Ainsley Moss never thought she’d become a representative for the dead. But as a newbie obituary writer for the Aurora Fall’s Guardian, she gets a sneak peek at her new profession. Her ex-best friend and rival newspaper worker turns up blue and stiff as a board in the women’s bathroom—after they’ve had a less than civil confrontation.
Ainsley’s in the habit of memorializing the dead, not finding them. But now she’s saddled with a motive for murder—killing to drum up obituaries in order to further her career in a dying newspaper business where everything is going digital.
When another victim meets his maker with a connection to the first victim, Ainsley has to make nice with a hard ass, bombshell Detective who’s dead set on closing the case or risk the calm of their cozy town. Ainsley’s charming, ex-boyfriend turned roommate Gage Sullivan comes to her aid as they throw themselves into deadly research. Every obituary interview brings them that much closer to finding a killer connection. While fighting her new rep as a prime suspect, her matchmaking, Stepford mother is intent on keeping her daughter’s dirty laundry under wraps and her sex addicted wealthy grandparents want to buy her way out of jail. Or at least help her learn how to make a shiv.
None too thrilled with the idea of making friends with a cell mate named Betty the Bruiser, she’ll wade knee deep into a cesspool of the town’s secrets, gossip, and lies. But with a whacky cast of characters hell bent on keeping the peace, no bit of personal information is sacred. They have to find a killer—before Ainsley loses her freedom and her chance to make peace with a fate that scares her more than anything else in life.
“Excuse me, Miss?”
My head swiveled to the right and the left—no one. I looked up into the industrial lofts circling around and up the perimeter of the building, where all the important people in the newspaper business kept their hours. A stranger stuck his head out over the balcony. I couldn’t get a good glimpse with my head at a whackado angle and all the blood rushed into my temples.
I quickly stood up, fighting off the dizzy spell, and the pinch of my heels. I clamored up the winding, wooden circular stairs into the lofts and toward an epically tall man with razor sharp cheekbones that could make women riot in the streets. His light green gaze narrowed and he cleared his throat. His bleached blond hair was curly at the ends with black roots, and he wore a suit that was more vintage 1920’s than anything I’d seen in my coastal college town—and yet it fit him to utter perfection. A gorgeous, trim swimmer’s body beneath his light cream dress shirt and…this couldn’t be going anywhere good.
If this was my new boss—well, I wasn’t going to finish my thought.
His brow’s raised in expectation. Maybe my day was less gloom and more va-va-voom. He offered me a smile which shifted heat down to the bottom of my curled toes.
“Yes?” I slung my black studded messenger bag over my shoulder with a thump and the bag hitting against my hip made me wince. “Nice to meet you. I can’t wait to get chatting, let me just get my resume out.” I stuck my hand out waiting for his firm grip in mine. When he didn’t extend his hand to take mine, I mentally brushed off the dust from my social skills, and dug in my bag for my resume. He kept walking down the hallway and I swallowed the lump in my throat.
I followed him down the creaky steel balustrade to his office. He paused at the entryway where I almost slammed into what I imagined was a firm backside. The seconds ticked by while I was busy fumbling through several notebooks, open packages of orange Tic-Tacs, and wadded up pieces of paper. Until I sidled past him and maneuvered into the generic wooden chair facing the typical name plated desk of my future boss. Streamers of spring light dappled across the dust mote-strewn room and I looked back down at the bag in my lap.
“Here we are,” I practically shoved the crisp paper into his chest. He hovered above me and I dumped my bag to the side of the chair. “Hit me with anything, I can take it.”
My confidence was likely to take the blow as I folded my hands in my lap, crossed my ankles, and pasted on the fake smile of interviewees everywhere. Not the best start to new and improved Ainsley—but at least I’d woken up this morning, there was that. I watched him as a curled lock of his platinum hair fell against his forehead, released from its prison of hair gel, while he scanned my resume. One side of his mouth curled upward. Was his smile because of the work experience at the University bookstore or my creative use of effulgent? Sure the ink was slightly smudged from the typewriter, but damn it, laptops melt in dorm room fires. Not as though mine was impervious.
“I can type as fast as you need me to and I’m an advanced master in spellcheck. The little squiggles don’t know what they’re in for and I know my master’s degree is in library science but I’m a really good reporter, I’ve seen the movie Newsies, like eight bazillion times and who doesn’t know about dead people? I’ll do them justice—”
“While I’ll take that all into consideration, Miss Moss, um, I don’t work here. I’d actually called your name because your mother had mentioned to me that she wanted to get you out of the house and…you don’t recognize me, do you?”
