Blackmail And Murder and Lies – Oh My!
When Sadie McIntyre gives a drunken Marylou Paretsky a ride home on a rainy night, little does she realize it’s the last time anyone will see Marylou alive.
Tragic accident? Or Murder?
The following morning, Marylou is found dead at the bottom of her staircase. What first appears to be a drunken tumble becomes far more complicated as Sadie discovers Marylou wasn’t as sweet and timid as everyone thought. Turns out Marylou spent her spare time digging up dirt on her neighbors and left behind a list of their secrets. Much to her horror, Sadie’s name is right on top.
Eager to keep her past buried, Sadie, with the help of her best friend Rob and Dan Bartlett, the town’s sexy new chief of detectives, sets out to who on the list was desperate enough to kill. Will she discover the answer before the truth gets out?
Or will the killer find Sadie first?
It was half past seven, Sunday night. I was on my way home from a wildly unsuccessful open house and debating whether or not I wanted to drown my sorrows in a bottle of Riesling when wham! Out of nowhere, a dark figure stepped in front of my car.
I slammed on the brakes. Thankfully, I wasn’t driving fast, so I screeched to a halt inches shy of a collision. The person—whoever it was—didn’t notice. Head down, the figure crossed the street…
And promptly crumpled to the ground.
I got out of my car and hurried around the hood, stopping short when I reached the left headlight. The person sat cross-legged in the middle of the road, face obscured by a dark navy hood. “Are you all right?”
The person muttered a reply. From where I stood, it sounded like “stupid street.”
I stepped closer. Probably not the best idea, seeing as how I was alone and dealing with a potentially crazy person. Then again, curiosity has always been my downfall.
“Hello?” I said, reaching for their shoulder. “Do you need some help?”
“Don’t touch me!” the person screeched, and jerked away from my touch. In the process, they fell backward, knocking the hood away.
“Stupid street. Freaking tilted off balance.”
It was Marylou Paretsky.
At least she had Marylou’s voice and pudgy face. The Marylou I knew wore pastel twin sets and chirped her words like an excited chipmunk. The woman in front of me looked like a street person. Her navy-blue sweatshirt was two sizes too small. I could see her stomach protruding out from beneath the hem. And her hair, normally neat as a pin, hung in a half-done ponytail, the sandy brown curls flopping in her face. When she turned, I caught raccoon circles of mascara lining her eyes.
I watched as she struggled to stand up, only to get her feet halfway under her body before sitting again. “Stupid street. Stop moving,” she muttered.
She was drunk as a skunk. “Here, let me help you up.”
“Leave me alone. I’m fine.” The protest might have had more oomph if she hadn’t tipped over trying to slap my hand away. Not even trying to save herself, she fell and lay with her cheek smushed into the blacktop. “’M perfectly fine.”
We weren’t going to get anywhere this way. Grabbing her upper arm—this time she was too busy lying down to wave me off—I tugged her into a sitting position.
“Stop it! Gotta stay here. Gonna listen to me.”
Listen? If she kept hollering in the middle of the street, the whole neighborhood was going to hear her. I looked around at the houses with their curtains drawn. Thankfully, we were on the north side of town where the houses were set farther back from the sidewalks. Plus, everyone would be settling in to watch the eight o’clock game.
“You can’t stay here,” I told her. “We’re in the middle of the street.” Dear Lord, but she reeked. Alcohol. Mothballs. There was a third smell in there too I couldn’t identify. It might have been sweat. “Tell you what. Let’s get you home, and you can sit there.”
“No! Gotta stay. It’s impo-portant.”
Impotent or important? I didn’t get to ask because she managed to yank free of my grip and crawled on all fours toward the curb. Dignity was clearly off the table at this point.
At least we were out of the street though. We were making progress.
That’s when she threw up.
We’re talking super ugly, power retching. The kind that poured out of you and turned the air sour. I jumped onto the grass, praying the splatter didn’t hit my pants. How much had Marylou had to drink anyway? Considering the volume coming out of her, it was obviously a lot. Afraid to look down in case there was a stream of vomit in the gutter, I stared at my car that was still running in the middle of the street.
