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The Free Friday Read

Who wants a sneak peek of the next mystery?

 April 24, 2022

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

Pre-order & read Chapters 1-5

The Charity

The Charity

"There is always something happening in Roche Harbor…the investigation into the new man in town, an elderly couple scamming others, the widow of the previous chief fearing for her life and the missing children."

Paytonpuppy

Police Chief Mark Friessen along with his wife social worker Billy Jo McCabe keep a watchful eye on their small island town in the Pacific Northwest. As the couple come to grips with the hub of crime by the political elite that had turned what they’d believed to be a quiet sleepy island into a playground for the rich and powerful, a young executive of a major international charity moves to Roche Harbor. Mark and Billy Jo once again find themselves digging deep into the secrets and lies that seem to trail this man, but what they uncover is a twisted truth they may wish they’d never looked into.
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Chapter 1

Sleeping in was something Billy Jo didn’t do, but for the past four days, Mark had opened his eyes to find his wife sound asleep. As he stood in the kitchen, the stove blinking a digital blue 8:10 a.m., he realized he needed to wake her soon. 

The coffeemaker beeped, and Mark poured himself a cup of the steaming brew before turning back to the island, on which a file lay open, revealing notes on another thirty of the island’s residents. Hesitating only a second, he wondered when he’d become that cop who went digging into civilians’ lives, looking for any secrets they might have. 

Oh, yeah. When a bunch of criminal elites took up using his island as their personal playground. 

He had to roll his shoulders, feeling that punch in the gut again, silently hating the world of people who, at times, were untouchable. 

“You didn’t wake me.” 

He turned to see Billy Jo in a blue robe, yawning as she walked sock-footed past him and pulled a glass from the cupboard to fill with water. 

“Figured you needed sleep,” he said. “Was going to give you another ten minutes before waking you. You feeling okay?” 

She brushed her shoulder-length brown bed hair away from her face and shook her head before drinking down the water. “Fine. Just tossed and turned because of your snoring. What are you doing?” 

She settled her glass in the sink, then reached for his coffee and took a swallow of it. As she looked down at the open file, her brow furrowed. He realized she wasn’t giving the coffee back, and he couldn’t believe she had tossed out that comment about his snoring, considering she had fallen asleep before him. 

He leaned down and pressed a kiss to the top of her head, then filled a second mug, a matching green one, from the many wedding gifts that seemed to still be arriving daily from people on the island he’d met only a time or two. 

“Looking into the folks who live here,” he said, “why they live here, what they do, especially the ones who look too clean. Who lives here full time, part time, and what hidden secrets do they have? You know, the usual investigative thing I do, looking for red flags and skeletons.” 

Mark filled the mug with coffee and settled the carafe back on the burner. Billy Jo angled her head, glancing over to him in that way of hers. She was complex, with many moods, and he figured something else was coming. 

“You were serious, then?” she said, flattening her hand over the file, the notes he’d been reading on Shirley and Tom Campbell, and pulling it closer to her. “You’re really going to investigate every person who lives here and dissect their lives even though they’ve done nothing wrong? Isn’t there some law against that, let alone the fact that you’re overstepping a bit?” 

She didn’t smile and didn’t pull that fiery gaze from him. She was the complete package, a woman who was his best friend, his lover, his wife, and she knew how to push every one of his buttons. Damn, he loved everything about her. 

He reached for the file in front of her and pulled it away. “Knowing who’s on this island and what they’re about is something I should have done long ago. You forget what happened here? I don’t want that kind of evil ever sneaking in. So yeah, I plan to dissect the lives of everyone who lives here to make sure the members of this community are decent, honest, not looking to set up some criminal enterprise, thinking they can do anything. And that includes our politicians. Consider it my new pastime. I plan to find out everything about them, what they do, who they see, to really dig into their lives. If they are honest people, then they become the people I’m protecting. But how many more criminals are still here, so deep underground that I haven’t found them yet? And yet is the key word.” 

