Cindy Brown has been a theater geek (musician, actor, director, producer, and playwright) since her first professional gig at age 14. Now a full-time writer, she’s lucky enough to have garnered several awards (including 3rd place in the 2013 international Words With Jam First Page Competition, judged by Sue Grafton) and is an alumnus of the Squaw Valley Writers Workshop. Though Cindy and her husband now live in Portland, Oregon, she made her home in Phoenix, Arizona, for more than 25 years and knows all the good places to hide dead bodies in both cities. She’d love to connect with readers on her website, Facebook, and Twitter.
The Sound of Murder
© Cindy Brown 2015
Excerpt from Chapter 2
I was caffeinated and sated and generally happy when I finally made it to my uncle’s office downtown. It wasn’t noon yet, but I could tell Uncle Bob had eaten his lunch because the smell of liverwurst and onions hung in the air like a bad belch. Something else was in the air too.
“What the hell?” My typically easygoing uncle slapped his big hands down on his metal desk. “Thank God you missed that meeting, or I would have had to explain that…what you’re…” His words tangled up with his anger, he nodded at my chest.
I’d rummaged through my neighbor Tiffany’s drawers, and found just one clean pair of jeans and one t-shirt. Both black. The shirt was emblazoned with a skull that shone like it was wet. Snakes (or worms?) writhed out of its eyeholes. Its open mouth said, “Suicide Rocks!” Tiff was in a Goth phase.
Uncle Bob stood up from behind his desk. “What in the Sam Hill were you thinking?”
“This was the only…”
“Olive!” Uncle Bob was never this cranky. Maybe his liverwurst had turned. He poked the air with a finger. “Go. Change. Now.”
“Into what? My clothes all smell like smoke and chemicals.” “So do you,” he mumbled, turning away. I went to him, squeezing behind his desk so I could see him face-to-face. “Listen, I’m sorry about the meeting. I tried to make it, but…” I stopped. Uncle Bob’s face matched his fuchsia Hawaiian shirt and his lips were pressed tightly together, like he was holding something in. He caught my eyes for a moment, turned away again and cleared his throat.
I sat down in his wheelie chair and reached for his hand. “Is something wrong?”
“Other than the fact that I’m pissed as hell at my niece whose stupidity nearly got herself killed today? Nope. Nothin’ wrong.”
“But you weren’t mad when I talked to you this morn…” I stopped. Maybe he’d been hiding his anger earlier. Maybe he’d been in shock. Maybe he’d had time to understand what almost happened. It didn’t matter. I held his hand tighter. I wanted to say, “I love you. I love you for worrying about me, and even for getting mad when you’re scared.” But we don’t say that in our family. What I said instead was, “I’m sorry.”
“It was stupid, Olive. All because you couldn’t wait for a goddamn cup of coffee.”
“I know. I wasn’t thinking.” “And from now on?” he said, his voice slightly calmer. “I’ll think, I promise. Scout’s honor.” I held up three fingers.
“Even in the morning.” “Okay,” he said, blowing out a pent-up breath. “Now, go change.”
My cell phone rang. Tiffany. Perfect timing. Maybe she had a clean shirt hidden somewhere. I hopped out of Uncle Bob’s wheelie chair, and walked to the corner of the office to take the call. It was more a matter of courtesy than privacy, since the office was only about thirty square feet.
“Hi Tiff,” I said. “I was just going to call—”
“Omigod, Ivy, there was a fire!”
“And I think it was arson.”
“What?” Tiffany’s pronouncement didn’t worry me. I may have been the actress, but she was the drama queen. Still, I wanted to make sure there wasn’t something to her theory. “Why do you think that?”
“Because someone broke into my apartment. I think they set the fire as cover. I called the police, and they’re coming over and—”
“They stole some of my clothes, and even went through my underwear drawer. Pervs.”
“Uh, Tiff,” I said. “That was me.” I had gone through her underwear drawer, but didn’t take anything. All she had were thongs. They tickle my butt and I’d had enough of that for one day.
“You took my Suicide Rocks concert shirt!”
“I really needed some clothes. All my stuff is in my apartment and I can’t get—”
“I need that shirt now. Damien’s picking me up in a half an hour.”
“Do you have something else I can—” “And bring my black jeans too!” She hung up. Dang. I had planned to offer to do her laundry in exchange for a clean outfit. And I’d hoped to sleep on her couch for a day or two.
My uncle, the eavesdropping PI, said, “Sheesh. Don’t think you got to finish one sentence. Reminds me of that interrupting cow joke.”
“Your phone conversation. Reminds me of that joke. You know, knock knock…”
I did know, but I played along, glad Uncle Bob was in a better mood. “Who’s there?”
“Interrupting cow wh—”
“Moo!” Uncle Bob laughed at his own joke, then tossed me his keys. “Go to my house, and see if you can find something that’ll fit you.
That’s how I (five foot four and about a hundred and twenty-five pounds) ended up at rehearsal that night in a pair of rolled-up drawstring sweats that typically fit a six foot two, two-hundred- and-fifty-pound guy. I also sported an extra-large t-shirt from Oregano’s Pizza that said, “Legalize Marinara.”
