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Title: Weapons of Mass Distraction
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When a client drops dead during Lexi’s spin class, she’s not too surprised. After all, it’s a tough class. But within days, another death occurs, this time, on the treadmill. Then, when her running partner bites the dust, it becomes personal.
Sent undercover, Lexi takes a job as Montgomery’s newest gym instructor in a bid to find the killer. With her professional and personal lives headed on a collision course, Lexi is glad to take the case. Now she only has to convince her boss, and new boyfriend, Solomon, that she’s ready to solve her own case after she learns a disturbing connection between the victims. Faced with complex and dangerous circumstances, Lexi needs all of her past experience in order to catch the killer before another person falls victim.
To make matters even more challenging, Lexi’s best friend, Lily, is planning for better or worse with Lexi's brother. Just one problem: all the local wedding boutiques have been repeatedly targeted by a highly organized gang of thieves. Roped into surveillance, rather than taking any chances and losing her best friend’s dress, which would ruin the wedding, Lexi risks having too much to handle. The only thing she has to do is put a killer behind bars, save the dress, and save the day… Piece of cake!
“I’m gonna die,” I puffed as a bead of sweat slid down my forehead before plopping into my cleavage and joining a small puddle of water in my sports bra. To make matters worse, I voluntarily signed up for this spin class, and even suggested to my best friend, Lily, that we hit the gym during a rare moment of good intentions towards my body. Barely twenty minutes into it, my thighs were screaming and my lungs whimpered. “Yep, definitely going to die,” I heaved as a faint wave of nausea hit me. Now, however, it was due to the up and down movement on the stationary bikes.
“Gears up!,” yelled Anton, the hottest and meanest spin instructor in all of Montgomery, and, maybe, the world. “Up! Higher! You can do it! Think of those legs! Think of those buns! If you can’t think of your own, look at the person in front of you. Their buns look better than yours! Do you want that? Nooooooo! You want hot buns! You need hot buns! And rise!”
Lily and I joined the rest of the class by pushing the gear up one notch, perching in our stirrups, and pedaling for all our fabulous legs were worth. I took a look around the twenty-strong class, stationed in three rows and facing a wall of mirrors that just misted ten minutes ago. Every single person was red-faced and drenched in sweat, their thighs straining as they hill-climbed their way to stronger lungs and tighter buns. To the front of me, an overweight white guy was bobbing in his saddle, with his huge butt in my face, and a lap pool of sweat surrounding his bike. Anton was wrong. I sure didn’t want to look like that guy’s butt, but kudos to him for trying to work his way towards a better one.
I looked from him to Lily, and her eyes dropped down as she stifled a giggle. I turned back to the butt, recoiling as the man swung his wet head, sending errant sweat droplets flying toward me.
“Do. Not. Sit. Down. Lexi. Graves!” screamed Anton. “Gears up! Uuuuuup!”
That’s me. Lexi Graves. I’m not a gym bunny, not one bit, but I do have a rolling monthly membership to Fairmount Gym. Usually, I only attend the gym when Lily insists, a couple of times a week, or when I catch a less than flattering glance of myself in the mirror; but sometimes, I take an extra class when work is light. I’m a private investigator so that happens from time to time after I’ve closed a case and am waiting for a new one, like now. Since I just became a homeowner of the cutest buttercup yellow bungalow, a few days of downtime suits me fine, especially as I had a few boxes left to unpack. That task was finished last night, and I awoke with a newfound resolve to attend the gym. However, it was waning fast.
“I hate him,” I whispered to Lily.
“Think of your jeans,” Lily heaved. “Think of Solomon checking out your butt. Think of that dress you ate too much pizza to wear.”
I thought of both, especially since I planned to wear “that dress” for Solomon, my boss slash boyfriend very soon. I didn’t mean to multitask the main man in my life, but it turned out that way, and I was happy for it. He was a good boss and an excellent boyfriend. Once, he pretended to be my fake husband and was damn good at that too. “So now it’s my fault you’re a feeder?” I shot back.
“I don’t think you reaching for the last two slices qualifies me as a feeder.” Lily reached for her water bottle with a shaky hand and squirted liquid in her face. “Shoot. Missed.” She tried again, this time firing the stream of water into her mouth.
“I… have… two… hands,” I heaved. “One for each slice!”
“That’s not an excuse and you know it.”
“I rarely indulge. I should do more. I’m gonna die.”
