“O’Brien once again mixes humor, layered characters, a bit of romance, and social issues into a seamless, riveting book.” – Sherry Harris, Agatha Award-Nominated Author of All Murders Final!
“O’Brien has written one of the most warm-hearted yet realistic cozies I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.” – Mystery Scene Magazine (on Finding Sky)
“This breezy second outing features an enchanting amateur sleuth with dear friends and family who have her back at all times. If only she can make this PI business work and keep her relationship with Dean on an even keel, her life will be perfect.” – Library Journal (on Sky High)
“A captivating tale of murder, abuse, betrayal, and refreshing redemption. Five stars plus!” – Tracy Weber, Author of the Award-Winning Downward Dog Mystery Series (on Sky High)
Life is finally settling down for private investigator Nicki Valentine, her kids, and her boyfriend Dean. But when a jailed mom seeks help for her endangered biological daughter, who just “aged out” of foster care, Nicki can’t say no.
With Dean by her side and her free-wheeling BFF eager to investigate too, Nicki braves back alleys, drug dens, and the strip-club scene, all while wondering if any risk is too great when it comes to finding a teen in trouble.
As if navigating the mean streets of King County, Virginia, isn’t enough, Nicki also faces the realities of dating as a single mom, including “sleepover” requests she never anticipated. Ultimately—in both relationships and work—Nicki must decide, “How much am I willing to risk for love?”
Related subjects include: women sleuths, private investigators, cozy mysteries, murder mysteries.
Books in the Nicki Valentine Humorous Mystery Series:
- FINDING SKY (#1)
- SKY HIGH (#2)
- SKYDIVE (#3)
Part of the Henery Press Mystery Series Collection, if you like one, you'll probably like them all...
Susan O’Brien has been passionate about reading and writing since childhood, when she started a neighborhood newspaper and escaped tween stress with mysteries. Since covering her first big story (the birth of gerbils next door), she has worked with USA TODAY, PI Magazine, The Parent Institute and others. Her debut mystery, Finding Sky, was an Agatha Award nominee for Best First Novel. Among her diverse interests are photography, gardening, loud R&B music, healing prayer and reality TV. She lives with her husband and children in the D.C. suburbs and donates part of her earnings to missing children’s organizations.
Read an Excerpt
The letter from jail shouldn't have worried me the way it did. First of all, it was sent to my Sky Investigations P.O. box, not the home I shared with my precious kids. Also, the sender was incarcerated — basically the definition of "not an immediate risk to society." Third, I was dating someone who resembled a superhero, although I didn't want him to rescue me from anything. Except maybe single parenting. And abstinence.
Yet the King County Detention Center stamp on the plain white envelope made me nervous, and the sender's name, Corey Burke, didn't ring a bell. I held the letter lightly, as if touching it could expose me to whatever was inside. I'd helped to put away some violent offenders, and I didn't particularly want to hear from them, although sometimes I wondered how (and where) they were.
Surely the jail screens outgoing mail, I told myself. Just open it.
I glanced around the post office lobby, which was busy at noon on a bright spring day. With the remaining mail under my arm, I slid my index finger under the envelope's seal and released the flap, exposing a folded sheet of paper. Dark script showed through, its indentations suggesting a determined, feminine hand.
Dear Ms. Valentine,
I read about you in the news last year before I got locked up. I thought if I ever needed a private investigator, I'd pick you. Please hear me out and give me a chance.
I take full responsibility for my mistakes, which I'm sure you can look up somewhere. But what you won't see is what happened to my daughter, Kat. She's why I desperately need your help.
She's eighteen, and she aged out of foster care about a month ago, which means she has nobody. It's my fault she was in the system. Because of me, she's being threatened by people I associated with during my worst times. It's killing me that something might happen to her because of my past.
Can you come and talk to me in person? I'll do anything to help my baby girl. I know you understand. You're on my visitor list, so please come when you can. Thank you.
I folded the letter and returned it to its envelope, barely aware of customers bustling around me as I stood immobile, lost in thought. Business had been good for Sky Investigations, and I'd settled into a routine of doing background checks, greeting Jack and Sophie after school, hosting my boyfriend Dean for dinner, and spending private time with him after the kids' bedtime ... and sometimes after mine. Opening bills had become less stressful, and I had most of my priorities straight. Emphasis on most. I'd always wanted to help victims, but I wasn't doing much of it. Choosing predictability over risk was understandable, especially with young kids, but it wasn't necessarily excusable.
I needed to go home and research Corey Burke. Her letter sounded genuine, and I couldn't discard it, literally or emotionally.
Maybe it was time to step out of my comfort zone again, as long as I didn't go too far.
