Jake Winters climbed into the cab of his oxidized green Dodge truck, and his knees ached with the effort. He scooped his cell phone from the dashboard and scraped a knuckle on the crack in the sun-hardened vinyl.
“Son of a…” A weary sigh escaped as he punched in Grier’s number.
“Grier Construction.” The gravelly voice of the owner couldn’t be mistaken.
He slumped against the seat, raking his free hand through his short-cropped beard. “It’s Jake, Sam.”
“Hey, Jake, how’s it going there?”
“I’m finished.” He unbuckled the kneepads and dropped them on the floorboard of the passenger side.
“They like the color okay?”
“They did after I convinced them it’s what they meant to order. And truthfully, in a bathroom that small, the tile they wanted would’ve been obnoxious.”
“You saved my ass on that one, Jake. Don’t know how we ended up with the wrong color.” Sam’s voice sounded uneven as if he paced the floor. “Must’ve been that airhead at Sack Tile. I’ve had trouble with her before.”
Jake didn’t believe his story for one minute. Grier could screw up colors on a paint-by-number drawing. “That little repair job in Payson tomorrow shouldn’t take you but a couple of hours. Give me a call when you get back to Phoenix.” His boss talked faster than his normal speed.
“I need to get paid, Sam.”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. Come by the office on Monday, and we’ll settle up.”
The office was in Phoenix, two hundred miles from Winslow, and Monday was five days away. Hell, he didn’t have enough gas in his truck to make it to the valley or enough money in the bank to last until Monday.
“That wasn’t what we discussed.” His free hand fisted on his thigh. “I need to get paid today. You said you’d put the money in my bank so I could withdraw it here in Winslow.”
“Don’t know what the hell I was thinking.” The shyster chuckled. “Since you just finished the job in Winslow today, I haven’t even gotten my money yet.”
“Then how about the last job?” His face heated in spite of the forty-degree temperature outside. “You still owe me half for the job in Black Canyon City.”
“Hey, Jake. Lighten up. That BCC job still hasn’t paid me. I did you a favor giving you half. In fact, on a commercial job like that, I’ll be lucky to get my money before the end of the month.”
“What the hell, Sam? You didn’t mention that.” “My hands are tied.”
Fatigue forgotten, he sat straighter and glared out the window. “Cut the crap. You said when I finished this job, you’d catch me up. Well, I’m—”
“My other phone’s ringing. Give me a call tomorrow, and I’ll see what I can do. Might have another job for you.” Grier hung up.
Jake dropped the phone onto the passenger seat, wiped a hand across his grimy forehead, and bumped a palm against the steering wheel. “You’re still hooking up with assholes, Winters.” Getting paid under the table, off the books, should’ve told him something. The higher pay could’ve helped pay for his own license, but if you couldn’t get paid, it didn’t really matter. He stared at the failing daylight over the treetops and simmered in the anger for a while until he took a deep breath and let it go.
He turned the key in the ignition, listened to the old engine grind, and shut it off. Counting to ten, he cranked it again. This time, the engine coughed, then started. The fuel gauge registered just over a quarter tank.
He could make his way to Payson, spend the night, and rattle Grier’s cage in the morning. This time, he’d be more forceful. Threaten bodily harm? Sam probably wouldn’t believe he could follow through any more than Jake believed he could carry it out. Then again, he was getting pretty damned sick of being broke.
Payson was a ninety-mile drive, halfway to Phoenix and home. Pulling away from the curb, he caught a glimpse of the sun sinking into the snow-sprinkled branches of a pine, and left the residential street for Highway 87, one of the most scenic roads in the state. He liked northern Arizona. He liked that he could enjoy the simple pleasure of a drive through pine and mountain terrain. Two years ago, he hadn’t liked much of anything besides the next high. His idiot days were over. He might be thirty-nine and broke, friendless, and drive a beater, but the air he breathed was crystal clear and new music played in his head again. He drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel with his latest tune. For now, until he was not only planted but growing solid in a sober world, his music would entertain only him.
