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Authors: A.R. Winters

Tags: #Mystery: Cozy - Amateur Sleuth - Hamptons

A.R. Winters - Valerie Inkerman 01 - Don't Be a Stranger

BOOK: A.R. Winters - Valerie Inkerman 01 - Don't Be a Stranger
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A.R. Winters - Valerie Inkerman 01 - Don't Be a Stranger
Number I of
Valerie Inkerman
A.R. Winters
A.R. Winters (2014)
Mystery: Cozy - Amateur Sleuth - Hamptons
Mystery: Cozy - Amateur Sleuth - Hamptonsttt
When Valerie Inkerman’s roommate Jerry gets her a waitressing gig at cushy Hamptons party, she has no idea that murder is on the menu. But when one of the guests is found dead and Jerry is accused of being the killer, Val knows she needs to utilise all her skills as a private investigator to clear his name.
Trying to track down the victim’s possible enemies and find new leads, Val faces distractions in the form of old acquaintances and a hot dinner date. But as Val’s leads all turn into dead ends, the killer seems to stay step ahead of her all the time.
Val knows she’s close to finding out the truth, but will she be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together before time runs out for Jerry or the killer strikes again?
Don’t Be
a Stranger: A Valerie Inkerman Mystery



R. Winters


Don’t Be a Stranger

Copyright 201
4 by A. R. Winters

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only.

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental.





Don’t Be
a Stranger (A Valerie Inkerman Mystery)



When Valerie Inkerman’s roommate Jerry gets her a waitressing gig at cush
y Hamptons party, she has no idea that murder is on the menu.

But when one of the guests is found dead and Jerry is accused of being the killer, Val knows she needs to utilize all her skills as a private investigator to clear his name.

Trying to track down the victim’s possible enemies and find new leads, Val faces distractions in the form of old acquaintances and a hot dinner date. But as all Val’s leads turn into dead ends, the killer seems to stay one step ahead of her all the time. 

Val knows she’s close to finding out the truth, but will she be able to put the pieces of the puzzle together before time runs out for Jerry
– or the killer strikes again?


Chapter One


The party was just getting started.

Every time the kitchen door swung open, I caught a glimpse of the hall beyond. The guests were arriving, wearing chic outfits and happy faces, and the hall itself was tastefully decorated. Helium balloons in bouquets of silver and pink floated far above the white marble floor. Wide stairs led to the second floor, and the banisters were wrapped with pink and silver ribbons.

It was too cold to leave the double French doors open, but out near the well-lit pool, a couple of smokers stood around, glancing back indoors and letting elegant spirals of smoke escape from their mouths.

Carly Billson had picked the perfect late-spring day to throw a party. It was too early for the Hamptons’ season to officially begin, but most of the guests would stay over at their, or a friend’s, house for the weekend; only a few would drive straight back home to Manhattan.

If I hadn’t been fired from my job two years ago, I might’ve been one of the well-heeled. I might’ve stood out in the hall with everyone else, tossing back Cristal and daintily declining tiny hors d’oeuvres.

, as it was, I was with the catering crew.

I stood in Carly’s modern, bustling kitchen, sweltering in the heat from the ovens, my ears ringing with the noise of frantic food preparation. I busied myself with a big bottle of champagne, pouring drinks into delicate flutes.

Jerry Spilatro, my roommate, entered the kitchen and placed his tray of empty glasses next to the big bowl containing all the catering employees’ silenced cellphones. His tall, dark-haired presence was reassuring, but he only stayed in the kitchen long enough to give me a quick wink and a thumbs-up, before he grabbed a tray of tiny sandwiches and headed back out. 

The wink was enough to make Maria – the catering manager, and a small, scary dragon of a woman – notice me.

“You!” she yelled sharply. “Grab a tray and get out! I’m not paying you to stay in the kitchen.”

I faked a smile. “Of course. Sorry.”

The tray, laden with its dozen-odd flutes of champagne, felt unnaturally heavy in my hands, but I forced myself out the kitchen door.

I had a bad feeling about this party.

I’d spent the last two years hiding from the acquaintances of my previous life. Tonight, I would run into someone I used to know – I could feel it in my bones. And then, what would I say?

My uniform betrayed me. Before I even said a word, it proclaimed loudly to the world that I was a waitress at the party. Clearly, I was someone who still struggled to pay her bills after the incident two years ago.

“Hey, Val!” I’d taken two steps forward when Jerry called out. He jerked his head, indicating that I should come over, and I hesitantly did so. “This is Esme.” He smiled broadly. “Esme, Valerie.”

Esme was a pretty brunette in an emerald green dress. Her hair was cropped short, and her lipstick was a deep maroon.

“Nice to meet you,” I murmured politely.

