Author: K.D. Hays
Publisher: K.D. Hays
Genre: Cozy Mystery
Life has settled into a more stable pattern for fledgling investigator Karen Maxwell of DS Investigations, but that stability is precarious. At work, she has an uneasy truce with Rodney, the “office maximizer” hired by her brother to do some of the administrative work she used to do. Her brother has not assigned her any real cases and she thinks it's because he doesn’t trust her after she was fired from her last major assignment.
But she soon gets her chance. The firm's insurance agent calls in a favor and asks them to investigate whether a valuable parrot was killed as a result of snowfall damage to a house. Karen is pretty sure Dave will assign this to her, since the investigation will involve no money or prestige. But it may help earn back his confidence.
Then Gina Callaghan hires DS Investigations to find out who sabotaged her daughter Hayley’s rope at a jump rope competition. Hayley competes in power jumping events, and she failed to make the top four in the regional tournament. If Karen can prove that one of those top four jumpers behaved unethically, then Hayley, (who was fifth) will have a spot at the national competition, and a chance to go to the World tournament. Dave assigns Karen the lead role in this case, so now she has a chance to prove to her brother that she can conclude an investigation before the client is ready to pull the plug.
Karen bribes her son to take a jump rope class on the day when the jumpers she needs to watch have their practices. Initially, Hayley Callaghan does not want the matter investigated so Karen has to be a subtle as possible. Meanwhile, in the parrot case, Karen's investigation seems to indicate that the parrot's owners are telling the truth and not trying to defraud the insurance company. But the picture they offer as proof somehow arouses Karen's suspicion.
At jump rope practice, she finds a lot of masked hostility and a host of possible suspects, but no one who saw anything. Then Hayley's sister steps forward and admits that she saw someone rummaging through her sister's rope bag. Circumstances point to two possible suspects, in addition to the sister herself. But Karen can find no proof of wrongdoing and thinks the break was most likely an accident. Then Hayley changes her position and urges Karen to follow through with her initial suspicions. She immediately wonders why.
But she doesn't have time to wonder. Her brother insists that she stop working on the insurance case and her client insists that she write up suspicions against one of the other jumpers so they can file a complaint with the national sanctioning commission. Working against the clock, Karen finds proof that the picture is fake, proving that the insurance clients were trying to defraud the agency. But time runs out on the jump rope investigation—once again the dissatisfied client fires Karen before she solves the case. This time, she knows an innocent girl is going to face blame and could be banned from the sport she loves. So she digs on until she uncovers the truth —and possible destroys a family in the process.
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First Chapter:Calling the landlord is something I look forward to about as much as having a tooth pulled or standing in line to get a new driver's license photo. But it had to be done.
I flipped through the names in the contacts on my computer, trying to remember whether I had listed him under his last name, Hagland, or just "L" for landlord. Or possibly "I" for "incompetent landlord."
From the length of time he took to answer, I could just imagine him sitting there, staring at the caller ID while he decided whether DS Investigations paid him enough rent to make it worth the effort to pick up the receiver. Leroy Hagland owns a lot of buildings in Ellicott City, but our office was in one of the crummy ones, tucked down in a hollow away from the restored stone buildings of Main Street. Here “restoration” was no more than a slap of paint and an exit sign in the stairwell to pass the fire inspection. So he never failed to let us know that we were about the least important of his tenants.
“H’lo, Mrs. Maxwell,” his voice finally grumbled into my ear.
Since I’ve been divorced for five years, I hate being called “Mrs.” and he knows it, but I think he takes a perverse joy in getting it wrong, so I tried to swallow my annoyance and focus on the reason for my urgent call.
“I know Rodney asked you about an air perfuming system,” I began.
“It’s an air purifier,” Rodney insisted in a high-pitched nasal whine that carried all the way from his Administrator’s cubicle on the other side of the office.
“Whatever.” I waved for him to be quiet, even though he couldn’t see me. Then I turned back to the phone. “Rodney didn’t authorize you to add the charge to our rent. He just asked how much it would cost.”
“I said we wanted to explore the option,” Rodney clarified needlessly.
“So you don’t want me to install the system?” Hagland asked in his perpetually tired and annoyed voice.
“No,” I said firmly, “we do not. A thousand dollars a month is just too much.”
“You can’t put a price on clean air,” Rodney admonished.
“Dave can,” I called over to Rodney’s cubicle, reminding him that my brother was still the boss.
Our intern, Brittany, giggled as she walked over to the printer.
I turned back to the landlord on the phone, “If you have your contractor pick up the trash more than once a month, I think we’ll find the air a lot easier to breathe even without the Stratosphere 3000 air purifying system.”
“Whaddaya mean, once a month?” Hagland growled. “Your garbage is picked up every week.”
