Saturday, November 7, 2020

                        SNEAK PEEK AT:  MURDER IN THE CROOKED EYE BREWERY


While many of you are familiar with our sleuths Sophie (Phee) Kimball and Norrie Ellington, you may not know Marcie Rayner. So, we've decided to give you a sneak peek at this sassy and determined neophyte detective. Meet her in the first two chapters of our novel, Murder in the Crooked Eye Brewery. 

We hope you'll want to see more of her because the Marcie Rayner series is up and running! 


 

Chapter One

Office of Blake Investigations, New Ulm, Minnesota

 

“There’s a call for you on line one, Marcie,” Angie’s voice rang out as I started to check my emails.

“We only have one line, Angie,” I yelled back, catching a glimpse of her as she walked toward the coffeemaker. Short frosted hair, silver studded earrings and a sharp pants suit. 

“I know, I know, but I think it gives our company more prestige. You know. Having lots of phone lines. Anyway, the call is from an Iris Krum. Is that one of our clients? The name’s not familiar. I’m still just getting used to working here.”

Oh, that name will be familiar, soon enough.

Iris Krum. The two words I didn’t want to hear so early in the morning. Iris-I-won’t-give-up-until-I-nag-you-to-death-Krum. I should have warned Angie about her. Then again, she might have quit her job as receptionist/secretary for our small private investigation business. My boss, Max Blake, was a retired police officer from New Ulm, Minnesota, and I was his investigative assistant until I got my official license.

I took a leave of absence from my former position in the Office of Public Safety at St. Paul Community College following “The Failed Marriage.” It failed because my ex-husband cheated on me with more coeds than I cared to imagine and, believe me, I have quite an imagination. I also had a pistol permit and damn good aim. I took that leave because I didn’t want to tempt myself. And as far as the marriage went, all I took was my ex’s last name–Rayner. I liked the sound of it better than my maiden name. Marcie Krum sounded like some stuffy schoolgirl with clunky shoes and I was anything but that. Marcie Rayner, however, was sharp and bold. It seemed to fit my tall, svelte frame and my attitude.

Max was my father’s best friend, the best man at his wedding, and one of his pallbearers.   He convinced me to take a leave from the community college in order to work with him in his investigative firm. As he put it, “You have a degree in criminal justice, but you’re not using it sitting behind that desk running crime statistics.”

“I don’t just run them,” I said. “I analyze them and make predictions that impact the way in which the college campus provides security for its students.”    

His response took me totally off guard. “You’ve been at that job for over four years. Do you really want to spend the next four doing the same thing? You’ve got all the makings for one hell of an investigator. Plus, with all that field work, you wouldn’t need to take those Zumba classes of yours, the running around constitutes as a fitness program.”

Who could argue with that? Now, seven months into the job, I had less than three to let Max and the community college know if I planned to return. Not to mention the Bayberry Apartments. I had less than two months to let them know if I planned on renewing my lease.

Byron, my six-year-old tuxedo cat, who had been with me from before and after the marriage, liked the Bayberry Apartments. My place overlooked the courtyard where all the action took place. And by action, I meant loose dogs, screaming kids, late-night teenage make-out sessions and the occasional police search for one thing or another. Yep, if nothing else, the place I was now beginning to call home in New Ulm was the entertainment source for my cat.

Clearing my throat, I yelled back to Angie. “No, thank God. She’s not one of our clients. It’s my mother. Do you mind shutting the door as long as you’re up?”

“No problem.”

I lifted the receiver, certain the first words out of my mother’s mouth would be “So, have you made up your mind yet about the job?”

Biting my lower lip, I forced myself to speak. “Hi, Mom. I’ve told you before, I haven’t made up my mind about the job yet.”

“That’s not why I’m calling. I’m calling because I need you to solve a murder. And, before you say a word, you need to listen.”

I couldn’t force a single syllable out, let alone a full word.

