The dead are not much given to hysteria. The morning Tammy Sue Lyerly piled her husband’s clothes into his Raven Black 1969 Mustang convertible and lit a match, my friend Colleen stayed oddly nonchalant. She’d been dead eighteen years and had seen a thing or two.
For her part, Tammy Sue was pitching an F5 hissy fit. She dug all ten fingers into her 1980s pile of long red hair, clutched her head, and bellowed, “Let it burn.”
Four Stella Maris volunteer firemen cast her worried looks but went about the business of hooking up the hose to the fire hydrant. We stood in a loose huddle a safe distance from the burning car in the Lyerly driveway.
“I asked you what you were doing here,” said Blake.
My brother, Blake, was the Stella Maris Police Chief. My husband, Nate, and I were private investigators, and Blake purely hated it when we meddled in his business.
“I called her,” said Daddy. “I overheard at the flea market that your sister’d done some work for Tammy Sue recently. Thought maybe she’d want to know.” Daddy shrugged, looked innocent. Mamma and Daddy lived across the street from the Lyerlys, so naturally Daddy was first on the scene. Mamma had come with him. She raised an eyebrow to let him know she had his number. It wasn’t yet eight o’clock. Daddy sipped coffee from a large insulated stainless steel travel mug, all nonchalant like.
“For cryin’ out loud, Dad. We don’t need the whole town out here this morning.” Blake gave his head a shake. He scanned the neighborhood we’d grown up in. Folks gathered in clumps under the shade of massive live oaks in bordering yards. They’d all come out to see the show. The audience was growing fast. It was early on a Tuesday in the middle of June. Some of those folks were missing work. Blake lifted his Red Sox cap, ran a hand through his hair, and resettled the cap.
Tammy Sue grabbed my arm with one hand and clutched her chest dramatically with the other. “Well, I want her here, and you don’t have a single thing to say about it. This is my property.”
“Yours and Zeke’s.” Blake kept his tone easy, casual. “Where did you say Zeke was again?”
“He’s with that cheap hussy, Crystal Chapman.” Tammy’s eyes glowed with crazy. She leaned forward and hurled the words at Blake. “And he’d better by God not come home unless he wants me to light his ass on fire too.”
A particularly flammable piece of clothing caught fire in a whoosh. The flames climbed, crackled, and popped.
Blake closed his eyes.
“I just don’t see Zeke Lyerly being worth all this fuss, do you?” Colleen’s expression telegraphed her boredom. It was a slow morning otherwise on the island. Colleen was our guardian spirit. If she’d had anything better to do, she would’ve been elsewhere—she wanted that on the record.
I raised my brows and blew out a breath. Nate and I had worked a great many domestic cases. One thing I knew for sure: when love soured, it could turn sane people into raving lunatics.
Colleen said, “Everyone thinks he’s so good looking. I don’t see it.”
“Seriously?” I squinched my face. Zeke was a fine example of the Southern male. I’d give him that much, and I was happily married and didn’t generally notice such things. Tall and lanky, with sun-kissed brown hair cut close to keep it from curling, mischievous blue eyes, an easy, movie-star smile, and a down-home drawl, Zeke was prone to flirt. He was a charmer.
Nate quirked an eyebrow. A grin teased the corners of his mouth.
Damnation. I’d responded to Colleen out loud. No one but Nate and me could see or hear Colleen. I used to be her only human point of contact. But as soon as Nate and I were married in December, he was added to the family plan.
A wayward lock of dark blond hair brushed his forehead. His eyes were shockingly blue against his tanned, sculpted face. He kept his honeyed drawl low, where only I could hear. “We should never’ve given Tammy Sue those pictures.”
I cast him a look that said, Give me a break. We’d had no choice in the matter. Tammy Sue hired us to find out if Zeke was cheating. In my heart I just knew we’d find some crazy Zeke thing—he was a certifiable character, no doubt. But I would’ve bet he was true to Tammy Sue and our investigation would prove that, just like the last time she’d hired us. Unfortunately, I would’ve lost that bet.
