A fearless female private investigator in the South takes on a satanic cult that practices human sacrifice in this gripping Shamus Award–winning mystery.
Seven years ago Lena Padget’s life exploded when Jeff Hayes, her devil-worshipping brother-in-law, killed her sister and two-year-old nephew. The horrific double-murder hardened the once-gentle Kentucky native and compelled her to leave graduate school in order to help protect abused and endangered women from human monsters.
Now Hayes and his sadistic partner in satanism, Archie Valetta, have been inexplicably released on parole. Lena’s past has returned with a vengeance to haunt her—and to prey on yet another frightened mother and her helpless child. Approached by Valetta’s desperate ex-wife, Eloise, Lena will do everything in her power to prevent history from repeating itself. Otherwise, Eloise’s four-year-old son will be the next innocent victim.
Before Laura Lippman’s Tess Monaghan and Karin Slaughter’s Sara Linton, there was Lena Padget. The winner of the Shamus Award for Best First Private Eye Novel, Satan’s Lambs marked the acclaimed debut of author Lynn Hightower’s tough-as-nails, sexy, and smart female sleuth on a fictional PI scene long dominated by male mystery writers and established Hightower as a force to be reckoned with in crime fiction.
Satan’s Lambs is the 1st book in the Lena Padget Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Hightower’s novels, which have been translated into seven foreign languages, have appeared on the Times (London) bestseller list and have been nominated for the Kentucky Literary Award, the Kentucky Librarians First Choice Award, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award. She teaches at the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where she was named Creative Writing Instructor of the Year in 2012. The author lives with her husband in Kentucky.
Read an Excerpt
A Lena Padget Mystery
By Lynn Hightower
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Lynn Hightower
All rights reserved.
We're poor little lambs
Who've lost our way. ...
We're little black sheep
Who've gone astray.
— "Gentlemen Rankers," Ballads and Barrack Room Ballads, Rudyard Kipling
Lambs could not forgive ... nor worms forget.
— Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens
Lena knew the doorbell was going to ring. Mendez would come. He would tell her in person. She said "Thanks" softly to the woman on the other end of the phone, then hung up and waited.
She sat sideways, legs hanging over the arm of the chair, eating potato chips. Reddish brown crumbs had settled in the fur of the cat who slept in her lap when the doorbell rang.
Lena switched on the porch light and looked through the peephole.
The man on the steps wore a dark suit and tie, his shirt white and spotless despite the lateness of the hour. His hands were clasped in front of him in a steady formality that Lena secretly found endearing. He wore the ring — black stone, gold filigree markings. She had focused on that ring many times when she could not bear to see what was at hand — her sister, sprawled in the driveway, blood pooling across her belly.
The man was dark complected, his eyes brown and gentle. There was a scar on his left temple that disappeared under thick black hair. His face was drawn and tired.
"Sergeant Mendez — Joel, come in."
He touched his mustache, smiled at the use of his first name. Sometimes she thought he liked her.
She was a striking woman, hair dark, coarse, and curly. Her eyes were brown and intense, almost feverish, the lines at the edges small and barely noticeable. She was pale enough that old ladies pinched her cheeks and told her to get a little sun.
Mendez scanned the living room — a roving, questing scrutiny. He had not been in the house for seven years, had not seen it without the ropes of yellow tape warning that the enclosed area was a crime scene.
Lena followed his gaze to the floor. The beige carpet, sporting a trail of bloody footprints, had been pulled up and lodged in a police warehouse. There was a new rug now, slate blue, pleasantly framed by the dark wood floors.
She spent a lot of time in this room now, and she kept it nice. If the rest of the house amounted to closed-off doors and rooms full of dust and memories, if outside the grass was weed choked and high, if chains flapped in the wind where a porch swing had once hung ... at least there was one room that was pleasant.
Mendez walked past the rocking chair and settled on the edge of the couch.
"Get you something to drink?" She said it because it was the thing to say, and because it would irritate him. Polite chitchat was something he endured.
"No. Thanks." Mendez picked up Lena's book and read the back cover.
Lena passed him the bag of chips, knowing full well he didn't like them. Her movements were slow and languid, and she gave the impression of one who does not lift a finger unless absolutely necessary. Mendez took a potato chip and crunched it solemnly, then wiped his hands on his knees.
