* * * * *
"Peri, you see my other sock?"
"In the kitchen, under a chair."
"And my tie-"
"On the printer in my office." She rolled over on her side and pushed herself from the bed. "Okay. I'm up."
Skip walked over and kissed her forehead. "Stay in bed, Doll. It's only six."
She stretched her long legs out before putting her feet on the cool wood floor. "And yet, we've already had such a lovely chat." Yawning, she shuffled toward the bathroom. "I should run before my meeting, anyway."
Ten minutes later, Peri followed the smell of coffee to the kitchen and found Skip sitting at the table, reading the paper. He looked handsome in his creamy button-down shirt and chocolate slacks. A Placentia Police Department detective badge lay on the table, along with his gun.
"I thought you had to leave early." She dug around in the refrigerator, moving last night's takeout boxes to get to the cranberry juice.
"I've got enough time to read the sports page. What's on your agenda for the day?"
"New client at ten. Don Keller."
"Don Keller? The developer?"
Peri closed the refrigerator, a small bottle of juice in her hand. "That's him."
"Why does he want to see you?"
"Oh, I don't know, because I'm a private investigator and he has something to investigate?" She frowned. "What's wrong with him coming to see me?"
Skip put the paper down. "Nothing. It's just that, he's kind of high-end."
"So was Mrs. Cheavers, but she came slumming to my part of town." She swallowed a handful of vitamins with her juice. "Of course, her husband shot me, which only proves you can never judge people."
Skip rose and picked up his badge and gun. "Well, if this is another cheating spouse case, maybe you should ask Keller if his wife is packing before you take it." He pulled Peri to him for a kiss, then took a step back to look at her.
"Shouldn't you get some new running clothes?"
Peri looked down at her gray tee-shirt and black spandex shorts. She grabbed the shirt and held it out toward Skip. "Property of the PPD. Don't you like it?"
"It's just looking kinda old and sad."
She laughed. "Since when do I care how I look when I'm running? As a matter of fact, why do you care?"
"You got a great body, Doll-"
She patted his cheek. "For a fifty-year old."
"Well you don't look more than thirty-five. But those shorts are all stretched out, and I'm pretty sure that's my shirt."
"Again, who cares? I'm running a couple of miles, after which I'll be a sweaty mess anyway."
"I just think you could look a little nicer-"
Skip's cell phone interrupted them. Peri wrapped a scrunchy around her thick, blonde ponytail and stuck it through an Angels baseball cap.
"That was Dispatch," Skip said. "They got a call from your neighbors. It's Mrs. Peters."
"Uh-oh. Is she?"
He nodded. "It's gonna be pretty gruesome over there. I guess no one noticed they hadn't seen her in awhile."
She winced. "Eew. Poor Dottie. Bob died of a heart attack just a few weeks ago, and now she goes."
"Sometimes it happens like that."
"Can I come with you to Dottie's?"
"I thought you were going running."
Peri leaned into Skip, tilting her face to meet his. "I was, but I'd rather visit the scene."
"You have that meeting at ten."
"It's not even seven. I just want to peek in, Skipper."
He grimaced. "Dressed like that?"
"Oh, dear God, what is it with you and my clothes this morning? Did you get up on the fashionista side of the bed?"
She threw the juice bottle into the recycle bin, causing the other plastic bottles to spring up and scatter on the floor. "Never mind. I'm going running."
"We on for dinner tonight?"
Peri turned to face her boyfriend. "I don't know - I gotta get my tiara out of the dry cleaners." Her final word hit at the same time as the slamming door. "Later."
Who does he think he is? Peri's mind raced as her legs pumped along the sidewalk in her Placentia neighborhood. Normally, she started out at a slow trot, stretching, and increasing her speed. Today, her anger spilled into her muscles.
