Authors: Audrey Claire
Death Wore Brown Shorts
(Happy Holloway Mystery – Book 1)
Copyright © September 2015, Audrey Claire
No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, distributed, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, without express written permission from the author, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages for review purposes.
This book is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to any person, living or dead, or any events or occurrences, is purely coincidental. The characters and story line are created from the author’s imagination and are used fictitiously.
Happy Holloway Mystery
Death Wore Brown Shorts
Death Wore A Scream (coming soon)
Margot and Odds Cozy Mystery
Odds and Ends
A Libby Grace Mystery
How to Be a Ghost
How to Blackmail a Ghost
How to Kill a Ghost
A Makayla Rose Mystery
Depth of Field
before the sink wearing bright yellow gloves, which stretched up her forearms and were secured at the ends with tight rubber bands. She held a new sponge in one hand and the bottle of bleach and cleaner spray in the other. The package of chicken wings leered at her from the side of the sink still wrapped in plastic.
She chewed her bottom lip, took a step forward, and then backed off. She swung to her right and sprayed the counter top a few times then wiped it down. Glancing over her shoulder, she eyed the chicken again. Her stomach growled. Darn chicken. Why did it have to be such a challenge?
“Well, if I’m going to cook you, I guess I should take off the gloves. And I mean, the sink is right here. I have two bottles of dishwasher liquid to wash my hands right away.”
The chicken didn’t answer, of course. Thank goodness it didn’t! Men with straitjackets would probably sense she had fallen over the edge into insanity and come to lock her away.
With that thought, the bell to her side door rang. Annie froze a minute, thinking her fear had come true. An incessant knocking started, and Jane’s agitated voice followed. “Annie, you open this door right now.”
“Crud.” Annie stabbed the button on her cell phone with a rubber-coated knuckle. An hour had passed as she battled the chicken.
She ran out of the kitchen to the side door and unlocked it. When she opened the door, she offered her sister an apologetic smile. Jane stood with her hands on her hips, eyes narrowed, and examining Annie from head to toe. Annie noted her sister appeared as trim as usual in a plain white sundress, auburn hair in a perfect bob, and cute sandals showing off her pink polished toes.
In contrast, Annie knew she looked a sight. The shorts she had elected to wear that day rode up her dimpled thighs, and she had to yank them down. Her decision to go with the matching lilac top wasn’t too bad, but it pinched for some reason under one arm. She wore flip-flops, but she should have thought twice because her quick paint job on her toes had gone wrong on the second toe of her left foot. That one was always tricky for some reason.
“Annie, you’re not ready,” Jane accused her.
“You’re wearing gloves.”
“Yes, but I’m dressed,” Annie insisted. “I was just going to throw some chicken into the oven and check on it in an hour.”
Jane moved past her and strode into Annie’s kitchen. She paused at sight of the unopened chicken. “You were spraying it with bleach?”
Annie drew herself up to her full height of five foot seven. “No, I was working on opening it.”
“Working on it.”
Jane repeated Annie’s words, but Annie looked away from her to spray an imaginary spot on the counter. She’d cleaned the thing so often a stain couldn’t survive more than an instant.
Her sister sighed. “Why do you insist on eating chicken if it frightens you?”
“It doesn’t frighten me!”
Jane’s eyebrow rose.
“It’s challenging, but I love chicken. It’s my staple food.”
“Uh-huh, well, I don’t know why you’re cooking at all. I always send you home with an extra plate.”
“An extra plate won’t feed me all week. I have to cook for myself, Jane, despite your mission in life to be my personal chef and baker.” Annie set down the bottle of spray with reluctance and began removing the gloves. She rubbed at the red imprint from the rubber bands. “Besides, every time you have a barbecue half the community comes and eats up all the food.”
Jane beamed. “I want everyone to enjoy themselves and eat their fill. Now come on. You’re ruining my schedule.”
“Just a minute. Let me get my handbag.”
“Honestly, Annie. I live two doors away. You don’t need your purse.”
Annie ignored the advice and scurried from the room. She never went anywhere without an oversized purse hanging from her shoulder. Today, she was quite proud of herself for finding the almost suitcase-sized bag with beads and buttons sown in a butterfly pattern on the side. The bag’s color scheme matched her top, which was a feat in itself because she usually put her outfits together according to her mood—comfort over style and coordination.
