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Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Brash Blonde - Chapter Eight



"What is it?" Watson asked.

I pointed to the telltale signs on the cheap lock.

Watson frowned, immediately inspecting it closer.

I glanced over my shoulder into the park. Someone had known that I'd left, which meant someone had been watching the house. Maybe the intruder was still watching the house, standing in the darkness just down the street.

Suddenly I felt exposed and vulnerable and very glad that Watson had insisted on following me back to the house. But I didn't want to stay outside on the stoop for very long. I could practically feel malevolent eyes boring into me.

When I made a move to push the door open, he put a hand on my shoulder to stop me. "Let me go first," he said very quietly. "It may not be empty."

That hadn't occurred to me. I'd assumed the danger was on the outside.

He slipped through the door, with me right on his heels. He was surprisingly light on his feet but tightly coiled, like a trained martial artist, as he moved through the foyer with hardly any noise at all. He was probably some kind of karate guy on top of everything else.

I pushed the door shut as quietly as I could before stepping out of my shoes and following him into the living room in bare feet.

He paused. "Anything out of place?"

I rolled my eyes. "You're kidding, right?" Everything was out of place. Sure, I'd boxed up some things, but the boxes were still stacked everywhere. I'd swept up, but I couldn't find a dustpan, so little piles of dust and debris dotted the floor like a case of chicken pox.

Something creaked above our heads.

Our eyes met, and Watson put a finger to his lips. I pointed to the broom I'd left propped against the sofa. He grabbed it and led the way up the stairs, which would have given me a great opportunity to check out his backside if I hadn't been so focused on being terrified.

The master bedroom door was partly open, the way I'd left it. No more creaking. No noise at all. I wasn't even sure we were breathing. He brandished the broom and pushed the door open wide with his foot.

The room was empty. The dresser drawers were standing open, as was the closet door. The bed was unmade, the comforter bunched up and hanging halfway onto the floor.

He glanced at me over his shoulder.

"I didn't do that," I whispered. "The drawers, I mean."

His grin was small and fleeting. "Anything missing?"

I rummaged quickly through the drawers. It was frustrating to admit I didn't know. The house wasn't exactly organized to begin with. Kate'd had so many things, and I hadn't bothered to inventory any of it. I'd just thought I'd work my way through it and keep, donate, or toss things as appropriate. "I can't tell," I said finally. "I think—"

"Shh." He cocked his head, listening. A second later I heard it too. Footsteps downstairs in the kitchen.

He was already on the move. "Stay here," he barked over his shoulder.

Why did men always say that? I had no intention of staying there. This was my house, and I might be terrified, but I was also furious. I grabbed the closest thing I could find for a weapon of my own and stormed down the stairs behind him.

But I hoped Watson had a major-league swing with that broom, because he had a head start on me. I heard him yell "Hey!" and then the bang of the back door being thrown open hard enough to rattle the windowpane.

I hurtled into the kitchen. Through the open back door I saw a black-clad figure running across the backyard toward the fence, with Watson chasing after him. Seconds later, the figure had scaled the fence and dropped out of sight. Watson jumped, grabbing the top of the fence to leverage himself over the top.

"No!" I shouted.

He hesitated, glancing back at me.

"He could be armed," I yelled. Which was a possibility. But in reality, the thought of being left alone here terrified me. I didn't want to be alone in the house. I wasn't sure I'd ever want to be alone in the house again.

He dropped back into the yard. He wasn't even breathing heavily. "We should call the police."

The police meant Lestrade. I didn't want to deal with Lestrade.

"I don't think we need to do that," I said. "It doesn't look like anything was taken."

He ran a hand over his hair and adjusted his jacket and tie. "I thought you couldn't tell."

"I changed my mind," I said. "Woman's prerogative."

We went back inside, locking the back door behind us. I poured him a glass of water. He drank it standing at the counter, looking at me over the rim. He'd chased an intruder down the stairs, through the house, and across the backyard, and he hadn't even broken a sweat. His hair was barely ruffled. I looked more disheveled getting out of bed in the morning.

He pointed. "Is that the PI's weapon of choice?"

