Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Good, Clean Murder: A Plain Jane Mystery by Traci Tyne Hilton - FREE!

Good, Clean Murder: A Plain Jane Mystery (The Plain Jane Mysteries, a Cozy Christian Collection (Book 1)) by Traci Tyne Hilton

Hardworking and hungry Bible school student Jane Adler cleans
houses to make ends meet. But finding the money to pay for the last
semester of school is the least of her problems when she uncovers a body
in her boss's bed.


There had been a storm in the night and twigs and blossoms littered the long sweep of concrete front steps at the hundred-year-old stone mansion the Crawford family called home. Jane Adler had two hours to get the six-thousand square foot house whipped into shape. Then she was off to her next client to do the same thing. Jane was alone on the cool spring morning. The neighborhood was a quiet, haven of sunshine and green fresh green gardens. She wished she could trade jobs with the gardener today, just so she could stay outside and enjoy the long-awaited sunshine.
On her way back to the front door she watered the early hyacinth and late crocus in the mossy urns that lined the steps. She fished the errant petals out of the bubbling fountain, and gave the brass fish that leapt out of the splashing water a quick polish.
Spring had finally come, and with it, her last term at Harvest School of the Bible. Jane was one semester away from graduation. Then she would fly away to the mission field. There were a few hurdles in front of her still: joining the right organization, fundraising, convincing her parents she was ready to leave the country for good.
Jane dusted the lid of the copper newspaper box and flipped it open. The morning paper was still lying inside.
Had the paperboy been late? Jane leaned around the pillar of the front portico to look down the street. She didn’t see any newspapers lying on the vast front lawns, but odds were most of the homeowners had boxes like the Crawfords’.
Jane turned the other way, but didn’t see the paperboy on his scooter. She expected as much. He had to be sitting in school by nine in the morning.
Jane carried the newspaper around to the back of the house with her broom and her watering can.
The special directions for today’s work would be waiting by the door in the mudroom. She prayed it wouldn’t be a Cinderella day. Cleaning the rugs, drapes, and fireplaces would destroy her tight schedule.
Jane swept the back steps, wiped the mildew from the windowsills, and used her rag to polish the brass porch light before she let herself back into the house.
As Jane racked the outdoor broom, her cell phone rang.
Caller id showed it was her roommate, Samantha. She sighed.
“Hey, Sam.” Jane slipped her Bluetooth around her ear so she could talk and clean at the same time.
“Get soy milk, okay?”
“And when should I do that? At nine tonight when my class gets out?” Jane stared at the bulletin board. The usual slip of paper was missing.
“Oh, are you doing that again?”
“Going to school? Yes.” Jane dropped to her knees and fished under the decorative storage bench for the list of instructions. She couldn’t feel anything so she pulled the bench away from the wall. The scraping sound on the slate floor made her skin crawl. “Was that it? Milk?”
“Soy milk, Jane. I’m lactose intolerant.” It sounded like Sam was chomping gum while she spoke. Jane grimaced.
“Did you see the paper this morning?”
“Funny you should mention the paper. It was still in the box when I got here.” Her directions weren’t under the bench, but she’d been cleaning the Crawfords’ home for two years now and knew the Monday schedule like the back of her hand. She knew everything except the special little things that were usually left on the bulletin board.
“Mr. Crawford didn’t have it lying out for all to see this morning?”
“What do you mean? Is he in it? Or one of his kids?” Jane shoved the bench back against the wall. She stood up and looked around the room. Nothing. If she could get Sam off the phone, she could text Pamela just to be sure there wasn’t something extra she needed to get done.
“Do you have it handy? Turn to the business section.”
Jane carried the newspaper into the kitchen. She hit the lights on the way in and sniffed. Something was missing. She sniffed again. Coffee. Had no one made coffee this morning? She twisted the lid off the coffee carafe. Empty. No coffee. No cups in the sink. No signs of life.
Jane gave the carafe lid a tight twist and put it back on the coffee maker. Then she slid onto a stool and opened the newspaper on the kitchen island. “Sorry. Were you still talking? I got distracted.”
“Yes, I was,” Sam said. “I said, get the soy milk on your way to school, and you said sure.”
“Not likely.”
“Did you open the paper yet?”
“Umm, hmm.”
“Front page of the business section, below the fold.”
Jane turned to the page. Near the bottom, she found the headline that said, “Big Bob Crawford Bows out of Burger Business.”
“What is this?” Jane ran her eyes across the short article. Bob Crawford was closing the chain of burger restaurants his father had opened in 1950. He apologized for how his family business had contributed to the obesity epidemic in America.
