Katerina Carter Color of Money Mystery Boxed Set: Books 1-3 - Colleen Cross - ebook
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3 Cozy Mysteries in 1!Forensic accountant Katerina Carter finds trouble wherever she goes, even on vacation. The first three cozy mysteries include wine, roses and a deadly romantic Christmas in the mountains!Red Handed – a short storyWhen forensic accountant and fraud investigator Katerina Carter and journalist boyfriend Jace Burton accept an impromptu party invitation, crime is the last thing on their minds. Then a winning wine investment leaves a sour taste in Kat’s mouth and she unravels the clues to a million-dollar wine fraud, all before dinner!Blue Moon – a noveletteKat and boyfriend Jace’s plans for a fancy dinner go awry when she discovers that her elderly neighbor Fiona has taken an ex-con into her home as a boarder. Fiona’s volunteer gardening program at the local prison has changed lives, but extending her generosity further just might put her own life in jeopardy.Kat’s suspicion deepens when she learns of a recent life insurance policy. And accidental death pays double.Greenwash – a novelForensic accountant Katerina Carter and boyfriend Jace Burton embark on a weekend getaway at a luxury mountaintop lodge just before Christmas. While he writes the biography of a billionaire environmentalist, she explores the snowy wilderness.Then two local protestors die under mysterious circumstances, and Kat and Jace race against time to save themselves from an even deadlier disaster.Also included: A bonus excerpt from Game Theory, A Katerina Carter Fraud Thriller!If you like cozy mysteries like Jana DeLeon, Joanne Fluke and Leighann Dobbs, you'll love Colleen Cross's unique mystery stories. Think Agatha Christie meets Janet Evanovich!

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Katerina Carter Color of Money Mysteries

Boxed Set: Books 1-3

Colleen Cross

Slice Publishing Mystery and Thriller Books

Katerina Carter Color of Money Mysteries, Red Handed, Blue Moon, Greenwash Copyright © 2015, 2018 by Colleen Cross, Colleen Tompkins

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, recording, or otherwise—without the prior written consent of the copyright holder and publisher. The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law.

Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

eBook ISBN: 978-0-9948462–11

Published by Slice Publishing

ISBN: 978-0-9878835-9-9

Created with Vellum

Contents

Also by Colleen Cross

Red Handed

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Blue Moon

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Greenwash

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Afterword

Also by Colleen Cross

Also by Colleen Cross

Westwick Witches Cozy Mysteries

Witch You Well

Rags to Witches

Witch and Famous

Christmas Witch List

Westwick Witches Magical Mystery Box set (books 1-3)

Katerina Carter Color of Money Mysteries

Red Handed

Blue Moon

Katerina Carter Fraud Legal Thrillers

Exit Strategy

Game Theory

Blowout

Greenwash

Katerina Carter Fraud Thrillers (books 1-3)

Nonfiction

Anatomy of a Ponzi Scheme

Get the latest list at www.colleencross.com

Red Handed

When private investigator Katerina Carter and journalist boyfriend Jace Burton accept an impromptu party invitation, crime is the last thing on their minds. Then a winning wine investment leaves a sour taste in Kat’s mouth and she unravels the clues to a million-dollar wine fraud, all before dinner!

1

Some days—correction—most days—Katerina Carter questioned the wisdom of buying the old Victorian house. She and Jace had bought it, sight unseen, at the city tax sale. It had seemed too good a deal to pass up, an entire Victorian house in exchange for payment of three years’ worth of unpaid taxes. But any savings had been more than eaten up in repair bills. Not to mention sweat equity.

She’d taken a rare day off work to focus on some much-needed home improvements. Fraud investigation tended to be slow in late August and she was between cases anyways. It was debatable which was harder: catching criminals or sanding away decades of paint layers on a neglected old house.

Kat laid down her paintbrush and smiled as she surveyed her work. The veranda looked stunning, the white paint gleaming in the bright afternoon light. While there were more pressing tasks around the house, they were largely invisible, like plumbing and electrical work. Doing the painting herself meant less money dropped into the insatiable money pit. She also wanted to finish before the onslaught of Vancouver’s autumn rains.

Jace Burton stood in the doorway, his head almost touching the top. “Looks great.”

He flashed a smile that made her forget he’d been gone almost two hours.

