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  • Writer's pictureKelly Zimmer

Gift Girls Only: Pieces of Silver

Chapter One

The twins talked us into getting involved, so if the neighbors ratted us out, we’d blame them.

The guys we work for at Mayweather Executive Services scored a pair of Valentine’s Day getaway packages. They left us to help Allison babysit Sean’s three kids, ages four, seven, and nine, along with Tony’s fourteen-year-old twins.

Tony and Francine dropped the twins at the Mayweather’s rambling two-story ranch at six on Friday evening. Trailed by their mom’s warning to have fun within reason, the twins slumped into the foyer and let their backpacks thud to the floor.

It was strange seeing David and Elizabeth Guiden without sunny smiles reflecting in their golden-brown eyes. Irked at being babysat, they scowled at Allison, Theresa, and me as we climbed the steps to the bedrooms on the second floor.

It was my idea to tell them they were au pair for the weekend.

David eyed me with one brow raised. “You’re calling us a pair of what?”

“That means you help with the kids and housework in exchange for room and board for the weekend,” I explained.

Liz loved the idea. “So, Dave keeps the boys entertained, and I do the same with Connie, right?”

“And it’s not babysitting,” I lied. “You’re supposed to provide a rich cultural experience.”

Now Theresa did the brow-raising. “What the hell does that mean, Emi?”

“It means they don’t play video games all weekend. They read, take nature hikes, learn a new sport.”

Liz clapped. “I’ll teach Connie to paint.”

“Cool,” Allison said. “we have watercolors.”

Unconvinced, David asked, “What do you three do?”

“We’ll handle the cooking and make sure you don’t destroy the house,” Allison said. She lived with Sean’s family and would catch the heat if the place burned down.

“You’re babysitting us.” It was a statement, not a question. David folded his arms. Stubborn, like his dad, I thought.

“No,” Allison drawled. “You’re visiting cultural ambassadors from the non-Mayweather world, getting the kids out of their bubble.” She fluttered her lashes. “I bet Connor and Chad would love to learn more about soccer.”

Even a surly teenager couldn’t resist Allison’s blue-eyed, blonde Southern charm when she dialed it up to Code Red. One corner of David’s mouth twitched and raised itself into a half-smile. “I suppose.”

“Your first assignment is to select a movie for tonight,” Theresa improvised, “that isn’t from Disney.”

Dave and Liz shared a glance and said, in unison, “Princess Bride.”

Allison slipped an arm through David’s and allowed him to escort her to the boys’ room. Liz jogged upstairs to Connie’s room. Theresa and I slid off to the kitchen to start dinner.

Theresa pulled Melanie’s chicken casserole out of the fridge and turned on the oven. “I can’t believe I’m spending my Valentine’s weekend babysitting five kids. I feel like I’m twenty-five going on fifty.”

“You’re giving Francine Guiden and Melanie Mayweather a well-deserved break and keeping me company. Pak wanted to spend the weekend with his mom. She’s getting still getting over that flu bug.”

“Is she better?”

“Yeah, but she’s been stuck at home for a week. Pak wants to make sure she gets out but doesn’t overdo. That woman will drink wine and salsa dance all weekend if left unsupervised. If you want to party tomorrow night, Allison and I can handle things.”

“No way. My apartment complex has its annual Valentine’s mixer. There ain’t nobody in that place worth mixing with.”

Theresa slid the casserole into the oven, and I started the salad. Thirty minutes later, Allison posted Connie’s watercolor unicorn on the fridge. Liz promised to help her paint mountains, and Connie agreed if they painted unicorns on top. Over dinner, Chad and Connor peppered Dave with questions about Manchester United, bicycle kicks, and red cards.

The twins gave the kids baths, got them into pajamas, and positioned them on the sofa for movies and popcorn. We hid in the kitchen where Allison poured us wine and toasted me.

“Here’s to you, Emi. Brilliant idea, turning the kids over to the twins. The weekend isn’t looking so lame anymore.

Theresa brushed her inky hair over her shoulder. “Not exactly a party, but there’s wine.”

“Who knows,” I added, “something interesting might even happen.”

Chapter Two

Teenagers do not wake with the energy of a four-year-old. Liz and Dave groaned and pin-balled around the unfamiliar second floor, leaving Allison, Theresa, me to wash, dress, and feed Sean’s three kids.

By seven, Theresa had Connor dressed and in the kitchen. My charge, Chad, scampered ahead of me as the groggy Guiden au pair staggered down the steps behind us. I yelped in response to a series of staccato thuds on the front door.

I called to the second floor, “Allison, door!” With Connie in her arms, Allison skipped past the teenage zombies to squint through the peephole.

“It’s just Jerry.” She pulled the door open with Theresa and me hovering at her shoulder.

Jerry was worth the hovering. Not tall, but trim, with brown eyes framed by thick, feathery lashes. Though gray peppered his brown-black hair, I made him for his early forties. His gaze slid past Allison to Theresa and me, and his eyes twinkled speculatively.

“Hey, Allison. Is Sean home?”

“No, he and Melanie are away this weekend.” Allison pulled the door wide, and Jerry stepped inside. “I’m watching the kids. These are my friends Emi Watson and Theresa Fitzpatrick.”

