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.