Bluffing is Murder: A Lauren Rousseau Mystery

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Series: Lauren Rousseau Mysteries, Book 2
Release Date: November 2014
Author: Tace Baker
ISBN Paperback: 978-1-941295-07-6
($12.95 USD)
ISBN eBook: 978-1-941295-08-3
($5.95 USD)
LCCN: 2014946368
Edited by: Narielle Living
Cover Artist: Stephanie Flint
Pages: 180

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Silver Falcion Award Finalist Medal

2015 Silver Falchion Award Finalist

Summer promises to be anything but easy for Quaker linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau in this thrilling sequel to Speaking of Murder. With her boyfriend Zac returning to Haiti to visit his family, Lauren is on her own in Ashford, Massachusetts — and danger is never far behind.

Still reeling from an attack by her student’s murderer, Lauren decides to brush up on her karate and finds herself drawn to handsome sensei Dan Talbot. During a run near the sea bluffs, she discovers the corpse of her insurance agent, Charles Heard, who is also a Trustee for one of the oldest land trusts in the country. Earlier that day, Lauren had a public argument with Heard over her policy — and is now a suspect in the case.

Determined to clear her name, Lauren sets out to discover the real story behind the mismanaged land trust, the dead man’s volatile sister — and a possible link to her own father’s mysterious death more than a decade ago. But a near miss with a car, snippets of strange conversations in French and Farsi, slashed tires, and finding yet another attack victim on the beach make it clear that Lauren is also a target — and the killer is closing in.

Can Lauren discover the killer before she becomes the next victim?

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“In this page-turner of a mystery, linguistics professor Lauren Rousseau uses her smarts, her Quaker faith, and her summer vacation to bring a vicious murderer—and a secret from her own past—into the light.” — Barbara Ross, Agatha-nominated author of the Maine Clambake Mysteries and co-editor of Level Best Books

“Starts with a bang and doesn’t let up. Who knew Quakers could be so exciting! A wonderful addition to the Lauren Rousseau series!” —Philip Gulley, author, Harmony and Hope series and Living the Quaker Way

“No bluffing, you’ll love Lauren Rousseau’s second adventure. This is a smooth read with a lovely setting, appealing characters, lots of satisfying plot tangles, and a deep secret from Lauren’s past to keep you turning these pages.” —Kaye George, author, Cressa Carraway Mysteries and the Fat Cat Mysteries

 

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I turned away from the teller when a man in work clothes pushed open a frosted glass office door in the Ashford Credit Union and stalked with heavy feet back into the main lobby of the bank. His ruddy face spoke of sun, hard work, and frustration. A beer gut pushed out his shirt.

He pivoted to look at a man standing in the doorway. “Look, Walter,” he said in a loud, gruff voice, “I need that loan for my boat. It’s bad enough I can’t even afford to live in town anymore. Now you fat cats are cutting off my livelihood, too.”

The banker, who I had met when I first set up my account, was dressed in impeccable threads: nicely cut dark suit, pale yellow shirt, perfectly tied gold necktie, shiny black shoes. His thinning blond hair was arrayed neatly on his scalp, every strand gelled into position, as he followed him out.

“Bobby, I told you I was sorry.” Walter Colby’s tone was low, but everyone else in the high-ceilinged room had fallen silent as they watched. “We’ve known each other forever, but I can’t justify this loan.”

“It’s just to tide me ovah,” Bobby said in an exasperated tone. He shook his head and rubbed his forehead with a weathered hand.

Walter shook his head. “I can’t do it. I have to account to the directors, and they won’t approve it. If Charles Heard won’t insure your lobster boat, we can’t loan you money for it.”

“How am I supposed to fix it so’s I can insure it if you won’t give me the money?”

Walter spread his hands. “That’s how the world runs, Bobby.”

Bobby stormed toward the door. “Your time’s gonna come, Walter Colby. You’ll see how it feels,” he spat. He paused at the door. “You watch yourself. You and your buddy, Heard.”

The bells on the heavy door jingled behind him. The customer next to me stared. The teller rustled paper as if to show that she was, in fact, doing her job instead of eavesdropping on the branch president and a client. I stood rooted in place, grasping the cashier’s check I’d just bought.

Walter smoothed down his tie and his graying hair, and then caught sight of me. He walked toward me, hand outstretched. He had a bit of a gut, too, but I’d bet it came from Scotch and lobster and not Bud Lite.

“Good morning, ma’am.” He beamed the smile of a salesman.

I shook his hand and wondered when I had gone from a Miss to a ma’am.

“Is Tracy helping you with what you need today?”

I nodded.

The smile left his face as he turned back toward his office.

So much for actually getting to know one of your clients. I left the building and crossed Market Street. The late-May air was mild on my skin. I inhaled the scent of lilacs and impending summer.

