A Justified Bitch
174 pages

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A Justified Bitch


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174 pages

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  • WELL-CRAFTED MYSTERY: Characters and setting intertwine in a twisted tale of insanity and murder
  • THE OTHER SIDE OF VEGAS: Entrepreneurial survival in the hardscrabble neighborhoods physically near the Strip but light years away in character.
  • THE “STUFF” DISEASE: A fascinating look inside the peculiar psychosis of hoarding and its effects on all the lives it touches.
  • AUTHOR EXPERIENCE: A life-long resident of Las Vegas and a nude dresser for production shows on the Strip, H.G. McKinnis brings naked truth and personal experience to her gritty Las Vegas mystery.

    Sales Handle

    Hoarding, insanity, murder, and redemption on the rough side of Vegas

    Publicity and Promotions

    • $13,850 marketing and publicity budget, coordinated by Smith Publicity in New York who has been been successfully promoting New York Times bestsellers since 1997 • Key outlets: Publisher's Weeky, Library Journal, Booklist, Foreword Magazine, NPR.org Books, Los Angeles Times, Las Vegas Sun • Will be available on NetGalley, February. 22, 2017 • National radio and TV interviews • Promotion on the author's website AJustifiedBitch.com • Promotion and giveaways on Living-Las-Vegas.com • Promotion and giveaways on RoadTripAmerica.com • Promotion and giveaways on Imbrifex.com • Publicity and promotion in conjunction with the author's speaking engagements • Intensive 6 months media publicity to crime, mystery, psychology and social media outlets.

    Longer Description,

    Helen Taylor is a hoarding cat lady who lives in a hardscrabble neighborhood in a depressed section of Las Vegas. She often holds extended conversations with her husband Bobby, who died in a freak hiking accident years ago. Helen is also a well-known entrepreneur around the flea markets of Las Vegas, where she sells junk and acquires more. Ron, a neighbor who lives in a rundown trailer a couple of blocks away, often helps her with “the business.”

    Helen’s life suddenly turns even crazier when one of her many feline friends delivers a severed finger to her doorstep. The prostitute next door is found murdered, and the police take Helen into custody. The dead neighbor’s two dogs escape in the excitement. Few people know that one of the dogs is actually a wolf.

    Summoned from Phoenix by the detective on the case, Helen’s sister Pat arrives in Las Vegas with two teen-age boys, her son Jordan and nephew Mark. Mark is Helen’s son, but Helen’s memory of him vanished when she suffered the trauma of losing her husband. Helen thinks Mark is her nephew, and Mark is growing up resigned to the reality of his mother’s insanity.

    After bailing Helen out of jail, Pat is horrified by the mental deterioration she sees in the older sister she once idolized. Reluctantly, she decides to follow professional advice and commit Helen to a mental hospital. Guilt-ridden because she has been so out of touch, Pat begins the monumental task of cleaning up Helen’s garbage-dump of a house. Jordan helps, but insists on saving Helen’s “merchandise,” the piles of junk she takes to the flea market every week to sell.

    Meanwhile, Helen responds to medication she receives in the mental hospital. She no longer sees and converses with the long-dead Bobby. Ill at ease with her new mental state and unhappy with incarceration, she manages to escape. Before Pat or the police can track her down, the director of the mental hospital is found dead. The detective, now investigating two murders, becomes convinced that Helen is the killer of both victims.

    Things are also going from bad to worse for Pat. Mark misbehaves on the Strip and gets hauled into a hotel security office. Then she learns that Jordan has vanished. At least Ron, the neighbor who helps Helen with her flea market business, seems to be taking good care of Helen’s house.

    When Helen finally returns home, she’s appalled that her house has been cleaned out. Then she notices that Ron has been living there. Upset, she decides to go to his place and chew him out for squatting.

    Ron isn’t home, but Helen lets herself into his trailer and waits. She has just discovered grisly evidence that Ron is the murderer when he returns. Right behind him is the wolf, which has been roaming the neighborhood since its owner’s death. When Ron assaults Helen with a knife, the wolf attacks and kills him.

    Both murders now solved, Pat prepares to return home to Phoenix. Still concerned about her sister’s well-being, she is reassured when Helen decides it’s time to give up Bobby. With medication, she is also able to remember that Mark is her son but agrees that Pat is the better mother. The whole family is on the road to recovery. The detective who worked the case even manages to protect the wolf that saved Helen’s life.
    Chapter One

    Friday, July 2

    The Las Vegas heat shimmered off the patched asphalt, giving an opaque and eerie quality to the air. Sitting on her porch, Helen stared into the afternoon sky, rocking and humming quietly. The corner lot gave her an exceptional view of the neighborhood. Through the wire-enclosed backyards, she had an unobstructed view of the cluttered expanse all the way to the next corner. In the opposite direction, long-abandoned treasures lay baking in the sun: old cars, worn-out furniture, and less defined objects—maybe toys, maybe tools—all of them showing signs of exposure to the harsh desert environment. Across the street, beyond a car tagged with an orange tow-away sticker, she tried to decipher the hieroglyphics of the new graffiti spray-painted across the front of the Sanchez house. No message there.

    A bike jump had been set up behind the car, and two teenagers wearing nothing but cargo shorts were practicing kamikaze acrobatics on their skateboards. One kid, a short Latino with tattoos on both arms, flew off the ramp and landed on the sidewalk, pumping his fist in the air and laughing in triumph. No message there.

    Next door, Lupe and Fuzzball were howling, the sound rising and falling with unceasing monotony. Not a message she wanted to hear.

    Bobby plopped down beside her, wearing the same shorts,T-shirt, and hiking boots he had been wearing ten years earlier when he stepped off a sixty-foot cliff in the Ruby Mountains. Helen glanced toward Bebe’s house, afraid she had seen something horrific, but not sure. It could have been another hallucination, or a late-morning dream. “What do you think?”

    Squinting, Bobby craned his neck toward the back fence, a sagging chain-link. Don’t really know.

    From the corner of the yard, Stripes crept toward them. Wary, the cat crouched in the brown grass, ears up, pupils wide, something in her mouth. Her green eyes focused on Helen, as if trying to communicate telepathically. Connection made, she crept forward, her coloring a perfect match for the dry grass, her prize poking out the side of her mouth like a mini cigar, then she zipped forward and deposited her gift at Helen’s feet.

    Helen stared at the offering, a woman’s finger, the fingernail sporting a French manicure with a tiny fake diamond at the tip. The opposite end looked as if it had been snipped off with pruning shears, the white of the bone even with the flesh. “How about that? Bebe must have lost her press-on finger.”

    Bobby gave a disgusted snort. She wears press-on nails, not press-on fingers. Looks like she cut it off.

    Helen’s stomach knotted in sympathy. “Why would she do that?”

    The baying from the next yard took on a mechanical quality,then quickly mutated into the familiar sound of emergency vehicles. When a squad of police cars screeched to a halt in front of Bebe’s house, Helen realized she hadn’t imagined things—the flashing lights proved that.

    Uniforms slammed out of the cars, swarming around the house like well-armed ants. A large uniform, consisting of khaki pants and a matching shirt, banged his fist against the door. “Metro! Open up!” When no one answered, the man waved another uniform forward.

    Helen wondered if it would be worthwhile to sell used uniforms in her booth. The police sure seemed to need a lot of them.

    The new man hoisted a hand-held battering ram, and at some unseen signal smashed open the door. A gang of uniforms raced inside, their voices echoing back through the opening.

    “Watch it!”

    “Christ Almighty!”

    “It’s a damn slaughterhouse.”

    “Don’t step on anything!”

    “Check the hall!”

    “Holy shit, wait for Crime Scene! Wait for Crime Scene!”

    “Back out, goddamnit!”
  • Sujets


    Publié par
    Date de parution 08 août 2017
    Nombre de lectures 0
    EAN13 9781945501029
    Langue English

    Informations légales : prix de location à la page 0,0025€. Cette information est donnée uniquement à titre indicatif conformément à la législation en vigueur.


