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Sneak Peek: Lucy Fong #2 – Chapter 2

Just A Lucky Break-In (Raina Sun Mystery #2)

A dead body. A crazy chicken. And a Chinese artifact. Morro Cliff Village will never be the same again.

Lucy Fong is keeping the family's private investigation firm afloat while her mother is in a coma. When a man collapses outside the PI office, Lucy is once again drawn into another murder investigation.

Who is the dead man, and why does he have a crazy chicken in his knapsack? How did he get inside the secured building owned by Lucy's family? 

It's a race against time to find the murderer before danger catches up with Lucy. Join Lucy and her friends in this fast-paced cozy mystery.

Read Chapter 1 here.

Chapter 2 - Drunken Sailor

Lucy blinked, but the image in front of her didn’t go away. The strange man still lay on the asphalt of the parking lot. Did her cousin say he was dead?

The world became a fuzzy gray, and her vision narrowed until she only saw the man lying on the ground. She shook her head, hoping to clear away her confusion. The bile rose from the back of her throat again, and she swallowed the bitter tang. No, no...not again. The clanging in her head grew louder, drowning out everything.

“Lucy!” Stella called out, but it sounded as if her cousin’s voice came through a bad phone connection. “Put your head between your knees and breathe.”

Lucy did as instructed, feeling thick and clumsy in her crouched position. After a few moments, her vision cleared, and she could see the tiny pebbles on the asphalt. Somehow the burlap bag had wiggled across the short distance between the dead man and Lucy. It writhed and moved against her leg. Maybe a small pet was trapped inside the bag.

As Stella returned her attention to the man, Lucy reached for the bag. The knapsack had a small pocket in the front and two buckles that held a flap over the main compartment. Lucy opened one buckle and jerked back with a yelp.

A chicken head popped out and started squawking. The beady reddish-brown eyes glared at Lucy. The bright red wattles under its beak swung from side to side.

“Is that a rooster?” Stella asked, glancing up from the man on the ground.

Lucy couldn’t tell the difference between a hen and a rooster by looking at its head. “I don’t know if it’s a rooster, but it sure sounds like one.”

“Don’t let it get away. It might give us a clue to the man’s identity.”

Lucy eyed the chicken nervously. She didn’t want to get anywhere near its beak. “The other buckle is still on. It can’t get out of the bag.” She glanced at the door of the vacant shop. “I better look for Damien…”

As if speaking his name invoked his presence, the reporter appeared in the doorframe. Lucy frowned. Why did it take Damien this long to come outside? Did he find something in the shop?

A vehicle pulled up next to the curb, and a door opened and slammed shut from behind them.

Lucy dragged her eyes from the door frame to the curb behind her. The mayor stared at them with his jaw wide open. She blinked. This couldn’t be happening. How could she explain this to the mayor?

“What’s going on over there? Did someone get hurt?” the mayor called out.

“Stella! Call nine-one-one while I stall the mayor,” Lucy whispered.

Her cousin’s gaze swiveled between Damien, the dead man, and the mayor. Her eyes widened at the strange situation, and a look of panic flashed across her face.

Now it was Lucy’s turn to be the strong one. “Take a deep breath. It will be okay. Just call nine-one-one. Damien can take care of himself, and I will explain things to the mayor. Just talk to the dispatcher.”

Stella swallowed and nodded. “Okay. I can do this.”

“Why don’t you make the call inside the PI office?” Lucy suggested.

Stella nodded again and got up. Lucy trotted toward the mayor.

Alexander Frasier, also known as Sander to his friends, had held the mayor position for more than a decade. He was in his late fifties with salt and pepper hair, but his full beard was snow white. With his icy blue eyes and a full belly, he was the town’s year-round Santa Claus.

The butterflies in Lucy’s stomach fluttered nervously. What if the mayor drove off after he found out there was a dead man in the parking lot? While most people might stare at an accident, no one wanted to be on the side of the road talking to the police.

Lucy cleared her throat. “Um, Mr. Mayor, we have a situation here. The Chicken Man came out of the vacant—”

“Who is the Chicken Man?” the mayor interrupted.

Lucy blinked. She hadn’t realized she had named the dead man. “The man on the ground. He had an accident. Can we reschedule for another day? The police will probably want to talk to me and Stella. I’m sure you’re too busy to wait.”

“Is there anything I can do to help?” the mayor asked, his face full of concern.

Lucy shook her head. “Everything is under control here. Once we are done, I’ll call your secretary to reschedule.”

In the distance, sirens blared and got louder by the second.

“You might want to get out of here before the emergency vehicles block traffic,” Lucy said, hoping she sounded helpful rather than desperate. The longer it took the mayor to find out about the dead man, the better. If she had more time, she might be able to neutralize the bad news.

The mayor gave the parking lot another glance. “Good point, Lucy. I don’t even know CPR. Let’s see if we can meet later this week. I need to decide on the museum’s temporary location before the next town council meeting.”

As the mayor drove off, Lucy breathed a sigh of relief. Okay, she only had to get the Chicken Man off the premises, and everything would be back to normal. She could still salvage this situation and get the lease for the town’s temporary museum.

She turned back to the parking lot and saw Damien crouching over the Chicken Man. From this angle on the curb, she couldn’t tell what the reporter was doing. Was he performing CPR on the Chicken Man?

