Read Highlights to Heaven Online
Authors: Nancy J. Cohen
Copyright © 2003 by Nancy J. Cohen
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
To my critique group:
Sharon Hartley, Lisa Manuel, Charlene Newberg,
Zelda Piskosz, and Cynthia Thomason.
Your friendship and support throughout the years have sustained me and provided inspiration and encouragement during the various stages of my writing career. I couldn’t have done it without you. Okay, you know I really like those great snacks y ‘all serve. But it’s the company that counts.
To all the staff at “Who Does Your Hair…” salon, Plantation, Florida: Sharon, Juan, Roxanne, Wanda, Stacey, Karyn, and Lauren. Many thanks for sharing your knowledge and generously giving your time to answer my research questions.
Also, to Margot O’Kane, department head and instructor; Christine Sepielli, instructor; and Ruth Sarrubbo, secretary, at the Cosmetology Department, Sheridan Technical Center, Hollywood, Florida. Thanks for the tour and for sharing your curriculum.
“What do you mean, there’s a dead body at Goat’s place?” Marla Shore asked Detective Dalton Vail. He stood on her front stoop, his expression as somber as his charcoal suit. Cool March air penetrated the toasty warmth of her South Florida town house while she waited for his reply.
“We received an anonymous tip,” he said, his tall form blocking the doorway. “Have you seen your neighbor recently?”
She craned her neck to glance down the street. “I haven’t talked to Goat since last week. You know, I’ve been worried about him. He promised to water Moss’s impatiens next door, but the flowers are wilting. Moss tried to reach him, but Goat hasn’t answered his door or his phone.”
“Isn’t that his van parked in the driveway?”
“Uh-huh.” No one could miss the vehicle emblazoned with The Gay GROOMER. Marla recalled the first time she’d seen it. Only a schlemiel like her would assume he must be a caterer for gay couples. She’d learned Goat handled pets, not gay bridegrooms, when a neighbor introduced them.
“I figured he must have gone away for the weekend,” she added, “and maybe a friend picked him up. Today is Tuesday; he should have been back by now unless he’s on vacation.” Her body chilled beneath the flannel lining of her sweat suit. “I’ll never forgive myself if he’s lying there hurt, or worse. Believe me, I’ve been trying not to interfere for a change.”
Vail patted her arm. “It’s likely this is just a crank call, so don’t beat yourself up about it. I decided to swing by and take a look rather than assign it to another detective.”
“Did you knock on Goat’s door?”
He grunted affirmatively. “No one answered. I thought I’d check with you before I do anything else.” His gray eyes brightened as he regarded her.
Hey, pal, what turns you on more, the notion of a stiff body or a live one? You liked mine all right two nights ago.
“When did you get the message?” she asked, probing for more information. She’d helped him solve cases before.
“This morning. I had voice mail on my office machine.”
She glanced at her Rado watch. “You must have gone to work awfully early. It’s only eight o’clock.”
“I got in at seven. I was hoping you hadn’t left for the salon yet.”
“I didn’t schedule any clients until later so I could catch up on paperwork. Let’s go next door. Moss told me Goat gave him a spare key to use in case of an emergency. Wait here while I let Spooks in.”
Striding past the kitchen, she opened a rear door where her poodle had been scratching at the glass. When he bounded inside, she spared a moment to stroke his cream-colored coat. “Sorry we missed our morning walk, precious. I’ll take you out tonight.”
The dog dashed into the living room to sniff Vail’s ankles. “He smells your golden retriever,” she remarked upon joining them.
“Hurry up, before Spooks seduces you into petting him.”
“Sorry, that privilege is reserved for you.”
Vail’s sexy grin mitigated her anxiety, but not for long. “Come on. I’m really worried about Goat.”
She led the way to Moss’s adjacent town house, then rapped on his door with a brass anchor that served as his door knocker.
“Ahoy, mates,” Moss greeted them in a hearty voice as he swung open the door. A naval cap topped his head of white hair.
“We want to check on Goat,” Marla explained. “You still haven’t seen him around, right?”
Moss’s leathery face crinkled with concern. “Haven’t seen the man in days, and his van hasn’t moved. Doggoned if I know where he’s been hiding.” His blue gaze switched to Vail. “Morning, Lieutenant. What brings you here so early?”
A crafty look stole over the detective’s angular features. “Marla is worried about your neighbor. You notice anything unusual over the weekend?”
“Do you have a key to Goat’s house?”
“Sure do. Wait here while I get it.” A few moments later, he handed over the item. “I’d go with you, but I’m on my way to meet my golf buddies for breakfast. Emma is home if you need anything else.”
