Authors: Gina Conroy
Tags: #Christian Fiction, #mystery, #Cozy Mystery
“Sure, the man had his faults, thought the sun came up just to hear him crow. I reckon many would’ve liked to see him dead, but for someone to go and do it.” She shook her head and carried the papers to her desk. I followed, listening to the rubbing of her panty hose, which created enough friction to light her dress on fire.
“His daughter was in here not fifteen minutes ago having a conniption about someone blackmailing her father. The police never found the photos. She had a hissy fit because of the mess they made and ordered me to pack everything up.” She wiped her tears. “Mari, would you do it? I can’t bring myself to go in there. I’ve tried three times, but I get choked up and can’t see straight.” Her eyes widened, locking on mine, and for the first time I noticed the tiny patch of dark brown on the top of her right iris.
Even if I wanted to help, there wasn’t much time before I had to leave for my nail appointment. “Sure.”
“Oh, you’re such a peach. Thank you so much. I’m busier than a one-legged man in a butt kicking competition.” She plopped down in her seat, blew her nose, and shuffled the clutter on her desk. “I don’t know which end is up.”
“I better get to it.” With an internal sigh, I left Candy at her desk flipping through a photo album, dabbing her eyes.
Approaching Jack’s empty office, I felt a sudden longing. Why did my arms ache for a man who chose a career over me and the kids? I studied my naked ring finger. The tan line was no longer visible. Why would it be? It’d been two years since he kissed us goodbye, stepped onto a plane for Egypt, and left a letter on my pillow telling me he wasn’t returning. The coward. That’s when I decided to pursue my own forgotten dreams and started planning a way out of Lyndon University.
I traced the photo outside his door. Me and Jack in front of the Great Pyramid where we renewed our vows on our fifth anniversary. I would have preferred the beaches of Hawaii to the sands of the desert, but as long as I didn’t have to dig up anything, I was happy to be by his side. Right there, I promised I’d follow him anywhere, and I meant it. The weight of our shattered marriage rested on me like the pyramid behind us. Why hadn’t I taken that picture down?
Continuing through the corridor, I paused at each photo lining the wall—the university’s archaeologists, old and current—caught in snippets of time. Some in the field. Me in the classroom. My eyes stopped at the large photo at the end of the hall. Henderson, approximately ten years younger, stood regally on the threshold of an Egyptian excavation. On either side, Jack and Peter grinned. They all wore dusty khakis and fedoras. Young and naïve, the two friends dreamed of the ultimate discovery in Egypt and making a name for themselves as archaeologists. Henderson was not only their mentor and friend, he was their Pharaoh.
Now he was dead, and Jack didn’t know Henderson had fallen off his throne. Maybe I should tell him. Maybe then he’d come home and see what he left behind.
Light shone through the picture window when I entered the corner office, but it wasn’t enough to chase off the darkness. The aftermath screamed Hurricane Lopez. At least he had the sense to leave the artifacts and statues intact.
I stumbled on a heap of books in my five-inch heels. Pain seared. Heat bubbled as I forced down the expletives. Lopez wasn’t even here, and he was still messing with my life. But I refused to let him control my emotions one minute longer. I knelt by the door and stacked the books sprawled across the floor. Minutes later the churning in my stomach subsided.
I pushed myself to my feet and surveyed the rest of the ruins. Four wooden file cabinets with drawers opened haphazardly lined the wall to the right of Henderson’s mahogany desk. Papers covered the surface. I shook my head. Henderson kept his desk organized. Hundreds of books covered the bookshelves behind his chair.
A familiar burden pressed me down. Why couldn’t this wait until after the funeral? I walked to the scenic wall mural opposite the desk. If only I could run up those lush rolling hills and feel the ocean spray on my face. I grabbed a club from the golf bag propped in the corner, taking my stance on the synthetic putting green in front of the mural.
“You’re holding that wrong.”
I jumped and turned. Fletcher ogled me, his eyes perusing me like I was dessert on a buffet. I tugged at my knee-length skirt. “You shouldn’t sneak up on someone with a club in her hand.”
“That’s called a putter. It’s for a lefty. Let me help you.” His cocky grin matched his attitude as he swaggered my way. Standing behind me, he wrapped his arms around mine and grabbed my hands. Electricity tingled through me, quickening my pulse. I jerked from his touch.