Mortification didn’t directly lead into recognition, so that would be a negative. I squinted at him hoping maybe it would bring everything into focus. Meanwhile I tried to ignore the blush creeping up beneath my cheeks to singe upward along my cropped hairline. His lips pursed while he shuffled from one foot to the other and shoved a hand in his pocket.
“You’re not my new boss?” I lamely put out into the universe, twisting my fingers in my lap.
“Not so much. Only a perspective roommate. I met your mother at the Shop and Hop this morning picking out a new box of Wheaties. Because you and I dated in eighth grade and things didn’t work out, your mother is convinced I’m gay, which leaves me as prime pickins when I’ve got space to rent in my renovated Victorian.” He seemed to smile at a memory, laughing to himself. “I don’t know what you did to that woman, but she’s more than ready to get rid of you.”
There was a beat when I considered any number of sins I could have committed in my mother’s eyes. The list was long and probably in alphabetical order. And while I was still under her roof, a lot of what she thought of me still mattered a whole hell of a lot.
“Aw, blast, where the hell are my manners today?” He ran a large hand through his hair and eased it along the top of his head, as if he were looking for something up there. Maybe a hat? Sure matched the southern charm oozing from every pore. “Gage Sullivan, possible landlord, and former dumpee. I’m here to interview with Mr. Spencer for an advertising slot in the paper for my home business.”
He held out my little resume. A flash-bang of sudden memory made me lick my lips. We’d dated for two weeks in junior high and I’d dumped him for a fictional character—a one Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy, because, and I quote “he knew how to treat a girl”. And Gage had been too busy running track, riding four-wheelers, and sleeping in on the weekends to amuse me.
Yeah, no idea what I’d meant with that one-liner either. But not having an explanation for my teenage mistake didn’t keep the old memory from searing my brain as I wrapped my mind around the pseudo-stranger’s proposition to move in with him.
“You’ll probably need your resume again. I just wanted to make you aware of the situation, with the house. Your mom seemed pretty dead set. I’ll be on my best behavior as a landlord, cross my heart and hope to die.” He winked and my thighs tightened together as my body went taut with uncomfortable awareness. I snatched my resume back from his outstretched fingers—piano player’s fingers.
“She’s pretty persistent…about everything,” I muttered holding my violated resume to my chest and wondering whether to stumble out or sit there waiting for my actual boss. “You know I don’t have any money, right? Not exactly a great rental prospect without rent money.”
“I’m not adverse to IOU’s.” His light green eyes lit up and he leaned back against the desk crossing his arms. “At least I’ll know exactly where to go for collection services.”
Footsteps sounded outside the door and my head twisted so fast toward the doorway I might as well have been possessed. My fingers curled in my lap, as if I was getting caught doing something I shouldn’t, and someone was going to call me out on it. Whoever walked into the office next was probably my new boss. But my track record at this point was pretty shoddy.
“Ah, glad you two made it down here. I’m sorry for the delay, there was a pie fight in the diner and someone had to cover the story before it got all cleaned up. As you know, we’re a little shorthanded around here lately.”
The voice belongs to Paul Spencer, head of our small town newspaper. Or, that was who I thought he was given he took the seat behind the big oak desk with the super nifty swivel chair and the name plate “Paul Spencer”. But, what did I know? I’d been wrong the first time.
“Is that your resume?” He pointed toward the paper still pressed against my breasts. “May I have it?”
I handed it to him without a word. The incredibly thin man scratched the top of his hair, which stuck out everywhere in a garish red hue I’d recently seen in the semi-permanent hair color aisle. It was so damn vibrant. Frankly, it made me a bit envious, as I absently pet my own shock-rock red highlighted black pixie cut. He straightened the bowtie at his throat, cracked his neck, and rubbed the stubble at his chin, which proved the vibrant shade of red was au natural. When he propped a Converse sneakered foot on the edge of his desk, I grew a little worried.
Did he plan on shooing out Gage or was this some kind of kinky, three-way interview on camera somewhere? Better to go with a flow, I guessed. He made a few low noises of approval. His hand fished in his khaki pocket until he came up with the dreaded red pen and circled what must have been ninety things—even if I didn’t have many things to circle on my itty-bitty resume. Mercifully, he lowered his weapon a second later and locked eyes with me.
“Your Sylvia Moss’s girl, aren’t you?”
