Preview: Prepped for the Kill, Marjorie Gardens Mystery #2

Here’s a preview of the second Digital Age Cozy in the Marjorie Gardens Mystery series:

DRAFT-PFK

Chapter One

I didn’t know what to expect when Raymond Lockhart phoned and interrupted my shower. He lived a few houses down from me, but we barely spoke.

Until this past April, he’d been simply the retired private eye with an exceptional green thumb. Then, during my investigation into Norman Kane’s murder, Ray had invited me into his well-guarded abode, the soul of operations as he’d put it. I’d made full use of a disguise drawn from contents out his hidden wardrobe.

This morning, with a towel wrapped around me, I managed to hold my mobile and gather clothes while he stressed he’d assisted me before, per gratiam, and would expect my attorney services pro bono. I told him it was okay with me. We hung up, and I threw on a pair of jeans, a tank top, and Jimmy Choo flats then went downstairs.

Sunshine baked the octagonal living room as Point Shirley was having its hottest July on record. News reports warned the unprecedented heat wave was a direct effect of global warming. Forecasts were not looking better anytime soon, and I had yet to buy an air conditioner. The opened windows provided no comfort as my ears swabbed with the shrieks of children playing outside.

I placed my smartphone in my purse then left. The scent of sea life billowed from the shore. Ahead, the water purification plant near Deer Island Park peaked above shingled single-family homes. I spotted youngsters running and tagging each other in the middle of Taft’s Avenue, then caught a glimpse of Deidre Mason stepping down from her veranda.

She wore a yellow and red sundress, a denim library tote bag slung from her bare shoulder. I called to her and she turned her head, a perfect mushroom top of white. The fifty-six year old grandmother had an innateness for solving mysteries. Her skills leaped from her usual participation on MyThugShot.com into the real world when we teamed up on the Norman Kane case. She devoted her time, her smarts, and nearly her life as my voice of reason during the investigation.

I met up with her on the sidewalk and asked, “Where are you off to?”

She smiled, clever green eyes narrowed above her cheeks. “Ray called and asked if I’d stop by.”

“Me too. I’m on my way there now.” After we embarked on a languid walk toward our neighbor, I prompted, “So, I couldn’t squeeze any information out of Ray besides his wanting me to come over.” We glanced at each other. “Any idea what he’s up to?”

“Well, I was curious myself and did a little searching.” We stopped in front of Jedemiah Briggs’ house as she reached into her bag.

Waiting, my eyes searched for the mechanic near his driveway so I could wave hello. The sun baked rust spots on a 1970 Chevy. I expected to see Jed slide from underneath the car, but he was nowhere outside his home.

“Take a gander.” Deidre unfolded a sheet of paper and gave it to me. “They posted this last night.”

I reviewed a printout of Ray and Jed’s conversation from MyThugShot.com, a crime blog hosted by Marjorie Gardens.

07/08/2015 18:28 by Under the Hood: Sounds good, Ray, but when were you thinking of moving in?

07/08/2015 18:30 by Perennial PI: Jed, I’ll be there on Friday for one last look at the place. If all goes well, we can count on some time in the spring.

Deidre continued, “Wednesday night, they were talking about living together.”

Slack-jawed, I glanced up from the page. “Mr. Congeniality with the perfect flower garden and clean house”—I thumbed toward the broken-down Chevy near the unkempt lawn—“is moving here?”

She snickered and shrugged. “If ever there was a remake of the Odd Couple, I’d say New York found its Felix and Oscar.” We strolled onward. “I went through the rest of their chat but couldn’t figure out why they were doing it. It’s their choice, of course, but I can’t picture those two as roommates.”

“We’re here.” We sided at the picket fence and I tucked the printout in my bag. “We could just ask him.”

“Sure, but then it wouldn’t be as much fun.”

I grinned, reached for the gate, and pushed it open. A foghorn blared in regular intervals while a robotic voice announced: Stop where you are. Do not proceed. Stop where you are. Do not proceed….

Deidre covered her ears and shouted, “What’s going on?”

Any moment, I expected zombies infected with a flesh-eating virus to forerun some post-apocalyptic teenagers wielding bows and arrows. I slammed the gate shut, and the alarm silenced. “For the love of God, Ray!”