“I don’t need your help.” I returned the club to the bag, but not before I considered using it on his skull. I retreated to the edge of Henderson’s desk.
Fletcher followed, scanning the room. “Seems like you do.”
“You’ve helped enough today.”
“I brought a peace offering.” Fletcher pulled a red rose from behind his back, taken from the bouquet on Candy’s desk, no doubt. “Promise not to bite my hand off?”
He tickled my cheek with the petals.
“Sweet gesture, but—” I sneezed.
Fletcher’s eyes withdrew. “Sorry, I forgot.” He tossed the flower in the trashcan near Henderson’s desk. “Maybe I should tattoo an apology to my forehead. Save me the trouble of saying it every time I see you.”
“Couldn’t hurt.” I let a smile escape.
“Truce?” Holding out his hand, he flashed his irresistible grin.
“For now.” I offered my hand, and he gave it one firm pump. The tension in my shoulders eased. I could dodge his advances until summer, couldn’t I?
“Too bad about the old goat.” Fletcher grabbed Henderson’s book on the desk and flipped through the pages. “Guess he wore out his ticker engaging in too many extracurricular activities.”
I ignored Fletcher’s bait, walked to the bookshelf by the door, and knelt in front of an empty box. “Actually, the police think he was murdered.”
Fletcher snapped the book closed and set it on the desk. “Why would they think that?”
“Henderson’s daughter said he was being blackmailed. With photos.”
“Photos of the prof in a compromising position? Sounds interesting. Did they turn up?” He leaned against the desk.
I rolled my eyes. “Not that I know of, but they asked me about you.”
“Moi? Do tell.”
“They wanted to know if you were the last one to see him. I told them I didn’t know, but you were probably in the green room.”
“Great!” Fletcher started pacing. “So now I’m a suspect. What are they going to say when I apply for a full-time position?”
“I thought you were returning to the field this summer.”
“I decided to stick around for a while. Seems like now they’ll actually need me. What do you think?”
“About what?” I’d been trying all morning
to think about Fletcher.
“Do I have a shot at the job?”
“Sure, you’re the best candidate we have.” The only one we have. “Candy will be happy to fill Henderson’s classes so quickly.” I checked my watch. “I better quit talking and start working. I’ve got a lot to do before I have to leave.”
Fletcher grabbed a box from the floor. “I can give you a hand.”
I shrugged. “Why don’t you start on the book shelf? I’ll sort through the papers.”
“No, don’t get up. I can handle the desk.” He opened the bottom drawer, snatched a bunch of files, and dropped them in the box. “See, I’m not completely useless.”
“That’s debatable.” I smirked. “Besides, I can’t reach the top two shelves. Even in these heels. Henderson has valuable artifacts up there. Natasha won’t be happy if they’re damaged.” I tried to rock into a squat without my skirt riding past my knees. Fletcher hurried to my side and offered his hand. I leveraged myself against it in a not-so-graceful stance.
“Fine. You win,” he said, steadying me.
“You better get used to taking my orders. If you get the job, I’ll be over you.”
He raised his eyebrows. “When were you not?”
Heat flushed my cheeks. “I’ll be your boss until they find a department head. I can make your stay here comfortable or miserable.
“Ma’am, yes, ma’am.” He saluted, clicked his heels, and stood at attention as if waiting for orders.
“What are you waiting for? Get to work.”
“As you wish.” His sultry gaze sent shivers through me, but I managed to roll my eyes at his
reference. Most couples had “a song.” Fletcher and I also had a movie. I hadn’t been able to watch
The Princess Bride
since we broke up.
He grabbed an Egyptian artifact from the top shelf. Shaking off the passion blossoming within, I walked to Henderson’s desk, then started rifling through the mess. “I don’t believe it.”
“Did you find the photos?” Fletcher jogged to my side.
“Not the ones you’re hoping for.” I held up a photo of a little boy, probably six-years-old, barefoot and caked with dirt, standing outside a shabby home. “I never would’ve guessed Henderson would be involved in something like this.”
Fletcher peered over my shoulder as I shuffled through twenty years of files documenting hundreds of thousands of dollars donated to this child and other little boys like him.
Fletcher shook his head. “Henderson shelling out money for young boys. I knew Henderson was into some questionable extra curriculars, but this?”