Kat blew him a kiss and sat down in a creaky Adirondack chair, wondering why it had taken all summer to get around to painting the railing.

Of course she knew the reason. She had been preoccupied with the endless repairs and related casualties, most recently the burst pipe that had morphed into a complete re-plumb. Not to mention the warped fir floors resulting from the leak.

“Did you get the paint?”

Jace tapped his forehead. “I knew I forgot something.”

“But that’s what you went for. Only one item on the list.” Jace’s singular focus was a boon as a journalist chasing a story, but less productive when it came to other things.

“Sorry. I ran into Kirk Evans at the hardware store and lost all track of time. But I got something else.” Jace pulled his arm out from behind his back. “This.”

Kat leaned forward to read the small print on the bottle. “A bottle of red wine? Uh-oh, Jace. Drinking and painting never works out for us.”

He laughed. “That’s not what I was thinking. Besides, this isn’t just any old bottle of wine. It’s Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon.”

“Screaming what?”

“Eagle. Kirk’s got cases of this stuff. You can’t buy it anywhere. He’s a wine investor now.”

Kat had heard of wine investors, but she’d never met one in real life. She pictured Wall Street bankers or money managers trying to justify their overpriced drinking habits. She couldn’t picture Kirk buying and holding craft beer, let alone fine wine.

“That’s a switch from unemployed journalist,” she said. “Don’t wine investors need money for start-up capital? He’s been out of work for quite a while now.” Kirk had worked with Jace at The Sentinel until he was caught up in the downsizing last year.

“We didn’t get into details, but somehow he’s making it work. This baby’s worth thousands. At least that’s what it sells for. Kirk buys it for about five hundred bucks a bottle.”

“And Kirk just gave it to you? What’s the catch?”

“No catch, just showing his appreciation for me helping him out last year.” Jace held out the bottle for her inspection. “Anyways, I thought we’d save it for a celebration. Once we finish with the plumbing and stuff.”

“Are you crazy? We can’t drink something that expensive.” Kat sucked in her breath as the bottle slipped in Jace’s hand. She certainly didn’t want to feel indebted to Kirk Evans. “Put it down before you drop it. We’ve got to give it back.”

Jace handed her the bottle instead. It looked like an ordinary bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, except for the vintage year. Nineteen ninety-seven had to be expensive, even if the small monochrome label made it appear more ordinary than most. She studied the label’s flying eagle motif, wondering what made it so special.

She stood to return the bottle to Jace and almost tripped.

“Yikes!” Jace’s mouth dropped open as he lunged forward. “I got it.”

He grabbed the bottle from her hand and placed it on the table. “This stuff goes for over two grand at auction. People would give up their firstborn for a case.”

“We can’t keep it, Jace. We certainly can’t drink it.” Odd that Kirk would just happen to carry an expensive bottle of wine with him on a trip to the hardware store. But then Kirk was a bit of a braggart. Kat wouldn’t be surprised if he carried around a bottle as some sort of success trophy.

“I tried giving it back but he refused to take it. He wanted me to have it since he’s making such a killing. Said I could sell it if I want, he wouldn’t care either way.”

“That was nice of him.” Kirk wasn’t known for favors, unless he got something in return. “Since when is he so generous? I thought he was broke since his severance pay ran out.”

“He said the layoff was a blessing in disguise. Apparently wine investing is quite lucrative. He buys from the wineries, then resells it at auction. He has some kind of connection, I guess. I had no idea people even did that sort of thing.” Jace sat down opposite Kat in the matching Adirondack chair. “Kirk says he’s a millionaire now. He was at the hardware store looking at materials for a wine cellar in his new house.”

“He has a new house?”

“He told me he’s gone from broke to millionaire, just like that.” Jace snapped his fingers. “Less than a year. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do the same?”

Kirk was notoriously cheap. That was probably why he was building the wine cellar himself. But it hardly made sense to give bottles away, even to Jace. “There must be some angle, something he’s not telling you.”

“Doesn’t seem to be. He just has good connections. Oh, and he invited us to his housewarming dinner party tonight.”

Kat was surprised Kirk would risk money up front to buy the wine, let alone resell it.

“At least that way we could return the wine,” she said. She was curious about Kirk’s sudden change of fortune. “And investigate this wine investing further.”

It sounded too good to be true, and Kat intended to find out more.