A crackle came over speakers, wherever those were. “Isis, Deidre…that you?”

We both yelled at air, “Yes.”

“Sorry about that, ladies. You can come on through.”

Click! That was our host disengaging his microphone. Hopefully he also deactivated whatever contraptions were set up along the walkway to the kitchen entrance.

Deidre lay her palm over her heart, and I asked, “Are you all right?” The last time we were in pursuit of a mystery, she spent a night at Mercy General. She nodded, and I touched her shoulder. “If you’re not up to this, I can tell Ray where he can stick his alarm system.”

She giggled and lowered her hand. “I’m fine, just scared the bejeezus out of me, that’s all.”

“All right. Well, let’s get you inside with a cup of tea.” I put my arm around her, and we padded along the side of the house.

If the situation had been different, and I hadn’t been so furious, I would’ve commented on how lovely Ray’s flower garden progressed since the spring. White petunias and sage-colored lamb’s ear drew the eye to pink rose shrubs bordering the lawn. And popping-red roses climbed trellises parallel to the stone path. The floral garden extended to the rear, sprinkled with pottery, frosted glass ornaments, and water features for an exotic atmosphere.

Ray stepped out the door, positioned toward us, and raised a black handheld device to his mouth. The robot voice came through, “I apologize for the misdirect, ladies, but I wanted to try out a new system I wired together.”

I slit my eyes at him. Too bad he had a full head of hair, or I would’ve insulted him for being bald. And while he wore a tracksuit, it was a nice one, Boss even. Damn. “If you tricked us into coming over here, so you can play with some toys we’re leaving.”

“No.” He realized how foolish his voice changer sounded and put it in his pocket. “No, that wasn’t my intention entirely.”

“Have you any idea how bad you scared Deidre?” He tilted his vision toward her. I added, “You remember she was hospitalized not too long ago, right?”

“I’m sorry, Deidre.” Crestfallen, he took her arm and guided her toward the entrance. “Let’s get you seated.”

“I’m fine.” She smacked his hand but ultimately accepted his escort inside.

The kitchen wasn’t quite as neat as the last time I visited. Still no dirty dishes or ashtrays, but wires, slabs of metal, and tools littered the table. In the hall, spots above the side table were brighter than the rest of the wall. His accolades for great achievement in investigative trade were gone.

“Ray?” I drew his attention. “What happened to all your GAIT awards?”

“Got them packed and ready to go…kind of related to why I’ve asked you here…but, we’ll get to that in a bit.”

We moved into the living room, and Deidre and I lowered onto a dark blue sectional couch.

Ray remained standing and patted her hand, stating too gently, “There you go.”

“I said I’m fine.”

“That’s good,” he cooed. “How about some tea?”

“Yes. Tea. That would be nice. Thank you.”

True, he seemed condescending, but I didn’t think he meant to be.

“Earl grey all right?” He looked at me and I nodded. “Be right back.”

Deidre shifted fully toward me when he left. “There’s no way he’s leaving that garden.” She really was okay, her natural deductive skills kicking-in. “And he’s building things, not stuffing boxes.” She wagged a finger. “A few years ago, he had some construction done, but I never could tell for what.” She quieted a spell and then asked, “But how does a room at Jed’s fit into whatever Ray’s doing?”

He brushed through the threshold, and I tapped Deidre’s knee and whispered, “I guess we’ll find out.”

“Water’s on.” Ray sat in a cushioned armchair across from us and took a deep breath. “In the meantime, there’s something we have to get out of the way. Isis, you being a lady lawyer should understand the importance of confidentiality.”

So far, Mr. Congeniality was ticking all the right boxes for me to stand up and walk out.

But then he addressed Deidre. “And you, Good Book Sally, are more knowledgeable about legal stuff than the other poofs online.”

I supposed there was a compliment in there somewhere. A smile tinkered at the corner of my lips. He had no clue I was Marjorie Gardens, and that I knew he was also one of those “poofs” on my crime blog MyThugShot.com.

“I don’t have any NDAs lying around,” he continued, “so I’ll take your word you’ll keep what I show you to yourselves.”

We promised we would in a vocal fry.

“Alrighty then, we’ll have to go down to the heart of operations.” He assisted Deidre onto her feet. “If you both would be so kind as to follow me.”