I shook my head, though of course he couldn’t see that. “Nope.”
“The truck comes at night, so you don’t see him.”
“He may come at night, but he doesn’t pick up any trash. The dumpster hasn’t been emptied since the week after Christmas.” I thought I saw a fruitcake in there we could probably salvage for next year’s office party.
“Well, that hasn’t been a month.”
“It’s been a lot more than a week.”
There was a scratching noise that I assume was the landlord rubbing the phone against the stubble on his chin, but he might also have been using the phone receiver to scrape mud off his shoes or something. Finally, his annoyed voice came back on. “I’ll look into it.”
“I don’t want you to look into our dumpster. I want you to empty it.”
“You know what I mean,” he snarled with even more force than usual. Then he just hung up.
“You should have been nicer to him, Karen.” Rodney said as he came out of his cubicle balancing a tall green teacup on a tiny saucer. “Now he’ll probably raise our rent.”
I sighed. “You’re right.”
That stopped him. The teacup wobbled in his slender hand. “Y-you agree with me?”
“Yeah.” I nodded. “He raises the rate every January.”
But not by much.
I’d been handling administrative stuff at my brother Dave’s investigation firm for over five years before he hired Rodney, the self-proclaimed “Office Maximizer” to “help” me. I knew how to deal with our recalcitrant landlord. I really knew how to manage all the office business without Rodney’s help. But since I’d decided that I wanted to do some of the investigation myself, I simply didn’t have time to do all the administrative work anymore. Of course we had a college intern working for us, too. Brittany The Bright-Eyed Wondergirl came in for at least a couple of hours every day to make the place look prettier. I couldn’t see that she was much use beyond that.
Okay, that wasn’t fair. She was interested in investigation and had helped me out with a few things. But she spent most of her time mistyping reports and scribbling incoherent phone messages.
Rodney spent most of him time “improving” the office to maximize efficiency. Last month, he tried to reorganize the office according to the principles of feng shui, but gave up when Dave spent the “coins of prosperity” on a hotdog. Right now, he seemed to think we needed improved air. The only useful thing I could tell that he’d done so far was to maximize our caffeine intake by keeping our new cappuccino machine in top operating condition. He particularly liked cleaning the milk wand.
He liked using it, too, so he very frequently made cappuccino for me, whether I wanted him to or not. Usually I did want it though, so this improved our working relationship tremendously.
Of course, a tremendous improvement on mud is only a better grade of mud, isn’t it? Anyway, I continue to handle most of the bills, which is why I noticed the increase in rent before Rodney had a chance to order his air system. But now that I had that straightened out, I had to hurry and get through the rest of the bills before it was time to leave for my assignment.
Twice a month, I was supposed to follow Mrs. Linore Burkstead to the “Haute Coiture” salon and watch outside while she had her hair done. Her husband was convinced that she was having an affair with her stylist, so he hired our firm to do surveillance. He only wanted to pay for about a couple of hours a month, however, so if his wife was having an affair any place other than in the stylist’s chair, he wouldn’t be likely to learn about it.
It doesn’t make much sense, but, as Dave says, it doesn’t have to. As long as they pay us.
Mrs. Burkstead’s appointment was at 2:30, so I would leave the office on Thursdays at about 2:00. By the time I had finished watching the shampoo and styling and followed her home, it was time for me to leave to meet my son when he got off the school bus.
That meant I had to get things finished early on Thursdays, and this mess with the rent had really slowed me down. I started to make really good progress on the rest of the bills however. All I had left was—
“I can’t read this word. Is Dave coming in at all today?” Brittany whined from her desk.
I looked up to see her spin her chair around in frustration. Well, the first time, it was frustration. Then I think she spun around a few more times just for fun. The chair squeaked in protest with each turn, and her streaky blonde hair flew out around her head in a golden arc.
“Check the schedule.” I nodded toward the oversized dry erase board chart Rodney had set up so that we could tell at a glance where all our “key players” were.
“It’s blank.” She snorted indignantly.
Of course it was. I knew Dave would never fill in his schedule in advance. We were lucky if we could figure out where he’d been after he’d been there, let alone before. The only thing on the schedule for this week was my surveillance at the salon and Rodney’s meeting with an office furniture salesman.
“Is he on night surveillance again?” she asked with a spin.
“I can’t remember,” I mumbled in reply, hoping she’d take the hint and leave me alone. Just two more bills. Two. But I’d already lost my place and typed in the amount of the previous bill backward.
The phone rang and I reached for it out of habit, too late realizing I should have left it for Brittany or Rodney to answer. “Good afternoon,” I said as I tried to type in the correct number with my left hand.
“Hi,” a young man’s voice said with enthusiasm. “Can I talk to Nate?”
