It was a real scorcher, and the heat was so thick you could chew it while it cooked you from the inside out. Hank paced back and forth across his lawn, walking a rut into his carefully manicured grass, while sweat trickled down his spine and into his cargo shorts. Good Lord, he’d never get used to the Texas heat, and summer hadn’t even started yet. He looked over at Agatha with a scowl. She sat in the shade of a big elm tree sipping her lemonade without a care in the world. He hmmphed and kept pacing. Little did she know her world was about to be turned upside down. He’d tried to warn her, but she was stubborn as a mule. It served her right, in his opinion. He rubbed at his stomach, his nerves and the heat making him feel slightly ill. “Hank,” Agatha called out. “Why can’t we just wait inside? We might be out here for hours. They didn’t even tell us what time they were coming.” “Oh, they’re coming,” Hank said, almost to himself. He’d felt the disturbance in the atmosphere.
Either aliens had come to invade the planet or his sisters had crossed into Bell County. On second thought, maybe waiting outside was a bad decision. That made Agatha a sitting duck. She’d never stand a chance. “Why don’t you go back inside where it’s cool,” he said. “I’ll keep watch out here.” “It’s not the National Guard,” Agatha said, laughing. “That’s what you think.” Hank kicked at the ground and then immediately regretted it when a clump of grass shot across the yard. The muscles in his chest began to tighten.
Maybe he was having a heart attack. Maybe he was dying. That wouldn’t be so bad. He swiped at the sweat dripping from his forehead. “Why don’t you come sit by me,” she said. “I’ve got extra lemonade, and maybe you can explain to me why you’re terrified of your sisters.” “I’m not terrified,” he said, snapping back. And then he closed his eyes and blew out a breath. “Sorry. I don’t mean to take it out on you.
But this is a bad idea.” “Come sit and cool off,” she said again. “You’ll be no good to anyone if you keep standing there worrying to death. And you don’t want to be sunburned for the wedding.” “All right, all right,” he said, heading toward the elm. He let the tension release from his shoulders and exhaled, long and slow. “What in the world?” Agatha asked, coming to her feet. “What is that horrible sound?” “Huh?” Hank asked. “That noise,” she said. “It sounds like a cross between fingernails down a chalkboard and putting a car in a wood chipper.
” Hank stopped to listen, crossing his fingers he heard what Agatha was hearing. Too many years of gunfire and flashbangs had left him with permanent damage, and Agatha had not-so-subtly hinted more than once that he should get hearing aids. But he wasn’t old, so he sure as heck wasn’t going to get hearing aids. Then he heard it. And it sounded exactly as Agatha had described. Neighbors were coming out of their houses and standing on the fort porches, looking for the source. The sound grew closer and more offensive, and Hank pulled the Colt .45 from its holster and held it down at his side so as not to alarm the neighbors. A silver minivan ran a stop sign and squealed around the corner on two wheels, knocking over a trash can and a decorative lion someone had put at the end of their sidewalk. “Holy smokes,” Agatha said.
“They must be drunk. I’ll call it in. Make sure you get the license plate number.” The van bore down on them, gaining speed, and Hank pushed Agatha toward the front porch so they weren’t so close to the street. Smoke blew from the engine of the van, and the windows were tinted almost black. Maybe it was a hit job. Or a bomb. It wasn’t impossible that his past had followed him to Texas. The van swerved as it passed by them and did a U-turn in the middle of the street, leaving black tire marks and a trail of black exhaust. Hank pushed Agatha behind him and aimed his weapon, and then the van drove onto his lawn and came to a sudden stop.
The license plate was hanging off the front by a single screw, and Hank closed his eyes and said a quick prayer. Pennsylvania plates. “Please, God, no,” he said. The driver’s side door opened and a short, round woman dismounted unceremoniously, waving away the black smoke and coughing. Her hair was steel gray and looked like she’d brushed it with a Brillo pad, and she wore army-green BDUs and a gray T-shirt that said Armed and dangerous on the front. Hazel was a good fifteen years older than he was, and she’d never had a problem letting everyone know she was in charge. “Umm,” Agatha said, gripping his arm so tight he thought it might leave bruises. “Is that?” “Yep,” he said. And then he watched as the passenger door opened. Two bare feet stuck out at him and then his sister Betty hopped out of the van in a swirl of color.