“It’s a real honest-to-goodness murder, Marcie. One in Minnesota. Just an hour or so from New Ulm, so you won’t have to drive too far. It was horrible. Simply horrible. Took place at the Crooked Eye Brewery in Biscay. Maybe it was on the news. Anyway, it was one of my neighbor’s former students from when she taught elementary school. Such a nice boy, according to Alice Davenport. That’s my neighbor. I don’t think you met her. She was visiting her niece the last time you were here in Delray Beach. Which reminds me, it’s not such a long flight from Minnesota to Florida.  Well, anyway, Alice is beside herself and those bumbling sheriff deputies in Biscay haven’t been able to solve a darned thing. That’s when I told Alice you were a private investigator.”

“Whoa. Slow down. And to begin with, I’m not a private investigator. I’m Max’s investigative assistant. There’s a difference.”

“I’m not about to argue semantics with you. I need you to get on this case. I promised Alice.”

“Look, in order for us to investigate, someone has to hire us. Contract and all.”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Marcie. I thought I was clear. Alice Davenport will be hiring you. She’ll be calling you in a few minutes. As soon as I get off the phone.”

“Don’t tell me she’s right there with you!”

“Of course not. She’s at home waiting for my call. So…Are you going to take this case or what?”

“I can’t make any promises. First, let me get the information from Alice and speak to Max, okay?”

“It’ll have to be okay. I’ll call you tonight. And don’t let it go to voice mail. I hate when that happens.”

I was about to tell my mother I couldn’t guarantee I’d be able to pick up her call at the exact moment, but I didn’t feel like arguing. Instead, I asked her for the one pertinent piece of information she had neglected to give me. “Before you hang up, what was the name of the guy who was murdered?”

“Billy Hazlitt. Forty-five years old. Divorced. Twice. No children. Retired from the service. He was one of the co-owners of the brewery.”

“And how exactly do you know he was murdered?”

“Because the cleaning crew found him face down in the walk-in refrigerator. Shot in the back. Or maybe it was the neck. Anyway, if that doesn’t constitute murder, then I don’t know what does.”

I could tell my mother was getting exasperated. “Guess that about sums it up. All right then, I’ll talk to you later. Have a good day, Mom.”

Knowing my mother, I had less than five minutes before the phone would ring again. This time with Alice Davenport on the other end. I charged over to the coffeemaker for reinforcements just as Max came through the front door. For a man approaching sixty, he had the build and energy of most forty year olds. I attribute that to his wife, Doris, who keeps a tight grip on his diet.

“Hey, Marcie. I got the strangest email from your mother. All it said was ‘I’m giving you a murder.’”

“What she’s giving you, or I should say us, is a headache so you’d better pull up a chair and listen quickly. We don’t have much time. Someone is about to hire us.”

Max chuckled as he followed me into my office. It was a space I really liked with a window facing the street and a view of small gift shops and a bakery. The office was once the temporary digs for a tax preparation company, but they moved into the Walmart just outside of town. Max was more than thrilled to be able to rent this space for his business a few years ago.

Angie was new, too, having moved to New Ulm from a suburb of Minneapolis when her husband passed away. She wanted to be closer to her grandkids but not become their babysitter. Her secretarial skills were topnotch, and Max hired her on the spot. So far it seemed to be working out.  

“Angie,” I said. “When the phone rings in the next five minutes, it will be an Alice Davenport. Tell her I’ll be right with her.”

“Okay, Marcie. And good morning, Mr. Blake.”

I turned to Max and whispered, “How come you get the Mr. Blake treatment and I’m on a first name basis with Angie?”

“I think it’s because I’m the one who writes her paycheck. Besides, she’s at least thirty years older than you. Anyway, what’s going on with this message from your mother? It has ‘caution’ written all over it.”

“Grab some coffee. You’ll need it.”

I then proceeded to tell him about my mother’s phone call and the unfortunate demise of one Billy Hazlitt.

Max ran a hand through his thinning brownish-grey hair and listened. “Hmm, I remember hearing about that. It wasn’t too long ago. A month or so, maybe?  They never figured out who killed the poor guy. Of course, communication in Biscay is the virtual dead zone.”

“Huh? Are you being funny?”

