“The third book in a cute cozy series (Fit To Be Dead; Dang Near Dead) features an appealing heroine with a self-deprecating wit and a determination to never grow old.” – Library Journal (on Smart But Dead)
Advice columnist Aggie Mundeen and SAPD Detective Sam Vanderhoven plan their first rendezvous at a San Antonio River Walk hotel during Fiesta Week—sumptuous sights, sounds and festivities in the middle of America’s Venice, a vacation from crime and a reset for their tumultuous relationship.
But murder descends on Casa Prima Hotel. Disturbing revelations surface about the Fabulous Femmes, Aggie’s new friends holding a convention. Evil emerges at parties in La Villita. Calamity plagues Aggie’s debut dance performance at Arneson River Theater, the celebration skewed by carousing, crazies and corpses. Even in idyllic River City, crime complicates relationships.
Books in the Aggie Mundeen Humorous Mystery Series:
FIT TO BE DEAD (#1)
DANG NEAR DEAD (#2)
SMART, BUT DEAD (#3)
RIVER CITY DEAD (#4)
Part of the Henery Press Mystery Series Collection, if you like one, you'll probably like them all...
While Nancy G. West was writing her award-winning suspense novel, Nine Days to Evil, a funny thing happened. Supporting character Aggie Mundeen demanded that Nancy write about her. Aggie was on to something. Aggie's first caper, Fit to Be Dead, was Lefty Award Finalist for Best Humorous Mystery. Dang Near Dead was a Chanticleer Award finalist, and Smart, But Dead was short-listed for the Mystery & Mayhem Award. Nancy lives in San Antonio, the setting for River City Dead.
Read an Excerpt
Not every city has a river running through it. And not many women plan a rendezvous at a San Antonio River Walk hotel during Fiesta Week after years of self-imposed celibacy. I was about to make history.
Sam and I were meeting at Casa Prima Hotel. Hopefully our first days and nights together in River City would be more fiesta than fiasco.
And we could avoid dealing with crime.
To calm the jumping beans in my stomach, I decided to make a quick detour to Barnes and Noble. Instead of turning south from Hildebrand toward downtown, I turned north on Highway 281 and headed toward Loop 410. If SAPD called Sam away, I'd need something to read. He assured me they wouldn't contact him, but sometimes they had to rely on an experienced homicide detective for a difficult case.
Barnes and Noble was packed. After a lengthy search through half the store, I found aisles brimming with romance novels. I didn't relish being caught scouring this area. In my Flash-News column, "Stay Young with Aggie," I answered readers' questions about everything from fitness to relationships. As an "expert," I wasn't supposed to need help.
It wasn't as though I was innocent. I became painfully experienced after Lester the Louse seduced me when I was barely eighteen, impregnated me and vanished like mist. But stories of other people's romances might be enlightening.
Slipping down an unoccupied aisle, I reached for a title that caught my eye, A Well-Spent Night. A bare-chested, muscled Scottish hunk wearing a plaid kilt bulged from the cover. I squinted at the title, which upon closer inspection actually read, A Well-Spent Knight. Worked either way. I flipped pages to the middle, found what I was looking for and started reading. There was a lot of heavy breathing and rippling biceps, but it never said why the guy wore a kilt or how he got it off. I'd wondered about that. Historical romance might not be the thing.
I replaced the book and continued down the aisle. The face-out cover of Steaming in Hawaii gleamed with electric blue ocean water and swaying palm trees. A gorgeous half-dressed couple grasped each other beside the cobalt ocean. Sam and I would have a swimming pool at our River Walk hotel. Close enough. I slipped the novel off the shelf and flipped through pages. The title did not refer to steam from Hawaii's volcanoes. Skimming pages, I noticed contemporary novels offered details and felt my body parts tingling.
From the corner of my eye, I saw a young sales girl eyeing me. Was my face flushing?
"Can I help you?" About twenty-five with swinging hair and a pouty mouth, she looked sexy, bored, and all-knowing.
Whipping the novel under the arm laden with my shoulder purse, I reached blindly toward the shelf for another novel, hoping I didn't look like a waif grasping for crumbs.