The caftan she wore was shades of blue and green, and there were tiny bells sewn in the hem so she tinkled when she moved. Her white-blond hair flowed down her back, and there was a slightly vacant expression on her face. “Let us out of here,” someone said from the back of the van as they pounded on the window. Betty smiled serenely and pulled open the sliding door. Soda cans tumbled out onto the lawn, and then a bunch of arms and legs fought their way to freedom and Brenda, Patsy, and Gayle stood before him, looking a little the worse for wear and not at all happy about it. “Good Lord,” Patsy said, fanning her shirt. “Would it kill you to get air-conditioning in that thing? I thought I was going to have a stroke.” “Oh, hush up,” Brenda said. “At least you didn’t have to sit by it. Last time I was next to anything that dead was Arthur’s funeral.
Dead as a doornail. But didn’t look that much different when he was living.” “That’s true,” Gayle said. “I could never tell if Arthur was dead or alive half the time.” She patted her freshly permed locks and stretched her arms high above her head, and then she bent at the waist and touched her toes. “I stuck a fork in his hand during the Thanksgiving of ’95 just to make sure.” “I remember that,” Brenda said, nodding her head. “He was in one of those turkey comas so it was kind of hard to tell. I do miss that man. We had some good times.
” Hank let the conversation rush over him. There was no stopping it, and he’d learned the best way to deal with them was let them run out of steam. “Hank Davidson,” Hazel barked. “Where are your manners? Aren’t you even going to tell us hello?” Hank took a deep breath and squeezed Agatha’s hand. “Hello, Hazel. How was your drive?” She harrumphed and they all started talking again. He had no idea what had happened, but he heard flat tire and Cracker Barrel, and something about gunshots that made him terrified for whoever had the misfortune of running into his sisters. And then they all rushed him and threw their arms around him. “Sweet little Hank,” Betty said, stroking his cheek like he was a baby. Of all his sisters, Betty had been the one to give him the least amount of grief over the choices he’d made in life.
But as their chatter rolled over him all the old resentments came rising to the surface. They’d never forgiven him for marrying Tammy. They’d never considered her good enough, and had told him at the time he was making the biggest mistake of his life. They hadn’t been nice, to him or to Tammy, and none of them had even bothered to show up to her funeral. Betty had sent flowers. That was a hard thing to forgive, and he guessed he still had some forgiving to do because the anger hadn’t passed with the time. And he fully expected them to treat Agatha the same way they’d treated Tammy. “Oh, you’re too thin,” Brenda said, checking him over like he was a turkey at Thanksgiving. “Is nobody feeding you?” She scowled at Agatha. “Poor thing,” Gayle said.
“Who let you leave the house like this? You’re all wrinkled. I’ll press all your shirts while I’m here since no one is doing it for you. And honeybear, stop wearing socks with your sandals.” Hank felt his blood pressure spike, and he saw all the neighbors were still standing on their porches watching the show. His lips thinned and his eyes scanned his sisters, lingering over each of them as they clucked over him and shot poisonous verbal darts at Agatha. And then his eyes rested on Hazel. She’d been quiet, standing back from the others and watching him closely. But it wasn’t the scowl on her face that drew his attention. It was the blooming shiner on her eye. “What happened to your eye?” he asked, appalled at the sight.
“Long story,” she said. “Why don’t you introduce us to your friend?” “This is my fiancée,” Hank said, emphasizing the word. “Agatha Harley. Agatha, these are my sisters. Hazel is the oldest. And then there’s Betty, Brenda, Patsy, and Gayle.” “Nice to meet you all,” Agatha said. He could feel the nervous energy coming off her in waves, and his sisters didn’t help the tension any. They just stared at her.” “So you think you’re going to marry our baby brother, huh?” Gayle asked.
