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And if that isn't enough, someone is leaving leaving gruesome little gifts on her doorstep.
No one takes Karen's story seriously, until homicide detective Hank Everett shows up and starts digging around in her dead rosebushes. The handsome Lieutenant quickly takes a serious interest in this very puzzling case, and an even more serious interest in the crime victim, herself---an interest that's decidedly mutual.
Ignoring Hank's warnings, Karen tries a little amateur sleuthing on her own, and stumbles onto some disturbing family secrets. She's drawn deeper and deeper and deeper into an intricate web of terror that's closer to home than she had ever imagined.
Fearing for her safety, Hank finally resorts to turning the woman he loves across his knee for a spanking he hopes she won't soon forget. But Karen isn't so easily dissuaded. She keeps digging (and running afoul of the no-nonsense Hank) until finally her curiosity and persistence achieves an outcome no one could have predicted.
And WHAT, Karen wonders, has become of all the FORMER tenants of her ugly little house?
"She was locked in Hank's bathroom, having a small but fairly significant nervous breakdown while attempting to fish her brand new cell phone from the toilet and keep her ear pinned to the door at the same time.� This was proving to be more difficult than she had imagined, because in her other hand�the one that wasn't immersed in six inches of toilet bowl water�she was clutching a large glass penguin to her breast.� A third hand would have been an excellent thing, as well, since she would have liked to apply a cold, wet towel to her rear end, which was ablaze after suffering its second spanking in just under six hours.
"Although Hank had done the spanking, and was therefore one hundred percent to blame for the fiery condition of her rear end, he wasn't responsible for her present dilemma.� Hank was not only handsome and a phenomenal bed partner, he was normally a pleasant fellow, who didn't make a habit of locking women in his bathroom.� She had managed that entirely by herself, just ten minutes earlier, when the doorbell rang.� On the assumption that it was a deranged serial killer at the door and not another bill collector (which, in her case, was the more likely possibility) she had devised a fiendishly clever plan to hide behind the bathroom door, then spring out and bop the aforementioned serial killer over the head with the glass penguin when he came crashing through the door.
"Okay, so it seemed like a good idea at the time."
Actually, this last sentence could apply to my whole life.
The above paragraphs are the opening lines of a story that I've just finished writing, most of which is true, except for the parts that aren't.� I had intended to call this masterpiece, The Blood-Soaked Bungalow, but Hank suggested No Place Like Home.� I liked it immediately.� It sounds a bit more family oriented.� When you're trying to appeal to a wide audience, it's usually a good idea to emphasize the funny or romantic aspects of murder and avoid trite phrases like� 'blood-curdling' and 'pools of oozing gore.'
The drowned cell phone had been a gift from Hank�a replacement for the phone he'd given me two days earlier, which had suffered a freak accident having to do with the garbage disposal.� The second phone hadn't fared much better and was only five hours old at the time of its untimely demise in the toilet.� When he left for work that afternoon, Hank had left me with orders to keep the phone turned on at all times, ignoring the fact that I had never owned or even used a cell phone, due to the fact that I am both poor and seriously electronically challenged.� So, when the doorbell rang, I panicked, grabbed the glass penguin as the only weapon at hand and dashed into the bathroom�slamming the door behind me so hard the handle came off in my hand.� I was trying to call Hank by frantically pushing a lot of random little buttons on the phone when I stumbled on the rug and whacked my head on the toilet paper holder.� The phone flew out of my hand, soared up in the air, and came down�naturally enough�in the toilet.
You're right.� It hadn't been one of my better days.
I hope you're following all this, by the way, because I'd hate to have to repeat it�the spanking stuff, in particular.� It's not exactly the kind of thing a girl enjoys reliving.� The first spanking had happened that morning, and for those of you who don't already know this, having your butt blistered (okay, maybe just semi-blistered) while you're half asleep is not the nicest way to greet the dawn, even if the handsome guy doing the blistering is the love of your life and has just provided you with a couple of world-class orgasms.� I was still in the process of waking up, lost in a kind of dreamy afterglow, when Hank ordered me�and please note the word, ordered�to stay inside the house with the doors locked until he came home for lunch.� I protested, and he repeated the order, whereupon I sat up in bed and said something I can't remember, exactly.� (It may have been something like "I wish you'd stop ordering me around, you domineering, male chauvinist SOB." �Memory fails me on the specific phrasing.)
