Welcome to River Bluffs, Indiana, a cozy small town populated with charming homes, close-knit families, and the occasional deadly secret . . .
House-flipper Jazzi Zanders and her cousin Jerod have found their latest project. The property, formerly owned by the late Cal Juniper, is filled with debris that must be cleared before the real renovation begins. But a trip to the attic reveals something more disturbing than forgotten garbage—a skeleton wearing a locket and rings that Jazzi recognizes . . .
Tests confirm that the bones belong to Jazzi’s aunt Lynda, who everyone assumed moved to New York years ago after breaking up with Cal. Soon enough, the whole family is involved, sifting through memories and rumors as they try to piece together what really happened to Lynda—and the baby she gave up for adoption. In between investigating and remodeling, Jazzi is falling for the old house’s charms—and for her gorgeous contractor, Ansel. But with surprises lurking in every nook and cranny, a killer might be waiting to demolish her dreams for good.
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It was sweltering. The sun beat down, and perspiration dripped along Jazzi's spine. Uncomfortable and impatient, she wished the auctioneer would hurry up. She wanted this house. She and her cousin, Jerod, had walked through it, top to bottom, at the initial showing and hadn't seen any major problems. They'd flipped houses together for four years now. Mostly successes.
Jerod rambled back to stand beside her. Tall and hefty, he towered over her. At five-six, she didn't consider herself short, but the top of her head came only to Jerod's chin.
"We should get this at a decent price," he told her. "To buy it 'as is,' along with all the garbage the renter left inside, scares most people. The ones I talked to came to bid on the '70 Nova found in the garage."
Good news. Cal Juniper's house had good bones and oozed charm. A cobblestone cottage style with a rolled roof and an "eyebrow" near the front door, it was two stories with a storybook feel. The roof was in good shape; the trim just needed a little paint. They'd barely made a profit on their last flip, but they'd be making only cosmetic changes to this one.
Once upon a time, Cal had almost become a part of their family. Jazzi still remembered stories about Aunt Lynda's engagement party here. People said Cal had beamed all night as if he'd won the grand prize. Lynda's vitality made people feel alive. That was before she ran off to New York and never returned. Cal never married. He died six months ago of a sudden heart attack. The house went downhill fast after that.
Jerod bumped her arm, signaling for her to pay attention. The bidding would start soon. Jazzi's hair stuck to the back of her neck, and she lifted it to cool off. She and her hair had a love-hate relationship. Thick and honey colored, she got lots of compliments on it, but on hot days, if she didn't slap it into a ponytail, she always regretted it. She'd pulled it up today, but the stupid rubber band had died. Her own fault. If she'd have looked for her hair tie like she should have, this wouldn't have happened.
Jerod glanced at her and shook his head. "What's the matter, Jasmine, can't take the heat?"
She tossed him a sour look. He only called her by her birth name to annoy her. "Shut it, cuz. Maybe you should clean out this one yourself."
He grinned. She'd already told him she couldn't wait to get inside the place and get down and dirty. Dirty was the key word. The renter threw everything — empty pizza boxes, drained beer cans, and greasy paper wrappers — on the floor, a fly and rodent's paradise. She didn't want to know how many maggots were happily living in there.
The auctioneer finally got to the car and bidding went crazy. The good news? After a gray-haired guy with black grease under his fingernails — most likely a mechanic — got it, the crowd thinned out. Jerod had been right. Not many people were interested in the house. Jazzi was even more surprised when everyone else dropped out at fifty-six thousand and they won the bid.
Jerod raised his hand for a high five. "We did it! I'm going to give Ansel a call and let him know."
Ansel. Their tall, blond construction contractor. Quite the distraction. Jazzi wished he were here. He worked with them on most houses. He'd meant to come with them today, but this was his girlfriend's, Emily's, first day off after three twelve-hour shifts and she'd informed him he was spending time with her. He never went against Emily's orders. At six-five, he was taller than Jerod, but thoroughly under the thumb of a five-four nurse. He had white-blond hair and sky-blue eyes — looked like a Viking, but was easygoing. Emily wasn't.
