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Last Chance for Murder

Book 1 of the Lisa Chance Cozy Mysteries

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Chapter 1

It's 457 miles from Hollywood, California, to Moss Creek, Arizona. On a day with light traffic, no construction, and a driver who doesn't have to pull over every few miles to cry, the drive takes about six hours. Crying and driving, Lisa Chance took nine hours on the road home to Moss Creek.

Two miles outside Barstow, Lisa decided she wouldn’t even stop in her hometown, but keep driving the rest of the way to the Grand Canyon and throw herself in. That would serve Dylan right for breaking her heart.

But Barstow is a notoriously depressing town. By the time Lisa reached Needles, at the Arizona border, she decided Dylan wasn’t worth killing herself over.

Pulling into the gas station in Kingman, she decided to go to the canyon, yes, but fling her engagement ring over the edge instead of herself. She would Instagram it with an artistic filter.

By the time she reached Moss Creek, the idea of another hour of driving to get to the rim of the canyon just seemed like too much. Besides, the light would be better in the morning.

She parked in front of her childhood home. A new compact SUV sat in the driveway. Lisa took a deep breath, grabbed her suitcase and hauled it to the front door.

“Mom? Dad? It’s me!”

Penny Baldwin-Chance bustled to the front door, impeccable in a cream suit with gold jewelry. “Lisa, darling, what are you doing home?”

“Gee, thanks, Mom. I’m glad to see you, too.”

“Oh, honey, of course I’m glad to see you. I’m just surprised. Did we have plans this weekend?”

Lisa thought of their many upcoming wedding planning sessions and burst into tears.

“No, no, no, don’t cry!” Penny embraced Lisa, first placing a linen hankie on her shoulder to catch any tears or smudges. “Tell Mommy what’s wrong. It’s not Dylan, is it?”

Shuddering, Lisa nodded. “He left me. Oh, Mom, it was awful. One day we’re planning the wedding, and the next day it’s over and I need to find my own place.” Lisa didn’t mention the rest of the sordid story. It was bad enough to admit to this much.

Penny shook her head. “He claimed the apartment? That little weasel. After I helped you find it. He would be stuck in some Van Nuys rathole if it weren’t for you. Come on, let’s have a cup of tea, and you can tell me all about it.”

Lisa hesitated. Telling her mother all about her love life was not in her plans.

“Where’s Daddy?” Her father, Lou Chance, had always been easier to talk to than her mother.

Penny winced and looked away. “He’s,” she waved her hand, “not here. Now let’s get that cup of tea. Unless you want something stronger. Us ladies of a certain age have a right to a drop of the good stuff now and again.” She flashed her megawatt smile at Lisa. No doubt her mother was still a highly attractive woman, even into her sixties. Lisa knew she looked a lot like her, though she still wore her sunshine blond hair down her back instead of in a meticulously cut pageboy like Penny. She thought of the comments on the call sheet at her last acting job before she left. She had played a patient in a pharmaceutical commercial, and the call sheet described her as Female Patient, Middle-Aged.

“Mom, is twenty-nine too old to wear my hair like this?”

Penny stood back and studied her daughter, giving it some thought. “You don’t look your age, but an update never hurts. I can call my stylist and get you an appointment. How long are you in town?”

Lisa perched on a barstool at the kitchen counter and stared at her reflection in the gleaming granite. “I don’t know. A week? A month?” She lowered her voice and dipped her head. “Forever?”

Penny studied her daughter’s face until Lisa started to squirm. The kettle whistled, pulling her mother’s attention away.

With a steaming mug of tea in front of her, Lisa looked at her mother again. Penny had the telltale expression that said she was planning out her daughter’s life. Lisa tried not to groan. Why had it been her mother at home instead of her father, and when would he be back so she could relax into his comforting hug?

“If you’re staying more than a week,” Penny said, “you’re going to want your own place. I know of a couple of rentals coming on the market soon, so that’s no problem.”

“Mom.”

“You’re going to want a job. I’ll put you to work at the real estate office. That flaky new receptionist seems to have trouble making up her mind whether she wants a job or a hobby in real estate, so it’ll be good to have a backup. Of course, if she does actually decide to show up for work, we can always find you something. Passing out fliers and so on.”

“Mom.”

