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Pier Pressure

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Booklist – January, 2005
Keely Moreno is working hard to build her practice as a foot reflexologist in Key West. She has fled an abusive husband and started a new life but trouble is not far away. Arriving for a house call at Margaux Ashford’s home, she finds her client dead. Finding her name at the top of the suspect list she must clear her name to save her reputation. Fortunately plenty other suspects have motives; a local writer; Margaux’s ex-husband and his new wife; a retired police officer who may have been Margaux’s lover; and Keely’s ex-husband, Jude Cardell would like to see her convicted of murder. The sunny, colorful Key West setting offers a striking contrast to the dark doings of the plot. Keely is a strong woman making her own way in the world while establishing a budding romance with her friend and sleuthing assistant Punt. Francis effectively combines elements of the cozy traditional with just a bit of South Florida edge, much as John Leslie does in the Gideon Lowry series. Barbara Bibel Copyright@American Libarary Assoication. All rights reserved.

The Key West Weekly
“Francis weaves a web of clues that is totally believable. If you love a mystery but deplore graphic sex and violence, you’ll be delighted with PIER PRESSURE. One would hope that more Keely Moreno mysteries will be forthcoming.”

Harriet Klausner
“PIER PRESSURE is a fantastic amateur sleuth tale with equal attention giaven to characterization and the investigation. Dorothy Francis is a talented writer and this reviewer will be on the lookout for her next mystery.”

Blue Iris.
“Lush descriptions of Key West abound, as do the characters that populate her novel. Underneath it all is a tight mystery that provides a rich and enjoyable read for adults of any age.”

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Chapter 1

The one thing my foot reflexology courses didn’t teach me was how to deal with a corpse. That Sunday had started out in a rush as I gathered my supplies for an early morning appointment.

My name is Keely Moreno and I’m the only professional foot reflexologist in Key West—or maybe in all of the Florida Keys. Four years ago I earned my certificate from St. Petersburg’s International Institute of Reflexology. I’ve worked hard to set up my private practice here on Duval Street. Many people are interested in new concepts of disease prevention, healing, and healthful living, and today as I glanced at the golden foot hanging above my sign, I smiled. ALTERNATIVE HEALING. KEELY MORENO. FOOT REFLEXOLOGIST. I have a thriving business.

Parking in Key West is the pits, so right now I don’t own a car. I walk or ride my bike. I stood loading my bicycle basket with a small battery-operated footbath, deep-piled towels, and the scented oils I use for Margaux Ashford’s treatment when Gram called to me from the doorway of her specialty shop next door to my office. CELIA HERNANDEZ SUNDRIES. That’s what the sign above her doorway says. Gram operates a coffee bar and sells specialty coffees and hard-to-find gourmet items for local restaurants, food hounds, and coffee lovers.

“Keely. Keely. Please to stop one momento.”

“Coming, Gram. Give me a sec.” I took time to tuck the tape recorder I use to record patients’ comments into my shirt pocket, slip my cell phone into my pants pocket.

Gram could see I’d dressed in my work-a-day khaki jumpsuit and was preparing to leave. I tried to act as if I had an eternity of time, but I was running late for my seven o’clock standing appointment with Margaux. Why was Gram being so impervious to my time schedule? Why was she delaying me? I didn’t want to be short with her, but neither did I want to be late for my appointment. Propping my bike on its kickstand, I stepped into her shop.

Although she pretends to be unaware of it, Gram’s one of Key West’s colorful tourist attractions. She dresses in a scarlet caftan and head bandeau, and her golden hoop earrings and sandals make her look like a make-believe pirate. Gram celebrated her seventy-second birthday last week, but she keeps her age a top secret, along with the fact that she wears earplugs at night so she can sleep in spite of Duval Street racket.

“Good morning, Gram. What’s the good news?”

I planted a kiss on her cheek and inhaled the fragrance of freshly-ground coffee beans. Behind the serving counter with its high bar stools, a cappuccino machine dominated one corner of her shop, and an espresso machine the other. Gallon-size glass jars bearing coffee beans sat on floor-to-ceiling shelves. I grew up in this shop, living with Gram in an upper apartment after my mother’s death. I still remember the pungent scent of hickory nut coffee beans and the sweet taste of French vanilla cappuccino.