Jerry repeated our names and took up our hands to press his lips to the fingertips.

“Don’t mind, Jerry. He’s the neighborhood Romeo.”

“Not true,” Jerry explained. “I’m the neighborhood ne'er-do-well.”

“What’s that mean?” Theresa asked.

“It means responsible people such as the Mayweathers warn their kids to stay away from me.”

Allison smacked Jerry’s shoulder. “Do not. The kids love Uncle Jerry because he’s such a big Bozo. You want some coffee?”

“No, can’t stay. I wondered if this was yours?” He pulled a flask from his back pocket.

“Is that silver?” Theresa reached for the flask. She can tell an object’s history with a touch, and this piece looked valuable.

While Theresa examined the flask, Allison squeezed Jerry’s arm in a chummy ‘what have we got here’ gesture. Allison can read minds, but she has to touch her target and focus on the answers, so I handled the questioning.

“Where did you find this?”

“My mailbox. I was popping in a birthday card to my third ex, and this was in there.”

“You got married three times?” I blurted.

Jerry’s eyes moved up and to the side as he pursed his lips. “Last count, yeah, three times.”

“I told you he was a Romeo.” Allison took the flask from Theresa. “It’s not Sean’s or Melanie’s.”

“I’d call the police,” Theresa said. “It’s silver and almost a hundred years old.”

Jerry blinked at Theresa. “Are you a collector?”

“I cruise antique shops,” she lied. Theresa smiled at Jerry. Theresa’s hazel-green eyes and long legs captured male attention faster than beer.

Theresa’s smile broadened, so Jerry ratcheted up his smile in retaliation. “You girls visiting for the entire weekend?”

“Yep, Sean and Melanie are doing a Valentine getaway package on the Gulf,” Allison said. She winked at Theresa. “If you don’t mind eating pizza with a bunch of kids, join us for dinner tonight. I’m sure Sean wouldn’t mind.”

Theresa narrowed her eyes at Allison in a warning gesture.

“Sean would appreciate you hanging with us,” I said. “Safety in numbers.”

Theresa moved her warning glance to me.

“Cool, what time?”

Allison released his arm. “Come by at six. Bring wine.”

We said goodbye to Jerry, then jumped as Liz Guiden’s voice floated from above. “That guy’s got a crush on you, Theresa.”

Theresa spun. We’d forgotten the twins lurking midway down the staircase. “That guy’s twenty years older than me,” she sneered.

“Fifteen,” Allison said. “He turned forty last June. There was a crazy party at his house. The police broke it up on day three.”

The fully awake twins smelled a story. “Tell us more while you make pancakes.”

Liz and Dave leaned elbows on the kitchen island while Allison mixed pancake batter. I sliced fruit, and Theresa fumed at us both.

“Jerry’s the neighborhood cipher.” The twins squished up their faces at her, so she explained. “An unknown. He moved in four years ago, doesn’t go to work, but has money for toys, like his black Jag. We never see the same woman twice, and he has these wild parties, but he’s funny and nice as pie.”

“Has he really been married three times?” Liz asked.

“He refers to them as ex-one, ex-two, ex-three, and he doesn’t trash them.”

“Do you believe he found that thing in his mailbox?” David asked.

Here’s where things got tricky. Theresa, Allison, and I are skilled people, we have special talents that we use in our jobs at Mayweather Executive Solutions. I see the future, Allison reads minds, and Theresa reads objects. Sean and Tony are practitioners. They have talents, too, but they can also influence people and events. Their wives know about our skills, but the kids didn’t, so we had to be extra careful when discussing how we gathered the information.

After a pause filled with furtive glances, Liz sat up straight and slapped her palms on the table. “What is it you’re not telling us?”

Allison had done the “interview,” so we turned to her. “You heard the man. He found it in his mailbox. Do you think he’s lying, Liz?”

“No,” she stammered. “Why would Jerry lie?”

“Exactly, he didn’t steal it, did he, Theresa?”

“Not him, no.”

Allison and I shifted our gazes to Theresa, then to the twins who were, like their dad, sharp as tacks.

“But it was stolen?” David asked.

Theresa recovered well. “I believe so. Somebody stole it, got scared, and dumped it in Jerry’s mailbox.”

“Which means it came from a neighbor’s house,” I reasoned.

Before we could discuss the flask further, another knock rattled from the front of the house.

“Get that, please, Emi. I’m just getting this batch on the griddle. David, go with her.”

Theresa tagged along too, in case it was Jerry again. I opened the door to a tall, thin woman with pointy features and a perplexed frown. “Who are you?”

“Emily Watson. I’m spending the weekend with Allison. And you are?” I didn’t care for the way she glowered down at me. Granted, she was close to six feet tall, and I was only five-four, so she had no choice but to look down on me, but she did it so snootily.

“I need to see Melanie.”

“The Mayweathers are away.”

“That explains it,” she snapped. “Allison’s letting the children run wild. I found this in my rose garden this morning.”

She shoved a rattle at me. Like the flask, it was silver. I raised a brow, accepted the rattle, and passed it to Theresa so she could use her skills to examine the find.