    A Justified Bitch
    A Las Vegas Mystery
    H. G. McKinnis

    Published by Flattop Productions, Inc.
    8275 S. Eastern Avenue, Suite 200
    Las Vegas, NV 89123

    Copyright © 2017 by H.G. McKinnis. All Rights Reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the scanning, uploading, and electronic sharing of any part of this book without the express written permission of the publisher is unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. For further information, please contact the Publisher, Imbrifex Books, 8275 S. Eastern Avenue, Suite 200, Las Vegas, NV 89123.
    This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
    IMBRIFEX™ is a trademark of Flattop Productions, Inc.
    Printed in the United States of America.
    Set in Adobe Caslon, Book design by Jason Heuer
    E-book design by Sue Par
    ISBN 978-0997236958 (trade paper)
    ISBN 978-1945501029 (e-book)
    ISBN 978-0997236972 (audiobook)
    First Edition: August 2017

    For Jay MacLarty who believed in this book 1943-2010

    A Justified Bitch
    A Las Vegas Mystery

    Chapter One
    Friday, July 2
    T he Las Vegas heat shimmered off the patched asphalt, giving an opaque and eerie quality to the air. Sitting on her porch, Helen stared into the afternoon sky, rocking and humming quietly. The corner lot gave her an exceptional view of the neighborhood. Through the wire-enclosed backyards, she had an unobstructed view of the cluttered expanse all the way to the next corner. In the opposite direction, long-abandoned treasures lay baking in the sun: old cars, worn-out furniture, and less defined objects—maybe toys, maybe tools—all of them showing signs of exposure to the harsh desert environment. Across the street, beyond a car tagged with an orange tow-away sticker, she tried to decipher the hieroglyphics of the new graffiti spray-painted across the front of the Sanchez house. No message there.
    A bike jump had been set up behind the car, and two teenagers wearing nothing but cargo shorts were practicing kamikaze acrobatics on their skateboards. One kid, a short Latino with tattoos on both arms, flew off the ramp and landed on the sidewalk, pumping his fist in the air and laughing in triumph. No message there.
    Next door, Lupe and Fuzzball were howling, the sound rising and falling with unceasing monotony. Not a message she wanted to hear.
    Bobby plopped down beside her, wearing the same shorts, T-shirt, and hiking boots he had been wearing ten years earlier when he stepped off a sixty-foot cliff in the Ruby Mountains. Helen glanced toward Bebe’s house, afraid she had seen something horrific, but not sure. It could have been another hallucination, or a late-morning dream. “What do you think?”
    Squinting, Bobby craned his neck toward the back fence, a sagging chain-link. Don’t really know .
    From the corner of the yard, Stripes crept toward them. Wary, the cat crouched in the brown grass, ears up, pupils wide, something in her mouth. Her green eyes focused on Helen, as if trying to communicate telepathically. Connection made, she crept forward, her coloring a perfect match for the dry grass, her prize poking out the side of her mouth like a mini cigar, then she zipped forward and deposited her gift at Helen’s feet.
    Helen stared at the offering, a woman’s finger, the fingernail sporting a French manicure with a tiny fake diamond at the tip. The opposite end looked as if it had been snipped off with pruning shears, the white of the bone even with the flesh. “How about that? Bebe must have lost her press-on finger.”
    Bobby gave a disgusted snort. She wears press-on nails, not press-on fingers. Looks like she cut it off.
    Helen’s stomach knotted in sympathy. “Why would she do that?”
    The baying from the next yard took on a mechanical quality, then quickly mutated into the familiar sound of emergency vehicles. When a squad of police cars screeched to a halt in front of Bebe’s house, Helen realized she hadn’t imagined things—the flashing lights proved that.
    Uniforms slammed out of the cars, swarming around the house like well-armed ants. A large uniform, consisting of khaki pants and a matching shirt, banged his fist against the door. “Metro! Open up!” When no one answered, the man waved another uniform forward.
    Helen wondered if it would be worthwhile to sell used uniforms in her booth. The police sure seemed to need a lot of them.
    The new man hoisted a hand-held battering ram, and at some unseen signal smashed open the door. A gang of uniforms raced inside, their voices echoing back through the opening.
    “Watch it!”
    “Christ Almighty!”
    “It’s a damn slaughterhouse.”
    “Don’t step on anything!”
    “Check the hall!”
    “Holy shit, wait for Crime Scene! Wait for Crime Scene! ”
    “Back out, goddamnit!”
    Within minutes a crowd had gathered in front of the house, stoking their insatiable need to check out the latest neighborhood drama.
    “Hey, come here.”
    “Look at this!”
    The kamikaze skateboarders shouldered their way into the crowd as two prepubescent girls hurried past, one chattering excitedly. “I heard her yellin’ and screechin’ but I dint know she was gettin’ messed up.”
    The other one nodded. “Yeah, she been doin’ all that phone-sex stuff. ‘Oh, you hurtin’ me . . . oh, you too big . . . oh, you so good.’ Like that.” Neither girl looked old enough to be out of middle school, but they sounded street-smart and world-weary.
    Held back by the uniforms, the adults quickly tired in the summer heat and drifted back to their homes. The teenagers, made of sterner stuff, lingered behind, their eyes hungry for gruesome details. They pressed against the fence, openly eavesdropping and teasing the excited canines until the uniforms chased them off.
    Helen continued rocking and humming as a shiny pair of black cop shoes—forty-eight dollars at Kmart, or nine bucks at Trudy’s Good As New—stomped across her grass, crushing the life out of her lawn. Bobby glared at the man. Ass!
    The shoes halted just short of the porch. “Good afternoon, ma’am. I’m Officer Stone. Metro.”
    “Hello, Officer.”
    “I’d like to ask you some questions about your neighbor. Did you see what happened?”
    Bobby snickered. What kind of question is that? You see all kinds of stuff. Some of it happens, some of it doesn’t.
    Helen focused on all the gear attached to the officer’s belt, wondering about their resale value. Was he trying to trick her with his did-you-see-what-happened shtick? “You mean over there?” She inclined her head toward the impromptu carnival surrounding Bebe’s house.
    “Yes, ma’am.” He nodded, ignoring her husband.
    How rude, she thought, but then most people ignored Bobby. She picked at a scab on her elbow, trying to focus on his question. “Well . . . there was a lot of noise.”
    “You’re referring to her dogs.”
    Bobby laughed. No, her sex life .
    Helen gave the uniform a toe-to-head scan, and decided this one wouldn’t appreciate a sarcastic remark about Bebe’s career. “Her animals have been howling and barking for a while.”
    The uniform leaned in close, as if wanting to say something confidential, caught a whiff of her aura and jerked back. Pansy . She wasn’t against taking a shower once in a while, but she wasn’t a fanatic about it. He backed up a couple of steps, trampling her fragile grass. “Ma’am, please look at me when I’m talking to you. Now, when did the dogs start barking?”
    She stared at his shoes crushing her brittle lawn. “She only has one dog. The big one, Lupe, is a wolf.” She let her eyes flick up to his sunglasses. Forty-nine dollars at Big Five, but would go for fifteen at the swap meet.
    “A wolf?” he repeated, his voice heavy with disbelief. “Right.”
    Bobby moved around behind the uniform, mimicking the man’s tone. A wolf? No kidding? Ain’t they hard to housebreak?
    Helen suppressed a laugh. “She looks like a big dog.”
    “Did you see anyone go into your neighbor’s house this morning?”
    Bobby nodded encouragement. Go ahead, tell him.
    But she couldn’t, not until she was certain. “I don’t think so.”
    “Are you sure?”
    Was she? Maybe she had, but maybe she hadn’t. She shook her head.
    Annoyingly persistent, the uniform had yet to move his toxic feet off her grass. “Do you know what time the dogs started barking?”
    “Not exactly.”
    “Please, ma’am, give it a little thought. Was it before breakfast?”
    “No,” she answered, not appreciating his condescending tone.
    “Was it after breakfast?”
    Bobby rolled his eyes. Do these guys go to charm school?
    “It was after breakfast.”
    “Was it …around lunch?”
    Does he think you’re an idiot?
    The electricity in her skin might make her watch run a little fast, Helen thought, but she could still tell time. “Perhaps a little before”—she paused, waiting for the howling and barking to subside—“noon.”
    The uniform frowned, turned his head and spoke into his shoulder radio. “Stone here, uh . . . listen. We’ll need Animal Control at the crime scene on Tsunami Avenue. We have a couple of dogs for impound.”
    A woman’s unintelligible voice crackled back, but Bobby took a stab at translating. They’re on the way. Hide the cats!
    The uniform kept yapping about time and dogs, pacing back and forth until he stepped on Bebe’s finger. He glanced down, turned it over with his shoe, then with Olympic agility leapt onto the porch.
    Helen smiled to herself. Finally , his shoes were off the grass.
    “God!” The uniform leaned forward and gagged.
    Helen grabbed his arm, steering him to the stoop, then opened the spigot and filled a cup with water. He took a big gulp and immediately spit it onto the lawn. The cup, she realized, might have been a little gritty from digging up gladiolus bulbs.
    Bobby sneered. Wimp .
    Officer Stone took a deep breath and shuddered. “God damn!”
    Sacrilege! She hated it when people took the Lord’s name in vain.
    Other uniforms turned in their direction, and immediately an entire shoe department of footwear scuffed and trampled their way across the lawn.
    I’ll bet they all have yard service , Bobby growled, and a variance for extra watering.
    “Get off my grass!” Helen screamed. It was too much. She was a law-abiding homeowner. She stooped to collect Bebe’s finger and a gang of uniforms grabbed her.
    “Calm down, lady.”
