First Friday Free Fiction: A Trowel for Your Troubles

Welcome to my First Friday Free Mystery Fiction, wherein I share a free mystery short story on the first Friday of every month. You have one week to read the story here before it vanishes into the cyber ether. Tick, tick tick…

My newsletter subscribers have the option of downloading these stories, plus a couple more, to read at their leisure. You can sign up in the sidebar. Hint, hint. 😉

This Sydney Brennan short has never been published before, so it has never been edited, except by me. If something wonky in it makes you lose sleep at night, feel free to hit the Contact thingee and share your angst. 🖋️ 📖

Sydney Brennan fans, this story features Syd’s friend Laney Singh, so you’ll won’t be surprised to learn that it takes place sometime after the novel, Grave Truth. If you haven’t read all of Syd’s adventures, this story stands alone, but check out GT if you’re wondering about the oblique references to what has happened before. 🤔 Without further ado, here’s my Tallahassee PI Sydney Brennan in…

A Trowel for Your Troubles

Sunscreen burned my eyes. I didn’t dare remove my dusty sunglasses to wipe them; the midday Florida sun would instantly render me blind. Squatting in the dirt, sweat trickled between my shoulder blades. My tank top pits were soaked, and only the men’s button-down shirt gaping around them kept my arms from sticking to my torso. A faded blue bucket hat covered the frizzy, damp curls plastered to my head. I won’t share what my cargo pants were doing to my butt crack, but stretching awkwardly with my little trowel like a five-year-old at playtime wasn’t helping.

“Isn’t this great?” said the perky young, pigtailed woman who stood over me, scrutinizing a handheld electronic device.

Of course she was perky. Her legs tanned beneath her shorts, rather than bursting into flames like mine would if I exposed them to the light.

“Uh-hunh,” I said, perhaps with a little more Hee Haw-esque, enthusiastic sarcasm than I’d intended. At least I didn’t stab her foot with something pointy. Which, remember, I could have done.

She paused and asked, not unkindly, “Why are you here?”

“Is that an existential question?” I grunted as I stood next to her and brushed off my pants, tugging them from my creases. “Or is it a personal one?”

She punched a few buttons on her device, wrote something in a tiny yellow notebook with an even tinier pencil before shoving them in her back pocket. “Does it matter if it’s existential or personal?”

“Existential, I might answer over a beer, depending on my mood,” I said, handing her my trowel and adjusting my sweaty sun shirt so it was less of a straitjacket. “No offense, but personal is none of your business.”

To her credit, the young woman simply shrugged and said, “Cool,” followed shortly by, “Hey, Professor Singh.”

I hadn’t noticed her approach (my sun defenses acted like blinders), but “Professor” wasn’t the first title that sprang to mind upon seeing my old college roommate. In her early thirties, Laney Singh’s black hair hung down her back in a long braid. She wore a baseball cap, an old punk rock T-shirt, and olive pants similar to mine but with a permanent patina of dirt. 

Laney nodded an acknowledgment at her enthusiastic student. She was smiling, and she was carrying fast food.

“Curmudgeon much?” she asked me.

I snorted. “Remember, Laney, you’re as old as I am.”

“But I wear it so much better,” she said, grinning and bumping shoulders with me. Sort of. She’s taller, but no one was injured and no takeout was harmed. She kept the paper bag, handing me a drink carrier of sodas. “Let’s go eat.”

We strolled shoulder to shoulder-ish past a meter-wide trench and a few meter-square blocks swarming with college students practicing excavation techniques. Laney specializes in forensic anthropology and occasionally teaches undergraduate archeology and anthropology courses. I wasn’t sure which one surrounded me at the moment.

Voice low, I said, “I figured curmudgeon was the best way to not contradict anything you’d already told them about me.”

She grunted as we left the last of the students behind, crossing the stark, mostly brown field toward a patch of thirty-foot tall trees with tiny green fruits. They were apparently invasive, or as I’d heard someone pontificate over their lunch, the trees performed “few non-negative ecosystem services.” Which is bullshit, because I anticipated them providing a sweaty PI the valuable services of shade and privacy.

“What did you tell them about me?” I asked.

“I said you were an old friend.”

“And?”

“And I might have implied you were going through a rough patch.”

“I’m fine,” I said. And I was. Today. But every day was a new day, with new potential for a series of abrasions, especially being back at a dig site with Laney. “I don’t know how you do this as a job, though. Not this—” I waved toward the students —“but, you know. The real part of your job.”

Meaning, the part dealing with dead people.

I watched the need to contradict me flash across her face (teaching IS a real part of my job), but she let that go and simply said,  “I told you. The dead want me here. Giving them answers, you think it’s that different from what you do?”

Sounded like another existential question posed without the benefit of alcohol. So I ignored it.

We finally reached the shade and checked for ant piles before sitting. The heat was slightly less oppressive beneath leaves that gave off an odd, almost medicinal odor I couldn’t quite place. We watched the students scurry over their model site like… ants? No, we hadn’t walked far enough for them to look that small. Rabbits, maybe? Not opossums because they’re waddlers, not scurriers.

Laney juggled food while spreading the paper bag into a makeshift table. She set the pair of burgers atop it, French fries between them.

“Do you think it’s an inside job?” I asked, unwrapping my burger.

“I don’t even know if it’s a ‘job,’” she said, doing the same, “much less an inside one. All I know is that someone’s been trespassing on our site, and the cops don’t care. Well, to be fair, they said there wasn’t much they could do about it, especially since—as far as I can tell—nothing is missing. But considering what was going on last time…”⁠∗

She glanced at me. Looking for scars, physical or emotional? She could look all she wanted because, like I said, I was fine.

“After last time, you didn’t want to take any chances,” I finished. “So someone drove onsite overnight…”

Laney nodded. “I’m certain, a week ago. And yes, it was just the one time, but when I checked with the last person who worked here, he said he’d noticed some irregularities as well.”

“What kind of irregularities?”

“Once the shed wasn’t secured correctly. Another time, he thought things had been moved around. But nothing was ever missing or damaged.”

“How long ago was that?”

“About a month ago. He didn’t report it to the authorities, but he mentioned it to the department chair in passing, which is why I was able to convince her to hire you. She’s the only one who knows you’re here, so I don’t know where the money is coming from.”

“Meaning, I won’t get paid this decade,” I said.

“Oh, don’t be a pessimist,” Laney said, then grinned. “And isn’t it worth it to spend time with me?”

I rolled my eyes. At least I was getting lunch. After a bite of juicy, if not terribly warm, cheeseburger, I asked, “Which one is Priscilla?”

Laney nodded in the direction of the ditch. “You were just talking with her.”

