Title: Laugh or Death
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When a broken man arrives in town desperate to locate his missing girlfriend, loved-up PI Lexi Graves is determined to reunite the lost loves. However, the further Lexi delves into the case, the more it appears that the missing woman doesn’t want to be found.
To make matters worse, just as Lexi and her boss slash boyfriend are enjoying a romantic date, their restaurant is targeted by a pair of thieves. When Lily’s bar falls prey to the gang too, and Lily has a hunch about who’s behind it, Lexi knows she has to help her friend solve the case.
Between stakeouts and shootouts, and determined that true love wins out, Lexi redoubles her efforts, enlisting her friends and family network to bring the lost lovers together once more, and the thieves their rightful comeuppance. But just as Lexi is closing in, a frightening twist plunges her into the most dangerous situation she has ever faced.
Chapter One: (Unedited)
“Lexi Graves, if you keep checking your ass out in that mirror, I’m going to have you write yourself up for sexual harassment!” yelled my boss and boyfriend. The two roles he performed were currently in that exact order since we were hard at work in the Solomon detective agency. I say “we” but Solomon was the one holding the paperwork for our forthcoming meeting and I was the one checking out my very cute derriere in the agency bathroom’s mirror. With one final nod of approval, I decided I’d be happy to write my ass up for looking so damn hot in my new sky blue pants.
“I’ll be right there,” I yelled back, not that I needed to be so loud since Solomon lingered in the doorway, his arms folded across his broad, muscular chest. He did his best to look stern. The occasional dip of his chin and the clouded look in his eyes told me he was taking his time with the view. “You’re such a task master,” I complained. “I just wanted to make sure I don’t have a coffee stain on my butt when we meet our new client. Don’t you have standards?”
At that moment, my colleague Lucas strolled past, his shirt untucked and his blond surfer hair standing at odd ends and clearly unbrushed. I decided that maybe, no, we did not have standards, but then Lucas’s role was to be our tech wizard behind a desk and my face was front of house. Just like my butt.
“It takes thirty seconds to check out your butt.” Solomon slowly raised his arm and tipped his wrist towards him, making it obvious that he checked his watch. “I left you alone five minutes before I came to find you and we’ve stood here another five minutes.”
“Very. Now get your ass in gear or I’ll have you on the coffee run for the whole next week.”
“Fine,” I muttered, reaching for my lip-gloss. Until recently I had been the only woman at the agency, so I’d turned the bathroom into my own personal one, complete with spare perfume, spare lip-gloss and spare mascara because who knew when I would need freshening up. Lately another woman had joined the risk management team upstairs but she’d left my things alone which I took as a tacit agreement that they stayed. Just as I finished swiping on the gloss and puckering my lips at my reflection, an audible sound emanated from the doorway. I took that as a sign Solomon was about to get mad, really mad, and possibly even reassign my case, and returned the lip gloss to its little caddy. With one last approving look in the mirror, left the bathroom. “At least I didn’t stay to fix my hair,” I chastised.
Solomon frowned. “Do you need to fix your hair?”
I ran a self-conscious hand over my brunette locks and pulled a face. “Oh my gosh, do I? I should…”
Solomon grabbed my upper arm and propelled me forwards. “No, you do not. Meeting room one. We’re going to be late.”
“Why are you joining me anyway?” I asked. “I can take this. It’s just a simple client meeting.”
“I’m assessing it for which division takes it.”
“It’s a straightforward PI case. I read the request.”
“It’s a missing woman. It might come under risk management.”
“She’s an amnesiac.”
“She’s still missing.”
“It’s not like she remembers that,” I pointed out. “She probably doesn’t know she’s missing at all.”
“All the more reason why she might be an at risk case.”
“I could tell you after I meet the client.”
“You don’t know what I’m looking for.”
“You haven’t told me!” I sighed and stuck my tongue out at Solomon’s back, which was childish yet deeply satisfying as we turned the corner into our small suite of meeting rooms, all part of the newly developed working area since the agency’s recent expansion. Instead of one large room in which I worked with three other private investigators, Lucas, and Solomon, we now had two entire floors. The bathroom was still poky and basic but according to Solomon the money was better served on our new array of technical hardware and not so much on window treatments and a floor-to-ceiling mirror. I kind of saw his point but I didn’t want him to know that. “What are you looking for?” I asked as we paused outside the meeting room. Through the small window in the door, I saw the back of man, and a full head of dark hair. At least someone else in the building had nice hair asides from me.
