Chapter Fifteen

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"Remind me again how I let myself be conned into this?"

"You don't have any friends or a social life?" Erin supplied, expertly avoiding a raised edge of sidewalk as she skipped backwards down the block.

Jamie flicked her a narrow look.

We were on our way to the barbecue, Jamie and I toting rapidly warming six-packs of beer and bottom shelf tequila as Erin cruised ahead of us. It was close to eighty out, but she'd insisted on walking the six blocks to Paula's house, pitching up a fit when we'd suggested driving. Naturally she hadn't offered to help carry a single thing.

I said, adjusting the handles of the plastic bag that was cutting into my fingers, "I still don't see why she wants me to come."

I could feel a fat bead of sweat winding its way down the crook of my neck; adding to the growing stain on the back of my shirt. By the time we reached our destination, I was going to look like an extra from one of those desert apocalypse action flicks.

"That's just Paula," Jamie said under his breath. "She has a way of sucking people into her orbit."

His tone was light, but I knew he wasn't looking forward to this gathering anymore than I was. Not that he'd said anything. It didn't take even a washout detective though, to notice the nervous ticks he'd been throwing off all day. Whatever they'd discussed that morning, it was clear it hadn't been enough to assuage his concerns on that front.

I asked, also dropping my voice, "You sure you want to do this?"

Jamie looked over, meeting my eyes. His mouth twitch. "No."

-----

Paula lived in a low slung, midcentury ranch house on the far northern end of Birch Street. Like the houses around it, it was well tended, with a handkerchief square of lawn that was just starting to green and large flower beds edged in brick. Out front, the street was packed with cars. I recognized one as Fraser's; a beautifully restored old pickup I'd seen him cruising Main Street in.

"Ford F100," Jamie said, following my gaze. "That paint job must have cost a fortune."

Not bothering with the front door, Erin darted around the side of the house. Jamie sighed and glared after her, but didn't comment. The prospect of the barbecue had Erin in a rare good mood and I sensed he was just as wary as I was of saying anything that might ruin it.

"Twenty minutes," he commented, sizing up the row of cars again. "Then we make some excuse about the bar."

"Deal."

I checked my pace as we moved to the door, letting Jamie proceed me up the pair of paved steps onto the landing.

There was a weather faded christmas wreath still tacked to it, red bow sagging and half flattened. When Jamie knocked, a spray of brown pine needles came loose to shower his shoes.

With the racket of voices that was coming from the backyard, I didn't think anyone would hear the knock, but within a few seconds there was a flash of movement behind the door's inset square of glass.

"Ah," Paula exclaimed, swinging the door wide. "There you two are." Looking Jamie over, the corners of her eye crinkled in pleasure. "Come on through, everyone else is out back."

She ushered us inside with affectionate arm pats and tutting; fussing over the heat and the fact that we'd walked.

"And with all this to carry," she concluded, leading us through a cozy, throw rug littered den. "What weren't you boys thinking?"

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