Fatal Debt, A Dana Mackenzie Mystery
Dana Mackenzie lands a job with a faceless financial institution—it’s either this or piercing ears at the mall—and while she’s grateful for a job, she has no intentions of following the corporate offices’ heartless orders.
She’s sent to the home of an elderly couple with instruction to repossess their television, but instead finds sweet old Mr. Sullivan murdered. Investigating the case is homicide detective Nick Travis, Dana’s high school crush, who’s still harboring a dark secret from their past.
Dana agrees to help Mr. Sullivan’s grieving family locate his grandson, a guy with a surprising new lifestyle. Her good intentions put her in the thick of the murder investigation and on a collision course with the killer.
When your phone rings at three in the morning, something’s wrong.
At that hour, it’s too late for your friends to call insisting you join their party or for an ex-boyfriend to drunk-dial you, and it’s too early for a family member with bad news to wake you or for a telemarketer who doesn’t understand time zones to try to sell you solar panels.
So when my cell phone rang a little after three on Monday morning—which still seemed like Sunday night to me—I didn’t even look at the caller ID screen. I just answered.
“Hello,” I said.
At least, I meant to say it. Even though I knew something must be wrong if I was getting a call at this hour, I was snuggled under the covers, warm in my bed, so the part of my brain that understood the situation hadn’t yet alerted the rest of my senses.
I recognized my friend Jillian’s voice. She sounded outraged, angry, and panicked—but mostly outraged and angry. We’d been friends for many of my 27 years on this planet so I knew there was no reason to ask what was wrong. She’d tell me.
“You’re not going to believe what that jerk did!” she screamed.
I pushed myself up on my elbow and swept my hair off my face.
“He left me!” she yelled. “Left me! Just left me!”
Seven Eleven, my sweet little tabby and the only living thing I’d shared my bed with lately, roused and stretched.
“What a jerk! I can’t believe this!” Jillian shouted.
I sat up and Seven Eleven slunk over and curled up in my lap. I rubbed my eyes and yawned.
“Can you believe it?” Jillian demanded.
I was partially asleep but still lucid enough to recall that Jillian wasn’t involved in a relationship with a jerk, or anyone else for that matter, who would have just left her.
“You’re ahead of me,” I said. “What’s going on?”
Jillian huffed, annoyed now with me as well as whoever the jerk was and the situation she’d found herself in. I wasn’t offended.
“Brett,” Jillian told me. “You know, Brett. That totally hot guy we’ve been talking to for the last few weeks.”
A number of my brain cells awoke and presented me with the image of the tall, blonde, early-thirties, well dressed, handsome guy Jillian and I had chatted with—and she’d flirted with—at a wine bar we frequented. Brett Something.
My brain cells forged head and presented me with another, much less desirable image.
“He was there last night?” I asked.
We’d been at the wine bar with some friends and I’d gone home ahead of everyone else because I had to go to work the next morning—which was now this morning.
“You went home with him,” I realized. “Back to his place?”
“Yes! And what a jerk he turned out to be!” Jillian yelled. “I woke up a few minutes ago and he’s not here. He’s gone!”
“Maybe he’s in the bathroom,” I said.
“No,” she insisted. “His clothes are gone. His cell phone is gone. His keys are gone. I looked out the window and his car isn’t in the driveway. It’s gone, too.”
“Did he leave you a note? Text you?” I asked. “Anything?”
“Nothing,” she told me. “He left. That’s it.”
“He sneaked out of his own house and left you there alone?” I said. “Yeah, that’s a jerk thing to do.”
“I’ve got to get out of here,” Jillian told me.
She sounded less angry and outraged now, more panicky.
“I don’t want to be here when he decides to show up,” she said. “I might seriously kill him if I see him again.”
“Understandable,” I agreed.
“I left my car at the bar,” Jillian said. “You have to come and get me. Please, Dana, you have to.”
I eased Seven Eleven off of my lap and said, “What’s the address?”
“I don’t know,” Jillian wailed.
“You don’t know where you are?” I asked.
“He drove! I wasn’t paying attention—why would I? I never thought he’d run off and leave me stranded!”
“Okay, calm down,” I said, pushing off the covers and climbing out of bed. “Where are you, exactly?”
“Upstairs in the bedroom,” Jillian said.
“Look around. There must be a place where he keeps his mail. Find a utility bill or a credit card statement or something. It’ll have the address on it,” I said.
While Jillian searched the house I wedged my cell phone between my ear and shoulder and changed out of my pajamas into jeans, a sweater, and boots.
Jillian came back on the line. “I found it,” she said.
She read the address to me and I tapped it into my cell phone.
“I’ll be there soon,” I told her and ended the call.
I grabbed a hoodie from my hall closet and pulled it on, picked up my handbag and car keys off of my kitchen table, and left.
It was three in the morning, cold outside, I didn’t know the neighborhood I was heading to, and I had to be at work in a few hours.
Jillian was my friend. What else could I do?
Even here in sunny Southern California, January nights were chilly. I pulled my hood over my head as I left my apartment on the second floor, skipped down the stairs, and followed the walkway to the parking lot. The air was still and crisp. No one else was out. Two windows were lighted in the building next to mine.
