Read Murder for Millions (Sky High Pies Cozy Mysteries Book 7) Online
Authors: Mary Maxwell
Murder for Millions
Sky High Pies Cozy Mysteries / 7
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and
incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously, and
any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments,
events or locales is entirely coincidental.
© 2016 Mary Maxwell 06182016
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means
electronic, mechanical, recorded or otherwise, without the prior permission of
the author except for the use of brief quotations in a review.
Our first customer of the day came
into Sky High Pies at seven, made a beeline for the counter and asked Harper
for a scotch on the rocks. In the forty years since my grandparents opened the
bakery café, our family business had served a wide selection of food and drink
options. Unfortunately, for our early morning arrival, adult beverages had
never been on the menu.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said Harper, my
childhood friend and Sky High’s dining room manager. “We don’t serve alcohol.”
The stranger scowled. “Since when?”
“Well,” she said, “since…forever.
We have coffee, tea, a nice assortment of juices, espresso and—”
“Scotch!” the gruff man demanded.
“On the rocks! I used to come here all the time to drink with my friends.”
Harper glanced down the counter to
where I sat clipping Daily Special placards inside the menus. She raised her
eyebrows, which I instantly recognized as the international distress signal for
Mayday! Mayday! This guy reeks of booze and I need help urgently!
down the box of paperclips, got up from the stool and shuffled behind the
“Good morning!” I said when I
reached the man. “How are you, sir?”
He was slim, tan and dressed in a
wrinkled navy suit, powder blue shirt and dark green bowtie. His hair looked
like it had seen better days and there were red and yellow stains—the telltale evidence
of ketchup and mustard spills—on his lapel. Between the gray hair, abundant
wrinkles and age spots on the back of both hands, I guessed he was probably in
his sixties like my mother and father.
“I’d be better if I could get a
drink,” he said, sending a noxious cloud of whiskey-scented breath in my
direction. “It’s my right to be served, lady. I’m old enough. I’ve got a wad of
cash in my pocket. And my Edith told me not to come home until I was in a
At the mention of his spouse, I
suddenly realized that the man was my father’s friend, a CPA named Boris
Hertel. I hadn’t run into him since I returned to Crescent Creek a few months
earlier to take over the family business, but I recognized his usually radiant
eyes from long ago.
He grimaced. “How’d you know my
“We’ve met before,” I said.
The man tilted forward on the
stool, squinting at me for a few seconds. “Is that so? You don’t look familiar.”
“I’m Kate Reed.”
He smiled. “Good for you,
sweetheart. Doesn’t ring a bell.”
“I’ve been away for a few years,” I
continued. “But you and my dad used to play cards upstairs on Thursday nights
with Theo Westover and—”
“Your dad?” He blinked in confusion.
“Is he here?”
“They told me your parents had moved
away,” the man sputtered. “Down to Georgia or something.”
“They retired to Florida a few
months ago. I came back from Chicago to take over Sky High Pies.”
He scowled, peering at me cautiously
through bloodshot eyes. “What’s your name again?”
“I thought Audrey and Darren had a
girl named Olivia.”
I nodded. “She’s my older sister.
We also have—”
!” One hand
plunged into his coat pocket and came out with a creased white envelope. “This
is for you!”
I accepted the wrinkled offering.
The front and back were blank, so I asked the man how he knew it was for me.
“Because I just do,” Mr. Hertel
snapped. “Now, am I getting that drink or what?”
Harper had been standing a few feet
away, silently observing the strange interlude. When the man’s voice grew more
impatient, she moved closer.
“We don’t serve alcohol,” she said
again. “But I’ll be happy to bring you a cup of coffee or—”
His fist crashed against the
counter, cutting short Harper’s suggestion. “If I wanted
rasped, “that’s what I would’ve asked for.” His eyes corkscrewed into a scornful
sneer. “Now, are you getting me that scotch or what?”
The chime on the front door sounded
and I glanced across the room. My neighbor, a bubbly woman named Viveca England,
was walking toward me with a massive bouquet of wildflowers in her hands. Her
light brown hair was tucked beneath a wide-brimmed hat and she was wearing a
bright blue sundress with yellow flip-flops.
“Morning, sunshine!” Viveca called.
“I thought these might—”
Boris Hertel spun around. “Can’t
you see we’re talking?”
“Oh, golly…” Viveca stopped in her
tracks. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Well, you did!” the man hissed. “And
if you don’t mind, we have a conversation to finish.”
I gave Viv a little nod and smiled
at Harper. “I’ve got this,” I said, lightly patting Mr. Hertel’s hand. “Why
don’t we go sit in my office and talk?”
He jerked his fingers free. “Not if
I don’t get that scotch.”
I held his livid gaze for a moment.
Then I calmly walked around the counter and sat beside him.