After a quick scan of the contents of the handbag, she slung it onto her shoulder and headed out of the house with her sister. She made sure to lock the door, checked the knob three times, and hooked her arm through Jane’s.
“I’m sure I wouldn’t have gotten lost on the way to your house,” Annie teased. “You didn’t have to pick me up.”
“If I didn’t come to get you, you would still be at the sink staring at that chicken.”
Annie stuck out her tongue. Jane glared at her, and Annie chuckled. No one messed with Jane and her schedules. Certainly not her family, but Jane tended to lean harder on her husband and three kids in that arena.
Annie received frowns and sighs more often than not, and she loved her sister for going easy on her. If Jane was the picture of efficiency, Annie defined chaos. Well, except when it came to a couple of her hang-ups. Her bedroom might look like a cyclone hit it, but her war with germs raged on in the kitchen and bathroom.
“So who’s coming?” Annie queried as they cut across the neighbor’s lawn. Jane had tried going around, but Annie dragged her along the shorter route.
“Everyone. I guess I should warn you. Aunt Bridge said she might stop by.”
“Which means she will.” Annie groaned. “If she brings another man she snatched from the grocery store to meet me, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Jane patted her hand. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep her occupied, and if she does bring someone, I’ll take care of him, too.”
“What would I do without you, Jane?”
“Hopefully, we’ll never have to find out.” She raised her voice. “Evie, glad you could make it. Is Gary coming, or is he working again?”
Jane released Annie’s arm to meet up with their neighbor from the cul-de-sac at the end of the block. Pink tinged Evie’s cheeks as Jane approached her. From behind, Stacy, a woman who volunteered with Jane down at the elementary school, slipped up and replaced her sister by Annie’s side.
“Now she knows darn well Gary’s not coming,” Stacy whispered. “He left her last week.”
“I heard,” Annie said, keeping her gaze on her sister and poor Evie. Evelyn Westra and Jane were similar in that they ran a tight ship. Personally, Annie felt Evie went overboard with how she treated her husband. At least they didn’t have any kids to complicate the works.
“He couldn’t take it anymore,” Stacy gossiped. “Jason told Alex who told Frannie he heard them shouting from across the street. Gary said he shouldn’t have to account for every stick of gum he buys like a child.”
Annie’s eyes widened. “No, really? Was he being dramatic?”
“That’s the funny part. He kept a job, didn’t drink more than a beer here or there just the like rest of us, but Evie? She didn’t trust him.”
“You don’t think he was cheating?”
Annie tapped a finger against her cheek. “Maybe she had a reason for watching him. If they had trouble in the past and were trying to work through it, she might have found it difficult to move past.”
Stacy rolled her eyes, and Annie thought one of her fake lashes was crooked. “You’re too nice, Annie. Evie’s what you call a harridan, and she knows it. I’m not surprised her husband ran off. I would have, too.”
“Shh, Stacy,” Annie admonished her as they drew closer to the other two women.
Stacy pouted and then perked up right away. “Did you also hear someone bought the Old Man Potts’ place?”
Annie looked off in the direction where the oldest of the houses in their neighborhood lay. She couldn’t see the property from where she stood, but she knew it well. Memories of the man and his home flooded her mind, but she pushed them away. “I hadn’t heard.”
“I’ve seen various workmen and their vehicles down that way. I guess the new owners are doing renovations before they move in. We’ll meet them before long. I can’t wait.”
Annie made a noncommittal sound, and Stacy turned the conversation.
“So, did you think any more on my idea, Annie? To write a historical romance? If you make it from the regency era, I will love you forever. Plus, I can give you tons of pointers. You just give me a call.”
“Annie,” Donovan called from the doorway of Jane’s house. “You’re writing romance now?”
Annie flushed. All eyes swiveled in her direction. “No, I’m still hooked on mystery. Sorry, Stacy, but romance just isn’t in me to write. I can’t get enough of whodunit. Besides, my readers might abandon me, and I have to pay the bills.”