Pete Carter, one of the volunteer firemen, trained the hose on the car and doused the flames.
Daddy’s face was grim. “Shame to destroy such a pretty car like that.” He gave Tammy Sue a reproachful look. “That’s a collectible.”
Tammy’s crazy eyes widened.
“Now Tammy Sue.” I smoothed words on her like balm. “I understand you’re upset—anyone would be under the circumstances. But really, all you’ve accomplished here is destroying a marital asset—a valuable one at that.”
“I couldn’t care less about the money.” Tammy Sue’s voice was harsh. Then she softened it to a stage whisper. “My whole world has just fallen to pieces.” Tears pooled in her eyes.
“But you will care about the money,” said Nate. “When you’ve had time to process everything, trust me, the money is going to matter. It always does.”
“Boy howdy,” said Colleen. “You mortals are all about the money.”
Clay Cooper, Blake’s second in command, crossed the wide Lyerly front lawn. “Blake, I taped off the area. You want me to take statements?”
“Nah, I think it’s pretty clear what happened here,” Blake said.
“What happened here is that cheap tramp seduced my husband and destroyed our lives. Can’t you arrest her for something? Alienation of affection?”
“That might be a cause for civil action, but it’s not against the law,” said Blake. “On the other hand, if Zeke wants to press charges for destruction of property—”
“He wouldn’t dare.” Something flickered behind Tammy Sue’s eyes. She wasn’t completely sure of that, was my guess. She clutched her heaving chest and looked at me, a question in her eyes.
“I seriously doubt he’d do that.” I gave Blake a withering look.
Nate rubbed a spot on his neck above the white collar of his Columbia shirt. “I guess it depends on how attached he is to that car.”
“Sure is a pretty car,” said Daddy. “It’s one of only three like it in the world, Zeke told me. Sixty-nine was when they came out with the Mach 1. That car—with the GT Equipment Group and 428ci Cobra Jet—it’s rare.”
Mamma piped up. “Frank, your automotive trivia is not helpful in the slightest. Tammy Sue doesn’t need to be burdened with your appraisal of the car this morning. Why don’t you find something helpful to do?”
“Well, Red Bird, the fire department has things under control, it looks like to me.” Daddy gestured with his mug towards the soaked, smoldering car. Red Bird was one of his pet names for Mamma, an homage to her auburn hair. “What did you have in mind?”
“Perhaps you could go and find Zeke.” Mamma raised her chin, extended beyond her five feet two inches. “Maybe he stayed at the shop last night.”
Zeke owned and operated Lyerly’s Automotive, a repair shop, over on Palmetto Boulevard.
“Why would he do that?” asked Daddy.
“Frank.” Mamma gave him The Look—the one she usually reserved for Blake, me, and our sister, Merry. All three of us had her cobalt blue eyes. None of us communicated as effectively with them.
“Carolyn, Zeke has never spent the night in that shop. Not one time,” Daddy said.
“I didn’t know you kept such close tabs on Zeke’s sleeping arrangements. Do you do that for all your poker buddies, or just the ones more than ten years younger than you whose gun collections you admire?”
Mamma turned up the volume on The Look. I could read her mind clear as day. Surely Daddy could too. She was thinking as to how she didn’t care where Daddy found Zeke—just that he found him lickety-split.
“Well, I’ll go check then,” said Daddy. He didn’t move.
Pete Carter stepped forward, but kept his distance.
“Tammy Sue? Could we get the keys to the car? We cut the battery cables. The flames are out, but just to be on the safe side, we need to fill the trunk with water to keep any sparks away from the gas tank.” Tammy Sue took a step towards him, yelled, “I hope the gas tank catches and the whole thing burns ’til it’s nothing but a chunk of melted metal. You hear me? When it cools off, I’m going to move it into the grass and plant flowers around it.”
