Whiskey Straight Up

By Nina Wright

Chapter One

"Whiskey, there's a guy from your past here to see you."

Tina Breen, my nasal-voiced office manager, intercepted me before I could stomp the snow off my boots.

"From my past?" I echoed, mildly interested. "Professional or . . . romantic?"

"Uh. . . ." Tina slid her eyes toward the nearest cubicle.

"Does the name Roy Vickers ring a bell?" The resonant voice came first, then the trim, tastefully dressed form of Odette Mutombo, top producer in my real-estate agency. Riding her desk chair into the foyer on cue, she smiled slyly. "He may have changed your destiny."

Odette, who was from Zimbabwe, had a syncopated accent and an unnerving way of inserting herself into other people's conversations.

"I doubt it," I said.

Odette and Tina exchanged glances. Never a good sign.

"Okay. Spill it," I began as my overloaded briefcase did just that. Tina dove to retrieve the contents. Since she's usually not helpful, I knew for sure something was up.

"Leo would remember him. . . ." Odette teased.

I ran the name Roy Vickers through my usual mental filters. The one with Leo's name on it still occupied most of my brain. Dead nine months already, my late husband was never far from my thoughts. Leo had been a wise and wonderful partner in both business and the stuff that really mattered. Despite everything that had happened to me since his sudden death, my first reaction was often to go tell Leo. Only I never could again.

"I'm drawing a blank," I said.

"Think about it," insisted Odette. "Roy Vickers. You must remember him."

"Maybe we should let Jenx tell her." Tina sounded nervous.

"And let our new police chief have all the fun?" Odette made a rude noise. "Here's a clue, Whiskey: Roy Vickers is seventy."

"Then he's not my old lover," I said. "He's just old."

"There's a real-estate connection. Sort of. . . ." Tina said, handing me my newly alphabetized files.

I was already bored with the game. "Was he an agent?"

"No."

"A former client?"

"Leo's former client. Before you were married."

"Then he's from Leo's past, not mine." I yawned and started toward my office.

"It's not that simple," Tina called after me. "He's a handyman, and he needs a job."

"We have a handyman. And seventy's way too old."

Tina followed me down the hall. "But what can he do? He just got out of jail!"

"Jail?" I stopped cold.

The name Roy Vickers suddenly illuminated a dark corner of my mind. Repression is an underrated gift, one that I'm proud to cultivate. But it's a challenge in the company of Tina and Odette, who never met a disturbing fact they wished to forget. Especially in someone else's life.

"He went to jail nine years ago," Odette said, rolling her desk chair toward me. "For stabbing Leo in a rent dispute."

"Leo was married to Georgia then," Tina added. "But you know what happened, don't you?"

Indeed I did.

Although Leo never discussed the incident, other residents of Magnet Springs, Michigan, weren't so reticent. When it happened, I was twenty-four and on the road with my musician husband, Jeb Halloran. My role in his entourage wasn't musical. It was to remind his groupies that he was married. The point is that I wasn't around at the time Leo Mattimoe was stabbed. I hardly even knew him. But the event became part of our local lore, and the story goes like this:

Town drunk Roy Vickers, a carpenter reduced to catch-as-catch-can repair work, opened his mail to find a rent-increase notification. Although it was a bitterly cold January afternoon, Roy was too incensed and too intoxicated to don a coat before staggering the two blocks to his landlord's office. Leo Mattimoe listened to Roy's bourbon-scented complaints. Then he explained his reasons for raising the rent. Roy wasn't interested in logic; he called Leo a slum landlord with the heart of a robber baron. Leo pointed out that Roy was free to find another place to live. Roy blubbered that he had very little reason to live because his wife had left him.

Then he seized Leo's letter opener and began waving it around. Worried that Roy might try to kill himself, Leo grabbed for the blade. In his whiskey fog, Roy mistook the action for a counterattack.

Moments later, he stumbled outside and knelt in the snow to wash away Leo's blood. The snow turned bright pink, and his frozen-raw hands darkened to purple, but—like Lady Macbeth—Roy couldn't stop rubbing. A passing tourist spotted the moaning, blood-spattered man without a coat and detoured to the police station.

Our then-chief, Big Jim, strode directly up to Roy and asked what he was doing. Roy shook his head and cried, "Better go tell Georgia she's a widow."

Georgia was Leo's first wife. She left him a year later. Two years after that, Leo married me, and then I became his widow. But that's getting ahead of the story.

Big Jim found Leo on the floor of his office, blood pouring from his chest wound. A few more minutes, and Leo would have died.

Now I stared at Odette and Tina. "Give me one good reason why I should hire Roy Vickers."

"Karma." The response didn't come from Odette or Tina. Noonan Starr, massage therapist, New Age guru, and my best tenant had entered the lobby. Brushing invisible snowflakes from her spiky white-blonde hair, she added, "Plus, Jenx thinks it's a good idea."