She looked up at him, and a smile touched her lips as she leaned against the island, so close to him. “You know all the right things to say sometimes,” she said. “Go dig and dissect the lives of anyone and everyone. Oh, and make sure, will you, that you take a second and third look at everyone collecting a check from the DCFS, and especially who rubber-stamped their approvals?” 

“They’re first on the list—kids and animals.” He leaned down and kissed her forehead. 

“You’re the best,” she said. “Damn, I’m going to be late.” She lifted the mug and took a swallow. “Oh, and I forgot to tell you we’re going to drop in and see Gail tonight. I’ll swing by the station after I’m done and we’ll head over. I told her we’ll bring dinner…” 

She had trailed off as she walked back to the bedroom. Then she turned in the doorway, looking back, when he hadn’t said anything. The tightness that came every time he thought of Tolly Shephard returned deep in his chest. He knew he’d made a face. 

“You have to figure out a way to get past that, Mark,” she said. “Gail is our friend.” 

“Her husband was part of a child trafficking ring.” 

She let out a heavy sigh. “I know what Tolly Shephard did and didn’t do—and what they did to his son to gain his compliance when he played both sides. He’s dead, but Gail isn’t, and she still has to get up every morning and come to terms with all the secrets Tolly had. Mark, you’ve turned this island upside down and woken up a lot of people to what has been happening behind their backs. No one saw it. The town council is in a state of flux. You have interim appointees, as the mayor and councilors are now charged, awaiting trial. The entire CPS department has been turned upside down, and jobs are still being vacated. You’re a hero for the children, Mark, but you have to know many of the island folks have turned on Gail. Their anger is misdirected. Her truck was spray painted with CHILD KILLER. People she’s known forever on the island have phoned and said some horrible things…” 

“Someone vandalized her truck?” he cut in. “Why didn’t she call me? When did this happen?” 

Billy Jo glanced over to the window. Her three-legged cat was curled up on the cat tree, whereas Lucky had padded into the kitchen and was lapping water out of his dog bowl. She started back toward him in the fuzzy robe that was more warm than flattering, and he didn’t know what to make of the shadows around her eyes. He knew well the places her head went when she struggled. What she was thinking, he had no idea. 

“Gail won’t phone you,” she said. “Not that she thinks you wouldn’t show up and file a report, because she knows you would, but I think she believes that because of what Tolly did, she deserves every hateful thing coming at her. Yet every time someone lashes out at her, it kills a little piece of her soul. I can see it. I know Tolly wasn’t strong enough to end things the way you did. But I also know he hid it well. So tonight we’ll take a pizza over, talk to her and be civilized, and let her know she’s a human being and we care.” 

Maybe it was the way she’d said it, but he wondered whether she understood how he felt about Gail. He couldn’t look at her without seeing Tolly. 

Instead of saying something, he took another swallow of coffee. 

“She thinks you hate her, Mark,” Billy Jo said, striding back over to him. She put her mug down on the island, not looking away from what he knew was likely shock staring back at her. 

“Excuse me?” he said. “I don’t hate her. Where would she ever get an idea like that?” 

Billy Jo took another step toward him, sliding her hand on the island to touch the file again, likely seeing the names listed. “Maybe it’s because you make excuses never to go and see her. I show up alone, and every time I do, she asks about you, and I feel like I’m cheating when I say you’re great but busy, or else you’d be there too. She doesn’t believe one word of it, because she can see in my face that I’m lying. Or maybe it’s because the last time she saw you was when you told her about Tolly.” 

Mark pulled his hand over his face, knowing she was right. He could feel the heavy sigh of frustration before it passed his lips. 

“You going to make me go alone?” Billy Jo said, pulling her arms over her chest, not looking away. 

“I don’t hate her,” he said. “I just don’t know what to say to her. There’s a difference.” 

