I had every reason to be peeved, and I told Carly so.
“Why didn’t you just get me a T-shirt that says, ‘I turned forty today, and all I got was the chance to poke around at a crime scene?’ ”
“ ‘And this lousy T-shirt.’ Don’t forget that part,” Carly added with a grin.
“And I’ll bet that lousy T-shirt would be small enough to fit a toddler.”
“It’s okay. I’d have given you a Wonderbra to go with it. Happy birthday, sis!”
Honestly, she’s just like our mother.
Carly, unlike our mother, is a medical examiner and happened to be on call that night. I knew I shouldn’t have gone out to dinner with her, but frankly, I didn’t have anything more compelling to do other than watch a boxed set of the newly released season of CSI — my birthday present to myself. Carly had offered to buy me Cajun at Fishbones instead. She’d already purchased my saucy little dress and matching shoes from one of the high-end boutiques she can afford, but I can’t. Still, I would have rather watched Crime Scene Investigators than be one.
I shot her the evil eye.
Carly had insisted she take me out because I’d been feeling down. To her, the idea of a depressed psychologist bordered on heresy. We’d argued all the way from Greek Town, stopping only when we pulled up in front of the house.
“C’mon, Bell. You can’t spend the big four-o holed up in your apartment watching television. And how can a psychologist be depressed? What’s up with that?”
“It’s not television. It’s a DVD. And why can’t I be depressed? Don’t medical examiners die?” I paused to give her my best sassy glare. “What’s up with that?”
She sighed. “DVD or not, CSI is a TV show.” She poked her lips out in the mock outrage I’ve seen my sister play at many times before, “And pathologists do not die.”
I looked at her.
“They expire,” she said, followed by a wicked grin. I smiled in spite of myself.
“Then, I’m not really depressed. I’m having an episode.” I’d spoken the gospel truth about that. Even if I’d been mowed down by a full-blown clinical depression, I had good reasons to be low. I’d never married. I turned forty, God help me, and I had a raging case of endometriosis, which, according to my doctor, meant I shouldn’t wait a whole lot longer before trying to make a baby. Only I lacked a man, significant other, husband, boyfriend, main squeeze, or any other variation of that theme. No knight in shining armor had appeared, magnanimously holding a test tube full of his little soldiers, mine for the taking.
Carly had stopped her black Escalade next to two police cruisers, their light bars flashing against the house and trees. Groups of people — some still in their nightclothes — huddled on the sidewalk. Yellow crime-scene tape halted any looky-loos from getting too curious, or too close, for their own good. I glanced out of the passenger window at the house. It sure did look familiar — number 2345 — a small white house nestled in a ghetto upgrade neighborhood. Nothing about the nondescript ranch stood out. So why did a nagging uneasiness tug at me the moment I set eyes on it?
Number 2345 — the one that sits a little farther back than the others.
I vaguely recalled, at sometime or another, actually writing down directions to this very house. I’d been here before.
A blue, unmarked Crown Victoria pulled up beside us.
Carly thrust her gearshift into park and turned the ignition off. She fluffed her long black hair and wagged her eyebrows at me. “Honey, God is smiling on you. A yummy birthday treat has just arrived.” With no other explanation, she jumped out of the SUV like she’d scoped out a fine man on the horizon, and about three seconds later I understood why.
He was stunning. Tall, but not too tall, and lightly tanned. He sported the classic boys-in-the-hood ’do — impeccably groomed brown curls, a little high on the top, with a fade on the sides — and he wore it well.
This white guy has been hanging around the brothers.
I took another lingering look.
Is this white guy a brother? Or isn’t he?
He possessed the kind of exotic good looks that appeared to be an ambiguous blend of races — at least black, white, and Latino. He must have pulled all the fine out of that multicultural gene pool. Mr. United Nations had on a gray lightweight wool suit tailored to perfection. His white button-down shirt had been starched into military submission. His artsy tie, knotted charmingly askew at his neck, looked like an expressionist painting. I sensed a little wildness there, and it looked good and natural on him — like wildness looks good on mountains and waterfalls.
He walked up to Carly with a hand extended. She ignored it and scooped him up in a hug.
“Carly Brown,” he said, nearly humming her name with a voice as smooth and rich as a cup of Godiva hot chocolate. When he released her, I stole another look at his face.
