On the run from a double-cross, Las Vegas private investigator Gypsy Moran shows up unexpectedly at his sister Rhonda's house in Wink, Texas. She introduces Gypsy to one of her former students, 12-year-old Tatum McCallen, who is in need of Gypsy's services. Tatum wants to hire Gypsy to investigate his father Ryce's alleged suicide. His dad was a deputy with the Sheriff's department and was found hanged in their backyard. Tatum believes his father was murdered after he went inquiring after the disappearance of several teenage girls, all undocumented immigrants. Against his better judgment, Gypsy agrees to snoop around to see what he can find. Between dealing with his now married high school sweetheart, a sexy reporter, and hostile police officers, Gypsy has his work cut out for him.
Lynn Chandler Willis' Wink of an Eye is a strong addition to a long list of The Private Eye Writers of America (PWA) Competition winners that includes Steve Hamilton and Michael Koryta.
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About the Author
LYNN CHANDLER WILLIS is the first woman to win the PWA Competition in over 10 years. She has worked in the corporate world, the television news business, and the newspaper industry. She was born, raised, and continues to live in the heart of North Carolina within walking distance of her children and their spouses and her nine grandchildren. She shares her home, and heart, with Sam the cocker spaniel. She lives in Randleman, North Carolina.
LYNN CHANDLER WILLIS is the first woman to win the PWA Competition in over 10 years. She has worked in the corporate world, the television news business, and the newspaper industry. She was born, raised, and continues to live in the heart of North Carolina within walking distance of her children and their spouses and her nine grandchildren. She shares her home, and heart, with Sam the cocker spaniel. She is the author of the novel Wink of an Eye. She lives in Randleman, North Carolina.
Read an Excerpt
Wink of an Eye
By Lynn Chandler Willis
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2014 Lynn Chandler Willis
All rights reserved.
"My father didn't kill himself." The kid's voice crackled with pubescent hormones. But other than the wavering voice, he had an unflinching determination. It was the third time he'd made the statement since showing up at my sister's house this morning.
The kid was twelve, and staring at me through a clump of blond hair that fell over his right eye. He was in dire need of a haircut. But I'm not the fashion police so it didn't matter to me if he got one or not.
"Look ... Tatum, sometimes we don't always understand why people do the things they do." My own voice was scratchy from morning grogginess.
"He didn't kill himself." That was number four. Not that I was counting.
"Gypsy—can't you just hear him out?" My sister, Rhonda, asked. She joined me and the kid at her kitchen table.
It was 8:00 A.M. I was functioning on two hours' sleep after an eighteen-hour drive. Plus, I was still on my first cup of coffee.
"There's a lot more to it than just Ryce's death," Rhonda said.
"My dad," the kid said. "Ryce McCallen. And he didn't kill himself."
"I meant to call you a couple weeks ago when Tatum told me about everything that had happened," Rhonda said. "And then when you showed up on my doorstep this morning at four-thirty, I thought, wow, divine intervention." She gnawed on her bottom lip, a habit she'd picked up during our messed-up childhood. It meant she wasn't sure. I'd think twice, too, before considering my presence divine intervention.
"Look, kid. I hate that your dad's dead. But I don't know what you want me to do about it."
"You're a private investigator. I want you to prove he was murdered."
Sure. And after that, I'd look into something simple like JFK's assassination. I scratched my chin, the morning stubble pricking my hand. Maybe I should have stayed in Vegas. There, people just wanted me dead. They didn't want me to actually work. "Homicide investigations are complicated. They're not easy to—"
"I have detailed notes."
Of course he did.
"Plus, I have the files of the cases he was working when he died."
I hated to ask but curiosity got the better of me. "What cases?"
"The eight missing girls."
I scratched my chin again. "Why didn't he just turn it over to the police?"
"He was the police." He rolled his eyes, an annoying rite of passage at his age.
Rhonda jumped in to defend the eye-rolling action. "He told you all this. It was before the coffee." She nodded quickly, like that made everything okay.
I was drawing a blank. "Refresh my memory so I'll feel better about saying no."