“I know you don’t think you’re ready to date yet, but I have the perfect prospect for you. He’s young, he’s handsome, he’s a real go-getter.”

“Mom!”

Penny looked at her daughter and raised her eyebrows. “If you give him a chance, I know you’ll like him. He even changed the oil on my car, wouldn’t hear of me taking it to the shop.”

Lisa groaned. She wasn’t sure what kind of guy her mother thought would be an appropriate setup for a freshly broken heart, but a real go-getter did not sound like Lisa’s idea of the right kind of guy for her.

“If you’re done sounding like a petulant teenager who thinks that interrupting is acceptable conversational behavior, I have something to tell you.”

“What is it, Mom, and please don’t say you’ve already set up a blind date for me and this real go-getter.”

Penny pursed her lips and looked down her nose at her daughter. “You’re slouching,” she said.

Lisa sat up straighter and looked into her mug of tea.

“There’s no way to say but to say it. Your father and I are getting a divorce.”

“What?!” Lisa nearly fell off her barstool. “How can you get a divorce now, of all times? Daddy just retired, and his heart problems, and… and… I don’t know, you just can’t.”

“Why, because we’re supposed to spend our golden years together?” Penny made air quotes when she said golden years and gave a disdainful sniff. “Just because Lou wants to laze around and go hiking doesn’t mean I’m finished having real accomplishments in my life.”

“But don’t you love Daddy?”

Penny sighed. “It’s complicated, Lisa.” She came over to Lisa’s side and stroked her hair like she used to when Lisa was a little girl. “Why don’t you go get some rest now? You’ve had a long day in the car.”

*

Lisa couldn’t sleep. The bed was soft and comfortable. The curtains blocked the moonlight so the room was dark. The ceiling fan kept a constant soothing breeze over the bed. And still, Lisa couldn’t sleep.

She rolled over and checked the time. Just past midnight. If she spent the whole night tossing in bed and worrying about everything, she wouldn’t have the energy to deal with tomorrow. Better to get up and do something.

She sat on the side of the bed and pulled the curtain aside. The moon was bright. It was reflected in the front window of her car below.

Lisa found herself pulling on her jeans and a hoodie over her baggy sleep shirt. She slipped her feet into her shoes and grabbed her keys. A drive around town might help her relax and feel sleepy. And it would get her out of her mother’s house. Even asleep, Penny emitted a strong field of expectation.

The town of Moss Creek by moonlight looked much the same as it had when Lisa was in high school. She’d done a lot of driving around with her friends back then, wishing they had somewhere to go. Of course, there was the canyon, and Flagstaff, but both were just a little too far to go if you wanted to get home by curfew.

The historic downtown district was buttoned up for the night. The stoplights flashed red, and Lisa saw no other cars.

She drove by the house where Dylan had lived growing up. The tree outside his old bedroom window had been cut down. He’d climbed out the window and down the tree so many times their senior year, she wondered if all that climbing had contributed to the tree’s demise.

She drove by the high school. A subsequent graduating class had put up a new sign out front, with a light-up display. It flashed: 12:02. 58*. Go Tigers.

Swinging around to head back up Main Street, Lisa slowed way down and then stopped in front of her favorite building, the Folly.

The Folly had been built in the initial heady days of the town. While settlers pouring in lived in row after row of tents and hastily constructed shacks, the Comstock family built a grand mansion right in the center of town.

Lisa sat in her car and looked at the house surrounded by a wrought iron fence and tall trees.

A song she associated with Dylan came on the radio, and she turned it off, then turned off the car entirely. The last thing she wanted was to listen to some sappy love song and start crying right here.

A tap on her window made her nearly jump out of her skin. A police cruiser was stopped behind her. She rolled down the window.

“Can I help you, officer?”

“Step out of the vehicle, please.”

She sighed and opened the door. Would she have to do the stupid human tricks?

“Do you need my driver’s license?” she said, climbing out of the car.

“Put your hands where I can see them, and now turn around and give your cousin a hug!”

Lisa spun around. “Toby, you jerk!” she squealed, throwing her arms around him.

Toby picked her up in a big bear hug and twirled her around. “When’d you get into town, stranger? If it’s more than a day, you’re going to be in trouble.”

“I got in tonight. I was going to call you tomorrow.”

