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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

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Thank you for downloading my book! I am happy that you have made it part of your library.

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author and/or publisher. No part of this publication may be sold or hired, without written permission from the author.

Special thanks goes to my editors: Cheri Mills, Pam Kilrain and Carol Purroy.

Enjoy these books by SJ Slagle

Sherlock and Me Series

The Case of the Starry Night

The Case of the Feathered Snitch

The Case of the Ghost Horse

The Case of Billy’s Missing Gun

Phyllis Bowden Series

London Spies

Oslo Spies

Washington Spies coming next fall

Single titles

The Reunion

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Also by SJ Slagle as her pseudonym, Jeanne Harrell

Rancher Series

Rancher’s Girl


Always and Forever

Being Emma

The Darkest Hour

Just Before Dawn

Rancher’s Christmas

Westerners Series

Riding the River

Stream Ran Dry

Lonesome Creek

Cool Water

Avila Beach Winery Series

The Winemaker’s Dilemma

Winemaker’s Son

Single Titles


These Nevada Boys

Courting Polly’s Daddy

Never Let Me Go

Shoulda Been a Rancher

Since I Fell for You

That Nevada Girl

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Table of Contents

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20



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by SJ Slagle, 2019


My name is Lucy James. Life seems to revolve in cycles and I’ve been trying to decide if this is an up or down cycle at this moment in time.

On the up side, I earned my private investigator license in Nevada last year and got a decent chunk of cash a couple of cases ago. On the down side, I shot through most of it renting my new office in downtown Reno and blowing the rest on a horse. No, it wasn’t a racehorse and I wasn’t betting in one of the casinos around here. I’d helped out a little boy in his hour of need.

That’s me. Lucy the do-gooder or so my best friend Cindy always tells me. Anyway, the boy’s dad was so grateful that he’s paying me back in installments. Problem is sometimes his installments don’t meet all my expenses and since another case hasn’t darkened my office lately, I’m still plugging away at the old movie theater by the Truckee River that winds its way through the city. It’s been my go-to job all through college and it appears it’s going to see me through a bulk of my adulthood too.

It pays the rent.

Today I wandered down to a local television station, KNVP, to see my dad at work. Larry James has been the host of Uncle Ollie’s Playhouse, a hit local show for kids under ten since the beginning of my ill-fated college career. Not my cup of tea but he enjoys it. Dad’s tenacity to stick with the program is the one characteristic I’m pleased to have inherited from him. Jury’s out on the rest.

In through a back door, everyone nodded as I slipped by to stand at the edge of the playhouse set to see how Uncle Ollie was doing. Shelves with colorful toys, bouncy balls, a purple-leafed plant, a man in shining armor and bowls of fruit decorated the interior. Ollie was perched on a stool in the center of the activity singing a song about getting along with your neighbors. His singing partner was a puppet resembling some unidentified breed of dog. The droopy ears and bulbous nose should have been dead giveaways but weren’t. Not that it mattered. Several happy little kids hovered around the puppet clapping and singing along with a beaming Uncle Ollie.

I watched in wonder at the man in bright red slacks and striped sweater. With his feet encased in fuzzy slippers and a shaggy blondish wig, Uncle Ollie, aka my dad, was a cross between a stylish Mr. Rogers and a 1950s Captain Kangaroo. But if memory served me, Dad should have been singing with a bunny rabbit if his emphasis that day was Captain Kangaroo.

I never asked him what daytime children’s show his was patterned after because I knew what he’d say. With wide eyes and a forlorn look etched on a comic face, Larry James would exclaim, “Lucy! How can you think I would ever stoop so low as to mimic one of those people?” He would draw out the word ‘those’ to two syllables laced with enough irony to make me want to starch a shirt. Ugh. Then I would get his standard lecture about being an original and if you couldn’t be original, why bother?

But there weren’t as many children on the set as usual and the two cameramen stifled yawns. No director hovered creating the usual chaotic whirlwind and there was a slight chill in the atmosphere I’d never experienced before. Even Uncle Ollie’s typically bright eyes and smile seemed forced and I wondered what was up. I found out as soon as Ollie and his sidekick Pete the Dragon finished singing the theme song, signaling the end of the program and the children were herded off the set. Dad stormed after them heading right for the control booth on the second floor. Sensing trouble, I tagged along.

“Wait up, Dad. What’s the rush? Aren’t you going to take off your costume?”

He didn’t turn in his haste to acknowledge me as he ran up the stairs, but managed to spit out, “Not now, Lucy.”

Blowing through the door of the control room, he got right in the executive producer’s face. A large man with few strands of hair and fewer principles, Rance Morgan wasn’t more than forty but looked fifty, clogged the already stuffy air with cigar smoke and ordered his staff around like they were born to wait on him. He had only become executive producer this past year and he and Dad had clashed from day one. Today didn’t seem more promising than any other day.

