A Free Short Story:

My second Lux novel, HEIRLOOMS TO DIE FOR, is free on Amazon, March 10-14. I haven’t spent time with Lux for a long time, so I thought I’d share a short story about her during the sale.

Don’t Put Off For Tomorrow…

(1)

When I got home late Monday morning, Sylvia and Lyndsay still hadn’t come to clean my house.  They were usually finishing by now, and I’d fix lunch so the three of us could gossip before they left.  Something must have come up.  I parked my yellow Bentley inside the garage then went to check the answering machine in my office. 

No message.  I was about to call Sylvia when her van pulled close to our back porch and she zipped into the house.  “Sorry I’m late,” she called.  “Both Ben and Jerry are sick, so Lyndsay’s staying home with them.  I ran to pick up a prescription to drop off at their place before I came here.”

“You’re a good grandma.”  She was nuts about those little boys, spent a lot of time with them.  “The house is in pretty good shape.  You’re getting a late start.  Why not make it easy on yourself and forget bothering with the basement and upstairs this time?” 

When I’d moved to Summit City from Chicago to go into business with the Johnson family, Keon was worried about my living alone, so I bought a sprawling ranch house in a gated community.  Then, lucky me, I lured Keon into moving in with me.  He’s a chef, so I not only scored a gorgeous husband, but one that loves to cook and entertain as much as I do.  This last week, though, we hadn’t had anyone over.

Sylvia ran a critical eye over the living room, dining area, and kitchen, then relaxed slightly.  “No supper parties?  Everything’s almost spotless.”

“Keon’s mom had the family over for a soul food carry-in.”  Which meant ten people invaded their condo.  Keon had three brothers and one sister who’d let me hang with them at their house in Chicago, and I loved every single one of them.  That’s why when they moved to Summit City, I did, too.

Sylvia grinned.  “I bet the carry-in was fun.”

“Always is.  I ate lots of meals at Keon’s parents’ house before I married him.  No one makes better fried chicken and mustard greens than his mom.”  I laughed.  “And no one makes worse macaroni and cheese than Gabbie, but she tried again this time.”

Keon’s sister was my best friend, had been since we went to grade school together.  A wonderful person.  A terrible cook.

Sylvia glanced at the clock.  “I’d love to yak more, but I’d better get busy.  This is Keon’s day off from his restaurant.  He won’t want me bustling around when he decides to put his feet up.”

I snickered.  “His feet are pounding the pavement right now.  The man loves to run.”

“If running made me look as good as he does, I’d…”  Then she snorted.  “No, I wouldn’t.  I’m over fifty and don’t care anymore.”  She went to the French doors where she’d left her cleaning supplies.  “Housework keeps me active enough.”

She’d sprayed the kitchen countertops and was wiping them down when her cellphone buzzed.  With a grimace, she looked at the I.D.  “Mind if I talk to my brother while I work?  He doesn’t call very often.”

“Go for it.”  I headed to the refrigerator to dig for snacks.  Keon and I had made salmon bruschetta last night, and we had some leftovers.  “I’ll eat in my office, out of your way.” 

She laid her cellphone on the kitchen island and pushed Speaker.  “Hey, Scott, how have you been?”

“I came to Summit City on an audit job and thought I’d stop by your place tonight, if you’re going to be home.”

Her whole face lit up. “That’s wonderful.  Can you come for supper?”

“That’s what I was hoping for.  Give me a time.  I get tired of eating out.  Then I can tell you about a client who’s threatening to sue me.  Says he’ll drag my name through the mud.” 

I stopped what I was doing to listen.  I can’t help it.  I’m an ex-crime reporter, so I’m nosy.  Sylvia stopped scrubbing to frown at her phone.  “Let him.  Everyone who knows you knows how honest you are.”

He started to answer when someone pounded on his door.  “Give me a second.  That might be room service.”  We heard him call, “It’s open!  Let me get my wallet.”  There were some rummaging noises, then a brisk, “Who are you?”  Then, “Hey!  What are you doing?  No!”

We heard a gunshot, then a thud.  His phone clattered to the floor.

