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Molly Masters Series

Death Comes to Suburbia

Death Comes to Suburbia

Chapter 1

Did I Catch You at a Bad Time...Again?

The instant I opened my door, Preston Saunders said, "Molly, I've got to show you something, but first you have to promise not to kill me."

It was early morning on a quiet, brisk spring day—quiet because my children were at school, and brisk because here in upstate New York, the actual thawing and burgeoning of spring lags its calendar assignment by a month or two. A pyramid of dirty snow, remnants of my son's first snow fort, still graced a corner of the red-brick front porch on which Preston now stood.

I held up my palms. "I'm unarmed, but I haven't had my coffee yet, so all bets are off." I smiled, but his steel-gray eyes still held no trace of humor. "Would you like to come in?"

He nodded, stepped inside, and shut the door behind him blindly, as if afraid to turn his back on me. "I can only stay a minute. I'm on my way to the office."

As usual, Preston Saunders was impeccably attired and drop-dead handsome. The tailored black suit on his tall, lithe body screamed Gentleman's Quarterly. I, too, was dressed for work—in my basement office: jeans, University of Colorado sweatshirt, pink moccasins.

"What is it you wanted to show me?" I asked, noting that his hands were empty.

"I'm not entirely sure how to broach the subject, Molly." His gaze did not meet my eyes, and he cleared his throat while he smoothed his flawless, prematurely gray hair.

"Why don't we sit in the living room?"

He shook his head, his eyes focused on some spot past my shoulder. With this hesitant demeanor on top of his inauspicious opening line, horrendous explanations for his visit raced through my mind. The only one that made sense was that he was about to inform me he was leaving town, thereby leaving his very pregnant wife, Stephanie, so he wanted me to serve as Stephanie's coach during labor.

"Guess I'll just...take it out," Preston murmured. He unbuttoned his jacket, then untucked his shirt.

"Stop!" I took a backward step toward the kitchen. "Preston, if I'm about to get flashed, at least let me get a cup of coffee first."

A look of confusion passed across his handsome features, then he snorted. "It's not what you're thinking. It's just that I couldn't let anyone see me carrying this to your door." He reached under his shirt and pulled out a magazine, which he began to page through.

I caught sight of the cover: a woman, naked except for a holstered gun on each thigh. Appalled, I asked incredulously, "You came over to my house to show me a dirty magazine?!"

He paused. "You have to keep this confidential, Molly. I have a post office box that Stephie doesn't know about. If she finds out I subscribe to this publication, she'll have my head. Or worse."

My mind raced. That he wanted to show me a particular picture in the magazine was disconcerting. Stephanie had modeled for a while after high school. Maybe some of her modeling had been of the disrobed variety.

"Here it is." He folded the magazine open to the one page he wanted me to see.

Automatically I looked away, afraid I'd see Stephanie naked, or worse, their daughter, Tiffany, who had only turned fifteen two weeks ago. "I really don't want to do this. I have to get back to work." That was true. I run an eCard business and needed to finish my current assignment.

"You have no choice, I'm afraid. It's your picture."

"My what?" I snatched the magazine from his grasp. There on the page was the one raunchy cartoon I'd ever created. It showed a man clutching a towel to cover himself as he opened the door to a priest. In the corner are two buxom women in bed, wearing caps with sheep ears. The smiling priest asks the man, "Did I catch you at a bad time?" As always, the cartoon bore my last name, Masters, worked into some cross-hatching in the lower right corner.

"How did the magazine get my cartoon? Who did this to me?" While I spoke, I flipped to the front to see the magazine's name. "Between the Legs!" My stomach lurched. "Good Lord. I'm a contributor to a magazine called Between the Legs? Won't that look great on my resume." I could almost see my fictitious resume, the lines flashing before my eyes like movie credits. Molly Octavia Masters. Devoted wife. Mother of two. Owner of Molly's eCards. Porn cartoonist.

"I submitted it under the name Mike Masters," Preston interjected, "but before you get upset—"

"Too late!" I clenched my fist, my jaw, and every muscle in my body as I scanned the facing page that Preston had folded down. There was a photograph of Preston Saunders, identified as Mike Masters, the new cartoonist for their magazine. I glared at him. "You submitted my work to a trashy magazine and took the credit for it!"

