It’s Red Sox Truck Day, the day when the truck carrying the team’s equipment leaves for Florida.  (Yes, we celebrate these sorts of things in Massachusetts.)  Anyway, in honor of the day, I’m posting chapter 1 of the long awaited Backyards Have Bodies.  Our favorite sports fan, Rob Carmichael’s having his own Truck Day celebration.

”Explain to me again why truck leaving downtown Boston is reason to throw a party?” I asked.

”Barbecue, luv, and I told you. When the equipment truck leaves for Florida, it means spring training is right around the corner.”

Winter in Woodbridge, Massachusetts can be pretty dull. With the holiday cheer packed away, the cold and early darkness felt endless, as if spring would never arrive.

Personally, I was enjoying the monotony.  A few months earlier, I’d found myself in the middle of a murder investigation. When you’re in witness protection, the last thing you want is to be in the middle of anything.  Especially an investigation that threatened to undo your carefully maintained identity.

My best friend, Rob, on the other hand, was feeling antsy.  Hence, this mid-February barbeque to celebrate ‘Truck Day’.

“What better harbinger of spring, than pitchers and catchers reporting for duty,” he said as he handed me a wine glass from across the kitchen island.

In honor of the occasion, he wore faded jeans and a red t-shirt emblazoned with a giant B for Boston. A backwards baseball hat covered his ebony hair. As usual, he was the most handsome man in the room. When the genetic gods were dishing out beauty, Rob got two helpings.

“I can think of a few things,” I told him. “The temperature going above thirty. The snow melting. You are aware that there’s eight inches of snow on the ground.”

“Stop being so literal. The truck is symbolic. It’s like our version of a groundhog, only more reliable.”

”The groundhog in Pennsylvania predicted six more weeks of winter,” Jenn Falcone slid onto the stool next to mine and helped herself to the Chardonnay.

“Because he’s killjoy,” Rob replied. “Unlike the truck which is always optimistic. As Robert Browning said, ‘The year’s at the spring, And day’s at the morn’.”

“I don’t understand,” Jenn said. “What does Robert Browning have to do with the truck?”

“Don’t worry about it. He’s just showing off again.”

I took the wine from her. Rob had been peppering his conversations with literary references since October. The murder investigation I mentioned earlier? A lot of town secrets got revealed, including Rob’s past as a boy band singer. Completely killed his mysterious millionaire professor image he had going on – face it, there’s not a lot of mystique attached to dancing on stage in gold lame.  While I never would have pegged him as the insecure type, my friend seemed determined to remind everyone he was more than a pretty rich boy.

“Look, I thought a party would be a nice way the winter doldrums,” Rob replied.  “Everyone in the neighborhood goes into hibernation mode. No one gets together until warm weather.”

“Venice Lane does,” Jenn muttered from behind her glass. “They just don’t include us.”

I looked at Jenn, then to Rob who shrugged. “Whatever the reason, people definitely seem in the mood for a party. Looks like you convinced everyone on the block to come out of their caves” I said. At least a dozen neighborhood families were represented, along with a few outsiders, like me. Clumps of adults could be found in every room, while outside, the kids could be heard screeching and running around in the snow.

“Burgers and potato salad will bring out the crowds every time,” Rob replied. “By the way, have you seen my baseball jersey? The replica one with the 34 on the back? I can’t find it.”

“Why would you think I know where it is?” Granted, the two of us spent an inordinate amount of time together, but that didn’t mean I kept track of his wardrobe. “Did you loan it to Tim?” My son was the sports lover in the family. “Wouldn’t put it past him to ‘forget’ and keep the shirt for himself.”

“Wouldn’t that be stealing.”

My breath caught. Only one man in Woodbridge had a voice that sounded like whiskey on the rocks. Rob wouldn’t….

Dan Bartlett – Detective Dan Bartlett – slipped his broad shoulders into the space between my stool and Jenn’s. I hadn’t seen him since the holidays and my insides danced a little as his wool sweater brushed my arm. He looked good in charcoal gray. Brought out the blue in his eyes. As well as the firmness of the frame underneath. While Rob won the room it terms of pure physical beauty, Dan Bartlett owned the virility title. Everyone else retreated to the background whenever he entered the room.

