The Green Heron Guest House was not located on a major thoroughfare, or even on one of
The homes on Sweetrose
Alley were some of the more run-down buildings that they had yet seen in
Despite this, the place exuded an atmosphere of carefree youthfulness. Roosters scratched at the gravel of the dooryard, darting in and out between the wheels of the bikes and mopeds. A thick, low-hanging bough of a royal poinciana around the side of the house sported a tire swing that looked as if it saw regular use. There were baskets of hanging flowers decorating the porch, but also windsocks, pinwheels, and other novelty items that flashed and sparkled in the sunlight. And although the siding was peeling to a sun-faded grey, the window and doorframes had been recently treated to a fresh coat of paint, the brightest turquoise that Jessica had ever seen. The front door had also been painted, but this time the color of choice was fuschia.
“It’s a more humble abode than I had imagined,” George said quietly to Jessica as he opened the creaky gate in the fence for her to enter.
“Given how expensive rent can be in
They climbed the steps to the porch, where they encountered a young man reclining in a shabby porch swing, picking out a tune on a six string guitar. The sleeves of his faded t-shirt were rolled up, revealing a tattoo of recent vintage on the bicep of his left arm. A paper plate with a half-eaten piece of sponge cake on it balanced precariously on the edge of a small table nearby. As they paused at the fuschia door of the Guest House to consider their next move, he looked over at them with a smile.
“Can I help you folks?” he asked.
“We were wondering which apartment was Thomas Manchester’s,” George told him.
The smile faded from the young man’s face. “It’s a shame what happened to him,” he said, rubbing the still-tender skin around the tattoo. “He was a nice guy.” He looked at them more closely and added, “His parents aren’t due in town until the end of the week.”
“We’re his aunt and uncle,” Jessica said, quickly improvising. “We, ah, came ahead to make sure everything at his place was in order.”
“I see,” the young man said sympathetically. He set aside his guitar, slipped his feet back into his flip flops, and fished in a pocket of his denim shorts for a key. “Thomas’s room is on the second floor,” he said as he unlocked the front door and led them inside. Jessica noticed that he favored his left foot as he walked, and looking down saw a band-aid inexpertly applied to his heel.
“What happened to your foot?” she asked.
He glanced down at the injury and gave a slight shrug. “Stepped on a pop top,” he replied.
They followed him up a flight of stairs covered with threadbare carpet and down the hall to the last door on the right, overlooking the weedy back garden with its barbecue pit and mismatched assortment of lounge chairs. The young man fit his key into the lock of the apartment’s door and pushed it open for them.
“There you go,” he said. “The cops have already come and gone, so I don’t think you’ll be disturbed.”
“Thank you,” Jessica said to him.
“No problem.” He headed back down the hallway with a backwards wave of his hand, leaving Jessica and George alone with Thomas’s last residence.
The apartment was really more like a single room partitioned off into a living area, sleeping area, and combined galley kitchen and dinette area. There was no individual bath; residents of each floor of the guest house shared a common bathroom at the end of a hallway.
“Cozy,” George commented as he took in the scene.
“If Thomas wasn’t so particular about neatness, it would be a lot cozier,” Jessica said as she closed and locked the door behind them.
“Odd, I would not have guessed that from his personal appearance – the loose eyeglasses, and so on.”
Thomas had been an organized person – not a thing appeared to be out of place anywhere in the room. The kitchenette was immaculately clean, the bed was made, and the hardwood floor was swept. In one corner of the room opposite his bed he had a small corner desk holding a laptop computer, several notebooks, and a stack of biographies about Ernest Hemingway written by other authors.
“Nothing appears to be missing,”
Jessica said, “at least so far as I can tell.” She
made a slow circuit of the room and finally returned to where they had entered.
There she lingered next to a small table set next to the door. A hand-made
ceramic bowl sat upon it – a flea market find, most likely, given how chipped
and cracked it was – and inside was a collection of keys. Knowing that the police had already gone over
the apartment with a fine-toothed comb looking for fingerprints and other
forensic evidence, Jessica took the keys out of the bowl to examine for
herself. There was very little mystery as to what each key was for. One was
clearly the key to a bicycle lock; Jessica had one very similar to it at home.
Another key labeled with the apartment’s number was obviously a spare house key
that probably unlocked not just the door of Thomas’s rented room but also the
front door to the guest house itself. Another bundle of keys linked together on
their own ring appeared to belong to places at
The final keys in the bowl were the most interesting – there were two, one that looked like a typical dead-bolt house key, and another larger, more ornate one of older vintage. They sat side by side on a key ring that also had a leather fob marked with the insignia of the Ernest Hemingway House and Museum.
“George,” she said quietly as she held up the keys for him to see, “why do you suppose Thomas would go to the museum late at night without taking his set of keys to get in?”