“Scott!  Scott?”  Sylvia cried.

Footsteps sounded, and the phone went dead. 

I gulped.  “Oh my god!  Did someone just shoot him?”  I stared at Sylvia.  “Do you know where he was staying?”

“I didn’t even know he was in town.”

I reached for my phone and pushed Pete’s number.  He’s Gabbie’s husband and a detective.  When he answered, I explained what we’d just heard.

“His full name?” Pete asked.

I looked at Sylvia.  “Scott Brooks,” she said.  “He’s an accountant.  He travels to different cities to audit companies’ books.”

She’d used the present tense, and I hoped she was right. 

“If someone shot him in his room at a hotel, we’ll probably get a phone call before we can find him, asking us to investigate.  I’ll let you know when I hear something.”

Sylvia looked so pale, I was afraid she was going to faint.  “Sit down.”  I pushed her onto one of the bar stools at the kitchen island.   She reached for her cleaning spray and I shook my head.  “Forget it this week.  Was your brother married?”

She frowned when I used the past tense.  “No, he was always traveling, said it wouldn’t be fair to any woman.” 

No wife meant she might be planning his funeral soon.  I hadn’t heard one moan after the gunshot.  “Where did he call home?”

“Atlanta, but he never stayed in one place very long.”  She exhaled a long breath.  “We usually only saw him at holiday meals.”

I was about to comment when Pete called.

“He was staying at the new hotel on Main Street.  I’m there now.”

“Is he. . .?”  Sylvia couldn’t finish the sentence.

“I’m sorry,” Pete said.  “He died right away.  The bullet entered between his eyes.”

“What can I do?” Sylvia asked.  “Can I see him?”

I grimaced.  I hoped the gun didn’t blow off most of his face.

“We’ll need you to identify the body, and if you could answer some questions, it would help.  After I finish up here, I can meet you at the morgue.”

“The morgue?”  Sylvia gripped the edge of our black granite counter top. 

“Are you with Lux?” Pete asked.  “Maybe she could drive you here and stay with you a while.”

When she looked at me, I nodded.  “She’ll bring me,” she said.

“Good.”  He set up a time and then had to go.  “My techs are here.  I’ll see you later.”

I was pouring Sylvia and me glasses of wine when Keon walked in the kitchen.  Tall and lean, he stopped and frowned at our expressions.  “What’s up?”

Our cats raced to the kitchen when they heard his voice.  Pouncy, our Calico, rubbed against his ankles, begging for attention.  Grub, the fat gray cat, went to his food bowl and meowed. 

I filled him in while Sylvia gulped her drink.  She ran a hand through her drab brown hair.  “I have to call Len and Lyndsay to let them know what happened.”

Keon reached for a paper towel to wipe sweat off his forehead.  “Want me to shower and change to come with you?”

“There’s nothing you can help us with.”  I opened a can of tuna and scooped it into the bowl.  “But we haven’t had lunch yet.  You could have something waiting for us when we get back.”

“That’s playing to my strengths.”  He went to the water dispenser in the fridge and filled his glass, taking a few gulps to rehydrate.  Then he made two peanut butter sandwiches and pushed them in front of us.  “You might be with Pete a while.  You’d better eat something before you leave.”

He was right.  Sylvia shook her head.  “I can’t eat right now.”

Keon put her sandwich in a Ziploc baggie.  “Don’t get so hungry you get shaky.”

I gave him a quick kiss on our way out of the house.  I loaded Sylvia into my Bentley and drove to meet Pete.

(2)

Sylvia gripped my hand so hard, I winced, when she identified her brother.  Luckily, the bullet entrance wasn’t big.  Tears dripped off her jawline, and misery pooled inside me.  I hated feeling so helpless.  How do you comfort someone when a loved one dies?  It physically hurts to see them in pain.  Sylvia’s a strong, cheerful person, but she still clung to my hand as Pete led us to a private room to talk.  We sat around a small table, and he waited patiently for her to stop sobbing.  She fought to calm a bit, then nodded that she was ready to answer his questions.

He poised his pen over his notepad.  “You said your brother didn’t live in Summit City.”