“No, I’m serious. They call it the ‘Biscay Triangle.’ People can’t seem to get cell phone service so they rely on CB radios and AM/FM for communication. Not only that but, for some reason, plants don’t seem to grow in the soil at a normal rate and funnel clouds change direction when they approach that area. Not that the plants or funnel clouds have anything to do with this, but not having cell phone service probably disrupted the investigation in more ways than we can imagine.”

“You’re making it sound like The Twilight Zone. I’ve lived here all my life but I’ve never been up that way. How come you’re so familiar with it?”

“I had an aunt who lived in Hutchinson. We had to drive through Biscay to get there. And yeah, if you blinked, you missed it.”

Seems the murderer didn’t miss it. That’s for sure. So, should we take this case, Max?”

Judging from the expression on his face, it was like watching a salivating dog. “It’s a no-brainer. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather deal with Biscay’s antiquated communication than the never-ending communication from your mother if we don’t take the case. Let’s face it, Iris can be quite formidable.”

Formidable. I could think of a dozen adjectives to describe my mother, but I suppose “formidable” wasn’t too far off. “She’ll be pestering us every day to see how it’s going. Are you sure you’re up for that?”

“We’ll manage. This year we’ve dealt with fraud, theft, cheating spouses and extortion. All good, well-paying jobs. But solving a murder? That’s what I was trained to do. And you’re a quick study, Marcie. So, yeah, give your mother’s friend the green light when she calls, okay?”

Just then, the phone rang, followed by Angie’s familiar response. “There’s a call for you on line one, Marcie.”

Max snickered as he stepped out of the room.

Before I could finish my usual greeting of “Hello, this is Marcie Rayner of Blake Private Investigations,” Alice Davenport cut in like a meat slicer with a chunk of salami on its blade.

“Marcie. Your mother said you’re expecting my call. Thank you for taking this case. Write down my fax number immediately and send me the contract. I can’t afford to waste time and neither can you.”

My fingers fumbled as I wrote the number, and I repeated it once to be sure I had written it down correctly.

“Yes, yes. That’s the number. Your mother told me you had a great deal of experience with this sort of thing and honestly, that’s a relief. I don’t know if it’s incompetence, laziness or a lack of resources, but all that sheriff’s department in Biscay could figure out was Billy Hazlitt had been murdered. A fourth grader with a magnifying glass and a notebook could have figured out as much!”

I was still trying to process her comment about my having experience with murder investigations. Thank you, Mother, for managing to exaggerate to the point of no return.

“So which one will it be?”

“Um, er, ah… what?”  I had obviously missed the first part of her question.

“The reports. The reports you’re going to provide me with. Will they be daily or weekly?”

I took a quick breath, relieved she wasn’t asking for an hourly report. Heck, we hadn’t even begun the investigation and I had no idea what we’d uncover or when.

“Our office will keep you updated weekly, unless something comes up.” Yikes. I can’t believe that came out of my mouth. It was like saying “Things will remain the same unless they change.”

“Good. Good. Now, let me tell you about Billy Hazlitt.”

For the next twenty-five minutes, Alice Davenport expounded on all sorts of details regarding Billy Hazlitt. Unfortunately, none of them were pertinent and none of them were current. He was in the fifth grade the last time she’d seen him. I made a mental note that he disliked creamy peanut butter, could whip a spitball across the room in record speed and was liked by absolutely everyone in his class. My eyes had started to glaze over when she began to tell me about his penmanship, so I cleared my throat and broke in.

“How exactly did you find out he was murdered? Are the local Minnesota papers mailed to you in Delray Beach?

“Papers? Mailed? Listen here. I may be old but I’m not a relic. I go online to check the obits columns from time to time so I can see who I’ve outlived. But I never expected it to be one of my former students. And such a good boy, too. That’s why whoever killed him needs to be apprehended.”

“I understand.” 

“Aren’t you going to ask if he had any enemies? That’s usually how these investigations are started.”

I didn’t want to rile her by asking how on earth she knew the way in which investigations were conducted. Plus, I doubted she’d be much help regarding any enemies the guy might have had thirty-five years after he completed the fifth grade. However, I played along.

“Yes. Yes. Naturally. Do you know of any enemies?”

“None whatsoever. As I mentioned earlier, Billy Hazlitt was liked by everyone.”

