Chris Phipps

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First Chapter of Love, Murder and a Good Bottle of Wine

Posted By on February 12, 2016

Love, Murder and a Good Bottle of Wine

Chapter 1

Allison turned off the two-lane highway into the casino parking lot, drove past several open parking spaces and maneuvered the 1996 Ford Explorer onto the adjoining unpaved lot, parking out of range of the security lights. It wasn’t likely he’d look for her here, but she’d rather not chance it. If it did occur to him, it would be a while, so she had some time.

She sat in the darkness for a few minutes, watching the casino, then turned on the dome light and glanced at her reflection in the rear-view mirror. God, she looked pale. And her hair had a serious case of bed head. Out of habit, she reached toward the passenger seat for her purse. It wasn’t there.

“Damn him,” she muttered, subconsciously rubbing her arm where he’d grabbed it.

She opened the glove compartment. Amid the usual clutter of flashlight, tire pressure gauge, and car manuals, she found a tube of lipstick and seven dollars and eighty-three cents. The lipstick tasted rancid. How long had it rattled around in the car? Well, it wasn’t like she planned to kiss anybody.

Her reflection in the mirror looked like a ghost, or possibly a vampire, with straggly red-blonde hair, pale face, and lips like a bloody gash. Wiping at the lipstick, she blended a little from her fingertips onto her cheeks. Better. Not quite so pale. She ran her fingers through her hair, trying to untangle it. Impossible. It would help if she had something to tie it back. She glanced at the camping gear in the rear of the Explorer. She wasn’t likely to find anything there.

She spotted an old sneaker and eyed its lace. Not exactly cutting-edge style, but better than nothing.

When she finished with her hair, she sat still for a few minutes, watching the parking lot.

Habit, long ingrained, compelled her to reach for her purse before she got out. When her fingers again failed to make contact, she automatically turned to look, and her gaze settled on the cup holder. She flipped it open, exposing the change and small bills Scott kept there for parking, netting a five-dollar bill, seven ones, and five quarters. A little more than twenty dollars, total. At least she wasn’t flat broke.

After she’d turned off the dome light, locked the Explorer, shoved the keys in one jeans pocket and the money in another, she headed across the lot to the casino.

The flashing neon, clashing red and purple decor, and a cacophony of loud voices and electronic slot machines started a dull ache behind her eyes. Edging around gaming tables and heedless gamblers, she found her way to the food court and a cup of too-strong coffee. Sipping it, she tried to plan her next move. It was a little after ten; in a few hours, it should be safe to go back.

“Buy you a drink?”

“What? Oh, no thanks. I’m getting ready to head home.”

A husky, tanned man slid onto the chair beside her, setting his drink on the table. He looked up at the keno board. “How’d you do? I cleaned up pretty good at the blackjack table. Sure you don’t want a drink?” He leaned toward her, his leg pressed against hers. “Or we can go somewhere else.”

She moved her leg away from his. “No thanks. Not interested.”

“Well, okay. But if you change your mind–like I said, I’ve got money.” He laid a hairy hand near hers, exposing ragged, dirty fingernails. His leg moved against hers again. She shifted away.

“Look. I told you I’m not interested.”

Her raised voice caught the attention of a man walking by the table—one who looked like he could be a linebacker. He stopped in mid-stride. “Everything okay here?”

“I don’t think he understands the meaning of the word no. I just want him to leave me alone.”

The man with dirty fingernails got up, raising both hands, palms outward. “Hey, I’m leaving. I just wanted to buy the lady a drink.” He turned, pushed through a group of gamblers, and worked his way toward the poker tables.

Her rescuer’s gaze traveled from her tousled hair to her face, making her all too aware of her bedraggled appearance. “Are you okay?”

“I’m good. Thanks for getting rid of the jerk.”

“No problem.” He hesitated, gave her a brief nod and went on his way.

She took her time finishing the coffee, then found a penny slot machine. The cocktail waitress came through and took her order for water. “Could I get something for a headache, too?”

“Sure.” The waitress moved on, taking drink orders from other gamblers.

“Headache?” The guy with dirty fingernails slid onto a stool at the next machine, startling her. “You look like you’ve had a rough night.” His stare lingered on her hips and waist for several seconds, then moved up to her chest. Resisting the impulse to cross her arms across her breasts, she turned her back to him, stood and cashed out.

“Little thing, ain’t you?” he said. “What are you, about five feet one or two? Don’t look to me like you’d weigh much more’n a hunert pounds if you was sopping wet.”

