Ace Harlem #0 - Overdue (Or a Jailhouse Romance)


I remember the phone call that brought the case to my desk. A murder, not odd that I would be asked to solve a murder. Police don’t always put the most effort into each murder. It’s hard to do when you get a lot of them. Sometimes it isn’t even murder, but suicide. People just want answers. This was different.

The librarians seemed shaken up when they told me about the case. A body found in the dumpster behind the library. Bodies get thrown into dumpsters all the time. This was different. The body had an overdue library book in her hand. Someone wanted to send a message with this one. I managed to get some pictures from my contact down at the department. Fully clothed, a single gunshot wound to the chest. This was a straight forward murder. Whoever killed her knew her personally and had thought about this for a long time.

The thing that stood out the most was the library book in her hand. The book was written by the victim; but it wasn’t set to be on shelves for another few weeks. The standard young adult nonsense. Girl argues with parents. Girl meets boy. Boy is a bad boy. Girl falls in love. They accept each other and live happily ever after. At first, I considered the librarians. They’d have reason to kill someone for writing this trash. They might have had early access to the book. After a few calls to the distributors and the publisher I learned that was impossible. They hadn’t issued any advanced copies to libraries. That was my first clue. It wasn’t a library book. It had only been made to look like one, someone wanted to throw police off the trail. Someone who thought they were smarter. That effectively ruled out the librarians for now. One could always have some kind of grudge against her that I was unaware of. So much for an open and shut case. 

After taking a few more looks at the photos something jumped out at me. The overdue stamp, it wasn’t an overdue stamp at all. In red lettering the stamp read “eliminate all rule breakers.” What rules did she break and who set them? If I could figure that out, I’d be able to get my answer. Combing her social media accounts didn’t turn up any real relationships. Single for the last decade. No children, parents still alive but out of state. She was dull as they come, and I imagine the solution would be dull as well. 

I turned to the librarians next. They couldn’t tell me much about her either. She didn’t frequently visit the library. She was a local author, but I had already figured that out on my own. They did let me know she was part of a small group of writers who would meet every Wednesday night. I decided that I would make this my next point of investigation.

***

I made my way into the meeting room Wednesday evening and was picked out immediately. I’m not a regular here. I didn’t know much about the people here as it is a mostly private group. I stood out like a sore thumb. All eyes were on me as the group moved from their individual conversations into a circle to discuss whatever authors talk about.

“So we have a new member, would you mind introducing yourself,” a blonde woman asked passive aggressively. She didn’t take her eyes off me at all.

“Hello, I’m Harlem, Ace Harlem,” I introduce myself.

“Hello Ace, I’m Erica,” a woman with tight dreadlocks responded. “How did you find us here,” she asked leaning in.

“Hey Erica, I was invited by Ashly Williamson. She knew I wanted to be an author, but I see she’s not here. She hasn’t returned my calls,” I say making up a story.

“Oh you haven’t heard,” a large bald man asks.

“No, what happened,” I feign concern.

“She died, murdered, tossed her in the trash like she was nothing,” a small man with thick glasses responds.

The whole thing turns into a makeshift memorial for Ashley. They let me in on a lot of information about her. She was mostly an introvert but was very open and caring if she liked a person. She was actually the person who started the group. The librarian had spun it as an all kinds of authors group. In reality it was just young adult romance writers. The group is more diverse than I thought. Bob, the big guy with a bald head has been writing millionaire teen fiction for the last six years. I would have never thought it. Erica, a single black mother and history teacher writes about white women in the Antebellum South. Not because she’s fond of that period, but because she’s a history major and people eat that crap up.

Ashley was well liked by everyone in the group. One member named Matt, wasn’t at the meeting, but others stated he had been the most heartbroken as he started the group with Ashley. One of the things I hated about when I worked as a police officer is speaking with the family of victims. I just wasn’t good at it consoling them and helping them deal with their sadness. This was different, everyone was sad but they were able to speak about how much they loved Ashley. 

“So who are you really,” Erica asked as I walked her to her car.

“Ace Harlem,” I responded with a smile. 

