Allie Grainger glanced up at her Jeep’s console as she signaled a turn off Highway
A1A. Five o’clock in the afternoon, and the thermometer still registered ninety-seven
degrees. She took a right on Madison. The neighborhood looked desolate, with yards
seared by the summer sun, and even the hardiest Florida vegetation sagging lifelessly
from the month-long drought. People hid indoors, their faces lifted reverently to air
conditioning vents. Once she got home, the breeze off the ocean might make it feel
cooler. If there was a breeze.
As she turned left on Ridgewood, she saw her friend Sheryl Levine stretched out on a
lawn chair in the middle of her front yard. Was she crazy? Even the birds had the good
sense to get in out of this heat. She tapped her horn in greeting as she passed.
Without raising her head, Sheryl lazily lifted one hand, her middle finger extended
Allie laughed and pulled into her driveway. The sight of her little beach house filled
her with a mixture of joy and sorrow. It and a pile of money were legacies from her Aunt
Lou, dead at fifty-eight of Hodgkin’s disease. Allie would gladly have given it all up for
just one more week with her aunt. A day.
She grabbed the grocery bags off the passenger seat. Slinging her handbag on her
shoulder, she closed the car door with her hip and headed up the front walk. Here she
could smell the salt air, the fish and seaweed, especially since there was no breeze to
blow it away. A lot of people considered it a stench. To Allie it smelled like home.
She kicked off her heels just inside the door and made her way to the kitchen,
dropping the grocery bags on the kitchen counter and heading to the bedroom, where
she changed into shorts and an oversized t-shirt and let out a sigh of relief. Much
better. Padding barefoot back into the kitchen, she began putting away her groceries.
She had bought double everything, knowing her friend Sheryl would share most of her
meals. Sheryl didn’t cook. Nor did she clean house, other than the bare basics, or sew
or grow plants. What Sheryl did was enforce the law. Funny how many of Allie’s friends
were in law enforcement now. All except Joe. The thought brought with it a sharp pang
of sorrow. Joe was dead, and in a way, it was Allie’s fault. She swallowed hard as she
put the milk in the refrigerator.
“It wasn’t your fault,” said her aunt’s voice in her head.
Allie ignored her. They had these talks from time to time, but Allie was still furious at
her for not telling her Joe was going to die. Maybe she could have prevented it.
Somehow. If only she’d known…
“Stop that this minute, Allison Grainger. Joe was a grown man. He made his choices,
just as you made yours. His were the wrong ones.”
“It’s not cold. It’s realistic. You can’t save the whole world, Allie. You have enough to
do just saving yourself.”
Wasn’t that the truth? Less than six months ago, a madman had held her at gunpoint
in her living room. She had lived—and Joe had died.
She was pulling out a pot to make iced tea when her front door slammed open. Allie
flattened herself against the kitchen cabinets as visions of madmen with guns filled her
“Oh s**t! Damn!” came the voice from the living room.
She breathed out a sigh of relief and shook her head. “Hello, Sheryl. I didn’t hear
Sheryl rounded the doorway into the kitchen. “Why the hell did you leave your shoes
in the middle of the floor?”
“Because it’s my floor?” Allie said with a glance over her shoulder. She filled the pot
halfway with water from a jug on the counter. The Cape Canaveral tap water was vile,
reeking of sulfur with undertones of who knew what. It was suitable only for—well,
Sheryl snorted. “You ought to put them away. Someone could get killed. And I did
knock. Sort of. Or I would have if your door had been locked.”
It was an old battle. “A little hard with my hands full. So, what’s up?”
Sheryl was still standing in the kitchen doorway dressed in a tiny bikini and nothing
else. Somehow, even with her hair piled carelessly on top her head and sweat dripping
down the sides of her face, she looked good. She had a body that made grown men
stammer, even when it was clothed, the face of an angel, and the mouth of—well, a cop.
Sort of Barbie meets Rambo. “You aren’t going to believe what happened.”
“The Sheriff’s wife blew her brains out.”
Allie froze with the pot halfway to the burner as the words echoed through her head.
“That’s not funny.”