“Don’t even go there. We don’t need more rumors slandering Henderson’s name.” I studied the faces of each needy boy and flipped the photos over, searching for a name or some other identifiable mark. Each one was stamped with a number and the name Crowell IOP. Probably some charity. “Seems like Henderson had a soft heart after all.”
“Maybe that’s what killed him.”
“WHAT ARE YOU TALKING about?” I looked at Fletcher as if someone had spiked his orange juice.
He grabbed the photos of the young boys, sat on the corner of Henderson’s desk, and thumbed through the pictures. “We know Henderson had a weak heart physically, but maybe he had a weak heart emotionally. What if the blackmail photos aren’t about Henderson’s philandering? There could be something in his past that threatened to ruin him or someone he cared about.”
“Great theory, Sherlock. But we have to find the blackmail photos first.” I returned the papers to the file.
“Maybe you already have. See these numbers on the back. The first one: 29. The next: 221. 235. 244. All these numbers are in the two hundreds except for the first. Why the big jump?”
“How should I know?”
“Maybe you should check it out. Google Crowell IOP and see what you find.” He handed me the photos.
“Sure, I’ll do that in my spare time, between midnight and five a.m.”
“I’m serious. It could be a clue.”
“If you’re so interested, then why don’t you check it out?”
He took the folder with the photos from my hands. “Maybe I will.”
I grabbed it from him and dropped it in the box on Henderson’s desk. “Maybe you should get back to work and leave the investigating to the detective.”
“As you wish, boss lady.”
Fletcher returned to the shelf and I continued sorting through the desk, not giving his theory much credit. Why should Henderson’s donations to needy boys be under scrutiny? So the man seemed aloof, and often oblivious to the needs of others. That shouldn’t taint his generosity.
After organizing the papers on his desk I started emptying the drawers. My left pinky nail caught on the inside of the last drawer, popping off the acrylic tip. I grimaced. Good thing I had an appointment with my nail tech later. I searched for the wayward fingernail and found it wedged in the corner of the drawer. As I tried to pry my nail out, the bottom of the drawer loosened and lifted. Underneath the fake bottom lay a stack of envelopes, bound with a rubber band.
My heart fluttered like I was seven again, uncovering my father’s rusty box in the shanty. If I had known playing with his old trinkets would land my mother in the emergency room, I would’ve thought twice. Just like now. But how could letters hurt anyone? Unless … could I have stumbled upon Henderson’s buried pleasure?
I fanned through the envelopes, front and back, for a return address, but they weren’t even postmarked. Tremors, barely noticeable at first, started at my fingertips, warning me not to pry. A sweet scent floated from the letters. I sneezed.
“Gesundheit!” Fletcher held his gaze on me for a moment, then returned to packing.
I examined the letters, turning them over in my hands. Ordinary, dingy, white envelopes, slit with a letter opener, in almost pristine condition. I looked at Fletcher then at the door. I knew I shouldn’t snoop into a man’s personal life, but what if they were the blackmail photos? I could give them to Lopez. But if Henderson was murdered, then this could be real evidence. Could I trust Lopez not to screw up this investigation?
Once more, I glanced at Fletcher engrossed in his work. He cradled each artifact like it was his newborn son. A twinge of regret swelled as I shifted in my chair. I nibbled on the acrylic on my broken pinky nail and sank into the oversized leather chair, holding the letters below the desk. Slipping off the rubber band, I opened the first envelope.
“Mari, your phone’s ringing.” Candy poked her head in the room.
Startled, I jumped up, hiding the letters under my cardigan. “Oh, thanks.” I heard Steve Martin’s “King Tut, Funky Tut” play louder in the hall and I quickened my steps. My heart fluttered. Why was Jack calling? I reached for my Coach bag and grabbed my iPhone. The melody ceased. I was too late. I fell into my chair and dialed my voicemail when another call beeped in.
“Mrs. Duggins. It’s Mr. Fielding.” Matt’s vice principal.
My throat tightened, knowing he wasn’t calling because my brother made the honor roll.
“IS MATT OKAY?”
BREATHE. Just breathe.
“Matt is fine, but we do have a problem. He assaulted a fellow student.” Mr. Fielding, Matt’s vice principal, sounded composed. Like he’d dealt with these altercations every day at his prestigious preparatory school. I knew otherwise. The highly acclaimed Winton Hall was the best college prep school in the area. Many prominent Austin families drove miles for the benefits of an A-plus education in a small town setting.