"He got it, Lena."
"I figured that much when I saw you at the door." Her voice was husky at the best of times. Right now she sounded hoarse. "Good news and you'd have called."
"How'd you find out so fast?"
"Called in a favor."
"A shame it didn't extend to keeping him in jail."
Mendez was silent, and Lena sat down in the chair.
"Six years don't seem like much." She stared at the ceiling. "The baby would be in kindergarten now. And Kevin — he'd be eight. Third grade."
A white paw slid out from under the couch and patted softly at the side of Mendez's black leather shoe.
"I take it my statement didn't make any difference," Lena said.
"He had no priors, Lena. He has character references. He had the head sales manager of Finard's Chevrolet promise him a job as a salesman. He wears a suit and tie like he was born in them. He professes to have a renewed faith in God, and his prison record is exemplary."
"Six years. He gets two twenty-year sentences, and serves six years." She shut her eyes tight, then opened them. "That judge was an ass. That judge should have given him the death penalty."
"You can't get the death penalty for first-degree manslaughter."
"Manslaughter. It wasn't manslaughter. It was womanslaughter. Childslaughter. It was murder, premeditated. He came with a gun. That Prozac business was bullshit. The Prozac made me do it, the devil made me do it —"
"Diminished capacity, Lena. The precedent is solid. The DA did what he could."
"Saved the state some money with a guilty plea."
Mendez leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. "Don't do this, Lena."
"Okay, you don't like that subject, how about this? Jeff's not the only one getting out. Archie Valetta is due out of Eddyville sometime in the next couple of months."
Mendez opened his eyes. "Valetta? How did you find this out?"
"Mice behind the walls, Mendez."
"One of your many informants?"
"They're not informants, Mendez. Not in the sense you mean. We're talking about a woman who's raising her grandchildren and working twelve-hour days doing scrub work at the prison, so let's not class her with the junkies you talk to, okay?"
Mendez sat forward. "Good to see you taking this so well."
Lena rarely smiled, but when she did it made her seem hugely vulnerable. "Quit. Don't make me laugh when I don't want to."
"Don't you ever want to?"
She would not meet his eyes.
"Lena, I don't think you need to worry about Valetta. He was in Eddyville before Jeff killed your sister. He was never part of that."
"He was Jeff's partner."
The white paw shot sideways and batted the cuff of Mendez's pants.
"They're convicted felons, both on parole. Any association, and the parole will be revoked."
"So you say."
Mendez dropped a potato chip in front of the couch. The white paw shot out, cupped the chip, and dragged it out of sight.
Mendez frowned. "Hayes is another matter. He made a lot of threats. He was white hot about the insurance settlement." Mendez met her eyes steadily. "I want to know if he calls, comes around, anything."
"Worrying won't keep Jeff from killing me, Joel. He told Whitney he'd kill her; he did it. He'll come after me if he wants to."
"You think a restraining order will stop the bullets?"
"It's foolish not to accept help."
"What's foolish is depending on it."
He glanced at her left hand. "Are you living alone?"
"I'm not married anymore. Rick didn't want to come live here. He thought it would be bad for me."
"He was right."
"Funny, I don't remember asking him or you for an opinion."
"You shouldn't stay here wallowing in memories."
"God, Mendez, you make me sound like some kind of mournful Pig."
"What's your interest in Valetta?" Mendez waited. She was capable of great stillness.
Lena swung her legs over the side of the chair. "They made me look stupid, didn't they? They dug into all that old stuff."
"The parole board. They got into the case files and made me look dumb."
"The subject matter makes anybody look bad, until the consequences become overwhelming. I told you that when you and your sister were in my office, that first day."
Lena closed her eyes, and she was back in Mendez's office, smelling stale cigarettes and scorched coffee. She could see the sun slanting in through white venetian blinds, making precise horizontal rows of light on the tile floor. Mendez had met her eyes steadily, hands flat on his desk. It was the image she remembered most, except for the bad ones.
"I told Whitney not to go in telling all that Satan stuff. She wouldn't listen, she said somebody better know what's going on. And it was all true. She never said he had power, or he sicced the devil on her. She just said he —"
"I know, Lena."