    “Get her out of here.”
    Angry at the interference, Helen tried to stiff-arm the uniforms away, but there were too many. Giving up, she turned toward her door, but before she could escape inside, one of the uniforms had cuffed her wrists.
    “Look, lady, we’re just doing our job. We can’t have you interfering with evidence.”
    Evidence ! “This is my yard! Get off my grass!”
    A pair of dust-gray Lucchese python boots, retailing for three hundred and fifty dollars, stepped between Helen’s high tops and the chorus line of black shoes. “Hey guys, lighten up. I checked around. This is the local cat lady—eccentric, but not a suspect.”
    A pair of familiar cop shoes stepped forward. “I found a finger from the victim on her property, Detective. Very close to where she was sitting.”
    “I appreciate your diligence, Officer Stone”—the cowboy boots moved closer, warm fingers closing around Helen’s arm—“but there are two things I look for in a suspect connected to this type of investigation: blood on the suspect’s clothing, or no blood on a freshly washed suspect. I gotta tell you, this woman doesn’t fit either description.”
    The detective steered Helen into the backseat of a police cruiser and buckled her in. “You just sit tight, ma’am. I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
    Helen leaned back, enjoying the feel of the upholstery and the cool breeze of the air-conditioning. She had forgotten how nice a new car could smell. Bobby drummed his hands against the mesh cage that separated the back from the front. This is great. I could see you driving around town in something like this. You should get one.
    “I can’t afford it,” she snapped, and before he could object she added, “and don’t tell me to use your money. You know I won’t.”
    Officer Stone leaned against the fender. “You really don’t think she did it?” He indicated Helen with a jerk of his head. “Have to be a real wack job to cut somebody up like that. Jesus, there are pieces all over the place.”
    Bebe ? Helen felt her breathing quicken as the possibilities swirled and rattled through her mind like abandoned paper cups. She wished she could remember what happened, but as usual when she absolutely needed to recall something, it hid away inside the cracks and fissures of her brain.
    Bobby chuckled. Don’t these idiots realize the cruiser’s window is open?
    The detective shook his leg, trying to dislodge an affectionate plastic bag that had attached itself to his jeans. “Hard to say at this point.” He leaned in through the open window and pulled a printout off a small fax machine attached to the dashboard. Parking his butt against the fender, he scanned the paper. “Might have been a dissatisfied customer. Our victim has been quite a busy girl. Prostitution, drugs, did some time for fraud, and has a whole bunch of unpaid parking tickets. My guess, it was Parking Enforcement. Those people are relentless.”
    The uniforms started stringing yellow tape around Bebe’s property while the detective and Officer Stone took pictures of the finger. They measured its position from the fence, then from the stoop to the sidewalk, and from the sidewalk back to the fence. They measured its length and its width. Finally they picked it up with a pair of tongs and placed it in a small Ziploc, which they put into a brown paper bag and sent off in a van with dozens of larger bags. Helen wanted to wave good-bye, but with her hands cuffed, couldn’t. Bobby stood in the middle of the street and watched Bebe’s departure.
    A few minutes later an Animal Control van pulled to the curb and two AC officers, a man and a woman dressed in light-blue uniforms, climbed from the cab. They walked around to Bebe’s back gate—the woman with a long-handled noose, the man with a throw net—and stopped, staring at the smears of blood on the sliding-glass doors where the wolf had tried to claw her way in, and Bebe had tried to claw her way out.
    The officers stepped into the yard, being careful to close and latch the gate behind them, then moved forward, concentrating on the Schapendoes. Extending the noose, the woman motioned for the man to move in from the side—a scissors move—but Fuzzball ducked under the net and scampered away.
    Bobby flashed Helen a wicked grin. Who knew the mutt had a brain?
    The officers, their faces stiff with determination, converged on the dog a second time. Fuzzball’s normal expression of vacuous amiability had vanished, her ears back, her hindquarters down. Moving carefully, the woman slowly extended the pole as the dog backed away, her furry head moving from side to side, trying to decide which direction offered the best avenue of escape. She suddenly darted toward the man, and was almost by him when the noose slipped over her head. The woman crouched and turned, pulling the noose taut, bringing the animal to a flying stop, all four feet flailing in the air. Dazed, but still determined, Fuzzball shook herself and lunged for the gate, only to have the noose tighten, cutting off her wind. The officers pulled the dog out of the yard—her paws scrabbling on the concrete, her tail tucked beneath her body—they shoved her into one of the van’s compartments, then returned for Lupe.
    With the fur standing up over her neck and shoulders, Lupe suddenly appeared as wild and dangerous as her ancestors. As the officers closed in, she sprang for the top of the fence, caught a paw on the wire and fell back, yelping in pain. Normally she had no trouble clearing the chain-link for her morning stroll around the neighborhood but not today, not after all her exertions to save Bebe. Her muzzle twisted into a sinister snarl as she lowered her head and started toward the officers. The woman stuck out her pole to catch her by the neck, but the man panicked and threw his net. Too early. As soon as she saw the opening, Lupe dodged past, slammed through the gate, and was gone, leaving a trail of bloody paw prints on the sidewalk.
    Helen and Bobby whistled and rattled their cage, encouraging Lupe with their cheers.
    The detective climbed into the front passenger seat and twisted around. “Helen, right?” A slight cough was the only indication that he might have noticed her forceful persona. “Do you mind answering a few questions?”
    “I don’t mind,” she replied cautiously, thinking it might be better not to get his hopes up, “but I might not be able to.”
    Who does this guy think he is? Bobby asked, examining the man’s expensive boots and faded blue jeans. Clint Eastwood? Go ahead, Helen, make his day.
    Officer Stone pulled open the driver’s door. “Excuse me, Detective?”
    “Well … uh.” He hesitated, seemingly at a loss for words.
    Stage fright , Bobby diagnosed.
    Helen recognized the signs. Too often in her career she had seen young men lose their confidence and articulation in the presence of women and superiors. “Take a deep breath,” she advised. “Think about what you want to say, then say it.”
    Officer Stone shot her a look that was far from grateful.
    Bobby gave a little chuckle. Now you’ve embarrassed him.
    The detective rolled his hand, encouraging Officer Stone to continue.
    The man took a deep breath. “I’m studying to take the detective’s promotions test, and I was wondering if I could do the interview. I believe I’ve established a rapport.”
    “I’m sure you have,” the detective answered. “I should have suggested it myself.” He swiveled around to face Helen. “Young Stone would like to practice his interviewing technique.” He winked. “Any objection?”
    Hey, Bobby growled, he’s putting the moves on you!
    “He is not!” she snapped back. “I’m too old for him.”
    The detective leaned over, peering into the backseat. “Excuse me, who are you talking to?”
    Helen heaved a sigh. She had hoped to keep Bobby’s presence a secret, but now she would have to introduce him. “This is my husband, Bobby.” She motioned toward the seat beside her. “He goes where I go. Bobby, this is …?”
    “Detective Madison.”
    “Bobby, this is Detective Madison.”
    Madison hesitated, then gave a polite nod. “Nice to meet you, Bobby. If you’re both agreeable, Officer Stone would like to ask you a few questions.”
    Stone slid into the driver’s seat, then pulled a notebook and a gel rollerball pen from his pocket. Helen bought the same brand by the carton, but only displayed a dozen or so at her booth, giving the impression of rarity and value. Stone cleared his throat. “About your neighbor. When did you—”
    “Around noon,” Helen answered. “I didn’t see anyone go in. And yes, I was here all morning.”
    Bobby shook his head. It might be a good idea to let him actually ask the questions before you answer.
    The man’s sunburned neck glowed fluorescent red, his words suddenly clipped and harsh. “When was the last time you saw the vic— . . . your neighbor, Bebe Small?”
    Bobby rolled his eyes. Didn’t he ask this stuff earlier?
    “Just now,” Helen answered, trying to be helpful. “When they put her finger in the van.” She noticed Officer Stone hadn’t written anything. “The one you stepped on.”
    He frowned, speaking slowly and distinctly, as if trying to communicate with someone who barely understood English. “I mean … when … did … you … last … see … Ms. Small … alive?”
    “About a year ago, I guess. Before she got into drugs. She’s just been going through the motions for quite a while now.”
    Stone jammed his pen back into his pocket. “Detective, we’re obviously not going to get anything from this witness.” He dropped his notebook on the dashboard. “I think we should take her in.”
    The detective expelled a deep breath, then reached out and pulled his seat belt into place. “Okay, I’ll question her at the station. Wine and dine her on pizza and Pepsi”—he caught Helen’s eye in the mirror and winked again—“and she’ll crack like an egg.”
    Watch this guy, Bobby warned. He’s definitely putting the moves on you . He leaned back and propped his legs on the back of the driver’s seat. At least we get to take a road trip.
    “Better roll down your window,” Stone suggested. “God knows what she’s got living in her hair.”
    The detective gave the man a frown, then glanced over his shoulder. “How you doin’ back there? Remember anything you might want to tell me?”
    “I’m not stupid,” Helen answered. “I remember things, but sometimes I don’t remember what I remember.”

