Casting suspicion . . .
Sophie “Phee” Kimball wants to get some work done at her private investigation company in Arizona—and she’s distracted already by her old crush, who’s arriving from Minnesota to join the staff. The last thing she needs is constant updates from her mom on the local production of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap.” Practically everyone from Mom’s book club and retirement community, with the possible exception of her chiweenie, Streetman, wants to join the cast and crew. But someone’s playing the role of the killer for real.
After a much-despised cast member is found dead on a catwalk in the theater, Phee has no choice but to be drawn into all the backstabbing and backstage gossip. Especially if her drama-queen mother is right about the vaguely threatening note left on her windshield, which could mean curtains for another victim . . .
“Sophie ‘Phee’ Kimball has a lot on her plate in this captivating whodunit, but this feisty, take-charge heroine is definitely up for the challenge. Fun characters, a touch of humor, and a great mystery, the perfect combination for a cozy.”
—Lena Gregory, author of the Bay Island Psychic Mysteries
“An eclectic cast of entertaining characters that will keep you wondering whodunit!”
—Nicole Leiren USA Today bestselling author of the Danger Cove Mysteries
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Sun City West, Arizona
The wet sponge that hung over the Valley of the Sun, sapping my energy and making my life a misery for the past three months, wrung itself dry and left by the end of September. Unfortunately, it was immediately replaced by something far more aggravating than monsoon weather — my mother's book club announcement. It came on a Saturday morning when I'd reluctantly agreed to have breakfast with the ladies from the Booked 4 Murder book club at their favorite meeting spot, Bagels 'N More, across the road from Sun City West. I arrived a few minutes late, only to find the regular crew talking over each other, in between bites of bagels and sips of coffee.
"Who took the blueberry shmear? It was right in front of me."
"It still is. Move the juice glasses."
"I hate orange juice with the pulp still in it."
"If it didn't have pulp, it'd be Tang."
Cecilia Flanagan was dressed in her usual white blouse, black sweater, black skirt, and black shoes. Don't tell me she wasn't a nun in a former life. Shirley Johnson looked as impeccable as always, this time with a fancy teal top and matching earrings, not to mention teal nail polish that set off her ebony skin.
Judging from Lucinda Espinoza's outfit, I wasn't sure she realized they made wrinkle-free clothing. As for Myrna Mittleson and Louise Munson, they were both wearing floral tops and looked as if they had spent the last hour at the beauty parlor, unlike poor Lucinda, whose hair reminded me of an osprey's nest. Then there was my mother. The reddish blond and fuchsia streaks in her hair had been replaced with ... well ... I didn't even know how to describe it. The base color had been changed to a honey blond and the streaks were now brunette. Or a variation of brunette.
The only one missing was my Aunt Ina, and that was because she and her husband of four months were in Malta, presumably so my aunt could recuperate from the stress of moving into a new house.
"You look wonderful, Phee," Myrna announced as I took a seat. "I didn't think you'd ever agree to blond highlights."
My mother nodded in approval as she handed me a coffee cup. "None of us did. Then all of a sudden, Phee changed her mind."
It was true. It was a knee-jerk reaction to the fact my boss, Nate Williams, was adding a new investigator to his firm. An investigator that I'd had a secret crush on for years when I was working for the Mankato Minnesota Police Department in accounting.
"Um ... gee, thanks. So, what's the big news? My mom said the club was making an announcement." Cecilia leaned across the table, nearly knocking over the salt and pepper shakers.
"It's more than exciting. It's a dream come true for all of us."
Other than finding a discount bookstore, I couldn't imagine what she was talking about.
My mother jumped in. "What Cecilia is trying to say is we have a firsthand opportunity to participate in a murder, not just read about it."
"What? Participate? What are you saying? And keep your voices low."
"Not a real murder, Phee," Louise said. "A stage play. And not any stage play. It's Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, and we've all decided to try out for the play or work backstage. Except for Shirley. She wants to be on the costume and makeup crews."