Lucy marched back to the parking lot, scanning the window of the PI office. Stella was nowhere to be seen. Did she go inside the vacant shop next door? Lucy’s gaze returned to Damien’s back.

He reached for the knapsack, opening the remaining buckle. The chicken’s head popped out of the bag and pecked his hand. He jerked back and fell onto his rear. The chicken squawked and jumped out of the bag.

“Don’t let the chicken run away. It could be evidence,” Lucy called out, sprinting the last few feet. As soon as the words left her mouth, she realized her subconscious had decided this was a crime scene. After all, the Chicken Man had slurred his words and dropped dead in the parking lot. Either he was drunk or he was poisoned.

Damien glanced over his shoulder. “What?”

The chicken flapped and raced around the building, disappearing from view. Lucy ground her teeth and picked up her pace. She was not built for moving at this speed. Her breaths came out in puffs, and her lungs burned for air.

The chicken raced through the narrow strip of pavement on the side of the building that led to the back of the strip mall and the employee parking spots.

Lucy pumped her arms harder, hoping it would help propel her forward. Sweat streamed down her face. If she didn’t stop soon, the emergency responders would find her collapsed on the pavement too.

The chicken squawked again and dashed for the woods behind the building. It ran, hopped, and flapped, wobbling on its skinny legs like a drunken sailor on a wooden peg.

“Hey, come back,” Lucy gasped, holding onto the side of the building.

The chicken ran into the woods without a backward glance.

Lucy shook her hand in the air. Stupid chicken. She took another deep breath and straightened. Now that she was no longer focused on chasing the chicken, she realized sirens were coming from the parking lot. It was time to talk to the police.

She spun on her heels and headed back to the front of the building. A police cruiser, an ambulance, and a fire truck blocked the driveway to the shopping plaza. Between the flashing lights and the group of ladies gathered around the window at the yarn shop, it looked like they were having a block party.

The police chief, the firefighters, and Stella were huddled in a group in front of the fire truck. Two emergency medical technicians checked on the Chicken Man. 

Surprisingly, Damien was nowhere in sight. Maybe the sight of a dead body up close was too much for him. Even as soon as the thought floated to the surface, Lucy dismissed it. Damien was a reporter after all. And reporters were known to see all walks of life.

Stella glanced up from the group and gestured for Lucy to join them. As Lucy crossed the parking lot, the medical technicians loaded the Chicken Man onto a gurney. 

Lucy paused mid-step. Why were the medical technicians moving the Chicken Man? Shouldn’t the coroner check out the body first? “Where are you taking him?” she called out.

“To the emergency room,” the emergency medical technician said. He returned to his task, turning his back to her.

Lucy gaped at the EMTs. The Chicken Man was still alive? Holy Toledo! Didn’t Stella have enough medical training to tell if someone was dead or alive? Weren’t pharmacists as good as a doctor in some parts of the world?

The firefighters got back into their truck, waved to the crowd, and left. Max DeWitt, the police chief, trotted toward the ambulance and chatted with the EMTs.

Stella joined Lucy and whispered, “I thought only someone from the coroner could touch the body.”

Lucy gave her cousin a sideways glance. “He’s going to the hospital. Apparently, the Chicken Man isn’t dead.”

Stella flushed, a deep crimson that covered both cheeks and her nose. “You couldn’t give him a more original name?” Her voice sounded petulant.

Lucy struggled to keep the grin off her face. Her cousin was embarrassed at her misdiagnosis. “I went for the obvious. Maybe I can visit him tomorrow when I stop by to see Mom.”

“I couldn’t find a pulse or a heartbeat. I couldn’t tell if he was drooling or if he had ingested poison. No way was I putting my lips over his,” Stella said, crossing her arms defensively. 

“Maybe Damien resuscitated him,” Lucy said. She couldn't hide the doubt in her voice. Where was the reporter? This was big news for their small town. 

“Did you see Damien give the Chicken Man CPR? He had to be pretty brave to get over the—” Stella’s hand circled the air above her mouth, indicating the lower half of the man’s face. 

Lucy frowned. Did she see Damien give the Chicken Man CPR? After all, Damien was hunched over the Chicken Man. “I assumed he did. But if he was so concerned about saving the Chicken Man’s life, why did Damien waste time by letting the chicken out?”

Stella gave Lucy a sharp look. “I know that tone. You have suspected Damien in the past of nefarious deeds, but he has turned out to be innocent. Are you reading more into things because you’re looking for an excuse to keep him at arm’s length?”

Heat rose to Lucy’s face, and she averted her gaze. Was she afraid to have a closer relationship with Damien? “Now you’re reading too much into things. Damien and I are just friends.” She nodded at the police chief. “Besides, I like keeping my options open.”

Stella raised an eyebrow. “Is that right? Good girl. I wouldn’t want you to tie the knot with the first man that shows interest.”

“I have dated plenty of men before.” Lucy knew she sounded exasperated, but this was no time to talk about her love life. It was bad enough that her foster grandma was always trying to set her up, even from afar.

“Promiscuous? Even better. It’s not fair that men get to sleep—”

“Look! They are leaving,” Lucy cut in. 