“Morgan! What the hell is the idea?” Puffs of steam from Uncle Ollie’s ears seemed to wilt his shaggy wig.

Rance Morgan stood stiffly towering over Larry James with a look of defiance.

“What is it now, James? The lead arc light too bright again?”

“You know what I’m talking about, Morgan. Cut the crap!”

Morgan smirked, folded his arms across his broad chest. A button popped open when he inhaled.

“Yeah. Same old, same old. Pete got more camera than you did.” He shook his head so slowly that I nearly laughed out loud. The guy was as big a ham as my father.

“Pete did, the children did, the puppets all did. Even Leapin’ Lizard got great angles. Why I was barely in the program at all. Why don’t you make it ‘Uncle Ollie’s Playhouse Without Uncle Ollie’?”

Morgan’s smirk became a sneer. “Great idea, James. Pack up that crap costume you insist on wearing and don’t let the door hit you on the backside when you slink out!”

Dad’s jaw hit the floor. “What are you saying?”

“Just what you suggested: I’m firing you. Thanks for saying what I’ve been meaning to for the better part of this year.”

Dad raised himself to full height, put his fists on his hips and sneered right back. “How do you expect to have Uncle Ollie’s Playhouse without Uncle Ollie? That’s me, you idiot!”

“What?” He laughed. “Think I can’t get another guy to play your moronic character? In a heartbeat, pal.” Morgan stepped aside and headed toward me. “You and your stuck-up daughter can find your own way out.”

“Hey!” I protested. But he muscled by me tossing a shrug in my direction without giving either of us a second look. When I turned to my dad, a very indignant Uncle Ollie met my open-mouthed stare. His camera make-up looked about ready to drip off his tomato red face.

“Dad, you just got fired.”

* * *


“Way to state the obvious, Lucy.”

“Dad.” My open mouth closed and frowned. “No need to take this mess out on me.”

While we took stock of one another, the quiet in the control room took on an ominous silence. Four frozen people at the control board sat still probably hoping for invisibility.

Dad’s eyes narrowed causing his fuzzy eyebrows to resemble furry caterpillars on the move. “He called you stuck-up.”

“Yeah. So?”


I glanced around at the invisible control room staff. Besides being frozen, two men and two women were collectively holding their breaths.

“Um…maybe we should take this downstairs to your dressing room.”

His eyes darted accusingly toward our audience before rushing out of the room without another word. I looked around, shrugged my shoulders and stuck a finger in the air. “Anyone thirsty?” With that inane comment, the only thing I could think of to say, I followed a hastily retreating Uncle Ollie. He tore off the striped sweater hurrying down the stairs and threw it over his head. I caught it one-handed hoping he wasn’t going to step out of his pants next. Four long strides and Dad was jerking open his dressing room door with a fury I hadn’t seen since my younger sister and I, when we were four and six, had washed his collection of coins thinking they were dirty. A few had sorta slipped down the drain and Dad still hasn’t forgiven me for that caper. Of course, he has forgiven my perfect sister, Dianne, the erstwhile career diplomat in England. But then she has a successful career and I don’t. No. No hard feelings here.

I’d barely cleared the doorway and he whipped around to face me.

“He called you stuck-up.”

“What do you care what he calls me? This is about you and your job.”

“Lucy.” I could tell by his stone face and sarcasm-dripping tone that he wasn’t going to budge unless I spilled the beans. He’s got that John Malkovich thing going for him like the evil character in that movie Con Air who tried to bump off everyone. I buckle every time.

“Okay, okay.” I threw up my hands. “Morgan has asked me out a couple of times but I’ve always turned him down.”

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Why should I? You really want to hear about every guy I turn down?”

“He’s not just any guy; he’s my boss.”

“He used to be your boss.”

Uncle Ollie stared me down. “Is this about me or you?”

My mouth formed an O. “Incredible! You think he fired you because I wouldn’t go out with him? You’re nuts.”

“But he said—“

“What he said was that you two have argued since he was first hired and you haven’t agreed about anything in the program. I’ve been around enough to witness the discontent this whole past year.”

When he started to object, I hurried on.

“Don’t even think about dragging me into this mess, Dad. It’s yours. You figure it out.”

I turned to go but looked back over my shoulder. “By the way, there’s a big stain on your pants. Did you drop butter from the popcorn sketch on them? Again?”

When Larry James looked down at his pants, the shaggy wig slipped off his head.


I nodded and shut the door behind me. What a morning. With this ridiculous scene in my rearview, I headed to my office. Surely, my business would make more sense than my Dad’s tumultuous television show.


But, naturally, it wasn’t to be.

