A dead body. A missing coma patient. And a crazy chicken. Will the murderer be caught before someone else ends up dead?
Lucy Fong is keeping the family private investigation firm afloat while her estranged mother is in coma. When she stumbles onto a dead body in the shop next door, 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? And to add to her worries, her mother—along with the hospital bed—goes missing.
It's a race against time to find the murderer and her mother before danger catches up with Lucy. Join Lucy and her friends in this fast-paced cozy mystery.
“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.”
“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.”