Louise let out a deep sigh. "The Sun City West Footlighters will be holding open auditions for the play this coming Monday and Tuesday. Since they've refurbished the Stardust Theater, they'll be able to use that stage instead of the old beat-up one in the Men's Club building. All of us are ecstatic. Especially since we're familiar with the play, being a murder and all, and we thought in lieu of reading a book for the month of October, we'd do the play."
I thought Louise was never going to come up for air, and I had to jump in quickly. "So ... uh, just like that, you all decided to join the theater club?"
"Not the club, just the play," my mother explained. "The play is open to all of the residents in the Sun Cities. Imagine, Phee, in ten more years you could move to one of the Sun Cities, too. You'll be fifty-five."
I'd rather poke my eyes out with a fork.
"She could move sooner," Myrna said, "if she was to marry someone who is fifty-five or older."
"That's true," Lucinda chirped in. "There are lots of eligible men in our community."
I was certain Lucinda's definition meant the men were able to stand vertically and take food on their own. I tried not to shudder. Instead, I became defensive, and that was worse.
"Living in Vistancia is fine with me. It's a lovely multigenerational neighborhood. Lots of activities ... friends ... and it's close to my work."
Louise reached over and patted my hand. "Don't worry, dear. I'm sure the right man will come along. Don't make the mistake of getting a cat instead. First it's one cat, and then next thing you know, you've got eleven or more of them and no man wants to deal with that."
"Um ... uh ... I have no intention of getting a cat. Or anything with four legs. I don't even want a houseplant. I went through all of that when my daughter was growing up. Now she can have pets and plants in St. Cloud where she's teaching."
The women were still staring at me with their woeful faces. I had to change the subject and do it fast.
I jumped right back into the play. "So, do all of you seriously think you'll wind up getting cast for this production?"
My mother nodded first and waited while the rest of the ladies followed suit. "No one knows or understands murder the way we do. We've been reading murder mysteries and plays for ages. I'm sure the Footlighters will be thrilled to have us try out and join their crews." Yeah, if they don't try to murder one of you first.
"Well, um ... good luck, everyone. Too bad Aunt Ina won't be able to try out. Sounds like it's something right up her alley."
My mother all but dropped her bagel. "Hold your tongue. If we're lucky, she and your Uncle Louis will stay in Malta until the play is over. It's bad enough having her in the book club. Can you imagine what she'd be like on stage? Or worse yet, behind it? No, all of us are better off with my sister somewhere in the Mediterranean. That's where Malta is, isn't it? I always get it confused with the other one. Yalta. Anyway, leave well enough alone. Now then, where is that waitress? You need to order something, Phee."
The next forty-five minutes were spent discussing the play, the auditions, and the competition. It was ugly. Like all of the book club get-togethers, everyone spoke at once, with or without food in their mouth. I stopped trying to figure out who was saying what, and instead concentrated on my meal while they yammered away.
"Don't tell me that dreadful Miranda Lee from Bingo is going to insist on a lead role."
"Not if Eunice Berlmosler has any say about it." "She's the publicity chair, not the director."
"No, she's the lady who brings in all those plastic trolls to Bingo."
"With the orange hair?"
"No, those trolls. Miranda's hair is more like a honey brunette. Perfectly styled. Like the shimmery dresses she wears. No Alfred Dunner for her. That's for sure."
"Hey, I wear Alfred Dunner."
"You're not Miranda."
"What about Eunice?"
"I don't know. What about her?"
"Do we know any of the men who will be trying out?"
"I'll bet anything Herb's going to show up with that pinochle crew of his. They seem to be in everything."
I leaned back, continuing to let the discussion waft over me until I got pulled in like some poor fly into a vacuum.
"You should attend the auditions, Phee. Go and keep your mother company." It was Cecilia. Out of nowhere. Insisting I show up for the Footlighters' tryouts.
"You can scope out the men, Phee. What a great opportunity."
Yep, it'll be right up there with cattle judging at the state fair.
