Justice For Lizzie
Mystery writer and amateur sleuth Megan Viets once again becomes embroiled in a real-life mystery when she finds her good friend Lizzie Khazin dead in a bloody mess on her bathroom floor. The medical examiner determines that Lizzie died from an accidental fall, but Megan suspects foul play. She convinces her fiancé, the local sheriff, to investigate, but, as usual, Megan, now a single mother, does most of the sleuthing Eventually, the FBI has to be called in, and Megan finds herself in some dangerous situations.
Set in an idyllic resort town nestled deep in the San Bernardino Mountains, Justice for Lizzie is the third novel in the series about the intrepid female detective Megan Viets. Will Megan be able to help solve this case too?
Release Date: June 28, 2021
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Pink Satin Romance
The russet glow of dawn crept over the eastern ridge when I came out on the deck with my laptop and a steaming cup of coffee one morning. Fluffy clouds hung over the lake like balls of cotton wool; the air was cool and crisp. It is my favorite time to write. I put my cup on a small table and sat down on a deck chair to plot out my new mystery novel:
A young black lawyer, Nabila Brown, was found dead in a pool of blood, stabbed to death, in her upscale condo on the Esplanade in Redondo Beach. A neighbor had heard Nabila’s phone ring all afternoon and when she went out to run some errands, she was surprised to see that the lawyer’s car was in the garage. When the neighbor returned and saw that Nabila’s car had not been moved, she knocked on Nabila’s door and called her name. No one answered, so she decided to call the police.
My sleuth Jule McCormick, a petite ex-nun turned psychology professor, stopped by Nabila’s place that same afternoon to discuss a contract dispute with the young lawyer. She found the building surrounded by police and the entrance blocked by yellow crime tape. She recognized the officer in charge, Detective Wilkinson, a big burly man with thinning gray hair and a beginning paunch. He knew who the professor was and told her what had happened. As was her custom, McCormick offered her assistance. She had often helped the LAPD with their investigations, and Officer Wilkinson, who now worked for the Redondo Beach Police Force, allowed her to enter the lawyer’s well-appointed condo. Several emergency personnel were standing around the bed where the body still lay half-dressed in a heap of bloody sheets.
* * *
As the sun rose, the low clouds slowly dissipated. The daffodils and tulips that were in bloom everywhere came into view. It was springtime in our mountain resort, deep in the San Bernardino Mountains.
I put down my laptop and checked my phone. There was a text from Susie, my old friend from graduate school at UCLA:
Just learned that Elizabeth Wurtz now lives in your little mountain resort. Remember her? We used to call her Lizzie. She failed the comps the first time even though she had passed the very difficult Foreign Service Exam earlier and had worked overseas somewhere. When she returned, she studied for her master’s with us and worked part-time in a doctor’s office where she met her husband, one of the doctors there. He was very handsome. I think his name was Ray Khazin from somewhere in the Middle East. I just learned that he has taken a job at the hospital up where you live, and I thought y’all should get together. I don’t have her number, but they’ll have it at the hospital.
I remembered Lizzie well. After we graduated, we taught together for a while too, and we were all good friends. Lizzie was a little older and had served in consulates in France and Lebanon. She was more worldly than the rest of us, and she and I talked often before my first husband Robert and I moved to Africa. I remember meeting Lizzie’s husband, but also remembered I didn’t particularly like him. He appeared to be such a gentleman on the surface, but he was overly flirty and too slick for my taste. Even so, I immediately decided to look him up on the hospital website. And there he was: Dr. Raymond Khazin. I would call him later.
By now, I had lost my inspiration to write. I closed my laptop and went back inside, checking on my little son John Patrick, or JP for short, who was still sound asleep in his new big-boy bed in the corner of my bedroom. He had just turned three and was looking more and more like his father Chris, a contractor I had met up here after Robert died in a plane crash. Sadly, Chris was crippled after a burning beam fell on him during a fire in this very house. About a year ago, he succumbed to an infection.
I let JP sleep and walked into the kitchen. As soon as I started rattling around trying to fix myself a piece of toast, our dog Duchess whimpered softly. I went to her pen beside the house and let her out for a short early-morning run. She was quick, for she knew it was soon feeding time. When I came back inside again, I heard a key turn in the front door.
“Hola, Miss Megan,” a cheerful voice called from the living room. It was Maria, my Mexican housekeeper and nanny, who had worked for Chris’s family since Chris and his brother Ed were in elementary school. She went straight to the bedroom and got JP up. The three of us had toast and juice before Maria helped JP dress. Then the two of them waved goodbye and were off to nursery school.