We went to the panel nondescript from the wood beneath the hall staircase, and he gave us a serious look. “Remember. Not a word about what you see.”

“Yes, Ray,” I grunted. “We haven’t told anyone so far.”

He nodded, and then opened the door to the basement.

I recalled everything there was inside his heart and soul. Lit showcases of firearms and crossbows; a billiard table and 50s jukebox; and an impressive video security console.

If he simply wanted to demonstrate his new system in greater detail, Jed would’ve made a better audience. However, if Ray couldn’t disclose his latest project to him because of future living arrangements, he still came to the wrong people.

Perhaps, his cloak and dagger routine was the premise of something else.

Chapter Two

Deidre and I slid onto a shiny black sofa as if we were sitting on an oil-slicked spacesuit. Ray went over to a glass cabinet, saying, “I’m sure you all heard the news about the current global warming situation.”

“As far as any of us knows,” Deidre said over her shoulder, “it isn’t exactly current. It takes time for atmospheric conditions to develop.”

“We are facing more than simple weather patterns. I’ve been holding on to this, but it seems the time has come.” He returned with a strongbox. “I’m finally ready to make my preempt bug-out.”

I said, “Your preempt what-now?”

He set the container down and opened it then showed us a glossy color brochure.

The O’Leary Group welcomes you, our potential survival homeowner, and we congratulate you on taking the first step toward securing your future in an unpredictable world.

Famine, global weather phenomenon, cross-border economic collapse, and civil wars are no longer theoretical. These are daily realities—happening right now! But what are your plans when the greatest threat to you and your family comes from above? Scientists have neglected their duty to disclose findings on Planet X. This nefarious heavenly body will unleash unprecedented destruction on Earth as it passes by. Are you ready? Are you prepared?

“Ray.” I sighed, took the prospectus, and flipped it over.

The Reebok Refuge Silo was a decommissioned aboveground missile base. There was a computer rendered diagram of the storage facility, compartmentalized into several levels of living, leisure, and maintenance spaces. That told me the “tower” had to have been underground.

I gave the material to Deidre and stood with my own hazel ballistics locked on Ray. “You mean to tell me, you’re moving into some doomsday bunker?” It was the first time I ever heard him laugh so hard.

“Isis, you don’t know everything Reebok has to offer. If you did, you wouldn’t even dare refer to it as a bunker. These are luxury survival condos.”

Deidre stood and reviewed a page. “Seems like a prepper’s paradise with all these amenities. Single and double bedroom suites, a movie theater, a pool, gym, and spa and—ooh!—a library.” She glanced up and smiled. “Sounds like an extraordinary place.”

“Why, thank you, Deidre.” He dipped his head honorably then cut his eyes at me. “At least someone grasps its uniqueness.”

“Oh, for the love of God.” I screened the pamphlet again.

The site was located in western Maine. And for the price tag attached to an idyllic piece of life after the apocalypse, you could get four decent homes at any location of your choice.

“A million dollars?” I slapped the sales material into his hands. “Why on earth…excuse me…middle earth…would you spend that kind of money on something like this?”

“You think I got that much cash stuffed in a mattress?” He reached into the lockbox again. “Here’s the reason I subjected myself to you naysayers.”

Deidre and I gawked at each other.

He retrieved a stack of papers and gave them to me. “I couldn’t afford Reebok Refuge, if it weren’t for the incredible price cut we’re negotiating.”

It was a purchase agreement between the O’Leary Group and one seriously misguided Raymond Lockhart. The particular condo on offer was a two-bedroom model called a tier unit. The silo was listed at an undisclosed location in Franklin County.

While the contract laid out property specifics, it fell short on basic real estate terms. There was no reasonable time to rescind, and there was no mention of escrow. That was probably due to the no-financing clause in bold print. No mortgage, cash only, all sales final. The O’Leary Group was safe from liability claims, relying on the no-warranty of caveat emptor, buyer beware. The only assurance the agreement granted the buyer was that all disclosures regarding the property for sale were made in good faith, and any offset of the original purchase price would be negotiated on an individual basis.

I exhaled audibly and stopped on page three.

