Slow Squeeze

By: Dianne Emley

AN IRIS THORNE MYSTERY

Book Two in the Series






CHAPTER ONE





It was Easter Sunday. Barbie Stringfellow was lying on her back in bed, propped up against fluffy goose down pillows, wearing a negligee of many yards of fabric, some sheer and some slippery satin, all purple. Barbie was not a slender woman. Her breasts and thighs tested the fabrics. Her pose seemed casual and relaxed, in spite of her dishabille. She had a pleasantly surprised look on her face, the look of someone who had won five dollars in the lottery or who had been tapped on the shoulder by a friend at the supermarket.

The morning light filtered between the wood shutters. A moment before there had been silence, but all at once the birds came alive and started chirping merrily. Outside the bungalow, the air was fresh. A rainstorm had moved down the coast during the night, raising the scent of the pine, eucalyptus, and cypress trees and of the musty soft soil underneath the fallen pine cones, seed pods, leaves, and needles.

Barbie’s red Mercedes convertible was parked beside the cabin. The rag top had been left down during the night. The white leather interior of the car was now wet and covered with leaves and needles. Curious squirrels had gathered their courage and were exploring the car’s interior, periodically lifting their heads and sniffing the air.

The ocean had been stirred up by the storm, and it pounded the cliffs bordering the Central California coast town of Las Pumas. Barbie was in the Central Coast’s best hotel, the Mariah Lodge, and in the lodge’s best bungalow, the one called the Cabin in the Woods, nestled in the forest with a garden fronting a cliff.

At the base of the cliff in a sandy alcove out of reach of the waves, a flock of sea gulls had lighted. Several gulls were fighting over something that lay in the sand. Something fleshy. Another gull flew up to the group, landed, then circled around the others, intimidating them until they scattered. This gull grabbed the prize in its beak and ascended the cliff. One of the gulls that had been chased away rallied. The two gulls struggled in midair. The object was dropped in the fracas and fell against the side of the cliff. They tried to retrieve it, skimming close to the cliff, but it was lost. They flew away, side by side across the ocean, and were soon joined by the others.

Inside the cabin, Barbie’s expensive clothes had been carelessly tossed around the room as if there were plenty more where they had come from. A purple silk blouse lay across the back of a rough-hewn wooden chair, which had snagged it. Designer jeans were in a twisted heap on the floor. Leather cowboy boots were near the fireplace, where the fire was now dead. A full-length red fox coat was spread across the bed, near Barbie’s feet, like a faithful dog.

A platter of untouched fruit and cheese withered on a wheeled table near the door. The table also held a bottle of bourbon and another of soda water. An almost empty bottle of flat champagne rested in a silver bucket full of melted ice next to two cut crystal champagne flutes. The rim of each flute had a lipstick imprint, one hot pink, the other red.

Barbie still lay in her negligee on top of a patchwork quilt that covered the bed. The quilt was handmade, sewn in the broken star pattern with scraps of red, blue, and green fabric. The Mariah Lodge spared no expense in decorating its cabins in rustic Americana.

Dark purple and red bruises circled Barbie’s neck. Her hand was lying palm up next to her on the comforter, her fingers curled inward in repose. Blood had pooled beneath her hand in an irregular circle. There was a stump of red flesh and white bone where the little finger of her left hand had been.

A key jiggled in the lock and the bungalow door was pushed open. Police Chief Charles Greenwood stepped inside, his cowboy boots on the hardwood floor conspicuously announcing his arrival. He rolled a milk chocolate Easter egg around his mouth, lodging it against his cheek, where it made a small protuberance. The rich color of the chocolate matched the color of his skin. He walked heavily to the bed. A maid peeked behind him through the doorway.

Barbie didn’t stir. A dead woman wouldn’t.





CHAPTER TWO





Five months earlier





It was two weeks before Christmas, and it had just stopped snowing in Salt Lake City. The sun sparkled on the fresh cover and reflected off the flakes, creating a trompe l’oeil that made the fluffy white layer seem dense and solid.