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



"I don't know about this," I said.

Irene groaned. "Will you please stop saying that?"

We were back in the park the next morning. The fog had lifted, but the day was still gloomy and overcast. No Albert Fong or Louis Chu yet. A few of Sunshine's students were milling around, waiting for her to arrive. Some of the mothers had already claimed their benches and settled in to watch their kids on the playground. Jackie wasn't one of them.

As usual, I heard the rasping of skateboards in the concrete bowl on the other side of the park.

"I'll stop saying it when we stop doing this," I shot back.

"Doing what? You want to find out who killed Kate, don't you?"

"Of course I do. I just don't want to do it under false pretenses."

"Then you'd better enroll in the police academy," she said. "Because anything else is false pretenses."

I sighed. She was right, of course. The whole thing felt like it had slipped out of our control. Sherlock Holmes seemed to be taking on an actual life of his own, with a website and email and bogus credentials and a very bright young assistant named Martha. Meanwhile, we bounced from suspect to suspect, chasing down random clues but never actually getting anywhere.

"I know what you're thinking," she said. "But the chat with Watson couldn't have gone better. He never knew he was talking to us. Did you notice I even threw in a couple of references to New York and London to make the whole thing more legit?"

"I noticed," I said. "Where did you come up with Inspector Gregson from New Scotland Yard anyway?"

She shrugged. "I liked the sound of it. What, you don't think Sherlock Holmes would know people from New Scotland Yard?"

I rolled my eyes. "You're nuts. Do you know that?"

"Sticks and stones," she said. "I get the job done." She pointed. "That's him, isn't it?"

I'd been hoping Rabid had taken the day off, but no, there he was trying to skateboard down the railing again. Despite the fact that the laws of physics hadn't changed since the last time he'd tried that. And he was having about the same results: more holes in his jeans and more bruises on his body.

He saw us coming from about twenty feet away, and I could practically see him shut down. Right before the skateboard skidded to the left, his body flipped forward, and he wound up sprawled in the grass again. You'd think he'd get tired of that.

His expression was black by the time we got to him. "What do you want now?"

When I'd thought he'd been upset about a ticket, he'd seemed angry enough to kill. And possibly stupid enough to follow through with it. Now knowing that he'd actually been arrested because of my aunt, I was looking at him in a whole new light. A much more sinister one.

"Hey, Rabid." Irene gave him a smile that would have made a normal man hand over his checkbook. "I'm Irene."

"So?" He rubbed his forearm while he glowered at us.

Clearly he wasn't a normal man.

"So you're going about that all wrong," I told him.

He snorted. "What do you know?"

"I know that with no net force you're not going to get any acceleration."

His eyes went wide. "Huh?"

Irene nudged me. "Where'd you come up with that?" she whispered.

"Physics class," I whispered back. "You have three forces at play," I told him. "Your weight, the force of gravity on your skateboard, and the force of the railing pushing up on the skateboard. They cancel each other out. So…" I did a palms-up shrug.

He seemed reluctantly impressed. "What are you, some kind of Einstein or something? What's that mean?"

"It means bend your legs more," I said.

Rabid scrambled to his feet, forgetting all about his forearm, and snatched up his skateboard for another try. This time he managed to keep the board on the railing and his body on the board until he hopped off a few yards away.

He was actually smiling when he came back to us. "Hey, thanks! That was radical! Where'd you learn that anyway?"

"In college," I said vaguely. Which, for a change, wasn't a lie. "Now can I ask you a couple of questions?"

He pushed some hair out of his eyes. "What, about that old lady? I already told you everything I know about her."

"You didn't tell me about yourself," I said. "About your arrest."

His expression clouded. "It was no big deal. Just another misdemeanor possession. I had a little more weed than I was supposed to. Big deal."

"You were supposed to have marijuana on you?" Irene asked.

His jaw had a stubborn set. "I got a card for it. What about it?"

"You said another. Was it your second offense?" I asked.

