"A great recommendation for fans of J.A. Jance's Arizona-set mysteries" Booklist
A murder leads Sarah Burke to investigate a money-laundering ring with connections extending far beyond Tucson – but does the key to solving the case lie closer to home than she realises?
The murder of a man seen fighting in a house during a Fourth of July street parade plunges Sarah Burke's whole household – her fragile mother Aggie, shrewd and ever-helpful live-in boyfriend Will and even her hard-charging niece, Denny – into her latest case.
The investigation leads to a money-laundering ring with international connections, and Sarah and her smart, hard-working crew of detectives must follow the puzzle, set against the backdrop of Tucson's unique character – an ancient, beautiful valley with a polyglot ethnic community and a bilingual, modern city – without knowing where it might take them. Could the answers lie closer to home than she realises?
About the Author
Elizabeth Gunn is the author of the best-selling Jake Hines series of police procedurals set in Minnesota, where she grew up, and the Sarah Burke series set in Arizona, where she now lives. A long-time innkeeper with a taste for adventure, Elizabeth has lived ‘everywhere’ and been a private pilot and a diver, as well as a writer. She now lives in Tucson, Arizona and climbs mountains for fun.
Read an Excerpt
By Elizabeth Gunn
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Elizabeth Gunn
All rights reserved.
Martina didn't hear the fight until the yelling started. Five pre-school kids in one small house, a telenovela on the TV and a swamp cooler in the window, she had plenty of noise going on even before the parade started.
Sofia was the one who heard something and ran to the front window. 'Hey, there's a parade going by,' she said and pressed her face to the glass to look down the street. 'There's a school band and then cowboys on paint horses. So pretty, come and see!'
'I can't look,' Martina said. 'I got the twins up in the sink.' She could hear the crackle of snare drums, though, and feet keeping time on the pavement.
The twin girls were making the most of their bath, laughing and squealing while she doused them with the little bit of water they hadn't already splashed all over the kitchen. Then Sofia said, 'Oh, Ma, the drummer in this band is juggling his sticks – hoo! Is that cool or what?'
'Just what I needed,' Martina muttered, 'one more noise in here.'
'Aw, lighten up, Ma. Can't we have a little fun out of the Fourth like everybody else? Look, there's a mariachi band coming.' She giggled. 'With little American flags stuck on their instruments. I never seen that before, did you? Ooh, la, that trumpet player gets his pants any tighter he won't be able to blow!'
'Figures you'd notice the one with the tightest pants,' Martina said.
But how could you not love that music? The mariachis must have paused right in front of her house; she could hear the trumpet plainly, high and sweet like notes straight out of heaven.
Then the singer came in with the first words of Por Un Amor, alament about a man with pain in his poor corazon. His heart hurt very much because his lover was leaving. When he reached the climax the singer held one wonderful clear note till you were sure he would die from lack of oxygen. But no, he took a breath just in time to save his life and the song soared on as the band resumed its march.
'That's funny,' Sofia said, 'I never seen a mariachi band with a clown at the back, did you?'
'A clown? No. He must belong to some other float,' Martina said.
'He's lame, too – ain't that odd in a parade?'
'How you coming with the snacks? Sofia, will you watch what those boys are doing?'
'I see 'em, don't have a spazz.' She went back to her job at the dinette table, doling out apple slices to the two Anglo boys they called the Talibans. They were brothers, three and four years old. 'Sooo competitive,' their mother always said with a fond laugh.
About ready to kill somebody was more like it, Martina thought. But Mama paid in cash and on time, so what could you do but watch out for teeth and kicking? Sofia had them strapped into high chairs at opposite sides of the table so they couldn't get at her or each other. They watched her cut up the apple, arguing like judges over who got bigger bites.
And now Sofia's baby was waking up, starting to whimper for her ten o'clock feeding.
'Let Juana cry a while,' Martina said. 'Good for her lungs.' Sofia was still providing the baby's milk so Juana would have to wait until Martina got the twins dressed and took over the Talibans. She reached for the big brown towel and shook it out one-handed over the counter by the sink, keeping a grip with her other hand on an arm apiece from the twins.
She said, 'Sit still now, my little beauties, here we go,' and hoisted Isabella, her fat brown body smooth and slippery as a seal, onto the towel. As she turned to pick up Yvette, she heard a man's howl of pain, a drawn-out 'No-o-o!' and yelling close by. Then a crash, like something heavy hitting a wall.
'Holy mother,' she said, 'what was that?'
'Sounds like it's next door,' Sofia said, getting up from the table again and moving toward the side window this time. They heard another yell and the sound of breaking glass. Craning her neck to see into the yard over the swamp cooler, Sofia said, 'Hey, there's a fight going on next door. Where that old guy lives? Wow, they gonna come right out through that window if they don't —' There was more yelling and pounding, then Sofia said, 'Ma, there's blood all over the glass now.'
'Well, what'm I s'posed to do about that?' Martina said. But she lifted the two naked girls, towel and all, and carried them to the playpen in the hall. Diverted and happy, they waved and crowed while their hair curled into golden brown halos.
