Now she’s the headline.
Alex Vlodnachek has been a reporter for 12 years, a P.R. rep for three months, and a murder suspect for all of 24 hours. When her agency's double-dealing CEO is stabbed, scheming co-workers cast the new redhead as a compelling red herring. The story is media catnip—especially her salacious nickname: Vlod the Impaler.
Even Alex has to admit she looks guilty.
Out of a job and under suspicion, Alex is running low on cash, when she’s visited by a second disaster: her family. Soon her tiny bungalow is bursting with her nearest and not-so-dearest. To keep herself out of jail—and save what’s left of her sanity—Alex returns to her reporting roots. She goes undercover to reclaim her life, break the story, and unmask a murderer. Pretty much in that order.
What she doesn’t know: The killer also has a to-do list.
And Alex is on it.
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I felt zero guilt for calling in sick Monday. "Sick of work" would have been more accurate.
Unfortunately, they don't tolerate that at the striving, conniving, and surprisingly thriving, D.C. public relations firm of Coleman & Walters. But they allow just about everything else. From the vodka in the break-room freezer — "the only way to serve it," according to managing partner Everett P. Coleman — to expense reports with more padding than Coleman's hand-tailored Italian suits.
I'd logged twelve years as a reporter for a major metro daily and thought I'd seen enough bloodshed to last me. And that was just inside the newsroom. But the crew at Coleman & Walters took workplace warfare to a whole new level.
Case in point: Chasing a lucrative account with a certain state parks department, Coleman and several of his employees (myself included) had taken a very influential lobbyist client to dinner Friday night.
As the desserts were cleared and the brandy arrived, Coleman motioned me away from the table and slipped a hotel key card into my hand. He'd selected me for the dubious honor of being the lobbyist's post-dessert tart.
I'd responded with a few choice words of my own. And, unlike Coleman, I was none too quiet about it. I dropped the key card into his brandy and left the restaurant in a cab. Alone.
Now, sitting in my sunny kitchen, it all seemed like a bad dream.
I honestly didn't know what to do next. Part of me thought the best plan was to keep my head down and my mouth shut — and start sending out résumés. I figured that would be my practical, lawyer-brother Peter's advice.
Part of me wanted to hit Coleman with the mother of all sexual-harassment suits, which was what my best friend, Trip, suggested.
And another part of me, in a voice that sounded suspiciously like my Russian grandmother, wanted to tell old Everett P. what he should really drop into his monogrammed coffee gizmo the next time he hit the "fine grind" button.
Instead, I opted to hide at home for the day. Or so I thought.
I was halfway through a pot of coffee when the doorbell rang.
Confession time: Anyone who knows me also knows to call first. I don't open the door to faces I don't recognize. And if I'm not expecting company, half the time I don't even go to the peephole.
After pinch-hitting on the crime desk for a dozen years, I couldn't count the number of times I'd asked a victim, or a victim's family, how the "alleged perpetrator" got in. Nine times out of ten, I got the same answer: The bad guy knocked, and someone opened the door.
Is it any wonder I don't roll out the red carpet for every Avon lady, Girl Scout, or Jehovah's Witness who reaches for the bell?
On this particular morning, my friends and family believed I was laboring diligently at the office. The only people who knew otherwise worked at Coleman & Walters. And after last week, I was in no mood to talk to any of them.
The bell rang again. Followed by a firm knock. This one wasn't giving up.
Fine. Let him wear out his knuckles on my solid metal door with two deadbolts. Thank you, DIY Network.
Another, louder knock.
"Alexandra Vlodnachek, open up," a deep male voice shouted. "This is the police."
I jerked upright, spilling half my coffee. Got to be a joke. But who knew I was home?
There aren't any practical jokers at C&W. To my knowledge, no one at the firm even has a sense of humor. Because if you can't buy it at Neiman Marcus, Tiffany's, or the local BMW dealership, they aren't interested.
I peeked through the peephole. Two burly guys in what looked like polyester blazers — one navy, one burgundy — stood shoulder to shoulder on my porch.
OK, this was not good.
Speeding tickets? Parking tickets? I searched my mind. What had I done?
With a jolt of adrenaline (or, more likely, caffeine), my reporter's training kicked in.
"Let me see some ID," I said through the door. My voice sounded strained and strangely high-pitched. As I pulled my robe tighter around me, I noticed my hands were shaking.
Blue Blazer held up a shield and ID card. I'd seen enough of them to know it was real.
I unbolted both locks and opened the door six inches. "What's this about?" I said in my new voice, clutching my bathrobe like a frightened old lady.
Three men stared back at me with grim expressions. One uniformed officer and the Blazer Brothers. There was a patrol car and an unmarked at the curb.
"I'm Detective Norris, and this is Detective Beech," Blue Blazer said. "We'd like to speak with you, if you don't mind."
"Why?" I squeaked.
"Everett Coleman died Sunday. We're talking to the people who knew him."
While Norris spoke, Beech, who had no visible neck and bore more than a passing resemblance to a bulldog, scanned me with laser-focused eyes.
