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Blown To Pieces PTO Murder Club Mystery Book 2

Blown To Pieces 08/30/2015

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CHAPTER ONE

It’s taken me years to hone my be-in-the-wrong-place-at-the-right-time skills. Not everyone can boast buying the million-dollar scratch-off right after the winning one . . . twice.

Last week, armed with my razor-sharp skills, I got shot in the shoulder while taking down the man who killed my son’s kindergarten teacher.

Okay, I didn’t actually take down my friend’s killer. More like I tracked him down and my best friend, Haley, pulled the trigger. Now, she’s an honest-to-God badass in Burberry and Blahniks. I’m more of a Marshalls tag-blacked-out kind of girl.

Okay, tracking him down isn’t entirely accurate either—more like we stumbled upon him and then took him down.

That pretty much sums up my life. I’m a stumble-uponer and not a tracker-downer.

My name is Mustang Ridges, and I’m the reluctant president of the Bee Creek Parent Teacher Organization. I live in the retirement community of Lakeside, Texas, where spicy food has been outlawed and the main forms of exercise are golf and trophy-wife swapping.

In Lakeside you’re either rich or poor. The middle class gave up years ago and moved to Round Rock, where they wouldn’t be bullied and mocked for their less than seven-figure bank accounts.

I, however, don’t have the funds to move out of Lakeside and weigh in on the poor side. Right now, I have seventeen dollars and eighty-two cents in my checking account, a full tank of gas, and a freezer full of frozen pizza. By Lakeside standards, I’m one step away from homelessness. By my standards, I’m living large.

Most of the Lakeside residents either ignore me or pretend not to gossip about the fact that six months ago, my husband, the now ex–police chief, disappeared with two million dollars of city money and possibly his mistress. To be fair, the mistress part can’t be confirmed, but the missing money is fact.

I rubbed my shoulder and white-hot pain shot down my arm. I stared at the TV. While I had free cable and all of the movie channels, I had a crappy old tube TV—casualty of divorce—that was doing its best to die. Today, the TV had chosen to squish the entire forty-inch picture into two inches . . . and everything was greener than normal. That was fine for Kermit the Frog, but Thor’s hotness level was significantly diminished by being overly green and the size of a Happy Meal action figure.

My house was another casualty of divorce. I’d had to sell it and anything of value to pay off the credit card debt that my ex left me. Since I couldn’t afford a house payment on my measly salary as the Lakeside Regional Hospital Billing Manager, I was left renting. The only place I could afford was the guesthouse of Lakeside’s weirdest resident, Astrid Petrie. Per my rental agreement, I had to attend her weekly Monday night séance. She was convinced that she was Cleopatra in another life, but unfortunately in this life she was a crazy old lady with more money than sense. The things I do for cheap rent.

I switched off the TV and picked up the current issue of People magazine from my coffee table. I’d already read it like eight times. I couldn’t work up the energy for a ninth, so I tossed it back on the coffee table. This whole staying home and recuperating was a lot tougher than it looked. I’d already taken a nap, checked my hair for split ends, vacuumed the entire guesthouse that I share with my ten-year-old son, Max, and done two loads of laundry. I checked the clock on the microwave. It was all of one thirty. Max wouldn’t be home for another two hours.

Thank God today was my last day in recovery prison.

I glanced at the refrigerator. I’d already eaten lunch. I guessed I could throw something in the Crock-Pot for dinner. I laugh-snorted. I didn’t own a Crock-Pot, and my sweet son was too smart to eat anything I’d attempted to make. God put two kinds of people on this world—those that cook and those that order takeout. I’m a takeout girl. If God had wanted me to learn how to cook, he wouldn’t have filled my smartphone with so many restaurant telephone numbers.

Maybe I should vacuum under the couch cushions for a third time today.

My cell rang and I didn’t even take the time to look at who was calling because it didn’t matter. Yesterday, I’d had a lovely conversation with a telemarketer named Patrick who wanted me to change to a different cell carrier. After thirty minutes, he’d done his level best to get off of the phone with me. I can outtalk a telemarketer.

Was there a Girl Scout badge for that?

I swiped my finger across the screen. “Hello.”

I half expected it to be Patrick. We’d only begun to discuss Beyoncé’s influence on global politics and the overuse of the word “etiquette” on The Real Housewives of Potomac when he’d claimed that his boss was going to fire him if he didn’t get off the phone.

