Authors: Gina Conroy
Tags: #Christian Fiction, #mystery, #Cozy Mystery
I dropped the mirror in my leather bag and slowed enough to take a clumsy sip of nonfat, sugar-free caramel latte, then gulped the creamy liquid, trying to appease my appetite.
It didn’t work.
The allure of the forbidden fat grams assaulted my senses, my stomach growling with Eden temptation. I glanced at my watch. 7:43. My heart lurched, then sprinted along with the rest of me. Seventeen minutes to D-Day.
Pulling the note cards from the inside pocket of my oversized tote bag, I got blindsided by the slender intern as she flitted from the ladies’ room opposite the buffet table. I gasped as my latte erupted through the spout, missing my crimson top, and landing on the jacket of the black power suit I bought especially for this show. I dropped the cards in my bag and fumbled for the Tide stick.
“I’m so sorry, Mrs. Duggins.” The intern’s sapphire eyes pooled with regret, or was that an undermining glint in her eyes? I shook off paranoia and told myself nothing was going to ruin the show today.
The intern gnawed on her fingernail, watching me rub at the stain. Miracle of miracles, it vanished. Now if only my luck held until the end of the show.
“No harm done.” I mimicked the tone I used on my sensitive child and held up the stain eraser in a tube. “I could have used this when my kids were little. Spit up and designer suits really clash.”
A timid smile emerged from her full lips, then retreated.
“You haven’t worked here long. What’s your name?”
“Cherilyn St. Jean.” Avoiding my eyes, she tucked her silky blonde hair behind her right ear, sending an exotic floral scent my way. The intern’s exquisite beauty reminded me of an orchid in full bloom. Unfortunately, flowers sent me into a sneezing frenzy. Didn’t she know about our fragrance-free policy?
Before I could grab a tissue from my bag, a sneeze spewed. Thankfully, Cherilyn stepped back or she’d be wearing Eau de Mucous. My nasal membranes swelled, the airways shrinking.
No, no, no.
Widening my eyes, I suppressed the tears threatening my mascara.
Cherilyn stared at me as if I had grown a third nostril. “Um … Tyler needs to do an audio check.”
I found a tissue and caught the next three blasts. “Thanks, I’m headed there now.” Rubbing my nose, I watched Lyndon University’s Next Top Model sashay through the hall, head raised as she skirted the buffet table with ease and vanished into the green room. A grumble betrayed me, oblivious to the threat to my hips.
But I couldn’t. Beyond the green room, outside the studio door, Professor Peter Kipling hounded the Archaeology Department’s alpha male. Department head Theron Henderson, my first guest.
Tension weighed down my shoulders. What was Peter doing here? Didn’t he have an eight o’clock class?
After a quick glance around, I swiped a donut hole from the buffet and popped it in my mouth. I was about to break the streusel top off a blueberry muffin when Cherilyn emerged from the green room. The dull pang in my chest deepened, most likely the hydrogenated fat clogging my arteries. I waited five seconds then followed her toward the studio.
“Stay away from her.” The empty hallway echoed Peter’s bark.
Henderson, who had thirty pounds and six inches on Peter, cocked his head to the right and chuckled. He crossed his arms over his black Versace jacket, revealing a gold nameplate bracelet. When did Henderson start wearing jewelry?
Peter pressed in, fists balled at his side. The stress in my shoulders spread and ballooned in my chest. I needed my first guest in one piece. There was no way I’d lead with Fletcher.
Approaching my colleagues, I gulped the latte, savoring the sweet, liquid calm that usually worked better than Zoloft. Only today I wished I hadn’t given up that baby blue pill.
Cherilyn’s posture drooped as she passed Henderson, and I couldn’t help but notice the way his blue eyes glared at her. It wasn’t his usual you’d-go-well-with-a-bottle-of-Cabernet leer that fell on the coeds at LU. Instead, he turned up his nose and discarded her like rancid ground beef.
I checked my watch. 7:49.
Stay out of it, Mari. This isn’t your fight.
With trembling hands, I removed my note cards.
“Your tenure can always be revoked.” Peter’s terse words redirected Henderson’s focus.
“On what grounds? Professional incompetence? Neglect of duty?” Henderson peered down his Roman nose and stroked his trimmed salt-and-pepper beard.
“How about lack of professional integrity? Or sexual harassment.”