“I doubt this belongs to the Mayweather’s children,” Theresa said in her most precise and erudite tone. She could do snooty, too. “The children are too old to play with rattles, and this is silver. It’s more of a commemorative piece, not a toy.” She said the last with a haughty smirk, leaving no doubt what she thought of the woman’s intellect.

Theresa returned the rattle to the visitor.

“Hi, Mrs. Jernigan.” Allison had arrived with a platter of pancakes. “Would you care to join us for breakfast?”

“Certainly not.”

“She found a silver rattle in her roses,” I reported.

“Really?” Allison handed the platter off to David. Allison reached for the rattle but didn’t take it from Mrs. Jernigan. Instead, she stroked its smooth surface with one finger while resting the others on her neighbor’s.

“Is there anyone in the neighborhood who collects silver?” I asked.

“How should I know?”

“You’re on all the committees,” Allison gushed. “The garden committee, the neighborhood watch committee, the community standards committee.”

“I’m an involved citizen. That doesn’t mean I’m involved in everyone’s personal business.”

Allison removed her hand. “Well, it’s not ours. Enjoy your day.” She slammed the door in the affronted woman’s face.

“She seemed nice,” I said, and even David laughed.

We made pancakes and fresh-squeezed orange juice disappear. The twins oversaw the teeth-brushing while we cleaned the kitchen. The crew gathered around the dining table to discuss the day’s plans.

David proposed a soccer game, boys vs. girls, with Theresa acting as referee. After that motion was approved, Liz suggested a unicorn-painting contest with Connie as the judge. We’d moved on to lunch plans when the house phone rang. Allison answered with a cheery, “Mayweather residence.”

The cheer fell right off her face. “Oh, hello, Mr. Lionel. No, Sean and Melanie aren’t home. I’ll tell them you called.”

Her complexion shifted from fair to crimson in a flash. “How dare you suggest such a thing! I’ve been nowhere near your house. If you’ve been robbed, call the damn police.” She slammed the handset into the cradle and plopped into the chair at the head of the table.

“The nerve.”

The children’s eyes were anxious, and Connie crawled into Allison’s lap to give her a hug.

“I guess Jerry and Mrs. Jernigan’s silver surprises came from that Lionel person’s house,” Theresa said.

“I suppose you’re right. I should have mentioned that, but he makes me so darned mad.”

“Mr. Lionel’s an asshole,” Connor explained.

“Language,” Allison warned. Chad and Connie giggled.

“Why is he an asshole?” David asked.

“We can’t ride our bikes by his house.” Connor shrugged. “Dad calls him Ed ‘get off my lawn’ Lionel.”

I smiled at a memory. “The neighborhood grouch. We had one at my parents’ condo. Jeni and I swore they did nothing but stand with their ears pressed to their door waiting for people to pass so they could swing the door open and scream ‘keep it down.’”

“What happened to your neighborhood thorn?” Theresa asked Allison.

“Someone broke into his house last night. He thinks it was kids. He thinks every evil in the world is perpetrated by kids.”

Liz flipped her ponytail and bobbed her head at the trio of blond heads across the table. “He isn’t seriously suggesting these three committed a robbery.”

“Not them, me. He considers me a kid, and he’s hated me since I moved here.” Allison slid Connie off her lap. “He told Sean I was trouble, and he was getting a court order to have me removed.”

“How did Sean take that?” I asked in my most sarcastic tone.

“Dad told him to go f… stuff himself,” Connor reported.

“You know what I think?” Liz asked. “The robber lives in the neighborhood.”

“Yeah,” David agreed, “it’s someone who knew Mr. Lionel collected silver.”

“But why steal the stuff then dump it in the neighbor’s yards?” I asked.

Theresa tapped her lips with a finger. “Misdirection. They leave a few pieces in the neighborhood so the cops focus here, but the burglar takes off with the rest.”

Liz looked crestfallen. “Makes sense.”

David came to his sister’s aid. “Maybe they took his stuff to mess with him.”

Liz perked up. “Yeah, it was just a joke because he’s the neighborhood grouch.”

“Let’s find out,” David said.

“I’m not calling Ed Lionel back.” Allison waved a palm at the phone.

“We could go by his house, see if the cops are there,” Liz suggested. “If they are, Mr. Lionel probably lost more than the flask and the rattle.”

“True,” Theresa said, “and if I could peek inside, I . . .” she trailed off as she remembered we had an audience. All eyes were on her, Liz’s the widest.

“Can you do crime scene investigations?” David asked.

“Allison’s friends are the smartest,” Connor assured him. “They work with my dad and figure out the weirdest stuff. Let’s go over there.”

“No way, your dad doesn’t want us near Mr. Lionel’s place,” Allison said.

“Liz and I can go,” David said. “Mr. Lionel doesn’t know us.”

“You can’t run off alone,” I said. “We’ll all go. It’s only a walk, right?”

Theresa shrugged. “If Mr. Lionel says anything to Sean, we’ll say the twins wanted a tour of the neighborhood.”

“Yeah, totally,” David said. “Tell him we were curious. Liz and I are always getting into other people’s business. Mom says so.”

Just like their father, I mused.