“Hey, Dan,” Rob greeted. “Glad you could make it.”

“Thank you for inviting me.” He nodded his head in Jenn’s and my direction. “Good to see both of you again.”

“Likewise,” Jenn replied, flipping her ponytail. “How have you been, Detective?”

“Not bad.” He turned to me with a smirk that, had I been standing, would have knocked me to my knees. “Your son sends his regards.”

He and my son, Tim, both worked for the Woodbridge Police Department, although Tim was a little lower in the hierarchy – as it at the bottom – while Bartlett was Chief of Detectives. “Tim told me he drew the night shift.”

“He told me he was going to call in a noise complaint and raid us,” added Rob.

“I wouldn’t put it past him. First week on the job he pulled me over for going five miles over the limit on Main Street. I was lucky he only gave me a warning.”

The group chuckled. Including Bartlett whose gravelly voice had the unfortunate habit of sliding down my spinal column.

I reached for the wine bottle but Rob, that rat bastard moved it out of my reach. “Dan’s decided to join our spring fantasy league. I invited him over so he could meet the others.”

“You are?” I don’t know why I was so surprised. Maybe because most of my interactions with the man involved a murder case, but he didn’t seem the kind of guy to spend his spare time reading stats and making virtual trades.

“Figured I’d give it a try,” he said with a shrug.

“You won’t be sorry,” Rob told him. “We’re a great bunch. Can I get you something to drink? We’ve got just about everything.”

“Except for the beer I was promised.” An athletic-looking woman with too pert-to-be-real breasts bore down on us. Diane Fitzgerald. Her suede-encased hips rolled back and forth as she strode down the hallway into the kitchen. As was often the case, her husband Alex trailed behind her, diaper bag slung over his shoulder.

I didn’t know the Fitzgeralds very well – they’d recently moved to Rob’s neighborhood – but the few times we did meet, Diane reminded me of a blond jaguar on the hunt. But then, she was a corporate headhunter, so maybe that was required behavior. All I knew was she scared me.

Alex on the other hand… I couldn’t get a good read on him.  It was almost like he was two different people. On one hand, he came across as a try-hard. He was handsome as hell, with blonde spiky hair and navy-blue eyes, but his sweaters were always too tight and he always had sunglasses perched on his head no matter what time of day it was. Just because you were middle aged and had a washboard stomach didn’t mean you had to advertise it. Look at Bartlett. His physique was ten times better than any of them – including Rob’s – and you didn’t see him trying to show off.

And he flirted a lot. Not flirting like Rob or Jenn – flirting was like breathing to them. Alex’s flirtations were kind of fake, and over the top. Again, like he was trying too hard. But, then, just when you were ready to write him off as a complete jerk, you’d catch him doing something like playing tea party with his kids.

Like I said, I couldn’t figure him out.

“Honestly, Rob.” Diane placed her hands on her hips and hugged my friend. I think she meant the gesture to be playful, but she was too intimidating to pull it off. “I could have brewed an entire batch of beer in the bathtub by now.”

“Knock it off, Diane. No everyone’s your employee. You want a drink that badly, go get one.”

In my periphery, I saw Jenn’s eyes widen, her expression mirroring mine. No one had had ever heard Alex snap at Diane in public before.

“That’s not the point,” Diane replied. “Rob is the host. He’s supposed to take care of my needs. I’m not going to go outside and rummage through the cooler until I find one of the good brands.”

“Because you’re such a brew master.”

“I can’t help it if I’m particular about what I drink.”

“Pul-leeze. You don’t know the difference. You’re a snob.”

Someone coughed. I think it was Dan Bartlett.

“I’ll get you a beer, Diane,” I volunteered. The deck might be warmer than the current atmosphere.

“No, I’ll do it,” Alex replied. “I wouldn’t want you to risk you getting the wrong kind, since Diane is so particular.”