Penny slumped onto the worn leather office chair behind the front desk counter of the Grand View Hotel in Timberline. Wednesday nights were the slowest. With nothing to do and the heavy funk she’d been in all day, her mind wandered down paths she didn’t care to tread—paths that led nowhere and ended in emptiness. She missed her family more than ever during the holidays. Her mother had loved Christmas. Besides all of the traditions with Secret Santa Week, the twelve days of Christmas, and holiday music playing every night at dinner, she’d decorate the entire house. Penny fingered the always-present bracelet on her left wrist, a Christmas present from her mother, and glanced overhead. With Thanksgiving over, Christmas decorations adorned the hotel. The holiday adornments didn’t cheer her.
But more than the holidays, it was December—she hated December.
Her purse stood open on the shelf beneath the counter and the sight of the corner of the newspaper tucked inside the inner pocket invited further melancholy. A weight settled on her chest as she slipped out the paper. With lace-gloved fingers, she gently opened the folds of the article from a December day, thirteen years ago. The paper was old and weary with handling over the years. The top half of the cut-out story was stained brown from the coffee she’d spilled the first time she’d read it. She could still feel the crush of the Styrofoam and the burn of the coffee over her hand.
Three Family Members Shot: Execution Style.
She didn’t need to read the article—unfortunately, she could recite every word. Having a photographic memory was a curse, not a gift, no matter what her mother had told her so long ago. But seeing her parents’ and her brother’s names in print helped to make them real. “Larenz Ricci. Myah Ricci. John Ricci.”
“I thought you were on the phone, but it looks like you’re talking to yourself, Penny.”
As if hauled from the depths of a dark cavern, she blinked to clear her vision and become accustomed to the hotel lighting. The smiling, green eyes of Lacy Meadowlark greeted her.
“I didn’t realize…” Rapidly refolding the news article, she palmed the paper against the lower shelf as she stood. “Was I talking out loud?” She forced a smile and a chirp of a giggle.
“I think so. You’re so small you practically disappear when you sit behind the counter, but I did hear some mumbling.”
At five two, Penny didn’t rise too high above the front desk even when she stood. “I guess I was thinking out loud. My head’s a bit fuzzy. Didn’t sleep too well last night.”
The sheriff’s wife set her to-go mug on the counter and leaned on her elbows with clasped hands. “I don’t envy you working when it’s slow and boring and you’re tired. I think it’s going to be a long night for you.”
“I think you’re right.” She pushed the article toward her purse and brought both hands to rest beside Lacy’s.
“Pink?” The woman stared at the lace gloves on her hands. “How can I possibly call you the Black Fairy if you’re going to start wearing pink?”
Penny chuckled. “Wouldn’t you know my white lace gloves got mixed in the laundry with Mandy’s panties and bras.”
“Now, there’s something I would never have guessed. I didn’t think you two wore anything but black and white.”
Delicate laugh lines bracketed her mouth and eyes. Penny wasn’t sure she’d had her fiftieth birthday yet, but Lacy was as vibrant and lovely as the day they’d met.
“We have similar tastes.” She adjusted the black tiara that pinched the left side of her head and winked at her friend. “I don’t go for the full-on black Goth thing anymore, unless I’m working. You know. Haunted hotel and all. Don’t tell Mandy I told you, but her undies are quite colorful.”
Lacy laughed, then grew serious. “How’s it going for her? I heard her divorce was anything but amicable.”
“She’s doing okay. And I love being her roommate again. Especially since her house is much bigger than the apartment I lived in.”
“Again? You’ve lived together before?”
Talking with Lacy lifted a little of the heaviness, until the mention of the first time she’d lived with Mandy. Timberline had been the destination point to meet up with her family…but they hadn’t met her. Mandy had been her life preserver.
“Way back. Mandy got me a job at the Depot as a server when I first came to Timberline. And we shared an apartment until she married Pete.”
“You’ve come full circle. Only now, you’re the evening manager of a famous hotel.”
“What are you doing here tonight?”
