Death, Taxes, and Mistletoe Mayhem: Holiday Excerpt

Death, Taxes, and Mistletoe Mayhem by Diane Kelly is a special holiday novella in the Tara Holloway series following IRS Special Agent Tara on a Christmas crime investigation.

Christmas is fast approaching when IRS Special Agent Tara is assigned a new case involving a jewelry wholesaler who's repeatedly claimed large theft losses on her tax returns. Was Nadine Gramercy really robbed, or were the thefts a mere ruse to pocket tax-free profits? Tara believes Nadine belongs at the top of Santa's “naughty” list. Her investigation takes her to Chisholm Trail mall, where she meets Fort Worth Police Officer Megan Luz and her fluffy K-9 partner, Brigit. Though Megan believes Tara is barking up the wrong tree, she agrees to provide backup if a bust goes down. Moreover, they decide to team up as matchmakers to find love for Chris Rasmussen, a pediatric nurse who moonlights at the mall playing Santa Claus. Chris has a warm heart and a body that's hot enough to melt to the polar ice caps. This sexy-yet-sad shopping mall Santa was recently dumped by his fickle fiancée, leaving the not-so-old elf more jilted than jolly. Can Tara and Megan solve the crime…and lift Santa's spirits in time for Christmas?

Chapter One

Betwitched

IRS Special Agent Tara Holloway

Early Monday morning my boss, Lu “the Lobo” Lobozinski, stepped into my office. A long sparkly silver garland encircled her neck like a festive holiday boa. With one hand she flicked a loose end of garland over her shoulder. With the other she tossed a file onto my already crowded desk. “Take a look into this case. The paperwork checked out, but the auditor has a hunch this taxpayer’s up to no good.”

It was a mere two weeks until Christmas, and here my boss was acting as if she were Ebenezer Scrooge and I was Bob Cratchit. With the holiday hustle and bustle in full swing and my shopping far from finished, the last thing I needed was another case to work on. But there was no use complaining. Lu’s expectations of her staff were as high as her eight-inch strawberry-blond beehive. Besides, she punished whiners with crappy cases. The last guy who’d complained got stuck investigating a company that disposed of medical waste. Ew. The mere thought of an amputated limb had my breakfast of Fruity Pebbles creeping back up my throat.

“I’ll get right on it,” I promised.

As my boss left the room, I pulled the file toward me and flipped it open. Inside I found the last six years’ tax returns for a woman named Nadine Gramercy who operated a wholesale jewelry business under the name Gramercy Gems and Jewels. While nothing suspicious appeared on the returns for the even-numbered years, in each of the odd-numbered years she’d filed a Form 4684, claiming a sizable theft loss, the most recent in the amount of $150,000. The pattern seemed suspicious, as if she’d skipped a year between each claimed loss in an attempt to stay off the IRS radar. What’s more, her reported income in each of the loss years was 40 to 50 percent higher than it was in the non-loss years, as if she were finagling her earnings to pay the least amount of tax. Then again, there was nothing necessarily illegal about strategically timing sales to lump profits into one year or another.

After each break-in, Nadine had relocated her warehouse, first from a mini-storage facility in Dallas to another in the southwestern suburb of Grand Prairie, then from Grand Prairie to Arlington, a suburb a few miles farther west. She’d reported the thefts to the various police departments. Their reports were included in the file, along with invoices from Nadine’s suppliers that itemized the pieces purportedly taken. A dozen topaz necklace and earring sets, style number TS9876. Fifty opal pendants, style number OP7321. Thirty sapphire rings, style number SR5352. The list went on to include amethyst and diamond bracelets, emerald cuff links, and gold chains, each identified by a specific style number.

Unfortunately, yet as was typical, the police had taken a report, dusted for fingerprints, and found nothing. The surfaces had been wiped clean.

No evidence.

No suspects.

No convictions.

Oddly, despite the repeated thefts, the woman hadn’t bothered to purchase insurance. No wonder the auditor thought things seemed fishy. Still, it could be nothing. They say where there’s smoke there’s fire, but sometimes where there’s smoke there’s just a bagel jammed in a toaster.

I slid the file into my briefcase with my Glock, grabbed my purse, and headed out of the office.

*   *   *

Nadine Gramercy lived in Southlake, a high-end neighborhood northwest of Dallas, the type of place where “real” housewives with artificial breasts, bleached teeth, acrylic nails, and spray-on tans lived. The houses could best be described as traditional and sprawling. No cozy cottages here.

I pulled my government-issued “G-ride” sedan to the curb in front of Nadine’s house, a brown brick and stone model that stretched across a perfectly manicured lawn. Both the house and lawn were outlined with a pristine row of tasteful white holiday lights, currently unlit since it was daylight. I climbed out and made my way up the flagstone path to her double front doors, which sported twin oversized holiday wreaths made of real, fragrant pine boughs held together with red velvet bows. The crisp, fresh smell reminded me of the piney woods back home in East Texas where I grew up.

