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Sneak Peak – Smoldering Flames – Chapter 3

This is unedited. Please excuse the typos. My editors will clean it up before release. I like sharing my work in progress to give readers a sneak peak behind the curtain. Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 is on my website.

Chapter 3

After her brother left for work, Raina went upstairs, pulled out her laptop and returned to the kitchen table. She got on the cloud service and looked through the storage drive until she found the file for the venues. She took a big sip of coffee and made calls. A couple of hours later, she leaned back in the chair and stared at the ceiling. What a wasted effort. 

There was no venue big enough to host a wedding party their size and with availability this coming weekend. Raina rubbed her temples. And lucky for her—she had to deliver this unwelcomed message to the bride and the family. 

Thiswas not her idea of a vacation from managing the Venus Café. She was supposed to meet up with cousins and friends—to visit, to eat at her favorite restaurants, to play with her niece—anything but this. She groaned out loud.  

Other than the date, Matthew wouldn’t commit to any actual plans for their wedding. No, he said he would do whatever she wanted. But he didn’t sound excited about anything. She had a feeling he wanted something intimate and small. Not that he ever uttered those words. Thiswas how she'd translated his grunts and bland smiles. Unlike Raina, he didn't have to worry about disappointing his family.

“Are you okay?” Po Po asked, entering the kitchen And holding several small packages from her shopping trip. She set them on the countertop but brought the pink pastry box over to the table.

Raina straightened and untied the pink line around the box of goodies. “Do you need help with the rest of the stuff?”

Po Po waved dismissively at the packages. “They’ll keep. You know I don’t buy groceries.”

Once her husband’s business took off, her grandma had employed a cook for over forty years. After a decade of putting up with burned and undercooked food, her husband had felt the expense had saved their marriage. As the daughter of a wealthy rice merchant in China, Po Po had never heard enjoyed spending time over a stovetop. She even jokingly referred to the gap between the countertop and the refrigerator as the Grand Canyon. 

Raina bit into a pork bun. Yum. Thiswas as good a time as any to deliver the bad news. “If the winery is still closedon Saturday, Jung-yee would have to wait six months for the next available venue.”  

“Then the winery better open on Saturday,” Po Po said, grabbing an egg tart from the box. 

“I don’t think this is up to us to decide. We should set up a phone tree so that if we have to call off the wedding, we can disseminate the news quicker. The out-of-towners would need to cancel their flights and hotels.” 

Po Po shook her head. “We should help the police along.”

Raina gaped at her grandma. She couldn’t be serious. “Someone executed the victim.” 

“I don’t see how this is any different from plain old murder.”

“I don’t have time to investigate a murder. I’m the new wedding planner, remember?” 

“Lucy can take care of the wedding. She’s usedto planning launch parties. The two of us need to focus on what we do best”—she wiggled her eyebrows—“finding a killer.”

Raina didn’t want to encourage her grandma, but a part of her wanted the thrill that only came from unraveling a murder. The last few months of managing the café and making plans with her fiancé had been blissful…and dull, dull, and dull. Even her grandma got out of town to seek a different adventure in Lucy’s hometown.  

“Well?” Po Po asked, bouncing on the chair with her excitement. “Should I pull out my new murder kit?” 

Raina bit her lower lip. Her grandma often thought of herself as a Miss Marple in training. She would rather jump in head first and worry about the danger later. It would be much safer for Raina to take the reins. It wouldn’t hurt to ask a few questions. Po Po could get a flash of excitement without putting either of them in danger. Easy peasy. 

“We should check out the crime scene. Maybe talk to the vineyard owner to see what he thinks will happen on Saturday,” Raina finally said.

“You are not arguing with me?” Po Po asked.

“No. I’m saving my breath to warm my stomach,” Raina said. She loved this Chinese proverb. When there was no point in arguing—like at the moment with her grandma—she was better off saving the effort. 

Po Po beamed and patted Raina’s cheek. “You’re such a good girl, Rainy.”