“You really are a charmer. Still you aren’t an author so who are you,” she asks with a smile of her own cutting through my bullshit. I guess she knows how to cut through my BS. A pretty face always did.

“I’m a private investigator, I was hired to find Ashley’s killer,” telling the truth is always easier.

“Well, I hope you find who did it. I wouldn’t mind if you called me with questions, or anything really,” Erica said getting into her car passing me a business card in the event I wanted to find her later.

***

Ashely’s house was my next stop. The police weren’t allowing me access to the phone that was found with her. The next best thing is her apartment. It could lead me to something that they overlooked. There probably wasn’t a thorough search of her place since she wasn’t found there and the photos they took showed no signs of struggle. I wait until lights go out around the neighborhood and then I wait another thirty minutes in the event someone was just trying to bait me out.

I make my way around the back of the house and pry open the door with a crowbar. Inside still looks the same as the photos so nobody has been here since the police. I make my way over to the bookshelf. You can tell a lot about a person by what they read. In this case, she’s got books from everyone in the author’s club. She’s also got nearly three dozen different books written by her. They were right when they said she didn’t do anything but go to work and write books. I don’t know how she found the time to be murdered.

The computer is my next stop, I power it on and wait for it to leap into action. The bright blue start screen asks for a password, that I don’t have. I try the title of her first book to no avail. I slide open desk drawers and flip over the keyboard hoping she had it written down somewhere. A physical copy of her first book, and odd size, with a bad cover and printed by some online distributer stands out in the mess of her desk. I open it up to find a sticky note with her password written on it. It’s the name of her newest book. The one found in her hand. Makes sense she would have to write that down. It hasn’t been released yet, and as far as I can tell, that was the only copy. 

Going through her email it looks like her newest book was going to be released by a major publisher. Not surprising, if you grind so long you have to win eventually. She’s got a few emails from people in the book club. Some are really happy for her. A few are jealous. I don’t know Matt but he stands out. Jubilee the blonde from earlier is extremely jealous and mentions a pact. Perhaps I should look at her a little harder.

***

I set up a dinner date with Erica. Hopefully she can tell me more about my different suspects. I chose a simple restaurant, nothing too fancy. I didn’t know how to respond when she walked in wearing a form fitting dress, almost as if it was painted on. I didn’t know teachers had curves like that these days. A major upgrade from the sweatpants and hoodie I saw her in just a few days ago.

“Oh, wow, you look great,” I say sliding her seat out for her.

I wore a suit and tie, but I always wear a suit and tie when I’m working a case. Still, I’m very under dressed for the situation. All eyes are on us in the restaurant, well her. They aren’t looking at me. They’re looking at her. She’s stunning, I would have put on a nicer suit if I knew she was going to be dressed to impress. For the next two hours we enjoyed our food and the company of each other. Still, I had come here for a reason. I needed to know more about a few of the authors group and its’ members.

“What can you tell me about the pact,” I ask pulling my hand away from hers, reminding myself this is business not pleasure.

“We all promised we would remain independent authors no matter what,” she said taking a sip of wine.

“I take it, that didn’t happen, with Ahsley’s new book set to be released by a major publisher. Do you know who would be upset most by it,” I ask cutting my steak. I ordered it medium, but they brought it well done. It’s a tough piece of work.

“Probably Jubilee. She never really liked Ashley. I mean, on the surface, she was really nice. any time Ashley wasn’t around she just laid into her. I mean, we all write trashy romance novels. Still, she just hated Ashley from the jump.”

Suddenly Jubilee jumped to the top of my suspect list. She was really aggressive when I first showed up at the meeting. I thought maybe she was just nervous about new people coming in after the murder of one of her friends. Turns out, she was always like that when people weren’t looking.  

As I walked Erica to her car, she invited me back to her place for coffee. I knew that would lead to something more, but I had a job to do. Perhaps I would take her up on that offer for coffee a little later after I had solved the case.

***

“Hey, I had a tax appointment with Jubilee. The name should be under Martin,” I say smiling my best fake smile at the receptionist. I’ve become dedicated to a good disguise. It doesn’t even have to be anything crazy. A few sloppy clothes and an armful of paper makes me look stressed about a tax meeting for sure.