“Either he had a second set with him, or he knew he was meeting someone there who also would have a set of keys,” said George, crossing the room and to have a closer look at her find. “That would indicate that he knew his attacker, and that person was connected with the museum as well.”
“Perhaps,” she said thoughtfully. “There could be other explanations as well, I suppose, although I must admit I can’t think of any.”
They could hear footsteps coming up the stairs and down the hall, but thought nothing of them until they slowed and stopped just outside the door of Thomas’s room. Jessica froze, her eyes wide, a finger pressed to her lips. The handle of the door rattled as someone tried to open it.
Moving quickly, George crossed the room in two quiet steps, took Jessica by the arm and guided her to stand against the wall next to the door such that when the door opened she would be hidden behind it. Without really thinking about it she slipped the keys to the museum into her pocket as George cautiously unlocked the door and opened it.
“Mr. Berra,” he said politely when he saw who was standing on the threshold. “Please, come in.” Having assessed their unexpected visitor at a glance, he signaled to Jessica that it was safe to step out from her place behind the door.
Berra didn’t question why they were there, a clear indication that his own reasons for being there were, perhaps, less than honorable. Instead, he launched into what sounded like a prepared excuse: “I, ah, came to retrieve the books that Thomas borrowed from the museum’s collection,” he said after nodding hello to Jessica. His eyes darted about the room nervously, and since the books on Thomas’s desk were in plain view, it occurred to her that in actuality he was looking for something much less obvious. His glance lingered longest on the bowl of keys next to the door, something that Jessica did not miss.
“I gather you mean these books over here on the desk,” George said, indicating the stack of Hemingway biographies. “Well, seeing as how the police have undoubtedly removed all the physical evidence they need from this room by now, I see no harm in your taking these back to the museum.”
“Yes, uh, that was what I was thinking as well,” said Berra, his glance once again flitting to the chipped ceramic bowl on its table.
He desperately wants to sift through those keys, Jessica thought to herself, but he doesn’t quite dare – not with us standing here watching.
When Berra didn’t make any attempt to gather up the books himself, George helpfully collected them from the desk and handed them to him instead.
“Have you heard anything further from Lieutenant Fernando?” Jessica asked pleasantly.
“No, nothing new, really,” Berra replied. “He’s been over to talk to me twice since the morning of the murder, but he didn’t impart any information on how things were progressing.”
“Well, he seems like a very capable detective. I’m sure that this will all be cleared up very quickly,” she said.
“We can certainly hope so,” Berra said, the first unequivocally true statement he had made since George had let him into the apartment. He looked down at the stack of books in his arms and shifted them into a more comfortable position against his arm. “Well. I’d love to stay and chat, but I do have a cab waiting for me downstairs, so I’d best be off. A pleasant day to both of you.” He nodded to them and left, his steps retreating down the hallway and stairs.
George let the door swing shut behind him. “He was not here for the books,” he said when he was certain Berra was out of earshot. It was not a question, but a statement of fact.
Jessica smiled. “You noticed that too,” she said. “I think it was these he was after instead.” She removed the key ring with its pair of keys and embossed leather fob from her pocket.
“I suppose he has every right to them, just as he has a right to the books Thomas had borrowed,” George said. “But why the subterfuge? Why not come right out and say that that was what he had come for?”
“I’m not sure,” Jessica said, tracing the gate key’s ornate details with her finger. “But if I had to guess, I’d say that Berra loaned Thomas these keys when it was perhaps not his place to do so.”
George quirked an eyebrow. “Do you suppose we should return them to the poor fellow?”
“Eventually,” said Jessica. “But not right away. I’d like to take the opportunity to use them – tonight, perhaps – to help clear up matters regarding how a certain ghost story got its start.”
“I don’t know what you have in mind, Jess, but I don’t like the sound of it,” George sighed as they exited the apartment and headed for the stairs.
“How can you not like the sound of it?” Jessica retorted. “You don’t even know what ‘it’ is.”
He gave her a smile as they left the guest house and walked back up the alley. “After knowing you all these years, I think I have a fair idea.”
Truman met Seth and Tipper back in the atrium at five-thirty as promised, but it was only for a brief moment, to cancel his dinner plans with Seth.
“They want me to host the panel discussion after the dinner tonight,” he said apologetically. “That means I won’t be free until after nine at the earliest. Tipper, would you mind taking Boomer here out to get a bite to eat and keep him company this evening?”
Tipper inclined her head. “I would be delighted, Dr. Buckley.”
Already preoccupied with the details of his new commitment for the conference, Truman missed the look of dismay that crossed Seth’s face at his suggestion. Instead, he grabbed Tipper by the shoulders and gave her a kiss on the cheek in gratitude. “Thanks, kid – I owe you one,” he said. “I’ll see you back at the house later tonight.”
When he had gone, Seth turned to Tipper and said, “Well, Doctor Henderson, how do you feel about finding someplace relatively quiet where we can get some halfway decent seafood?”