Anyway, Hank had already grown accustomed to my colorful manner of speech, but when I flipped him the finger to emphasize my remarks, things went downhill fast.� I knew I'd pushed my luck too far when he gave a deep, weary sigh, and stopped shaving.� He still had shaving soap on his undeniably handsome face, when he flipped me over, yanked down my pajama bottoms (his pajama bottoms, in point of fact) and used a wooden clothes brush to set my bottom on fire.
Okay, so I was his houseguest at the time, and it's probably not polite to give your host the finger, even if he's behaving more like a prison warden, but in my opinion�an opinion I believe would stand up to legal scrutiny�my rights of free speech were clearly violated.
After I apologized for my rude remarks and the accompanying gesture, Hank stuck around long enough to make up with me in the nicest possible way and then went off to work.� I decided that what had happened was mostly fair, and Hank isn't the type to bear a grudge, so everything might have been peachy, if I hadn't gotten bored a couple of hours later and started poking around his office.� I was looking for clues about the creep who'd been stalking me.� The problem was, Hank had this theory that, since I'm not a member of the police department, I don't get to be part of police investigations, even if the creep being investigated was my creep, in a manner of speaking.
Anyway, Hank came home for lunch earlier than expected and caught me trying to jimmy the lock on his file cabinet.� Not strictly legal and probably not something a polite houseguest would do, but since I regard myself as a journalist, I take the Freedom of Information Act very seriously.� Hank apparently took it more like attempted burglary.� It still wasn't fair, though.� Especially since I hadn't even found anything interesting, yet.
I was still explaining the Freedom of Information Act when he dumped me facedown across his desk, yanked my jeans and panties down to my knees, and used his wooden desk ruler in a manner I'm sure the manufacturer never intended.� It was a clear case of police entrapment, of course.� He'd obviously stashed the damned ruler there, then arranged to arrive home at precisely the moment my curiosity got the better of me.� When I accused him of plotting the whole thing, he smiled, got a better grip on me and on the ruler, and went back over my already scorched ass, apparently looking for any of those annoying little spots he'd missed on the first go-round.
There's probably room for debate about the first spanking of the day being warranted, but even I would have to agree that the second one was justified�sort of.� Not that this is an issue on which I get to vote.� Hank appears to be the only registered voter when it comes to if, when, where, and how I get spanked.� I've tried explaining to him how undemocratic this policy is, to say nothing of politically incorrect, to which he usually replies that if I don't like what happens, I can always report it as police brutality, in which case I'd have to drop my underwear and show the evidence to the investigating officers, the county prosecutor, the mayor's office and possibly the city editor of the Los Angeles Times. �(Hank is a detective with the LAPD, and this is what passes as police humor.)
If you're wondering why I was staying at Hank's place, instead of my own, I'll try to explain.� Pay close attention, because it gets a little complicated.
It all started about six weeks earlier.� Just before Halloween.
* * * * *
At the time, I was living in a now-defunct housing subdivision called Riverview, in the same house I had lived in as a child.� Construction on Riverview had begun well before truth-in-advertising was invented, which might have accounted for there being no river, and no view, other than a scenic overlook of eight fume-ridden lanes of the Hollywood Freeway.� The area had been conceived as a planned community, composed of several sub-subdivisions connected by walkways, parks, shops, etc.� Note the word, conceived. �None of those conceived amenities had made it past the drawing board.
My dwelling was one of the faux-Mexican hacienda-type bungalows originally designated as 'Watercolor Ranchos,' six of which were more or less completed before the builder went bankrupt and took off for Rio de Janeiro with his receptionist and a suitcase full of clients' deposits.� Since my little hacienda was white, it was called�naturally enough�the White Rancho.� The only other houses within walking distance were the slightly larger Pink Rancho, and the unoccupied and crumbling Green Rancho, which was a mirror image of mine, only painted puke green.� There had once been a Blue Rancho, a Purple Rancho, and a Yellow Rancho, but they had been mercifully bulldozed a couple of years ago�by order of the sanitation department.