“Ms. Perky?” I asked. Laney gave me stink-eye. “What? It’s not that sexist, and it even has alliteration. Ms. Perky Priscilla used to have a little issue with shoplifting. Too bad it wasn’t fire-starting instead.”

I mouthed, Priscilla the Pyro!

Laney rolled her eyes in that I expected better from you way. “I already know all about that, and the university doesn’t need to. Besides, I told you, if anything has been taken I can’t prove it. The inventory of tools on site hadn’t been updated in years.”

“Well, poor Ms. Perky’s past is all I found on a quick search of the dozen names or so names you gave me.”

“Sixteen,” Laney said.

Precise, as always. Or was it accurate? I could never keep those two straight. That’s why Laney was the scientist and I was the private investigator.

“Who else knows you’re working here?” I asked.

Laney took her time chewing and swallowing, then said, “Department chair and her assistant know, plus whomever else they had to poke to get permission for me to be at the site. Anyone above me in the department could know—hell, anybody anywhere in the departmentcould know. The politics there give me high school flashbacks. But I don’t know why anyone would care. No one uses this place regularly.”

“What about you as the target, versus the site?”

Laney gave me a look both sly and coquettish. “No one uses me regularly, either.”

I shook my head, and she continued. “I know what you mean, Syd. But I’m not an object of interest in the department. Everyone knows I don’t want anything more than what I have right now. It suits me, and the rest of my life.”

“So who knows your schedule?” I asked.

She laughed and stifled a soda burp. “I don’t even know my schedule.”

A sudden breeze kicked up dust at the dig, prompting a flurry of shouts and squeals from the undergrads. Perky Priscilla lifted her arms to the sky and turned in a slow circle. Inspired by her example, I peeled off my hat and button-down shirt, lifting my elbows so the breeze could have its way with my armpits.

Laney said, “We were supposed to be at a six-week field school at a coastal site near St. Marks now.”

“Even closer to my neck of the woods,” I said. St. Marks Wildlife Refuge is about half an hour south of Tallahassee. This place was more like an hour west of the capital.

Laney nodded while she reached for the fries I’d scooted to my side. “Something came up, and we’ll be lucky to start there next week. The university owns this site. There’s not much here—not much left, anyway—but it’s a good place to let the students get dirty, get their hands and their heads around the physicality of excavation.”

“Not to mention their thighs,” I said, slapping my squat-aching legs.

Laney’s grin was an exercise in gleeful sadomasochism. “The first week back in the field is the best.”

I gazed toward the distant highway.

The site was easy to access. The single gravel road leading onto the property had a gate, but no fence. Roadside drainage ditches and vegetation crowding the gate posts deterred driving around the gate, but the right vehicle made an off-road detour feasible. Which begged the question, why would you want to access it in the first place?

Laney stood and offered me a hand up. “Shall we get back to work?”

“Little bit of a hard-ass, aren’t you? Professor Singh,” I observed.

She grunted noncommittally, pinching her fingers together to indicate a tiny bit. I reached for her hand, and she quickly jerked it away. A few students glanced our way at the sounds of laughter and Laney’s roar of triumph as I fell back on my not-so-hard ass.

* * *

At the end of the day, we sat on the uncomfortably warm hood of Laney’s car watching students file past us. Laney had parked behind the smaller of the two buildings at the site. Oriented broad side to the road, it provided cover from the entrance for us and Laney’s beater sedan.

“I take it you learned nothing this afternoon,” she said.

“Not exactly nothing. I learned not to rely on gender stereotypes,” I said, angling my neck to stretch its aching muscles. “For example, the guy in the orange surf shirt—”

“Jacob,” Laney said.

“Yeah, him. He plans to propose to his girlfriend tonight.”

“Good for him,” Laney said, unenthusiastically.

I nodded toward a pair of women climbing into a dusty, blue Ford Focus. “Whereas, the older chick with the ponytail—”

“Sarah.”

Older in this case meant mid-twenties. Ancient. “She’s about to break up with her partner because he’s getting too serious.”

Laney grunted. “Better for her.”

“She’s not dating Jacob, is she?”

Laney grinned. “Thank God, no. The last thing we need is Dig Drama.”

“I don’t know why they canceled that show after only one season.”

We shared a look, then she smacked my knee lightly and we both laughed.

“I miss this,” she said.

“Me, too.” I smiled, wiped the back of my hand across my forehead and tried to ignore the crawling sensation of sweat on my back where I couldn’t reach. “You can show me around the buildings once everyone is gone.”

“You mean you’re not coming back tomorrow to squat in the sun all day in the hopes of acquiring an invaluable clue?” she asked, voice chirpy.

I smiled and said, “Not so much.”

We waited for the dust to settle as the last of the student cars drove off the site. Laney closed the gate without locking it. Encroaching dusk didn’t do much to lower the temperature, but it did bring the mosquitos. They buzzed around my face and neck and even my forearms where I’d rolled up my sleeves, prospecting for blood.

We started with the smaller shed next to Laney’s car. It was in worse shape than I’d realized, liberally streaked with rust. I gave a dented, corrugated wall an exploratory tap and my knuckles came away reddish-brown.

“This one is supposed to be empty,” Laney said, wrestling with a sticky padlock. “Of course, it was also supposed to have been carted away months ago, so…”

Laney jerked the lock and it chunked as it released. The hinges screeched and the door scraped a groove in the loose earth when it swung.

“Nice,” I said, peering inside while Laney panned her flashlight around the cobwebbed corners. Not even the glorious red-gold of the day’s last sunlight flowing through the door could make the interior appear anything other than decrepit, and there wasn’t much to see. A thin metal strip dangled from the interior roof, and a few roaches the size of kittens scuttled across the dirty floor.

Laney shut the door, whacking the padlock with the heel of her hand to force it closed. My ears hummed and my skin crawled with swarming insects, or maybe that was sweat. Swatting around my face and ears, I pointed at the bigger shed. “That’s where you saw the tire tracks?”

She nodded and headed toward a ten by sixteen building, set facing the road. Wooden rather than metal, with dark green siding and white trim, it at least appeared to have been assembled since people landed on the moon. There was a murky reflection near the edge of the high roof—not so much a flash as a ripple from a calm, dirty lake. Or a solar panel.

Laney scuffed her foot against the dusty ground near the entrance. “It looked as if someone had pulled right up to the door, and I don’t allow my students to do that.”

The shed’s standard hasp lock had been replaced with a heavy latch, keyed for interior and exterior access. That was in addition to a locking T handle, mounted to point down at the ground.

“You lock both of these?” I asked.

“Every day, before I leave the site,” Laney said. “The professor I was telling you about found the latch unlocked once last month, though the T handle was secure.”

