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Authors: Vanessa Gray Bartal

Tags: #Cozy Mystery

Family Case of Murder

BOOK: Family Case of Murder
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Table of Contents

Copyright © 2012 by Vanessa Gray Bartal

 

This is a work of fiction.
 
Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
 
Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

 

Prologue
 

 

Hildy Baumgartner adjusted the bodice of her uncomfortable uniform with an indelicate wiggle. She had been wearing the hideous thing for eight years, eight long miserable years of picking up after others, serving others, saying “Yes, ma’am” and “No, ma’am” as if she meant it. As if she didn’t hate every minute of her life.

But that was all going to change. She shuffled through the neat stack of invitations again. After the next round of payoffs, she would have enough to quit, to throw her starched black uniform in the horrible old woman’s face and laugh. Maybe being the lowest rung on the social ladder wasn’t fun, but it had certainly been practical. People forgot she was there. They talked. They spilled secrets, secrets that Hildy had learned how to manipulate.

She paused in sorting the invitations, staring at an unfamiliar name. Lacy Steele. She knew who the woman was, of course. The family spoke of her in hushed tones. But she didn’t know enough to exploit her, and that was a shame. However, if Miss Steele showed up in a couple of weeks, that would all change. Hildy was an expert at finding things people preferred to keep hidden. She already knew one secret: Lacy Steele was loaded. There had to be something the woman wanted to keep hidden, something she would pay to keep covered up. Hildy simply had to dig until she found it.

She smiled, imagining the upcoming havoc she was about to wreak. She did so love to see rich people twisting in the wind. The weekend was shaping up to be a good one, especially with the possibility of a new patsy in her midst.

“What’s your secret, Lacy Steele?” she whispered, weighing the invitation in her hand as if it could provide an answer. She looked forward to finding out because it was all part of the game, maybe her favorite part. But, no, receiving the money was definitely her favorite part. She set the invitations back in the basket and paused, frowning. What if the woman didn’t come? Of course she would, though. It was her sister. What possible reason would Lacy Steele have for not attending her sister’s bridal shower?

With that heartening thought in mind, Hildy left the office and went to dust the drawing room.

Chapter 1
 

 

“Cheers,” Tosh said as he tapped his glass against Lacy’s. He sipped his water and set it down with a grimace. “It’s sort of ridiculous to make a toast with water.”

“Just order the wine, Tosh. No one said you can’t drink.”

“Not in so many words, but it was suggested that I set a good example for my parishioners.”

“But half your parishioners drink,” Lacy pointed out. “And you weren’t raised Episcopalian, you were raised Catholic. Your family drinks, and you don’t see anything wrong with it. Why change because of a few disgruntled board members?”

“It’s complicated. I want to do the right thing here, but I’m not sure what that is. Besides, why are we talking about me? We’re here to celebrate you and the fact that your building has a brand new roof.”

“And renovations have begun on the third floor,” Lacy added. The Stakely building was a huge project, but she was enjoying it, as was her grandfather who was her honorary project manager. He was always lively and spry, but since he had taken over the reins of the renovation, he had a new energy. Having someone she trusted in charge of overseeing the many, many contractors freed Lacy up to find renters for the third floor office spaces. So far she had rented every space but one.

“Have you heard from any more vendors for the marketplace?” Tosh asked. He knew that while the third floor offices might be Lacy’s bread and butter, refurbishing the marketplace on the first two levels was her new driving passion.

“Yes, as a matter of fact I received an application from a luthier today.”

Tosh clucked his tongue in disapproval. “You’re an Episcopalian. No converting allowed.”

“That was quite possibly the worst joke you’ve ever made. He’s a guitar maker.”

“He?” Tosh repeated.

“Michael O’Donnell.”

“That’s a good Catholic name,” Tosh said. He reached across the table and took Lacy’s hands, squeezing them. “I’m so proud of you, Lacy. I can’t believe you’re actually doing this. The town already feels more alive.”

Lacy smiled and returned the pressure of his hands. “You mean because everyone is arguing?” Seemingly everywhere she went people stopped her and gave her their opinion on what they thought she should do with the Stakely building. To make matters worse, somehow a rumor had started that the place was going to be a brothel/casino, which really got people up in arms. Lacy had been forced to take out a full page ad in the newspaper to allay fears that she was not, in fact, planning to run a cat house.

“No, not the arguing, I mean the hope and excitement. Things feel alive for the first time since I moved here. Did you know home sales have risen two percent since you bought the Stakely building?”

“But that’s not because of me,” Lacy insisted. “That’s a statistical variation.”

Tosh shook his head. “It’s not just statistics; it’s because new life is being breathed back into the town, and you’re the one who is doing it.” He picked up her hands and brought them to his lips, kissing them.

Lacy looked away, more embarrassed by his words than by his display of affection. Across the restaurant, her eyes landed on a familiar face. Jason sat at a small table with Cindy Davenport, and they were laughing. As if sensing Lacy’s inspection, Jason turned and their eyes locked.

Tosh sighed and released her hands. “I guess it was too much to hope that we could have one night just the two of us.”

“What are you talking about?” Lacy asked. “He’s clearly on a date.” Had her tone remained neutral? She hoped so.

“But he’s always between us, even when he’s not really here,” Tosh said. “Who’s the woman?”

“That’s Cindy. I told you about her; she’s opening a bead shop in the market as soon as it’s ready. She and Jason dated in high school.”

“She’s pretty,” Tosh said.

“She is, isn’t she?” Lacy asked. This time there was no mistaking the jealousy in her tone.

“Not as pretty as you, though,” Tosh said, gathering Lacy’s hands and holding them close again.

