BY: S L ELLIS
Cassie Cruise wants her life back as a kick-ass P.I. Trouble is, she has zero credibility since bungling a case on reality TV. After a public tantrum, she slinks off to bury her head in the sandy beaches of Southwest Florida. Just as she starts over as the owner of The Big Prick Tattoo Shop, a body is discovered in the trunk of her burning car. Cassie’s aware there are those who’d get in line for their turn to torch her car. But murder? You don’t have to like her, but you damn well better respect her. And get out of her way—this is one case she intends to solve, with or without an audience.
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Lane Changes by S. L. Ellis, Cassie Curse is a PI who also owns a tattoo parlor. One night her car is torched and a body is discovered inside the trunk. While the police don’t really suspect Cassie, they don’t seem all that capable of finding the killer, either. So naturally, Cassie is determined to solve the case, even though the cops tell her to stay out of it.
The book is a fun read, with entertaining characters and a complicated plot. As cozy mysteries go, this one is a winner.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Lane Changes by S. L. Ellis is a murder mystery with a light side. True, the murder is pretty gruesome, a body in the trunk of a burning car, but it’s told with a sardonic sense of the macabre that’s very refreshing.
The characters are enchanting. Cassie is very sympathetic, even when she shoots herself in the foot, so to speak. At least she acknowledges it. The plot is strong and kept me guessing as to what hair-brained scheme, our beleaguered heroine would try next. A great book for a cup of hot tea and a rainy afternoon.
Bad things happened in threes. That was the thought that ran through my mind–right after holy shit.
This was number three.
A scorched breeze moved through the trio of Queen Palms situated in the side yard. I watched their fronds whisper and nod as if remarking on the scene in the street beneath them. An intermittent glow from the fire truck’s lights and the clunk and clang of firefighters putting away equipment underlined the quietness.
Just a few people continued to hang around and gawk. I searched the gawkers for familiar faces, wanting Vince, my fiancé, to appear, or if not him, then Janice, my friend and neighbor, would do.
No such luck. Instead, the only recognizable face was a neighbor, Sammy Porter and, when he walked up, he aimed a flashlight over and around the car. I watched with an anger I thought I had left back on the decaying streets of Detroit.
I’d moved here because I thought I could safely hide in this neighborhood of retirees, trimmed palm trees, screened-in swimming pools, and manicured St. Augustine grass. I’d done my homework, but it seemed pointless now. People were supposed to be safe here of all places. Wrong and wrong again. Apparently, it didn’t matter how aware you were, or where you lived, violence could creep up on you anytime and anywhere.
Sammy bent down near the trunk. “Hey, it’s still on fire back here, still got a fire here.” With the help of his flashlight, I saw a meandering spiral of black smoke escaping between the cracks of the trunk lid.
A sudden anxiety raced through my veins and, as if dipped in cement, heaviness weighed down my legs and arms. I wanted Sammy to go home and mind his own business. In fact, everyone should leave. It was my car someone had torched, my business, my loss.
“Get away from my car!” I yelled.
Sammy ignored me, but my yelling did get a firefighter’s attention. He grabbed a pry bar, elbowed Sammy aside, and popped open the trunk.
Sammy swallowed and then looked over at me. “Oh, my.”
The firefighters bent to get a closer look and, lured by the looks of horror on their faces, I went to the car.
Bile rose in my throat. Inside the trunk was a charred and still-smoldering body.
Oh my God.
The nose was completely gone and overall there wasn’t much flesh remaining on the face.
Sucking in my breath, I turned away from the face, only to catch a view of the relatively undamaged organs behind the ribs and the incinerated flesh of the chest. Dizziness hit and I grabbed the outside edge of the blackened trunk to keep from falling face first into the charred body.
“Back away from the car.”
Turning toward the voice, I felt vindicated, thinking he was speaking to nosy Sammy, but no one else was near the car. Just me, bending over the trunk of a car–my car, as I had so recently and loudly reminded all–ogling, with no outward signs of repulsion at a barbequed human corpse. I shoved down the trunk hood, straightened up, and took a step back.
It began as a typical interrogation.
“Your full name, please?”
“Cassandra Leah Cruise. You can call me Cassie.”
“Would you go over what happened tonight, Ms. Cruise?”
I knew this was the part where they were supposed to get a feel for whether I was guilty or innocent based on my behavior during questioning. Also, they would be aware of where I looked as they question me. My sister, Rachel–Sergeant Rachel Cruise–had told me all about interrogations before she was killed in the line of duty eighteen months ago.
“I don’t know what happened,” I said.
Looking at the paint-covered cement block walls of the interview room, I thought they were probably cool to the touch, and I wondered how odd it would seem if I stood and laid my forehead against the wall to soothe the ache radiating from behind my eyes. I decided on somewhere between odd and extremely odd. Looking away from the block wall, I gave my attention to the detectives in the room.
