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A party to celebrate the arrival of George "Mel" Melvin, a Kansas City politician accompanied by his troubled teenage daughter, wealthy wife, even wealthier backer, and mysterious employee, rapidly turns into disaster when Skeet's best friend, Karen Wise, stumbles on a body in Chouteau University’s storage caves and is attacked herself. Skeet gets to Karen in time, but she's still worried by Karen's increasing obsession with the dead man’s drunken claim that her ...
A party to celebrate the arrival of George "Mel" Melvin, a Kansas City politician accompanied by his troubled teenage daughter, wealthy wife, even wealthier backer, and mysterious employee, rapidly turns into disaster when Skeet's best friend, Karen Wise, stumbles on a body in Chouteau University’s storage caves and is attacked herself. Skeet gets to Karen in time, but she's still worried by Karen's increasing obsession with the dead man’s drunken claim that her husband’s accidental death years earlier was actually murder.
Skeet already has her hands full, serving as chief of campus police and also as the guardian of fifteen-year-old Brian. Brian's emotional entanglement with Mel's rebellious daughter, as well as Karen's fixation on who she believes to be her husband's murderer, frustrates Skeet’s efforts to keep them both safe and out of trouble. Skeet must struggle against the clock to solve a series of linked murders before she loses Brian forever, and before her best friend winds up in jail—or worse.
"Skeet’s second outing (Every Last Secret, 2012) showcases a strong, intelligent woman with a difficult past that keeps returning to haunt her."—Kirkus Reviews
"Credible characters enhance the absorbing plot."—Publishers Weekly
“Linda Rodriguez is a richly talented writer. Her aim is true, and she strikes deep. This new work will reward you as it weaves its generous spell. Good stuff. Get it now.”—Luis Alberto Urrea, Edgar Award-winning author of Queen of America
"Linda Rodriguez give readers a truly modern heroine in tough, independent, and complex police chief Skeet Bannion. Add powerful writing, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and a cast of characters you won't want to leave behind and Rodriguez delivers another terrific read."—Deborah Crombie, New York Times bestselling author of No Mark Upon Her
“This won’t work!” I slammed the door to Forgotten Arts behind me, shutting out stifling late-August heat. Ignoring the bell swinging on red handspun, I glared at Karen Wise, who was hosting a party at my house because her farm was too far from town. She promised I just had to make my house available and show up. I’m not a party-giving woman. Now, I was hosting a welcome party for the new dean of Chouteau University’s law school.
Karen looked up from spinning the fluffy mass of gray wool into yarn, stopped the wheel, and wound a strand of wool over a peg, taking her time as I fumed. Normally, I enjoyed the spinning wheels and looms around us. I bought colorful yarn and fondled fiber from sheep, goats, and alpacas. This Thursday, I wanted to throw things.
“Lunchtime, Skeet,” Karen announced in her usual mild tones.
“How many more did you invite to this ‘little’ party?” I tried not to grind my teeth. “You’re out of control.”
Smiling, Karen strolled over to the wall, plucked a filmy lace shawl from a peg, and threw it over her sundress. “Look in the mirror for the out-of-control person.”
I huffed. “You’re not sticking to our agreement.”
Just before leaving my office at Chouteau University, I received more RSVPs for Sunday evening. I’d ask her to stop inviting people, reminding her she promised just a few. Then, more RSVPs would roll in, leaving me livid, Karen calm and cool.
She stepped to my side, taking my arm with a smile. I looked down at her dark, serene face. Years as a therapist had taught her to keep her countenance under control. I resented the heck out of it. “They’ll be waiting. You really don’t want to see Annette when she’s had to wait for lunch.”
I sputtered in exasperation. Karen laughed, tugging me toward the door. By the time we walked in blistering sun and thick air across the town square to the Herbal Coffee Shop, I was resigned. Sunday night would be a disaster, my house packed with people I didn’t know. The university carillon played its on-the-hour measure of Bach, sounding like a dirge.
“Sometimes,” I muttered.
“Perhaps,” she said. “But not now. Mel was Jake’s best friend. Many of these people were his friends. You’ll do it for Jake.”
I’d do this miserable party. For her late husband’s sake—and Karen’s.
