by Nell DuVall

A bank scam, a series of accidents that end as murders, and police too ready to accept simple explanations for deaths push freelance writer Brooke Beldon and systems programmer Paul Counts ever deeper into a tangled conspiracy. She struggles to clear her brother's name. Paul, a sucker for a blue-eyed blonde, initially wants to help her, but also ends the chief suspect in murder. He must clear his name and unravel the bank theft to identify the culprits.

The only clue they have is the name of a sleazy strip club. Paul gets stonewalled at the club, so Brooke enlists the help of a sympathetic hostess. Going undercover, she tries to learn all she can about her kid brother Stan and the woman who left with him the night he died.


Chapter One

The prickling of Brooke Beldon’s scalp raised the fine hairs on her neck. That sensation always had signaled bad things happening to her brother Stan—the last time had been when he'd wrecked his car. He hadn’t called her in over a week. Lackadaisical about many things, he phoned every week.

She speed keyed his number, drumming her fingers on the table as she waited for him to answer. Ten rings and even his voice mail didn’t cut in. Her worry moved to the edge of panic. Frustrated, she disconnected and switched to her PC. Maybe an email would reach him.

Stan, you didn’t answer your phone. Your answering machine is either overfull or off. Please call me. If you’re gaming online or whatever, take a break. I have a friend who wants to meet you. She’s cute, nice, and into computers and computer games, too. CALL ME! If you don’t, I’ll break down your door tomorrow. J)

Love, Brooke

Stan always read his email, so she expected him to respond. She’d taken responsibility for him after their parents died in that horrible car crash. With few friends, he spent so much time online he often forgot to eat or feasted on junk food. His addiction to gaming had caused him to skip work a few times. She wanted more in his life than computers and work.

Ding! Ding!

The alarm signal from her computer startled her. Reminder flashed on the toolbar. She had set it earlier to alert her to leave on time for tonight’s concert—the Beethoven Choral Symphony. One of her favorites, it would kick off the Columbus Symphony concert tonight. She smoothed the skirt of her black dress, grabbed her purse, and headed for the car.

Friday evening traffic downtown could be murder for those who didn’t arrive early. As for parking near the Ohio Theater, forget it. Stewing over Stan wouldn’t add to her enjoyment, so she struggled to push her concerns aside. Surely, by the time she returned, he'd reply. If only he didn’t get so engrossed in those stupid games. Other people had hobbies. Look at those OSU football fanatics, but they got out on Saturdays for the games. Stan didn't; he remained in front of his computer. No wonder he'd put on a bit weight. She sighed and focused on the traffic.

* * * *

“Well, boys, what do we have here?” Detective Milton Meyers squatted down to get a better look at the corpse. From the stench, he'd guess the man died of an overdose. A hint of crack underlay the stink of body fluids. Experience had hardened Meyers to such scenes, but he remained glad he'd eaten breakfast more than an hour ago. The early morning call had caught him on his way to headquarters and directed him to this east side address.

The paramedic, kneeling beside the awkwardly sprawled body on a tan couch stained with vomit and discharge, looked up at Meyers. “We got a 9-l-l call at oh-five-hundred. When we arrived, we found the victim lying here, dead.”

“The cause?”

“Not certain without testsbut from the gear on the table and the state of the body, I'd say a drug overdose.” The medic shook his head and pointed toward the plastic envelopes and the glass crack-pipe on the low coffee table in front of the couch. “We get a lot of those, but not in this neighborhood.”

Pulling on a pair of gloves, Meyers, careful not to smear fingerprints, sniffed the pipe. “Smells like crack to me, too. Get the lab on this one. Any witnesses?

The paramedic shook his head. “Nobut the dispatcher said a woman called. Probably partying with him, he OD'd, she panicked, dialed 9-1-1, and then split.”

“Sounds likely; I'll talk to the dispatcher later. Any I.D. on the body?”

“A wallet.” The gloved paramedic opened it. “Says his name is Beldon, Stan Beldon.” He passed the wallet to Meyers.

“Thanks.” Meyers took the billfold and shuffled through it. He found about fifty dollars in cash, the usual assortment of credit cards with some receipts, an American Express card—green, not gold—an insurance card, several professional society memberships, a driver's license, and a wallet I.D. card. The back of the last carried the name of a person listed as sister and an address on the other side of town.

“Well, at least we have the next-of-kin. I'll contact her later to tell her about Beldon. Perhaps I can ask her a few questions. Anything else on the body?”

“Nope.” The paramedic shook his head. “Just a man’s handkerchief. Guess you won't need us any more, so we'll get back to the station. Gus said the medical examiner will be along shortly. The corpse isn't going anywhere.” The paramedic unhooked and packed up the monitors, closed his bag, and scrambled to his feet.

“Yeah, if we need you, we'll call or stop by the station. Oh, tell Watkins to get his butt in here and quit loafing. We've got work to do.”



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