They both wore button-down shirts and khaki slacks, but that’s where the likeness ended. I zeroed in on the older detective. He was close to my forty-nine years and handsome in a rough kind of way. The tiredness of his eyes, the wrinkles in his shirt, and his old-style slicked back hair reminded me of the Detroit Homicide Bureau detectives I knew from a previous career. He caught me looking and returned my stare. Suddenly, I felt both homesick and needy and I shivered with another emotion I didn’t want to put a name to. Running my hand through my purposely-shaggy auburn hair, I looked at the younger of the two. He appeared to be in his late twenties or early thirties. His slacks had a nice crease. He was well groomed, clean-shaven. He even had a style to his military-short hair.
“What’s your name?” I asked the young detective.
He scrunched his face and cleared his throat before answering. “Stephan. It’s Detective Lieutenant Craig Stephan,” he said.
I shot him a smile. “I’m Cassie.”
Stephan ignored the smile. “You have a charred body in the trunk of your car, and you don’t know what happened?”
“I don’t know how a body ended up in the trunk of my car.” I looked to the right. Per Rachel, when a person is remembering, they tend to look to the right. That’s because the right side of the brain is the memory area. If they look to the left, they’re lying. Or did I have it backward?
“It’s your car, isn’t it?” Detective Stephan asked, interrupting my thoughts.
“It is my car, but it’s not my body. I mean, I don’t know who the body is or how it got in the trunk.”
“We think you know,” Stephen insisted.
“I’ve told you I don’t know,” I said, again looking to the right.
The older detective put out his hand. “Detective Brick Winslow, County Sheriff’s Office.”
He shook my hand as a man should shake a woman’s hand. Warm and firm.
“For real? Your name is Brick?” I asked.
“You have to know my parents to understand,” he said.
I nodded. “I only know what I saw.”
“Okay. Tell us what you saw,” Detective Winslow said after releasing my hand.
“I was outside watching the firefighters with a few of the neighbors who were still hanging around.”
North Harbor’s Detective Stephan grimaced and rubbed his hand over the short, bristly hair on his head. “What’s that got to do with the body?”
Winslow held his hand up in Detective Stephan’s direction. “Just let her talk,” he said and then turned to me.
I again saw a tired, work worn, big city detective. Someone who seemed as out of place as I felt in this small Florida town. And I also saw a person who would likely understand parts of me that not many others could.
“Go ahead, Ms. Cruise.”
I nodded my appreciation to Detective Winslow before continuing, “So I decided I’d had enough and yelled, ‘Get away from my car!’”
“Having someone near your car bothered you?” Stephan asked.
“And?” he said.
“One of the firefighters popped open the trunk.” I folded my hands on the table in front of me and tried to find a way to describe a horribly burned body without having actually to see it in my mind’s eye.
Detective Stephan slumped down in his chair, letting his arms hang slackly alongside. “Ms. Cruise, come on, just tell us what happened.”
What a freaking whiner, I thought before responding. “Look, I’m trying, but I want you to understand this first because I think I know how it looked to others. It took me a few seconds to catch on to what I was seeing, and when it registered, I instinctively slammed the trunk. I wasn’t trying to hide anything.”
I took a deep gulp of air and looked longingly at the cement wall. “That body, what I saw, I’m not so sure I’ll ever stop seeing it.” Keeping my eyes fixed on the wall, I described in detail the charred corpse.
They were both quiet for a few seconds, but eventually they worked into the confrontation part of the interrogation. That was where they made accusatory statements regarding the suspect’s involvement and tried to raise the stress level.
“Come on. You know more than you’re saying. In fact, I personally think you skipped an important piece of the story,” Detective Stephan said.
“What piece? I didn’t skip anything,” I said.
“What about how and why you killed the person found in your trunk? How about that part of the story?” he asked.
“I’d like you to think about that. Why would anyone kill a person, put the body into the trunk of their car, and then light it on fire on their own street, in their own neighborhood? Bring all that attention to the body they’re supposedly trying to hide? Does that really make sense to you?” I asked.
“It’d make sense to a certain washed-up PI who made a fool of themselves on TV. I mean maybe that washed up PI wanted to bring some attention back to themselves and–”
I cut him off with a sugary voice and fake smile. “You’ve just made it abundantly clear you’re a fucking moron.” The last thing I wanted to think about or hear about was the television show debacle.
“Why did you park the car on the street?” Detective Winslow asked, diverting the moron from saying anything in return.
“I fell asleep watching a movie and didn’t move it into my garage,” I said. This question raised my stress level, and I couldn’t stop myself from looking to the right three or four times in a row.
“Are you feeling okay?” Detective Winslow asked.
I nodded, filled my lungs with stale air, and let it out while trying to rid my mind of illogical feelings of guilt. So much for Rachel’s stupid interrogation tidbits.