Entering the Herbal’s air-conditioning was a relief. The cooler air filled with scents of mint, lemon balm, and angelica drained the last of my anger. Dolores Ramirez, the owner, and her college-student waitresses bustled back and forth between kitchen and tables, carrying plates of food, herbal iced tea, and fresh lemonade. Enough to calm any temper.
Maybe I was just irritated by Missouri’s late-summer heat. Maybe I’d hide out from the party in the kitchen, playing video games with my fourteen-year-old ward.
“Over here. We already ordered.” Annette Stanek waved us to the corner table she and Miryam Rainbow shared. Annette, a tall, heavy redhead, looked elegant next to Miryam, a blond former model.
Once settled in, I ordered curried chicken salad, and Karen ordered herbed walnut-quinoa salad. Annette and Miryam had already been served the special, Asian peanut slaw.
A scrawny old guy with a red-veined face called, “Karen.” He trudged over from the doorway, calling her again.
Karen muttered, “What’s he doing here?”
“Who?” I asked.
Karen faced me. “Leonard Klamath. I wouldn’t know him, if I hadn’t run into him at a fund-raiser. Amazing the damage alcohol causes.”
The man looked thirty years older than he had four years earlier when Jake died. This man could be that Leonard’s father.
He shuffled to the table. “I want to talk, Karen. Been thinking about this.”
“Leonard, sit down. Can we pull up another chair?” Karen placed her hand on his arm, looking into his worn face with concern.
I stood automatically, pulling an empty chair from the next table. “Here you go.” I pushed it from behind to help him into it. He looked disturbed. I wondered what happened to the man I used to know.
“Skeet? What are you doing here?” He peered into my face, frowning.
“She lives here now. I finally talked her into it.” Karen sounded and looked self-satisfied.
Leonard examined my face as if not sure I was really Marquitta “Skeet” Bannion. “Do you commute?”
“No, I left KCPD. I’m chief of Chouteau University’s police department.” My voice held a little defensive stiffness. I made a good decision for my life, but most folks I knew as a homicide detective and administrator with KCPD saw my move as a step or three downward.
“You still a cop?” Leonard struggled to his feet again.
“Always. You know me.”
He nodded. “What else could you be? Big Charlie Bannion’s daughter.”
I cringed. That’s what I’d fled—always being Big Charlie Bannion’s daughter, living in his shadow, tied to his name and his mistakes. Here in Brewster, no one knew Charlie. I could be myself, unshadowed.
Karen tugged at his sleeve. “Sit back down. You don’t look well. You want to talk to me. What is it?”
He brushed off her hand. “Changed my mind. We can talk Sunday. Can’t we?”
Karen looked puzzled. “Yes, but … If you want privacy, we can go to my shop.”
Leonard shook his head, looking at me rather than Karen. Frightened. He wasn’t when he arrived. Just determined.
“No. Gotta go back. See you Sunday.” He exited faster than he’d entered.
“Why did he change his mind?” Karen mused.
“Looked like he was scared of Skeet.” Annette gave me a long look. “Did you do something to him?”
I threw up my hands. “Not that I know of. We got along fine when he worked with Jake.”
“Of course you did.” Karen shrugged. “I’ll find out Sunday night.”
“Leonard’s coming to this party, too?” I tried to keep bitterness out of my voice.
“Are you two still fussing over that?” Miryam took a big bite of salad.
Annette gave me a disgusted look. “No one would guess you’re best friends. All over a party.”
“We’ve made up,” Karen said. “It’s all good.”
I tried to look like it was all good. “Change the subject.”
“I know.” Miryam bounced with delight. “Annette told me about this new mystery she read with a woman detective who’s a sniper in the army.”
I smiled. “They don’t allow women snipers in any of the services.”
Karen’s laugh was deep. “Maybe she’s a sniper in the Israeli army? Women do everything there.”
“They let women go into danger over there?” Miryam asked.
“We let them here,” Annette said. “Look at Skeet. Women police officers go into danger every day. It can be as dangerous on a city’s streets as any war zone.”
The waitress brought Karen’s lunch and mine to the table. Behind her stood Reverend Matt Lawson, waiting to get to his own table. He smiled, nodded as our eyes met, then moved on as his path opened.
“There’s someone who could tell you about women in the military.” I indicated Reverend Matt with my head. I’d grown up with folks who believed pointing a finger directed power. Rude and dangerous.