I punched Brett’s address into Google Maps as I climbed into my Honda. The seats were cold. I backed out of the spot, drove through the complex, then turned left onto a side street and stopped at the traffic signal at State Street. Headlights pulled up behind me.
I blew into my hands until the light changed. The car on my rear bumper followed me through the turn. I wondered what had brought the driver out at this hour.
I headed east on State Street. It was one of the main arteries through Santa Flores. Signs and security lighting burned at the businesses on both sides of the street, but at this hour, everything was closed.
Santa Flores was located about half way between Los Angeles and Palm Springs. Like most places, there were upscale areas, scary neighborhoods, and everything in between. Thanks to a long run of economic downturns, Santa Flores was heavy on scary, light on everything in between, and short on upscale.
Still, it was the place I called home and had all my life. My mom and dad, and some other relatives, lived here. Only my older brother had flown the nest after he’d gotten married. He lived up north. Everyone was good with it except Mom who, just because she’s Mom, knew he planned to move back.
A little tremor of guilt and dread caused me to shiver at the thought.
Businesses along State Street became sparse as I continued east. So far I’d passed only a half dozen vehicles. Whoever had been behind me had dropped back.
Since I was fully awake now—thanks in no small part to the inevitable conversation I’d have to have with my mom, the mere thought of which made me queasy—I realized the address Jillian had given me was in Maywood, an area of upscale housing tracts situated to the east of Santa Flores on acreage where orange groves once thrived. I drove several miles more before the GPS instructed me to turn off of State Street, then directed me through several residential streets to Ingalls Avenue.
Brett’s neighborhood was nice. Large one- and two-story homes on slightly bigger-than-expected lots, with mature landscaping expertly trimmed and carefully tended. Not as grand as some of the areas in Maywood, but really nice—at least as much of it as I could see by streetlight.
When the GPS announced I was approaching my destination, I half expected to see Brett’s car parked in his driveway. Obviously, something had caused him to get out of bed with Jillian and leave her there alone, and he might have returned by now.
With that thought came the flash that he’d come back, smoothed things over, Jillian had forgiven him, and I’d made this trip for nothing. If so, I wouldn’t be mad at Jillian. Friends didn’t get mad at each other for something like that. Annoyed, yes, but not mad. Besides, I didn’t have much longer to come to her rescue on a moment’s notice.
I pulled up to the curb in front of the house and killed the engine. Mine was the only car there, so I figured Brett hadn’t returned, unless he’d parked inside the garage.
I got out of my Honda. No lights burned in the windows at Brett’s house. The surrounding homes were dark. The neighborhood was silent. Not even a dog barked when I shut my car door.
As I headed up the walkway to the front door, I hoped Jillian was waiting in the foyer, ready to leave. I had to be at work in a few hours and Mondays were tough, even on a full night’s sleep. Hopefully, I could drop her off and go back to bed.
I knocked, waited a minute or two, then rang the bell. The door jerked open. Jillian glared out at me.
I’m tall, blue eyed, and dark haired. Jillian was short, brown eyed, and now my complete polar opposite since she’d recently gone blonde.
“Can you believe this?” she demanded, as I stepped inside. She shut the door. “I can’t believe this.”
Faint light from somewhere in the rear of the house cast the entryway in a gray gloom, throwing shadows across a curio cabinet, a grandfather clock, and the tile floor.
“What a total jerk,” Jillian railed, and flung out both arms.
She had on the same short black skirt, red sweater, and three-inch pumps I’d seen her in last night when I’d left the wine bar. Her makeup was streaked and mascara smudges darkened her eyes. We both had a serious case of bedhead going, but thankfully mine was covered with my hood.
“Why would he do this?” she said. “Why would he get up and walk out?”
It occurred to me to suggest that Brett might have bolted to help a panicked friend who’d called in the middle of the night, but I didn’t think Jillian would appreciate the irony.
“Who just leaves?” Jillian demanded.
This situation gave every indication that it would be discussed at great length for many days to come. Jillian wasn’t going to get over it any time soon.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said. “Where’s your handbag?”
“Oh my God, I don’t know,” she moaned, looking around the entryway. “When we got here last night I was kind of, you know, sort of ….”
“Drunk,” I said, which explained why she’d left her car at the wine bar.
Jillian drew herself up. “Seriously, I’ve got to get out of this house. If he comes back, I’ll kill him.”
I gestured to the staircase leading to the second floor. “Did you leave it up there?”
“No, no, I made sure I got everything,” she said, then squeezed her eyes closed for a few seconds. “Maybe I left it in the kitchen. We had some wine when we got here.”
Jillian headed off to the right and I followed her through the dining room, which was lit by a tiny night light. Crystal and china sparkled in a hutch situated next to a long table. She pushed open a swinging door to the kitchen and, a few seconds later, harsh light flooded out.
“Thank God. There it is.” Jillian disappeared from view.
“Grab it and let’s go,” I said, and headed back toward the foyer.
Jillian screamed. I whipped around, bumped into the china hutch, then rushed into the kitchen.
She stood in the center of the room, her eyes wide with terror, fists clenched, screaming.
At her feet was a woman. Blood pooled around her head.
I knew right away she was dead.