Gram barely smiled at me. “Keely, you see Jude Cardell this morning?”

My shoulders slumped. I hated thinking of my ex so early in the day. In fact, I hated thinking of Jude at all, at any time, on any day.

“No, Gram. I didn’t see Jude. Why do you ask?”

“Because I see him. It be almost hour ago. He walk past your office. He no stop, but he look in. I think he up to trouble. Trouble for you.”

“It’s a public sidewalk, Gram. No law against people walking by. My window drapery’s still drawn. Jude could look forever and see nothing.”

I kept my voice light because I didn’t want Gram to know how much Jude still frightened me. Some things in my life are private. Private and scary. After five years, I still hear his threat. I’ll see you dead. His words replay in my mind. I’ll see you dead. I’ll see you dead. I worry. What real protection can a restraining order be?

“Jude hide his dark side well,” Gram said. “People see him, say Mr. Nice Guy. I see him, I say el Diablo. You watch out for that one, Keely. You watch out.”

“I’ll do that, Gram. Jude impresses people as a nice business person working his way up at the Hubble & Hubble law firm, but he doesn’t fool the Ashfords or me. We know Jude for what he is.”

I wished I felt as confident as I sounded to Gram. I watch my back. Now and then I imagine I see Jude’s hulking form lurking near, but I don’t tell Gram that.

I’d never told Gram that Jude had deliberately inflicted my back injury. Oh, she knew I’d seen lots of doctors. She knew that when they couldn’t relieve my pain they’d suggested spinal cord surgery. Scary idea. I’d stalled them off. Later, when I read an ad in the Miami Herald about foot reflexology as an alternative to surgery, I decided to give it a try. So Jude did one good thing. The pain he inflicted on me eventually led me to establishing my career—to becoming a foot reflexologist.

“Keely, where you go? Why you so loaded down?”

Gram’s voice snapped me from my thoughts, reminding me that I should be hurrying, but she didn’t fool me by changing the subject. She knew about my early appointment. She was making small talk, to delay me. She disliked Margaux and maybe she thought Margaux would fire me if I failed to arrive promptly.

“I’m going to Margaux Ashford’s. It’s Sunday, Gram. You know the drill.” I love Gram, so in spite of running late, I didn’t hurry away.

Gram scowled. Few people in Key West smile at hearing Margaux’s name.

“Before you go, help please. Lift new bag of beans to countertop? It be cruise ship day. I prepare for many customers.”

Sometimes we locals resent thousands of cruise ship passengers making our sidewalks impassable. Then we remember the tinkle of our cash registers, and we smile.

“Sure, Gram. Where’s the bag?”

“Behind counter. Hate begging help. Simple chores I once do with ease.”

“No problem, Gram. No problem.” I hoisted the heavy jute bag to the counter near the coffee grinder, pulled the drawstring to open it, and smooched her a kiss.

“See ya later, Gram.” I mounted my bike and pedaled toward the Ashford home, lost in my thoughts.

Usually, I don’t make house calls, but when Margaux Ashford requested that extra service, I agreed to give early-morning treatments for her back problems in the privacy of her home. In spite of Key West’s live-and-let-live attitude, I still hear snide comments about Margaux’s May/December marriage to Beau Ashford, twenty years her junior.

“She’s tadpoling,” one woman snickered.

“I might tadpole, too, if I had her bod,” an older lady responded.

At sixty-nine, Margaux’s a woman other women love to hate. Not only has she inherited family money, but she also maintains the sleek and svelte body of a forty-year-old, a youthful hairdo that distracts the eye from a few wrinkles, and an agile way of moving that belies her age. In addition to all that, her editorial career is at high peak.

Margaux and her former husband and business manager, Otto Koffan, moved to Key West in semi-retirement a few years ago. Margaux had fallen in love with the island after visiting here several times as a guest speaker at the Key West Literary Seminar. Otto shared her enthusiasm for moving to this island in the sun the locals call Paradise.