Toby squeezed her tight and put her down. She looked up at him, buzz-cut six-foot-whatever and all cop on the outside, but still her little cousin on the inside.

“Long as you don’t call too early. New chief’s got me doing these night shifts, which is fine, but try to convince my mother I don’t need to see a sunrise.”

Lisa laughed. Aunt Olivia was an artist, and held a deep-seated belief that witnessing natural beauty was necessary for the health of the soul. Lisa could well believe that her aunt would not hesitate to wake Toby to be sure he witnessed a particularly lovely sunrise.

She leaned on Toby’s arm and gazed up at the Folly. His gaze followed hers. Up atop the three stories, the decorative iron railings perched on the mansard roof like a crown on a head of state.

Neither of them spoke. Lisa was sure Toby was also remembering the old days. As kids, they and their friends had snuck into the Folly every chance they got, exploring the dusty, high-ceilinged rooms and playing hide-and-seek. As teens, the hide-and-seek turned into more of a pairing off with a crush and finding a private spot. The night someone had called the police on them things had changed.

After that night, the front gate was padlocked, and Lisa hadn’t been back inside the mansion since.

Lisa shivered. The air was taking on a definite chill. September in the mountains could get cold at night.

“You should get home,” Toby said, giving her shoulder a squeeze.

She yawned. “I owe you lunch.”

Toby’s face was sober. “I owe you a lot more than just lunch.”

The memory of her time in jail floated to the surface of her mind, and she pushed it away. “Never mind.” She opened her car door. “Lunch tomorrow?”

“You know it.”


Chapter 2

The curtains on the windows in the guest room of Penny’s beautifully appointed home could not compete with the early morning beam of sunshine that had come all the way through millions of miles of space to dodge the evergreen needles of the ponderosa pine forest outside the log-and-glass house, sneak around the curtains and hit Lisa directly in the face. Lisa would have put a pillow over her head and ignored the light but the insistent chirping of her phone’s message alert dragged her into full wakefulness.

She grabbed her phone and silenced it, then looked at the time. 5:27. Who thought that 5:27 in the morning was a good time to send a text? She looked at the phone again. Of course. Aunt Olivia.

“Beautiful sunrise today! Don’t miss it! Toby says you’re in town. Come to breakfast, coffee is perking!” the text said.

Lisa flopped back on her pillow and groaned. Toby had ratted her out to his mother. She loved Olivia, would be glad to see her, but really missed that extra couple hours of sleep.

She sat up in bed as another thought hit her. Her mother didn’t want to talk about the big news — the divorce — but Aunt Olivia should have the inside scoop.

She hopped out of bed and pulled together an outfit from the stuffed suitcase at the foot of the bed. Not her fashion best, and a little wrinkled, but acceptable for an early breakfast.

*

“Aunt Olivia? It’s Lisa!”

The front door of her aunt’s house had a new piece of art since the last time Lisa had visited. A brass sculpture of a Scottish terrier gazed out at the neighborhood from Olivia’s door. After looking at it a moment, Lisa realized the sculpture was a door knocker, and the dog’s tail was the handle. She took the tail and lifted it to rap on the door.

A moment later, the door opened and her aunt, Olivia Baldwin, stood there in a smock covered in paint splotches. She folded Lisa into a hug and pulled her inside.

“Good morning, Lisa, dear. I’m so glad you were up.”

“I see you have a new door knocker,” Lisa said.

Olivia laughed. “Yes, that is a bit of fun. Last winter I was keeping company with a Scottish sculptor. He had to go back to Dun Burnie or some such place but he said he hoped the piece would remind me of him.”

“And does it?”

“Only when someone asks about it. Now come in and get a mug. I have a new coffee blend you should just love.”

Lisa tried the coffee and held back a grimace. Her aunt had blended two flavored coffees (chocolate and blueberry) and added chicory.

“Spicy, isn’t it?”

Lisa nodded. “You could call it that.”

“Did you have anything like this at that fancy coffee shop you worked at in Hollywood?”

