2016 Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards Finalist
Her boyfriend is dead and a grieving Liv is in no mood to solve a mystery.
Liv has been forced to take a leave of absence from her job at the FBI following the tragic death of her love, Jack Linwood. She finds herself back home in Rapid City, South Dakota, far from her closest friend and colleague, Streeter Pierce, and her trusted dog, Beulah. Struggling with the risks and pressures of her career and the nostalgia of home, a heartbroken Liv questions whether or not she has made the right choices in life.
As if that weren't enough, she finds herself sitting in a bar staring up into the faces of the bizarre wax heads of the infamous citizens of the city of Deadwood-where her bullheaded sister Agatha has dragged her to drink off her pain. When it seems Liv will at last be left alone to mourn in peace, a beloved friend of the Bergen family is beaten beyond recognition and left for dead. Liv is suddenly catapulted into the middle of an investigation of a hundred-year-old murder case and a dark and twisted, century-old family feud.
Aided-and sometimes derailed-by her comical sisters, a police officer who doesn't trust her, a cryptic research paper, and a frightening and formidable motorcycle gang member, Liv must discover who beat her friend nearly to death before the perpetrator returns to finish the job and time runs out.
|Publisher:||Greenleaf Book Group, LLC|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)|
Read an Excerpt
Sixth in the Liv Bergen Mystery Series
By SANDRA BRANNAN
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2016 Sandra Brannan
All rights reserved.
WILD BILL HICKOK SAT with one boot resting on a knee, his weight pressing against the spine of the rickety chair that was tilted on its hind legs. The impish smile beneath the gunfighter's familiar handlebar mustache belied his shifty eyes, which seemed to follow me as we drove by the welcoming bronze statue at the historic town's entrance.
"Deadwood?" I groaned, my mind fixating on the dead man's hand. Hickok was holding aces over eights when he was shot in the back of his head in this sleepy mining town. "Are you kidding me?"
Agatha said nothing, staring straight ahead. I glared at her. She ignored me. Kept driving her big pickup truck. Windows down. Her long brown hair blowing in the summer breeze. Her feet barely able to reach the pedals.
My oldest sister was cool. The grooviest. Independent, free-spirited, fresh. The type of artist who found beauty and wonder in everything. My mother must have had an inkling that my sister would one day prefer steel and welding to canvas and brush. She named her firstborn after the patron saint of foundry workers. Ardnis, her middle name, meant eagle spirit. Agatha created beautiful pieces from behind her welding hood, and in her spare time mined various precious metals from her lode claims throughout the Black Hills. Not for the money. For the fun of it. And she was indeed spirited.
"Where are you taking me?" I asked.
Her smile was faint, but I could tell she was scheming. She slowed the pickup and pulled into the parking lot between the jail and the Lawrence County courthouse. I couldn't decide if she was bringing me to witness a trial, file a mining claim, or visit a friend in jail. Knowing Agatha, it could very well be any one of those activities.
For an instant, my curiosity lifted my spirits slightly above the incredible sadness that comes with the loss of a loved one. It'd been two weeks since losing my boyfriend, Jack Linwood. Felt like an eternity. And I kept having breakdowns that left me empty and weak. And angry. Mad at my boss, who mandated a leave of absence, which meant I couldn't talk to my best friend and coworker, Streeter Pierce, or my dog, Beulah, since both of them work for the FBI. Trying to survive without my support system, without work to occupy my mind, had not helped me grow stronger. Instead, I felt powerless. So whatever Agatha and I'd be doing, I was looking forward to being a part of it, despite my earlier protests. I'd had enough of grief and loss and sorrow. For the moment.
Agatha considered herself a pirate, "the oldest and the meanest," as she called herself. But we all saw the brilliance and beauty that shone from within, which is why she was my agate. To honor the family mining business, I've always kept rocks on my dresser representing each of my siblings, to remind me of what's important in life.
Most people hunted gold in the creeks of the Black Hills. I tended to hunt for agates, the rocks smoothly polished after decades of tumbling in the mountain streams. Fairburn agates have colorful patterns of orange, red, and black and are the most sought-after agates in the Hills. But I liked the agates that were ordinary on the outside — river rock or gravel to most — that resembled petrified goose eggs, gray or tan and nondescript. Yet, those same hard stones hid a treasure inside. A cracked agate revealed microcrystals and an array of soft colors, a unique and colorful palette inside each one.