That morning had started very well, all things considered.� The sun was shining weakly but valiantly through a yellowish haze of smog and noxious highway fumes; my little pink princess phone still hadn't been turned off, despite the fact that the bill was two months in arrears, and there were sufficient quantities of Ritz crackers, peanut butter, and Oreos in the house to last until my next unemployment check arrived.� What more can a non-working girl ask, right?� So, with a spring in my step and a song in my heart, I prepared to welcome the new day by venturing out to the curb to check yesterday's mail.� In the hope of avoiding the mailperson in actual person, my habit was to wait until late at night or very early morning to retrieve my mail.� Mailpersons tend to be the bearers of registered letters, and in my experience, such missives rarely bear glad tidings.� At that point in my life, I was being pursued by an alarming number of businesses and/or governmental agencies.� Something to do with money, I think�or lack thereof.
With all these things in mind, I took a cautionary peek out one of the trio of teeny-tiny windows in my front door.� The little metal flag on my mailbox was standing at attention, indicating the presence of a letter�maybe even my very last opportunity to win my fortune in the Readers' Digest Sweepstakes.� So I opened the door and stepped out.
And stepped into something.� Something that turned out to be the remains of a dead cat.� Half a cat, actually, but that half I stepped in was very sincerely dead.
When you find a half-a-cat on your doorstep in my neighborhood, the most likely and benign possibility is that it had been victimized by an opportunistic coyote.� Then, again, this is Hollywood, so it could also be: �A.) A bizarre religious cult; B.) A militant right-wing survivalist who assumed the cat to be a robotic FBI informant; or C.) A surly neighbor who doesn't like you or your cat, and who has seriously misinterpreted what the U.S. Constitution says about cats that poop on private property.� I didn't have a cat, and I was short of neighbors, but I was living just a hop, skip and a jump from downtown Hollywood, which acts as a sort of catch-basin for an ever-changing flood of odd folk, from the slightly bent to the seriously psychopathic.
I gave the poor cat a respectful burial in the backyard, making a mental note to keep any future pets inside at night�if I ever got a pet, which wasn't likely, since another mouth to feed wasn't something I needed just now.� Actually, I'd been thinking about getting a hamster for company, but even five-inch long mammals normally require a diet healthier than cheese puffs and Oreos.� (I'd been subsisting on this precise diet for months, of course, and somehow managed to remain on the plump side, but I attributed that to an endocrine imbalance.) �Anyway, I didn't really need a hamster.� Between the rats and the mice that I was finding in ever increasing numbers, I was already up to my ass in residential rodents.
Of course, when Mona showed up later that morning to collect the past due rent, she had the solution to the dead cat mystery right away.� Mona was either my landlord or my landlady�some days it was one, some days the other.� Mona is what you might call gender oblique. �That day, she/he was wearing purple toreador pants, a blonde wig the color of orange juice, and a pair of chartreuse and rhinestone sunglasses that made her look like a tropical fungus.� Mona calls herself an actress, but when she's not working, which is pretty much always, she's more like a mob enforcer.� She hasn't worked at her chosen profession since 1984, but hope springs eternal in Hollywood and in Mona's own massive bosom.� She even carries around these little pink business cards to prove it:� Monaloa Jones, Available.
In her frequent hours away from the set, Mona is obsessed with watching what she likes to call her 'Natural Geographicals,' which means she's always chock-full of trivia, like how many beavers it would take to dam up the Amazon and how you can see lightning bugs from outer space.� So, when I told her about the cat thing, she had the answer right there at her two-inch-long magenta fingertips.
"Something' probably just ate it."
That had been my own first thought, as well.� Okay, my second, after I thought about throwing up.� The problem was that whatever 'ate' it must have been fairly handy with a knife and fork, because the cat in question had been sliced in two, as neat as a Sunday morning cantaloupe.
After delivering her cracker-jack analysis of my problem, Mona tired quickly of the cat discussion and moved on, not only because she sometimes has the attention span of an electric can-opener, but because she was afraid I was about to blame the coyote infestation on her.
