Cover: Wash and Die by Barbara Colley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Title: Barbara Colley's Excerpts

Wash and Die
by Barbara Colley

 

Chapter One

 

She was running late, and Charlotte LaRue hated being late for anything. Pulling on her sweater, she snagged her purse on the way to the front door. If she hurried, though, she just might have time to go by the bank before her ten o’clock client. Her thoughts on the notice she’d received about a so-called bounced check, she threw the dead bolt and opened the door.

A strange woman, with flaming red hair, was standing on the other side of the threshold, and Charlotte gasped with surprise, momentarily speechless. All Charlotte could do was stare at the woman as her mind raced with all kinds of dire consequences for having been so careless. With all the crime in New Orleans, a woman living alone could never be too careful. She knew better than to open the door without checking out the window first.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman blurted out. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I was just about to knock when you opened the door.”

She was as tall as Charlotte, but probably outweighed her by a good twenty pounds. There was nothing all that menacing or frightening about the middle-aged woman, but these days one could never tell. Out of caution, Charlotte eased back a step and kept a firm grip on the doorknob, just in case she needed to slam it in the woman’s face.

“My name is Flora Jennings.” The woman smiled and batted her heavily mascaraed eyelashes. “I’m with Big Easy Realty.” She thrust out her hand. With one hand still firmly gripping the doorknob, Charlotte ignored the outstretched hand and simply nodded.

When Flora Jennings realized that Charlotte had no intention of shaking her hand, her fixed smile wavered and she dropped her hand. “I probably should have called first, but I just happened to be in the neighborhood . . .” Her voice trailed away. Charlotte sighed, then shivered. “I don’t mean to be rude, Ms. Jennings, but it’s cold and I’m running late—“

“It is cold for November, isn’t it? I can’t believe it’s already November. Thanksgiving will be here before we know it. Usually our weather doesn’t get this cold until after Christmas. Why, I remember one year running the air conditioner—"

Would the woman ever shut up?

“ Ms. Jennings!” Charlotte threw up her hand to silence her. “Like I said, I don’t mean to be rude, but what do you want?”

For a second, Flora Jennings’s expression grew tight with strain, but she nodded. “Sorry—I tend to rattle on and on. I’ll try to be brief, then. Like I said before, I’m with Big Easy Realty.” From the side pocket of her purse, she pulled out a business card and offered it to Charlotte.

Charlotte took the card and glanced at it. It looked legitimate, but anyone could have a business card printed.

“I’m not sure that you realize this,” Flora Jennings continued, “but this part of Uptown has become quite desirable since Katrina, especially these old Victorian doubles. And may I say that yours looks to be in terrific shape from the outside.” It should, Charlotte thought, especially after what it had cost her to have it painted. She slipped the business card into her pants pocket, then gathered the front edges of her sweater together in an attempt to fight off the chill. She supposed she should be grateful, though. After Katrina, her insurance had completely covered the expense of a new roof. Others she’d talked with hadn’t been so fortunate.

“Anyway,” Flora went on. “As I was saying, a lot of people want to move back home to New Orleans, and I have a long waiting list of clients who are very interested in buying or renting homes in this area. What I’m doing today is going door-to-door and offering a free price analysis to anyone who might be interested. The process—“

Again, Charlotte threw up her hand, interrupting the woman. “Are you talking about an appraisal?” she asked.

Flora Jennings shrugged. “Not exactly. It wouldn’t be official. More like giving you a ballpark figure. It would only take a few moments of your time,” she hastily added.

And where would I live if I sold my house? Charlotte wondered, growing more impatient with each passing moment. Then suddenly, it hit her. Of course. The woman was probably under the mistaken impression that the other half of her double was for rent.

Charlotte opened her mouth with the intention of telling Flora Jennings that she wasn’t interested, but at the last second, she changed her mind. Though she had never entertained the idea of selling the family home, where she had been raised and had raised her son, she had been curious about the market value, especially since Katrina.

Should I or shouldn’t I? Charlotte glanced at her watch and decided that her visit to the bank could wait until that afternoon. “Okay,” she finally agreed. “But you need to wait right here for a minute.”

Without giving the Jennings woman time to reply, Charlotte firmly shut the door. Reaching in her pocket, she removed the woman’s business card, then hurried over to the telephone and dialed the number listed on the card. It never hurt to be cautious these days.