Stella glanced up to see the ambulance driving off. The police chief went to inspect the spot the Chicken Man had lain on the parking lot floor. He returned to his police cruiser, grabbed a couple of cones and crime scene tape, and blocked off the area even though the only thing visible was the empty knapsack.

Max trotted over. He was in his mid-thirties—a few years younger than Lucy—blond, well-muscled, and close to six feet tall. His moss-green eyes squinted against the sunlight, crinkling the skin around his eyes. In his uniform, he was the boy next door. Too bad he was too young for her.

“Will you still be around in a bit?” Max asked. “I want to take photos of the parking lot before folks move their cars. There’s not much to see, but I want to note the man’s location just the same.”

Lucy nodded. “Can I go inside the vacant shop? Or do you want to see it first?”

“Let’s go inside together. It’s your shop, but I want to check for signs of a break-in.”

“Come and get me when you’re ready. Stella and I will be in the PI office,” Lucy said. 

They left Max to do his work. As they approached the PI office, Lucy glanced next door at the newspaper office. Through the window, she couldn’t see anyone, though Damien’s car was still in the parking lot. It wasn’t like the reporter to be missing in action, especially in the middle of a story. Where did he go? And why didn’t he want his presence known?

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Sneak Peek: Lucy Fong #2 – Chapter 1

Just A Lucky Break-In (Raina Sun Mystery #2)

A dead body. A crazy chicken. And a Chinese artifact. Morro Cliff Village will never be the same again.

Lucy Fong is keeping the family's private investigation firm afloat while her mother is in a coma. When a man collapses outside the PI office, Lucy is once again drawn into another murder investigation.

Who is the dead man, and why does he have a crazy chicken in his knapsack? How did he get inside the secured building owned by Lucy's family? 

It's a race against time to find the murderer before danger catches up with Lucy. Join Lucy and her friends in this fast-paced cozy mystery.

Chapter 1 - An Ocean Breeze

“Hi, Mom. It’s Lucy. If you can hear me, please move your fingers.” 

Lucy Fong held her breath, waiting for her mother’s lifeless hand to twitch. The clock on the wall of the hospital room ticked. The machine hooked up to her mother’s body whirled and dripped nourishment and medication, but her mother’s hand remained still as the grave.

She closed her eyes and bowed her head, praying to her Chinese ancestors. Though her mother wasn’t Chinese, surely her father’s side of the family wouldn’t begrudge helping someone who meant the world to Lucy. 

A tear leaked down her face. She hadn’t spoken to her mother in the last sixteen years, and now that she was ready to give their relationship another chance, her mother wasn’t available. 

Lucy’s bitter smile wobbled. Unavailable. Like her mother was off doing something else. Lucy refused to give in to the fear that, this time, it might be too late. Whoever shot her mother was behind bars and awaiting trial, but it didn’t make waiting for her mom to wake up from a coma any easier.

In Lucy’s memory, Mom was a tall and willowy woman with blonde hair and a vibrant personality to match it. She was the polar opposite of Lucy, who had been a serious and reserved child. But that was a lifetime ago. The elderly woman in the hospital bed had a permanent frown on her face. The thinning white hair spread around her like a shroud. 

The fluorescent lights overhead cast a gray pallor over the hospital room despite the cheerful yellow painted walls. The room was barely big enough to fit the hospital bed, the medical equipment, and the chair. On one wall, there was a tall narrow window like the kind found in a medieval castle. Maybe the hospital board was afraid the patient would jump from the second-floor room. Next to the window was a door that led to a bathroom, which no one had used since her comatose mother had occupied the room.

Footsteps approached her mother’s room. The whispered conversation drifted in and out, adding to the otherworldly feeling of life being on hold in an extended hospital stay. It took a few minutes for Lucy to realize she recognized the voices in the conversation. It was her mother’s cousin, Estelle Faye—who went by Stella since her makeover—and Nurse Bobbi. 

Lucy frowned. What were the two of them talking about? She strained her ears and concentrated on their voices.

“...physical therapy...at least three months...maybe longer.”

“...side...in-home checkup...”

“I don’t think...Lucy...”

At Nurse Bobbi’s mention of her name, Lucy’s attention perked up. Now she was sure that Stella was up to something. However, since Lucy was the next of kin, the doctor wouldn’t make a decision about her mother’s care without at least consulting her. So whatever Stella was up to, it had nothing to do with Mom. 

Lucy got up from the chair next to her mother’s bedside and tiptoed to the door. She waited for several seconds but couldn’t hear anything. She took a step into the hallway, just as Stella came into the room. For an awkward second, the two of them tried to shift out of the way at the same time, and Lucy ended up ramming into Stella’s armpit. When they finally stopped moving, Lucy sidestepped, and Stella came into the room.

Like all the women on the Faye side of the family, Stella Faye was tall, towering over Lucy even without heels. Before her miraculous makeover with Lucy’s foster grandma, Stella had teeth and ears that seemed too big for her face. Her long blonde hair had hung heavy and limp, dragging down her features rather than highlighting them. Even though she was in her early fifties, she had looked like someone much older. In one afternoon and a few hundred dollars later, Stella blossomed into a bombshell. 

She had chopped off her long hair, opting for a pixie cut like Lucy’s, but instead of red streaks, Stella put in warm highlights, which softened the contrast with her facial features. With more movement to her hair, she was able to hide her ears. The skillful application of pale pink lipstick gave her lips more volume, making the teeth appear smaller. Stella looked a decade younger and more like Lucy’s older sister. 