Martina hurried back to look. She was two inches taller than Sofia – she didn't have to stand on tiptoe – and after one quick glance she said, 'Oh, Jesus.'
There was indeed a terrific fight going on in the house next door. She heard the pounding sounds again and saw the window bulge when something collided with it. But the street was full of marching bands and floats, colorful and noisy. All the people who had come out of their houses were watching the parade, paying no attention to the fight.
The bystanders along the street pointed and waved at the next float, a shiny red convertible carrying a homecoming queen and her attendants. The queen waved back at the crowd and smiled, while the tubas in the band behind her brayed 'Oom-pah, oom-pah-pah.' Nobody noticed as a body hit the window again and more blood leaked out through the crack in the glass.
'Listen, I'll call the cops,' Martina told her daughter. 'You get back to the Talibans before they get their hands on that knife.' Both boys were stretching out of their seat restraints, cracking their shoulder joints in an effort to reach the knife Sofia had been using on the apple.
Martina hurried past the naked twins who were contentedly babbling to each other as they threw blocks and action figures out of the playpen. They'd be yelling to get them all back in a minute. She hurried into her bedroom and fished her cell phone out of the folded quilt on the highest closet shelf.
She was hiding it up there so Sofia couldn't sneak phone calls to her new worthless boyfriend. It was uncanny – did Sofia have some dog-whistle thing only dropout losers could hear? This latest deadbeat had plenty of tattoos but no job, of course. So he had time to hang around, to slip into Sofia's futon, the sheets not even cooled off yet from when Juana's no-good father slipped out of them. Martina didn't think Juana needed a baby sister just yet.
As her hand felt the phone, Martina heard a sound outside her bedroom window, somewhere nearby, a quiet thunk that was somehow familiar but she didn't have time to think about it now.
Cursing the rotten luck that brought her all these distractions – as if day-care money wasn't still hard to collect, dependent children money always tough to get and donations from the Food Bank shrinking – didn't she have Dios mia, plenty to think about already? Last thing she needed was to get involved in this trouble next door.
She had schooled herself to always speak English but when she got excited her thoughts slid back into some of her mother's expressions. She warned herself now, No vale la pena llamar! The police always questioned the one who called. But the blood was on the glass, the window was broken – somebody had to do something.
Martina dialed 911.CHAPTER 2
'Lotta blood inside, I hear, Detective,' the young patrolman said, holding the posse box steady so Sarah could sign in. 'You got plenty of gum?'
'Yeah, Delaney told me,' Sarah said.
'You think we got a slasher?'
The new kids always like to punch up the story a little. She hunched over the sign-in sheet, trying to shield the paper from the wind. A fine line of stinging grit slid under her arm, her pen hit a pebble and her signature wobbled.
'Stupid wind,' she said. 'When is it ever going to bring that monsoon?' She put the pen back in its slot and squinted at the young patrolman's name tag. 'Tobin? Oh, you're Leo's son, aren't you? I watched you graduate not too long ago. I'm Sarah Burke.' She shook his hand. 'Is it Tom?'
'Yes. Just please don't call me Tommy like my dad does.'
She laughed. 'Go easy on your dad. He's so proud of you; he's ready to bust a gut. How's the career going?'
'So far I've mostly been doing fun rides with my FTO.' He made a face and she chuckled obligingly. To head off horror stories about field training officers she pulled out her phone and scrolled for messages.
But Tom Tobin had been alone too long; he wanted to chat. 'I been standing here half an hour and you're the first detective I've seen,' he said. 'I know where my dad is – on his wimpy little motorbike in the Shriner parade. But where's everybody else?'
'Doing what most people do on Sunday the Fourth of July, I guess – enjoying themselves. Weekends and holidays, Delaney has to find us before he can send us. I was a little slow getting out of the house so he found me first.'
She was in full working gear, the good shirt, pressed slacks, badge on her belt and Glock on her hip. Her off-duty clothes were in the car, so if the case didn't keep her all day she could still make the family picnic at the ranch – her watch said not quite ten.
'Has the neighborhood been this quiet ever since you got here? I don't see anybody around.' Behind Tom Tobin a cracked sidewalk led across a few feet of thin gravel to a tan stucco house with two narrow windows flanking a peeling wooden door.
Dust and trash blew across the yard and a bigger gust brought the faint smell of hay and horse manure. Menlo Park had been partially gentrified but the stables must be still there on Spruce Street, she realized with satisfaction. The birthday parties of her childhood had often included a trail ride into the desert, starting from this neighborhood.
'Quiet as a church,' Tom said as she stepped around him. 'Only ones here are the ME and a couple of techies that came in that van behind you. And watch out for that pushy black lady with the dyed red hair.'
'You mean Gloria? From the crime lab? What about her?'
'She came back out here about two minutes after she signed in and said she was locking the front door so I should tell everybody to go around to the back.'
Tom cleared his throat and said, 'Boy, she really knows how to say what she wants, huh?'
'Yup. Better not argue with Gloria.' And if you think I'm going to discuss her with a rookie you still need a few more rides with that training officer.