Detective Winslow stared at me for a few seconds. “Okay, so normally you park in the garage? This time, just by coincidence you left it on the street.”
“Yes, that’s what happened.”
Winslow looked down at his pad of paper. “Tell me about the vehicle.”
“Like I said, it was my sister’s. It’s a 1997 Mercedes Benz 500SL Roadster, in great condition. I mean it was in great condition. I don’t know what else to tell you.”
“Okay. Go over again why you parked your car on the street and not in your garage.”
“Laziness, I guess.”
“That it?” he asked.
“Okay. No, that’s not it. Not all anyway. I mean, I had to pee.” I was suddenly embarrassed over the fact that I was embarrassed to talk about a normal body function.
“What the hell?” Detective Stephan said.
Turning toward Detective Winslow, I explained. “I gulped down a huge amount of iced tea while working at the shop and left in a cranky hurry. I ran some errands, and once I turned onto my street, I felt an overwhelming urgency. So I parked the car on the street, hopped around while trying to concentrate enough to get the bags of landscape rock I’d bought at Home Depot out of the trunk. I gave up halfway through and ran inside, barely making it to the bathroom in time. As I said earlier, I then grabbed an old movie from my collection and popped it in the player. Dead Ringer starring Bette Davis.”
“Who?” Detective Stephen asked.
Ignoring him, I said to Detective Winslow, “It’s what I do to relax. Anyway, about half way through I fell asleep on the couch. Not the fault of the movie, mind you. I was exhausted from the day. I never went out to move the car into the garage. I forgot about moving the car.”
Rachel would understand, wouldn’t she?
“No idea why someone would do this to your vehicle?”
“Nope, can’t think of one.”
Big. Fat. Lie. Probably many people would have stood in line for their turn to torch my car. I was not the world’s most careful driver, but more to the point I was not what you’d call a people person. I couldn’t play the games required to enjoy popularity. I didn’t like fluff. I didn’t like false emotions. I didn’t know how to change my so-called snotty, sarcastic ways. Therefore, people didn’t really like me. Most times I was okay with it.
“No idea who the dead person is?”
Rachel’s description of the next step in an interrogation didn’t hold up either. Supposedly, it was something called theme development. They made up a story about why the suspect did the crime, hoping he would start filling in the missing spots, give reasons of his own, or blame the victim. Instead, it seemed both of the Detectives floundered and became stuck. They never got to the point where they were supposed to speak in soothing voices in hopes of lulling the suspect into a sense of false security, thus allowing them to confess. Eventually, I tired and asked to leave and, surprisingly, they let me go.
Detective Winslow asked if I wanted to call someone for a ride home. I said no, I could get myself home, even though I desperately wanted to call Vince. It was called biting off your nose to spite your face. I walked the mile home in the dark and the ninety-four degree heat and humidity as a personalized form of self-flagellation.
Inside the house, I tripped over my purse and key ring lying in the entryway, picked them up, tossed them on the dining table, and then phoned Vince. After allowing him the privilege of soothing me, I gained his promise to come over and comfort me.
I looked out my window at the now quiet neighborhood and felt a tenseness building between my shoulder blades. Turning away from the window, I picked up a magazine from a nearby pile and flung it across the room. And another. And another. Not stopping until I hit a framed painting on the far wall, knocking it to the floor with a crash.
Why? Who was the poor victim? Who did this? Why my car?
Rubbing the tears off my face, I returned to the window and watched as a dark sedan, lights off, crawled towards my house, almost coming to a stop in front of the new neighbor Lane’s house. The driver–from my window just a dark faceless shape–turned in my direction and then sped up, popped on the lights, and went on down the street out of the neighborhood.
Could be nothing, just a forgetful driver. The streetlights were in good repair and spaced evenly enough along the street. But now, everyone and everything came under suspicion. It was weird how something was inconsequential one day and then important and suspicious the next.
Damn, I’ll never have a car like that again.
As on almost any other day, I then heard the voice of my long-dead sister. “Uh-huh, tell me about it,” she said.
My failure to protect her now crispy and blackened Mercedes-Benz convertible overcame me. Another failure. Another public failure. I grabbed the partial pack of cigarettes I’d thrown in the trashcan under the kitchen sink earlier and lit one up with shaking hands.
This was a murder. Someone placed a body in my trunk, torched my car, and walked away as if the body was never a person, as if they hadn’t ever meant anything to anyone.
No one should walk away without paying for this.
One, two, three. Bad things always happened in threes.
© 2014 by S. L. Ellis
In addition to having a female private eye, Ellis shows further creative flare in making the main protagonist’s sidekick an artistic, ethnic, active, septuagenarian, who will hopefully be taking a larger role in the next book. A captivating introduction to a cozy female PI series with potential for wide appeal. ~ Kirkus Reviews