“I’ve been offered a reduced rate in exchange for a position as chief of defense,” Ray explained. “And with that, Reebok Refuge gets full use of my prevention systems. So, it’s okay to sign, right?” If he had a pen in hand, I don’t think he would’ve waited for an answer.

“No, not really. I need time to go through it thoroughly.” I placed the agreement inside my bag.

“Of course. Got to get your thinking cap on.” He nodded, slightly downtrodden. “I understand.”

Deidre held her breath and stared at me. She didn’t have to say a word. It was a moment I discovered my voice of reason wasn’t restricted to when I chased killers.

“You know…” I said and Ray glimpsed at me. “Judging by what’s listed, this must be an amazing complex.” Deidre exhaled and smiled. It was a small gesture on my part, but Ray’s face lit up as if I let him get a puppy.

“Oh, ladies, it is. Up there in the mountains, plenty of fishing lakes, and all that fresh air.”

Deidre stated gaily, “I didn’t think our air quality was so bad you’d leave us.”

“It’s not, but wait ’til you’ve been to this area of Maine.”

“Is your home actually ready?” I asked. “Have you seen it?”

“Everything’s done, already furnished. I could move right in if I wanted. The last time I went to the site, they were putting the final touches on the base.”

That struck a nerve. A million clams, and development wasn’t complete? I wondered what jobs would require additional finance, in the event Ray was crazy enough to sign on the dotted line. I asked him what had been added to the facility.

And he gave me one heck of an answer. “A half-inch thick, cable-reinforced fence around the entire thirty-six acre perimeter. The inner barrier is military grade chain link, eight feet tall, and looped with barbed wire.”

“Good to know.” For the second time, I got a chuckle out of him.

While I began to feel less apprehensive about the place being a money pit, Deidre raised a crucial point on a totally different matter.

“Seriously, Ray, I didn’t peg you for a survivalist. I mean, having a stocked pantry’s one thing, but living below ground’s something else entirely. Not only do you have to take your physical condition into account, but you should also consider your mental health.”

“Don’t I know it.” He went toward the walk-in closet of costumes. “That’s why I’ve been practicing three times a week.”

We trailed him inside as the lighting flickered on, and he drew a metal rail of clothes toward him then to the side. I never realized the storage was a sliding system. He pushed against the revealed wall and a panel popped outward. A thick metal slab appeared.

I faced Deidre. “You’ve got to be kidding me.” I had to admit I didn’t see that coming.

Ray pressed his thumb on a small scanner, and the door swept open. “Watch your step.”

Down a narrow, illuminated staircase, we spiraled to a shiny new panic room. Along a wall were two sets of bunk beds neatly made with sheets peeking out from wool blankets. On the other side of the room, boxes of freeze-dried food, cartons of bottled water, and first aid kits filled shelves. There were stacks of car batteries, a few already linked to a temporary control center with security cameras.

“Welcome to my current bug-out location. I spend three full days and nights living down here.”

Deidre exclaimed, “So, that’s what all the construction was about.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I walked around the area and wagged my head. “I’m speechless.”

Mr. Congeniality quipped, “Is that a first for you?”

Deidre swatted her hand as if she could shoo his insult. “Well, it’s clear you’ve made up your mind. It seems you’re dedicated to this lifestyle.”

“I am.”

“So, Isis has her work cut out with your contract….” She stepped closer to him. “But why did you ask me over?”

“Oh, right. Winthrop’s flower garden fair starts tomorrow, and as you all know, I won first prize for the last two years and runner-up in the previous competition.”

Her lips rounded. “And you’re not going to be here.”

“How did you know that?” His brows tethered, and Deidre’s smug expression fell flat.

It was time to rescue my voice of reason, who’d also been my consulting investigator on the Norman Kane case—and who’d just learned not to out herself after trolling someone online. “Um, Ray? What is it you want exactly?”

“Right. I’d like to know if you, Deidre, would enter my nomination and tend to my garden during judging. I have everything you need already prepared.”

She smiled fully. “I’d be happy to.”

A muffled boom resonated through the room. I shrieked and Deidre slapped her palm to her chest. “What in the world?”

Ray said, “That came from outside.”

He charged for the stairwell and we followed. By the time we reached the basement above, another shot fired off and rattled the glass cabinets.

