18 1/2 DISGUISES

18 1/2 DISGUISES 

Maizie Albright Star Detective book 7

Past Perfect Press, February 2 2021

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AN OLD FRIEND MURDERED AND A NEW FRIEND IN JEOPARDY

“A mixture of adventure, mystery, and romcom. So like Hollywood, you'll never figure out what is real and what is make-believe until you reach the end.” — Laura’s Interests

 

#DisguisedDetectiving Maizie Albright might have once played a (teenage) private investigator on TV, but she’s now living the part. Her (mother’s) name is on her business cards. Her (boss’s) appointment book is brimming with new clients. And her bank account has grown large enough to finally trade in her dirt bike for an actual new (pre-owned) vehicle.

And then there’s Wyatt Nash. Love of her life. Future father of her…

Wait.

And then there’s Wyatt Nash. Future partner in her business. Because Nash is now working for her father. Not the private investigation business that’s waiting for Nash to get out of the red so they can get on with…

Just what, Maizie isn’t so sure.

But she is sure about one thing. She’s ready to take on her own cases. To prove to (herself) her friends and family, she’s more than just a (washed-up actress) assistant private eye. And when Maizie finds her costume designer friend killed during a masquerade gala, it’s the opportunity Maizie hoped she’d never get. An investigation into an old friend’s murder. One that’s put her new friend, Rhonda, in jeopardy.

While the police begin their inquiries, Maizie starts her own case. She’s needling Black Pine’s wealthy do-gooders, threading through lies, stitching together clues, and ripping out false leads. Her investigation may cost Maizie her job, her relationships, and her life. But by unspooling the truth, Maizie’s darned if they stop her from catching a killer who’s sew evil, it’s shear madness.

 

ONE

#PartyPrologue #NeedANash

I NEEDED TO HEAR WYATT NASH'S VOICE like I never needed anything before. More than chucking California and my Beverly Hills lifestyle to create a new life in Georgia. More than getting out of jail when my crazy ex-fiancé implicated me in his (secret-to-me) drug-dealing life. Even more than refusing to sign Vicki's contracts to preserve (my sanity) our mother-daughter relationship from the constraints of our manager-actress alliance.

I needed the deep growl of Nash's "what" more than I ever wanted carbs. 

And that's really saying something. 

 It could also be a very big problem. I've not had much luck relying on men in the past. I feared this set a dangerous precedent for my heart.

But then again, I'd never witnessed a murder before meeting Nash.

The evening had started well. At a masquerade gala for the Clothing Kids Foundation founded by my old friend and fashion mentor, Lorena Cortez. She'd moved to Black Pine recently, like me. Whereas I moved to escape Hollywood, Lorena had retired from a long and illustrious career in costume design. Lorena and the Clothing Kids board had asked me to emcee the ceremonial speeches at the gala. Rhonda and Tiffany, my Black Pine BFFs had come as my plus twos. I'd worn my most notable costume designed by Lorena — a cheer outfit from Julia Pinkerton, Teen Detective

Actually, I'd been asked by the board to wear it, bringing — IMHO — a more Comic-Con feeling to the gala. I would have chosen something a little more relevant. And with more coverage. A woman of my size and stature should not bare her upper-upper thighs. I was no longer in high school, but unfortunately, I'd been typecast a long time ago. 

Lorena had graciously adjusted the old cheer ensemble for my twenty-five-year-old body. She'd also created wood nymph costumes for Tiffany and Rhonda to go with the woodland theme she'd devised for a magazine photo spread that would highlight Clothing Kids and her career. My father's company, DeerNose, had supplied all the materials (non-scented) for the children's costumes who attended the benefit and the photoshoot. 

The Clothing Kids masquerade gala was an appealing fundraiser, particularly as we entered Mardi Gras season. A local philanthropist couple held the party at their beautiful Queen Anne in the historic district. Black Pine's well-to-do had packed the rooms and garden of the Martins' home. Both old and new Black Piners longed for sophisticated events. 

At least the moneyed class did. In the winter, the more down-to-earth Black Piners focused on celebrating the opening of NASCAR and quail season.