It was after nine o’clock before I called the hospital to ask for Dr. Khazin. He was preparing for his first surgery, I was told, but the receptionist took my number and said he would call back after an hour or so.
I walked over to my piano, actually my mother-in-law’s grand piano that I inherited. I wiped the keys with a tissue, then I sat down to play through my usual warm-up exercises before I launched into a couple of Beethoven’s etudes.
I had gone out on the deck again when the phone rang. I saw the hospital number on the screen. “Hello, Dr. Khazin,” I said as I picked up the phone.
“Yes. Hello,” he said with some hesitation in his voice.
“It’s Megan Viets. Remember me? I’m an old friend of Elizabeth’s from UCLA. I just heard you’d moved up to our resort where I’ve lived for over three years now.”
“Oh, yes. Of course, I remember you, Megan.”
I recognized his polished voice and his slight accent right away.
“I just heard from our friend Susie that you and Elizabeth had moved up here.”
“Oh, yes. I didn’t know that you lived around here.”
“A lot has happened since I saw you two last, but I know you’re busy, so I’ll come straight to the point.”
“Oh, but I always have time for pretty women, Megan,” he said with an affected and oily intonation. “It’s been a while.”
“Yes, true.” I paused for a second. “Can you give Elizabeth my phone number? I’d like to get in touch with her.”
“Of course, but why don’t I give you her number so you can call her?”
I agreed, and he gave me her number. I thanked him and said goodbye. However, I decided to wait until the evening to call to give Ray time to tell her first.
Even though Lizzie probably didn’t recognize my number, she picked up right away. She was surprised to hear from me.
“Didn’t Ray tell you I’d call? I talked to him at the hospital this morning, and he gave me your number.”
“No, he didn’t tell me. Are you ill?”
“Oh, no. Susie—you remember Susie the redhead at UCLA, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes, of course, I remember her.”
“She told me that you had moved up here. I waited until evening to call. I thought Ray would be home and would have told you.”
“No, he’s not home. He’s hardly ever home.” She sounded wistful. “He’s probably down in San Bernardino at the restaurant he bought some time ago. He’s really busy these days. He meets with a group of Lebanese expatriates to discuss politics in the Middle East. I hardly ever see him.”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. And, yes, I’ve read the news and know it’s terrible over there now. I lived in Beirut for a while too, remember.”
“Yes, I remember.”
“Well, with your experience, you ought to be their advisor.”
“Oh, no, it’s fine. I’m used to spending my evenings alone. Ray and I aren’t on great terms these days. But what about you? What are you doing up here?”
“I live here, too. I’ve lived here for over three years now, but it’s a long story. Why don’t we get together for lunch or something?”
“That would be nice.” Her tone of voice was flat. I had expected her to be more enthusiastic.
“Lizzie, are you alright?”
“Oh, it’s nothing. I’m good. When do you want to get together?”
“Are you free tomorrow?”
“Yes. What time?”
“Why don’t you come over here for lunch about noon?”
“Okay. What should I bring?”
“Nothing. I have a wonderful housekeeper and nanny who will help me prepare something good. It will be better than the cafeteria food at UCLA.”
We both chuckled.
“Did I hear you say something about a nanny?”
“Yes, I have a small son now. He just turned three a couple of months ago.”
“How nice! I didn’t know. Ray and I weren’t able to have any children. Ray may have been disappointed. You know how Arabs love children. But it’s okay with me. I’m no mother hen.”
“Right. Not everyone needs to have children in this over-populated world, and I have only the one, and there will be no more. But let’s talk tomorrow.”
She told me where she lived, but I wasn’t sure where her street was, so I explained how to find my house from the hospital. The GPS doesn’t always work well up here.
* * *
I was in the kitchen with Maria, preparing Chinese chicken salad and setting the table for lunch, when I heard a car door slam. I went outside to meet my old friend and was immediately struck by how much weight she had gained. Her face appeared puffy, and her skin pasty and pale. Her hair was a little darker but still thick and wavy, and she had the same crooked smile that added to her charm. She wore a loose multi-colored top over blue pants and blue slip-on shoes. We embraced, and I led the way inside.
“Wow!” she exclaimed. “What a nice house you have! You have come a long way since our college days.”
“Thanks. My father-in-law built it himself. He has a contracting business up here.”
“Really?” She glanced over at the piano and added, “That looks like a much grander piano than your old upright.”
I laughed. “Yes, remember that old honky-tonk?”
“Sure do. We all used to play on it.”
“Well, this one is a Steinway Grand. It belonged to my mother-in-law who I never met. It’s great. Try it.”
She shook her head. “No, not now. Maybe later. I guess you still play then?”
“Yes, now and then—as time permits.”
