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Authors: Susan May Warren

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BOOK: Double Trouble
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She’d never considered herself . . . well, boring before. In fact, most of the time she thought of herself as messy, a patchwork of so many different dreams she didn’t know which ones belonged to her.

Or maybe she just saw herself through the lens of her failures.

Closing up the Cap’n Crunch box, PJ went to Dally’s closet and sorted through the clothes. She picked out a jean miniskirt, a black fringed vest, and from the dresser, a pair of long tube socks with pink stripes, which she paired with black high-top Converse.

The mirror didn’t quite reach her legs, so she pulled up a chair and posed. With a hat, and yes, a wig, maybe she could pass for Dally.

She might need some gum.

And another tattoo or two.

Oh, who was she kidding? PJ stepped over onto the bed, flopped down, and stared at the ceiling. She hadn’t a prayer of impersonating Dally.

Sometimes she had enough trouble being herself.

She closed her eyes, listening to the hammer of dread in
her chest.
Lord, I don’t know how I got myself into this. What was I thinking?

Again, she’d let her mouth run away with her good intentions
 
—thanks, probably, to the hint of desperation in Dally’s voice, despite her steely exterior.

But oh, how she wanted this PI thing to work. God had sorta dropped it in her lap and she’d grabbed it with both hands, clutching it to her chest with the desperation of a last chance.

She was tired of defining herself by her mistakes. By the things she almost got right.

She wanted to be extraordinary.

She wanted to be amazing.

She wanted to do this right.

She wanted to keep all the promises she’d made. Especially to herself.

She couldn’t disappoint herself . . . couldn’t disappoint God . . . again.

Please help me keep my promises.

She wriggled out her Bible from where she’d lain on it, noting that she’d crumpled the bulletins. She smoothed one of them, focusing on the verse from one of last month’s sermons. 1 Peter 1:3
 
—“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

She’d once heard mercy defined as not getting what she deserved.

Yeah, well, tonight, sleeping in a fuzzy pink bed with a beady-eyed dragon leering at her, she needed all the mercy she and her big mouth could get.

* * *

PJ must have been missing her Vic. Strange, because although she’d dreamed of her Volkswagen in the past, she had always been at the wheel, navigating some uncharted beach trail.

But somehow she knew it was a dream because, otherwise, how could her new car be plowing through the waters of Lake Minnetonka, churning up spray in its wake, PJ at the wheel even as she watched from shore? She lay on the sand, baking in the sun, the heat pooling on her skin in droplets of sweat as she cupped her hand over her eyes. She waved to herself. Herself waved back. She could almost taste the spray of water on her face.

Then the car turned toward the shore. She sat up. Its headlights were on, and now they seared her vision like the sun as the vehicle yachted straight for her. The PJ at the helm continued to wave, but the PJ on shore had climbed to her feet. She tried to yell, but the words glued to her throat.

The car kept coming, cutting through the blue and white bobbered boundary to the Kellogg swimming area, taking out a floating yellow buoy, the wake like claws upon the water.

The car hit the shallow area, and she heard grinding as the tires chewed up beach. Water hit her face.
Stop!

As the Vic gathered speed and arrowed out of the water, PJ turned to run. Her breath sawed in her lungs and a scream lodged in her throat.
Stop!

She reached the edge of the grass, the engine roaring in her ears as she turned and saw the Vic grinding up her footprints in the sand.

She dove for the grass, and something bit her leg. She landed,
knees scraping on the sand, and scrabbled to her feet. But the teeth held.
No!
She looked down to find a rope burning into her leg. The end trailed back into the sand, where she’d come from, where the Vic now gunned toward her.

She grabbed the rope, pulled, fighting to yank it from its anchor, seeing the Vic now leap from the sand, the motor growling as it hung above her, the greasy engine like a snarl of snakes ready to drop. She curled into a ball and
 

A scream woke her. High-pitched, over and over. PJ sat up, shaking, listening to more screams and frenetic chirrups.

