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Authors: Nancy Martin

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BOOK: Foxy Roxy
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One car sported a vanity plate that read,
BOOM.
Probably the property of the demolition team, Roxy decided. And the demo business must be good if the owner could buy himself a new Mercedes.

She jogged up the back steps of the burned-out house. Nooch tagged along like an obedient dog. Inside the kitchen, they greeted a pair of surly dimwits who paused in their labor to remove a six-burner Aga stove. The Delaney brothers, who sometimes did a little dirty work for Roxy’s uncle Carmine. If Roxy’s moral compass occasionally pointed slightly in the wrong direction, these two had broken the needle. The aroma of marijuana clung to them in an almost visible smog.

The younger Delaney had his hair cut in a mullet and a herpes sore on his lip. He took one look at Roxy and joked, “Didn’t I see you wrapped around a pole at the Pink Pony on Friday night?”

“Hey,” Nooch said. “Don’t talk like that.”

“Yeah, very funny,” Roxy added. “I should knock your teeth out, but you don’t have any to spare.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Zip it, Jimmy.” Vincent, the more sourpuss Delaney—and the one who didn’t wear his glasses—must have decided Roxy was a security employee, because he pulled his salvage authorization paper from a hip pocket and handed it over to her.

She took a look—it never hurt to let people think she was someone to fear. The paper looked like the same one she had in her own pocket—signed by the honcho handling the disbursement of anything salvageable from the house. Handing it back, Roxy said, “What else have you lifted out of this place, Vincent? Besides what’s on your list?”

“Nuthin’, I swear.”

Roxy cocked an eyebrow. “You sure? I’ve got a sick grandmother who says otherwise.”

He understood the sick-grandmother code and dug a twenty out of his pocket. “That’s all I got on me. We got some of the copper last week—a few downspouts, that’s all. Somebody else got the rest of it, though. You know how sneaky the druggies can be.”

The younger Delaney had chosen that moment to light up the remains of a smelly joint, but he dropped it and tried to snatch back the twenty. “Hey, that’s Roxy Abruzzo, dude, not the city code guy. What the hell are you doing?”

With a smile for both of them, Roxy pocketed the bribe. “I won’t tell a soul about the pipes. They’re yours as far as I’m concerned.”

“Bitch.”

“You’re a discerning judge of character, Jimmy. Look, if you two losers want to get out of here alive, you better hurry up with that stove. The demolition guys are supposed to blow this place up tomorrow. They’re planting charges right now.”

Jimmy responded to Roxy’s show of concern for her fellow man with a one-fingered salute.

She laughed and left the Delaneys to their herbal refreshment. With their twenty bucks in her pocket for some gasoline and maybe a pitcher of beer later, she climbed over the rubble in the doorway and headed into the formal rooms of the ruined house.

In the foyer, the wooden floors were warped from a zillion gallons of water pumped in by the fire department. Likewise, the horsehair plaster had cracked and crashed down from the walls. Crunching it underfoot, Roxy led Nooch past the skeleton of the main staircase. Once the grand stairs had wound upward to the upper floors with a handsome chandelier lighting the woodwork, but now, evening sunlight slanted down from the open sky above. A blue jay swooped through the foyer.

Upstairs, they could hear voices calling back and forth—probably the demolition team figuring where to plant their charges. One of them revved up a power saw. Roxy decided to skip meeting them. Guys with dynamite always had a weird sense of humor.

The billiards room was a disaster site—nothing left except the cracked remains of the slate of the pool table.

The long dining room had two pairs of French doors at one end. Both hung off their hinges, not worth saving. The parquet floor was in bad shape—also from the fire hoses. Somebody had ripped out the coffered ceiling before Roxy had a chance to bid on the job, which was too bad. She’d been lucky to get the soapstone fireplace, though. Chances were she could sell it for a tidy sum to a developer building McMansions in the suburbs.

Nooch stopped in the doorway of the dining room and blinked up at the remaining plaster squares of the ceiling. Painted cherubs floated there, trailing garlands of flowers.

Nooch sighed. “It sure is pretty.”

There was no sense agonizing over the painting—done by Joseph Laurencia at the turn of the century, if Roxy was any judge. Lots of these old mansions were decorated with fancy murals that would crumble when the house fell down, so she considered them a waste of paint.