“Chance is across the street at The White Wolf Spirit talking to Chief. Looking for another Navajo rug. While they gab, I popped in to get a chai at the Rendezvous.” Her friend loved the chai at the coffee café and nighttime martini bar of the Grand View.
“I called August the other day.” Lacy’s daughter had become a good friend, too. “You probably know she’s taken up skiing now that Hans is out of diapers.” She missed August, who had married an Austrian police inspector when the mother and daughter duo had gone to the country to meet Lacy’s grandfather—a trip over four years ago that ended with disaster and happiness.
Lacy patted her hand. “You need to visit them again. Soon.”
“I will. She said you and Sheriff Meadowlark are going to visit in the summer.”
“If I can get Chance to take time off work. We need to see that grandson again. And right now, I better go drag my husband away from Chief or we’ll be eating a late dinner.” She shrugged into a teal-colored down jacket, lifting her long, ebony hair to clear the collar, then picked up her cup. “Say hi to Mandy, and I hope your shift doesn’t drag too painfully long. We might get snow later tonight, so be careful when you head home.”
“Thanks. Give the sheriff a hug for me.”
As Lacy exited the hotel, Penny slumped onto the chair and stared at the hotel computer screen. Her personal possessions didn’t include a computer or even a cell phone. In the beginning, when her single existence was forced upon her, she’d shunned all means of virtual connection. Her father had impressed upon them the importance of getting lost to the world, the safest way to live. He’d impressed it upon her all right. Scared her to the point of avoiding any form of communication outside of face-to-face. Slowly, she embraced a lifestyle she’d come to think of as basic.
On rare occasions, and only in the last year, she used her housemate’s computer to look up movies or Google recipes. Touching a few keys brought up Mandy’s Gmail account on the hotel computer. No reply from her aunt in Las Vegas whom she’d sent a note to three days ago. She’d managed to hold back and not try to contact anyone from her other life for all these years. The fear overwhelmed her, yet the yearning got the best of her this December. Maybe her aunt didn’t understand the cryptic message from a stranger named Mandy. Maybe she didn’t have the same addy any longer. Or maybe she’d died. Her dad’s sister was older, but she couldn’t remember exactly how old.
What a stupid thing to do anyway. That was another life…long gone. The ache surged just below her breastbone, and her breath grew shallow as she struggled to shake an ever-increasing sadness.
With a finger, she depressed the mouse, closing Google. She had a new family now. Mandy was like a sister, and she loved her dearly. Lacy was like an aunt. August…a cousin who lived in a foreign country.
At least she was safe, alive, and Dad would be proud.
In spite of his fleece-lined jean jacket, Jake shivered when he got out of his truck. He pulled his duffle from behind the seat and set it on the floorboard under the steering wheel. From the bed of the truck, he transferred a tile cutter and a couple of other expensive tools to the cab. With the duffle slung over his shoulder, and his sack of dollar menu food in hand, he locked the truck.
As he walked toward his room, a neon sign in the window of the bar across the street drew his gaze. Red, yellow, green. Liquor, beer, wine. He rolled his shoulders, lifted the sack of food close to his face, and sniffed. Greasy fries would be his relaxer tonight.
At room number four, he unlocked the door and wrinkled his nose at the smell of mildew and stale cigarette smoke.
What do I expect for $44.95?
His boot sole caught on the carpet, bunched and torn at the doorjamb, and sent him on a stutter-step to keep his balance. “Damn.” The genuine fake leather upper had pulled away from the sole on his left boot.
He felt around on the wall and flipped on the overhead light. The bulb flickered for a moment, long enough to see the bedside table lamp, and went dark. He threw his bag on the mattress, switched on the lamp, and plopped down on the lumpy, squeaky bed. His stomach growled. After turning on the wall heater, he settled down to eat.
The TV sat lopsided on the scarred bureau. When a glance around the room didn’t give up a remote, he stretched forward without rising from the foot of the bed, and punched the on button. Static greeted him on the three local channels available. Maybe he should change rooms.
