After years of practicing in secret, Keli has come out as a Wiccan to her boyfriend, and she feels like this Yuletide she’s the one who’s being reborn. But the Solstice is the longest night of the year, and Keli is about to stumble on a mystery so dangerous, she’ll be lucky to make it to morning.
Paired with her unbearably stuffy colleague Crenshaw Davenport III, Keli goes undercover at a real estate company owned by mayoral candidate Edgar Harrison. An old friend of Keli’s boss, Harrison, is being blackmailed, and it’s up to her to find the culprit. But the morning after the company holiday party, Harrison is found dead underneath the hotel Christmas tree. The police rule the death an accident, but Keli knows better—and she’ll risk her own rebirth to nab a missing killer.
“Enjoyable . . . A wintry, woodsy setting.” —Kirkus Reviews on Bell, Book and Candlemas
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"Blackmail? Really? Someone is blackmailing Edgar?"
Now there was something you didn't hear every day. Before I could stop myself, an image flashed to mind: Edindale's most prominent silver-haired citizen engaged in a steamy, salacious affair. Scandalous! But with whom? I shifted in my leather seat and smoothed my pencil skirt, as I waited for my boss to continue.
Beverly cast a sharp glance at the door to her dark-paneled inner office. It was still closed.
"Let's not use that word from here on out," she said. She pressed her lips together, a visible demonstration that mum, not blackmail, was the word.
"Right. Sorry," I said quickly, though I still wasn't clear as to why Beverly was telling me this — well, me and my colleague, Crenshaw Davenport III.
Crenshaw cleared his throat from the chair next to me. His long legs were crossed in an elegantly relaxed pose, but I could tell he was just as intrigued as I was. He thrust his bearded chin forward slightly more than usual.
"It's understandable that Mr. Harrison desires discretion in this matter," he said, "especially given his recent announcement." Crenshaw turned toward me and looked down his nose. "Monday was the filing deadline for anyone interested in running for mayor next fall. Edgar Harrison announced his candidacy, along with half a dozen other Edindale residents."
"I know," I said evenly, biting back the snarky comment on the tip of my tongue. Crenshaw took every opportunity he could to school me in front of Beverly. It was one of his more annoying habits — one of many. We had both been with the firm for about six and a half years, and lately Beverly kept hinting that someone might be making partner soon. This only served to ramp up the competitive wedge between us.
Beverly removed her red-framed glasses and rubbed the bridge of her nose before responding. It had been a long week at the law firm, as everyone tried to finish up as much work as possible before the holidays. Of course, Beverly still looked impeccable in her designer pantsuit and expensive makeup, even if her eyes bore telltale hints of exhaustion.
"As I said, he was contacted by an unknown person who claims to have some information that Edgar would not like to be made public. This person has demanded a large sum of money in exchange for his or her silence. Edgar has until Tuesday to produce the cash." Beverly paused and looked from Crenshaw to me with a deadpan gaze. "Obviously, the information is not true. Edgar assured me that the person manufactured their so-called evidence. However, they must have done a convincing enough job that it could still damage Edgar's reputation should it be released."
I glanced at Crenshaw and saw him raise one eyebrow. He must have been wondering the same thing as me: Why worry about what a blackmailer might reveal if the information is not true?
Beverly held up her palm. "I know what you're thinking. Don't. I've known Edgar a long time. He has no reason to be involved in anything illegal. His businesses are all doing extremely well."
That was no surprise. Edgar seemed to have a knack for investing in only the most lucrative projects. He owned Edindale's only riverboat casino, its fanciest hotel, and its trendiest residential developments — among other holdings. But did that necessarily mean everything was on the up and up? Evidently, the blackmailer had information that might indicate otherwise. So much for my steamy affair theory.
"Here's the deal," said Beverly, twisting the silver rings on her left hand. She appeared to be choosing her words carefully. "Edgar is convinced that someone hacked into his computer. This person accessed some confidential financial records about some of Edgar's investments ... and found a way to twist the truth about the records in a manner that might portray Edgar in a less than favorable light. While Edgar has done nothing illegal, the intricacies of business law are not always easy to explain to the layperson."
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Crenshaw nod his head and steeple his fingers under his lips. Oh, sure. As if he already knows what Beverly means, even though she's being extremely vague. I cleared my throat. "Is that why Edgar came to you instead of the police? Because even the police might have a hard time understanding the legalities?"
Beverly frowned. "Not exactly. It's more that the information might make Edgar look bad, in spite of the fact that his dealings were technically legal. In any event, Edgar fully intends to go to the police as soon as he has evidence. He already has a couple of suspects in mind ... which brings me to why I asked the two of you into my office this afternoon."
"How can I help?" asked Crenshaw.
"How can we help?" I asked, at the same time. I narrowed my eyes and glared at Crenshaw, before turning back to Beverly.