I didn’t want to be seen shirking work (again), but I really didn’t want to face the guests just yet. Besides, maybe Esme wanted a drink.

“How do you two know each other?” I asked, only vaguely interested in the answer.

“I bumped into a table and spilled her drink at a bar,” said Jerry, with far more enthusiasm than someone should have about their clumsiness. “So I bought her another drink. And then we saw each other at this other party…”

“And it turns out,” Esme finished, “that we’ve got lots of friends in common!”

I made happy, approving noises, even though I wasn’t too surprised. Jerry wasn’t the smartest cracker in the box, but he was good-natured and kind-hearted. Every other person seemed to be his friend.

“The only problem is,” Jerry said, “She’s a Yankees’ fan!”

Esme gave Jerry a friendly shove. “Like the Mets deserve any support!”

The conversation quickly devolved into a heated debate about players and games, and I found myself zoning out.

Baseball wasn’t my game. Neither was basketball, or soccer. Or cricket. Or… well, you get the idea.

If I’d known what was going to happen in a few hours’ time, I would’ve paid more attention to the conversation. I would’ve asked Esme some questions. Or maybe I would’ve told her to get the hell out of the party.

Instead, I let my attention drift away.

I tried to cover my face with my longish bangs. It was a vague attempt at camouflage, and I glanced surreptitiously around the room, wondering if I’d notice someone I knew. So far, so good. People were standing around the hall chatting, and once in a while someone would go up the stairs, probably to use one of the guest bathrooms. I couldn’t see anyone I knew – yet.

When I drifted back to the conversation, Esme was looking at me, saying, “I thought Jerry was living with two other guys.”

I shook my head. “No, he moved into my place two and a half months ago. But he gets on my nerves like we’ve known each other forever.”

“Yeah,” Jerry said. “But it’s fun getting on her nerves. I reckon we’ll live together at least another six months.”

I sighed. I’d had to take in a roommate to help cover my bills, and I really hoped things would get better within six months. Preferably within three.

“Besides,” Jerry was saying. “She didn’t know anything about food before I moved in. Never even cooked. Or baked.”

“Nobody in New York cooks,” said Esme. “I keep my gym clothes in my oven. Anyway,” she added regretfully, “I should go mingle.”

She rolled her eyes, to show just what she thought of that. “It was nice meeting you,” she told me.

I nodded politely. “You too.”

“Don’t be a stranger,” she said to Jerry with a smile, and we watched her head back toward the crowd.

“Isn’t she great?” Jerry said.

I looked at him sharply.

Jerry had very few female friends. With his dark-haired good looks, women fawned over him, and he never seemed to turn anyone down – a fact that I, as his roommate, was keenly aware of. He’d only moved into the apartment a few weeks ago, but I’d already had numerous early-morning encounters with scantily-clad women.

“What?” he said innocently.

“Let me guess – she turned you down because she realized you’re such a big loser.”

“No-one realizes I’m a loser. Because I’m
a loser. She said she’s seeing someone else.”

I snorted. “Yeah, sure.”

I knew that she probably wasn’t seeing anyone else – it was probably just an excuse to not go out with Jerry. But it was a smart, believable excuse, and my opinion of her did go up a little.

“Anyway,” Jerry said. “She’s nice. So we’re friends.”

I made a non-committal noise.

“Hey,” he said. “How ‘bout this catering gig, huh? You’re glad you came, right? It’s super easy money.”

I took a deep breath. Jerry wouldn’t understand what I was worried about. All his friends were clearly non-elitist, nice people.

“Sure,” I said

We walked over to the groups of people scattered about. I kept my head bent, staring just above the ground as I balanced my tray carefully, and prayed for invisibility.

Chapter Two


More and more people arrived, and the noise level rose a few decibels.

My first lap around the room went ok. I didn’t see anyone I knew and I was starting to relax a little.

My luck lasted for about ten more minutes.

I’d just come out of the kitchen with a tray of fresh fruit-kebabs, when I heard a high-pitched, flitty voice saying, “Valerie Inkerman! Is that you?!”

My blood ran cold. I looked in the other direction and pretended not to hear. Perhaps, if I pretended hard enough, she’d think my name wasn’t really Valerie.

I took a few more steps forward, but I heard quick footsteps behind me.

“Val!” The woman inserted herself in front of me, forcing me to look up. “It’s me! Lisa!”

Her smile was broad and fake and her blue eyes sparkled. Her blonde hair – an improbably beautiful shade with artistic highlights and lowlights running through it – was piled into a glamorous high chignon, and her skinny body was poured into a tight-fitting blue dress.

I couldn’t pretend any longer. I forced myself to paste on a wobbly smile.

“Valerie Inkerman!” Lisa managed to wrap her bony arms around my shoulders, avoiding my laden snacks tray, and leaned forward to blow air kisses past my cheeks. “How lovely to see you again! How’ve you been?”