"Yeah?� Well, don't you be thinkin' I dragged my sweet ass up here to talk about some ole stinkin' cat," she said, pointedly.� She was referring, of course, to the rent, which had come due eight days previously and had somehow escaped my notice.� Mona uses approximately the same line on all her deadbeat tenants, but she normally softened the rhetoric a bit with me.� The house actually belonged to my mother, and Mona didn't want to get on my bad side, just in case it turned out to be a good month between Mom and me.� Besides, I had a couple of complaints of my own.� The mice were still running amuck in my kitchen, copulating cockroaches in my sink were an everyday event, and last month had seen an incursion of rats the size of wombats.� To be honest, all of this was only vaguely annoying, since I am accustomed to living in New York City and am therefore made of sterner stuff.� So, while I felt awful about the poor cat, I was more than willing to exploit its untimely demise for my own benefit.� Poverty will do that to a person, you know.
Anyway, I promptly went into offensive mode, complaining shrilly about the gross injustice of being asked to shell out an ungodly sum of rent every month on a festering cesspool of a house that was positively teeming with vermin.� And why didn't anyone ever pick up the freaking trash?� What other dimwit besides me would tolerate living in a rattrap like this, anyway?� From the wary look on Mona's face, I could see that I had the upper hand�for the moment.� She couldn't afford to lose this job.� Steven Spielberg had this annoying habit of not returning her calls.
"Maybe it's the work of a satanic cult," I whispered darkly, in reference to the aforementioned cat.
But Mona knew when she was being played.� "Yeah, and maybe you jus' don't want to pay yo' damn rent," she replied coolly, "and you afraid yo' Mama gonna finally toss you out on yo' ass." Okay, so Mona's not as dumb as she looks.� The blonde thing was a cunning disguise.� Mona's from some sink-hole in the deep south, but she knows the English language as well as I do and even speaks it when she's in the mood.� The quaint dialect was part of her current Hollywood persona as a street-wise bisexual Tennessee Williams slattern.� Finally, I told her that if I paid the rent, she had to get me a real exterminator this time, and not Esteban.� Esteban was one of Mona's multiple ex-husbands, who'd learned the exterminating trade in the state pen at Vacaville, where he'd whiled away a significant portion of his teenage and adult life.� (Repeatedly framed, according to Mona, for a variety of offenses including car theft, food stamp fraud, shoplifting, and something to do with a minivan full of Mexican turkeys.) �According to Mona, Esteban was a man of many talents, but exterminating sure as hell wasn't one of them.� Nor had he shown even minimal expertise at plumbing, carpentry, gardening, or carpet cleaning.� He had managed to kill a small rattlesnake in the driveway two weeks ago by throwing a bottle of Gatorade at it, an act of barbarity that made me so mad I dumped the contents of his toolbox over the back fence.� I like snakes, since they eat rats.� Actually, I even like rats, as long as they stay out of the kitchen and out of my cheese puffs.
Anyway, Mona finally gave up and told me to just skip the first eight days of rent.� A bargain was struck, wherein she agreed not to report the overdue rent to Mom and I promised to deal with my own plagues of rats, coyotes, toads, locusts, or whatever.� She wasn't being all that nice, of course.� Unless Mom starts hatching eggs again at her age, I'm still the Heiress Apparent.
Mona and Mom met�and I swear to God that this is true�at a "Mary Gay" cosmetics party.� Mom isn't gay, although I used to hope she'd become a late-life lesbian, since she has such rotten taste in men.� But when I thought it over, I concluded that even if she were a lesbian, she'd have equally rotten taste in women, and then have to share clothes and makeup into the bargain.� Actually, other than purple frosted eye shadow and money, the only interest Mom and Mona seem to share is collecting husbands.� Between them, my mother and Mona have had more spouses than Elizabeth Taylor and the Hapsburgs.� Mona could have cinched the marriage pennant easy, but she's a switch hitter, and at that point, the state of California was still refusing to recognize a couple of her longer term liaisons.� Mom had retired from the competition after landing Leo, her sixth and until now, her least repugnant groom.� Leo has a steady retirement income, some of his own teeth, and he's really not a bad guy, once you get beyond the lousy toupee and the white shoes.