2

Kat stood on the deck of Kirk’s brand new, eight-thousand square foot house overlooking the Vancouver harbor. She had to admit she was impressed. Gone was the old beer-guzzling, belching Kirk. New-and-improved Kirk sipped wine and wore a tailored shirt and pants that took thirty pounds off his large frame.

Suzan, Kirk’s wife, materialized out of the crowd of a hundred or so guests, dressed in a low-cut shimmery cocktail dress. She beamed at Kat.

“You like?” Her wardrobe was as gaudy as ever, only more expensive gaudy, judging by the not-so-discreet designer initials on her purse and watch. It was just like Suzan to parade around her own house with her purse slung over her shoulder. She would have kept the price tags on if she could.

“Of course I like it,” Kat replied. “It’s absolutely beautiful.” The view at least was stunning, with 180-degree views of the harbor and mountains. The house itself was a glass and metal monstrosity that sprouted like a weed from the old-money hillside.

“Kirk has done very well, hasn’t he? That’s why we wanted to have this little celebration. To thank all our friends.” She waved her arm towards the expanse of lawn below them.

Kat followed her gesture and surveyed the action below. Small clusters of people mingled amongst the tables, sampling wine and canapés. Yet Kat knew none of them. Where had Kurt’s new friends materialized from?

“You have to try the wine, Kat. It’s amazing.” Suzan sipped from her oversized goblet. “And profitable too.”

“I will in a while,” Kat said. “I’ll stick with water for now.” She wanted to stay sober until she was certain Jace had returned the bottle to Kirk, but it was tempting.

“It’s a very good investment,” Suzan said as she twirled her glass. “You might want to get in on it too.”

Kat spotted Jace talking to Kirk on the lawn by the bar. She excused herself and made a beeline for him. Jace waved to her as she crossed the lawn.

“I told you, Kat. Kirk finally found his niche. Isn’t this a great little party?” Jace smiled at her.

Their plan had been to return the wine and only stay for dinner. But Jace was already enjoying himself a little too much. He was always more animated with a drink in his hand.

“Wine?” The waiter smiled and poured a generous serving of the same Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon vintage Kirk had given them.

What the hell. She could at least grab a glass but wait to drink it. She rarely attended expensive parties like this one, so it wouldn’t hurt to enjoy it. Kat took the glass and turned to Kirk. “How long have you been doing this?”

“Doing what?” Kirk’s blank stare morphed into understanding. “Oh, you mean the wine investing. Isn’t it great? I just started six months ago, and I’ve already made enough to buy this place. In cash. It’s a game-changer for me.”

“You buy and sell wines at auction?” Kat was dying to taste the two-thousand-dollar wine but didn’t want to appear too eager. She would wait until she had finished talking to Kirk. Then she could truly savor it.

“Not exactly.” Kirk waved his hand, almost knocking over a tray of drinks. “I buy from the wineries, then I sometimes sell at auction. But most of the time I sell privately, to a select group of wine collectors. I have a waiting list, you know.”

“Wow, that’s amazing,” Kat said. But what about auction commissions? As far as she knew, they charged a pretty hefty commission. How did Kirk make substantial profits so fast? More importantly, how could something so lucrative not have a lot of competition?

“Sure is. I’ll have The Sentinel begging me for an interview any day now. Bet they’re sorry they let me go.” Kirk gulped the rest of his wine and placed the empty glass on a passing waiter’s tray.

“They must be kicking themselves over it,” Kat said.

Suzan rematerialized at Kat’s side and held out her wrist. A gaudy diamond and emerald studded bracelet glinted under the lights illuminating the yard. “Like it? Kirk just bought it for me.” Suzan giggled. “For believing in him.”

“Gorgeous.” Kat swished the red wine in her glass, salivating at the thought of tasting it. She had researched Screaming Eagle a little before the party. It was highly-rated, at 98 points out of a hundred. She had never tried a wine rated greater than 94 points. Yet all her 90+ point wine tasting experiences had always been absolutely delicious. The law of diminishing returns must factor in. How could it taste hundreds or thousands of dollars better?

Beer-guzzling Kirk couldn’t tell a Zinfandel from a Cabernet six months ago. How could he suddenly have a knack for wine tasting, let alone investing? Kat was suspicious of his motives.