Before I could answer, she let go of my shoulders, and waved one red-painted talon in the air. “Mellie!” she called. “Come over here! It’s Valerie!”

Oh great. Just what I needed – a reunion with two blabbermouths from my former life. Lisa and Mellie both worked at Weissman North, one of the largest public relations firms in Manhattan, and I gulped as I heard excited footsteps approaching me.

“Valerie!” I turned around to see Mellie smiling broadly at me.

Although her smile was sweet and sympathetic, I had no doubt that it was just a mask for the spite and schadenfreude that she really felt. I steeled myself. I could get through this.

Mellie was about ten pounds heavier than Lisa, two inches shorter, and a tad less blonde. We went through the whole air-kissing charade again, and I saw the two ladies exchange a secret, amused glance.

“Oh my god!” said Mellie. “It’s been forever! How’ve you been? What’re you up to?”

I hoped she’d continue with her exclamations for a long, long time. Perhaps, if she kept talking, I’d be able slip away without her noticing.

No such luck.

She closed her mouth, and she and Lisa stared at me with wide-eyed, fake-eyelashed curiosity.

“Are you a–” Lisa lowered her voice to a horrified whisper, “–a

“Uh, no.” I stared at them with a look of frozen horror.

Normally, my brain works really fast. I mean, I have like a hundred thoughts a minute, and I’m constantly
of things.

But at that exact moment, my mind went blank.

Completely, absolutely, blank.

I gulped.
Come on, brain! Think of something!

Lisa and Mellie exchanged another one of those smug looks. “Because if you’re a waitress, you know,” Mellie said. “We completely understand! After what happened to you…”

“Yeah.” Lisa nodded in fake sympathy. “We thought, for sure you’d move back to Madison. There was no way you could stay in New York after… ”

I broadened my fake smile and refused to think back to what had happened. “No,” I said. “Still here.”

“As a waitress…” Mellie’s voice was irritatingly compassionate.

I shook my head. “I’m not a waitress.”

It was the only think I could think of to say. I couldn’t let them think of me as someone who’d failed. I’d been one of them – I’d had an exciting, promising career.

“Then…” Lisa looked at me carefully. “Why are you wearing a waitress uniform?”

Right. There was that one little snag. Maybe if I just started talking, the thoughts would follow. Maybe I could come up with something plausible. “I’m a private investigator,” I said.

Mellie giggled. “Then why are you in – that?”

“It’s a cover,” I said desperately. “I’m just pretending to be a waitress.”

Good job, brain. Pat on the back for you.

“Sure.” Lisa didn’t sound convinced.

But now, instead of looking at me like I’d just told them my cat had died, they were looking at me with suspicion. As though at any moment, I’d announce that I was Houdini reincarnated and disappear in a puff of smoke. Which, of course, I’d love to do. Too bad it wasn’t very likely.

“Why are you here?” said Mellie slowly. “You’re a
? Are you serious?”

I nodded solemnly. “Absolutely. But I better go. Before I blow my cover.”

I walked off before they could ask me anything else. My footsteps were light, and my heart was singing – I’d done it! I’d escaped without making a big fool of myself.

Behind me, I was pretty sure I heard Lisa saying, “I can’t believe that! Do you think she’s really a PI?”

But I didn’t care.

I couldn’t convince them not to feel sorry for me. But I could make them wonder what I was really up to. After all, it wasn’t a lie.

I really
a PI. After I’d been fired from my public relations job two years ago, I’d worked with Leo Moskovitz, an old-school, grey-haired PI I’d first met through my job. Though we were as different as day and night, we’d sensed that we had something in common – a shared work ethic, perhaps, or the struggle of surviving in a city which seemed to always be against you.

Leo said he preferred to work alone and that he didn’t need an employee. But he was going through a busy period, so he agreed to hire me for two years: long enough for me to learn some tricks of the trade and pick up my PI badge. When the two years were over, and I was officially a private investigator, Leo told me I was on my own. However, he promised to send a few clients my way when he was over-worked. Which he did, but the occasional subpoena-handing and the odd following of a cheating spouse didn’t pay the bills. So here I was, pretending not to be a waitress.

I managed to ignore Lisa and Mellie, and circulated a few times until I knew for sure that no-one else wanted fruit kebabs. On my way back to the kitchen, I noticed Jerry and Esme talking animatedly about something. I caught his eye and gave him a little frown.

“Get back to work,” I tried to telecommunicate.

But he didn’t seem to get it. When I came out with a tray of toothpick-speared shrimp, they were still standing there, chatting away.

I sighed. Jerry was immature and irresponsible, and one of these days, I knew it would get him into trouble.

BOOK: A.R. Winters - Valerie Inkerman 01 - Don't Be a Stranger
5.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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