She hefted her pry bar, itchy to find one last thing of value. “Very nice. But we can’t scrape it off the ceiling, so I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Let’s have a look outside.”

“Huh?”

“Just come on, will you?”

Roxy headed across the dining room floor, then pushed through the broken French doors to the terrace.

A broken patio table with a set of wrought-iron chairs stood on the flagstones. The scorched remains of the garden curved away from the house, and a line of tree skeletons framed the swimming pool. The water in the pool was green already, and some blackened leaves floated on the surface in a skim of greasy soot.

Pissing into the pool was Julius Hyde himself, the man of the ruined house. At Roxy’s approach, the billionaire turned his head and grinned around the stub of a cigar.

She said, “You’ve still got a pretty good arc, Julius. Impressive for a man your age.”

“Roxy Abruzzo. Still a wiseass.” He took his time tucking himself back into his trousers. “Who are you trying to hoodwink today?”

“Not you, that’s for sure.”

“Don’t lie to me, girl. I know a con artist when I see one.” He zipped up. “Still shooting pool for lunch money? And reading all those library books?”

Roxy shrugged. “Now and then.”

“I hope you return a few of them. The books, that is. I don’t mind losing the lunch money. You played with admirable finesse. Either that or you cheated. And if I didn’t notice at the time, you deserved your winnings.”

Roxy had met Julius last spring when he wanted to modernize the old carriage house into a garage. The house had been beautiful back then. She’d taken a few pieces of the carriage house, and he’d offered her a drink on his patio while he wrote her a check. They’d shared a couple of laughs after that and played a few games in which Roxy showed no mercy. She cleaned his pool table and his wallet, but Roxy had liked the guy. Admired his tendency to make up rules as he went along. She appreciated that he didn’t treat her like some kind of French housemaid when he’d made a pass at her. And he’d taken her rejection graciously.

Too bad his pool table had burned up. She could have won a few more extra bucks from him.

He said, “I see you’re still babysitting that moron.”

She should have hidden her tightened fists behind her back. “At least he knows when to keep his pants zipped.”

Julius shrugged. “An underrated virtue.”

Without his clothes, Julius Hyde might look like one of those half-animal men that played the flute at orgies—heavy in the thighs and hairy-chested. Even now, curly white hair bristled at the open collar of his crisp pink shirt. Roxy wondered if his legs were all woolly under his trousers—although she wasn’t curious enough to find out. He wore his white hair long, combed back from his forehead and waved over his shirt collar. He looked like a rich man who enjoyed his pleasures.

“Damn shame, isn’t it?” He cast a glance up at the burned remains of the house. “I’m sorry the old place ended up like this.”

“The insurance company will make you feel better.”

“My mother may feel better,” he corrected. “Depending on what the insurance company decides. Funny, isn’t it? A man like me still living in my mama’s house?”

The question sounded like one of those rhetorical things men consider when they’re feeling blue. But Roxy knew Julius had plenty of consolation prizes. He’d grown up in a filthy rich family, and when his father died he’d inherited enough dough to run a small country. When his old lady finally kicked, he’d inherit even more. He had dabbled in business, but gave it up to a younger brother when he’d lost interest in empire building and started making lousy friends and a few fierce enemies instead. He’d married a few times, but eventually stopped caring what anybody thought and did as he pleased. Roxy figured he was rich enough to get away with anything. His latest girlfriend made him a laughingstock in the city, but Julius hadn’t cared.

Until now, maybe.

Julius took a slim silver flask from the pocket of his trousers and unscrewed the cap. He had a nostalgic look in his eye as he glanced around the grounds. “I grew up here, you know. Before they sent me off to school. There’s a bomb shelter under that piece of lawn over there. A real bunker. I could have kept a girlfriend down there and nobody would have known. My wife Monica would never have fired up her curtains.”

“That’s creepy, Julius. Bad enough you have a girlfriend young enough to be your grandkid, but locking her in a bunker? Too freaky for me, and that’s saying a lot.”

He laughed shortly and removed his cigar to sip from the flask. “Do you have family, Roxy?”

“A daughter.”

“Well, someday she might drive you to socially inappropriate behavior.”

“It doesn’t take my kid to do that.”

Another laugh. “No regrets?”

“Not yet.”

“Good for you.” There was something else glimmering in his eyes, though. Sadness? Or maybe he’s nipping at the flask for courage, Roxy thought. To her, Julius suddenly looked a little spooked.