His eyes went dark, and I could see the anger brewing behind them. "Yeah. My lawyer says I might have to do some time in County."

"How'd you get arrested?" Irene asked.

He watched the other skateboarders for a long moment. "It don't matter," he said finally.

Irene and I exchanged glances.

"Someone turned you in," Irene said. "Am I right?"

Rabid inspected his skateboard. "Maybe. So what?"

"It was the woman, wasn't it," I said. "The one with the dog, from the house down the street."

He didn't answer me.

"Boy, that would really tick me off," Irene said. "Some old goat couldn't mind her own business, and now you're facing a mandatory minimum?" She shook her head. "Bet that ticked you off too."

"Oh, hey." He looked up in alarm. "Sure it ticked me off, but that don't mean I did nothing to her. I didn't do nothing to her."

"Where were you on the evening of the 20th?" I asked him gently.

He studied his skateboard again. "I was in my car."

"All night?"

"No, I mean I was driving. To San Diego."

"Anyone with you?"

"No."

"Anyone who can corroborate your story?" Irene jumped in.

He gave her a blank look.

"Can anyone back you up? Got an alibi?"

"Oh." He paused. "I went to Masters before I left. They could tell you."

I frowned. "What's Masters?"

"You're kidding, right?" he asked. "Everyone knows Masters."

"Humor us," Irene said. "We're new in town." She glanced my way with a shrug.

"Masters is a pot dispensary in the East Bay," he said. "I was buying weed, okay? It's legal. I got a card." He ran his sleeve across his nose. "I was there for a couple of hours before I took off."

"You must have talked to some people while you were there," I said. "Can you name any of them?"

"I don't know names," he said. "They come and they go. I come and I go. It's like that." His expression was sullen when he glared at us from behind a wall of hair. "You wanna make something of it?"

"As a matter of fact," Irene began.

"Not at all," I cut in. "We appreciate your time. Good luck with the tricks."

He nodded. "Thanks for the, uh, tip." He dropped his skateboard and rolled away.

"I don't trust him," Irene said as we watched him leave the park and ride off along the far side of the street.

"I think he was telling the truth," I said.

"As much as a pot-addled mind can," she said.

I glanced at her in surprise. "Did he seem pot-addled to you?"

"Couldn't you smell him?"

I shook my head. Guess I'd been exposed to Mr. Bitterman for too long. Or else I was incredibly naïve since I'd figured that Pigpen cloud was just natural essence of Rabid.

"I've practically got a contact high," Irene said. She looked around with a sigh. "So that didn't get us very far. What's the next big idea?"

"I think we should follow up with his alibi at Masters," I said. "Have you got the time?"

"I'm all yours," she said. "This should be good. Did you happen to find a gun in the house while you were cleaning up?"

We started walking back to her car. Sunshine's class hadn't started yet. The chess match hadn't begun. No more mothers had shown up. Slow day at the park.

"Why would we need a gun?" I asked.

"We're going to a dispensary," Irene said. "Where they sell drugs. I can only imagine what this place is going to be like." She took out her phone and got online. "It's probably in some trashy alley with bars on the windows and shady characters hanging around everywhere." She pointed to a red dot on the screen. "We could be heading into Babylon here."

"Try to think positive," I told her. "We might be in for a surprise."

"The real surprise will be if we come back out," she said.


* * *


"This is not what I expected," Irene said a half hour later.

I looked out the windshield across a typical suburban parking lot at a typical suburban strip mall. A drugstore, a dollar store, a pizza joint, two empty storefronts, and Masters. It was at the far end, and that was a good thing, because the line that stretched out the door and around the corner of the building would have disrupted the foot traffic to every other store. I didn't see a thug in the bunch. There were people in business clothes, people in jeans and running shoes, even a grandmother or two. A gun would definitely have been overdoing it.

"I think I see an investment opportunity here," Irene said.

"We have to talk to one of the employees." I looked at the line of customers. "This is going to take a while."