    Chapter Two
    B y the time the patrol car pulled into the parking lot of the Clark County Detention Center, Helen was almost crazy from itches hopping around her body. She rubbed her cheek across the headrest as Stone turned into the sally port and stopped next to a gray door. “I’m gonna have to sanitize this whole goddamned car.” He still sounded cranky. Perhaps, Helen thought, he needed to sit quietly and think about his day.
    Detective Madison came around to unbuckle Helen’s seat belt and remove the cuffs, before guiding her into a room marked PROCESSING, a government-gray cave tiled with industrial-grade linoleum. The room reverberated with noise: phones beeping, footsteps rushing, and doors crashing. People hurried past, men explaining, women whining, and an unhappy child wailing. The detective took Helen’s hand, placed it on his arm, and escorted her to a gray Formica table, its surface scratched and inked with names and graffiti. Helen examined the scrawls. No message there.
    A woman wearing a khaki uniform and Rockport shoes stepped forward. “Oh boy.” She scrutinized Helen for a moment, then her voice softened to a tone of jaded amusement. “Where did you find this one?”
    “This is Helen Taylor,” Madison answered. “She’s a possible witness in the dismemberment case, and we’re having a problem getting a coherent statement.” He gave Helen’s arm a comforting squeeze. “Helen, this is Officer Maria Fine.”
    Officer Maria pointed to a chair. “Have a seat.”
    “Why?” Helen asked, not wanting to commit herself to a chair in this unfamiliar place. She examined the table, which held a computer, a slightly darker shade of gray than the surroundings.
    “Officer Fine needs to get your personal information,” Madison explained. “For our files.” He glanced at his watch, a water-resistant Timex Indiglo that went for no more than fifteen dollars at the swap meet. “I need to start the paperwork. You know how fritzy the lieutenant gets if every ‘I’ isn’t dotted.”
    “I’ll process her as a material witness,” Officer Maria said, gesturing toward the chair. “Make yourself comfortable, Helen.”
    Detective Madison gave Helen’s shoulder a pat, then was gone. Officer Maria offered a professional smile. “What’s your full name?”
    Bobby sauntered around behind the desk. And how does that differ from your empty name?
    Helen suppressed a laugh. “Helen Eileen Taylor.”
    “Date of birth?”
    “August 11, 1965.”
    Bobby leaned over the woman’s shoulder, reading the screen. What’s this? Their personal version of Trivial Pursuit?
    “5573 Tsunami Avenue,” Helen answered. The streets in her neighborhood were all named after natural disasters, events that seldom took place in that part of town. Hurricane and Tornado were the cross streets. Why they weren’t called Tow-Away and Drive-By she couldn’t imagine.
    “Business address?”
    “Broadacres outdoor swap meet.”
    Officer Maria sent an admonishing look back across the table. “I meant what level of education. Did you graduate high school?”
    Bobby hopped onto the table and crossed his legs, assuming a haughty pose. Graduate! We taught high school.
    “My husband and I taught at Western High.”
    Officer Maria nodded. “So you graduated from college?”
    “I have an Ed. E in educational psychology from Berkeley.”
    “An Eddy? What’s that?”
    “A doctorate in education.” Helen traced the initials on the table with her index finger. “An Ed E”
    The questions kept coming and Helen answered them to the best of her ability, but she could feel time slipping away. The gates to the swap meet opened at seven o’clock sharp every Saturday morning, and at the rate the interview was proceeding she wouldn’t have enough time to pack her truck. “I need to go home.” She shot a pleading glance at the officer, hoping for an understanding nod. “I have to load my truck.”
    Officer Maria flicked her eyes away from the screen for a moment. “We’ll see.” She spoke as if she were the mother and Helen the child. “Detective Madison still has a few questions. Lucky for us we have your finger prints from your background check when you were teaching.” the officer explained. She turned toward Helen. “Please take off your shoes.”
    “My shoes?”
    “We don’t allow laces or sharp objects in the waiting area.”
    Helen hesitated.
    Might as well go along, Bobby said. She seems determined.
    Since Bobby had no problem with it, Helen decided to humor the woman. As the officer held out a plastic bag, Helen pried off her high-tops, a fabulous find from a dumpster behind Smith’s grocery. Booth value, five dollars; cost, nothing. The woman dropped the shoes in the bag, printed out a label, slapped it onto the plastic, and dropped the bag into a wire basket behind her chair. Then, taking Helen’s arm, she led the way down a hallway to a caged room. Inside, three women sat hunched forward on steel benches, looking bored and miserable.
    Bobby hung back. What is this, a petting zoo for people?
    As Officer Maria opened the gate, a petite blonde wearing Dolce&Gabbana ran forward. “Has my attorney come yet? I called half an hour ago. I know my rights. You have to let me out when I make bail.”
    Officer Maria ignored the woman. “You’re only going to be here a little while, Helen. Detective Madison will be back to take your statement.” She gestured toward the bench along the far wall. “Try to get some rest.”
    Bobby glared. You can’t treat us like this! Tossing us in here like a load of laundry!
    Helen waved him quiet. “This will really put me behind,” she said. “I need to make my nut.”
    Officer Maria shrugged and clicked the door shut.
    Bobby frowned as her footsteps faded down the hall. She doesn’t care about our problems .
    Helen looked around, trying to decide where to sit. The stark lighting of the cage threw hard-edged shadows beneath the steel mesh benches bolted to the floor. To the right, a chubby woman sobbed into a wad of toilet paper, shoulders quivering with every exhale. Her low-slung jeans and appliquéd T-shirt failed to cover a large expanse of white abdomen.
    Bobby smiled flirtatiously at the woman. Now that’s a cheerful ensemble.
    “Don’t talk to strangers,” Helen snapped, shooting him an admonishing scowl.
    The Dolce&Gabbana blonde paced nervously back and forth across the front of the cage, cursing with every step and kicking the wire mesh with her purple-pedicured toes. The oversized collar and cuffs on her blouse gave her a waif-like appearance. “Who the fuck is running this place?” She stabbed a perfectly manicured finger through the chain-link as if demanding an answer from some unseen authority. “Do you have any idea how much shit you people are in?” Her voice had a percussive rhythm that elevated her rage to the level of performance art. “I’ll have your jobs, assholes.”
    Bobby covered his head, feigning a look of fear. Tinker Bell is pissed .
    Helen managed to turn a laugh into a cough, and took a seat next to a girl wearing a tube top and Daisy Duke shorts. The kid stared in open-mouthed fascination at the pacing woman. “Where do you think she got that top?”
    “Probably a hotel shop,” Helen answered, “or Saks in the mall.”
    The girl looked disappointed. “The security in those places is really tight. You’d need a team . . . never be able to boost that kind of stuff by yourself.”
    Helen nodded. The silk batiste blouse probably came out of a California sweatshop and sold wholesale for no more than ten bucks, but it would go for three hundred by the time it hit the boutiques.
    The cranky blonde froze, staring up at a bull’s-eye camera in the upper corner of the cage. “You think this is funny?” she screamed. “You have any idea who my husband is? Wait till I get out of here, you motherfuckers!”
    Even the crier paused for a moment, staring at the blonde princess as if trying to place her, then resumed her tearful moans as Dolce&Gabbana returned to her military march along the wire. The Daisy Duke kid stuck out her tongue, gray and covered in gum. She tried to blow a bubble, but the gum split with the sound of a wet fart. “This nicotine shit isn’t any fun.”
    Helen nodded, wanting to be agreeable. She had never used it herself, but could see it lacked substance.
    Officer Maria rapped on the gate. “You.” She pointed to the gum chewer. “Your boyfriend just made bail.” Her tone made it clear the “boyfriend” was a pimp collecting his property.
    Bobby jumped off the bench. No way this kid is eighteen. You can’t give her back! Tell them, Helen.
    Helen jumped to her feet. “You can’t let him have her! No way!”
    Dolce&Gabbana pointed at Helen. “She’s fucking nuts.”
    The teenage prostitute sashayed to the gate, her adolescent hips swinging in a parody of sexuality. “Don’t worry about me.” She blew Helen a pouty kiss. “Been doing this for a long time.”
    Dolce&Gabbana tried to follow her out the door. “You can’t leave me here.”
    Officer Maria sent her stumbling back inside with a well-placed hip bump.
    Bobby watched the teenager strut down the hallway. She won’t make it to twenty-one.
    Officer Maria returned minutes later for Dolce&Gabbana, a Mrs. Brownswell. “It’s about time,” the woman snapped, then stumbled into the officer. “Get your hand off me, you fucking bitch!” Her shrill voice echoed down the hall, but when the door opened, her voice suddenly softened. “Carlton, darling, I only had one drink. That officer stopped me for no reason. I only flunked his stupid test because I was wearing a new pair of Pradas. There’s something wrong with the heels.” The door slammed shut, the silence deafening in its suddenness, broken only by the soft sniffing of the crier.
    Helen longed for a good pair of earplugs, the kind that covered the entire ear—retailing for thirty-five dollars at a sporting goods store—but she would have settled for the cheap, fifty-cent foam style.
    Having no Kleenex to soak up her snot, the crier wrapped a big wad of toilet paper around one hand before folding it into a pad and blowing her nose. Between her feet, a large mountain of discarded tissue had solidified into a crusty sculpture of soggy papier-mâché.
    Officer Maria reappeared, escorting a strikingly beautiful woman dressed in a gray Armani suit that would go for at least a thousand dollars retail and cheap plastic pumps with three-inch heels that sold for twenty dollars at Payless. The suit stepped to the bars, her eyes moving back and forth between Helen and the crier. “Marjory Johnson?”
    The crier sniffed and nodded. “Yes.”
    “I’m Dr. Urbane. I was called by Social Services. We need to talk.” She looked at Officer Maria. “Is there some place a little more private?”
    “Yes, ma’am, we have an interview room, but we thought you might want to talk to this woman as well.” She hooked her chin toward Helen.
    With eyes as clear and brilliant as Colombian emeralds, the doctor gave Helen a thorough scan, then turned back to the officer. “You have her jacket?”
    Officer Maria handed over a folder and the doctor quickly scanned through the papers. “A doctorate in educational psychology? Now that’s interesting.” She looked at Helen. “Are you on the streets?”
    Bobby peered with nearsighted intensity at the woman’s eyebrows. Check those out , they look like they’ve been painted on. Doesn’t she remind you of that thirties actress?
    “No, she doesn’t,” Helen snapped, unable to suppress a bit of jealousy. She turned to the suit. “Do you do your own plucking?”
    The woman paused, then framed another question. “Do you have a mailing address? Somewhere we can reach you?”
    Helen had no idea what the suit was driving at, or why she wanted to send mail. “My address is 5573 Tsunami.”
    “How many people live with you?”
    The crier, clearly annoyed that attention was being diverted, gave a whiny spin to her convulsive sobs. Helen now understood why the benches were bolted to the floor—to discourage people from clubbing their mucus-y cellmates. “What?” she asked, having lost track of the discussion.
    “How . . . many . . . people . . . live . . . with . . . you?”
    Bobby grinned. Does . . . she . . . think . . . you’re . . . deaf . . . or . . . stupid?
    “Of course not,” Helen whispered. “She doesn’t even know me.” She turned back to the woman, enunciating just as carefully. “I . . . live . . . with . . . my . . . husband.”
    And twenty-four cats, Bobby added . Don’t they count?
    “I don’t count the ones that live outside,” she whispered back. “Do you want her to think I’m crazy?”
    The woman swiped across her i-Pad—sold only to those willing to sign up for a monthly plan—and used a stylus to record the information. “So you live with your husband. Would you like me to call him?”
    Helen motioned to Bobby. “He’s right here.”
    “Oh . . . I see.” But she didn’t bother saying hello, apparently having no real interest in anyone else. “How much is your rent?”
    Helen watched, fascinated by the woman’s tapping. “I don’t pay rent. I own my house.”
    “Well, okay, your mortgage then. What’s that payment?”
    Pushy broad , Bobby growled, clearly miffed that the woman continued to ignore him.
    “I paid off the house when my husband died.”
    Bobby flashed a smug smile. Glad I could help.
    “Maybe we can do something for you. Do you have health insurance?”
    “Uh . . . no.”
    The woman’s perfect eyebrows contracted. “Oh, that is too bad. Maybe we could do some kind of abbreviated treatment.”
    Bobby scowled. That doesn’t sound good.
    “Treatment?” Helen asked.
    “I can’t say at this point, but the trouble you have dealing with the death of your husband could be a sign of clinical depression. My clinic has had a great deal of success dealing with exactly this problem.”
    Helen stepped back. If there was a hell on earth, she knew it could be found in a modern sanitarium. “You want to put me away?”
    “Oh, no,” the suit laughed. “We want to improve your quality of life. We could have you adjusted and functioning normally in a matter of months.”
    Adjusted? Bobby stared at the woman as if she had suddenly sprouted horns.
    Helen drew herself up, mimicking the suit’s sophisticated manner. “Thank you so very much for your consideration, but I manage just fine on my own.”
    The woman stared straight back. “When was the last time you took a bath?”
    “I beg your pardon?” This uppity middle-class bureaucrat had crossed the line! Only the neighborhood kids dared to comment on her ablutions, or lack thereof.
    “You’re displaying symptoms of psychotic depression, Helen, also a lack of attention to appearance and personal hygiene.”
    Helen pointed a finger at the woman. “I have never been subjected to such—” She stopped, staring at her hand. Her nails, encrusted with dirt, blended into her skin, black lines crisscrossing across the palms. She spread her fingers, noticing them for the first time in years. When had they gotten so wrinkled and rough looking?
    “Why don’t I leave my number?” The doctor held out a business card. “When you feel like talking, call my office and we’ll set up an appointment.”
    Feeling like she would rather touch a scorpion, Helen jammed the card into her pocket, hoping the woman would immediately forget their conversation.
    The crier took advantage of the momentary silence to grab the suit’s attention. “Where’s my little girl? Where’s my Susie? What’s going to happen to me?”
    Officer Maria opened the gate, ushering both the doctor and the crier down the hall.
    “I don’t know how she got hurt,” the woman wailed. “When I came home, she was like that. All pale and still. When can I see her? Why is this happening to me? I’m the one who called 9-1-1. I’m the one who took care of her.”
    Helen stared at the mountain of soggy tissue. Was this real?
    Bobby shook his head, a puzzled expression on his face. Let me see if I have this straight. You’ve been thrown in with a baby whore, a drunk driver, and a child killer, and you’re the one left in the cage.
    Helen leaned back against the wall, realizing she would never get her truck packed in time. She wanted to moan, but it seemed like such a crier kind of thing.