Unlike her mother’s cousin, Lucy felt like she had aged a decade in the few weeks since her return to Morro Cliff Village. Maybe it was the stress of her mother’s condition or helping her younger half-sister move out of town, but Lucy had put on weight. She always had more padding than the other women in the family, thanks to her Chinese father. She was also shorter, darker, and overall hairier like Cousin Itt from The Adams Family movie. 

Stella peered at Mom’s face. “Any changes today?”

Lucy shook her head. “I’m beginning to lose hope.”

“Never lose hope, my dear. Miracles happen every day. I’ve seen it in my line of work.” 

Stella was a former pharmacist who was forced into an early retirement a year ago. During her career, she must have seen patients making lifestyle changes that reversed their ailments. Though how Mom could make lifestyle changes in her current state was beyond Lucy’s comprehension.

“Were you talking to Nurse Bobbi out in the hallway?” Lucy asked. “Was it about Mom?”

Stella fiddled with the blanket, tucking it around Mom, even though the patient couldn’t move to disturb the bedding. “The nurse and I were talking about what Dahlia might need to recover her strength.”

Lucy blinked. Wasn’t it too early to discuss physical therapy when Mom hadn’t even woken up yet? “I didn’t know you were such an optimist. I can only get through one day at a time.”

Stella shrugged awkwardly. “I’ve been a caregiver my entire life, so that’s the first thing I think about.” She had returned home after college to take care of her aging parents. She glanced at the clock on the wall. “What time is the locksmith showing up at the shop?”

Lucy grabbed her purse. “In twenty minutes. Are you coming?” 

Stella made a shooing motion with her hands. “We don’t need two people to watch the locksmith drill out a lock. Let me sit with Dahlia for a few minutes. But I’ll be there before the meeting with the mayor.”

As Lucy strolled past the nurse’s station, she felt harried like she had missed the ball. The meeting with the mayor would determine if she could lease out the vacant retail space in her mother’s shopping plaza. The rents from the yarn shop and the newspaper office paid for the mortgage Mom took out for her sister’s college tuition. Without another source of income, the hospital bills would drain Mom’s entire savings well before she woke up. 

As the temporary head of the family, it was Lucy’s responsibility to make sure this didn’t happen. Stella was the public figurehead for the family private investigation office—she was the only one licensed by the state—but she was already retired. In addition, Stella’s branch of the family wasn’t in the direct line of succession for the Faye Family Trust. Mom had inherited the private investigation office, and Lucy was next in line.

While Lucy might be estranged from her mother, she understood filial piety—thanks to the Chinese uncle who took her in as a runaway teen. She figured this was the universe balancing everything out. Now it was her turn to take care of someone else.

* * *

Lucy felt slightly silly, watching the locksmith drill out the lock of the vacant shop. He didn’t need her hovering while he worked, but if she went inside the PI office, he might have questions for her. So here she stood, twiddling her thumbs.

From the corner of Lucy’s eye, she could see Damien North studying her from inside the newspaper office. The man stood in front of the shop’s glass windows with a mug in his hand. It wouldn’t take more than a glance to get Damien to come out.  

Tall, dark, and slightly mysterious—and according to Stella, Damien was every woman’s dream. He was in his early forties with black hair and warm brown eyes. At five feet eleven, he had a lean runner’s physique. At one point in his family tree, someone married a Hispanic, and Damien had inherited the Hispanic skin tone.

He did odd jobs for his rich uncle and running the newspaper was one of them. His uncle was as eccentric as Lucy’s foster grandma but without the common sense. Not only did Damien have a nosy streak, but he had also hinted at kicking their friendship up a notch. Too bad Lucy wasn’t interested. 

She was here to get Mom back on her feet, not to indulge in a temporary romantic liaison. And besides, if he was such a catch, how come a woman hadn’t snatched him up by now? Ergo, there must be something wrong with the man. 

Lucy turned her back and glanced inside the windows of the yarn shop. The Vietnamese shop owner appeared to be in the middle of a class in the back corner. Good. She was equally as curious as Damien and also wanted to kick their acquaintance up to the BFF level. 

In a different circumstance, Lucy would find all this attention flattering, but her first priority was her family. She didn’t have any spare emotional energy for anyone else.

The locksmith pulled out a small drill from his tool bag. “Looks like I’ll have to drill it out and put in a new one.”

“Okay. Do whatever you need,” Lucy said because she felt like he needed a reply.

Her cell phone rang, and she pulled it out of her purse. It was from Stella. She turned her back to the locksmith and tapped on the screen to accept the incoming call. 

“What’s up? Did Mom wake up?” Lucy’s pulse jumped at the thought. 

“No. I’m calling to let you know the mayor is on his way,” Stella said.

Lucy frowned. She was supposed to have an hour to replace the lock and look around the vacant shop. They didn’t know if the last tenant left the place in good condition. “We still haven’t opened the door yet. Can you stall him?”

“I can try, but I probably can’t buy you more than ten or fifteen minutes.”

“I thought he had the hots for you. Can’t you flirt with him for a bit? Bat your eyes?”

“Um, no, thanks. I don’t have flings with married men.”

They said their goodbyes and hung up. 

