A Gift for Murder by Karen McCullough

A Gift for Murder by Karen McCullough

A Gift for Murder

Market Center Mysteries, Book 1

by Karen McCullough

Ebook ISBN: B00CGKYNT6
Print ISBN: 978-1594149313

[ Mystery Romance, MF ]

For fifty-one weeks of the year, Heather McNeil loves her job as assistant to the director of the Washington, D.C. Commerce & Market Show Center. But the Gifts and Home Decorations trade show, the biggest show of the year at the center, is a week-long nightmare.

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Chapter One


If I’d known how bad Wednesday would get, I would’ve—what? Stayed in bed? Not likely. The show must go on and all that. But I would’ve at least asked for another shot of espresso during my morning stop at Starbucks. Maybe two.

My work day went from peaceful beginning to chaos within half an hour. This wasn’t just another day at the office. The start of the annual Washington, D.C. Gifts and Decorations Show, our biggest show of the year at the Commerce & Market Show Center, was always the worst day of the year for the staff who organized it.

By nine-thirty, blizzards of paper covered my desk, my cell phone hadn’t quit buzzing, and the land-line phone rang continuously. The computer constantly chimed the arrival of new email messages. A strange man stopped at the office door and stood there watching me.

The triple-shot latte was already struggling to keep my sanity in place.

I recognized the number on the cell phone display and reached for it first.

“Heather?” Janelle, the Show Center’s director and my boss, sounded disturbed. Unflappable Janelle sounding disturbed was worse than most people shouting or having hysterics.

“Problem?” I asked, trying not to stare at the stranger, who lingered near the doorway. A quick glance said he was worth a look.

Until Janelle said, “Find Mark and tell him aisles three to five don’t have power. He’s not answering his pager. Then call Truffant Shipping and ask them to fax copies of the manifests for their deliveries to Brent-Cooper. A couple of their boxes are missing. Once you’ve done that, can you get down here? Lots of ruffled feathers over the power. Oh, and Grantwood & Bethel is missing one of their key people. They think he may be lost somewhere in the city. And Sue Savotsky of Trimstates doesn’t like her location—the carpet’s not clean, and the people across the way are playing loud music.”

“Her again?”

“ ’Fraid so. But she likes you, so if you wouldn’t mind—What’s that?” The last two words were directed at someone else. “Gotta go. Need you ASAP.” Janelle ended the call.

I reached for the latte getting cold on a corner of my desk.

Someone else yelled, “Heather!”

Jo startled me so badly I almost splashed coffee on my white silk blouse. That would make a really good impression on the clients down on the showroom floor. Or the hunk in the doorway.

I turned toward her office. “What?”

“I can’t find the latest press accreditations list.”

“I put a copy in your inbox this morning. Did you look there?”

“Yes. It’s not . . . oh, wait, here it is.”

How did our marketing director manage to get her shoes on the right feet in the morning? I rolled my eyes, momentarily forgetting I wasn’t alone.

A warm, masculine chuckle reminded me. “You must be the person who runs the place.” The voice was deep and rich, sexy as a Milky Way bar—the kind with dark chocolate.

I turned to face the stranger, who’d taken a couple of steps toward my desk. Tall, lean, around thirty, blond hair cut short, light eyes of indeterminate color.

“I’m Heather McNeil, the director’s assistant,” I answered. “I do my part. Can I help you?”

The right side of his mouth curled into the beginnings of a smile. For a moment there was a delightfully predatory gleam in his eye, but then the light went out, as if he’d shut it off. Damn!

“Scott Brandon. I had an appointment to apply for the security officer’s position you’re advertising,” he said.

“You need to see Craig Vincelli, down the hall. He’s the security chief.”

“He wasn’t in his office. Someone directed me up here. There wasn’t anyone at the receptionist’s desk, either.”

Jo came out of her office, shuffling an armload of papers. “Gotta take these down to the press room. Back shortly.” She paused to admire the newcomer, then raced down the hall when she heard the elevator bell ping.