She also couldn’t wait any longer to taste the wine. She took a small sip of the Cabernet Sauvignon and swished it in her mouth for a few seconds before swallowing. She frowned. It was nothing like what she had expected.

She wasn’t exactly an expert but she appreciated a good quality Cabernet Sauvignon. It was also one of her favorite wines. While this one was full bodied, with the usual notes of black cherry, licorice, and pepper, it also had an unpleasant acidic flavor. Her taste buds weren’t as sophisticated as a sommelier but this one tasted a little off.

That might be a good thing since she couldn’t afford it anyway. It tasted so bad she couldn’t even stomach finishing it. But this wine was supposedly worth thousands. How could she just leave it?

Suzan had drifted off to mingle with the other guests, and Jace and Kirk were engrossed in a discussion on expanding his wine business. Kat deposited her half-full glass on a table, deciding it wasn’t worth finishing, no matter what the cost. She wondered when dinner would be served as she went in search of a bathroom.

The house interior was even more glitzy and spectacular than the exterior. She walked through the marble and stainless steel kitchen towards the front of the house. The living room was packed, which explained why all three restrooms were occupied. After waiting several minutes, she decided to head downstairs. There were bound to be multiple bathrooms on every floor of a house this size.

A spiral staircase descended to what could only be described as a large open gallery. Oil paintings lined the wall, broken up by a handful of doors, all closed except for one door left slightly ajar. She headed toward the door, assuming it to be the restroom.

She opened the door to find an office instead, strewn with boxes and papers. She was about to close the door when something caught her eye.

A long table ran the length of the room. Underneath were dozens of wine bottles, all empty and unlabelled. Even more concerning was what was on top of the table.

Labels.

Screaming Eagle labels, the exact same vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon Kirk was selling.

Her heart thumped in her chest as she realized it was all fake. No wonder Kirk had been so generous with the wine. He had probably hosted the party to drum up interest and find more buyers. A simple fraud, but a very lucrative one.

She turned back to the door and closed it behind her. There were hundreds of people in the house, so there was a good chance another guest might come looking for a restroom and stumble upon the room just as she had.

All the partygoers were oblivious to the fact that they were drinking cheap wine disguised as something much more expensive. She wondered how many had already placed orders with Kirk.

She surveyed the room and walked over to the floor-to-ceiling wine cases stacked against the far wall. At twelve bottles a case, it was a significant amount. She bent down to pull a bottle out of an open case at her feet. Sure enough, it was identical to the bottle Kirk had given them.

She did a quick tally in her head. Assuming Kirk sold these for a few thousand per bottle, the room held over a million dollars’ worth of inventory.

Unbelievable.

Jace wouldn’t believe it either, unless she provided evidence. She fumbled in her purse for her cell phone, finally locating it.

She snapped photographs of the table, labels, and the bottles with her cell phone. The supplies in the room explained the source of Kirk’s sudden wealth beyond a doubt. Kirk was relabeling cheap wine and passing it off as more expensive vintages. No wonder he had profited so quickly.

It also explained why her wine had tasted so bad. She bent down and opened a case of wine. It was Cabernet Sauvignon all right, but a different brand, one she had seen selling for under ten dollars a bottle. No wonder Kirk was living large. He could re-label and sell these fake bottles at auction and count on hardly anyone sampling them. They were considered investments, after all.

Screaming Eagle was so popular that collectors rarely resold their treasures. The tiny Napa Valley winery only produced a few hundred cases a year at best, and they were immediately snapped up by collectors. She had even heard of people who photographed their wine in family photos each year, the bottle present each year as their babies grew into adults. One fan had positioned the bottle in his baby’s bassinet, with the same bottle reappearing years later in his son’s graduation photograph.

Kirk had picked the perfect wine to knock off, provided he didn’t saturate the market with too many bottles at once. That would arouse suspicion.

But it also raised another point. Kirk needed to sell wine on a much larger scale to make millions. That meant he had to be counterfeiting and selling other wines too. Why else would he serve thousand dollar wines to his many guests tonight? If it were truly rare, he wouldn’t pour so much of it. And he certainly wouldn’t have given a bottle to Jace.

Maybe photos weren’t enough proof. She grabbed a label from the table just as she heard footsteps. She quickly exited and closed the door behind her. It closed with a loud click. She realized now why the door had been slightly ajar when she had found it. It had an automatic lock and she had just locked it.