Billy Jo glanced away, pulling in a deep breath. Then she lifted her gaze, which had softened just a bit. “Sometimes just being there is all that’s needed. Don’t say anything. Don’t pretend. Just pick up a piece of pizza and eat. Can you do that?” 

He’d never known Billy Jo to be so reasonable. “I can do that.” 

She ran her hand over his arm, rose up on her tiptoes, and kissed his cheek. “Good. And you may also want to consider asking Gail to help you dig into the people here. Pick her brain,” she said as she reached for her mug and topped it with more coffee. 

He wondered if she’d lost her mind. “Breaking bread with Gail is one thing, Billy Jo, but I’m not having her anywhere near this.” He knew it had come out rather sharply. He had felt the bite in his words. 

Billy Jo blew on the steaming coffee and took a swallow. “Well, that’s too bad, because I’m sure she could fill in a lot of holes about a lot of people that you wouldn’t otherwise know. And it may help her feel as if she’s doing something to make up for what Tolly did. It’s a helpless feeling, Mark, feeling responsible even though it’s not logical. You could dig and miss something Gail knows that you would never have figured out in a million years. She’s been here, like, forever.” She tapped his arm again. “Think about it, Mark. That’s all I ask.” 

Then she walked away, and he watched her, her heavy socks, her warm housecoat. This time, she didn’t look back. 

He reached for the file, seeing the names, as the shower popped on. 

“Yeah, there’s no way I’m asking Tolly Shephard’s widow for help when it comes to anyone on this island,” he muttered. Lucky brushed his leg, then looked up at him and whined. “Now, don’t go looking at me like that. We’ll go see her, eat pizza, and then leave.” 

There it was again, that sinking feeling he got every time he thought of Gail. As he took in the open file and the notes that only scratched the surface, he couldn’t help thinking Billy Jo was too often right. But he wouldn’t ask Gail even though she could clear up a lot of questions about a lot of people. 

No, involving Gail was exactly what he wasn’t going to do. 

Chapter 2

Mark dropped the files on his desk just as Carmen walked into his office, wearing a dark blue sweater over blue jeans, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. She was holding a file of her own, unsmiling, and her badge was pinned to the waistband of her jeans, her gun holstered. 

She closed the door. “You know, there’s a point where I wonder whether I’ll go to hell,” she said as she held out the file to Mark. “You have any idea how hard it was for me not to look at Lacy while I was digging into her personal life, learning the kinds of things I shouldn’t and don’t want to know? God damn, Chief, we all have something in our closets. Now I know way too much.” 

Mark reached for the file and glanced out of his glassed-in office to where Lacy was filling Lucky’s dog dish with more kibble. Her hair was short, a mix of white and dark. The scent of fresh brewing coffee was a reminder he needed another cup. He set the file atop the others on his desk, then shrugged out of his jean jacket and tossed it on a hook on the spindly old coat tree that had come with the office. “Good morning to you, too,” he said to Carmen, noting the impatience in her expression and how stiffly she stood. “Any red flags? Anything stick out that I need to see?” 

Carmen pulled her arms over her chest and made a rude noise as she shook her head. “Let’s see. She’s had a total of four different cell phones. Seems she cancels one when she gets a better deal somewhere else. Maybe I should ask her about that, considering my own carrier seems to be screwing me over and over. She has accounts at three different banks. The highest balance is with the local credit union, just over three thousand, give or take. The other two carry balances of only around fifty dollars. 

“She’s been divorced twice. Has a daughter who’s married, living in New Mexico. Ex number one is the father. Looks like the scumbag drained their bank account and took out a second and third mortgage on the house they owned, then lost everything to gambling debts, drinking, and a fondness for cocaine. The only good thing he did for her was up and leave. Lacy and her daughter were on food stamps and welfare for six months. 

“Then she worked a job in Astoria for three months before picking up odd jobs back on the island and living in an old travel trailer on the north end for a year. She worked at the cheese factory, one of the local farms, the brewery, and the grocery store, then cleaned houses and waited tables at four of the restaurants on the island. Deadbeat number two she married and divorced in six months. During that time, roughly ten years back, there was a complaint on file that Tolly responded to.” 