Stevie Ray Vaughn played a scathing riff into her ears, louder than usual, but she didn't adjust the volume. Instead, she let the shrill music goad her into running faster, the cool October air waking her lungs. Small, Spanish-style bungalows flew past her vision as she loped down the street. Even in this working-class neighborhood, the tiny front yards were well manicured. She caught glimpses of flower beds with a variety of color, from tall birds of paradise to the lower night-blooming jasmine. The occasional whiff of the jasmine smelled delicious, and Peri noted how much she loved the tiny, tempting wafts of scent, even if she hated the same smell in a perfume bottle.
She moved to the pavement, where she liked to run whenever possible, as the asphalt was kinder to her knees, even if it meant keeping an eye on the traffic. All the way, she griped soundlessly at her boyfriend.
Skip Carlton, thinks he's all that, just because he's a detective on the Placentia force… a good-looking, single detective… how dare he complain about my running clothes? It's because of that stupid article in the Register last week.
The Orange County Register had published an interview with Skip as part of Chief Fletcher's desire to raise the dial on the PPD's friendly meter. Peri couldn't wait for the article to be published; after she read it, she couldn't wait to burn it. The female reporter made it sound less like a career profile and more like a resume for a dating service.
"Placentia's most eligible detective?" she'd read aloud. "Because we're not married, you're eligible?"
Skip acted perplexed. "I don't get it. All she asked was, if I was married."
"And you said?"
Damn his police training, she thought, remembering the conversation. Never offer more information than you're asked. Now he thinks he's hot stuff, giving me fashion tips - about what to sweat in? What a horse's ass.
Peri rounded the corner near Morse Elementary School and headed back toward her home. She could hear a vague cacophony of sound and glanced over at the campus. Children of various sizes and shades littered the grass, running and jumping and standing and falling. It seemed early for the school day – this was probably the day care shift. Adults, teachers perhaps, hustled in and out of the low, brick buildings.
A ball jumped against the metal fence surrounding the playground, and a small boy ran up to get it, red-faced. His mouth moved, but Peri couldn't hear him over the music pounding through her head. She decided to make a little detour and run by Dottie's house, just in case there was something to see.
In addition to being her neighbor, Dottie had been one of her clients when Peri owned her housecleaning business. She gave a discount to every elderly client, but she especially liked the Peters and knocked a few dollars more off their bill.
Two police cars, the coroner's van, and Skip's dark SUV were still parked in front of the house. Peri slowed down to a trot and crossed the street. She saw two shadows just inside the screen door. The smaller shadow, a female, leaned into the tall, male frame, who bent over her.
Peri stopped short of the yellow tape as soon as she recognized the tall shadow. Skip looked cozy with someone.
Part of Skip's job entailed comforting people, so she had no reason to be jealous. Still, something tugged at the bottom of her stomach, like sour milk. She wavered, briefly, and glanced down at her tee-shirt, which was dark with perspiration. Was that a hole next to the 'D'? Maybe this wasn't her best look, even if she did want to snoop around Dottie's house.
Peri made a U-turn and headed for home. She trotted easily for a block before stopping. The hell with appearances, she wanted to see inside that house.
Sorry, Skip. Looking good will have to wait.
By the time she returned to Dottie's, she saw a familiar brunette walking toward the Coroner's van. In addition to being the assistant coroner, Blanche Debussy had been Peri's best friend since high school.
Peri slowed to a walk and met Blanche at the van. "I heard about Dottie. How bad was it?"
"She was definitely on the compost side of the street." The petite woman put her glasses in their case and looked up at her friend. "How are you?"
"Good, considering Skip and I started off with a fight this morning."
"How many rounds?"
"Fifteen. No decision." Peri laughed. "He got on my case today about my running clothes. I mean, really." She looked down at her outfit, gesturing. "What else do you run in?"
"Looks like what I wear."
"Exactly. I guess now that he's the PPD's most eligible bachelor, he needs me to dress like arm candy."
"What a horse's ass." Blanche's husky voice made every opinion sound like fact.
Peri looked up and saw Skip at the front door. She smiled and waved. "Yeah, but he's my horse's ass."
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