My mother owns a lot of rental property, and she's rolling in dough, but she kept telling me that paying rent would force me to grow up, take responsibility for my future, and get a real job�as opposed to my unreal job of writing books.� I suspected that she probably wouldn't throw me out on the street just because I was a smidge behind on the rent, but I'd never tested the theory for longer than two weeks.� I'd already seen enough flophouses in my descent into poverty, and as bad as this place was, at least I wasn't living among a lot of toothless drunks who talked to themselves and urinated in the hallways.� So, I did my best to keep ahead of the rent by going without other necessities�like copies of the New Yorker and canned ravioli unless I had a two-for-one coupon.� In return for Mom's charity, I listened politely when she called me up and rattled on about how I was flushing my life down the toilet trying to be a writer when everyone knew that the only writers who made the big bucks were crooked politicians or coke-snorting movie stars.� That was Lecture Number One.� Lecture Number Two went something like this: �Why couldn't her only child have just gotten a real job at Sears and Roebuck, for heaven's sake, or a nice job in a bank, where she could have found herself a nice man to support her like other girls not half as nice-looking managed to do without some college degree that was a total waste of her time and my money in the first place?�
And there you have the real price I paid every month for living in a repulsive house on a godforsaken hill with a terrific view of traffic on the Hollywood Freeway and the fumes that went with it.� And for finding half-cats in my doorway.
So far, I'd lived in four of Mom's crappy houses, or camped out in them, to be more precise.� Whenever she found a 'real' tenant, ergo, one with money, I was usually asked to pack up my Oreos and cheese puffs and move on to the next dump.� I'd moved into this one just over six weeks earlier, and I may have held the record for the longest uninterrupted residency.� According to Mom, the fifth tenant in the space of a year had bailed out after only three weeks.� It wasn't hard to see why people didn't stick around, though.� The house was tiny, relentlessly tacky, and the only windows were these long, narrow strips of louvered glass located close to the ceiling.� The place also had a long-standing mold problem, and if you didn't keep the skinny little windows open twenty-four hours a day, the smell of mold and mildew was enough to gag a horse.� I was blowing a fair chunk of my unemployment check each month on sandalwood and cinnamon incense sticks.
The funny thing about this house was that I had lived here as a child even before my dad walked out on us and Mom began collecting replacement husbands.� I'm sure the place was just as ugly then, but I guess I didn't notice.� The ink was still drying on my high school diploma when I took off for the Big Apple, determined to hole up in a garret and write the world's greatest novel.� Meanwhile, Mom took up real estate and got rich, and I decided that maybe it wouldn't tarnish my artistic principles to enroll at NYU and get an education, instead of living on three-day old bagels.
Only a week before the dead cat turned up, Mom had told me more about what had happened to the house after she and I moved out.� If I'd been paying attention to that night's history lesson, I would have bailed out, myself, before what finally happened did happen.
"So, why did the last tenants leave?" I had asked, "Aside from the smell, the freeway fumes, the mice, and the nest of heavily-armed drug dealers just down the street?" �I wasn't especially interested in such a discussion, but I also wasn't eager to be left alone with only late-night TV for company.� The house sometimes made creepy noises at night.� Probably because it had been built with criminally sub-standard materials and because it sat on top of an active earthquake fault�but the noises could be a little unnerving.
"Well, if you must know," Mom confided, inspecting her new manicure, "the last tenants said the house was haunted."
"Haunted!" I whooped.� "That's the lamest excuse yet for breaking a lease!� Houses built five years before the Beatles don't get haunted, not in Southern California, anyway.� You were had, Mom."
Mom sighed.� "Well, they insisted that they were going to leave, with or without my consent.� Going back to Oklahoma or whatever.� My lawyer told me it wasn't worth trying to sue them, out of state and all.� And it had happened before, of course.� Several times.� It's absolutely shocking how many people just get up and leave, without giving any kind of notice.� Especially at this house, for some reason.� People don't pay their rent, disappear in the middle of the night, and never even leave a forwarding address.� Single men are the worst.� It's a shame, though.� The Oklahoma people were quite nice.� They had a very sweet little girl.� She looked rather like you did at the same age.� Her name was Freebie."