The chinchillas. PJ flipped back into the pillows, hearing them run around their cage, leaping from one ledge to the next, the
scritch, scritch
of their tiny feet against the wood chips.

A thump.

Most definitely
not
a chinchilla. She sat up again.

Another thump.

PJ gave up trying to control her heart as it slipped out of her grasp and ran away with her imagination.

Something
 
—something
much larger
than one of Dally’s rat-looking rodents
 
—was creeping through Dally’s house.

Maybe Dally wasn’t paranoid about someone being after her. PJ slipped out of bed onto her knees, gave a look at the window, and then groped for something,
anything
, to use as a weapon.

Where, oh where, was her phone when she needed it? And as for Jeremy’s phone number . . . 911 was the only thing that entered her brain, followed by the urge to simply hide under the bed.

She saw movement
 
—a shadow across the open space outside her cracked door. Big movement attached to a big person.

Help . . .

Her frantic search for a weapon under the bed unearthed a plastic cup, a paperback book, and tweezers. Yeah, she’d pluck him to death.

Keeping low, she crawled across the room, her chin nearly on the floor, her breath coiled tight. Her gaze fell on a lump in the corner
 
—Dally’s catcher’s equipment. At least she’d have armor.

PJ pulled it with her behind the bed and wriggled on the chest padding. Added the helmet.

In a full-out frenzy, the chinchillas were obviously losing it, screaming and spitting. From the hall, PJ heard fumbling, the squeal of a door opening
 
—that would be the stairs. Footsteps scraped up the steps.

Oh, what she would give for a weapon. She peered at the corner, praying. And saw, tucked into the round mitt like a lump of gold, a softball.

Sort of like a rock, right?

She snaked her way toward it, her hand closing over the ball as the attic door closed. Footsteps thumped again in the hallway.

She hadn’t played shortstop for nothing. Her eyes glued on the shadowy slice of the bedroom door.

The door eased open.

She hauled back and let the softball fly.

It connected square on
 
—or at least she thought it had because she heard a cry and then cursing. She launched herself onto her feet and ran at the door, intending to slam it shut. A hand snaked out and grabbed her arm.

Hammer fist. Almost like a reflex, she pounded once, hard,
on the side of the intruder’s arm. He cursed but, instead of letting go, yanked her toward himself and out into the hallway.

It didn’t work; it didn’t work!

The words screamed inside her head even as she ducked and drove her shoulder into the man’s chest.

He huffed out a breath. She smelled garlic, along with a cloying, almost sickly sweet menthol body odor.

On reflex, she drove her knee up as hard as she could.

He howled and released her. She kicked out, catching him in his belly, pushing him back.

Then she dove for Dally’s room, slammed the door shut, and locked it.

As the chinchillas screamed, she slumped down into a ball and joined them.

CHAPTER
EIGHT

“Be there.
Be there!
” PJ stared at the phone, unearthed from the abyss of her bag. Why did she carry such a black hole? The digital numbers glowing in the darkness of the bedroom confirmed that yes, she had dialed correctly.

The phone rolled over again to a very dispassionate voice that cared little for the fact that she’d nearly been manhandled and said, “Please leave a message at the tone.”

Just in case it wasn’t Jeremy’s number
 
—so much for her keen memory skills
 
—she left a relatively calm, low, inadvertently breathy message that went something like “You’d better have a good reason for not answering, because . . . because . . .” Then before she could burst into tears, she hung up.

She pressed the cell phone to her forehead, as if by magical powers it might summon help.

Apparently God wasn’t heeding her prayers. Was it only a couple hours ago that she’d been on her knees, figuratively at
least, begging for a way to keep her tangle of promises? Maybe she should be more specific.
Less
trouble, not more.

At the very least, she could use a divine reminder that she wasn’t alone. In a strange house. With someone trying to kill her . . .
er
, Dally.