In one motion, I slid the table an inch or so in front of me, stood up, and gave my best audition for the role of "getting the hell out of here." "Oh my gosh! Is it eleven-thirty already? I can't believe the time flew by so quickly. I've got to go. It was great seeing all of you. Good luck with the play. I'll be sure to buy a ticket. Call you later, Mom!"
As I raced to my car, I looked at the clear blue sky and wondered how long I'd have to wait until the next monsoon sponge made its return visit to the valley. Weather I could deal with. Book club ladies were another matter, and when they said they were going to participate in a murder, I didn't expect it to be a real one.CHAPTER 2
I was applauding myself for delicately balancing two iced coffees and two toasted bagels from Quick Stop when the phone caught me off guard, and I nearly spilled everything onto my desk. It was Thursday morning, and Augusta, our part-time secretary, wouldn't be in for another hour or so.
"Nate! I'm back with your iced coffee," I shouted. "Got to grab the phone." The voice at the other end, although not totally unexpected, made me jump. At least I managed to get four words out first. "Good Morning, Williams Investigations."
"Is this the infamous Sophie Kimball, who'll stick bamboo shoots in our fingernails if we lose a receipt?"
"Marshall? I ... um ... didn't expect to hear your voice so soon."
"So soon? It's been what? Almost a year? How are you doing? Wait! You can tell me everything as soon as I get there."
"There? Here? You mean you're in Arizona?"
"Unless hell decided to bake Mankato, I'm in Arizona. I can't wait to see you and Nate. Talk about a dream retirement job. Anyway, I'm at baggage claim at Sky Harbor and should be at your office in an hour. Got directions from Nate, plus the rental car will come with GPS."
"Super. I'll let Nate know. We can't wait to see you, either." And I'll personally strangle your buddy for not telling me you were arriving today. "Keep cool."
"Keep cool?" That was how I ended the call? That was the best I could come up with? What was I going to do when I actually saw him face-to-face? I reached for the small mirror I had tucked in my desk and studied my hair. It was okay. The blond highlights hadn't suddenly faded, and I looked all right. Then I had second thoughts and quickly added some blush to my cheeks, in case I didn't have enough color from the sun. If that wasn't enough, I applied lip gloss and sat staring at the computer like a seventeen-year-old girl who was just invited to the prom by the captain of the football team.
Nate sauntered into my office and reached for his iced coffee. Black. No cream. No sugar. He'd barely gotten it to his lips when the words flew out of my mouth.
"That was Marshall Gregory. He's here. In Arizona. At the airport. Marshall Gregory."
"Uh-oh. I knew I forgot to tell you something. Well, it's not like we have to pick him up or anything. Guy's renting a car. He'll lease one or buy one as soon as he's settled. I wasn't expecting him until next week, but he was able to get everything taken care of in Mankato and didn't want to hang around. Damn, it's going to feel good having another investigator here. Oh, and before I forget one more thing, you got a message from your mother while you were at Quick Stop. Want me to read it? She insisted I write it down verbatim, and I wasn't about to argue with her. Remind me to increase Augusta's hours. That's what she gets paid to do."
"Huh? What? My mother?"
I was still thinking about Marshall, and making a quick mind flip to my mother's message-of-the-day wasn't something I relished. I squinted as if expecting the worst. "Might as well. I'm ready."
"Here goes, kiddo." Nate tried to keep a straight face, but it wasn't working. "And I quote, 'We decided to go out to the Cheesecake Factory and reward ourselves for surviving auditions on Tuesday. The only ones who were unscathed were Shirley and Lucinda because they're doing the costumes. That miserable Miranda Lee was there giving us all dirty looks. Paula Darren was with her. Louise insisted Paula gave her the evil eye. The cast list will be emailed to all of us by tomorrow. Call me.'"
"Wow. I, um ..."
"Don't tell me. Your mother and her friends tried out for a play?"
"Oh yeah. And not just any play. Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap. And since those book club ladies live to read about murders, they couldn't pass up the opportunity to act in one."