“Should you be advocating the use of that drug quite so publicly, dear?” asked Bitsy as I walked in the stage door at Desert Magic Dinner Theater. The sixty-something actress looked at me like she’d just spotted a large sewer roach. I didn’t know if it was the thought of pot that put the look on her face or my lack of fashion sense. Bitsy was resplendent in a pink pantsuit with embroidered daisies, her white hair teased to perfection, and her real face hidden behind an entire counter’s worth of Estée Lauder. Her lipstick matched her outfit perfectly. Perfectly.
“Marinara is actually a red sauce, you know, for pasta and…” Bitsy walked away before I could explain. Oh well. I trotted down the hall to the greenroom (the actors’ break room) to wait for rehearsal to begin. I’d just joined the rest of the cast when my cell rang. I started to turn it off when I recognized the number.
I picked up. “Hi Mae.”
“Thought you oughta know that that fireman was right. I can’t evict you.”
“But you can’t come back until we’ve cleaned up.”
“Okay.” I wondered if they’d mop the floors. Maybe even clean the bathtub.
“And then of course we have to tear out the asbestos your little
“Asbestos?” I said, a bit too loudly. Several cast members looked at the ceiling of the greenroom when I said that aloud. I did too. It was a possibility.
“And renovate your entire apartment to the tune of a hell of a lot of money. Nice, huh? You burn down your place and we have to pay.”
I was about to say something about the benefits and responsibilities of ownership but wisely held my own counsel.
“So how long before I can move back?”
“At least two months.”
“That’s right. And your rent is due on the first. Of next month.”
“Do you want to keep the apartment or not?”
“Rent check to me by the first.” She hung up.
Two whole months paying rent on an apartment I couldn’t live in. I wondered if Mae’s scheme was legal, but didn’t have time to deal with that right now. Right now I had to find a place to live.
I wondered briefly if I could stay at the theater. There was a couch, a kitchen, and a bathroom. Even more, it felt like home. Every theater I’d been in did. It was funny, but I was most comfortable in my own skin in a place where I pretended to be someone else. I’m sure a therapist would have a ball with that, but I felt lucky I’d found my tribe.
I was seriously considering the stowaway possibilities when Candy MoonPie skidded into the greenroom, brown curls bouncing. Everything else too. Candy was the most voluptuous woman I’d ever seen in real life.
“Nearly didn’t make it in time.” She was still in scrubs from her care center job. “The new aide they hired is useless as tits on a boar.” Originally from Louisiana, Candy loved to southern it up around us westerners. She also loved MoonPies, hence the nickname. She gave me the once-over. “Hon, you ever seen ‘What Not to Wear?’”
“Had to borrow Uncle Bob’s clothes.”
“Ah,” said Bitsy, who hovered nearby.
“Is your washer broken again?” Candy was really asking if I’d overfilled it with detergent.
“No,” I said. “My apartment caught on fire.” That was what I was going to tell people about my latest fiasco.
“What, like spontaneous combustion?” asked Candy. Hmmm.
Maybe I could use that. “Maybe Marge has an extra tracksuit.” She glanced to the corner of the greenroom, where Marge Weiss drank coffee while talking to our producer. The busty, sixty-ish red-haired actress had a variety of tracksuits she used as rehearsal “uniforms.” Tonight’s was a velour number with “Juicy” embroidered across her ample bottom.
“Wonder if she has any extra underwear?” I was still sans skivvies. “Or maybe you do?”
Eww. “Never mind.”
“Places for Act One in fifteen minutes, please,” the stage manager said over the PA system. Bitsy scooted out of the room.
“How about a place to stay?” I asked Candy. “Since my apartment burned down and everything.” I tried to look pathetic. It didn’t take much work.
“Hon, you do remember that I have a studio apartment?”
“I don’t take up much room.”
“And a boyfriend?” Oh. Yeah. I could see where that could be a problem. Candy had been dating Matt ever since I introduced them at a performance of Macbeth last fall.
“Can’t you stay with your uncle?”
“He’s renovating.” I’d seen the mess firsthand when I dropped by to pick up clothes. Uncle Bob promised he’d move the lumber off the couch so I could sleep there tonight.
Bitsy reappeared beside me and handed me a little cloth bundle—a white cotton pair of granny panties, embroidered with “Bitsy’s Sunday Undies.”
“You can keep them,” Bitsy said. “I have a few extra pairs. I’ll just wear a Tuesday on Sunday.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ll go put them on.” Granny panties were better than none.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder. “Did I hear you need a place to stay?” Marge bellowed. There was a reason she was known as “Arizona’s Ethel Merman.”
“Is this perfect or what?” she said to no one in particular and the room as a whole. “I got just the thing for you.” She hooked an arm around my waist. “Bernice, my neighbor here in Sunnydale, is going to New Zealand for a couple of months and her house sitter just bailed. She’s got a four-bedroom place right next door to me, real nice.”
“Wow. Great. Thanks.” Sunnydale was a retirement community just minutes from the theater.
“All you have to do is water her plants and take care of the pool.”
“Pool?” Oh no. I couldn’t breathe.
“It’s easy. You just check the chemicals and every so often jump in and untangle the hose on the pool cleaner. Hey,” Marge caught the panicked look on my face before I could hide it, “you can swim, right?”
I ignored the warning look Candy shot me, and nodded.
I could do this. I really needed a place to crash, and staying near the theater in quiet, retiree-only Sunnydale sounded perfect. Besides, a swimming pool was just an innocent inanimate object that couldn’t do me any harm, right?
I didn’t believe it for a minute.