“I’ll know when I see it,” said Solomon and pushed the door open before I could ask what that was supposed to mean, or when he decided I needed a babysitter for a simple interview. Despite the urge to stick my tongue out at him one more time, I plastered a smile onto my newly glossy lips and stuck my hand out as our prospective client stood and turned, flashing me with a charming smile and the most perfect set of pearly whites.
“Leo Chandler,” he said, giving my hand a firm shake. “Thank you so much for seeing me. You have no idea how much I appreciate it.”
“No problem at all, Mr…” I started, already assessing him. He was a good looking man, dressed on the smarter side of casual in tan chinos and an open-neck white shirt.
“Leo,” I corrected, indicating for him to sit as I took the chair opposite. Leo Chandler shook Solomon’s hand, then sat, looking from my boss to me, expectantly. It was that very same expectant look that I had only recently got used to. Clients often came to us as a last resort; the final thing they could do when they realized all other actions were going to be fruitless. Far too many thought we could work wonders, that we could uncover the truth at last. On many occasions we had, and I had a few successful cases under my belt since Solomon had offered me, an unqualified rookie, a job. In his words, I was the person anyone would suspect was following them and attempting to unearth their secrets. I suspected with the ass-checking and lip-gloss routine that I had proved his point. It didn’t escape my notice that Solomon had taken a really good look during his few minutes wait and I had to fight to keep the smile off my lips as I returned my attention to Leo Chandler. “What can we do for you? I’ve read your request but I’d like to hear it in your own words.”
“Well… okay.” Leo cleared his throat and settled in his chair, relaxing. “I need you to find someone for me. This is her.” He stuck his hand inside the jacket slung over the back of his chair and a moment later, slid a four by six photo across the table. I picked it up, looking at the pretty woman smiling at the camera. I pegged her as late twenties, or at least she had been when the photo was taken, and she wore a denim jacket and a floral t-shirt. Minimal makeup, dark brown hair, creamy white complexion. “That’s my fiance. Nancy. Nancy Grant. She went missing six months ago.”
“How?” asked Solomon.
Leo glanced towards my boss and was silent for a moment, before shrugging. “I don’t know.”
“What makes you think she’s missing?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t answer with the obvious ‘because I haven’t seen her in six months.’ I scrambled for a save, “I mean, how do you know she hasn’t just moved away. Or broke up with you and didn’t tell you? It’s harsh but it happens.”
“No, Nancy wouldn’t do that. I think something happened to her. She had a really bad fall and I went to get my car to take her to the hospital but when I got back, she’d gone. It was like she vanished. She hasn’t been home since.”
“What about her job? Where was she employed?”
“She was unemployed at the time,” Leo replied.
“And her family? Did they report her missing?”
“No family. I don’t know what happened to them, except that when I met Nancy she was on her own.”
“What about her friends?”
“Honestly, she was kind of a loner. She didn’t make friends easily. We were just together, you know. Me and Nancy against the world.” Leo gave a weak smile as he looked down at the table. He gave a sad shake of his head as he seemed to lose himself in what I imagined were happier memories. “She was really shy and quiet.”
“Did you report her missing?” asked Solomon.
“Ahh… no, I didn’t.”
“No one would take me seriously at the police department. They said she’d just taken off and that I should get over her and move on.”
“Do you think you should do that?” I asked. “It’s not unheard of.”
“No, absolutely not.” Leo shook his head determinedly. “Nancy wouldn’t just abandon me. We were everything to each other. No, I think when she hurt her head, something happened and she took off and got disorientated.”
Solomon raised his eyebrows. “Amnesia?”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought… I checked every hospital and there was no signs of her but we were out at my cabin and there’s several highways. She could have got on a bus or hitchhiked and got all confused.”
“Says here you’re from Greenacre,” said Solomon, looking down at the file laid on the table. “What brings your search here to Montgomery? We’re a hundred miles from home.”
“I’ve been searching for Nancy ever since she went missing and every so often I get a sighting to check out and, just like you would I guess, I drive up there for a few days. I get a motel room and I go around town with Nancy’s photo and… nothing. But I got an email a week ago saying someone thought they saw Nancy and there was a photo. I’ll show you.” Leo patted his pockets, finally producing another photo. Instead of the glossy shot he’d shown us before, this one was a grainy print of a woman, snapped as she sat in the window seat of a diner. “I know this is her. It’s my big break. I’ve been here three days and I’ve waited all that time outside this diner and I haven’t seen her. Montgomery is a big town. I can’t check out everywhere all at the same time. I don’t even know the town or where to look. I need experts. I need you guys.”