If all people with Norwegian backgrounds looked like Ansel, Jazzi would welcome Norwegian immigrants to River Bluffs with open arms and possibly groping hands. If only Emily weren't in the way.
She stayed to finalize the paperwork with the auctioneer while Jerod made his call. They'd worked with this auction house many times, always paying cash so they could start work right away.
She braced her shoulders and walked into the house. Putrid pulled pork, sour milk, and moldy tomato sauce combined into a foul stench. She couldn't stomach it and walked to her pickup truck to don a white face mask. She grabbed two flat-blade shovels and a box of trash bags, too. A broom wasn't going to cut it.
When Jerod joined her, he dragged in the huge trash container they'd brought with them. She handed him his face mask and he slapped it in place. The living room was monstrous, spanning the front of the house to the back. They spent the next four hours slogging through stinking, sweaty work. The tenant must have lived in this room, maybe even sleeping on the sofa. Its cushions permanently sagged and were covered with stains she didn't want to think about. When they finished, the room stood completely empty. The dining room was bereft of table or chairs. The kitchen had a long worktable that served as an island. It was so filthy, there was no way she was ever going to get it clean.
Jazzi looked at the avocado-green stove and shook her head. It was history. She opened the pink refrigerator and quickly slammed the door. Things might live in there she didn't want to meet. The countertops and sink were covered with dirty plates and utensils with remnants of rotting food.
At one time, Cal had professional Viking appliances in here. Jazzi sighed. "Remember how this kitchen looked when Cal was alive? Mom said Lynda loved to give parties and to entertain. This was the perfect house for it."
"I'm guessing the tenant sold anything worth anything," Jerod said. "It's a good thing he was too lazy to bother with the attic." It had some interesting antiques stored in it when they'd done the walk-through.
Jazzi held up a hand and motioned to the side door. She needed some fresh air. Jerod nodded and followed her into the backyard. A rusted, dead gas grill sat on the patio. A tire tilted against the garage. Jazzi shook her head and went to the garden hose. Using lots of soap, she scrubbed her hands and arms. Finally satisfied, she walked to her pickup to open the cooler on the backseat. Lots of ice and lots of beer. She needed something stronger than soda for this job.
Jerod twisted the cap on his bottle and walked into the shade of an old oak. "Who could live like this? You'd think the fumes would kill you."
Jazzi took a long swig of cold beer. "We should have bought a window air conditioner and plugged it in before we started."
Jerod motioned to a unit sitting at the side of the house. "According to the auction brochure, we have central air."
Yeah, right. When they'd switched it on, nothing had happened.
Jerod drained his bottle and belched. On purpose. When was the man ever going to grow up? He was twenty-nine, two years older than she was. Would thirty be the magic number? Somehow, she doubted it.
"The upstairs is pretty much empty, remember?" Jerod shook his head. "The bum sold all the antiques, probably paid for his pot."
They'd found two broken bongs in the living room.
She went to their food cooler and grabbed two deli sandwiches. She handed one to Jerod. "I'm starving, but I had to get the stink out of my nose before I could eat."
Jerod had finished his sandwich and gone for another before she was halfway through hers. "The good news is that we're making money with sweat equity. So far, we haven't found any expensive repairs."
"It's still early." She finished her sandwich and pulled her mask in place, then headed back inside the house. Three hours later, she was starving again, but neither she nor Jerod wanted to stop work until the kitchen was finished. If they stopped now, Jazzi wasn't sure if she could stomach it again.
When Jerod pulled the last black trash bag through the door, Jazzi sagged against the kitchen worktable and the thing nearly collapsed. It only looked sturdy. One of its legs was broken.