Marylou continued retching long after she’d emptied her stomach. Harsh, gasping heaves that made her body shake. I stood behind her and rubbed circles between her shoulder blades, the way I used to when my son, Tim, had the stomach flu. Someone was going to find a very unpleasant surprise when they stepped outside tomorrow morning, that was for sure. I wondered if I should ring the doorbell and let them know. Then again, did I really want to be publically associated with this debacle?
I looked down. Marylou had managed to push herself upright. Sitting on her haunches, she rocked back and forth, her arms clutching her stomach. “Lousy, stupid loser.”
“You’re not a loser,” I told her. “You just had too much to drink. Happens to everyone. I’ll bring you—”
“Not me. Her. Them.”
She spoke so harshly, I jumped. This was not the chipmunkian woman I thought I knew. “Who are they?”
“Thinking I can be ignored. Well, I can’t. ’M not some stupid kid anymore.” She swiped her hand hard across her mouth. “I’m a winner now. She’ll see. A. Win. Ner.” She punctuated each pause with a jab of her finger against the Native American logo silkscreened just above her heart. She’ll be sorry. Gonna stomp her on her head.”
“You don’t mean that.” At least I hoped not. Hearing her talk about violence freaked me out. As the past five minutes had shown, I didn’t know Marylou as well as I’d thought. For all I knew, those twin sets she normally wore concealed the heart of a serial killer. Wouldn’t be the first time I misjudged a person’s character, although I thought I’d gotten better over the years.
“Yes, I do,” Marylou snapped. “I hope they all die in a hole. Every single one of them.”
“Who?” I asked again. With all the various pronouns being bandied about, I was getting confused. “What did they do?”
But Marylou was too deep into her angry pity party to hear my question. Instead, she rambled on about winning and making “them” see. “Lying bitch. But I know. Got proof.”
“Okay,” I said, “let’s get you home.” My car was still in the street. It’d be just my luck to run out of gas listening to her blather. Taking her elbow, I finally succeeded in pulling her to her feet. Because no good deed goes unpunished, the moment she stood, she leaned into my side, along with her rancid breath. “I’m not stupid, you know.”
“He thinks I am, but I knew he didn’t buy that aftershave for the smell. He bought it for her.”
“Her!” She spit the word like it was leftover vomit on her tongue. “Ungrateful bastard. Screwing around with his assistant. After everything I’m doing for him.”
“Paul’s having an affair? Are you sure?”
“Course I’m sure. No one works that many late hours. No one. Why does everyone think I’m stupid?” Her head separated from my shoulder. “You think I’m stupid too, don’t you?”
“No,” I replied, feeling her glazed glare. “It’s just… he doesn’t seem the type.” I’d only met Paul Paretsky once, at a volunteer’s mixer for our town’s local cancer fundraiser. He was a quiet, awkward man with palms so sweaty, I’d had to wipe my hand on a napkin after he shook it. If I remembered correctly, he spent most of the mixer avoiding any actual mixing. Hard to imagine him having the nerve to cheat on Marylou. “I meant how do you know?”
“Cause I know, that’s why. Dinner and the game. I know better. I know lots of things. Important things.”
As her index finger assaulted the emblem on her chest a second time, I realized how stupid I was in trying to have this conversation. “Why don’t we go sit in my car?”
“I’m serious. You have no idea how many things I know. You should respite…respect me.”
“I do respect you.”
Her head lolled toward mine again, bringing a new waft of rancid breath. “You promise?”
Only a few more feet to the passenger door. Never had such a short walk felt so long. With every step, Marylou’s voice grew more slurred, and her steps more sluggish. It was like dragging a giant sack of flour. If she passed out before I got her into the passenger seat, I was screwed, because there was no way I would be able to lift her into my SUV by myself, and I didn’t relish knocking on some stranger’s door to ask for assistance.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, she was in the front seat. “Can you buckle your seatbelt?” I asked.
“I threw up on my sweatshirt.”
Make that a no.
“I can’t believe I got vomit on it. Now it’s all ruined.”
How could she tell? I hadn’t noticed when we were outside, but under the dome light I could see the thing was covered with stains, including a crusty one on the front pocket.