"As Edgar's attorney and close friend, I agreed to help him figure out who is doing this." Beverly stood and paced to her window where she paused and looked outside. Snow was falling in slow, lazy swirls. She walked back to us and remained standing. "Of course, I immediately thought of you, Keli, because of your detecting skills. You seem to have a knack for recovering stolen objects and ferreting out criminals. As for you, Crenshaw, in addition to being one of my most trusted lawyers, I believe your acting skills may be useful in this case." Crenshaw nodded his whole upper body in a seated bow, as if thanking her for a well-deserved compliment. I fought the urge to roll my eyes.
I looked up at Beverly. "How can we possibly figure out who is blackmail — I mean, who is threatening Edgar?"
"The logical place to start is at Edgar's main office. Harrison Properties has a new IT support specialist, a young, tech-savvy guy named Zeke Marshal. Edgar thinks that if anyone could hack into his secured, password-protected files, this fellow would be the one. The only problem is, Edgar can't imagine why he would do it. The young man was just hired. He has a bright future ahead of him, in a career that will compensate him well. It doesn't make sense."
I nodded, beginning to feel more and more curious myself.
"I've arranged for the two of you to set up shop in Edgar's office for a few days. The ostensible purpose will be to conduct a thorough legal audit of his corporation's files. In fact, Edgar will be paying you to do just that. His staff will be told this is a proactive measure to ensure the company is in compliance with all relevant business laws. At the same time, you will keep your eyes and ears open, and see what you can learn about Zeke. You'll start right away. The sooner we can end this headache for Edgar, the better."
After leaving Beverly's office I headed to my own, much smaller office to gather my coat and purse. Crenshaw and I had agreed to meet downstairs in the lobby in ten minutes and then walk over to Harrison Properties to get started on our strange assignment. Shaking my head, I pushed open my office door and stopped short when I saw what was sitting on my desk: a large gold-colored box, topped with a golden ribbon.
"A delivery guy brought it while you were with Beverly," said a voice behind me. I turned to see Julie, our twenty-something front desk receptionist, peering over her trendy glasses toward the gold box. "There's a card, too."
I smiled at Julie's eagerness, then walked over to my desk to check out the package. Right away, I noticed the word Godiva embossed on the lid of the box.
"Did someone say chocolate?" I looked up to see Pammy Sullivan standing in my doorway next to Julie. Pammy was a fellow associate with heavily sprayed hair and a stylish, if somewhat gaudy, wardrobe. Today she wore a salmon-pink skirt suit, which matched her lipstick and fingernails. The buttons of her blazer strained ever so slightly across her plump figure.
"Come on in," I said, laughing. Pammy must have known about the delivery and was just waiting for me to return to my office.
"Ooh, Godiva," said Pammy, squeezing between the two guest chairs facing my desk to get a look at the gift box. "The nearest Godiva shop is in St. Louis. Someone must have ordered this online, unless they brought it in from out of town. Is it from a client?"
Shrugging, I slipped the small plain card out of the white envelope and furrowed my brow. "I don't think so," I said, in answer to Pammy's question. The card simply said Missed you. It was unsigned.
"Aw," said Julie, looking over my shoulder. "It must be from that hunky boyfriend of yours. Hasn't he been out of town?" "Yeah, for a week. Wes helped his brother move to Seattle. He's supposed to get back later today. I'll see him tonight."
"Well, maybe he came back early," said Pammy, her eyes still on the gold box.
"Maybe," I agreed. I lifted the lid and tore off the protective plastic covering to reveal an assortment of fancy chocolate candies. It was a somewhat odd gift, coming from Wes. He knew I wouldn't eat milk chocolate because I'm vegan. On the other hand, he would also know I'd share the candy.
I replaced the lid and handed the box to Julie. "Would you take this up front and leave it on your desk for all to share? I've got to get going."
Pammy followed Julie out of my office, while I slipped on my long black coat and tied the belt. I grabbed my shoulder bag and hurried to the elevator. It was a short ride, four flights to the ground floor lobby. I pulled on my gloves as I walked over to join Crenshaw where he waited for me by the revolving door. I almost laughed when I saw what he was wearing.
In a Victorian-style overcoat, long scarf, and short top hat, Crenshaw looked like a character straight out of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In fact, as an amateur actor, he probably was. Outside his law practice, Crenshaw was active in the local theater circuit.
"Nice outfit," I said. "Where are you performing?"
"I beg your pardon?"
"The caroler getup," I said, gesturing toward his coat. "Aren't you ... Never mind."
With Crenshaw, it was sometimes hard to know when he was being serious and what he was really thinking. At times, he could be incredibly sweet. More often than not, he was just obnoxious. My best friend, Farrah, called him the "original pompous ass."
We stepped outside into the crisp, breezy air and made our way down the sidewalk toward Main Street. We walked carefully, knowing there could be slick spots in spite of the rock salt sprinkled like breadcrumbs in our path. Snowflakes stuck to every surface, from the cars parked along the curb to the tops of signs and the large red bows decorating every light post. The bows had been up since Thanksgiving, but it was the fresh snowfall that really made the scene look a lot like Christmas. It ought to, I thought, since the holiday was only a week away.
We turned right at the corner and continued down Main Street, walking past downtown shops with cheerfully decked-out storefronts. When we passed Moonstone Treasures, I slowed down to admire the window display: gracefully draped garland and glittery five-pointed stars framed an artful arrangement of red and gold candles. Just then, the door opened and the store owner herself hurried out, raising her hand in greeting.
