Big Bucks, book 3 in the Big Murder Mystery series, launches July 31st. If you pre-order it, you can save a buck (ha ha) on the ebook. And you can read the first chapter right now...
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Some people enjoy a challenge. Me? I’m thrilled with easy when I can get it—which isn’t often. So invading a wooded estate with no guards or cameras seemed like a day at the spa. Just without the massages, cucumber water, and saunas. I really missed those.
And because the big house was so secluded, the odds of a neighbor reporting me were low. It was unlikely anyone would spot me on the thick hillside. But I’d taken care to wear white to blend in with the patches of December snow between the pines. I was happy with easy, but I also liked to play it smart.
The effortlessness of the surveillance gig should have been a clue that things were fated to go sideways. But if the universe has been sending me warning messages, they’d been going to spam.
A breeze rustled the pines, dropping clods of snow to the earth. Kneeling, I peered through my camera on its tripod. Cold seeped through the knees of my white jeans.
The mansion had massive arched windows at the back. They gave me a clear view of a wide, marble stairway leading to the ground floor living area as well as of most of the second floor. It was a nice place if you liked oversized mausoleums.
A woman slumped in a wheelchair at the top of the steps. Her white hair hung lank and unbrushed down her back.
“Dammit.” Mrs. Stanton had been sitting there over thirty minutes. I worked to tamp down my anger. This was a job. I needed to stay cool because hot emotions rarely led to good decisions. And this neglect would be going in my report. But it was hard to watch.
I’d been watching her for days now, and she was starting to feel like a friend. Not that I’m in the habit of stalking my actual friends. And I still didn’t have any video to prove elder abuse, aside from this stretch of neglect.
I double-checked the camera was recording then shifted to look through my second camera, also on a tripod. I scanned the rooms in the upper stories.
A thirty-something brunette, Mrs. Stanton’s niece, Irene, sat at Mrs. Stanton’s dressing table. Irene tried on a pair of jewel-studded earrings. She turned her head this way and that, admiring, and fluffed her long hair.
I snapped photos, my heart solidifying to something cold and hard. But the niece didn’t put the jewelry in her pockets. She carefully returned them to their box, rose, and strolled from her aunt’s bedroom.
“Take your sweet time, why don’t you?” I muttered.
I shivered and glanced up. The sun was already low over the Sierras. Soon it would be gone, and the temperature would drop. I tightened my ivory jacket and flipped up the faux-fur collar. My breath steamed the air.
The niece reappeared at the top of the stairs, and I grunted. “Finally.” Give the old lady a break and some conversation.
She grasped the wheelchair’s handles, bent, and said something to Mrs. Stanton. I stilled, unease spiraling in my gut. Mrs. Stanton turned to her. The older woman’s eyes widened, her face contorting. Irene shoved her wheelchair down the stairs.
The wheelchair jounced, tilted. Mrs. Stanton tumbled from the chair.
Swearing, I jolted to my feet, knocking over the nearest camera, and bulleted across the lawn, clear of patches of snow. I was reacting, not thinking. This was never a good state for a personal protection specialist. And it’s not like this was the first time I’d witnessed violence. But it had still startled the hell out of me.
I raced up the flagstone steps and across a broad patio toward the French windows. They’d be locked. They always were. But I didn’t slow.
The wheelchair had plummeted to the bottom of the stairs and lay on its side. Incredibly, the old lady clung to one of the bannisters near the top.
The niece walked slowly down the two steps to her and knelt, then stood. She raised a foot over the old woman’s hand.
I cursed, raised my elbows in front of my face as both cover and battering ram, and jumped through the glass doors. Elbows were some of the hardest parts on a body. They were great for fighting at close quarters and for crashing through windows.
At least in theory. I’d never actually done it before.
The glass shattered into harmless pebbles, and the broken panes clawed at my skin. I landed, and my boots slipped on the safety glass. Windmilling my arms like a cartoon coyote, I skidded across the floor. By some miracle, I didn’t land on my butt. I charged up the stairs.
The niece’s eyes grew large as silver dollars. She gaped. “Get out! Get out!”