The walk from the television station gave me the time I needed to cool off. The sun was peeking through the clouds shining on the various casinos, restaurants and pawnshops in the downtown area. Business after business was teeming with people. Sidewalks were so crowded that I had to bob and weave my way along as I walked from the station to my office. I couldn’t remember what event was in town but it must have been the Air Races or Camel Races. Lots of races and food events this time of year in the bustling mecca that is Reno. Tourists roaming in and out of casinos were probably looking for the loosest slots. In my estimation, there wasn’t such a thing as a “loose” slot machine but I suppose hope dies hard.

My office was located two blocks from the Circus Circus Casino on the main drag of downtown. If I plastered my face to my window and stood on tiptoes, I could just see the enormous sign advertising the entrance: a full length clown with white face and orange nose in full clown regalia down to the pink slippers on his feet. One gigantic hand held the Hotel Casino sign while the other raised another marquee high above his pointy head. The sign blinked in pink and orange neon after dark and was nearly as tall as the building itself. The casino stands as an anchor to other casinos and boasts of circus acts performing on a daily basis. I’ve never been much interested in acrobats or people dangling on the high wire, but if it helps support the local economy, it’s okay by me.

Reaching my office, I nearly tripped on a huge Mexican pot sitting in the doorway. Pushing open the door, I looked around for the pot’s owner. A man smoking a cigarette leaning on a light post glanced in my direction.

“Hey! Don’t kick over my pot!”

“Then move it, buddy. I’m trying to get into my office.”

He threw down the cigarette, nonchalantly rubbed it out on the sidewalk and sauntered over to pick up the pot. It must have weighed thirty pounds if it weighed five. When he followed me in, I didn’t bother to turn around. This has happened before.

“So. Whaddya give me for it? It’s primo.” His eyes, slightly hazy, seemed to clear somewhat with his explanation. “Got it in Tijuana last time I went down there. Ever been?”

I pushed my purse into the last drawer of my desk before turning around to face him. His smile showed two rows of crooked teeth. Too bad he hadn’t brushed them in a while. Something brown like refried beans was stuck here and there.

“This isn’t the pawnshop.”

“Whaddya mean, this ain’t the pawnshop?”

“Look, mister. I can’t say it any plainer than that. You’ve got the wrong business. The pawnshop is next door.” I jerked my thumb over my shoulder.

Short with spiky hair, the guy took a long, disinterested look around my office. I could see it from his eyes—an old, wooden desk ready for the scrap heap with an equally ancient bookcase off to one side. Few books lined the shelves. My corkboard on an easel displayed a map of the city but was hardly impressive. Twin picture frames on one wall were the only decorations—my private investigator license hung next to a photograph of my ideal detective, Sherlock Holmes. Okay, so I’m not much of an interior decorator, but the PI license was earned fair and square and as for the furniture, well, I’ll spiff it up as I go along.

“You got any business?”

“Not at this very moment, no, but I could have a case walk in the door any time.”

He didn’t look like he believed me when he shrugged, picked up the pot and strolled out the door.

Yeah. This crummy day wasn’t getting any better.

In an effort to get busy, I rearranged my files. They were always out of order and never where I needed them to be. By lunch, I’d wandered to the window in an attempt to see the goings on in the street and thinking about my one phone call this morning. I had a landline installed for a fax machine and only received calls from solicitors and wrong numbers on the thing. The wrong numbers were always for some computer repair shop. Jack’s Computer Repair. I really should hunt Jack down and force him to change his phone number. His number and mine must be a digit off because I probably get more calls for his service than he does. And he has some crazy customers. One lady insisted that Jack make a house call because she couldn’t lift her computer out to her car to bring it in for service. When I asked her what kind of computer she had, she replied it was a laptop. I tried not to laugh when I told her to check her listing since I wasn’t Jack’s assistant.

After the call, I noticed a police car parked in front of the pawnshop next door. I stepped back to my desk to write an email to my sister about Dad, better I tell her what happened at the TV station than the cockamamie story he will tell her, and had just taken out my peanut butter sandwich when the door opened suddenly and a character out of a Zane Grey novel breezed in.

Big hat, fringed vest and white shirt loosely tucked into faded jeans with a red bandanna knotted at his neck. I’ve been around real cowboys all my life in Nevada and this guy was as phony as my cousin’s toupee. With a city event going on, the town filled up with all kinds of wannabe cowboys. This guy barely bumped a one on my interest meter…until he opened his mouth.

* * *


“He stole it! The bum stole it!”

“Hold it. Who stole what?” The perplexed look I sported seemed to rev him up and he began to pace one length of my office to the other. It didn’t take long to make a full circuit and before I could say, “Boo,” the guy was back in front of me.