Her voice wavered and she fought to steady it.  “No, he has an apartment in Atlanta.”

“Could his job have been what got him in trouble?” Pete asked.

“He said a client was threatening to sue him and ruin his reputation.”

“Did he give you a name?”

“No.”

“Did he have any close friends we could call?”

“Quite a few.  He and a few buddies went to sports events together, and he belonged to a group of bicyclists.  He was active when he was home.”

“Do you know any of his friends?”

“I’ve never met them, but there were some he talked about the most.”  She listed them.

“You said he came to Summit City on business?”

“Yes.”

“Do you don’t know what company he audited?”

Her face crumpled, then she gained composure again.  “Like I told you, I didn’t even know he was here until his phone call.”

“Did he have any bad habits like gambling or going to strip clubs?”

Her lips pressed into a tight line.  “No.”

Pete spread his hands.  “Just asking.  I’m trying to figure out who’d want to kill him.  If I know why, it helps me find out who.”

She grimaced.  “He didn’t talk much about himself when we got together.  He mostly wanted to catch up on the kids and grandkids.”

Pete thought a minute.  He asked a few more questions, and then it was time for us to go.  I was glad I drove. Sylvia was pulling in on herself, almost numb when I led her to my car.

On the drive back to the southwest side of town, I asked, “Do you want me to take you straight home?  Keon and I can drive your van over later.”

“You’d do that?”  Tears started again.  “I called Len, and he’s waiting for me at home.  I need a good cry.”

“Keon and I won’t even knock on the door.  I’ll drop you off, and when we bring your van, we’ll park it in your driveway and leave.”

“You’re a good friend.”

“It’s mutual.  If you need anything, call us.”  I reached her house and pulled close to the back door.  I watched Len let her in before I headed home.

When I walked in alone, Keon gave a quick nod.  “I wondered if Sylvia could hold up enough to come back here.”  He motioned to the kitchen island.  He had paninis ready to put on the press.  “You have to be starving.  It’s way past lunch time.”

I’m not the type who skips meals.  I sat at the kitchen island and inhaled my sandwich when he handed it to me.  “Sylvia’s a mess,” I finally said.  “Everything happened so fast, it’s going to take her a while to come to terms with it all.  First the phone call when she didn’t even know Scott was in town.  Then a gunshot.  Then identifying his body.  It’s too much.”

“Do you have any theories?”  He’d made a sandwich for Sylvia, in case she returned with me, and divided it in half for us to share.

“I think his job got him killed,” I said between bites.  “Pete will find out who he audited lately.  It’s going to be one of them.”  It didn’t have to be whoever hired him in Summit City.  It might be a firm from a month or two ago where he’d found a discrepancy and was digging deeper to find out why.  “Does your restaurant get audited?” I asked.

“I’ve never hired anyone to check the books.  I guess I trust our accountant.  I look over the finances once in a while, though.  It never hurts to keep an eye on things.”

My parents had taught me the same thing.  They’d left me more money than some small countries manage, and I trusted our family’s accountant, but I still checked on things myself once in a while.  And since I wasn’t an expert, occasionally, I hired outside help like Sylvia’s brother to make sure everything was up to snuff.  Geoffrey actually appreciated that.  Said it assured people that he was honest.

That made me think.  “I’d guess Scott went over books for estates, as well as companies.”

Keon caught my drift.  “And maybe someone was skimming and didn’t want to be found out?”

“It’s possible.  Some people are trusting.  They never question someone they’ve known a long time.”

Keon tossed our paper plates in the trash, then started to his favorite easy chair to relax.  It was his day off, and the cats followed him.  “It would be nice if you could trust people you’ve worked with a long time, but money can be a powerful temptation.”

I knew that all too well.  That’s why I loved the Johnson family.  A lot of people tried to befriend me for access to my money.  The Johnsons opened their arms to me—fed me, let me spend nights at their house—and never thought about how much I was worth.  They just knew my parents were gone a lot, and I needed something that felt like a home, a family.

Keon stretched his long legs, and Grub curled on them to sleep.  I sat in my favorite chair, and Pouncy jumped up next to me and pressed against my thigh. 