“I’ll let you know what we learn,” Marla reassured him before she and Vail turned toward Goat’s single-story town house.
“I’ll go first,” Vail announced. “You stay outside while I look around.”
“No way. If Goat is hurt, he’ll need me.”
He gave her a bemused glance. “You may have worked as Miriam’s nursing aide last month, but that doesn’t mean you’re Florence Nightingale.”
Miriam loved it when I took care of her, and I did a damn fine job as an undercover investigator.
“We found her granddaughter’s murderer, didn’t we?”
“Only after you nearly got yourself killed. Give me the key, and don’t move from this spot.”
She noticed he didn’t draw his gun after pushing the door open. Ignoring his advice, she trailed after his rangy figure.
“Goat? Are you here?” she called in a tremulous voice from the foyer. A loud squawk in response made her shriek.
Vail whirled around, his eyes flashing. “I thought I told you to wait outside.”
“I’m the concerned neighbor checking on a friend, remember?” Her nose wrinkled. “Dear Lord, what is that stench?” Clapping a hand over her mouth, she glanced at the kitchen to their left, but the odor didn’t appear to be coming from there. No dirty dishes in the sink; countertops relatively clean. From the top of the refrigerator, a Siamese cat glared down at her. Its haunches raised as it hissed ominously.
“Ugamaka, ugamaka, chugga, chugga, ush!” screeched a loud voice that sounded startlingly like Goat’s.
Her lips parted as she scanned the combined living and dining room furnished in Early Garage Sale. A brightly colored parrot in a cage stared back.
“Oh, so you’re the one making all the noise,” she commented, wondering if the stink came from its confines. A gust of wind rattled an open glass door leading to the backyard. “We should let in more fresh air,” she suggested to Vail, who stood peering into the master bedroom.
“Don’t touch anything,” he said in a flat tone.
“What’s the matter?” Within seconds, she’d moved beside him. One glance into the bedroom showed her what was rotting. A man’s body sprawled across the queen-size platform bed.
She pressed a hand to her throat. “Is it Goat?” she croaked.
“You tell me.”
She forced herself to take a closer look. The victim lay on his back. Purposefully avoiding the telltale blotch on his shirt at the level of his chest, she swung her gaze upward and noted his broad nose, wide forehead, and deep-set eyes that stared vacantly into space.
“Thank God, it’s not him.” Bile rose in her throat, and she swallowed with difficulty. “Goat has stringy hair like straw,” she said, focusing on the one thing she knew best. “This man’s level is deeper, with bronze highlights. Hey, that pattern looks familiar.”
“Cutter Corrigan applies a similar design when he does highlights. It’s distinctive to his style. He used to be my teacher in beauty school,” she explained, “and now he runs a salon on Las Olas. Maybe this guy is one of his clients.”
“I see.” Vail pulled out his notebook, ever handy in a pocket, and scribbled some notes. “You ever notice the victim talking to Goat or visiting his house?”
She shook her head.
“Did Goat tell you anything about himself, his job or his background, where he came from?”
“Nothing.” Moisture stung her eyes. She hadn’t taken the time to get acquainted with her neighbor by more than a polite hello during her daily walks. She’d been put off by his weird mannerisms.
Maybe if she’d known him better, he would have confided in her.
“You don’t think Goat is responsible for this, do you?”
Vail yanked his cell phone from his belt. “Honey, I’m damn well going to find out. You can leave now. I’m calling in my team. Don’t put your hands on anything.”
“Goat couldn’t have done it. He’s a gentle soul who cares about his animals,” she said, twisting a strand of chestnut hair behind her ear.
“Do you see extra feed and a full water bottle in that birdcage? And it’s a miracle the cat hasn’t knocked it over for a meal. My guess is, Goat did the deed and left in a hurry. He didn’t have time to think about his pets.”
He completed a quick search of the rest of Goat’s house before flicking open his cell phone. While he was occupied, Marla glanced in the bathroom. No bodies met her anxious gaze, just the usual male toiletries and a hairbrush that needed a good cleaning. Prowling across the living room, she sidestepped a fat gray cat whose sly expression was fixed on the parrot.
The second bedroom had been made up into a study, with a worn leather armchair, wooden desk, sleep-sofa, and tables with lamps. Another cat snarled as she crossed the threshold. It appeared to be guarding an iguana in a fish tank, or else it was figuring out how to reach the creature. She wouldn’t like to be the target of its malevolent glare.