Tatum scooted his chair closer. "My dad was a deputy with the Winkler County Sheriff's Department. Back in the spring, my friend told me about her sister and how she'd gone missing. I told my dad about it and he started his own investigation, outside the department."
"Why didn't he go through the proper channels?"
He and Rhonda glanced at one another like they were sharing a secret. "He didn't trust them."
A paranoid cop who commits suicide. Unfortunately, it wasn't that unusual. "And you think this is related to your dad's death?"
"My dad didn't hang himself. He would never have left me like that."
I never thought my dad would leave of his own accord, either, but he did. Packed a bag and walked out. Just like that. In that respect, I could relate to this kid. "Look, Tatum, we don't always know what's going on in someone's head." I tapped my finger against my temple for illustration purposes.
"If he wanted to kill himself, why didn't he swallow a bullet like most cops would do? Why'd he hang himself?"
The kid had a point. I needed more coffee. I pulled myself up and slowly moved to the coffeepot on the counter. After pouring a fresh cup, I stood there a moment staring out the window of the house I grew up in. The house, and the care of our eighty-year-old grandmother, now belonged to Rhonda and her husband, Rodney. My mother lived a maintenance-free life in a condo in Kermit when she wasn't working at the hospital; my father was who knows where. We weren't so unusual. Still, I left Wink, Texas twenty years ago with no intention of ever coming back. And yesterday, or was it the day before—hell, I'd lost track of time—I left Vegas and probably shouldn't go back. Not if I enjoyed living.
"Gypsy?" Rhonda's voice reminded me I wasn't alone in the kitchen. At thirty-six, she was two years younger than me and as far as kid sisters go, she was a keeper. She avoided trouble like the plague, volunteered at the adult enrichment center, and taught math to hardheaded know-it-all sixth graders like Tatum at Wink Elementary as a career choice. And some called me stupid for going into the private investigation field.
I took my coffee to the table and resumed my position of avoidance. "Look, Tatum, I don't know how long I'm going to be here. I'm kind of on vacation," I lied.
"We'll pay you." He obviously didn't understand the concept of a vacation.
"Tatum lives with his grandfather. It's just the two of them now," Rhonda said, giving me that look that said there was more to this story and she'd explain later.
I didn't care if the kid lived with a tribe of pygmies. I had my own problems. I didn't know if I was even going to be alive tomorrow. I had issues with committing to anything other than lunch plans.
"They didn't even investigate it and grandpa says suicides are always investigated," Tatum said matter-of-factly.
"Who didn't investigate it?"
"The sheriff's department. They didn't even do an autopsy and grandpa says you always do an autopsy with a suicide."
I pushed my hand through my bed-tangled hair then took a long sip of coffee. "There's a lot of reasons they don't do an autopsy."
"But we requested one. They told us there wasn't any need and before we could insist on one, they had already made all the arrangements."
"Who made all the arrangements?"
"The sheriff's department."
I tried to hold in the surprised expression my face was fighting to show. I didn't want to give him the impression he had piqued my curiosity. With a stone face, I asked, "The sheriff's department made your dad's funeral arrangements?"
He nodded. "Sheriff Denny said it was too much for me or grandpa to have to handle. He said he didn't want us to have to worry about it—with all that we'd been through, he said." The corner of his lips pulled upward in a sneer. Despite my best effort not to, I was beginning to like this kid.
"Is there a reason Grandpa couldn't make the arrangements himself?"
He shook his head and the blond clump of bangs swept his forehead like a broom. "Me and Grandpa could have made them. Sheriff Denny wouldn't let us."
"Tatum's grandfather, Burke McCallen, is a retired deputy himself," Rhonda added.
"He got shot in the back and can't walk now. He uses a wheelchair to get around."
I held a swallow of coffee in my mouth before letting it go down as I tried to wrap my brain around this latest disclosure. After a moment, I swallowed. "He was shot in the line of duty?"
Tatum and Rhonda both nodded.
"He walked in on a break-in," Tatum said.
A deputy shot. In Wink, Texas. That certainly wasn't something that happened every day.
"They catch the guy who did it?"