I jammed my palm heel into her chest. The force of it knocked her onto her butt. Dismissing the niece, I knelt beside Mrs. Stanton.
The niece scrambled to her feet. She tore up the steps and down the hallway. Her shoes clack-clacked on the marble floor. “I’m calling the police. Help! Police!”
That was Irene’s idea of calling the cops? I shook my head. “I’m Alice Sommerland,” I told Mrs. Stanton. “I work for a private investigator.” And I wasn’t happy that my last three assignments had been catastrophically exciting.
Don’t get me wrong. You didn’t get into surveillance if you weren’t looking for a certain level of intrigue. But my past surveillance work hadn’t been quite so action oriented. I was closing in on forty, and this seemed the wrong time of life to be getting more physical.
“Can you put your arm around my neck?” I asked.
“I think so.” Her voice quavered. Though in fairness, mine hadn’t been perfectly steady either. Her eyes were wide and frightened, and her fear made me angrier.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got you.” I was pleased to note the tremor had gone from my voice. Cool and professional.
I helped her down the marble stairs. She was light as the proverbially bird. And though I’m a beanpole—nearly six feet tall and lean muscled—it was still slow going. I didn’t want to injure her more than she’d already been hurt. At the bottom, I righted her wheelchair. I helped her inside it, giving the downstairs a better look.
The end tables were bare, and there were no chairs or carpets in the wide room. I was willing to bet the niece had sold them off. A breeze from outside flowed through the smashed French door. I pulled the throw blanket from the back of the wheelchair and put it around her shoulders.
I dialed my current employer, Fitch Rhodes, PI. Just to be clear, I was not a PI—just a down-on-her-luck contractor who was very good at surveillance.
“Anything?” he asked, brisk.
I took Mrs. Stanton’s hand. It trembled in mine.“Attempted murder,” I said. “The cops are on their way. Ah, and they might arrest me. The niece got the call in first.” You always want to be the first party to call the cops. The first person to talk is always more believable.
Fitch seemed to know this rule too because he swore long and colorfully. “I’ll call and report.” He hung up.
“You have glass in your hair,” Mrs. Stanton said.
I reached up and pulled my blond ponytail forward. It glittered. I shook it experimentally. Tiny chunks of glass pinged to the marble floor.
“She moved my Motherwell,” she said.
I glanced at her, startled, and she pointed. “I’ve been staring at that blank spot on the wall for thirty minutes. She moved it.”
“You had a Francis Motherwell?”
“I would hardly have said she moved it if I didn’t have one,” she said dryly. “She’s always moving my things. You know Motherwell?”
“I took some art history courses in college.” And a Motherwell would go for a pretty penny. Mrs. Stanton would be lucky if it was still in the house.
“I’ve called the police,” her niece yelled from somewhere upstairs.
“Piss off,” Mrs. Stanton hollered back.
I blinked. So, that was unexpected.
“See? See what I have to deal with?” Irene shouted. “She’s crazy.”
“On occasion my husband employed salty language for emphasis,” Mrs. Stanton confided. “I do hope you’re not offended.”
“Ah. No.” I sat on the stairs beside her. “I occasionally enjoy some emphasis myself.”
She laughed quietly and buried her head in her hands. “Oh, goodness. This isn’t funny at all. I do believe I’m a bit hysterical.”
“You’ve got reason to be.” I paused. “Your friend, Mr. Harrington, was worried about you.”
“Is that who sent you?” Mrs. Stanton raised her head. “Franklin. Such a dear. But I haven’t seen him for...” She rubbed her wrinkled brow. “He used to come for tea every Wednesday. I don’t know why he stopped.”
“Your niece told him you were too ill for visitors.”
She sat up straighter. “But I’m not.” Twin spots of pink rose to her wrinkled cheeks. “Aside from this.” She motioned toward her legs. “But that’s not—” She crumpled forward, her head in her hands. “That girl really tried to kill me, didn’t she?” she whispered.
“She won’t try it again.” I reached out to comfort her, then withdrew my hand, uncertain. Comforting shaken survivors hadn’t been part of my old career. I wasn’t sure what the procedure was. I cleared my throat. “She’s...” The words died on my lips.