“You’re gonna be skinny and gorgeous. You’re gonna do this and you’re gonna do it hard,” Lily wheezed.
“That’s right, everybody, listen to Miss Lily Shuler. She says ‘You’re gonna do this and you’re gonna do it hard’,” yelled Anton. “Are you with me? Are. You. With. Meeeeee? Aaaaand… back in your saddles!”
A chorus of yeses echoed around the steam-filled studio, along with a few whimpers that could have been affirmations. With twenty minutes left on the clock, there wasn’t a whole lot of energy to go around, and most everyone looked like me, concentrating on getting through the next few minutes without wobbling off their stationary spin bikes, and collapsing onto the floor and crying. Not puking would be a bonus, although rumor had it Anton considered a vomiting episode as a personal best on a tough class.
I flipped the gears down two settings and continued to pump my thighs, hoping no one noticed.
“I saw that,” hissed Lily. “Cheat.”
“I need to walk the rest of the day, okay?” I hissed back. “And tomorrow too.”
“You don’t. You’ve been sitting on your butt, doing surveillance for two weeks.”
That was true, and partly why I upped my gym hours because I really needed to compensate for all that sitting around. “I still need to hit the car brakes,” I said, rising when Anton yelled again. “I need for my legs to work. Plus my surveillance job is done.”
Lily stood a little taller in the stirrups and grinned. “I could drive for you. Let’s be surveillance buddies.”
“Yeah, that always works out so well,” I replied. I was thinking about corpses, and suspected serial killers, along with the other things we discovered whenever she joined me on a stakeout. Not that she was a magnet for those sorts of things, but she didn’t exactly deter them either. At least, I got paid for that kind of crap.
Lily was about to answer when one of the men in the front row wobbled off his bike and lurched forwards. The class would have inhaled a collective gasp, but no one had any breath to spare. All the same, several pairs of eyes followed the lurching body. If there was one thing Anton hated, it was a flake-out in his classes, and he had been known to ream people out. Anton was about to do his thing when the man took another wobbly step forward before sinking to his knees, both his arms limp at his sides. Blood seemed to drain from his face, giving his sweaty, red visage a ghostly pallor. He tipped his head upwards, his jaw dropping open and rasped out a breath.
Anton stepped towards him, reached one hand to his shoulder. “Are you…? Oh shit!” The man keeled forwards, his face hitting the studio floor with a dull thud. Instead of his eyes rolling back in a faint, they stared glassily ahead.
One by one, the class slowed down their bikes, gradually coming to a stop as the music thumped around us from the overhead speakers. They abruptly cut out as Anton pressed a button on his remote control. We all leaned forwards on our handlebars as Anton reached for the man’s wrist, his fingers checking for a pulse. After what felt like forever, with my heart thumping in my chest from exertion and waiting, Anton looked up and around. “He’s dead,” he said softly, almost inaudibly. Even without a word, his frightened eyes said it all. “He’s dead.”
“Oh my God, you killed him!” screamed a woman at the back. Our attention turned to her as she scrambled from her saddle and weaved through the bikes, her bag and towel bumping everyone in her path. “I am never spinning again!” she screamed, whirling around and banging out the double doors backwards.
“He’s dead?” The big man in front of us turned to the man to his left, then to the woman at his right. “He’s really dead? Oh my, I think I’m gonna…” And he did. He fainted. But as he fell, he leaned to his left and hit the handlebars of the next bike, toppling it before its rider could jump clear. That bike hit another, and that one hit another, as they all went down like dominoes. The last person had the good sense to jump off her bike when the others thumped to the floor, and dash towards the front of the room. She watched, with astonishment the crash of tangled limbs and bikes, their wheels still spinning.
“Let’s always sit at the back,” whispered Lily.
“He’s dead,” said Anton again, waving the remote. In the far left corner, someone began to cry. “I killed him! I killed a man!”
“Should we help?” asked Lily, sliding off her bike, addressing no one in particular.
“Can you get him off me?” squeaked the man under the big man who fainted. He was skinny and wore a sweatband around his head. “I can’t breathe.”
“I don’t think so,” said Lily, assessing the situation. “He’s pretty big. Lexi, can we roll him together?”
“Yes, do that,” said the man. “I can’t feel my legs. Hurry, please.”
“Just a moment,” I said, holding a finger up to him, asking for patience. Grabbing my cell phone from the bike’s tray, I hit “speed dial.”
