A Case of Sour Grapes Excerpt


THE KILLER YANKED THE curtains closed and dust motes exploded into a dervish as the body swayed, settling in time to the grisly pendulum’s slowing swing. The killer sneezed into the crook of his arm, then took a last walk through the small apartment. Stopping in the hallway, he turned off the air conditioning, thankful for once for the unbearable heat. Given a bit of time and luck, her body would be a seeping abomination when they found her. He almost wished he could be here when they did.

The door snicked quietly closed behind him and he stooped to slip the key beneath the planter of wilting ivy. He took the steps to ground level at a casual pace, checking the street for onlookers. It was mid-afternoon in the middle of Texas’ worst drought in a century. No one was out in this heat, and if they were, their one goal was to get inside.

The engine cranked without hesitation and as the tepid air seeping from the vents grew cooler, he closed his eyes and contemplated the future. His conscience had bothered him since he’d decided to travel this road earlier in the year and he’d made a snap judgment last night, deciding to let one of the women live. That act of pardon was a surprise to him, but it gave him peace. It might not be a life worth living once he was done with her, but at least she’d be drawing breath.

Today was the first step on a long path, one he still wasn’t sure he was ready to travel. There was so much ambiguity. So much still to research. But given the ease of today’s events and how serendipitously the opportunity to kill arose, he thought he could carry on. Regardless, he would move forward one step at a time, watchfully, as he always had.

Slipping the car into gear, he eased down the quiet street and back to work, wondering how fate would present his next victim, knowing full well which woman he’d prefer to kill next.



THE DREAM IS ALWAYS the same: a rush of adrenaline as my body throbs to a pounding bass and pulsing lights; the dancing grows wild and sweat builds as bodies crush against me. Then dread creeps in, stealing the light, muting the music, and pressing down, down, down until I can no longer draw breath and just as I explode with need: relief. Sweet air fills my lungs but an image from a horror movie hangs over me, a familiar melting Dorian Gray of a face, eyes distant and dead, breath huffing and foul. A searing pain tears across my chest and a screech rips the fabric of my nightmare.

I woke, swinging at a phantom that didn’t exist, drinking in huge gulps of air, heart thrumming against my ribs, scar burning with liquid heat.

With equal measures of relief and rage, I glared at the howling alarm clock, a new addition to my bedroom. I slammed the snooze button and rolled away from the window, glowing with the dawn’s early light despite the heavy curtains I’d dragged shut last night. I lay motionless, panting, knowing my memories of dancing that night are real. But I wondered, yet again, which of the rape elements my mind has simply conjured to make sense of that night, and which are true memories buried deep in my subconscious.

Truth versus fiction matters, you see. Because my life is changing direction beginning today, and the hunt for my rapist will gain intensity in the coming months.

The dream always recedes as quickly as it appears and my heart slowed, the sweat slicking my body cooled, and terror released my mind. Cuddled in my down duvet, I pondered yet again whether working for a living was really worth the effort, and drifted back to sleep.

My personality must be quite resilient, because I slipped easily from my rape nightmare into an erotic fantasy. In the middle of a magnificent dream about Daniel Craig in his Quantum of Solace days, right when I was easing the button of his shirt through its hole and feeling the warm flesh of his chest beneath my fingertips, just as his lips brushed mine, my cell phone rang with the gutsy opening strains of “Bad to the Bone”.

I groaned but answered. “Do you have any idea what you interrupted? Shouldn’t you be sleeping until noon? You’re off work, you don’t have to be up at the crack of dawn.”

“It’s nine-fifteen, Max. I drove around the square and your car’s not there. You're late.”

All thoughts of Daniel Craig vanished. “Crap. Thanks. Lunch?”

My best friend laughed the throaty laugh I love and envy in equal measure. “On your first day at the agency? I wouldn’t miss it. Call me.”

She was the reason I was taking the job, and she was right. Although my Aunts Kay and Babby owned Lost and Found Investigations and I’d been in and out of the office since I was a child, this was technically my first day at work. Running late would only confirm my aunts’ belief that I was unsuitable private investigator material. And I had my first assignment: picking up a package from the bank before going to the office. It was time to focus.

I slid the short-barrel pump-action shotgun I keep beside the bed into its case and then ran for the shower. I lathered and rinsed, and lathered again but forwent conditioner, which shows true dedication. My hair begged for a good moisturizing.

It had been some time since I had held a full-time job. Or a job of any kind, really. So it was no wonder my body rebelled when the alarm sounded at six o’clock. But I was determined to get my private investigator’s license and while I knew I’d have to pass an exam and get certified to carry a handgun - which sounded pretty awesome - I still wasn’t sure about the whole getting up and going to work every day thing.