Chapter Three

The children dashed ahead, Dave in the front with the boys and Liz close behind holding Connie's hand. At the end of the second block, Connor turned right. By the time we caught up, the kids were deep in conversation with a chubby woman with curly hair nearly the same golden-brown shade as the twins.

Allison greeted her with, “Hi, Wendy.”

“Hi, Allison, honey. Connor was introducing his new friends.”

“We're au pair,” Liz explained.

Wendy molded her features into an impressed expression. “Where are you from?”

“Here in Tallahassee,” David explained. “We're not really au pair.” He hooked a thumb at my friends and me. “They're just telling us that so we won't get pissed at having a babysitter for the weekend.”

“Why you little shit,” Theresa exclaimed.

“I looked up au pair on the internet,” David said. “Nice try.”

“Dad says we're smarter than we look,” Liz said.

“Wendy, these are my friends Emi and Theresa. They're helping me with the tribe this weekend. Did you hear about Mr. Lionel's break-in?”

“I did. I’m taking him a plate of cookies.”

Allison reared back from Wendy. “You made Ed Lionel cookies?”

Wendy aimed a 'behave' glance at Allison. “I know he's not the friendliest fellow, but neighbors have to stick together. Come have a cookie while I fix Ed’s plate.”

Wendy led the eight of us through a set of French doors into her white and pink dining room. Perched on the lace-covered table, two fat calico cats greeted Wendy with purrs that sent vibrations through the air.

The kids had their hands on the cats before Allison could stop them.

“Hi, Alli. Hi, Tami.” Connie turned her tiny face to Wendy. “Where are the other kitties?”

“You have more?” I asked.

Wendy spread the fingers of one hand at me. “Five. Don't tell me Allison's never mentioned the crazy cat lady.”

“Five cats aren't enough to qualify you as a crazy cat lady,” Allison objected.

“I'm well on my way. Come into the kitchen, kids, and wash your hands.”

Once hands were washed, Wendy distributed oatmeal raisin cookies then busied herself arranging a dozen on a paper plate for Ed Lionel.

“Do you mind if we walk with you?” I asked. “I want to see this 'get off of my lawn' guy. It’ll be easier if we show up with a friend.”

“I wouldn't exactly call Ed my friend. We're civil.”

Allison flipped a braid over her shoulder. “That's more than most people get.”

“Oh, Rita Jernigan's got her nose up Ed's butt. If he has a friend, it’s Rita.”

“Did Mrs. Jernigan steal that man's stuff?” Liz chirped.

Allison's hand clamped itself over Liz's mouth. “Excuse her, Wendy, she's inherited her father's suspicious nature.”

“Mom says we get all our bad habits from dad,” David confirmed.

“No one here would do such a thing, not even the two potheads next door.”

Allison's removed her hand from Liz's mouth. “I forgot about them.”

“Those two can't reliably take out the trash, much less commit a burglary,” Wendy scoffed. “Come on, kids. Let's do our good deed for the day.”

We must have been a sight, eight of us trailing Wendy like ducklings. The boys darted and danced around Dave. Liz and Allison swung Connie between them, with Theresa and me in their wake.

My gaze slid to the covered porch of the gingerbread Victorian next to Wendy's house. Allison and Wendy waved as we passed. Two black-haired girls dressed in black returned the wave with effort, as if exhausted by the gesture. Their skin was so white they either wore makeup or were near death. The aroma of cannabis wafted off the porch, down the brick-lined path to the sidewalk.

When we reached the corner, flashing blue lights came into view.

“You kids get out of here!”

Wendy ignored the thin man in baggy clothes shouting from the porch and mounted the wooden steps. “I’ve brought you cookies, Ed.”

“I don't want your damned cookies, Wendy. You did this, I'm sure of it.”

The patrol officer who had been interviewing Ed Lionel turned to Wendy and poised his pen over a clean page in his notebook. “May I get your name, ma'am?”

Wendy sighed indulgently. “Wendy Latzenberger.” She spelled her name and gave the officer her address.

The cop waved his pen at us. “Who are these people?”

“Neighborhood brats,” Lionel spat. “The three little ones belong to that freak Sean Mayweather. I don't recognize the other two delinquents.”

Liz stepped forward and offered her hand to the creepy septuagenarian. “Elizabeth Guiden. This is my brother David. We're twins.”

Lionel ignored Liz's hand. “I see that. Now get off my porch.”

“They're houseguests,” Allison said pointedly, “helping with the children while Sean and Melanie are away. And if you think Sean's a freak, wait until you meet their dad. He'd kick you into next Thursday for calling his kids delinquents.”

David and Liz exchanged a glance and nodded. “He would,” Liz confirmed.

“No one is kicking anyone,” the cop said, but he smiled.

“Can I set these cookies inside for you and the officer?” Wendy asked.

The cop heaved a disappointed sigh. “No one's allowed inside until the crime scene unit finishes and if you don't have any information concerning this event—”

Allison stepped forward. “Two of our other neighbors stopped by the house this morning with items I suspect were stolen from Mr. Lionel.”

“Ms. Jernigan and Mr.,” the cop flipped back through the pages of his notebook, “Kalzarian are bringing the items here. Would you mind answering a few questions about their visits?”

“Not at all.” Allison beamed her cheerleader smile at the cop. I crowded in with the kids so Theresa could wander away unobserved.