The hair on the back of Lucy’s neck stiffened. She glanced up to see Damien North inside her personal space, drinking from his mug and watching the locksmith. She had no idea how long he had been standing here or how much of the phone call he had heard. She took a side step to give herself more space. 

“Do you smell that?” Damien whispered from the side of his mouth, leaning toward her as if they had been having an intimate conversation all along.  

Lucy had to give the man credit for being persistent. She glanced at the locksmith. Sweat stains from his armpits soaked his company polo shirt. “It’s hard to perform under all this attention.”

“I don’t think it’s him. Maybe a skunk?” Damien whispered.

Lucy breathed in cautiously. Her nose twitched at the rancid and fetid scent. “I hope not. Skunk oil can linger for days. Let’s hope the ocean breeze can blow away the smell.” 

“So, the mayor wants to rent this place for the town museum, huh?” Damien said.

Lucy groaned inwardly. Sometimes she couldn’t tell where his professional curiosity ended, and their friendship began. Since nothing was final yet, she didn’t want to talk about the deal, especially not to a reporter. “The mayor is evaluating several locations. The vacant shop is just one possibility. It’s not a done deal.”

“After finding the Monkey King statuette, I’m sure you got this one in the bag. After all, you didn’t have to turn over the artifact to the town. You could have sold it for a pretty penny in the black market.”

Lucy gave him a sideways glance. What did he know about the black market for stolen artifacts? Was he pretending to know more than he did to impress her? “Sometimes, I don’t know if you’re here as my friend or a reporter. I don’t like walking on egg-shells around you.”

Damien frowned. “Yes, this could be problematic for our relationship. How about this—if I’m here professionally, I will ask you to say something for the record. Other than that, you can always trust me with your secrets.” He gave her a half-smile, curving one corner of his lips.  “Especially the deep dark kind.”

Lucy forced herself to roll her eyes even though her heart fluttered like a hungry hummingbird. The man was just too smooth for her to handle. After spending more than half of her life in San Francisco, she should be used to men like Damien. In her former profession as an Internet marketing consultant, she had often encountered confident and powerful men who played with venture capitalists’ money and women like they grew on trees. Maybe getting fired from her job a few weeks ago was a blessing in disguise.

“How’s your sister?” Damien asked, taking a sip from his mug.

After an incident with her boyfriend, her half-sister needed a break from their small town. And since Lucy had an empty apartment in San Francisco, it made sense for her sister to stay there temporarily while she figured out what to do next. And from her sister’s postings on social media, it seemed the change was good for her.

“I’m surprised you have to ask,” Lucy said. “The whole world knows how my sister is doing from what she posts on the Internet. The girl does not understand privacy or boundaries.”

“Just trying to let you know I’m interested in your life,” Damien said.

Lucy gave an unladylike snort. "I think you're interested in the train wreck that's my sister's life, just like the rest of the world." 

Her sister had this misguided idea that she could become the next Internet sensation. While it was still cute at her age, in a few years, it might come back to bite her in the rear. As the older sister, Lucy should probably say something to her baby sister, but their past estrangement made it difficult for Lucy to open her mouth. She didn’t want to upset their fragile relationship.

The locksmith set down his drill and twisted the handle. The door swung open. A putrid smell drifted out. 

“Whoa,” Damien said, frowning. “Now that’s ripe.”

The locksmith waved a hand over his nose, and his mouth twisted into a grimace. “You will need more than an ocean breeze to air this place out.” 

Lucy took an involuntary step back. In the back of her mind, an alarm bell started ringing. She had smelled this fetid aroma before when she had discovered a dead body in her sister’s apartment a few weeks ago. Please, no more bodies, she prayed silently to her ancestors.

The locksmith popped out the existing lock and slid in a replacement. He threw his tools into his bag and handed Lucy two duplicate keys. “Here are the keys for the new lock. I’ll send you the bill in the mail, Lucy. Good luck with cleaning this place out.” 

Lucy shoved the keyring into her jacket pocket. The locksmith got into his car and hightailed it out of the strip mall.

Just as the locksmith’s car pulled away from the parking lot, Stella pulled in. She got out of her car and came over to join Lucy in front of the vacant shop.

“Hey, you got the door open.” Stella wrinkled her nose. “What’s that smell?” 

Damien looked at Lucy as if expecting her to charge into the vacant shop like an angry bull. 

“It’s coming from the shop,” Lucy said, ignoring Damien’s look. 

“Someone should go inside to check on things and open the windows. The mayor will be here any minute,” Stella said.

“Oooh, no,” Lucy said, taking another step back. “I’m no superhero, nor do I claim to play one.”

Stella fixed her gaze on Damien. “You’re a man. Go on in there. I’m sure you want to impress Lucy.”

Damien swallowed, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down. His expression was grim. “Fine. I’ll take one for the team.” He fixed his gaze on Lucy. “You owe me. If I go down, I want you to give me CPR.” He charged into the shop.

From where Lucy stood, she couldn’t see Damien. The previous tenant had pulled down the shades for the floor-to-ceiling windows. She tilted her head, straining her ears. Something scraped against metal, producing a high-pitched squeal.

“What is that?” Stella asked, covering her ears with her hands.

Lucy’s heart sped up. Was someone in the shop with Damien? Maybe this person was overpowering the reporter at this moment. As she marched toward the shop, Stella cried out a warning.

