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Krista Landingham, my training officer when I was a rookie, a boot, on the Santa Barbara Police Department seventeen years ago. The woman who taught me how to be a cop. How to walk the edge and not fall off.
I slumped back in my bed, stunned. The message on my voicemail was from her younger sister, Leah. She stammered when she said Krista's name. Her voice laden with emotion. She gave no explanation of how Krista died, just that the funeral was tomorrow at Trinity Episcopal Church in Santa Barbara at three p.m. Had she died on the job? An accident? From a long-standing illness? I didn't know because I hadn't talked to Krista in thirteen years.
I had thought about Krista every so often, but never tried to contact her. She was in the past. She was Santa Barbara, and I didn't want to go back there in my body or my mind. Ever. I wanted to find out how she died, but didn't want to call her sister. She'd sounded crushed on the voicemail message. I didn't want to make her relive today what she'd have to relive tomorrow at the funeral. And forever.
The short window until the funeral didn't give me much time to think things over. The drive from San Diego to Santa Barbara took about three and a half hours, plus or minus, depending upon the traffic and what time I left. I had a process server gig the next morning. If I got it done by ten a.m., I could make the funeral with time to spare.
If I decided to go.
Midnight, my black Lab, shifted his position at the foot of the bed to catch my attention. He still hadn't gotten used to my new routine. Or lack thereof. I had. Too easily. I got out of bed and Midnight snapped to attention, then pranced in place. Breakfast, finally.
I put on the same pair of shorts I'd worn yesterday, then grabbed my last clean t-shirt from the dresser. Midnight had already dashed from my bedroom and clattered down the staircase. I grabbed my phone and thumped down after him.
I fed Midnight and let him outside, then sat at my kitchen table and Googled Krista Landingham on my phone. A four-day-old article in the Santa Barbara Independent. Krista had been killed in a hit-and-run car accident on State Street, the main drag in downtown Santa Barbara. The driver and the car hadn't been identified. She'd been alone when she was killed at 2:17 a.m. on Monday morning, April 1st. Santa Barbara Police Department would not release the name of the lone witness to the accident.
Two seventeen on a Monday morning on State Street. Odd time to be out alone. My recollection of the bars downtown was that the latest closed at 2:00 a.m. Earlier on a Sunday night in early spring. I'm sure the SBPD detectives were all over it. Krista was one of their own. They'd solve this case, no matter how long it took. The investigation of a cop's death never went cold.
Krista had just turned forty-six on Saturday. Too young for someone I remembered as being so vital. Her mom, dad, brother, and sister, were listed as surviving family. Along with Tom Weaver, her ex-husband. Ex? I wondered when they got divorced. She'd been married, unhappily, when I knew her.
Krista had been on the job for twenty-five years and died with the rank of sergeant, having recently been promoted to the Major Investigation Unit. According to the paper, the unit, known as MIU, was created in 2012 and investigated all high-profile cases.
Killed crossing the street. Alone. Nothing heroic or romantic about that. Just sad. We'd been family once. The brother and sisterhood of blue. Closer than family, really. I should be there when she was put into the ground. But I'd have to walk the gauntlet of accusing eyes from the cops I once worked with and called friends. I was forever the cop who tainted the badge and the department's good name.
The cop who got away with murdering his wife.
My brothers in blue hadn't believed I was innocent back then. Why would they now?
Krista had been family, but we hadn't talked or had any contact in thirteen years. The familial tie broke soon after my connection with SBPD did.
Still, Krista was once a big part of my life. Going to her funeral would be the right thing to do. I'd spent every day of my life since my wife died trying to do the right thing. At least, my version of it. Not always the law's. Things sometimes turned out wrong. People died on my watch while I thought I was doing the right thing.
I wasn't sure what was right anymore.
I'd stay away from Santa Barbara and the pent-up scorn of people who once had my back. Let those gathered mourn in peace and not have my presence force them to battle rage and hatred through their grief. Maybe that was the right thing to do. Be a coward and let Krista's body return to the earth without paying my respects.
To the woman I slept with the night my wife was murdered.CHAPTER 2
Midnight barked from the backyard, then someone knocked on my front door. Hard. I looked at the time on my phone, 8:21 a.m. Once late for me to start my day, but always early for someone to knock on the door uninvited.
I grabbed a Smith & Wesson .357 Magnum off the top shelf of the hall closet and sidled up to the front door, gun arm bent at the elbow. I snuck a peek through the peephole from the side, then lowered the gun.
"Shit," I whispered to myself.
Another knock. Harder.
I opened the door.
Moira MacFarlane stood in the doorway with her hands on her hips. Five foot nothing, a hundred pounds, her presence took up more space than an All-Pro left tackle.
"Most people call before they drop by." I stared down at her.
