Organized for Homicide by Ritter Ames
Who Knew planning a cross-country move could be so deadly…?
Organization expert Kate McKenzie is looking forward to her newest contract: organize the cross-country move for a divorced father and his two children. But when a dead body turns up, Kate’s carefully organized plans are thrown into chaos. Was it an accident? Or murder? Kate aims to find out when the victim’s teenage daughter becomes the police’s lead suspect. While the police follow the chain of evidence, Kate follows her gut, leading her on a dangerous investigation that could result in more than one death if she doesn’t watch her step…
Organized for Homicide is the second title in the popular Organized Mysteries series from USA TODAY bestselling author Ritter Ames, which features a small town New England setting and interesting characters, along with humor, strong family and friendship ties, and absorbing cozy mysteries.
Targeted Age Group:: all audiences
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 1 – G Rated Clean Read
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I was hooked on mysteries since reading the Trixie Belden Mystery Series in elementary school, then I moved on to traditional mysteries like Agatha Christie. I also loved reading series mysteries, where I got to know the recurring characters just like good friends. All of this led naturally my wanting to write both traditional and cozy mysteries, and my first cozy mystery series became my Organized Mysteries. With this series, I get to write about best friends and amateur sleuths solving mysteries–kind of like a grown up Trixie Belden and Honey Wheeler. Beyond the mysteries, with each book I get to explore their friendships and family relationships. This particular book came about in thinking of the talents the main character, Kate McKenzie, had to have honed the years she had to move her family so often when her husband was traded to different pro hockey teams. Now that he's retired from the sport, the family is firmly anchored in their Hazelton, Vermont hometown, but Kate uses her moving tricks and techniques to pack a client's family for a move across the country. Except, the women get involved in another murder that they have to solve when someone they know is innocent becomes the police's prime suspect.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
A working mom with kids in school and a busy husband and lifestyle pretty much has to juggle a lot of balls in the air all the time. And because everyone in the family tends to lose things, a mom has to have great observation skills too. I used a lot of tricks and hacks to keep my family moving on time every day, and I incorporated that kind of knowledge to create my two main characters in this series. Kate is the outsider, while Meg is the native of Hazelton, so it gives them a good balance and in strengths and weaknesses for the relationship. Kate keeps things on track but is just getting to know the area and people, whereas Meg's strength lies in knowing all about the town and state. Between them, they're terrific at solving small town crime that gets entangled in their small business venture.
ORGANIZED FOR HOMICIDE
By Ritter Ames
Tip for Packing Tableware
Instead of wrapping each plate in newspaper, alternate each one in the packing box with a foam disposable plate. This not only makes packing much faster and easier, but offers more cushion for the fragile dishes during transport. Then you can use that newspaper to pack around the sides of the plates so the empty spaces in the box are filled and nothing slides around.
* * *
"Here's the view I mentioned earlier." Kate McKenzie pushed back the master bedroom's heavy cobalt drapes and threw open the French doors, leading her neighbor and sometimes employee, Meg Berman, to the balcony view at the back of the house. Kate moved across custom tile and made a sweeping motion above the artisan railing to encompass the one-eighty-degree landscape beyond the almost alpine, three-story luxurious home. The owner, Blaine Collier, a divorced father of three, had contracted with Kate's organizational business, Stacked in Your Favor, to coordinate the family's move from southwestern Vermont to the California West Coast. She breathed deeply and savored the fresh, earthy-leaved smell that rode in the brisk air. "Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?"
The sky was a perfect robin's egg hue above the lush panorama that included the nearby Prospect Mountain ski area, and from this height the edge of Green Mountain National Forest peeked through in the distance. The landscape was peppered with both hard and soft woods, and Kate noted the different greens that dotted the landscape, from sturdy hemlock and balsam trees, to the lovely planes of white pine. She let out an involuntary sigh as the palette unfolded around the house and balcony.