Lucy glanced over her shoulder. “What—”

She collided with someone coming out of the shop and bounced off his chest. This person reached out to steady her.

Lucy straightened and glanced up at the unkempt beard and wild hair. The man towered above her, and his scent washed over her. He hadn't seen a shower in weeks. She took an involuntary step back and struggled to keep the bile from rising. She resisted the urge to brush her arms to get rid of his germs. Slung over one shoulder was a bulging knapsack. Lucy squinted at the dirty brown bag. It writhed like something was moving inside.

“Who…who are you? And what happened to Damien?” Lucy asked. Her voice came out at a pitch higher than normal.

The man staggered back like he was drunk, tripped on the curb, and fell down on the parking lot. “Help,” he slurred. He clenched his hands over his heart and went still.

Lucy’s jaw dropped. What—

Stella rushed to the man’s side. “Hey, are you okay, buddy?”

Her cousin’s action jerked Lucy out of her stupor. She crouched down on the other side of the man, keeping a wary eye on the undulating bag. “Do I need to call nine-one-one?”

Stella checked for a pulse. As the seconds crawled by, she turned ashen. She opened her mouth, but only a croak came out. She cleared her throat. “Yes. He’s dead.”

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Fair Felonies and Cronies (Raina Sun Mystery #10) 

A new director. Budget cuts. And a fire. The senior center will never be the same again.
 
As the new director for the senior center, Raina Sun thought organizing a few events for the geriatric crowd would be fairly easy. Until the center’s biggest donor dies in a fire, and her grandma’s arch nemesis becomes the prime suspect. As the body count piles up, Raina is drawn into another murder investigation. Can she solve the case, or will her grandma’s arch nemesis spend the rest of her golden years in prison?

Don’t miss out on the fun. Grab your copy now.

Chapter 1

Raina Sun Louie glanced at the entrance to the game room and grimaced. Here we go again, she thought to herself. She ran a hand through her curly black hair, a recent tic she’d acquired to buy herself time to respond to the dueling duo.

Po Po stabbed a finger at her arch nemesis. Her grandma’s pixie haircut had grown into a shag with long silver bangs that highlighted the anger in her brown eyes. Though barely over five feet tall, she was a force to be reckoned with.

Janice Tally, the social committee chair, batted at Po Po’s finger with a knitting needle. Her grandma’s arch nemesis was a bird of a woman with big round glasses and had recently taken to dying her hair black with a tint of blue like Marge from The Simpsons. She had no fear of rolling on toes with her walker and stabbing people’s backside with her needles to prod them to do her bidding. 

According to a Chinese proverb, the two of them must have mixed up their bones in a previous life. Sometimes her grandma took an opposing stance to get Janice riled up for entertainment. And Janice always took the bait. They just couldn’t stay out of each other’s business.

As the director for the senior center, Raina had to referee between these two strong-willed women daily. Her head pulsated with the beginnings of a headache. Not today, she thought. She turned, hoping to make a quick exit through the rear doorway that led to the communal kitchen before either of the ladies noticed her.

“Raina, great job at the town council meeting this morning,” said an approaching familiar voice. “I’m sure your argument will make the council reconsider the budget cut for the center.”

Raina glanced over her shoulder. Alonso Escalante rose from the game table. The other retirees were packing up the Scrabble game and leaving the room. Probably to get ready for the potluck later in the evening or to get away from the dueling duo. No one wanted to pick sides.

She glanced at the doorway again. Luckily, Po Po and Janice were still there, having their showdown. Raina couldn’t hightail it out of the room with the center’s biggest financial donor wanting a chat. “I’m just doing my job.”

“I can always tell when someone does a job from the heart. To some people, us old folks are nothing but a burden,” Alonso said, placing a hand over his heart. “But you, my dear, actually care about us.”

Raina blushed. It really wasn’t much. She already spent time at the senior center because of her grandma, only now she was getting paid to help organize things. “Thank you. I appreciate the kind words.” She had learned a long time ago never to dismiss a compliment.

“If the Council ends up cutting the budget, I can make a bigger donation this year to make up the shortfall,” Alonso said.

Originally from Spain, Alonso still had a Spanish accent even though he had lived in the United States for more than fifty years. His olive skin was rough as jerky, but instead of caramelizing into a beautiful tan color, it was blotchy with age spots that fell into crevices created by his deep wrinkles. But what he lacked in the physical appearance department, he made up for with his generous heart.

Raina hesitated. She appreciated his offer. However, once the budget was cut, the senior center would not get the funds back without a fight. And private donations were not a guaranteed annual funding source.

“Rainy!” Po Po called from the entrance. In Chinese, Po Po was the formal title for a maternal grandmother and also a term of respect for elderly ladies. Her legal name was Bonnie Wong.

Raina met Alonso’s eyes and groaned involuntarily.

Alonso chuckled. His hazel eyes sparkled with amusement. “That’s my cue to pick up the smoked brisket from my cook. I’ll see you at the potluck later.”

As he stepped around Raina, his cell phone rang. He answered it and stepped through the rear doorway to the communal kitchen of the senior center. From there, he could circle around back to the foyer or leave the building through the side exit. The lucky man.