    Chapter Three
    T he irritating ring of the phone shattered her afternoon siesta, but Pat let it go, not about to ruin her first three-day weekend in over a year. Wyatt and the boys had just left for a hiking trip on Superstition Mountain, and the house felt heavenly in its silence. She rolled over and pulled the pillow tighter around her head. No good. The sound of her own voice filtered through with perfect clarity. Hi, you’ve reached the Henderson residence. Please leave a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as possible.
    A cool and professional female voice responded. “This is the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department. Officer Fine speaking. I’m calling for Mrs. Henderson.”
    Las Vegas Police! Only one person in Las Vegas knew her number, and it had been ten years since their last painful conversation.
    “Please return my call at (702) 828-3521, extension 35—”
    Pat leaned over, nearly falling off the couch, and snatched up the receiver. “This is Mrs. Henderson. I’m here. I’m awake now.” Great, like that sounded sane.
    “Please hold. Helen would like to speak with you.”
    “Wait! No, I can’t—”
    “Cleo?” Pat cringed. Cleo —their mother had been so desperate for beautiful daughters she had named them after two legendary beauties: Helen of Troy and Cleopatra. Pat had always hated the name, but in deference to her mother’s sensibilities she had waited until she married before officially making the change. No matter, Helen insisted on Cleo .
    “It’s us,” Helen continued in a chirpy voice. “Listen, don’t worry about anything. Officer Maria just wanted to be sure someone knew where we were. We have some money and we can take the bus home.”
    We! Helen was obviously still keeping Bobby around for company. “I’m glad to hear you’re okay, Helen . . . both of you.” She hated acknowledging Helen’s version of the invisible friend, knowing Bobby would never have put up with such nonsense. “Can you tell me what’s going on?”
    The answering silence brought back all the frustrations of trying to communicate with her sister. In the year following Bobby’s death, Pat had given up her job and gone to Las Vegas to help Helen adjust, but as the weeks turned into months Pat realized the older sister she had idolized for so long was gone, replaced by a sullen, uncommunicative woman. That had all changed one morning when Helen breezed into the kitchen. “Bobby and I are going to the swap meet. See if they have any good deals. Want to come?”
    Bobby ? Stunned, Pat had swallowed her misgivings along with her coffee and accompanied Helen to the swap meet. Her sister had taken to bargaining like a card counter to green felt. A week later she had her own booth up and running and was holding her own against thrifty customers and encroaching vendors. Pushed aside by Helen’s new obsession, Pat returned to Phoenix, where she reestablished her life and tried not to think of the brilliant and beautiful sister she had lost.
    Officer Fine came back on the phone. “Mrs. Henderson?”
    “What’s going on?”
    “Your sister’s next-door neighbor was murdered. We recovered some evidence on Helen’s property, so we think she might have seen something, but we haven’t had much luck getting a statement. I know you’re in Phoenix, but could you possibly come to Las Vegas? We could sure use some help.”
    Murder! Evidence on her property! What had Helen gotten herself into now? Dealing with her screwball sister was never easy, and Pat knew if she didn’t take charge of the situation, no one would. “What has she told you?”
    “Well . . .” Fine paused, obviously uncomfortable talking with Helen standing there. “She says she remembers something, but can’t remember what.”
    Pat closed her eyes. Classic Helen. “I don’t know what to tell you. Sometimes things come back to her and she’ll tell you everything in excruciating detail, but other times she won’t remember anything. If you could just send somebody by her house after a day or so, she’ll probably remember.” The long pause that followed gave her time to consider other scenarios, all of them bad, all of them requiring a trip to Las Vegas.
    “Mrs. Henderson, this is a very high-profile case. We need to pursue every possible lead with due diligence. Unless Helen gives us a statement, we’ll have no choice but to keep her in protective custody.”
    “That’s not a good idea,” Pat said, horrified by the thought of her sister caged like an animal. “She has to get to the swap meet. It’s the only thing that keeps her sane.” She took a deep breath. “Put her back on the phone.”
    A muffled conversation, Fine pleading and then ordering, and finally Helen’s familiar contralto mangling the words to a song she considered her very own.
    “. . . there’s somebody keepin’ time
    and I see Bobby handin’ wine
    I’ll fade into tomorrow . . . ”
    “Helen? Helen? It’s me, Pat . . . I mean Cleo . . . your sister.” But she knew it was a waste of breath. Once Helen started humming or singing the world would be on hold until her brain could reboot.
    Finally, after a few more misquoted verses, Officer Fine came back on the line. “This doesn’t seem to be working.” The woman sounded surprised, as if she expected Pat to reach through the phone and switch Helen to normal.
    “Okay, I’ll drive up. Maybe she’ll talk to me in person.”
    After arranging to be at the police station at nine the next morning, Pat hung up, dreading what she had to do next. The thought of taking time off during the busiest season of the year made her cringe. She would have to turn over the entire production of the new catalog to her assistant, a competent woman but young and inexperienced. Even worse, Wyatt was leaving Monday for a convention, so she would have to take the boys with her. She swallowed a curse and punched in the preset for her husband’s cell.
    He picked up on the first ring. “What’s wrong?”
    “It’s Helen.”
    His answering groan said it all: regret, understanding, frustration.