I didn’t see signs of recent forced entry, but hesitated at the threshold. The air inside was so heavy and still, it felt solid. Perhaps because the space overflowed with solid objects. To our right, a long, stainless steel table crowding the entrance was heaped from end to end—as were its two lower shelves—save for a few bare feet in the middle of the work surface. Opposite it to our left, stacked storage containers buried additional industrial shelving. Dim light eked through two grimy windows, and I tasted years of powerful scents—throat-irritating dust, oils, glues and solvents, and the unmistakeable stench of endless cohorts of sweaty young college students.

“You coming?” Laney asked, switching on a battery-powered lantern from the table. She wrinkled her nose. “Hate to break it to you, but you don’t smell much better.”

I followed her, reluctantly, ignoring the tight feeling in my chest as she closed the doors behind us against the mosquitos. Nothing against Laney—I just don’t do dark, enclosed spaces as easily as I used to. Overhead, a storage loft had been built into the back third of the building, a few wooden handles protruding over its edge like snaggled teeth.

“We actually have a little power, even though the solar panel is filthy. It charges a battery that’s supposed to supply the lights after dark, but it’s on its last legs, so I don’t turn them on if I don’t have to.” Laney patted something on her hip I’d taken for a big phone. “I’ve got a flashlight, too, if we need it.”

I was hesitant to touch anything. I could already feel dirt coating my little… whatever you call your lung molecules. Did archeologists get black lung? Meanwhile, Laney’s eyes hungrily scanned the shed, seeing everything that could—should—be done differently.

“Not your circus,” I reminded her.

“You’re right. As you occasionally are,” she said. “But you can see why it would be hard to tell if anything had been disturbed.”

“You mean, among all this top-of-the-line equipment?” I said, brows raised in faux astonishment.

Trays of castoff trowels and brushes, pegs and flags jockeyed for space with stacked mesh sieves. Open reel measuring tapes hung from the wall alongside heavy pick axes and other digging implements.

“None of our electronics live here,” Laney said.  “My students have a roster. They rotate who cleans, calibrates, etc.” 

“And they wouldn’t bring the equipment back during off hours?”

“No. Plus students don’t have keys.”

“Who does?”

“Department office keeps a few sets, but I don’t even remember if I had to sign them out.”

Sign-out or not, shared keys tend to go on walkabout over the years. Who knew how many sets were unaccounted for? I winced and tugged at the damp waistband of my pants digging into my hips. Laney saw the tire tracks on Thursday morning, so they were made Wednesday evening after everyone else was gone. Would the person (or persons) return tonight, or was last week’s visit a one-off?

Video surveillance wasn’t in my wheelhouse—if I couldn’t stay awake to see something with my own eyes, it wasn’t going to be seen. And “awake” in this case included not passing out from the heat.

“I assume you don’t want to sit in this shed all night?” I asked.

“God, no,” Laney said. “And I wouldn’t expect you to, either. Not for what might just be high school kids looking for a quiet spot to get drunk or get laid.”

I raised a suggestive eyebrow.

“Yes, that is the voice of experience.” Laney grinned, but her voice turned serious when she asked, “So what do you want to do?”

I stretched my arms overhead, then transitioned to pointing vaguely toward the road. “There are a couple of spots I can park and watch from the highway, see if anybody turns onto the property.”

“You noticed that this morning?” Laney asked.

“I am a professional,” I said, acting offended at the surprise in her voice. “But I rode with you, in your car, so…”

Laney’s eyes lit up. “We get to do a stakeout together!”

I stood clear as she started a gyrating, celebratory dance. I appreciated her enthusiasm, but the novelty would wear off after the first half hour of sitting in the car in the dark. Her elbow bumped a pair of camp chairs and boots who knew what else hanging on the wall, setting off a cascading cacophony of nylon scrapes and rubber thumps. The sounds continued, even after she tucked her arms to her side.

The noise wasn’t coming from the equipment.

“Shh,” I said, touching Laney’s arm. “I think I hear a car.”

Heads together, we pressed our ears to the door like a couple of kids on Christmas Eve. Laney’s breath, still holding a hint of French fries, stirred a curl that had escaped my hat.

There was definitely a vehicle outside, moving closer. Quickly.

Eyes widening, Laney asked, “Do you have a gun?”

“I don’t carry a gun,” I said. “Would me carrying a gun really make you feel safer?”

“Good point.”

Tools hung on the wall next to us. I grabbed the nearest one, but doubted I had the will to swing something that looked like a pickaxe at another human being. I definitely didn’t have the room.

Laney followed my lead, grabbing a digger thing as well.

“Stay behind me, and don’t eviscerate me,” I said, and moved the lantern closer to the door. It should blind anyone who entered, at least momentarily, and it left the back of the shed in relative shadow.

I choked up on the handle of the pickaxe, my jabbing weapon of last resort. Despite my earlier insouciance, I didn’t think this was a couple of kids looking to get lucky. I just hoped Laney wouldn’t pay for my mistake.

“Come on, motherfucker,” she muttered behind me.

Or maybe my friend would be standing over a pile of bodies in the end. Including mine.

A key grated in the lock, and I heard the low murmur of voices on the other side of the door. My friend Glenn’s voice rang in my head as though we were at the dojo: You’re gripping too hard, Red. Ease up. He was right. Breathing deeply through my nostrils, my fingers relaxed, but my lungs spasmed at the inhaled shed funk.

The double doors flung back to admit a man radiating light. He threw up one arm, the other cradling a metal object to his chest. “Who left the—”

“Hey!” I yelled, somewhere between a peremptory grunt and a banshee scream.

Metal flashed as he dropped whatever he’d been holding. He otherwise froze, arm upraised to block the lantern, and I saw that he wasn’t actually emanating light. It came instead from a high vehicle’s headlights behind him, and also the flashlight in the hand of a smaller, younger man standing at his elbow.

The older man flipped a switch and an anemic overhead light flickered to life, reflecting off the crystal of his black-dialed watch.

“Malcolm! What the hell are you doing here?” Laney demanded.

I lowered my farm tool weapon, lest I be mistaken for an angry villager, and studied the man I’d threatened. He was well-built—tall and athletic without looking like he lived in a gym—and in his early forties, with gray flecks in a charcoal beard and hair that looked entirely too styled for this time of day. He wore a pale blue button-down shirt over beige chino shorts.

“Ms. Singh,” he said indignantly, drawing back his not inconsiderable shoulders. “I might ask you the same question.”

Laney huffed angrily. When she replaced her pickaxe on the wall, I noticed the back of her T-shirt was soaked with sweat.

“My class is here all week,” she said, taking the tool from me as well. “Which brings us back to, why the hell are you at our training site?”

He tucked his key in his shorts pocket and bent to pick up the metal object—make that two metal objects—he’d dropped. “It’s the department’s training site, and I was borrowing some trowels.”