I pulled a letter out of my bag and read it one more time. “If we do not receive full payment within five business days, a fine in the amount of five hundred dollars will be added to your premium, payable immediately.” The letter had only arrived at my condo the day before. My mortgage was also at risk if my insurance lapsed. I shook my head. Maybe it had been a bad idea to pay my insurance separately from my mortgage. I had a lot to learn as a first-time homeowner.

One of the many good things about small town Ashford was being able to walk downtown and pay bills in person. Most people my age paid electronically, but I liked the human contact. Except that I had been so busy at the end of the Agawam College semester that I’d forgotten to pay my homeowner’s insurance. I’m a newly tenured professor there, and can easily afford my condo expenses. When I remember to remit them.

I entered the Heard Insurance Agency and greeted the young man at the desk. He wore a long-sleeved shirt and a tie and looked like he’d recently graduated from high school. The door to Charles Heard’s private office at the other side of the room was closed. Good. I didn’t really want to try to be civil to the man who’d signed the letter.

I stood in a small space that featured what looked like original watercolors of the salt marshes and the Ashford River. A bonsai spruce in a shallow rectangular pot sat on a table under the window. I raised my eyebrows. That was a new addition to the office. I cultivated a bonsai elm in my own office at the college.

“Nice tree. Who takes care of it?” All thoughts of my late insurance bill flew out the window as I stroked a miniature gnarled branch. The tree’s form was classic, like it should have clung to a coastal cliff in Lilliput.

“That’s Ms. Heard’s hobby, ma’am,” the young guy said. “She thought the light would be good for it here.”

There was that ma’am again. I must be showing my age. Since when was thirty-five old?

“It’s lovely. I didn’t know anybody else in town cultivated them.”

He smiled at me with the patient look of the young, waiting for an elder to quit boring him. “Can I help you with something?”

“I simply want to pay my bill.” A small sign on his desk read Mark Pulcifer. “Are you related to Phillip and Samuel?”

He looked up. “They’re my great-uncles. How do you…”

The door to the back office opened. A man appeared with a paper in his hand. He shook his head with impatience and pursed his lips in exasperation. “Mark, did that fax come in from the lawyer for—” He stopped when he saw me.

“Morning,” he said. He pasted a smile over whatever he had been upset about.

I returned the greeting and extended my hand, assuming this was Charles Heard, the business owner. “I don’t think we’ve met before. I’ve had my insurance with you for several years. Lauren Rousseau. I live up on Pearl Street.”

“Charles Heard.” He shook my hand. “Always happy when people want to keep their business in town. We appreciate it, ma’am.” A tune from Carmen rang out from the back office. “Excuse me for just a moment.” He set the paper on a bookshelf, turned back to his office, and picked up a cell phone from his desk.

I glanced at the paper. Curious. The writing was Arabic. I took a closer look and spotted two of the four characters that were added to the script for writing in Farsi, since Farsi included four sounds not present in Arabic. Maybe Charles Heard had business in Iran, or maybe he had lived there at some point.

I returned to the bonsai. As I stroked its leaves, I heard Charles’s side of the conversation. I thought he was talking to someone about the current controversy in town, the conflict between the Trustees of the Bluffs and the town. Residents who lived on the Bluffs overlooking the junction of the Ashford River and the Atlantic Ocean owned their homes but rented the land under them. The Trustees were supposed to manage the land trust. Their 300-year-old mandate required them to turn over the rents to the town for the education of the children. Except the secretive cabal hadn’t given the schools money for years. The controversy was all anyone in town talked about lately. To some residents, the low rents and the Trustees’ failure to pay into the schools was an ongoing scandal. To others it seemed justified because of the cost of a new water and sewer project.

“Listen. The children are fine. They’ve still got their precious sports.” His tone was bitter. “We’re managing the property as best we can to simply stay afloat.”

In the silence that followed, I studied the bonsai. Mark kept his eyes on his computer screen.

“We’re going to win, you know. Don’t try to stand in our way. Somebody could get hurt.”

I glanced at the young man at the desk to see if he had heard the threat. Eyes straight ahead, fingers on the keyboard, he appeared to be focused on his work.

Charles reemerged from his office with flushed face. He looked startled to find me still there. “Thank you for coming by. If there’s ever anything I can do for you, just call, all right?” He straightened the knot on the bright blue tie he wore over a white dress shirt that still bore fresh creases from the laundry.

“Well, actually, don’t you think it’s pretty harsh to threaten me with a fine? My insurance payment is only a few days overdue.” I waved the letter as my voice rose.