“Pete will let us know when he finds something,” Keon said. 

“Someone’s starting rumors about Scott on Facebook,” I told him.  “I saw a couple pieces of gossip about how incompetent he was.”

Keon looked at me, surprised.  “Incompetent?”

“If people doubt his work, they’ll question anything he reported.”

“Who posted about him?”

I shook my head.  “Too hard to find the source.  I tried.”

That offended Keon.  “How do you protect yourself from gossip online?”

“I don’t know, but every time I saw one of those posts, I asked for proof that this wasn’t just a smear campaign, and the comments stopped.”

Keon gave me a thumbs up.  “Good job!”

“I hope so.  It could all start again, but I hope not.”

“Does Pete know about it?”

“I told him.”

I doubted he’d have any more luck finding the perpetrator than I’d had.  I’d dug for lots of information as a crime reporter in Chicago and had lots of resources.  I knew a thing or two.   But so did the person behind the rumors.

(3)

Pete called on Tuesday.  I was taking a pot roast dinner out of the oven to take to Sylvia.  “Scott came to Summit City to check the books for a local bank, and I have his report.  Everything was good.  Before that, though, he was in Illinois, checking over the accounts of an estate to divide between three kids, and numbers didn’t match up.  There should have been more money.  And now Scott’s dead.”

“Sounds like a motive to me,” I said.  “Like someone was embezzling.”

“My thoughts, too, but Scott went over the books for a local company there, too, and found problems.”

I hesitated.  “So it could be either one.”

“Looks like it.”

I thought for a minute.  “Both were in Illinois?  I know a lot of people in the Chicago area.  Want me to put out feelers?  Sometimes it’s not what you know, but who you know.”

“Inside information never hurts, but don’t point a finger at anybody.”  He gave me the names of the family and the company.  “Let me know if you hear anything.”

I sent out e-mails.  “Do any of you know a Schenkel family or a plastic parts company called TCK?  Anything interesting about either?”  Vague enough that I might get lucky. 

On Wednesday, after Keon left for the restaurant, I had more time.  I hit my computer again, this time to research the Schenkels online, and I got lucky.  They made the news a lot.  The father and mother had done a lot of charity work.  Two of their kids didn’t get those genes.  After their mom’s death, they cut off every charity she’d supported.  Then they began battling over who got what.  The things they said about each other made me glad I was an only child. 

I felt sorry for the brother who’d gone to visit his mother—a widow—every week.  She’d been living in a nursing center for four years, and it wasn’t until they heard she might die that the other two showed up, wheedling to be her favorite.  It irritated her so much, she’d called her lawyer and told him to tear up her will, dividing everything evenly between the three.  She said she was going to make a new one.  But she died before she could. 

It seemed like the kids were back to square one, dividing the money between them, but the two who never came wanted it all and lawyered up to get it.

I sighed.  The son who sounded so kind wasn’t pushing to get more than the others.  He seemed to be fine sharing.  They’d all be rich, either way.

“What have you found?” Keon asked, walking in the door near midnight to find me still in my office.  When I told him, he shook his head.  “Isn’t that the way it usually works?  The kids who do nothing expect the most.  What about the company Scott was investigating?”

“Pete’s looking into it.  I told him he could use my accountant if he needed him, and he gave him a call.”

Keon started to the kitchen, ready to relax with a beer.  “Geoffrey’s good.  If Scott found something wrong, so will he.”

I turned off the computer and went to get a glass of wine.  “I want Scott’s killer punished.”

Keon patted me on the back as he walked to the screened-in patio.  “I think it’s nice that you care this much about your friends.”

The cats followed us, roaming the perimeter of the porch in search of something interesting.  I sat back, satisfied with what I’d accomplished, putting my feet up on our large hassock.  Soon, so did Keon, and before long, my husband was playing footsie with me.  A promising sign.  His brown eyes locked with mine, and we ended up going to bed a little earlier than usual, but we didn’t sleep.  The alarm woke us.  Keon’s prep would take longer since his sous chef had the day off.