Holding the tools by their wooden handles, he squeezed past me with no more acknowledgment than if I were a post. These trowel blades were long and rectangular rather than pointed like the one I’d mostly pretended to use today. They jangled as he tossed them into a lidless box of trowels on a shelf.

Arms crossed, Laney asked, “Why are you borrowing trowels? What’s wrong with your own equipment?”

He adjusted the tub on the shelf, then said, “If you must know, I was working on my patio over the weekend.”

Laney’s mouth fell open.

“What?” he asked, calm and entitled and not a bit defensive. “I’m not using my tools for something like that. And I cleaned them afterward.”

I caught a whiff of musky deodorant as he squeezed by me again, the perfumed kind you’d expect to assault you from the pages of a magazine. His companion had retreated into the shadows, but I got a better look at him as he slipped out. He was undergrad age, with close-cropped, blonde hair that was slightly longer on top. He also wore shorts better suited for a casual afternoon at the country club than one working in the field.

Malcolm turned at the threshold and asked, “Want the doors open or closed?”

“Leave them open,” Laney said.

“Then don’t forget to lock up,” the condescending turd said. “And have a nice field school, Professor Singh.”

His words dripped with insult, though I wasn’t sure why. Some kind of academic hierarchy thing Laney had probably explained to me before. I followed him outside. The younger man got in the passenger door of their vehicle with its blazing headlights. I squinted and the SUV’s distinctive, grill-embedded Mercedes star burned into my retinas.

The vehicle reversed, then executed a dramatic U-turn, generating a dust cloud that rolled like apocalyptic smoke through the shadows. Malcolm’s hand waved through the open window before he sped across the field, veering confidently off-road rather than using the gate. The SUV bounced crazily, spotlighting Road! Tree! Sky! Road! as he crossed the drainage divot and swung onto the highway. 

“Does he have a gate key?” I asked.

“I would have assumed so, but not necessarily. Maybe he just wants an excuse to drive like an idiot,” Laney said, turning on her heel. “Come on. At least we can go home to the A/C now. Mystery solved. Entitled jerk borrows tools because he’s an entitled jerk.”

“Was that his son with him?”

“To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t reproduced,” Laney said, and crossed her fingers against the event occurring.

The shed look different in the overhead light, more dingy but less spooky. I glanced around to make sure I wasn’t leaving anything behind, and the tub of trowels caught my eye. Malcolm really had scrubbed the tools—resting on top of the pile, they were obviously cleaner than the rest. Well, most of the rest. Pawing through the trowels, I found a couple more that seemed unusually clean and set them to the side.

“What’s your policy on equipment cleaning?” I asked.

Laney shrugged. She was rearranging the haphazard display of hanging tools. “I don’t make a big deal of it here because we have limited water and we’re all working in the same spot. Why?”

“Does your friend strike you as being more anal about that kind of thing than you are?” I asked.

Laney snorted. “That’s as likely as him being my friend.”

I rotated one of the shiny trowels in my hands and found a sticky residue on the handle. Sticker residue, actually. “Shows what you know,” I said. “He hates dirty tools so much he buys brand new ones.”

“What?” Laney took the trowel from my hands. Her brows pinched. “Maybe he broke this one. Although I find it hard to believe something meant for excavation can’t hold up to yard work.”

“Have you ever seen his patio?”

She shook her head, snorting again. Must be the heat.

“I’m probably one of the few female staff who haven’t been invited to see it, or at least some portion of his home that is presumably adjacent to his bedroom,” she said. “I ask again, why?”

I pointed at the additional exceptionally clean trowels. “I’m just wondering how long he’s been working on his patio project. How long have you been working here?”

“Little over a week,” Laney said, turning another tool over in her hands.

“And two sets of two shiny new trowels. Could just be a coincidence,” I said, but continued, “How much money does he make a year? More than enough to support his trowel habit.”

She paused, contemplating. “Just from his salary, I don’t know. I’ve only ever wanted to be an adjunct, so I’m not plugged into the tenure track. But I do know he’s not a full professor yet, and TAG Heuer doesn’t just give you one of their watches because it looks good on your arm.”

Suspicion piqued, we spent twenty minutes shifting and opening and closing containers. We didn’t find anything unusual, so Laney locked up the shed. With no exterior lighting, only her flashlight kept us from face-planting in the dirt. The evening air was damp and finally cooling, but the inside of Laney’s car was nearly as hot as the shed had been.

Laney was house-sitting for a friend who’d been called to a dig in Honduras. Driving back to their place with the windows down, I wrenched my hat off and let the wind cool my sweaty hairline and neck. Curls whipped around my head like a rabid mop, so I closed my eyes and mouth.

“Maybe Malcolm’s just an asshole with family money, or he has a rich ex who pays alimony,” Laney said.

I peeled one eye open enough to see our headlights tracking the highway, then closed it again. “If I were his wife, I’d pay him to live in another state.”

Laney laughed in agreement, then sighed. “I don’t like it, but I saw nothing to suggest he’s engaged in anything illegal at the site. I can’t even come up with a crazy scenario…”

Her voice trailed off. She braked, and I opened my eyes to see another pair flashing at me from the side of the road. They quickly slipped into the overgrown brush. I blinked. Armadillo, maybe? Alligator? Something else with an A?

“Just being an asshole isn’t something they can lock you up for,” she said.

Asshole was another A. I wriggling upright, fighting my seatbelt the whole way. “I won’t get anything else hanging out in the field with your students—”

“Sunburn,” Laney said. “Massive, powerful squatting thighs.”

“Yes to the former, I doubt it to the latter,” I said.

“And our mystery has been solved. Ish,” she said.

“Mmm, let’s give it a few days before you make it official.”

“So you can rack up some more hours?” Laney suggested, a mock avaricious grin visible in the light from the console.

“Like you said, if he’s up to something, it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the university. But I’d still like to take a closer look at him when I get back to my office.”

Laney nodded. “I’ll make some calls, too. Academics put the Machiavelli in Machiavellian. If there are any rumors or whispers of impropriety, his colleagues will have heard and be thrilled to spread them around.”

And I’d thought working with lawyers was bad.

I declined Laney’s offer of a beer (which would mean getting lazy and spending the night) in favor of a big enough go-cup of coffee to get me back to Tallahassee in one piece. If I felt as wrung out from sun and exertion tomorrow morning as I thought I would, I did not want to have to drive home first thing.

Laney’s medicinal strength French Roast gave me flashbacks to our college all-nighters and kept my head from drooping behind the wheel. I’d been waiting for a contract from another client, so I stopped at my office first to check whether it had arrived in the mail. No luck, but I did discover a fluorescent sports drink in the refrigerator I couldn’t recall buying.