"Cork it, Cahill. I've lost count of the number of times I've called you over the last few months." Her ice in a blender voice at full rattle. "But I know the exact number of times you've returned my calls. Zero."
"I've been busy."
"Doing what?" She glanced at the gun in my hand, then pointed her brown eyes back at me. "Indoor target practice?"
She ran a hand along my cheek. "Growing a beard?"
"Maybe." Not really. I couldn't remember the last time I shaved. Or even looked in a mirror.
She pushed past me without invitation. Midnight spotted her through the sliding glass door in the living room and started barking again. Happy yelps. Moira went over and let him in. She knelt down and hugged him and he licked her face.
Moira surveyed the living room. Pizza and to-go boxes and beer bottles soiled the coffee table. And an end table. I looked at them, too. Actually, seeing them for the first time in too long. They'd become background wallpaper that I no longer noticed. The detritus of my new life.
"I thought you liked to cook."
"I do." But cooking required planning and cleaning the dishes. There were already plenty of dishes in the sink along with dirty pots and pans.
Moira shook her head and walked into the kitchen. She sat down at the table strewn with a week's worth of newspapers and a couple used cereal bowls.
"Jeez, Rick." She squished up her eyes and mouth. "You were never a neat freak, but you weren't a slob. This is worse than my son's apartment at San Luis Obispo. He's twenty-two. What's your excuse?"
I didn't have an excuse. I just knew that if I didn't change my life, it wouldn't last very long. Like too many people who came in contact with me. Letting things slide around the house was the best I could come up with so far.
"I'm guessing you had another reason besides playing my mother to come over here." I sat down at the end of the table.
"You're still an asshole. At least that hasn't changed."
"Thank you. The reason you're here?"
"I have a job I need help with." She pulled a manila folder out of her shoulder bag and tossed it in front of me. It landed on the sports page. From five days ago.
"Not interested." I tossed the folder back in front of her. Not sure of the date of the sports page it landed on. "Thanks, anyway."
"You didn't even look at it." She opened the folder and set down a photograph of an overweight middle-aged white guy in front of me. "Infidelity case. Your specialty. All you have to do is help me tail this guy. No contact. No guns. Nobody gets hurt."
We hadn't talked in six months. First, she avoided my calls, then after I'd stopped for a while, she started calling me, and I didn't answer. But she'd only needed one look at me and my house to figure everything out. More proof of what I'd always thought. She was the best PI in San Diego. And she could find plenty investigators other than me who'd be happy to help her on a case.
"I don't need the work and it's not what I do anymore." At least half of it was true. I tossed the photo back to her.
"Bullshit, Rick." She stood up and was about as tall as I was sitting down. "You can't get enough process server gigs or workers' comp fraud cases a month to make a living." She panoramaed an arm around the kitchen. "If you call this living."
She was right about my shrunken private investigator resume. I'd already broken into my savings to pay off credit cards. But I wasn't going back. I'd pick up wait shifts at Muldoon's Steak House before I took money to try to help people with real problems again.
Nobody died when you spied on people cheating the man. Or handed an envelope to an unsuspecting citizen and told them they'd been served. A thirty-second encounter and then you moved onto the next one. No entanglements. No feelings. No worrying about doing the right thing.
"I'm doing fine." I stood up. "Thanks for coming."
"No you're not. You're a mess." Moira slowly shook her head. "You need to get back on the horse. You're a good investigator. A good man. Some things are just out of our control. You can't blame yourself for every bad thing that happens."
"Just the things under my control," I whispered to myself. I walked through the cased opening into the living room and swept my arm toward the front door. "Thanks for dropping by. Let's have lunch some time."
Moira slammed her chair into the table and brushed by me, her shoulder bag sideswiping my stomach. She threw open the front door but turned to face me instead of leaving. The morning sun backlit her tiny body into silhouette, stretching her shadow long into the foyer. She took a couple deep breaths and relaxed her shoulders.
"I should have answered the phone when you called me last year." The edge in her voice smoothed off the gravel into pebbles. "I had to figure things out after you pulled me into your damage. You put me in a bad position, but I've forgiven you. I know you were trying to help me in your broken way. I didn't realize that you needed me as much as I needed to stay away from you. That was my mistake. I've tried to make up for it and help you, but you won't let me." Her big brown eyes held a cavern of pain. "I don't think I can try anymore."
She stepped outside and closed the door, pulling her shadow along with her.CHAPTER 3
The woman's name I'd been given papers for at the process serving agency the next morning was Irene Faye. She was a cashier at a Vons in Pacific Beach. I sometimes shopped there and recognized her in the photo the agency showed me when they gave me the sealed document. A bit younger than me, late thirties. Red hair was always pulled back into a bun. Freckles across a button nose and bright green eyes. A big smile ever present on her face. Beautiful in an unconventional way.