“I got off of work early. Meet me and Haley at TFBH,” Monica, my other best friend and fellow Parent Teacher Organization board member said and then hung up.

The reason for the quick call was that my house was bugged—not with insects, but with listening devices. They were supposed to have been removed by Ben Jamison, the Lakeside police officer who’d put them there when he’d pretended to romance me a couple of weeks ago, but I was still wired for sound. He’d taken a rather sudden vacation four days ago, but before he left, he’d stuck a note on my door telling me to leave the bugs. Sure, I could remove them, but then the people who’d put Ben up to it and were listening in would know that I knew they’d bugged my house. Plus, I was terrorizing them with an audiobook I’d gotten from the library, Prussian War Poetry. I wasn’t exactly sure what language it was in, but it was boring as hell.

The other semi–love interest in my life, Damon Rodriguez, our local fake drug lord but real DEA agent, was out of town on some mysterious business of which he couldn’t talk. We’re on the ask-don’t-tell plan. I keep asking and he keeps not telling me.

I grabbed my purse and keys and headed out the door. Outside, I clicked the key fob of my brand-new Porsche Cayenne. Don’t get the idea that I can afford it, because I can’t. Portia de Glossy took the place of my old brown Ford van, Bessie, which had been crushed by a huge metal beam a few days ago. Damon was responsible for Bessie’s demise. It was hard to hold a grudge after he delivered Portia to me. It was an expensive gift that I only planned on keeping until I could afford another car. I’m fairly sure that Damon understands this, but talking to the man is sometimes like talking to a wooden fence post that only understands Mandarin or marten.

I clicked the key fob twice again. The SUV came with a special bomb-detecting device. Apparently, someone named Cervantes who ran the criminal element in Lakeside wanted me dead. Well, he had last week, but since all two of the contract killers in Lakeside were now dead, I was pretty sure that Cervantes was out of people to murder me. Damon wasn’t so sure, so now I have a car that detects bombs, a state-of-the-art home security system that rivals Fort Knox, and a purple handgun that I refuse to load with bullets . . . partly because I can’t figure out how, but that’s beside the point.

Some people think I have an anger management problem, but I disagree. I feel like anyone who cuts me off or steals my parking place deserves what’s coming to them. See why my carrying around a loaded gun is a problem? Besides, if I want to kill someone, it’s so much easier to run them over with my car.

The TFBH, or Trust Fund Baby’s house, to which Monica was referring is sort of our secret clubhouse. The owner, Trust Fund Baby, is out of town for the winter staying at his other house on some Caribbean island. I couldn’t remember his name or the island where he and his wife were currently lounging oceanside, but I’m sure it’s nice. Here’s the thing about Trust Fund Baby’s house. We used it for more than just a meeting place. A couple of weeks ago while investigating Molly’s murder, we stumbled across a lot of money and even more gold coins. We’d been storing them at TFB’s house until we could figure out what to do with them.

I turned onto TFB’s street and waved to Big Tommy Prather, who lived four doors down and was cooking in his front yard. I loved Big Tommy. He was also a fellow have-not, but he didn’t take Lakeside’s snootiness lying down. Since his house had been built sometime after the Civil War but before Lakeside was incorporated, it was grandfathered in, and so were all of the plastic pink flamingos, hubcaps welded together for fencing, wind chimes made out of old car parts, and toilets used as planters. But my favorite things junking up Big Tommy’s yard—apart from the sidewalk made entirely of bottle caps and the life-sized statue of Willie Nelson made out of used chewing gum—were the huge pot and gas burner he used to make his world-famous chili. Yep, Big Tommy cooked everything in his front yard, and there was nothing the city of Lakeside or his neighbors could do about it.

He waved me over. “I’ve got a pot of Texas Red going. It’s almost ready. Want a bowl?”

For you non–native Texans, Texas Red is code for chili. No idea why.

Here’s the thing about chili. I don’t actually like it. In Texas, chili haters are even less popular than vegans, so I hide my shame from my fellow Texans. If my secret ever got out, I’d probably be deported to Arkansas or possibly even Canada. “Sure. Wait, isn’t today your day off?”

“Yep, but I just got me a twelve-point buck,” he grinned with pride, “and thought I’d make me some chili.”