Thinking about the scene she was walking toward, she put two fresh sticks of gum in her mouth and followed the walk to the front door. 'Looks like a home invasion that found somebody home and turned into a murder,' Delaney had said. She turned right along a faint path that ran along the front of the house and then left along the side wall to the back. The path didn't exactly stand out since the rest of the yard was almost bare of gravel too. But there was no danger she'd get lost. The rear of the house was just ahead.
She took note of the shattered glass and blood smears on the side window as she passed it. This must be from the fight that got the neighbors' attention, she thought. Delaney had said the call came from the house next door. She stayed close to the side of the victim's house, not wanting to disturb the scene outside.
'Jason's the only other detective I've found so far,' Delaney had told her, 'so he'll take the scene on this one, but he's at some pageant with his nephew so it'll be a while before he gets there.'
Good, maybe I'll get a few minutes by myself in here after the scene techs get done, Sarah thought. First impressions could tell you a lot sometimes, if there wasn't too much commotion to think.
Standing by the rear corner of the house on Alameda Avenue, she looked around her as she pulled on plastic booties and gloved up. Hard to believe she was only about a mile and a half from her office on South Stone. It was just a scoot under the highway and then down Congress past the Mercado, no more than ten minutes in any weather, but Menlo Park felt like a different world.
Headquarters building was downtown, on the edge of the constantly shifting power centers that ran the city. But this neighborhood below Signal Mountain was in the oldest part of Tucson. Prehistoric people had grown corn and beans here for thousands of years before the first Spanish soldiers showed up, looking for a route to the California coast.
Before you put down footings in this neighborhood, a builder had once told Sarah, you should consider the risk of digging up the bones and artifacts of people who were making pots here ten thousand years ago. Then the paleontologists would come out of their classrooms at the university, conveniently located nearby. An exploration might soon be organized, and later a photo spread would run in the Tucson Daily Star, crowing happily about another historic find in the Old Pueblo. The dig might continue for months, even years, while your banker found a way to weasel out of your loan.
Anglo merchants had moved in behind the soldiers at the end of the nineteenth century. They built brick-and-stucco bungalows on top of the ancient fire pits with covenants forbidding any sales to Hispanics. As they prospered, though, they moved out to bigger houses on pricier lots. This section was more than half Hispanic now, many houses occupied for four or five generations by the same family.
Jason would have no trouble searching this backyard, Sarah saw – it was small and simple, graveled like its neighbors, with a couple of mesquite trees and a small bench.
There were two substantial items back here, though – a good dirt bike tethered to the bench with a padlocked chain and a white Ford Ranger pickup, five or six years old but in good shape with new-looking tires. Few houses in this part of town had garages – people just parked in their yards.
Many of the yards in this block of Alameda had fences or walls, but this one was marked off from its neighbors only by a row of river stones that followed the depression, not quite a ditch, that marked its edges along both sides. The house had a deeper overhang on the roof in back. At each end of the overhang vines in brick planters climbed lattices staked upright in the planter and fastened to the roof edge at the top. Pretty smart, actually, Sarah thought, walking around it. The vines created an area of cooler privacy, like a patio but without a floor. A small, cheap outdoor table and two chairs sheltered in the vines' shade on the other side of the door.
She stepped under the overhang and walked five paces to the exact middle of the rear wall where a stone slab served as the rear stoop. When she opened the back door a gust of super-cool air came out, smelling like blood and feces, sweat and black powder. And bacon? She stuck her head in and said, 'How's it going, Gloria?'
'Hey, Sarah. Not quite ready to let you at it,' Gloria said, not pausing, her camera flash blazing away. 'Be about ten minutes longer.' Her bright curls, a shade or two more coppery than her skin, bobbed above the camera. 'You can come in if you promise to stand on one of those pads I put down.'
'Gotcha.' Sarah hopped onto a Styrofoam pad and looked around for the next safety zone. She didn't expect any more guidance from Gloria, who continued working steadily, hitting the flash twice in each spot before she moved three inches and lit up again.
I suppose she did startle poor Tom a little, she thought. Gloria Jackson had learned the hard way how to defend her turf – she'd survived public schools in Watts and held onto a basketball scholarship at UCLA for two years before she gave up her dreams of world pro touring and got serious about her forensic science degree.
Moving into the room, Sarah took shallow breaths and chewed her gum energetically for a couple of minutes. It didn't take much time – her brain had learned to accept gross sights and disgusting smells as part of the job. After that first two minutes of careful breathing she would stay focused on the body and its surroundings, sorting the rich bouquet of odors like a K-9, retaining the useful information it brought her.
First, the sharp smells of urine and feces. Then cooking smells, still strong in here, especially bacon. And the sweet, slightly metallic aroma of blood. But looking around she saw less blood than she'd expected. Spatters on the tile floor and two area rugs, and the smears on the broken side window she'd seen from outside. Part of a bloody handprint gleamed on the round wood dining table by the window, and a little blood had pooled and clotted in the carpet five feet inside the front door, where the ME knelt beside the body.
Excerpted from Denny's Law by Elizabeth Gunn. Copyright © 2016 Elizabeth Gunn. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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