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MURDER FOR A CRASH CROP
A Nell Letterly Mystery
BY SUE STAR
Boulder rages “on fire” over legalized marijuana. Suddenly, Boulder really rages on fire. The house next door burns down. The rubble includes the body of a famous landscape artist.
Killed because of his marijuana landscape? Killed by Nell’s best new friend to collect fire insurance? Killed by the voracious condo developer who covets a more profitable business?
Only Nell can figure this out aided by her crotchety dad, her rebellious teen daughter, and her soon-to-be ex sister-in-law. Then her fugitive husband shows up with a blond on each arm.
MURDER FOR A CRASH CROP
A Nell Letterly Mystery
BY SUE STAR
A whiff of weed floated through the open windows of the karate studio.
I’d cranked the windows open and propped open both front and back doors to let the cooling air of twilight circulate through our stifling workout space. It was a hollowed-out hundred-year-old converted bungalow, which of course didn’t have air conditioning. I didn’t want my students to pass out from the buildup of searing heat of late summer, a heat so intense that it could bake the air and poof it into dust. Now the breeze swirled its powdery grit, along with that distinctively indefinable, yet unmistakably tangy smell.
Sort of like a combination of used shoes and burning incense.
Pot was legal in Boulder and all of Colorado. Some thought it was nirvana, others thought it was evil incarnate. I just thought it was a poor substitute for meditation.
Of course, I didn’t have experience with any stimulants other than meditation and heavy martial arts.
I tried to ignore the reminder of someone’s party nearby. Bone-tired and past my bedtime, I was already having enough trouble focusing on my students. Seven hotshot tweens and teens, all belt levels, were jumping and whirling and kicking and punching before me in their sweat-soaked T-shirts. It was after the last class of the day, and they were using this time to choreograph an upcoming performance for an end-of-summer festival. The casualness of the night combined with the heat of summer gave all of us privileges to wear only our loose, cotton karate trousers and T-shirts rather than full gi.
With the drifting smell, my students couldn’t focus any better than I could. Punching arms dropped. Bare feet landed in sloppy stances. Their faces contorted into dramatic sniffing spasms, as if they were imitating hound dogs. One of the girls covered her mouth and giggled. They twisted this way and that, searching for the pot smoker.
Then one of them, squeaky-wheel Elliott, pointed at the window behind me and yelped.
We all turned to gape at the mullioned panes that overlooked the side yard jungle, shadowed with thickening nightfall and overgrown junipers. Through the blistering glass, I saw a spot of red-orange flicker against the dark. From its angle through the trees, I could tell it was coming from an upper window of Alice’s Victorian house next door.
“Fire!” Several voices shouted at the same time.
“Oh no no no!” Mumbling sounds slipped out of me as I froze in place. Or maybe it was my heart clenching in my chest. I glanced over to the folding chairs near the front door where parents often sat to observe classes, but tonight none had come. I was the only adult in the room.
“My sister’s over there!” Elliott choked on his words, and the despair in his voice snapped me out of my momentary freeze.
I whirled around and ninja-dashed across the workout floor, heading toward the office phone at the back of the studio. It was closer than my cell phone, which was upstairs in my apartment. I hadn’t made it very far before footsteps thudded up the porch steps out front and clattered across the wooden floor of the entry hall. I spun around, in sort of a sloppy tornado kick without the kick, and recognized the young woman as Elliott’s sister, Robinette. She often picked up Elliott after class. Now a feral look glazed her flushed face as she ran onto the workout floor, gasping.
“Help! Call for help!”
“Robi!” Elliott cried. “What’s wrong?”
“There’s a fire,” she said, pausing to suck air. “I think someone’s trapped inside. You’ve got to help.” Wisps of white-blonde hair fringed the kohl rings around her eyes, adding to her wild and frenzied look.
“On my way,” I said, leaping down the twisting hall toward my office. I could move pretty fast for a middle-aged mom.