"Not necessarily. Follow me." Irene grabbed her leather portfolio from the back seat, got out of the car, and hurried across the parking lot to the entrance, oblivious to all the eyes on us. To be fair, she was used to being watched. It came with the territory of being gorgeous and self-assured. I washed along in her wake like a dinghy following a luxury yacht.

"No line jumping, lady," someone yelled.

Irene held up the portfolio and flashed a disarming smile. This time it seemed to work. "We're not customers. We're pharmaceutical reps."

We went inside.

The store itself was small and unremarkable. Slate tile floors. Ocean blue walls. The sound of money changing hands.

Irene paused to assess the place. "Look at all the happy people. I am definitely looking into this."

"I don't know about happy," I said, "but they certainly look relaxed." I let my eyes scan over the display cases stacked against the far wall. One held different tinctures and bottles of lots of green herbs. The second had a variety of candy bars—all "special" candy, if I had to guess—and beside that a small display of incense and essentials oils. I took a step closer and grabbed Irene's arm. "Look!"

"Huh?"

I pointed to the neat rows of alphabetically arranged oils. Right between Frankincense and Geranium sat a bottle of Ginger Lily.

Irene frowned. "Didn't Watson say she had dried stuff under her nails?"

I shrugged. "Oils have to dry, right? Maybe it was residue from an oil burner? Maybe Rabid spilled some on his clothes before he struggled with her."

"Maybe we should go talk to that clerk over there." Irene nodded toward a twentysomething man standing behind the counter. His brown hair was nicely cut and neater than mine. His khakis were spotless. His light blue shirt was pressed. He could have been plugged seamlessly into any business environment.

His smile was automatic and genuine when we approached. "My name's Brandon. Can I help you ladies?"

Irene handed over a business card. "We'd like to ask you a few questions about one of your customers."

She'd been busy with her printer again. The card read Sherlock Holmes Investigations along with the website address in gold script on a black background. None of the Wes Craven imagery that stocked the webpage. It was simple and classy.

A pained look crossed his face. "Can we do this privately? It wouldn't be good for business if the customers hear us."

Irene made a lead-the-waygesture, and we followed Brandon into a back office. Like the selling floor, this space was immaculate. A couple of filing cabinets, a single desk, an executive chair, even a potted palm in the corner.

Brandon closed the door behind us. "How can I help you?"

"We're doing some follow-up," Irene said crisply. "Do you know this man?" She held out her cell phone. A close-up picture of Rabid was on the screen. The surly, suspicious looking Rabid. The one who looked like he mugged old ladies for chuckles. Or killed them.

Brandon took it to study the picture.

I stared at Irene and mouthed "How…?"

She grinned at me and shrugged. Irene was an enigma. Knowing her, she already had his credit report and college transcript.

"Yeah, I know him." Brandon passed the phone back. "Steve Sanders. He comes in every week with a scrip. What'd he do?"

Irene slipped the phone into her pocket. "A scrip for what?"

Brandon thought for a moment. "Anxiety disorder, I think. Something along those lines. What'd he do?"

"Maybe nothing," I said. No point ruining Rabid's reputation unless we had to. "Like my partner said, we're just following up on some things. Do you remember if he was here on the 20th?"

"The 20th. That was a Friday, right?" He thought some more. "Yeah, I'm pretty sure he was. In fact, I know he was, because he spent a long time talking to my buddy, Aaron, about some skateboarding competition he was on his way to that evening. Said he'd be there all weekend. He was pretty stoked about it."

"Do you know where that was?" I asked.

He shook his head. "He mentioned it, but, sorry, I don't really remember. It was south of here—I remember that much. He said he'd be late getting there because of the drive."

"And he was leaving straight from here?" Irene asked. "You're sure about that?"

He nodded. "That's what he said."

I silently wondered what time Rabid had registered at the competition. While his alibi was checking out so far, it was entirely possible he'd made a quick stop at my aunt's house before heading on to his competition.

"Anything else I can help you with?" Brandon asked.

Irene shook her head. "Thanks for your time."