“Why are you down here?” Kirk stood at the foot of the stairs, his large frame blocking her escape.

She had been caught, red-handed, with the label in her hand.

3

“Are you lost or something?” Kirk crossed his arms, his gregarious mood of just moments ago replaced with an accusatory tone.

Had he seen her emerge from the room? She didn’t think so, but she had been in the vicinity of the office door when he spotted her. Why else the sudden mood change?

Kat remembered the label in her hand and stuffed it into her pocket. “Uh, no. Just needed the restroom.”

His gaze drifted down to her hand. Had he seen the label?

“Down here’s my man cave. What’s wrong with the bathroom upstairs? Not private enough for you?”

Kat took a deep breath and laughed. “You’re just too popular. With so many guests, I mean. I guess the bathrooms fill up fast.”

His shoulders relaxed slightly, but he didn’t budge from the staircase.

All she could think of was how to get up those stairs as fast as possible. But Kirk was immobile. “I should really find Jace. We’ve got a lot of painting to do tomorrow.”

Kirk nodded, but the closed door caught his eye. “That’s funny. I’m sure I left that door partially open.”

Kat shrugged as she walked toward Kirk and the staircase. “Maybe Suzan was in there.”

Kirk shook his head. “Nope. Suzan’s not allowed down here. No one is, unless I invite them.”

Kat tried to lighten things up. “Now you’ve got my curiosity going. I’d love to see your secret man cave. But not right now. I’ve got to get back to Jace.”

She tried to squeeze by him on the stairwell, but he blocked her. He clamped his hand around her forearm. Pain shot down through her fingertips. Was he intentionally trying to hurt her?

“I’ll help you.” Kirk squeezed even tighter.

“Ouch!” she shrieked. “You really don’t know your own strength, big guy.” Was Kirk threatening her? Maybe he had seen her after all.

Kirk froze as a thirty-something couple descended the stairs. They stopped abruptly when they spotted Kat and Kirk on the stairs.

“Is this a bathroom line-up too?” The woman stared at Kirk until he released his grip.

Kat yanked her arm away.

“Nope,” Kirk said. “You mind? We’re having a private conversation.” He winked at the man.

“Got it,” the man said, then turned to his companion. “Let’s go, honey.” The couple headed back up the stairs.

Kat brushed past Kirk and followed behind the couple, thankful for the opportunity to put as much distance between her and Kirk as possible.

She fingered the label in her pocket. It was like the Emperor’s new clothes. Everyone wanted to believe, even in a terrible tasting wine. They would throw good money at it too, as long as it held the illusion of riches.

4

Kirk’s heavy footsteps echoed behind her on the stairs. Just as she feared. He was coming after her. He figured she’d been at least near the room. She was still unsure whether he’d seen her emerge from the room downstairs. If he had, he wouldn’t let her go that easy.

She needed to find Jace before Kirk did, so she could explain what she had found. Jace would know what to do to defuse Kirk. One thing she did know: she wasn’t ready to confront Kirk on her own.

She glanced behind her only to meet Kirk’s murderous glare.

He knew.

She spotted Jace engrossed in conversation with an older couple at the far end of the kitchen. He gestured wildly, then teetered on one leg before regaining his balance.

Great. Jace was drunk. Too much wine before dinner.

“Excuse us.” Kat inserted herself in the circle. “Jace, I need to talk to you in private.”

Jace looked over her shoulder. “Hey buddy, great party.” He waved to Kirk, almost spilling his glass on the slender, gray-haired woman.

Kat turned to see a flushed and sweating Kirk. He looked furious.

“Now, Jace,” Kat said under her breath. She steered him outside, away from Kirk and the others.

“You want to leave already?” Jace’s words slurred together. “The party’s just getting started.”

“There’s a problem. You need to sober up.” She glanced back and was relieved to see Kirk now chatting with the couple. The man stood in front of Kirk, unintentionally blocking Kirk’s exit. Kirk couldn’t come after her without making a scene.

“Is Kirk mad at me? For drinking too much? He didn’t look too happy.”

“No, he’s mad at someone else, not you.” How much should she tell Jace in this condition? Was he too drunk to keep quiet about it?

“Sorry, Kat. I got a bit carried away.”