Blake said, “Tammy Sue, I think it’s safe to say you’ve made your point with Zeke. Enough’s enough.”
Nate said, “Here now, why don’t you let me have the keys?”
She crossed her arms, gave her head a stubborn shake. “I want him to see it burning.”
“Have you called him?” I asked Blake.
“Tried. He’s not answering his cell,” said Blake.
I said, “Tammy, if the gas tank catches fire, there could be an explosion.” I knew this wasn’t true, that cars rarely exploded when the gas tank caught fire. But I was betting Tammy didn’t know that.
Defiance settled into carved stone on her face. “I hope it bursts into a sky-high, brilliant blaze of red and orange spangled glory with shooting stars and blows that car straight to kingdom come on a moonbeam.”
Blake looked at the ground, inhaled slowly. “Of course you do.”
“I’ll get the crowbar.” Pete backed away a few steps, then dashed off.
“We need some fireworks.” Tammy raised her voice and hollered, “Anyone got fireworks?”
“Oh, dear,” said Mamma. “I’m afraid you’re overwrought.” “
And a twenty-one-gun salute.” Tammy spun towards Daddy, her expression fevered. “Frank, get your guns. We’ll have a tribute for the car.”
Daddy tilted his head towards his shoulder, made a face like maybe he was considering her request.
“Frank.” Mamma’s tone held a warning.
I said, “Tammy Sue, why don’t we get you inside?” I nodded towards her and Zeke’s creamy painted brick ranch.
“No.” She shook her head, then nodded. She trembled, seemed to buzz with manic energy. “I need to watch.”
Mamma clucked. “My gracious. The humidity’s gotten to you, is what it is.” She put an arm around Tammy. “How about a glass of iced tea? Maybe with some soothing mint? Do you want me to call someone for you?”
A look of consternation washed over Mamma’s face. I wondered who she might call and reflected how she was wondering the same thing. Tammy Sue wasn’t originally from Stella Maris. Her family was elsewhere. Who were her close friends? She and Mamma were neighbors and friendly, yes. But Tammy was in her early forties, more than ten years younger than Mamma. They ran in different circles for the most part.
For a split second, Tammy held her ground. Then she crumbled, put her head on Mamma’s shoulder, tucking in to her embrace. “Thank you so much, Carolyn.”
Mamma patted Tammy’s head, then gentled her towards the house. “There, there now.”
“I’m going to go inside with them,” I said to Nate.
“All right. I’ll just—”
“Ah, hell—” Blake stared towards the car.
Pete backed away from the open trunk, dropped his crowbar. “Dear Lord, no.”
Tammy raised her head, turned, and let loose a primal scream. “Zeke.”
Nate lunged and grabbed her just before she hit the ground, nearly taking Mamma with her.
I stepped towards the car.
There Zeke Lyerly was in the trunk, clearly quite dead, his body frozen in a strange position with his back and neck stiffly arched and his limbs tucked behind him. Mercifully, at least for the rest of us, the fire hadn’t reached the trunk. He wore his work clothes, jeans and a shirt with his name on the pocket. His face was frozen in a ghastly grin, his eyes wide open.
I fought the urge to look away and studied him closely. A clamor of shock erupted behind me.
“How did I not see that coming?” Colleen sounded confused, indignant.
“Father in Heaven, help us,” said Mamma.
“Zeke…” Daddy’s voice was thick with grief.
Next to me, Blake muttered a few curse words. “All right. Everyone step back, but no one leave the area. Coop?”
“Yeah, Blake,” Clay Cooper called from beside the fire truck.
“Looks like we need those statements after all.” Blake pulled out his cell phone.
I backed away from the car. Poor Zeke. Could this be real? Maybe a horrible prank?
“I’ve got to check in.” Colleen faded out.
Nate met my gaze. “Probably for the best she’s out from under foot.”