“I am really sorry about this,” I
began, “but we don’t have a license to serve alcohol. Sky High is a bakery
Before I could finish, he jumped up
and walked toward the foyer, arms pumping at his sides and a string of curses tumbling
over his shoulders. After the front door slammed, I hurried over to the
windows, watching in disbelief as he climbed into the back of a silver BMW
sedan with Utah plates. The car had been idling at the curb near the stone path
that led from the driveway to the front porch. I couldn’t see the person behind
the wheel, but it looked like they were wearing a baseball cap and a jacket
with the collar turned up.
“Well, that’s not how I thought the
day would start,” Harper called from behind the counter.
I turned around and laughed. “That
makes two of us. It’s been a while since I had a close encounter with a drunk
man at seven o’clock in the morning.”
Viveca giggled. “Oh,
sounds like a good story, Katie!”
Harper joined in with her own cheerful
laugh. “Do tell!” she called. “I enjoy juicy tales of depravity and all-night
I pulled out my phone and quickly
made a note of the license plate from the BMW. It was a habit from my days as a
private investigator in Chicago, a tradition that I hadn’t yet left behind.
After I put away the phone, I looked over at Harper and Viveca, both waiting
expectantly for my confession.
“It’s not as exciting as you might
imagine,” I said with a smile. “And before your minds wander into the gutter, I
was referring to a case that I worked a few months before coming back to Colorado.
It involved doing surveillance work with Rodney.”
Harper’s eyes went wide. “Your boss
came to work drunk?”
“No, not Rodney! It was the guy we
were tailing. He went into a high-rise on Wacker Drive, so we followed him
inside. But when I pushed the elevator button and the doors popped open, the man
stumbled out. He was drunk as a skunk and didn’t even realize that he was still
in the lobby. The poor guy thought he’d pressed the button for his floor, but
had been standing in the elevator the whole time.”
Before they could react to the
story, the Sky High phone near the cash register rang. Harper went behind the
counter, answered the call with a fizzy greeting and offered the handset to me.
“It’s for you, Katie.”
“Who is it?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know, but he
sounds tall, dark and mysterious.”
While Viveca went into the kitchen
to put the flowers in a vase, I walked over and took the phone.
“If he asks you out,” Harper
whispered, “tell him you’ve already got a boyfriend.”
I smiled and an image of Zack Hutton
flashed in my mind. He was in California for the week shooting a freelance
photography job. Even though we talked and texted with great frequency, I was
still counting the days until he would be back in Crescent Creek.
“This is Kate,” I said to the
“Did you open the envelope?” a man
As I looked down at the creased
packet in my hand, I heard someone else in the background. It was Boris Hertel,
muttering about being thirsty and in need of a drink.
“Well, Miss Reed?” The man’s voice
was callous and sharp, embellished with a faint twang that reminded me of a friend
from Texas. “What do you think of our tormentor’s little bucket list?”
Boris Hertel whined again on the
other end, demanding scotch on the rocks in a slurred, listless drawl.
“Who is this?” I asked.
The man chuckled. “We’re looking
for your expertise, Kate. Names aren’t important until you agree to help us
find the individual behind the threats.”
I concentrated on the sound of the
caller’s voice, but it wasn’t familiar.
“Look,” I told him. “I don’t want
to be rude, but can you please tell me your name?”
He laughed again. “We don’t need to
worry about that at the moment,” he said. “But you never know what tomorrow
Harper was staring at me eagerly after
I finished the brief call.
“Who was that?” she asked.
I shrugged. “I have no idea, but he
obviously wants me to open this.” I held up the crumpled white envelope. “And I
heard Boris Hertel in the background, so I’m guessing it was somebody in the
car that drove off a minute ago.”
She pointed at the stool where he’d
been sitting as she came through the door. “You mean
“Yep. He and my father were friends,
but I haven’t seen him in years.”
The front door chimed again. Harper
called a greeting to three women as they came into the dining room. I
recognized them as Sky High regulars: Lydia Hart, a caterer with offices in
both Crescent Creek and Boulder; Ellie Sharp, a realtor; and, Becca Warren, a
livewire who worked as the bookkeeper for the Poke-A-Dot Lounge.
“Happy morning, ladies!” Lydia
“We’re peachy!” Harper answered,
grabbing three menus and indicating a table near the front windows. “How about
Becca smirked. “We were good until
we came around the bend about half a mile down the road. Some old geezer was
standing beside a car with his—”
“He was going tinkle,” Ellie
interjected, pulling out a chair. “In broad daylight!”
“Broad daylight?” Lydia sneered. “How
about in full view of every car
school bus going down Pine Street!”
I glanced at Harper. Then I waited
until the trio was seated before asking if they could describe the car and the
ne’er-do-well hooligan answering nature’s call.
“Describe him?” Becca giggled. “It
was Boris Hertel! Do you all know him? He’s at the bar nearly every night of
the week. Poor thing’s lost and alone now that his wife’s gone.”
