Murder at the Bomb Shelter

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Excerpt from Chapter 1

Rosa Reed pedaled her Schwinn Deluxe Hollywood bicycle down the boulevard on another sunny Santa Bonita, California day. As she breathed in the sweet scent of sage and saline, she briskly rode down the slight incline toward Ron’s New and Used Cars. Over the last few weeks, she’d ridden by often, but today her heart fluttered with excitement as she approached the business establishment.

Yesterday, while heading home from a short shopping trip with her brown tabby kitten, Diego—who rode in the front basket with his fuzzy face into the wind—she’d spied a new arrival on the car lot. She’d simply had to stop for a look. That polo-white, two-door 1953 Chevrolet Corvette Roadster convertible with  red-leather interior had gripped her imagination, and at that moment, Rosa had fallen in love.

One of only three hundred made that year, the automobile, with its serial number of 76, was already considered a collector’s item. Rosa had slid into the  red-leather seat with Diego safely tucked into her satchel. When she’d revved the engine, the frame rumbled, and the powerful sound roared through the tailpipe, causing her to smile mischievously. 

With the top down, she’d test-driven the vehicle, riding north onto the Pacific Coast Highway—a warm August breeze mussing her short brown hair. She’d allowed herself a moment of thrill when she pressed harder on the accelerator. My mother would love this car! The thought made her laugh out loud as she thundered past the city limits sign, swirls of dust whipping in her disappearing wake.

Upon returning to the lot, Rosa had immediately phoned her Aunt Louisa, the matriarch of the Forrester mansion, to arrange for temporary financing until she could get the money wired from the London bank that held her trust fund.

“I’m part of the Forrester family,” she’d told the dealer. “I’ll be back tomorrow if you’d be kind enough to hold it for me.”

By the look of respect at the mention of the Forrester family name—and perhaps a little fear, after all, Aunt Louisa’s reputation in the town was formidable—the dealer promised to hold it.

Now, as Rosa signed the papers for ownership and registration, anticipation rushed through her. The days that lay ahead of her! Her recent decision to stay in Santa Bonita and set up a private investigation office instead of returning to her job as a police officer in London was further cemented by the purchase of this car.

“You don’t mind stowing my bicycle for a day or so . . .” Rosa said, her voice a lively lilt. “. . . until I can arrange for it to be picked up.”

“Not at all, Miss Reed,” the dealer said with a firm handshake and a grin as sparkling as Santa Bonita bay.

Minutes later, Diego safely ensconced in her large satchel, Rosa pointed the Corvette toward the business district. She’d remembered to bring a silk headscarf, the same pink color as her lipstick—her mother would approve—so her hair stayed neatly in place. A pair of gray-and-green Polaroid tortoiseshell sunglasses sat on her nose, and she steered her new steed along the roadway with gloved hands.

She congratulated herself for staying in the right-hand lane. Rosa had learned to drive in America during the war years when she’d been shipped out of London to the safety her Aunt Louisa had offered. Shifting from her inclination to drive on the left was like riding a bike. Having a steering wheel on the left-hand side, rather than the right, helped with reorientation.

Shortly afterward, Rosa parked her Corvette along the curb in front of an office building. Now, standing by the front entrance, she paused to admire her new car before stepping inside. Diego meowed softly from his spot inside the designer pink-and-yellow striped satchel that matched Rosa’s outfit. Her rose-and-yellow polka dotted swing dress had a row of large white buttons running down the bodice and a white patent leather belt accentuating her narrow waist. She’d finished off the outfit with yellow heels, the ankle straps tied into dainty bows. Rosa had discarded her first ragged satchel, a temporary accessory used when the need was urgent, and had accumulated several new cat-carrying bags to replace it.

Her second-floor office was the last door on the left down the wide carpeted hallway that ran past several law firms and busy accounting businesses. A large window at the end of the hall overlooked the street below. Rosa stepped back to regard the freshly painted lettering on the frosted glass that made up the upper half of the oak door—Reed Investigations.

A few days ago, when the sign painters had put the final touches on the lettering, she had snapped a picture of it to send to her parents. She knew they would burst with pride at the sight of her name on the door. Rosa had spent a large part of her youth working with her mother, Ginger Reed, at the office of Lady Gold Investigations and credited that time for her apparent aptitude for sleuthing. She’d also learned from her work as a female member of the London Metropolitan Police. As her father, Basil Reed, a superintendent at Scotland Yard, liked to say, the apple didn’t fall far from the tree.