It was hard to tell what was going to be more challenging–conducting the investigation or dealing with Alice Davenport.

I pulled my shoulders back, trying to release the tension in my body as I focused on ending the call. “Well, thank you, Miss…er…Ms. Davenport. You have my word we’ll begin immediately.”

“Of course you will. And it’s Miss. I can mail your company a check with the contract or I can send the money immediately with Paypal.”

“A check and the signed contract will be fine. I’ll be in touch. Have a nice day.”

I think she said, “you as well” before hanging up but I wasn’t too sure. Frankly, she scared me.  My hand was still on the phone when Max stuck his head back in the doorway.

“Two words I like to hear, especially in the same sentence–check and contract. So, it’s a go, huh?”

“Looks that way. Oh my gosh. I’d better have Angie fax that contract immediately. I have a feeling Alice Davenport is standing over her machine. Give me two seconds and then I’ll fill you in on this case.”

By mid-morning, Max had already contacted the sheriff’s department in Biscay and informed them we were hired to investigate Billy Hazlitt’s death. He got the verbal rundown on the case and they agreed to provide us with copies of their written findings.

So, Max set up a time to meet with one of them in the afternoon. “It’s only about an hour and a half from here.  Good thing it’s June or that hour and a half would’ve turned into two or three with those winter storms.”

“Please tell me we’ll have the case wrapped up by then.”

“I’ll do one better. I’m aiming for the fourth of July. Got the usual family picnic at my brother-in-law’s place and, for once in my life, I’d like to sit back with a hot dog and beer. Last year Doris pitched a fit when I had to leave early for a stakeout. You’d think she would’ve been used to it after twenty-seven years of marriage. Come on, grab your things. We’ll get a bite to eat in Biscay. If my memory serves me well, there’s an old diner on the main street that’s been around since the Depression         

   “Okay, coach.” I grabbed my purse. “Anything to get out of the office in case Alice Davenport calls again.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

Max was right. Biscay was a tiny little dot on the map and without a good magnifying glass, easy to miss. It was north of New Ulm and equidistant from Glencoe and Hutchinson. If we were starting out in Minneapolis we’d have a straight shot heading west, but New Ulm was southwest of Minnesota and in order to reach Biscay, we’d have to drive to Glencoe and take Route 22 to Biscay. At least my boss would be in familiar territory.

By the time we left New Ulm and got onto the highway, Max and I had already shared all the information we had gleaned. It was pretty much the same stuff my mother had told me and that came from her conversation with Alice Davenport. What Alice didn’t know was that Billy Hazlitt was shot in the temple with a .357 magnum, his body lying all twisted up in front of one of the brite tanks used to chill and carbonate beer after fermentation. The sheriff said it looked as if someone tried to slide the body behind the tank but gave up.

The whole thing made no sense because it wasn’t as if the tank could conceal the body from view. According to Max, those tanks were tall and cylindrical. No way to hide a body. Apparently the sheriff’s department was baffled, too.

“I can’t add much more to that.” I adjusted the seat-belt so it wouldn’t burn my neck. “Unless Billy’s ability to hurl a spitball somehow plays into all of this. Other than reiterating milestones in his life over the years, Alice Davenport wasn’t much help. She knew he had gone into the service as soon as he got out of high school and that he was married twice with no children. You don’t think it was a jealous ex-wife, do you?”

“Right now the field is wide open for speculation. It could’ve been anything from a robbery gone bad to an unbalanced girlfriend. Or, as you said, ‘a jealous former spouse.’ Not that it’s any of my business, but you’re over your ex, aren’t you?”

“Over and out. I can’t believe I was so na├»ve not to pick up on the clues sooner. He cheated right under my nose but I didn’t want to admit I saw the signs. Not a great reference for a neophyte investigator, huh?”

“It’s always tougher when it’s firsthand. Our minds are wired to ignore the evidence. Self-preservation and all that crapola. I’m sure there’s a fancy psychology term for it but I’ll be darned if it comes to mind.”

“Denial. I think the word is denial.”