The house was empty and relatively neat when I arrived. After a year of dating Dean, I'd transformed from a housekeeping procrastinator to a housekeeping boss, meaning I'd hired a maid. Still, she only came every other week, and cleaning up after everyday messes didn't come easily to me. I was determined though, so I slid my sneakers under a bench in the foyer, set my purse nearby, and took the mail straight to my office, sorting it on the way.
All of it went into recycling except Corey's letter, which I set next to my most important investigative tool, a powerful desktop with two monitors. It only took seconds to access Corey's criminal history, although I wasn't sure it was complete. One of my pet peeves was PIs who sold "complete" national background checks based on limited information — without fingerprints and government help. No collection of PI databases equaled sending prints and personal details through government channels, and only certain situations permitted that. A request like Corey's wasn't one of them.
I could, however, verify that she was forty-five years old and doing time for heroin possession, petit larceny, and prostitution. That combination was more sad than surprising. It made unfortunate sense that one act related to another. Corey had been in jail for several months, and she had nine more to go. I couldn't imagine being in her or Kat's shoes.
Home? I texted Kenna, my longtime best friend and next-door neighbor. She'd recently taken the required sixty-hour class to become a PI, which she'd crammed into one week, thanks to babysitting support from her friends and family. It wasn't ideal, and she didn't have the additional training I'd finished to manage a PI firm, but there was no one I trusted more. She wanted to pitch in with Sky Investigations (and get a break from parenting), provided the work was adventurous — and provided I reciprocate by joining her health club.
Kenna was an outgoing, daredevil fitness instructor, and I was a recovering worrywart who preferred sweating in private or, better yet, not at all. She was sure we'd balance each other out, just the way we did in everyday life.
My PI firm was named after her two-year-old, Sky, since my first investigation had helped with her adoption. It was also a tribute to my late father's career as a pilot.
Yep, Kenna replied. Sky's down for her nap. What's up?
Not wanting to text details or wake Sky with a call, I asked Kenna to call my landline. Few things were worse than accidentally disrupting a sleeping child, not for the child's sake, but for the parents' sanity.
"Hey," I answered when the phone rang. "I've got a case that might interest you."
"Ooh. Do tell."
I read Corey's letter aloud, omitting identifying information, and waited for Kenna's response.
"You know how I feel about jail," she said.
"You've always wanted to go?"
"Exactly. It fascinates me. So if you take this case, I'm in. But I mean in. Like you have to take me to all the fun stuff. And remember, you'd have to start working out."
"Define that," I said. "Carefully."
"As long as you're still on the pole, you only have to take two classes a week." By "on the pole," she meant just that. Pole dancing. About a year earlier, she'd installed a pole in my basement and given me private lessons. Talk about stepping out of my comfort zone.
"Any classes I pick?"
"Sure, as long as they get your heart rate up as much as Dean does."
"Ha. That's a tall order, but okay. So you're in?"
"I am. How much do you pay? And do you offer childcare?"
She was joking, but I hadn't thought much about those issues, and I doubted Corey could afford my regular fees. Nevertheless, if Kenna agreed to help, I'd pay her the going rate, which was more than she made as a fitness instructor.
"Honestly, we need to talk to this woman and see what we think. I'll throw in takeout from Andy's favorite restaurant if he babysits." Andy was Kenna's husband, and he'd be disappointed in this development. In his eyes, she was already too much of a risk taker, and he didn't love how much time she and I spent together, especially on the phone.
"Visiting jail is reward enough for me, but dinner for Andy is smart, just to be safe."
I checked the jail visiting hours online and saw we could be there at seven. Kenna would have to get on Corey's visitor list, but I could probably swing that. The bigger challenge — finding someone to watch Jack and Sophie at the last minute — reminded me of why I'd settled into predictable PI work. I could ask Dean for help, since he was coming over anyway, but it would break new ground in our relationship. Hopefully it wouldn't break anything else.
"How's six thirty tonight?" I asked, almost hoping she was busy.
"Great. Andy's working from home."
"Okay, then if Dean can hang out with the kids, we're going to jail."
She let out a whoop that threatened to wake Sky.
"I'm warning you, Kenna. I only want to see jail as a visitor. So don't do anything crazy while we're there."
"Funny," she said. "But trust me. Corey will have two calm PIs there to help. I'll be on my best behavior."
Her best behavior could be similar to my worst, but that's partly why I loved her — and why I hoped we'd make a good team.
Dean arrived early for dinner, thrilling eight-year-old Jack and six-year- old Sophie. His blond hair was windblown from driving a convertible, and his aquamarine eyes were highlighted by the black, fitted polo he wore to teach PI classes.