“He’s not here anymore. He retired.” I switched the phone to my left hand so I could type with my right.
“Oh, great. I know he’ll enjoy that. So, then could I talk to the new person in charge of capital purchasing?”
I stifled a groan. This chatty guy was just another telemarketer who happened to have our old senior partner’s name in his database. “I’m sorry,” I said quickly. “He’s not available.”
“Would that be…” the salesman paused ever-so-slightly as he no doubt looked through his database “Dave Sarkesian?”
“Can I speak with him?”
“No.” Typing with one hand, I had almost managed to finish another bill. But I was probably putting in the amount backward again, since I couldn’t focus while I was talking on the phone. “If you have information to pitch,” I advised, “send it in the mail. We’ll look at it when we have the chance.”
“But this is a special offer, only available for a limited time.”
“It so happens that limited time is just what I have. And you’re not getting it. Good—”
“But I know Dave will want to take advantage of this offer!”
“—bye.” I tried to put the phone back on the base without looking, but I missed and stuck it in a potted plant instead.
It was 1:45. Just one bill left. I could certainly finish by the time I had to go.
“Karen?” Brittany’s voice broke into my thoughts about the Federal Express bill I was holding. “Who’s the client with the night surveillance every few months? I’ll look up the file.”
“What?” I said, confused. There was a reason I needed to check the amount on the bill. But now I'd forgotten what it was.
Or was it the gas credit card bill that I was supposed to double check? .
My glance strayed to the clock on my desk. 1:48.
Brittany spun in her chair again. I think she’d just realized she could do this without tipping the chair over and it fascinated her. “Was it Wray Electric?” she asked.
I gritted my teeth. “Why don’t you get out the file and see if it was Wray Electric?”
The chair squeaked, but the clomp of Brittany’s clogs across the uneven floorboards indicated that she had stopped spinning and gotten up to find the file.
The phone rang again. Brittany wouldn’t be able to answer it in time; she was leaning over a file cabinet. Rodney was making espresso. With a sigh, I turned away from the bills and picked up the phone.
“Good afternoon,” I said unconvincingly.
“Hey, Karen, it’s Doreen.”
Doreen, our insurance agent, is used to the nondescript greeting we use to answer the phone as well as my often rushed and unfriendly tone of voice. She sounded as cheerful as ever. I started to wonder whether I might enjoy a job in the insurance industry.
“Hello, Doreen.” I shuffled through my notes, trying to remember what I had last asked her to do. She had to be calling me back about something. I was always asking her to look up stuff in her databases for us.
“Remember when I said you’d owe me?” she asked.
I let the papers fall to the desk. This time she was calling to ask me a favor. And I had about 10 minutes to help her. “I remember,” I said guardedly.
“I need you guys to check something out for me.”
“Uh-huh.” I grabbed a pad of paper.
“We’ve got a claim for snow damage to a sunroom.”
“Uh-huh.” I wrote down Snow damage. Sunroom. We hadn’t had much snow this winter. In fact, I think it had only snowed once so far, just a few inches, but that was enough to close schools for two days. We are pretty wimpy about snow here in central Maryland.
“Well,” she continued, “the homeowners claim that the glass ceiling caved from the pressure and everything in the room was ruined.”
This seemed pretty straightforward. I’m sure one of her regular investigators could have handled it, but if this was how she wanted the favor repaid, I wasn’t going to object. Maybe her regular investigators were too busy.
“Okay,” I said tapping the pen against the paper as I glanced at the clock. “Give me the address.”
“There’s more.” Doreen hesitated.
“Oh?” It was now 1:54.
“They claim that everything in the room was damaged.”
“You said that already.”
“Everything is some furniture, carpet, and a rare parrot that was supposedly worth over $15,000.”
The paper ripped as I dug the point of the pen into it. “A live parrot?”
“Well, I think he’s dead now.”
“No, I mean, not a parrot statue or something.”
Doreen sighed. “Yeah, it was a real parrot.”
“So,” I scribbled a little design on the corner of the paper as I determinedly avoided looking at the clock, “you need us to find out if the bird’s really dead?”
“We know he’s dead. We need you to find out if he was in the room when it collapsed.”
“What?” I laughed a little and it came out as a sort of a snort. “Do you think he was out partying or something?”
Doreen laughed, too. “No, probably not. But the pictures our investigator took make it look like the sunroom hadn't been finished at the time of the collapse. We don’t think there was much of anything in the room at the time, including the parrot.”
“Alright. I’ll see what we can find out. You’ll fax me your investigator’s report?”
“Okay. Sorry to rush you, but I’ve gotta run.”
“Thanks, Karen. I knew we could count on you.”