“God knows where Tina is,” I said, as much to myself as to the man standing there. “Craig’s probably out running down the missing boxes. Or the missing executive. Just a minute.” I picked up the phone and dialed Craig’s cell number.

He answered on the third ring, breathless and in a hurry. “Yeah?”

When I explained, he said, “Crap, I forgot. I’ll be there in ten minutes. “Give Brandon the paperwork.”

I said I would and hung up.

“You’ve mislaid boxes and an executive?” Scott Brandon asked. “The boxes I can understand, but aren’t executives kind of hard to lose?”

“Not in D.C. They manage to lose themselves all the time. In traffic, in museums, in the Metro, in the halls of power . . .”

He frowned. “You’re too young to be so cynical.”

“There’s an age limit? No one told me.”

“Real cynicism takes bitter experience.”

“And you’re so ancient?”

Something flashed in his eyes, something dark and dangerous. “I’ve walked the walk and—”

“Turned the talk into a lecture. Come with me.” I stopped at Tina’s desk to get the application forms and led him to the small conference room. “Sit in here and fill these out. Bring them back to me when you’re done.”

I spent a few minutes on the phone trying to track down Mark, our resident electrician, but he didn’t answer pages or his cell phone. No one had seen him. I swore quietly to myself, then called the shipping company about the boxes. They promised to fax the manifest.

I needed to get down to the show floor but I couldn’t leave Scott Brandon up here alone, so I called a few more people around the building, trying to locate Mark. On a hunch I dialed down to the snack bar and nailed my target. I asked the manager to put him on the line and gave Mark an earful about turning off his pager and cell phone. Then I told him about the power problem. After a couple of insincere apologies, he promised to get right on it. As I was hanging up, Scott Brandon emerged from the conference room.

He brought the forms back to me. I had time for a quick glance at his date of birth before the elevator pinged again and disgorged Craig Vincelli into the lobby.

“Here’s the man you need to see,” I said.

Was that a flash of regret in Brandon’s eyes before he turned to face Vincelli? I hoped so.

I reluctantly turned him over to Craig, but I couldn’t help watching them leave. Brandon looked just as good from behind as he did from the front. Nice shoulders, nice butt. Great ad for tight jeans. I did the mental math on his age and came up with thirty-one. I hoped he landed the job.

The phone rang again. “Heather, where are you? We’re going nuts down here.” Janelle sounded even more upset than she had earlier

I explained why I hadn’t been able to leave and told her I was on my way down.

“Go straight to Grantwood & Bethel’s booth. Twenty-two eighteen. They’re about to have a cow. No one’s heard from Tim Bethel since last night. See if you can calm everybody down, maybe make some suggestions—” A crash sounded in the background, followed by several excited voices. “Oh, damn. Gotta go.”

The call ended abruptly and I headed for the elevator.

What the heck was I going to tell Grantwood & Bethel? Even in D.C., a twelve-hour traffic jam wasn’t likely. And people got lost all the time, but they usually found their way or asked for directions within an hour or two. Even the most stubborn, most all-powerful masters of their universes eventually threw in the scepter and consulted a map. Or a cop. Of course, people went missing periodically. Most of them showed up, eventually, with a good reason for their absence and wondering what all the fuss was about. Some showed up with a solid blush and a lame excuse, but, sadly, a few turned up in the morgue.

I wasn’t going to mention that to the G & B people.

When the elevator doors slid open at ground level, noise slammed into me like a hurricane-force wind. A thunderous concatenation of shoes on tile, rolling bags squeaking, and above everything else, thousands of people talking and conducting negotiations, rose from the showroom floor. The engine of commerce makes an enormous racket.

The woman at the registration desk waved at me as I passed. The missing Tina was there, too, gossiping with one of the temps handling check-ins. “There’s no one in the main office upstairs,” I told her. “If Janelle gets back there before you do, your ass is fried.”

Tina jumped up and raced for the elevator. Two other people stopped me to ask questions before I even reached the show floor, but I dealt with them quickly.