Allison took her time describing the two visits and shot Lionel an evil glance when she described his phone call. “I assure you, officer, the children and I never left the house last night, and if we had, it wouldn’t be to Mr. Lionel's house. He frightens the children.”

Ed Lionel winced but added nothing. As a police van pulled onto the street, I shouted toward the open door for Theresa's benefit, “Look, kids, a crime scene van.”

Fascinated, Liz and Dave watched the van park, then trailed the cop as he approached the crime scene techs. While everyone's attention was focused on the techs, Theresa appeared from the rear of the house and slipped back into the group.

“Emi,” she whispered, “use your crystal ball on Mr. Get Off My Lawn.”

“I've tried. I get nothing.”

“Try harder. Allison will never get her hands on him, so it’s up to you.”

I studied the thinning gray hair flopping on Ed Lionel’s weathered forehead. Ed was tall and had been fit once, but now skin sagged from slack muscles. There was a meanness to the man that made me think of stringy meat, tough no matter how long you cooked it.

Without noticing when it happened, my observations turned into a daydream. Ed sat a desk, rummaging through a drawer, frantic. He bit the end of a pen, slammed a fist on the blotter, then cursed. Damn the woman, he said. Damn her.

“What the hell's wrong with you?” Lionel watched me with narrowed eyes.

“Sorry for your loss, Mr. Lionel.” I returned to the present. He wrinkled his nose like he smelled rotted meat.

Wendy convinced the police officer to take the plate of cookies. She left us on the sidewalk where Liz and David continued debating the question of who robbed Ed Lionel.

“I still think it's another neighbor,” Liz said.

“Yeah, but why give away the stuff they stole?” Dave countered.

“To throw off the cops. I bet it was the cool guy or the snooty lady.”

“The sisters living next to Wendy got something, too,” Allison said. The twins turned eager eyes to Allison.

“How do you know that?”

“The cop told me,” she lied. Distracted by my vision, I hadn't noticed Allison doing a hands-on interview with the police officer.

“I didn't hear him,” David said.

“Well, he did. We should visit them and find out what they got.”

“What about the kids?” Theresa asked.

“They like A and Z, but they aren’t allowed in the house. Air quality issues.”

“Yeah,” Connor said, “they smoke. Smoking's bad.”

“Yes, it is,” Theresa said. “But, a look around may help.”

We studied each other, then the children.

“Kids,” Allison said, “we need a quick huddle here. Liz and Dave, take them to the corner and wait.”

The twins weren't pleased about being excluded, but gathered up Sean’s kids and strolled to the corner.

Theresa talked fast. “I don't know the value of the stolen silver, but there's other stuff missing, Lionel isn't mentioning to the cops.”

“Drugs?” I asked.

“Could be. There's an empty strongbox in a drawer. It’s open and the lock’s broken. The crime techs got here before I could examine it, so I’m not certain what was inside, but I sense it was valuable.”

Allison sighed. “If it's drugs, A and Z are our best bet. That's why Sean doesn't want the kids in their house. He doesn't want them inhaling the pot.”

“Why are they called A and Z?” I asked.

“Abby and Zoe. We call them the girls, but they're nineteen and twenty-one. They act all Goth and bleak, but they're always pleasant. They're sisters, students at FSU.”

“How can two students afford to rent a house in this neighborhood?” Theresa asked.

“It's their parents' house, but the mom and dad are never home. Melanie feels sorry for the girls. She's always having me drop off soup and treats.”

Theresa turned to me. “Did you get anything, Emi?”

“I saw Ed at his desk, at least I assumed it was his desk, looking through a drawer. And he was cursing some woman.”

“Good for her, whoever she is. I hate that old guy. Do me a favor, Emi. Make sure Tony knows old Ed called his kids delinquents.”

“Does anyone like Ed Lionel?” I asked Allison.

Allison raised and lowered a shoulder. “That bitch Rita Jernigan pretends to, but when she showed us the rattle, all she had in her head was tracking down the neighborhood thief so she could lord her cleverness over the rest of us.

“What's Wendy’s story?” Theresa asked.

“A divorce is in the works. Wendy's husband left her last year for a younger, slimmer model. No kids, just cats. She works from her house, doing something on the internet.”

“Sounds lonely,” I said.

I glanced down the street. David raised his palms in a “what gives” gesture. I turned to my Theresa. “Do we visit A and Z?”

“If it doesn't make trouble for Allison. You two keep Abby and Zoe talking on the porch, and I'll search the house.” Theresa led us back to the kids who were thrilled to learn we were visiting the neighborhood potheads.

Chad and Connor ran ahead and up the porch steps.

“Hey, little dudes, who's your friend?” Both girls focused their black-lined eyes on David.

“That's David, he's an opera,” Chad said.

Allison saved David from an awkward explanation. “Hi, Abby. Hi, Zoe. Meet David and his sister Liz. They're staying with us while Sean and Melanie are out of town.”

The girl Allison called Zoe winked. “The cat's away, is he?”

Allison ignored that. “And this is my friend, Emi.” Theresa was already missing in action.

“Cool, have a sit.”

“Are you twins, too?” Liz asked Zoe doubtfully.