So Grandpa's in a wheelchair and now Daddy's dead. Unless Mom was somewhere in the picture, the Department of Social Services would probably be involved at some point in the near future. "Where's your mom?"
He shrugged his bony shoulders. "Last I heard, in San Antonio with some rodeo guy."
"Were your mom and dad divorced?"
He shrugged again. "I guess. I don't remember much about her. She left when I was three."
I was twelve and Rhonda was ten when our dad left. I remember Rhonda crying. I remember wrapping my arm around her shoulder, holding back my own tears. I was the big brother. Big brothers don't cry.
"No aunts or uncles, cousins?" I asked.
He shook his head. "Just me and Dad and Grandpa. Well, me and Grandpa now. But we do okay. I do most of the cooking and cleaning. He does the bills and stuff."
Ahh. Denial. It'll get you through for a while. Then one day your world comes crashing in on you and you wake up wondering why you didn't see it coming. Been there, done that, and no plans to go again.
"So will you take a look at my Dad's files? He was on to something. I know he was."
"I thought you wanted me to look into your Dad's suicide?"
"It's all connected. And he didn't kill himself."
That was number six. Not that I was counting.CHAPTER 2
"So, are you going to help him?" Rhonda asked. The kid had left a little while ago to check on his grandfather. Rhonda poured the last bit of coffee in my cup, then slid the pot in the sink of soapy water.
I slowly shook my head. "It's not something I really want to get involved with."
I could tell by her silence it wasn't the answer she was hoping for. "Okay," she finally said, dragging the simple word out into exaggerated syllables. "So how long are you planning on staying?"
"I don't know. A few days. I can get a room in Kermit if I'm in the way."
She popped me on the back of the head. "Don't be silly. Rodney will be back tomorrow and I know he'll want to see you."
"Where is Rodney?"
"He's at a training seminar in Dallas. The police department installed new software and no one knows how to use it."
Rhonda's two biggest faults were she couldn't cook worth crap and she married a cop. Rodney was an officer with the Kermit Police Department. He was a good guy. As far as brothers-in-law go, I couldn't complain.
"Why didn't Tatum ask Rodney to look into his dad's death?"
Rhonda took a deep breath and held it longer than was probably comfortable. Then she shrugged and gnawed on her lip, avoiding eye contact. "I don't know."
I smiled. "Either you're hiding something from him or he told you to stay out of it."
She wrapped a flaming red curl around her finger and continued gnawing on her bottom lip. She finally huffed then said, "Oh, come on, Gypsy. He's a good kid."
"Rodney?" I knew whom she was referring to but I liked to see her squirm. As an older brother I had earned that right.
She rolled her eyes. "Tatum."
"If he's such a good kid, why doesn't Rodney want to get involved?"
She huffed again and stared at the table, avoiding looking me in the eye. "I don't know. He just said there wasn't anything he could do. Maybe because it's two different departments. But the bottom line is Tatum's a good kid and he doesn't deserve the hand he's been dealt."
Not many people do but it had never been my ambition to save the world. "Maybe someone should look for his mother. Before social services gets involved."
Rhonda shook her head. "I don't know the whole story but apparently there were some drugs involved, and stuff like leaving Tatum alone in a hot car when he was two years old. Probably best to just leave her out of the picture." She raised her eyebrows for emphasis.
I'd done my share of tracking down people who didn't want to be found for one reason or another. I wasn't too fond of parents who disappeared. The adults left behind usually place blame on the person who takes off; kids are the opposite. They blame themselves. I should have cleaned my room more, should have eaten my vegetables, done better in school ... they carry a list of should haves with them the rest of their lives. I know from experience. I'm still carrying my own list of should haves.
Regardless, my heart wasn't bleeding quite enough yet to get involved in Tatum McCallen's troubles.
"Look ... Rhonda, Rodney's a good cop. He's a good man with a heart bigger than the state of Texas. If he said leave it alone, there must be a good reason."
"What would it hurt just to talk to Tatum? Gypsy, he has a four-inch file Ryce was keeping on the investigation he was doing off the clock. There's eight missing girls involved."
"Missing how? Runaways, kidnapped, what?"
"They were classified as runaways, but they were good girls. Happy. None of the parents believe they ran away."