Mark opened the file, taking in the pages of notes. Hearing the name of the old chief, he was still having trouble coming to terms with his death. It sucker-punched him every time. Those last moments he had seen Tolly alive still haunted him. 

“What kind of trouble was it?” he said, flipping the pages. 

Carmen leaned on his desk and pointed to the third page, halfway down. “She pulled a shotgun on deadbeat number two and threw him out of the house, her house, which she bought after scraping together enough money. The deadbeat called Tolly, saying she was trying to kill him, which apparently was how Tolly found her when he arrived on scene. He took the shotgun and talked the deadbeat into leaving quietly. Looks like the deadbeat hired a lawyer to push it further, though, and ended up getting half of what Lacy had managed to put away. A nice fat payday. Evidently, he had taken up with Dori Little, who runs the post office, and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Lacy busted him for the affair. Lacy had to move, because him taking half meant selling the only thing that was hers. That put her in the little house she now owns by the cove.” 

Mark flicked his gaze over to Carmen. He knew by the way she had hesitated that she wasn’t done. He lifted a brow but said nothing, and she gestured toward the file again. 

“If you’re wondering whether Dori is still with the deadbeat, no. Seems she saw the light not long after. For the record, I can see why Lacy has decided men aren’t worth the effort. She’s remained single, and for that she’s kept her house and her bank accounts.” Carmen pulled in a heavy breath and tossed an uneasy glance over her shoulder. “Now how the hell am I supposed to look her in the eye, knowing what I know about her messy personal life? God dammit, Chief, if anyone looked into my past…” She angled her head. “Wait, you looked into my past?” 

At the sharpness in her tone, he felt pinned by her scrutiny. He made himself clear his throat. “You were always a tough one to read. I looked into you long ago, Carmen. For the record, you were screwed over. Always bothered me what happened with your kid. But, cards on the table, I’m pretty sure you’ve done your own digging into my life, probably before I got here. So now that we all know everything about each other, let’s move past it. Good to know there’s nothing to worry about with Lacy and my instincts about her were right on.” 

There it was, the blank look Carmen had mastered. She blew out a breath. Maybe she was still stuck on the fact that he knew she was human just like he was. “Fine,” was all she said, with a ton of snark. She glanced away just as there was a tap on the door and it popped open. 

“Chief, coffee’s ready,” Lacy said, leaning in. “Lucky is out of kibble, so I’m going to make a quick run to the corner store.” 

Carmen was quiet, with an expression that gave nothing away. She pulled her arms over her chest, awkward. 

“Oh, and are you done dissecting my past, Carmen?” Lacy continued. “Found all my skeletons? My bank called with one of those automated alerts, said someone had pulled my credit, which I thought was odd, since I’m not in the market to buy anything. I’ve learned the hard way from deadbeats trying to steal from me, so I know when someone is doing something they shouldn’t behind my back. Then there was the fact that you couldn’t look me in the eye for two days. 

“Well, I’m not an idiot. I know you’re looking into everyone on this island. Wondered when my turn was coming. Guess I have my answer. Yes, I’m not perfect. My credit is average. Never understood the world of finance, but I did figure out how to balance my own checkbook after living in a moldy trailer for a year with my daughter. Never put all my money in one bank, either, and I’ve finally figured out how to stop paying endless fees. I’ve never stolen anything except for the candy I pocketed when I was five and my mother wasn’t looking. My car I own outright, and I have no secret stash of cash anywhere. Wish I did. Oh, and I’ve been binge-watching Netflix before I cancel that subscription. I’m too cheap to purchase cable, and I have time on my hands since spring is coming and I’m waiting for the ground to thaw so I can expand my garden. Any other questions?” 

Carmen appeared uncomfortable in the face of Lacy’s calm. Damn, he really liked her. 