He smiled, and one word came to mind: wow. But this wasn’t the time to be ogling some blue suit, even if he was in plain clothes. Dead folks were in the house, for goodness’ sakes, and CSI stuff needed to be done. Shoot. I wanted to see Gil Grissom or that fine Warrick Brown — or at least a reasonable facsimile. Then again, the plain-clothes cop who recently hugged up with Carly would do just fine as the on-site hottie.
“How are you, Jazzy?” Carly asked after she squeezed him. Knowing her, she had also given him a subtle brush with a strategically positioned breast.
He grinned at her. Laughed even. “How’s the most gorgeous medical examiner in the county?”
“County?” she complained, with mock hurt in her eyes. She batted her lashes as though she might be going blind, “Last time you said state.”
“Aw, sistah, my bad,” he said.
I stole another look at him.
He’s black, and a hood rat at that.
He continued oozing charm in Carly’s general direction.
“You already know you’re the most gorgeous medical examiner in the United States.”
I groaned. Great birthday. I get to sit in an SUV on an unseasonably hot September night — at a crime scene — listening to Carly flirt. I spent my adolescence doing that — minus the dead bodies, thank God.
Could it get any worse?
I shouldn’t have wondered. If I’ve learned anything in forty years, it’s that one should never pose the question, “Could it get any worse?” As it happens, one’s situation can almost always get worse, and mine promptly proceeded to do so.
“Get out the truck, birthday girl,” my sister said, “and let me introduce you to Jazzy.”
Wonderful. Another opportunity to be negatively compared to my beautiful, intelligent sister. I stepped out of the SUV. Jazzy appraised me from head to toe with one, bold, sweeping glance. Okay, handsome. Go ahead — be a rude and pompous jerk and ask me how old I am.
“Birthday girl,” he asked, “how old are you?”
I started to answer like my great-grandmother and namesake would. I could picture Mama Amanda Bell Brown rolling her shoulders back, standing erect, and cutting her eyes at him. Then her stern retort, “Old enough to eat cornbread without getting choked.” I would have said it just like Ma Brown, but the guy smiled at me, and darn it if my heart didn’t start to flutter. I lost the nerve to be so sassy. “Classified information,” I muttered with a fake smile to return his generous one.
“She’s forty,” Carly said.
I mentally plotted my sister’s destruction.
“Happy Birthday,” he said.
Honestly, he could have been a toothpaste model. I felt disoriented just looking at him.
Nice dress? He had that right, thank you kindly, big sis. The brassy red number defied my own personality. I would have never ventured to buy it — not even for my birthday — the soft, crimson silk turned more heads than a chiropractor. I’d have to do some business with God about the plunging halter neckline, and the A-line skirt made my legs in the red stiletto sandals look — quite frankly — devastating. I finished the look with a shawl, embroidered with African-inspired designs. It alone tempered the heat my hookup sent out into the atmosphere.
Mr. Colgate-smile stood there looking a little stunned, trying to stop checking out my rarely seen gams. I said a quick prayer that it wasn’t lust, but merely a strong appreciation for the beauty of God’s creation. As birthday fun goes, his thinly veiled delight in my appearance had become the highlight of my now-dismal night. I’d had no idea I’d meet someone who looked like a fashion model, but since it happened to be my big day, and I’d already been upstaged by the dearly departed, if necessary, I’d ask Jesus to forgive me for enjoying the whole thing. Heck, I wasn’t getting any younger. Compliments like the ones in his eyes don’t come down the pike too much anymore, and I let myself enjoy them.
I guess he finally found his manners and said, “Another lovely Brown woman, whose name is . . . ” He held out his hand to shake mine. Unlike Carly, I had sense enough to actually shake the man’s hand instead of sexually assaulting him.
“Dr. Amanda Brown,” I said, using my cool, professional psychologist voice. I reserved my nickname for my closest family and friends.
“Everyone who loves her calls her Bell,” my sister chimed in.
“Nice to meet you, Bell.”
No Dr. No Ms. Brown. Went straight to Bell like he was entitled.
“I’m Jazz Brown.” He flashed me that megawatt grin. “No relation.”
“Like we wouldn’t have noticed you at family reunions,” Carly said.