"Coleman's dead?" I slipped into reporter mode. "How?" Out of habit, I almost reached into my pocket for a pad and pen.
"Actually, we'd prefer to do this at the station," Norris said smoothly. "The officer will be happy to wait while you get dressed."
That's when it finally hit me. If Coleman was dead, and the police were asking questions, Coleman had been murdered. Double damn!
Good luck finding out who did it. C&W is a snake pit. It could have been anybody.
"I really didn't know him that well," I explained. "I only worked for him for the last three months. I honestly don't think I'd be much help."
Bulldog stepped forward. "You fought with Everett Coleman Friday night. He died on Sunday. And you called in sick this morning. Funny, but you don't look sick to me."
It was funny because a sudden jolt of nausea rivaled the only time I ever mixed hot dogs, milkshakes, and roller coasters. And despite the morning's caffeine-a-thon, my mouth was so dry I could barely form words. "Am I a suspect?"
Norris stepped between us. "We just have a few details that we have to clear up, and it will be a lot easier to do that at the station. Can you be ready in five minutes?"
My mind was on a seesaw: If they were here to arrest me, they wouldn't be giving me time to get dressed and comb my hair. They'd just read me my rights and shove me into the back of a police cruiser. Like the one parked at the curb.
Great. The neighbors were gonna love this.
But if I refused to talk, I'd look guilty. And, depending on what kind of lies that bunch at the office was spreading, the police might actually arrest me.
At this point, I knew two things: First, the only person who was going to tell them I didn't do it was me. Second, I needed a lawyer.
If I were still at the paper, a quick phone call would get me one of the dozens of attorneys they keep on retainer.
But somehow I didn't think C&W would be affording me that same privilege.
My older brother, Peter, is a partner in a New York law firm. He specializes in accounting and tax law. We haven't spoken in a couple of weeks. But, Peter being Peter, and this being his busy time of year, it's possible he hasn't noticed.
Besides, it would look really bad if his youngest sister was arrested for murder.
"Make it ten," I said.
I turned both deadbolts — old habits die hard — and lunged for the phone. I was on hold for Peter's assistant for almost two full minutes, serenaded by something classical. Heavy on the strings.
When Angela finally came on the line, she sounded short and stressed. Tax season was hell on tax attorneys, which meant it was hell on everyone in the immediate vicinity of tax attorneys.
"Angie, it's Alex. I need to talk to Peter."
She sighed. "He's not in. Can I take a message?"
"This is an emergency. I really need him. Now." Like she'd never heard that one.
But she must have caught the panic in my voice. "Alex, he's really not here. He had a client meeting across town this morning. He's not due back until after lunch. Is everything OK?"
No, I wanted to say. Everything is not OK. But I couldn't very well tell her that her straitlaced boss's little sister was in trouble with the law. For murder, no less.
"Everybody's fine. Just ask him to call my cell as soon as he gets back."
I dialed Peter's cell. No answer. This time I left a detailed message. Police. Murder. Suspect. Downtown. Interrogation. I asked him to call ASAP and left my cell number.
As I put the phone down, it hit me again. Coleman was dead. Somebody killed him. And I was a suspect.
That's when I realized my whole body was shaking.CHAPTER 2
The police officer let me off at the curb, and I was never so happy to be home, sweet home. All I wanted was a long, hot shower.
When they describe a police station in books, or re-create one on a studio lot, they amp up the glamour and leave out the grime. In real life, you don't see glass walls, gleaming steel, and glossy floors. You see cracked tiles, dingy paint, and worn carpets fortified with decades of ground-in dirt.
Spotless they're not.
But then cop shops aren't looking to attract repeat customers.
Halfway up the walk, I realized someone was sitting on my front porch drinking a soda and reading the paper. My younger brother, Nick, looked up, propped his sunglasses on top of his blond head, and grinned.
That grin has gotten him into and out of more trouble than he'll ever admit.
"I thought you gave up reporting," he said, nodding toward the police cruiser receding down the block.
"Long story," I said, collapsing into a plastic lawn chair next to him. "So when'd you get into town? Do Mom and Baba know you're here? How are things in emu land?"
Nick, the youngest of the four of us, is a full partner in an Arizona emu farm. Or at least he had been when I talked to him last month.
Our perfectionist mother wants him to go back to college and become a doctor, lawyer, or pretty much anything that doesn't involve shoveling up after animals.
Baba, our Russian grandmother — our late father's mother — just wants to hug him. And feed him. For a woman who came to this country when she was twelve, she's learned surprisingly little English. But she's never really needed it. It's amazing what she can say with a plate of potato pancakes and a steely stare.
Nick rolled his brown eyes. "Yeah, you're still a reporter."
"Hey, old habits."
"Uh, yeah, well," he started. "We sold the farm. It was a great first start. But I'm ready for something a little more ... mature. A little more real-world. And no, I haven't talked to Baba yet. Or Mom. Or the rest of them. I wanted to talk to you first."
