Sunday, March 31, 2024

Guest Post: Excerpt: A Scarlet Death by Elaine Viets

Please welcome author Elaine Viets back to the blog today as she shares the first chapter excerpt from her new book, A Scarlet Death. This is the latest book in her Angela Richman, Death Investigator Mystery Series. The book comes out on Tuesday, April 2nd from Severn House, and is available from Amazon and other vendors.



A Scarlet Death: An Angela Richman, Death Investigator Mystery



Chapter 1


Selwyn Skipton’s murder scene was one of the strangest, and I’ve seen a lot of them in my job.

          The seventy-year-old CEO was buck-naked on a bed with black satin sheets. A silk tie, in a muted shade of blue, was knotted around his neck. There was nothing muted about the large, red letter “A” stapled to his gray-haired chest.

          Yep, stapled.

          I thought Skipton would be the last man to die on black satin sheets. He was a devoted husband who made big donations to charities – unfashionable causes that helped the illiterate read, the hungry eat, and the homeless find shelter. In short, a good man.

          Selwyn was strangled in an apartment above the Chouteau Forest Chocolate Shoppe. My town is so rich, we don’t have shops. We have prissy shoppes.

          I’m Angela Richman, a death investigator for Chouteau County, a fat cat community forty miles west of St. Louis, Missouri. Chouteau Forest is the largest town in the county.

          Selwyn’s murder was discovered by Maya Richards, the chocolate shop owner. When she opened the store that morning, Maya smelled something that definitely wasn’t chocolate. She followed her nose up the back stairs to the apartment, where the door was unlocked, and poked her head in. One look at the strangled Selwyn, and she sprinted downstairs. When Maya recovered her breath, she wailed like an air raid siren, then called 911.

          That’s how Detective Jace Budewitz and I wound up at the scene at eleven o’clock on a freezing December morning, an hour after the place usually opened. The chocolate shop was chaos. The front doors were locked, with the three responding uniformed officers inside. Mike Harrigan, an old pro, was guarding the back door. Scott Grafton was drooling over a rack of chocolate Christmas candy, and Pete Clayton, the new hire, was at the front door. Crazed chocolate lovers stormed the place, oblivious to the falling snow. Jace shooed them away, and had Pete string up yellow crime scene tape.

          Maya Richards unlocked the door with shaking fingers, and let us in. I was familiar with the interior, thanks to my craving for sea-salt truffles. The decor hadn’t changed since 1890. Curlicued dark wood framed mirrors behind mahogany counters. The chocolates were displayed like jewels in beveled glass cases. The cases were empty today. Maya knew her shop wasn’t going to open for a while.

          Maya was about forty, wearing a chocolate-brown suit, the same color as her hair. Her face was pale as paper and her red lipstick looked like a bloody slash. Maya was shaking so badly, I was afraid she’d collapse. She was clearly in shock, and could barely talk.

          Jace was worried about her. He made sure Maya sat in a chair and called 911. I went back to find her a cup of coffee. I couldn’t find any, but there was plenty of the shop’s double-dark hot chocolate. I heated a mug in the microwave, and brought it to her. Maya wrapped her hands around the mug, and nodded. After a few sips, she recovered enough to talk. There were long pauses between her words, but she forced them out. Then the words tumbled out in a rush.

          “I . . . get . . . here . . . about seven . . . to set up the shop,” she said.

          “I have a very keen nose, and something didn’t smell right. I thought a squirrel might have gotten into the store and died. I checked everywhere, and finally decided the smell must be coming from upstairs.

          “Mr. Selwyn Skipton has the entire apartment upstairs. I thought he kept it as a second office, or a pied-à-terre for when he worked late downtown. He owns the building, you see, and he’s a regular customer. He loves our bear claws.”

          “Me, too,” I said. Jace frowned at me for interrupting.

          Maya took another sip of hot chocolate and kept talking. ‘I’ve never been upstairs in the apartment. Mr. Skipton’s kept it for years, and he likes – I mean, liked – his privacy. I was afraid he might have had some kind of accident. He has his own entrance in the back of the building, and I need a special key to open it. I also need a key to open the door at the top. The upstairs door was left unlocked.

          “I ran upstairs and knocked on the door. No one answered. I jiggled the handle and the door swung open. All I saw was this giant bed, covered in black satin, and Mr. Skipton in the middle of it. Dead. And naked. With bugs crawling on him!”

          Now Maya’s teeth were chattering. Her breathing was rapid and shallow and her skin was clammy. She set her mug on the floor.

          “Are you OK, Ms. Richards?” Jace asked.

          “I’m fine,” she said, and fainted.

          “See if she has any family, Angela,” Jace said. “I’ll call 911.”

          I found her cell phone and ran back. It needed the owner’s fingerprint to unlock it. I grabbed Maya’s limp hand, used her index finger to unlock the phone, scrolled down to an entry that said “Sis,” and called the number. Her sister Anita answered, and once I calmed her down, Anita said she’d leave her office and meet Maya at the hospital.

          “That’s the ambulance,” I told her, as the siren died with a squawk. Doors slammed. Pete opened the shop door, and four paramedics rushed in, bringing a blast of cold. Jace explained what happened. They checked Maya’s pulse. “Do you know if this has happened to her before?” the biggest paramedic asked. He looked like he bench-pressed Buicks.

          “No idea.” Jace shrugged.

          “It could be a panic attack,” the paramedic said, “but we’ll take her to the ER to make sure.”

          Jace asked Pete to stay with Maya at the hospital until her sister showed up. The young crew-cut mountain gave Jace a sour look and stomped out the door.

          I raised an eyebrow in surprise.

          “Pete’s got a bad attitude,” Jace said. “He tried to get hired by a big force, and wound up here. Thinks he’s too good to do scut work.”

          I nodded, and let it go. Some detectives wouldn’t have bothered taking care of Maya at a murder scene, but Jace had a kind heart.

          Meanwhile Mike, the responding officer, had set up the crime scene log. Jace and I gloved up, put on booties and trudged up the dark, narrow private staircase. I dragged my death investigator’s suitcase behind me.

          The apartment door was open from when Maya fled downstairs.

          Jace looked in and said, “Good lord.”



Elaine Viets ©2024

Elaine Viets has written 35 mysteries in four series. Her latest is A Scarlet Death: An Angela Richman, Death Investigator Mystery, published by Severn House in London. Elaine passed the Medicolegal Death Investigator Training Course given by St. Louis University’s School of Medicine. Deal with the Devil and 13 Short Stories is her collection of short stories. She’s won the Agatha, Anthony and Lefty Awards. Elaine will be honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Malice Domestic Mystery Conference in Bethesda, Maryland in April, 2024.

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