“I didn’t say it was funny. Happened about three this afternoon.”
Allie put the pot on the stove and leaned weakly against the counter. “How did you
hear about it?”
“I heard it come over the radio.”
Allie looked at Sheryl’s bikini. “Where did you have the radio?”
Sheryl made a rude sound. “On the chair beside me. Jeez, you want to hear this or
Allie led the way into what served as the dining room, a little nook off the kitchen big
enough for a small table and two chairs. Sheryl plopped in her usual chair.
“Tell me,” Allie said, sinking down across from her.
“Call came out for the wagon. I called Sidney. Figured he’d know what was happening
if anyone would, the way he always has his nose up the Sheriff’s butt.”
Sidney Finch was an old playmate of theirs from childhood. Allie hadn’t seen him
since her return, but she knew he was another of their crowd who’d gone to work for the
Sheriff’s Department. In their younger days, Allie would have guessed Sidney would
land in jail before he reached the age of majority. He had a mother who was convinced
her son could do no wrong and a father who seemed willing to go along with that fiction
as long as he didn’t have to put down the remote and get out of his recliner, but Sheryl
said the Sheriff had taken an interest in Sidney and had turned him around. The
“interest” had involved a week-long camping trip in the Everglades without benefit of any
of those little niceties that might have made the trip easier—like food and water. They
had the clothes on their backs and a knife each. Rumor had it that Sidney came back a
changed boy with a serious case of hero worship for the Sheriff. As some kind of badge
of honor, the Sheriff had given Sidney a silver ID bracelet, which Sidney still wore. All
Allie’s information was second hand and furnished with a snigger by Sheryl.
“Sidney said the call came in right after four o’clock,” Sheryl was saying. “The Sheriff
had just gotten home from the firing range. Heard a gunshot as he got out of the car.
Found his wife on the floor.”
“How do they know she shot herself?”
Sheryl stared at her. "Beats me. That's what Sidney said. He said there was no one
else in the house.”
“My God,” Allie said, closing her eyes.
“That’s not the best of it,” Sheryl said.
Allie’s eyes flew open. “There is no best of it,” she said.
“Okay. Juicy, then. God, you’re prickly. Must be the heat.”
Allie regarded her levelly. She could tell Sheryl was trying to resist telling her the rest,
but it was beyond her capabilities.
“Seems the son ran in the door just seconds after the shot was fired and started
yelling his head off that the Sheriff had killed her. Attacked him. Got in a couple of
good punches before the Sheriff could restrain him.”
Allie’s mind was humming. She hadn’t even known Cord Arbutten had a son. “Maybe
he meant the Sheriff drove her to it.”
“Yeah, well, I don’t think so. I think he meant he killed her killed her.”
Allie chewed her lip. “What about the son? Could he have killed her?”
Sheryl sat back. “Wow. I don’t know. I don’t think they’re even looking at him. Maybe
the Sheriff said no. Personally, I think the Sheriff should have pointed his finger at the
kid. Even if it didn’t pan out, it could cause him some serious grief.”
Allie tuned her out. That’s how it was. If the Sheriff said it, it was so. Her aunt had felt
the same way. Now his wife was dead. And what about this mystery son? How old was
this kid? Did he live with the Sheriff? She couldn’t remember her aunt mentioning
anything about a child. The Sheriff was—what—in his late fifties? That would make his
kid twenty or thirty something. Her age. Unless he was a change of life baby. Then he’d
be young. Old enough to fire a gun? Could the Sheriff be protecting him? It wouldn’t be
the first time Allie had suspected Cord Arbutten of covering up a murder.
Sheryl jumped up from the chair. “I’m going over there. Thought you might want to
Allie looked at her in surprise. “Me? Why me?”
“You’re a reporter, aren’t you? This is news. Probably the biggest news in this county
in years.” She stopped, remembering big news not too many months ago. When she
continued, her voice was more sober. “Anyhow, you want to come?”