I watched as the little unique and colorful agate, Agatha, jumped down from her four-wheel-drive F-250 and motioned for me to follow. Toward the jail. Should have known.
Without a word, my sister opened the door and pressed the buzzer. The jailer on the other side of the bulletproof glass shifted toward the microphone. "Can I help you?"
My sister said, "Detective Nolan, please."
The woman behind the security area clicked another button and I could hear her voice boom over a PA system that echoed through the halls beyond. "Nolan, you have visitors."
The jailer never gave Agatha a second look, focusing her attention on her stacks of paper.
"What are we doing here?" I whispered.
A deadbolt slid loose and the door behind us eased open.
Agatha answered, "Drinking."
A man with kind eyes — like that country western singer Clint Black — emerged from the doorway, all smiles and hugs for Agatha. I got nothing but a fierce scowl from the older man, sporting a gun belt, who pulled the heavy metal door closed and secured the deadbolt. I only had a few seconds, but the frown looked familiar to me. I think I'd seen him, met him, worked with him before. But when?
Mully, leader of the outlaw motorcycle club Lucifer's Lot, came to mind.
During the Sturgis Rally last year, I'd had a couple of run-ins with Mully. Like most chance meetings in my life, one thing led to another and I found myself in the middle of a federal case involving him — leader of Lucifer's Lot M.C. — and the local authorities. It's how I met my mentor, Streeter Pierce, and what eventually led me to joining the FBI. Is that when I met the grumpy old lawman on the other side of the door? During the rally last year?
Before I could give it another thought, Agatha presented the hugger to me. "Boots, this is Harvey Nolan, a friend of mine."
"And a Lawrence County Sheriff's Department detective?" I asked, extending my hand.
"One of three," the young man said, a wide grin spreading across his handsome face. He was taller than me, which meant much taller than Agatha.
I could see why Agatha was attracted to him. The soft, short curls and easy smile gave the thirtysomething detective a youthful appearance. But something behind his eyes told a different story, that not everything in the easygoing detective's life was cotton candy and roses.
"Crime escalating around here, is it?" I said, pulling my hand from his and glancing over at the jailer, who had pretty much forgotten about us already.
"Don't laugh. It really is. The three of us can hardly keep up," Nolan said.
I gestured over his shoulder and asked, "Who was that guy with you?"
"What guy?" he said, turning toward the bolted door.
Agatha rolled her eyes. "Always with the questions. Come on."
Nolan followed Agatha as obediently as I did. She was on a mission, never without a plan. We cut through the alley, turned left and walked a few blocks, then took a right on Main Street. I knew instantly where we were headed.
"Saloon Number Ten?" I asked.
"Got a better place to get plastered?" Agatha asked, marching down the sloping street another three blocks.
"I've got a thousand better ideas on what we should be doing besides getting drunk."
She stopped and spun on her heels, jutting her chin up toward me. "And how's that working out for you so far? Those better ideas?"
Her words stung. The sharp reply I'd wanted to hurl pierced my throat. She was right. But drinking wasn't the answer.
"Boots," she said, "I am not going to just stand by and watch you self-destruct from the inside out with grief or guilt. You have got to snap out of this destructive trance. You're in hell, because you put yourself there."
She was right. But I didn't feel like drinking. I just wanted to stay home, feel sorry for myself, and hate life a little longer. "I'm not ready for this."
"Neither is he."
"Me?" Nolan asked.
"But you're both going to indulge me and you're both going to love every minute of this. Got it?" Agatha didn't give either of us time to answer. She just turned around and marched a bit farther down the street and through the doors under the sign that read "Old Style Saloon No. 10." Over her shoulder, she added, "And tonight, neither of you are cops. Capiche?"
"Cops? Oh, that's right," Nolan said, sizing me up for the first time. "She told me one of her sisters was an FBI agent."
I ignored him and hurried to catch up with Agatha. "Seriously, do we have to do this?"
Every time I visited the familiar bar I felt like I was stepping back in time, back to the late 1800s. The collage of historic memorabilia, pictures, and strange collections covered every wall, making me feel like I was trapped inside a Barnum sideshow wagon.
"Those heads give me the willies."
I averted my glance away from a few pieces in the historic bar that made my flesh crawl. The infamous wax heads from Deadwood's history — Poker Alice, Wild Bill, and others — were creepy, considering the eerie 3-D likeness of each encased in a shadow box above the bar.