Lisa thought of the Coffee Spot, her home away from home for the last five years. The shop was tucked away in a strip mall in a shady intersection in Studio City, and was frequented by a constant assortment of hopefuls. Actors, writers, musicians, comedians, even an aspiring producer or two, all used the shop like their own little office. An office with some of the best, most freshly roasted coffee in the greater Los Angeles area. Lisa knew all the regulars, by drink order and face if not always by name. The famous ones liked it when she referred to them as Double Espresso or Iced Soy Latte rather than by name like some star-struck fan. She felt a pang of longing. Dylan had taken away more than just her romantic hopes. He’d stolen her sense of community. Even though she’d grown up in a small town, which popular lore would have you believe automatically means a sense of community, it wasn’t until she started working at the Coffee Spot that she truly felt at home.

At the Coffee Spot, Lisa had been in charge of taste-testing new coffee blends, and her aunt’s chocolate-blueberry-chicory monstrosity would never have made it on the menu.

She shook her head and tried another sip. Nope, still not good. Moss Creek could really use a good coffee shop, not just for the coffee but for the community.

“Now sit down right here and look at this view.”

Olivia led her out onto the deck, where she revealed a platter of bacon and ham under a cloche on the table. Looking over the side of the deck, Lisa saw that the vegetable garden had been transformed into a sculpture garden. More metal dogs cavorted on the lawn. A giant metal cat towered over them, seemingly a heartbeat away from pouncing.

Lisa took a bite of bacon. This seemed like a good time to try to pump her aunt for information about her parents.

“So, Aunt Olivia, how have you been lately? Have you been spending much time with my mom?”

Olivia munched on a piece of bacon and shrugged. “Oh, you know how it is with us. She’s busy buying and selling pieces of Mother Earth, I’m busy helping people commune with the artistic spirit in all of us.”

Lisa nodded. For sisters, her mother and aunt really didn’t seem to have much in common. “And how is the gallery these days?”

Olivia shook her head. “People don’t understand how much they need art in their lives. And in their homes, and on their walls. But I’m hanging in there. So few great artists are discovered in their own lifetimes, I suppose it’s hubris to expect to be one of them.”

“How about Daddy? How is he taking the, um, news?”

Olivia squinted at her. “Now why would I know that?”

“I don’t know, I just thought… I mean, it was such a surprise. Did you know they were having problems?”

“That’s none of my business. They’re adults, and can run their own affairs.” She drained her mug and picked up Lisa’s nearly full one. “Thank you for coming by, Lisa, dear. I need to get going now.”

Lisa stood, surprised by her aunt’s sudden shift. “Oh, well, sure. I’ll stop by the gallery later. I’d love to see your latest work.”

Her aunt put the mugs down and folded her into a hug. “You do that. I have some paintings that are really working.”


Chapter 3

Still in need of coffee, Lisa headed for downtown. She could have gone back to her mother’s house, but she didn’t want to explain to Penny why she’d left so early. If she waited a little longer, Penny would be at work by the time Lisa came back.

The early morning light was kind to the buildings in downtown Moss Creek, forgiving their faults of cheap construction and derivative design to bathe them in the hopeful light of morning. The Folly, as always, stood out from its neighbors. It was a beautiful old building, stately without seeming pretentious. Lisa slowed down to ogle the lovely house as she headed for the diner.

The street in front of the diner didn’t have a single open parking space. Lisa cruised around the block looking for parking, finally finding some in front of the dry cleaner. Must have been too early for dry cleaning.

The bell jingled as she entered the diner. The foyer was packed with people, and Lisa craned her neck to try to find the hostess and get her name on the list. As she looked, a familiar face came into view, spotted her, and broke into a giant smile.

Lisa laughed as the crowd parted and that familiar face closed the distance.

“Lisa!”

“Carly!”

They threw their arms around each other and hugged. A bulge between them made Lisa look down in surprise.

“Carly, you’re…” she gestured at her friend’s midsection.

“About four months along,” Carly said, grinning and rubbing her hands over her growing belly.

“Oh my god, I had no idea,” Lisa said, flushing with guilt. How could she not know her best friend from high school was pregnant?

“I posted an ultrasound to Facebook — I know, so cliché — but I was going to call you and tell you all about it; that’s just so much more personal. Oh, it’s so good to see you!”

“Congratulations! I’m so happy for you and Gideon.” Lisa looked around. “Is he here, or…?”

“No, he’s working today. I was going to eat at the counter, but this place is a zoo this morning.”

“Me too. Want to eat together? We can catch up.”