A metal dog on spindly legs minced through the broken door and across the glass. I froze, ice rippling down my spine. I’d never seen anything like it. But having grown up on a diet of Terminator movies, I was prepared for us not to be friends.
The robot dog’s head panned right and left. Its glowing blue eyes stopped to fix on me. My temperature dropped several more degrees.
“Mrs. Stanton,” I said, without moving my lips. “I’m guessing that’s not normal.”
“No,” she said shakily.
And then I registered the letters in white on its dark-blue back: TTHSPD. The Town of Hot Springs Police Department had a robodog. I rolled my eyes. Of course they did.
Two police officers in crisp navy stepped carefully through the shattered French window. Their guns were drawn and aimed at the floor.
I forced my breathing to slow. Cops were human and made mistakes like anyone else. And I wouldn’t like it much if they made a mistake with me. I kept my free hand on my knee where they could see it.
“We got a call about a disturbance,” the taller cop said. He looked to be in his early forties, just a few years older than me. And though most men looked good in uniforms, his was particularly effective. I had it on good authority that the Hot Springs PD had—I kid not—its own tailor.
“My niece tried to kill me,” Mrs. Stanton said in a shaky voice.
“I’m not her niece,” I said quickly. “She’s upstairs.” Probably making off with the jewelry.
“Who are you?” the other cop asked. His hair was reddish beneath his hat.
“Alice Sommerland. I’m a contract worker for a private investigator from Reno, name of Fitch Rhodes. I’ve been surveilling the niece due to suspected abuse.”
“You’re from Reno?” he asked.
I wish. “No, I’m from Nowhere.”
The two men glanced at each other, their expressions growing warier. “Nowhere,” one said flatly.
“Relax, will you?” I said. “Just because our town hall has a fifty-foot lawn flamingo is no reason to get difficult.” Nowhere’s collection of record-breaking big things was the envy of… nowhere. “Hot Springs is special all on its own.”
“It’s The Town of Hot Springs,” the redheaded cop said.
I snorted. “Whatever.”
“We’re opening a miniature museum next year,” the taller one said.
I swore. I’m a reasonable person, but that was a direct slap at Nowhere’s big things. I wondered if our temporary mayor knew. “And what’s with the robot?”
“It’s a police dog,” the tall one said.
I crossed my arms. “Don’t get me wrong, but if that’s a police dog, you’re doing something seriously wrong. I mean, look at it. It barely comes up to my knee.”
Things got weird after that. The cops managed to be super polite while treating me like I was radioactive. The niece tried to claim I was a criminal, which I’d pretty much expected. But between Mrs. Stanton’s testimony and my video, which had kept recording, we cleared up that lie quick enough.
An hour later, the first faint stars had appeared in the sky. I stood outside Mrs. Stanton’s front gate. The ambulance’s taillights faded in the distance. Mrs. Stanton would be okay. Fitch had called Mr. Harrington, and he’d meet her at the hospital.
Outside the mansion’s imposing front steps, the police guided a cuffed Irene into a black and white. Bending over, I pulled the band out my hair and shook it out. More glass pattered to the ground.
I sighed. My new life of low-paid odd jobs in a town called Nowhere stretched before me, and it didn’t look half bad. It looked mostly bad.
Someday, I was going to reclaim my old career in the personal protection industry. I had to. But I hadn’t been arrested, and no one had died, so I’d call this day a win.
The phone rang in my jacket pocket. I answered without looking. “Whatever you said did the trick,” I said. “The cops have the niece in custody.”
“What niece?” my brother Charlie asked. “Where are you? I’m at the theater and you’re not here.”
I tugged on my ear. Whoops. Was I supposed to be at Nowhere’s dinner theater? I didn’t remember agreeing to that. “I’m on a job.”
“Cool. You’re a detective again? Where?”
“I’m not a detective. It’s surveillance.” I winced guiltily. “And I’m in Hot Springs.”
“It’s The Town of Hot Springs. They get really tense when you just call it Hot Springs. And why didn’t you tell me you’re there?”