“That bum! That worthless bum! I told him! I told him!” Zane Grey wagged a finger in my direction before wearing out more shoe leather with fruitless pacing.

“Um, mister…”

The agitated man shook his head before ripping off the bandanna to mop his sweaty brow. Wild eyes reflected the crazy thoughts in his head.

“Why don’t you sit down and…”

“And then,” he all but shouted, “and then he had the nerve to tell me it was worthless!” Zane stopped with a bewildered look on his puffy, red face. “Can you believe it? Worthless?”

“Listen, I might believe anything if you’d take a load off before you collapse on the floor.”

He focused as if he saw me for the first time. “Who are you?”

I took a deep breath. I get all kinds in the PI business, but this kook was one for the books.

“My name is Lucy James and you are in my office.” My monotone seemed to calm him. “Why don’t you sit down and tell me what I can do for you.” There was a momentary lull in the action when I could literally see him mulling that one over.

“Would you like some water?” I pulled out a bottle from a desk drawer and handed it over. He took it and twisted off the cap while staring at me like I was an apparition from the briny deep. I hadn’t a clue what this guy was thinking. Comes with the territory.

After taking a long swallow, the man suddenly collapsed on the chair exhaling every breath in his body. I stood still hoping he would take another breath and not faint on my less-than-hardwood floor. I sat back down to watch him pull himself together. The minutes he took to drink the rest of the water, pull off his large cowboy hat, push back his damp hair and adjust the hat back on his head gave me time to assess the danger. He seemed harmless but in my business you never know for sure until they strike.

His wild look eventually calmed and I presume the man he usually resembled appeared. His clothes didn’t fit properly and I was ready to bet the ranch that he was really a dentist or bricklayer, someone who worked with his hands. I couldn’t help noticing the man’s hands. They were long with slender, graceful fingers without blemish or even the occasional ring. I cocked a curious brow at him—safecracker maybe? Now that would be interesting.

A sheepish grin crept onto his face. Setting the empty bottle on my desk, he wiped his hands down his jeans and sat up straighter. He nodded once and began.

“Sorry about that. I didn’t mean to barge in here raving like a lunatic.” Taking a deep breath, he reached over to pick up the red bandanna from the floor where he’d dropped it and retied it around his neck. “You’re a private investigator, aren’t you? That’s what the sign in your window says.”

I pointed to the framed license on the wall. “Yep. How can I help you?”

He wearily shook his head. “I hardly know where to begin.”

I smiled. “The best place is at the beginning. Tell me who you are and why you’re in town. I didn’t peg you for a local.”

“…Right. I’m not.” He nodded again. “My name is Patrick Walker and I’m here for the Cowboy Festival down in Genoa, south of Carson City. Do you know about it?”

“Sure. Genoa is the oldest city in Nevada and has that event every year. I’ve been a time or two. Are you here alone?”

“No, I came with a friend. We’re members of a riding club in L.A. and we come up for the sights and sounds of the Old West.” His smile was genuine. “We ride, go to the concerts, listen to cowboy poets. It’s great.”

“Sleep out under the stars?” I asked with tongue in cheek.

He laughed. “I guess that part of the Old West will have to stay in the past because we always stay at the Carson Valley Inn not far from the event.”

“Sounds reasonable.” I shifted in my seat. “What else?”

“After the event, my friend had to leave and took off for home, but I wanted to see what my old gun was worth, so I brought it up to Reno to the pawnshop next door.”

“Why all the way up here? There’s pawnshops in Carson City a whole lot closer to Genoa where you’re staying.”

“It was recommended as a good place. They wouldn’t gyp me.”

I was beginning to get the picture, but wanted to hear it from him. “Tell me about this gun.”

Patrick rubbed both hands on his chin like he was starting a fire. It was an agitated movement and I hoped he wouldn’t go off again. I needed the facts of the case.

“We stopped at an estate sale in Bakersfield on our way to Nevada.” His sheepish look came out again. “I enjoy that kind of activity since it’s so different from what I usually do.”

“And what’s that?”

“I’m a concert pianist and play for the L.A. Philharmonic.”

My eyes widened with interest. “No fooling?”

He chuckled. “No fooling.”

I knew he did something with his hands. Am I good or what?

“Well, anyway, I bought two boxes at this estate sale. The contents of some guy’s house were being auctioned off because he recently died. Apparently, there were no heirs and no one wanted anything he had, so there was furniture, clothing and zillions of boxes to be sold sight unseen.”

“What? You just buy a box not knowing the contents?”

He shrugged a shoulder. “Yeah. Sometimes you hit the jackpot and sometimes it’s a bust, but I like the mystery.”

“Have you ever purchased a box and found something really valuable?”

“Sure. At an estate sale last year, the box I bought contained unique antique costume jewelry that I resold for quite a profit but that’s not the norm.”