“I know who it is.” Ray stopped by the next flight leading to the hall and chuckled. “I can’t believe the old son of a gun did it!”

We climbed the steps, and I called out from behind Deidre, “Ray what the hell is that?”

“It’s Jed trying out his modified air canon by the sounds of it.”

“His modified what?”

I didn’t expect an answer as we filed out the front door and onto Taft’s Avenue. Neighbors poured outside for curbside murmuring. Children froze in place, younger ones covering their ears, and cars cruised toward Shirley Street at a cautious pace.

I moved in the direction of Jed’s house, but Ray stopped me. “You don’t honestly think he’s shooting a canon from his driveway, do you? He’s down at the park.” He started a light-footed jog. “Come on.”

The aural attack of barking dogs as we neared confirmed the disruption came from Deer Island Park. We arrived to find Jed at the open grounds used for community events. The short, pot-bellied man who filled out a pair of stained overalls now wore a camo tee shirt, baseball cap, and bared too much in a pair of spandex biker shorts. With ear protection on, he stood behind a rocket launcher type of contraption on legs.

I fanned the air for his attention as we emerged, and he removed his earmuffs. “Jed, have you lost your mind?”

Deidre added, “You gave plenty of us tinnitus on the Fourth, Jed.”

He greeted us pleasantly as if he’d been working on the Chevy, while Ray grew as giddy as a schoolgirl and gave him a pat on the back. “Where did you get the compressor?”

“I got a deal from a paint shop on an old refurb.”

Ray continued to probe. “And how do you control that much air flow?”

“I added a PVC agricultural sprinkler and burst disk valves, a little gas, and voilà.”

I had no idea what any of that meant. “Excuse me, gentlemen.” They quieted and faced me. “I’m pretty sure it’s illegal to shoot that thing in public.”

“Not at all,” Ray countered.

“Well, it should be.”

“Don’t worry, Isis.” Jed claimed in his own defense, “I made sure it couldn’t be classified as a weapon.” He giggled and added, “But I dare any marauders try and break into our tier unit.”

Deidre quivered her head in confusion. “What marauders?”

Mad Max road gangs ripping through Point Shirley wasn’t my concern at the moment. It was the other thing Jed mentioned that raised my brow. “What do you mean our tier unit?”

He looked pointedly at me. “He didn’t tell you the good news yet?”

Under the pressure of all eyes on him, Ray cleared his throat. “I was getting there.”

A few things started to come together for me. When these guys weren’t on MyThugShot.com debating guns, they were together—debating guns. Both picked this morning to try out new security measures on unsuspecting residents, and tomorrow, Ray would visit his luxury survival condo in western Maine.

I had a sneaking suspicion Deidre and I would never see an episode of the Odd Couple quite like what was playing in my head.

Chapter Three

“As chief of defense, I’m going to need an engineer.” Ray buddied up to Jed with an arm around him. “And you’ve just witnessed what this old dog can piece together.”

Deidre and I stared at each other, speechless. I don’t know what she was thinking, but here’s what was on my mind. Jed and Ray. Together. Sealed in a bunker.

On the one hand, Point Shirley could celebrate the noisemakers’ departure. On the other, I couldn’t let them get suckered out of a fortune. “Guys, I know this may seem like a great opportunity, but—”

“Oh, it is, Isis.” Jed came closer to me. “They’re holding an open-house tomorrow, so to speak, and I’m going with Ray for a gander at the unit. If my qualifications seal the deal, I can sign on. Me and Ray are going to be roomies.”

“And you can manage a million dollars?”

Jed’s eyes darted toward Ray, and I realized his roomie hadn’t brought him up to par on the price tag.

Ray hurried over and scoffed. “That was before. My GAIT awards should get us an additional discount. With our combined deposit and the two of us employed, our monthly payments are quite manageable.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but Deidre squeezed my arm. “That sounds like a wonderful plan,” she said. “The weather’s perfect for a trip up north too. What time do you leave, and when will you be back?”

“We’re heading off in Jed’s truck early, so with a bit of luck, we’ll take advantage of three whole days.”

“We should get back around noon on Monday,” Jed chimed in.

“We wish you both a lovely trip and safe travel.” Deidre pulled me slightly as she took a step back. “We’ll leave you gentlemen to it then.”