“Just one candy?” Mark said as he closed Lacy’s file. 

A twitch of a smile pulled at the edges of her lips. She only shook her head. 

“Thanks, Lacy,” he said. “Appreciate it, you taking care of my dog.” He pulled a twenty from his wallet and held it out to her, and she walked around Carmen, saying nothing. The icy chill that lingered had him wincing. 

“Oh, and, Chief,” Lacy said as she took the twenty, “you may want to stop in and have a word with Shana Guzman. She owns the local pub, the Dog and Whistle. She mentioned last night that her ex surprised the hell out of her by moving here after she hadn’t heard from him in, like, forever. She was downright pissed, too. Apparently, he said something about wanting to make amends.” 

Mark dragged his gaze to Carmen, who had an odd expression—curiosity or pensiveness, he wasn’t sure. “Shana and her ex, what do we know about them?” he said. 

Carmen lifted her hands. “I know nothing about him. Shana has a kid, I think…” 

“Shana grew up here,” Lacy said. “Nice lady. Locals know her. She’s a straight shooter but, like many of us, attracts the wrong kind. She’s always been hard working. Hasn’t heard from her ex since her daughter was two. Just saying, because I know you want to know about everyone on the island, he apparently bought forty acres on the west side. Showed up the other day, and I’ve never seen Shana so angry. All I know is she doesn’t trust him.” Lacy stepped back. “You’ll listen for the phone?” 

“Yeah, we got it,” Mark said, and Lacy was already walking back to her desk. 

“You want me to take that one, add it to the list?” Carmen said. 

Mark watched Lacy grab her purse and head out. It was suddenly so quiet, and that sinking feeling he had too often was back. “Nope, I’ve got this one. You just keep working through everyone in town.” The coffee smelled tempting, but the knot in his stomach and the tightness that pulled across his shoulders had him glancing at the clock on the wall and reaching for his jacket on the coat tree. “I’m going to have a word with Shana, find out who this ex is. You hold down the fort and try to smooth things over with Lacy.” 

“What do you want me to say?” Carmen said. “You’re the one who told me to check into her, yet she’s pissed at me.” 

Mark knew he had winced. He’d never understood why women were harder on other women than on men. “You want me to talk to her?” 

Carmen uncrossed her arms and flicked her hand at him, giving him the pissed-off vibe that seemed to roll off her at times. “I don’t need anyone running interference for me,” she said, then walked out of his office past Lucky, who was walking in. 

Mark considered this for only a second before reaching for his keys and saying, “Come on, boy, let’s go.” 

Chapter 3

Mark could feel the rain in the air as he stepped out of his Jeep into the parking lot, empty except for an older green Subaru. 

“Come on, boy,” he said, then waited for Lucky to jump down before he closed the door. 

His cowboy boots scraped the gravel as he took in the old clapboard building, painted a light tan, and the old neon sign for the Dog and Whistle, which had wires sticking out, wrapped in electrical tape. There were beer bottles on the railing of the old porch. 

He pulled open the door and heard the clink of glasses. The scent of stale beer hit him as he pulled off his sunglasses and tucked them in his shirtfront. 

“I’m closed. Don’t open until eleven,” Shana called out with her back to him, her dark hair pulled into a ponytail, carrying a handful of dirty glasses. Then she turned around. 

“I can see that,” he said. “Hoping to have a word or two with you, Shana.” 

She set the glasses on a tray, then reached for a gray dish bin and headed toward a table still covered with dirty glasses. She was a short woman, not much taller than Billy Jo, with a round face. He figured she was in her late thirties, give or take. “You want a word with me, Chief? What about? Something happen I need to worry about? Can tell you it was a quiet night yesterday aside from a few of the usual rowdies, who otherwise behaved themselves.” 

Mark took in the tables, the old wood chairs, and a pool table at the far end. 

“Your dog going to behave himself too?” Shana said, her gaze going right to Lucky. “I just mopped the floor and don’t intend to wash it again.” She jutted her chin to a bucket and mop in the corner. 