“Yes, I know you’re busy. Written several books, I heard.”
I smiled. “Yes, that’s right. Have you read any of them?”
“Not yet, but I will now.” She took a couple of steps into the cavernous room. “And that’s a serious fireplace, isn't it? It practically fills up the entire wall. So mountainy too, just like the furniture.” She walked closer and touched the stones as if she wanted to see if they were real.
“Well, we’re in the mountains, aren’t we?” I said. “And that fireplace keeps the room really warm in winter. We were lucky it survived a big fire we had a little over three years ago now.”
“Fire?” Her eyebrows rose.
I pointed to the black spots that still marred some of the rocks and the side of the mahogany grand piano. “See those black spots? They’re soot marks that we haven’t been able to remove yet.” I brushed a soot mark on the mantel piece.
“My husband’s first wife was crazy. She was actually in an asylum down in San Bernardino but escaped and came here to set fire to the place. When Chris came home and saw the flames billowing out from the upstairs windows, he ran inside just when a burning beam fell. He was trapped under it and injured his spine. He was in a wheelchair until he died about a year ago.”
“I’m so sorry, Megan. That must have been a difficult time for you.”
“That’s true,” I said with a deep sigh. “It took me a while to get over it. But I’m okay now. Life goes on, and time heals every wound, as they say.” I paused. I didn’t want to dwell on tragedy and sadness now. “But let’s go into the kitchen, and you can meet Maria.”
The kitchen smelled like freshly baked bread and fried chicken that Maria had cut up for our salad. The table was set. In the middle sat a basket of homemade rolls and a pitcher of cranberry juice. Maria had a big, cheery smile for Lizzie as they exchanged greetings.
“I hope you don’t mind eating in the kitchen, Lizzie. It’s really more comfortable,” I said apologetically.
“Not at all. And what a great kitchen you have too with all the latest stainless-steel appliances.” She suddenly leaned over as if she had lost her balance and had to steady herself on the back of a chair before she sat down. Because she appeared to be all right, I didn’t think anything of it. Maria excused herself. “I run some errands, and I pick up JP later,” she said and left. I filled our glasses with juice, and we helped ourselves to the chicken salad and rolls.
Lizzie took a bite of the roll. “Yummy. It’s delicious.”
“Yes, Maria is a gem. She’s very close to the family.” I paused and took a bite of salad. It was good too. “So,” I continued, “the last time we were together, I was with Robert as we were going back and forth to Africa. You gave us some good advice, remember? ‘Don’t drink the water.’ ‘Wash everything you eat!’” I wagged my forefinger and chuckled. Lizzie smiled faintly. “You heard that Robert was killed when he crashed his plane in a sandstorm in North Africa, right?”
“Yes, I heard. You’ve had your share of tragedies, Megan. I remember your stories about how he flew into the African bush. I don’t recall who told me the news that he had been killed. It must have been Susie.”
“Yes, Susie keeps us informed.” I took a bite of my roll before I continued. “Of course, Robert’s death was a shock. Fortunately, we didn’t have any children, and somehow I got him home and his ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean where he so often had practiced flying.”
“You always were such a practical and resourceful woman, Megan.”
We ate in silence for a few moments.
“So, how did you end up here?”
“Well, before Robert died, we bought a cabin up here. When the situation became more dangerous in Africa, I came back to LA and started teaching again. After Robert was killed, I sometimes came up to this little resort by myself and met Chris, the father of my little boy.” I finished my salad and took another roll. I offered Lizzie another one too, but she declined.
“It’s all very delicious,” she admitted. “But I’m on a strict diet. Ray doesn’t like that I have gained so much weight.” Her tone was melancholy. I filled her glass with more cranberry juice.
“So, what’s going on with you and Ray?” I asked as I bit into my roll.
“Well, you know that I didn’t want to go back into the Foreign Service, so I continued teaching after you left. Ray worked in different hospitals, and we moved around quite a bit. I decided to quit working to try to get pregnant. Ray prescribed fertility pills and gave me steroid shots. That’s one reason why I think I gained so much weight. Ray doesn’t like it. He hardly ever comes near me, even when he’s home.” She paused to take a few sips of juice before she went on. “Without Ray’s knowledge, I went to see a gynecologist who told me I was as fertile as they come, but when I told Ray afterwards, he became furious for some reason. Maybe he thought I avoided getting pregnant on purpose.”
“Really? That’s too bad,” I said and added cautiously, “I remember he was—and I assume he still is—a very handsome man.”
She nodded. “Yes, I always thought so. My whole family fell in love with him. He was so considerate, brought my mother flowers and showered her with compliments and gifts. He has a brother who lives in Rancho Cucamonga, but the rest of his family lives in the Middle East. That’s why I think he kind of adopted my family.”