A whiff of wood smoke drifted from a neighbor's chimney. Well, chimneys plural. Hammered copper chimneys. The few homes in this exclusive neighborhood were executive models, almost anomalies in the rugged state, and each sported multiple fireplaces. Kate counted smoke fingers rising from two chimneys in the luxury contemporary about six hundred feet away, all glass and metal that looked ready to relocate into the Hollywood Hills or the Swiss Alps. Almost a direct contrast with the warm, wooden peaks and balconies of the Colliers' contemporary home. These were the only two homes in the housing development that were not Tudor or overgrown cottage-styled, and she wondered whether the Malibu home Blaine Collier already purchased was similar to either structure.
"It really is lovely," Meg replied, stepping to the end of the terrace and rubbing her palms along the top of the railing. "Makes you wonder why Collier would give this up and move his family clear across the country."
Kate laughed, clasping her project notebook closer to her chest so she could rub her arms and offset the chill of the late May morning. Her sea foam green polo shirt, with its embroidered logo for Stacked in Your Favor, was great for business. It had taken some searching to find a color and look both women liked and wanted to work in, and the light green flattered both Kate's blonde complexion and Meg's red hair. But even after braving her first Vermont winter, she still wasn't acclimated for short sleeves in the lower-than-she-was-used-to brisk temps. "Oh, I don't know. It's an amazing view, and this balcony alone is probably worth buying the home, but I might be persuaded to trade it for a luxury beach house."
Meg snorted. "Trade picture perfect changing seasons for endless sunny days, and the risk of mudslides when it rains. Not to mention earthquakes. Naw, I don't see what Malibu has to offer."
A bright sunbeam cut through the trees, and Kate stepped into the brightness and sighed. Having lived with her own native Vermonter for ten years, husband Keith, she had begun to think he and everyone from his home state were born with flannel-wrapped veins. Not her, definitely not her. "A little more warmth comes to mind."
"They'll be bored in six months and wishing they were back here." Meg nodded as she spoke. "His ex-wife is staying here in Hazelton, right? And the older daughter."
"Right." Kate opened her notebook and set it on a wrought iron and majolica- style tiled table. She could get used to this view, this kind of extravagance. But when she'd met Lila Collier the day before, to go over the items getting moved to the ex-wife's new two-bedroom condo, the house hadn't really seemed like "home sweet home" as much as "a house divided."
Lila had rubbed the back of her neck as she talked, radiating frustration and more than a little anger, despite the fact that the divorce was already finalized. "It looks nice, sure. But something like this can take over. You start fighting about bills and mortgages, and even someplace nice starts looking like a dungeon."
In spite of Lila's words, Kate couldn't imagine a less dungeon-like home. She told Meg about the encounter then added, "It's amazing how the breakup colored the woman's ideas about the place. I've already fallen in love with it, and I'm not even looking for a new house. With its cedar closets, huge great room with vaulted ceilings and skylights, gourmet kitchen, carpeting with pad so deep my feet disappear, and custom wood accents everywhere, it's one of the most welcoming homes I've ever walked through."
"Not to mention the outside amenities," Meg said, then pointed over the side to the wide stone patio running the length of the back wall. "Can you imagine the barbeques we could have down there all summer?"
Kate flipped pages in her notebook. Each section was color coded, and every person in the family had his or her own individual color. Flipping to the calendar, she checked off the note for the change-of-address cards and the self-inking stamp she'd picked up at the office supply store on her way over that morning. Change-of-address notices had been sent weeks before, both by mail and via website services, but she wanted quick and easy cards for her client to use if new needs arose after the move.
For color designations, the father and son were coded to black and blue, respectively, and the daughters, older and younger, as green and pink. The mother's things had been removed months before. "Lila asked for a couple of paintings and a rug Collier isn't planning to take with them. He hasn't decided yet, but anything left over can go when the movers take Sydney's things."
"She's the older daughter, right?"
"Yes, and she's staying here to finish high school." Kate chewed her lip. There had been a tension the last time she'd talked to her client, and she thought she'd picked up the vibe Collier might be having second thoughts about splitting up his kids. Not that it was any of her business, but…
Meg interrupted Kate's thoughts, asking, "Is her stuff going ahead of the big move?"