Lacy laughed. “Nice save, Tosh.”

He grinned at her over the table and released her hands when the waiter arrived with their food. They were almost finished eating when Jason and Cindy showed up at their table.

“Officer,” Tosh said, looking up.

“Reverend,” Jason replied. The exchange had become their standard greeting, and it was as much as they ever said to each other, only now Jason had to introduce Cindy. “This is Cindy Davenport. Cindy, Tosh Underwood.” Did Cindy notice the begrudging resignation in Jason’s tone, or was that Lacy’s imagination?

“How do you do, Cindy?” Tosh said. He extended his hand and gave Cindy a charming smile while Lacy worked overtime to tamp down her double dose of jealousy.

“Nice to meet you,” Cindy said.

Over the last few weeks, Lacy had tried hard to find something she disliked about the woman, but there was nothing. She didn’t even look like the former cheerleader of their youth. She looked more like an earth mother with her long flowing dresses and long flowing hair. If she wore makeup, it was minimal. Her only adornment was jewelry that Lacy guessed she made for herself, and it was beautiful. She was friendly, too, which she proved by turning her attention to Lacy and asking a question.

“Lacy, how are you? How are the renovations coming along?”

“I’m doing well. The renovations are moving even faster than I expected, thanks to my grandfather. He has a way of terrifying the workers into doing what they’re told.”

Cindy smiled. “That sounds like Mr. Middleton, all right. I was so glad when Jason told me about him being your grandfather.”

Lacy looked at Jason. He had been talking about her to Cindy? He shifted uncomfortably and cleared his throat. “We should probably…” he started, but was cut off by the ringing of his phone. “Excuse me.” He took it out, looked at it, and glanced at Lacy. “It’s Travis. I wonder why he’s calling me instead of you.” He flipped open his phone and listened. They all watched as his stance moved from casual to tense. Had something bad happened? Was he being called into work?

He closed his phone and studiously tucked it in his pocket, and then he looked at Lacy. “Dispatch told Travis that there was a squad run at your house, an elderly male was taken in with a possible heart attack. Lacy, it’s your grandfather.”

Chapter 2
 

 

Somehow, Tosh got her to the hospital in record time. Lacy wasn’t one of those given to hysterics, so she made the car ride dry-eyed and white-knuckled, staring out the window and refusing to play “what if.” What if he died? What if it was her fault for working him too hard? No, she definitely couldn’t go there.

Her grandmother was waiting in the emergency room. There was a part of Lacy that expected her grandmother to be broken up and weeping hysterically, but she should have known better. Lucinda sat calmly, her hands folded primly in her lap. She stood when Lacy arrived and gave her a tight hug.

“Grandma, how is he? Do you know anything yet? What happened?”

“We were talking and he began having some chest pains. He didn’t want me to, but I called an ambulance. I imagine he’s going to be sorely irritated with me when I’m finally allowed to see him.” She sat and pulled some knitting from her bag, but as she started to move the needles, Lacy saw them quiver. Like usual, her grandmother was stuffing down her feelings and pretending everything was just fine. And, like she usually did, Lacy followed suit and did the same thing.

She sat beside her grandmother, and Tosh sat on her other side, reaching for her hand and clutching it close to his chest. Her hands were cold. She had read somewhere that when the body receives a shock, it draws blood from the extremities to protect the internal organs. She wondered if her body was doing that now because she felt a little shocky, as if things weren’t quite real.

They became more surreal when Jason pushed through the doors of the emergency room, scowling until he located her and then scowling harder when he saw her attached to Tosh.

“Where’s Cindy?” Lacy asked as soon as he reached them.

“I took her home. Did you really think I wouldn’t come?” He picked up her free hand. “You’re freezing. I’m getting you some coffee. Would you like some, Mrs. Craig?”

“No, thank you, dear,” Lucinda said.

Jason turned and wandered away.

“I’m fine, too,” Tosh muttered as he attempted to rub the warmth back into Lacy’s hand. “You are freezing.”

“It’s winter,” Lacy pointed out.

Jason returned with the coffee and Lucinda surreptitiously moved down a seat so he could sit beside Lacy. He handed her the coffee. She had to let go of Tosh to take it because she was right handed, and there was a little part of her that wondered if Jason knew and did it on purpose. But that was a petty thing to do, and Jason wasn’t petty.

The four of them sat in silence except for the sound of Lucinda’s needles rhythmically clicking together. Lacy cupped her hands around the coffee and tried to borrow its warmth, but the cup was Styrofoam, so she received very little. Still, it was nice to have something to do with her hands.

“Is anyone hungry? I packed some brownies,” Lucinda said. She reached into her bag and pulled out a tub of brownies, handing it to Jason.

He stared at it in amazement and Lacy knew he was wondering how and when she had managed to pack brownies while her boyfriend was having a heart attack. He also wasn’t much of a sweets eater, to Lacy’s dismay, so she knew he was going to refuse.

“I,” he began, but Lacy elbowed him in the side. “Would love one,” he finished, sounding a little choked. He took a brownie and handed the box to Lacy. She took a brownie and handed the box to Tosh who took two, even though he wasn’t much of a dessert person, either. Jason noticed and rolled his eyes.

Lacy wasn’t hungry but, like her grandmother, she believed food had curative powers, and especially chocolate. So she took a bite of the brownie and let the sugar work its magic. Was this how drug addicts felt when they took that first hit? That sense of flowing and pervasive calm that nothing else on the planet seemed able to provide? She concentrated on the task of eating, glad for the diversion, so that when the doctor came for them her cheeks were stuffed with chocolate.

BOOK: Family Case of Murder
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