“Let’s walk.” She steered Jace down the back stairs onto the expansive lawn. The stroll in the cool night air would be good, both to sober up Jace and to keep Kirk away for a few minutes. She steered Jace toward the far end of the property. Out of sight, out of mind for Kirk. She hoped so, anyway.

She had no choice but to tell Jace now, drunk or not.

“I can’t believe it,” Jace said. “On the other hand, it does explain a lot. Like his sudden generosity.”

Kat nodded. “Too good to be true.” She guided Jace to a bench at the edge of the lawn and sat down. They were just beyond the reach of the lighting set up on the lawn. Hopefully Kirk would only see an unrecognizable couple in the shadows and leave them alone.

She debated calling the police, but exactly what crime was she reporting? Fraud? If that was the case, she needed to secure proof of the fraud before Kirk could get rid of it.

She pulled the label from her pocket and showed it to Jace.

“You saved a label as a souvenir?”

“Not exactly, Jace. This label has never even been on a bottle of wine.” She handed it to him. “It’s brand new.”

“How can that be?”

“It can’t. Not if the wine is legit.” Kat grabbed her cell phone from her purse and typed Screaming Eagle into the Internet browser. The wine was even rarer than she imagined. “Just as I thought.”

“What?”

She showed him the search results. “Screaming Eagle only makes 600-700 cases a year. And there’s a waiting list. People wait years for the chance to buy a single bottle. What are the odds of Kirk having hundreds of cases? Or having enough to serve it to hundreds of guests?” She briefed Jace on her discovery in Kirk’s basement.

There was another problem. Barring assault or murder, the police were unlikely to arrive on a Saturday night, sirens blazing, for a suspected fraud, no matter how large. She couldn’t expect outside help any time soon. That unfortunately gave Kirk plenty of time to hide the evidence and deny everything.

But she could use the number of guests to her advantage. Kirk had to keep up appearances, especially if his guests were also his customers. If she could plant the seed of doubt in their minds, her plan just might work.

Jace shone a penlight on the label. “How do you spell Sauvignon?”

Kat glanced at the label. “S-A-V—I don’t believe it,” she said. “There’s a spelling error on the label!”

“Just like at The Sentinel,” Jace said. “Kirk was never very good at spelling. Or even spell-checking his work, for that matter.”

Indisputable proof. If she was right, that proof existed elsewhere at the party, not just on the label in her hand. Now she had a way to deal with Kirk. She stood up. “C’mon Jace, let’s head back to the house.”

5

Kat searched the party for Suzan, hoping to find her before Kirk. It didn’t take long. Suzan stood at the large floor-to-ceiling fireplace, talking with a half dozen women who looked like they’d just stepped off the set of a Real Housewives reality show.

“Suzan!” Kat grabbed her elbow, stopping the conversation midstream.

“Kat?”

“I have a favor to ask. Can you get everybody’s attention? Jace and I would like to propose a toast. To Kirk.” She smiled at Jace, a few feet behind her. He returned her smile, not entirely sure what she was up to.

Kat scanned the room, looking for Kirk.

Suzan and her friends tapped their manicured nails on their wineglasses. Within a few moments they had the guests’ rapt attention.

Kat stepped forward. “I have a special announcement to make.” She glanced over at Suzan, who beamed from ear to ear. “We’ll be giving away a case of Screaming Eagle to the first person that provides the correct answer to the question I’m about to ask.”

“That’s not a toast,” Suzan whispered. “And we’re not giving away a case of wine.”

Suzan must be unaware of Kirk’s scheme if she thought the case was worth tens of thousands. According to Kat’s calculation, the case of counterfeit wine was worth a little over a hundred dollars at best.

“I’ll explain in a minute,” Kat said to her.

The room buzzed as the crowd moved closer. Then expectant silence as everyone put down their glasses and plates and waited for the question.

“What’s all this about?” Kirk emerged from the back of the room.

“Bravo, Kirk!” A man yelled.

Kirk gave a weak wave. He marched up to Kat. “What the hell are you doing?”

Kat smiled sweetly. “You’ll see.” She looked at her audience.

“Is everyone ready?”

A few murmurs told her they were.

“All right. There’s actually two questions to answer. The first one is easy. Who can tell me the name and year of the featured wine is tonight?”

Two women answered almost in unison. “Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon.”

“1997,” the second woman added. She was middle-aged and reed-thin. Her boney arms poked out of her red sheath dress like tree branches.