"No, the transport company has subcontracted the smaller part of the job out to an area firm. The local truck will take everything to the mother's condo the same day as the big move."
"So, they hug goodbye here, and Sydney doesn't see her siblings until summer break."
"Thanksgiving, not summer. Lila said Sydney was picked for some great pre-Olympic program in Boston. Has a world-class coach signed on to train her and everything. She'll be spending the summer figure skating on the indoor ice rink and learning strategy to reach Olympic potential."
"Ouch. Goodbye family, then goodbye everyone. She's okay with that?"
Kate sighed. "Who? Mother or daughter?"
"Both, I think."
There was no good answer to Meg's question—or any of the others that floated around the issue. She'd met the teen a few days ago, and Kate had felt an immediate connection. The young woman's story was too close to Kate's own, with a parent wrapped up in environmental issues, and responsibly raising herself and finding her own way in life. Sydney at least had siblings and a father who lived the corporate life, but too many things the teen said told Kate the mother was a huge concern to her. Like when she said, "Dad doesn't need me in Malibu. He'll have lots of help for Dara and Dustin. But Mom tries not to rely on anyone, and she needs to have someone around to watch her back. And make sure she eats."
The comment touched too many memories for Kate, and she knew she was already getting too personally invested in this job. But thoughts like that one made her believe it really would be better for the teen to move first, give everyone a small transition ahead of the big break, and offer the older daughter a little time alone with her mother before leaving next month for her own temporary move. Sydney had too many changes ahead to feel obligated for her mother's well-being, too.
Lila had even suggested something along those lines in the earlier meeting Blaine Collier had arranged so Kate could scope out the project. As expected, however, his autocratic personality immediately cut off the discussion. He interrupted and said, "I'm still not completely on board with Sydney staying here at all. Don't even think about trying to separate her from her brother and sister before the move, Lila."
Kate rubbed her hand along the edge of her notebook, trying to erase the tense emotions she remembered from the three Colliers in those very different meetings. These people were hurt and still searching for a middle ground. She said, "This is their family business, Meg, not ours. We're just supposed to pack and make sure everything gets shipped in one piece. Send the California stuff with the movers and the stuff Lila gets to her condo in Bennington."
"I heard Collier tried to have her ruled unfit as a mother." Meg's face lost its soft lines and took on a stony expression. "Hard to believe a judge would let him have custody and move the kids three thousand miles away from their mother."
"Rumors only tell part of the story. These are family members who love one another, even if the parents can't stay together. No one can cause friction like family." Kate chewed her lip, her heart going out to the ex-wife she'd only met the one time, but whose sad and sordid soap opera script had been the fuel for every gossip maven in town. And as she feared, Meg was just getting started.
"Collier is a corporate guru who's used to winning. According to all the scuttlebutt, he gathered up any little thing in Lila's past that even hinted at instability or danger, really pushing how her strong stances on social issues make her fitness as a parent register on the questionable side. It's so unfair, penalizing her for protecting rights and the environment and for sticking to her principles."
"I know but—"
"You aren't taking Collier's side in this, are you?" Meg stood with her fists on her hips, the stance that made Kate give her friend the Wonder Woman nickname.
"No, just…" Kate couldn't completely feel Meg's sympathy. Her own parents had been environmental activists whose actions had always kept their family life anything but steady. She agreed with Meg's point and believed no parent should be separated from her children without real cause but also recognized the risk of talking about the subject in this location. She needed to shut down the conversation. If anyone walked in and heard them, it could be her reputation. "We need to get started on today's tasks. Honestly, we'll talk about this later when we know more."
"Know more about what?" A voice asked from behind them.
Both women made tiny eek sounds and whirled. Kate's worst fears were realized. Lila Collier, ex-wife of her client and exactly the person they'd just been discussing, stood in the doorway. The woman's very erect posture made Kate worry their conversation had been overheard, but the deep vertical lines between Lila's eyebrows and the obvious shadows under her eyes spoke about worries far beyond gossip.
