Whiskey on the Rocks

By Nina Wright

Chapter One

"He was lying there like you are now. Only he was dead."

I stared at Noonan as she worked the muscle in my left calf.

"You were massaging a corpse?" I asked.

"For a minute. Jenx thinks he couldn't have been dead very long before I noticed."

I shuddered. Noonan's strong hands stopped their magic.

"I'm sorry," she said. "You've had enough death in your life lately. You didn't need to hear that."

"Life is full of death. Either we keep moving, or we . . . stop moving." I hoped the words sounded wiser to her ears than they did to mine. Spouting New Age aphorisms is the safe conversational choice in this resort town. It's not my style, however.

"That is so wise," Noonan agreed, moving on to my ankle. I moved to the next topic.

"Did Jenx call the county coroner?"

Noonan nodded, shooting me an uneasy glance. "Do you want to go there? I only brought it up because you asked what was new, and a dead guy on this table two hours ago is about as new as it gets."

Before I could jackknife into an upright position, she added, "I changed the sheets."

"Don't you always? I mean, between live clients?"

"Sure, sure. Health Department code."

Noonan repositioned herself at the foot of the table to get a better grip on my sole. As she pressed her thumbs into the ball of my left foot, I flashed on Jenx and the coroner.

"Those two in this studio. Whew. They hate each other!"

"They have trust issues," Noonan corrected me. "Jenx thinks Crouch is political."

"He is. He's elected. But he's also a forensic pathologist."

"And Crouch thinks Jenx is a dyke."

"She is--and proud to be one. But she's also the Deputy Chief of Police."

"And Crouch is a Fundie."

Fundie is local-talk for Fundamentalist. What we used to call "Born-Again," only I've concluded that most of our Fundies grew up that way. They're not redeemed. They're not much fun, either.

"So Jenx and Crouch got into it?" I said as Noonan rolled me onto my stomach again with more grace than I could manage on my own. Lucky me. A bonus round. I love it when she stretches the massage to fit the conversation.

Noonan said, "No name-calling, but you could feel the negative energy. It poisoned my space. After they left, I had to do a spiritual cleansing."

I hoped she'd done a chemical cleansing, too. After all, there'd been a corpse on this table. And not a corpse we knew.

"Did Crouch say what killed him?"

"It looked like a heart attack except for his age. Thirty-four, according to his driver's license. He was in great shape. Fantastic muscle tone." I detected a hint of sexual arousal in Noonan's voice. She went on quickly, "Crouch will do an autopsy."

"What's the dead guy's name?"

Noonan massaged my shoulders with renewed energy.

"That part ... is weird. He told me his name was Dan, and he was from Grand Rapids. Passing through on his way to Chicago. Business trip. He said he stopped in Magnet Springs for lunch and saw my shingle. Thought a massage would do him good."

"What's the weird part?"

"When Jenx checked his driver's license, it gave his name as Gordon Santy. And--get this--he's Canadian. From New Brunswick. Isn't that on one of the coasts?"

"Atlantic. Maybe Dan was his nickname, and he had business in Grand Rapids."

"Maybe. What I wonder is if he was Canadian, why did he sound just like us?"

That made me laugh, which made my ribs hurt. They're almost healed from the accident, but when I'm lying on my stomach and I laugh--which I don't think I've tried in five and a half months--I realize I'm not completely recovered yet.

Noonan sounded defensive. "Canadians have an accent. They say 'oot' for 'out.' And they say 'eh' a lot. Haven't you noticed?"

"I guess I don't watch enough CBC."

She sighed. "Have you ever known anyone named Gordon who was called Dan?"

"I don't think I've known anyone named Gordon. And the men I knew named Dan never told me their real names. I assumed they were Daniels, but I didn't check their IDs."

In silence Noonan kneaded my back, my buttocks, and my thighs. Neither of us spoke for several minutes. By the time she had finished, I was blissed out. Her voice jarred me back to reality.

"You're funny, Whiskey. And that's cool because humor can heal. But humor can also deflect. I'm telling you this because I think you're still in pain."

I struggled to sit up, clutching the sheet to my chest.

