal Tunnel in Ashland who took the time to tell their tales and to those at the Museum of Anthracite Mining.

Thanks also to Kim Martin for envisioning the Teen Safety Car. It is a brilliant concept that could save young lives. Ann Marie Gonsalves reminded me that Bubbles needed to do the
grunt work. Barbara Peters cautioned me against “dumbing down,” as did my husband, Charles, who provided invaluable editing and support. Alexandra Merriman contributed helpful teenage fashion sense. No Bubbles book could be written without my editor, Ellen Edwards; my agent, Heather Schroder at ICM; the Naughty Girls of Middlesex and the wonderful, varied Bubblesheads.

Finally, a thank-you to my father, John Strohmeyer, son of a coal miner, who had enough perseverance to overcome an awful childhood. Like the well-seasoned newspaper editor he is, he steered me to the obvious nut graph that I'd missed.

Chapter
1

L
ooking back, I guess my first mistake was to assume that a rookie reporter could pursue both a hot story and a hot sex life. I mean, what was I thinking? One glance at a crusty old city editor and the truth is obvious: The only time sex coexists with journalism is in a newspaper's police log. And even then, it's usually followed by the word “crime.”

My case, unfortunately, was no exception.

The evening began with me between red satin sheets in the Passion Peak Resort—one of those fancy and romantic Pocono Mountain lovers' hotels that I'd dreamed of staying in since I was a little girl.

Hunky Associated Press photographer Steve Stiletto was late, as per usual. As an international photojournalist more accustomed to dodging bullets than punching clocks, he considered punctuality an option. Even when the option was making love to a thirty-something, living Polish-Lithuanian Barbie named Bubbles who hadn't had sex in five months, twenty days and four hours. And, yes, I was counting.

This time he had an acceptable excuse. The President was hitting the hustings for Pennsylvania Republicans, and Stiletto was to shoot him at every stop. As soon as Air Force One left for Washington, Stiletto vowed to develop his film, send it off to the AP office in New York and meet me at the Passion Peak for our first night of sexual intimacy.

In the meantime, I made sure everything was perfect. I had arranged and rearranged the cinnamon-scented candles around the champagne-glass style Jacuzzi and practiced seductively
unrolling my stockings from their black lace garters . . . until one got a run when it snagged on my acrylic nail. Finally, after lying on the circular bed and staring at my reflection in the overhead mirror for so long that I started seriously considering liposuction, I dialed the front desk.

“Has a Steve Stiletto left a message for me by any chance?”

“No Stiletto,” said the clerk. “Salvo.”

“Mr. Salvo?” Uh-oh. Mr. Salvo was my boss at the Lehigh
News-Times
. “And you didn't put him through to my room?”

“In case you're unawares, this is a honeymoon hotel. We got an automatic do-not-disturb policy. I told him to fax over the message and I'd get it to you ASAP.”

“Bet he took that well.”

“Let's just say I never knew ASAP referred to unmentionable body parts.” There was the rustling of paper. “I got it right here. On company letterhead, no less.”

A fax on
News-Times
stationery meant trouble and I was right. The one-page letter contained an urgent message, along with detailed directions to an abandoned coal mine called simply Number Nine in the nearby town of Slagville, where a Lehigh businessman had reportedly been found fatally shot in the chest earlier in the evening. It promised to be a media circus.

Because I was in the area, Mr. Salvo concluded, I could beat the pack of other Lehigh Valley reporters and get an exclusive for tomorrow's paper—that is, if I hustled. A police press conference was tentatively scheduled for eleven thirty
P
.
M
.—one half hour before the final edition deadline.

The stamp on the fax said 9:15.

The time on the heart-shaped bedside clock was 11
P
.
M
.

Mr. Salvo was going to have my bleached blonde head on a plate.

I shoved my gartered gams into a pair of black spandex pants, wiggled into an apricot-colored turtleneck and scribbled a note for Stiletto that I intended to sound sexy, but which came off instead as a desperate plea for him to stay awake until I returned. I
dropped it off with the front desk clerk and hopped in the Camaro.

The murder scene would be crawling with reporters by now, I thought, as I goosed it down Route 15. Like most Pennsylvania highways it was as smooth as a brick patio
. Bumpity bump, bump, bump
. I veered off an exit to a deserted, winding road. Occasionally, my headlights illuminated large coal breakers that loomed on the hillsides, towering and rusted.

It was October and dead leaves blew in whirls across my hood. I used my windshield wipers to swish them away, keeping an eye out for the turnoff to the Number Nine mine. My last hope was that I would make the press conference so at least I'd have some bit of information, anything, to call into the newsroom by midnight. If I completely failed, Mr. Salvo would suspect that I'd blown off the assignment for a roll in the hay with Stiletto and I'd never get another opportunity like this again.

Mr. Salvo rarely assigned me breaking news stories as it was. Those were reserved for the newsroom stars, the elite Columbia journalism school graduates or the seasoned veteran reporters. As a full-time hairdresser with a GED and eight years of Two Guys Community College under my belt, what I usually got were the dregs—strawberry festivals and county fairs.

For months I'd been begging Mr. Salvo to throw me a bone, to give me a chance at hard news. And here he had given in and what had I done? Dropped the ball. Why? Because of sex. Sex. Sex. Sex. It has cursed me all my life. Got me knocked up in high school and shotgun wedded to my now ex, Dan the Man. I should Superglue my legs together.

Who was I kidding? Not even Superglue could hold up against a Mel Gibson dead ringer like Stiletto. His long, slow kisses could melt steel. And, oh, the possibilities of what he looked like under those well-worn Levis of his, well . . .