"Dean!" the kids screamed, warming my heart. At first, they'd gotten to know him as my colleague, not my boyfriend. But as our relationship developed, I'd surprised myself by wanting to spend time as a group. I needed to see how Dean handled one of life's greatest challenges: a defiant child. To his credit, he was a calming presence without being a pushover.
"What did you whip up for dinner?" he asked after hugs were exchanged.
"Lasagna, Italian bread, salad, and an unexpected plan," I said.
"Oh really? What's that?" His eyes sparkled with anticipation.
I passed him Corey's letter and watched him take it in.
"You should do this," he said. "You've been planning to branch out. It might not pay much, if anything, but it could be great experience, and you've been wanting to do something charitable."
He was right. I wanted to donate time to a good cause, but nothing felt right yet.
"Visiting hours are limited," I said. "And we could go tonight."
"Sorry. I mean Kenna and I could go. She wants to help."
"Something's finally exciting enough for her? Wow. Who'd watch the kids?"
Normally, I called my mom, Kenna, or another friend, so Dean had no clue what was coming.
"Well, I was thinking ..." His eyes widened, hopefully not in fear. "There's no one they'd rather see than you."
"Really? I was looking forward to hanging out with you, but this is good. It means a lot."
He hugged me tightly, and that said everything. Almost.
"They've already taken their baths," I said. "And I have a movie picked out in case you need it. Oh, and can you help Jack with his math homework? We haven't gotten to it yet. And Sophie will want to read you her favorite book. Is that okay?"
Other things came to mind, but I knew Dean could handle them. I'd just have to make him a list.
Welcome to my life, I thought, meaning it more than ever.
Because the weather was beautiful, and because I wanted Dean to keep my minivan and booster seats in case of emergency, we took Kenna's red Solara to jail with the top down. As usual, her wavy blond hair, fair complexion, and classic Taylor Swift looks got plenty of stares.
"Don't get used to this," I said as we pulled into the lot. "Normally a convertible is the last thing you can drive on the job."
My nondescript silver van with tinted windows, on the other hand, was ideal. Few people expect a petite, worn-out mom in a wrinkled t-shirt, leggings, and a ponytail to watch their every move (unless they're kids, of course — then they're totally onto me).
"At least I've got Sky's car seat," Kenna said. True. Car seats were a good cover.
We secured the soft top, stowed our purses in the trunk, and kept our IDs handy.
After making our way through metal detectors, a cursory body search, and a long line of visitors (all of which enthralled Kenna), we entered a visiting room with small cubicles that separated inmates and visitors with safety glass.
A guard led us to a pale, thin, blond woman whose age I would have pegged at fifty if I hadn't known better. She sat on one side of the glass barrier, and we took stools on the other. An intercom would allow us to hear each other.
"Corey?" I said. "Hi. I'm Nicki, and this is my colleague, Kenna. Thank you so much for writing to me."
"Oh my God. Thank you for coming so soon," she said. "I don't know how much more I can take."
"I'm sorry. I know you've been through a lot, and nothing is harder than worrying about a child. Tell us what's going on, and hopefully we can help," I said.
"I don't want to give you a sob story, but I'll start at the beginning if that's okay."
"It's the best place to start," I said, mindful that while visits were limited to thirty minutes, we needed as many details as possible.
Through tears, Corey explained that she'd worked as a waitress, trying to raise Kat, which was short for Katherine, without much help from the girl's absentee father, who was in prison himself. She held up a faded middle-school photo of her blond-haired, blue-eyed daughter, who was wearing a Harry Potter t-shirt, braids, and an open smile. Kenna and I were genuinely struck by Kat's adorableness and didn't hold back when saying so. Corey smiled and nodded but seemed understandably saddened by the visual reminder of her precious child.
"Things were so hard," she said. "I got desperate and used pills to help me relax, and when I couldn't afford them anymore, I switched to heroin. That just made me work harder, because I needed so much. Eventually I had to sell myself to afford it. God, I hate to admit it, but I got involved with the wrong people, you know, dealers and pimps, and I owed everyone. I'd do almost anything to chase that high. It's awful, but I stopped caring about anything else."
"What happened to Kat during that time?" I asked gently.
"She did a lot of fending for herself. I don't know how she survived." Corey looked away and bit her lip, which had started to quiver. I couldn't imagine the sea of emotions swirling beneath her words. "She got taken away. Foster care, like I said in my letter." She met our eyes and then covered hers. "I'm so embarrassed. She was fifteen."
I glanced at Kenna, who was visibly moved and unusually quiet.
"Have you been able to stay in touch with her?"
Her breath shuddered as she shook her head no. It was hard to be separated by a wall, unable to consider reaching out with a comforting touch. At the same time, I hurt even more for her daughter.