Allie actually considered it for a moment. She might get answers to some of her
questions. Even more than that, this was news, and she was a reporter. On the other
hand, she’d only been with the Brevard Sun for a few weeks and had spent almost no
time in the field. The paper would have dispatched someone over there by now. And it
meant going to a crime scene. She’d seen enough violence six months ago to last her a
lifetime. She shook her head. “No. You go.”
Sheryl hesitated, and then gave a nod. “Okay. I’ll let you know what I find out.” She
glanced into the kitchen at a grocery bag on the counter where the corner of a meat
package was sticking out. “Steaks?”
It took Allie a minute to follow her train of thought. She looked over. “Yes.”
“S**t.” Sheryl started from the room. “Don’t hold dinner for me. I don’t know when I’m
going to get back.”
“Yes, dear,” Allie said with a wry smile.
Sheryl stopped and stared at Allie. "You look beat. Hard day at the office?"
Allie blew her bangs out of her eyes. "Hard week at the office, and it's only Tuesday."
When Sheryl was gone, Allie glanced in the mirror. Sheryl was right. She looked beat.
Of course, even at her best, she couldn't compete with Sheryl looks-wise. She was
attractive enough. She'd finally come to believe that despite her ex-husband's best
efforts to convince her otherwise. During their years of marriage, Allie had tried hard to
please Garrison. She starved herself because he made remarks about her being fat.
She lightened her already blonde hair when he said it lacked luster. She even briefly
considered the colored contacts he suggested to make her eyes look greener. None of
it seemed to matter. She never measured up. Now she couldn’t look in a mirror without
finding fault. She was too thin, or too this or too that. Oh, yes. Garrison had a lot to
answer for, and she had the perfect blackmail material if she ever decided to use it. The
thought made her smile. Then the smile faltered and died.
Flipping the deadbolt on the front door, she went back into the kitchen. The steaks
went in the refrigerator and she dumped the water out of the pot, opting instead for a
diet soda. Then she scooped up Spook and let herself out the back door, climbing the
wrought iron stairs to the rooftop deck.
Her aunt had installed the deck when Allie was just a kid, saying if she was going to
have ocean-front property, she was “by God going to be able to see the ocean.” From
the ground level, the dunes and sea grasses blocked the view of the water except way
out toward the horizon, but it was the breakers that soothed, Lou had said. If she’d
wanted to see a strip of blue, she could have painted it on her window glass and saved
herself a lot of money, which Allie now realized was a joke. Louise Smith had inherited
money from her grandparents, Allie’s great-grandparents, and even more from her
parents, as had Allie’s own father. Lou had apparently invested it well, living off the
meager salary from her twenty-plus-year job as dispatcher for the Sheriff’s Department.
No one except Lou herself—and presumably her accountant—had known about her
investments. As they grew, she could easily have afforded a mansion down in Vero or
Palm Beach, but she had stayed here in this house in Cape Canaveral. Not because
she was cheap, but because she loved her tiny house and her life. So did Allie.
She smiled and picked up the sunglasses her aunt had left sitting on the table by her
usual chair almost a year ago, putting them on. They immediately slid down on her
nose. Allie pushed them up on her head. She should have thrown them away long ago,
but she couldn’t bear to do it. They made her feel like her aunt had just run downstairs
for a minute and would be right back.
“Throw the old things away.”
Allie ignored the voice in her head. Imagination, she had believed at the beginning.
Now she knew better.
“They’re just sunglasses, Allie.”
“No, they’re not. They’re your sunglasses.”
The hollow ache grew inside her. Louise Smith had been more than an aunt. She’d
been Allie’s best friend, her hero, her mother of choice, although she would never tell
her real mother that. Not that Allie believed Vivian Grainger would care, but it wasn’t in
Allie’s nature to be unkind. Her parents had never liked her aunt, mainly because Lou
went her own way without permission or apology. They had shipped Allie off to stay with
her in Florida every summer because it was convenient for them. Allie couldn’t
remember any of them ever saying one kind thing about her. It hadn’t bothered Lou, but
even as a child, Allie had felt the slight.
Louise Smith had been an amazing woman, taking what life tossed at her with a
philosophical shrug and a laugh. She had been loving and fun and giving.
And she had been Sheriff Cord Arbutten’s lover.