Resigned, Raina turned to face the music. If only it weren’t a Chinese opera full of waving hands, stomping feet, and echoing voices. And in the end, someone would be reduced to tears—hopefully, they wouldn’t be hers.

Po Po and Janice scowled at each other, their eyes narrowing, neither daring to break eye contact. 

Raina shifted her weight to the other foot. Maybe she could make a run for the kitchen before either woman noticed her disappearance.

As if Raina’s movement was a signal, both women flew into a flurry of activity. 

Janice Tally pushed her walker to the left, reducing the gap between the wingback reading chair and the table. She jabbed at the air with her knitting needle while shuffling forward with the walker one-handed.

Po Po swerved around her arch nemesis and bolted for the gap between the board game table and the ping-pong table. Unencumbered by a medical device, she made better time even though she took the more circuitous route.

Janice abandoned the walker and threw the knitting needle at Po Po, who ducked, shook a fist, and called out a mean name. Janice made a beeline for Raina, ignoring the name-calling.

Raina’s eyes widened. Her grandma had been right all along. The walker had been a ploy to gain sympathy. Should she laugh or tell the ladies to slow down? What if one of them broke a hip? 

Though they were moving at top speeds for their age, to Raina, they appeared as if they were moving underwater. She settled on a neutral expression, though she was sure her dark brown eyes were twinkling with amusement.

Po Po skidded to a stop in front of Raina, her orthopedic shoes squeaking on the wood floor. “You asked me to post signs in the kitchen, so I did. Now Janice is complaining about the signs.”

Raina groaned inwardly. It had sounded like a simple job for her grandma to post fliers around the kitchen this morning. The emergency water main repair in the street had shut down the fire suppression system in the building. The facility person was supposed to return in an hour to turn the system back on. All the retirees who signed up for the potluck were notified of this inconvenience and were told to heat their food at home. It should have been a brainless job. How did it lead to World War III between these two ladies? 

She raked at her curly black hair again. It probably stood out around her head even more from the attention. A Chinese girl with an Afro wasn’t someone who could handle these two Titans. What was she thinking when she took the job? Would the town fire her if she couldn’t handle these two?

Janice shuffled over the last few steps and took several deep breaths, her hands over her heart. 

Po Po opened her mouth to steamroll over Janice, but Raina held up her hand. “Please let Janice catch her breath, so she can have her say.”

Her grandma crossed her arms and harrumphed. She had no patience for the social committee chair who had banned her from all the major events in the last year. 

This rivalry between the two ladies was the hardest part of Raina’s new job. She could handle budget cuts, but she wasn’t sure how to navigate this rivalry without hurting someone’s feelings, especially with a grandma who expected family loyalty to come first.

The corners of Janice’s lips twitched, and she slowed her breathing even more, taking her sweet time and knowing it would irritate Po Po. 

“Bonnie plastered the entire kitchen with her fliers,” Janice said. “It looks ridiculous. Who tapes paper on top of the electrical burners on the stovetop? It’s a fire hazard.”

“The whole point is to make somebody stop and think before using the stove,” Po Po said. “If someone sees a sheet of paper on top of the burner, who would be stupid enough to turn it on?”

Raina held up the universal time out sign, forming a “T” with her hands. “Whoa! Why don’t we go take a look in the kitchen?”

The two ladies opened their mouths—

An alarm began to wail from a distance, and the smoke detectors in the game room picked up its tune. 

Raina’s eyes widened, finally noticing the smoke coming in from the rear doorway. Her heart began to beat faster, matching a rising fear. This was no fire drill. Someone must have used the kitchen and started a fire. Please don’t let Po Po have anything to do with this, she pleaded silently to her ancestors.

* * *

Thick tendrils of smoke billowed out of the kitchen, and the heat blasted across Raina’s face. She squinted at the dim interior. “Anyone in here? Alonso, are you in here?” she screamed from the doorway. 

While she had seen Alonso disappear into the kitchen a few minutes ago, he had no reason to still be in there. With three exits to choose from, he must have left the building before the fire started. And yet, until Raina got confirmation that he was safe, she worried about him.

Manny Díaz, a warden for the fire evacuation team, ushered several senior citizens toward the exit of the center. His silver hair and orange construction vest were beacons in the darkening interior. His walkie talkie blared as he communicated with the evaluation teams. He came back and grabbed Raina’s arm. 

“We need to get out of here," Manny said, coughing at the smoke. “Janice and Bonnie are doing the roll call outside. They’ll let us know if someone is missing.”

Raina nodded and squinted at the smoke and dancing flames in the kitchen one more time. “Anyone in here?” She waited, straining her eyes and ignoring the tickling in the back of her throat. If she gave in to it, she would probably start coughing too. 

The fire crackled and roared, leaping into the air. No answer. Whoever started the fire probably ran off, afraid of being caught. Was this an accident or arson?

Raina reluctantly left with Manny. She hoped the quarterly fire drills were enough to get everyone safely outside. Janice Tally, Po Po, and another retiree were checking folks off in the corner of the parking lot. 

The maintenance crew working on the water main were in the process of covering up the trench on the ground with metal plates. Attached to the excavator bucket was a chain with a heavy duty magnet, dangling a metal plate above the open trench. The heavy equipment operator and the rest of the crew gaped at the commotion.

Raina ran across the parking lot, waving her hands in the air like a crazy woman. “There’s a fire in the building. The fire truck is coming!”

