Authors: Elaine Macko
Tags: #An Alex Harris Mystery
An Alex Harris Mystery
Copyright © 2013 Elaine Macko
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the copyright holder, except for brief quotations used in a review.
This is a work of fiction and is produced from the author’s imagination. People, places and things mentioned in this novel are used in a fictional manner.
Life is so much better with a friend
along for the ride.
A big thank you to Nadine Davis for the idea;
Karen Phillips for another great cover; and
Nancy Streukens and April Mederios for help with all the edits—
I couldn’t have done it without all of you.
Everyone who knows me knows I love tea. I drink a lot of it. I drink it pretty much all day long interspersed with several glasses of water. The truth is I don’t drink a lot of other stuff; never had a cup of coffee in my life and alcohol makes me sleepy and sometimes sick, so tea and water it is.
I recently received a book about the history of tea. Fascinating stuff and considering that tea, after that life-giving drink, water, is the most consumed beverage on earth, I consider myself to be in pretty lofty company.
Trouble is, I’m a sloppy tea drinker. Not that I drool the stuff all over my clothes or slop it onto the carpet. No, what I mean is, I don’t put a lot of effort into the ritual of making tea. Sometimes, if I’m in a hurry, I won’t even bring the water to a full boil. And while tea connoisseurs demand you steep the tea in the water for some ungodly amount of minutes, I prefer my tea weak. So weak in fact I can get several cups out of one teabag. Did I mention I’m a frugal New Englander? I can almost hear the British gasping all the way in Indian Cove.
But since I started reading the tea book, I’ve tried to be better. I buy better tea and I even took down my Villeroy and Boch Christmas Naif tea set I received from my sister several years ago and have been serving myself in better style. Believe it or not, tea tastes better when the water is boiled, not microwaved, and when it is served in a china cup. Maybe it’s all in my head, but it makes me happy to have my little tea ritual.
So there I was, standing at my kitchen window, Christmas Naif tea mug in hand, when I noticed my neighbor, Mrs. Kravec. From where I stood it looked like she had a small fire burning. Burning anything in our city was frowned upon but every once in a while someone would burn leaves and truth be told I loved the smell and the memories burning leaves brought flooding back to my mind. I used to love to help my dad rake leaves on Saturday mornings and then in the evening I would help him burn the pile, sitting there in the twilight watching the small flames dance.
I put my mug down, finished mixing the meatloaf, placed the pan in the oven and then looked out the window again. Night was descending but I could still make out the outline of Mrs. Kravec standing next to the fire. She was a tall, thin woman, mid-fifties, I thought. From the couple times we met, she seemed like a nice person with a quick smile. I really needed to get out and spend more time with my new neighbors. Since moving into this house about five months ago, I seemed to spend so much time inside fixing it up that I hadn’t had a lot of time to get to know the people on the street.
I stared out the window a bit longer. Smoke was filling the air engulfing her in a white haze. And then she started to cough. I watched her for a few minutes more wondering why she didn’t step away if the smoke was causing her discomfort. I reached for the carrots I had washed earlier and had just started to cut them when Mrs. Kravec’s coughing brought me back to the window.
I couldn’t figure out why the heck she just stood there if the fire bothered her that much. She wasn’t a stupid woman by any means. She had been a professor for goodness sake. Then I thought maybe she just had a cold and that’s why she was coughing. Maybe it had absolutely nothing at all to do with the fire.
I stepped away from the window and went back to my dinner preparations. A few minutes later I returned to the window and looked out once more. Darkness had fallen but with the fire burning I could still see Mrs. Kravec. And then she started clutching at her throat and staggering toward her house. What was going on? She started to dance around still clutching her throat, swaying back and forth. Unless this was some kind of leaf-burning ancient ritual, the woman was in trouble. I grabbed the phone off the counter and dialed 911. Then I ran out the back door toward Mrs. Kravec.
“No. Rat. One. Please don’t make it any worse than it already is,” my sister Samantha said woefully. “Scopes,” she continued. “Scopes the rat.”
I tried to contain my smile as I sat in her office of our temp agency, Always Prepared.
“Don’t ask. I have no idea what it means or where he got it from, but Scopes is the name he picked for his new pet. I haven’t been able to go into his room since they brought
home,” Sam winced.
Truth was I wasn’t all that happy about this newest member of our family. To my way of thinking there is nothing scarier than a clown—unless it’s a rat. And now one had invaded our lives. Well, not exactly mine, thank goodness. But still, our family had been invaded.
My nephew Henry was turning eight in a couple of weeks and he wanted one thing. Just one thing. A rat. The kid couldn’t ask for a puppy like a normal little boy. No. He had to bring a rodent into our lives. I guess I wouldn’t be going over to my sister’s house anytime soon.
“I don’t even feel like going home. The life span is supposed to be three years. What am I going to do for three years? Who’s going to clean his room?” my sister whined.
I looked at her. She was near hysteria. I couldn’t blame her. I loved Henry with all my heart. I had a real soft spot for the kid. And now this. He was quickly inching down my list of most beloved.
“You could come live with John and me,” I said referring to my husband. “We have lots of room.”
Sam lifted her head off the desk where she had been pounding it and looked at me.
“Come live in the murder house? I don’t think so. I’ll take my chances with the rat.”