The only bright spot
 
—besides the digital phone numbers
 
—was that Dally hadn’t been paranoid. Although, perhaps that wasn’t such a bright ray of hope at all.

What if this was one of Billy Finch’s thugs? Her hammer fists and softball throw wouldn’t quite do the trick.

The chinchillas had stopped screaming ten minutes ago, and if she could just hear over her heartbeat, she might be able to discern if the intruder had left the house.

She stared at the phone again, one name still thrumming in her head. Oh, she didn’t want to call him. Didn’t want to fuel Boone’s so easily kindled hysteria about her profession.

But right now she could use someone with big shoulders and possibly packing a real weapon to walk through her door. Perhaps she’d even let him camp out on her doorstep for the entire ten days.

She had no doubts that Boone, if invited, would do exactly that. A surge of warmth curled over her.

“Hello? Dallas, are you okay?”

The voice sounded far away or perhaps just feeble. PJ wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands, pulled on the catcher’s mask, and scrambled to her feet. “Who’s there?” She pressed her ear into the crack of the doorframe, keeping her voice tight. No need to betray the fact that she held on to the knob to keep from collapsing.

“It’s me, Dallas, dear. Gabby, from next door. Are you okay? I thought I heard screaming.”

The next-door neighbor. PJ unlocked her door, flung it open, and rushed out, nearly leaping into the arms of her rescuer.

Or fellow victim. The woman screamed and clocked PJ hard upside the head with whatever solid object she gripped in her hand.

PJ just knew the mask would come in handy. It skewed sideways as she jumped back. “Hey!”

A light flicked on and the woman on the other end of the blunt object held out her flashlight like a lightsaber or perhaps a stun gun. “You’re not Dally! Stay where you are!”

PJ obeyed. The woman
 
—her second assailant of the increasingly short night
 
—resembled someone’s grandmother, the kind who made cookies and candles, who tucked small children in bed and sang them sweet melodies. Wisps of shoulder-length white hair sprang wildly around her head; the smallest touch of pink lipstick buttressed the corners of her mouth. Standing a chin above PJ, she wore a white terry-cloth robe over a cotton nightgown with a pink ruffle at the bottom. Her bare feet
 
—with a hint of pink polish on the toes and covered in grass stains
 
—peeked out the bottom.

Talk about unlikely rescuers.

“I’m not moving.” PJ raised her hands, pit-stopping on the way up to peel off the catcher’s mask and hold that above her head too.

Why, she suddenly wasn’t sure. The elderly woman was as unarmed as she. In fact, a quick scan of the bedroom uncovered the softball three feet away in the splattered soil of a
damaged geranium. PJ could probably dive for it and come up with a clean shot.

“Who are you?” her rescuer/newest threat barked. She pointed the beam of her flashlight square into PJ’s face. “And where’s Dallas?”

PJ lowered her hand to ward off the light, blinking away the dark splotches. “I’m her . . . friend. Sort of. Dally’s not here.”

“What do you mean, ‘sort of,’ and what’s all the screaming over here? I thought someone was being murdered!”

Yeah, well, that wasn’t so far from the truth.

In the living room, the chinchillas had awakened and started to scold them.

The woman poked her head into the hall
 
—“Hush!” Then, back to PJ, “Hate those things. But I’d rather see them alive than made into some sort of muff for Paris Hilton.” She lowered her light a bit and twirled it impatiently, as if waiting for an answer to her question.

“I think there was . . . a . . .”

“For crying in the sink, you’re shaking all over.”

The woman advanced toward PJ and a sturdier hand than PJ expected wrapped around her arm. “Now just take a deep breath. You look like I felt hiding out in the subways of London during the blitz, like the world might come crashing in any moment.”

The blitz? As in World War II, the bombing-of-London blitz? Either PJ had traveled through time or this woman with the grip of a trucker was up into her eighties.

She flicked off her light. “What were you thinking, leaving your front door wide open? Don’t you know there could be prowlers around here?”