The wail of emergency vehicles approached them. As the sounds came closer, the maintenance workers swiveled their heads back to the street as if looking for the source of the sirens.

“Cover up the street! The fire truck is coming!” Raina yelled from sidewalk.

A man leapt out of a parked truck and yelled at the maintenance crew. “Quick! Cover up the street!” He must be the foreman. 

The heavy equipment operator lowered the excavator bucket with the metal plate and a worker attached a metal stick to guide the plate over the open trench. Once in place, the worker signaled for the operator. The plate dropped with a loud bang. The worker removed the guiding stick, and the foreman detached the chain. 

Several blocks away, a fire truck turned the corner, its lights flashing and sirens blaring. It raced toward the senior center. 

A walkie-talkie crackled to life. “It won’t stop in time!”

It was the flagger screaming into the walkie-talkie. He was a block away, holding the “STOP” sign with shaking hands. His orange vest was not much protection against several tons of steel barreling toward him.

The heavy equipment operator, sweat pouring down his face and dampening his shirt, moved the tractor to the side of the road. It was still blocking a third of the lane. As the machine came to a stop, the operator jumped out.

At the first orange construction sign on the road, the fire truck slammed on the brakes. The flagger tossed the “STOP” sign and leapt out the way. The maintenance crew ran for the parking lot. Raina took several steps back, her heart racing with adrenaline.

The fire truck slowed and made a wide arc around the tractor and into the parking lot, rattling the metal plates on the road. It pulled up next to the building, and the fire crew jumped out of the vehicles. Like a well-practiced orchestra, every person knew their task and performed it on reflex.

The foreman swore and glanced at Raina sheepishly. 

The metal plate rattled again, and she glanced up to see a police cruiser with an ambulance at its bumper pulling into the parking lot. The emergency medical technicians grabbed their medical bags and headed toward the group of retirees.

Raina scanned the crowd, found Po Po and Janice, and joined them. “Everyone accounted for?”

“Alonso didn’t sign out of the visitors log,” Janice said with a worried expression.

“People don’t always sign in or out,” Po Po said, putting a cheerful spin on the situation. “Without someone monitoring all the exits, there’s no way to know who is coming and going.”

Raina frowned. She prayed this was the case, and Alonso was safely in his mansion worrying about transporting his smoked brisket.

A fireman came out of the building and jogged over to join them.

Raina recognized the fire chief and stepped forward to greet him. “Everyone is accounted for, except Alonso Escalante. I saw him go into the kitchen before the fire, and he said he was heading home. But he didn’t sign out on the visitors log, so we don’t know if he had actually left the building.”

The fire chief nodded and pressed a button near his shoulder, which probably activated the two-way radio. He spoke into it, relaying Raina’s information about Alonso.  

As the fire chief jogged back to join his crew, he called over his shoulder, “Raina, make sure everyone stays here until you get the all clear.”

Officer Youri Sokol got out of the police cruiser and exchanged a few words with the fire chief. He glanced at the group of retirees and frowned like he was studying a bunch of arsonists. It was precisely this attitude and his haphazard investigations that led to his demotion from detective to officer. It had been several months, but he still walked around with a boulder on his shoulder. 

He sauntered over to Raina. He was a doppelgänger for Danny DeVito, but his pug face was often set in a scowl. He was just as height challenged as Raina, approximately two or three inches taller. But this didn’t stop him from looking down at her, which meant he held his nose up like he had a nose bleed.

“Why am I not surprised to see you here?” he said.

Raina bit back a smart comment. There was no point in riling the man up when he clearly didn’t want to be here. “Do you need anything from me? Are you taking a police report?”

Officer Sokol narrowed his eyes at Raina. “Is there a crime here?”

Raina shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m hoping it’s all an accident.”

“Then I guess I’m not needed,” he said and got back into his police cruiser.

As Raina watched the disgruntled officer drive away, she wondered why he came out in the first place if he didn’t intend to help. 

Two hours later, Raina got the all clear that the fire was put out, and the senior citizens could return to their condos. Many of them were sitting on the asphalt and leaning against each other. It looked like the potluck was a complete bust. 

The fire chief pulled Raina aside and whispered, “We found a body in the kitchen. The police are on the way.”

Raina swallowed the bile rising in her throat. “Is it Alonso Escalante?”

The fire chief nodded. “That’s the name on his driver’s license. I’m sorry.”

A wave of guilt washed over Raina. “I didn’t hear anyone in the kitchen. With the smoke, I couldn’t see inside. I should have run inside the kitchen. I might have been able to save Alonso.”

The fire chief patted Raina’s shoulder. “Don’t be too hard on yourself. You would have run into trouble trying to get him out by yourself. You’re not strong enough to drag out a man his size.” 

“Drag out? He didn’t...uh...burn?”

“No, the fire didn’t touch him. He might have died from the smoke inhalation. The coroner will be able to confirm how Alonso died.”

Despite what the fire chief said, Raina couldn’t help but wonder if she had failed Alonso somehow. She didn’t think he would still be in the kitchen. If he wasn’t burned, then he wasn’t close to the flames. Then why didn’t he leave through the side exit? Unbidden, an even more morbid thought drifted through her mind. What if he was prevented from leaving the kitchen?

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