“And one of the boxes at the Bakersfield estate sale, what was in that?”

He warmed to the subject…literally. His eyes grew excited and a faint blush crept over his cheeks.

“One box had several old pistols inside. Antique revolvers really.”

“I didn’t think guns were allowed to be sold at estate sales.”

“They probably aren’t, but I don’t think anyone knew they were in there. These three old guns were wrapped in a thick cloth under a bunch of junk. Just looking inside the box, you couldn’t see what was there.”

“So the guns…”

“Two were in terrible condition but one was in decent shape. I looked it up on the Internet and it’s a Colt revolver probably issued to the Army Cavalry in the 1800s.”

“Sounds valuable.”

“Well, that’s what I thought too until I got here and took it to the pawnshop next door. The guy just laughed when I asked if it could be authentic.”

“Why’s that?”

“He said it was a million to one that the gun was genuine because the patina was wrong and maker’s marks were lacking.” Patrick shook his head. “I didn’t know what the heck he was talking about, but I trusted him to know his business.”

“How much did he give you for the guns?”

“Bert, his name’s Bert, didn’t want the two that were pretty much wrecked, but the Colt in decent condition, he wanted to give me a hundred dollars for it. When I asked what he would do with it, he mumbled something about keeping the gun in the store for decoration.”

“Did you take it?”

“I told him I wanted to think about it, so he offered to take it as pawn instead. He said that would give me thirty days to decide. You know how pawn works, right?”

“Yeah. In thirty days, you give him the hundred back and he gives you back the gun.”

“That’s how he explained it.”

“What did you say?”

“I told him sure. That would be great. He gave me a receipt for the gun and I left a hundred bucks richer.”

I chewed this over for a minute. “So what got you so hopping mad this morning?”

“After dinner that night, I spoke to a few old-timers in this ancient saloon in Genoa about the gun and they thought it could be more valuable than the pawnshop guy said.” He leaned in like he was about to reveal a deep, dark secret. His eyes darkened with intensity. “The gun could have belonged to Billy the Kid!”

I blinked rapidly, straightened in my chair. “Billy the Kid? That sounds pretty fanciful, the type of find you hope for but it rarely works out.”

Patrick reached into his pocket to draw out a folded piece of paper. He passed it to me.

“Have a look for yourself.”

While I unfolded the paper, a picture of an old Colt revolver torn from a magazine, Patrick pulled out his phone. When he found what he was looking for he handed it over.

“Here. Compare the two pictures. I took one of the gun before selling it. They sure alike to me.”

Comparing the two pictures side by side, I had to admit they did look similar, but I knew looks alone wouldn’t authenticate the gun. He’d need to talk to an expert, maybe several for a western artifact this important. I laid the paper on my desk and passed the phone back to him.

“I’m no expert. Did you ask Bert what he thought?”

He nodded his head briskly. “I called him after dinner and mentioned what the old-timers had said and that the gun looked similar to the one carried by Billy the kid. Which is supposedly lost, by the way.”


“Yes, it was lost in southern Alabama years ago according to the Internet source I checked.”

“But you bought it in California.”

“…Who knows how anything ends up anywhere? Anyway, it seemed worth the trouble of finding somebody to authenticate it.”

“But when you got to the pawnshop today…”

His lips flattened with dismay. “The police were there and Bert was making a report on a robbery. My gun was one of the items stolen.”

“And so you think he stole it himself?”

“If the gun is genuine, it’s worth a fortune. He obviously didn’t want to give it back to me.”

I thought that one over. “Seems like it could be a good smoke screen for losing the gun, but why go to the trouble so fast if he was hanging on to it for thirty days?”

“That’s what I want to know. He wasn’t interested in the gun for anything more than a decoration in his shop until I called with the Billy the Kid information. And the next thing I know, his store is robbed. Seems fishy.”

I was still skeptical. It was an awful lot of trouble to go through to hide a gun that was probably of little value when push came to shove. Or maybe that was the point. Maybe Bert wanted to hang on to it to stall for time, the time needed for authentication. Thirty days wouldn’t be nearly enough. He must have known that Patrick was in town only for a week or so. Seemed fishy to me too although this pawnshop owner had just made himself Captain Obvious if he was in on the robbery. He’s the first one the cops were going to suspect.

When I’d finished staring out the window ticking off the facts in my head, I glanced back at Patrick.

“So? Will you take my case?”

“What is it that you want me to do?”

“Find my missing gun. I have a funny feeling that someone thinks it could be genuine. Whether it is or not has yet to be proven.”

“Agreed.” I nodded and reached into a drawer. “I’ll take the case.” I set a sheet of paper in front of him. “Here’s my standard contract. Let’s talk specifics.” Ten minutes later, I had a signed contract and cash for a retainer in my hands. I waved at Patrick as he walked to the door.