“Wow. I knew his heart attack had affected him, but I never expected this.” Jane’s heart sank a little. This meant the end of free dinners on the days she cleaned the Crawford house.
“When you see him, ask him what he’s planning on doing now. Maybe he’ll get into the smoothie business.”
“I can’t ask him that, Sam. It’s none of my business and he’s my boss.”
“You and your boundaries. If I were in your position, I’d ask.”
“Like you’d ever clean houses for a living.” Jane scratched at a blemish on the granite top. A dinner spill, maybe. “I bet this is why things are so strange around here this morning.”
“What do you mean?”
“They didn’t leave any directions, or make coffee. All the lights are out. It’s just a little weird. Maybe closing the family business has put them off of their schedule.”
“No coffee? Poor you.”
“No kidding. Hey, I’m going to let you go. I’ve got to get this house put together before they get back.”
“Fine, but see if you can get Jake to tell you more about this.”
“If I see him, I’ll ask, okay?” Jane couldn’t remember the last time she had seen Jake Crawford and didn’t expect to see him anytime soon. Under those circumstances, it was an easy promise to make.
“Good enough. Get the soy milk, yeah?”
“Nada. I’ve got work to do.”
“What evs. You’re a rotten roommate.” Sam hung up.
Jane frowned at her phone. Sam’s attitude problem was nothing new, but losing Roly Burgers was quite a blow. Jane’s stomach grumbled. Free burgers had been a great perk.
Jane tied a pink bandana around her head to keep her wispy brown hair from shedding while she worked. Fast and thorough. She would try to make life for the Crawford family as easy as possible in the face of massive changes, but get in, get clean, and get out was her main goal.
Jane folded the newspaper back up. She set it on the kitchen desk, next to the charger station. She wondered what her dad would say when he found out about the end of the Burger with the Roly-Poly Bun. Running a Roly Burger franchise had made her parents’ early retirement possible
The Crawford family home in the exclusive Laurelhurst neighborhood of Portland and all of the lavish lifestyle that went with it was entirely thanks to the second-generation burger chain.
Jane stared out the front window. How many people would lose their jobs when the restaurants went dark? She closed her eyes and said a silent prayer for them all. Portland did not need more layoffs.
After his heart attack, Bob Crawford had been morose. Depressed even. He had spent weeks on end huddled in his office, unshaven and wearing a bathrobe. Eventually he had cheered up, and it occurred to Jane that his new lease on life was probably due to the decision to quit making burgers.
Jane tried to shake off her own morose thoughts. If Bob didn’t want to make burgers any more God must have something else in store for the people who relied on him. She felt a catch in her throat. It might be true, but it was hard to believe. God let a lot of people suffer more than even the poorest of Portlanders. While she believed that God had his hand on the Roly Burger family of employees, she still felt a little sick about their impending loss of work.
Jane needed to get her mind out of the shadows. She recited the beatitudes as she made her way upstairs, in an effort to get her own attitude in order. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” She pulled out a rag and dusted the deeply-carved wooden frames that lined the staircase. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” She turned back and ran the rag down the banister. “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the Earth.”
She tried not to hurry as she rubbed the dust off the stair-rail spindles. Pamela Crawford always noticed dust on the mahogany. “Blessed are those who clean others' dirt for they will be able to pay for their schoolbooks.”
Jane tucked her lemon-Pledge-soaked dust rag back in her apron pocket and moved on to the laundry room, the chemical citrus wafting away with her. She needed to strip the beds and get the laundry going if she was going to get out to her next house on time. On her way past the laundry room, she grabbed a hamper.
Then she stopped. Monday was laundry day. Laundry day and payday. The envelope full of cash was always pinned to the bulletin board with her directions. That envelope was supposed to buy her books today. Standing still with the hamper on her hip she debated. Stop now, call Pam, and ask for directions and money, or just keep working? The laundry would take two hours, whether she was paid or not, so she moved to the master bedroom. She could call Pamela after she had the first load in the machine.
Jane pushed open the bedroom door with her hip.
In a smooth set of motions perfected over her two years as a housekeeper, she set the hamper down, grabbed the end of the comforter and pulled all of the bedding off the bed. Then she looked up to grab the pillows.
Bob was still in bed.
“I am so sorry!” she whispered. She backed away from the bed.
Bob hadn’t seemed to notice her.
Heat rose to Jane’s face. What a complete moron! She should have knocked. She could have given him the chance to wake up a little. She looked away from the bed, waiting for him to speak.
