© 2020 by Kelly Zimmer.

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Gifted Girls Only - Off the Deep End

Chapter One

In my defense, I didn’t know my neighbors well yet. My job at Mayweather Executive Solutions kept me traveling. When I was at home, if I wasn’t with my boyfriend Pak, I was with my friends from the office, Theresa and Allison. On a quiet Friday in July, the three of us knocked off work at one and cooled down around the pool at my apartment complex.

Most of the other residents were at work, but a few people lounged in and around the pool. Two little boys took turns diving for bright toys while their mom looked on and flipped through a magazine. At the deep end of the pool, a white-haired guy floated on his stomach with his head and arms resting on a pink pool noodle.

Under a pair of potted palms, a college-aged couple faced each other, their lounge chairs pulled close. At the white plastic table closest to us, two women, a brunette and a redhead, were in an intense conversation under the blue-striped umbrella. Both women were thirtyish, manicured, pedicured, toned, tanned, and in one-piece suits which likely cost more than my entire wardrobe.

Allison stepped out of the pool in her figure-revealing two-piece. This distracted the college kid from his girlfriend long enough to earn him a playful shove to the shoulder. Allison fluffed her blonde hair with a towel. “What do you and Pak have planned for the weekend?”

“Pak’s off to his mom’s all weekend, so I’m catching up on stuff around the house. Why don’t you stay over, get some time away from the kids?”

Allison lived with Sean Mayweather, one of the two partners at MES. Sean had three little kids who thought of Allison as their big sister and Allison thought of Sean’s wife, Melanie, as a youngish substitute mom.

“Let’s do that!”

“What about you, Theresa?”

“Count me in.” Theresa also lived with Sean and Melanie, but it was a temporary arrangement until she found her own place. It’s not that she didn’t like the kids, but Theresa was a career-minded beauty. However, like Allison and me, Theresa’s life wasn’t turning out the way she’d expected.

We were planning our gifted-girls-only weekend of gossip and goofing off when the words wafted over from the table next to us.

“I have no choice. You see that, don’t you?” The redhead was speaking in a tense, urgent tone.

“I don’t know,” her friend replied. “What are you going to do about the body?”

Our heads rotated in the direction of my neighbors.

“Get rid of it, start over. I’ll have to wing it, I suppose.”

The brunette shook her head and leaned closer to her friend. Her long, almost black hair screened her face. “Are you sure?”

“I don’t see another way.”

“I’ll help if I can.”

The three of us stared as we processed what we’d overheard. The two women were undoubtedly capable of moving a body. Both were a tad over average height with lean, muscular arms and shoulders. They probably jogged together every day then hit the gym. I made them for besties—the polish on their toenails matched.

The olive-skinned brunette noticed us staring. She drew her brows together, turned in her back to us, and continued the conversation in a whisper.

One of the little boys jumped into the deep end of the pool, splashing the old guy floating on a noodle, momentarily distracting us from our speculations. My friends and I turned our attention to each other.

“Who are they?” Allison whispered.

I didn’t whisper but used my inside voice. “I don’t know either one, but I’ve seen them around the pool.”

Theresa stood, her long brown legs peeking from the orange ombre sarong that covered little. “I’m going over to introduce myself.”

Before I could object, both Allison and Theresa had marched over to my neighbors.

“Sorry,” Theresa began, “about staring at you, but your suits are incredible.”

Theresa, the fashion maven, had found a way in.

The brunette smiled up at her. “Thanks, they’re Hermes.”

“I knew it! Theresa turned to me, brows raised to let me know I should be paying attention. I didn’t do designer-wear. “You should look into one of these,” she double-entendre-ed at me.

Allison bounced on her toes, “Theresa’s always trying to get Emi to up her fashion game.”

“And who is Emi?” the redhead asked.

I stood, waggled my fingers, and joined my friends. “Emi Watson, I’m new here. Well, kind of new. I moved in a few months ago, but I still don’t know anybody.”

Allison rolled her blue eyes. “Shy.”

The redhead dismissed Allison with a small, superior smirk but the brunette stood, coral tinted lips parting in a smile that lit her sable eyes. “Yazmin Reyes; I live in the first building as you pull in to the complex.”

I pointed off to the right, “I’m in that building. These are my friends, Theresa and Allison.”