She nodded. She had always wondered what would have happened if Mendez hadn't been there — the only cop with any experience of occult crime, the only cop who had heard the ring of truth in Whitney's complaints.
My husband is a Satan worshiper, officer, and he supplies drugs and dirty pictures to other Satan worshipers, and I think he maybe had something to do with a child that was missing. And he hits me, and my son, and claims the boy isn't even his, which I assure you is patently untrue. I'm divorcing him, but he's sending me seashells, and that means he's going to kill me.
Maybe, the cop had said, he just wants to take you to the beach.
You don't understand.
Lady, we can't put a guy in jail for sending you a seashell.
And then Mendez was there, standing silently by the officer's elbow, casting a shadow across the desk. Let me talk to them, he'd said. And Whitney had been so grateful. Grateful, though the restraining order didn't keep Jeff from breaking in during the middle of the night. Didn't keep him from nearly running her down with his new Chevrolet, dealer tags on the back. Didn't keep the new puppy from winding up dead on the doorstep.
Lena looked at Joel.
"You told me you were involved in a lot of this stuff down in Miami. Occult crime. Some of the guys called you the ghostbuster."
Lena reached into the drawer of the side table. It was crammed full of small tools, pencils, pads of paper, sales flyers. She took out a white cardboard box. Inside, on a square of cotton, was a gray seashell, white on the belly. The shell was rough, unpolished, crumbs of sand spilling out.
"I got this in the mail. Remember? Jeff used to send these to Whitney. It always upset her when she got them."
Mendez looked at the shell. He put the box in his jacket pocket and leaned forward, pressing his hands on Lena's knees. "Jeffrey Hayes has no special power. No magic, no forces of evil, other than what comes from within. You understand that, don't you?"
"I'm talking about in the middle of the night, when you hear a funny noise. When you hear that noise, do you believe that Hayes has the powers of Satan?"
Mendez pulled back and smiled at her. "Good."
"Joel, why did you leave Miami?"
"What's your interest in Archie Valetta? Are you representing a client?"
"You never heard of client confidentiality?"
"You're a private investigator, not a priest."
They stared at each other.
"I'll let myself out." Mendez tapped her shoulder. "Be sure to lock up behind me."
"Leaving already? I haven't finished giving you a hard time."
He gave her one of his sad smiles, but she wasn't buying. No sympathy.
"Don't go buying any cars down at Finard's."
Mendez looked at her. "Cops can't afford new cars."CHAPTER 2
Eloise Valetta nudged the worn down nap of the carpet with the toe of her terry-cloth house shoe. The warm, sweet smell of baking was strong.
"I 'predate you coming over — I got a cake going. I take orders, you know, weddings and all."
She was growing out a perm, and thick black hair fell in limp wiggles to her shoulders. She wore navy blue polyester pants, snagged and frayed across her wide, loose backside. Her nose was big and crooked. Lena wondered how many times it had been broken. There were wide white scars on the inside of her right arm and across both wrists. Large red weals spotted her arms, neck, and face.
"I heard, at the shelter I think, how you quit school and some job you had, and started taking these cases, you know, where women need help. Some of the girls down there call you the equalizer. Like the TV show."
Lena smiled. Ph.D. candidate to woman's equalizer. It would make for an interesting résumé.
Eloise chewed her lip. "I wasn't sure if you'd help me. Because of how I used to be married to Archie, and him working with Hayes. But then I figured, you more than anybody would know how serious it is to cross these boys."
"And I didn't figure you had any love lost on Archie. You might not mind getting back at him some."
"At least Hayes is locked up."
"Not anymore. He just got parole."
"But how can that be? He got forty years!"
"He got two twenty-year terms, to run concurrently."
"That's both at the same time. He's served twenty percent of his sentence. He's out."
"After what he did to your sister and her little boy, that was so awful. And her being pregnant." Eloise shook her head. "I remember reading about it. He ought to have got the death penalty."
"Wasn't possible," Lena said. "He had a solid out on diminished capacity. He was taking Prozac — that's an antidepressant. Prescription drug with known side effects."
"Like making a man kill his wife and little boy?"
Lena shrugged. "Says so in the warning on the side of the bottle."
"Oh, now. Are you kidding me?"