“I am going to marry him,” Agatha said, straightening her shoulders. “In two weeks. We’re glad you’ve decided to come celebrate with us.” Hazel snorted. “We’ll see about that. Two weeks is a long time. People change their minds all the time.” “I won’t change my mind,” Agatha said. “I wasn’t talking about you,” Hazel said. “Hazel,” Hank said.
“This is our home, and you’re welcome here as long as you treat both of us with respect.” “Well,” Patsy huffed. “I never heard such a thing. I thought Southerners were supposed to be polite. Blood runs thicker than water. Don’t you forget that.” “Blood doesn’t mean anything to me,” Hank said. “I’ve learned over the years that family is what you make it. And I’ve made my family here.” “If you don’t want us here then we’ll turn right around and head back home,” Hazel said.
“Not likely,” Betty said with a good-natured smile. “I’m not getting back in that van until it’s fumigated and I get a good night’s sleep. I’m too old for road trips. Stop being an instigator, Hazel. We voted and we’re all sick of your attitude. You didn’t want to come to begin with.” “You voted?” Hazel asked, narrowing her eyes at her sisters. “Why would I want to come watch Hank make another mistake?” “Because we voted on that too,” Gayle said. “Majority rules.” Hank growled low in his throat and was about to lose his temper, but Agatha squeezed his arm.
“I don’t mean to interrupt this touching family reunion,” Brenda said. “But don’t you think we have more important things to talk about than Hank’s next marriage? We’ve got a bit of a crisis on our hands, and Hank is the law. He’d probably know what to do about this mess.” “What mess?” Hank asked, sharper than he’d intended. He heard another squeal of tires, and a bright red convertible sped down the street and came to a stop in front of their house. He closed his eyes and decided to accept that the universe was against him today. He might as well go back to bed and wake up with a fresh start tomorrow. That was the only way he’d make it through. Heather Cartwright’s bleached blond hair shone like a beacon and rock and roll blasted from the speakers. Hazel snorted.
“Figures she’d be consorting with women like that. Now we know how she got her hooks into Hank.” The others nodded in agreement and watched Heather get out of the car like she was a car wreck. Though to be fair, Heather was a bit of a car wreck. But she’d never much cared what people thought about her. “Agatha!” Heather squealed. “I found the cutest little boutique in Austin for your trousseau. Lots of lingerie. I promise you’ll thank me, Hank. Let’s go shopping.
” “I can’t right now,” Agatha said. “We’ve got company.” “But the wedding is only two weeks away,” Heather said, pouting. “It’s the little things that will add up in the end. Believe me. I’m an expert.” “Yeah, go along and go shopping,” Gayle said. “It’s not like his family traveled all this way to get a look at you.” Heather arched a brow at the tone and put her hands on her hips. “If you only came to get a look at her then you can do it at the wedding.
Good grief, Hank. This is your family? Is your last name Manson?” “Heather,” Hank said, a warning note in his voice. “You’re not helping.” “Maybe it’s time for us to go, girls,” Brenda said. “I want to check into the hotel and soak in the hot tub. I’ve got to get the death cooties off me.” Hank regretted even asking the question. “What death cooties?” “Tell him,” Betty said to Hazel. “He can help.” “Help with what?” Hank asked.
“Him,” Hazel said, pointing to the third-row seat. They all moved in a huddle until they could see into the van and the third row. There was a man sitting in the back seat, his head lolled to one side and his face waxy and pale with death. He also appeared to be naked. Hank felt the blood drain out of his face and he looked between his sisters and the body they’d been transporting. “Somebody had better start explaining right now,” he said. “Hey, you’re the big-shot detective,” Hazel said. “Doesn’t seem so hard to figure out to me. I’m more concerned about the fella I shot. That seems like something that would come with a lot of paperwork.
” “You were in a shoot-out?” Agatha asked, pulling out her phone. Hank examined the big swollen purple patch of traumatized skin around Hazel’s right eye. It had blistered into hues of blue and green over the course of their conversation. “Enough of this,” Hank demanded. “Start talking or I’m hauling you all down to the sheriff’s office. How’d you get that black eye?” “It’s his fault,” Hazel said, pointing to the dead guy. “Are you telling me that’s a real person in your van? An actual dead man?” They looked at him like he was the one who’d lost his mind. “Of course it’s a real dead person,” Patsy said. “He fell right out of the hearse.” “Oh God,” he heard Agatha say.