“Nah, I'm thirteen months older than Abby. We used to pretend to be twins in high school, but nobody ever fell for it.”

“Hey, do you want a brownie?” Zoe asked. “We have brownies.”

“No, thanks, we had Wendy's cookies,” Allison said. “And Sean warned me about your brownies.”

Zoe rolled her eyes. “We wouldn't give the special brownies to kids, geez.”

Geez? Allison was right, they weren't the bad girls they pretended to be.

“The cops said you had one of Ed's stolen pieces,” I said. “Where did you find it?”

Zoe slipped a hand into the pocket of her voluminous black tulle-lined skirt. She pulled out a silver picture frame approximately three inches square “Here on the porch. We told the cops to send someone. No way we're going to that jerk's house.”

“He tells everyone we're junkies,” Abby said, “and there’s other stuff.”

Liz plopped on the rattan loveseat next to Abby. “He called David and me delinquents. He's never even met us before.”

Allison settled on Abby's other side and leaned across her to remind Liz to mention Ed’s comment to Tony. When she had good contact with Abby’s arm, she asked, “Who do you think stole Ed's stuff?”

Abby brushed paint-stiffened black bangs from her forehead. “Hard to say. So many people go in and out of his place.”

Allison's jaw dropped. “Ed gets visitors?”

Zoe nodded. “Late, after dark. Mrs. Jernigan stops in once a week and Wendy, too. She's always carrying a plate of something.”

“I saw that cool guy, Jerry, knock on his door once,” Abby added. “He didn't go in, though. He yelled at Ed from the porch and left.”

“Is that why people visit, to yell at him?” I asked.

Abby opened her mouth, but Zoe shot her a glance and interrupted. “I can't imagine what else they have to talk to him about. Why don’t I ever see Melanie over there? She's the neighborhood mom. Doesn't she take him soup? Her soup is awesome.”

“Melanie doesn't want to make him uncomfortable. Ed's scared of Sean.”

“Dad says if he yells at us kids again, he'll kick his ass,” Connor reported.

Abby smiled, and I glimpsed the pretty girl beneath the stark-white makeup. “Good for him.” She stared past us to the street. “I don't think our dad would kick anybody's ass for us.”

“Maybe for his girlfriend.” Zoe said, 'girlfriend' like it was a disease.

The door to the house opened, and Theresa stepped through, reeking of marijuana and incense. “Thanks for letting me use your powder room.”

Unperturbed by a stranger walking out of her house, Zoe said, “Stop by any time, and bring this one.” She pointed the toe of her black boot at David, whose ears glowed pink.

We gathered up the troops and marched home.

Chapter Four

Connie awarded herself first place, and Chad second place in the watercolor unicorn competition. The post-lunch soccer match ended in a one-one tie.

We gave the au pair a break to chill and text their friends while the kids watched a Disney movie. I huddled with Theresa and Allison in the kitchen to discuss what we’d learned.

“Any clue why so many people visit Ed?” Theresa asked Allison.

“Abby thinks Wendy and Mrs. Jernigan are having a fling with him.”

“That’s ridiculous,” I said.

“Agreed, and it doesn’t explain why Jerry Kalzarian visited.”

Allison nudged Theresa’s ankle with a toe. “We can ask him tonight, he’s coming to dinner, remember?”

“Stop trying to fix me up, Allison.”

“I’m not. I’m putting two friends together, then nature will take its course.”

“Or not,” Theresa smirked. “What did you see about the girls, Emi?”

“They’re unhappy, you don’t need a fortune-teller to see that, but they’re afraid, and they’re hiding something. What did you find in the house?”

“Books, computers, gaming systems. They’re studying computer programming, applications, and gaming. The pot is a smokescreen if you’ll forgive the pun. The girls are computer nerds.”

“That explains the weird images I got from Abby,” Allison said. “She was running through a jungle in space. I thought she was high.”

“They could be into hacking or pirating,” Theresa suggested.

“What about their parents?” I asked.

“They believe their mom and dad have abandoned them,” Allison explained. “The girls are close. They’ll do anything to avoid risk being separated.”

“Maybe that’s it,” Theresa said. “they’re scared because they’re into illegal shit, and worried about the cops.”

I wanted to suggest we talk to A and Z again, but the Disney movie ended. We herded the kids back outside for a game of Simon Says led by Theresa. The twins rolled their eyes but laughed as hard as anybody when the game got out of hand.

When the shadows grew long, we sent the kids upstairs for baths with instructions to dress for company. We did the same, with particular emphasis on Theresa’s ensemble.

Theresa encased her long legs in skinny jeans and experimented with shirts. She settled on a pale pink tee that popped against her brown skin.

“Gorgeous,” Allison sang as she jogged downstairs to answer the knock. Theresa and I slipped behind her but were shoved to the side at the doorway by three kids and two bored teenagers.

Jerry spread his arms wide as Allison opened the door. He held two paper sacks with handles in each hand. “Such a greeting! Come here, rugrats.”

Connie hugged a leg. Conner asked, “What’s in the bags?”

Jerry stepped inside and handed one bag to the nine-year-old. “Low-fat chocolate milk and Gatorade for you and the little guys.”