“I’d love that,” Carly said, “but the wait is going to be twice as long for two.”

Lisa looked at her shoes, disappointed. She didn’t much like eating alone, and she’d been so excited to see her friend again. Maybe the feeling wasn’t mutual.

Carly frowned. “I can’t stand this crowd. Let’s get out of here. We can grab something from the drive-thru.”

“You’re on!” They pushed through the crowd to the door. “Your car or mine?”

Carly beeped the unlock on the small silver Subaru wagon right in front of them. “Unless you’re parked closer than this, let’s take mine.”

They went to the drive-thru at Lola’s Burgers and More at the edge of town and got a giant box of food. Burgers, fries, chicken strips, milkshakes, soda, onion rings, a breakfast burrito, and pie. Lisa’s eyes bulged at the bounty.

Carly shrugged. “Junior gets hungry,” she said, patting her rounded belly.

Lisa looked out the window as they drove into the forest. The trees were cool and shady and green. It hit her again that she was really here, back where she started, so different from LA.

Carly ate during nearly the entire drive, a little more than an hour, to the Grand Canyon overlook favored by locals. She slurped the last of the chocolate milkshake as she put the car in park.

They hiked up to the overlook and sat on a boulder. The Grand Canyon, no matter how many times Lisa had seen it before, overwhelmed her with its beauty and majesty. The silver ribbon of water peeking through didn’t seem powerful enough to have carved the miles of rock around it, revealing their layers of color.

Lisa sighed.

“Yeah,” Carly said. “Me, too. No matter how big and overwhelming my problems feel, this place just, you know, seems to put things in perspective.”

“Perspective? I could use a bit of that.”

“Ok, fess up. What happened in LA? With Dylan?” Carly used the tone of voice she’d developed teaching school, firm but kind, ready to listen to everything but brooking no nonsense.

“It was a total disaster.”

“Ok, I know that’s not precisely true. You have an agent. You’re a working actor. That’s not a disaster.”

“Had. I had an agent. And I got one job. One. I mean, other than extra work.” She laughed a bitter laugh. “You know what they call extras on set? Props that eat. I’m a prop! Not even a person.”

“You ARE a person. And one job means you could do more jobs. Not that you have to be an actor; that’s not the point. But you can do whatever you set your mind to.”

Lisa shook her head, staring out at the glory of the canyon. “I don’t know.”

“I know.” Carly patted her hand. “Ok, what about your agent? You just got that job a few months ago. That seems like a valuable client to keep.”

Lisa sighed. “Promise me you don’t tell anyone this.”

“Ok.”

“No, really. Promise me.”

“Fine, I promise. What happened?”

“I walked in on my agent in bed with Dylan.”

“What?!”

“It got pretty ugly. I might have said a few things I regret. Actually, I might have thrown a few things I regret.”

“That’s… that’s… it’s so unprofessional of them!”

Lisa laughed, tears in her eyes. “I tell you my agent and my boyfriend were screwing, and you see the lack of professionalism! That’s why I love you.”

“Well, it is unprofessional. And sometimes our professional dignity is all we have to separate us from the animals. And I should know from feeling like an animal these days.” Carly patted her belly for emphasis. “Pregnancy has a way of making a girl feel downright mammalian.”

They were quiet a minute.

“Oh, the baby’s kicking. You want to feel?”

Lisa put her hand tentatively over her friend’s midsection and let Carly guide it to a spot that looked strangely pointy. A second passed, and then she felt it, an unmistakable push against her palm. She took her hand away and stared at it.

“That is pretty wild,” she said.

“Untamed and full of life,” Carly agreed. “So I guess that means Dylan got to keep the agent in the split?”

“You could say that.” It felt good to laugh again, and to have someone to tell things to. “You know, it had been a while that I knew something was wrong between us. Dylan and me, I mean. I had no idea there was anything wrong with the agent, besides the usual. But we just… it’s like we didn’t really talk anymore. Weeks would go by and I couldn’t think of the last real conversation we’d had that wasn’t about schedules or bills. It’s like Dylan had checked out early but didn’t bother to tell me.”

“That’s the worst.”

“I don’t know why he didn’t just say something. I mean, what could he have said, right? But still. I feel like he wasted my time. I’ll be thirty in October, and what do I have to show for myself?”