"Let me explain," Preston said, holding up one palm while he reached into his jacket pocket with his other hand.

"You stole the cartoon from my file! And you submitted it without my consent! Preston, you've broken copyright laws. You've—"

As if it were a shield, he held out a check written to Molly Masters for a thousand dollars.

I gaped at it and continued, "—got a large sum of money there for one mediocre cartoon. But that doesn't justify what you—"

"They want to hire you. A thousand dollars a month, for four to eight cartoons each edition. And since you're listed as Mike Masters, nobody has to know it's really you."

I glared at him. "Why did you do this?"

"It all started out as a joke." He tossed the check onto my coffee table as if it were merely a napkin. I was at the country club with some friends of mine. I'd had too much to drink and said I was going to enter this cartoonists' contest. The guys bet me a thousand dollars apiece I couldn't win. They'd have lorded it over me for the rest of my life. Since the cartoon was signed 'Masters', I convinced the magazine to print my photograph. I told the editor you were my wife, but you wanted to keep your identity hidden, and that printing my photo was part of the ruse."

"These magazines objectify women. I don't condone them, let alone want to contribute to them." I intended to thrust the magazine back at him, but a paragraph of text below his photo caught my eye. I froze. To my horror, it was a brief biography. I began to read aloud. "Mike Masters loves his hometown of Carlton, a small suburb outside of Albany, New York."

In the meantime, Preston opened the door and backed onto the porch.

"How dare you? We're the only 'Masters' in the Carlton directory. I have two young children to think about!"

Unable to control my fury, I rolled up the magazine, followed him onto the porch, and swatted him on the shoulder. "You were right. I am going to kill you!"

"I'm leaving. But let me just point out that this house is actually your parents' home and therefore, the phone book lists it under the name Peterson."

"We got listed under this address and phone number in the new directory, Preston!"

"Oh." Reddening, he turned and trotted down the brick stairs. He shook his head and said over his shoulder, "I don't know how I'll explain this to the publisher. I already signed a year's contract on your behalf, as your agent." He rounded his Mercedes, which was parked in my driveway.

"But you're not my agent!" To my annoyance and embarrassment, a pair of women in jogging suits on the sidewalk paused and were watching Preston and me. Apparently they had already gotten enough of a collective earful. They resumed their jogging as soon as I looked at them.

"Good morning," I called, though I didn't recognize either of them. Neither turned toward me. They both lifted one hand in a perky, gotta-keep-going wave and crossed my driveway at a truly impressive clip. Which no doubt slowed once they rounded the corner.

Though typical of Preston's egocentric oblivion to want his picture in a magazine that he Secretly subscribed to, it was odd that the publisher had agreed to print "Mike Masters's" photograph. It wouldn't have taken much thought to figure out that if the cartoonist wanted to hide her identity, printing her "husband's" picture and naming their hometown was not the way to go about that.

Then again, maybe the editor in question was a man who assumed that even if he and "Mike Masters" had figured that out, Mike's little wifey wouldn't have enough smarts to do the same. Editors who recognized women's intelligence and dignity were probably not inclined to work for a magazine entitled Between the Legs in the first place.

Much as I disliked the task, I sat down on my couch and flipped through the magazine, trying to learn its circulation and the editors' names. The circulation was not shown. The editor-in-chief was listed as "Butch Blake." Probably a pseudonym for someone whose real name was something like Pepe le Pew.

I paced between the back and front doors, mentally establishing a list of things to do. My husband, Jim, needed to be clued in on this as soon as possible, but this was Monday, which meant he was in an all-day meeting. With all-day meetings once a week, it was no wonder Jim's year-long "temporary" assignment, which eight months ago had brought us back to my childhood home, had been extended to "indefinite."

Although I was ashamed of myself, a thwock, thwock sound kept reverberating in my brain. That was the sound of me hitting a tennis ball in a brand new court in the yard of my beloved home back in Boulder. Financing a court through my business earnings was a personal goal I'd established to mollify myself when I got homesick. At what that fantasy court would cost, divided by my income to date, I would be lucky to thwup even one ball prior to toddling off to the retirement home.