“Don’t worry about him,” he said. 

“Mm-hmm,” was all she said in response. 

“Lacy said something about your ex moving back here?” 

Shana shook her head, clearing off the table, and reached for the bar towel over the shoulder of her black t-shirt. When she straightened, wiping her hands, she gave him a scowl he hadn’t expected. “Walter? You want to talk to me about Walter? What the hell did he do? What is this really about?” She tossed the towel back over her shoulder and lifted her hands, oozing tension. Evidently, there was more than a story here. 

“You know we’ve had some trouble on the island,” he said. “Just doing my due diligence when I heard he recently moved back. You’ve had problems with him?” 

She shook her head and frowned before letting out a rough laugh. “Problems? The man did me a favor by walking out on us without a word when Haley, my daughter, was two. At the time, he didn’t give me the time of day or return one call. Now he suddenly shows up and says he wants to make amends after basically telling me to go fuck myself without saying a word? I’m pissed that he thinks he can just walk back into my life, my daughter’s life. He bought a place, not just any place but a nice piece of property, forty acres, a nice big house, yet he couldn’t give two cents to his kid? No, no problems. I’m totally peachy,” she said with a bite. 

Mark never had been able to navigate women’s emotions. “Didn’t know that,” he said. “An expensive property? So he’s worth something.” 

Shana made a rude noise as she lifted the gray bin, glasses clinking, and walked back around the bar. “Guess that all depends on how you define being worth something.” 

Mark walked over to the bar and gestured to Lucky to sit. “You have any idea why he suddenly moved here?” 

Shana was now wiping down the bar again, her face not hiding her dislike. “No idea. As I said, he showed up here, walked in after years without a word, and said he wanted to make things right. I told him to go fuck himself. He asked me to hear him out, said he had reasons for doing what he did. I told him at one time I might have listened, but I really don’t give a shit now. As a matter of fact, I told him to leave and not set foot back in my bar.” She pointed to the bar top before picking up the rag again and scrubbing at it. “This is my place. Now, why he’s here is the million-dollar question. I really don’t care, but if he has any ideas about inserting himself into Haley’s life or mine, he won’t get that chance, and I told him as much. But you haven’t told me what he’s done or why you’re asking about him.” She had finally stopped wiping the scratched dark brown bar counter and looked up at him, unsmiling. 

“Just doing my due diligence, Shana. I don’t have anything on him. Lacy mentioned him to me this morning, and I just want to make sure everything is on the up and up, that he’s not moving here to cause problems. Is he retired, working? I mean, what does he do?” 

Shana glanced away and then smiled. “Ah, Lacy. Love her. Didn’t expect her to go to you. You planning on paying him a visit? Maybe you can ask him all that, because me asking would mean I give a shit, and I don’t. And, while you’re at it, remind him of the fact that he walked out of our lives, so he should stay out.” 

Now he had more questions. 

“Well, you’re my first stop, and he’s my next,” he said. “I’ll be sure to ask him. So what can you tell me about him, Walter Guzman?” 

“Crandall,” she said. “His name is Walter Crandall. I kept my name, and in fact, my daughter has my name too. Of every bad choice I made, giving her his name was not one, though I’ve had no shortage of people forcing their opinions on me about how not okay that was. As far as I know, he’s never been in trouble with the law. He never cheated on me, either, as far as I know. Instead, he worked all the time. Yes, his first love was his career, and I was second. He has a fondness for vanilla ice cream, hates seafood. Used to run in his younger days, but only when he was stressed. He doesn’t much care for animals, would never allow me to get a cat or dog. He’s a neat freak, can’t stand dirt, to the point that a glass can’t even be left in the sink. He has a thing for shoes. Hates beer but has a fondness for chocolate-flavored whiskey. He wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this. Hates most sports except cricket.” 

Mark was getting a picture of someone he didn’t see fitting in on the island. Maybe his expression said so, as an odd smile pulled at the corners of Shana’s lips. 