“Interesting flavor,” I muttered, face puckering as I booted up my computer. There was no way the caffeine coursing through my bloodstream would let me sleep now, so I might as well do something useful.

I didn’t find anything interesting on Dr. Malcolm Bennett—no criminal charges, no baying creditors or bankruptcy filings, no ex-wives, rich or otherwise. I hadn’t expected to, but I had to check anyway. He owned one house and one car, both expensive and both still had outstanding bank notes. Was either purchase unreasonable for an assistant or associate professor (whichever one he was, since I couldn’t keep them straight)? University financial reports suggested a salary range from $50K to $75K, yet he was covering his regular payments, plus bonus expenditures like renovating the patio.

Leaning back in my chair, I stared at a spider web near the ceiling fan while I slowly rotated. The university paid a ten-month salary, and he’d be free to do additional work in the summer months. There’d been a big brew-ha-ha a while back because a professor had been paid more than his annual salary for a single speaking engagement, but he was from the political science department. It was hard to imagine an archaeologist commanding the same fees.

Head resting on the seat back, my blinks became slower and slower. The caffeine must have run its course after all. Damn chemical tolerance.

I nearly fell off my chair when my phone rang. “Yeah?”

“Is that the way you always answer your phone? No wonder you don’t have any clients,” said Ralph Abraham, my crotchety former boss at the Public Defender’s Office. He was now semi-retired and my occasional investigative road trip buddy. Did I mention crotchety? That’s because there’s nothing like road trips to acquaint you with crotchety.

“Who said I don’t have any clients?” I demanded, rubbing my eyes too hard.

“Were you out of the office today?”

“Why, do you have me under surveillance?” I asked. Too many of our conversations involved volleying questions without answers.

“Because you obviously haven’t seen the paper yet, or you’d have called me.” Ralph let out a little snort of laughter and hung up.

Okay, I’d bite.

The local newspaper was at the bottom of the mail pile. I scanned the headlines generated by the blundering grandstanders (also known as the Florida state legislature) meeting a few blocks from my office. Then the usual updates on FSU and FAMU sports, road work, a new pizza place… And there it was. Near the back, a write-up including pictures from some sort of local, do-gooder affair, the kind that’s all about the money rather than the actual doing of good. The second photo contained a familiar suited shape. The magnifying glass issued with my official PI license confirmed his identity.

Roger Weber, the best criminal defense attorney I know, stood next to a Leon County Assistant State Attorney whose name escaped me. Probably because he wasn’t the worst—i.e. dirtiest—ASA I know, but that’s a very low bar in Florida. Roger and the ASA both looked like they’d stepped in dog shit. Wearing their mother’s favorite slippers.

I grinned. Roger was fairly imperturbable, so it was oh so satisfying to see him caught losing his cool over something completely inconsequential. I wondered if the photographer had caught the two men in an argument lull, or if stink-eye had been their only form of communication.

The group of photos had a single, blanket caption, identifying only the mayor and a couple of other big wigs at the dinner for Profound Path, whatever that was. I scanned the rest of the feature for more potential gold. Roger didn’t appear in any more photos, but—reaching again for my trusty magnifying glass—another familiar face did. A couple of inches shorter than his male companions, close-cropped hair looking slightly darker with the addition of product, and wearing a suit as stylish as his shorts had been…

Malcolm Bennett’s reticent young companion from the storage shed cleaned up well.

* * *

The next morning, I reveled in my office ceiling fans, digging digitally while Laney and her crew toiled in the hot sun and actual dirt.

It turns out the beneficiary of the function, Profound Path, wasn’t a new line of vegan vitamins but an internship program. They placed FSU students with participating organizations twenty hours per week for a full semester so the undergrads earned course credit while getting a sense of whether the career path suited them. The difference from most internship programs was that students were attached to departments at high-level positions with the access that entailed, rather than the usual intern gig of getting intimately acquainted with the copy room.

Was Malcolm’s young friend a participant? Profound Path partnered undergrads with local businesses around the state. So said their website, prominently displaying lots of photos of smiling students and beneficent-looking old white guys. But it was frustratingly hard to nail down any specifics, especially for a program run by a public university.

Being the Sunshine State, Florida has a pretty robust Sunshine Law allowing access to public records, and it should apply to public universities the same as it does to public agencies. However, it appeared that Profound Path was a private corporation created by the university. They may not have done so with the intent of avoiding liability or avoiding public disclosure (yeah, right), but that was the effect. Roger and I had run into this disclosure issue once before, but it hadn’t been important enough to pursue, especially since Roger thought we’d lose. I vowed, as I picked up the phone, not to remind him of that.

“Let me guess,” Roger said preemptively, “this is about the picture. Did Ralph call you?”

I tried not to smile when I answered; Roger had previously claimed he could hear it in my voice. “Yes, he did. And I am calling about the picture, but not the way you think.”

I told Roger what had piqued my interest. “Do you know the old white guy in the photo below yours? They didn’t ID him in the caption.”

“Or—thankfully—me,” Roger said. “What makes you think I kept a copy of the paper?”

“I would have,” I said. “Target practice. You have an antique dartboard in your office, right? Handed down by generations of WASPy Webers?”

Being one of ten kids adopted from foster care by the Webers, the only thing WASPy about Roger was his carefully tailored appearance, but he chuckled. A moment later he said, “Okay, I didn’t actually meet the kid—”

“Technically an adult,” I reminded him.

“Uh-huh. But the man with him runs a real estate development firm. One of those stupid names you forget as soon as you hear it—”

“Joe Smith?” I suggested.

“Not helping,” Roger said. “And I meant the firm name. I think it was Capital Investments. Something generic like that. The man’s name was Carl Jacobs. The young adult was attending with him, I assume placed with his firm as an intern.”

“So why were you at their shindig? You don’t strike me as the mentoring type.”

“I’m not,” he said. “I was Juliet’s plus one.”

“Were you now?” I asked suggestively. Juliet is Roger’s first ex-wife. Of three.

Roger sighed. “Goodbye, Sydney.”

“Wait! One more question. Do you know Malcolm Bennett? Archaeology professor.”

Roger said he didn’t, but he indulged me and pulled up his photo on the department faculty website. “Yes, I saw him there, but I wouldn’t have guessed he was a professor.”

“Why is that?”

“His suit cost even more than mine did,” Roger said. “And Juliet said he was on the placement committee. She’d offered them a space with her firm for the program, but they haven’t taken her up on it yet.” 