My knock was answered a half minute later by a woman dressed in a fitted gray pantsuit that showed off her tall, trim physique. A choker-length strand of gorgeous, shiny pearls encircled her long, thin neck, while twin pearls studs adorned her earlobes. Her mahogany locks feathered about her fiftyish face, which bore a slightly perturbed expression. She hadn’t been expecting me, and from the steaming mug in her hand, it looked like I’d interrupted her morning coffee. A little hard to feel guilty about that, given it was going on 10:30 A.M. now and I’d already been working for two hours. My morning coffee was only a distant memory. A pearl bracelet encircled the wrist supporting the coffee mug.

“Ms. Gramercy?” I asked.

She cocked her head slightly, her eyes wary as she gave me and the car parked at the curb behind me a quick once-over. “Yes?”

I stuck out my hand. “I’m Tara Holloway, from IRS criminal investigations.”

Nadine hesitated a moment as she appeared to process the information, then stuck out a hand. Another strand of lustrous pearls encircled her narrow wrist. “What can I do for you, Miss Holloway?”

For one, she could invite me inside to speak privately instead of forcing me to stand out here in the frigid air, huffing steam every time I spoke. But since she held her ground, she didn’t seem so inclined.

“I have a few questions about the theft losses you’ve claimed on your tax returns.”

Her frown deepened and she stepped onto the porch, pulling the door closed behind her. “I don’t understand. I’ve been through all of this with the auditor.”

Defensiveness. To be expected probably. After all, who likes to be interrogated, especially repeatedly? Still, the twitch below her left ear told me there was more to this story than she was letting on.

Having been well trained in investigation techniques, I knew that sometimes the best way to get information was to sneak up on it rather than to approach it directly. Information was like a cat with a vet appointment.

“I’m performing an interdepartmental review,” I said, offering both a fib and an insincere smile. “A cross-check to make sure the auditors are doing their jobs correctly.” As if.

Her posture relaxed slightly. “I see.”

I held her file up. “I noticed you weren’t given a deduction for the cost of your property insurance.”

“I didn’t buy any,” she replied. “I got a few quotes, but the premiums were exorbitant. I decided to take my chances. Of course, that turned out to be a mistake. But, as they say, hindsight is twenty-twenty.” She offered a small smile I believed to be just as insincere as my own.

“A shame the police never found the thieves,” I said. “What do you think they did with the jewelry?”

“Who knows?” she said. “Maybe they pawned it. Or they could have sold it on eBay or Craigslist.”

“Well, I hope they paid their taxes on the income.”

I chuckled.

She didn’t.

I casually lifted a shoulder. “Any idea who the thieves might have been? Could it have been an inside job? Maybe an employee?” I knew from her tax records that she worked alone, but sometimes playing stupid led to a target letting their guard down.

“Like I told the police,” she said a little too snappily, “I’m a one-woman operation. Nobody else had a key to my unit. My guess is the thief was another tenant at the storage facility. Maybe someone saw me taking my jewelry cases in and out of the closet.”

I stared at her, wishing my gaze could bore through her skull and into her brain, find the appropriate memory bank, and access the critical information she was clearly keeping from me. I also wished I could take a look around inside. The way she’d closed the door, as if to hide secrets, had me thinking there was something in the house she didn’t want me to see. Without a search warrant, however, I could go inside only if she agreed to let me in. I had no doubt she’d refuse if I asked. I also had no doubt that if I asked and was turned down, she’d remove whatever evidence she was hiding while I was at the courthouse trying to get a warrant.

“Thanks for your time,” I said finally. “I’ll let everyone back at the office know that this case is closed.”

The flicker of relief that crossed Nadine’s face told me the case was anything but.

*   *   *

Back in my car, I racked my brain, trying to figure out how best to proceed. What would Nadine have done with the jewelry if it hadn’t truly been taken? The most likely scenario was that she’d sold it off the books and pocketed the profits tax-free, but short of comparing her records to those of her customers, I had no idea how to prove the jewelry hadn’t actually been stolen. Problem was, Nadine had over a hundred customers spread throughout the Dallas–Fort Worth metropolitan area and surrounding counties. Reviewing all their records to see if they jibed with Nadine’s would take weeks, if not months. With my huge caseload, I didn’t have that kind of time, especially to devote to an investigation that was iffy, at best. Besides, there was always the possibility that she’d kept the jewelry for herself or given it as gifts to family and friends.

Hmm. What to do?…

I supposed it couldn’t hurt to take a look at her storage unit, see if it might hold any clues.

I riffled through the file until I found the lease agreement for Nadine’s current warehouse. The rental agreement indicated she now housed her inventory in Unit C-56 of Mid-Cities Mini-Storage, a facility located in Euless, a smaller city that sat between DFW Airport and Fort Worth.

I typed the address into my GPS, cranked up the engine, and tuned in to a radio station featuring holiday tunes. I sang along as I weaved through traffic to Euless. It was probably a good thing my partner wasn’t with me. My tone-deaf rendition of “Joy to the World” would bring joy to no one.