Margaux’s current husband, Beau Ashford, lost his wife to cancer several years ago and he eased his grief by taking a deep interest in and financially helping sponsor the Key West Literary Seminar. Now, in addition to serving on the boards of a local bank and the community college, Beau writes a respected weekly column for Key West’s Citizen concerning historical events of this area.

Margaux persuaded Beau to submit a collection of his columns for book publication to her publisher and she offered to edit the manuscript. For weeks they worked closely together. Their association eventually led to Margaux’s divorce from Otto, her marriage to Beau, and then to Otto’s on-the-rebound marriage to Shandy Mertz, a cocktail waitress at The Wharf.

Now, three years later, some of the city’s gossips still mention Beau’s name in shocked or disgusted tones. Personally, I think they’re green with envy because Margaux not only shares Beau’s bed, but also enjoys a successful career working at home as an editor for HarperCollins in New York.

Margaux has been one of my top-notch customers for several years, and I make no judgments about her private life, or Beau’s. Margo feels that it detracts from her youthful image to be seen patronizing my shop, so I humor her. On Sunday mornings, I bike to the old house on Grinnell Street where she and Beau live.

This early February morning is typical of a winter Sunday in Key West. On Duval Street, beer cans, sandwich wrappers, and soda bottles lay like malevolent snacks in a dip of spilled well drinks and upchucked beer. The orange-jacketed street cleaners worked with a minimum of enthusiasm.

Turning onto Simonton Street because less clutter threatened my bike tires, I rode through the almost-deserted streets. I enjoyed these few minutes before the island came to life complete with boom box noise, tourist RVs almost wider than the narrow streets, and people frantically seeking quarters for the parking meters that allowed only fifteen minutes per coin.

I pedaled a bit faster. Margaux told me that Beau would be at Key Colony Beach today helping with a fishing derby, and she invited me to stay for brunch following her treatment. I love their home. After his first wife’s death, Beau leased Ashford Mansion, the mansion he had shared with her in Old Town, to his twins, Jass and Punt, and moved to a different residential area. This morning, night-blooming jasmine still scented the air, and bougainvillea vines climbed the palm trees to the balconies of old-time Conch houses where they spilled over, dropping pink and purple petals onto the sidewalks below. At Truman Avenue I turned left and pedaled to Grinnell then headed toward the ocean. The Ashford home sat squeezed between two similar Conch houses, separated from its near neighbors by living privacy fences comprised of palms, seagrapes, and crotons.

On this crowded island, building contractors have only one way to go—up.

Beau and Margaux liked neither the sleek high-rise condos near the airport nor those on the other side of the island with a Gulf-side view. Instead, they had chosen this old home decorated a century ago with gingerbread trim hand-carved by Conch sailors whiling away spare hours during long voyages. Like many of Key West’s wealthy families, the Ashfords had made no changes to their home’s exterior, but a Miami decorator had helped them modernize the interior.

I chained and locked my bicycle to a palm tree inside the white picket fence and entry gate. It’s never smart to leave an unattended bicycle unlocked—not even on Sunday morning. Hoisting the portable footbath and lotions from my bike basket, I headed for the front door. Dwarf hibiscus plants in large clay pots lined the sidewalk and porch steps. Scarlet. Yellow. Orange. Pink. White. They subtly advertised Jass’s career and business, her hibiscus greenhouse. I picked up a lavender blossom that had fallen on the porch steps and tucked it in the top buttonhole on my jumpsuit as I waited for Margaux to answer my knock.

All remained quiet. Then, through the window to the right of the doorway, I saw Margaux sitting in an armchair. A copy of Southern Living had fallen to the floor near her feet. At first I thought she sat sleeping. Then hairs rose on my nape. Her head lolled slightly to one side. Surely she had heard my steps on the porch. I frowned as I rapped again and my mouth went dry as my sense of foreboding increased.

“Margaux,” I called as I tried the door. “It’s me, Keely. Margaux?”

The door swung open and I stepped over the threshold. I had a horrible feeling I hadn’t caught Margaux napping. Heart attack? Stroke? Perhaps sudden illness or a seizure had prevented her from reaching the phone to call for help. I stepped from the hallway into the living room and gasped. Blood drenched her white robe and had dripped onto the chair, the carpet.

Then I saw more blood oozing from the bullet hole in her head.


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