Interesting, but I held off for now on sharing with Laney until I’d had a deep dive down the rabbit holes of Malcolm Bennett and Profound Path and Capital Investments. Did they connect (my gut said yes), and if so, how? Carl Jacobs started Capital Investments just over ten years ago after leaving his long-time employer on not-great terms. He’d taken some clients with him, but the courts said there was nothing illegal in it. Profound Path wasn’t one of them, nor was Malcom Bennett.

I was still searching for intersections when Laney called. “What are you eating?” she asked.

“Hunh?” I looked at the clock. It was nearly two o’clock; no wonder the screen was swimming in front of my face. Except swimming sounded like elegant motion. My screen moved like golden retriever dog-paddling with three legs.

“Oh, if you’re not eating, that means you found something good,” Laney said. “I’ll go first while you grab a granola bar.”

I didn’t argue, just pulled a slightly melted thing in a wrapper from my desk drawer and said, “I’m listening.”

“So I made a few calls last night while I was drinking your beer.”

“Good to know it didn’t go to waste.”

“Like that’ll happen,” Laney said. “According to my sources, unless Malcolm’s patio project is building a patio from scratch, there is no patio project. He doesn’t even have a patio.”

“As of when?” I asked around a chunk of chewy chocolate peanut butter goodness.

“As recently as a month ago. And no way was his house furnished on his salary alone. Marble countertops, stainless steel appliances, including a dual fuel range—”

“You lost me at marble countertops,” I said, trying to imagine how my little overworked microwave would look sitting on them.

“The women I spoke with said he also makes a lot of noise about taking them out on a boat, but none of them have seen it.”

“Not fans of the water?”

“Not fans of Malcolm,” Laney retorted.

“Hunh,” I said, thinking while I consumed my last bit of bar. Although familiar with my process, Laney got impatient.

“I am on my lunch break,” she said.

“Yeah, and I hear your boss is a real hard-ass.” I wiped my mouth on a paper towel and continued, telling Laney about Malcolm’s young friend and his internship with Capital Investments. “And Roger said Malcolm has some role in Profound Path’s placement decisions.”

“Oh, interesting,” Laney said. “That’s gotta be a cult, by the way, with a name like that. Or a secret conspiracy to take over the world.”

“I wouldn’t be surprised on either count.”

“So Malcolm’s got something shady—if perhaps not illegal—going on, but we don’t know what,” Laney said. She sounded discouraged when she asked, “Where do we even go from here?”

I grinned. “You mind making a few more calls? Because I might have an idea.”

* * *

Six days later, Laney and I found ourselves back at the department’s training site. Alone. Laney’s crew had moved on to their originally intended site at the beginning of the week, and I’d spent the day in Tallahassee, so we’d both busted our butts to get to the building on time. Well, what we hoped was on time.

“Go ahead,” I said, motioning Laney to climb the ladder into the storage loft ahead of me. “I need easy egress.”

“Uh-huh,” Laney said, glaring. “You just want to make sure it’s structurally sound before you risk your neck.”

“No, my expert engineer already checked it out, and I trust her.”

She ascended much more nimbly than me. I nearly smacked my head on the low metal roof crawling from the ladder to the platform. There wasn’t enough space to sit upright, so we lay on our bellies. Fortunately, Laney had put down blankets when she’d inspected the loft earlier this week. I was glad of the buffer, even if they were scratchy and barely masked the pallet-like wood strips beneath us.

The longer we lay there, the slower my brain was to generate thoughts, and the more shallow they were. Like, where had Laney gotten the blankets? Surely she hadn’t taken them from her friend’s house. I told myself not to let her house-sit for me. Not that I’d ever remember.

Laney’s stomach gurgled audibly next to me. She handed me a bottle of water she’d stashed with the blankets.

“Thanks,” I said.

“Too bad we didn’t bring snacks,” she said. “I almost wish we’d hit a drive-through, but fast food doesn’t sit as easily as it used to in college. Do you know how many cheeseburgers they eat a year in Canada?”

“Per capita?” I adjusted my shirt’s choking neckline. “I’m waiting for you to tell me, oh mistress of the arcane.”

Laney took a long, slow swig water before admitting, “I don’t know, either. Lying in this oven has baked my brain. The idea of catching Malcolm the Master Criminal—”

“Alleged Master Criminal,” I cut in.

She nodded. “—Catching Malcolm the alleged Master Criminal in the act seemed like a good one, but maybe we should have…”

“Should have what?” I snapped. The confined space was getting to me, and we both knew this had been our only option, the only way Malcolm might possibly face consequences.

“Should have hired an intern,” she said, mouth twitching.

Mine did the same.

“You okay being in here?” she asked, gently. “For real?”

“I’ve never been nearly killed in a loft, if that’s what you mean.” Though a few close calls were starting to melt together in my memory, so I couldn’t be entirely sure. I noted, “At least it rained today.”

Otherwise we couldn’t have tried our little scheme for fear of heat stroke. We still might land in urgent care before anyone showed. 

“What makes us think tonight’s the night?” I asked. “Let’s make sure we didn’t miss anything.”

Laney shoved a frisky rake away from her boobs and redirected the battery-powered fan she’d left with the blankets. It emitted a buzzing hum, but was utterly incapable of moving the hot, heavy air in the loft.

“I told you, no guarantees,” she said, “but according to his assistant, he had the same coded notation on his calendar for tonight as last week, and the week before, and several times before that.”

His assistant meaning Malcolm Bennett’s, a woman who liked the professor about as much as Laney did. But her dislike was seasoned with the additional joy of daily exposure as his subordinate.

“She kept his calendar before he went digital this year, too, so she’s pulling the hard copies from her archives. She’ll have them ready for Roger’s friend,” Laney said, irony twisting the last bit.

Roger’s friend being the ASA he’d been photographed with at the Profound Path event. When I’d gone to the ASA with our suspicions, he’d pointed out that we didn’t have any evidence of wrongdoing. However, after some arm-twisting (including some melodramatic brandishing of a certain recent newspaper article featuring him and the parties in question), he’d agreed to keep an open mind for whatever else we found.

“And the assistant is gathering the minutes from the Profound Path meetings?” I asked.

“Yeah, she’s not a fan of them, either. Said it’s just a way to funnel money and attention to the same little shits that would have gotten it anyway.”

I glanced at Laney, and she raised her sweating water defensively. “Hey, her words, not mine.”

We were talked out after that. Within a few minutes, Laney’s breathing grew soft. She’d always been able to doze almost anywhere, and if fast food had turned on her, at least she hadn’t lost that gift. I shifted into a more comfortable position, but no way was I falling asleep, even if I’d wanted to.

So I thought. Either hanging out with my old roommate was relaxing, or I succumbed to heat stupor. I roused to a dead fan battery and near darkness, the outline of the window frames barely distinguishable from the wall. Through their glass I glimpsed a flash of lightning, then another. No, not lightning. Headlights.