“Big Easy Realty,” a cheery voice answered.

“Ah, yes, I have a question for you. Do you have an agent named Flora Jennings working for you?”

“Why, yes—yes we do. But Ms. Jennings isn’t available at the moment. May I have her return your call?”

“No—no thanks.” Charlotte hung up the receiver. Satisfied that the woman was who she said she was, Charlotte opened the front door. Motioning for the real estate agent to come inside, she said, “This had better be quick. I have to get to work.”

Flora Jennings’s face lit up. “Wonderful!” she exclaimed, and immediately stepped through the doorway. “I really appreciate this opportunity. What kind of work do you do?” But even as she asked the question, her eyes were eagerly taking in every nook and cranny of the living-room area.

Charlotte placed her purse on the coffee table and pulled off her sweater. “I own Maid-For-a-Day, a domestic cleaning service.”

“Oh . . . how interesting.”

To Charlotte’s ears, the distaste in the woman’s tone belied her words, but after forty-something years of being a maid, she’d gotten used to it. The insinuated snub no longer bothered her as it had when she was younger. She did honest work for honest pay, and there was no shame in that.

“ The house is about a hundred years old,” Charlotte said evenly. “And the double on the other side is almost an exact duplicate of this side.”

Flora frowned. “You and your husband do own the entire house, don’t you?”

Unwilling to admit to this perfect stranger that she didn’t have a husband, Charlotte simply smiled, and said, “I own the house. Free and clear. I rent out the other side, and it’s occupied right now.”

Flora shrugged. “That doesn’t matter. Just give me a minute to measure this room, and then you can show me the rest of this half.” From her handbag, she pulled out a pen, a notebook, and a measuring tape; then, she placed the handbag on the chair near the front door.

Once Flora had measured the living room, Charlotte gestured with her hand. “Through this doorway is the kitchen-dining room.”

Flora nodded approvingly. “It’s nice and roomy.” She began measuring and jotting down numbers in her notebook, and after a moment, she glanced up and said, “I noticed when I drove up that it looks like you have a nice deep backyard.”

“Yes, I do,” Charlotte murmured.

“Well, let’s see the rest of the house.”

Charlotte hesitated. “Don’t you need to know the size of the lot or something?”

“Yes, but I’ll measure that after we’ve finished inside.”

Charlotte nodded. “Okay.” She motioned for Flora to walk ahead of her. “Over here are the bedrooms. There are two bedrooms and a bathroom.”

“This one must be the master bedroom,” Flora said, her eagle eyes scanning the room from top to bottom.

“Yes, it’s the larger of the two.” Charlotte had just recently redone her bedroom décor and had settled on a country look. She was really proud of the butterfly-pattern quilt she’d purchased at the annual Destrehan Plantation Arts and Crafts Festival upriver. Using it as a bedspread had provided just the right inspiration for decorating the rest of the room.

Within a few minutes, Charlotte had shown Flora the other bedroom and the bathroom. Each time, Flora measured and jotted down numbers in her notebook. That she also insisted on measuring the closets seemed kind of odd to Charlotte, but since she had never had her home appraised before, she didn’t say anything.

Back in the living room, Flora picked up her handbag. “I really appreciate you doing this,” she told Charlotte. “And I’ll get back to you in a couple of days with your free price analysis.”

“No hurry,” Charlotte assured her as she opened the front door.

“Talk to you later, then,” Flora said, but she paused at the front door. “You did say that you and your husband both live here, didn’t you?”

“No, I didn’t,” Charlotte replied. “But I don’t see where that’s relevant, one way or another.”

Flora stared at her a moment, then said, “It’s not.” Then she smiled. “I was just curious. Bye now.” Then she turned and bustled out the door.

Once Charlotte had closed the door behind Flora Jennings, she walked over to the birdcage near the front window. “Well, that was a bit strange,” she told the little green parakeet perched inside. From the corner of her eye, she saw a cream-colored car back out of her driveway. Figuring it had to belong to Flora Jennings, she said, “Guess she didn’t have to measure the lot after all, huh, Sweety. Funny that she would measure the closets, but not the property.”