We stared at one another for a long moment. I finally asked, "What do they think happened to them?"
Rhonda was quiet for a moment while she picked at a cuticle only she could see. "They were all illegals so there were no paper trails on any of them. Teenagers. Pretty girls."
"Ah, Jesus." I pushed my hand through my hair. "A trafficking ring."
She slowly nodded. "We think so. Will you just take a look at his files? Please?"
I laid my head on the table, gently thumping it against the warm wood. Was there anything in Wink that ever registered under 100 degrees?
"What would it hurt just to talk to him?" she asked.
I could think of a pretty good reason. "I could end up involved in something I don't want to be involved in."
She huffed. "You can be such an ass sometimes." She got up and went to her soaking dishes, catching me in the shoulder first with a solid punch.
She was average size but threw a punch like a sailor. I had taught her well. She had always been a scrappy kid with a fierce loyalty fired by an Irish temper. She'd inherited her red hair and unmanageable curls from our mother's side of the family. Many men find redheads extremely sexy. Having grown up in a house full of redheaded women, I avoided them like a disease. I knew the wrath they were capable of.
With Rhonda concentrating on the dishes, I felt safe to change the subject. "I need to tap into your Internet with my laptop." I was anxious to get my contacts and apps downloaded to my backup phone.
"Sure. It's wireless so you should be able to connect anywhere."
Wireless in Wink? Who'd have ever thought it? I went back to the spare bedroom and retrieved my laptop, then headed back to the kitchen. Might as well set up shop at the kitchen table. I powered up the iPhone and within minutes had access once again to my contact list and apps. I gave Rhonda my new number.
"What happened to your other phone?" She keyed my new number into her own phone.
Rhonda raised her brows. "One of those 'I could tell you but then I'd have to shoot you' things?"
If she only knew. After purposely smashing it with a hammer, then tossing it into the Pecos River, I felt safe that it was history. "Yeah. One of those." I smiled at her.
She stared at me suspiciously, then finished putting away the morning dishes. "I've got to go to the volunteer center for a little while. Why don't you come with me? It'll be fun."
I scowled and looked over my shoulder at her. She was kidding, right? I had no idea what she did at the volunteer center but hemorrhoids sounded like more fun. "I'll pass on that one. I think I'll grab a shower and head into town."
"Suit yourself. Towels are in the cabinet in the bathroom. You ready, Gram?" she yelled down the hallway for our grandmother.
"Coming," Gram answered. A moment later she shuffled into the kitchen, her old-lady purse hanging in the crook of her arm. "Can't wait to make my macaroni necklace." She looked at me and rolled her eyes.
Gram had always been a sassy one and I was glad it was Rhonda taking care of her and not me. Rhonda, Rodney, and Gram lived in the three-bedroom, one-bath house Rhonda and I grew up in. It was a brick ranch with a desert for a yard. The prickly pear cacti grew randomly, adding splashes of sporadic green to the ever-present brown. When we were kids, Mom tried planting grass one year so her kids would have a lush lawn to play on. She gave up, figuring the added expense of a mower and gas to run it wasn't worth the effort.
Mom worked sixty hours a week as a nurse at Kermit Regional Hospital, so after our dad left, Gram moved in and shared a bedroom with Rhonda. She was there to keep us out of trouble, fix us something to eat every now and then, and do the occasional load of laundry. So I learned to do my own laundry at an early age (starch preferred), cook a decent meal (something Rhonda never mastered), and keep a tidy house. Never did learn to stay out of trouble, though.
I waited until I was certain Rhonda and Gram had left for the volunteer center, then opened the public records search app on my laptop. I keyed in "Claire Kinley" but didn't hit enter. Instead, I sat there staring at the screen, debating whether I wanted to go down that road again. I had access to every aspect of her life at my fingertips, but couldn't do it. I couldn't count the times over the years I had typed her name but never actually opened a file. Twenty years was a long time. Maybe some things are better left alone.
I shut down the laptop and headed to the shower.
Excerpted from Wink of an Eye by Lynn Chandler Willis. Copyright © 2014 Lynn Chandler Willis. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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