“Wondering how someone like me could end up with someone like that?” she said. 

He had to remind himself he hadn’t yet met this man, but the image she had painted wasn’t flattering. He made himself shake his head. “I’m not going there. So, as far as you know, he’s not involved in anything questionable?” 

“Define questionable.” She leaned on the bar, her brows raised, her gaze intense. 

“Anything that raises a red flag.” 

She leaned back. “You’ll have to ask him, because even now, I’m wondering how I could have ever fallen for him. The best thing that came out of our being together was my daughter, and the next was him leaving. Other than that…” She lifted her hands and gave her head another shake. “Seriously, I have no idea why he’s here. I didn’t ask. Red flags? I don’t know. He works all the time. When he wasn’t working, he was always thinking of work. Anything else?” 

The way she’d said it, he realized she really didn’t want to know. That was something else he hadn’t expected. 

“What does he do for work?” he said. 

She pulled in a breath. “He’s a corporate executive. Marketing, that kind of thing. On a big scale, though. He runs a department for a big company, with a sizable staff working under him. He was always giving presentations, putting together sales pitches, closing deals. Nothing that interests me in the least. Are you looking for his specific job duties? That’s not something we discussed, ever, because I have no interest. All I know is he works with the kind of people I’m not interested in meeting, the kind of people who don’t bat an eye at paying a thousand dollars for dinner. I didn’t attend anything with him after we were married. And only one miserably embarrassing time before we were married, which I will not go into. At the time, I told myself it was because he knew I wasn’t interested, wouldn’t know the difference between a butter knife and a table knife, and failed miserably at bullshit small talk. He found it amusing. Whatever events he went to, he went alone. But in hindsight, I often wonder why he was so willing to keep me out of it.” 

He just stared at her, again wondering why that unsettled feeling just wouldn’t go away. Her gaze seemed to soften, and he wasn’t sure what she was thinking as she let out a sigh. 

“Yeah, we really weren’t a match,” she said. “Sorry, Chief, that’s all I can tell you. Again, as to why he’s really here, your guess is as good as mine.” 

“Thanks, Shana,” Mark said. “Anything else? Oh, and do you have his address, by any chance?” 

She turned and reached into a box behind the bar to pull out a card. “I can do better than that. He left his card with a phone number and address.” She held it out to him, and Mark reached for it. 

“I can take a photo with my phone,” he said, but she only waved him off. 

“Keep it, really. He left it on the bar, and instead of tossing it, I kept it. Seriously, you’ll be doing me a favor.” 

Mark shoved the card with the address scribbled on the back in his jacket pocket, then started to the door, saying, “Come on, Lucky.” 

“Oh, and, Chief, one more thing,” Shana called out. 

He turned back to her, his hand already on the door. 

“When you see Walter, give him a message for me. Tell him Haley and I are doing fine, better than fine, and if he gives a shit about his daughter, he’ll stay away from us. She doesn’t need him walking back into her life now to mess things up. And as far as making things right, tell him I’m not interested.” 

He didn’t know what to say, taking in the sharpness in her gaze. “I’ll give him your message. Thanks again, Shana,” he said. Then he walked out the door, his dog following him. 

He felt the rain sprinkling down as he pulled open the door to the Jeep and said, “Get in there, boy.” As Lucky jumped in, he took another second to observe the old bar, which wasn’t much to look at, and he wondered what kinds of things his digging would turn up on Walter Crandall. 

A man who wanted to make amends was someone who’d done something he needed to make amends for. Was it just the fact that he’d walked out on a wife and kid? 

Mark climbed in his Jeep and started the engine. Running his hand over his dog in the passenger seat, he took in the old car he knew belonged to Shana. Something about all of this just didn’t sit right. 