“Come again?” Blake looked at Nate sideways.
I fought my way out of a stunned stupor. “You’ll want our help on this.”
Murders were rare in our small island town off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina. My brother was not an experienced homicide investigator. Nate and I had worked many murder cases, most of them as a part of the defense team, granted. But this was the kind of situation Blake and the town council had anticipated when they retained us as outside investigators.
Blake pursed his lips, sighed, and nodded. “I’ll call the county and get a forensics team out here right after I get ahold of Doc Harper.” He tapped his phone and raised it to his ear. “Hey, Doc. I need you right away at Zeke Lyerly’s house.”
Nate and Mamma murmured back and forth and ministered to Tammy Sue.
“I’m taking Tammy across the street to your parents’ house,” Nate said. “We need an EMT.” He scooped her up and carried her, still unconscious, across the yard.
“Roger that,” Blake said. “Nah, Doc. It can’t wait. We’ve got a death here, and it doesn’t get much more suspicious than this. Right. Thanks.”
Mamma trailed behind Nate. “Frank, help Nate. As soon as we get Tammy settled, I need to set out some drinks and get lunch together.”
That’s my Mamma. She knew her role, and by golly no one would go hungry on her watch. I turned back to Blake, kept my voice low. “I think Zeke’s been poisoned.”
“Poisoned?” Blake screwed up his face in a look that called my common sense into question.
“Strychnine, unless I miss my guess. There are no obvious wounds, but his body looks like it’s in mid-spasm. Strychnine causes violent convulsions. Victims’ bodies are often contorted like Zeke’s. His face…They call that a death mask. If it was strychnine, it was a horrible way to die. And almost certainly not an accident.”
“No, that damn sure doesn’t look like an accident to me.” Blake wore a sick expression, like he’d eaten bad food himself.
“Technically,” I said, “he could’ve died accidentally, then someone hid his body in the trunk. I’m not saying that’s what I think happened. But it’s possible. We need Doc Harper to tell us for sure. Be right back.”
I circled the Mustang, leaving a wide swath, snapping pictures at every angle. I stopped in the driveway, faked a FaceTime call by holding the phone a foot from my face and chatting to thin air while I tapped “video,” and got a panorama of the throng of neighbors pressing as close as they dared to the crime scene tape. Was Zeke’s killer among them?
I walked back to where Blake waited in the grass.
“Are you going to have a conflict here?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Your client has a damn fine motive. Former client. The town of Stella Maris is your client now. If Tammy Sue—”
“Tammy Sue did not do this,” I said. “She’s positively stricken—didn’t you notice how she fainted dead away?”
“What I noticed is that she has a flair for drama.”
“You think that was an act? Her passing out and almost pulling Mamma to the ground?”
“Simplest solution. You’re the one always trottin’ out Occam’s razor.”
“That’s not the simplest solution. That’s simpleminded, is what it is,” I said.
“Well, until you bring me a better suspect, she’s the only one I have. You’d better get to work.”
I pulled out my iPhone, unlocked it with my fingerprint, tapped “Phone,” then Nate’s name at the top of my favorites list. It took him five rings to pick up.
“I know you’ve got your hands full,” I said, “but Blake has it in his head that Tammy is guilty until we prove her innocent. I’m thinking one of us needs to talk to Crystal before word spreads. But one of us needs to be here.”
“Agreed,” he said. “You go. Your mamma is taking over things here. I’ll head back across the street and wait with Blake for Doc Harper and the forensics team.”
“It’ll take hours for them to process everything.”
“No doubt it will. Go on now, find Crystal. See what you can learn. For all we know she’s already left town.”
I glanced at poor Zeke, at the soaked, burnt-out, remnants of his Mustang. “Whoever did this is a stone-cold killer. I hope they make our job easy by leaving town in a hurry.”
Copyright © 2019 Susan M. Boyer. All rights reserved.