“While you’re out there, check on the kids and make sure Greta’s keeping an eye on them,” Diane told him. “The other day I caught Carter trying to eat deer poop when they were in the park. I’m paying her to watch our children, not stare off into space like some absent-minded teenager.”

“Don’t be so hard on her, Di. She is a teenager.”

“Of course, you’d say that, Rob. She thinks you walk on water. Check on her, Alex.”

“Absolutely, your highness.” Issuing a mock salute, he turned toward the door. As he came around the island, his hand caught Rob by the elbow. “Can I talk with you about something?”

Rob pulled his arm free. “Wings are ready come out of the oven. Everyone, prepare yourself for culinary ecstasy. Sadie, be a luv and show Dan where the drinks are.”

Again, Jenn and I shared mirrored looks. That was a first. Rob Carmichael giving someone the cold shoulder. The Fitzgeralds had definitely brought a chill to the party.

Next to me, Bartlett cleared his throat. “I can find…”

“That’s all right. I’ll show you.” Even if standing close to the man made me feel all kinds of awkward, I didn’t want to appear rude. Plus, it would save me from having to make small talk with Diane. “What’s your poison? Rob’s got just about everything. Beer, wine, tequila….”

“Diet cola will work.”

“That’s on the deck with the beer.” I hopped off the stool and motioned for him to follow me across the kitchen. The deck was a super-sized, multi-layer platform that ran along the backside of the house. While many of the houses in the neighborhood were open concept, Rob’s layout was more of a W with two rooms and a hallway feeding into the large eat-in kitchen. In the summer, there were two sets of sliding doors that Rob kept open, allowing guests to move freely between the spaces. Unfortunately, being February, he had the dining room slider closed off. This meant everyone congregated in the kitchen until the food was served.

“Quite a crowd,” Bartlett said as we smiled our way past a pair of mothers, both of whom felt the need to look Bartlett over. “When Rob invited me to a neighborhood barbeque, I was expecting a handful of couples. Not everyone in a half mile radius.”

“You’re kidding right? We’re talking about Rob. We’re lucky he didn’t invite the whole town.”

“You mean he didn’t? Is that Randall Cook?”

I followed his gaze to the corner by the kitchen table where a muscular black man was holding court, his beefy hands gesturing animatedly. “Yep. He and his wife, Toshelle, live on the next street over.” I pointed to the woman beside him with long braids and equally mahogany skin. “Make sure you try her banana cake. It’s amazing.”

“I remember when he ran that interception for a touchdown in the playoffs. Phenomenal play. The guys at the station said he lived in Woodbridge.”

“Works for the same law firm as Alex Fitzgerald. The guy whose wife…” I paused to think of a diplomatic word.

“The craft beer lady.”

“Exactly. Anyway, I can introduce you to him – Randall – if you want.”

The two of us watched as Diane, the craft beer lady herself, sidled over to the group. With a brief wave to Toshelle, she wedged herself between the Cooks and gave the strings on Randall’s hoodie a tug. He, in turn, pulled her ponytail before briefly resting his hand at the base of her neck. Toshelle, I noticed, sipped her wine without changing expression.

“Maybe later,” Bartlett said. “I was actually hoping you and I might talk.”

“Really?” Goosebumps tickled my arm – from the cold air, not because his arm brushed mine when reaching around to open the slider. “What about?”

“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to avoid me.”

“What are you talking about? I’m not avoiding anyone. I’m getting you a drink, aren’t I?”

“You know what I mean,” he replied, leaning into my ear and sending my goose bumps into overdrive. “My phone calls?”

Oh, right. Those.

Okay, I was avoiding him. But it wasn’t what he thought.

See, there was a reason I suspected Jenn of murder. Marylou Paretsky, the victim dug up dirt on all her friends which she was using to blackmail people, including Jenn and me. I know because I found a handwritten copy of her blackmail list and burned it. Destroying evidence is a kind of a big no-no in police circles. I knew that because my late husband was a cop.