“He was a chaplain, wasn’t he?” Miryam watched Reverend Matt join his wife, Helen. “I’ve never figured out why such a handsome man married such a plain woman.”
We all looked at Matt with his thick auburn hair going slightly white at the temples and his clean-cut features with soft, full lips. Next to him sat Helen, ex-nun, graying dishwater-blond hair hanging limp to her shoulders, prominent nose, the rest of her features faded. Yet as she spoke, passion behind her words animated her face, making her look more alive than anyone in the room.
“It’s not all about looks.” Karen frowned. “Helen has lots of charisma.”
“Before he became a minister, Matt was a Ranger in Somalia and Bosnia,” I added.
“Black Hawk Down?” Miryam’s voice rose. “They should have had him in the movie. He’s better-looking than any of the actors. Except Orlando Bloom.”
Karen made a disgusted sound. “When will you learn life’s more than appearance?”
“How’d you hear this?” Annette stiffened. “I’m on the First Methodist council and didn’t know.”
“River running early in the morning. We’re not always out on the same days, but often enough we stop to compare battle stories. He downplays what he did overseas. I Googled him. He was given medals. I don’t think he likes what he did as a Ranger. Modest man.”
“I can see why he wouldn’t want to publicize any killing he had to do as a soldier,” Annette said.
“If it was like the movie, he had to do a lot of killing,” Miryam said in a cheerful voice and took another bite of slaw.
I smiled at Annette. “He’d agree with you that city streets are as dangerous as a war zone.”
“Don’t you miss the excitement of the streets?” Annette lifted her chin, examining me.
“Gran always said, ‘Happy’s lots better than exciting.’ Now that I’m older, I agree.” I took a bite of chicken salad.
“Still, your days here aren’t full of action like when you tracked down murderers in Kansas City,” Annette said wistfully.
“What about when she tracked down that murderer here last spring?” Miryam turned to me with an excited smile. “Maybe we’ll start having them all the time, like the city.”
I shuddered. “I can do without that.”
“Miryam, someone has to die for a murder.” Karen raised an eyebrow. “Maybe it should be you. Think of the excitement as you breathe your last.”
Annette laughed. Miryam stuck out her tongue.
I choked back laughter. “No, thanks.”
“Surely you miss the adrenaline from the streets!” Annette pointed her fork at me.
I shook my head. “That life was as boring as anything here and much more stressful. Even working Homicide, which I do miss, was nothing like your mystery novels.”
Annette stabbed her salad. “What’s the good of having a real police detective as a friend if she’s as boring as I am?”
“She’ll find the killer if someone murders you,” Miryam said with satisfaction.
Karen and I laughed. Annette pinched her mouth in exasperation.
“I promise to track down and imprison your murderer.” I laid my hand over my heart.
Karen shuddered. “Someone’s walking on my grave.”
I sat back as we continued to joke with one another. In Kansas City, I had few women friends. Since I worked mostly with men, my friends wound up being male cops. Here, Karen made me part of this group. My decision to relocate was paying off.
A short time with friends swept away my irritation. Still, the party hung over me like a distant threat.
* * *
At day’s end, I headed for my Crown Vic, fitted out with radios for city and campus police systems and a twelve-gauge shotgun. Not exactly a family car. Still, I was picking up my ward, Brian Jameson, from after-school tutoring. Thunder growled in the west. I stopped halfway to the car to see if a storm would finally bring us needed rain, but the air was thick and heavy, no promise of rain in its burned scent. In the distance, I heard a train, Brewster’s daily background music. Lightning flickered way across the Missouri River. I got in the car, throwing my briefcase in back with a frustrated sigh. Another false promise.
When I pulled up at the entrance to Ormond, Brian darted out of the air-conditioned building into the car, slinging book bag and flute case into the back.
“Watch that!” I ducked his backpack. “How was class?”
“We’re getting into real cool stuff. Pentatonic scale used in tribal folk music.” Brian leaned back against the seat. “It doesn’t look like much. So short. Professor Garton says it shows what you do, even with simple materials, makes art—not the materials themselves.”
“Sounds good.” I tried to sound interested.
