All In The Game, a romantic suspense short story by Irene Estep. Karoline's aunt is missing. She insists Sheriff Marlowe allow her to help with the investigation, which creats friction with the handsome lawman at every turn.
“Oh dear! Karo, I've done a terrible thing.” The elderly voice of Harriet Newlander trembled as thunder boomed in the background.
“Aunt Harriet, What's wrong?” Karoline's hand tightened on the phone. She put down the red pencil she was using to grade her third grade students’ papers.
“No, don’t—” Harriet was cut off when the line went dead.
The voice had sounded so faint that Karo couldn't tell if the last couple of words were directed at her or someone else. She glanced at the clock over the stove. It was almost eleven pm, long past her aunt's usual bedtime. A chill of apprehension raced down her spine. Quickly she dialed her aunt's number.
Panic gripped her as the phone rang and rang, but no one answered. What had Aunt Harriet meant? I've done a terrible thing.
Karo was reminded of the time her aunt called her after the firemen had extinguished a blaze in her stove from a pound cake she'd forgotten was baking. Or the time she had lost her monthly pension check on bingo and had to delve into her savings. Aunt Harriet didn't like dipping into her savings although her reserves were quite hefty. “Saving it for old age,” she always said. At seventy-three, Harriet was more active than a thirty-year-old, which was Karo’s age. Harriet’s voice had held a more foreboding tone this time, though, and Karo couldn't take any chances on her aunt's safety.
She rummaged through the contents of the kitchen drawer next to the phone. When she found the piece of paper where she’d jotted down the home number of the Altoona county sheriff, she punched the digits quickly. As she waited for him to answer memories of the last emergency call she’d made to the sheriff returned. It had turned out to be a false alarm, not the first one she'd innocently made over the last few months. At her aunt's age, Karo worried the next time the emergency could be real. This time it seemed all too real. Not wanting to be fined for 911 abuse, she'd scribbled his home number down from the phone directory the last time she'd visited Aunt Harriet. There was a click on the phone and something electrifying zinged through her when the man spoke.
‘This had better be damned important.”
“Sheriff Marlowe?” She wished her voice hadn’t squeaked like air escaping from a rubber duck. He's just a man, and feeling intimidated by him was just plain silly.
“Hold on a minute.” After he dropped the receiver onto a hard surface, she heard paper crackling, then the sound of flint striking metal. He took his time picking up the phone again. She silently cursed his cigarette habit and wondered if he'd recognized her voice. She got her answer when he came back on the line.
“What is it this time, Ms. Becker?”
Karo regained her normal voice and said, “I think my aunt is in some kind of trouble.”
“Your aunt is a grown woman who happens to have a life, which is something you should try working on.” She stiffened, wondering if he meant her to overhear his mumbled words. More clearly, he asked, “What makes you think she's in trouble this time?”
Karo ignored his sarcasm. “Aunt Harriet called me a few minutes ago and said ...” not knowing what kind of terrible thing her aunt had done she decided vagueness was called for, “she sounded really scared, and the phone went dead before I could find out what was wrong.”
Taking time to blow smoke, he asked, “Why don't you try calling her back?”
She almost said, “Gee, why didn't I think of that.” Meetings with the parents of failing or troubled students had trained her to ignore cynicism, especially when she needed their cooperation. “The storm must have knocked out the service or something. She doesn't answer and I returned the call immediately.”
“Well, that’s probably it. The storm scared her and the lights going out—”
“I can see you can't be bothered to do your job.” She rejected his condescending rational. Her aunt had never been afraid of anything, especially a Florida storm, which was a frequent occurrence this time of year. Now she knew why the man's voice gave her stomach the flutters. But, he wasn’t a bad-ass lawman, just an ass disguising himself as one. No parent had ever made her lose her patience so quickly.
“I'll just drive up there myself,” she said and slammed the phone down.
Was she overreacting? There'd been so many false alarms with Aunt Harriet.
A whimpering shifted her attention to the small puppy cringing at her feet. She'd found the abandoned animal on the schoolyard last week, hair matted, and crawling with fleas. Once she got him cleaned up, Zero—so named after one of her students remarked on how much of nothing he looked—had a thick, soft white coat. Tuffs of hair flipped forward over big, pleading brown eyes. At the time, Karo hadn't thought about how closely the puppy’s name resembled her nickname, or how closely zero described her existence. Divorced, available, attractive women didn't stay home on Friday night grading papers? But, she had become tired of the nightclub scene after being dragged along by her friend and fellow teacher, Linda Gaye, to several “hotspots” the first months after the divorce. Now the main things she looked forward to was seeing her students each morning, and taking Zero for a walk each night.