“Do you have to make a call right now?” wheezed the man. “Can’t it wait until after…” He flapped a hand at the fainter. Behind Skinny Headband, several moans emerged from the other trapped spinners.
“If you can still talk, you’re okay for another minute,” I told him. Then the phone stopped ringing and my savior answered. “So, funny thing,” I said. “I’m in my spin class, and a guy just died, and then this big guy knocked over all the bikes and now half the class is crushed. Can you send a couple of officers and maybe an ambulance?”
At the other end of the line, Maddox sighed. “How do these things always seem to happen to you?”
Adam Maddox was a detective with the Montgomery police department and knew better than to ask dumbass questions like that. I could have called a bazillion other police officers, but since I was related to a large portion of them, I thought calling my ex-boyfriend seemed like a better idea. He wouldn’t bring this up at every family dinner forever after.
“I like to keep fit?” I replied, phrasing it like a question.
“Okay. How’d this guy die? Are you sure he’s dead?”
“I’ll double check, but I’m pretty sure. He’s not moving and doesn’t have a pulse.”
“Good enough for me. He have a heart attack or something?”
“Maybe. It was a tough class.”
“Remind me to never spin. Besides, overexertion through spinning isn’t really a police thing. We like bullets, knives, heavy mallets. See any of those?”
I looked around, just in case. “Nope.”
“I’ll send a couple uniforms over. Need anything else?”
“A hearse would be nice.”
“Coming up. Stay put.”
“It’s okay,” I told everyone, as I hung up the phone. I jumped over the first human domino, landing neatly a few feet from Anton. I should have been a ballerina. I felt really graceful doing that. “Help is on the way. Everyone needs to just stay calm.”
“Easy for you to say,” said Skinny Headband. “You’re not under this guy and I think he just peed himself.”
“It’s probably just sweat,” said Lily, taking Skinny’s hand. He beamed up at her and I suspected maybe even fell in love a little. People seemed to do that with Lily, although, when I said people, I meant men. Until recently, that was great, but now she was all googly-eyed about my brother, which I found disgusting, but it was fine by me, especially since he finally reciprocated. They were even due to get married very soon after a whirlwind engagement that was a culmination of determination to get the guy on Lily's part, and giving in on Jord's.
Skinny’s lip trembled. “I can feel it all over my legs.”
“The good news is you can feel your legs,” said Lily. She patted his hand reassuringly and wrinkled her nose. I glanced at the other spinners, noticing they too were rallying to help extricate the fallen from their stirrups and saddles.
I left them to their special moment, and crouched down next to Anton. “Hey,” I said. “I think you can let go of his wrist now.”
“Oh, right, yes. I need to call for help.” Anton dropped the man’s wrist and scooted backwards on his butt. “I can’t believe this happened. I killed him. I shouldn’t have pushed so hard. I should’ve…”
“No, you didn’t kill him,” I reassured him. “We all saw. You didn’t lay a finger on him.”
“I pushed you all too hard. I just wanted you all to have great asses. I shouldn’t have gone so hard on everybody,” Anton whispered, his voice thick with shock. He stared at the dead man, seemingly unable to look away.
“Our asses appreciate it,” I told him as I picked up the dead man’s wrist and felt for a pulse. Yeah, definitely dead. I reached for his other wrist. Yep, dead on both sides. Something about his hand caught my eye and I turned his palm over. I noticed a tiny smear of blood on his middle finger. With a shrug, I laid the hand down, and turned back to Anton. He had the walkie-talkie in his hand that all the instructors carried and was speaking into it in a panicked voice. Whatever he said must have been good because a few minutes later, white polo-shirted instructors swarmed the spin studio and started helping the people still lying on the floor and righting bikes.
As I sat with Anton, I watching the chaos, he staring at the body, only one thing occurred to me. I hoped this was the straightforward death he thought it was because otherwise, Maddox would be totally pissed that I allowed a crime scene to get trampled and compromised.
“Jeez, Lexi, how many people have been through here?” asked Maddox, surveying the chaos of the spin studio. I didn’t expect him to turn up so I was pretty surprised when he sauntered through the double doors into the gym and purposefully entered the spin studio. Blooms of steam still coated the windows spanning the wall adjacent to the misted mirrors, and the bikes were in chaotic disarray, instead of the neat lines they were in at the start of the class. The floor… the floor was a mess of towels, sweat, shoe prints, and what smelled and looked suspiciously like pee. Poor Skinny did call it.