The spot offending Marylou was near the emblem. She rubbed furiously at the peeling image, trying to clean it. The poor silhouette was getting its share of abuse tonight. Reaching into the glove compartment, I handed her a clump of napkins and a small bottle of hand sanitizer. “Here,” I said, “these might work better.” Not to mention she could clean her hands. “When you get home, you can throw the shirt in the wash, and it’ll be like new.”
“Can’t. Got to keep it or won’t work. I don’t feel well.”
Oh no, not in my car. “Hold on,” I said, buckling her in. “Let me get you something for the ride. If you get sick before I get back—” I pushed the passenger door as wide as it would go. “—lean out.”
Keeping one eye out for her head, I ran around to the rear of my car to look for something I could use as a bucket. Underneath the open house signage was my obligatory stash of canvas grocery bags. The ones I was supposed to use but always forgot about until I was halfway through the groceries. Too bad I didn’t have a plastic bag to use for a liner, but my collection of plastic grocery bags was hanging by the back door of my house for me to remember to take them for recycling.
Hopefully, the fate of the environment didn’t rest on my memory.
“You’re so nice,” Marylou slurred when I returned. She’d stopped wiping and was picking at the white shirt bulging from beneath the sweatshirt hem. “They would leave me in the gutter. Wait!”
Her head, which had started to drop against her chest, smacked against the headrest. “I gotta show her. So she knows.”
“How about you wait until tomorrow,” I said, stuffing the bag between her feet. “When you’re not so…sick and can talk better.”
She nodded. “In the morning. I’ll show her. They’ll have to listen to me.”
“Let’s get you home. You can get some sleep and tomorrow be at your best when you talk to them. Her.”
Honest to God, she was killing me with all the pronoun switches.
Sticky fingers clamped themselves around my wrist. “You’re the best, Sadie.”
“Yeah, that’s me. Sadie McIntyre, living saint.” I tried to pull my hand away so I could shut the door, but Marylou’s grip tightened. Where was this strength when we were walking?
“Seriously,” Marylou said. “You’re real nice, not fake, two-face nice. You’ve been nice to me since the day I got here. Not like those other lying witches.”
“I appreciate that.”
“I appreciate you. That’s why I didn’t…” Whatever she was about to say, she stopped, increasing her grip on my wrist instead. Her eyes grew serious and strangely sober. “I will never betray our friendship, Sadie. You have my word.”
The October wind picked up, causing the skin on my neck to prickle. She was drunk. Drunks tended to get dramatic. “Your word, huh?”
“Till the day I die.”
She flashed me a sloppy smile. It was the start of a head-to-toe relaxation. Gaze growing unfocused, she leaned against the headrest and let her fingers grow slack. “Swear to God.”
She set a low bar. Marylou and I weren’t exactly what you’d call friends. Beyond seeing her at Cuppa Joe’s Café every morning, and serving on the Night Walk Charity Planning Committee, we had very little interaction. In all honesty, I’d always thought her a kind of an odd duck.
“Let’s get you home,” I said, finally breaking my wrist free.
It didn’t dawn on me until I had buckled my own seatbelt that I didn’t know where Marylou’s home was.
“Hemlock Street,” she said when I asked. Seriously? We were currently in Upper Woodbridge. The good side of the tracks, if you will, where the people with large incomes lived. Not very large—that was yet another section of town. Both areas were several miles from Hemlock Street, however.
A horrible thought hit me. “You didn’t drive, did you?”
“Walked,” she said, shaking her head. “Would never drink and drive.”
Thank God for that small favor. “Pretty long hike.”
“I didn’t mind. I had… Did you see my bottle? I had a bottle. I’m thirsty. What did I do with it?”
Dropped it, empty, on somebody’s lawn was my guess. “We’ll get you some water when you get home,” I told her.
“Oh-kay.” The words came out a disappointed sigh. Her head rolled to the side, and she looked out the window. “Rather have a drink.”
Her and me both.
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About Barbara Wallace
Bestselling, award-winning author Barbara Wallace specializes in sassy, smart novels known for their emotional depth. Since her debut in 2009, she’s gone on to publish nearly 20 titles with Harlequin Romance and Entangled Publishing to world-wide popularity. A life-long Yankee, Barbara lives in New England with her husband, their son, two very spoiled self-centered cats (as if there could be any other kind) and a very catered-to rescue pup.