I almost feel bad for texting Rick at two in the morning, but since it’s Fourth of July weekend, I figure I have a 50/50 chance of him being awake and fishing off the beach at this hour. Besides, he’s my best friend. If he gets grumpy at me, it won’t last for very long. I turn my phone to vibrate in case he’s awake decides to call me back rather than texting me, and sneak out onto our beach house’s front porch for good measure.
I finish easing the door shut just as my cell phone starts vibrating in my hand. I grin and swipe across the screen to answer.
“Hey, stranger.” I sound like a shameless flirt, but this is Rick. Flirting between best friends hardly counts in the grand scheme of things, right?
“Do you ever sleep, Lexie?” His voice resonates with gentle amusement rather than grogginess. Score one for me. He’s up, too.
“Not much, no.” I shrug, even though I know he can’t see me.
“That can’t be healthy.” His chastising tone is borderline comical to me since I know good and well he was up too.
“Doesn’t sound like you were sleeping, either.” I can never resist teasing or taunting Rick. It’s probably a bad habit, and might even get me into trouble someday, but for now, I plan on continuing to pester him shamelessly.
“I was fishing,” he defends. “That’s different. You were probably up watching some old Hitchcock movie and trying to dream up ways to get away with the things that people don’t manage to get away with in his movies.”
“So we were both indulging in our respective obsessions.” I shrugged and paced over to the porch rail because I heard some oddly labored noises coming from the three-story yellow monstrosity next door with the red roof and shutters that I called the mustard and ketchup house. “Apparently, the jackass neighbor in the ugly three story behind y’all and next to us has a guest tonight,” I mutter, not bothering to hide my disgust.
“The idiot with a bad case of poor little rich guy syndrome who set y’all’s yard on fire?” Rick’s voice turns cold with disapproval.
“Yep. And had a cement truck back through our yard to pour his patio, and rutted our yard up bad, too.” I confirm. Nobody on our block seems to like the guy who lives in the mustard and ketchup hued monstrosity.
“Yeah, I remember that," Rick lets out a dark chuckle, and I can picture him shaking his head with his standard-issue ironic grin turning up the corners of his mouth. "Your dad was super-pissed about that.”
“The jerk thinks he can destroy our place because he’s rich and some kind of ex-cop or something. I’m going to sneak up on the back porch and see if I can get a better view of what’s going on next door. I’d love to catch this guy doing something illegal, you know? It’d be sweet as hell, but it’d probably end up being covered up anyway,” I mutter as I slink down the beach house stairs, expertly avoiding all the creaky spots.
“I’m on my way back from the pier. I’ll meet you on the back deck, so you don’t look like the nosy ass you are lurking up there all by yourself.”
“Thanks, bestie. I’ll see you in a minute, then.”
I hung up and slunk past the door and down the aged stairs of my grandparents’ beach house, picking my way around the creaky spots with expert ease. When I was little, I always wanted to grow up to be Nancy Drew, so I’m well-versed in sneaking, snooping, and the art of deduction. Stephanie Plum is a more recent literary hero of mine. I’d love to be a private investigator or bounty hunter when I get older, but that would probably give my well-mannered mother a stroke. Most of the things I want to do with my life would give my poor mamma a stroke.
Rick met me at the base of the stairs and leaned his rod and reel against the beach house’s blue vinyl siding, easing his camo tackle box down beside it with a rueful shake of his head.
“I don’t know why I always let you drag me into your insane shenanigans, Lexie.”
I gave him a quick hug and a cheeky grin. “It’s ’cause you love me, probably.” I topped the statement off with a sassy wink and tugged him around the back of the house with me.
“God only knows why,” Rick muttered, close on my heels as I snuck up the much newer set of stairs to the brand-spanking-new back deck we’d added on at the beginning of the summer.
I turned and whispered to him when we topped the stairs. “Let’s see what the jerk has going on tonight.”
“I’m kind of surprised he’s even here, to be honest.”
“What? Why?” I frowned, mostly because I hated it when Rick knew things I didn’t.
“He’s got the place up for sale. He’s spent the last month packing up and moving out, probably to a bigger and more obnoxious place in a wealthier community than Bear Point. Our small, modest long-time family beach houses seemed to be kind of offensive to the guy when he was living here.”