She picked up and cuddled the bundle of fur against her chest. “It's okay, Zero, I'm not mad at you.”
Aunt Harriet's birthday was Sunday, and Karo had planned to deliver the living birthday present. She'd packed in preparations to drive up to Altoona Bay in the morning, but already she had second thoughts about not keeping Zero. She had been looking forward to spending the weekend with her aunt, though, and she knew the puppy would have a better life at the Bay house with her aunt rather than being cooped up in a tiny apartment alone while Karo worked.
It had been months since she’d made the trip to see Harriet, even though the drive was less than an hour and half away. Not her idea, but her aunt's. Suddenly Harriet had become too busy to spend time with her niece. That was so inconsistent with her normal reaction that Karo had planned this trip to be a surprise. Now more than ever, she wanted to know what was going on in Altoona Bay.
She changed into a pair of jeans and a red cotton polo, secured her unruly blonde hair off her face with a pair of combs, and headed for her car. She tossed her suitcase into the trunk, put Zero in the passenger seat beside her and drove away in a reflective daze. What had her aunt done now?
She really couldn't blame the sheriff for thinking her silly to be so concerned about Harriet. To all outward appearances Aunt Harriet was intelligent and self-sufficient, yet she was also a ball of fire who often acted without thinking of the consequences.
She recalled the time Harriet had gotten it into her head that she could repair a leak in the roof. Karo had been fourteen-years-old on summer vacation at the time. She'd always loved it at the bay and pleaded to stay there instead of accompanying her parents on their extended second honeymoon, a trip they never returned from.
Harriet had slipped off the top rung of the ladder, landing in the hedges. She'd been lucky to come out of it with only a broken her leg and a few cuts and bruises. Not wanting anyone to think her a “foolish old broad”, she'd fabricated a story about falling in the tub, and sworn Karo to back her up. The truth got out anyway, since Harriet's nosy neighbor from across the bay had seen everything through her binoculars. The Widow Shaunessy did a lot of bay watching. She could name every boat that rode through the bay and describe the occupants in detail, but everyone knew her spyglasses were often trained on her neighbors, as well.
She might learn more about her aunt's activities from Mrs. Shaunessy than she would Harriet. For the past few month whenever Karo mentioned driving up for a weekend, Harriet commented strangely, “I might not be here, dear.”
Karo swung her ancient Volvo onto I-4 heading west. Whether the Sheriff believed her or not, she had not mistaken the sound of fear in her aunt's voice. The note of desperation coming from the woman who'd raised her after her parents died in a plane crash was something entirely new to her.
Rain lashed the car heavily as Karo drove into the storm rolling across Central Florida. Barely able to make out the dividing lines between the lanes now, she concentrated on keeping the taillights of the car ahead in sight. The cell phone ringing gave her a start.
She let off the accelerator, and the taillights ahead faded in the distance. She searched out and found the faint white line to the right of the road, trying to keep her bearings as she jerked the phone off the seat and put it to her ear.
“Aunt Harriet!” she screeched.
There was silence on the other end for so long, she repeated, “Aunt Harriet, where are you?”
“That's exactly what I'd like to know,” the now familiar man's voice said.
She thought the sheriff could use some lessons on phone etiquette. Right now she was in no mood for formality, either. Her students would be appalled by the curse word that slipped out. “Dammit, sheriff, I'm in no mood for word games right now. What is going on? Are you at my aunt's house?”
“Have you heard anything more from Harriet?” he asked, seeming to ignore her questions altogether. In spite of his smoky voice, she visualized a pot-bellied lawman trying to keep his pad and pen from catching the rain pouring off his wide-brimmed hat.
Just what was this Marlowe up to? she wondered. And more puzzling, how did he get her cell phone number? She was too worried about her aunt to split hairs over such matters now. “No, I haven't.”
Karo veered left to miss a pothole and a truck's horn blared as he passed her on the inside lane. The phone fell between her legs. She retrieved and replaced the receiver to her ear just in time to hear a string of curses that made her swear word sound innocuous. A demand to know where she was came from Marlowe's end.
“I'm here. I'm here. My phone slipped.”
“Where the hell are you?” he asked again.
She realized he meant literally and said, “On the Interstate, about five miles from the Altoona Bay Exit.”
“Okay, I'll see you when you get to your aunt's house. I don't need anymore accidents to investigate tonight, so drive careful.”