"Always happy to help law enforcement," he said.

I hid my face when I followed Irene out so he couldn't see my guilty flush.


* * *


"So Rabid's alibi checks out," I said when we got back in the car.

Irene chewed on her lip. "I was so sure he could be our man. I mean, look at this picture." She stared at Rabid's antisocial sneer. "His face practically screams psycho killer."

I thought about Rabid's surprise and pleasure when he nailed his railslide. "I don't know about that. For a second there in the park, he actually seemed like maybe under all that he could be a nice guy."

"No offense, Marty, but you wouldn't know a nice guy if he emailed you an autopsy report."

"Subtle," I said.

"I'm just saying."

We sat there watching customers file in and out of the dispensary.

"I guess it's still possible he could have swung by Kate's after leaving Masters and killed her before creating his San Diego alibi," I said finally.

"Or," Irene said, "what if Rabid had one of his buddies kill Kate? He could have easily arranged it before he left. It's not like he didn't have opportunity. I mean, come on—how many grown men can spend the whole day skateboarding in the park?" She rolled her eyes. "Get a job, already."

I wondered if she was onto something. Even though I'd been focusing mainly on Rabid, the suspicious glances from his buddies hadn't gone unnoticed. Or had they been guilty glances? Either way, for all the rubbernecking, not one of them had come over to see what was going on.

"I have to be at work in a couple hours." I sniffed my sleeve. "And I can't show up smelling like this. Can you drop me at my apartment so I can grab a shower?"

"We do kind of reek." Irene grinned. "No wonder I feel so mellow." She started the car, and we rolled out of the parking lot.


* * *


I was unlocking my door when 2B's door opened behind me, and he stuck his head out. So he was back on his feet. And they were still bare.

"Oh, it's you. I thought it was my buddy Pete that I smelled. He was supposed to be here an hour ago."

"You smelled me?" It must have been worse than I thought.

"I know, impressive, right?" He grinned. "It's a real talent. I got a symbiotic thing going with the ganja. I smelled you coming the minute you walked into the lobby."

Wow. The DEA could use him at the airports.

He tipped his head back and took a big sniff of stale air. "Like a fresh spring breeze." He coughed once and put his head back down where it belonged.

I glanced over my shoulder across the hall. "Have you seen Mr. Bitterman lately?"

"Mr. B?" He shrugged. "He's laying low so Mrs. Strum won't go after him. I saw him downstairs getting his mail, and he said he's done using amateur taste testers. Whatever that means. Speaking of taste." His face brightened. "What've you got? Smells like some good stuff. You got any extra?"

"I don't have any," I said.

"Seriously, Marty? You're gonna hold out on your old pal, Eddie? I'll pay for it, if that's what you want. Can I get the friends and family discount?"

I rolled my eyes. "I know what you're thinking," I said. "But I haven't been smoking pot. I've just been…" I trailed off, wondering how I could explain my perfume without admitting to being at a marijuana dispensary. "…at a friend's house," I finished. I glanced down the hall, wondering if any of the peephole cataracts were on duty. Hopefully their senses of smell were more blunted than 2B's, or else I would probably be looking at a SWAT raid and an eviction notice.

"A friend's house," he repeated. "You can do better than that, Marty. I used that one when I was 15. If you don't want to share, just say so."

"It's the truth," I insisted. Sort of. Anyway, I didn't owe 2B an explanation. I didn't even want to talk to him. I just wanted to take my shower and get to work.

"If you say so." He shrugged. "Remember, if you lay down with potheads who reek, you get up with fleas. Next time at least save me a bud, would you?" He pulled back and shut the door.

I stared after him. Fleas. Something clicked in the back of my brain, and I silently chided myself for not figuring it out earlier. It made perfect sense. It had been right in front of me, and I hadn't even realized it.

Suddenly I knew why Sunshine Moonbeam's yoga studio reeked of eucalyptus.

Eucalyptus was an odd scent for incense, but it was a natural flea killer…for dogs. Like little missing basset hounds.

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