The board had been working hard to raise funds, drive awareness, and create national chapters. Lorena's notoriety in the entertainment industry helped tremendously. The buzz had grown, and the launch looked like a success. 

 Until now. 

 Until Rhonda and I, looking for Lorena, had scurried next door and opened the door to her funky bungalow. Changing everything forever.

I couldn't reverse time, but at the moment, I desperately wished I could. Wished I'd never brought Rhonda with me. And mostly wished we hadn't found what we found.

And now, while I wished away, Rhonda was screaming. Mostly to the Lord to save her. But also at me to do something — combined with a lot of nonsensical shrieking. I clutched her hand and sucked in air through my nose and out my mouth. I couldn't blame Rhonda for screaming, but between the screaming and my own panic, I feared I'd pass out. 

I needed Nash. Just his voice would do. I knew this from experience. Something about his calm, commanding presence soothed me. If he panicked, he never showed it. In the face of overwhelming situations, he quieted. And he smelled good. 

But I think that's a pheromone thing. 

In the face of overwhelming situations, I cried. Hyperventilated. Made bad decisions. Or ate trans-fats. I was not one you should call in an emergency. 

My biggest wish — the one upon a star and to God and the universe and anyone else listening — was for me to be different. Immediately.

Currently, I hyperventilated and was really, really, really afraid of making another bad decision. I'd already made a few since entering.

My fingers slipped and fumbled on the tiny turn-lock of the Chloé mini saddlebag hanging across my body. Partly due to the shakes. Partly due to the blood that somehow got on the leather. And everywhere else.

"Maizie, we need to go," sobbed Rhonda. She yanked me backward, dripping fabric apple blossoms in her wake. I dropped the phone. It skittered across the pine floor until it hit a bookcase filled with baskets of fabric and sewing equipment. 

"I can't go. I have to stay," I spoke in gasps. I couldn't even figure out how to talk and breathe. Why couldn't I be like Nash? He always managed to breathe and talk and think in emergency situations. "I'm calling the police. You go outside. Get some fresh air. I'll be there as soon as I can."

"Outside by myself. Are you crazy? What if…whoever did this is still around?" Rhonda collapsed to the floor, pulling me with her. 

My knees buckled and my tailbone hit the wooden floor hard. But I landed next to my phone. I picked it up, dialed 9-1-1, then Nash.

"What?" said Nash. 

I immediately calmed. Mostly. Rhonda's screaming had commenced again.

"I'm not coming to that party," he continued. "There's nothing you can say that will entice me. Except for the cheer skirt. But I would forever be indebted to you if you came over later in the cheer outfit. And by forever indebted, I mean—"

"I can't," I gasped.

"It's not really a fantasy thing, I—"

"No, no. I can't wear it ever again." My breath hitched.  I pinched the skin between my thumb and forefinger to control my tears. "It's covered in blood."

During the pause that followed, I jerked in bubbly gasps, squeezed my eyes shut, and tried to block Rhonda's screaming. 

"Is it your blood?" he said slowly.

"No."

"Did you call 9-1-1?"

"Yes."

"Where are you?"

"Lorena's."

"Your friend, the costume designer? On Scarlet Oak Drive? The old bungalow?"

I nodded. Which he couldn't hear, but he said, "Be there in five minutes. Just hang on. Stay on the line. Stay calm. Are you in danger?"

I stared at Rhonda. She'd stopped screaming, but her face had gone an ashy gray. "I don't think so. I don't know. Maybe? Who knows. I don't understand—"

"Is someone hurt? Someone who needs help?"

I stared across the room, but there was nothing we could do for her now. "I guess not."

"Get out of the house. Isn't the party next door? Go there."

"I can't go there. I'm all bloody," I wailed. "Everyone will freak out." Like Rhonda. Which I couldn't say out loud because it would freak Rhonda out more. "I can't leave her. It's just…just…too…too…"

"You don't have to talk. Just breathe." Nash stretched out the words and between syllables, I heard his boots pound the old wooden stairs of the Dixie Kreme Donut building. The third stair rang like a gunshot, making me flinch. 