Accidents? “Wait! Has Aunt Harriet been—”
He hung up. “Damn you, Marlowe!”
She threw the cell phone down. It sailed by Zero and skidded off the seat onto the floorboard. Thankfully, the puppy was deep in doggy dreamland and not disturbed this time. She heard the casing on the phone crack and wished the connection were still open and pressed against Marlowe's hard head.
For a man she'd never met, she had plenty of visuals to match his personality. A snarling bulldog face. A seven-foot mammoth with a barrel chest and a Marine haircut. A Wyatt Earp hopeful with a pair of six-shooters hanging off a potbelly. The images were briefly distracting, but she soon began to worry about her aunt once more. The sheriff said he'd see her when she got to her aunt's. And, his question about whether she'd heard from Harriet again, meant that Aunt Harriet wasn't home.
Kara realized he hadn't sounded as surly or dismissive as he had earlier. Just finding her aunt not home wouldn't have caused that change in demeanor. And if he was waiting for her to get there, he hadn't driven out there on another false alarm. Something must be very, very wrong.
Karo raced toward the back yard where blue and red lights flashed brightly against the darkness. Spotlights lined the dock and reflected off a body bag atop a gurney. The worst images possible flitted through her mind.
“Aunt Harriet,” she screamed and ducked beneath the yellow tape surrounding the grassy slope near the shore. A strong hand reached out and gripped her wrist. She was jerked to a sudden stop that caused her to stumble. She braced herself against a very hard chest.
“Take it easy,” the drawling voice said, “it's not your aunt.”
Karo pushed away from the sheriff and demanded, “Where is she? Is she in the guesthouse.” Every light in the small two-bedroom structure to the left and about forty feet closer to the shoreline than the main house was on. Men in uniforms and suits were walking back and forth to a crime scene van parked nearby. They carried satchels and briefcases, cameras and various other pieces of equipment used in their job.
“No.” Marlowe said. “She isn't here.” He released her wrist, but cupped her elbow. “Do you want to take a look at the body, see if you can identify him?”
Body! Him? It began to sink in that the sheriff was telling her the truth. “Do I have to?”
“No, it can wait,” he said. He swung her around and walked her up the incline toward the main house. “I need to ask you some questions. Let's get you in out of this damp air.”
Karo had some questions of her own, but even though the rain had turned into a light drizzle, the wind whipping off the bay was making her shiver. Maybe she could think more clearly once she was in the safe harbor of her aunt's home. She glanced toward her car, but there was no sign that Zero had awakened. She'd left the driver's side window cracked, so he'd be okay where he was for the time being.
She tossed a glance over her shoulder. If the body lying on the gurney wasn't her aunt, who was it? That was the first question she asked when they reached the shelter of the screened porch.
“I don't know,” Marlowe said. He took off his Stetson, removed his rain slicker and hung them a nail hook by the back door.
Karo started to reach above the doorframe to find the spare key, but Marlowe turned the knob and the door swung open. Her aunt never left the house unlocked. She almost called out for her, but it was obvious the sheriff had already been inside looking for Harriet, since he'd said she wasn't there. He flipped on the overhead kitchen light and she got her first good look at Sheriff Marlowe.
Her preconceived ideas of him had been so far off the mark she almost laughed aloud. He was trim and fit, no beer belly or backwoods lawman look about him. His dark hair with a bit of gray peppering the sides was short but longer than the butch cut she'd imagined. In fact, he had an errant curl that must irate him to no end since he kept finger combing it back off his forehead. She guessed he must be pushing forty, and likely kept his athletic build by jogging or doing regular workouts in a gym
He ordered Karoline to sit down. She was too tired to argue, and she didn't figure he'd answer her questions unless she followed his orders. He removed the paper towels from the holder and sat them on the table. “Here, use these to dry off.”
She pulled out one of the ladder back chairs beside the round mahogany table, still scared with initials she'd carved into the surface during her rebellious phase shortly after losing her parents. Through it all, her aunt had remained kind, loving and patient, and eventually she had learned to forgive herself for not being with her parents when they died.
She was jarred back to the present when a cupboard door banged shut. She wondered what the sheriff was looking for until he finally opened a canister on the countertop and an ah-ha look came over his face.
After patting the moisture off her face and arms, she got up and tossed the used paper towels in the trash, then went over and removed an herbal teabag from one of the smaller canisters. His clean scent of damp saltiness made her sway closer for a second breath, which threw her off guard. He'd just spent a good deal of time near the bay and in the rain, and the familiar scents shouldn't have caused such a stirring response in her. It was something that mingled with those familiar scents, though, something that sent out mixed signals of protection, possession and comfort that had her insides turning into liquid heat.