He extended another bag toward Liz, then startled her by kissing her cheek. “Sparkling grape juice for the houseguests.”

She flushed and accepted the bag.

The third bag went to Allison. “One red and one white for the lovely ladies.”

“Tha-ank you! What’s in the last bag?” Allison asked.

“Surprise for later. Where’s dinner?”

“We haven’t ordered yet. We wanted to see what you liked.”

Jerry aimed a lecherous grin at Theresa. “I already see what I like, but I’ll take extra cheese with spinach in the meantime.”

“My favorite,” Theresa purred.

Allison ordered the pizzas on her phone app while I fetched glasses. Theresa settled everyone around the kid-dinged dining room table, seating herself on one side of the guest and me on the other. Allison could flirt with Jerry anytime. We filled the time waiting for pizzas with gossip about Ed Lionel and his burglary.

“Who do you think did it, Mr. Kal… Mr. Kalaza—” Liz stammered. She had a touch of a crush on our guest, too.

“Call me Jerry. I’m the prime suspect. I dislike the man, and I’m prone to practical jokes.”

“Did you?” David asked.

“Nah, I was busy lining up my fourth ex-wife.”

Allison shot him a wink. “She can vouch for you that night?”

“All. Night.” He returned the wink.

“That role has been cast, then?” Theresa asked with a pout.

“I’m reopening auditions, effective immediately. I’d love to take you and the little cinnamon-haired one for a test drive.”

All five kids hooted.

“Cut it out, Jerry, you’re embarrassing Emi,” Allison said. “If you didn’t do it, who did? Liz says it’s a neighbor.”

“Perceptive young woman. I agree with her.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Ed Lionel is more than an old grouch.” Jerry studied his wine glass before continuing. “He’s offended plenty of people.”

Jerry had put verbal quotes around offended. This wasn’t lost on us, but we’d follow up when the kids were occupied.

“Has he ever offended you? David asked.

“Oh, yes.” Jerry’s eyes flicked to the unopened paper bag at his feet, then back to Dave. “I offended him right back.”

“Good for you,” Liz said.

“Do you know how much was stolen?” Theresa asked. “I didn’t notice. I mean, the cop wouldn’t tell us.”

“I suspect the silver wasn’t the primary target, but I understand four silver collectibles are missing.”

“Who has the fourth piece?” I asked. “You got the flask, A and Z the box, and Rita Jernigan the rattle.”


“Wendy?” Allison suggested.

Jerry nodded and grinned.

The pizzas arrived, and talk turned from crime to potential movie selections. Jerry suggested a horror film, and the kids agreed.

“No way,” Allison said. “Melanie will kill me if the kids get nightmares.”

“I guarantee this one won’t give them scary dreams,” Jerry said.

We settled the kids in front of Young Frankenstein and grinned at the giggles drifting in from the next room while we worked our way through the wine.

“Why is Wendy holding out on the cops?” I asked.

Jerry lifted the brown paper bag to the table and dumped its contents, a single flash drive, on the dining table.

“On that, is a video of me having intimate relations with a woman who failed to qualify as ex-number-four.”

Theresa blinked. “And you’re showing this to us why?”

“It appeared on my front porch wrapped in a note that said, ‘Five thousand or your son’s mother gets this. E.L.’”

“Ed Lionel tried to blackmail you?” I blurted.

“I marched to his place and threw the note in his face. He denied he’d sent it, naturally.”

“Did he send the video to your ex-wife?” Allison asked.

“No, I told him Zach’s mom knows what I get up to; that’s why she’s an ex, and if he shared that video, I’d take my copy to the police. You should have seen his face.”

Theresa set her mouth in a smug grimace. “His prints are on that, I’ll bet.”

“Do you think that bastard tried to blackmail other people?” Allison asked. “A and Z said people knock on his door at all hours, even Wendy.”

“A and Z were hiding something, too.” I changed directions, realizing I couldn’t explain what we’d learned about the girls to Jerry. “What could he possibly have on the Cat Lady?”

“She’s in the middle of a divorce.” Jerry waggled his head. “He might have something that could hurt Wendy’s chances of getting a decent property settlement. God knows the attorneys for my ex-wives found enough.”

“Ed told the cop he thought Wendy did it. If they get a search warrant and find that fourth item, it could look bad for her.” I chewed on my bottom lip and raised my eyes to Theresa.

Theresa’s eyes drifted to Allison. “You should talk to Wendy.”

Allison nodded. “Yeah, and you should have a look around her place.”

Theresa’s brow creased. “We’ll want Emi’s, ah, insight on this and she can keep Wendy distracted while you and I—”

“Why do I feel I’m not part of this conversation?” Jerry asked.

“Because you,” Allison tweaked his scratchy cheek, “have to watch the kids. Thirty minutes tops.”

“Oh, no, I’m not babysitting.”

“You’re not. The twins are babysitting. You’re visiting the twins.”

We hustled to our feet and out the kitchen door before he could work up an objection.

Chapter Five

Wendy answered on the second knock. She held a teacup and greeted us with a fuzzy smile that made me wonder if she had something other than tea in the cup.

“Hi, Wendy. Can we come in?”

She stepped back from the door. “Is everything okay? Are you having problems with the children?”