I was so deep in my naked Stiletto fantasy that I nearly missed the turnoff to the mine's access road, which was unpaved, rocky and rough. A couple of times the Camaro scraped bottom, and
the engine whined pitifully as my poor, two-toned car crept up the vertical hill. I had to stand on the gas pedal to get to the top.

As it turned out, I needn't have bothered.

Not only was I late for the press conference, I had missed it entirely. The clearing around the mine entrance was deserted. No cops or news vans in sight. I'd have expected yellow police tape marking the murder scene or a patrolman to shoo away curiosity seekers. But there were only black and bare trees.

That's when I really got worried. Perhaps I had misread Mr. Salvo's directions. Maybe the press conference was underway right now, except it was back at the police station or at another location.

I flicked on the map light. It blinked twice. Not a good sign as my battery was on its last legs. My watch indicated it was a little after eleven-thirty, so I wasn't that late. I scanned Mr. Salvo's note for clues and found none except the sending fax number. All the
News-Times
exchanges began with 457. This one was 238. And the area code was local to this part of Pennsylvania—570, not Lehigh's 610.

Mr. Salvo hadn't sent this fax at all.

A mournful howl echoed from the hills and I suddenly felt very alone and small.

Moments like these I needed a cell phone. I don't have one because they scare me. Not because of brain cancer or distracted driving. But because, with my pathetic technical skills, I'm afraid I'll accidentally leave one on and be stuck with a thousand-dollar bill and yet another collection agency after my overcharged tail.

I opened the glove compartment and pulled out my yellow flashlight from ShopRite. Then I gathered my purse, including my reporter's notebook, and exited the car to do a quick inspection before heading back to the Passion Peak. To cover all my bases, so to speak.

A chilly breeze blew across the mountain and I folded my arms tightly to keep warm. Too bad I hadn't thought to bring a coat
since my 98 percent spandex turtleneck provided all the insulation of Kleenex. I ventured a few yards, my heels crunching on the gravelly surface as I surveyed the area. The place smelled of rotting leaves and faint traces of wood smoke while the flashlight revealed no signs of a press conference having been held minutes ago. There was only an empty coal car perched at the mine entrance. A slag heap. A few molding wood beams.

And a late model gold Lexus with the license plate STINKYK4.

STINKYK4! I stopped in my tracks.

Couldn't be. Why, that rat. That fink! There was only one Stinky K in my life and he lived right here in Slagville. His real name was Carl Koolball and he was a consummate, pencil-necked geek. Stinky annoyed everyone with his practical jokes. He was always slipping whoopee cushions onto coworkers' seats or unscrewing the salt shaker caps in his company's cafeteria—that is, when he wasn't engrossed in his job as a cartographer for a mining company.

Unfortunately, he was also the husband of my absolute favorite cousin, Roxanne, who, besides introducing me to the exciting world of neighborhood hairdressing, snuck me into my first Journey concert when I was fifteen.

Leave it to Stinky Koolball to play a prank on me. Mama must have let it slip to Roxanne about my stay at the Passion Peak and he took it from there. But how did he get hold of
News-Times
letterhead?

The Lexus was vacant and locked. That could only mean Stinky was somewhere in the woods spying on me, having a laugh at my expense.

“I hope you're happy, Stinky Koolball!” I hollered. “You completely ruined my night.”

I cocked an ear. No response. I tried a different approach. “Come on, Stinky, puhleeese. This isn't funny anymore.”

Still nothing. Fine. I spun on my heels and headed back to the Camaro. What a waste of time. I got into the car and turned the
key in the ignition. Maybe, if I hurried, Stiletto would be still be at the Passion Peak, relaxing on the circular bed, a glass of champagne on the nightstand. Then again, maybe he figured I'd chickened out and split.

Geesh, I wished this car would start. The ignition beeped once, whirred and then died.
Click. Click.
Nothing more. I turned the key again, although this time I couldn't even conjure a
whir
or a
beep
. The car was dead. Not even a spark. What luck.

I slumped in the front seat and let out one sigh short of a sob. The Fates were against me. It was as though some cosmic force—in this case my cousin's husband—didn't want me to get together with Stiletto, didn't want my life to take a positive upswing with a man who might actually love me forever. A man who sent a tingle of sexual electricity to my lilac fingertips every time he smiled with that generous mouth.

The wind intensified, whipping my car mercilessly. No heat. No light. No radio. No way to communicate to the outside world. I'd just have to wait for Stinky to return to his Lexus so he could give me a jump.

I didn't wait long. For somewhere in the distance, over by the coal car I estimated, echoed the sizzling crack of a gunshot.

My heart stopped. Deer season come early? I thought optimistically. A coal cracker jacker?

But then there was another shot. And this one came straight from the mouth of the mine.

Like a thunderclap, the gravity of the situation hit me. Here I was, a single mother alone in the woods, possibly the victim of cruel mischief, miles from any home or business, with a dead battery and a nutcase shooting guns off in a mine.

I considered my predicament. I could sit here, cowering in my Camaro, or I could find Stinky and get him to stop scaring me and start jumping my battery.

“Stinky!” I shouted again, getting out of the Camaro and marching over to the mine. I leaned against the rotting wood beam and poked my head into the dark abyss. “Stinky Koolball,
come out of there. Come out or you'll have to answer to LuLu Yablonsky.” Great, evoking my mother's wrath like I was back in grade school.

“Ohhhh. Ugghh. Ohhh.”

There was that moaning sound again. And it was coming from right behind me.

I froze for a minute, unsure of what to do. Carefully, slowly, I directed the flashlight beam into the coal car and gasped at what it revealed. A man's body, legs at odd positions, a white oxford shirt torn and stained with brown patches. Face bloodied.

It couldn't be. It was.

Stiletto.

BOOK: Bubbles Ablaze
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