"What has it been like for you here?" I asked.
Corey sniffed and gathered herself. "Detoxing was the worst thing I've ever been through, other than losing Kat. I don't ever want to do it again. I'm on the other side of it now, and I can't go back. I just want to save my baby."
"Corey, when someone ages out of foster care, what happens? Are they expected to live on their own?"
"I don't know. I don't know where Kat is. I'd be worried no matter what, but I owe people. Bad people." She wiped her eyes. "If I don't take care of things, they're going to make sure she ends up like me."
"Like you how?"
"I don't know. Make her work the streets. Pay my debts."
"Oh no," Kenna murmured beside me.
"What kind of debts?" I asked.
"Thousands. Way more than I have. Did you read about my convictions?"
"Yes, but I don't know all the details."
"I got busted with a bunch of stuff that wasn't mine. It all got seized. Wrong place, wrong time. It was awful. I lost people a lot of money, and I hadn't paid what I owed before then either."
"By stuff, do you mean anything besides drugs?"
"No. Just drugs. No weapons or anything, if that's what you mean."
"And are you sure Kat still lives in the area? Could she have gone to college or left town?"
"I don't think so. She never got good grades. I doubt she has money, and this area is all she knows."
"How did you hear about the threats against her?"
"Word gets around in my old neighborhood, Crescent Heights." I nodded. It was the worst part of King County. "One of my cellmates heard it, and she told me."
"When was this?"
"Right before I wrote to you this past week."
"What's your cellmate's name?"
"She's my former cellmate, and she made me swear I wouldn't talk about her. But she's for real. That's why I'm so scared."
"Did you ask her more about it? Like about who's involved?"
"Of course. I asked her tons of questions, but she wouldn't tell me anything. She wanted to stay out of it, but she owed me for something, and now we're even. I wish I could get more out of her, but there's no way."
"How would anyone know how to find Kat if she's been in foster care?"
"I don't know who her foster family is, but they must be local, and I doubt Kat changed her name. It's no secret that she got taken away from me."
"Have you reported your concerns to social services and the police?"
"Yes. I've done all I can," she said. "But look at me." She gestured toward her orange-and-white-striped uniform. "I haven't exactly earned people's trust, and Kat's not in the system anymore." She coughed what sounded like a smoker's cough and covered her mouth. "I'm sorry. I just don't know where else to turn."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Skydive"
Copyright © 2016 Susan O'Brien.
Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Sky Dive by Susan O'Brien is another entertaining book about PI Nicki Valentine. Once again this is a fun, fast paced cozy mystery. Ms O'Brien lures readers in then traps them until they have read the who[e book. This book is another one that is definitely worth your time to read. FTC Full Disclosure - A copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher in hopes I would review it. However, receiving the complimentary copy did not influence my review.
I love this series, but I think Nicki and Hannah have got themselves into a real pickle this time. They are having to deal with some real mean guys. Ones who shoot first, ask questions later. The future of Sky Investigations may be changing. In this book, they are paid to find a girl who's just turned 18 and has been living in foster care. She's ready to get out of there and find her independence. Unfortunately, she ends up with less control than what she had. They get into some pretty bad situations. Some you wonder how they are going to get out of them. I would say that I definitely found this book to be entertaining and enjoyable. Although there were times when I wanted to slap some sense into that 18 year old. She knew they were looking for her and she just kept hiding. Huge thanks to Henery Press for approving my request and to Net Galley for providing me with a free e-galley in exchange for an honest review.
This is a new authors to me and I really enjoyed the story. The plot involves a young girl who is aged out of the foster system and has become involved with the wrong people. Nicki takes the case and with her bff with her and her her boyfriend Dean by her side, she goes into the bad parts of town to make sure the young girl is ok. The story was well written and the author really touched on a subject that is important. This book was intense and the story was fast paced. I look forward to reading more in this series. I voluntarily read an ARC of this book provided by the publisher via NetGalley.
Skydive by Susan O'Brien is the third book in the Nicki Valentine series, and another enjoyable read for me. Nicki's life has settled into a good routine with her children and her boyfriend, Dean. She decides to take on a pro bono case of finding another missing teenager. The characters have really developed in this one. Nicki and Dean's relationship has grown. Dean is very supportive of her and her work. Plus they actually communicate with each other which I believes adds to the story when their is a romance present. Smoothly paced plot and great description of characters and scenes made this an enjoyable read. I voluntarily read an Advanced Reader Copy of this book.
I voluntarily reviewed this ARC from Netgalley in exchange for a honest review.This is my first time reading Ms.O'Brien's books,I found her book to be quite funny and entertaining.