Random Acts of Murder: A Holly Anna Paladin Mystery, Book 1 (Holly Anna Paladin Mysteries)

 

 

 

 

 

RANDOM ACTS OF MURDER

 

(Book 1, Holly Anna Paladin Mystery Series)

 

by Christy Barritt

 

 

 

Random Acts of Murder
: A Novel

Copyright 2014
by Christy Barritt

 

Published by River Heights Press

 

Cover design by The Killion Group

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

The persons and events portrayed in this work are the creation of the author, and any resemblance to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dedication:

When I started writing this book in 2012, I didn’t know that my dear sister-in-law Ann Barritt would soon be diagnosed with cancer and given a year to live. Before she died in 2014, she asked that everyone do one random act of kindness in her name. This book is dedicated to Ann and the legacy she left behind.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 1

This had to be
my worst idea ever.

Before I
lost my courage, I rushed inside the house, turned the locks, and leaned against the door. I tried to steady my breathing and push away the regret that threatened to consume me—regret at my decision to do this.

A dark, silent house stared back at me, almost taunting me.

It was too late to turn back now. I was in. I’d already broken the law. I might as well follow through with the rest of the plan.

“Are you in, Retro Girl?” My friend Jamie’s voice sounded through my Bluetooth headset.

“I’m in, Girl Genius.” Jamie had picked her code name herself.

“Everything clear?” she asked.

“What’s clear is the fact that I’d make a terrible, terrible criminal.”

“That’s a good thing, Hol—I mean Retro Girl. Be careful.”

I nodded. “Roger that.”

In the delirium of a restless night, this
whole scheme had seemed brilliant. But the fact remained that, in order to execute my plan, I’d just broken into someone’s home. I’d utilized the skills my locksmith father had taught me, though I was certain he’d never dreamed I’d use them this way. I’d become a masked vigilante of good deeds, only without the mask.

My heart slammed at a quick beat into my chest, each thump reverberating all the way down to m
y bones. I pinched the skin between my eyebrows as I tried to rationalize my actions. This wasn’t just a haphazard stranger’s home. And I wasn’t breaking in for nefarious reasons. That was the good news.

The bad news had generated my new life mantra:
engaging in random acts of kindness whenever possible. And not just any ordinary random acts of kindness.
Extreme
random acts of kindness. Life was too short to do anything halfheartedly, after all.

To lay it all out, I’d
just broken into the home of Katrina Dawson, one of my former social work clients—but only so I could clean her house and surprise her. I wanted to help. The idea had started innocently enough when I’d sneaked in to clean my brother’s house—a drive-by good deed, as I’d called it. He’d been thrilled, especially when he’d found the nice, anonymous note I’d left, explaining I didn’t seek recognition but only wanted to make his day brighter.

Cleaning Katrina’s house would help her
and add a touch of quality to her life. I knew it would. She was a single mom, she couldn’t catch a break when it came to getting a decent job, and with a whole gaggle of kids, she barely had time to brush her teeth, let alone clean her home.

A clean
residence could do wonders for a person’s spirit.

“You still okay, Retro Girl?” Jamie asked in my ear.

“I guess. What’s it look like outside?”

“It’s all clear. A neighbor three doors down just went inside. He didn’t even look my way. Good thing
I’m driving the ghettomobile. It blends right in.”

“Here goes nothing, Girl Genius.”

I took a deep breath, grabbed my bucket of cleaning supplies, and plunged into the darkness. I planned to focus on the kitchen and bathroom since they usually needed the most attention.

I pushed up the sleeves of my black T-shirt.
I’d abandoned my trademark dress in favor of something more sensible. I didn’t want to draw any unnecessary attention to myself in the run-down neighborhood. Pulling up in my ’64 1/2 powder-blue Mustang—Sally, as I affectionately called her—and stepping out with a vintage frilly dress on just wasn’t a smart idea.

I could do this
, I told myself, a feeling of false security washing over me. I’d clean, leave a sweet note explaining I was a friend doing a random act of kindness, and then I’d hop in the van and head home. I was making a big deal out of nothing.

That’s what I told myself
, at least.

I waited until I
was away from the front windows before I turned a light on. Before I’d come inside, I’d put my gloves on. I never cleaned without them. Nothing was less appealing than smelling bleach on your hands three days after the fact. Plus, since I was officially breaking in, the gloves just seemed like a good idea.

I set my bucket on the countertop and looked at the mess around me.
Dirty dishes in the sink. Junk on every visible surface—everything from schoolbooks to groceries to toys. There was something splattered on the linoleum floor, crayon marks on the wall, and this morning’s breakfast—at least, I assumed the food was from today—was still on the little table in the corner.

The house smelled like it hadn’t been cleaned in a while
, a mix of trash that desperately needed to be taken out, rotting food on the plates in the sink, and laundry that had been sitting for too long. I’d noticed that on my last visit here. But the main thing I’d noticed had been the look of hopelessness in Katrina’s eyes. Hopelessness about changing her life, about getting ahead, about catching any breaks. No one should have to feel like that.