    Chapter Four
    A s Helen’s footsteps echoed off the steel lockers, she slowed to read a new splotch of graffiti scrawled across the metal doors:
    Don’t Tell. Don’t Forget.
    The words glowed with neon intensity the sign of a true message. Then the letters dissolved into indecipherable hieroglyphics. She hurried toward the teachers’ lounge, wanting to avoid the adolescent stampede that was about to explode into the empty corridor. She turned the corner and caught up to Bobby, matching her steps to his.
    He waved a hand with a melodramatic flourish. “Hark! What glass through yonder window breaks? Is it the dons, or the homies from the east? Or, in the words of remedial English, ‘How you drama class be today?’”
    Helen gave his arm a playful swat. “The kids were great. Now if I could just get you to stop butchering the Bard. Any trouble with your ESL class?”
    English as a Second Language was Bobby’s pet peeve, and he grimaced before hitching the strap of his leather backpack higher onto his shoulder. “Some of the kids were into it. Miguel blew through the reading segment in about five minutes, and then spent the rest of the time tutoring the two cutest girls. I asked the office if he could be moved up to your class, but they insist he finish the ESL program. What a waste. I’d like to use all that red tape to strangle the numb-nut bureaucrats who think they know how to teach.”
    Helen nodded sympathetically as the child at her side grabbed her hand, skipping to keep up. “Who’s this?” The boy couldn’t have been more than four years old. “He’s not from any of my classes.”
    Bobby glanced down at their small companion. “You remember.”
    “I don’t.” She understood from Bobby’s expression that the child was important, someone she should know, but didn’t. “Who is he?”
    The bell rang before Bobby could answer and the air instantly filled with adolescent chatter as a mass of bodies surged into the corridor, lockers banging open and shut. The sounds faded as a heavy metallic door crashed open.
    Helen sat up, the dream blending into the cement walls and barred front gate of the holding area. A guard ushered two thoroughly intoxicated women into the cell. Dressed in neon-bright clothes, the women stumbled toward the wide steel bench, laughing and chattering.
    “We weren’t hurtin’ nobody,” the large black woman complained as she sank onto the bench. Her psychedelic dress hiked up, the thigh-high split exposing all of her leg and most of her butt.
    Her companion, a roly-poly red-haired Latina with basketball breasts encased in a sausage-tight green dress, waved her hands in emphasis. “We just wanted to sing. It’s a karaoke bar.”
    The guard’s lips twisted in a wry grin. “You took the microphone to your car. The bar called us because you wouldn’t give it back.” Officer Maria must have gone home. This guard’s name tag read S. Tona.
    The redhead frowned and staggered toward the bench. “That’s gratitude for you. We were buyin’ beers for the house.”
    The black woman broke into song. “ Goin’ down to Fremont Street and . . . ”
    Recognizing the lyrics, Helen joined in. “ Get somebody ma-a-arried . . . ”
    The redhead plopped down on the bench. “What’s your name, honey?”
    Her round face, round body, and green outfit reminded Helen of the Sexy Green M&M. “Helen Taylor.” She motioned to the space on her right. “This is my husband, Bobby.”
    The Green M&M peered intently at the spot, then her eyes widened with understanding. “Uh-huh, invisible and quiet. I like a man who knows his place.” She leaned forward, extending her hand. “Nice to meet you—” She jerked back. “Oh my gawd! Sorry, honey, but your clothes smell dis-gust-ing .” She waved a hand in front of her nose.
    The black woman stared with blurry intensity at Helen’s blouse. “Where did you get that? Some diesel driver have a yard sale?” She grabbed the edge of the bench in an effort to stay upright. “Whew . . . too much tequila.”
    The redhead kicked out her short legs and scooted back against the wall. “I’m Hope.” She indicated her companion with a wave. “And that’s Rasheeda. We’re hairstylists. We have our own shop: Sizzle N.” Leaning closer, she scrutinized Helen’s hair. “You’re an attractive woman, but you need a shampoo. We don’t work on dirty hair.”
    Bobby grinned. Wow! Real professionals. You should ask them for a cut.
    “Okay, I’ll wash my hair.”
    The Green M&M jumped to her feet and stumbled toward the grimy sink at the far end of the holding area. “Allow me.” She patted the edge of the sink as if to encourage a reluctant animal.
    With all the grace and agility of an animated Easter egg, the black woman stumbled over to investigate. “Damn!” She held up a clump of Helen’s hair. “This is why it’s so important to use quality products. See how matted and dry this is?” She turned Helen’s head from side to side, as if checking a melon in the produce department. “Girl, what have you been doing to yourself? Looks like you gave up on a case of dreadlocks.” She shook her head as if personally overcome by all the bad hair days Helen had suffered. “Shampoo!” she barked, like a surgeon ready to cut.
    Helen eyed the tiny space between the tap and bowl. As she tried to calculate the logistics of fitting her head under the faucet, the Green M&M pushed her down, trying to cram her head under the tap. With a snap of the faucet, the water ricocheted off Helen’s head and hit the black woman full in the chest, drenching her psychedelic dress. “Hey! Watch what you’re doing, Hope!”
    The Green M&M thumped the soap dispenser until she had a handful of gelatinous pink liquid, which she smeared across Helen’s hair.
    Bobby chuckled. It’s a make-over hurricane . When the going gets tough, these gals get going.
    Her eyes stinging from the soapy water, Helen tried to push the women away. “This hurts more than I remember.”
    The Easter Egg grabbed Helen by the neck and held her down, ruthlessly rinsing the soap out of her hair. “Okay. Let’s repeat.”
    Helen jerked away, banging her head on the faucet. “No, I’m done.”
    “Honey, the thing to remember about good hair is regular maintenance.” As quick as a cobra, the woman wrapped a handful of hair around her fist, holding it out so Helen could see. “You need to lose a good five, six inches to get rid of these split ends. I’m not saying it’s hopeless. I’m just saying you need to invest a little more time and money in your appearance. Have you considered streaking?”
    The Green M&M leaned forward. “I’m thinking red would be a good color.”
    The Easter Egg shook her head. “Hope, you think everyone should go red. That is so passé. The color this year is blonde with lowlights.”
    Bobby tapped a finger against his upper lip, considering the options. You’d look good as a blonde, Babe.
    “You think we could streak”—The Easter Egg shook a handful of Helen’s hair—“this?”
    The Green M&M shrugged, dropped onto one of the empty benches and started to sing, waving her arms like an orchestra conductor. “ Oh darling, . . . hold me close . . . oh, oh, oh, hold me close . . . ”
    The Easter Egg picked up the tune and Helen joined in, relieved that the hairstyling was over. After a while the singing faded as one, then the other, dropped off to sleep.
    Helen gazed silently into the night. She couldn’t remember when she felt so well cared for . . . or so safe.