I was still holding the "weapon" I'd grabbed on my way out of the bedroom—a remote control to the ancient TV. I put it on the table and squared my shoulders like I imagined a rugged, battle-tested detective might do. "My gun wouldn't fit in my purse," I said. Which would have been true, if I'd had a gun. A Q-tip wouldn't have fit in the small clutch I'd borrowed to match the dress. That purse was about as practical as five-inch, pointy-toed stilettoes. And eyelash curlers. Who needed curly eyelashes anyway? I'd never once been told my eyelashes looked especially nice tonight.

Speaking of which, I was done looking fine, nice, or great for the night. I wanted comfort. Probably it wasn't very rugged of me to want to wrap myself in cotton jammies and fuzzy slippers until I stopped shaking, but that was what I wanted to do. And I wanted familiarity. 2B's leering. Mr. Bitterman's toxic cooking. My apartment, which no one in his right mind would ever want to break into. Or live in. Which only went to show how shaken I was, that I actually wanted to go back there.

"I really think we should get the police involved," Watson said. "Even if nothing was taken, a crime was committed here tonight." He flashed his crooked grin. "Apart from your housekeeping."

I blinked. Was that a joke? He could have been killed, or bonked over the head, or gotten a really bad splinter from the decrepit back fence, and he was making a joke?

Then it occurred to me he was trying to make me feel better. That was what alpha men did for fragile women after performing acts of machismo like chasing intruders away. I was becoming more convinced by the minute that this guy only played a doctor during the day—at night, he helped rid Gotham City of crime.

Only I wasn't fragile. A little freaked out, kind of anxious, sort of angry, but not fragile.

"It's alright," I told him. It was probably some neighborhood kid who'd known the house was empty. Or an opportunistic petty thief who'd broken in to help himself to whatever he could find. "I'll just go home, and tomorrow I'll call someone to fix the front door." And hope they didn't charge too much. Maybe I could get bars over the windows while I was at it. And a security system. And a big, ill-tempered dog.

"Let's go, then," Watson said. "I'm going to follow you there."

"You really don't have to," I said. "It's an apartment building, and there are always people around." Most of them in their 80s and 90s with diminished hearing but an exaggerated sense of civic responsibility. They'd call the police in a millisecond if they spotted an unfamiliar face. Mrs. Granger in 2F had once called the police on the FedEx delivery man. Mrs. Granger didn't trust men in shorts.

"It's no bother," Watson told me in a voice that clearly said he wasn't taking no for an answer. "I won't be able to sleep tonight unless I know you're safely home."

While part of me bristled at the sexist sentiment, the truth was, while I wasn't fragile, I was still a little spooked. And I was more than ready to go back to my apartment and lock myself in for the night. I'd think all of this through in the morning, when I had a clearer head and some distance. Things always seemed better in the daylight. More manageable.

I ran upstairs for the neon green, fuzzy slipper fashion-don'ts I'd found in the spare bedroom the night before. They looked ridiculous, but I felt more genuinely me than I had all night.

Watson waited in the foyer. His lips twitched when I came downstairs, as if he was fighting a grin. If he wasn't careful, I'd think he had an actual sense of humor.

I retrieved Irene's shoes from the foyer, and we managed to get the front door locked again, although a good shove would probably break its tenuous anchor in the jamb. I'd worry about that in the morning too. If someone wanted to break in and steal boxes of ancient newspapers, let them.

When I pulled up in front of my apartment building, Watson was still right behind me. He hadn't let me slip through so much as a yellow light without him during the drive.

The building looked especially welcoming, with fast-food wrappers and random pages from a newspaper blowing across the property, the exterior lighting reduced to negligible by some dead bulbs, and a surly-looking group of teenagers clustered together near the entrance, with a cloud of cigarette smoke hovering over their heads.

Watson's headlights went out, and his door opened. I was just happy he'd seen me to the curb. He didn't have to walk me to my apartment. In fact, I wished he wouldn't. I usually hid my apartment away like squirrels hid nuts.

I got out of the Porsche. I had no choice. There was no time for a home makeover. Might as well get it over with. The place was what it was. Embarrassing.

To Watson's credit, he didn't say anything about the building, the cigarette smoke, or the dilapidated lobby. He glared at the teenagers when they snickered at my fuzzy slippers, quieting them down instantly, but he seemed preoccupied as I unlocked my door. I hoped that none of the peephole cataracts were on duty. Between my outfit and my escort, I'd have tongues wagging all over the building.