Agatha turned her head but kept marching. "The willies? Nobody says that anymore. Besides, I think they're cool."
"Cool? That explains why you dragged me to the carnivals every summer. And used up the booklet of tickets at the freak show."
The painting of the fine lady whose eyes were designed to move yanked me back in time to a Creature Feature flick. But perhaps the midway carnival freak show called Double Cheeseburger, the two-headed calf, bothered me most.
The rest of the collection was quite interesting, including Wild Bill's death chair and gun belt displayed above the door.
We found a table near the back, presumably where the legendary Hickok lost his life to another gun-slinging gambler in 1876. But I knew better. The original Saloon Number Ten, which was actually called Nuttal and Mann's, was down the street, closer to what they called "The Badlands" in this historic western town.
Impatient, Agatha went to the bar to order our drinks rather than wait on a server.
"So what are you in for?" I asked the detective.
His expression was quizzical.
"The warden Agatha. I'm being held against my will for moping. I lost my boyfriend. You?"
He grinned and glanced over at my sister. "Gotta love that gal. I'm in for moping, too. Lost my mom. Three weeks ago. Cancer."
I nodded. "Sorry."
"Yeah. For you, too."
Neither of us really wanted to talk about our pain. I could see the early designs of an unwanted support group forming from hostile, reluctant participants after a forced intervention. "Then we better hope to be released on good behavior, because I know my sister. If we don't play along, do whatever it is she wants us to do, we will be here all night."
He scoffed. "All night? She told me she was going to be up here all weekend."
I grumbled. Unfortunately, Agatha Ardnis Bergen overheard me.
"Drink," she demanded, slamming three shots on the table along with three beers the waitress had carried over. Nolan and I exchanged a glance and slammed the shot chased with beer. My gag reflexes kicked in. Jägermeister. Should have known. She motioned for the waitress to repeat the order.
Over the next few hours, the saloon filled with dozens of patrons and loud music. The treads of my steel-toed boots stuck to the floor and the odor of stale, spilt beer crowded my nostrils.
Several drinks later, my eyes had stopped tracking with my thoughts. The walls were starting to close in on me, the people flowing through the place like a lazy, colorful river. I would have sworn on a stack of Bibles that the two-headed calf had moved. I was convinced at one point that the infamous chair hanging above the door — the chair that Hickok was sitting in when Jack McCall shot him — had begun a wavy noodle dance.
Somewhere through the fog, I recognized Agatha's voice. "I told you, Harvey. It's hard to come here and not be happy."
"I don't feel happy," I said.
Nolan ignored me. "I have to admit, I'm feeling mighty fine."
"And happy?" she cooed.
"I feel sick," I said.
"Hey," the detective grunted. "Stop thinking about it."
His words were slurred, heavy. He pounded another beer. Agatha seemed pleased.
I leaned toward my sister, nearly falling off my chair, and said, "Prince Charming here is not going to like you so much after he starts singing to the porcelain microphone."
"He'll be okay. He'll slow down soon, just like you."
Agatha appeared unaffected by the alcohol, yet she was sucking down as many shots and beers as we were. "You okay?" I asked, not sounding as drunk as Nolan.
Her grin faded. "Not really. Worried about you, Boots."
The suddenness and sincerity of her words sobered me. Enough so that deflection was in order. "Don't call me that. I've grown to dislike that nickname very much."
"Because it reminds you of what you gave up?"
My family had called me Boots since I was a kid. Apparently, they found it hysterical that I tried to walk in my father's steel-toed boots once when he'd come home from work. Of course, it probably didn't help that when I grew up, I was never without my own pair. I'd always worked in the quarries until the FBI convinced me I had a talent in investigations. I might have the talent, but I wasn't sure I had the stomach for them.
I nursed my beer, choosing not to answer.
"It wasn't your fault. You had nothing to do with what happened to Jack," Agatha said.
My throat tightened.
"Who's Jack?" Nolan asked, struggling to track his gaze on either of us.
I ignored him. "How would you know?"
"Who do you think talks with Special Agent Streeter Pierce when he calls every day to see how you're doing?"
A pang of guilt — or something — charged my gut when she mentioned Streeter's name. "No one's holding a gun to your head."
"Somebody has to talk with him. And you won't. Do you at least want to know how your dog's doing?"