“Pish posh.” Stacy waved her hand. “I’ve read a few of your books, and you always include romance somewhere among the characters. It’s not a big leap to move to
Jane stepped up to them. “Leave her alone, Stacy. If she doesn’t want to, she doesn’t have to. Annie’s doing great, and I’m proud of her. Everyone into the backyard. I’m not hosting the barbecue on the front lawn.”
the small crowd around the side of the house and through the gate into the back yard. The scent of burgers on the grill stirred her appetite, and she began to imagine her sister’s famous potato salad and baked beans along with the meat. Within a few minutes, Jane had served her exactly what she’d had in mind.
“Oh, sis, you know me so well!” Annie scooped a forkful of beans into her mouth and chewed with joy.
Jane stood watching her with an amused expression on her face, but then more guests arrived, taking her attention. Annie found a corner of the yard and a lawn chair that looked like it would hold her plump figure.
She sat down to watch everyone. Nothing pleased her more than observing people, how they behaved, what they said, and their interactions. No one in her circle was safe from being included in her books. Just as she told Stacy, the bills must be paid, and her active imagination kept the books coming.
Too soon, Aunt Bridge arrived, and Annie tensed. Their great aunt Bridget Blankenship on their mother’s side had made it her life’s mission, it seemed, to marry Annie off. Given the fact that she introduced Donovan to Jane, Annie saw no reason not to worry every time her aunt headed her way.
Aunt Bridge was four foot ten, round, and fond of looking down her nose at one and all—a real feat given her height. Annie sometimes wondered if her aunt would have anything to do with her if they were not related. Maybe she saw Annie being single at thirty-four as a blight on the family name.
Today, her aunt wore a tribal-print maxi dress that reached her ankles and flared a bit when she moved. Black patent leather sandals with thick heels graced her feet, a switch from the previous visit. Last month she chose heels, which sank into the soft grass and dirt, and she complained about it all afternoon to anyone who would listen.
“Annie, there you are,” Aunt Bridge boomed as if Annie had been hiding. She wished she had thought of that, but no such luck. A thin man followed behind Aunt Bridge, and a dark cloud loomed over Annie’s day.
Okay, you’re being dramatic, Annie. He looks normal…and skinny. Ugh.
She eyed the slim build and wide almost poppy eyes. Normal? No. His over large hands attached to frail wrists and long slender arms put her off. The intensity in his protruding eyes gave her the impression that he’d just returned from offing someone and stuffed them in the closet.
Annie made a mental note of the man’s description so she could write it down for later. She’d been mulling over the look of her killer for a couple days, and he would do well.
“Annie, darling, this is Killer.” Aunt Bridge probably said some ordinary name, but Annie heard what she wanted to. “He’s in finance. When I met him at the bank earlier in the week, I just knew the two of you would have so much in common.”
Annie tried to imagine what she had in common with a banker.
he a banker? More like a teller, she figured. She did like money. Who didn’t?
“It’s good to meet you, Ki—um… I’m Annie.” She added a friendly smile and looked into the flushed face. Killer, or whatever his name was didn’t want to find anything in common with her. Annie didn’t have to be a people-watcher to figure that one out. “So you’re a banker. Wow, that must be so interesting.”
“Uh, no, I’m a teller actually.” Killer’s voice rose a decibel, and he pulled at the collar of his shirt. He’d worn a short-sleeve polo with an emblem on the chest pocket she paid no attention to.
“Oh well, I’d love to have a chat with you about what it’s like to work in the bank. Better yet, if I can visit and stay a while, that would be great.”
Killer’s eyes widened in surprise, and he had trouble finding words to reply. “I—I— We handle sensitive information and people’s finances. We can’t just let anyone hang out at the bank.”
“Well, give me your supervisor’s name. I’m sure I can work something out. I don’t have to go behind the counter.”
Killer might have swayed a bit, but Annie wasn’t sure. Her personality tended to overwhelm some, and once she got worked up with excitement over learning new skills, well, there was no stopping her.
Stacy zipped over to Annie’s side again. “Let me clear this up for you, sweetheart. Annie’s a writer, and she loves going from place to place learning all she can about various jobs and people. I think she gets a thrill out of the research as much as the writing. That’s why she’s a best seller.”
“Stacy,” Annie protested. “Don’t believe her. I almost never make it past my own category, and I’ve never been on any list that truly matters.”