Tipper shook her head with enough determination that her ponytail whipped back and forth across her face. “No. I have something more fun in mind – and I think it’s just what you need tonight.”
Half an hour later they were
“We’re going to do the what?” Seth asked in shock, not entirely certain he had heard Tipper correctly.
“The Duval Crawl,” she repeated patiently.
“Why do I have the feeling that this has nothing to do with a swimming stroke?”
Tipper smiled, and continued on with
her explanation of the evening’s planned activity. “The idea is to walk up
“And how exactly do we do that without being falling-down drunk by the end of this little exercise, hm?”
“Easy. We take our time, have a little something to eat at each place along the way, and split one drink between us.”
“Well, I’m glad you have at least some sense in that head of yours,” said Seth.
“Of course I do. I have no interest in getting either of us completely smashed tonight – it isn’t worth the hangovers we’d be sure to have tomorrow,” Tipper said reasonably. “So – ready to start?”
“I can’t believe I’m letting you drag me into this,” Seth grumbled, but he followed Tipper across the street nevertheless.
Their adventure began at the Hog’s
Breath Saloon on
“Fine,” Tipper told him. “More for me.”
Seth winced as she slurped down a raw oyster on the half-shell.
Their next stop was Sloppy Joe’s at the corner of
Seth and Tipper took seats at the main bar, where they split an order of Sloppy’s Smoked Fish Dip with crackers and a pint of locally brewed Sunset Ale on draft.
“Hmm,” Tipper said, reading the napkin that served as a coaster for her half of the beer. “Says here that the marlin hanging on the wall over there weighs 569 pounds. That’s over a quarter ton of fish sticks!”
Seth glanced over his shoulder at the stuffed trophy fish in question. “Impressive,” he said. “I’ll have to ask Caleb next time we go out fishing if he’s ever landed anything that big.”
“Don’t believe him if he says ‘yes,’” Tipper said. She peered at the napkin again: “This also says that Sloppy Joe’s is open 365 days a year.”
“Including Christmas?” Seth asked in surprise. “Impossible.”
“I’m just reading what the napkin says,” said Tipper. “Speaking of holidays, they hold the annual Hemmingway Look-Alike Contest every July, around Papa’s birthday. Hey, you should book your travel to come back for that, and compete. I think you could win.”
“Ha, ha,” said Seth dryly, taking another sip of his ale.
“Well, if not that, then what about coming back for the annual Toga Party in October during Fantasy Fest?”
Seth raised an eyebrow at her. “Are you suggesting that I would consent to be seen in public wearing nothing but a sheet?”
Tipper shrugged. “Well, maybe after a few beers you would,” she said innocently.
At the veterinarian’s insistence
they went next door to The Lazy Gecko Island Bar, for no other reason than that
Tipper wanted to be able to tell her friends back in
“I swear, I had no idea it was Ladies’ Night,” Tipper said, putting her hand over her heart when she saw Seth looking at her with an accusing glare.
“Uh-huh,” said Seth.
Tipper grinned and continued to enjoy her Cider Jack.
Their next stop was Rumrunners, a
little further up the same block, an establishment that proudly proclaimed itself to be ‘The Baddest God Damn
Bar in the
Tipper and Seth looked at each other.
“Skip this one and move on?” Tipper asked.
“Ay-yuh,” Seth said, and they turned around and headed back out into the street.
They headed down another block to the Hard Rock Café, which, somewhat incongruously, was located in a restored Victorian-style home that was reputed to be haunted. Seth groaned when he heard this.
“Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t want to hear anything more about any ghosts!”
“So who’s supposed to be haunting this place?” Tipper asked their bartender.
“It’s supposed to be Robert Curry, son of William Curry, the millionaire who built the place,” the young man behind the bar told her. “He was plagued by chronic illness and bad business decisions, and committed suicide in the bathroom upstairs once he found out the family fortune was gone. People still see him from time to time, usually when we’re closing up.” He leaned a little closer to Tipper and added, “I, um, could show you exactly where, if you’d like …”
Tipper, while far from being drunk, was inebriated just enough to be oblivious to the bartender’s obvious come-on. “Nah,” she said with a casual wave of her hand, “some other time, maybe.”
Seth, also unimpressed, grunted and
addressed himself to his half of the beer that he and the veterinarian were
once again sharing. The bartender, who’d always had a
thing for pretty women with
Tipper looked around as she enjoyed her beer, taking in the pieces of rock ‘n’ roll memorabilia that adorned the walls. “I thought this would look like every other Hard Rock Café in the country,” she mused, still unmindful to the calf-eyes the bartender was making at her. “I find that I am pleasantly surprised.”
“This stuff all belongs to people I’ve never heard of,” Seth complained. “Who the heck is Jon Bon Jovi anyway? Now, what would impress me is if they had something owned by Perry Como – now there was a great singer!”