PJ couldn’t agree more. She nodded, not sure where to start.

“Now, what’s your name?”

PJ briefly debated an alias. But she certainly couldn’t pass herself off as Dally, and she wasn’t sure who else she might pretend to be, so . . . “PJ. PJ Sugar.”

“What kind of name is PJ? Those are initials. What’s your real name?”

She heard Jeremy’s teasing in her head.
“Poppy? Patsy? Phoebe?”
She hated how she longed at this moment to hear his low, calm voice calling her anything he wanted to. “It’s just . . . PJ?”

“Hmm. Not going to tell me, huh? Well, my name’s Gabby Fontaine. I live next door.” She walked out of the bedroom with PJ trailing behind. In the kitchen, PJ sank into a chair as Gabby chased the night away with the overhead light. “I don’t think Dallas has anything stronger than apple juice
 
—she’s done a good job of licking her addiction
 
—but maybe a cool glass of water?” She turned back to PJ, one hand on her hip, a thin brown line where her eyebrow might be raised high. She looked like someone PJ should know, an old teacher perhaps. She certainly made PJ want to sit up straight in her chair.

PJ nodded, feeling her body begin to settle back to earth now that the lights were on, the nightmares shooed into the shadows. “You didn’t happen to see anyone run out the back door, did you?”

Gabby turned from the sink, her mouth half-open. In the fluorescent light, her hair
 
—PJ could see that most of it was pulled back into a hair clip
 
—had a slightly orange hue. “You
did
have a prowler.” She plunked down the glass and reached for the phone hanging on the wall.

“Are you calling 911?”

“No, the cops will take forever to get here. I’m calling my grandson.”

“No, you don’t have to go to all that trouble.” PJ got up and depressed the ringer to cut off the call. The last thing she needed was a crowd to identify her as Not Dally and blow her cover on the first night. “I’m fine. Maybe it was just a dog or something.”

Yeah, right. A five-year-old child could tell she was lying.

Gabby stared at her, not blinking. “Isn’t that strange
 
—a dog opening a closed door. But I don’t suppose there’s any sense in waking up Sammy if you’re okay.”

PJ reached for the water. Her hand still shook.

Gabby watched her drink, watched the water dribbling down PJ’s chin. Her judgmental silence bore down against PJ in her hazel eyes, the way she pursed her lips.

She took the glass from PJ’s hand. “You know, Sammy’s a big kid
 
—”

“I’m fine, really.” Truly, she could now probably stand on her own without falling over. She even tried out a few steps, back toward the living room. For a moment, she stood there, reenacting the actions of the assailant, putting movement with the sounds she’d heard
 
—the opening of doors, the creak of the stairs as he went up. Those didn’t seem like the movements of someone intent on killing Dally in her sleep. Whoever had been here was looking for something.

PJ turned to Gabby, who had followed her and now posed with her arms folded over her bathrobe in the doorway to the kitchen. “Tell me, does Dally have a boyfriend?” Maybe it had been an old flame, sneaking back in to retrieve . . . what, his baseball cards?

Gabby narrowed one eye. “Who’d you say you were?”

“I . . . uh . . . I’m a cousin? A distant cousin.”

“From?”

“Chicago.” PJ scrolled through Dally’s résumé. “I’m here to sort of house-sit while Dally is . . . on vacation.”

Gabby stared at her
 
—no, probably through her, dissecting all her pitiful lies, while PJ resisted adding a further incriminating nod to her words.

“That’s not like Dally, to run off and not tell me. We have a standing breakfast date.”

That must’ve been on Dally’s list
 
—which PJ had yet to read. “Right. She mentioned that.”

One brown line up again. But Gabby finally nodded. “No, no boyfriends recently. Well, none that I’d call a boyfriend. . . .”

“Anyone you
wouldn’t
call a boyfriend?”