"My ribs still hurt a little, but only when I laugh, and only when I'm getting a massage."

"See what I mean. You're being funny, and I'm talking about Leo."

"Yeah, you are. Haven't you had enough death in this room for one day?"

"You should talk about Leo. You'd feel better if you did."

"I feel fine! If you're suggesting I get a dose of New Age mood therapy, no thank you. I get that every day talking to almost anyone in Magnet Springs."

Noonan regarded me solemnly. "Okay, Whiskey, but please don't wear your armor all the time. It will smother your soul."

The lingo again. Before I could summon an appropriately trite response, she added, "And deaden your heart."

I thought of a punch line about the dead heart that had been on Noonan's table but decided not to use it.

My name is Whiskey Mattimoe, and I own the hottest real estate agency on the West Coast. The West Coast of Michigan, that is. Right across the Big Water from Chi-Town. Sunsets R Us. We got dunes, we got beaches, we got nice clean air. In short, we got The Good Life. And compared to The Good Life on the other West Coast, this one's affordable, mostly. Sure, the value of lakefront property soared like a bottle rocket in the '90s. But it's stabilized, for now. You'd be amazed what a million dollars can buy. And Michigan property taxes aren't bad. You'd pay less in Arkansas or Oklahoma, but what would be the point? Our taxes are bargains next to California's or New Jersey's. And who in their right mind moves to New Jersey?

Six years ago, I married Leo Mattimoe, founder of Mattimoe Realty. Before that I was an agent--real estate, not secret or IRS--and a part-time refurbisher of old properties for investment purposes. I know how to use power tools.

Leo and I were electric together. We had plans. We bought, we sold, we rented, we resold. We made money. We made love. And then suddenly Leo was dead. Leo is dead. I'm still grappling with that one. It wasn't in our plans.

Leo was fifteen years older than me, which made him all of forty-eight the night his heart exploded. I think of it as a cardiac "blow-out" because he was driving when it happened, when his aorta burst without warning.

We were coming back from Chicago following an ill-fated attempt to breed Abra, Leo's Afghan hound, a stunning, high-strung creature with exquisite bloodlines and exasperating manners. I still call her Leo's dog because she has too much self-esteem to belong to anyone else. Least of all me. Every time I gaze into those chocolate eyes, I have an attack of survivor guilt. She'll never forgive me for failing to die in Leo's place. Sometimes I have trouble forgiving myself.

Nesbitt, the young Chicago stud Leo chose as Abra's mate, was a handsome dude, but he couldn't put a round peg in a round hole. Two whole days, and he never grasped the geometry, even with the help of human hands. Or maybe he didn't like his blind date. If a blonde bimbo exists in canine form, it's Abra.

We were heading home to Magnet Springs on that balmy late-April night, the rear windows of our Saab rolled down and the lush air rushing in. Leo was disappointed. Back in his first marriage he'd bred Irish Setters, and he longed to raise more big glossy show dogs. Abra seemed relieved to be rid of that putz Nesbitt. I'm sure she didn't want his spatially-impaired genes mixed up with hers even though he was a hunk.

The last thing I remember was Leo changing CDs to play our favorite song, "Once in a Lifetime" by the Talking Heads. I squeezed his hand. He squeezed mine back. Then I must have fallen asleep.

I don't remember the impact or the paramedics or the ambulance ride. Or anything that happened in the ER. But I can still hear Abra's agonized wail close to my head. She wasn't hurt. She was mourning Leo before I knew he was gone.

I learned the rest of the story by reading the police report. We were within five miles of home on a rural two-lane highway when the Saab sailed off the road and wedged itself deep in a ditch. Abra wriggled out a back window to wait in the road like a pale apparition. The guy who came along told the 9-1-1 dispatcher he thought at first she was an aggressive long-haired goat. He tried to drive around her, but she kept lunging at his car. She wouldn't let him leave the scene. When she set up a howl and pointed to the side of the road, he got out to investigate. I had a concussion, a broken collarbone, a broken arm, and three broken ribs. Abra played Lassie and saved my life. I don't think she meant to. She meant to protect Leo's remains. Now that he's gone, she lives to humiliate me.

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