Commerce—or was it chaos?—was in full cry. I had to push through crowds of people to get to aisle twenty-two and then halfway up it to twenty-two eighteen. It was one of the medium-sized booths, taking up six spaces on the floor. When I handed my card to the sales rep who greeted me, he looked relieved and said he’d get his boss.

Two people emerged from a curtained-off area in the center of the booth: a man in his mid to late fifties and a woman in her late forties. Both had the polished professional look and engaging demeanor of long-time sales execs. The woman’s hair was an elegant shade of chestnut, and her suit hung beautifully.

“Heather McNeil,” I said, extending a hand. “I’m Janelle Addison’s assistant. She asked me to get some more information from you. About a missing person.”

Relief and annoyance crossed both faces. The man held out a hand and said, “Stan Grantwood, Co-CEO of Grantwood & Bethel. This is Ellen Spencer, our executive vice president of marketing.”

I shook hands with both of them.

“Come back here where we can talk privately,” Grantwood said.

I followed them into the curtained-off area. The rear of their display unit formed one of the walls, which helped dampen some of the noise outside. I declined the drinks they offered but pulled out a pad and pen to take notes.

“One of your people is missing?” I said, getting right to the point. I really didn’t have time for small talk.

Both nodded. “Tim Bethel, my partner,” Grantwood said. “We can’t contact him. He checked into his hotel yesterday afternoon and came by here last night to make sure everything was in order. No one’s heard from him since. We can’t raise him on his cell phone, but it might be broken. The hotel doesn’t know anything about him and he doesn’t answer the phone in his room. We left a message there but it hasn’t been returned. He hasn’t contacted anyone back at the home office, either.”

“Has anyone knocked on the door? Maybe he overslept?”

“It’s not likely he overslept, but who knows? He’s not staying at the same hotel as the rest of us.”

“What hotel is it? I’ll have someone go and check.”

Grantwood gave me the name. When I asked for a room number, Ellen Spencer pulled out a piece of paper, glanced at it, and said, “Six-thirty-eight.”

I wrote it down before continuing. “You’re based in Cincinnati? Did he fly in?”

“Tim flew in from Seattle yesterday. He had a meeting with one of our suppliers there. Then he came straight here. His wife’s flying in this afternoon, to meet him. That’s one of the reasons he’s not at the same hotel.”

Something flashed across Ellen Spencer’s face so quickly I nearly missed it. A frown or a sneer? Ellen didn’t like the wife, or was it something else? Not that it really mattered, but I filed it away for possible future reference.

“So he got in yesterday, checked into his hotel and came here,” I said. “What time was it, and who saw him here yesterday?”

Grantwood looked blank. Spencer said, “I don’t know what time he arrived or checked in. It was about seven when he got here last night. We were putting the finishing touches on the booth and getting some last-minute items hashed out. We’re going to be making a big announcement Saturday night.”

“So you were here,” I said to her, watching her reaction carefully. She didn’t give anything more away. “Who else?”

“Two of the reps, Vickie Hanifan and Jason Welston. If you’re looking for others who saw him, a couple of people were still in some of the other booths.”

“Do you know what time he left?

“About eight, I think. They were shutting down the building.”

“Did he say where he was going or what he planned to do?”

She shook her head.

“Where was everyone else?”

“In the bar at the Shelton where the rest of us are staying, I think. We had a dinner meeting at six. Tim didn’t attend. After the meeting I came back here.”

“Most of us went to the bar for some relaxation before the circus started,” Grantwood said.

I nodded, looked at my notes, and sighed. A bad feeling about this had begun curling deep in my gut. “I’ll have someone make inquiries right away,” I said. “But if we don’t find him pretty soon, we may have to bring in the authorities.”

As I expected, alarm showed on the faces of both Grantwood and Spencer.

“I hope we don’t have to do that,” Spencer said.

At the same time, Grantwood said, “You think something might have happened to him?”

I merely said, “I’ll get on it right now,” then left the booth and searched for a quiet corner to make a call.

Craig answered on the second ring. “Did you hire Scott Brandon?” I asked, knowing he’d recognize my voice if not my number.

“Yeah. He starts tomorrow.”

“Good. He doesn’t have to work out notice?”