“You want us to find out if this is Nancy and what happened to her?” I asked.
“I just need you to find her, confirm it’s her. I don’t want to spook her but I… I…” A tear seeped from Leo’s eye. He brushed the back of his hand across his cheek as his jaw set in a firm, determined line. “I can’t risk losing her again. Can you find Nancy for me?” He glanced at me, his eyes pleading. “Can you find the love of my life?”
“It’s so romantic,” I sighed, fifteen minutes later as I took up position in the chair opposite Solomon’s desk. “A gorgeous missing woman, suffering from amnesia. Her equally gorgeous but devastated boyfriend searching to the ends of the earth…”
“Montgomery,” interrupted Solomon.
“Shh. He might go further.”
“Still in Montgomery.”
“Shh! He’s searched hundreds of miles…”
“What is with you? If we take this case, we could reunite two people who are meant to be together. Two people wrenched apart by devastating amnesia…”
“You thought he was gorgeous?”
“You just said he was gorgeous.”
“He is in the Lifetime film that they’ll make after we reunite them.” I sighed, imagining the glamorous young actress who would play me.
“So you don’t think he’s gorgeous now?” Solomon persisted, not sounding exactly pleased about it.
I rose, leaned forwards, and extending my leg slightly, caught the door with my toe and kicked it shut, using the momentum to lean forwards and kiss my boyfriend firmly on the lips. “I think you’re gorgeous.”
“I think if you’re going to kick the door shut, you should have thought about the blinds,” Solomon murmured against my lips. I giggled and rocked back into my chair.
“Where’s your romantic side?” I asked. “Did you see Leo cry?”
“For one, I used up my romantic side on you last night and I’m beat.” Solomon winked and my cheeks reddened, though not very much because last night was awesome and I’d already replayed it seventeen times in my head. “Secondly, I did see him cry and he’s a fake.”
“What? Solomon! C’mon!”
“He’s a liar.”
“What makes you think he isn’t?”
“Uh…” That had me stumped and for a moment all I could do was wrinkle my nose and not have my eighteenth daydream. “Well, why would he come to us for help if he was a liar? And which bit was he lying about?”
“I don’t know which bit,” Solomon admitted, and to which I respectfully didn’t give a gleeful ‘hah!’ “But I do know a rat when I smell one. There’s something up with this guy’s story.”
“I’m telling you that we should take this case and reunite this couple and make them really, really happy.”
“I’m not saying we shouldn’t take the case. I’m saying the guy’s a fake.”
“You’ve lost me.”
Solomon tapped the file and fixed me with a look. It was all I could do not to twizzle in my seat, reach for the blind cords and switch them shut. “The only thing I’m sure about is that Leo Chandler wants to find this Nancy Grant. She might be his girlfriend. She might have amnesia and she might be missing, but there’s something wrong with his story. Something a little too perfect.”
“It sounds like crap to me. His story, I mean. And by crap, I mean, it sucks! I feel sorry for the guy and it’s not like we haven’t found missing people before. If it’s too perfect… maybe that’s how he thinks about her to keep going while he searches hundreds…”
“A hundred! And you’re right, that’s exactly what we’ll do,” decided Solomon, surprising me. “You and I are going to work this as a missing persons. Call Leo and tell him we’ve made our decision and we’ll take the case. You are going to find Nancy Grant.”
“No problem!” I paused, waiting for the catch. “What are you going to do?”
“I’m going to find out what it is that Leo Chandler is hiding.”
“I bet it’s nothing. I bet you’ve got him all wrong.”
“Yeah? Care to place an actual bet on that?”
I leaned in, my ‘this is war’ face firmly on. “I am more than happy to place a bet that I am going to reunite two heartbroken lovers devastated by amnesia.”
“And I’m going to prove that Leo Chandler is not what he seems. What are the stakes?”
“If I win, you take me on vacation. Somewhere exotic. Palm trees. Cocktails. A really cute cabana on the beach and blue ocean.”
“Done,” agreed Solomon before I could add to my list of winner’s demands. “If I win, I want all of that and you’re only allowed to take hand luggage.”
I gasped. “What am I supposed to pack? Lip gloss and ten bikinis?”
“Fine.” I stuck my hand out. “You’re on.”
Solomon grasped my hand and pulled me towards him. “I’m gonna win,” he whispered, and kissed me. Which was fine, except… I was going to win! However, he didn’t need to know that just yet, I decided, as I returned the passionate kiss.