    Chapter Five
    Saturday, July 3
    D uring the five-hour drive, Jordan sang along with the radio, drumming his hands on the dashboard to keep time. Excited by the trip to Las Vegas, he spent the night online, then announced he was going to UNLV to study Hospitality Management. Pat merely nodded and kept driving, knowing his passions were always fervent, but usually short-lived. She listened with only half an ear to his litany of childhood memories of Aunt Helen: the long and detailed list of her exotic pets, including the names of lizards, birds, cats, fish, and the occasional dog. He also seemed to remember every piece of foreign flotsam that had washed ashore in Helen’s living room:—Korean drums decorated with brightly painted flowers, ukuleles from Hawaii, wooden flutes from South America, bongos made of rough-looking hides held together with brown sisal rope—an entire world of orchestral instruments to hear him tell it.
    In contrast to Jordan’s exuberant mood, Marc slumped in the backseat, earbuds in, listening to his playlist, too depressed to maintain his usual lifeline of text and Twitter. Pat wanted to say something comforting, but where Jordan was socially adept and outgoing, Marc was introverted and touchy. The only time he seemed really happy was when he was playing interactive games with his online adversaries.
    The sun was just coming over Sunrise Mountain when they crested the last hill, the Las Vegas lights spreading out below them in all their fairy-tale glory: the city of a billion schemes and broken dreams. Jordan jerked upright, taking in the view. “Wow, people who live here are so lucky. Look at all those hotels! Mom, can we swing by the campus?”
    “Jordan, we have a serious situation with your aunt. Don’t expect me to drop everything and do the college tour. I can’t deal with your self-absorption right now.” Now why did I say that? But the words were out and irretrievable.
    Marc snorted, obviously eavesdropping on the exchange.
    Jordan, unwilling to let the implied insult go unchallenged, glared over his shoulder. “Oh, like you’re Mr. Perfect. Who had to do thirty hours of community service for spray-painting that swastika on the Jones’ garage? Even a moron could tell it was backwards.”
    “It wasn’t a swastika, you dickwad. It was a whirling log, the Navajo symbol for the Outsider’s Journey. The judge would have known that if he read anything besides law books.”
    Pat wanted to scream. The three of them finally had a chance for some quality time together, and all they could do was dredge up old battles. “Stop it! Both of you. I don’t need this crap.” It came out harsher than intended and both boys stared at her, shocked at her uncharacteristic outburst.
    Jordan laid his hand on her arm. “Sorry, Mom. I was out of line.” Ever since he joined a teen-advice website—www.gettingyourwaywithparents.com—he had become the consummate used-car salesman, a devotee of their four main axioms: Don’t argue when your parents disagree with you. Give examples of your mature actions. Stay calm and reasonable. Show appreciation when they come around to your way of thinking.
    Ugh! Pat wanted to reach into cyberspace and e-slap the webmistress. Jordan could dream all he wanted about UNLV, but she and Wyatt had other plans for the boys, and they didn’t include a school featuring world-renowned beer bashes and pole dancers.
    Pat sped through the city, until she reached the turn off onto Charleston, a street she vaguely remembered, and headed toward the eastern part of town. The area had changed dramatically since she had last visited, and she almost missed the turn to Helen’s neighborhood. Gone were the beautifully styled iron fences and manicured lawns. High cement walls covered in graffiti now surrounded the area. The most prominent of the pictographs— AWOL and 702 —seemed to brand every vertical surface.
    “Why is she living here ?” Jordan asked. “This looks like gang territory.”
    “She’s lived here for twenty years,” Pat answered, “and doesn’t want to move.” She kept her voice steady, but felt sick with guilt. Why haven’t I kept in touch? But she knew why. It was her only choice: cut off contact to save her family. “We’ll just swing by and . . .” Her words trailed off as she turned the last corner. Oh shit.
    The house next to Helen’s was draped in yellow crime tape, the sidewalk filled with perky media types and bleary-eyed gawkers. A camera crew focused on a female reporter interviewing locals from the crowd. The woman’s perfectly groomed hair and impeccable outfit contrasted sharply with the neighborhood dress code: cropped tops, baggy shorts, and flip-flops.
    Marc sat up and pulled his earbuds. “Hey, is this where her neighbor got killed? What are all these people doing here so early in the morning?”
    Good question, Pat thought, as she pulled to the curb. People turned and stared, their eyes taking a larcenous interest in her late-model Lexus.
    “Mom.” Jordan stared at the wall of unfriendly faces. “Why doesn’t Aunt Helen come live with us, the way Grammy did before she died?”
    Pat shook her head, at a loss to explain her crazy sister.
    Marc glared back at the onlookers with all the innate disdain of an adolescent. “We’re not staying here, are we?”
    “No,” Pat answered. “I just want to pick up some clothes, so Helen will have something clean to wear.”
    Marc burrowed down into the seat, as if trying to take root. “I’m not going in.”
    “Yes, you are. I’m not leaving you out here with all this . . . this”—she motioned toward the crowd, at a loss for words.
    With an impatient hiss Marc snapped off his seat belt and shoved open the door. “This better be quick.”
    Jordan stared at the yard, a mixture of dead grass and bare dirt. “You really think there’s anything clean in there?”
    As they started toward the house the reporter spotted them. “Mrs. Taylor?”
    Pat shook her head, amazed that anyone could mistake her for Helen.
    “What’s your connection to Mrs. Taylor?” the reporter persisted. “Have you talked to her?” She started across the yard, the crowd parting with awed expressions, their eyes shining with the joy of being televised. “Do you know what she saw?”
    Pat hurried toward the door, afraid her whole family would end up on the morning news.
    “No comment,” Marc growled, his teenage surliness for once in perfect harmony with Pat’s mood.
    The rusty wrought-iron security screen looked impenetrable, its huge padlock and two dead bolts a tribute to slum security. Pat pulled the key marked “Helen” from her purse—a key she hadn’t used in ten years—and jammed it into the padlock.
    “Excuse me,” the reporter yelled, “could you tell me who you are and what you’re doing here?” She rushed up the walk, the mob of gawkers close behind.
    Please, please, please. The key turned and Pat almost sobbed with relief. She quickly attacked the other two locks, each one miraculously responding to the same key.
    “Are you a friend of Mrs. Taylor?”
    Ignoring the woman, Pat pushed open the door, nearly falling into a sea of fetid garbage. The boys jumped through the opening and slammed the door.
    Cats of all colors and sizes mewed and scuttled through piles of magazines and old newspapers. Pat tried to make sense of the squalid mess, but failed. Oh God! Where did Helen sit? Pat walked over to a lumpy mound near the window—a recliner—covered in newspapers and fast food wrappers. The seat had a deep indentation where Helen had compacted the trash into a cushion. Pat twisted the knob of a torchère lamp, its black finish gray with dust. The room brightened slightly and the papers rustled and flickered with the movement of light-shy insects. How could anyone live like this?
    “The cats are hungry,” Jordan announced in a matter-of-fact tone. He calmly worked his way between the maze of boxes and trash and into the kitchen. “There must be food here somewhere.” He kicked a couple of boxes away from the cabinet, scattering an army of bugs. “Here it is.” He pulled a bag of generic cat food off a shelf. “It’s full of ants and weevils. You think it’s okay?”
    Pat pointed to a cluster of bowls along the wall. “Just put some out and change their water. We don’t have time to go to the store now.” The counter was stacked with dusty boxes of indeterminate objects wrapped in newspaper. Flea market crap, Pat thought, and started down the hall. The first door opened into a jumble of dirty clothes, boxes, and knickknacks strewn across the floor. Papers and half-filled boxes were stacked haphazardly, the contents spilling onto the floor. Ugh , worse than the front room. An incredible stench filled the air, the cats having sprayed every vertical surface. What the hell happened to the sister she remembered? Helen’s wedding album lay open on one of the boxes. Years of grimy-fingered caresses had smudged its cover from a white brocade fabric to a gray rag. Overwhelmed by the evidence of her sister’s mental decay, Pat retreated to the kitchen. “We’re leaving. We’ll pick up some clothes at Target.”
    Marc was busy unwrapping items from one of the boxes, a troop of porcelain figurines cavorting across the counter. “Look.” He held up a figurine, displaying the base. “‘Made in Occupied Japan.’ Does that mean it was made in a Japanese home?”
    “No, it means it was made after the Second World War, when we still occupied the country. It’s very rare and you need to put it back. We have to go.”
    “I’ll be done in a sec,” Jordan answered.
    “All right, all right, don’t get your panties in a bunch, Mom.” He reached down and stroked one of the cats. “Boy, are they dirty. I’ll bet Aunt Helen never gives them a bath.”
    “Let’s do a pussy wash,” Marc snickered.
    Pat yanked him toward the door. “Watch your mouth!”
    Jordan followed, a gray tabby in his arms. “Look, she let me pick her up.” He rubbed the cat behind the ears, her eyes closing in ecstasy.
    “That animal is filthy. Put it down!”
    As Pat pulled open the door, the reporter thrust a microphone in her face. “No comment,” Pat snapped before the woman could even speak.
    “Has new information been uncovered?” the woman persisted. “The public has a right to know the details of this tragic event.”
    “No comment.”
    “Is Mrs. Taylor a witness or a suspect?”
    A suspect! “No comment.”
    “Can she identify the killer?”
    Pat could feel the eyes of the onlookers crawling over her body. Oh God, I hope not .