"I had a feeling I would see you today, Keli," she said. She approached us and gave me a hug, enveloping me in the scent of rosemary, patchouli, and orange blossoms. I smiled in return. I had known Mila Douglas for years, but we had become closer friends last February when I had helped catch the criminal who had been harassing her and breaking into her shop.
Crenshaw regarded Mila with a raised eyebrow. With her white velvet tunic over black leggings and the strands of silvery ribbons crowning her brunette shag, she looked like a cross between a snow queen and rocker Joan Jett. I ignored Crenshaw and complimented Mila on her window display.
"Thank you, dear," she said. "I can hardly believe Yule is only four days away. I still hope you'll join —" She stopped mid-sentence at my warning look. Mila was forever trying to coax me into joining her coven, but I preferred to follow a solitary spiritual practice. Only a small number of people knew I was Wiccan. Crenshaw was not one of them.
"Will you stop by later?" she asked. "I have something important to tell you."
"Um, is tomorrow okay? I'm not sure what time I'll get off today, and Wes is coming by tonight."
Crenshaw crossed his arms and tapped his foot on the snow-covered sidewalk.
"Oh, I'll just tell you now," said Mila. She took my hand and spoke quickly, her breath forming puffs of fog in the cold air. "I had a vision this morning," she said, "and you were in it. So was Mercury, the messenger god." She paused, and squeezed my hand. "There are two things you need to know. One: You will soon have a visitor from your past. Two: Someone in your midst is going to die."
Upon hearing Mila's remarkable message, I gasped and Crenshaw swore. Only he seemed to be more irritated than alarmed. "Keli, can we go now?" he demanded. "We really don't have time for any more fortune cookie prophecies. If you want to hear your lucky numbers, you'll have to come back on your own dime." He turned on his heels and headed down the sidewalk.
I bid Mila a hasty good-bye and jogged to catch up with Crenshaw. I had nearly reached him when my foot slipped on a patch of ice, causing me to grab his arm for balance. "Whoa!" I said, as we tussled for our footing. "Sorry about that."
Crenshaw scowled but helped steady me, and then offered me his arm. I held on to him as we continued three more blocks to Edgar's office. On the way, I tried not to freak out about Mila's dire message. I didn't doubt for one minute that she had really had the vision as she stated. The fact was, Mila was a gifted psychic. I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that psychic predictions were often symbolic and subject to more than one interpretation. Perhaps the death she mentioned was not meant to be taken literally. Still, the whole incident made me shiver.
"Here we are," said Crenshaw, holding the door open for me. "Out of the cold at last."
We entered the six-story office building, which housed a bank on the ground level, and took the elevator to the top floor. Passing through frosted double doors bearing the words HARRISON PROPERTIES, INC., we found ourselves in a nicely appointed lobby, complete with plush carpet, leather sofas, and Impressionist paintings on the walls. Several large poinsettias occupied every end table in the room.
Crenshaw strode up to the reception desk and asked for Edgar's assistant, Allison Mandrake. The receptionist, a pleasant, soft-spoken woman, told us Allison would be with us shortly and asked us to have a seat. Crenshaw thanked her and wandered over to study the paintings, while I sat on one of the sofas and glanced at the only other person in the room, a middle-aged man with thinning hair and an ill-fitting suit. He had his nose to his phone and didn't even look up when I sat down a few feet away from him. He looked familiar, but I couldn't place him.
Before long, the door next to the reception desk opened and a tall woman entered the lobby. I guessed she was probably in her late thirties, though she carried herself with the confidence of someone older. Or maybe it was her tailored business suit, short, slicked-back hair, and burgundy lipstick that made her seem more important than a mere assistant.
She smiled at Crenshaw and me and held up one finger, then turned to the man on the sofa. "Mr. Treat, I'm sorry to keep you waiting."
Ah, so that's who he is. Lonnie Treat. I knew I recognized him. He was a mattress salesman who often appeared in local television commercials to promote his store, Treat Mattresses. Immediately, I could hear the catchy jingle in my head: "What a treat is a good night's sleep!"
Lonnie Treat stood up quickly, grabbing the worn brown briefcase at his feet and the brown coat on the seat next to him. The tall woman raised her hand to halt him in his tracks. Speaking smoothly, she said, "I'm sorry, Mr. Treat. It turns out Edgar's train from Chicago was delayed, so he won't be coming into the office this afternoon. I'll tell him you dropped by."
Mr. Treat's face fell. "This is the fourth time I've been here!"
"Yes, I know. But Mr. Harrison is a very busy man. You understand." With that, she took Mr. Treat by his elbow and deftly ushered him to the exit, murmuring a firm good-bye as she did.
When he was gone, she turned to Crenshaw and me and shook her head. "Ever since Edgar announced his candidacy for mayor, he's more popular than ever. Everyone wants a piece of his time."
Excerpted from "Yuletide Homicide"
Copyright © 2017 Jennifer David Hesse.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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