"So many choices." I doused her with my superior bank-teller expression. "I doubt if any of these books are really that good." Another cover caught my eye with the title The Long Hard Ride. A shirtless muscle-bound cowboy stood spread-legged front and center while a steer romped around behind him. I snatched the book off the shelf.
"Imagine that," I said. "You even have westerns." She smirked. Some urge compelled me to jabber. "I don't think he could ride a steer dressed like that."
The new-fangled phone jangled in my purse. I resented the impertinent metal box demanding my attention. Digging to retrieve it, I dropped the books. The sales girl swiveled over and scooped them up. "I'll keep these at the counter while you search for more." She cocked a corner of her sulky mouth before walking away. I fumbled to flip open my Motorola StarTrac.
"Where are you?" It was Sam, using his professional detective voice.
"I just needed a few things. Have you seen the ... our room?"
"You need to get down here, Aggie. We have problems. I'll meet you in the lobby." He hung up.
That was the last thing I wanted to hear. Scouting the quickest route to the exit to avoid the sales girl, I skirted through rows of books, sailed out into the sunshine and headed for my Wagoneer. I rolled down the windows, leaned my head back on the seat and inhaled clean April air, convincing myself that whatever problem Sam encountered couldn't be that bad.
Revived, I cranked up Albatross, my station wagon, headed south on 281 and turned right on McCullough toward Broadway, the main thoroughfare to downtown and the Fiesta parade route. Huge paper flowers with streaming ribbons decorated doors. Shop windows proclaimed "VIVA FIESTA!"
Crews were setting up roadside bleachers for several hundred thousand people to watch parades later this week. Civic-minded ladies organized the first parade to honor President Polk's visit, stopping horse-drawn carriages in front of the president's viewing stand to lay wreaths in front of the Alamo, the shrine of Texas' independence. Resuming their parade, they threw flower petals at onlookers, creating the Battle of Flowers Parade in 1891, the first Fiesta event.
How perfect that Sam Vanderhoven and I would begin blending our lives during Fiesta. At least that's what I hoped we were doing. Since he was an SAPD Homicide Detective, I naturally tried to impress him with my investigative skills. Unfortunately, my headstrong (he might say, "irrational") behavior frustrated him. The last time I intervened against his advice, I almost got myself killed. At least the crisis made us realize we loved each other. We'd even pledged to trust one another, which might prove to be the bigger hurdle.
The towering Casa Prima Hotel loomed in the next block, re- activating my jumping beans. What did Sam's call mean? Had he discovered a crime, considered the burden of my pesky interference and decided to jettison our rendezvous?CHAPTER 2
The hotel manager notified SAPD Detective Sam Vanderhoven that a woman might be dead in the penthouse.
"Since I think she's dead," the manager said, "I was reluctant to call EMS and have them screeching up here in the middle of Fiesta Week. I thought you could handle it."
"I'll go right up," Sam said. "We have to notify EMS, but I'll tell our dispatcher to have them douse the sirens and use the service elevator."
Sam radioed SAPD's dispatcher to notify EMS and advise the Patrol Sergeant of a possible suspicious death. The sergeant would send patrol officers. He took the elevator to Casa Prima Hotel's penthouse.
The man in the perfectly tailored suit standing outside the suite looked deathly pale in contrast to his red power tie. Sam walked toward him, hand extended. "Sam Vanderhoven, SAPD. EMS is on the way."
"Hotel Manager Harry Haddock. I'm pretty sure she's dead. I can't believe this is happening during Fiesta. Did you ask EMS to come through the back entrance to the hotel?"
"Yes. When did you find her?"
"The maid, Sara Giles, found her in the room and called me about ten minutes ago. I came right up, looked in the suite and asked Sara to sit over there." He pointed to a table and chairs at the end of the hall.
"We'll talk to her. Did you see anybody else on the floor?"
"Have you talked to other guests?"
"Okay. You stay here. I'll have a look."