We stepped onto Rob’s deck where the aroma of charbroiled beef greeted our nostrils. The delicious smell undercut the feeling of snow in the air. You know, that cold, raw sensation that hung in the air when a front was due. Rob had shoveled the deck clear and lined the railing with coolers, each conveniently marked as to the contents. Soft Drinks. Traditional Beer. Craft Beer. A set up so organized even Diane Fitzgerald wouldn’t have had to look very hard for her preference.

On the other side the railing, the neighborhood kids ran around pelting each other with snowballs while Greta, she of the aforementioned deer poop failure, helped the younger children make a snowman.

“Looks like Rob,” I called out. One of his baseball caps and his red cashmere scarf had been donated to the cause.

“Do you think he’ll mind?” Greta called back.

“That you made a snowman in his honor? Not at all.” If anything, Rob would pose for photos with the creation.

Hearing a soft pop, I turned to see Bartlett taking a long drink from a can of diet cola. The way his Adam’s apple moved up and down…. The man even made swallowing look masculine.

“It’s complicated,” I blurted out.

Bartlett wiped his mouth – the only reaction I got. I knew the game. He was waiting me out, staying silent until I felt the need to speak again. Which, of course, I did.

“Why I didn’t return your call.” Calls, actually. With an S. There had been three. “I wanted to. Call you.” Had my hand on the phone the first two times. “But….”

I paused. He waited.

“It’s Tim,” I said. Yep, I was totally about to throw my son under the bus. Seriously though, what was I supposed to say? The truth? Hey, Dan, sorry I didn’t call you back but I’m feeling really guilty over this evidence I destroyed. Like that wouldn’t open a can of worms. Because, of course, Bartlett would want to know why I felt the need to destroy anything.

“You’re his boss,” I said.

“Not really. My department – “

“Close enough. You’re his superior. It’s already hard enough on him trying to get out from under his father’s shadow. I don’t want to make the situation worse for him.”

He perched on the railing, long legs stretched in front of him, and took another swallow of soda. How his behind wasn’t freezing from the contact, I didn’t know. “It was dinner and a movie, Sadie, not a marriage proposal.”

“Yeah, but we know what cops can be like. A police station can be like,” I said. “They would turn the situation into more. Especially in a small –“

“Dammit, Stu, I said I want my money back!”

The voice belonged to Alex Fitzgerald. He stood next to the grill, his fists clenched by his side.  There was no mistaking the anger on his face.

Stu, was Stu Rothstein, Alex’s next-door neighbor. Like Alex, Stu had a bit of a try-hard thing going on. In his case, I chalked it up to being a short, balding, middle-aged man whose best friends were an former pro defensive end and a Ken doll. He stood with his hands in the air.

“Dude, I warned you when you got in,” he was saying. “This is a long term investment. Once you’re in, you’re in.”

“Don’t Dude me. You and I both know there are loopholes in everything. Find me one.”

From out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bartlett stand up. Monitoring the tension like a good peacekeeper would.

“Stu’s some kind of financial guru,” I said.

“Sounds like Alex isn’t too happy with one of his investments,” he replied.

Certainly not as far as Alex was concerned. The two men had lowered their voices, but it was clear from Alex’s face that the quarrel was far from over.

“Proving you should never do business with friends,” I said. “Funny, though. The way Rob talked, I thought Stu managed a lot of Alex’s investments. Guess I was wrong.”

The conversation grew tenser, with the two men stepping into each other’s space the way people do when feeling confrontational. Or rather, Alex stepped into Stu’s space. The shorter man stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Well, figure it out.” Alex’s voice rose again. “I need that money this week.” Pushing Stu’s arm away, he turned and stomped back inside. Stu shrugged to the remaining two men. “… bug up his butt all week,” I heard him say.

Bartlett and I parted company after that. More to the point, I begged being cold and escaped inside to avoid continuing our conversation. I had the sneaking suspicion Bartlett didn’t completely buy my excuse, and if he decided to push, I was afraid I might trip up. And so, I left him to chat up Randall Cook while I returned to the safety of the kitchen island and my glass of Chardonnay.

On the way, I brushed past Rob who had apparently decided to talk with Alex after all. Telling Alex to cool down, hopefully. The two of them stood by the sink, their heads together.