Garton taught the university’s music students. He tutored Brian because he thought Bri, a gifted flautist and promising composer, could get a scholarship to Juilliard. He told me working with Brian made up for the dull students he had to teach. I’d have been one of those students, but Brian always came from class excited.
He chatted about his day as I drove College Hill Road’s narrow twists. Where it ran into Girlville (name given before the college turned coed), I turned left to the town square with its courthouse surrounded by beds of purple coneflowers and black-eyed Susans. In the old days, I wouldn’t have known the flowers. My new life had turned me into a gardener, dog owner, and—well, mother might be too strong a word.
Once parked, we walked past shops as a train rumbled through town. We waved at Bob and Kathy Lynch on their B and B porch and hurried past, trying to get to Pyewacket’s before the wait became too long. I cooked at home more now that Brian lived with me. Simple food, pleasing to a fourteen-year-old. When I didn’t want to hassle with it, we went to Pyewacket’s.
Inside the restaurant, Pal Owens put names on a waiting list, long gray ponytail cascading down his back. Pal always wore tie-dyed T-shirts and bellbottom jeans with Birkenstocks. His wife, Sandi, supervising the kitchen and wait staff, wore the same.
The Owens kept themselves and the décor of Pyewacket’s locked in the sixties. The food, however, was twenty-first-century. Basil-tomato tartlets with lemon balm bread. Broccoli-potato torte with chives. A nice change from my cooking.
“Brian, Skeet, how’s it shaking?” Pal asked.
“How long’s the wait?” I looked at the crowd without much hope.
He ran his eye down the list. “Thirty minutes. Jumping tonight, babe.”
I sighed. “Put us down.”
“Sure thing.” He scribbled my name and greeted the couple behind us.
I stepped back, and Joe Louzon’s daughter Julie waved us to a place next to them. Waving back, Brian headed over.
Eleven-year-old Julie had her golden brown hair skinned back from her round face in a ponytail with several long strands hanging down, escaped from the elastic. Her mother had left her and Joe when Julie was a toddler, but Julie always seemed happy, no hidden shadows. Now, shadows appeared in that little face from her ordeal earlier in the year. Brian’s face and even mine held shadows from the same incident. Karen was helping us all make it through the shadows.
“How’s your day been, Skeet?” Joe said.
I shrugged. “Karen’s inviting crowds to a party at my house that I don’t want to give. The faculty senate wants me to stop building the desperately needed parking structure and give the money to them for European junkets. The half-hour wait to get in here’s just frosting on the cake.”
“We should be called next,” Julie said in an enthusiastic voice. “You can eat with us. I’ll tell Pal.”
She darted away on her errand of mercy, ponytail bobbing at waist level through the crowd. I took a deep breath of air filled with rosemary, garlic, and sizzling meats and began to relax.
“You know Julie,” Joe apologized. “She’d love to eat with you. She never stops to think you might not feel the same.”
Brian laughed. I smiled at Joe. “It’s okay. Company for dinner sounds good, doesn’t it, Bri?”
Brian nodded. “It’ll feel more like a family.”
I stiffened. Wasn’t I giving him a real family experience? I wasn’t much good at family stuff, never had been. But I was trying to do my best for him.
“I always wanted a sister,” Brian went on. “When we’re all together, it feels like a TV family.”
“I feel the same way, Brian.” Joe smiled at him, not looking at me. He wanted a relationship but didn’t pressure. One of many things I appreciated about him.
Julie dodged back through the crowd. “Pal says no prob.” She giggled. “I love his old slang. Groovy. It’s so fun coming here. Like walking into a sitcom.”
I nodded. “I come for the food, but the hippie thing’s amusing. Even if it’s before my time.”
“Louzon, party of four,” Pal called out, and we walked over. “Way to go, man. You and Brian have the foxiest chicks here tonight, Joe.”
As we followed the waitress, Julie giggled. “Foxy chicks. Way to go, man.”
I winked at her. “Don’t make fun of your dad’s time period. You shouldn’t hurt his ancient feelings.”
Julie giggled. Brian grinned. Joe assumed a look of pain. “That was my older brothers’ time. I was a toddler.”