    Chapter Six
    D aylight brought an unfamiliar guard to the holding cell. “All right, ladies, up and at ’em.”
    The Green M&M hopped to her feet. “Someone bail us out?”
    The guard scanned the room, her eyes focusing on Rasheeda’s sleeping body, the psychedelic finery cascading from her rotund form in a Dali-esque version of Easter. “Saturday is shower day.” She banged her baton on the steel mesh. “Everybody up.”
    Helen stepped forward, her hair hanging in damp ropes down her back. “I’ll stay here. I like this room.”
    The guard rolled her eyes. “Not gonna happen, lady. Let’s hit the showers.”
    Helen rubbed her arm where the rough steel of the bench had scraped off a scab. “I don’t really need one. Too much bathing dries the skin. It’s not healthy.”
    The Green M&M wrinkled her nose. “You can’t go around smelling like roadkill.”
    The guard banged her baton again. “Ladies, you’re all showering.” She hooked a thumb toward Rasheeda, who had rolled over and covered her head. “Somebody wake up Sleeping Beauty. Let’s get this show on the road.”
    Bobby gave the guard a slow up and down, then pointed at her black steel-toed cop shoes. Don’t go. It’s a trick. Check those out.
    Helen looked. The heavy shoes did bear a striking resemblance to the ones that tried to annihilate her lawn.
    The Green M&M brightened. “Come on, Helen. I’ll cut and style your hair.” She cocked her head toward the guard. “My styling kit’s at the front desk. Can we get it?”
    The guard eyed Helen who had hooked her fingers through the metal of the bench. “If we let this woman fix your hair, will you take a shower?”
    Bobby nodded his approval. Ask how much it will cost.
    “How much do you charge? I didn’t bring my wallet.”
    The Green M&M grabbed the gate, working her fingers through the mesh. “I just want to get out of here. No charge.”
    “All right, let’s get a move on.” The guard waited until Rasheeda stumbled to her feet before running a key card through the electronic lock. “If you hurry, you can get a hot breakfast.”
    “Breakfast!” Helen could feel her eyebrows rise. “How much does that cost?”
    “The county is buyin’,” the guard answered, “but only if you take a shower.”
    The Green M&M grabbed Helen’s arm. “Enough already. Let’s get you pretty.”
    The Easter Egg grabbed the other arm. “Real pretty. With those big eyes and high cheekbones, you could be a real looker.”
    Helen glanced back at the small room. Good company and free food. If only she could stay.

    Chapter Seven
    P at parked across from the detention center, the lot almost empty. A recent addition to the city’s deteriorating east side, the newly built high-rise building stood out like a Band-Aid on a bullet hole. The rest of the neighborhood consisted of run-down apartments clustered around a dilapidated and strip mall and ranch-style houses. The architect had obviously followed regulation government specs and built a Lego-style construct to celebrate a new century of incarceration. The portico jutting out over the entrance scrupulously avoided any artistic elements that might have softened the harsh lines of the building. Consisting of a steel grid, it provided no shade of any kind.
    With the shopping bag of clothes slung over her shoulder, Pat hurried across the blazing-hot asphalt, the boys close behind. Only nine in the morning, and it was already a hundred degrees.
    “We’re north of Phoenix,” Marc grumbled. “I thought it would be cooler.” He shuffled along behind her, his six-two frame giving the lie to his sixteen years.
    “It’s the humidity,” Pat answered looking at the clouds over the valley. She laid a hand on his arm. “You okay with this?”
    He shrugged her off. “I’m fine. Don’t worry about me.”
    But he wasn’t “fine,” and she couldn’t help but worry about the moment when he came face to face with his childhood. As she stepped on the entrance mat, the glass doors slid open with a soft hiss, a blast of cold air pouring out through the double-wide opening. The lobby, a beige cavern, was decorated in a style that could only be described as “institutional”: a combination of industrial-strength steel and prison-strength plastic. The room was empty except for a female guard sitting behind a reception counter and what looked like an inmate mopping the beige tile. Dressed in incarceration orange, he casually swabbed the industrial-strength tiles with his mop, slowly working his way down one side of the room, the Madonna tattooed on his forearm gazing serenely at the outside world.
    The guard gestured them forward. “Please sign in.”
    “I’m Pat Henderson.” She scratched her name and address in the visitors log. “I’m here to see my sister, Helen Taylor.”
    The woman’s bored expression mutated into a faint smile of relief. “Oh, yes, we’ve been expecting you.” She pointed to a door. “Right through there and down the hall to the detectives’ office. Just follow the arrows. I’ll buzz you in.”
    The boys started to follow but the woman held up a hand. “Sorry. Adults only in the back.”
    The inmate leaned forward on his mop. “I’ll watch ’em”—his eyes traveled slowly over the boys’ bodies.
    The guard expelled a breath of exasperation. “Thanks, Carl but I’ve got it handled.” She pressed a button under the edge of her desk and the door lock released with an audible click .
    Pat hesitated, not wanting to leave the boys in the same room as a criminal of dubious background and lecherous thoughts. Feeling the situation called for some motherly advice, Pat pointed an admonishing finger. “Don’t”—Don’t what? Don’t tease the inmates?—“Don’t worry. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
    The boys exchanged a look, then Jordan extended his hand, palm up. “Keys, please. I’ll wait in the car.”
    “Me, too,” Marc chimed in. “I need to charge my phone.”
    Pat tossed the keys to Jordan, realizing they wanted to escape the creepy atmosphere of the jail as much as she did. “Okay, but no driving.” She waited until they disappeared through the entrance, then followed the painted arrows, her steps echoing down the corridor until she came to an open door marked INVESTIGATIONS.
    In contrast to the austere lobby, the windowless room was cluttered with a mishmash of government hand-me-downs: large metal desks, tubular chairs and a long row of battered and scarred file cabinets. A mess of maps, assignment charts, and vintage wanted posters covered the walls. A lone figure hunched over a desk piled high with papers, folders, and mug books. Broad shouldered, mid-thirties, he looked like the kind of man who could quell a barroom brawl without spilling a drop of his own beer.
    He lifted his head and smiled. “Mrs. Henderson?” He stood, extending a large callused hand. “Detective Jake Madison.” Despite his linebacker appearance, his baritone was warm and soothing. “I really appreciate you coming.”
    “I didn’t really have a choice.” Pat sat down, unwrapping her purse strap from her arm. “I’m the only relative Helen has left.” That wasn’t exactly true, but she had no desire to dredge up family secrets as a conversation starter.
    “Coffee?” he asked, moving toward a small break room. “Something to eat? We have doughnuts. Cliché, I know.”
    “Just coffee, thanks. Can you tell me what’s going on? Is Helen under arrest? Do I need to hire an attorney?”
    “Oh, no, nothing like that. Cream? Sugar?”
    “Both, thank you.”
    He returned with two Styrofoam cups, placing one on her side of the desk before sinking back into his chair. “How was your trip?”
    Pat shrugged, realizing Detective Madison wasn’t the type to be hurried. “We were on the road by midnight and drove straight in. I went by Helen’s to pick up some clothes before coming here.”
    Madison edged forward in his chair, a spark of interest. “So you’ve been to the house?”
    Pat rolled her eyes. “We had to run a gauntlet of neighbors and reporters. What exactly happened?”
    “A real nasty murder. Helen’s neighbor was dismembered. Pieces everywhere.”
    “How awful! Who was it?”
    “Bebe Small, a part-time prostitute and phone-sex chat girl. So far, Helen’s the only witness. She was only thirty feet from the scene, and we found a body part only a few feet from where she was sitting. We’ve been trying to get a statement, but—” He shook his head, an expression of frustration.
    “I’m sorry. Helen wasn’t always like that.” As soon as the words came out, she wanted to kick herself. Only two hours back and she was already playing apologist for her sister’s crazy behavior. “She was valedictorian of her high school class and graduated summa cum laude from Berkeley. She’s always been quirky, but didn’t get this bad until Bobby died.” Damn , why did she sound so defensive?
    “Let’s talk about him.” Madison pulled a notepad from his pocket. “She seems to be very attached to”—he hesitated, as if searching for the right words—“his memory.” He rifled the pages of the pad. “Takes him everywhere apparently.”
    “She was never able to accept Bobby’s death. The first few months after he died, I thought we were going to lose her too. Then one day she just decided he wasn’t dead. She started talking to him, referring questions to him, even introducing him to people.

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