Rosa slid the key into the lock, opened the door, and gently put her satchel down on the blue, padded cushions of the teakwood, Danish-style sofa that served as reception area seating. Diego immediately jumped out to explore the room.

With Gloria’s help—her cousin had decided to study interior design, and Rosa couldn’t help but wonder how long this particular passion would last—Rosa had outfitted the office to match the Spanish mission design of the building. Brightened by sunlight streaming in from a large window, the room had an impressive view of Santa Bonita’s business district. Green, leather-padded chairs circled a Spanish-mission-inspired coffee table. Adjacent to that was a matching desk. A set of shelves lined a portion of one wall, which Rosa planned to fill with books.

She’d already ordered certain law reference books and other resources such as textbooks on modern forensics and police investigative practices. A few mysteries and detective novels she’d picked up at the local bookstore lined one of the shelves along with a set of history encyclopedias and certain literary works of famous authors like Mark Twain and Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Rosa wanted the office to have a comfortable and inspiring ambiance. A kitchenette at one end of the office featured a small range, refrigerator, and cupboards for dishes and minimal food storage. A cast-iron bistro table sat in the corner with two chairs, which suited the Spanish terra-cotta tiling on the floor.

An adjoining door opened to a darkroom, much like the one in her mother’s office in London. Rosa had purchased an Argus 35mm camera, like the one she had used for her police work. Not only was she adept at using the camera, but she also did a fine job developing the photographs. It was much faster and easier than taking the film to a photograph processing lab.

Diego immediately curled up on a chair, while Rosa removed her sunglasses, scarf, and gloves and set them on a side table. Settling into her desk chair, she arranged her crinoline slip and her skirt then stared out of the window at the vehicles rumbling down the street.

Rosa’s gaze settled on the recently installed black telephone, which seemed to mock her with its silence. For a moment, she felt a twinge of doubt. Had she been presumptuous in her decision to stay in California? Who was she to think that her assisting the Santa Bonita Police would cause anyone to seek her out for private investigating? Not only was she not American (her English accent an instant giveaway), but she was also a woman. Two definite strikes against her when it came to competing for work. And then there was Detective Miguel Belmonte—her pulse raced a little at the thought of him.

The thought of returning to London made Rosa’s stomach twist. The social circle belonging to the elite in London was small, and she wasn’t ready to face her peers, or the tabloids who’d had a heyday after she’d abandoned her fiancé, Lord Winston Eveleigh, at the altar.

And there was Larry. Rosa and the assistant medical examiner, Dr. Larry Rayburn, had been on several dates since she’d given him her number back in June, and she found his Texas charm delightful.

Besides that, Aunt Louisa had made it clear that the Forrester mansion was Rosa’s home for as long as she wanted to stay. While her cousin Clarence had been indifferent, Gloria had been ecstatic. “Maybe I should take up journalism after all. We could work together!”

“Who knows?” Rosa had replied, laughing. Her cousin’s mind changed like the wind. “Anything is possible. Let’s see what happens.”

That seemed Rosa’s motto these days. Let’s see what happens, let the wind take the sails, or que sera sera, as she had recently heard Doris Day sing on the radio.

The shrill ring of the telephone, a sound she hadn’t yet heard, startled Rosa. Who could it be? She hadn’t even given out her number to anyone. Perhaps someone who’d seen the advertisement she’d placed in The Santa Bonita Gazette, but it had only come out this morning. This couldn’t already be a client?

“Miss Rosa Reed from Reed Investigations.” Rosa smiled to herself as she uttered the words for the first time.

“Hello, Miss Reed.” The voice was throaty and female. “My name is Mrs. Gainer. I hope you can help me.”

“I’ll do my best, Mrs. Gainer,” Rosa replied. “What is it that you need?”

“I have four brothers-in-law, and one of them, Dieter Braun, is a particularly odd character, you see. Every family has one of those, don’t they?”

Rosa agreed, her mind going to Aunt Louisa and Grandma Sally. “Sometimes, more than one.”

“Well, Dieter’s been missing for four days, and I think he’s in trouble.” Mrs. Gainer’s voice grew somber. “I think he’s been kidnapped or…maybe even worse!”