I suppressed a snort but allowed myself a killer eye-roll. “What an absolute snot. That just makes this more interesting, though. Let’s see if we can see what he’s up to this late at night when most of his stuff is gone.”
We used the cover of darkness to slip over to the rail and see down into his yard. A wave of horror and embarrassment washed over me as I realized he was apparently having sex with someone on the wicker chez lounge across from the wall-mounted television on the porch. I was about to turn away when I noticed that the guy’s hair was the wrong color. I elbowed Rick. “That’s not our neighbor,” I hissed.
“Probably some drunk college kids out to get a thrill from getting it on while trespassing. We should probably ignore this and mind our own business.”
“Rick…” My voice was harsh with nausea. “I think maybe we should call the cops.”
I shuddered. “Because I don’t think she’s all that into it. She hasn’t moved at all since we spotted them. I think she might be roofied. This is wrong. We should get her some help. You call the cops and wake everybody up; I’m going to slip down to the fence and see if I can get a closer look at the situation.”
“I don’t think you should go down there, Lexie,” Rick growled as he pulled out his phone and dialed 911.
“You’re not big enough to stop me. I need to gather all the information I can in case we have to file a police report.” I darted out of his reach and down the stairs before he could catch my arm and keep me in my place. I slipped up to the fence and peered through the crack, determined to get all the details I could, driven partly by rage for the unconscious girl, and partly by a morbid fascination with such an odd turn of events occurring in our peaceful neighborhood.
From what I could tell, the guy looked like a blond Michael Cera, but more buff, like maybe he played some kind of sport. I knew I’d never seen him at the neighbors’ house before, but something about him looked vaguely familiar, like maybe I’d seen him in the newspaper or something, but I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where I knew him from. He looked like he was in his late teens or early twenties, probably college-aged. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, but the girl was stiff and unresponsive, still. Dread pooled heavy in my chest, and I wondered if she were worse off than roofied.
Just as that awful thought crossed my mind, sirens could be heard in the distance. The guy’s head snapped up and swiveled, trying to identify the direction they were coming from. As the sound got closer, he shoved himself off the girl and started dressing in a hurry.
I turned and jumped when I saw Rick beside me. “The dirty prick knows he’s doing something wrong, Rick. He’s getting dressed. I think he’s going to run.”
Rick’s expression tightened. “If he does, I’ll go after him.”
I nodded. “And the second he’s far enough away from that girl, I’m going to check her pulse and see if she’s ok.”
“Jesus Christ, Lexie,” he shook his head and muttered under his breath. “How do you always manage to get us into weird shit like this?”
We both peered through the fence cracks and watched as the guy tossed a beach towel over the half-naked girl and turned to run from the sirens that sounded closer and closer every second.
Without a word to me, Rick took off after him. I bolted around the corner of the fence until it was short enough for me to jump it and hurried over to the girl’s still prone form. “Excuse me?” I shouted, hoping to startle her awake, but she didn’t so much as twitch. A sick feeling started bubbling in my gut, and I reached down, shaking her through the towel. “Hello?”
Still nothing. One arm hung out from under the towel, limp and awkward. I reached down to try to get a pulse on her wrist, but I knew she was dead the second my fingers touched her icy skin. Nobody can be that cold outside in July in Bear Point, Alabama, unless there’s no blood left in their veins. I staggered away from her, my whole body trembling uncontrollably as my stomach heaved and roiled with sickness. I fought the urge to vomit, not able to tear my eyes away from her impossibly pale, cyanotic hand that hung there glowing in the eerie light of the full moon.
“She’s dead. Freaking dead! Jesus H. Christ. What the hell did we even just see?” I realized after a couple of seconds that I was talking to myself, but I couldn’t seem to stop. “Just had to be nosy, didn’t I? Good God. Shit! This is so bad. But what if I hadn’t been awake and being nosy? He probably would have disposed of her body long before anybody woke up. Jesus.”
A wave of relief washed over me when the cops pulled up, red and blue lights strobing. I waved my arms frantically, probably looking like a panicked circus midget at only five feet tall and 115 pounds. “Help! She’s over here,” I called when they exited their vehicles. “She’s over here, and she’s dead!”
My voice broke, and a flood of tears swamped me as they approached.