"I'm sorry—I didn't mean to scare anyone. I'm Lila Collier." The tall, trim, dark-haired beauty moved closer, cotton skirt swaying as she walked, and extended a multi-bangled hand toward Meg. She had a calm aura about her that seemed resigned and hopeful at the same time. Once again Kate marveled over the way opposites attracted. This time in the form of bohemian Lila and buttoned-down Blaine Collier.
"Please, don't apologize," Kate said and motioned toward her neighbor. "This is Meg Berman. She helps me with my business."
"Nice meeting you," Meg said. Kate held her breath to see if her friend would say anything more and almost sighed in relief when Meg stepped back after the handshake.
"I…" Lila said, waving a hand in the direction of the house's interior. "I'm probably intruding, but I had some things for Dustin and Dara. A kind of picture scrapbook for each of them to take in the move. I finished the two books last night." She half-turned and motioned back toward the other end of the house. "I left the books in their rooms."
Kate smiled. "I'll make sure they get packed in the boxes they'll be carrying with them. Then the kids can look at them along the way."
Lila swallowed and nodded but didn't speak for a moment. She looked off in the distance and took a deep breath before she said, "I know this is an inconvenience for you, all this sorting and packing for two different locations. But…well, it may not matter. Blaine and I need to talk again and…" She moved back to the doorway, then stopped for a moment and almost whispered. "Thank you for understanding. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to get to work."
I wonder what that's about. Kate hoped they weren't changing their minds again about Sydney staying, but she could understand wanting the kids to stay together, too.
Kate watched Meg's face get almost as red as her hair, but no words came from her mouth until they saw Lila's car drive away. Even from the distance, they had no difficulty reading the word bitch scratched deeply into the paint.
"That's awful." Meg pointed at the car. "Does she know who damaged the door?"
"Someone with a sharp key or knife who doesn't want her speaking out on hot topic issues."
"And I supposed Collier used this as a means of trying to prove her unfit."
Kate shook her head. "I think things were long past the point of needing new examples for him. When I met with Lila yesterday we walked out together. She caught my surprised look, I guess, when I saw the scratches, and she explained they'd been left behind a couple of weeks ago when she and Sydney went out to dinner together. Unfortunately, Sydney was the one who first discovered them."
"People can be so mean."
"But the marks do help prove up Collier's concerns, whether we like it or not. And given the cryptic way she just spoke, Lila may be coming around to the same idea. Let's hope Sydney goes for it, if that is indeed the case."
"All because she's taken strong stances on feminism, the environment, and civil rights issues. Anyone else would be pleased his wife climbed the environmental corporate ladder to her level." Meg had a full head of steam and plowed on with her rant, "He had a detective comb every police blotter and newspaper morgue, looking for anything violent that occurred at any demonstration he could prove she or her group participated in. He even claimed her work as a watchdog to monitor voting booths across the northern states during contested elections showed politics was more important to her than the children. Then his attorney argued before the judge and found witnesses to back up the bogus claims that if the kids were left with their mother they ran the risk of being bombed in their home or car by some activist opposed to one of her causes." Meg ended by making a hrumph sound deep in her throat. "If that woman killed him and I was on the jury, she would walk."
Oh boy! Time to divert Meg's attention. "Okay, here's the outline for us to use to keep the tasks we need to do in order and to stay on schedule. One thing we still need to consider, however, is moving Dustin's terrarium. Since your boys have the bearded dragon, I thought you might be able to figure out a couple of options for us."
"I know what you're doing." Meg cocked an eyebrow.
"Never doubted it." Kate looked her friend in the eye and smiled. Now that the subject was officially changed, she turned attention back to the notebook. "Dustin says he wants his iguana to stay with him during the move. The lizard is a baby, and transporting it shouldn't be difficult, but the terrarium will be unwieldy. In case the dad overrides the son's decision—"
"Like he seems to do everyone else's choices."