Allison grasped Yazmin’s hand like a life raft. “Yazmin, what beautiful name! Have you lived here long? Do you live by yourself? Do you like it here?”

Yazmin didn’t realize she was being interrogated and she chuckled at Allison’s enthusiasm. Allison reads minds, but she has to be touching her target and has to ask questions and focus. If the target is lying, Allison can usually get to the real story.

“I moved in about a year ago, right after my divorce. I like it here; it’s quiet.”

The redhead, the one who had no choice and would wing it with the body, didn’t introduce herself. Theresa flashed her magazine-cover smile at her. “Do you live here, or are you visiting?”

“I live next door to Yazmin.” Her tone said it was none of our damn business where she lived. Her pale eyes shifted from us to the far more interesting sparkling water of the pool.

It didn’t matter; we knew where she lived. Finding out who she was would be no problem at all for gifted girls like us.

Chapter Two

Theresa’s gift involves finding people and things, and it’s probably the most useful skillset for our work at MES. It was certainly good enough to identify the den of a murderous and standoffish neighbor.

After a quick change into shorts and shirts, we slipped out of my apartment and, avoiding the pool enclosure, we strolled to Yazmin’s building. Allison positioned herself on the second-floor landing as the lookout. Theresa and I walked down the hall with heads high, nothing underhanded going on here.

At number 1209, Theresa paused, took two steps past the door then rocked back. She patted the door with long fingers. “Yazmin Reyes.”

We continued on to number 1211. Theresa’s pause was longer. “Not sure. It could be the redhead’s. There’s lots of unrest here.”

“Let’s hit the computer at my place.”

We collected Allison and dashed back to my apartment.

“Perry and Hailey Bachman,” I announced. “He started as an assistant branch manager of the bank across the street last year.” I turned my monitor so my friends could see a corporate headshot of a clean-shaven, thirty-something with neatly-trimmed brown hair, small brown eyes, and a chin-dimple.

“Cute,” Allison said, “do you think he’s the body Hailey’s talking about?”

I shrugged. “Who knows, I don’t know anything about these people. We’ll have to talk to them again.”

“As sociable as she is,” Theresa asked, “how are we going to do that?”

“I could invite her over,” I suggested.

“You saw how hostile she was,” Theresa said, “I don’t think she’ll accept.”

“I’ll ask Yazmin first. If Yazmin accepts, maybe Hailey will too. Why don’t you guys run back to Sean’s and pack for the weekend? I’ll go get the makings for margaritas.”

Allison pulled out her phone. “I’ll text Melanie to see if she can whip up a quick appetizer.”

“With only an hour’s notice?” Theresa asked.

Allison tapped away at her phone. “Melanie can whip up a five-course dinner for eight with an hour’s notice.”

I checked the microwave clock. “It’s after three now. Let’s meet here at four-thirty and go back to Yazmin’s together. Everybody think of ways to convince her to come over and bring Hailey with her.”

“That may be a tough sell, honey,” Allison said. “It’s Friday afternoon, and Yazmin doesn’t know us.”

I pressed two fingers between my brows. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but I wish Tony were here.”

My friends burst into laughter and skipped out.

Chapter Three

Tony was the other partner at Mayweather Executive Services. Tony had lots of disturbing skills, including a puppet-master ability to make people do things they didn’t want to do. I didn’t have Tony’s level of skill so I whipped up a mean batch of margaritas hoping it would be enough to entice Yazmin and her prickly friend to visit.

I put on makeup, tidied the apartment, made the drinks, and tried to focus on the future. Precognition was my gift, my contribution to Mayweather Executive Solutions. Most days, it didn’t help much. The visions came out of context and didn’t always make sense until later. Worse, random thoughts popped into my head and flew out of my mouth at inconvenient and embarrassing times.

Theresa and Allison returned with not one appetizer, but two— a tray of deviled eggs and a vegetarian dip surrounded with sliced veggies.

We knocked at Yazmin’s door without a plan other than, come over for drinks.

“Oh, it’s you, girls.” Her eyes went wide, curious but not irritated.

I called up some confidence and talked fast so my nerves couldn’t catch up. “My friends are calling me a slacker for not meeting my neighbors sooner. They’re spending the night, doing a girls-only thing. I’d love it if you could come over and have a couple of drinks with us. I made margaritas.”