"Okay. But what happens if they don't get the parts?"
"Then we shutter the windows, disconnect the Internet, pull the landline, and get the heck out of town. Seriously? It will be unbearable. You heard my mother. Another would-be starlet gave them dirty looks. This will never end until the last curtain call."
"Um ... December, I think. The first week in December."
"Think of the bright side, kiddo. If your mother and her friends do get the roles, they'll leave you alone for the next two months."
The thought of a few peaceful months almost brought a smile to my face until I remembered Marshall Gregory was going to walk through our door in less than an hour. I'd had absolutely no warning or I would have worn something that showed off my figure a bit more than a plain top and beige capris. I was going to say something, but Nate would have shrugged it off. Besides, it was best he didn't know how I felt about the firm's newest hire.
"You're being optimistic," I said. "I've got the next two months to listen to ramblings about who forgot their lines, who forgot the props, and who should have gotten the parts if they went to anyone but the book club ladies. All I can say is thank God I don't live in Sun City West."
"Oh, yeah. Speaking of that, Marshall's going to be renting a place not far from you. Thought you'd want to know."
I must have given him a weird look because he quickly added, "In case you need to share a ride or something." Because seeing him every day won't be enough. Now he has to live near me.
Augusta arrived as Nate was heading back into his office. He turned and shouted out, "The new investigator I hired should be here in an hour. I forgot to tell you and Phee he was coming today."
"Not a problem, Mr. Williams. His office is all set up — computer, phone line, everything. All he needs to do is stick a photo of his family on the desk and he'll be up and running."
"Augusta," I said, "he's single."
"Okay. Fine. He can get a dog and stick a photo of it on his desk. I have a friend at the Arizona Humane Society, and she told me they got in the cutest litter of Rottweilers."
Nate looked at her and shook his head. "No Rottweilers! No dogs! Let him get settled first. Plus, I've got so much work lined up, he's not going to have time to deal with a dog. If you want to do something nice for the guy, get him a six-pack and a subscription to Netflix. He's got everything else. He's renting a furnished place."
Augusta waited until Nate was in his office before asking me what Marshall Gregory was like. She knew I'd had a crush on him, but had no idea how overboard I really was.
"He's adorable in a Mark Harmon sort of way and really smart. And hardworking, too. Oh, and did I tell you he's got a terrific sense of humor?"
"Hmm, you don't say. By the way, you should get that puppy dog look off your face before the guy walks in the door."
I picked up where I'd left off with the billing, but it took me longer than usual. It seemed as if I was jumping up, looking in my mirror and pinching my cheeks at every sound in the outer office, expecting it to be him. I deliberately left my door open.
What I didn't expect was a phone call from Shirley Johnson. "Phee, honey, you're not going to believe this!" Oh God, no! I don't even want to imagine ...
"Your mother got cast in the play! There are only three women's parts, and she got one of them — Mrs. Boyle. Of course, Mrs. Boyle gets killed at the end of act one, but still ... it's a terrific role. Listen, before you say anything, I'm calling because your mother doesn't know. The cast list hasn't been emailed yet, but I can tell you who was cast. The part of Giles Ralston is going to be played by — "
My head started to swim. Marshall Gregory was going to walk into the office at any minute, and I was on the phone listening to a cast list.
"Shirley, that's wonderful. Absolutely wonderful. I've really got to get back to work."
"Don't you want to know how I found out?"
"I ... uh ..."
"I made the cutest little cloche for Eunice Berlmosler, the publicity chair, and she couldn't keep her mouth shut. Made me promise not to tell anyone until the cast was notified. Since you don't live in Sun City West, I figured that wouldn't count, and I just had to call you. And more good news. Can you imagine? Myrna Mittleson got the part of Miss Casewell. Probably because Myrna's so tall and when she walks it's like a stampede. She used to be really slow moving, but then she started those power move classes. Oh my, I'm going on and on ..."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Staged 4 Murder"
Copyright © 2018 J.C. Eaton.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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