"We need alternative shipping ideas. Just in case," Kate emphasized the last and raised her own dark blonde eyebrow in response to Meg's tweezed brow going even higher.
Meg blew out a big breath. "Okay, I'll climb down off my soapbox. I'll make sure all the pets are taken care of. Okay?"
"I think the Labrador will be fine."
"You never know. Even the nicest dogs can become biters if they get anxious about a move."
Kate couldn't help laughing. "Just make sure you don't take a bite out of Collier."
"Moi?" Meg's expression was all innocence. "I would never take that pleasure away from Lila."
"Come on—let's go in," Kate said, "I just brought you out here to see the view."
"And it really is a nice one." Meg walked back to the railing and squinted, cocking her head to one side so her short fiery curls bounced with the movement. "You can't see it from here, but we used to climb Mount Equinox when I was in high school." She pointed to the north. "We've been talking about taking the boys camping again sometime this summer. We should all go when school's out, both our families. This job will be completed by then."
"Well, we'd better get a move on if we want to get finished on time." Kate clasped the project notebook to her chest. "I want to show this balcony to Keith before the house sells, too. I don't know if we could add a balcony on our house and make it look right, but I'd love something like this outside our master bedroom."
"I like this over-high railing, too," Meg said, running her hand along the polished wood resting atop the steel bars that put everything at nearly chest level. "Anything waist-high and you run the risk of someone still accidentally going over the side. At least with boys like mine, that is. Something this high makes such a thing less likely."
Kate took another cleansing breath and smiled. "I could get used to this." The two women reentered the house, and Meg commented, "My feet just disappear in the carpet pile. Do you think Collier would mind if I worked barefoot?"
"Probably." Kate rolled her eyes. "Let's keep our shoes on just in case, Ms. Troublemaker."
"Sticks and stones, my friend."
They were grinning when they reached the hall. "Come on into Dara's room. I'll show you how we're going to start on the closets," Kate said.
The younger daughter's bedroom was a fairy tale setting, with mountain top castles painted high on the walls and wildflower meadows near the baseboards to merge with the thick carpeting. Kate knew her daughter, Suzanne, would love the room but was equally aware that twin Samantha would roll her eyes unless it was tied somehow to soccer or Barbie. She sighed. Right now the twins preferred sharing a room, but the battles for style were becoming more frequent. A compromise, and probably new room assignments, would be coming soon.
"Something wrong, Kate?"
She shook her head. "Nothing a look in The Great Big Book on Parenting won't cure."
"Well if you ever find a copy, I want a peek, too."
"Deal," Kate said, and grinned. One of the things she liked best about Meg is how her parenting style was just as make-it-up-as-you-go as the McKenzies' efforts. "The closet is over here." She slid away a section of an alpine mountain and revealed an almost wall-to-wall enclave of clothing and accessories. "I asked Collier and Lila to help the kids sort out the clothes they wouldn't be wearing before the move, so we can pack them ahead of time."
Meg looked in the closet and around the room. "I don't see any boxes."
"We're just doing the clothes now. We don't need boxes." Kate reached for a high shelf and pulled down a box of extra tall garbage bags. "I put these here last night. There are several boxes of trash bags in each closet."
She shuffled clothes around on the rods so like items, in this case winter clothing, hung together on the rod closest to the door.
"I'm confused," Meg said. "Why would you want to just toss them in the sacks? Won't the client get mad if clothes are a wrinkled mess when they unpack?"
Kate winked. "No wrinkles, no folding. Watch this." She pulled out a bag, then moved to the section of the closet holding Dara's winter dresses and took a second to shake the bag open. With one hand, she pushed back neighboring clothes and held them back with one shoulder, so a collection of dresses about a foot wide now hung separately. The opened garbage bag was placed around the hem level of the dresses, and then moved up toward the hanger hooks. When the bag completely enclosed all of the dresses, Kate cinched the top tight around all of the hooks, wrapped the plastic drawstrings around the hanger tops for extra support, then tied everything together.