Three lines creased her brow. My smile faltered. “For a few minutes. I mean, if you don’t have anything else planned.”

Yazmin took mercy on the bashful kid at her door. “Sure, why not?” She stepped out of the apartment and pulled the door behind her.

“What about your friend,” Allison asked, “do you think she’d like to join us?”

Yazmin grinned like we were co-conspiritors. “Let’s ask.”

We rooted our feet, so we didn’t accidentally give away that we knew which door was Hailey’s. Yazmin knocked, two short and one long. They had their own code knock. These two were tight, definitely close enough to help each other hide a body.

Hailey answered with wet hair plastered to her head and a glass of white wine in her hand. “Hey, you. What’s up?”

Yazmin inclined her head in our direction. “Emi and her friends want us to come over for margaritas.”

The redhead leaned out the doorway and twisted to glare at us.

“I’ll take a rain check.” The door banged shut.

Allison raised up on her toes. “Just us then.”

Yazmin rocked her head from side-to-side, and I thought she was going to back out on us, but her shoulders hunched and released. “Her loss,” she said and set out with us to my apartment.


“These deviled eggs are yummy,” Yazmin said around a mouthful of creamy yellow goodness, “I want the recipe.”

Allison moved in close to Yazmin and explained about Melanie and Sean and how she moved in with them while she was still in high school.

“My mom didn’t have much interest in me. I was lucky to run into the Mayweathers when I did.” The real story was much more intriguing, but we were there to learn about Yazmin and Hailey, so she kept it short.

Yazmin dipped a carrot. “I can’t imagine. When my daughter was a senior in high school, she was all I thought about. Between high school graduation and getting her ready for college, that’s all I had time for.”

“You don’t have a college-age daughter!” Theresa gushed.

Yazmin gave a sheepish smile. “Thanks, but I’m pushing forty.”

“I wouldn’t have guessed more than thirty,” I said, genuinely impressed. “What about Hailey? Does she have kids?”

Yazmin tossed her head in a dismissive gesture. “She has one big kid; her husband.”

I topped off her drink from the frosty pitcher. “He’s a handful, is he?”

“They’ve had to move four times in five years.”

Allison rested a hand on Yazmin’s shoulder. “What’s his issue?”

“He drinks, comes home late, makes noise, and,” she paused. I sensed she’d decided to leave something out. “The neighbors get annoyed.”

Allison smiled at me. She’d gotten a different story.

“Poor Hailey,” I said, “how does she cope?”

“She keeps busy. She’s one of those crafty people with lots of hobbies; painting and sewing mostly.”

“And she works out,” Theresa said, “you both do.”

Yazmin laughed out loud. “We’re both working on our ‘revenge’ bodies. I’ve reached the point where I’m dying to accidentally bump into my ex. With Hailey, it’s more like she’s working on the confidence to move on.”

“Well, you look great,” I said.” I can’t get myself motivated to do much more than a few yoga stretches now and then. Do you belong to the gym in the plaza across the street?”

Yazmin said she and Hailey both did and we talked the gym and fitness for a while. On her second margarita, she opened up about the apartment community and then moved on to her family and ex-husband until the food and drinks were gone.

“It was great meeting all of you. Thanks for having me. I’ll let Hailey know she missed a good time.” Yazmin stood and smoothed the skirt of her sundress.

“You do that,” Allison said and winked.

I saw my guest to the door. Thunder rumbled in the distance.


We sat in folding chairs on my patio, drank tea, and watched the evening storm roll in.

“Yazmin thinks Hailey should leave Perry,” Allison announced. “He’s chased too many skirts.”

“That’s how he disrupts the neighborhood?” I asked.

Allison’s blonde braids flopped as she shook her head. “That and their fighting; that’s how Yazmin really met Hailey; she stopped over to nicely ask them to tone down the domestic disturbance. Perry had already stormed out, but Hailey invited her in for coffee and told her the whole sad story.”

Theresa dangled a flip-flop off her big toe. “Hailey poured her heart out to a total stranger? That doesn’t sound like the redheaded-bitch I met.”