Twenty minutes later, I pulled to the curb across the street from the storage complex. As I’d expected, the place was surrounded by an iron fence and could be accessed only through an entrance gate equipped with a keypad. I supposed I could talk to the management and see if they’d let me inside to take a look around, but I didn’t have a search warrant and I preferred to stay incognita if possible. I turned off my engine and waited, taking advantage of the downtime to cyber-window-shop on my phone.

I was perusing the offerings on the Neiman Marcus Web site when a pickup truck loaded high with children’s bedroom furniture came up the road and eased into the driveway of the mini-storage. The driver’s-side window came down and a male hand came out, jabbing at the keypad to activate the sliding gate. I started my engine and pulled up as close to his back bumper as I dared, tailing the truck through the gate before it slid closed behind us.

The pickup turned right alongside a building with a large A spray-painted in block stencil on the end. I continued down the main lane until I reached the building marked with a C. Turning down the row, I slowed as the numbers increased.

Fifty-three.

Fifty-four.

Fifty-five.

There it was. Unit C-56.

I pulled to a stop. All I could see was a closed metal door with a sliding bolt held fast with a padlock.

Hmm …

I cut my engine, climbed out of my car, and after glancing left and right to make sure there were no witnesses, tugged on the lock. No luck. I jiggled the slide bolt. No luck with that, either. I gave the door a kick. It didn’t budge, but at least the kick relieved a little of my frustration.

I’d hoped the unit would provide some clues, but I apparently set my hopes too high. The door just stood there, silent and unyielding, keeping its secrets.

A burst of brisk winter wind funneled through the narrow passage between buildings, lifting the hem of my blazer, messing my hair, and blowing dust into my eyes. Mother Nature seemed to be suffering a case of PMS and taking it out on me.

I climbed back into my car to think. Sometimes a witness inadvertently gave an investigator a clue. My mind reviewed my earlier conversation with Nadine. What had she told me?

That the insurance premiums were exorbitant. Nothing to go on there.

That she was a one-woman operation. Nadine had taken no deduction for wages paid to employees, nor had she deducted payments to an independent salesperson. The auditor found no evidence that anyone else had been involved in the business. Probably a dead end.

That perhaps another tenant had stolen her jewelry. Another tenant. Hmm … Could the purported thief have been another tenant who was in cahoots with Nadine? A tenant who stole the jewelry in an orchestrated heist, then returned it to Nadine in exchange for a kickback? Or maybe a tenant who took the jewelry, made an untraceable cash payment to Nadine in return, and then went on to sell the jewelry himself?

I riffled through the file again, pulling out the police reports from the various jurisdictions. Each report indicated that the lock had been cut with bolt cutters. Interestingly, none of the reports referenced the other thefts. Repeated reports of burglary by a single citizen in one jurisdiction might have raised eyebrows. Because Nadine had moved her inventory around the metroplex, none of the police departments had been aware of her multiple reports. Looked like Nadine had kept the fact that she was been robbed multiple times to herself.

The detectives in each department had performed a basic investigation and, per standard protocol, obtained a printout from the management of each storage facility that detailed the entry gate activity on the dates of the thefts. The reports indicated they’d run background checks on each of the tenants whose names appeared on the gate access list. The Dallas detective discovered that one of the tenants who’d accessed the gate on the date in question had a felony drug conviction, but no theft convictions. One of the tenants in Arlington had an assault conviction, but the rest were clean. Although the detective from Grand Prairie had interviewed a tenant with a previous home burglary conviction, there’d been no direct evidence linking the man to the break-in at Nadine’s mini-storage.

Though the detectives had done a good job with the facts they’d been given, I was privy to the additional fact that there had been multiple thefts and, unlike them, I had access to all the police reports and gate-entry data. I laid the lists side by side and compared the names on each list, looking for a common entry. The Arlington list contained a Steve Johnson, while the Grand Prairie list showed a Stephen Johnson. Could be the same guy. The Dallas list included a Harry Kruger, while the Arlington list showed a Samantha Kruger. Maybe a husband and wife? While I pondered these possibilities, my eyes noted one name that appeared on all three lists.

Deidre Freitag.

A-ha!

Coincidence? No freaking way. There were at least a hundred storage facilities spread throughout the area. The odds were too great that both women would have rented units in the same three locations. Yep, the clues told me Nadine Gramercy and Deidre Freitag were partners in crime.

One-woman operation, my ass.

That lie put Nadine on Santa’s naughty list.

 

Copyright © 2013 Diane Kelly.

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Diane Kelly, a former tax advisor, inadvertently worked with white-collar criminals. Lest she end up in an orange jumpsuit, Diane decided self-employment would be a good idea. Her fingers hit the keyboard and thus began her “Death and Taxes” romantic mystery series. A graduate of her hometown's Citizen Police Academy, Diane Kelly also writes the hilarious K-9 cop “Paw Enforcement” series.

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