Keeping in mind Vail’s warning not to touch anything, she scanned the room for clues. Her jaw dropped as she glanced at the desk. Goat had been reading a biography about Martha Matilda Harper. Could it be mere coincidence that this woman was one of her idols? Marla had written a paper about her for a college history class. At a time when women were struggling for their rights, Harper had opened the first public hair salon in Rochester, New York. By the early 1900s, she’d created the first business franchise system in the country. What interest might Goat possibly have had in her?
“Marla, I thought I told you to leave!” Vail’s voice thundered as he approached.
“I’m on my way out!” She turned to face him. “What will happen to Goat’s pets if he doesn’t turn up?”
“I’ll see that they’re put into shelters. You go home now and take care of Spooks.”
“How will you find Goat? I think you should interview Cutter Corrigan. He may know something about the victim’s identity.”
“Let me deal with it.” Vail’s mouth tightened as he steered her toward the front door.
“You’re excluding me again!” she cried.
“You’ll contaminate the crime scene if you stay, and you don’t really want to be here while the team is working.”
“How was…the man killed?”
“That’s for the medical examiner to determine.”
Sensing Vail knew more than he cared to reveal, Marla told herself to be patient. Eventually she’d worm the details out of him. “Look,” she called as they passed the kitchen. “That’s a sound machine on the counter.” She delayed her departure to peer at the markings. “This is where the whale cries come from and some of the other animal noises I’ve heard. And I always thought Goat kept a menagerie inside.” Perhaps her neighbor wasn’t as weird as he appeared to be on the surface. Curiosity made her wish she could look around more, but Vail ushered her outside. Besides, the odor was enough to make her gag.
Facing the street, she drew in a deep breath of fresh air while considering her next move. Goat must have gone somewhere, and it was always possible he was cowering in the backyard. Even if he didn’t commit the murder, he might be afraid of talking to the police. If she could find him first, she’d convince him to tell his story to the authorities.
Around the side, she trod over brittle grass badly in need of a watering. Orange blossoms lent a honeyed fragrance to the air. It was a welcome contrast to the tainted atmosphere inside the house. As she drew open the gate to Goat’s fenced backyard, her glance zeroed in on a scrawny goat tethered to a pole. The poor thing bleated at her presence. Had he been tied up the entire time Goat was missing?
Rushing forward, she intended to loosen his harness when she tripped over something spongy. She recovered her balance and glanced at the object. For a moment, she didn’t understand what she was seeing. It was pink, with darker patches, except for the head, where its snout pushed through a mass of tangled black fur.
Her stomach lurched, and she let out a scream that brought Vail running.
“Bless my bones,” she gasped between sharp intakes of air, “I think it was a dog.”
“This creature has been skinned,” Vail noted, jotting in his notebook. “Had you seen this animal before?”
She raised her hands. “I haven’t seen any of Goat’s pets. You know I never went inside his place, although he’d invited me. I was too nervous, hearing all the strange noises. My mistake. I should have given him a chance. Uh-oh, what’s that?” Needing a closer look, she headed toward the fence where an empty aquarium lay on the ground. “I’ll bet it’s Junior’s container. Either he’s loose in the neighborhood, or Goat took his snake with him.”
“That’s just dandy, but I’m more interested in the dead dog. It brings to mind something we’ve been noticing lately in the area. Another department is investigating, but I’ll give them a heads-up in case this is related.”
She shielded her eyes against the morning sunlight. “What’s that about?”
“A possible operation involving pet-fur products, but it’s just conjecture at this point. I can’t say more.”
Marla backed away. “Goat couldn’t have done this horrible thing. He rescued Spooks after my house got broken into, and he took good care of my poodle. Goat loves animals. For God’s sake, he’s a pet groomer.” She bit her lip, unable to picture Goat harming anyone. But how well did she really know her neighbor? Holy highlights, she didn’t even know his last name.
Engine noises drew their attention. “My techs are here,” Vail said. “Do you want me to escort you home?”
“Yes…no. I can manage. It’s all so awful.”
He accompanied her to the front lawn, issued orders to his technicians, then turned his focus back to her. His gaze softened as he thrust a hand through his peppery hair. “I’ll stop by your place later to make sure you’re okay.”
She must look as green as she felt. “I’ll be at the salon until six; then I have to run errands. Call me first to see if I’m home.”
“You need to hire a manager. Wearing too many hats stretches you too thin.”
“You just want more of my attention for yourself.”
A smile quirked his lips. “It’s tough to maintain a client list while managing your own salon. Not to mention sleuthing on the side.”
“You seem to appreciate my playing sleuth,” she said, her spirits lifting. “That’s why you came to me. You want my help.”