It probably wouldn’t matter anyway. He’d read. What he needed was a good night’s sleep. A full stomach and a shower should help secure one. He vowed not to look at the bedding too closely when he pulled back the cover.
In a half-hour, naked, he slipped into bed, opened his book, and closed his mind to money woes as he began his ten-minute meditation. Relaxed, he focused on the book.
Sometime later, he jerked awake and knocked the book from his chest. He was freezing. Pulling the sheet and blanket over his head didn’t stop the chill that reached all the way to his toes. Silence. No click, click, bonk noise of the heater. He slid one arm out, brought his cell under the covers, and pushed a button. Four twelve a.m.
Reluctantly, he switched on the lamp, shivered out of bed, and padded three feet to the heater. He leaned over and shut it off, then turned it on. Punched low, high, and fan-only buttons over and over, then pounded on the plastic top.
“Son of a…”
Switching off and on once more got no results. His toes were iced by the outside air flowing under the door. He grabbed his jeans off the chair and stuffed them along the bottom of the door then climbed back under the covers.
The thin blanket and sheet were no match for the drop in temperature. After fifteen minutes of trying to think warm, he had an idea. Out of bed, he jogged to the bathroom and turned the shower to hot, full blast. Immediately, the air around him warmed. The chill on his skin subsided before he headed back to bed and yanked off the sheet, blanket, and pillow. He slipped on his shirt and underwear and carried the bedding back to the bathroom. The floor looked kind of nasty, but the sheet, doubled over next to the shower, covered the old linoleum. Wrapping the blanket around him, he settled on top, bumped his knees on the wall, and hunched his shoulders to fit. Good thing he wasn’t a particularly big man. His legs were long on his five-foot ten frame and difficult to fold small enough, like a stork squeezing into a wren’s nest. Hopefully, the running, hot water would keep him warm enough to get a few more hours of sleep.
“Ass wipe.” The curse, directed at his shyster boss, muffled into his pillow.
Another curse at himself for all the wrong decisions he’d made that landed him in this position didn’t fully form on his lips. Instead, he recited Step Ten. Continue the personal inventory. What the hell…this might be a crummy hotel, and he was cold and tired, but he felt every shivering, crappy moment of it. Not that a shot of Chopin Vodka to warm him didn’t cross his mind. He would’ve had several and a few snorts this time last year. And wouldn’t have felt the cold…or the hard floor…or much of anything else.
Thoughts of a few nights in crummy hotels when his band, Flash Theory, struggled to make a name for themselves played in his head. That brought him wondering about Ian, the English drummer who shared his arrest date.
“Bugger you, Ian.” The profanity he’d adopted from the Englishman rolled over his tongue with a smile. He hadn’t contacted his favorite band mate and best friend since sobriety. They weren’t a good influence on each other. Maybe one of these days…
About an hour and a half later, Jake woke, cold again and his legs cramping. He pulled his knees to his chest and rolled toward the bathroom door, glancing at the ceiling.
Strips of paint hung like confetti from a New Year’s Eve party. Had the ceiling looked like that last night? He scrambled to his feet, tangled in the blanket, and tripped on the sheet bunching on the floor. Catching himself on the back of the toilet, his hip hit the bar on the shower door. “Ow!”
After shutting off the now cold shower water, he extricated his legs from the bedding and surveyed the ceiling again.
Surely he hadn’t caused that. The place was a dump. Yeah, probably already peeling long before he turned on the shower.
The time had come to flee the motel from hell.
After throwing the blanket and sheet on the bed, he brushed his teeth, and smoothed his beard with a comb. He ran a brush through his hair as he squinted into the cloudy mirror above the sink. Dark curls fell onto his forehead in spite of his effort. He stuffed his toiletries in the duffle, then loped to the door and retrieved his jeans from the floor. His frozen jeans. Damp air combined with below freezing wind from under the door had rendered his pants stiff.
He slumped back on the bed and laughed. “You know, Winters, if you weren’t so pitiful, you’d be amusing.”