Brenda and Gayle had gotten back in the van and pulled the dead man out onto the lawn. “I’m not riding with him over to the hotel,” Brenda said. “Are you telling me this man fell out of a hearse, and instead of stopping and calling the police, you picked him up and put him in your van?” “We had to,” Betty said defensively. “Those men were shooting at us. If Hazel hadn’t shot back we’d probably all be dead.” The others were nodding in agreement. “It all happened very fast,” Brenda said. “Wow,” Heather said. “Some family, Hank.” “Heather,” Agatha said.
“Not now.” “Heather,” Hank said. “You leave now unless you want to become part of another murder investigation. Agatha, call 911 and get Coil here ASAP. And you five start talking, and you’d better be telling the truth or I’m going to arrest you all.” “We did not raise you to behave this way, Hank Davidson,” Gayle said. “It is clear to me this woman has been a bad influence on you.” “That’s my cue to go,” Heather said, and trotted back to her car as fast as her spiked heels would carry her. Hank was glad Agatha had moved away from the group so she could make phone calls. His head pounded, from the heat and the chaos, and he walked away from the circle of women and went to stand over the body.
He could deal with the dead. It was the living who were the problem. “Umm…Hank,” his neighbor from across the street said. “Maybe you could drape this over the…umm…you know.” She swallowed and tried not to look at the corpse in his yard. “There’s kids on this street.” “I’m sorry about this,” he said, taking the sheet from her. “You definitely made the neighborhood more interesting since you moved here,” she said. Hank didn’t even know what her name was, but clearly she knew him. “Most exciting thing that ever happened before you was forty years ago when Wally Tabor fell off his roof and broke his neck dressed like Santa.
Congratulations on the wedding, by the way. We’re real excited about it.” Hank wondered who else was coming to their wedding. Probably the whole town. “Thanks,” he said. “And thanks for the sheet. I’ll get it back to you.” Her eyes got big and she pursed her lips. “You can keep it, honey.” “Right,” Hank said, and went to cover the body.
Spots danced in front of his eyes and the heat from the sun was oppressive. It rose from the ground in waves and pressed from above like a laser. He’d lived in Texas two years, and he still wasn’t used to the heat. They were still having snow in Philadelphia. “You don’t look so good,” Agatha said, coming up next to him. “Why don’t you go inside with your sisters and I’ll wait out here for Coil to arrive. He’s on the way now.” “Thanks,” he said. “I’m sorry I pressed about having your family here,” she said. “I never want to hurt you or put more stress on you than you already carry.
I didn’t realize.” “I should have told you why things were so bad in the first place,” he said. “You only knew what I told you. And maybe it’s not such a bad thing. One way or another, maybe I can put hard feelings aside. How they choose to behave is up to them. But I want to go into our future together with as little baggage as possible.” She nodded and leaned up to kiss him. “Go on inside before they get too impatient. I can’t decide if they want to kidnap you or kill you.
” Hank laughed. “Probably a little of both. Let me know when Coil gets here.” He walked back to his sisters and herded them toward the front door. “Come on,” he said. “You’ll be more comfortable in the house with the air conditioner while we wait for Coil to get here. Anyone want a drink?” “I’ll take a vodka tonic,” Gayle said, taking a seat on the couch. “I need to cool down.” “Oh, that sounds good. Be a dear and get me one too,” Patsy said.
“I’ve got water and iced tea,” he said patiently. “No vodka.” “You always were a strange one,” Betty said, clucking her tongue. “You want me to hang outside with skinny?” Patsy asked. “I’ve already got lots of theories, and I’d like to see this investigation through.” She was a true-crime fanatic, and Hank only hoped she didn’t disturb any evidence. “Agatha can handle it until Coil gets here,” he said. “You keep talking about Coil,” Brenda said. “Who’s Coil?”