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       Smoked (The Alex Harris Mystery Series), p.1
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           Elaine Macko
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Smoked (The Alex Harris Mystery Series)


  Smoked

  An Alex Harris Mystery

  By

  Elaine Macko

  Other Books in the Alex Harris series

  Mahjonged

  Flossed

  Poisoned

  Armed

  Smashwords Edition

  Copyright © 2013 Elaine Macko

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior written permission of the copyright holder, except for brief quotations used in a review.

  This is a work of fiction and is produced from the author’s imagination. People, places and things mentioned in this novel are used in a fictional manner.

  For Josie,

  Life is so much better with a friend

  along for the ride.

  ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

  A big thank you to Nadine Davis for the idea;

  Karen Phillips for another great cover; and

  Nancy Streukens and April Mederios for help with all the edits—

  I couldn’t have done it without all of you.

  Smoked

  Everyone who knows me knows I love tea. I drink a lot of it. I drink it pretty much all day long interspersed with several glasses of water. The truth is I don’t drink a lot of other stuff; never had a cup of coffee in my life and alcohol makes me sleepy and sometimes sick, so tea and water it is.

  I recently received a book about the history of tea. Fascinating stuff and considering that tea, after that life-giving drink, water, is the most consumed beverage on earth, I consider myself to be in pretty lofty company.

  Trouble is, I’m a sloppy tea drinker. Not that I drool the stuff all over my clothes or slop it onto the carpet. No, what I mean is, I don’t put a lot of effort into the ritual of making tea. Sometimes, if I’m in a hurry, I won’t even bring the water to a full boil. And while tea connoisseurs demand you steep the tea in the water for some ungodly amount of minutes, I prefer my tea weak. So weak in fact I can get several cups out of one teabag. Did I mention I’m a frugal New Englander? I can almost hear the British gasping all the way in Indian Cove.

  But since I started reading the tea book, I’ve tried to be better. I buy better tea and I even took down my Villeroy and Boch Christmas Naif tea set I received from my sister several years ago and have been serving myself in better style. Believe it or not, tea tastes better when the water is boiled, not microwaved, and when it is served in a china cup. Maybe it’s all in my head, but it makes me happy to have my little tea ritual.

  So there I was, standing at my kitchen window, Christmas Naif tea mug in hand, when I noticed my neighbor, Mrs. Kravec. From where I stood it looked like she had a small fire burning. Burning anything in our city was frowned upon but every once in a while someone would burn leaves and truth be told I loved the smell and the memories burning leaves brought flooding back to my mind. I used to love to help my dad rake leaves on Saturday mornings and then in the evening I would help him burn the pile, sitting there in the twilight watching the small flames dance.

  I put my mug down, finished mixing the meatloaf, placed the pan in the oven and then looked out the window again. Night was descending but I could still make out the outline of Mrs. Kravec standing next to the fire. She was a tall, thin woman, mid-fifties, I thought. From the couple times we met, she seemed like a nice person with a quick smile. I really needed to get out and spend more time with my new neighbors. Since moving into this house about five months ago, I seemed to spend so much time inside fixing it up that I hadn’t had a lot of time to get to know the people on the street.

  I stared out the window a bit longer. Smoke was filling the air engulfing her in a white haze. And then she started to cough. I watched her for a few minutes more wondering why she didn’t step away if the smoke was causing her discomfort. I reached for the carrots I had washed earlier and had just started to cut them when Mrs. Kravec’s coughing brought me back to the window.

  I couldn’t figure out why the heck she just stood there if the fire bothered her that much. She wasn’t a stupid woman by any means. She had been a professor for goodness sake. Then I thought maybe she just had a cold and that’s why she was coughing. Maybe it had absolutely nothing at all to do with the fire.

  I stepped away from the window and went back to my dinner preparations. A few minutes later I returned to the window and looked out once more. Darkness had fallen but with the fire burning I could still see Mrs. Kravec. And then she started clutching at her throat and staggering toward her house. What was going on? She started to dance around still clutching her throat, swaying back and forth. Unless this was some kind of leaf-burning ancient ritual, the woman was in trouble. I grabbed the phone off the counter and dialed 911. Then I ran out the back door toward Mrs. Kravec.

  Chapter One

  “Rats?”

  “No. Rat. One. Please don’t make it any worse than it already is,” my sister Samantha said woefully. “Scopes,” she continued. “Scopes the rat.”

  I tried to contain my smile as I sat in her office of our temp agency, Always Prepared.

  “Scopes?”

  “Don’t ask. I have no idea what it means or where he got it from, but Scopes is the name he picked for his new pet. I haven’t been able to go into his room since they brought it home,” Sam winced.

  Truth was I wasn’t all that happy about this newest member of our family. To my way of thinking there is nothing scarier than a clown—unless it’s a rat. And now one had invaded our lives. Well, not exactly mine, thank goodness. But still, our family had been invaded.

  My nephew Henry was turning eight in a couple of weeks and he wanted one thing. Just one thing. A rat. The kid couldn’t ask for a puppy like a normal little boy. No. He had to bring a rodent into our lives. I guess I wouldn’t be going over to my sister’s house anytime soon.