Laughing, we settled into our booth, Brian sliding in next to me, with Joe and Julie across from us. I felt the day’s tension melt away. Once the waitress left with our order, Joe told a funny story about breaking up a fight between Art Williamson and Bea Roberts. Bea and other upscale shop owners had been trying to get Art’s working-class bar off the square for years. Their verbal brawls were legendary.
Our food arrived. I started on salmon-lentil salad. Brian munched a steakburger with onion strings, and Julie nibbled chicken fricassee with mashed-potato cakes while Joe ate orange-steak kabobs on rice pilaf. A waitress led four people in and seated them across the room.
“There’s the source of all my troubles.” I tipped my chin toward the group and realized I’d avoided pointing my finger again.
“Who?” Joe asked.
I looked at the lone woman in the group. The first time I’d seen her in person. I’d heard way too much about her. I nodded in her husband’s direction. “George ‘Mel’ Melvin, former U.S. attorney for Western Missouri. Failed candidate for Missouri attorney general. New dean of the law school. The reason Karen’s stuffing my house with people Sunday night. I wish to heck he’d stayed in Kansas City.”
“Which one is he?” Brian asked.
“The stocky one with the wife who looks better than any model. She can afford to. She’s richer than anyone, except the tall guy.” With a sigh, I turned to slather butter on my lemon balm bread.
“Who is she? Who’s the tall guy?” asked Joe. “And that long-haired tough guy?” Intently, he checked them out, small-town police chief pondering new residents and the troubles they might bring.
“The tall guy’s Walker Lynch. Millionaire. Still lives in Kansas City, last I heard. He and Mel are tied politically. I don’t know the dark bad boy. Bodyguard, maybe.”
Joe nodded. “He’s got the look.”
“The woman’s Liz Richar. Stovall banking, real estate,” I said. “MidAmerica United and L. J. Stovall Properties. Her mother was Stovall’s only kid. She married Gard Horner. Horner Petroleum. Not as rich as Stovall but up there. Whole family’s dead and little Lizzie’s everyone’s heir. Never met her. Just seen her on the news. She’s involved in politics.”
Julie stared at the quartet. “She’s beautiful!”
“Skeet’s better-looking,” Brian tossed in loyally.
I grinned. “It’s okay. I’m nowhere near her class. I know it.”
“Some of us prefer our women more natural, don’t we?” Joe smiled at him.
Brian nodded. “She looks plastic.”
“This guy Lynch? What’s the scoop?” Joe asked.
“Big philanthropist. That’s how I know him. He supports causes I worked for. Met him at events and on boards. Shelters for the homeless, runaways, domestic violence. He gives tons of money. The kind of rich person I’d want to be.”
Joe nodded. “A good guy.”
“How are they a problem for you, Skeet?” Julie asked.
Brian jumped in before I could answer. “Karen’s giving the new dean a party. At our house, ’cause she’s out in the boonies. Skeet said yes.”
“Not knowing the ‘few people’ she mentioned would balloon.”
“You could have said no.” Brian’s face was stern.
I shook my head. “I couldn’t really.”
“Why not?” Julie asked.
I stared at Mel again. “Karen’s husband, Jake, worked for Mel. They were friends.”
Joe looked at me. “The dead husband?”
I nodded. “She says Jake would have given the party.” I shrugged. “I don’t think Karen likes Mel much since he dumped his first wife to marry Liz. But she’s sure Jake would want this, so…”
Joe quirked an eyebrow at me. “As Brian mentioned, you could have said no.”
I looked away. “Jake and Karen sort of adopted me when I first came up from Oklahoma to the academy. My dad wasn’t happy about it. I was all alone. They were my support system.” I looked back at him. “Jake would have given Mel a big party to introduce him to folks in his new town. I couldn’t say no.”
Brian tapped my shoulder. “So quit fighting with Karen about it. After Sunday, it’s over.”
“The hostess with the mostest,” Joe muttered.
“She’s supposed to handle all the work. I’ll hold her to that, no matter how many hundreds of people she invites to my house.” I put a melodramatic frown on my face and folded my arms in front of me, doing my best bad-gangster impression.
They laughed. I joined in. We ate the delicious food, talking and laughing. As I savored the mix of flavors in my salad, the cloud of dread over the party moved out of my mind.
The kids ordered dessert. Joe and I decided on coffee. As Julie ate her orange pound cake à la mode and Brian dug into his hot fudge sundae, I settled back into my seat next to Brian, feeling content, unwilling to move.