Sam walked into the room and saw her. There was no blood or signs of trauma, but her chest didn't rise and fall from breathing. Wrapping two fingers in a single layer of his handkerchief, he placed them on her carotid artery and didn't feel a pulse. She could have died of some unknown physical malfunction, a drug overdose or murder. He didn't think she'd been dead long. He studied the position of her body.
He took a quick walk through the entire suite — living room, bedroom and bathroom — conducting his preliminary investigation. Studying details, he was careful not to disturb anything that might be evidence. He saw drag marks in the carpet from the bathroom, through the bedroom to the living room. It looked like one person's shoe prints dragging another person to the sofa. Once he documented everything he could see with the naked eye, he knew the death was suspicious and called Homicide.
"Louis, this is Officer 3856 at Casa Prima River Walk Hotel. I was in the lobby waiting to meet somebody and got a call from the manager saying there was a seriously ill, possibly dead girl in a penthouse suite. I had the dispatcher call EMS. There's no trauma or bleeding, but I think she's dead. She's late twenties to early thirties, and carpet indentations show two sets of footprints, as though somebody dragged her to the sofa. Her body looks like somebody positioned it. Who's on duty?"
"Rick Montaya is next up."
"I just started my RDs, but I can hold this down until he gets here. I can stay on as backup."
"Good. I'll tell the Patrol Sergeant we're sending Rick."
"Thanks. We'll need several officers. The manager is worried about publicity ruining his business."
"Got it. Montaya is on his way."
Rick Montaya was an energetic, capable detective. Sam let out a sigh and went back to view the victim. Tragic. Unbelievably tragic.
Using the same footpath he used before, he walked back to the manager standing in the hall.
"Did you know the victim?"
He nodded. "Monica Peters. She was a guest every year during Fiesta Week."
"Does anything in the room look out of place to you?"
Haddock reluctantly peered inside the room. "No. Neat and clean as usual. Except for ..." He cleared his throat and blanched.
"I understand. Did the maid comment about the victim or the room?"
"When she called, she said she thought the woman in suite three might be dead. When I came up, she was crying and pointed to the body."
"I see. Why don't you go stand down there in front of the penthouse lounge. An officer will come talk with you."
Walking to the other end of the hall, he introduced himself to the maid who found the girl, asked a few questions and instructed her to stick around so an officer could take her statement.
He was back in front of the elevators when Detective Rick Montaya stepped off.
"Rick, I'm glad you were next up. I just started my RDs and came down here to meet a special woman ... first time we'll have a weekend together. Good timing, huh? I can stick around as backup. The girl is down there. Come see what you think."
Rick followed him into the room. Both remained quiet as Rick studied the victim and absorbed the scene. He pointed to drag marks in the carpet. Sam nodded. Both men followed the marks with their eyes back to where the woman lay.
"Yep," Rick said. "Suspicious." He lowered his voice. "She could have been doing drugs with a friend and overdosed. Maybe he dragged her around trying to revive her. When he couldn't, he panicked and fled. Did the manager see anybody around?"
"No one except for the maid who found her. She's waiting down the hall for an officer. Here's my notes on what she said. I don't think the victim has been dead long. I considered broadcasting a BOLO, but it would have led to a thousand questions from every officer around wanting to know who to be on the lookout for and the basis for detaining them. Plus, it would put the killer on alert, if there was one. We can't be sure what happened."
"We may not know until the autopsy." Rick shook his head. "She's young. Pretty. Lots of crazies out there. I think it looks suspicious enough that Patrol will call Evidence."
"I think so too. EMS is coming in through the back. The manager is worried his hotel could be ruined for Fiesta Week."
The Patrol Sergeant stepped off the elevator with three officers. He and Rick identified themselves, and Rick caught them up to speed. Patrol Sergeant Spears stationed Officer Valerie Garrett at the elevator door to stop anyone unofficial from entering or leaving the floor and maintain an entry log of persons coming and going. He instructed the other officers to take statements from the maid and Manager Harry Haddock.
Rick turned to Sam. "Don't you need to meet somebody?"