  “I don’t even feel like going home. The life span is supposed to be three years. What am I going to do for three years? Who’s going to clean his room?” my sister whined.

  I looked at her. She was near hysteria. I couldn’t blame her. I loved Henry with all my heart. I had a real soft spot for the kid. And now this. He was quickly inching down my list of most beloved.

  “You could come live with John and me,” I said referring to my husband. “We have lots of room.”

  Sam lifted her head off the desk where she had been pounding it and looked at me.

  “Come live in the murder house? I don’t think so. I’ll take my chances with the rat.”

  “Well, actually, that’s why I came in here. It’s not just the murder house anymore; it’s more like the murder neighborhood.”

  Let me explain.

  My name is Alex Harris Van der Burg. I know. It’s a mouthful. I used to be just Alex Harris until I married John Van der Burg and for some reason can’t seem to get rid of the Harris.

  Along with my sister, Samantha, I own the Always Prepared temp agency. Despite the economy, business has been pretty good lately. Companies don’t want to hire staff permanently and pay for all the extras like vacation pay and insurance. That’s where we come in acting as the PEO, or professional employer organization, for several small firms in the area. We still provide temporary staff on a day-to-day basis and that side of the business has been picking up as well.

  We have a good thing going with our assistant Millie. We also hired a part-time woman named Marla Scottsman who helps with quarterly filings and reports for our clients.

  But I digress. I was telling you about why my sister refers to my home as the murder house. A couple of months after I mo
ved into John’s house, left to him by his grandmother and lovingly restored by him, I hosted a Mahjong party which left one person dead. Murdered. In my home.

  And this wasn’t the first time murder had entered my life. I seem to have a real knack for finding dead bodies. A gift really, much to the chagrin of my husband, who happens to be a cop.

  My sister turned from what she was doing and gave me the look. “What do you mean the murder neighborhood? Alex? What have you done now?”

  I wiped away a tear and looked at Sam. “Mrs. Kravec. My neighbor. She died last night.”

  “Your neighbor was murdered? Did you see it happen? Oh, no, is someone after you?”

  “No, of course, not,” I said giving Sam an eye roll. “She died. She wasn’t murdered. She was burning leaves and then she started coughing and then choking and she fell over. I called 911. They came, said it looked like a heart attack. They took her to the hospital and she died a few hours later, at least that’s what John told me.”

  “So why did you say murder neighborhood?” Sam turned back to her computer clearly not at all interested in a woman she had never met having had a heart attack.

  “Why was she coughing and clutching her throat? Wouldn’t she be grabbing at her chest or her left arm or something?” I asked, only knowing heart attack symptoms from what I see on TV.

  Sam stopped typing and tapped a recently polished fingernail on the desk. “I see those little wheels in your head spinning. The poor woman had a heart attack. It’s sad. It happens,” Sam shrugged.

  I sighed and lifted myself out of the chair. “I guess. I’ll be in my office. Let me know if you’ll be moving in with us so I can get your room ready.”

  I walked into my office and sat down behind my desk, swiveling the chair so I could see out the window. I wondered if the coroner had ruled Mrs. Kravec’s death a heart attack. I also wondered, for the hundredth time, why the woman had been clutching her throat.

  Chapter Two

  It’s a good thing I grew up in New England because the region fits me to a T. It was the first week of November and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else especially at this time of year. The air felt cool and crisp, the sky a deep blue. October had been warmer than usual but it was finally sweater weather. Halloween was barely over, and good little capitalist that I am, I headed to the mall on my lunch hour to start my Christmas shopping. I also planned to meet John for lunch so he and I could brainstorm ideas for his father. What do you get a man who has lived a lifetime, who is retired, and who seems to have everything he could possibly ever need? I wasn’t sure about John’s father but his mother had recently started scrapbooking a lifetime of family pictures into beautiful books. And while not a scrapbooker myself, I had a sister who owned every gadget known to man that had been made for the craft and yet complained she still needed more things. Sam had given me some great ideas and I planned on giving Harriett Van der Burg a basket full of the accoutrements for her new hobby. Stan Van der Burg, my father-in-law, was another matter and that I would leave to John to sort out.

  I pulled into a parking space conveniently located close to the entrance, locked my car and entered a packed mall. Didn’t anybody work? I saw John looking through the window of a mattress boutique—yes, even mattresses now had specialty stores—at one of those memory foam beds. We had been using my old mattress, which had belonged to my parents, so you can imagine how old it was and how badly we needed a new one.

  “See anything you like?” I asked sneaking up on John.

  He turned and flashed me his famous smile, his gray eyes sparkling. “The question is do I see anything I can afford?”

  I sighed. “Maybe after Christmas there’ll be a great sale.” We had our eyes on a few models but so far had not been able to break down and actually buy the darned thing. After a honeymoon in Europe and all the new things I had been buying for the house, we had to stop somewhere.

  We walked to the other side of the mall to a small restaurant we both enjoyed and once seated decided to share several appetizers. John placed our order and as soon as the waiter had placed two iced teas in front of us he turned serious.