“Did she die?” I asked.
Becca nodded. “Heart attack a few
years ago. She and Boris had some kind of terrible argument about money. When
he threw on his coat and stomped toward the door, Edith—that was his wife’s
name, Edith Hertel—well, when she saw that he was going to leave without
resolving the disagreement, Edith told him not to return until he was in a
The line resonated as I recalled
hearing Boris utter the same words just a few minutes earlier.
“And by the time he got back,” Becca
continued, “Edith was on the dining room floor, both hands on her chest and her
face the same shade as a blueberry.”
Ellie gasped. “Are you serious?”
“I am,” Becca answered. “And the
really sad thing was, Mrs. Hertel had been to the doctor just three days before
that for a checkup. He’d given her a clean bill of health.”
Lydia shook her head. “That
happened to my friend’s dog once. Poor little thing; alive and kicking one day
at the vet’s and dead as a stone the very next.”
Viveca came into the dining room
with the flowers. “Where do you want these, Katie?”
The arrangement was exactly like my
neighbor—stunning, colorful and elegant. I pointed at a spot near the end of
the counter. “How about there?”
She deposited the vase and stepped
back to admire the arrangement. “I don’t know why,” she said, turning around.
“But something told me to bring these to you this morning.”
“They’re really beautiful!” Harper
said, grabbing an order pad from beside the register. “Thanks for brightening
up our day, Viv!”
As Harper headed for the trio by
the windows, the front door chimed again. It was a couple that I’d never seen
before; a tall, thin man with reddish hair and a statuesque woman dressed in dark
slacks, a V-neck lilac sweater and black knee-high riding boots.
“Let me get these folks seated,”
Harper said, smiling at Lydia, Becca and Ellie. “Then I’ll be right with you.”
While she attended to the new
arrivals, I walked to the counter and sat beside Viveca. Julia, Sky High’s exceptional
chef and imaginative dessert ninja, called through the pass window from the kitchen,
asking if I could come back in a few minutes to help decipher the final ingredients
for one of Nana Reed’s Sky High recipes.
“I thought you were going to
rewrite all of those,” Viv said.
I tapped my watch. “Oh, you bet! As
soon as there are another forty hours in the week.”
“Want me to help?”
“That’s sweet, Viv. But I’ll get it
done soon enough. As long as I’m around to interpret for Julia when she can’t
make out my grandmother’s handwriting, we’ll be just fine.”
I put the wrinkled envelope on the
“What do you think it is?” she
I shrugged, opened the flap and
pulled out a sheet of pale blue paper.
“Maybe you’ve inherited some
money,” she whispered.
“Or not,” I said skeptically.
As I unfolded the letter, a small
scrap of green paper fluttered to the counter. It was a dry cleaning receipt
from Bubble Brite Laundry, a thriving local business owned by a middle-aged
couple, June and Marv Taggart. I quickly inspected the green slip, but it was
blank—no name, date or other relevant information. I slid the receipt back into
the envelope before carefully studying the lines printed on the page.
“What is it?” Viveca asked in a
soft tone. “Some kind of list?”
I studied the typewritten note.
Beneath a three-word caveat, I saw four names and a series of cryptic entries
that sent a chill through my body:
You Were Warned!
Carter Devane: Steal from me, I will take your desire
Ira Pemberton: Burn the bridge, you will feel the fire
Velma Lancaster: Poison my heart, your blood will run
Kevin Hertel: Slash my spirit and the blade will find you
Pay me $1 million to stop the inevitable from
happening! I’ll be in touch to discuss details.
Someone had drawn a line through
the Carter Devane entry, but the other three were unmarked.
“Well?” Viv said after a moment or
two of silence. “What do you think?”
“I’m no literary critic,” I
answered, “but this isn’t an instant classic like ‘roses are red, violets are
She smiled. “No kidding. But that’s
not what I was talking about. It’s a list of threats, isn’t it?”
“I know that’s not what you meant,”
I said. “I guess that I’m feeling a little ornery this morning. But I bet you’re
right; it’s a list of threats written like a poem. I’d guess that the names at
the beginning of each line are the intended victims, and I’d say the fact that
they mention a specific dollar amount points to extortion or blackmail.”
She leaned closer, examining the
four items through narrowed eyes. When she reached out and pointed at the second
line, I could smell her fragrance, a light blend of jasmine, lilac and orange.
“The one about fire mentions Ira
Pemberton,” Viveca said. “Doesn’t he own the body shop over on Dunkirk?”
I held up the sheet of paper,
squinting to study the four rhyming lines. “I suppose so,” I said. “I don’t now
the name Devane, but I do recognize—”
Viveca suddenly grabbed my arm,
digging her nails in with a ferocity that seemed surprising for someone so
willowy. “My word, Katie!” she said breathlessly. “The one that talks about slashing
with a blade has the name Hertel! Isn’t that the old guy that was just in here?”