“Laney,” I whispered, nudging her as I reached for the fancy camera she’d placed between us. “They’re here.”

I heard two vehicles approach almost to the door, then stop, but all we could see from our perch was the glow of headlights. Legs numb, I scooched away from the edge to avoid any camera lens reflection when they turned on the lights. My movement stirred throat-irritating dust, and I swallowed a cough.

Car doors slammed. Then the sound of voices, words indistinguishable. Come on inside, I silently begged… you know you want to.

But they didn’t. They didn’t get louder, and they didn’t come in the building. Dammit—I was afraid that might happen.

“Hold this,” I murmured, pressing the camera to some firm body part that wasn’t mine before crawling over Laney. I hissed softly when my back bumped the roof.

“What are you doing?” Laney whispered, an edge of panic in her voice.

We needed to know who was meeting with Malcolm. Maybe I could see someone through the window or… I don’t know. But if they were staying outside, I had to do something.

We’d left a ladder propped against the wall next to the loft. Hopefully we’d left a path for the ladder to move as well; I couldn’t risk using a flashlight to see. There was a moment of rustling before the ladder shifted so I could walk it around to face us, inch by inch and degree by degree.

“Nice and slow,” I muttered.

Suddenly the ladder stopped moving. There was a bump on the floor, a barrier. I wriggled the side rails, maybe pulled a little too hard.

Skrawk! went the ladder’s feet. 

“Seriously?” Laney hissed.

“It’ll be okay,” I said, though my heart pounded in my throat.

Finally, the ladder rested against the loft frame in front of me and—another micro jiggle—seemed stable. I torqued my butt around until it lined up between the side rails and stuck one leg out into space. Visualize the rung, I thought, sticking out my other leg and hoping for the best. My toes found first the narrow solid surface, then a few uncertain, careful steps later, solid ground.

I paused, listening. Droning voices, an engine in the distance. I crept toward the pair of windows, hands outstretched and scooting my feet rather than lifting them from the floor. The glow of headlights from the front created night vision-killing glare, not illumination, inside the shed. I kept my eyes lowered until the work surface jabbed into my waist. Bracing myself on the cleared space, I pushed off, wriggling closer to the window glass.

I couldn’t see anything out there, but the engine rumble was getting louder. I edged toward the door. My foot bumped something, scooted it gently to the side. A couple of birds landed on the roof and began hopping around, banging erratically. Owls big enough to carry off the assholes outside by the sound of it. Ostriches?

Not owls or ostriches—rain. The first teasing band of hard rain.

Had the men finished meeting? Would they retreat to their cars, or come inside?

A scratch at the door, followed by a muffled Hurry the fuck up! was my answer.

Time to go. But where?

A circle of light flashed from the loft—Laney’s flashlight, revealing my return path. I scrambled toward the ladder, but I wouldn’t have time to climb it before the men entered. A weathered brown tarp lay at its base, caught under one rubberized safety foot. It was the rustling I’d heard when moving the ladder.

I dove to the ground, flipping the tarp over me as I crawled into the corner. A nanosecond later, the light from above vanished and the doors opened, though I barely heard them over the intensifying rain and the crackling of the settling tarp. The nylon was so crisp with rot, I prayed it didn’t fall from me in shreds like termite wings. I pressed my back against something hard—a tool handle?—and wrapped my arms tightly around myself, trying to become as small and inconspicuous as possible. The tarp crinkled softly in my ears with every breath.

I heard grumbling and thumping as bodies pressed through the doors, then the metallic ring of something striking the work table. A moment later, the overhead light flicked on.

My eyes widened. Should I be able to see—through the tarp—that the light flicked on?

“Where the hell did that monsoon come from?” a man muttered, barely audible over the rain.

“Shut the goddamned door!” another man said, in a slow, dismissive southern cadence.

I turned my head a micro fraction, but the only dark shape I saw was the silhouette of a container that—I hoped—blocked me from their view as well as it did them from me.

Footsteps came closer. “Tell me, in terms of attracting attention, what’s the qualitative difference between a light coming out of a building and headlights next to a darkened building?”

It was Malcolm. He sounded even more like a snotty little shit when I couldn’t see him, but as hot as it was in the shed, I couldn’t argue with his logic for keeping the doors open. No one else did, either; they just ignored him. The double doors clacked shut.

“You said that they’re concentrating on…” I lost the man’s deep drawl, as well as the response to him, in sudden, intense pelting. A few moments later, the rain eased and Southern guy was asking, voice now over-loud, “What’s the timeframe for development?”

“Well, sir,” said a confident but respectful male voice, “that all depends on the permitting process. But best case scenario, they’d be breaking ground in eighteen months.”

“Assuming they’re able to purchase the property,” Malcolm said.

Southern guy again. “Do you know what their cap is?”

“I believe not above eight point five.” Respectful dude.

The rain abated even more, but no one spoke. The silence made me paranoid. Were they pointing at me, just waiting to kick the lump in the corner and see what jumped out? My lungs constricted. I breathed through my mouth, trying to get more air, but instead all I got was tarp flavor.

“That gives us room to move.” Southern guy paused. “You have anything else on that project you mentioned last time?”

“No, sir.” Slightly less confident this time.

Tap-tap-thunk…

“What was that?” the younger man asked.

Shit. I held my breath. That was Laney moving in the loft, aka the jig being up.

“Fucking rats.” Malcolm, impatient. “Jason, focus.”

“Right. Uh, the project leader was on vacation—”

“Along with everyone else in the building?” came the sharp interruption from Southern guy.

“No, sir.” Apologetic.

My lungs burned. I realized I’d been holding my breath and tried not to gasp for air while I waited for Southern guy to respond, since he was obviously the one in charge.

“All right, then,” he said. “We’ll make information about that our priority for next time. I also want to know any alternate sites they have in mind for the Frenchtown development.”

“Yes, sir.”

Southern guy continued, “Malcolm, no more setbacks on the space?”

“No, sir,” the professor said, deferential this time. “They’re gone for good, on to their scheduled site.”

“Good,” the man said. “I rather like having this option so close. I’m traveling next week. Two weeks?”

“Two weeks. And I’ll confirm beforehand, per our usual.”

“I’ll expect it,” he said.

A breeze rushed in as the doors opened, ruffling the tarp. I pressed the margin tightly to the floor with my pinky, afraid the whole thing would blow away. It was still raining, but a soft, plinking drizzle rather than a deluge. A few seconds later, the world went dark and the tarp stirred again. Doors closed.

I sat, breath shallow, counting in my head. It was less than twenty seconds before the car doors slammed and vehicles started. Maybe they drove away? I wasn’t sure, and sitting on the floor beneath the tarp, I couldn’t tell if the headlights had moved.