I pushed the door open and turned to Watson. He was closer than I'd thought—close enough that I saw little flecks of pale green in his blue eyes that I'd never noticed before. Or maybe I'd caught him leaning in for a good-night kiss. Had he been leaning in for a good-night kiss? I'd hate to interrupt him if he was doing that. Maybe that was what he had been thinking about on the way to my door. That was why he'd been so quiet. A man like him wouldn't just spontaneously make a move; he'd plan it right down to the pucker and then analyze it on the way home.

I'd never stand up to analysis. My pucker was exhausted.

"Thank you for dinner," I said. "I'm sorry about the rest of the night."

"Don't be sorry. I'm glad I was there. And I needed the workout." He looked at me hard. "Are you sure you're going to be alright here?"

I nodded. "It's safer than it looks."

"Hey, Marty."

Oh good. 2B. I swallowed a sigh and turned wearily. "What, Ed?"

"Some guy was here looking for you today."

I froze, my mind immediately going to whoever had broken into 221 Baker Street. Had they found out where I really lived? Had they been stalking me?

"Who?" I managed to squeak out.

"I dunno. He didn't leave a name, but he said something about back rent."

Oh. Great. Bill collectors.

Watson raised a questioning eyebrow my way, but I chose to ignore it. I was sure there were plenty of PIs who drove Porsches yet couldn't pay their rent on their crappy apartments.

"Hey, you hear that Mrs. Strum is threatening to sue Mr. Bitterman?" 2B asked. "She claims he was trying to poison her. Funny, huh?"

Hilarious.

Watson raised the other eyebrow at me.

I shook my head. "It's a long story."

2B leaned against his doorway in baggy jeans, a Jethro Tull T-shirt, and bare feet. "She showed up at his door with some fudge brownies, and Mr. B invited her in. Next thing you know, she's running out of there holding a hand over her mouth. I think they were knocking dentures, and he got a little too frisky."

I felt my face get warm. I didn't want Watson to hear this conversation. I didn't want to hear this conversation. Mr. Bitterman and his denture-knocking were none of my business.

"He's writing a cookbook," I told him. "He probably needed a taste tester."

"Seriously?" 2B pushed himself upright. "He found someone willing to eat that stuff?"

Apparently not.

"You should've heard her," he said. "Threatening to throw his pots in the dumpster. Yelling about poison and calling her lawyer. Believe that?"

What I couldn't believe was that this conversation was happening in front of Watson.

"Cookbook. Huh. And here I thought he was finally making his move on old Strum," 2B said.

At least his move hadn't included cabbage or broccoli. Bad enough Watson could see and hear about the decrepitude. He didn't have to smell it too.

2B looked at my feet. "Nice shoes, by the way."

"It's a long story," I said again. Long story covered a lot of ground. And bonus, it wasn't a lie this time.

"Looks like Mr. B wasn't the only one with a hot date," 2B said. He stuck out his hand. "Name's Ed."

Before I could warn him not to touch, Watson shook it. "John."

2B glanced at us in turn. "Did I interrupt something?"

"No," I said.

"Yes," Watson said. "Good night." He steered me into my apartment, closing the door firmly behind us.

My heartbeat kicked up a notch. "Was he interrupting something?" Like that good-night kiss, maybe? My pucker might be perking up. Watson's feats of fearlessness and newly realized sense of humor made a good-night kiss seem pretty appealing. Maybe he wasn't the rule-worshipping stuffed shirt I'd thought he was. Maybe his shirt was stuffed with six-pack abs and a nice manly chest. Probably with just the right amount of chest hair, begging for my fingers to run through it and…

I should probably be listening.

"…I wanted to make sure you felt safe," he said. "Sounds like you have a possible felon on the premises, with that Mr. Bitterman. Should I be worried about you?"

"Oh, he's not—" I began. Then I saw his grin and relaxed. "It's an interesting building," I admitted.

"You're an interesting woman," he said.

Oh, was I? Interesting was much better than nice or even great. I'd take interesting every time. Interesting lasted a lifetime. Nice only lasted until the lipstick wore off.

So this was it. It was a sure thing. He was going in for the good-night kiss. He was leaning closer by the second.

My breath caught in my throat. I let my head fall back just a little, and my lips parted, and my eyes fluttered shut.