“You saw how pleasant Yazmin is, how easy she is to talk to,” Allison said, “I don’t see her sitting on her balcony sipping sangria while Hailey kills her husband and tries to figure out what to do with the body. What do you see, Emi?”

What did I see? I hadn’t spent time with Hailey, so I focused on Yazmin, clearing out everything else in my mind until she floated there, happy, showing off her revenge body by the pool. “Yazmin’s loving life. I get nothing on Hailey. We need to find a way to spend more time with her.”

“I suspect we can bump into them both at the gym,” Allison said. “I take it you’re not a member, Emi?”

I snorted.

“No worries,” Theresa said, “we’ll go in tomorrow morning and ask for a tour. I’ll bet anything those two are sunrise gym rats.”

We schemed, ate popcorn for dinner, then joked and gossiped like we didn’t have a care in the world. That would change.

Chapter Four

Our tour guide was built like an NFL running back with bulging thigh muscles and biceps that could squeeze a football to his side so tightly Godzilla couldn’t wrestle it away.

“Your membership gives you access to all our classes and the tanning rooms.” Marcel smiled at us.

We smiled at Marcel.

“And our staff will create a personalized plan for you and instruct you on all of the machines.” Marcel smiled.

We smiled. We could have kept smiling at Marcel all morning, but I spotted Hailey and Yazmin on treadmills. “This sounds so great. Could we look around for a few minutes?

“Sure, then stop by the front desk and we’ll get you signed up.”

“I’m in love.” Allison’s eyes had gone all dreamy.

“Me too,” Theresa said.

I reminded Theresa she had a boyfriend. “And Reggie?”

“Just looking,” Theresa sighed.

We studied the machines and class schedules and poked our heads into one of the tanning booths to fill the time until Yazmin and Hailey finished with the treadmills. When they headed into the locker room, we trailed in behind them gawking at the multi-colored lockers.

“I wondered if I’d bump into you here,” I said. “We got the tour from Marcel.”

Yazmin faked a leer. “He’s something, isn’t he?”

“I may join just to keep an eye on him.”

Hailey looked me up and down. “You could certainly use a membership.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling her,” Theresa said. “Emi mentioned how good you looked for your age, and I told her exercise is the secret.” Meow, Theresa.

Allison squeezed one of Hailey’s firm shoulders. “I bet you can press a hundred pounds.”


“Amazing,” Allison drawled, “I wouldn’t want to tangle with you.”

“No one does,” Hailey assured her.

“I bet you can beat your husband at arm wrestling,” Allison joked.

“Not yet.”

“Do they have a discount for couples?” I asked, thinking of Pak.

“Do I look like the club manager?”

I laughed off her rudeness. “Yazmin tells me you paint.”

Something flickered behind the amber eyes, and some of the hard-ass attitude retreated. “Yes, watercolors and dolls.”

Allison gasped. “Do you paint those beautiful porcelain dolls?”

“I make clothes for them, too.”

“I never had a nice doll when I was little. I have one in my room now. She has a beautiful lacy dress.”

“Sweet,” Hailey said, disinterested. “I’ve got to get going.”

“Maybe we’ll see you two at the pool later,” I said.

“Maybe.” Hailey headed off in the direction of the showers.

Yazmin followed with a wave.

I signed up for a six-month membership.

Chapter Five

An hour later, we lounged around the same pool-side table we’d shared the day before. The deck was crowded with neighbors and their kids.

“Hailey has hard feelings about Perry, but I didn’t pick up anything violent,” Allison said, “even when you asked about the arm wrestling, at least not at first.”

Theresa peered at Allison over the top of white-rimmed sunglasses. “At first?”

“We’d already moved on to talking about dolls, but I got it, clear as day, ‘what about that body?’ like it was something that had been troubling her for a long time.”

An icy knife drove into my spine. “Do you think he’s already dead? Is she hiding the body in the apartment?”

“You’re the neighbor,” Theresa said, “Have you seen the guy around lately?”

“I’ve never seen him, other than his picture on the bank’s website.”

“If Yazmin and Hailey come down to the pool, I’ll knock on his door, check him out,” Allison suggested.

After another thirty minutes of speculating, we were joined by our new friends.”

“Do you mind if we share your table,” Yazmin asked, “all of the others are taken.”

