My entire timeline for this series got screwed up royally. I do that. Timelines are my Waterloo. So let's just pretend it's all been stretched out a bit and move these doggies along, shall we? Lassiter was off a week, came back, got asked out, and it's a few days later. There. Seriously, people - never set your clocks by me. I'd have you late for everything!
(Thanks, Loafer :D )
(OK. I had to repost this thing twice. Typos drive me nuts. Whatever typos are left, I'm leaving them now because I'm already driving myself crazy)
Having endured the alterations of the tuxedo without having a full-blown meltdown, Carlton and Juliet left the tailor's shop and walked out to his Fusion, and he wearily leaned against the door, rubbing his eyes. He was back in his normal street clothes – that is, a regular suit and tie. Grey, with a green tie that did so much for his eyes.
"That was traumatic," he finally said. "In the please-kill-me-now sense of the word."
"Oh, c'mon, it wasn't that bad. You're just not used to being…um…handled."
"Hell, I can do with being handled. Been seven damned years, after all. I'd just rather be womanhandled, instead of manhandled, thank you," he said, forgetting, in his weariness and frazzled nerves, to be guarded. When he realized what he had just said, however, he flinched and scrabbled for his keys. "I'll…uh…see you…t-tomorrow," he stammered. Juliet managed a tight little smile in return, not wishing to embarrass him further, and watched him put on his shades, get in his car and drive away.
Carlton parked the Crown Vic in front of the elegant Tudor mansion, glancing around at the beautiful grounds. Juliet was reading through the preliminary – and rather sketchy – report on the murder at the estate, and her brow furrowed a little. "Man found nude in a garden maze, stabbed through the heart with some kind of gardening device."
"A trowel?" Carlton asked, getting out. She got out, too, and they looked around, taking in the sweet smell of lilacs and freshly cut grass. The entire estate – about forty acres of gardens and pools surrounded by dense woods – was relaxing and quiet, the only sounds being birdsong and splashing water. Carlton briefly eyed a nude cherub peeing into a reflecting pool, before turning back to look at her.
Her brow furrowed as she tried to remember the definition of the word. "A…small shovel? No, it seems to indicate a spike. Several stab wounds."
"Hm." He shrugged. "I don't see anybody around. Guess we'll go inside…" He gestured toward the front door and they walked up flagstone stones of the mansion to the huge double doors. Carlton peered around for a doorbell, but found none. Juliet finally spotted a thick velvet rope, and pulled it tentatively.
"It either rings a bell or flushes the toilet," she said, and she was gratified to see Carlton smile a little. He was distracted, and she knew why: tonight was his date with Sophie, and if he wasn't nervous about it, she certainly was. What if Sophie really did fall for him? Why shouldn't she, after all? Carlton had a lot of faults, obviously, but his positive traits were just as numerous and did a lot to balance out the negative ones, and she knew that every woman – including herself – who had passed him up was a stupid, blind fool.
The door opened, while Juliet and Carlton were both turned toward the gardens again, regarding the idyllic scenery in silence. Flowers were everywhere, both in pots and in large beds that naturally led the eye toward reflecting pools and fountains. The heady perfume of the blooms was distracting and a little intoxicating, and he hazarded a brief glance at O'Hara, who was staring at the gardens with a soft smile on her pretty face. He heard the door open behind him and pulled himself out of his thoughts and turned to accept greetings and let out a horrified yelping sound that made Juliet turn around, turn pink and squeak in horror.
The man was naked.
"Oh my…God!" she gasped. "Carlton…Carlton, his…his weinenschpritzer is showing!"
"What the hell is this?" Carlton snapped. "I…I mean…not that, obviously. I have one of my-…er, I mean…we…this…why are you naked?"
"This is a clothing optional resort," the man told them loftily. He looked vaguely like Harry Shearer, though frankly Carlton didn't know Harry Shearer that well, and had no interest in knowing more, and so he opted against making any further comparisons. Because, really, it was too much think about and now he could never watch The Simpsons again.
"You had a murder here, I believe," Carlton finally managed to say, keeping his gaze upward. "And I would suggest you take the option to put some clothes on."
"And your name is?" the man asked, extending a hand.