"Then Jenx should hire him," I snapped.

"But that wouldn't close the circle," Noonan said. I braced myself for metaphysical metaphors. "Only by restoring balance with Leo's heirs can Roy make himself whole again."

"I'm not Leo's only heir," I said as I pictured his daughter Avery, a chronically unhappy young woman who had arrived on my doorstep in time to deliver twins and was now using my home as her nursery. Housing her and her babies and providing a nanny was less traumatic than I'd expected. Still, I wondered if Avery would ever leave. Or look for work. Or smile. And she steadfastly refused to name her babies' father.

Leo had another heir who could use Roy's help: his blonde Afghan hound, Abra, a diva dog if ever there were one. She was as difficult as Leo's daughter, only faster on her four perfectly pedicured feet. Unlike Avery, Abra had a criminal record. She used to steal purses. Like Avery, Abra had a new brood, father unknown. That was mostly my fault since I'd neglected to have her spayed. In the months following Leo's death, I'd been distracted. First I had to recover from the injuries I sustained when Leo's heart failed and he crashed our car. Then two people were murdered in properties I managed. To put it mildly, life got complicated.

"You're a good person, Whiskey," Noonan reminded me. "You'll think of ways to help Roy free his karmic flow."

"He can send me a greeting card," I suggested. "They make them for every occasion: 'Sorry I stabbed someone you loved. I did the time for my crime. Wish me well.'"

Noonan's dewy eyes darkened. "He needs a job. You can hire him."

"But why should I?" My question was a whine.

"Because Leo would have wanted you to."

I hated to hear that because it was true. While Leo wasn't perfect, he was generous to a fault.

Odette re-entered the conversation. "I hear prison reformed Roy Vickers. He's a new man."

"He sobered up and found a community," confirmed Tina. "Jenx says the inmates called him Pop. They looked up to him."

Probably because he was tall, I thought. Although I hadn't known Roy Vickers, I'd seen him on the streets of Magnet Springs when I was young. Back then, he must have been six foot four, a rangy, loose-limbed alcoholic who did odd jobs, mostly for people who pitied his wife. I couldn't remember her name, but I recalled folks wondering why she stayed with him as long as she did.

"He lost his community when they released him from prison," Noonan pointed out. "Now he faces the challenge of his life: building positive relationships where he destroyed relationships. It's what will heal Roy Vickers."

Noonan spoke with such passion that the room fell silent. Everyone was waiting for me to do the right thing.

"I'll talk to him," I mumbled.

Odette clapped her hands together three times. Tina cheered. Noonan hugged me. I realized that my twice-broken ribs no longer hurt, which meant I was healing, too. At least my bones were.

"Your goodness will help Roy Vickers open his soul to the light," Noonan said.

I didn't know about Roy Vickers's soul, but the rest of him looked damned fine. I'm not sure what I expected, but what I encountered blew me away. My first thought when he strode into my office: The guy doesn't look a day over 50. My second thought—and this one's embarrassing: He's buffer than any man I've slept with.

Then again, I'd mainly slept with musicians and desk jockeys. And it had been a long time since I'd slept with anyone. Thirty-nine weeks and two days, to be exact. I'm only human. And still only thirty-three.

Roy Vickers had sun-punished skin, military bearing, and bulging muscles. His steel-gray hair was cropped close to the scalp, but he seemed to have most of the hairline he'd started with. His electric blue eyes were clear and calm.

"Thank you, ma'am, for seeing me without an appointment," he said. We shook hands. His large paw was calloused but warm.

"Please. Call me Whiskey. Everybody does."

He chuckled. "That was my nickname, too. Once upon a time."

"Oh, but I'm not a—." I stopped myself just in time.

"Didn't think you were," he said pleasantly. "Any more than Cokie Roberts is a cokehead."

"You know Cokie Roberts?"

"Sure. I listen to a lot of public radio."

I nodded, thinking I didn't know a thing about this guy.

"You have an interesting voice," he remarked.

"Jeb Halloran called it my 'whiskey voice'—hence the nickname. I'm no Whitney Houston, even if my birth certificate says so."

Roy Vickers cracked his first smile, revealing small even teeth that were probably his own. I had expected gleaming gold caps. And where were his jailhouse tattoos? The backs of his hands were veined and scarred but ink-free. Of course, I couldn't see the rest of his flesh, only the well-toned physique pressed against his cheap wool jacket.

"How's Leo's little girl?" he asked, jarring me back into the moment.

Not remotely little, I thought, picturing my hulking stepdaughter. Even after birthing two babies, she probably tipped the scale at 200 pounds. Avery had inherited her mother's imposing stature. I was six foot one, and Avery could almost meet my gaze. But she was better at filling doorways.

"She has two little ones of her own now," I said. "We wish Leo could have lived to see them."

I was unprepared for the ex-con's reaction: he covered his face and wept.

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