Nice save, Dee. We waved and headed for home. We were clear out of earshot when I told her they’d gone insane. “Did you see the amount of food and medicine going to waste in Ray’s sub-basement?”

“A little preparation against unforeseen events isn’t necessarily waste. With the economy the way it is who knows.” I was starting to doubt my voice of reason, but she continued, “I’ve experienced a few slim times myself. I wished prepping was around when I was a kid. Maybe then my folks could’ve provided better for us during the rough patches.”

How could I have second-guessed her? I pictured little Deidre and her sisters holding out large empty plates for a spoonful of gruel. Probably overdramatic, true, but a lump still caught in my throat.

Sure, there were sound reasons for keeping spare batteries in case of a power outage. Or bottled water during low-rain season—which hasn’t been an issue for Point Shirley—or for when the tap ran mud after firefighters used a nearby hydrant—that was usually the case in New York.

“So in the spirit of goodwill…” Deidre’s voice reeled me from my thoughts. “I say, to each his own.”

I hoped I could share her sentiments. But I’ve defended too many fraudsters to go on faith that the O’Leary group wasn’t about to bankrupt our friends. “Dee, you don’t seriously believe they being cheated out of their life savings is right, do you?”

“How do we know this place isn’t legit? I’m much more worried about Jed and Ray, the psychological effect of being closed in for a weekend could have on them. Two single, mature men cooped up with their guns and traps …the shared paranoia alone is enough for something to go wrong. If only someone was there to look out for them.”

She stared ahead, but her tone impressed clearly upon me. “Oh, no.” She faced me and smiled. “No way, Dee.”

In less than forty-eight hours, Isis Ferrelli was hanging up the do-not-disturb sign for two glorious weeks. I still hadn’t decided what I wanted to do or where to go on vacation, but spending it underground with a bunch of nervous Nancies was not on my itinerary.

Furthermore, I’d planned on staking out MyThugShot.com as Marjorie Gardens, for if and when ModuCode Killer made another appearance on my blog. Despite a statewide BOLO issued in April, he remained at large, identified as a conspirator in events that led to Norman Kane’s murder. ModuCode Killer was a Fernoza Family ace gone wild.

“It’s only for the weekend,” Deidre said. “I would volunteer, but I’ve got to look after Ray’s babies.”

“Convenient.”

We stopped in front of her home. “Oh, Isis, think of it as gaining better insight into the contract. You have to work on it, so what better way to grasp the content of the agreement than seeing the property firsthand.”

Damn it. She had a point. It would be an excellent opportunity to not only safeguard Jed and Ray’s interests but also drum up a bit more corporate business for McCarter & French.

“Besides,” she continued, “you don’t have to move in with them, unless—”

“That’ll be entirely outside the realm of possibility.” We chuckled, and my mobile jingled music from inside my purse.

“I’ll talk to you later, dear.” Deidre left, and I answered the call.

“Isis, are you all right?”

Dear Lord, it was my law firm partner, Sam French.

“Maura said she hadn’t heard from you, so I told her I’d get in touch.”

I had meant to let our assistant know I’d be late, a feeble afterthought upon the concern growing in Sam’s voice.

“Is it safe to talk?”

As Louis Fernoza’s niece, and his paralegal upon graduation, I witnessed what an independent mob lawyer entailed. I sought better for myself. Sam was one of the few people who knew I’d fled New York to avoid Uncle Lou’s organized crime syndicate. Sam was also aware how close his client of over a year got to finding Isis Maria Fernoza three months ago.

“Sam, I’m fine. I’m so sorry I made you worry.”

A breathy groan came over the line. “Well, when are you getting in? You still owe me two days before you kick up your Jimmy Choos, kiddo.”

Go to work and ride out an easy couple of days, or subject myself to a weekend of utter annoyance for the sake of my neighbors? My voice of reason had a habit of resonating in my head, even when she wasn’t around.

It wasn’t an easy decision but one I figured I could spin to my benefit. “Actually, Sam, I’m already working.”

I explained I was following a lead in a possible real estate scandal targeting limited-income seniors. Possibly true. I had no idea how much money Jed and Ray had, but they were retired. I went on to state I would seek to represent my neighbors, and investigate the Reebok Refuge Silo and its management, the O’Leary Group. If I discovered fraud or any kind of grand embezzlement, we were looking at a multi-million dollar lawsuit.