She backed away and retrieved two mugs. Sliding one down next to the coffee maker for the sheriff to use, she held her breath until she'd eased away from him again. She filled the other mug with water, which she heated in the microwave.
Marlowe lifted an eyebrow, but said nothing. He got the coffee to brewing, then leaned against the counter and watched her carefully undo the individually wrapped teabag and dunk it several times in the cup of hot water. He asked, “You don't like coffee?”
He fixed, dark blue gaze had an almost mesmerizing effect on her. She regain her senses and recalling his question, she answered, “I like coffee sometimes, but right now I need something a little more soothing.”
The coffee maker popped and sizzled out it’s last drop into the carafe. She took a sip of tea and surveyed the sheriff's backside when he turned to fill his mug. He was only a head taller than her five-three, but with his every movement, gave testimony of his masculinity. Broad shoulder muscles bunched and rolled against the damp brown khaki uniform as he placed the carafe back on the warmer. With coffee mug in hand, he walked to the table with a lithe male stride and sat down. A nod of his head indicated she should do the same.
She eased into the chair opposite him. When she realized he was grinning like a man who was used to women looking him over, she narrowed her eyes and brought them back the seriousness of the situation. “Is the victim a drowning accident?”
Somehow she wasn't surprised when he gave the same response as he had to her previous questions. “Don't know.”
“Perhaps I'm going about this all wrong, Sheriff Marlowe. What exactly do you know?”
He smiled. Deep groves appeared around his eyes, the sign of a man who'd spent too much time in the sun. “I know the victim is male, age estimated between sixty to seventy. I know he died under conditions that appear suspicious. I know your aunt was here around the time, but has since left the premises. And I know I'd rather you called me Cliff instead of Sheriff.”
He slipped the latter in as if it were a part of his report. She wasn't sure she wanted to be on a first name basis with the man, but avoided the issue for the moment. “What sort of suspicious circumstances?”
“We'll discuss that later. What do you know about your aunt's recent activities?”
He pulled a small notepad from his shirt pocket, so she realized the intimate “call me Cliff” phase of their conversation was over. “I don't know what you're getting at?”
“Where she goes? Who her friends are? That sort of thing will do for a start.”
Karo didn't know much about her aunt's recent activities and guilt washed over her. She should have drove up here weeks ago when all the weirdness had started, even if her aunt hadn't wanted her to come.
She told the Sheriff about social clubs her aunt belonged to, the church she had attended for as long as she could remember, the homeless shelter--a pet project of hers for years--and the people she'd helped when they had nowhere else to go. Karo gave him a list of her aunt's friends, the longtime ones…God knows who Harriet had been seeing or what she had been up to lately. “I'd like to start calling around to see if anyone knows where she might be.”
The sheriff tucked his notepad back into his shirt pocket and stood. “I was about to suggest you do just that. And in case you can't catch up with her, if you would gather up any personal phone books, address books, appointment books, and such, it will save me some time later.” He tilted his head toward the back door. “While you check with her friends, I'll finish up outside.”
Karo wasn't completely stupid. The time he was concerned about saving was from getting a search warrant. But, after she'd called around and exhausted the list of close friends she knew, all of whom either didn't answer their phone at this hour, were away from home, or knew nothing, she went into the den and started gathering the very items the sheriff wanted.
Of course, she examined each item for clues to her aunt’s whereabouts. She didn't find anything unusual, other than some initials jotted on the desk calendar and three unfamiliar names on vouchers in her aunt's checkbook. The sums were extremely large and that bothered her, knowing how her aunt disliked dipping into her savings. Since the sheriff hadn't specifically asked for that item she shoved the checkbook to the back of the top desk drawer. She tore off the calendar page with the unknown initials and stuffed them in her shorts pocket.
Until she knew exactly what sort of trouble her aunt was in, she wasn't going to share anything that she hadn't checked out first herself. She didn't think for a moment that her aunt had murdered the man they'd fished out of the bay, but Harriet must think she was somehow responsible. Why else wasn't she here answering all their questions?
I've done a terrible thing. No matter how innocent those words, to a lawman, they might sound like a murder confession. But, her aunt wasn't one to run away from a bad situation. Unless...could she have been forced to do so?
The thought was chilling, and one she anxiously shared with the sheriff when he came back inside with her suitcase in one hand and Zero snuggly tucked against his chest with his other.
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