“On the bright side,” he said, nearly charming the twohundred- dollar strappy sandals off my feet, “if I were to marry one of you, you wouldn’t have to change your name.”
“I’ll be darned if I’m not already engaged, Mr. Brown,” Carly said, “but my baby sis here . . . ”
I wanted to kick her. As soon as I got the chance, I would kick my big sister with the enthusiasm of Billy Blanks on a Tae Bo infomercial. I gave both of them an exaggerated sigh. “Aren’t there dead people in that house?”
“All work and no play, Bell?” Jazz teased.
I pointed to the house. “The dead are crying out like the blood of Abel in there.”
“She’s only tripping like that because she doesn’t do this for a living. So what have we got, Sugar?”
Sugar! She called him Sugar like it’s his name. Why can’t I be that confident around gorgeous men?
“Report I got said it’s two males. No visible cause of death.”
“A double suicide or something?”
“No note, and probably more like ‘something,’ but you’re the M.E. You can tell me.” He flashed me a look that said, “You stay back.”
“My baby sis here is a forensic psychologist . . . and a theologian.” Carly nodded toward me. “Maybe she could help, or at the very least, say a prayer for you.” Although serious, she said it in a teasing way so that if he said no, she’d save me face.
“A praying theologian slash forensic psychologist at a crime scene,” Jazz said. “Interesting.”
Interesting? He had to be kidding. I sounded like the bomb, if I must say, and apparently I must.
But I didn’t. I denied it like Peter on Good Friday morning. “I’m not actually a theologian.”
I hate it when women dumb down for a man, and yet . . .
“I did most of my training at Great Lakes Theological Seminary, but in psychology,” I said, appalled at myself.
A seminary degree automatically made me a theologian in most people’s minds. Still. Did I have to act like I didn’t know the sixty-six books of the Bible?
“In fact,” I added, like an even bigger idiot, “calling me a forensic psychologist is a stretch.”
“Are you, or are you not a forensic psychologist?” He had a challenging gleam in his eyes.
“I am, but . . . ” I tried to decide if he would consider me a forensic psychologist based on whatever nebulous definition he may have. I spent my workdays administering tests to inmates at the county jail, writing my reports, and testifying in court. I’d studied crime-scene photos, but had never been on-site. I hated that I felt defensive standing there sweating and discrediting my own hard-earned skills. All because he was prettier than me.
He cocked his head to the side and regarded me with eyes teasing. “I consult with forensic psychologists on occasion. You’re welcome to join us,” he said. “Or not.”
With that he fairly dismissed me, and I could tell he had read me like the Bible on Easter. He might as well have called me ’fraidy cat to my face. I didn’t appreciate his attitude.
“I’ll have a look,” I said, trying to sound cool. Frankly, I’d rather have him extract my back molars than go into that house of horrors. My fascination with true crime was one thing. It even extended to taking a few post-graduate criminology classes. But being knee deep in the dead? I’d just as soon leave that to Carly. Yet I wouldn’t let him see me punk out. I’m tough. I’m Bell Brown. If Carly could be cool in there, so could I. We came from good stock. Strong black women.
“I’m going in,” Carly said, sounding bored. She went to her SUV and grabbed her kit out of the rear of the car, punctuating the quiet evening with a soft thud as she closed the hatchback. She walked to the front door of the house without us, where a uniformed officer nodded a greeting. He moved a piece of yellow crime scene tape over so she could enter.
Detective Jazz Brown sized me up for a few more moments and smiled like a sated cat. He stretched out his arm, but his eyes still mocked. When I moved to his side, he placed a hand at the small of my back, guiding me to the front porch. I felt a tingle at his touch. He leaned in and whispered to me, “You have five minutes, Doctor Bell Brown. And don’t contaminate my crime scene.”
What have I gotten myself into?
I should have stayed home washing down a few chilidogs with a diet cola and in the privacy of my bedroom watched the bad guys get caught. Now I was about to walk into a real crime scene with a gorgeous, arrogant detective who had a slight attitude that both annoyed and attracted me. And I had to prove myself.
Fine. I knew all about suicides. How hard could it be? I’d give the man one competent, professional insight. Five minutes. Show him what I’m made of, then get the heck out of there and never see those delicious brown eyes of his again.
I said a silent prayer. Lord, let me help in some way, however small.
With that simple prayer, the trouble began.