After a half hour or so of pacing and pondering, I decided once and for all to call the publisher and demand a retraction, but still wasn't sure if I should rip up their check. The cartoon was already published. They might as well pay me for it, but would my cashing the check mean I had agreed to their contract? I needed a lawyer.

The doorbell rang. I marched over and flung open the door.

A young man with half his hair shaved and the other half dyed electric blue peered at me from beneath droopy eye-lids. "Yeah, hi," he muttered. "Is your mom or dad home?"

Through a tight jaw, I answered, "I don't know. I'd have to call them in Florida to find out. Why?" Because I was thin and had long brown hair, even at thirty-five I still occasionally had to pull out my driver's license to assure cautious bartenders that I was a major, not a minor, But this was the first time someone nearly half my age had made that mistake.

"Hey. Don't get all ticked off."

"My house, my rules. I get to decide when to be annoyed. And if you're selling something, you're off to a cruddy start."

"I'm just a messenger, lady." He produced a clipboard from a khaki-colored knapsack. "I'm s'posed to deliver a package in person to Mike Masters. Is he here?"

A package for Mike Masters? Already? What on earth could it be? Perhaps a copy of the contract Preston had signed. "That's me."

The messenger snorted and curled a lip at me. "Yeah. Right."

"It's short for Michelle."

He snorted a second time and didn't move. After staring at the logo on my sweatshirt, or perhaps my body, but I preferred to think it was the logo, he finally handed me the clipboard. "You gotta sign for it, uh, Mike." I did so, and he sneered at me and said, "Thanks, Mike. Here ya go." He pulled out a small, unmarked package, wrapped in brown paper and handed it to me.

The box was light. It was only a couple of inches deep, six inches or so wide and long. Not the right dimensions for a written contract. Fan mail seemed unlikely. A bomb perhaps? I listened for ticking. "Who sent this?"

The young man was already clomping down the porch steps. "I don't give out the names of my customers, Mike. Maybe there's a return address someplace." He got on a motorcycle and took off.

Still somewhat fearful of setting off an explosion, I brought the package inside and carefully set it on top of the smutty magazine atop the coffee table. If it was an explosive, the least I could do was make darned sure the magazine went up with it. I got a pair of scissors and gently cut the string and brown paper. Beneath that was a white box. Glued to the lid of the box was a postcard-sized sheet of pink paper that read:

Mike Masters:
This is what we think of you and your cartoon.
Sisters Totally Opposed to Pornography

"No return address," I mumbled. Thanks to an unmistakable odor, I already had a pretty good idea of what was in the box, but curiosity bested me and I lifted the lid. Sure enough. Dog poop.

Though it was probably not the reaction STOP would've wanted, I chuckled. I imagined how the lucky member of their organization must have felt when he, or more likely she since these were sisters, found out she was in charge of this particular task. "You want me to box up some what?" Whose job title would that normally fall under? Vice president, I suppose. Maybe STOP had a canine mascot.

The phone rang. I answered and heard a woman sobbing into the receiver. My first thought was that a Sister felt so betrayed by my cartoon she was too emotionally overcome to shout obscenities at me.

My second thought was this was my least favorite human being, Stephanie Saunders, Preston's wife. The last time she'd called me in tears, it was because the cleaners had "forever destroyed" her favorite blouse. Therefore, she "couldn't possibly" make it to preside over that night's PTA meeting, so as secretary-slash-treasurer, she needed me to take over for her.

"M-m-molly." I recognized Stephanie's whimper. She was considerably more overwrought than she had been over the blouse. Uh-oh. She's gone into labor and can't locate Preston. Unless the cleaners ruined an entire evening-wear ensemble.

"What's the matter?"

"Preston. Oh, dear Lord. Preston."

"What about Preston?"

No answer, just more sobs.

"What's happened, Stephanie?" I asked again, starting to worry that, this time, she truly was in trouble.

She took a deep, noisy breath, then blurted, "Molly. Come quick. It's Preston. He's dead."

© Leslie O'Kane


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