I grimaced. I’d been trying to give my brother space as he got to know his new family. He’d recently discovered our dad wasn’t his biological father. His real father was the head of a tech company and lived in a mansion here, in Hot Springs.
I’d gone with Charlie for their first meeting. After the initial shock and suspicion (and a private investigator), Adan Levann had stepped up. The tech gazillionaire had embraced my brother—literally and metaphorically. They’d gotten on so well, Charlie had moved out of his treehouse and into Adan’s home.
I admit, I wasn’t too happy about him moving to Hot Springs. But I was trying to be a supportive adult. It wasn’t as easy as I’d have liked. “I’m on my way home now,” I said. “Want to grab dinner?”
“No, no. You stay there. Adan said he wants to meet you. I mean, he met you once, but that was a weird time. He wants to get to know you. And he thinks he can help you with your PR problem.”
My heart jumped. Could he? Then I got ahold of myself. I didn’t want any favors from strangers. Okay, I wanted them, I just didn’t want to pay the inevitable price. “It’s fine. I don’t need help.”
“Yeah, yeah. Can you meet me at the house? I’ll be there in thirty minutes.”
I started to say no then stopped myself. This was important to Charlie. And if Adan and his kids were part of Charlie’s family now, I needed to get with the program. “Sure. Thirty minutes.”
We said our goodbyes and hung up. I returned through the gates and found a cop. She gave me permission to leave with my equipment. They kept the memory cards from my cameras as evidence though. I’d expected that too, but it annoyed me anyway.
I collected my cameras, packed them in my black Jeep Commander. Clipboard braced against the steering wheel, I wrote a brief report on the form I kept for such a purpose. Then I drove to Charlie’s new home.
When I said Charlie had been living in a treehouse, I hadn’t been speaking figuratively. He’d been crashing in an actual treehouse in an actual tree. I can only imagine what the private investigator his bio-dad had hired had thought of that.
Since the weather had turned, I was glad Charlie had found less drafty and squirrel-free digs. But the Levann mansion had a San Quentin atmosphere.
At the gate, I pressed a button and announced my arrival to the butler. Yes, Charlie’s new father had an honest-to-goodness butler. His dulcet voice informed me I was expected, and the gates buzzed and swung open. Glancing at the modern security camera above the gate, I took my foot off the brake.
I drove down the winding, gravel road and parked beside a blue Tesla in the circular driveway. The sun had sunk behind the western hills. Pinpricks of stars dotted the sky above the gothic manor’s gabled roofline.
I shook my head and climbed the brick steps to the front door. It sprang open before I could ring the bell.
“Hey!” Charlie emerged and gave me a hug. My brother was as tall as me (five-ten), and just as blond. His hair was not as long as mine, but it was past his ears to his chin. He finger combed it behind his ear and grinned. “You rocked the timing,” he said. “I just got here.” The butler, Shelley, stood behind him looking haughty in his gray business suit and perfect blond hair.
I glanced down at Charlie’s navy blazer. He was wearing it over navy board shorts, but that wasn’t what raised my eyebrows. The jacket had a yachting emblem over the breast. “Seriously?” I asked. “A yachting jacket?”
He patted the gold embroidered logo. “Cool, huh? It’s from Adan’s club.”
“A yacht club in Nevada? Sure. Why not. Aside from the fact that the state’s landlocked.”
“The club’s in California. The place is awesome. There are all sorts of, you know, yachts and stuff. He took me there last week. We flew in his private plane and everything. You’re really going to like him.” Charlie ushered me, my feet dragging, inside the high-ceilinged foyer.
Adult. I’m a mature adult and this is all good. Black and white marble tiles. An elegant and useless round table in the center, its vase overflowing with freshly cut flowers. Twin curving staircases, carpeted in crimson, ascended to the second floor.
“May I take your jacket, ma’am?” Shelley asked.
“Um, sure. Thanks.” I began to shrug free. He whisked behind me and helped me out of my thick jacket.
“Thanks,” I said again, feeling awkward. In my job, I’d been around a lot of wealthy people, but I’d rarely been treated like one. It felt weird. Unnatural. Or maybe it was just Shelley.