"Now, we can lift this bag in one piece," she explained, using one hand to grasp the hidden hangers and remove all of the dresses at one time from the closet rail. "The movers can hang up the bags in the moving van, or they can be laid down flat. But either way, wrinkling is minimized, and unpacking clothes is nothing more than hanging everything in the new closets and pulling off the sack."
She pulled a stack of adhesive-backed pink labels from her pocket and slapped one on each side of the bag. "There. Now the pre-printed pink label will highlight for movers that it needs to go into Dara's room in the California house."
Meg's eyes were wide. "That is an amazing idea. I knew you were clever, but your bag of tricks never fails to amaze me."
"Thank you, all accolades are truly appreciated." Kate moved back into the middle of the room and spun slowly to take in the scope of the area. "This room doesn't look too hard, but we'll probably have to do all of the packing ourselves. Dara is helpful, and likes to do things herself, but she's only eight. She'll probably need a little guidance, and we'll have to double check any of the boxes she does pack."
They turned as both heard running footsteps on the stairs. Sydney, the Colliers' older daughter, moved into sight, backtracking when she passed the doorway. The teen's long hair, brunette with highlights, flowed down the back of her green and white Hazelton High T-shirt in thick, layered curls. "Oh, sorry to disturb. I needed to come home and grab a hoodie for my run tonight. It's supposed to turn cooler with a chance of rain, and coach won't let us leave after practice if we aren't dressed for the weather."
"You didn't disturb us," Kate said. "It's nice seeing you again. This is Meg Berman. She helps me in my business."
The teen came into the room, a soft smile lighting her face. She shook hands with Meg, then cupped hands around her elbows in an almost protective measure. "Nice meeting you.
"What's your sport?" Meg asked.
"Competitive figure skating. Individual. You know, like Michele Kwan."
"You have Olympic dreams?"
"Definitely." Sydney started backing out of the room. "I hate to be rude, but I only had enough time to run here and get back to school." She offered a quick wave. "It's good seeing you again, Mrs. McKenzie."
"You too, Sydney. If you're driving, be careful," Kate said.
"I have a friend waiting for me outside. Bye."
Less than a minute later her footsteps again hit the stairs, this time heading down to the first floor and out the front door.
"Professional hopes, I suppose?" Meg mused. "I know from reading the paper she's an honor roll student."
"And promising entrepreneur as well. Come on, and let me show you her workshop," Kate said, and led the way to a small room tucked away a few doors down the hall. A long cherrywood table filled up the middle space, holding an astounding collection of jaw-dropping purses, totes, belts, and even boot toppers. Another smaller table standing against the closet wall displayed knives and curved tools, along with a high beam lamp and a wheeled chair. The whole back wall held bins filled with a variety of leather, fabric, beads, buttons, and bindings of every sort. A dull black, heavy-duty sewing machine sat under the only window. "This is Sydney's business. And she told me in no uncertain terms she would pack all of this herself."
Meg wandered over to the work table and touched a wooden handle of a tool, the look of which implied it was used to poke holes in leather. "This is pretty astounding."
"What's astounding is how much she gets for all of these pieces."
"What's the average price?" Meg asked.
Kate quoted a figure high enough to make her friend gasp, then added, "She hooked up with a New York designer who added them to her collection. The items are all made from natural materials, and Sydney uses as many recycled pieces as she can. People have really been drawn to the line."
Fingering one of belts, Meg asked, "I wonder what she would charge me directly if I ordered one of these for Gil."
"If she gives you a price break, let me know, because I want a tote like this one." Kate held up a leather bag with flowers worked into the grain, each petal individually tinted with muted shades. Copper wire finished off a kind of frame to most pieces, coiling through the sewn edges around the outside. On the tote Kate favored, antiqued brass closures offered function as well as fashion for anyone not wanting to leave the top completely open.
She started to look at the finishing inside but heard the doorbell chime.
"That's what we get for gawking. We had no idea someone had driven up." Meg said, following Kate back into the hallway. "At least this time the person didn't just pop up behind us."