She waves me back and I make my way to Jubilee’s cubicle before taking a seat. She’s not entirely surprised to see me. That could be good or bad.

“So I’m trying to find Ashley’s killer.”

“I kind of guessed that,” she said rolling her eyes at me.

“Then you know you’re a suspect right?”

“Who isn’t? We all knew her, she didn’t have that many friends,” Jubilee wasn’t exactly excited for me to be there. I figured I’d get the questions out of the way and just leave.

“So, did you do it?”

“No,” she answered plainly. It was the truth. I didn’t think it was her anyway. 

“Then do you know who Matt is and where I can find him,” I say cutting to the chase.

“Try the library where we have our meetings. That’s where he likes to write.”

“Thanks, you’ve been a big help. I’ll make sure to buy a book,” I say exiting leaving my stack of worthless papers on her desk.

***

She wasn’t wrong, I made my way back to the library where it all started and there was Matt, writing. I knew it had to be him. The way he was pulling at his blonde hair and trying to drown himself in coffee I knew he had to be a writer. Either that or I was going to get to know the local psychopath really well. I grab a random book from the shelf and make my way over, sitting across from him.

“You know, when I’m struggling, I like to talk it out with a person,” I say looking into his cold blue eyes.

“Do I know you he,” asked Matt in what might have been the most arrogant tone I had ever heard.

“No, that’s why I’m perfect to chat with,” I say trying to ease the tension.

“Fine, I’m writing a murder mystery,” he says becoming agitated.

“Oh, I love those. Ever since I was a young boy. My mother was always watching reruns of Murder She Wrote,” the best disguises have some truth to them. “What is your about?

“A dead author,” he says finally looking up.

“How does he die,” I ask having an idea where this is going.

“She,” he emphasizes “gets shot and buried with some of her books.”

“Are you that stupid,” I ask in disbelief. 

“What did you say,” he ask looking at me with disgust.

“Are you stupid enough to write a book, about the murder you committed,” I ask in confusion.

“What? I haven’t committed any murder,” he rejects my hypothesis.

“Ashley? Your friend, you started your little writer’s club together. You killed her.”

“No, I wasn’t even in the state when she died. I’ve been working on this book for years you dolt,” he says turning the computer to me.

I scroll through the document, and head over to the properties. He has been working on this for a while. A quick look through his folders and he’s got about a dozen different drafts of the book saved. He’s a fall guy, someone is setting him up. Someone who knows about this book has decided to make him the fall guy.

“Who else knows about the book,” I ask.

“Ashley, my mother, Jubilee and you,” he says trying to remember who has seen it.

“When did Jubilee see it,” I ask.

“A few weeks ago, before I left. I lent her my computer and she saw it, so I sent her a rough draft for some editing points,” he explains. 

“Thanks, good luck with the book. Don’t forget to add a twist. Every good mystery needs one.”

***

I should have gone with Jubilee from the start, that’s what my gut told me. I need to listen to it more. Maybe give it a week off from sit-ups. Jubilee is already stuffing her car with bags as I arrive at her home. I pull my car in the way of hers. She’s not leaving before we have a little chat. I called Tiffany down at the police station, so hopefully they’ll be here to lock her up soon enough. My job is already done. I just need to know why.

“Jubilee, I see you’re moving out,” I say making my way up the stairs as she exits with another bag.

“So, is that a crime,” she asks impatiently.

“No, but murder is.”

“I didn’t kill anyone.”

“That’s a lie. I just want to know why.”

“I said I didn’t kill anyone.”

“I’m not a cop. I just want to know. Hypothetically, if you did kill Ashley, why?”

“Maybe the bitch thought she was better than everyone else,” she says with disgust in her voice.

I nod and accept that is all it takes for some people. I make my way back down the stairs and wait in my car as the police sirens draw near. She panics, but doesn’t know which way to run. It’s over for her, I know it, everyone knows it. The neighbors know it as they start to poke their heads out and see what the commotion is. I guess her next book can be about a jailhouse romance.

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