A hard shake straightened the denim. This job should’ve been an easy two-day, one-night stay, and the repair job in Payson no more than a rest stop on his way to Phoenix. This was the only pair of jeans with him. He put them under the covers and lay on top. After fifteen minutes, using the time to consider what he’d do if Sam wouldn’t deposit some money, the jeans were wearable. He kicked aside the worthless work boots and pulled his old Doc Martens from the duffle. With a rub of a palm across the toe, he huffed in resignation. The age-worn leather couldn’t be restored to charcoal gray that easily.
After a few minutes of letting his truck run with the heater blowing lukewarm air, the heat of the convenience store and gas station a block away beckoned. He browsed the aisles as if searching for something while blood resurged through his arms and legs. When the cold finally wore off and he could relax his shoulders, he stopped in a back corner and punched Grier’s number into his cell. No answer. After three more tries, hoping to wear the jerk down, he poked the End Call light, jammed the cell into his pocket, fisted hands at his sides, and glanced around. The cold beer case glared brightly.
What is this? A test?
Without a second glance at the refrigerated section, he rubbed a hand over his face and strode to the front of the store. Damned if he’d do the repair job here in Payson.
All right then. The lump in his throat went down with a hard swallow along with pride and disappointment. He hadn’t wanted to go to his family until he’d entered the real world, successfully, without anyone’s help. Three years since he’d had contact with his parents. And the last time he’d seen his sister was shortly before his arrest, over a year ago. He could’ve contacted her after his stint in rehab. They’d always been close. She topped his list of needed amends. But when his manager bled him of all his money and Flash Theory fell to pieces and scattered in every direction, he was afraid she’d think he only came around for a handout.
Well, that’s what he needed now.
But Mandy was an angel—his Dark Angel. Did she still favor black clothes or had her Goth phase been left behind?
She’d understand. He’d been out and working for almost six months. Still…he didn’t want to be broke and in need of anything from her.
No choice, Winters. Suck it up.
It took most of the funds in his account to gas up and get a coffee and a doughnut. Hopefully, Pete wouldn’t be there when he got to her house in Timberline. He didn’t really remember much about his sister’s husband since he’d been stoned mindless most of the times they’d met. But he’d guess Pete didn’t think much of him. Why would he?
The engine started on the first try—had to be a good sign—for a two-hour drive to Timberline, if he stayed off the Interstate. He’d take 87 to Lake Chelsea Road through pine-topped mountains called rim country as the road wound farther north. The cold but clear day boasted icy blue skies and sun-soaked evergreens. Instead of anxiety at seeing Mandy, given his current situation, a smile came to his mouth and spread deep inside. He couldn’t wait to hug his little sister, his Dark Angel.
Special Agent Vince Elams rocked back on his heels, glared at the digital readout on the elevator, and pulled at his buttoned-up shirt collar. He hated the basement. No windows. If he stayed on the bottom level of the Phoenix FBI building too long, he’d suffocate. The analyst had better have a damn good reason for not relaying the information over the phone.
He stepped out and made a sharp right, his wingtip oxfords clicking on the tile as he strode past four identical cubicles. He didn’t bother to glance at the inhabitants; he could barely see over the partitions, and getting in and out of the technical room as quickly as possible consumed his thoughts.
When he arrived at John Shelby’s desk, he didn’t waste time on pleasantries. “What you got, John?”
Although pushing fifty like him, the analyst’s cherubic face reminded him of a naïve college student. Almond shaped, green eyes, contrasting with his otherwise Asian origins, glanced up from behind black rimmed glasses. “Hey, Elams. Have a seat.”
“I’m fine and don’t have much time.” He gestured with a hand to get on with it.
John shrugged and leaned back in the swivel chair. “It’s the Manzini tap. Not that I don’t trust Logan, but he came down here earlier and wanted to be copied on the data. It’s your case—”
“The case is stymied, so I’m letting Logan—that’s what you called me down for? I think a phone call would’ve worked.”
He shook his head. “No. That’s not all.” He took a large gulp from an oversized plastic cup with a gas station convenience store logo. “Remember the Ricci murders, oh, more than a decade ago? The daughter disappeared?”