The butler was six-one and with lean muscles that were built for speed and power. I didn’t like letting people get that physically close unless I trusted them. And I didn’t trust Shelley.
“Would you like a comb, madam?” he asked.
My eyes narrowed. My hair wasn’t that messy.
“There seems to be some glass in your hair,” he said.
“It’s fine.” What was it that was so familiar about the man? I really hoped I hadn’t spotted him in a mug book.
“Hey, Shelley, where’s Adan?” Charlie asked in a half-whisper.
“I believe you’ll find him upstairs in his room.”
“Thanks. Come on.” My brother climbed the stairs, and I trailed behind. “You need to see my room. It’s got its own fireplace and everything.”
“That’s great,” I said gloomily. Adult. Supportive. I forced a smile.
“Uh, why is there glass in your hair?”
“I jumped through a window.”
“Okay…” He scratched his beard. “Uh, why? I mean, no offense, but I’m usually the one who goes through windows.”
That’s what he thought. “It seemed like a good idea at the time. How’s the rest of Adan’s family adjusting?” I asked, changing the subject.
His nose crinkled. “They just need to get used to me. Holli’s been super cool though.”
“Adan’s new wife?”
“She’s not that new. I mean, they’ve been married three years. And don’t worry about all this.” Charlie motioned toward the top of the wide stairs. “I know it’s not really my vibe. But this is only temporary, until I find a full-time job.”
“Full-time? Are you going to give up your work at the theater?”
“No way. The theater’s my family.” He colored. “I mean, you’re my family too. And so is Adan and—”
“It’s okay. I get it.” Life had been a lot simpler before genetic testing had become a fun way to pass the time.
“But Adan had this amazing idea,” he said. “He thinks I can sell my murder mystery games outside the theater. We’re developing a game set in The Town of Hot Springs. Adan’s got a contact at the Chamber of Commerce that can help promote it. The murder sites are going to be connected to actual locations in one of The Town of Hot Springs tourist brochures. Cool, right?”
It would have sounded a lot cooler if he’d stop saying The Town of Hot Springs. But selling the game outside the theater wasn’t a bad idea.
“It’s a good opportunity,” I admitted. And I was impressed Adan was helping my brother with something Charlie loved. It might have been easier to give him a nothing job at Adan’s company.
“What was this job you had in The Town of Hot Springs?” Charlie asked.
“An elder abuse case.”
“Whoa.” He stopped at the top of the stairs, the skin between his blue eyes puckering. “What kind of person would do that? I mean, I know it goes on, but that’s terrible.”
“Not anymore. I got the woman on video trying to harm the victim. The police have her in custody now.”
“Did she hurt her?” he asked.
A cold lump formed in my chest. “Not badly.” But the knowledge that to her niece, Mrs. Stanton was only money, only a means to an end, only a thing to be rid of... That hurt would take longer to heal than the bruises.
We walked down a long hallway, its thick carpet absorbing the sound of our footsteps. The lump in my chest turned to something else. Adan was the man who could have blown up my parents’ marriage. I wasn’t sure I wanted to sit down for a friendly chat.
And yet I had so many questions. I just wasn’t sure I wanted the answers. The hallway seemed to grow narrower, the thick carpet higher, the air thicker. But I was an adult, and this meeting meant something to my brother.
Charlie stopped in front of a wood-paneled double door. “Are you ready for this?”
“I’m on the edge of my nonexistent seat.”
He lowered his chin, tilting his head.
I laughed a little. “I’m ready.” I grasped his hands. “I’m happy for you. Really. It’s just a lot to adjust to.”
“I know. But it’s not going to change me.”
Wouldn’t it? How could it not affect him? “No, of course not,” I said quickly.
“Okay.” He drew a deep breath. “Ready? Ta-dah!” He swung open the door on a darkened room.
I frowned into the shadowy space.
He looked inside. “Oh. Energy saving lights.” My brother stepped inside and flicked on the switch. He made a sweeping gesture with one arm. “Ta-dah!”
I gaped. An older version of my blond brother lay face down on the carpet, blood trickling from behind his ear. Adan Levann.