Kat pointed to the first woman, a slightly overweight blonde with too much makeup. “That’s right, and you were first. Now for the money question. For a case of wine, spell Sauvignon.”

“Sure. S-A-U-V-I-G-N-O-N.”

“Correct!” Kat smiled at her. “You’ve just won yourself a case of very fine wine. Congratulations.”

“Wait a minute,” Kirk rushed forward and pushed Kat aside. “This ain’t no spelling bee, and I’m not giving away a prize. Besides, you spelled it wrong.”

“How is it spelled, Kirk?” Jace asked.

“S-A-V-I-G-N-O-N.” He held up a bottle. “See?”

A few people inched closer, squinting to read the bottle.

“See that?” Kat pointed to the bottle as she addressed the crowd. “A spelling mistake on a very expensive bottle of wine? What are the odds of that?”

Kirk grabbed Suzan’s wrist. “Shut her up.”

“Sweetheart, let go.” Suzan yanked her wrist from Kirk’s grasp as she realized all eyes were on them. “What’s going on here?”

It was hard to believe Suzan was oblivious to the counterfeit equipment downstairs, but it was possible.

The woman who won the wine looked crestfallen. “I did win, right?”

Kat nodded. “You won a case of wine, all right. But it’s not the wine you think it is.” Kat held up her phone. “This is what I found downstairs in Kirk’s so-called man cave. An elaborate wine counterfeiting operation.”

Jace handed the bottle to Suzan, who deposited it on the fireplace mantle. Her mouth dropped open and she burst into tears. “Kirk, what’s happening here?”

Silence.

“Kirk, what have you done?” Suzan’s face was smeared with mascara. “Tell me.”

Kirk scowled and lunged for Kat’s phone.

The crowd gasped in unison.

Kat pulled her hand out of his reach just as Jace stepped between them. “No need, Kirk. I’ve already emailed the pictures to The Sentinel. They’ll be banging on your door for an interview. You’ve finally gotten a headline-grabbing story that no one will ever forget.”

“You’re crazy.” Kirk glared at Kat.

“No, but I’m a lot luckier than you right now.” She held up the bottle. “This bottle doesn’t merit the label that’s on it.”

She turned to Jace and winked. “You, on the other hand, owe me.” She had practically written Jace’s Sentinel story for him. Saved him hours of work, with pictures to boot.

Jace’s eyes crinkled in amusement. “A second coat of paint on the veranda?”

“Good for a start.” Hour for hour, attending the party had been totally worth a bit of fraud detective work on her day off.

And seeing Kirk caught and justice served, all before dinner?

Priceless.

Did you like Red Handed? Turn the page to start reading the next story, Blue Moon.

Blue Moon

Kat and boyfriend Jace’s plans for a fancy dinner go awry when she discovers that her elderly neighbor Fiona has taken an ex-con into her home as a boarder. Fiona’s volunteer gardening program at the local prison has changed lives, but extending her generosity further just might put her own life in jeopardy.

Kat’s suspicion deepens when she learns of a recent life insurance policy. And accidental death pays double.

1

Katerina Carter peered out her living room window to next door neighbor Fiona Jackson’s yard. She hid behind the curtain, careful not to blow her cover.

Roses and hydrangeas basked in the late afternoon sun. Blooms blanketed the front yard in an explosion of color. Even Fiona’s grass grew greener than Kat’s weed wasteland. But it wasn’t Fiona’s garden that concerned Kat. She stood transfixed by the stranger toiling in her neighbor’s yard.

The man looked straight out of an FBI most-wanted poster, his dark shadow juxtaposed against the garden’s brightness and light. His rolled-up sleeves exposed tattooed, stringy arms more suited to pushing drugs instead of a lawn mower. Fiona barely survived on a meager pension and certainly couldn’t afford a handyman. Who was this guy and how did Fiona know him?

He abandoned the push mower in favor of a shovel and headed straight for Fiona’s roses. Kat’s mouth dropped open in horror as he stomped on the shovel and began digging up Fiona’s showpiece roses.

No one ever set foot in Fiona’s garden except the Gardens in Bloom contest judges. Fiona had won the city-wide contest for three years’ running, and her whole garden strategy revolved around keeping her place as number one. Absolutely no one took a shovel to her prized plants. Fiona had mulched, weeded, and pruned her rare roses into submission months in advance of next week’s judging. Yet the rough-looking man next door was digging them up.