“That’s a risky move, Peter. Don’t you remember I’ve already captured your queen?” A calculating sneer betrayed Henderson’s benevolent tone, his look far more menacing than any scowls my sixteen-year-old brother had in his arsenal.
Peter yanked off his glasses, the vein in his neck throbbing. He tried to jab a wiry finger at Henderson’s chest, but Henderson snatched it, his eyes narrowing. Peter stepped closer; left arm raised and fist threatening. “I’ll. Make. You. Pay. For. What. You. Did.”
Breath caught in my throat. Fumbling to unzip the outside pocket on my Coach bag, I inched toward the studio door. My hand found my iPhone. The storm that had been building between the two of them for years threatened to peak. Though Peter surged out of control, I predicted Henderson, even with his health issues, could cause more destruction.
Henderson let go of Peter’s finger, shook his head, and stepped away.
I sighed, my inner turbulence calming as I reached the studio door. But before the air stilled, something thudded behind me. I whirled around. Peter’s forearm pressed against Henderson’s massive torso, shoving him into the wall.
Caught in a vice of uncertainty, I felt every muscle in my body tense. I punched in the number for security.
Henderson whispered to Peter, flicked him off like a dead fly, and disappeared into the green room. I closed my mouth, staring at Peter who stomped past as ruffled as his brown suit.
A reprieve and a close call.
Part of me wanted to dismiss it as another round in the continuing saga of the Archaeology Department at Lyndon University. Another part of me knew this time Peter had overstepped, and I couldn’t brush aside the premonition that someone was going to get hurt.
Smoothing my hair, I slapped on a smile and entered the set.
Lyndon University Television Studio
“MARI,” THE DIRECTOR’S VOICE crackled through my earpiece, “we’ve got a problem.”
Not what I wanted to hear ninety seconds before going live on the very show that could jumpstart my network affiliate career.
Or annihilate it.
Heat from the studio lights bore through my skull, threatening to pressure cook my brain. I paced the length of the cramped set. “I’m listening.”
“You’ll have to lead with Fletcher Murdock.”
My adrenaline spiked. “You’re joking?” It was bad enough I had to interview him today, but why put him on before Henderson?
“Did Fletcher put you up to this?” He ruined my life once. I wouldn’t let him ruin my career.
“Mari, Henderson had a heart attack.”
My mind clouded, all thoughts lost in an endless moment of confusion. I tried to speak, but the neurons in my brain must have fried.
“You need to listen. The paramedics are on their way. We’re doing the show.”
Breath stalled. I fell into my chair, the burning in my lungs conjuring memories of Christmas Eve when Nonna’s putrid-smelling bacala fish sent me running from her home, sucking in fresh air as if my life depended on it. Trust me, it did. Just like my career depended on this show. I clutched the armrests.
“Mari, are you okay?”
“I … I’m alive.” “I need you to do this.”
“I need some time.”
“You’ve got sixty seconds.”
Fifty-nine, fifty-eight, fifty-seven …
Perspiration collected underneath my blouse, my head seconds from exploding. “Isn’t there something we can do?”
“The best thing right now is to focus on the show. We’re all counting on you.”
My mother’s lifeless face materialized. Burning embers knocked within. Searing, singeing, sentencing. “Shouldn’t we cancel the show? Notify his daughter?”
“It’s being taken care of. Just concentrate on your next guest.”
“I don’t know if I can.”
“Do I need to remind you who’ll be watching? Focus on your job, and we’ll all look good.”
How could I with the grim reaper dancing around Lyndon University’s cable television studio?
There’s nothing I can do for Henderson.
I inhaled and donned my Tango face. “Okay, I’m ready.”
“Quiet on the set.” Tyler, the pasty-white, wannabe Gangsta, floor manager held his low-slung jeans with one hand as he started his countdown.
The ache in my neck took root. I flexed my leg muscles and stared at the camera. Releasing the tension, I tried to forget Henderson.
“And five, four …” Tyler held up three fingers, then two, and one. He pointed to me.
The red light on the camera went live. “Welcome to ‘Archaeology Today’ where we’re diggin’ it with Professor—” The teleprompter said Theron Henderson. I sputtered like a movie film detaching from its reel, my mind flickering to the last frame of Henderson’s life. My pulse raced as I imagined his stopping.