“No, not at all. Jerry’s watching them.”

The fuzzy smile turned into a frown. “I doubt Melanie would approve.”

“They’ll be fine. This will only take a moment.”

Wendy’s slippers scuffed across the floral-patterned carpet. Theresa had hung back at the door and slipped away as Allison and I followed Wendy into the dining room. As Wendy settled at the head of the table, Allison and I pulled chairs close to her.

“I hope old Ed didn’t upset you when he accused you of robbing him.” Allison rested a hand on Wendy’s plump wrist.

Since Allison had to live in Wendy’s neighborhood, I asked the objectionable questions. “Jerry showed us something he said Ed tried to blackmail him with, a video.”

“That old fool.” Wendy lifted her cup to her lips.

Across the table, Allison’s compassionate smile flickered.

I continued. “Jerry also said that four items were stolen, but only three have been returned. I know it’s not fair, but since Ed Lionel named you as a suspect, the police could get a warrant to search your home. You should turn it over before they search.”

The cup rattled as it hit the table. “Are you saying I stole from Ed?”

I waded in gently. “No, perhaps you were searching for an item Ed might have of yours, something you wouldn’t want others to see, and you took the silver, ah, accidentally.”

The woman gaped at me. “You’re suggesting Ed blackmailed me?”

Allison grinned and released Wendy’s wrist. “Excuse my friend. She’s given to wild imaginings.” Allison turned her face to me. “Where did Theresa go?”

Wendy stood. “Is she wandering around my house?”

Theresa appeared holding a Calico cat and a silver jewelry box.

Wendy’s eyes jogged between us. “What are you three doing here?”

I blinked and stammered. “I was worried that Ed was blackmailing you, and you retaliated by stealing from him, and you’d be arrested.”

“Get out of my house, and I promise Sean will hear about this, Allison.”

“I doubt that, Wendy.” Allison stood and punched her balled hands on her hips. “You’re the blackmailer. You stole that shit from Ed because he couldn’t pay you anymore. You took his pills and his dead wife’s jewelry, too.”

Theresa waggled the box at Wendy.

“I see,” I said, and I did. “You distributed the collectibles to your victims as a warning, only nobody connected the blackmailing with your gifts. Instead of incriminating your neighbors, the cops suspect you of the thefts.”

Theresa tossed her hair over a shoulder. “And Jerry never caught on. You inadvertently signed the note E.L. instead of W. L. Jerry assumed E. L. was Ed Lionel. He doesn’t know your name is Elaine Wendy Latzenberger.”

“Where did you get that idea?” Wendy hissed.

Theresa threw out a guess. “Driver’s license.”

“Liar! It says E. Wendy Latzenberger!”

“Never mind how she knows,” Allison snapped.

“You’re that damn woman Ed muttered about,” I said. My friends shook their heads and rolled their eyes. I recovered and leveled a finger at the bewildered woman, “The point is, your blackmailing days are over. Ed is out of money, and Jerry doesn’t give a damn who knows he plays around.”

“I don’t know you have on Rita or the girls,” Allison said, “but it’s over, or we go to the police.”

“With what?” Wendy screeched. “Initials on a note? Ed’s ravings?” She raised a trembling arm my way. “Her bizarre theories?”

“Bank records,” I said. “A fingerprint on the thumb drive you left for Jerry Kalzarian.” That part was a lie, but it did the trick. Wendy’s shaking intensified.

“A blackmail charge won’t help your divorce settlement,” Theresa observed. “There’s no home internet business, is there? Since your husband left, you’ve made ends meet by blackmailing your neighbors.”

All pretense left Wendy’s posture. She sank into her chair and slumped.

“Give it back,” Allison demanded. “Whatever money you took from the girls, and Rita, you give it back and return that jewelry to Ed.”

“He’s an addict,” Wendy muttered. “Rita’s a shoplifter, and the girls pirate porn for school chums.”

I boggled. “Some neighborhood you’ve got here, Allison.”

Wendy snorted. “I’d have something on that weird boss of hers given enough time.”

“Times up, Wendy. Return the money in exchange for them not calling the police,” I said. “Say you’re sorry and you’ll pay them back. Get a job like a normal person.”

“And I felt sorry for you,” Allison huffed.

“Yeah, everybody cried crocodile tears when my husband dumped the fat Cat Lady. I knew they were all laughing at me. Taking their money was the best I felt about myself in years.”

“It’s over,” Allison said. “I’ll be watching.”

Wendy studied her feet as we filed out the front door.

During the walk back to Sean’s, we debated how much to tell Jerry.

“We can’t explain how we learned all this,” I warned.

“We’ll say she confessed,” Theresa said. “Jerry has money. We’ll suggest he make a donation to Wendy’s restitution fund.”

I considered. “It helps the victims and warns Wendy there’s another set of eyes watching.”

“Works for me,” Allison said, “now we need a reason for leaving the kids with Jerry that won’t have Sean and Melanie breathing fire.”

“We’ll say it was the twins’ idea to get involved, and we wanted to be supportive,” I said. “I’m sure Liz and Dave will agree.”

They did agree and even promised not to tell their dad Ed Lionel called them delinquents.



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