“Please,” I moved my bag from the table to the deck beside me.

Allison rose, “And take my lounger, Hailey. I have to run upstairs for a while.” She ambled off toward my building.

Yazmin and Theresa talked about the gym while I tried to strike up a conversation with Hailey.

“I took your advice and joined the gym today.”


“Is your husband a member, too?”


“Is he working today?”


“Do you like living here?”

“I did.”

“What changed your mind?”

“Nosy neighbors.”

I gave up.

Allison returned twenty minutes later, wearing cutoffs and an evil smile.

Theresa and I rose and told our new friends we were off to lunch.

Allison shared what she’d learned while Theresa and I changed.

“He’s home. He’s packing. He’s leaving the bitch.”

I lifted my face to the ceiling. “What a relief. Will he be out of here before Hailey gets back upstairs from the pool?”

“I carried one of his bags to the car myself.”

“What was his story?” Theresa asked.

“Apparently Hailey and Perry used to be swingers.”

Theresa and I gave Allison our full and complete attention.

“After a while, Hailey lost interest in their sordid little hobby, but Perry doesn’t want to give it up. She won’t play anymore, but he games on. They argue, he gets drunk, they argue, the fights get out of control, the neighbors complain.”

“Jerk,” I said. “You didn’t get anything about him being afraid for his life, did you?”

“No, but I was lucky to get out of there without being shoved on the couch and mauled.”

“Bastard!” Theresa bounced up. “It sounds to me like she’s well rid of him.”

I agreed. “Let’s hope he stays away for good.”

He did. Perry’s body was found in a dumpster at dawn the next day.

Chapter Six

Allison and I got the story from one of the cops parked below Hailey’s apartment. Perry Bachman had been shot once in the head and once in the groin. He’d been dead at least eight hours.

“I guess Hailey figured out what to do with the body,” Allison said.

The three of us were sharing coffee and a mushroom omelet at my second-hand dining table.

Theresa wrapped both hands around her coffee mug. “Given the nature of the injuries, I’d say Hailey is the prime suspect.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but Yazmin Reyes told the cops Hailey spent the night with her and vouched for her whereabouts pretty much all day yesterday and last night.”

“The cops believed that?” Theresa raised a skeptical brow.

“Hailey shared the Dear Jane note Perry left and told the cops she spent the night with her neighbor for moral support.” Allison shrugged. “Sounds plausible enough.”

“We know Yazmin’s lying,” Theresa scoffed. “She knew what Hailey was up to. We heard Hailey telling her what she was going to do.”

“Maybe that was the plan all along,” Allison said, “Yazmin would be Hailey’s alibi.”

Though I couldn’t see if from where I sat, I gazed off in the direction of the pool. “That makes sense. I can’t believe we didn’t pick up on it. We could have saved the guy.”

Theresa yawned. “Not our jobs.”

“We should have warned him at least,” I said.

Allison scrunched up her face. “How? Think about it. When I went to see him yesterday, he was packing to leave his wife. I was a stranger to him. If I’d said ‘good thing you’re leaving, she’s going to kill you’ do you think he’d have believed me?”

“He could have gone to the cops.”

“And said what, Ems?” Theresa slapped her napkin on the table.

I slammed my own napkin in retaliation. “He could have told them that one of the neighbors overhead his wife talking about how to get rid of his body. Better yet, we should have gone to the cops ourselves instead of playing around with our powers. We should have let someone know what we’d heard.”

An ache rose in my head and gut. “The man is dead because we’ve gotten too used to playing games with our gifts instead of doing the right thing.”

Allison rested her hand on my wrist. “It’s not our fault. We didn’t kill him. Hailey did, and the cops will figure that out.”

I spoke as clearly as my tight jaw would allow. “But he’s dead, and we could have prevented it. All we had to do was tell someone. That’s what any normal person would have done.”

Theresa at least got what I was saying. “We’ve forgotten how to be normal people.” Her dark head bent with the shame I felt.

“Face it, we screwed up.” I let my head droop, too.

Allison’s perky would not be denied. “Come on guys, we overheard a snippet of conversation on Friday afternoon. By then, Perry suspected something was up, that’s why he left. For all we know, he already talked to the cops about it.”