“You feeling some regrets, Julius?”

“It’s too late for that.” He caught her looking curious and grinned. “What are you doing here, though, young lady? Picking at the bones like the rest of the vultures? Why aren’t you out for dinner with a nice young man?”

“I’m still doing an honest day’s work, that’s why.”

“Not so honest sometimes,” he observed, then checked his watch as if he had an appointment. “I suppose that’s why I like you. There’s larceny in your soul. I’ll leave you to your job. Time for me to toddle off.”

With more sincerity than she usually felt, Roxy said, “Take care of yourself, Julius.”

“That’s what I do best.” He straightened his shoulders, summoned his self-respect, and departed.

Roxy watched him swagger around the house, but shook herself of the notion that maybe she should go after him.

“He okay?” Nooch asked.

“He’ll be fine. Amazing how a billion dollars can brighten your day. C’mon, let’s take a look around. I need to pay my kid’s school fees by next week or the nuns kick her out.”

She led Nooch the opposite way—around the terrace and past a row of burned hydrangeas.

On a previous visit, Roxy had found a shopping cart and some ragged blankets in the remains of the pergola at the end of the pool—evidence that homeless people had moved in after the fire. But today the shopping cart was gone. Left behind was a black barrel full of ashes. The scavengers had probably burned the plastic coating off copper wire here. They’d left nothing of value.

Roxy pushed past the bushes.

A marble statue stood in the flower bed behind the pool, half hidden by the collapsed pergola. A naked man, maybe a gladiator, judging by his stance. Forgotten, he stared nobly into the distance, as if watching his troops march off to victory. A tangle of ivy swarmed up his muscular leg, evidence that he wasn’t marching anywhere anytime soon.

“Whoa.” Nooch stopped short behind her. “Who’s the dude?”

“Some hero, I guess.”

He must have been holding a sword or a javelin at one time, but now his whole right arm was gone. The back of his head and most of his helmet were missing, too, but that didn’t matter much. Judging by the way he jutted his jaw and curled his lip, he had an ego bigger than his dick.

But Roxy could see he was special. A kind of energy coiled beneath the surface of his marble skin. He was very old, she guessed. And the owners of the house had forgotten about him. Otherwise, why was he still standing here? The night before demolition? A final ray of sunlight slipped through the tree branches overhead and danced along the curve of his magnificent shoulder.

With her pry bar, Roxy tore away some of the ivy.

“What are you doing?” Nooch asked. “You don’t want that, do you?”

“I sure do.”

“Why? It’s broken. You always say condition, condition, condition.”

“Not in this case.”

She slipped the blade of the bar beneath the base of the statue. Crusty with decay, the pedestal flaked a few crumbs, and then a splinter of marble broke loose and skittered down into the weeds. The statue rocked gently above her.

Roxy steadied him with a hand on his knee. “Easy, big boy.”

“Are we supposed to be here?” Nooch glanced over his shoulder in the direction Julius had gone. “Aren’t we just supposed to take the stuff we already got?”

“How am I supposed to pay my kid’s tuition bills if I don’t show a little creativity? Besides, they’re blowing up the house tomorrow, right? So whatever’s left behind is going to get destroyed. It’s free for the picking.”

“What if Mr. Hyde comes back?”

“Just go get the handcart.”

“But—”

“Go!”

With a sigh, Nooch lumbered off to do as he was told, and Roxy patted the statue’s bare butt. “No worries, fella. I’m going to find you a nice new home.”

2

Henry Paxton, attorney-at-law, newly divorced at thirty-five, lived quietly in the former chauffeur’s apartment of Hilltop, the bucolic Pennsylvania estate thirty miles outside of Pittsburgh. The estate had been built by a Pittsburgh steel magnate who died richer than anyone except maybe John Rockefeller. Since then, subsequent Hydes had summered at Hilltop, raised horses, apples, and Charolais cattle in a gentlemanly way, leaving the dirtying of hands to their employees while they partook of the fruits of the estate. They had turned the land around Hilltop into a park the likes of which Capability Brown would have wept over.

For Henry, it was like living in a Merchant-Ivory movie. And while his former fraternity brothers were still sitting in sports bars watching arena football and scoring with pretty waitresses who needed orthodontia, he had found real luxury. And he loved it.

BOOK: Foxy Roxy
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