"Detective Lassiter, and I don't do nude handshakes, thanks. This is my partner, Detective O'Hara."
Juliet also declined to shake hands with the naked man. She was getting a little wild-eyed, though, and Carlton decided she shouldn't be forced to gaze at…that…any more, so he stepped in front of her. He heard her exhale and murmur of something like 'Dear God, help me'.
"The murder…?" Carlton reiterated.
"Yes. So horrible. Mr Blakely was stabbed to death in the garden maze. Really, it was terrible. The paramedics never had a chance at getting to him in time. I'll get Miss Claymore and she'll take you to the body – she has the maze memorized, thank goodness."
He turned and gestured for them to follow him inside. Juliet, still a bit shaky, managed to regain her composure a little. At least until Miss Claymore came bouncing out to them, all slender and pink and naked as the day she was born.
"Oh, Jesus…" Carlton said, running a hand over his face before making the sign of the Cross. "I…uh…mean…help us in this…this our time of…er…nake-…breas-…oh, hell…could you please put some clothes on, ma'am?"
"But nakedness is our natural state," Miss Claymore said in a bizarrely righteous tone, considering her state of undress.
"Listen, if that's the case, then the Catholic church has no reason to exist whatsoever!" Carlton snapped at her. "Put. Some. Clothes. On! We're opting for clothes, we're the police and we're here for a murder investigation and we have guns, dammit!"
Huffing indignantly, Miss Claypool padded away. Naked Harry glared at Carlton until the detective cracked and had to turn away. That didn't help him at all – a group of nubile young women jogged by, wearing nothing but tennis shoes and cheerful smiles.
Juliet, still too rattled to be coherent, had put her shades back on and Carlton suspected she had her eyes closed. She murmured something that sounded like 'Your butter might be booking', but he knew what she had said. He bit back a snicker and looked straight ahead, admiring the hydrangeas instead of the bouncing nymphettes.
"I don't have any butter and I can't imagine why I would book it," he said out of the side of his mouth, watching but definitely not watching six cute little fannies and six pairs of breasts bounce by.
Okay, so he was a guy. All the wiring was normal. He liked to look at women, clothed or unclothed. Was there really anything wrong with that, in the long run?
She dropped her head into her hands and he knew she was giggling.
"Pull yourself together!" he hissed at her. "You're at a nudist resort!"
She was almost convulsed by then, even under Harry's naked glare, and had to lean against the door.
"I think we should call Spencer in on this one."
That set her off into full-scale laughter, hand over her mouth.
Finally, Miss Claymore reappeared. She was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, but Carlton suspected she was going commando underneath them. Nevertheless, he gestured in the direction of the gardens, and she led them down the steps, across the courtyard and down some more steps to a rose bower-covered path that led to the maze. The scent of roses was heavy, and for the first time in his life Carlton had an overwhelming urge to just stop and smell the damned things. Slow down. Relax. The guy's dead – he's in no hurry.
He shook his head, clearing it, and shuffled along behind Juliet, his longer stride making him accidentally crowd her, which led to brief, alarming, contact. She glanced at him for a moment, eyebrows up, and he fought off a blush and muttered an apology.
Tall boxwoods created the complicated maze, and it didn't surprise Carlton at all that the paramedics hadn't had much chance, but when they finally got to the body – male, forty-something, about six feet, two hundred pounds, kind of pudgy, pale, flat on his back in the gravel in the center of the maze – he realized that no paramedic could have helped the man. A rough count showed seventeen stab wounds on the man's chest. He was as dead as the proverbial doornail.
"Wow," Juliet said. She walked around to the body's side and crouched down, using her little penlight (a birthday gift from Carlton) to look more closely at the wounds and ignoring the fact that he was naked. "Blood spatter…almost none in front of him," she pointed out. "None behind, either," she said, gesturing to toward the bushes on the other end of the circular clearing.
Carlton briefly inspected the rocks and bushes in front of where the victim had apparently been standing before he was stabbed. Miss Claypool, arms folded across her chest, was looking Carlton over, eyebrow lifted, and he fixed her with an icy glare.