There are four of us kids. Peter's the oldest, followed a few years later by Annie. Then the trailers: me and (last, but definitely not least) Nick. While Dad has been gone for almost a decade, Mom is still a very active — and vocal — presence in all our lives.
Whether we like it or not.
What Nick clearly didn't know: She and Annie were on a whirlwind tour of Europe. My only sister may have the looks of a supermodel (which she was), and the money of a successful businesswoman (which she is), but right now she also had my complete sympathy. I wouldn't have traded places with her for the world. Literally.
I'd been invited on their European junket. And I wasn't exactly devastated when I'd learned it was incompatible with the vacation policies at my new job.
"I've got some good news," Nick said, with a grin so wide it practically split his face.
I braced myself. The last "good news" announcement was when he bought half the emu farm from a burnout high school buddy. Before that was the time he decided he "could no longer waste his talent and potential in the sterile confines of a classroom." Something the dean called "flunking out" in the letter sent home to our mother.
"I got married."
"To who?" The last I heard, he was living a hundred miles from nowhere with a beer-guzzling slacker and fifty emus.
"Her name is Gabrielle. She's amazing. The minute I met her, I knew we were meant to be. And she's fearless. With Gabby beside me, I can tackle anything. She's incredible. We got married last week in Vegas."
I heard water draining from inside. And suddenly realized that the cola he'd been sucking down is the cheap store brand I stock for guests. And the newspaper he's reading was on my kitchen table when I was rousted from the house this morning.
"So where is the new Mrs. Vlodnachek, and when do I get to meet her?" I had a feeling I knew exactly where she was: steeping herself in Mr. Bubble in my claw-foot tub.
"She wanted to get cleaned up before she met you," Nick said with a shy smile and an offhanded shrug. "It was a long trip. You weren't home, so we let ourselves in. I hope that's OK?"
On a typical Monday, I wouldn't be home. I have — had? — a job. One that didn't involve livestock. One with nine-to-five hours and a steady, surprisingly hefty paycheck for the first time in my life. One that I probably didn't have anymore. Damn.
I looked at my front door, which was ajar, and snapped back into the moment.
I'm not one of those harebrains who keeps a key under the mat or in one of those fake-looking rocks. There's only one key to my house. And it's on my key ring.
So apparently I'm not the only alleged felon in my family.
Just then, a tall, tanned, skinny blonde appeared at the door. In my bathrobe.
"Well, you must be the sister!" she gushed, all teeth. "Nicky won't stop talking about you!"
It would be mean to call Gabrielle a bottle blonde. But, with at least a full inch of dark roots, it would be dishonest to call her anything else.
She had what the girls in the Lifestyle section called a "fake bake." And, judging from my brother's enchanted expression, some world-class fake boobs under my bathrobe.
Almost embarrassed, I looked down, only to realize she was also wearing my favorite pink, flowered bedroom slippers.
"Did you give her the good news?"
She held out her left hand, revealing the only thing she was wearing that didn't come from my closet: a diamond the size of a dime.
"Wow," I said. "It's stunning." I was, in fact, stunned. Numb, actually. "So when are you going to share the good news with the rest of the family?"
I couldn't wait. Baba was going to crap. The ring alone would set off a blast of Russian the likes of which hadn't been heard since Rasputin refused to die. And when Baba got a good look at the woman wearing that rock? That would be an experience the Disney World folks refer to as an "E ticket" ride. Just buckle up and hang on.
"That's part of the reason we came here first," he said, staring into the eyes of his bride, who had managed to curl herself into his lap. "This all happened so suddenly. We need a few days before we spring the news. I sold the farm, but I haven't exactly gotten settled in a new business yet. And I'd like to have that in the works before I talk to everybody. You know how they are. Gabby and I were hoping we could crash here. Just for a week or so."
Double crap. The whole reason I'd been able to afford my cute little house on a newspaper salary is because it's so damned tiny. My mother, who constantly compares my paycheck to that of my fashionista older sister, refers to it as "that darling little doll's house." As in, "when you grow up and move out of that darling little doll's house and into a real home."
And it wasn't like I could get away from them by going to work anytime soon. Come to think of it, how was I going to feed us all?
"Well, the truth is, I'm having some problems myself right now," I said, addressing myself to Nick. "I'm temporarily between jobs. And I'm not exactly sure how I'm going to make the next mortgage payment, much less groceries for the next week or so."
I was hoping at this point he'd jump in. He didn't.
But she did.
"Well, that's perfect," Gabrielle squealed with a perkiness that was definitely way over the top for my out-of-work, out-of-money predicament. At this rate, if I told her I was a murder suspect, she'd probably have an orgasm.
Nick gazed into her face like a golden retriever on Valium.
"We have a little money squirreled away," she said. "We can pay rent and groceries. And you won't even know we're here."
OK, I knew that last part was a lie. But I was seriously tempted by the idea of not losing my home and being able to eat until I could find someone who would actually hire a murder suspect.
"Well, if you don't mind the guest room ..."
Nick and Gabrielle beamed. And I hoped I hadn't just made a big mistake.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Confessions of a Red Herring"
Copyright © 2018 Dana Dratch.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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