I yawned at my reflection as I dried my black hair, glad I’d cut it short.

It’s worth it, I told myself. If the only thing you do in this job is find the man who raped you, your best friend, and who knows how many others, and get him off the streets, it’s worth getting up early.

But maybe not until six-fifteen.


PARKING AROUND THE SQUARE was a nightmare during business hours, but I managed to slip my Lexus into a spot vacated by the flower shop’s delivery van. The hike up the steps to the agency’s second floor offices seemed much steeper than I remembered from my interview yesterday. Well, interview might be a little strong. I called Aunt Kay to tell her I wanted to be a private detective, and after she stopped laughing and got the hiccups under control, she invited me to come in for a chat. It took a while to convince her that I was serious, that this wasn’t another flight of fancy from her daft niece. She finally relented after I talked non-stop for forty-five minutes. Thank goodness for that. I was going hoarse.

But now that the moment of truth had arrived, standing outside the door with “Lost and Found Investigations - No Job Too Big or Small” written on the frosted glass, nerves fluttered in my stomach. I wasn’t sure I was up for this. I knew for sure I wasn’t up for being a police detective like my best friend. That girl had balls of brass. Mine were more like copper: warm and pretty, but easily dented.

This is it, I told myself. The point of no return. Here’s to finding my rapist.

I shifted my lucky Louis Vuitton bag higher on my shoulder and twisted the doorknob before my Blahnik’s walked me right back down the stairs. Three pairs of green eyes, each a variation of my own, glanced up at me.

Cousin Cindy smirked. “Maxine Leverman finally arrives. Ten bucks, please. Everybody pay up.”

The agency was beautifully designed. Four glassed-in offices opened onto the reception area, one each for Babby and Kay, one for Cindy, and the last for temps or in this case, me. The glass walls were on tracks and remained open unless a meeting demanded privacy. The rest of the walls were a pale blue, and the building’s original hardwood floors were covered by Persian rugs and runners. Morning light fell through the skylights and the sense was of an open, airy space. Except for Cindy’s office, which had an artfully placed Japanese screen hiding her clutter. The rest of the area housed a conference room, storage closets, a fully equipped kitchen, powder room, and a full-sized bathroom.

Aunt Babby scowled as she dug in her purse. “If you’d waited until ten o’clock, Maxine, I’d have won. Five more minutes. If you’re going to be late, do it right girl, and help your aunt win some hard cash.”

I pulled off my over-sized shades and placed the bag of donut holes from The Palace on Babby’s desk, and the large envelope from the bank on Aunt Kay’s desk. “You three had a pool on when I’d get here?”

“Not just the three of us,” Cindy said. “Jake the janitor thought you’d make it by ten after eight. Silly man. But Arty was the real skeptic. He didn’t think you’d get here until noon.”

“Who’s Arty?” I asked.

“The gorgeous lawyer who rented the other half of the floor. Cindy’s been trying to get her talons into him since he arrived,” Kay answered. “He saw you come upstairs yesterday. Cindy filled him in on your less attractive attributes, time-keeping being one of them.”

I sipped my extra large coffee from The Golden Gate and watched as Babby peeked in the bag. She seemed to battle with herself for a moment, but finally picked a donut hole and popped it in her mouth. Her eyes rolled. “Grease, flour, and sugar make up for many a shortcoming, sweetie pie, but next time bring me a cinnamon roll.”

“Be careful what you wish for, Aunt Babs. With Max’s track record, you'll be eating donuts every day.” Cindy stood and smoothed the black pencil skirt over her shapely hips and sauntered to the door. “For the record, Arty’s into me.” She shook her mane of chestnut colored hair and checked her teeth for lipstick in the mirror near the agency’s door. “Be back in a flash.”

Babby plucked another donut hole from the bag. “I'm off to the post office and bank. Given that it’s hot enough to fry chicken, I’ll be driving. Show Maxine that financial stuff, Kay. See what she can do with it.”


IT TOOK KAY ALL of twenty minutes to point out the monstrous mound of pending paperwork and demonstrate how to use the agency’s various computer systems. I spent a solid hour trimming the Mount Everest of past due bills down to a cluster of Rocky Mountain foothills before even cracking open the accounting system. I reconciled five months worth of bank statements and realized that with this much cash coming in, it was quite reasonable that three grown women could so completely ignore the paperwork that drives their business.