As I picked up my first plate, ready to wash it, I realized that
I was breaching an uncountable number of professional standards. The good thing was that, even if I was fired from my job as a social worker, it wouldn’t matter.

“Girl, what is that noise?” Jamie asked.

“It’s the water running.”

“Well, can’t you help a sister out and turn it down some?
My ears will be ringing for the rest of the night.”

Just then, I bristled. Why did I feel like someone was watching me? The thought was crazy. I was the only one here. I’d watched Katrina and her family leave earlier.
She worked the graveyard shift and took her kids to a sitter’s.

“Girl Genius, something doesn’t feel right.”

“You broke into someone’s house. Maybe that’s it.”

“But I broke in with goo
d intentions, so that makes it okay, right?”

Jamie chuckled. “You just keep telling yourself that
, Retro Girl.”

Three
months ago, my job and my reputation would have mattered. Three months ago, I’d had a different outlook on life. I’d thought I had forever left.

But sometimes
a routine visit to the doctor changed a girl’s view and made her realize that she could take chances, that life was too short not to take risks.

My name is Holly Paladin, I’m
twenty-eight years old, and I’ve been given a year to live.

The introduction played over and over again in my mind, much like a broken movie reel. In my head, I also had the same accent as Inigo Montoya from
The Princess Bride
, but that was an entirely different issue.

But this wasn’t a movie. This was my life. I only had
one year to leave a mark. One year
 
to embrace what I loved. One year to let my loved ones know how much they meant to me. 

There was a lot I wouldn’t be able to do, so I decided to focus primarily on one task: changing the world. At least, changing one or two people’s worlds.

That’s why I washed the dishes in the sink.

That’s why I collected the trash and placed it by the front door.

That’s why I wiped down the counters and the stove and the refrigerator.

When I stepped back, the
kitchen looked spotless.

I smiled, feeling satisfied.
This
had
been a good idea. I just had to make peace with myself about the implications of my means. I knew my motives were golden.

Now I just had to do the bathroom. I’d
clean the whole house, if I could. I’d wipe the windows, scrub the baseboards, and start some laundry. But that would take more time than I had.

I stepped into the hallway, went down two doors, and reached
inside the bathroom. Just as my fingers connected with the light switch, I heard a noise.

I froze.

What was that?

I
listened but didn’t hear anything else. Had that been movement inside the house? But no one was home, despite the eerie feeling I’d had earlier.

Besides, if someone else was here, they would have come out by now. In the very least,
they would have called the police.

My heart pounded in my ears.

Bad idea, bad idea, bad idea.
The phrase kept repeating in my head.

This
was
a bad idea, no matter how I tried to paint the harebrained plan in a positive light.

I had to clean this bathroom,
and then I was getting out of here.

I g
ulped in one last breath and pushed the light switch up.

I blinked at what I saw there.

It was a man. Lying on the floor. Blood pooled around his chest.

He was dead.

No doubt about it—dead.

 

 

 

 

 

CHAPTER 2

I backed away, a scream catching in my throat.

Oh my lands . . . that man was dead. Lifeless. Gone.

Based on the wounds across his chest, his death hadn’t been a peaceful one.
There was too much blood, too many wounds, and a frozen expression of horror on his face.

“Retro Girl, are you okay? I thought I heard a gasp.”

“I . . . I—”

I pulled my eyes away, panic racing through me.
Without thinking, I darted toward the front door, threw it open, and sprinted outside to the van.

I jumped inside, slammed the door, and turned to my friend Jamie.
“Go!”

She stared at me like I’d lost my mind. “What happened?”

I pointed down the road. “There’s no time to talk! We’ve got to get out of here. Now!”

Jamie
threw the beat-up minivan into drive and squealed down the road. She charged out of the neighborhood and across the interstate, and she didn’t say a word.

That was a good thing because
, if I opened my mouth, I feared I might throw up. My stomach twisted in knots, and the dizzy fairy danced in my head.

Oh my goodness, oh my goodness, oh my goodness . . .

I rocked back and forth, trying to settle my thoughts, trying to keep myself from passing out.

Finally,
Jamie pulled to a stop in front of our favorite coffeehouse. She put the van in park, and we sat there for several minutes in silence. I ignored the college kids barhopping around us. I ignored the drunken frat boy who made kissing faces outside the van window. I even ignored my friend who sat beside me, staring at me like I’d lost my mind.

She turned down the jazzy gospel music crooning through the speakers. The necklace with the carved wooden figure of a girl, one she’d gotten on a mission trip to Jamaica, finally stopped
swinging back and forth from the rearview mirror. A jar of coconut oil—my friend’s answer for every ailment—slid onto its side on the floor in front of me.

“You want to tell me what just happened?
” Jamie finally said. Her black, curly hair usually sprang out from around her mocha-colored face like rays of sunshine. Right now, the forecast of her expression pointed to a partially cloudy day with a good chance of storms. “Did you realize what a bad idea this was? Did you get spooked?”

I knew the only reason she’d agreed
to be my getaway driver was in case anything went wrong. Thank goodness she’d been there. I didn’t think I could have driven out of the neighborhood without hitting everything in my path.

Which would only add more things to my rap sheet.