Sam asked, “And, if this place is squeaky clean, what then?”

“Then, I’ll network my tail off to get us a new multi-million dollar client.”

“This Jed and Ray…limited-income seniors…how are they going to satisfy your retainer?”

He could’ve gone a step further and asked what’s the catch, because there was one. I admitted each had helped me during the Norman Kane case. “Sam, I owe these guys not to let them get taken for everything they have. Until I find out more about the O’Leary Group, I’ll have to provide services on a no-cure no-pay basis.”

A sigh and then for a few seconds I only heard him breathing.

“All right, kiddo. Take today and tomorrow, but you’re officially on a working holiday.”

I smiled. “Thanks, Sam.”

“You better hope you can make a whole pie out of those crumbs. See you when you get back.”

With that, my vacation started the moment we disconnected. I went inside my Colonial home, locked the door, and strolled into my office. The conservatory extension looked out onto a yard with a patio area, nowhere near as decorative as Ray’s garden, but it gave me a glimpse of the Huntington House B&B on Andrew Street.

I sat at my replica Louis XV desk and peered out at vacationers wheeling their luggage toward the circa 1851 Victorian Ann house. It was located on the edge of The Strand, a strip of beach that was a precursor to everything our top attraction had to offer. People came to visit Crystal Cove for the waterfront views, relaxation, and to enjoy New England nature at Deer Island Park.

Then there were those who planned on departing our small community permanently.

I booted my Alienware laptop and started the Vault. Lee Canfield was our local tech aficionado and fellow “thugger” called Drivez Da Linux. He installed the Vault for me to ensure my internet connection was hidden behind masked IPs and rerouted globally.

I’d requested tracing software for the Vault a few months ago, after he’d tracked ModuCode Killer’s last known whereabouts to Point Shirley. I had no proof the suspect had ultimately discovered where I resided, but someone left a clue I’d previously overlooked on my porch.

For the moment, I felt protected online with Lee’s additional security measures, and with the spare time I had, I figured I’d conduct a background check.

The O’Leary Group was founded and operated by Edward O’Leary. The group managed several properties along the eastern seaboard but was most proud of their dive into the prepping phenomenon. Their website highlighted the Reebok Refuge Silo, while farmland and businesses for sale in Franklin County took the back tabs.

In the virtual world, the company talked the talk. They described their safe haven as a prime bug-out location, with years of stock and sustenance, plus countless renewable sources of food, water, and energy for off-the-grid living. All I knew was I paid my electric bills on time and got my groceries from a store. But the O’Leary Group played the fear card, posing the question: What would you do if society fell apart?

For the next hour, I gathered intel through various government reporting sites. I had quarterly earnings, company registration, land deeds, and shareholder’s information. I drafted it all into a document, printed it, and created a matter file with the purchase agreement to take with me.

I shut down my laptop then called Ray then Jed. Neither minded me tagging along tomorrow. Jed expected me, ready to go, at five a.m. so we’d arrive at the open house at eleven. He tacked on an extra hour travel time in case his truck overheated and needed to cool. The moment we hung up, I began to worry but went ahead and notified Deidre that she’d gotten her wish.

I then walked into my bedroom and packed a suitcase. An image of Jed’s truck broken-down on the side of a road, nothing but spooky woods to keep us company, burnt disconcertingly in my mind. I lowered a pair of shoes into my suitcase and could hear dueling banjos in my head. I chalked it up to this morning’s doomsday chatter, but just in case… I got my smartphone and searched the general area of our destination for gas stations and mechanics along the route.

I found a single grocery store with a pump on Rangley Road, which also happened to bear the silo owner’s name. I sat and reviewed the deeds I pulled from the county’s Hall of Records. O’Leary’s One-Stop was official, Edward’s name on file.

Why wasn’t the shop listed on the corporate website? Well, there was no obligation for a company to list all its holdings on its website, and perhaps the pit stop wasn’t for sale or one of Edward’s top-prize locations.

Despite my rationalization, I remained convinced that the O’Leary Group would become either a potential client or a litigant in a class-action suit I’d file against them.

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