I nodded. All of my good interview answers wasted on the phony sitting beside me. Yes, those were my good interview answers.
“Wh—a—at?” I stammered and stumbled as a cop crashed into me none too gently, pushing me into a sugar factory brick wall outside the bathroom and shoving my hands behind my back. Before I could say holy smokes, Batman, she’d cuffed me. And sadly, the first thought that ran through my mind wasn’t, “what did I do”, “I’m innocent”, or “this would be a good time to find God”. Oh, no. It was so stereotypical I laughed completely inappropriately—because my mother was going to tan my ass for whatever this was all about, whatever mistake had fallen on my head.
Because it had to be a mistake. And yet the Miranda rights were chiming in my ear. White noise was rushing through my head in a whoosh, I couldn’t quite catch my breath, and my chest felt as though it were trapped in a vice scraping against the brick wall. My wrists stung from the sudden abuse of the cuffs clicking around the sensitive skin and my shoulders jutted out pretty damn uncomfortably. Stars streaked across my inner eyelids and I knew I was a goner.
Lights out in Chinatown, folks. That was all she wrote.
When I finally swam back up to the surface, it wasn’t as if the world suddenly made sense again. Far from it. I was flat on my back with darkness swimming at the corners of my vision. Enough awareness crowded into my brain to groan, but not enough to warrant opening my eyes. My fingertips were tingling as if I’d dipped them in a bucket of ice water for several hours. And my last memories were of Juliet’s lifeless face staring up at me.
“Hey, welcome back.”
Maybe I should have known the husky feminine voice, but nothing was registering. Until someone pulled up my arm and forced my hand around a cup. That was when I noticed my mouth was drier than a dust mote. My eyelids snapped open and I winced from the bad lighting. The glass of water tucked in my trembling hand was looking like something to get up for, or at least enough of a reward to attempt to move my fifty-pound bowling ball of a head. Nausea clawed its way up into my throat.
My wavering gaze stuck on the woman to my left side. The stranger was leaning against the cot she’d propped me up on and was in, what I could only assume, was a plainclothes cop uniform. Given the shiny badge, black flared pants, and crimson silken top with her dark red hair slicked back in a high and tight bun. She must have noticed my assessment because she went eerily still, merely raising one well-plucked brow in silent question, as if wondering if she passed muster.
She looked like the kind of woman who modeled for fifties pin-up shoots, all curves and a face that could bring whole civilizations to their knees. There was even a small beauty mark to the right of her top lip. As if it had been Marilyn Monroe pre-approved before she was born. She tilted her head at me and I swore her hazel eyes flashed with a liveliness that wasn’t appropriate for the current setting.
I mentally willed the glass to my lips and scanned her expressionless stare. Another sip of icy water and I was better able to address my current epicness—A.K.A, I was still at the police precinct having to answer for—something. God, I hoped…they couldn’t…would they pin…that on me?
“Why am I here and who are you?”
“You’re here for questioning as a possible suspect in the murder of Juliet Aguillard. I’m Morgana Lipinski, lead homicide detective in the case. Now if you are feeling more yourself, accompany me to the questioning room for further discussion. I’m not allowed to ask anything else until you’re under surveillance in one of our interview rooms.”
I think I may have passed out again. For a second the world spun one hundred and eighty degrees. When I reached with my other hand to settle myself there was a foreign, metallic, clinking noise. In slow motion I turned my head. A handcuff. I was handcuffed to the crappy cot with a plain clothes cop tapping her foot and waiting for me to confess to a murder I didn’t commit—but I’d been at the crime scene.
I’d been at the scene of the crime. God, there’d been a crime.
“You don’t know?” Morgana shot off, silently taking back the water glass I held out as I eyed the handcuff still snapped around my wrist. “We’re not at liberty to discuss anymore.”
“Then I’m ready for my questioning.”
“Does that mean you’re ready to confess? How lucky for me, I love the easy ones.” She put the water glass on a table, vaulted up out of her crouch near the cot, and reached over with the handcuff key. “When I undo this you’ll remain still until I tell you to stand and put your hands behind your back, is that understood?”
“Yes.” The last thing I wanted to do was provoke her to shoot me.
Morgana nodded tightly with her lips pressed together. I couldn’t draw my gaze away as she sunk the key into the lock and twisted. Like magic, I was free. At least from the physical bondage part. I still had my semi-good name to clear, and I needed to sort through a wealth of backstory and Aurora Falls knowledge to stop being suspect number one solving my own personal mystery—who in the hell killed Juliet? And who decided it would be an even better idea to blame me? Whoever had made up all the mayhem and invited it into my life was getting a very strongly worded letter once I was released. And son of a bitch, I hoped this didn’t go on my record.