“What time frame are we talking?” I asked, even though I knew what he meant. Yeah, I should have stopped people trampling all over, but really, what could I have done? People panicked and got stuck under bikes! And there was a corpse only a few yards from them and our instructor went into shock. Then, the gym staff added their footprints and the resulting mess was this. The room was now empty, but for the corpse, Maddox, and me as everyone else cleared out quickly. Lily reported that a few had grazed elbows and other scrapes, which were tended to by the EMTs in another studio.
Maddox raised his eyebrows and waved for a uniform to stand at the door, just to deter the curious from wandering over. “Let’s say, since the class started.”
“Okay, so, there was a full class of twenty, plus Anton, the instructor. That makes twenty-one.”
“And after the guy died?”
“Six instructors and gym staff, their manager, four paramedics, and a whole bunch of nosy people. That makes…”
I started to count on my fingers, but Maddox was already there first with, “Thirty-two, plus.”
“Thirty-one,” I corrected. “One guy was dead, remember? I don’t think he counts after his demise. Who was he anyway? I’ve seen him at the gym a few times.”
Maddox checked his notepad. “Jim Schwarz, thirty-seven. Unmarried, no kids. Lives in Harbridge. Works as a lab tech.” He looked up. “You’ve never spoken to him?”
“No.” I tried to remember him. “I’ve seen him here with a woman a few times. She’s a member too.”
“You know her name?”
“No, but she was on the bike to the right of Jim. I saw them having a conversation before class started and she didn’t look too happy. Anton might know who she is.”
“I have their names. What does she look like?” Maddox asked.
“Around the same age as Jim, or a little younger. As tall as him too. Light brown hair. Oh, she was wearing a really cute, pink top. If you speak to her, can you ask where she got it?”
Maddox just shook his head as he snapped the notebook shut. “I’m just going to ask a couple questions for now, then I’m out of here.”
“What? You’re not going to interrogate anyone?”
“No reason too. From what I’ve heard, it looks like Jim just had a heart attack, but the ME will confirm. This isn’t a murder, Lexi. Sorry. Don’t look so disappointed. You did the right thing though in calling me.”
That was disappointing, although in a way… not so much. I really didn’t want to solve a murder at my own gym and since witnessing Jim Schwarz’s death, I knew I would feel compelled to. This was where I sweated, relaxed, and checked myself out in the full-length mirrors. And not where I wanted to be on high alert for possible murderers. But on the other hand… “So what happens now?” I asked, seeking to learn how this would get wrapped up. The dead people I usually came across were murdered, so a natural death was new to me. I sincerely hoped, however, to encounter neither kind of death again.
“Jim’s body will go to the ME and they’ll want to do an autopsy since it is an unexplained death.” I perked up. Unexplained! Called it! Maddox smiled, continuing, “Don’t get your hopes up. He could have had a weak heart, or an aneurysm. These things happen, Lexi.” He patted me on the shoulder in a friendly way, repeated the motion to the young uni posted on the door, and made for the exit. I followed him out, glad to escape the studio. I wondered if I would ever go in there again, and if this were a good excuse to make Lily choose some other kind of group exercise, something gentle, something non-life threatening like… yoga.
“I think I’m going to take up yoga.”
Maddox paused and looked up from his notes. “Good to know. It’s good for stress.”
“How do you know?”
“Yoga club down at the station on Tuesday nights.”
My mouth dropped open. “You guys do the downward dog en masse at the station?”
Maddox smirked and snapped the notepad shut. His blue eyes sparkled as he appraised me, eyebrows raised. “I’m imagining you doing the downward dog right now.”
“Play hard to get, Lexi, don’t plead,” Maddox teased, laughing and I had to admit he looked as handsome as ever. It almost felt like old times, back when I first had a huge crush on him at my temp job, and way before I found out he was an undercover officer on the trail of missing millions. We closed the case together and I got the guy. Some time later, when we worked separate cases, I lost him. It was sad, but it was life. “Hey, smile. It could be worse though I really don’t know how. Now, can you point me towards the studio where the EMTs set up? I want to talk to this friend of Jim Schwarz’s before I head back to the station. Figures she’ll be in there, if anywhere.”
While Maddox looked for the dead man’s friend, I went in search of the manager, Michael Rivers. I found him by the coroner’s van. It was parked in front of the gym, right where everyone could see it; and Michael looked like he was about to burst into tears. He was a bodybuilder, and around a foot wider than most normal folk. His dark skin looked like he buffed it, and his biceps appeared to have a bigger girth than my thighs. He was damned nice guy too with a sweet temperament and a sensitive disposition, that didn’t sit quite right with his physique. He always took the time to say hi when I saw him. I suspected he once had a huge crush on Lily.