“Bye, Lucy and thanks.”

“I’ll be in touch, Patrick.”

He stopped in the doorway and touched a finger to the brim of his hat. “I feel better already. No worries, ma’am.”

When the door closed behind him, I sagged in my chair. No worries? Worry was my middle name but it’s part and parcel in the PI biz. As Sherlock would say, “The game is afoot.”

And so it was.

* * *


The minute I stepped inside my apartment, a flying ball of fluff tore down the hallway and leaped up at me. I smiled and picked up the squirming mass of white fur.

“Baskerville! Did you miss me?” Licking my face, the toy poodle seemed to have a grin on his doggy face. I dropped my purse and car keys on the hall table and headed into the living room. “Cindy? You home?”

“Kitchen,” came the response.

When I walked into the kitchen, my BFF was standing by the stove stirring a pot of good-smelling soup. She dipped in a ladle and motioned to me.

“Here. Try this. Tell me if it needs more salt.”

Cindy Floyd has been my best friend since grade school and my roomie since she graduated from college a few years ago. Smart and beautiful, she’s been Dr. Watson to my Sherlock Holmes since…forever. She can smell a phony at ten paces and pushed and prodded me until I finally qualified for my private investigator license. Loyal through and through, Cindy knew I could do it, but had to convince me. Sometimes I think she knows me better than I know myself.

I sipped a taste of the soup and caught her glance. She’s actually getting married, something she swore she’d never do…until she met a movie star handsome Reno detective named Skip Callahan. Somehow the clever man maneuvered through her posted defenses through sheer tenacity. It had taken a few years but she finally fell for him and I wasn’t surprised when he proposed. I was surprised when she accepted.

Surprised and saddened. My best friend was moving on with her life and I seemed to be stuck in neutral. Sure my career had picked up, but my love life was miles short of stellar and nowhere close to any kind of altar.

“What do you think?” she asked. Her long, blonde hair was tied back in a tail and her pretty face held a curious expression. “Too much salt?”

I shook my head. “I don’t taste any salt at all.”

“Okay.” She nodded, reached for the shaker. “Salt it is then.”

Setting the dog on the floor, I reached over to feed him a doggy treat from a package on the counter.

“Skip coming for dinner?”

She shook her head with a pout. “He’s working. Some burglary.”

“So it’s just us then,” I remarked.

“Just us. Remember the days when it was only us?”

“I do.”

“Then Skip came along.”

“He did indeed.”

“…And Eric.” Her small smile turned sneaky. I knew where she was headed with this.

“Eric is out of the picture as much as he’s in, Cindy. You know that.” The bottle of wine next to the dog treats was calling my name.

“But he’s in right now. He moved to Reno.”

“He accepted a position at the university as art history professor, not to be by me.”

She set the ladle in the sink, put hands on her waist and gave me that look.

“Lucy James. How can you say that?”

I smiled. “Easily. I open my mouth and the words slip out.”

“Eric moved here to be by you. He even moved his father with him. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”

“Cindy. Wisconsin winters were bad for his dad’s health. You know that. Why the man has had two or three heart attacks and some kind of breathing problem so his doctors advised him to get to a warmer climate.”

“Eric could have gotten a job anywhere. He chose Reno to be by you.”

“Maybe yes, maybe no.” I yawned. “Gotta take a shower. Call me when the soup’s done.”

In the shower, I turned on the water full blast and steaming hot. Trying to think of something besides the man who turned me inside out before leaving me in the lurch, I shivered although my skin objected to the heat. I never thought I’d have Prince Charming at my door and Eric had disappointed me almost as many times as he had charmed me. The jury was out on him too. Burned a few times in the man department

made me cautious and wary, and I just didn’t want to surrender my heart to a man who might stomp on it. Toweling off, it occurred to me that Cindy totally trusted Skip. I admired her for being able to do that. Not sure that kind of feeling about a man would ever happen to me, although thinking about Eric, a dead ringer for the charismatic actor Leonardo DiCaprio, made my stomach flip and my eyes water. Was I happy or sad? Hard to tell. Maybe I was just hungry.

As we ate dinner, wedding details spiced the conversation.

“So you set a date?” I swallowed another spoonful of Cindy’s excellent chicken noodle soup. I was sure going to miss her cooking.

“I think so.” She looked over my shoulder like she’d found a pot of gold. With gleaming eyes, she bounced up. “Let’s try that wine I found.” She plucked it off the counter, filled two glasses. Putting her nose in the glass, Cindy sniffed then took a small sip to swirl. Her puffed cheeks moved comically.

“Any good?” I asked.