The whole time I was working I eavesdropped on Kay’s phone calls. Ask a question and pause. Ask another question. It sounded like background checks and work proving insurance fraud. I had finished with the foothill containing bills and was printing checks when Kay hung up the phone and stretched.

“Is that what you do all day?” I asked. “Phone work?”

“That’s how it goes, honey bunch. I ask a question and get an answer. Then ask another question and get another answer and on it goes.” Kay smiled sympathetically. “Not very glam, is it?”

“It’s downright boring.”

“At times it is. How’s the paperwork coming?”

“I’m making progress.” I stood and stretched, relishing the pops from my spine. “But I could use a break.”

“Where’s Cass? You two could go play.”

Detective Cass Elliot is my best friend. Has been since, well, maybe not since before dirt, but certainly since we were eating dirt. Usually at her house. Mud pies tasted better there, probably thanks to something toxic in the soil.

“Cass and I haven’t played together in years, Aunt Kay.”

She yawned. “You know what I mean. Call her and go to the gun range. If you really want to follow through on this PI dream, I need to know you’ll be able to take care of yourself. And Cass needs the time at the range after her shoulder injury. You two grab some lunch after shooting, you’re too thin.”

I nodded but didn’t commit. Kay was right, I was too thin, but a divorce followed by a nasty rape will do that to a girl.

“Change out of the Choo’s and Prada before you go, baby. The boys out there will eat you alive if you don’t dress a little butch.”

“They’re Blahnik’s, but point taken.”

Kay headed for the powder room and I checked the clock. Eleven-thirty. Cass would be done with physical therapy and if I knew her at all, extremely unhappy because Chad, her psychopathic physical therapist, still wouldn’t have released her to go back to work. Not that I blamed him. She’d only been shot six short weeks ago. In Cass recovery time, that’s eons. In her mind, she should be out saving the world, or Forney County at least, from the criminal element. For the rest of we mere mortals, recovery would’ve just started. But try telling Cass that and like me, all you’d get is an earful of grief.

I pulled up her number and as I was about to dial, the phone rang. Not my phone, the office phone. I looked towards the powder room. No Kay. I snatched up the handset and in my most professional voice said, “Lost and Found Investigations. Maxine Leverman speaking. How can I help you?”

“This is Blue Ivey out at Cedar Bend Winery. Does your agency find people?”

“Of course. How can we help?”

“I need to find my ex-husband. Not that I want to find him, but if I don’t find him soon and get him straightened out, I’ll have to kill him. We’re between white and red harvest and I don’t have time to hide a body right now.” Her voice carried a silky huskiness that sounded like pure sex, and I wondered what kind of man could walk away from that. Someone called out and Blue covered the phone and shouted something unintelligible. She returned to the conversation with a sigh. “It’s lunch prep time and things are crazy. Can you come to the winery? I’ll take a break around one. Come hungry.”

Another shout sounded before the line went silent. I cradled the receiver and resisted the urge to swing into a happy dance. My first case! Even better? Lunch at one of the best restaurants in East Texas. Not Michelin rated yet, but it certainly would be if Michelin ever made it to Forney County.

And then a cold flush washed over me: how do you find someone? Blue Ivey was a smart gal. She’d come to the winery from a neighboring county after starting a posh country club that attracted some of the richest folks in East Texas, and her pedigree trailed a glittering list of such establishments. She also had a reputation as a potter of note, and if I remembered an article I’d read about her not long ago, she had her own kiln out at the winery and had won awards for her art. She was an entrepreneur, an intelligent, feisty businesswoman. If her ex-husband was easily findable, she would’ve found him. The safest thing to do, the smartest thing, would be to talk to Babby or Kay about the case. But in all likelihood, that would mean turning it over to one of the real detectives.

Like Cindy.

Nobody thought I had it in me to stick to a job, much less a career. I decided to hold off on talking to the aunts until I knew more about this ex-husband that needed finding. I had an ex-husband, didn’t I? I knew all about difficult men. Shouldn’t be that hard to figure out. And it wouldn’t be fair to give them half-baked information.

Decision made, I sat down at my desk and Googled ‘how to’ articles on finding people and background on Blue Ivey. After a few moments, I was in research heaven.

I was texting Cass to cancel our lunch date when Kay reappeared, tube of lipstick poised over her beestung lips. “Was that the phone?”


“Did someone call, darling?”

“It was a sales call.”

“That’s strange. The business number is on the ‘do not call’ list.” Kay’s eyes narrowed. “Maxine, are you sure that was a sales call?”

I picked up my lucky purse and pecked her on the cheek. “If it wasn’t, they’ll call back.


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