The hair on the back of his neck came to attention. Vince shuffled around the guest chair and crowded his stocky frame into the cubicle. His broad shoulders threw a shadow over the seated man. “Thirteen years ago.”
“Yeah. Thirteen.” John craned his neck to look at him. “I remember speculation about her having something to do with the murders, even though the style smacked of a professional hit. On the parents anyway. Looked like the boy surprised the shooter, ran in front of the mother, and took a bullet.”
His stomach muscles drew tight with the memory. “I know the case.” And the analyst had a good memory for the story Vince had fed him.
“You had me target five relatives to watch for signs of the whereabouts of the daughter. Eventually, it got sidelined, went cold.”
He lowered his voice. “Get to the punch line.”
The analyst’s eyes blinked behind the glasses, his voice lowering to match Vince’s. “Sure. The email account surveillance you had me keep open, sort of for your information only, if you remember?”
As if it were yesterday.“Vaguely.”
“I got a hit. Jianna Ricci, using another name, emailed her aunt in Vegas.”
His muscular legs tensed. “You sure?”
“I’m sure. She tried to disguise the note, but when you know what you’re looking for—”
“It’s been a hell of a long time.” Long enough he’d stopped worrying about the one who got away.
John waved him off. “I traced the account. She goes by the name Mandy Barker and lives in Timberline, Arizona.”
His gut twisted. Why couldn’t the bitch stay disappeared? “Yeah, well, I doubt anyone really gives a shit after all these years.”
“But she was a suspect, right?”
“Not in the end. A teenager couldn’t pull off an obvious mob hit. And her father had cousins in Chicago that were part of one of the largest mafia families in the east.” He shrugged, imitating an apathetic attitude. “The assumption generally held that the family paid the price for something that happened in Chicago.”
“So, ditch it?” John’s forehead wrinkled, and he pushed his glasses up on his nose.
He shuffled his feet, pretending to leave. “Might as well.” Then he ticked his head as if he had a second consideration. “Go ahead and give me the information.”
The analyst sent the information to his printer with a downcast expression. He didn’t glance up. John Shelby was a wannabe field agent, but hadn’t been able to escape the confines of the basement. He lived vicariously through any excitement he could absorb from men like Vince.
And he needed the analyst in his pocket.
“On second thought, keep an eye on those emails a little longer. You know, now and then. Can’t hurt. Better to cover our asses.” And better to give him more time to decide whether to tell the senator or kill the tap. As if thinking out loud, he added in a low voice, “And if we can find her, others might, too.” The link to the Chicago family had to be kept alive.
He glanced at the printout the analyst handed him. “Damned good surveillance. I’d forgotten all about this.” No doubt the senator hadn’t.
John came to his feet. Taller than Vince by a couple of inches, his slight frame brushed at his arm when he rose. “It’s my job, man.” His mouth twitched with pride.
Vince, accustomed to being shorter than most men, more than made up for what he lacked in height with his muscled bulk. The analyst stood like a toothpick next to him. Vince backed away. He needed the egghead, but didn’t appreciate the buddy-buddy attitude. “And I won’t forget you. Even though no one else will care about this.” He waved the paper as if its mere existence meant nothing. “I’ll remember your doggedness, and I’ll owe you one.” He stared into John’s eyes, hoping his own conveyed the agreement between them. “We’ve got each other’s backs for sure, right?”
“Yep, that’s why I called you on the Mancini tap.” “Good call there.” Best to throw the analyst a bone.
“No need to mention this dead case to anyone—but that Mancini tap? You watch it for me. Logan’s okay, but with your help, maybe you and I can break that case wide open.”
John stood straighter. “Gotcha, Elams.”
He strode to the elevator. The paper crinkled in his fingers, and although he rose out of the basement level, the air remained thin. When the doors opened on the third floor, he hadn’t decided whether he should call the senator or not. Jianna Ricci hadn’t come out of hiding when Westingly had run for the senate seven years ago or when he’d been up for reelection last year. Would she think his run toward the presidency now worth risking her life?