Did I mention that Big Tommy makes his chili out of whatever wandered into his front yard or ended up under the front wheel of his car? He claimed that roadkill was meat tenderized by Jesus. I hadn’t had the heart to point out that Jesus hadn’t been driving Big Tommy’s truck.

He owns Big Tommy’s Chili Parlor and Oddities Emporium and is rumored to make the best chili in the state of Texas. According to everyone who’s eaten there, he has the trophies to prove it.

“Let me get you a to-go cup and a lid.” He walked over to a rusted, possibly-wrought-iron-at-one-time table and riffled through a giant black trash bag that I hoped contained unused to-go cups. He came up with a white Styrofoam cup and a plastic lid. Big Tommy was a passionate recycler—as evidenced by the giant greenhouse made out of plastic Coke bottles next to Chewing Gum Willie. Sometimes that meant he reused things that shouldn’t ever be reused—like sandwich bags and toilet paper. “I haven’t seen you in the restaurant in a while.”

Or ever.

I opened my mouth to say that eating out wasn’t in my budget, but playing the poverty card while driving a Porsche Cayenne was hard to pull off. “I’ve been in the hospital.”

Well, I had been for like two whole days.

“Oh yeah, I heard about that. Old Doc Turley killed the kindergarten teacher. He deserved to die. Y’all did the world a favor.” Big Tommy walked over to the pot of chili and threaded a large stick through the handle of the lid and pulled it off. He looked down into the pot. “The fire went out. It ain’t ready yet.” He looked up at me. “Sorry.”

“No worries. Next time.” Thank God. “I’ll see you later. Have a good one.” I rolled up the window and pulled away from the curb.

An explosion shook my windows and rattled through Portia. I looked back at Big Tommy. Nothing but flames. The house was a fireball, the greenhouse was a pile of burning plastic, and Chewing Gum Willie was melting like strawberry ice cream in the summer heat.

I slammed on the brakes, pulled out my phone, and dialed 9-1-1.

“9-1-1, what is your emergency?” It was more of an accusation than a question. Was I bothering her with my emergency?

“There was an explosion at,” I looked at the addresses on the mailboxes and counted back, “at 8751 Lakeside La—”

“Lane. Yeah it’s already been reported. Fire and police are en route.” The woman sighed like I was keeping her from Game of Thrones. Maybe I should change careers. Rarely did I get to sigh bitchily just for doing my job. “Are you injured?”

“No, I’m in my car, but Big Tommy—um—the man who lives there is. I can’t see him. All I see is fire.” This was bad. Big Tommy had to be badly burned or worse. Was there any way for me to help him?

“Stay in your car. Do not render aid.” The woman sounded like she really wanted me to render aid and die in the process.

I had a hard time believing that the operator had my best interests at heart. “Okay.”

The line went dead. Clearly she had other things to do.

I called Monica, who answered on the first ring.

“Did you hear that explosion?” Monica sounded out of breath.

“Yes, it was in Big Tommy’s front yard. I was talking to him and then I drove off and his house exploded.” My voice was high and squeaky.

“Where are you?” A door opened on Monica’s end. “Okay, I see you. Stay there. Haley and I are on our way.”

The whining roar of sirens got louder and louder.

I looked up to find Monica, in a black leather jacket and motorcycle boots, jogging down the road toward me. Haley, in heels and a cream suit that was probably Chanel, also ran down the street toward me. I admired a woman who could run in heels. That was a lost art.

I opened the car door and met them around the front of my car. Monica was doubled over in full-on hyperventilation mode while Haley wasn’t even breathing hard. I knew that Haley ran on a treadmill daily, but I had no idea she did it in heels.

“What,” Monica wheezed like a two-pack-a-day smoker, “happened?”

“You really should do some cardio. You’ll live longer.” Haley fitted her Hermès higher on her shoulder.

Monica shot her a look that said that she wasn’t above shanking Haley with one of her own designer high heels.

“I was on the way to TFBH and I saw Big Tommy out in his yard. We talked for a little bit, and then everything blew up.” I did my level best to slow the insane pumping of my heart and recall exactly what had happened. Surely the police or the fire department would want to know. “He was going to get me a to-go cup of chili when he found that the flame under his pot had died out. He said the chili wasn’t ready, and then he turned away. I guess he went to light the burner and it exploded.”

Monica finally caught her breath and looked around. She pulled out her smartphone and appeared to be videotaping the area.

“Put that away.” Haley’s cobalt-blue eyes turned the size of Oreos as she looked around to see if anyone had caught us filming. “It’s disrespectful.”