“Well, nothing to deny as far as Billy Hazlitt’s death goes. We don’t have any personal ties that would cloud our thinking. And we’ve got a big advantage as far as sleuthing is concerned. Biscay is a really small town. A hundred people or so and, from what I know about small towns, someone is bound to talk.”

We spent the next half hour talking about jealous exes and the bizarre stories we’d heard before we finally got back on track discussing the investigation. Since Max was a retired police officer and had already spoken with the McLeod County Sheriff’s Department, it made more sense for him to drive to their station and get copies of the reports while I introduced myself at the brewery and tried to get some initial information from one of the other owners.

“You’ve got a good knack of speaking to people, Marcie, without putting them off.  See if you can unofficially interview whoever happens to be working and set up a time this week to return.”

I wasn’t so sure anyone was going to open up and tell me about the murder. “What if they refuse to say anything?”

“They’ll talk. Don’t worry. From what the sheriff’s deputy said, the other two owners were pretty shaken up as well as the part-time employee who works there. They’ll want to know who did it.”

Max pointed to a small cluster of clapboard houses on the right and announced that we had arrived.

“Oh my gosh,” I blurted out. “You were right. There’s nothing here.”

“I wouldn’t say nothing. There’s the Triangle Diner, as well as the Crooked Eye Brewery. That little diner gets all the traffic between Glencoe and Hutchinson. And I imagine all the gossip, too. Come on, I’m starving.”

As Max pulled off the road and onto Front Street, the Crooked Eye Brewery literally jumped out at us. It was the giant sign of a red and yellow eyeball high above the entrance to the flat-roofed building that got my attention, followed by the words, “Ale Away at the Crooked Eye.”

There were a few cars parked out in front of the building, a bright yellow structure that looked as if it might have been a garage at one time. Someone went to an awful lot of trouble to restore and refurbish the place. Two small pine trees framed the entrance with smaller potted plants decorating an outdoor patio.

“Eye catching, huh?” Max asked.

“Very funny.”

“The diner’s right across the street. I’m dying for a juicy burger and maybe a clue or two to wash it down with.”

Compared to the brewery, the Triangle Diner was pretty nondescript. It had a green and blue sign in the shape of a triangle strategically placed over a large picture window in the front. The place looked as if it had always been a diner. Max pulled up to their small parking lot and turned off the ignition. It seemed as if most of their customers parked on the street in front of the diner.

“Okay, Marcie. We’re on. We’re not just eating, we’re on duty. Listen to everything you hear from everyone.”

“Roger that, boss.” I approached the steps to the diner.

As Max swung the door open, it was like walking back in time.  Only I wasn’t sure what time–the thirties? Forties?  Everything looked old and brown from the seats at the counter to the booths along the edge. But the place was spotless. Gingham valances framed the windows and cutesy cow and pig salt and pepper shakers dotted each of the tables. There were at least eight or nine people eating when we stepped inside to find a booth.

No one noticed us. The customers were too fixated on the conversation between the owner and his two waitresses. The three of them were standing off to the side of the counter near a door that I presumed led to the kitchen. 

The owner’s voice could drown out an F-16. “Cut it out, you two. It’s freaking daylight with a diner full of customers. No one is going to gun you down in the walk-in. You can’t keep asking me or Frankie to stop cooking and get you something. I’ve got a business to run and this is getting ridiculous.”

The skinny waitress, who couldn’t’ve been older than eighteen, let out a small huff and replied as the other one, noticeably better developed, took a step closer to the counter. “I can’t help it if Trudy and I get the feeling someone has a gun to the back of our heads every time we go in there. Until they catch whoever killed Billy, I’m not about to set foot in the walk-in refrigerator. And neither is she.”

“Trisha’s right,” the other waitress said, turning her head to survey the diner. “For all I know, a psychotic murderer could be in here right now.”

The owner’s face had started to turn crimson. “Give me a break! Even if someone was in there brandishing a weapon, they wouldn’t be stupid enough to gun down either of you unless, of course, the service gets worse, so come on, get going. Two new customers just walked in.”

The waitresses looked as if they’d been caught smoking in the girls’ room. The skinny one, Trisha, approached our booth as the other one leaned over the counter to refill a customer’s coffee.