After he left, I went to my office to work.  I’d lost writing time digging for information about Scott and his clients.  I needed to work on an article I’d promised a magazine with a short deadline.  I’d just pulled the manuscript up on my screen, though, when an old friend called.  Janis and I had worked on the same newspaper when we’d graduated from college.  I was a young crime reporter.  She wrote for their society pages.  Glamorous and rich, she had so many connections, there was nothing that happened in Chicago that she wasn’t invited to. 

“Hey!” I said when I saw her name on my I.D.  “It’s great to hear from you.” 

It really was.  Janis, with her poise and style, had always made me feel like a backwoods hick, but when we were alone, we enjoyed each other’s company.  Sitting on stools next to each other in a bar, she told it like it was.  I heard the real inside scoop.  She couldn’t put it on paper, of course.  She wasn’t supposed to dig for the truth.  She was supposed to report the glitter and glamour of the elite.    

Her first words put me in my place.  “You didn’t invite me to your wedding.”

Really!  I rolled my eyes, not that she could see me.  “That’s why you called?”

“No, but it reminded me that you didn’t invite me.”

“We didn’t invite anyone but family.  We kept it small, and it was a double wedding.  We gave all of our extra numbers to Keon’s brother and his fiancée.”

“That’s so like you.  Did you even go glam when you hitched up?”

“I bought a floor length wedding gown.”

She laughed.  “Did it cost over twenty bucks?”

“Yes.  Are you happy now?”

“I’ll survive.  But I want you to know I’m getting married in August, and I’m going all out.  You and Mr. Gorgeous had better show up.”

Keon was gorgeous with his mocha-colored skin, rippling muscles, and chocolate brown eyes.  “We’ll be there.  And if you need anything, let me know.”

“My folks are footing the bill.  They’re just happy I’ve finally found someone.  When you got hitched before I did, they almost died of heart attacks.”

That made me chuckle.  Our families were always a little competitive, but I’m sure her mom and dad thought I’d be the last girl anyone would pick for keeps from our group.  “Give me the date, and I’ll put it on our calendar.”

“You’re not getting off that easy,” Janis said.  “You’re in charge of my bachelorette party.”

“What!”  I was so not good at planning events.

She laughed.  “It’s your penance for the news I’m going to share with you.  News I can’t report in the paper.”

Now she had my interest.  “Okay, you’ll get the best bachelorette party there ever was, even if you want pet penguins dressed in tutus for bridesmaids .  What have you got for me?”

“You asked me about the Schenkel family.  They’re all trying to screw each other to get the family fortune, but no one’s going to beat the daughter.  She’s screwing the old, trusted banker her mom made executor of the estate when she went in the nursing home.  He has a huge paunch, bad teeth, and thinks he’s a lady’s man.  No one else would touch him, but she’s giving him the ride of his life.”

“Eww.”  The image made me a little sick.  “Would he embezzle money from the estate?”

“If she meets him at many more hotels, there won’t be an estate,” Janis said.

“He doesn’t care about his reputation?”

“That man has never had a hot girl in his bed.  He’s not thinking with his brain right now.”

“What about prison?  Does he care about being behind bars?”

“We’re talking about a massive ego.  He thinks he’s so clever, he’ll never get caught.”

“How will he explain away a lot of missing money?”

“He’s thought of something.  He’s pretty smart.”

“My accountant’s going over the books.”

“Geoffrey?  In that case, he’s busted.  The daughter will be, too.  But that doesn’t mean one of them killed your friend’s brother.”

“I’d bet on it.”  I was feeling pretty sure of myself.  “You’re the best, Janis.  Tell me what you want and where for your party, and it’s done.”

“Palmer House.  Huge buffet and music.  Lots of champagne, and rooms for twenty girls to crash in when we can barely walk.”

“You got it.”  She hung up, and I made the reservations and all of the arrangements.  I called Pete to keep him in the loop, and when Keon got home, I told him my news.

Keon smiled.  “Sounds like you finally have a solid lead.  Good luck.”

“Oh, and Janis is getting married in August.  I have to be there.”