The smile slid off his face. He took the letter and perused it. He looked at me. “Our recommendation is for you to fold the homeowner’s policy into your mortgage. For customers who choose to pay it themselves, we need to be sure coverage is kept current. This recommendation was clearly stated on the application packet you must have filled out.”

“I have been current! This is the first time I’ve ever been late with the check. You don’t give more than five days leeway for local residents?”

“Ma’am—what was your name again?”

“Lauren Rousseau.”

“Mrs. Rousseau—”

“Dr. Rousseau.”

He rolled his eyes. “Doctor Rousseau.” The stress on the first syllable of my title sounded exasperated. “Look, we’re trying to protect our clients. Being an uninsured homeowner is to your detriment and is a liability to us. We’ve found that knowing about a financial penalty encourages people to pay on time. How long have you lived in town, anyway?”

“What does that matter?”

He consulted the letter, peering at a code in the top margin that I had never been able to decipher. “Around here, Doctor, buying a condominium and living in it for a few years hardly qualifies you as being from here.” His tight smile was topped by cold eyes. The bell on the door jingled.

“Look, I can take my business elsewhere if you can’t be decent enough to allow a grace period.” Appalled to hear my voice shaking, I turned toward the door. “I’ve never heard of such a fine.”

Charles darted his eyes away from mine and he tapped the letter on his left thigh.

“What’s this about decency?” A sturdy man with a shiny pate strode in. He wore a dark gray shirt with a navy tie, and over it a maroon sweater vest with a moth hole near the shoulder. A round pin proclaiming Rotary membership was fixed to one side of the shirt collar. “You giving people trouble again, Charles?” He looked back and forth between Charles Heard and me.

Charles cleared his throat. “Only some business with a customer, Chief Flaherty. Dr. Rousseau here seems to want special treatment.”

“Just some business? I think threatening to fine me an exorbitant amount if I don’t pay in five days is heartless,” I steamed. “There are plenty of other insurance agencies that are more understanding.”

“Not in this town, there aren’t,” Charles snapped back. He folded his arms and stood with his feet apart like Mr. Clean. Except he wasn’t tall and bald and didn’t sport an earring. And he didn’t smile.

“Have you ever heard of the Internet? I can go anywhere in the world for insurance. I don’t have to stay with your agency.”

“Now, now,” the police chief said. He looked at me. “Ah, yes. Dr. Rousseau. We’ve met before.” He extended his hand.

I shook his hand, glad for the diversion. Glad for a chance to catch my breath and cool down, despite the reminder of the circumstances under which I had met the chief of police several months earlier. What had come over me, to yell at someone in public? I realized my other hand still gripped the envelope with the cashier’s check in it. I might as well pay up. I proffered it to Charles.

“You’ll take my money, I assume? And not cancel my policy?”

He nodded, then extended his chin toward the young man at the desk, keeping his arms folded like a shield in front of him.

Young Mark, meanwhile, kept his eyes firmly on the papers on the desk as if two adults hadn’t just embarrassed themselves in front of him.

“Here, Mark.” I handed the envelope to him.

He looked up and smiled with what looked like relief on his smooth, pale skin. “Thank you, ma’am.”

“Can I have a receipt, please?”

Mark nodded and wrote one out.

I thanked him. I told the chief it was nice to have seen him again and walked out. Charles Heard said nothing and neither did I. I felt his eyes burn holes into my back. I did not turn around.

* * *

I stretched and checked the clock after an afternoon of working on my paper for the East Asian Linguistics Conference. Five o’clock at the end of May still left enough time for a run on Holt Beach before it closed at sunset. I avoided running on the beach during the colder months, but was glad the weather was finally warm enough for a Holt run. I changed into stretch shorts and a tee shirt, grabbed the keys to my truck and a water bottle, and headed out. Another blessing of this town was a gorgeous wild beach on the Atlantic, a fifteen-minute drive away, and an annual town-resident’s parking sticker for only twenty dollars.

At the end of the raised boardwalk over the dunes I headed left, inhaling salt air. The tide was out, and I ran along the water’s edge where the sand was the most firm. A breeze picked up, blowing straight into my face as I headed west. A dark cloud temporarily blocked the sun. It looked like today might prove the old adage about New England weather: if you don’t like it, wait an hour and it’ll change. A family started to pack up plastic toys and beach towels, and two women walking toward me picked up their pace.

I ran past a plaid cloth with its corners anchored in the sand. A classic woven picnic basket sat open. The top of an open wine bottle poked out. A gull pecked at the remnants of a plate of several cheeses, with wrappers that looked like the ones from the best deli in town, the Coastal Greengrocer. A box of expensive crackers skidded away on the wind. The picnickers must be out strolling the beach.