Jenn waved the wine bottle as I approached. “Saw you got dumped in favor of Randall. Happens to everyone. Nick used to practically sprout wood when he saw the guy. What is it about guys and pro athletes that turns them into twelve-year-old boys?”

“No clue.” I was too busy trying to kill the image of Jenn’s ex sprouting things. “And I wasn’t dumped. I showed Bartlett where the drinks were and then I came inside.”

“Uh-huh.”

“Seriously.”

“Whatever you say.” She popped the last of a cheese puff in her mouth. I opened my mouth to argue again, but a voice in my head suggested doing so might be protesting a tad too much.

“I see Diane has inserted herself in the middle of the action as well,” Jenn noted dryly. “Big surprise there.”

“Excuse me?”

“She always has to have the spotlight on her. Hates it if anyone else gets the least bit of attention. I mean look at how she’s practically hanging on Randall’s arm and Toshelle’s standing right there.”

If Jenn wasn’t careful, she might trip over the irony. No one flirted or enjoyed being the center of attention as much as Jenn. Other than Rob, that is.

Wow. The neighborhood was a lot more high maintenance than I realized.

“Toshelle doesn’t look that upset,” I said, glancing over. But then, I was more distracted by the rapture on Bartlett’s face. Jenn was right; pro athletes did turn men into boys. “I’m sure she’d say something if she was,”

“I think it’s an alpha dog thing,” Jenn continued, ignoring me. “Her way of marking the territory so the rest of us know she’s the bitch in charge.”

Huh?

“Who’s a bitch?” Tonya Rothstein spun around, her collection of bangles clinking together as she waved her glass. Overweight by thirty or forty pounds, she had wild frizzy hair and a don’t-care attitude that was the complete opposite of her husband Stu. “If we’re trashing someone in the ‘hood, I want in.”

“We’re not trashing anyone,” I said. I liked Tonya, but she was good friends with Toshelle and Diane.

“Sadie’s being cranky because Dan Bartlett dumped her in favor of Randall,” Jenn said.

“I’m not cranky.”

“Right of passage, Sadie.  Sooner or later, every woman in the neighborhood loses their boyfriend to Randall.”

“I told her the same thing,” Jenn said.

Tonya wasn’t listening though.  Her attention was on the group across the room.  A frown creased her features.   “Really wish Diane would tone it down a bit. People are going to talk.”

“See?” Jenn said. “I’m not the only one who noticed how big a flirt she can be.”

“Randall isn’t exactly being subtle,” I pointed out. If we were going to be criticizing, we ought to assign equal blame.

“No,” Tonya agreed as she reached for the wine bottle, “he isn’t.”

At that moment, a loud clatter of pans made us jump.  The room turned silent as everyone turned to the sink. That’s where Rob and Alex Fitzgerald stood, a collection of used baking trays and cutlery scattered around their feet.

Alex immediately bent down and began collecting the scattered utensils.

“Leave it,” Rob snapped. I don’t think I’d ever heard him speak so sharply. His jaw was clenched tightly, turning his ordinarily pronounced cheekbones razor sharp. You could practically see the muscles ticking from across the room.

Bending down himself, he yanked the utensils from Alex’s hand. “Why don’t you go see if your wife needs anything.”

“I’m sorry,” Alex said. “I didn’t mean….”

“Your wife, Alex.”

The other man rose slowly.   “Sorry,” he said softly.

Rob glared daggers at his retreating b.

Slowly, conversation began again. Stunned, I looked to my two companions. “Wonder what that was all about,” Jenna said. “Rob looks pissed.”

“Tell me about it,” Tonya replied. “If looks could kill, Alex would be dead.”

BACKYARDS HAVE BODIES is the long overdue sequel to the hit mystery, THE SUBURBS HAVE SECRETS. I pinky swear that the book will be out in 2020.  In the meantime, if you haven’t started the Sadie McIntyre Mystery series, now is a terrific time to start.  You can purchase a copy through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Apple.  It’s also for sale at the Bellingham, Massachusetts Barnes & Noble.

 

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