Carly turned and took Lisa by the shoulders. “Stop it. What do you have to show? You’re a beautiful, vibrant woman. You made your way in Hollywood and got cast in a commercial. You have a long life ahead of you, with so many different paths open to you. Your age does not define you, and neither does that man-slut, Dylan.”

Lisa smiled sheepishly. “You’re getting pretty good at your pep talks.”

“Yeah, well, I give myself a practice pep talk in the mirror every morning.”

Lisa put her hand in her pocket and pulled out the engagement ring. “I was going to throw this in the canyon,” she admitted.

“You still could,” Carly said, “but it’s a pretty big rock. And you have no obligation to return it to a cheater. Why not pawn it and use the money for something better than that rat?”

“Yeah, I like that idea better.” She put the ring back in her pocket. “Driving through Barstow, I also thought of throwing myself into the canyon. Just drive straight through and go right over the edge.”

Carly’s face got very serious. “Lisa Chance, don’t you dare. You are too important to lose yourself like that.”

“I won’t. I don’t even know why I’d think something like that. I blame Barstow. It really is a depressing town.” She laughed, hoping to reassure her friend.

“All right. Good. But if you ever think that way, call me. Ok? Call me, any time.”

“I will.”

Carly took her hand and gave it a squeeze, and they sat and looked out over the gorgeous view. The sun had risen higher in the sky, and the colors of the canyon walls were different. The angle of the light and the time of year changed the look of that beautiful place in subtle ways. Lisa and Carly had spent enough time looking at it that every little change registered.

“So what’s next for Lisa Chance?” Carly said. “Are you going back to LA?”

Lisa shook her head. “No. LA feels like… like it’s more Dylan’s town than mine, like acting was more his thing, and I was mostly doing it because that’s what people do.”

“What then?” Carly’s smile grew hopeful. “Will you stay here?”

“I don’t know. Maybe? I really don’t know what I should do. I love it here. The trees, the mountains, the fresh air.”

“The canyon.”

“The canyon,” Lisa agreed. She shrugged. “I just feel so unprepared. Underprepared. I spent my twenties chasing Hollywood. But if I’m not acting, what can I do?”

“Your mom would probably hire you at the real estate office.”

“She can’t. You can’t sell real estate with a criminal record.”

Carly nodded. “Right. I always forget about that. I guess that rules out joining Toby at the police department.”

Lisa laughed. “Can you even imagine me as a cop?”

“Maybe. You’ve got a good eye for detail, you’re good with people, you’re fit enough. Why couldn’t you make a good cop? I mean, other than the criminal record thing.”

“Sure, fine, but I need to figure out a job in the real world, not in the pretend world where I never got charged with criminal trespass.”

“Ok, what do you like? What do you know about? What makes you feel good?”

“I like the canyon. I like coffee. I know about coffee from working at the Coffee Spot. I know about jail. From going there. I know about the Folly. From going there.” She sighed. It felt so hopeless trying to figure out what a nearly thirty-year-old woman with a criminal record and no college degree and no real work experience could do.

“You liked working at the Coffee Spot, right?” Carly said, that tone in her voice again.

“Of course. Hard to pay the bills in LA on coffee shop wages, but yeah. It was great.”

“And you’re a go-getter.”

“Sure, I guess.”

“And you saw how busy the diner was this morning.”

“Yee-aah.” Lisa was starting to get the drift of Carly’s thoughts.

“What if you opened a coffee shop here?”

“At the overlook?”

“No, in town, silly.”

Lisa opened her mouth to shoot the idea down, but stopped. She really had loved working at the coffee shop, and the town really could use a place like that. “But what about capital?” she said. “It would be amazing to start my own coffee shop, that’s true, but starting a business costs money.”

Carly gestured at the majestic canyon in front of them. “Look at this place. Anything is possible. The only question is, do you want it?”

“I do, but… I guess I feel like this is my last chance.”

“Lisa Chance’s last chance,” Carly said.

“Last chance café. Ooh, I like that. Lisa’s Last Chance Café.” She grinned.

“Lisa’s Last Chance Café,” Carly echoed.

Excitement bubbled up in her gut. “I’m going to start a coffee shop!” Lisa yelled into the Grand Canyon.

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