That made his smile widen.  “I haven’t been back there for a while.  I’ll arrange to get the days off.  You might not want to drive after all your fun.”

Smart man.  I’d have to keep him.

Geoffrey called late the next day.  “It’s the estate.  The business Scott was looking at is just run shoddily.  Someone should get it on track, but the errors are careless, stupid mistakes.  The estate, on the other hand, is masterful embezzling.”

I told him about Janis’s phone call without mentioning her name.

“I’m almost impressed,” he told me.  “It’s hard to slide something past a good auditor, but this guy got away with it the entire time his client was in the nursing home.  He trumped up repairs to the mansion, charges for mechanics who keep the car collection in good shape, and charities the wife supposedly supported.  He might have gotten away with it all except this Scott followed through on every detail.”

  When he hung up, I called Pete again to share the news.  If it had just been the embezzling, I wouldn’t have hated whoever did this quite as much.  But he or she had killed Scott to hide what he’d done.  The banker didn’t sound like the type who’d drive to Summit City to shoot somebody.  In my mind, that left the daughter.  And if she was the culprit, I wanted her to pay.

(4)

Keon and I invited Pete and Gabbie over for supper on Monday night.  He’d called earlier to tell us that he’d made an arrest.  Pete is a meat and potatoes type of guy, and Keon’s sister is fish and vegetables, so we made surf and turf.  Keon owns a seafood restaurant fused with soul food cooking, so the meal was in his wheelhouse.

We served filet mignons, orange roughy with Chilean pebre sauce, rice pilaf, and a huge salad.  I made lava cakes for dessert.  We ate first, then took our wine glasses to the patio to discuss the case. 

“Once you helped me narrow it down to the Schenkel’s daughter, everything came together,” Pete said.  “She used her credit card to book a flight to Summit City on the day Scott died.  She left the same night.  And she bought a gun while she was here.  The gun matched the bullet that killed Scott.”

“But why?” I asked.  “She was already getting more money from the settlement than her brothers.”

Pete got more comfortable in his lounge chair.  “Because if Scott reported the missing cash, her one brother would have demanded she pay it back or get less money or none at all because she’d cheated.  And money was the only thing that girl thought about.”

Keon shook his head.  “But she was already rich, wasn’t she?  Lux’s accountant said each kid got an exorbitant amount of money for their ‘allowances’ each month.”

“She blew through it,” Pete said.  “Always needed more.”

Keon looked disgusted.  “What about the executor of the will?”

“He’s going to prison for embezzling.  She did a number on him, but he should have known better.  He got her however much she asked for because he knew the minute she didn’t get what she wanted, he’d lose her.”

“Stupid.”  I had no sympathy for him.

Pete raised an eyebrow.  “You and Gabbie are so attractive, you’ve never been rejected over and over again.  It takes a toll.”

Gabbie wrinkled her beautiful nose.  “It’s not like you or Keon ever suffered either.”

Pete and I looked at each other.  We weren’t in the same league as Gabbie and Keon, but we were attractive enough to get by.  Thankfully, Keon loved my copper hair and fair skin, and Gabbie loved everything about Pete.

Pete sipped his wine.  “The thing is, this guy was passed over all the time.  I can understand how the girl manipulated him.  I don’t excuse it, but I can sympathize with him.”

That brought us back to the girl. 

Gabbie’s dark eyes sparked fire.  “The mother and father who raised these kids sound like nice people who donated to charities and cared about people.  It’s sad they ended up with kids who only cared about money.”

Keon shrugged.  “They must have spoiled them too much.”

“Not if the one son stopped by every week to see his mom,” I said.  “It sounds to me like the one son and daughter gave in to being rich.”

Pete nodded.  “Out of all of them, the daughter was the worst.  And now she’s behind bars.  I think we have all we need to prove she killed Scott.”

And that was the big issue.  If she wanted to be a crappy daughter and sister, that was her choice.  But she’d killed a good man, a man with more morals in his little finger than she had in her entire body.  She didn’t care about morals or ethics.  All she cared about was money.  And I hoped she’d rot in prison.  And I hoped my wonderful friend, Sylvia, would heal in time.

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