Being a good girl was what got Raina into trouble in the first place. She couldn’t seem to say no to her family. Some people might call her a doormat, but her family was important to her. And they haven’t yet asked anything she wasn’t willing to give.

Besides, she hadn’t promised they would investigate the murder, but it wouldn’t hurt to ask a few questions. With Matthew busy with her cousins today, and she had no real plan. 

She opened her laptop again and typed a suspect list.

Husband. What happens to Arianna’s money upon her death? 

Business partner or money manager. What about the angel loans? Who else borrowed money from her? Does the borrower have to make payments to the husband now?

Po Po peered over Raina’s shoulder. “Trying to follow the money trail, huh? It’s a start until we find out more.”

“I’m not sure how we can get the husband to talk to us.”

“Can we pretend we’re Arianna’s business partners?”

“That’s not a bad idea. Let me ask Lucy to pull up information on Arianna through the PI proprietary databases.” Raina hit the save button and pulled out her cell phone. 

“I’ll be back in a jiffy. I got to get into my disguise. I’m thinking of going with the harmless little old lady look,” Po Po said.

Raina’s studied her grandma. Her face was a well-traveled roadmap, but her silvery pixie haircut, skinny jeans, and off-the-shoulder blouse gave her a matured urbane look. Her grandma certainly looked too hip to be a little old lady. “Why do you need a disguise?”

“First, the knitting needles make a handy weapon. Second, nobody notices an old lady in a crowd. Third, I can ask all the questions I want because I’m bored and nosy.” Po Po gestured at Raina’s outfit. “And you pull off the broke grad student look wonderfully, my dear.”

Raina glanced at herself. She was wearing a well-worn T-shirt from Matthew and baggy shorts. She looked nothing like the young professionals in the city. Too bad it wasn’t a disguise.

While Po Po was upstairs, Raina texted Lucy. Her foster cousin replied immediately to say she was on it. It was mighty convenient, having a private investigator in the family. Lucy could probably investigate the murder more professionally than Raina and Po Po, but she had a wedding to plan. And she already got plenty of excitement with her day-to-day work.  

Raina texted the bridal party members to remind them to bring their outfits to the family dinner tonight. She wanted to drop the dresses and tuxedos off at the dry cleaners as soon as possible. 

Blue texted her back. 

Can you stop by my office this morning? I need to talk to you. 

Raina frowned at the message and replied. 

No can do. Busy all day. See you tonight at the family dinner. 

Her phone vibrated underneath her hand before the message got sent. It was an incoming message from Blue again. 

I can’t make it tonight. Too much work before the wedding and honeymoon.  

Raina raised an eyebrow at the text message. She could swing by his office, but she didn’t want to give off the impression that she was still available at his beck and call. 

Before she could make up her mind, her phone vibrated again. She sighed and opened the message app. 

I need to talk to you about the murder. 

#

The drive to Blue Diamond Construction was uneventful. Po Po complained about missing her weapons of destruction. Her arsenal of spy gear was in the condo at Gold Springs. The “murder kit” only had a magnifying glass, a notebook, and pepper-spray.

Po Po snorted in disgust and tossed everything back into the drawstring bag. “It’s cheap Chinese junk. My high school kids could get us something better than this. It’s just too bad they’re on vacation or out of town. I hate summer break. Kids these days need to hit the books harder, not slack off for months.”

Her grandma sponsored a math and science club at the high school in their town. The sole goal of this club was to create gadgets for her grandma in exchange for a college scholarship. In reality, the club provided a haven for talented but troubled kids. And Raina was often roped into providing snacks for this ravenous pack.

Raina kept her eyes on the road. “I guess we must do this the old-fashioned way. Maybe it was Colonel Mustard in the vineyard with the revolver.” She pressed her lips together to keep the laughter from escaping.

“Uh-huh. You think this is funny? Wait until you’re in a tight spot, then you’ll wish the kids were still in school.” Po Po slipped the murder kit in Raina’s purse. “Here you go, Sherlock.”