“He might have,” I said, “but if we’d talked to them too, the cops might have taken it more seriously.”

Allison fluttered her free hand. “Okay, we messed up. What are we going to do about it?”

“Do what we do best,” Theresa said. “Did you guys notice if the Bachman’s apartment was taped off?”

“No, but the cops are still there,” I said.

“When they leave, I’ll get in the apartment and look for something incriminating that the cops might have missed.”

“I’ll have another go at Hailey,” Allison said, “but first you take a peek at her future, Emi.”

I closed my eyes and shoved the guilt and the anger to the edges of my mind. When black velvet filled my inner vision, I pulled up a picture of Hailey. I envisioned her in her expensive bathing suit showing off her revenge body around the pool.

I was drawn deeper into the vision as it shifted from the pool to the shore. Alone on the beach, the warm water of the gulf lapped at her toes as Hailey strolled. Scowling, she paused her walk to gaze out over the blue-green water. The wind ruffled russet curls around her face. Slowly, the corners of her pale lips lifted. Hailey slid her wedding ring and tossed it into the gentle waves.

Chapter Seven

From the pool deck, we watched the knot of police cars slowly untangle. Two squad cars left, then another, and then the unmarked vehicle. Only one squad car remained.

“I wonder why they left a car,” Theresa mused.

“Making sure the widow doesn’t wander off,” Allison suggested.

“Maybe they believed her, and they’re providing protection.” Angry, I stood and pulled my size XXL Seminoles t-shirt over my head. “Let’s get this show on the road.”

Half expecting the cop to stop us, I knocked tentatively on Yazmin’s door.

Yazmin’s smooth cheeks were shiny with tears. “Hi guys, I guess you heard?”

“Yeah,” I whispered, “is Hailey alright?”

“Not really.” Yazmin stepped back from the door. “She says she doesn’t want company, but I think she needs to talk it out.”

Hailey did the bereaved widow very well. She was wedged into a corner of Yazmin’s tropical print sofa, legs drawn up under her. Her hair hung in damp strands around her pale, sagging face.

Allison plopped herself at Hailey’s side. “You poor thing. What can we do to help?”

“Go away.”

Smiling, Allison placed a hand on Hailey’s shoulder. “You can’t withdraw from the world.”

“That’s what I’ve been telling her,” Yazmin said, “but she’s so independent. She thinks she doesn’t need anyone.”

“I don’t,” Hailey shrugged Allison’s hand away.

I took the side chair closest to Hailey. “Do the police have any suspects?”

“Lots,” Yazmin reported.

Allison and I turned to her in surprise.

“Perry had two or three women he saw regularly. The cops are checking them out now.”

Hailey snorted. “They’re going through the motions, they think I did it.” Her full lower lip trembled as did the hand squeezing a ball of tattered tissues in her lap.

“You were with me,” Yazmin stated firmly.

“Great, they’ll think you’re lying. You can go to jail, too.” Hailey wrapped her arms around herself. “I’m sorry I got you involved.”

“You didn’t get me involved. Your husband left you, so you spent the night at my place because you didn’t want to be alone. That’s not a big deal.”

“That’s right,” Allison said with a playful smile, “Yazmin came to the aid of a friend in need. You don’t need to worry about her.”

Hailey covered her face with her hands.

“Do you need anything? I’d be happy to run out to the store for you,” I offered.

“That would be great,” Yazmin said. “I guess you saw they left a cop outside and the media will be around soon.”

“No doubt. Can I can you anything from your apartment, Hailey?”

She sniffed. “My painting stuff and the doll I’m working on.” She uncurled herself from the couch. “The cops better not have messed with it.”

I rose. “I’ll get it. Reporters might be watching. Where’s your stuff?”

“On the kitchen table.” She rubbed at her forehead. “There’s a box.”

Yazmin lifted a set of keys from the coffee table and extended them to me. “The one with the rainbow sticker is Hailey’s.”

I took the keys and slid out to join Theresa in Hailey’s apartment.

Using the key, I stepped in quietly. Theresa peeked around a corner.


“No guns,” Theresa whispered. “But the cops would have taken them. What are you doing here?”

“Hailey wants her painting stuff.”

“It’s on the kitchen table.”