What we used for an office had been the kitchen when this bungalow was someone’s home back in the day. The only phone in this place was located back there. I’d tried to persuade my boss, Arlo Callahan, to install an extension on the workout floor — the former living and dining rooms — but no dice. He was an even bigger Luddite than me.
I reached for the clunky yellow phone, inherited along with autumn gold kitchen appliances, and dialed 9-1-1 to the ripping sounds of zippers and Velcro. The first of my students had untwisted themselves from their gawking positions at the window and managed to scramble toward the racks where they stowed their bags and their cell phones. For any workout on the floor, I made my students shed their phones, silence them, or better yet, turn them off. They complied because they all knew that at the first peep of a phone, I would confiscate it.
With all the calls I’ve made these last few months, I should set up an account with 9-1-1, I thought lamely as the dispatcher ran me through the usual procedure. My name was Nell Letterly, I told her. I knew the operator was only doing her job, but really. Could we get on with the emergency?
Finally, after I told her the nature of my emergency, she assured me that the fire had already been reported. She could’ve said that at the outset and saved me a few more gray hairs. I glanced around the curve of the hall, but from my position, anchored by the cord—yes, an actual phone cord—chaining me to my desk, I couldn’t see my students. I heard the buzz of their chatter, instead. Surely, none of them had managed to get through to dispatch before me.
I did not know the extent of the fire next door at Alice’s Arts and Crafts Shoppe. Alice, my new best friend, liked to spell it “shoppe,” not shop, because it was a special, magical place. Her words, not mine.
Oh dear, I hoped Alice wasn’t the person trapped inside.
Actually, I hoped no one was trapped inside. How bad was the fire if it had trapped someone? All I had seen was one flame, shooting out of an upper-floor window. Although, that was probably not a good sign. If the fire had reached the upper floors, then didn’t that mean the fire was pretty much consuming the entire house? It must be spreading like wildfire. No wonder that cliché meant speed.
And all that separated my studio from Alice’s shoppe was a side yard filled with kindling.
It wouldn’t take much in this dry climate, at this driest time of year—wildfire season—for a fire to spread. One gust of wind—and we had lots of wind hurling down the side of the mountains here along the front range—could carry a burning cinder across the twenty-yard distance to my roof. Before anyone knew it, this building would be engulfed, too.
Time to corral my students. I was responsible for them as well as the martial arts studio.
I dropped the phone and ran back down the hall to the workout floor, where my seven students huddled around the bag rack with cell phones pressed to their ears.
“The fire department is on the way,” I told them, trying to inject calm authority into my voice in spite of my hammering pulse rate. “We’ll stay together until your parents arrive.”
In case we need to evacuate.
I hadn’t said it, but they must’ve read my mind. They charged, squealing, toward the foyer and squeezed through the bottleneck of the front door.
“Hold on!” I yelled, sprinting after them.
Outside, the smoke singed my lungs, and I felt as if I couldn’t breathe. My students stood rooted in place along the tilting cracks of the sidewalk. Overhead, cottonwoods—the hanging trees from the old west—rattled their leaves in the breeze that tossed Alice’s flames about, licking for purchase to spread.
There were only six students.
Sue Star writes mysteries about families in chaos. Murder in the Dojo introduces her amateur sleuth, Nell Letterly, a single mom who teaches martial arts despite the opinions of her teenage daughter, sophisticated sister-in-law, and crotchety dad. Their misadventures continue in Murder with Altitude, and in the newly released Murder for a Cash Crop. Like her character, Sue has also trained and taught the martial arts, but unlike her character, Sue believes her life is more stable. She enjoys hiking, traveling, and just hanging out with her family. Sue has collected several stand-alone short mystery stories. As Rebecca Williamson, she writes suspense with a touch of romance.
Links to Sue’s website, blog, books, etc.
**SPECIAL GIVEAWAY**: Sue is giving away a hard copy of MURDER FOR A CASH CROP to one reader who comments on this Author Peek or Karen’s Killer Book Bench blogs. Thank you, Sue, for sharing your story with us.
Don’t miss the chance to read this book!