Tipper put down her glass and regarded Seth, perplexed. “Who is Perry Como?” she asked. “Is he one of the Red Hot Chili Peppers?”
Seth rolled his eyes.
“This is a higher caliber place,” Seth observed as they crossed the hardwood floor toward the bar. “Perhaps we should order wine this time.”
“I’m game if you are,” she replied with a smile.
Tipper ordered a plate of conch fritter appetizers that came with a special mango-based sauce. Seth spread a generous amount of the sauce on one of these and popped it in his mouth; immediately his eyes grew wide and he reached for his glass of white wine to cool off his mouth.
“Wow!” he gasped when he could speak again. “What’s in that sauce, anyway?”
Tipper, who had taken a much more measured bite, said, “The other ingredient is habanero peppers.”
Seth gave her a dirty look as he took another sip of wine. “Thanks for the warning, Doctor Henderson,” he said. He continued to enjoy the fritters, but was much more sparing with the sauce henceforth.
They left Mangoes when they had
finished their wine and stepped out into the warm, clear night. It was getting
“Well!” said Tipper, taking a deep breath and letting it out again with a whoosh. “Five bars in five hours – not bad.”
“Ay-yuh,” Seth said. He looked at his watch, and was pleased to see that he was still sober enough to make out the time on its face. “I must admit, I have no idea where the time went.”
“As it should be,” said Tipper, pleased that Seth had apparently had a good time after all. “What time is it, anyway?”
“A little after eleven,” said Seth.
“Ready to call it a night?”
For a moment Seth actually considered saying ‘no,’ but then his practical side re-asserted itself. “I ‘spose so,” he said, though not without some reluctance. “I’d like to be at the hospital in time for the nine o’clock seminar, and it may not happen if my head doesn’t hit the pillow by midnight.”
“Same here,” Tipper sighed. “Shall we head back to Truman’s, then?”
Seth goggled at her for a moment. “You didn’t tell me you were staying there too!”
Tipper started off down the street, her steps as sure as if she hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol all evening. “You didn’t ask,” she said. “C’mon, Seth – it’s getting late.”
“So,” Tipper said as they walked along a quiet residential side street on their way back to Truman’s house, “how’d you come by the nickname ‘Boomer’ anyway?”
“How’d you come by the nickname ‘Tipper’?” Seth asked in response. He grinned in smug satisfaction when his clever riposte succeeded in making the veterinarian clam up straightaway.
“Touche,” she muttered after a period of silent consternation.
“Well, now that we know where we
stand … why did you come to
Tipper was silent for about half a block before answering. “You remember the brief conversation we had at my office regarding your imminent trip.”
“And no doubt you also remember admitting to me that it was a flash of intuition that dictated your travel plans.”
“I admitted to no such thing,” Seth protested. “You dragged it out of me.”
Tipper twisted a lock of her hair around her finger and favored him with a look of feigned innocence that didn’t fool Seth for a minute. “Did I? Anyway, it came as no surprise to me that you’d decided to play the role of Jessica’s guardian angel – again. But once I’d had time to think it over, the thought occurred to me that you could stand to have someone keeping an eye on you as well.”
“So you did follow me down here,” Seth growled. “I knew it! Dammit, I’m an adult, Tipper. I don’t need a keeper!”
“Jessica’s an adult too,” the veterinarian pointed out, “yet here you are.”
“That’s different,” said Seth.
“Maybe so, maybe so. But the point is, who guards the guardian? Or to put it more accurately, who makes sure the guardian doesn’t make a bloody fool of himself? That’s what you’ve got me for,” she said proudly.
“I don’t recall asking for your help in the matter,” said Seth sourly.
“Too bad,” Tipper said with little sympathy. “See, I feel a wee bit guilty about divulging information to you that Jessica entrusted to me in confidence. I need to make that up to her: if I can keep an eye on you and keep you out of Jessica’s hair, I will have discharged my debt to her.”
Seth sighed. “I can see I don’t have much of a choice,” he said with a sigh of resignation as they approached the steps to Truman’s house. “I am beginning to see that Jessica’s decision to leave the details of her trip with you was clever, very clever. Perhaps even more clever than she herself realized at the time.”
“That remains to be seen,” said Tipper as Seth opened the front door for her and they went inside. “Cheer up, Seth – what’s the worst that can happen? At least you’ll have me to pal around with when Truman’s tied up with his duties at the convention. Unless, of course, you really, truly can’t stand my company.”
“No,” Seth admitted grudgingly without looking at her, “I like your company just fine.”
“Good. Because I’d hate to think it was just the alcohol that made you smile this evening.” Before heading to her room she leaned over and gave Seth a quick peck on the cheek. “’Night, Seth – see you in the morning,” she said, and dashed up the stairs.