"Was anyone suspicious seen around here at the time of death?" Carlton asked. He looked at the darkening puddles of blood around the body and guessed he had been dead around an hour or so.
"No. Just the usual people living or vacationing on the estate," Miss Claymore answered.
"I'll need everyone's name and specs," Carlton told her, without even looking up. He had found a few drops of blood to the left and right of where the murderer had likely been standing, and he turned around to study where and how the victim had fallen. Miss Claymore pulled out a cell phone and called someone, and Carlton tuned his ear to her conversation.
"Mr Cooper? We'll need the names of all the guests here at Sunnyside," she was saying.
"And Mr Cooper is?" Carlton asked, when she rang off.
"The owner of this resort. He'll be here soon."
"This guy have any enemies?" Carlton asked her, flipping open his notebook. Juliet went around looking for anything that seemed out of place, and finally looked at her partner. No bits of cloth, no pieces of paper, no dropped items, not even a footprint. The crime scene was clean, aside from the blood. It was pooling under the victim, and when Carlton finally went over to turn the body over a little, he was startled to see that at least three of the stab wounds had gone all the way through the body and blood was oozing out of his back from the wounds. "Big spike, and sharp, too. Or maybe a…sword?" Weird. Who would bring a sword to a nudist resort?
Then again, why would anybody bring anything to a nudist resort? What would be the point, exactly?
He checked the wounds, noting that they were all deep and jagged-looking, obviously applied to the victim with great anger and force, and he figured that only the first few had actually been fatal, while the rest were the result of the killer's frenzied rage. Overkill, indeed. At least three of the stab wounds were over the heart, and one or two had clearly pierced his lung.
Even now, after all these years, the brutality of some people still amazed Carlton. He wondered what he would do if and when he became callous to it all. Would he have to quit, or take an administrative job, riding a desk? He didn't want to become callous, even though he was somewhat accustomed to seeing this. So far, this kind of vicious crime only made him more determined to hunt down a murderer and bring him to justice – he supposed that meant he wasn't callous, because otherwise he wouldn't care. He remembered Louis L'Amour saying that a man who took a 'sight to killing' was loco, and he supposed a detective who got used to bloody crime scenes was probably just as loco, if not more so.
"None that we know of," Miss Claymore answered. "He was a pretty nice man, but he mostly kept to himself. He imported diamonds."
"A nudist diamond importer," Juliet said darkly. "There's one Agatha Christie never came up with."
"Sounds more Poirot than Christie, actually," Carlton told her with just the slightest of smiles.
"This was his first visit here," Claymore told them. "No one here really knew him well. He was kind of a loner. He didn't join in any of the activities."
Carlton and Juliet looked at each other, and finally Carlton cleared his throat, not sure he wanted to ask the question, because the answer was probably terrifying. "Activities?"
"Volleyball, tennis, golf, croquet, shuffleboard…"
"Dear God," Carlton muttered.
"We also played charades, Scruples, board games and the like, and we have a murder mystery game every weekend. Mr Blakely was always invited, of course, but he never joined."
"How long was he here?" Juliet asked, trying to imagine a nude murder mystery game and frankly found it impossible to even consider. Or maybe she just wasn't broad-minded enough.
"Did he mention any personal problems?" Carlton asked, trying to put the mental image of someone pantomiming Madame Bovary in the nude out of his mind, because he was already getting a headache. Come-hither look. Rolling hips. Ovaries…
"He didn't say much of anything to anyone. He stayed in his room most of the time. He jogged every morning."
"How long was he usually gone?" Juliet choked out, looking at her partner, who was apparently still stuck with trying to imagine nude charades.
"He was usually gone about…an hour or so, I think. I'm always setting up for breakfast when he'd leave, and that was probably about…oh…seven o'clock, and he was back at around eight on most days. I only remember because that was his routine, every morning, from the day he arrived here."
Carlton nodded. "Thank you, Miss Claymore." He looked up and saw the CSU's coming, and stepped aside, going over his preliminary findings with the team leader, Anison, while Juliet made a call. Carlton finished talking with the CSU's and went to her side.
"Who're you calling?"
"Shawn. Maybe he will…uh…find something."
"Before or after he freaks out and faints?"