“He’s currently under-employed.”

“I wish he’d started today.”

“Why? You interested? Not a good idea. Don’t let the pretty face fool you.”

I wanted to respond to that, but I had too much else on my mind. “Actually, I need the help. Did Janelle tell you one of the Grantwood & Bethel partners is missing? His name is Tim Bethel. I’ve got a bad feeling about it, and I need someone to knock on the door of his hotel room.”

“Sorry, babe. It’s just me and Randy supervising all the temps and rental cops. Not enough of them, either. We’ve got our hands way too full.”

“I know, but maybe one of the temps?”

“Not likely.”

I swallowed my annoyance as I ended the call. Throwing the phone at the wall would not be a good move. What now? My watch showed eleven o’clock. It wasn’t that far to Bethel’s hotel. I could walk there and still have plenty of time to smooth ruffled feathers when I got back. Maybe I could grab lunch from some place on the floor. A good thing my shoes were reasonably comfortable, despite the two-and-a-half-inch heels. Hated walking on concrete in them, though. On my salary I could only afford a new pair of good shoes every couple of years.

The day had turned mild for March, so I didn’t bother to retrieve my coat. The three blocks would have been an easy walk if it weren’t for two major street crossings and a construction zone detour. I debated stopping at the hotel desk, but I doubted they’d give me a key or tell me anything about the occupant of the room. Instead I went right up to the sixth floor.

I found the room and knocked several times. There was no answer. I pressed my ear to the panel but couldn’t hear anything from inside the room. A glance along the corridor showed a service cart two doors down, with an open room door behind it.

I entered the room. “Hello?”

A woman in a maid’s uniform leaned out of the bathroom. “You looking for someone?”

“Not in this room. Two doors down. Have you cleaned six-thirty-eight?”

“Yes, ma’am. Just a few minutes ago.”

“There wasn’t anyone there?”

The woman hesitated then shook her head.

“A man named Mr.Bethel is supposed to be staying in that room, and he didn’t show up for work this morning. We were hoping he overslept.”

She walked out of the bathroom. “Wouldn’t think so. Don’t look like nobody slept in that room last night.”

“What do you mean?”

She glanced around, as if scared someone might leap out of the closet or from behind the drapes. “I ain’t supposed to talk about the guests with anyone, but . . . Bed was still made up. Towels mostly all folded like I left them yesterday. Don’t think he stayed there last night.” She drew a breath. “Now don’t you go telling no one I told you this, you hear?”

“I won’t. One more thing. Were there any suitcases in there? Had anyone been there at all?”

“Yeah, there’s a suitcase in there. And a briefcase, too, best I recall. But I can’t let you in to see.”

“I don’t need to go in. Just wanted to know if he was there.” I waited to see if she’d add anything.

After a moment, she looked around again, then nodded for me to come closer. “Soap was unwrapped and a towel was on the counter. Only signs someone had been there. Shower clean and dry. No clothes laying around. Bed hadn’t been used.” She glanced at the door. “You didn’t hear nothin’ from me.”

“Thank you,” I said, and turned to go, then dug in my purse and left a ten on her cart.

Now what? Where did an executive go if he wasn’t in his hotel or at the trade show where his company would be handling millions of dollars’ worth of orders? A tryst? Maybe last night, but not today. This guy was driven enough to help found a hugely successful company. And he’d left his briefcase in the room. An accident seemed more and more likely, or maybe something worse. How long did the police tell you to wait before reporting a missing person? Something like twenty-four hours?

My watch said ten to noon when I got back to the Market Center.

I phoned Janelle and told her I needed to talk to her right away. She promised to meet me in the snack bar in thirty minutes. “But first, talk to Savotsky,” she said. “The woman will make a scene if you don’t get her calmed down.”