"Agatha, stay out of it," I warned. I couldn't help but wonder if Streeter was calling daily just to talk with her, which would break my heart even more than it had already shattered last week. And I really did miss Beulah, my bloodhound. But I knew she was in great hands staying with Streeter.
"Talk to him."
"Can't. Boss won't let me."
"He cares about you. He wanted all of us to know what happened."
Nolan started laughing. A wet, sloppy chortle. "You two even sound like sisters."
"We are," we both said at the exact same time, only Agatha added the word "fool" to the end of her declaration.
I glanced at Agatha and offered a conciliatory grin, a truce of sorts.
She lifted her beer. "To sisters."
"To Barbara," I said.
I rattled her bottle against mine, as did Nolan, although the "fool" had no clue who he was toasting. I drank, thinking of how my older sister Barbara had gotten me through the entire disaster in Ft. Collins last week and coddled me back to sanity in Denver.
My sisters were always there for me.
"The beers are on her tonight. Her idea," Agatha said with a wink.
"I should have known." I was about to protest when the door to the bar swung open with a bang, and the crowd grew quiet. The rotund woman who waddled through the door was a big ball of black swirls moving up a stream of color toward us like a shark through rainbow trout. The woman's head swiveled side to side until she spotted us.
I squeezed my eyes shut as if to wring my soggy mind. Opening them, my gaze settled on a much clearer image of the black smudge, who was actually not a shark, but a sister.
"What is Catherine doing here?" I asked.
Agatha sipped. "Beats me."
"The nun?" Nolan asked.
We didn't answer, watching as she hustled in our direction, her tunic and veil fluttering with every hurried step. I suppressed a grin when I noticed my sister's expression, despite what I thought was my unalterable mood. Catherine exerting herself was a sight to see.
Without saying a word, she arrived at our table, grabbed the bottle from Agatha's hand, and drained the contents. I felt laughter. Somewhere deep inside. And secretly, the joy felt right. But after all the breakdowns this week, I wasn't ready for that yet. Surely it would surface soon, I thought, relegating my half-empty beer to her.
I watched her guzzle until empty.
"The Sister Cat?" Nolan asked.
I didn't know what the hell he was talking about, realizing he'd had way too many shots.
"Another sister," Agatha answered.
"Detective Cutie. No popcorn? Nachos?" Catherine asked, scanning the empty tabletop, barely acknowledging Nolan. Her face was round and fleshy, but I recognized so many of my own features staring back at me.
Agatha and I both shook our heads.
"I can order something for you with our next round of beers."
She hesitated, then shook her head. Her disappointment was obvious. She focused on Agatha's friend.
"It's about time we formally meet. Sister Catherine," she said, extending a pudgy hand in Nolan's direction, her cheeks flushed with exertion. She turned back to us. "It's Father O.C. He's been mugged."CHAPTER 2
FATHER O.C., BILLY O'CONNELL, was the pastor assigned to St. Ambrose Catholic Church in Deadwood and was Catherine's best friend growing up in Rapid City. Catherine had always called him "O.C." even though the other kids at school called him Billy, but I have no earthly idea when she added "Father" to his name. I assumed it must be some kind of papal rule once he became a priest.
I wasn't about to call him Father. That would just be weird. O.C. hung out at the Bergen household often and blended in with all of us kids so well that we almost forgot he wasn't related. He even called our mother "Mom."
"Is he okay?" Agatha asked.
"Don't know. Mom said I could find you here."
"So I was the only one in the world who didn't know you were planning on holding me hostage at the Ten?" I asked, punching Agatha in the arm.
Nolan asked, "Who's O.C.?"
"I was listed as next of kin," Catherine said, scanning the tables next to us. I assumed she was searching for food, a menu, or leftovers, totally oblivious that most of the bar patrons were staring at the way she was dressed — in the traditional black habit and veil.
I couldn't remember how long it had been since I'd seen my sister wearing anything but the traditional Catholic nun garb identifying her as a devotee to prayer. The funny part of all this was that Catherine was unaware of the stares and had confided in me that the real reason she wore the one-size-fits-most habit was that she had grown tired of tight jeans and couldn't afford to buy larger sizes of clothes on her nun's salary.
Excerpted from Jacob's Descent by SANDRA BRANNAN. Copyright © 2016 Sandra Brannan. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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