“Get up and put your hands on the wall.”
“Sure.” I did what she told me and shuddered when she brought both my arms backward snapping on the cuffs. “Again?”
“It’s the rules.”
Rather than stutter something inappropriate, I shut my trap as she led me through the precinct. My first time in a police station and the sight wasn’t endearing. The ringing of phones and chatter was nearly deafening while she led me by the arm around the sea of desks in the middle of the room. No one even looked up or budged from their daily grind. Meanwhile new people flowed through the doors like water—both employees and people facing minor infractions or a slap on the wrist. Which was probably too good a punishment to think about in my case.
When she led me down an offshoot from the main room into a wooden-paneled hallway, I could refocus on her rough grip. Another police officer waited outside of a similar adjoining room. He gave her a small nod. But he didn’t even acknowledge my presence, which I should have expected.
“We’re going in here.” Detective Lipinski took a key, unlocked the door, and led us inside where the door closed with a sickening thud. “Please have a seat.”
Before I could comply, she pushed me down into the chair and poured me another glass of water from the pitcher on the table. She slid it across with one finger before taking the chair opposite me. Her smile was sickeningly sweet. And when my cuffs rattled and I realized I couldn’t go for the water, I knew why she was so pleased. Someone took way too much pleasure in their job.
Looks as though it was my job to overlook the little…oversight.
“I don’t want an attorney, I didn’t do anything. So let’s get this show on the road, please. I’ve got places to be today.”
That slapped the smile off her face. But she pulled a little notebook out of a pocket somewhere and clicked her pen into writing mode. At least we were getting somewhere.
“It wasn’t hard to find you, you know. A distraught woman pointed you out from across the newspaper room. The very same witness claimed she heard you threatening the deceased before someone else found her dead in the stall. You weren’t the first killer to take a second peek.”
That all sounded so compelling I didn’t comment. No need to dig the hole deeper while she nibbled on the edge of her pen. It was as if I’d made her job a hundred times easier and she was imagining winning awards, ribbons, and getting free pie. Everyone likes free pie. And yet, I had to be the bearer of bad news. Good news for me, because I didn’t do it. But she didn’t know that and I could only hope to convince her while her whole world revolved around me as a prime suspect. I’ve watched murder shows, I know how these things pan out.
I stayed silent. Her eyes narrowed, matte red lips twisting into a look of distaste.
“We have an eyewitness and a video tape proving you were at the scene of the crime.”
“You got video evidence that quickly?” Mostly I was amazed because the building was so ancient, I expected something a little less high tech. More groaning and lumbering with a side of useless—and why were there cameras in the bathroom? “I didn’t do anything. Might as well state that for the official record.”
“Since you’re going to be stubborn, tell me what exactly did happen in that restroom. The cameras aren’t posted there for obvious sexual harassment purposes, so I’d like to be enlightened. But we did catch you on tape as the last one to go into the ladies room before the incident and the time stamps match up with the ME’s supposed time of death.”
“Did the eyewitness mention I was dragged into the bathroom and held hostage by the…victim?” My stomach bottomed out on the last word and another death sunk in while I closed my eyes for a single heartbeat.
“You? Held hostage?” The delightful detective panned her gaze from what she could see of me behind the table before smirking. “Please do explain.”
So I spilled my guts. Every sordid bit of detail that would probably make a good plotline for a daytime soap, if they were still on the air in the afternoons. What more did I have to lose? She already had me in lockdown for her starring role as murderess. The least I could do was be cooperative and hope my willingness busted my ass out of the clink. Somehow I knew withholding information wasn’t going to get me any bonus points.
“So, you see, she’s been harassing me for quite some time.” I breathed out at the tail end of my story of the bathroom incident and watched as she took notes.
“And you filed prior reports?”
“You went to the police at your college and told them about what the victim was doing to you,” she spoke slowly as if I were an idiot before blinking a few times. “No restraining order? No paperwork? Nothing?”
“I didn’t want to make a big deal…”
Detective Lipinski snorted and whipped her notebook closed.
“From woman to woman, some advice. If another broad is that intent on making your life hell, you get someone involved with a badge and a gun. Because crazy tends to escalate and there’s nothing crazier than a girl with a broken heart and a limitless supply of cheap vodka, got it?”
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