Killer’s expression changed from irritation to a slight interest. This, Annie was used to as well. Everyone believed they had a book or two in them, and all they needed was someone like Annie to dig it out by some miraculous process she had never heard of.
“Oh, a writer,” he gushed. She wondered if his voice grew even more nasally than a moment ago. “I’ve always dreamed of writing thrillers. I read them all the time. I bet I can do it and get on the best seller list.”
“I’m sure you could,” Jane snapped, walking directly in front of him and cutting off his view of Annie.
Amused, Annie covered a laugh and turned it into a cough. Dear Jane, her birthday wasn’t far off. Annie needed to talk to Donovan about throwing her a party. Jane hated birthday parties, even for the kids because she said the planning stressed her out for days. That never stopped her from executing excellent ones for them. Jane deserved one of her own, but Donovan would have to agree. Planning and Annie were not the best of friends.
“Delivery,” one of the ladies shouted, and a murmur rose above the crowd milling about Jane’s back yard. The men frowned, and the women checked their hair before stuffing plates against their husband’s chests.
“Marianne,” Jason growled, “did you forget I’m standing right here?”
Marianne, pixie height and probably the first in line for any man to pay her any mind, except she was tough as nails and completely outspoken, punched his arm. “Don’t be a wuss, Jason.”
“How am I being a wuss wanting my girlfriend not to ogle some other guy’s legs?”
Annie shuffled toward the gate with most of the other women. She liked looking, too. Sure, Paul had great legs he showed off every spring and summer in work shorts, but her interest lay more in the antics the women got up to when they tried to get his attention.
Annie passed Jason and offered him a comforting smile. “Don’t worry, Jason. She loves only you. Paul’s just eye candy.”
Jason harrumphed, not at all appeased. Annie considered whether he should be worried about losing Marianne. Over the last few months he had gained a little around the middle. That happened when he was laid off from his job, but he found another within a month without too much trouble. Unfortunately, the paunch remained.
A fitness instructor, Marianne must either be annoyed at his health or inspired to help him improve. She sure advised Annie enough on the subject. Annie didn’t expect she would get a hold of her extra pounds any time soon.
The big brown truck rolled along the street and stopped several doors down. The ladies ahead of Annie rushed along Jane’s driveway to the front walk. Even Aunt Bridge joined the lineup.
Annie gasped. “
, Aunt Bridge?”
Her aunt rolled her eyes. “I’m not too old to enjoy the view. I’ve been hearing about Paul’s legs for years. He’s not on my route where I live. An old lazy grump is, and I’ve complained often. Nothing changes. I hope with his legs Paul gives you all better service!”
Annie snorted. “I don’t get much service myself, but many of the ladies on this block order online every week. Paul rolls through the neighborhood often. As to his service, you’ll have to ask the others.”
Paul obliged the ladies by stopping just before Jane’s driveway. “Good afternoon, ladies,” he called as he twisted around in his seat to check the back.
The side door to the interior of the truck almost never closed during the spring with the nice southern weather of Amberlon, South Carolina. Sometimes, on those days when temperatures reached above one hundred, Paul closed the door. Annie didn’t blame him, but she would be brain dead if she went without A/C at any time.
“Hello, Paul,” Marianne called. “Are you heading up my way?”
She didn’t settle for just greeting the man but boldly leaped onto the truck’s step and peered into the back. From where Annie stood, she could make out nothing. The interior seemed like a dark cavern, but perhaps her eyes needed to adjust to the lesser light. Not that she had the best vision staring at a computer screen all day.
“I think I might have something for you, Marianne. First I’ll have to clear out the stuff for this area.”
“Floozy,” someone muttered next to Annie, and she looked over to find Evie standing there. She drew her mouth into a tight angry line and folded her arms over her chest. Evie never ran to see Paul, but she didn’t look away either.
At last, Paul stepped out of the truck, and feminine sighs rose all around the crowd. Annie had to admit the legs were yummy, all golden brown from plenty of sun, shapely with just enough muscle. A sprinkling of fine curly hair over the taut skin finished off the perfection. Boring brown shorts never looked so good.
“The ladies all want to know,” Marianne said, jumping down from the truck behind Paul. “Are you single?”