Considering they had to wait around several minutes for Spencer and Guster to arrive on the estate (the details of which Juliet gave none, which confirmed to Carlton that she indeed had an excellent sense of humor), the two detectives had little else to do but sit down on one of the stone benches and wait. The CSU's were busy gathering up every tiny smidgeon of evidence, which to an observer was about as interesting as watching cement dry, so they settled on safer topics of conversation.
Or they would have been safer, had Juliet been able to keep from blurting out the first question that came immediately to mind.
"Have you ever been naked in public?"
"Wh-what? No. Of course not. I'm not really into scaring people, actually."
"Oh come on, Carlton," Juliet laughed. "I doubt you'd scare anybody."
"No. Not that, either."
He cleared his throat and she caught something in the depths of those incredible blue eyes – shyness, embarrassment, and something she couldn't quite define.
"People probably think I'm like Richard Nixon – not entirely anatomically correct, y'know?" He did blush then, and looked away, toward the hydrangeas. "Robocop, or something. No actual human dimensions or emotions."
"If they think that, they're stupid," Juliet countered. "You're the most human person I've ever known."
He looked at her, eyes narrowing a little. Leave it to Carlton to take a compliment as an insult. "In the Animal Farm sense, or just…?"
"What I mean is, you're very…emotional. However much you want to be professional and by-the-book, you're driven almost entirely by your emotions. Besides that, robots don't recognize that there's any problems they need to fix."
"Unless the problems are purely mechanical," he nodded, still struggling to come to grips with what she was saying to him.
She smiled softly. "No. Not that. You've worked hard to improve yourself. To become a better man, and let me tell you, it's working. When I first met you, you were basically a mess. Just barely keeping your head above water, and so angry and hurt. Now, you're swimming along just fine, and seem a lot less…well, you seem more balanced, and let me tell you…a lot of women are responding to that. Sophie, for instance, and Clair in booking and Charlotte in records and…"
"Stop that," he told her firmly, and sighed when she just gave him that 'you can't argue with me' look. "I'm trying to keep from mistaking my career for my life, that's for sure," he said, dismissing her compliments – because that meant she saw him as something other than Carlton Lassiter, Head Detective and All Around Hard Ass - and focusing on what he knew was safest to discuss. "I want to have a life, you know? A real life. Even if I have to live it alone, at least it will be a life. And however much you may think I should, I am not asking Clair in booking on a date. She's a vegan. Bursts into tears at the sight of a carrot that didn't die of natural causes."
She laughed. "Who says you have to live it alone? Don't have you have a date tonight?" she asked, trying to sound lighter than she felt.
"Please. People like me aren't meant to mate for life. Too screwed up, too much of a screw-up, too set in my ways, too grouchy…just…too…" He shrugged, gesturing at himself with his hands. "Plus, I leave the toilet seat up and whiskers in the sink and I growl too much. No woman's gonna put up with that. I'm sure Sophie and I will have a fairly pleasant date and while we're having coffee at some place near the museum, she'll get a fake phone call from a girlfriend, will go to the ladies' room, climb out the window, and never be seen or heard from again."
She was about to bawl him out for saying such a totally ludicrous thing when Shawn and Gus came rattling into the crime scene, both a little breathless and arguing about directional dyslexia.
"Shawn got us lost in this damned maze," Gus said, looking annoyed. "Some psychic."
"Psychics don't deal with mazes," Shawn said loftily.
"They deal with puzzles!" Gus ground out.
"Mazes aren't puzzles," Shawn told him loftily. "They're…uh…logical ch-challenges and why is that man naked?" he asked, pointing toward the body of the murder victim.
"Lots of reasons, and it's rather interesting that you weren't first concerned with why he's dead." Carlton said with a shrug. "Go see if the 'spirits' will tell you anything, and try to avoid licking the body."
Shawn shuffled forward, Gus right behind him, and the two young men looked around the crime scene for a few moments, muttering to each other. Shawn came back looking a little miffed, with Gus looking a little uneasy.
"Anything?" Carlton asked coolly.
"Cleanest damned crime scene I've ever seen and OH MY GOD!" Shawn squawked, taking several steps backwards and almost colliding with one of the CSU's. Carlton and Juliet turned around to see three naked people coming straight toward them.