I sighed, ended the call, and went off to calm ruffled feathers. Sue Savotsky was a pain in the rear end, no other way to put it. But I’d watched Janelle for a while so I knew the drill. I listened and made soothing noises as Sue complained about her location, the neighbors’ stuff crowding hers, the spots on the carpet, and the noise from the booth across the aisle. I figured there was no point arguing, no point in telling her that the neighbors’ displays were crowding hers because her shelves sat half a foot into their space, no point reminding her that she could have—and should have—paid for a larger booth, which would have got gotten her a better location. That would only bring more anger and verbal abuse.

So I let her vent, listening with half my brain, and promised to talk to the people across the way and ask them to turn down the music. I also promised to send a cleaning crew to work on the carpet stains, even though I could barely see them. Any positive action usually mollified Sue for a day or so.

I probably should have paid closer attention, but the more I thought about Tim Bethel’s unused hotel room, the more worried I felt.

I was five minutes late getting to the snack shop. Janelle hadn’t waited.

The manager called me over when he saw me come in. “Janelle had to go. Couple of calls came in.” He glanced down at a paper where he’d scratched notes. “She asked me to tell you she’ll meet you back here in an hour. Also wanted me to ask you to check on the receiving area. Someone complained about a bunch of cardboard scattered all over. It needs to be cleaned up.”

I nodded. My stomach reminded me I hadn’t had lunch, so I scarfed a hot dog while standing at the counter and took a bag of potato chips with me as I went back upstairs to the show floor. A mess in receiving shouldn’t be as high a priority as a missing executive. I swung by the Grantwood & Bethel booth. A crowd of buyers filled the area, perusing G & B’s lines of decorative statuary and picture frames. A couple of the knickknacks caught my eye, especially a pair of the most hideous little angel figurines I’d ever seen. The buyers, though, oohed and aahed over them. I’ve never claimed to have great taste, but I wouldn’t give those chubby cherubs space on any shelf in my home.

Angels looked to be the hot item this year. I’d seen versions in a number of booths already.

I didn’t see Grantwood, but Ellen Spencer stood with a bunch of buyers not far from me. She caught me looking a question at her and shook her head in the negative. Damn. We were only a few hours away from the twenty-four hours Tim had been missing. My stomach twisted into a knot.

We’d have to call the police.

I stopped at another booth that was serving soft drinks, hoping a soda would settle my churning stomach. It meant I had to spend a few minutes talking to the people there, but since they were first-timers and excited about how many orders they’d already written, it wasn’t a trial and only took up a few minutes.

The missing electrician, Mark, caught up with me at the end of aisle eighteen to tell me he’d restored power to aisles three to five and why it had failed. “Barrakind has this giant pinball game set up to get people to notice their booth,” he explained. “I can’t believe the frickin’ things these guys do. I wonder how much that thing cost? Enough to feed my whole family for a week, I’ll bet, even my brother Billy, the human garbage disposal. But they plugged it in, and ZWOOT! Shorted out and blew the breaker. Thing was a bitch to fix, too, let me tell you. Took me a couple of hours. Then I had to reset the breaker. Geez, the things these guys do.” He shook his head.

I was inclined to agree with him about the absurdity of some of the gimmicks, but right then we didn’t have time to dwell on the excesses of marketing notions. “Come with me. Janelle said someone complained about the receiving area being a mess.”

“Sure, babe. Anything.”

Damn! With all the other stuff on my mind, I’d forgotten about Mark’s crush on me and his delusion that I was secretly madly in love with him. For the moment his crush was an asset, as long as he didn’t manage to trap me in a dark corner for a little fooling around.

We ducked behind a curtain that walled off the exhibit area from the utility spaces. The loading dock was off to our right with the receiving area directly ahead. Two of the bay doors stood open, though no trucks were parked there right now. The openings admitted light and the fresh March air.

I plowed straight ahead into the storage area, narrowly avoided tripping over a crowbar lying on the floor, and saw what Janelle had complained about.

This was the area where most of the larger cartons and boxes were unpacked before the merchandise was loaded onto dollies and hand trucks to be carted off to the booths. The booths themselves often arrived packed in boxes as well. There’s a big rolling trash bin on the one side for packing materials, and we have signs posted all over encouraging people to take care of their own trash. Someone had a talent for ignoring signs.