Trisha spoke softly and looked as if she was about to cry. “Sorry you folks had to overhear that. You must be passing through or you’d know that one of the brewery owners from across the street was murdered in their walk-in refrigerator. Shot in the head. Less than a month ago. And the killer is still loose. I don’t care what our boss thinks. It’s like it happened yesterday. Anyway, can I get you some coffees or something to start with?”

“I’m about coffee’d out,” I said, “but I’ll take a Coke.”

Max nodded. “Same here.”

Trisha handed us two menus and started to walk toward the kitchen when Max spoke.

“About that murder, are there any suspects? Any leads?”

The waitress shook her head. “No. Nothing. Or nothing the sheriff’s department is willing to share. They’re so pokey and slow. I don’t think they’ll ever catch who did it.”

“That’s too bad,” Max said. “Did you know the victim?”

“In case you haven’t noticed, Biscay is a really small town. Everyone knew him. Billy. Billy Hazlitt. One of the nicest guys you’d ever meet. And a good tipper, too. Who would want to kill him is beyond me.”

A voice screamed across the diner just as I was about to say something. “Hey, Trisha! Order up!”

“I’ll be right back with your drinks. Meantime, check out the menu. And again, sorry about what you overhead when you came in.”

“Should we tell her we’re investigating this case?” I asked Max as I scanned the menu.

“Not right away. Sometimes when people hear the words ‘private investigator,’ they get all spooked. Let’s see if she can give us any more info when she takes our order.”

Seconds later Trisha reappeared with our drinks. “So, what are you having?”

Max ordered a cheeseburger with fries and I had what I liked to refer to as “my safety sandwich”–a BLT. It would be difficult to ruin bacon, lettuce and tomato.

As the waitress turned toward the kitchen, Max tapped her on the elbow. “I can only imagine how unsettling it is to have someone murdered in such close proximity to your workplace. Do you remember exactly when his body was found?”


Trisha bit her lip and took a deep breath. “I remember all right. I wish I didn’t. It was real early in the morning. Around five thirty. We have to report at five thirty and start prepping. You know, get the coffee going and all that stuff. That’s ’cause we open at six. Anyway, there’s a cleaning crew out of Hutchinson that goes into the brewery every morning about the same time as when I get here. They usually finish up around seven, stop in for coffee and then head to their next job. Only that day, they never came in. Instead, they stood outside the brewery and Trudy and I wondered what in hell’s name was going on. Then the sheriff pulled up. And a few minutes later, another sheriff. And I knew something really bad had happened. ’Cause if it was a theft, they would have only sent one car.”

Trisha looked around, making sure she wasn’t needed at another table. “The next car that pulled up wasn’t a car. It was the county coroner’s van. And I knew. I knew right then someone was dead. But I didn’t know who. I mean, there’s Billy. Um…was Billy. And his older brother, Tom, and Hogan Austin, a friend of theirs, who was the third owner. It had to be one of them the coroner came to get and not the part-time kid.”

“What made you think that?” Max took a sip of his Coke.

“Because it was Monday morning. The kid they hired doesn’t usually work on Sundays. I knew whoever was dead had to be Billy, Tom or Hogan. And I figured maybe Tom had a heart attack, being so overweight and all. But Billy? And then to find out he was murdered? And my boss doesn’t understand why I’m afraid to go into the walk-in refrigerator?”

Trisha was on the verge of a breakdown, tears and all. I had to do something. Say something. So I blurted out the first words that came to mind. “Onion rings! Do you have onion rings? I’d really like to add them to my order.”

It was enough to jolt Trisha back into action. “Sure, sure. I’ll get that going right away.”

She marched toward the kitchen.

“Sorry, Max, if I ruined the flow, but I thought she was about to lose it right in front of us.”

“No, you did the right thing. Last thing we need is to create a scene. After we’re done eating, I’ll have a word with the owner and ask if we can speak to his staff one afternoon this week when they get out of work.”

“I don’t blame the waitresses, though. I wouldn’t want to walk into one of those refrigerators either. Murderer on the loose or not.”