She swallowed and nodded vigorously. “We really should join a wine club to get varietals from this winery more often.” Cindy’s palette was discerning enough for her to train to be a sommelier. She baked glorious cakes and pies, had a tony job at one of the casinos where she squired around celebrities and was flat-out gorgeous. I’d be jealous of her if I hadn’t known her most of my life. But I had the goods on her—she’d run away from home one night when she was five but didn’t get far…just down the block where we both lived. It was after dark and she’d only remembered to bring her teddy bear named Paws in her pink Barbie backpack. After doubling back and tossing pebbles at my bedroom window, she’d slept with me that night and my dad took her home the next morning. I knew she’d be mortified if Skip ever heard the story, so I smirked inwardly knowing one of her few indiscretions.

“What’s with the smirk?”

Guess my inward smirk had moved outward.

“Nothing.” I took a sip and agreed. “This is good. Good thing you bought two bottles.”

My soup was disappearing rapidly when I remembered what we were talking about earlier.

“So the wedding date. When is it?”

“Christmas Eve,” she said with a perfectly sincere face.

“You’re kidding.”

“No. We wanted to do it before Skip has to leave town for some forensics training. He’ll be gone for a few weeks. It’ll be fun, Lucy.” She smiled obviously believing the words she was saying.

“Let’s set aside for the moment that Christmas Eve is only a month away. Why would you pick the busiest time of the year? How will that be fun?”

“Don’t worry.” She rose to rinse our bowls and put them in the dishwasher. “I hired a wedding planner and she will see to all the details so we don’t have to.”

“Cindy, there’s so much going on Christmas Eve.”

“Like what?”

I looked at her like she’d suddenly gone insane. “We always buy our gifts Christmas Eve and usually attend a party. Sometimes we head to church, but we always drop in on your parents and my dad. Our schedule is already packed. How can you possibly think about dropping your wedding and subsequent anniversary in the middle of it all?”

She looked at me as though these ideas coming at her were brand spanking new. She’d obviously not thought out the whole scenario. Pouring soap into the dishwasher and pushing control buttons, her face showed she was still reflecting on what I’d said. I knew she’d just gotten excited and picked the date because it was a fun time of year for us.

For us. For me and her.

When Cindy turned, I could tell it was beginning to dawn on her that our world was changing radically. We were best friends but someone new was going to be her best friend soon and I would be living in our apartment alone after the wedding. Maybe not quite alone because I was keeping Baskerville, but the change was supersonic enough to rattle us both. I was losing my roomie, my BFF, my partner in crime. Who would I bounce around my plot ideas on if not for her? She was a better Dr. Watson than the guys in the books and movies.

I could see that Cindy finally realized the depth of what was happening between us. She stepped toward me extending a hand.

“Lucy, listen—“

“I’ve got to get some sleep.” Rising from the table quickly, I nearly knocked my chair over. “I have to work at the movie theater tomorrow and you know what a disaster that always is.” Steadying the chair, I hurried toward my bedroom tossing another evasive comment over my shoulder. “I’ll keep Baskerville tonight. See you in the morning.”

“Night,” I heard her call out as I scooped up the dog and swept into my room before bursting into tears. I didn’t want her to see me cry. Doesn’t make me a hard-ass, it makes me sadder than sad. I couldn’t imagine a Cindy-less Lucy.

Who would I be?

* * *


I was downing my first cup of coffee the next morning standing at the kitchen sink and rehearsing what I wanted to say to Cindy when she got up. I owed her an apology. We’d never held back from one another like I’d held back from her last night and I needed to buck up. Be the friend she needed, accept that things were changing between us and learn how to cope with it.

Just as I’d rehearsed my little speech a couple of times, there was a solid knock at the front door. Peeking through the peephole, I spied Larry James in a sea of red. What now?

“Dad.” I held open the door to my father swimming in a Santa costume a size too big for him. “What on earth are you wearing?”

White, furry eyebrows rose above mischievous eyes and I knew he was up to something. He pushed past me striding towards the kitchen.

“Got some coffee? I need a cup before heading to work.”

“Dad, why are you dressed like Santa Claus?” My eyes could hardly believe the red wool jacket and pants with black belt and boots. White fur decorated the costume matching the long, curly beard around his face attached with a string around his ears. He must have left the hat in the car because his nearly bald head shone with the morning rays from the living room window. It was definitely John Malkovich meets the bearded Christmas guy.

Cindy strolled into the kitchen with Baskerville at her heels but stopped in her tracks when she saw the bald Santa standing in our kitchen pouring a cup of coffee.

“Any milk?”