The little bird sidled over to the side of the cage and stretched his head first one way, then another, a sign that he wanted to be petted.

“Oooh, you’re such a good little birdie,” Charlotte said softly as she stuck her finger through the cage and gave the parakeet a gentle head rub.

Though Charlotte had never entertained the idea of having a bird for a pet, after over two years of sharing her home with the little parakeet, she couldn’t imagine not having him. Of course he looked far healthier now than when she’d found him. She’d discovered him after a deadbeat tenant had skipped out owing her money, and the poor little thing was in pitiful shape, half-starved and sick. Not anymore, though. Now he was as healthy as could be, and she’d even taught him how to say a couple of phrases.

Charlotte glanced over at the cuckoo clock on the wall behind the sofa. “Oops, time to go. Now you be a good little bird, and I’ll see you later this afternoon.”

As Charlotte hurried out to her van, she couldn’t help noticing a black SUV parked diagonally across the street from her house. The lone man in the SUV didn’t look familiar and he was simply sitting there.

So, why was he just sitting there?

What if he was a thief casing the neighborhood? Though her neighborhood wasn’t a wealthy one by any stretch of the imagination, she and most of her neighbors still had a few valuables—TVs, stereos, jewelry, and such.

With an uneasy feeling crawling down her back, Charlotte pointedly glared at the man before she climbed into the van.

“Oh, for pity’s sake,” she murmured. “Get a grip. Not everybody is one of the bad guys.” First Flora Jennings, and now . . . “Probably just another real estate agent looking for property,” she grumbled.

Even so, once she’d backed out of the driveway, she made it a point to get a good look at the car’s license plate, noting that it was a rental car. She also made sure that she got a good look at the man as she drove slowly past his car. Too bad she was already running a bit late, or she’d stop and ask him what he was doing.

Yeah, right, Charlotte, you big coward.

“Well, I would,” she muttered, countering the aggravating voice in her head.

Getting her bank account straightened out that afternoon had taken longer than she’d expected, but then everything seemed to take longer since Hurricane Katrina. By the time Charlotte turned down her street, it was almost four o’clock. She glanced over at the bag of used books on the passenger seat, a gift from her client Bitsy Duhe. Since the death of Bitsy’s husband, the elderly lady had more time on her hands than she knew what to do with, and though she filled most of her time on the phone gossiping, she also loved to read.

Bitsy knew how much Charlotte enjoyed reading too, and they both loved a good mystery. Even though she had a stack of to-be-read books on her bedside table, she could hardly wait to get home and go through the books.

With a sigh, Charlotte shook her head and snickered. It had been a while since she’d cleaned for Bitsy Duhe, and though Bitsy was generous to a fault, she could also be a real pain to work for.

During Katrina, Bitsy had evacuated first to Shreveport, where she’d stayed with an old friend, and then, at the insistence of her son, she’d flown out to California and stayed with him for several months. But like most of the tried and true natives of New Orleans, and in spite of her son’s objections, Bitsy couldn’t wait to come back home.

Charlotte was just thankful that she’d had the good sense to hire Dale Brown, and that Dale seemed to genuinely care about the old lady. And she was also grateful that Dale would be finished with his semester finals in time to clean for Bitsy the following Tuesday.

Too bad Dale only had one more semester till graduation. She’d have to start giving some serious thought to hiring someone else pretty soon.

Though her mind was still on the bag of books and her employee, Dale Brown, she did notice that the black SUV that she’d seen that morning, along with its occupant, was gone just before she pulled into her driveway.

As Charlotte shifted the gear into Park, her gaze strayed to her front porch. Then she froze, her hand hovering above the ignition. A woman was sitting on the front-porch swing. But not just any woman, she suddenly realized.

Joyce Thibodeaux.

Charlotte felt as if she’d just been sucker punched, and dread, like a slab of concrete, weighed down her insides.

“Dear Lord, in Heaven, now what?” she whispered.

 

Excerpt from Wash and Die
Copyright 2007 by Barbara Colley

Kensington Publishing
February 2008
ISBN:
0-758-22251-3


Excerpt Index: Dusted to Death | Wash and Die | Scrub-a-Dub Dead | Rachel's War
Maid for Murder | Death Tidies Up | Polished Off | Wiped Out | Married to the Mop


 


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