He reached past me to open the door. "Good night, Miss Hudson."

My eyes opened at the same time the door closed.

He was gone.

Leaving me feeling incredibly stupid. I'd read him all wrong. I hoped he'd read me all wrong. He'd even called me Miss Hudson. You didn't kiss someone you called Miss Hudson. You checked out library books from her.

I pressed my hand to the door to keep from banging my head against it.

My cell phone buzzed with an incoming text message. Irene. How'd the date go, or should I ask you tomorrow?

Ask me tomorrow, I texted back. And it wasn't a date.

Thirty seconds later, Irene texted: There's something wrong with that man.

Not from everything I'd seen.

You were smoking hot tonight.

Not based on results, I wasn't.

Maybe he's married, she added. I'll look into that.

I shut off my phone and went to bed.


* * *


I woke up the next morning with a new perspective. I couldn't worry about Watson and his marital status and his obvious and tragic lack of a sex drive. I had more important things to think about. I was determined to find out who had broken into the house. Deep down, I knew it wasn't a random petty thief. It was someone with a purpose, and I was going to find out what that purpose was. And I was going to start in the park Kate had thought was filled with "criminal" activity. While I hadn't seen the signs on my last visit there, maybe I hadn't been looking hard enough. There wasn't a better location to hide in plain sight and keep an eye on the place at the same time. Someone could go completely unnoticed while sitting on a bench right out in the open. As far as plans went, it was diabolical in its simplicity.

I fixed myself a bowl of cereal, took a quick shower, and got dressed while listening for the sounds of Mrs. Strum's knives being sharpened in the hallway outside my door. I didn't hear anything, so I slipped out of my apartment and headed for the Porsche. The fog hadn't burned off yet, and it was typically windy, but I didn't think conditions were harsh enough to keep people indoors. I circled the block twice before finding a parking spot around the corner from the house. I didn't want my connection to the place to be obvious. Maybe it was too late for that, but it made me feel better to take precautions.

I could hear the skateboarders on the other side of the park as soon as I crossed the street. That was as good a place to start as any. It might not be fair of me to consider them potential burglars just because they were young, male, and reckless, but I couldn't see the carriage-pushing, toddler-towing moms breaking into houses and killing grouchy old ladies.

I stood near a railing that one of the potential criminals was trying for some insane reason to skateboard down. It seemed like an impossible task, and judging by his results, it was. He kept veering off and splashing down on the concrete steps served by the railing, which explained the holes in his jeans and his sour expression. Also his broken finger.

Hmm. I wondered how easily someone with a broken finger could manipulate a crowbar or whatever tool had been used to break into the house. My guess was not all that easily. Working with nine fingers would be clumsy. Maybe I was looking at the person who'd gouged the frame and scarred the door and given me an up-close look at Watson in action.

Okay, that last part hadn't been so bad.

Except I wasn't thinking about Watson today. Today I was going to carry myself like the private investigator I was supposed to be. I was strong. I was fearless. I was determined.

"Hey!" I practically shouted at the kid. Unfortunately, I did it while he was trying to ride the railing again. His head jerked up, and his body torqued sideways. The board went flying one way, and the rest of him went the other. He landed in a heap, all the air rushing out of him in a loud grunt. The skateboard rolled a couple of feet in the other direction before it stopped and sat there, a mobile testament to stupidity. Whether mine or his remained to be seen.

"Dude!" Another skateboarder rolled to a stop a few feet away.

Dude waved him off without looking at him, and the skateboarder shrugged and pushed himself away. Then Dude sat up, swaying a little and grabbing his hand. "What's wrong with you, lady? Didn't you see I was trying to do a railslide?"

"I want to talk to you." I tried to inject some sternness into my voice, like my mother used to do when I'd done something lecture worthy, like trying to feed the dog my broccoli. "What's your name?"

He practically curled up, still rubbing his hand. Great. Now he'd probably broken that too, because of me. That hadn't been my intent, but I refused to feel guilty about it. In the war on crime, there were bound to be casualties.

I almost rolled my eyes at myself.

"Your name," I repeated.

He glared up at me. "Rabid. What's it to you?"

I stuck my hands on my hips. "Your name is not Rabid."