All things being equal, I always chose her checkout line. Today would be the last time I did that. The last time I'd shop at that Vons. I considered not taking the job when I saw her picture. But I needed the seventy-five bucks, and if I didn't take the gig someone else would. Irene Faye was going to be served papers she didn't want, one way or another. I chose to be the one way so I pushed aside the warm feelings I had for her and took the job. If I gave up process server work, I'd never get close to making my monthly nut. I had a dog who needed feeding and a backyard to explore.
A middle-aged woman checked out in front of me in Irene Faye's line. She had a full cart. The kind of grocery shopping you did when you had a family to feed at home. The kind of shopping I thought I'd be doing by now. Getting enough groceries for a wife and two, maybe three, kids. That had been my path fourteen years ago. Before Colleen was murdered.
I've never filled an entire grocery cart up in my life. Today I had a hand basket with a couple of apples and bananas in it. And those were just props.
The woman ahead finally finished and loaded canvas bags of food into her cart. She paid with a check. I unloaded the fruit onto the conveyor belt. Irene Faye gave me a quick smile as the check bobbed up and down in her cash register. A rock turned over in my gut. I didn't know what document was in the sealed envelope in the pocket of my sweatshirt. I never knew. I didn't want to know. But it was never good news. Good news didn't arrive via a stranger verifying your identity and shoving a sealed envelope at you.
The woman with the full grocery cart and a family at home finally cleared the cash register. Irene Faye pulled my apples onto the scale.
"Good to see you." Huge freckle-faced smile. "Did you find everything you needed?"
"Yes." I couldn't force a smile. "Thanks."
The woman with the cart turned out of the aisle. One of her canvas bags shifted and a carton of eggs splashed down onto the floor.
"Clean up at register five," Irene said into her PA system. "Ma'am, I'll have the bag boy grab you another carton of eggs."
She pulled my bananas onto the scale.
"Don't," I said quietly and reached across and put my hand on top of hers. I'd do my job, but the props now felt like insult on top of injury. I grabbed the envelope out my sweatshirt pocket and handed it to her. "Irene Faye?"
"Yes?" She smiled, cocked her head, and hesitantly took the envelope. The rock in my belly grew into a boulder.
"You've been served."
"What?" Her eyebrows pinched up and she stared at me. "What is this?"
I looked for an exit, but the woman with the cart ahead blocked the way.
"I don't know. I'm sorry." I tried to step around the woman just as a bag boy arrived with a mop. He picked up the upside-down egg carton and it opened disgorging all its eggs.
"Oh my God!" Irene Faye shrieked and dropped the papers I'd served her.
I steered the bag boy out of the way and rushed toward the exit, slipped on goo, and almost went down. I bolted outside and made it to my car. Seventy-five bucks wasn't worth seeing the checker's face and hearing her shriek. Not someone I knew. Strangers were bad enough. I leaned back against the headrest and closed my eyes.
Somebody pounded on my window. I jerked my head and opened my eyes. Irene Faye stared at me through the window. Tears streaming down her face. I lowered the window.
"How could you do that to me?" Her face contorted in sadness and pain. "I thought you liked me."
"I do. It's just a job. I'm sorry. I don't even know what's in the envelope." I was embarrassed even as the words left my mouth.
"He's trying to take my children away from me. How can you help a man like that?"
"I don't know him. I just get paid to deliver envelopes."
"But you know me. How could you do that? What kind of a man are you?" She spun and ran across the parking lot, stopping at a sub-millennial Toyota Rav 4. She fumbled with her keys, finally got the door open, jumped inside, peeled out, and drove away. To her kids, a lawyer, or maybe just someplace else.
Irene Faye was a real person. Not a bit player in a life I was trying to ignore. And I'd just caused her pain. I knew I was only a conduit for the ruin coming her way. If not me, someone else would have served the will of her ex stamped with the authority of a municipal court. Irene Faye couldn't avoid the chin music life just threw at her. But I didn't have to be the baseball.
I was a private investigator. All actions I took had repercussions. On the innocent, the guilty, and me. I'd done things that would have put me behind bars if I'd been caught. All in a quest for the truth. Doing what I determined to be right without consideration of man's laws. Or God's. What scared me most was that breaking those laws bothered me less and less. The only way I could see to stop taking the law into my own hands would be to find a new line of work.
Irene Faye left before I could answer her question. What kind of a man was I? It had been rhetorical, but I had an answer. One I finally realized I couldn't live with anymore.
Krista Landingham was being put to rest in Santa Barbara today. I couldn't lie to myself anymore that it didn't matter whether or not I was there to say goodbye.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Lost Tomorrows"
Copyright © 2019 (Matt Coyle).
Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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