Jerod returned and gave the kitchen one last scan. "We have all the windows open. Hopefully, it will smell better when we come for demo tomorrow. Let's go check out the attic."
Jazzi groaned. "It's hot. I'm tired and hungry. It'll be an oven up there."
"So? You can't look much worse than you already do."
That's what she loved about family. They were always there for you. Whether you wanted them or not.
When she gave him a dirty look, he laughed. "I'll bring a window air conditioner tomorrow. Will that win you over?"
She could be had with bribes. They climbed the stairs to the three bedrooms and two baths on the second floor and then climbed a small, narrow set of steps to the third-floor attic. She breathed in stale air. Jazzi pulled on a string dangling from the overhead lightbulb. The room proved to be decent size with a low-pitched ceiling. No insulation, so they'd have to install some, but it provided needed storage.
Old paintings and mirrors leaned against the side walls. Wrought-iron furniture for the patio was shoved to the back. An armoire was smashed against a matching chest of drawers in the highest part of the room. Old trunks sat under rafters. A long, deep cedar chest caught Jerod's eye.
"Franny would love that." Jerod's wife refinished old furniture and ran a business out of a shed on their property. Tallish and shapeless with carrot-orange hair and a face covered with freckles, Franny would never have attracted Jerod if a friend hadn't set them up on a blind date, but once he spent an evening with her, he couldn't stop talking about her. She exuded warmth. To meet Franny was to love her. Down to earth and practical, she wouldn't put up with any of Jerod's BS, but she loved him with every fiber of her being.
The cedar chest was scratched and scarred. Its bottom half was discolored, but it was long and deep. Even the floor under it was stained. Jazzi looked at the ceiling. Had there been a leak at one time? The boards overhead looked fine.
"If you want the chest, it's yours."
Jerod smiled and started to drag it toward the door. Something jostled and rattled inside. Jerod flipped open the lid to see what, then jumped back and stared. "Holy crap!"
A skeleton was lying inside, its head cradled on a pillow, its knees pulled up. A hand and wrist bone had fallen off and formed a small heap of bones on the bottom of the trunk from when Jerod jostled them. Thick blonde hair — dry with a reddish cast — fanned to its shoulders. From old pictures, Jazzi recognized what was left of the cotton spring dress it wore and there was no mistaking the oval silver locket dangling around the neck bones.
Jazzi shivered and rubbed her arms. Her mom's sister had disappeared twenty-six years ago, the year after Jazzi was born. Lynda had left for New York and never returned, never wrote, never called. Jazzi's mother insisted she wouldn't do that. According to everyone else, she would.
Mom swore if Lynda didn't want to marry Cal Juniper, she'd have called off the wedding. Others remembered Lynda disappearing to New York when she got cold feet with Maury, her first serious contender. No matter. It had taken years for her mother to give up hope of finding her. And now it looked as though Mom had been right. Lynda had never left Cal's house.
Jerod let out a long sigh. "It's who I think it is, right?"
He shook his head. "The Sunday meal at your place this week is going to be a blast."
A blast wasn't the exact words she'd use, but there'd be plenty of gossip, that's for sure. She cooked for her entire family every Sunday and people pitched in on the cost. They talked over each other so much, they could double as Italians, and no one could have a conversation without waving their hands. This time, maybe it would help her mom to have her family around for support. She was going to be devastated when she heard the news.CHAPTER 2
Jerod called 911. While Jazzi waited for the detective to arrive, she went from room to room upstairs, checking them out. She needed to keep busy to distract herself. Her aunt was folded into a trunk, and her mom was going to relive a crappy memory. When Lynda had accepted Cal Juniper's engagement ring but told him that she needed to leave River Bluffs for a year to think things through, friends had lined up behind Cal, not Lynda. And now here Lynda was, stuffed in a trunk in Cal's attic.
Detective Richard Gaff and crime scene experts arrived before Jazzi could sort out her thoughts. Gaff looked at the trunk, frowned at the stains halfway up it, and shook his head. "How long did you say she'd been here?"