“I’m not sure what to call him. He just seemed way too familiar with Dallas, showing up at all hours of the day, staying over. In my time, ladies were more . . . discreet. Of course, I knew girls who had boyfriends like that. Even my own Sebastian would sometimes come over late, but never for . . . well, you know.”

She said the words like she might for a jury, with a fierce glint in her eye.

“You know this guy’s name?”

“Uh.” Gabby put her hand to her forehead and for the first time hinted at her age as she frowned and for a long moment stared around the room as if suddenly not knowing where she might be. “Uh . . .”

“It’s okay. Just let me know if you think of it.” At eighty plus, the woman was allowed a few blank spots.

“I’m sorry. It’ll come to me. But she did try to hide him, like I wouldn’t know something was going on.”

PJ put a face to the dropped curtain next door. “Do you live in the blue house?”

“Well, of course
 
—you don’t think I’d leave my yard in such a terrible mess . . .” She shook her head as if realizing her words. “Yes, I live in the blue house. I’ve lived there nearly fifty years, since we moved back from England.”

PJ strained to hear a trace of English accent. She deduced the other half of “we” as Sebastian.

“Do you think this mystery man of Dally’s might have a reason to sneak into Dally’s house? maybe a reason to hurt her?”

That question was obviously too much for Gabby. She pressed her hand against her chest, fingers wide, mouth opening. PJ noticed polish on her nails. “I don’t . . .” Then, “You’re not a cousin, are you? You sound like a cop.” She said it short, like “pop,” with a tone of derision in her voice. “Why would a cop be here? Where’s Dally?”

She pushed past PJ and into the living room, where she stood staring for a moment, as if waiting for Dally to materialize. Then she whirled and poked a thick, slightly arthritic finger at PJ. “If you’ve hurt her . . .”

PJ would have to let the woman in on at least a partial story if she didn’t want the cops on her doorstep in the imminent future. “Listen. Dally’s fine. She’s with . . . my friend Jeremy. I really am house-sitting. Watching after . . .” She gestured to the pile of agitated fur in the cage.

“Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, etc.,” Gabby said, not smiling. “I want to talk to her.”

Yeah, well, me too.

“What was that?”

Oops, she hadn’t meant to say that aloud. “I called them, but Jeremy’s not answering. I’m sure they’re fine.”

Gabby seemed to be measuring her words.

PJ unclipped the catcher’s padding, slid it off, and set it on the sofa.

Gabby’s eyes softened. “That
was
screaming I heard. You were pretty scared, weren’t you?” She nodded toward the padding.

PJ lifted her shoulders in a quick shrug. But her stomach could still take flight any moment. “Strange house, strange neighborhood. I might have overreacted.”

“Not at all.” Gabby drew a deep breath and ran her gaze up and down PJ, taking in her yoga pants, the T-shirt. “Alrighty then. You get your shoes on. You’re spending the night with me.”

“Uh . . .”

“No arguments. My daughter fixed me up with a nice pullout, and it’s time I used it. Hurry up now. What kind of neighbor would I be if I let you stay here alone . . . especially with stray
dogs
roaming the streets. You probably wouldn’t sleep a wink. Besides, that’s hardly a warm welcome to the neighborhood, is it?”

PJ had to admit that God answered in mysterious ways.

* * *

PJ had traveled back in time. She could trace the years back to the midfifties just by standing in Gabby’s family room.

The carpet had been pulled up, or maybe never laid, and a gleaming oak floor hosted a brown oval braided rug. An old
RCA television console took up one wall, with fuzzy, green cloth speakers the size of today’s flat screens on either side. The top was propped open for the phonograph, and a bookshelf beside it held what might be a hundred LPs, the first one a mint condition Everly Brothers
Greatest Hits
.

The two-cushion, lime green sofa could be called vintage on eBay, but PJ suspected it had been new when Gabby and Sebastian placed it against the far wall facing the television. A caramel-colored La-Z-Boy in the corner, worn on the footrest and the arms, suggested a retirement purchase.

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