She ignored him and headed for the bar.

“What can I get you?” the bartender asked. He pointed at a rectangular pin on his lapel, black with white lettering. “I’m Alan, by the way.”

“Hi, Alan. Is a guy following me? A husky guy, kind of dark? Maroon sweatshirt?”

Alan looked across the casino floor. “I don’t see anybody. He give you that bruise?”

“Bruise? Oh.” She raised a hand to her jaw, then dropped it. Was that what the scumbag had meant by a rough night?

“No, that was kind of an accident.”

Alan raised an eyebrow.

“It isn’t what you think.” She stopped, impatient with herself. “Never mind.”

Alan nodded, like he’d heard it all before. “What about the guy following you?”

She swiveled on the stool. “He’s still there?”

“No. You said some guy is following you.”

“Oh. Him. Just some creep who keeps hitting on me. Doesn’t understand no.”

“Give me a description. I’ll call Security.”

He filled orders for a drink runner and waited on several customers before he came back. “Security hasn’t seen the guy. Looks like he’s gone, but they’ll keep an eye out for him.”

“Thanks.” She headed for a ladies’ room to check out the bruise, a darkened area spreading upward from beneath the left side of her jaw. It didn’t do much for the overall image. Maybe if she tried to do something with her hair? She shook her head. Not without a comb.

She went back to the casino floor, where she strolled around, playing a few coins here and there, watching the other gamblers. She found another penny slot machine and played it slowly, just a single line at a time, not really interested, just killing time.

Was Scott still looking for her, or had he given up for the night? He was probably sprawled across the bed in a drunken stupor, only a few feet from the chair where she’d unwillingly abandoned her purse. She might be able to sneak in and grab it without waking him. If he was asleep. What if he wasn’t, if he was waiting for her?

She had no choice. There was no way to get into Caro’s house without the key. Unless . . .

Caro, years ago, had shown her a spare key, hanging from a tiny hook screwed to the bottom of a patio bench. “In case you get locked out again.”

That was thirteen years ago, when she had been sixteen, a year after Caro had given her a home. Would the key still be there, or had Caro moved it?

She glanced at her watch. It was almost midnight, late to be calling. She hadn’t wanted to get Laura mixed up in this, but she might know about the key and, under the circumstances, she wouldn’t mind a late-night call from her cousin.

Now if she could just find a telephone.

Laura answered on the second ring. “Where are you? Scott called, and I kept waiting for you to phone, or to come and crash.”

“Damn! I didn’t think he’d bother you. He must know you wouldn’t tell him anything. I didn’t go to your house because that’s the first place he’ll look for me. For all I know, he’s staked out there right now.”

Silence on the other end. She could picture her cousin holding back a section of drape, peering at the cars parked along the street. “Laura, I was kidding.”

At least, she thought she was. Could he really be there? No, he didn’t have the patience to sit still, especially in the cramped seat of her Corolla, with binoculars trained on Laura’s house. But he might drive around, looking for the Explorer.

Had he found the letter? Of course. He couldn’t have missed it when he dug into her purse, looking for her set of keys. Something else for him to be angry about.

“Where are you?” Laura asked. “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.” Her hand moved up to stroke her bruised jaw. “I thought I’d go down to Caro’s house and spend a day or two there, but I don’t have my key. She used to hide one on the patio. Do you know if it’s still there?”

“I’d forgotten all about that key. It was there two years ago. Caro called when you were in Hawaii, and asked me to go down and get some stuff to mail to her. I didn’t have my key with me, and I was showing houses in Orangevale, if I remember right. Anyway, she told me about the key under the bench. It’s probably still there.”

“Great. I’ll head on down. Thanks, Laura. Now, go to bed and get some sleep. I’m okay.”

In her peripheral vision, she caught a glimpse of maroon. She turned, searching for the husky man. Had he been watching? Listening? She didn’t see anybody who looked like him. Just jumpy nerves.

She worked her way to the door, then strode across the lot, wishing she hadn’t parked so far away. There was nobody close by, and only a few cars remained in the outer parking slots. She picked up her pace as she stepped off the asphalt into the unpaved lot, and squinted into the darkness for the outlines of the Explorer.

“Heading out?” The voice came from the half-lit area behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. Dirty Fingernails. He was close. It was too far to go back and she couldn’t outrun him—not with her short legs.

She had no other options, so she ran, and with every desperate step, she swore, “Damn you, Scott. Damn you to hell.”



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