Walker Lynch and his shadow moved into my view, stopping at our booth. “Skeet! Are you in Brewster now?”
“Walker.” I nodded. “More than a year.”
“Is it your house we’re going to Sunday night? I heard Karen’s party was at someone else’s house.” Walker took in Joe and the kids, and one of his eyebrows rose slightly.
“Karen’s your hostess. I’m not the Martha Stewart type myself.”
He chuckled. “I wouldn’t have thought so. But then Martha’s not a decorated homicide detective.”
The hard-muscled guy with black hair, mustache, and goatee leaned forward to inspect me closely.
I smiled. “Walker Lynch, this is Joe Louzon, Brewster’s chief of police, and his daughter, Julie. This is my ward, Brian Jameson.”
Walker’s brows lifted again at Brian’s introduction. “You, a family woman? That’s unexpected.”
“Skeet’s a great family woman,” Brian said sullenly.
Joe’s jaw tensed. “Skeet does a terrific job as a parent. In a few more months, Brian’s adoption will be final. She’ll be his mother.”
Walker held up his hands in defense. “I meant nothing negative. It’s simply not a role I’d ever seen Skeet in. It surprised me.”
I laughed softly. “It surprised me, too, but I try to do my best. Brian’s forgiving of my errors.” I smiled at Brian. “We landed together by accident, but we do pretty well.”
He reached for my hand under the table and squeezed it. “We make a great family.”
“One of the best I’ve seen,” Joe added.
Walker laughed and pulled the dangerous-looking guy farther forward by the arm. “I don’t think you’ve met my associate Terry Heldrich.”
I extended my hand to shake his. “No, I haven’t.”
Terry took my hand in a firm grip and stared into my face. His high cheekbones and straight slash of nose separating large, dark eyes could have belonged to any of my uncles or relatives down in Oklahoma. He was more alert than anyone I’d ever seen, almost canine in his awareness, like a highly trained guard dog hearing higher frequencies and smelling scents that passed the rest of us by.
“What do you do in Walker’s company?” I asked, making conversation with someone who seemed to expect attack.
“Terry’s my chief of operations,” Walker replied as Terry shook my hand and gave me his measuring stare. “Every man of theory needs someone practical to get things done.” Walker gave another chuckle. “Terry’s that guy. He makes my dreams work in the real world.”
Terry let my hand go and switched his assessing gaze to Joe as they introduced themselves and shook hands. He looked like a wolf preparing to attack while Joe reminded me of a family pet facing a threat to that family. I could almost see the hackles rise on both of them.
“How did you two find each other?” I asked Walker, trying to break the tension.
To my surprise, Terry answered, dropping Joe’s hand to face me. “Walker recruited me. He knew my previous … employer.”
His voice was softer than I expected from that muscular body. He had no accent, but the clear way he fully enunciated every word, along with his bone structure and slightly darker skin like mine, made me wonder if he wasn’t from one of the tribes.
Walker laughed, slapping him lightly on the back. “Terry really is my right-hand guy. We’ll let you go back to dinner. I look forward to the chance to talk Sunday night.”
The two men strolled out as Joe and I watched. Once, Terry turned and looked back at us before following his boss.
“That one’s serious trouble.” Joe spoke softly as Brian and Julie started a joking conversation behind us. “Recruited him from the SEALs or special forces.”
“Higher status than a bodyguard.” I stared after them. “I thought you two would come to blows or at least growls.”
Joe laughed sheepishly. “He gets my threat response going, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t want to face him in a dark alley.”
“How about the party Sunday night? He’s with Walker, so Karen’s probably invited him.” My jaw tightened. “She’s invited everybody else.”
Joe stared at the doorway through which they’d left. “Makes you wonder what kinds of things Walker needs that freak for.”
“Walker’s a good guy. Special forces uses strategists, too. Maybe that’s what Walker pays him for.” I set my hand on Joe’s shoulder. He turned with a smile. We sat back and let the kids finish their desserts.
Now my worries about the party included the need to keep Joe and Terry apart. Also, Joe had me wondering what kind of operations Walker needed Terry for—intimidation, protection … I didn’t want to take that any further.
Copyright © 2013 by Linda Rodriguez