"Yeah. Thanks, Rick. I'll be back." When the elevator opened, the EMS crew clattered off rolling their stretcher. He pointed them to the scene, spoke to Officer Valerie Garrett and stepped inside. EMS would do everything they could to revive the girl, but he thought it was too late.
Just before he pushed the button, he had an idea. He went back to the penthouse lounge and peered in. Officers were writing reports and Haddock was standing to leave.
He spoke to one of the officers. "If you're finished, I need to talk to Mr. Haddock."
"Sure. I'm done."
Sam drew close to Harry Haddock. "You should check the phone log for calls coming in and out of the victim's room." Harry nodded. "Detective Montaya will probably remind you." He talked to the manager a while longer in low tones, headed for the elevator, stepped inside and pushed the button to the lobby.
Whatever else was happening in his life, as a law officer, crime tracked him like an insidious nasty aroma. After two years dealing with Aggie's dogged determination to "help" him investigate, and his constant attempts to keep her out of trouble, he was finally meeting her at this hotel. Despite conflicts, they admitted they loved one another. He understood her motivation to solve crimes. He shared it. They planned this romantic rendezvous for months. No doubts. No fear. No crime.
Now this. She probably had her hair done, shopped for Fiesta clothes and packed every bright outfit she owned. She'd be miserably disappointed. After she got over the shock, she'd want to help him. Since the crime occurred in the suite they were supposed to have, she'd probably be more determined than ever to find the person who hurt this girl. He had to make sure Aggie didn't land in danger investigating without making her feel like he was brushing her off.CHAPTER 3
Albatross and I approached the entrance to the hotel's underground parking garage. A sign said the garage was full. Once my eyes adjusted to the dugout's dark interior, I recognized the top of an EMS van. What was going on? Was Sam in trouble? Injured?
Swallowing my fear, I eased my car up to the main entrance and asked the valet to park my car. Not knowing what to expect, I asked the bellboy to put my luggage by the registration desk. Neither man looked rattled by some catastrophic event, but they looked down their noses at Albatross. I hadn't owned many cars, so I named them. Albatross was my long-time companion.
I entered the lobby in my hot-pink tank top and swishy skirt and looked around. My espadrilles, multi-colored canvas with rope wedges, were a Fiesta staple. My toes, painted to match my tank top, peeped out. A nice touch. Where the tile met a rug, I stumbled. The heels on the espadrilles were pretty high. I recovered and straightened my shoulders.
At the other end of the lobby, past the restaurant and bar, I saw a garden-like setting with palm trees and a blue sky beyond, the hotel's entrance to the River Walk. The tinkle of happy chatter tickled my ears. I could hardly wait to get out there. I knew Sam had some sort of problem, but I was too excited about Fiesta Week to believe it could be anything insurmountable.
I sashayed toward the check-in desk drawn by the fragrance of gardenias.
Miniature trees on either side of the desk, protected by clear plastic shields so nobody could touch the petals, were strategically placed to intoxicate guests.
A large sign to the left of registration read, "Welcome Fabulous Femmes!" I smiled. Off to the sides of the main traffic area, in offshoots from the lobby, police officers spoke with two women. One was slim and chic, dressed in beige linen. The Hermès scarf that wrapped around her neck and flew down her back must have cost a fortune. The splash of silk in bright Fiesta colors was the perfect accessory. What wouldn't I give to be tall, slim and chic? I could exercise and eat tofu until hell froze over and it wouldn't happen.
The other woman wore a striped sheath in multi-colored neon as intense as the first woman's attire was subdued. Her smile was even brighter. Maybe they were two of the Fabulous Femmes the hotel welcomed on the sign. I wondered why police were talking to them. Maybe officers were allowed to flirt during Fiesta Week.
Sam would be in civilian clothes. I looked around, didn't see him and approached the check-in desk where the bellboy had placed my luggage. "I'm checking in later, but could you store this luggage for me?" The clerk asked my name, came outside the desk to tag my suitcase and handed me a claim ticket.
"I'm looking for —"
"Aggie. Over here."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "River City Dead"
Copyright © 2016 Nancy G. West.
Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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