He didn’t say anything.
In fact, Bob hadn’t moved a muscle when his covers had come flying off him. Surely, if a big guy like him had moved, she would have noticed.
She stepped back to the bed.
Bob was very still, and his face was pasty.
Jane’s heart thumped against her ribs, like a small, hard fist.
Bob was not well.
Her feet felt like bricks as she pulled herself across the Persian rug to the side of Bob’s bed.
He was wearing an A-line tank top—a wife-beater. His huge shoulders were covered in brown wiry hair. She had never seen Bob’s naked shoulders.
Jane placed two shaking fingertips under his jaw, and turned away.
She couldn’t feel a pulse. She moved her fingers across his thick neck, trying to find even the faint hint of life, but it wasn’t there.
Jane shoved her hand into the pocket of her jeans and yanked out her phone. 911. Must call 911.
“Ambulance, Police, or Fire Department?” The voice of the 911 operator was steady, solid.
“Ambulance, please!”
“Where are you located?”
Jane gave the operator the address of the Crawford home.
“An ambulance will be right there. Can you stay on the line with me?”
“No, I can’t. I’ve got to call his wife.”
“I understand. We’ll be right there.”
Jane ended the call and began scrolling through her phone for Pamela’s number.
Pamela could be at the gym right now, or at the salon, or with the board of directors dealing with the business. She could be anywhere.
Jane found their daughter Phoebe Crawford’s number first and hit send.
“This is Phoebe.” Her voice was rough like she had just woken up.
“Phoebe, it’s Jane Adler. I’m at your parents’ house and your dad—” Jane’s voice broke, but she took a deep breath and continued, “I called the ambulance. I think it was another heart attack. Can you get here?”
“Slow down, what?”
“I’m at the house, and I think your dad has had another heart attack. The ambulance is on its way. Can you make it over here? Do you know where your mom is?” How did Phoebe not understand? Jane walked to the window to watch for the ambulance. Her knees felt like water.
Phoebe yawned on the other end. “That’s awful,” she said. “I had a rough one last night. Call me when he’s at the hospital and I’ll be right there, okay?”
“But I’m just the cleaner…you need to be here. Or your mom.”
“Oh, you’re that Jane. I wondered who this was. Call me when you know what hospital he is at and I will meet him there, okay? It’s just another heart thing. He’ll be fine.”
“I don’t think he’s going to be fine.” Jane saw the ambulance turn the corner, its lights spinning and siren blaring. A fire truck was right behind it.
“Okay, so call me later.” Phoebe yawned again and hung up.
Jane pressed her lips together.
Bob was definitely not fine.
She needed to call Pamela. She scrolled through her numbers again but didn’t see it. Bob’s cell. Phoebe’s cell. Jake’s cell. Even Pamela’s sister-in-law’s number.
The ambulance pulled into the driveway.
Jane ran down the stairs to let them in. She threw open the door and directed two paramedics up the stairs. “The door at the end of the hall!” she hollered as they passed.
Jane followed them, with another paramedic right behind her. She reached the room just in time to see one of the men grab Bob by his feet.
Another man grabbed Bob’s shoulders. Together the paramedics pulled him to the ground.
Bob landed with a thud. Jane’s stomach twisted at the sound.
The man at Bob’s shoulders grabbed the neck of the tank top and ripped it down the middle. He began chest compressions, counting in a low voice.
The woman who had followed Jane pulled out the defibrillator.
Maybe Phoebe was right. Maybe they could start his heart again. The paramedics stuck wires at his chest and hip, and then applied the charge.
The man who had ripped Bob’s shirt attached an oxygen mask.
“How did you find him?” The third paramedic asked. She had been busy pulling things out of her medical bag and handing them to the two who were performing CPR.
Jane jumped. She hadn’t been expecting a question. “I just, I opened the door and went to strip the bed and there he was. He didn’t look right so I checked for a pulse.”
The paramedic nodded, encouraging her to continue.
Jane shook her head. “There wasn’t one so I called 911. Is he going to be okay?”
The paramedic tilted her head, her mouth in a small frown.
Jane looked back at her phone and scrolled through the numbers. She needed to find Pamela Crawford. Now. She went through them all three times, the numbers and names swimming. She closed her eyes and pressed the heel of her hand over one eye. She counted to three. She opened her eyes and scrolled through one more time, slowly.
“Pamela’s mobile.” Under P, instead of C with the rest of the Crawfords.
Jane hit send.
The paramedic on his knees looked up at his partner and shook his head. The partner pulled out a cell phone.
A phone rang in the master bathroom.