His eyes lit up with pleasure and amusement. Paul must have been in his thirties, and while one couldn’t call him handsome, he was cute in his own way. The legs were his best feature. He seemed unused to the attention the women gave him, but he must experience it all over his delivery route. These southern ladies never bit their tongue.
“I have a girlfriend,” Paul admitted. “We’re having some problems, but we’re okay.”
“Aw,” Frannie piped up. “You can visit me at my house, and I’ll serve you apple pie and ice tea. You can tell me all about it.”
Generous of Frannie, another of the neighbors, to offer a listening ear and a comforting shoulder. Protests rose among the group and other invitations. No one wanted Frannie to get a hold of Paul because she happened to be single, if a teensy bit out of his age range, being in her early forties. Who knew, Paul might like that.
Paul flipped a large box over one shoulder and balanced it there while holding up the other hand. “I’m sorry, ladies. I can’t stop. I have to keep to my schedule. Maybe some other time.”
“You always say that,” Stacy pouted. Stacy might be in the running for gaining Paul’s attention, being in her late thirties.
Paul offered a grin and jogged across the road to the small street perpendicular to Annie’s. All the ladies sighed in his wake.
“So darn strong,” someone muttered.
“Well,” Aunt Bridge said, “I don’t see what all the fuss is about.”
Annie noted the color in her cheeks and that this pronouncement was made while watching Paul disappear around a hedge.
“If you’re all finished cheating on your significant others,” Jane snapped, “perhaps you’ll come back to the yard and enjoy the party.”
“If I’m going to be accused of cheating,” Marianne shot back, “let me at least pinch his butt.”
“Marianne!” Jason stood at the start of the drive, fury in his expression.
For the first time, Marianne appeared abashed at her words. “I was kidding, Jason.”
He spun on his heels and trudged toward the cul-de-sac. Marianne jogged behind him. After a short distance, Annie couldn’t make out their words, but from the heat in their tones, they argued.
Aunt Bridge sniffed. “She was always a little too wild, and him too soft. That’s what comes of living together unmarried, but I suppose anyone can get away with anything these days.”
“I’d hardly call it ‘getting away,’” Stacy said. “Marriage isn’t what it used to be in your day. Of course, you’ve had what three husbands, Bridget?”
Aunt Bridge’s feathers ruffled. “I buried each one of them, and I married them before I lived with them.”
“Buried them, huh?” Stacy said.
Titters from several corners set Aunt Bridge’s face aflame as if she had nagged her husbands into the grave, or put them there on purpose.
Annie headed back to the yard, and Killer met her at the table as she cut herself a slice of blackberry pie. He debated over the pie and Jane’s famous apple crumb tarts with a hand swinging back and forth between the two. Annie could have told him no one baked like Jane, so either of the choices would make him an addict with one bite.
“Do you ladies have nothing better to do than to stare at a guy delivering packages?” Killer made his critical statement when the more vociferous of the group were not within hearing distance.
Annie shrugged. “There’s not much else that happens around here. I mean look around you. Victorian houses, many of which have been in the families for generations, quiet streets where even Evie’s dog can lie in the center of the road and not get run over. He has a habit of that by the way. Trees, grass, beautiful blue skies, I happen to love the neighborhood and the entertainment the ladies provide.”
“So I should keep my mouth shut when I criticize them?” he asked.
Annie grinned. “No, say what you want. I like to hear the honest truth no matter how it stings.”
“For your books?”
He gave Annie the once over and frowned a little as she guided a huge bite of pie into her mouth and moaned at the flavor.
“You’re easygoing. I like that. You’d be great if—” Killer cut himself off.
“If?” Annie encouraged him although she shouldn’t have.
“Nothing. Thank your aunt for me, okay? I should get going.” Killer started to walk away and then stopped. He looked back at Annie. “By the way, that guy Paul isn’t the amazing guy you all think he is.”
Annie’s eyebrows rose at the animosity coming off Killer. Wow, this seemed more than just jealousy for Paul’s legs and attention. “Do you know him?”
Killer turned away and kept walking until he reached the gate. He passed through it and didn’t bother thanking Jane for the food or Aunt Bridge for inviting him. Not a pleasant character. She decided not to pursue getting him to talk to his boss about letting her visit the bank.