As the women moved to the stairs, Kate said, "This house is so spread out, it makes it easy to miss things, unless you're on the back deck or where we were earlier on the master bedroom balcony. If we hadn't been talking so much and looking out toward the national forest, we'd have noticed Lila's arrival, since out there is the only direct view to the driveway because of all the trees."
At the bottom step, the flooring transitioned to parquet, and Kate's heels clicked as she hurried across the foyer. The skinny two-story sidelights showed someone at the door, but the person stood too close, and all Kate could make out was a lustrous head of chestnut hair. At first she thought Lila may have returned but then realized this visitor wasn't wearing a full skirt.
"Can I help—?"
Kate was tossed aside, as a tall brunette with a phone sandwiched between her right shoulder and ear shoved the door farther open and stepped inside. Dressed in what was probably her work clothes, a pair of jeans with the Dolce & Gabbana logo emblazoned on a pink leather patch on the back pocket and a matching cotton candy-hued silk tee, the woman took aim with a laser device to shoot off points while talking into her iPhone. She used her free hand to rummage blindly through a D&G labeled handbag. "That's right, Lee Ann, twenty-four-foot ceiling in the foyer, some kind of antiqued brass and lead glass craftsman-type hanging light. Nice, but not pricey enough. Be sure to make a note. We'll want to change it out for the viewings. Need to go high end here. The corporate sellers want this turned quickly, and I want the commission to be worth it."
"Excuse me—" Kate tried, but received only a face-out palm in reply.
"Yes, someone let me in, and I'm heading for the interior rooms now. Just stay on the line and I'll keep feeding you measurements and notes I want documented." The woman withdrew a business card case from her bag and flipped it open, extending it as if offering a cigarette. Kate frowned and pulled a card from the pack. Erin Parker. Broker, Vermont Views Real Estate. There was a local office number, followed by a cell number, and a full gamut of social media connection options.
Kate tried again. "Can you—?"
"Oh, for heaven’s sake! Hold on a minute, Lee Ann." Erin pulled the phone from her ear and faced Kate. Meg moved closer in a show of support. "What are you, the cleaning people? Yes, we'll keep you contracted until the house closes. But I have work to do. I have a primo prospect flying in within two days, and I have to transform this house in the interval."
"We are not the cleaning people." Meg looked ready to blow.
"We're organizing the Colliers' move." Kate extended her right hand, so she could not only offer a handshake but could cut off the direct path between Meg and the real estate pro.
Erin returned the handshake, shook Meg's hand as well, and before turning back to her phone said, "You two look like soccer moms. I realize it's nearly time for all of you to line up to retrieve the kiddies at school. If you leave, put the key on that table over there, and I'll lock up."
She and her rapid laser measure resumed producing measurements for the off-site Lee Ann, and Erin's long legs took her around the corner to disappear in the hall toward the media room and Blaine Collier's office.
"I'll call Collier's personal assistant and figure what to do next. You go see if you can help her," Kate told Meg.
"Keep an eye on her. Got it!"
The foyer felt too open for a phone call, so Kate moved into the great room and seated herself on one of the cushy patterned sofas, tapping her phone against the padded, earth-toned arm. The floor-to-ceiling south-facing windows not only offered a lovely green view but allowed gentle heat from the sun to warm the room. She took a moment to calm herself and sent up a quick prayer for Collier to be tied up in meetings, so she could speak with his assistant, Timothy, instead. Then she dialed.
Luck, for once! "Hello, Timothy, it's Kate McKenzie."
"Sorry, Kate, but Mr. Collier is in a meeting."
"That's probably okay. I have a feeling you might be able to help. An Erin Parker is here now, and she wants me to leave her my key. Thought I'd better—"
"No! She's to have no unsupervised access to the house, by Mr. Collier's direct order."
Kate pinched the sharp crease that ran down the left leg of her twills. "Okay. My associate, Meg Berman, is with her now, and I'll make sure one of us stays with her at all times. But really, we don't have the extra time to work as monitors too."