“Sydney?” Laney whispered from the loft.

“Yes?” I slowly peeled the tarp from my head, let it rest on my lap while I stared at the windows. Or where I thought the windows were. It was all dark abyss now.

“Are they gone?” she asked.

“I think so.” I pushed the smelly tarp from me, but didn’t otherwise move.

“Thank God,” she said. “Are you coming up or am I coming down?”

“I doubt my legs would hold me,” I admitted.

Laney let out a soft, nervous laugh. “Well, brace yourself, because mine aren’t in much better shape. I’ll try not to fall on your head.”

She tucked her lit flashlight in her mouth, using all of her shaking limbs to climb down the ladder.

I still sat on the floor, arms hugging myself to keep them from shaking. I nodded toward the loft. “So what was with the marching band, Ms. Antsy-Pants?”

Still gripping the ladder, Laney gave a shiver. “For once, Malcolm was not wrong—fucking rats! Beady-eyed jerks. You’re lucky I didn’t leap from the loft, screaming.”

Good thing that in her line of work, she wasn’t exactly a stranger to rodents. I asked, “Did the rats eat the camera?”

“No, they did not,” Laney said. Her smile looked menacing by flashlight as she pulled the camera from her neck by its strap. “And you damn well better believe I got the pictures.”

The overhead light, simultaneously feeble and blinding when I flipped it on, left us squinting at the digital camera’s view screen. I cataloged the pictures aloud as they appeared, “Blanket, blanket, your hair, roof.”

“The shutter’s a little sensitive,” she admitted, and began scrolling through the photos more quickly. “Here!”

I stared at the slightly out-of-focus tops of three heads. Nearest was Malcolm (who was thinning just a bit at the crown), with young blondie next to him, and the gray-haired top of a man’s head. Must be Southern Guy, henceforth known as Old Southern Guy.

“Well, that’s something,” I mused. “Knowing that he’s an old white guy. Because, I mean, what were the odds?”

“Wait,” Laney said, voice sharp in a way that said she knew I was wrung out, but I had toed my way up to a line I’d better not cross.

“Sorry,” I muttered, as she took sole control of the camera advanced through a few more shots.

Finally, she said, “Here,” and handed me the device.

I squinted at the two-inch square screen. Old Southern Guy stood in front of the door, facing the camera. He looked familiar, but the image was so small and my brain was so frazzled by heat and adrenaline. Laney made a rolling motion with her hand, and I moved to the next photo.

“Well, well, well,” I said, admiring the close-up. “Portrait of a Schemey Fucker.”

“You recognize him?” Laney asked.

I nodded. “I could be wrong—”

“But how often does that happen?”

“Depends who you ask. Malcolm Bennett helped place the blonde kid as an intern with Capital Investments.”

“Okay,” Laney said.

“The firm was started a decade ago by Carl Jacobs, who got his start thirty-plus years ago at Sunshine Investing.” I tapped the camera screen. “I’m pretty sure this is Mr. Sunshine right here.”

“That’s not really his name, is it?” Laney asked, skeptical.

“Doesn’t fit the disposition, huh? No, it’s… something-or-other Brody.”

“Okay, give me a minute.” Laney closed her eyes briefly, then said, “So Carl Jacobs leaves Sunshine Investing—”

“Along with several key Sunshine clients, according to a lawsuit by Mr. Brody. Mr. Brody’s lawsuit was dismissed, but I’m guessing that he didn’t suddenly forgive, or forget. So Sunshine Brody sees an opportunity—”

“Or Malcolm sees an opportunity,” Laney interrupted.

I nodded. “There is a mutually beneficial opportunity to place a spy within Capital Investments. From the little bit we heard, I’d guess to either get the jump on buying up the property Capital wants, or if Sunshine Brody’s need for vengeance trumps his greed, to sabotage their projects.”

“Permits and planning, labor, actual monkey-wrenching… the only limit is their imagination,” Laney said, shaking her head. She suddenly looked at me with a mix of annoyance and admiration, then gave me a painful flick on my arm. “And that’s why you wanted the list of Malcolm’s previous protégées! You don’t think this is the first time he facilitated these kinds of meetings.”

I gave a I can’t help it I’m brilliant shrug.

“So we’re done here?” Laney asked.

“I’d say yes, we’re done here.”

With the storm past, it was more misty outside than raining, just wet enough to feel good in the heat. The pale clouds overhead almost seemed to generate light, but not quite, so Laney lit our way toward the gate with her itty bitty flashlight.

She asked, “You think this will be enough for Roger’s friend, the state attorney guy?”

Assistant State Attorney,” I corrected, only because I liked the idea of annoying the man, even in absentia. “If it’s not, I’ve got some contacts with the Feds.”

“Oh, do you now?”

I made a face she couldn’t see. “Well, I have contacts with contacts there. And I’d go to them before I’d go to FDLE.”

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is basically the Florida state version of the FBI. My years working at the Public Defender’s Office meant they were my second least favorite agency, behind every county law enforcement agency. Mine is a lengthy and long-memoried shit list.

Laney and I bent at the waist and slipped right through the cattle gate at the entrance, me a bit more slowly. The adrenaline dump had made my muscles feel like I’d been running (which I only do if I’m being chased).

The highway appeared empty until a pair of headlights across the road lit up, blinding us. I shielded my eyes with my arm, mostly not seeing Laney’s car make a last-minute, awkward turn to pull alongside us instead of mowing us down. My hand still went to my chest.

Unbothered, Laney jumped in the front passenger seat. I took a deep breath, then crawled in the back behind her and leaned through the center.

“Did you get it?” I asked.

Perky Priscilla smiled at me in the rearview mirror. “Of course, I did.”

She held up a small notebook as she rattled off a Florida license plate number.

“Good job!” I said, somewhat surprised.

Priscilla shrugged, much as I had about my brilliance in the shed. “You know, I always wanted to be detective.”

“But Indiana Jones won instead?”

Her nose wrinkled. “Fun character, and kinda sexy if you have daddy issues, but a terrible role model. Where to, Professor Singh?”

“Home,” Laney said. She turned to look at me as Priscilla merged back onto the road and said, “You’re welcome to stay over. I have real food leftovers.”

God, was I hungry. “Do you have beer?”

“Does the Pope have a funny hat?” Laney said.

“Which one do you consider funny, the zucchetto—the skull cap—or the mitre?” Priscilla asked.

Laney’s mouth opened and closed. She’d been rendered momentarily speechless, but I knew it wouldn’t last, that she’d launch into a history of papal headgear at any second.

“Priscilla,” I asked, “would you care to join us, or do you have to take off?”

“And witness you guys getting existential?” She smiled at me again in the rearview. “Cool.”




^