“Spying on Fiona?” Jace halted mid-stride on his way to the front door.

Kat was focused so intently on the man next door that she almost jumped out of her skin. She banged her head against the window frame. “Ouch!”

Jace grinned and his blue eyes crinkled in amusement. “You okay?”

Kat nodded, embarrassed at being caught spying.

Jace wore a shirt, tie, and dress pants instead of his usual t-shirt and denim. Kat puzzled for a moment until she remembered their dinner plans. One year since they moved into their money-sucking Victorian house. One year, hundreds of hours in sweat equity, and tens of thousands in renovation expenses called for a celebration of their accomplishments to date.

“Must be a thrill-a-minute.” Jace raised his brows.

Kat motioned Jace to the window. “See that guy outside? I think he’s staying with Fiona.” This was the third time she’d seen him since yesterday.

Kat encountered plenty of predators as a forensic accountant and fraud investigator. Far too often they targeted the elderly. The wiry man had a dangerous street look about him and certainly fit the profile. That he had materialized out of nowhere made him all the more suspicious.

“I’m worried about her, Jace. He can’t possibly be up to any good.” She felt protective of her elderly neighbor and this guy’s appearance raised all kinds of red flags. “Why is he digging up Fiona’s roses?”

Jace joined her at the window. “He does have that criminal look about him.”

“So you see it too!” Or was Jace making fun of her?

“Not really,” he admitted. “You’re jumping to conclusions, as usual. If he’s staying with her, he’s probably a relative or friend. What’s the big deal?”

“She doesn’t have any relatives, remember?” Fiona had no siblings or children. Her husband had died about thirty years ago. Fiona didn’t socialize much, either.

“I forgot about that. Maybe he’s related to her late husband?”

“I doubt it.” From what little she’d learned from Fiona, her late husband had no living relatives. He only had one brother, also deceased.

Suddenly everything made sense. “Fiona volunteers at the prison. I’ll bet this guy was recently paroled.” Fiona ran Weeds to Wonders, the prison’s weekly gardening program.

“Paroled from prison? Or from her gardening program?” Jace raised his brows.

Fiona was a tough task master. She liked everything just so.

“Both,” Kat laughed. Fiona never let anyone near her flowerbeds—not even to pull a weed. Something was very wrong with the scene outside.

“There’s Fiona now.” Their frail diminutive neighbor knelt in front of her flower bed and scooped a handful of loose dirt. “Why not go to the source? Ask her how she knows him?”

“I can’t just come right out and ask.” Not that she had to. She could spot a criminal a mile away. She just wished he wasn’t next door. “Especially with him standing right there.”

Jace shrugged as he walked towards the kitchen. “You’ll think of something, you always do. Just don’t jump to conclusions and assume something criminal is going on.”

Business was finally booming at Carter & Associates, Kat’s forensic accounting and fraud investigation business. She had wrapped up her latest case and today was her first day off in months. Jace had just submitted his latest writing assignment to The Sentinel, where he freelanced as an investigative journalist.

They had slept in and lazed around the house all day, both free from work for a few days. Tonight they planned to treat themselves to dinner at a swanky Michelin-starred restaurant downtown they had eyed for months.

Kat checked her watch. Plenty of time, although she wished she had noticed the stranger earlier. “This is different. It’s my neighborly duty to find out why a strange man is tearing up Fiona’s garden. She’s a perfect target—a senior who lives alone.”

Jace rolled his eyes. “You promised no work today, remember.”

“I’ll have a quick chat with Fiona and then we’ll go.” She turned away from the window just as something caught the corner of her eye. “Oh no!”

“Now what?” Jace paused in the doorway.

“He’s chopping Fiona’s roses!” The man wielded the pruners like a murder weapon, snipping relentlessly.

Jace shrugged. “So?”

“He’s chopping them into pieces, Jace! He’s destroying them right in front of Fiona.” Digging up the fragrant tea roses right before the contest was shocking enough. Transplanting them was one thing, but to hack them into pieces?

Would Fiona actually destroy the roses just so no one else could have them? Maybe she would. Gardens in Bloom was known for its cutthroat competitors.

“What’s wrong with pruning Fiona’s roses?” Jace frowned. “Nice of him to help her.”