Jazzi watched the techs take one picture after another. "She disappeared twenty-six years ago, a few months after she got engaged. Why is everything stained there?"
A tech answered automatically. "A body liquefies when it decomposes — all the fluids draining and organs breaking down."
Jerod grimaced at the floorboards.
"A cleanup crew comes when we find a body or remains. They can fix anything." Gaff looked at the diamond ring caught on the knuckle of the bony finger on her right hand. "And who was she going to marry?"
"That ring came from Thomas Sorrell. She broke up with him." Jazzi pointed to the small heap of bones that had fallen off when Jerod moved the trunk. Another diamond glistened among them — a little smaller, but classier. "That's Cal's ring. She was going to marry him."
He stopped writing and frowned. "Those are both big diamonds."
Jazzi shook her head. "Both men were rich."
"You said she was engaged when she disappeared."
"To Cal Juniper, but she asked him to give her a year in New York to think things through."
"And he was all right with that?"
"He wasn't happy, but he agreed to it. My mom told me that it bothered him so much, he left River Bluffs before Lynda did. He was going to travel across Europe on business trips until Lynda was supposed to come back."
"So he wasn't in the house. For a year? That makes sense. It would stink to high heavens for a long time." Gaff scratched his head, confused. "Okay, let's start at the beginning. Can you tell me what you know about your aunt?"
Jerod and Jazzi exchanged glances.
"That could take a while," Jazzi said.
Gaff raised salt-and-pepper eyebrows. The man was built like a tank, maybe five-ten and stocky, looked to be in his early fifties. "Want to go somewhere to talk?"
"On the back patio?" Jazzi asked. "There are chairs out there."
Gaff gladly accepted a soda when Jazzi got beers for her and Jerod, and then he leaned back in the lawn chair, his pen and pad at the ready. "Go for it."
Jazzi started. "As far as I can tell, my aunt had a wild side, and she loved expensive things. The problem was, she couldn't afford them."
Gaff rubbed his chin. "The man who owned this house and property, Cal Juniper, had money. I met him a few times. He was active in the community and well liked. Lots of people attended his funeral. He didn't flaunt it, but he had deep pockets."
"Every man Lynda dated did."
"How many were there?"
Jazzi pursed her lips, trying to remember what her mom had told her. "Maury was the first — he owns the deli on State Street."
"She was engaged to him, too?"
"No, but they talked about getting married. They were high school sweethearts. When they graduated and Maury got too serious, Lynda got cold feet and ran off to New York for a year."
Mom was a junior then, and none of her friends had anything good to say about her sister. Mom swore they were just jealous. Some of them even spread ugly rumors that Lynda was pregnant, but Lynda wrote to Mom every Sunday, telling her about plays and restaurants. She never mentioned a job, so rumors spread that she was some rich man's mistress.
Gaff made his notes, then looked satisfied. "So your aunt ran off because she didn't want to marry Maury, then came home and met Thomas Sorrell."
"She got a job as a receptionist at the Chamber of Commerce and met lots of men, but I only remember the ones who asked to marry her. Mom doesn't like to talk about it." Jazzi sighed. "You're going to have to question her, aren't you? Do you mind if I tell her about the trunk first? Make it a little easier for her?"
Gaff finished his soda and handed her the empty can. "You can tell her, but I want to be there when you do, in case it jogs a memory or she realizes that something back then was important and she hadn't realized it. First, though, I have a few things to finish up here, but I won't be long."
Jerod cleared his throat. "Is the house a crime scene? Can we still work on it?"
"Might as well, but give us until tomorrow. It's not like this is breaking news. After twenty-six years, I don't think we're going to find much evidence, especially after the renter lived here and you started to work on it, but the crime scene crew will go through every room before they pack up. We'll leave the body in the chest to take it away."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Body in the Attic"
Copyright © 2018 Judith Post.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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