Seeing my recoil, Rhonda grasped me around the middle and pulled me against the feathery layers of her toga. We leaned against the bookcase, clutching each other, staring out at the large open room in Lorena's adorable bungalow. Previously styled in what I'd call funky artisan. Now looking more like horror splatter gore. I circled Rhonda's shoulder and patted her bare upper arm.

"It's going to be okay," I said to her. "Nash is on his way."

"Oh Lawd," she moaned. "Lawd, Lawd, Lawd."

"Who's that?" said Nash.

"Rhonda. She's in shock."

"Is it Rhonda's blood?"

"No. Rhonda is okay. Right, Rhon?" 

She turned her head to bury her face in my armpit. 

"Maizie, hon'," said Nash. "Now that you're calmer, could you tell me what happened?"

"I…we…you see…then—" Losing the words, I hiccuped.

"Start at the beginning."

"Which beginning? People always say that, but you never know how far back they want you to go." I gulped a mouthful of air that tasted like starch and old pennies and blew out quickly.

In my ear, something heavy banged. I knew it was only the outside door of the Dixie Kreme building. But I jerked anyway. Beside me, Rhonda shook. I clutched her against me. My armpit was drenched with her tears and snot, but I felt it a good sign she was no longer screaming.

"How about starting at the party. You and Rhonda were there." Keys jangled and a metallic squeak told me Nash had opened the door of his Silverado pickup. I breathed a little easier. 

"And Tiffany."

"And Tiffany," he said. "She's not with you?"

"No," I said sadly. "We left her at the gala. She's hooking up with a bartender."

"Leave that for later. Boomer was supposed to be there." Nash's voice tightened. "He's not with you now, is he?"

"No. Daddy and Remi are still at the event. Or they went home because he didn't want to be there in the first place. But I told him he had to come because DeerNose is a big sponsor for Clothing Kids.  Lorena dressed him like a lumberjack and Remi was an armadillo. So cute, but I couldn't tell her that—"

"The costumes don't matter, hon'. You were at this party—"

"Masquerade Gala."

"Gala. And Boomer was there, even though he didn't want to be—"

"You know it's quail season. He wanted to be up before dawn. But I said he should still come to Lorena's kickoff event…" I thought about that for a minute and shuddered another gasp. "Oh my God. Daddy—"

"But he's fine and Remi's fine, right? So you were next door—"

"At the Martins. They're board members for Clothing Kids. They have a beautiful, turn-of-the-century Queen Anne. Which you'll see in a minute—" I opened my eyes. The pool of blood shimmered. I quickly closed them again. "Oh God, I'm in shock. I must be in shock. Why am I talking about architecture and wardrobe? Why can't I be serious? I think I'm going to be sick—"

Rhonda's face wrenched from my armpit. My eyes popped open. Her cherubic face — still ashy — hovered next to mine. Narrowing her deep brown eyes, she shoved me back against the bookcase. A basket flipped off a shelf, scattering clips and bralettes over us. A bra petal caught on one of the twigs sticking from Rhonda's extensions. 

"Don't you get sick on me, Maizie Albright. The blood is bad enough. And the whatever that is—" She waved toward the scene before us. We collectively gagged and looked away.

Nash swore. "Forget the beginning. Forget it. Jump forward. What happened? Whose blood, Maizie? Whose blood is on you?"

I clamped my eyes shut. My chest heaved. I buried my face in Rhonda's neck, inhaling her vanilla Bath & Body spray and the clay from her tree makeup along with a strong dose of fear-produced sweat. A heady mix that reordered my brain. "Oh my God, Nash. It's Lorena. My sweet, sweet friend. Oh, God. She's—" I hiccuped a sob. 

Rhonda squeezed me, and I squeezed back.

"She's hurt?" Nash said slowly. In the background, the engine cut off and the door squeaked. His boots thudded, then pattered. 

The front door of Lorena's bungalow swung open. Still clutching each other, Rhonda and I looked up. Nash's tall, brawny body filled the doorway. Stepping inside, he ran a hand over his shaved head. The little scar on his chin whitened with the tightening of his jaw. His Paul Newman-blue eyes narrowed at the blood-spattered scene.

A pool of spreading blood stained the cheery rug and wooden floor. And in the center lay Lorena's body.

"She's dead," I whispered. 

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