She thought for a moment.� "Perhaps it was Phoebe.� Anyway, she had the loveliest, soft yellow hair, just like you did when you were little and before you started doing all those awful things to your head.� They had a little dog, too.� Sort of a rat-looking dog, and I don't usually allow dogs, you know, but there were so few people looking at the house that I finally agreed�with a substantial deposit, of course.� The little rat-dog died, though.� They told me that some wild animal ate him, or most of him.� The woman was quite hysterical, and the husband said the house felt haunted or something.� I believe he said creepy. �Yes, that was it, creepy. �He told me the little girl was having nightmares, and that she saw things at night." �Mom sighed.� "I think maybe it's too secluded up here for some people."
"Gee," I said dryly, "you think?"
"I know, dear," she sympathized, patting my hand.� "But you're different.� You've always liked being alone.� Maybe that's why you never married any of those perfectly nice men you've met.� All writers like to be alone, don't they?� You'd probably even enjoy having a ghost.� You could write one of your little stories about him.� Anyway, after the Oklahoma people left, I was up here one day when this nice young woman named Wendy knocked at the door and asked to see the house.� She'd seen the sign in the yard, but when I checked her credit, it was absolutely terrible.� That's when I simply gave up trying to find a decent tenant and rented it to you."
Lucky me, I thought.� Nice young Wendy's rotten credit history had earned me a place to live.� I love the way life works, sometimes.� My own credit history would have made Wendy look like the Queen of England.
Finally, Mom stood up and looked about her for her purse and her hat.
"I need to get along, now, sweetheart.� Why don't you come down this weekend and have dinner with Leo and me, if you're not doing anything�like going out on a date or something?� Leo cooks, you know.� Japanese."
I sighed.� "Okay, Mom.� That sounds great.� We'll make it a foursome.� I'll bring the ghost, if he's not doing anything."
Mom leaned over and kissed me on the cheek.� A minute later, the house was quiet again, and I settled down on the couch to watch television.� I offered the ghost a choice, and when he expressed no preference, I clicked to a rerun of Law and Order.
I fell asleep before the program ended, and woke to a slight scratching noise coming from the opposite wall.� The ghost of the little rat-dog, maybe, or the troop of mice that were nesting somewhere under the dishwasher and gnawing their way through the wiring.� The dishwasher hadn't worked since I moved in, and I was always finding little chunks of pink insulation in front of it.� Not that it mattered.� Doing dishes wasn't my thing, even if I'd owned any dishes.� Eating off paper towels or simply standing over the sink was more my style.� Very bohemian.� I yawned, then staggered off to bed, already half-asleep.� The wind had blown up while I was napping, and the moon was casting odd, undulating shapes through the narrow window and onto my bedroom wall.� Probably the overgrown but withered oleander bushes on the patio, I guessed, making a mental note to water them the next day.� Just before I dropped off again, the mice began to scratch more insistently, in the next room.� I made a second mental note to call Mona tomorrow and complain�again.
Okay, that's the back-story.� Now, let us return to the day I found the dead cat.
The calendar that day read October 9, but it was hot as blazes outside, which is not exactly a news flash in Southern California.� So after Mona drove off with my rent check (doomed, alas, to bounce), I went back inside, cranked up the air conditioning, and fell asleep on the couch with a good book.� I knew it was good because I wrote it, and according to my former publisher, close to nine hundred real, live people had bought it.� When I woke up from my nap, about an hour later, I suddenly remembered that I'd forgotten to check the mail.� Not that I ever get much mail.� I'm one of those people Mom dislikes, who never leave forwarding addresses.� Once in a while, though, even I get some interesting junk mail.� When I opened the door and stepped (barefoot) onto the porch, I stepped into something sticky.� I didn't even have to look down to know it was the other half of the dead cat.
This half was wearing a striped party hat, and both its eyes had been gouged out.
I sat on the front step and cried for a while.� I hadn't known the cat in life, but I knew that he might have belonged to someone who cared about him.� The first half-cat had been sad, but okay, in a way, because even coyotes have to eat, but this was something else, entirely.� I didn't touch this half, but went directly inside to call the cops.� I knew to do that because I watch a lot of television.� A vicious act like this could be a threat, right?� Anyway, three and one half hours later, my doorbell finally rang, making me almost wish I'd been hacked to pieces before help arrived, to make a point about the LAPD's abysmal response time.
The cop, who looked absolutely nothing like the guys on CSI, squatted on my sidewalk