I wished I’d worn a windbreaker. And then wondered how many additional calories I was burning running into the wind. I pushed on, thoughts as insistent as the whitecaps on the dark sea. When I immersed myself in writing a research paper, as I was now, the topic tended to occupy my thoughts day and night. I couldn’t find my stride, slowed down, caught my breath, and watched the boats across the channel at the Bluffs Yacht Club where the Ashford River met the ocean. A small boat—it was always the small ones—was about to come unmoored by the turbulent water.

I turned around after running for about a mile. The wind now pushed me along, but also chilled the sweat on my back. More dark clouds blew in. On a whim, I decided to head up the path that stretched into the woods so I could do some hill work. I was curious about exactly where it ended, whether it would afford a better view of the historic Holt mansion on the hilltop. Plus, I’d be out of the wind for a few minutes. I left the sand. After several yards of crushed seashells mixed with sand, the footing turned to packed gravel.

As I pistoned uphill, the trees closed in until the canopy joined overhead. A branch cracked to my right. I had to hop over a sapling blocking the way. The path was like running in a tunnel, with the overgrowth and lack of light. The gravel soon turned to weeds that reached mid-calf because of the recent rains. A root caught my toe and I stumbled, but managed to stay on my feet. Ahead it looked a little lighter. The path took a bend as it leveled out and then opened up all of a sudden.

I stopped in surprise. A wide swath of mown grass stretched up a hill in front of me. Conical evergreens lined the edges of the woods on either side of the grass. At the top in the distance I spied low hedges and a stone fountain. And beyond that, probably a quarter mile distant, a mansion held court over the hill. I stood on the Grand Allee.

I’d seen pictures, but had never managed to squeeze in a visit to any of the summer concerts that were held on the lawn of the Holt Estate, at the other end of the same lawn I stood on. From the beach I could tell the Holt mansion was a large building, but this view highlighted its massive, ornate construction. I’d read that Holt, a plumbing magnate in the early 1900s, had built the mansion as a summer cottage for his family. Some cottage.

In the distance a man in work clothes walked away from me between the fountain and the house. They must employ quite a few gardeners to keep these grounds up. Otherwise no one was in sight. The Allee looked like it needed Victorian women strolling in white dresses and parasols on the arms of men wearing white linen and bowler hats. I stretched a little and then turned back toward my path. A crow, cawing its lungs out, flapped by and preceded me into the woods.

I ran through the trees thinking about the estate, wondering how many rooms it held. How much did the Department of Conservation and Recreation have to pay to keep it minimally warm in the frigid Massachusetts winters?

Something sharp hit my face.

I cried out and brought my hand to cover my right eye. It stung. What in the world was that? I took my hand away, and through blurry vision saw blood on my hand. I cursed as I closed that eye.

I heard a branch snap. My skin went cold. My heart beat fast and hard, and not from running, either. Someone watched me. I was sure of it. Had I been hit? Or shot?

With my hand over my eye, I turned my head to the left with a quick movement. I didn’t see anyone. I turned all the way around. No one. I realized I was taking fast, shallow breaths and made myself slow and deepen them. Then I saw who was watching me. Perched on a branch was my corvid friend. The crow cocked his head, but kept those dark eyes trained on me.

I laughed weakly. Then what had hit me? I looked around again, feeling my heart rate return to normal, although my legs felt wobbly. I saw a thorny branch at about eye level. I must have been so distracted I ran right into it. Once a klutz, always a klutz.

With caution I opened my eye again. I blinked several times. It still hurt and was a little blurry, but I could see. I was grateful nothing serious had happened to my eye, or at least I hoped so.

I didn’t feel up to running anymore, but set off at a fast walk back down the hill, glad when it opened up to the beach again. I crunched down the shells and made my way through the rocks toward the main part of the beach. The wind had not abated. I was glad it was now at my back. I hugged my arms in close.

The growth clinging to the hillside on my right was rough and scraggly. For brush and trees to survive the salt wind and poor soil they had to be tough. I spied a mass of something white on a shrub half hidden behind a cypress tree most of the way up the bank. I was curious about what could be flowering. Maybe I could bring a sample leaf back to my sister Jackie and ask her what it was. Jackie knew everything about plants. It seemed early in the season, though, for anything wild to be in bloom.

I had a scratch. Maybe I should just get home. But my eye felt a little better. I decided to see if I could reach the plant, and began to scrabble up the hillside. I grabbed onto roots and branches where I found them, focused on my immediate path.

Looking up, my eyes widened. Even with an injury to my eye I could see that that was no flower.

I saw a shirt. A white shirt. And Charles Heard wore it.

I froze. My hands gripped a root that kept me from sliding down. He sprawled face-up at an odd angle in a small clearing. His head pointed downhill, his eyes open in a look of terror. He didn’t move. I couldn’t see him breathing. I opened my mouth to call his name when I saw a thin red line on his neck.