Hard to describe what a complete disaster the area was. Sheets of cardboard littered the floor and stuck up at odd angles in places. In one corner, half a box formed a cozy little tent. Weird-shaped wads of tape sat like small animals traipsing through hills of torn-up cartons, and streamers of it hung off edges and corners. Slabs of Styrofoam cushioning mingled with the more environmentally friendly puffs of air-filled plastic. Bubble wrap popped loudly when Mark walked across a sheet of it.

“Day-um,” he said. “Can’t nobody read the signs?”

“Apparently not.” I wasn’t exactly dressed for housekeeping/maintenance chores, but who else was going to do it? Again I wished Vince had told that Scott Brandon guy to start today. If I ruined my silk blouse doing this, Janelle had better get the Center to reimburse me. I didn’t expect my pantyhose to survive, which wouldn’t be that much of a loss. At least I’d have an excuse not to wear them the rest of the day.

“Get the cart and let’s start loading this stuff.” It irked me to be doing this when there were so many other things I needed to do, but Janelle set the priorities. I pulled out the cell phone and called the head of maintenance to ask if he had anyone free to come help us. I had to invoke Janelle and her priorities, but he finally said he thought Sam could come down.

Sam’s help was only slightly better than no help, but it was all I was going to get and I knew better than to sigh or be sarcastic. The wheels of the portable trash cart squeaked as Mark rolled it over and triggered a series of pops when they demolished another swathe of bubble wrap.

We loaded the trash into the cart. Not only did I have to take care not to tear up my clothes or get my heels caught in the junk, but I had to watch how I bent over because Mark was eyeing me all too closely.

Sam—tall, plain, and a tad slow in almost every respect—arrived within a few minutes. He surveyed the area, shook his head, and said, “Well, that’s just plain rude!”

Mark said something a lot ruder about the ancestry of the perpetrators and looked up to take in Sam’s reaction. Poor Sam didn’t even realize Mark was baiting him. He responded by saying, “That’s not nice.”

“It isn’t,” I agreed, stabbing Mark with the nastiest warning look I could manage. I hate it when he needles Sam like that. “Get to work, guys.”

For the next ten minutes or so, the three of us scraped up debris and tossed it into the cart. “Somebody was in a hell of a hurry or something to get their stuff unloaded,” Mark commented as he pulled up a length of tape clinging to the floor. When the cart was full, Mark rolled it off to the loading dock where he could empty it into the big trash bin.

Sam and I continued to gather trash into a neat pile, awaiting Mark’s return. It took him an awfully long time, a lot longer than it should have. The Dumpster sat on the ground outside and the dock was at truck unloading height, so all he had to do was tip the cart and let the contents slide into the bigger trash container below.

“Hey, Mark,” I yelled after a few minutes. “Find something interesting in there?”

There was no answer, so I returned to the main receiving area. Mark knelt on the edge of the loading dock, reaching into the bin.

“What are you doing?”

He jolted and nearly fell in. I leaned down to give him a hand, then froze as I caught a glimpse of what he stared at. Fortunately, he managed to right himself on his own.

“Heather,” he said, his voice sounding weirdly choked. “I saw something shining . . . a watch, and I thought it must have fallen in there, and someone would be missing it, and—”

I saw it. “Oh my God!”

The watch was gold, expensive, and it gleamed in a ray of sunlight that shone on the trash bin. Unfortunately, it still wrapped around a wrist. The hand attached to that wrist was large, masculine, and well-kept. The fingers had tightened almost into a fist. A dark suit jacket covered the arm from just above the wrist to where it disappeared beneath a layer of trash. Near the metal sidewall of the container rested a shoe, a black wing-tip, nearly new based on the condition of the heel. An appalling inch of pale skin shone between the dark sock and the bottom of dark suit trousers.

Then I saw the red stain that soaked a sheet of cardboard not far from the wrist. The smell hit me about the same time. Oh, shit! Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.

“I think we just found Grant & Bethels’s missing executive.” My voice sounded strange to me. I stepped back and fumbled for the cell phone, but my hands shook so badly it took three tries to flip it open.

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