“Something’s not right.” Monica ignored Haley and continued to film. “His house exploded and not just the burner.”

Monica was a disability and workers’ compensation claims adjuster and could spot a fake anything from a mile away.

“How can you tell?” I shaded my eyes from the sun and took in the devastation. Everything burned—the trees, what was left of the house, and most of the pink flamingos. Chewing Gum Willie was dissolving into a puddle. Apparently, lawn art wasn’t flame retardant.

“I just paid a claim on a woman who had second- and third-degree burns from lighting an outside burner for a crab boil. She flicked the lighter not knowing that her husband had turned on the gas to the burner and then left it to get some matches. She was blown back about two feet and had burns on her forearms from bringing them to her face to cover it. She also had some on her nose, her hair and eyebrows were singed, and there were burns on her ankles and feet. Propane is heavier than oxygen, so the fire washed down her body.” Monica zoomed in on what was left of the chili pot. “It looks like Big Tommy and the pot were both thrown back in the same direction.”

Haley nodded as she shaded her own eyes. “If this was just a propane explosion, why did the whole house explode?” She pointed to the smoldering wooden slats littering the yard. “Shouldn’t only his front yard and maybe the front porch be on fire?”

“It does seem a little odd that he went to light a single propane burner and his whole house exploded. Then again, I don’t know for sure that he went back to light the burner.” My hands were shaking. I’d just watched . . . or okay . . . almost watched a man die. I was freaked out.

The sirens became deafening as a yellow fire engine pulled up in front of Big Tommy’s house. Four firefighters dressed in yellow fire gear hopped down from the engine and hooked up a hose to the fire hydrant. It was like a ballet; each person had a job and they did them in unison.

Another engine roared up and so did an ambulance. The fire chief’s Chevy Tahoe parked behind my car. The reason I knew it was the fire chief was because it had FIRE CHIEF written on the side.

Two Lakeside Police cars drove up and blocked me in.

“Okay, ladies, can anyone tell me what happened?” It was Ben Jamison, former suitor and recently MIA listening device planter.

“Maybe we’ll tell you when you remove the bugs from our houses.” Monica glared at him. I’d noticed that she’d discreetly put away her phone.

“We’ll discuss that situation later, but now, I need to know what happened.” Ben pulled out his iPad and began typing.

“Fine.” I spit out the word. I told him what had happened.

He shook his head. “Sounds like a propane explosion to me.”

Monica rolled her eyes so far back inside her head she probably saw her childhood.

Of course, how cut and dry. The Lakeside PD having to do actual detective work . . . not in a million years. Now, when Mrs. Ubank’s poodle, Precious, went missing, there was an APB out on a sketchy-looking drywall hanger who just happened to drive by Mrs. Ubank’s front window. The poor man had no idea about a missing dog, but they’d handcuffed him to the bike rack outside of McDonald’s. Did I mention that Lakeside doesn’t have a jail? Luckily, Precious had been found under Mrs. Ubank’s bed chewing up a pair of reading glasses.

Because Mrs. U is loaded, that makes Precious important. It didn’t look like Big Tommy fell into that category.

“What are all of you doing here?” Ben avoided my gaze like the plague.

Spineless bastard.

“Haley is house-sitting for a friend. We were headed to check on it.” Monica was good. That explained why we only had one car, and she was vague enough not to actually give any details. Since Ben had bugged all of our houses, we’d just as soon not let him in on the fact that we have a secret clubhouse.

“So we’re free to go,” I demanded. I really should have asked, but Ben was a dick, so demanding made more sense.

“Absolutely.” Ben looked around. “On that other matter, give me twenty-four hours.”

It was my turn to roll my eyes. “Whatever.”

Ben’s voice was pleading, but I wasn’t in the mood to forgive him.

“Are you okay?” He glanced at my shoulder.

“I’m fine.” It sounded a lot like “fuck you.”

Ben looked like he wanted to say more, but he turned and walked away.

There really wasn’t anything he could say that would make bugging my house okay. Part of me applauded him for recognizing that he was on shaky ground. In my experience, most men wouldn’t have given up on an argument just because they were in the wrong. They’d just keep on going, hoping that I wouldn’t notice they were full of shit. At least that’s the ploy my ex-husband used most often. Then again, he believed his own bullshit, so maybe he really thought he was in the right.