  “It looks like it wasn’t a heart attack.” John took a sip of tea and then loosened his tie.

  At first I had no idea what he was talking about, and for a panicked moment, so absorbed in gift ideas for his parents I thought he was talking about them. Then it hit me. Mrs. Kravec.

  “I knew it.”

  “Knew what?” John eyed me suspiciously.

  “She was clutching her throat and kind of dancing around. Is that how a heart attack victim acts?”

  John shrugged. “I’m not sure but in any case that’s not what killed her. They think it was some sort of allergic reaction to something. Anaphylactic shock.”

  I mused this over a bit. “Allergic to what? Fire? Leaves? Why would she burn them if she was allergic to them? And where was Mr. Kravec, by the way?” I asked, just as a large platter of fried calamari was set in front of us along with a basket of bread, a goat cheese salad and some heavenly aromatic egg rolls.

  “I talked briefly with their daughter this morning. She showed up at their house as I was leaving. Said her father’s been in Boston at a butcher convention for the last several days. He’s on his way home.”

  “Butcher convention?” I winced. It sounded gruesome but then being a butcher in the first place sounded gruesome. What a hypocrite I was. I didn’t mind eating the stuff, but I really didn’t want to know the intricate details of how the meat made it to my plate.

  After consuming more than I normally did for my mid-day meal, John and I made our way out of the restaurant and back to the mall. I had just persuaded him to walk over to the craft store with me when his cell phone vibrated in his jacket pocket. He took it out and read a text.

  “I’m sorry, Alex, but I have to get back to the station.”

  “Has something happened?” I asked, noting the concerned expression overtaking his face.

  “I’m not sure. It’s the Kravec case. I’ve got to go.” He turned and headed toward the exit.

  “Wait a minute, John. What do you mean? What’s happened?”

  My husband stopped and turned to face me. He put his hands on my arms and pulled me close to him. “Some preliminary tests have come back and they’ve brought Mr. Kravec in. He just got back from Boston and I have to interview him.” John gave me a quick peck on the cheek and headed off.

  “What kind of tests? Why do you have to interview him?” I called to John’s retreating back, but he never turned around.

  Maybe by the time he came home tonight he would have some answers and I would know exactly how Mrs. Kravec had died.

  Chapter Three

  At five o’clock I turned into my driveway. I was looking forward to a quiet evening of catching up on stuff I had DVR’d and some leftover meatloaf. If I felt really ambitious, I might even wrap some of the things I picked up for John’s mother at the craft store. John was supposed to be joining my father and a group of volunteers from my parents’ church to help rebuild a house that had been destroyed by a fire. I hadn’t heard from him since he ran out at lunch and I had no idea if he was still at the station or if he made it to the rebuild site. I could call my mom but then she would ask me a lot of questions about Mrs. Kravec and right now I had no answers.

  As I stood at my kitchen counter, waiting for my plate of leftovers to warm in the microwave, I caught site of the area where I had gone to help Mrs. Kravec just the night before. From where I stood I could see what looked like crime scene tape strung along the parameter of the area. John had mentioned preliminary tests, but what could they find in a pile of burnt leaves that would make the police designate the area as a crime scene? I really wanted to call John but he was either busy with the case or helping my dad and the other volunteers.

  I took the plate from the microwave, set it aside and went over to the back door where I kept a pair of New Balance walking shoes. I kicked off my black hee
ls, exchanging them for the sneakers, as I called them. Why is it that these kinds of shoes have laces about four feet long? What did the makers expect us to do with all that lace? I tied the shoes and then knotted them several more times in an attempt to shorten the laces enough to allow walking without tripping, and then headed out.

  I walked up our street and passed the Kravec house. Nothing looked out of place from the front. I continued walking to the end of the street and turned right. It was already dark, but the street lights were plentiful, plus it looked like most people were home getting ready for dinner. I walked around the entire block just to get some exercise and when I got back to my house I crossed our front lawn into the back and walked up the slope until I was in the Kravecs’ backyard, standing just outside the yellow tape.

  Someone had taken all the burned leaves and there was just flat blackened earth where the fire had been. The grass looked trampled all the way up to the woods, which backed up against our yards. If Mrs. Kravec had died from an allergic reaction to the burning leaves, it seemed odd it was marked as a crime scene, but of course they needed to find out exactly what happened and I didn’t think the police had tape that said, “just checking the facts.” I still wanted to know how Mrs. Kravec dying from an allergic reaction might translate into a crime and I hoped John would share the final outcome with me.

  Poor Mrs. Kravec. What did I really know about her? I hadn’t lived in this house very long but I had stopped to talk with her several times while out for walks during the summer. I knew she had been a professor at one point but had changed careers at the end of the school year. She had mentioned some sort of blog and I now felt ashamed I had never checked it out. Most of our conversations were easy banter about our lawns and various plants or what was going on in the neighborhood, which wasn’t much. And now she was gone and I would never get a chance to know her. And who would attend to the beautiful flowering bushes and plants scattered across their property? Her husband? I didn’t see him very often, though I had stopped by his shop a couple of times. His cuts of beef were superb but costly and John and I only splurged a few times.

 
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