Raina pulled off the main road and onto the side street that led to the industrial park in South San Francisco. The concrete tilt-up buildings with wide roll-up doors and loading docks were islands in a sea of asphalt. Vegetation was limited to a hedge and an anemic tree by the front door of each building. The endless asphalt pavement was broken up by perimeter fencing. 

When Raina and Po Po walked into the building, the receptionist was filing her nails and streaming a movie on the computer screen. Mrs. Santos had worked at the construction office for over thirty years. Her husband sold the business to Blue and promptly passed away. She showed up one morning to help out and stayed ever since. Raina didn’t know if Mrs. Santos was even collecting a paycheck.

Mrs. Santos was a fading Hispanic woman of average height. She was probably the same age as Po Po. Her face looked like an apple-head doll at the county fair and surrounded by a thinning halo of fluffy white hair. She had on a thick shawl around her thin shoulders even though it was the middle of summer. What Mrs. Santos lacked in physical presence, she made up for with her broad smile and booming voice.

Raina gave her grandma a sideways glance. Even in her little old lady disguise—Po Po even wore a shawl much like Mrs. Santos—her grandma didn’t give off the same frail vibe. Interesting. It must be the exercise classes from the senior center.

“Rainy! I’m so glad to see you again. What can I do for you?” Mrs. Santos said.

“Is Blue available? He’s expecting me to drop by,” Raina said.

Mrs. Santos waved Raina toward the inner office. “I don’t know if he’s in a conference call, so knock first before going in.”She returned to filing her nails.

“Why don’t I wait for you right here?” Po Po said, pulling a chair up next to Mrs. Santos. 

“I’m sure whatever he has to say, could be said in front of you,” Raina replied.

“I know, but I want to watch the show,” Po Po said, blinking a Morse code with her eyes.

Raina couldn’t interpret the message, but it was a good idea for them to split up. Her grandma might get information from the receptionist. “Okay, see you in a bit. Just don’t teach Mrs. Santos anything naughty.” 

Mrs. Santos smirked. “Oh, please. I was a hot blood Latina once. I could show your granny a move or two.”

Po Po beamed and leaned forward. “I would like to see the moves.”

Raina turned away from the two retired women and rolled her eyes. Great. Her grandma didn’t need any more help in the naughty department. 

She strolled down the short hallway and passed the conference room, the small break area, and restroom. Blue’s office was in the rear of the building next to the warehouse area with the loading dock. He stored the building materials back there until he needed to move them onto the job site. Blue wasn’t in the office, so Raina strolled through the double doors into the warehouse. There was no sign of movement.

“Anybody here? I’m looking for Blue,” Raina called out.

“Back here,” Blue said.

Raina headed in the direction of his voice. When she rounded a bank of metal shelves, she saw Blue pulling open the lid of a shipping crate with a crowbar. The muscle on his arm rippled with the movement. He had on a faded white T-shirt and blue jeans. His long black hair was tied back into a ponytail. His work attire made the tuxedo version that much more appealing. 

He set the crowbar on the shelf next to him and pull off the lid. Nestled inside the Styrofoam was a refrigerator. She couldn’t tell what brand it was, but from the way it was packaged, she knew it was expensive. Probably custom made.

“Twenty thousand dollars,” Blue said, glancing over at her.

Raina whistled. “Kitchen remodel?”

He nodded and leaned the lid against the crate. “Some people have more money than sense.”

“So you want to talk about the murder?” She didn’t bother hiding the skepticism in her voice.

He studied her for a long moment. He hooked his thumbs on the pockets of his jeans. From all outward appearance, he looked relaxed. But she knew him well enough to notice the tension in his hazel eyes.

She softened her voice. After all, at one point, she cared for this man. “How can I help?”

“The victim is Arianna Cobbs. She’s an Angel for small businesses,” Blue said. 

Raina nodded. Thiswasn’t new information to her. She knew from experience it was better to let people talk at their own pace.

“She’s my Angel.” Blue swallowed. “And right before her death, she called in her loan.”

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