I looked at the phone for a moment after I hung up. A parrot. We’re investigating the death of a parrot. I knew right then Dave would assign the case to me. It would bring in no money and garner no prestige whatsoever for the investigator or the firm. But it might help restore his confidence in me, which had probably sunk pretty low after I got fired in the middle of my last case. My last real case. I didn’t count overseeing a shampoo every week as real investigative work. I was starting to wonder if Dave was ever going to assign me any more real cases or whether I would be stuck doing routine bills and copyediting activity reports for the rest of my working life while everyone else in the firm did the actual work.
1:58. Time to grab my coat.
“I’m off to watch Mrs. Burkstead,” I called to Brittany. “See you tomorrow.”
“See ya.” She waved the folder she was leafing through, presumably still looking for clues to Dave’s whereabouts.
As I reached over to grab my purse out of the desk drawer, the phone rang again.
Rodney was still in the kitchen.
Brittany was still standing by the file cabinet.
With a sigh, I grabbed the receiver. “Good afternoon,” I said tersely.
“I’m trying to reach DS Investigations,” a woman said in a brusque but not unfriendly cultured voice. “Do I have the right number?”
“You do,” was all I said in response. We keep our phone greeting as vague as possible to avoid tipping off relatives and friends of clients who find our number by mistake. “How can I help you?” I tried not to make my voice sound as tense as I felt. I’d been hoping this was another telemarketer so I could hang up and run. But if the caller was a potential client, I wanted to talk to her to increase the likelihood that I might get the case, should there be one. If I turned the phone over to Brittany, we probably wouldn’t even get a legible phone number for this woman.
“I need to hire an investigator,” she said gravely.
I waited in vain for her to continue. “Yes?” I prompted.
“But it needs to be… oh, how can I put this?” Gentility seeped through her voice, and I could almost picture her sitting under an enormous fan on the porch of an antebellum mansion, even though her accent put her closer to upstate New York than anywhere in the South. “It needs to be discreet,” she said at last. “I can’t have someone in a trench coat walking around with a magnifying glass at practice.”
I smothered a laugh. “Discretion is priority in this business, ma’am.” I pictured Dave skulking around in a trench coat with a big magnifying glass and almost lost it. I didn’t think the potential client would be real impressed to have me giggle in her ear.
“Well, I wanted to see what your investigators look like, but you don’t have any pictures on your website.”
“No, ma’am.” I’m not sure why I kept using the deferential “ma’am,” since the woman didn’t sound much older than myself. I think I just did it to try to keep myself from laughing at her ignorance. Maybe she thought we should have a big billboard on Route 40 so that everyone would know what our investigators looked like, including people being investigated.
“I wanted to come by the office,” she continued with a faint whine in her voice “but you have only a post office box listed. You are local, aren’t you?”
“Our office is in Ellicott City. Ma’am.” Okay, now I was overdoing the “ma’am” bit, and I needed to cut it out and get a grip on myself.
“Well, you should have more information out there,” she insisted. "I need to see what your investigators look like before I hire one.”
“I think,” I said slowly, “that if you tell me what this all about, then I can tell you whether we think we can help you. We don't put our investigators pictures online because investigations tend to be more effective when people don't realize they're being investigated.”
“Well, yes, I guess that makes sense. What is your starting retainer?”
“Uh, nine hundred.” The caller’s suddenly businesslike question surprised me for a minute, but I knew that our retainer was lower than a lot of investigation firms, so it should be a good selling point for us.
“Very good. And how long has the firm been licensed?”
“Eighteen years.” Nate had been in business that long. Dave had been licensed for a little less than 10 years. And I’d only had my license for two years and had hardly ever really used it. But she asked about the firm, not each of the investigators.
“Good,” she said, as if checking items off a list. “And you promise that you can be discreet?”
“Of course.” We’d never mingled with nobility or the rich and famous, but we had done work for the old moneyed families in Maryland and knew some of them could be passionate about maintaining their privacy.
“Good,” she murmured, and again I had the sense that she was going through a checklist. I wondered if she might be the personal assistant to a rich woman who needed us to find missing heirloom jewels or locate the beneficiary of a testator’s unexpected bequest.
“I need to hire an investigator,” she said, rather redundantly.
“Yes,” I said, trying to be patient as my gaze strayed to the clock. I was going to have to flat-out run down to Main Street to make it to the salon on time. But it would be worth it if I was able to rope in a new client. With this woman’s educated voice and concerns about discretion, I thought we might be looking at something substantial. Even if it was just a woman wishing to keep tabs on her husband, she might be a client with enough money to pay for a extensive investigation. So I didn’t want to make her feel rushed. “Why do you want to hire an investigator?” I asked gently.
“I need an investigator. Your best investigator,” she said firmly. “To find out who broke my daughter’s jump rope.”