“You okay, Michael?” I asked, coming to a stop at his side. Behind me there was the sound of rattling castors and we turned to watch two attendants wheeling out a gurney, with a full body bag strapped on top.
“No, I can’t believe this. No one ever died in my gym before,” Michael said, reaching one meaty hand up to scratch his head.
“Bright side, you know how to deal with it now,” I replied, trying to find a positive.
“I hope to never deal with it again. Detective Maddox said you called him?” Michael dragged his eyes away from the body bag to look down at me.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” I said, feeling stupid now that Maddox emphasized just how natural this death looked, even if it was unexplained. We stopped talking for a moment and watched the morgue workers heft the gurney into the back of the van before banging the doors shut. It seemed a very final say on Jim Schwarz’s life, and, I had to assume, not the way he planned on leaving the gym today. Or ever. “Did you know him?” I asked, nodding toward the van.
Michael shook his head. “Not really. Seen him around a few times. He came here a lot when he left his job, but he hasn’t been here so much recently, so I assumed he was working again. Seemed pleasant. Always polite to my staff. Where’s your friend, Lily? She back at the gym now?”
“Yeah. Making me suffer, too.”
“Well, whatever she’s making you do, it’s working.” Michael looked down and smiled. “You ever think about taking up weights?”
“Do bottles of wine count?”
“Sure, just don’t drop ‘em.”
I feigned horror. “Never!”
“You could do some bikini athlete modeling; Lily, too, if you both worked at it, ate clean, lifted hard.”
“Sounds awesome, but I’m all out of bikinis,” I replied, wondering what the hell a bikini athlete was.
The morgue van guy came over with a piece of paper for Michael to sign and I took the opportunity to snoop. It would have been ruder not to. “What happened?” I asked the attendant, hoping the all-encompassing question could glean some good answers. “Was it a natural death?”
“Maybe a heart attack,” said the guy, squinting at me. “We won’t know until we get to the morgue. Do I know you?”
“Nope,” I said quickly, just in case he recognized me from any of my cases. I preferred to go incognito, which was tough, since at any given moment, someone could figure out I was a PI. It happened before and didn’t always work in my favor. “What brought it on?”
“Couldn’t tell you, sorry. Do you know the guy?”
“No, only in passing. Um, not that kind of passing. I didn’t mean to pun,” I added. “Just seen him around.”
“Was he doing strenuous exercise when he collapsed?”
“Spinning. I told Detective Maddox already. He took statements.”
“Thanks. I’ll get in touch with him. Have a good day now.”
“I’ll try,” I said as Michael harrumphed, clearly not having a good one.
We watched the van leave and Michael looked down at me as I looked up. “Another bright side, no more corpses at the gym,” I said as we turned away from the van to head inside.
“I wish I could laugh. I gotta spin studio to clean, and serious PR to do. Don’t want any members leaving. Also, Anton is a wreck. I’m gonna drive him home before he confesses to killing that poor guy and ends up with an angry family’s law suit. He didn’t kill him, by the way, and Jim Schwarz was a fit guy. Anton’s just upset.”
“I know that. I was there.”
“If anyone asks, will you make sure to say the guy just keeled over and collapsed off his bike and was dead. Nothing to do with us. I hope the guy’s family doesn’t sue.”
“Since that is exactly what happened, I will say just that.”
“You’re a good woman, Lexi Graves.”
I bumped him with my shoulder. It was like bumping a wall. “Don’t tell anyone.”
Finally, a smile appeared on Michael’s lips, but vanished just as fast. I patted his arm and resisted the urge to stroke the muscles that roped it. “Don’t worry, okay? People die all the time. It’s just unfortunate he died here. Everything will be back to normal tomorrow.”
“Hah. Um, no. Since I don’t work here and am really just throwing out platitudes,” I explained so another crappy day wouldn’t fall back on me.
“At least, you’re honest.”
“If you keep saying nice things about me, I might start to think you like me.”
“Nah. Now your friend, Lily…”
“I’ll pretend not to be offended and Lily is engaged to my brother. But like I said, everything will be A-okay tomorrow.” I gave him my brightest smile, and left to find Lily so we could spend the rest of our day somewhere with less corpses hanging about.