The words on the screen rolled ahead, and I managed to ad lib, but my out-of-sync Kung-Fu funk made me want to duck and roll. Finally, the teleprompter flashed the correct segment.
“… Fletcher Murdock, straight from the field in Egypt. After an eight-month excavation, he’s returned to the university as an adjunct professor to share his experience and treasures with the students. Please welcome Field Archaeologist Fletcher Murdock.”
An applause track looped as Fletcher sauntered in wearing his trademark Aussie leather fedora, cargo khakis, and dirt-encrusted work boots. Could he be any more cliché?
Fletcher’s sea blue eyes burned through me. The Indiana Jones look-alike would no doubt turn many sorority heads, yet as good as he looked fresh off the field, strapping and tan, I wouldn’t be tattooing
I love you
on my eyelids for anyone, especially Fletcher Murdock.
I stood and extended my hand. “Welcome to the show.”
Fletcher bypassed my gesture and bear hugged me, lifting me on my tiptoes. An unwelcome flutter whisked through me, pulling me back to a time I thought I had forgotten. A time when I was vulnerable and naïve. A time when Fletcher and I were together.
I scrambled for some other memory, any memory, but came up blank.
“It’s great to see you, Mari.”
“It’s Fletcher on and off the air.”
I ignored his wink as we strolled to the table filled with pottery, statues, excavation tools, and a big, white sheet covering his latest find, no doubt.
“Fletcher, by the looks of the artifact table, you’ve been busy in Egypt.”
“When you’re single and thousands of miles from civilization and a beautiful woman like yourself, what else is there to do but roll around in the dirt?”
I turned away from the camera so the audience didn’t see my eyes roll, then scanned the table of Egypt’s past. Amulets, scarabs, broken pottery, and small statues. This was a significant find. Studying the obsidian dagger, I traced the royal cartouche with the name etched out. Anticipation flowed through my body. It could only belong to one Pharaoh.
Figures, Fletcher always had a thing for the ladies. “So, Mr. Murdock—”
“Fletcher.” He raised his eyebrows.
“Fletcher,” I echoed, waiting for the politically correct segment to scroll across the teleprompter. “It’s no secret that for years Egypt’s been trying to recover its lost treasures from the countries of the world and increase.” I fanned my arm toward the artifact table. “How did you manage to secure such a large collection from a recent excavation?”
“Special thanks goes to Egypt, and the Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, Dr. Wati Rhashidi. The collection is on loan to the university. Students will have the unique privilege of studying artifacts before the treasures go on tour with major museums across the nation.”
“How generous of the Egyptians for allowing these priceless treasures to leave their soil.” I gagged on my pre-scripted words. “Let’s see what you brought us.”
“My pleasure.” He placed his hand on the small of my back, sending shivers up my spine. Memories of the touches we’d shared surfaced as he guided me closer to the white sheet. What was wrong with me? Why was I even entertaining these feelings? Why couldn’t Fletcher have stayed in Egypt with Jack?
Fletcher’s mischievous eyes narrowed. “First, I thought we’d show your viewers how archaeologists
in the field.”
A virgin blush warmed my cheeks. Knowing Fletcher, his mind was definitely in the dirt. He lifted the white cloth, uncovering a cavernous tray of dark-brown, mountainous soil. A chill swept over me. I searched the table for latex gloves. Surely Fletcher had them somewhere.
Fletcher pried my sweaty right hand from my side and pushed me closer. “It’s like riding a bike.”
Yeah, a unicycle … fifty-feet above the ground on a tight rope of fire.
Staring at the fresh mound, I froze. Why would Fletcher do this today of all days? Had he forgotten there was a reason I chose to be a professor instead of a field archaeologist? No, he wouldn’t have known. He left before—
Anxious murmurs beyond the set grew louder. I turned for a second and noticed the open studio door. Someone must have left it ajar in all the confusion surrounding Henderson. My knees locked three inches from the table.
“Mari, follow Fletcher’s lead.” The director’s order in my earpiece kick-started my heart. “Think of the affiliate.”
Fletcher gave me a brush and pushed my trembling hand toward the dirt. My nostrils burned, a long forgotten odor attacked my senses. I gagged at the stench. Freshly dug earth … and death. My lips formed a “no” but my vocal cords rebelled. Not enough oxygen. I reeled in a shallow breath and exhaled, watching my network career, my dream, float away.