“It was awful, Jamie . . . she said as the understatement of the year.” My mind still raced, still replayed what had happened. As the bathroom scene flashed into my mind, nausea rose in me. One glance at the old banana peel on the floor of her van, followed by inhaling the rotten scent, and I was done.

I opened the van door and hurled.

“Girl, are you okay?” Jamie’s hand went to my back. “What happened in there? Should I take you to the hospital?”

I grabbed a napkin from the
glove compartment and wiped my mouth. A winter wind that whipped into the van nearly froze my vomit to my lips—not a pretty sight. Or feeling, for that matter.

A
s soon as I closed the door, I jerked it open again. More contents of my stomach emptied from me.

My thoughts collided with each other. What had happened to that man? Why had I ever thought it was a good idea to go to Katrina’s house? What was I going to do now?

Panic gripped every part of me, from my trembling limbs to my queasy stomach to my unsettled spirit.

“Should you call your doctor?”
Worry tinged Jamie’s voice.

I held the napkin over my mouth as I closed the door again. I didn’t trust my body
, didn’t know what would happen next. My physical being had already betrayed me big-time. Despite that, I shook my head. “No, I’ll be fine.”

I wished I could say the same for that man I’d seen.

“What happened, Holly?”

I closed my eyes
, wishing I could erase my thoughts. “It was awful, Jamie. Just awful.”

“Was her house that dirty?”
Skepticism laced her urban-drenched voice.

M
y friend had no idea. No idea. If she knew what I’d seen, she wouldn’t make light of it, not even in an effort to cheer me up.

I finally pulled my eyes open and turned to my friend. “Jamie, there was a dead man in the bathroom.”

Her eyes widened and her mouth sagged open. “Say what?”

I nodded. “I think he’d been shot. He was . . . he was dead. Murdered. Violently.” I opened the van door again as more vomit arose.

I pulled my head back inside and rested it against the dashboard. I felt awful . . . but, as I remembered the dead man, I was thankful just to be alive.

“We’ve got to call the police.”

“No!” I said a little too quickly. “I mean, if we call the police, how am I going to explain how I found the body? How I was in the house?”

Jamie pursed her lips
, a cheeky expression on her face. “That’s a great question.”

I rocked back and forth. “I know. I know. It was a terrible idea. I don’t know what I was thinking.
While I was lying in my safe little bed at night, my plan seemed brilliant, like something bold, that would make a statement. But I have no idea what to do now. What am I going to do, Jamie?”

“Girlfriend, this isn’t good. It isn’t good at all. You were at a crime scene. A crime scene. You fled.”
Her voice lilted with a brassiness that usually got me fired up. Right now, it only tightened the imaginary noose around my neck.

“I know! You don’t have to remind me.”
I rubbed my cheek. “What am I going to do?”

She let out a breath
and leaned back in her seat. “Let’s brainstorm. Maybe you could tell the police you stopped by Katrina’s house for work.”

“At midnight with no one home?

“You noticed the door was ajar and stepped inside. That’s when you found the body.”

I shook my head. “No one will believe that. Besides, I can’t lie.”


You’re worrying about lying? Do I need to remind you that you broke into someone’s home?”

Without looking,
I could feel her stare on me. I squeezed my eyes shut and leaned my forehead against the cool glass of the window. “It sounds so awful that way.”

“It is awful.”

“You’re not helping,” I moaned.

“Okay, let me help. If you sit on this information
, you could be charged with being an accessory to a crime. You have a moral duty to report this.”

I sprang up, my stomach still roiling. “Think about it, Jamie. If I call the police and they find out I broke into the house, then they’ll arrest me.
Then my sister—an assistant district attorney—will have to prosecute me—”

“They wouldn’t actually let her do that
, since you’re related and all.”

“It
doesn’t matter! That’s what it will feel like. Then, my brother—who’s running for state senate, need I remind you—will lose the election because his sister was arrested. You know the pundits, namely Rex Harrison and his crew, will use this against him. Don’t deny it.”

She
raised her hands. “No denial here. You’re the overly optimistic one. Not me.”

“Then, my mom will have to explain herself at every board meeting she attends. She’ll be known as the woman with a
daft for a daughter!” I wanted to disappear. Simply disappear. In the very least, to rewind time.

“These are the things I wanted you to think about before you got all impulsive and idealistic and decided to do this.”

“I knew it was coming. The ‘I told you so.’” I couldn’t even hold it against her. She’d been right. And I’d been so, so wrong.

“So, what are you going to do?”
The overhead light in the parking lot illuminated the compassionate look in her eyes.

“I have no idea . . . she said like someone who was hopelessly lost and dim
-witted.”
And self-loathing.
I didn’t say that part out loud, though.

“First of all, take your forehead off of the
dash.”

I hadn’t even realized
I’d put it back there. I sat up and let my head drop behind me instead.

“Now, you’ve got to make a decision. What are you going to do? Doing nothing isn’t an option. You’ve got to get a handle on this.”

A handle . . . handles made me think of buckets, and buckets made me realize—

“I left my cleaning supplies at the house. Oh my lands, Jamie. All of my stuff is still at the house!”

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