He shot a glance to either side. "It's Steven Sanders," he said in a low voice. "But everybody calls me Rabid."

"Okay, Steven." I squatted down beside him. He recoiled a little, as if I'd invaded his space, and he wasn't sure of the appropriate reaction. "Were you here railsliding last night, around eight o'clock?"

"No, I wasn't here railsliding last night around eight o'clock," he shot back, trying to mimic me.

I sat back, disappointed.

"I was practicing my nollie nightmare flip," he said. "What's it to you?"

It was plenty to me. He'd just admitted to being in the area when someone had broken into my house. That sounded like opportunity. I just needed motive. I pointed at the Victorian. "Did you ever see the woman who lived in that house over there?"

He squinted down the street and shrugged.

"Think about it," I said. "It's important. She was in her 70s and had a dog that she walked here in the park?"

His expression changed, becoming a mixture of recognition and disdain. "Oh. Her. Yeah, I seen her here." He snorted.

Now we were getting somewhere. Clearly there was no love lost between him and my aunt.

"Sounds like you weren't a fan?" I asked.

He glared at me. "Would you be a fan if she called the cops on you?"

"Why did she do that?" I asked.

"Said we were making too much noise. Said we ought to do this on the grass. Like that's possible." He snorted again.

"I bet that got you angry," I said.

"Yeah. So? Lots of people get me angry. That's why they call me Rabid."

Right. Like it had nothing to do with the hair falling into his eyes or the canine tooth poking through his lips when he closed his mouth.

"She was all the time complaining about everyone," he said. "I never seen such a miserable old—" He stopped short, glancing at me from under a thatch of hair. "Anyway, the cops gave me a ticket for being a public nuisance. Me! Can you believe it?"

It wouldn't have been polite to say I could.

"So what did you do?" I asked, watching his reaction closely.

"What could I do?" I could see the color rising in his cheeks, the veins starting to pop out on his neck. No doubt about it, he'd been ticked off at Aunt Kate.

"Get revenge?" I asked.

He gave me a funny look. Had I pushed too much? I cleared my throat, trying another tactic. I could see him eyeing his skateboard, and knew I was losing what little attention span the kid had. "When was the last time you saw her?"

He held up the hand with the broken finger. "When she gave me this."

"She broke your finger?" I stared at him. "What'd she do, grab you or something?"

"You kidding? She couldn't do anything to me. She was older than dirt." Another snort. "That stupid dog of hers got all up in my fakie railslide, and I fell on my—I fell off my board and broke my finger." He paused. "Why you asking me all this anyway? I ain't breaking the law."

Not at the moment.

"Because she's dead," I said bluntly.

"I ain't surprised." He shoved some hair out of his face. "Like I said, she was older than dirt."

I resisted the urge to roll my eyes. What was with people? She was a few years past retirement age, but seventy was hardly at death's door. Then again, the kid probably thought I was middle-aged. I shoved that unpleasant thought to the back of my mind and instead asked, "You don't happen to drive a VW Bug, do you?" I asked, remembering the car Lucy had seen parked on the street the night of Kate's death.

He glared at me. "No! What kind of dumb question is that?"

It had been worth a shot. "Did you ever see Kate again after her dog made you break your finger?" I asked.

"Don't ask me," he said. "I don't pay much attention to old women and their dogs."

I narrowed my eyes at him. It seemed to me he'd paid a lot of attention to her, judging by the shade of angry red his face was going just talking about the incident. I mentally compared his slim build to that of the figure I'd seen leaving my aunt's house last night. It was entirely possible the kid could be my intruder. Maybe he'd decided that just killing her wasn't enough—he'd wanted to steal from her as well.

"Do me a solid," he added, getting to his feet and brushing dirt off his jeans. They didn't look any cleaner for it. "I don't know who the old broad was to you, but leave me and my buddies alone. We put up with a lot from her when we ain't bothering nobody."

"I can't promise you that," I said. "I'm investigating her murder."

There. It felt good to say the word finally.

His eyes got wide. "You mean you think I had something to do with—" He didn't finish that thought, instead clenching his jaw shut tightly. "I got nuthin' else to say to you. Lady, you are certifiable." He rushed over to his skateboard, hopped on, and pushed himself away without looking back.

I watched him go, thinking I might be certifiable, but he was definitely on my suspect list.

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