“In the frig,” she responded giving me the what-in-the-world-is-happening look. I shrugged my shoulders having absolutely no idea whatsoever. But watching him, it occurred to me that this was pretty standard Larry James stuff. Once when I was ten and Timmy, my turtle had died, I was inconsolable so Dad took my sister and me out for ice cream wearing a hat strangely resembling Cookie Monster from Sesame Street. A fuzzy mop of blue fur sat on his head with bulging eyeballs staring at us. To say we were embarrassed is mild. But as Dianne dug into her ice cream and I circled my dish warily, Dad kept trying to ply me with a plate of wafer-thin cookies. “Mmm. Cookies,” he’d say before smashing one in his mouth. After remnants of the fourth cookie flew everywhere, I was past embarrassment and was laughing to beat the band. It was his way of dealing with unpleasantness.

With Cindy and me staring at him and Baskerville sniffing his shiny boots, Larry James finally acknowledged us with a grin.

“Morning, ladies. I was out of coffee but knew you’d probably have some, so I’m killing two birds with one stone.”

“Please don’t kill them in our kitchen, Dad.”

“Funny, Lucy. I’m just saving myself a phone call.”

We waited. The silence was ready to swallow us up before he continued. He took another sip, licked his lips, put down the cup and placed gloved hands on his too-lean stomach. “Ho ho ho,” he bellowed. “I’m the new Santa at Sierra Summit Mall!” He said it so proudly I wasn’t sure if I should applaud or laugh.

“When did this happen?”

“I saw an ad online that the mall needed another Santa so I applied and they hired me immediately. I do have experience with children, you know.”

I didn’t want to point out the obvious comedown from his hit TV show to working the crowds at a mall, so I wisely swallowed the comment. Glancing at Cindy I said tentatively, “Well, that’s…great, Dad.”

Blinking back her surprise, Cindy jumped into the pause. “Sure, Mr. James. You’ve got lots of experience with children so this job should be a snap for you.”

He beamed at us both then shot down the hallway toward the front door nearly stepping on a still curious toy poodle.

“Thanks for the support, ladies. Now I’m off to work. I have to show that no-account Morgan that children still want to see me. If this works, he’ll be begging me to be Uncle Ollie again.” He jerked open the door with exaggerated flair and waved at us. “Merry Christmas to all!” And he was gone.

Cindy and I stood frozen watching the scene as though it had happened in a movie. Still staring at the closed door, Cindy said, “Who was that bearded man?”

I stared at the closed door with her. “My father, I think.”

She turned to me. “Has he lost his marbles?”

“Possibly. With Dad it’s hard to tell.”

“I’ll say.” She picked up Baskerville to give him his breakfast and poured a cup of coffee for herself. “He didn’t leave us much coffee.”

I got the container of orange juice from the refrigerator and tilted it up for a drink.

“Get a glass.”

My little speech of apology popped back into my mind. When she got married, who would tell me to get a glass and not drink from the carton?

Suddenly her face lit up and she dissolved into laughter. Cindy’s laugh is infectious and I was soon laughing as hard as I ever had with her. I didn’t know if we were laughing about my outrageous father or the orange juice, but it didn’t matter. My apology dried up faster than this morning’s burned toast. She dropped the squirming dog on the floor before slipping into a chair at the table. I staggered into another one, took one look at her and dissolved into laughter again. Every time we stopped laughing, all we had to do was look at one another and we’d fall apart again. It was as cathartic as it was funny. She reached for the box of tissues on the counter to hand me one. I wiped my eyes, held onto my aching stomach and found the words.

“I…don’t want to…lose you, Cindy. You’re my best friend in the world and I know my life won’t be worth living without you in it.”

Her eyes moistened anew, although she was still smiling. She reached for my hand.

“Lucy James. I knew exactly what was going through your mind last night and I feel terrible that we haven’t had this talk before now.”

“What talk?” A tear rolled down my cheek.

“The talk where I explain that you’re not losing me, you’re gaining another partner-in-crime.”

I could see my skeptical look reflected in her eyes.

“We’re best friends, Lucy. Skip knows that and isn’t trying to replace you. He knows we go off on these hair-brained adventures, which I’m sure won’t end any time soon. He isn’t trying to stop us and maybe we can find a little room to include him sometimes, if bringing him along fits the situation.” She nodded her encouragement. “Maybe Eric will work out too.”

I smiled, wiped my moist cheeks. “Eric. Remember when I slammed my finger in his car door on our first date?”

She grinned back. “The date when I finally got you to wear a dress. We used to wear dresses all the time when we were little.”

“I’m beginning to like wearing dresses again, Cindy.”

“Good because that means you’re moving past…you know.”

“Yes, I know.”

We stared at one another holding hands and listening to Baskerville’s puffy breathing.

“I remember this one housedress she wore with flowers all over it. Lots of pink and yellow flowers, roses maybe.” I swallowed tears. “My mom looked beautiful in dresses.”

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