Though we now had a legitimate reason for being there, we edged around furniture on tiptoe, listening for cops, reporters, or Hailey Bachman approaching the door.

Hailey’s kitchen was done in French Country style, all yellow and white with pops of blue. A box that looked like a cardboard suitcase decorated with colorful floral cutouts and stickers sat on the round, white kitchen table. Next to the box, a porcelain baby doll’s head lay on a towel. Its little hands and feet were still inside the case, awaiting attention. Acetone, watercolor markers, pastels, brushes, and other painting paraphernalia surrounded the work area. I scooped it all up and into the case.

Closing the case revealed the rest of the doll. It had been hidden under the open lid, and the sight of it sent shivers of revulsion through me. Reluctantly, I lifted the saggy thing and studied it. The covering was half eaten away and felt smooth and warm like rotted leather. The muslin-encased insides shifted like sand or sawdust. I tossed it inside the case and closed the lid on the creepy thing.

Back at Yazmin’s place, Hailey was hunched into an even smaller ball than she had been earlier.

“Theresa was on her way over,” I announced as we stepped into the living room.

At the sight of her box, Hailey unraveled and smiled the first genuine smile I’d ever seen on her face. I handed the case to Allison, who opened it and turned it so Haley could get to the goodies inside. Hailey pulled out the baby doll’s head and displayed it like a trophy. “What do you think, Yaz?”

“Wow, what an improvement.” Yazmin pulled a phone out of her back pocket and swiped at it before shoving in my face. “This is what the doll looked like when Hailey got it.”

It was the same doll, but the paint was faded and scratches marred the cheeks and eyes. There was a chip off the doll’s ear, and stains darkened the hands. I passed the phone to Allison.

“Amazing.” Allison’s braids flew as she turned to Hailey. “Is that your hobby, restoring old dolls?”

“Baby dolls, mostly. Perry and I couldn’t have kids, and I guess I turned to dolls.” Her voice trailed off, and tears flooded her eyes, but she sat up straighter. “I’m going to name this one Perry, after the cheating bastard.”

Hailey lost the battle with the tears. Allison rose off the couch so Yazmin could slide over and comfort her friend. Allison took the doll’s head from Hailey and returned it to the case. As she did, Allison noticed the dirty, ragged stuffed torso. She lifted it, grimacing with disgust.

“Does this thing go to that doll?”

Hailey nodded and sniffed. “It did, but I’m making a new one; the old one’s too far gone. I hate to do it, but I have no choice. I’ve never done a body from scratch before, so I’m winging it.”

Allison slowly raised her head from the broken toy in her hands. She caught my eyes, and we both burst out laughing.

Theresa choked back her laugh and blasted out a quick explanation. “I’m sorry, Hailey, it’s just that anything you do has got to be an improvement over that mess.”

I jumped on it. “Exactly, it must hurt to have to ditch the original, but I’m sure your work will be much, much better.”

Hailey used the ratty tissue to swipe at the tears on her cheeks. “Thanks. You know, the other neighbors always gave me grief about the noise Perry and I made. Yazmin was the only one who reached out; and now you guys are here right when I need you, like angels.”

Like angels. Now we were crying, too.

Chapter Eight

Our gifted-girls-only-weekend broke up after our visit with Hailey and Yazmin. My friends took off for Sean’s house. I spent the rest of the morning cleaning up then hauled a basket of wash to the community laundry room. My phone buzzed as I sat watching my towels spin in the dryer. I opened the text from Allison.

“Go to WCTV news.”

I pulled up the local news channel’s page on my phone.

Wakulla Springs Man Charged in Love Triangle Shooting Death

Gilbert Blaisdale, 42 has been charged in Saturday night’s shooting death of Perry Bachman, a local bank manager. According to Blaisdale’s girlfriend, Eleanor Parker, she dated both men. On Saturday afternoon, Blaisdale confronted Parker about her relationship with Bachman and threatened to kill them both. Parker immediately sought refuge with family members but did not notify police of the threat.

Bachman’s body was found at five-twenty this morning by joggers who noticed a hand protruding from a dumpster. Bachman had been shot twice.

Details were sparse but confirmed Hailey Bachman was in the clear. She was still in for a rough time with the media, though so I made a pan of brownies and dropped them off with Yazmin. It was the neighborly thing to do.