"Maybe what I need is some Prozac. Seems like you can get away with anything in Kentucky except killing a white man or stealing his money."
"That's two of the big three."
"What's the other one?"
"Marijuana. Grow it or smoke it and they throw away the key."
Lena felt an ache in the small of her back. "Do you mind if I sit down?"
"Gosh, no. I got to check my cake and see if Charlie's okay. I'll be right back."
The couch was dark green vinyl. Three Matchbox cars — a tiny dump truck, a police cycle, and a Thunderbird — were on the far right cushion. A TV Guide was open beside them. The television was going in the apartment next door.
"Now, Aint Bea," a male voice said in an irritated tone. A woman's voice rose and fell, followed by a ripple of laughter.
Lena heard the oven door open and close, and she went to the edge of the kitchen. A portable black radio was turned low, a male voice sputtering in barely audible tones. It was small room, warm and humid, the table and counters covered with bowls, spoons, cake pans. Batter dripped from a mixing bowl onto the edge of the sink. Two pans of sheet cake had been set on the table to cool, cushioned by worn plaid dishrags.
A small boy sat up on his knees at the table.
"Charlie, you watch them pans."
The boy nodded and stared at Lena. Eloise turned around.
"Sorry, I didn't mean to leave you in there so long. Just let me —"
"Go on and finish," Lena said. "I'll sit down and talk to you while you work. I'd like to see somebody make a cake that isn't lopsided."
"You want some coffee?"
"Wait till you get a free hand."
"That's my boy there, that's Charlie. Charlie, say hi."
Charlie ducked his head.
"Charlie, say hi."
He was tearing strips off magazines and gluing them to a sheet of newspaper. Lena watched for a while and saw the hint of a pattern. Charlie looked up at her.
"Looks good," Lena said.
Charlie smiled briefly. He wore a Batman T-shirt and a thick diaper. He looked too old for the diaper, and too young for the precision of his work.
"How old are you?"
Charlie held up four fingers.
"Almost five," Eloise said, not turning around.
"Do you want to talk in front of Charlie?" Lena asked.
"He always stays with me in the kitchen when I bake. It's sort of our routine — since he was a baby. It'll be okay."
Charlie sucked his bottom lip and tried to reposition a strip of paper. He peeled it back up, but a layer stuck to the glue. He scraped at it with his fingernail.
"On the phone you said Archie was going to —"
"K-I-L-L me. I meant it, too."
"What makes you so sure?"
"You know why he went to prison?"
Lena nodded. The year before Jeff had killed Whitney, Archie had robbed a savings and loan. He'd gotten away with three hundred thousand, give or take some change.
"He gave the m-o-n-e-y to me to h-i-d-e."
"But I thought — isn't that how he got plea-bargained down? He turned in his share, pleaded guilty, and testified against the guy with him. The security guard was killed, wasn't she?"
Eloise nodded. "The money Archie turned in was the other guy's. He had his stashed away with me."
"How come he had you hide it?" Lena said. That much cash, and the woman hadn't spent it? Lena looked around. It didn't look like she'd spent it. Lena cocked her head sideways and looked at Eloise. "Why didn't he hide it himself?"
"Thought he'd make bail, but he didn't."
"Why didn't the other guy — what was his name, Nesbit?"
"Yeah. George Nesbit. The shooter. He did tell, but nobody believed him. And he couldn't say where Archie's money was. So." Eloise shrugged. "I hid it. Back then, when Archie said do something, I did it." She turned around and pressed her back to the sink. "I'm not like that anymore. I used to drink, and I was snockered most of the time. But when I got caught with Charlie here ..." The boy looked up and she smiled at him. "I don't know, it was like getting religion or something. I quit drinking — haven't had anything in almost six years. Maybe seeing what happened to your sister, or having a baby on the way. I don't know. But I got my GED" — Eloise smiled broadly — "and next fall I'll be taking classes at the community college."
"Give Archie his money, then, and get rid of him."
"That's the trouble. I went to check on it — I started worrying, you know how you do? And it was gone."
"Shi —" Lena glanced at Charlie. "Shoot." She rubbed her eyes. "When was the last time, before now, that you checked it?"
Excerpted from Satan's Lambs by Lynn Hightower. Copyright © 1993 Lynn Hightower. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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