"I completely understand. I'll make Mr. Collier aware of this as soon as possible and do what he suggests to remedy the situation. I know you have kids to pick up soon from school."
If she hadn't known how efficient Timothy Oakes was, Kate would have been a little creeped out that he knew her schedule. But she did know and was grateful he was handling the situation and knew the time constraints.
"Thanks so much, Timothy. I know Mr. Collier has to be as grateful for your loyalty as I am."
She heard a sound like a snort, then, "Yes, he says he'll sign whatever letter of recommendation I need before he leaves."
"You're leaving the company, too?"
"It's a standard corporate policy to let any supporting staff go when a chief executive leaves to take a position with a new company."
The Collier family had moved to Hazelton four years before when Blaine Collier left a Florida recreational company to head up Green Mountain Boards, an up-and-coming snowboarding business. He was a corporate wunderkind whose expertise made every business he touched a worldwide name. A month ago, Techno-Cal hired Collier to basically do the same to one of its subsidiaries, a company making small yachts and sail craft.
"For some reason I thought you were at Green Mountain Boards before Blaine Collier started working there," Kate said.
"I was. Three years longer. Seven in all," Timothy replied.
"And they're still letting you go?"
"It's company policy. I understood the risks when I accepted this position."
"Still…is Collier helping you find another position somewhere? Has he even asked if you want to go to the West Coast with him?"
"Mr. Collier is doing everything to meet his professional responsibilities in the matter."
In other words, Kate thought, he's doing little more than saying "write a letter of recommendation for me to sign, and I'll sign it." She also recognized that Timothy's word choice was putting a halt to this conversation.
"I've had a few interviews scheduled," Timothy cut into her thoughts. "Don't worry—I'll land on my feet."
However, she wondered how many of the open positions were at the pay level he likely enjoyed as Collier's assistant. She was willing to bet the young man would have to relocate out of the Hazelton area. She had no idea who might be able to overhear the conversation at his end and hoped their discussion and her questions hadn't compromised him in any way. "Well, I won't keep you, Timothy. Especially after I've given you something else to do. Thanks so much. And we'll work to maintain a close watch on our visitor. In the meantime, I would appreciate if you called in the cavalry some way, please."
The doorbell chimed again, and Kate ended her call. When she opened the door, a courier stood on the other side.
"This is for Sydney Collier." He held a large heavy-duty envelope atop his delivery clipboard.
"She's not here right now."
"I only need a signature." He stuck the envelope under his arm and turned the notepad to face Kate. "Just sign here."
She grabbed the pen attached to the clipboard and signed her name in the space he pointed to, then accepted the envelope. As she closed the door, she noted the Boston address and realized it was probably paperwork for the summer Olympic-training program Sydney was looking forward to attending. Kate slipped it into the back of her project notebook to keep it safe until she could give it to the teen later in the afternoon.
Kate found the women in the media room, Meg standing guard duty at the door, arms crossed and eyes sharp. Erin paced the front of the room, counting the dark blue seats out loud, noting a wear spot in the carpet, and barking dimensions into her phone to the poor invisible Lee Ann.
"Anything suspicious?" Kate whispered, her head angled close to Meg's.
"Everything. Well, technically annoying instead of suspicious. But nothing that appears criminal."
"Collier's PA says he'll work on the situation. But she's not supposed to have access to the house unsupervised."
"So, do we add babysitting services to our cost estimate?"
The women hushed when Erin Parker breezed past them and strode down the hall.
"Appears the kitchen is her next destination." Meg offered a crooked smile.
"We need to start building our game plan in there anyway." Kate shrugged. "Let's go, Wonder Woman."
"Right behind you, Batgirl."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
USA Today bestselling author Ritter Ames writes the Organized Mysteries series and the Bodies of Art Mysteries, and she will soon be releasing the first title in her Frugal Lissa cozy mystery series. These series and their varied locations give Ritter more opportunity to coax her husband into additional travel for “research.” For more information about her and her books, visit her website listed below and subscribe to Ritter's newsletter to learn when books are released or she’s running special giveaways for her fans.
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