Gus, wheezing, skittered around behind Shawn and for a moment, Carlton worried the poor guy would try to climb the fake psychic. "His…his…they're…they're all…"
"Yes," Carlton nodded, glancing at the approaching nudists. "Their weinenschpritzers are showing."
Carlton glanced down at Sophie's card, took a deep breath, and got out of his Fusion. He felt like he was approaching a battlefield unarmed and unprepared, and quite frankly, he was scared out of his mind.
He had never worn a tuxedo to anything, except his wedding, and how well had that turned out? Even the reception had been disastrous, with his mother and Victoria's mother getting into a fight that had almost ended with the two combatants wrestling in the wedding cake, and Irving had been overheard muttering about his poor sweet girl marrying a low-class Irish mick from a low-class Irish mick family. Things had gone down hill from there, right on into his marriage and through the separation and the divorce.
Victoria was seeing a proctologist now, from what he had heard last. He wondered what Irving called him.
He went up the steps to the door to her upscale loft apartment, paused, screwed up all his courage, and rang the doorbell. He was straightening his lapels and trying to swat away his terror – what was he, sixteen? – when the door opened and Sophie stood staring at him.
"Uh…hi," he finally managed.
"Oh my…God…" she whispered. "You shouldn't be legal. Seriously."
"What? What's wrong?" he asked, anxiety gripping him. Five seconds in and he'd already blown it! Of course!
"Nothing…it's just…you…uh… Sorry. I'm sorry. Come on in!" She smiled at him, which eased his nerves a little, but not a lot. "I'm not quite ready. Sorry…I know you're kind of a stickler about punctuality."
"Wh-who told you that?" he asked, stepping into her foyer. He looked around. Marble floor, checkerboard pattern. Crystal chandelier. Wrought-iron winding staircase. A print of Botticelli's Birth of Venus on the wall directly opposite the door. Some vaguely familiar opera piece was playing. La Boheme? He turned his attention back to Sophie, who looked stunning in a midnight blue cocktail dress that emphasized every feminine curve and brought out the aquamarine of her eyes.
"Um…a good guess," she smiled. "Would you like something to drink? No alcohol, of course – you're driving. But I've got coffee, tea, water…"
"Water, please," he nodded.
"Come on then. Kitchen's this way."
He followed her down a short corridor and made a left to the open kitchen. She opened a side-by-side fridge and extracted a blue glass bottle and handed it to him. He whacked the cap off with one quick bang against the granite countertop and took a swig, then noticed she was staring at him, holding up a bottle-opener.
"I've never seen anyone do that before," she told him, putting the bottle opener back in its drawer.
"Right." He glanced at the countertop and was relieved to see no visible damage. "I learned it from an old Irish bartender."
"I guess you're more a beer drinker than wine and champagne?"
"Never was into either," he said with a shrug.
"You look really nice," she said, out of nowhere.
"Huh? Oh. Uh…thanks. You look…nice…too."
He drank down the rest of the ice-cold water and tossed the bottle into a trashcan in front of the sink. "You said you weren't quite ready?"
"Oh. Right." She pushed her hair back from her face, trying to appear calm and in-control, but he sensed she was nervous. Damn right she should be, he thought. She was going to a fancy-dress shindig with an Irish mick who didn't know Dom Perignon from Dos Equis and hadn't a clue what to do with a shrimp fork. It was a wonder she hadn't called to cancel, frankly.
Sophie managed a nervous little smile. "I'll be back in two shakes, I promise. I just got stuck at work, see, and then traffic was awful and I spilled nail polish all over the bathroom floor and…well, I'm talking too much I'll…I'll be right back, okay? Go sit in the living room."
"I was told not to sit," he told her. "That weird little dude at the…um…whatayacallit…said I wasn't allowed to sit, 'cause it'd wrinkle the pants and ruin the crease."
"To hell with him. Sit down if you like," she said, laughing a little. "I'll be right back down." She turned and practically ran from the room, and he heard her clattering up the stairs.
"See?" he told the refrigerator. "I drive them all off. I'll be home in time for Craig Ferguson, I'm sure."