“Well, actually, that’s why I came in here. It’s not just the murder house anymore; it’s more like the murder neighborhood.”
Let me explain.
My name is Alex Harris Van der Burg. I know. It’s a mouthful. I used to be just Alex Harris until I married John Van der Burg and for some reason can’t seem to get rid of the Harris.
Along with my sister, Samantha, I own the Always Prepared temp agency. Despite the economy, business has been pretty good lately. Companies don’t want to hire staff permanently and pay for all the extras like vacation pay and insurance. That’s where we come in acting as the PEO, or professional employer organization, for several small firms in the area. We still provide temporary staff on a day-to-day basis and that side of the business has been picking up as well.
We have a good thing going with our assistant Millie. We also hired a part-time woman named Marla Scottsman who helps with quarterly filings and reports for our clients.
But I digress. I was telling you about why my sister refers to my home as the murder house. A couple of months after I moved into John’s house, left to him by his grandmother and lovingly restored by him, I hosted a Mahjong party which left one person dead. Murdered. In my home.
And this wasn’t the first time murder had entered my life. I seem to have a real knack for finding dead bodies. A gift really, much to the chagrin of my husband, who happens to be a cop.
My sister turned from what she was doing and gave me the look. “What do you mean the murder neighborhood? Alex? What have you done now?”
I wiped away a tear and looked at Sam. “Mrs. Kravec. My neighbor. She died last night.”
“Your neighbor was murdered? Did you see it happen? Oh, no, is someone after you?”
“No, of course, not,” I said giving Sam an eye roll. “She died. She wasn’t murdered. She was burning leaves and then she started coughing and then choking and she fell over. I called 911. They came, said it looked like a heart attack. They took her to the hospital and she died a few hours later, at least that’s what John told me.”
“So why did you say murder neighborhood?” Sam turned back to her computer clearly not at all interested in a woman she had never met having had a heart attack.
“Why was she coughing and clutching her throat? Wouldn’t she be grabbing at her chest or her left arm or something?” I asked, only knowing heart attack symptoms from what I see on TV.
Sam stopped typing and tapped a recently polished fingernail on the desk. “I see those little wheels in your head spinning. The poor woman had a heart attack. It’s sad. It happens,” Sam shrugged.
I sighed and lifted myself out of the chair. “I guess. I’ll be in my office. Let me know if you’ll be moving in with us so I can get your room ready.”
I walked into my office and sat down behind my desk, swiveling the chair so I could see out the window. I wondered if the coroner had ruled Mrs. Kravec’s death a heart attack. I also wondered, for the hundredth time, why the woman had been clutching her throat.
It’s a good thing I grew up in New England because the region fits me to a T. It was the first week of November and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else especially at this time of year. The air felt cool and crisp, the sky a deep blue. October had been warmer than usual but it was finally sweater weather. Halloween was barely over, and good little capitalist that I am, I headed to the mall on my lunch hour to start my Christmas shopping. I also planned to meet John for lunch so he and I could brainstorm ideas for his father. What do you get a man who has lived a lifetime, who is retired, and who seems to have everything he could possibly ever need? I wasn’t sure about John’s father but his mother had recently started scrapbooking a lifetime of family pictures into beautiful books. And while not a scrapbooker myself, I had a sister who owned every gadget known to man that had been made for the craft and yet complained she still needed more things. Sam had given me some great ideas and I planned on giving Harriett Van der Burg a basket full of the accoutrements for her new hobby. Stan Van der Burg, my father-in-law, was another matter and that I would leave to John to sort out.
I pulled into a parking space conveniently located close to the entrance, locked my car and entered a packed mall. Didn’t anybody work? I saw John looking through the window of a mattress boutique—yes, even mattresses now had specialty stores—at one of those memory foam beds. We had been using my old mattress, which had belonged to my parents, so you can imagine how old it was and how badly we needed a new one.
“See anything you like?” I asked sneaking up on John.
He turned and flashed me his famous smile, his gray eyes sparkling. “The question is do I see anything I can afford?”
I sighed. “Maybe after Christmas there’ll be a great sale.” We had our eyes on a few models but so far had not been able to break down and actually buy the darned thing. After a honeymoon in Europe and all the new things I had been buying for the house, we had to stop somewhere.
We walked to the other side of the mall to a small restaurant we both enjoyed and once seated decided to share several appetizers. John placed our order and as soon as the waiter had placed two iced teas in front of us he turned serious.
“It looks like it wasn’t a heart attack.” John took a sip of tea and then loosened his tie.
At first I had no idea what he was talking about, and for a panicked moment, so absorbed in gift ideas for his parents I thought he was talking about them. Then it hit me. Mrs. Kravec.
“I knew it.”
“Knew what?” John eyed me suspiciously.
“She was clutching her throat and kind of dancing around. Is that how a heart attack victim acts?”
John shrugged. “I’m not sure but in any case that’s not what killed her. They think it was some sort of allergic reaction to something. Anaphylactic shock.”
I mused this over a bit. “Allergic to what? Fire? Leaves? Why would she burn them if she was allergic to them? And where was Mr. Kravec, by the way?” I asked, just as a large platter of fried calamari was set in front of us along with a basket of bread, a goat cheese salad and some heavenly aromatic egg rolls.