The woman who had spoken with Jane put her hand on Jane’s back. “Would you like to answer that call?”
Jane held out the phone in her hand and pointed at her Bluetooth headset. “I’m trying to get a hold of Bob’s wife.”
The paramedic nodded and went back to work.
When Jane’s call went to voice mail, she hung up. What message could she leave Pamela? Thirty years of wedded bliss were likely over?
The phone in the master bath had stopped ringing, but Jane thought she’d check it. Maybe Pamela had been trying to call Bob, trying to find out where he was.
Everything went in slow motion as she moved to the bathroom. The doorknob clicked as it turned, as though it needed to be oiled. The door caught on the threshold as she pushed it in. She scrubbed that floor every Friday and could feel, in her fingers, exactly how much higher the bathroom tile was from the bedroom floor.
The voices behind her sounded like they had gone into slow motion as well. One voice said, “Get the declaration of death,” but the words went on forever.
Jane pushed against the doorknob, but it stopped against something. She pushed harder. It seemed to be hitting something that had a little give, but couldn’t be pushed out of the way just by opening the door.
She put her shoulder to the door but couldn’t bring herself to shove it open.
Bob was dead.
The paramedic who had spoken with Jane put her arm around Jane again and led her from the door. “It’s been quite a morning for you. Sit down.” She led Jane to a large wingback chair by the window. “You might be in a bit of shock. Just relax, and keep breathing, okay?”
Jane looked at the paramedic. They were about the same age. They had the same brown hair in the same ponytail, at the middle of the back of their heads. Jane nodded, and then closed her eyes.
The conversation of the paramedics was like a low throb around her. She couldn’t follow it. She could hear the words declaration of death repeating in her head like they were still being said. Would she have to tell Pamela, Phoebe and Jake that Bob Crawford was at a funeral home?
“Hey guys, look at this.” An urgent voice rose above the murmuring.
Jane opened her eyes. They had gotten the door to the bathroom opened a little farther and the paramedics were squeezing themselves through the gap.
The noise of their conversation rose louder and louder.
She heard someone say, “Get the coroner here.”
Another voice said, “Look at the bruising on her wrists. Go check the other body for bruising.”
Jane sat as still as she could, but all of a sudden she couldn’t catch her breath.
She leaned forward in her chair, letting her head drop. With her head between her knees, she held her breath and counted to three. Then she exhaled. She repeated it until her heart seemed to calm down. She hadn’t noticed that her arms had been shaking until after they had stopped. When her whole body felt still, she stood up.
She took one more slow, deep, breath, and walked to the bathroom. The door was open several inches, but she didn’t try to push her way in. She peered through the opening instead.
Pamela Crawford, a woman almost as large as her husband, lay crumpled on the bathroom floor, her face red and bloated.
One of the paramedics held her wrist in his hand. He looked at the other and shook his head no.
The female paramedic looked at the other two. “I’ll get her out of here.” Jane watched her mouth say the words, but her voice was almost silent.
“Jane, right?” she asked.
Jane nodded.
“Why don’t you come downstairs with me?”
They walked downstairs and into the kitchen.
“Why don’t you sit down while we wait for the police? They shouldn’t take long to get here.”
Jane sat down.
“You’ve had a shock. Will you be able to take the rest of the day off?” The paramedic had a sympathetic look on her face.
“Yes, I think I can.” Jane looked at her hands. She had her phone in a white-knuckled grip.
“Then why don’t you arrange that, okay? I need to get back upstairs.” The paramedic didn’t move or break eye contact.
Jane nodded and stared at the phone in her hand. She could call her next two clients and tell them what had happened. It was just two calls, but they were both friends of Bob and Pamela. What could she say to them?
“I should be here, for the family. I should change the linens and put the laundry in and make lunch.”
The paramedic shook her head. “We’re just gonna leave things the way they are for a little while, okay? Until we know what’s been going on.”
Jane pressed her fist into her knee and took a deep breath. “But it was just a heart attack, right?”
The paramedic nodded, “It looks like Bob may have had a heart attack, and Pamela as well. We wouldn’t expect to find both of them on the same morning. The officers should be here any minute. Sit tight, okay?”
Jane listened for the sound of distant sirens. She let go of her phone and smoothed out her apron.
The paramedic tapped the table with her knuckles and lifted an eyebrow. “You okay down here?”
Jane nodded and the paramedic ran back upstairs, taking them two at a time.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness…” Jane began the beatitudes where she had left off, in the faint hope of keeping her panic at bay.
A sharp knock on the door interrupted her.

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