“He is Christian and not Muslim, right? I remember he stressed that.”
“Yes, it is important to him. His whole family is Catholic, and that was important to my family too.” She put her napkin on the table and pushed her chair back a little. She seemed to have some trouble getting up.
“You seem a little pale, Lizzie.” I looked at her more carefully. “Are you alright?”
“I’m okay. But I do need to lose fifty pounds.”
“Well, maybe not fifty, but a few perhaps,” I said and tried to avoid her gaze.
“Ray is giving me some diet pills, but they give me a headache and make me feel dizzy.”
I didn’t say anything but decided to change the subject. “Let’s have some coffee and take it out on the deck.”
“That would be lovely.”
“Cream and sugar?”
“No, thank you, just black.” She steadied herself on the back of the chair once more. “Sometimes I don’t take the pills Ray gives me. I pretend to take them but put them in my pocket instead. I’ll be okay in a minute.”
“Quick tour?” I gestured toward the other section of the house, wondering if she could make a tour without falling over.
At her nod and quick smile, I showed her the bathroom. She peered into the master bedroom with JP’s new big-boy bed in the corner half hidden by a screen. Then we looked into the large dining room.
“You could probably seat twelve people around that big dining table,” she commented. “What’s upstairs? Bedrooms?”
“Yes, and a media room with a big-screen television.”
We moved out onto the deck, and I got Lizzie situated in a comfortable chair before I went back for the coffee.
“What a view you have, Megan,” Lizzie said as I returned. She was standing by the rail, looking out on the lake. I set one cup on a small table next to her chair. “You can almost see our house from here.” She pointed to the north side of the lake.
“And if you had a kayak, you could paddle right across to the commercial center on the south side to do your shopping instead of going all the way around the lake,” I said, and we both laughed. “You know, I’m really into hiking around here,” I continued. “Want to come along sometime?”
“But I’ll slow you down.” She returned to her chair and sat down awkwardly
“Nonsense,” I assured her and sat down opposite her. “Forget pills, Lizzie. I believe in the common sense diet: eat less, work out more.”
“Yes, but it’s easier said than done.” She took a sip of her coffee. “Good coffee,” she commented.
We talked some more about school, our old teachers and friends, until we heard the chirp of a siren from the driveway.
“What’s that?” Lizzie looked at me with a bewildered expression.
“Oh, that’s Ed.”
“Ed is my brother-in-law, Chris’s brother. He’s the town sheriff.”
Lizzie looked flushed. “What’s he doing here?”
“Well, Ed and I have sort of a relationship.”
Lizzie’s eyebrows rose even higher, and her cheeks reddened when Ed came out on the deck. In full uniform, he cut an imposing figure. I rose to greet him.
“So this is where you’re hiding,” he said jovially as he came over and put his arm around my shoulder.
“Hi, Ed. Meet my friend Elizabeth Khazin. She’s an old study buddy from UCLA. Her husband is the new surgeon at the hospital.”
Ed moved over to her, and they shook hands. “How do you do,” he said simply.
Lizzie’s cheeks reddened a little more, and she looked uncomfortable although she soon regained her composure.
“Do you want a cup of coffee, Ed?” I offered.
“Sure, but I’ll fix one myself.” He turned to Lizzie and continued, “Can I make you another cup too?”
“Thank you, but I’m good. I should be getting on my way.”
“No,” I protested as I sat down again. “You have to stay and meet JP.”
She smiled and turned to Ed. “Okay, I’ll take another cup then. Just black, please.”
“No problem. What about you, Megan?”
“Okay, a small cup for me too, please.”
“Coming right up,” he said as he walked inside.
“He’s certainly good-looking, Megan,” Lizzie commented when Ed was out of earshot.
“Not as handsome as his brother,” I said playfully. “But steadier and a few years older than me.”
“Yes, a little, but as you can see, he’s in good shape.”
“Be careful with handsome men. They often get too full of themselves,” she mused philosophically.
She looked at me seriously, but before she could comment further, JP came running out on the deck. I could hear Ed talking with Maria in Spanish before he came out, balancing our coffee cups. We all played with JP for a while. Lizzie soon finished her coffee and rose, ready to leave.
“Walk tomorrow, Lizzie?”
“Okay. Where shall we meet?”
“I’ll pick you up. Just explain to me how to find your house. As I’m sure you have discovered, GPS doesn’t work so well up here in the mountains.” We agreed to meet at eleven o’clock.
Little did I know Lizzie’s life was more a bed of weeds rather than roses, even with a handsome, successful husband.