Chapter 4

Billy Jo’s windshield wipers flicked back and forth in the light rain as she pulled down a paved circular driveway bordered by trees and bushes, taking in the gloom and dreariness that seemed to affect more people than not on the island. The once landscaped front yard, always neat and tidy, was now piled with old wet leaves and debris that appeared forgotten. 

As she pulled up in front of Gail’s house, the siding that she thought had been white seemed mostly filled with hints of gray. So much had changed, as if the life of the home were slowly seeping away. It was just a feeling she got. Something about this house, this once welcoming property, seemed so empty. Loss hung heavy in the air. 

Gail’s pickup was parked in front of an older tan Explorer she knew had to be Tolly’s with a bad paint job she knew was to cover up the vandalism. She put her car in park and turned off the engine, breathing in the large shrimp and mushroom pizza, which she knew was Gail’s favorite. Damn, she wished she could do more for her. 

She reached for her cell phone and saw nothing from Mark, a silence she hoped wasn’t his way of saying he wouldn’t show. There were times she wanted to wring his neck. She typed out a quick text: Where are you? I’m at Gail’s and you’re not! Don’t you dare not show. 

She waited for a moment, feeling the knot in her stomach before she saw the three dots and then his text back: On my way. Do you need me to pick up pizza? 

She let out a breath. The front door had opened, and Gail was standing there, her arms crossed. Damn, she looked as if she’d lost more weight. She didn’t smile but lifted her hand in a wave. 

Billy Jo sent off a reply. No, I already did. Just hurry your ass up before it gets cold. 

His message popped up again: Five minutes, promise. 

Billy Jo shoved her phone in her purse, reached for the pizza box, and climbed out, juggling the box as she lifted her bulky purse over her shoulder. “Hi, Gail. Mark’s on his way,” she said. 

Just then, she heard his Jeep and spotted him driving in fast, the way he always did. He parked behind her as she shoved her door closed, and she waited as he climbed out and held the door for Lucky to jump down, his tail wagging all the way over to her. 

“Hey, you.” She gave him a rub with her free hand, and then he took off to Gail as Mark strode over to her. “You made it,” she couldn’t help herself from saying. 

He lifted his hand and called out, “Hey, Gail!” before he reached for the pizza box, then leaned in and kissed her. 

“How was your day?” she said, not knowing what to make of his blue eyes. Something was on his mind, or maybe whatever emotion she saw there was because she was making him break bread with Gail. She knew how much trouble he was having with all of this. She reached over and touched his arm, feeling his heavy jean jacket. The rain was beginning to pick up a bit. 

“Fine, busy,” he said. “Some crazy stuff and more crap. How was yours? Thought you were going to drop by the station first?” He managed to turn her and slide his hand over her lower back to have them walking to the open door, which Lucky had already gone through. 

“Couldn’t because my day got away from me.” And the pizza place was closer to Gail’s than town. “I sent you a text.” 

Mark said nothing at the same time Billy Jo didn’t miss the shadows that filled Gail’s eyes as she stared at Mark, not trying to force a smile, and said, “How have you been?” 

The edge in her tone gave away how much she was struggling. A good day, a bad day? Billy Jo figured the latter, by the gray sweats and bulky beige sweater, which she was pretty sure was Tolly’s. 

“I’m good, Gail,” Mark said. “See you have some yard work that needs taking care of.” 

Gail didn’t pull her gaze from Mark. The fondness that had always been there between them was now a wariness. “Had other things on my mind,” she said, and there it was, an awkwardness that lingered. Billy Jo had to fight the urge to wince. 

“Well, I don’t know about you two, but I’m absolutely starving,” she said. “I see Lucky has already made himself at home.” 

Gail stepped back. “Come on in, you two. Sorry this is still kind of awkward. I don’t have many stopping by. It’s been quite a while, Mark.” 

Billy Jo kicked off her shoes, and Mark closed the door behind him and gave his cowboy boots a quick wipe but kept them on. 

“Well, can I get either of you a beer?” Gail said. “I don’t have any wine left and haven’t worked up enough nerve to go into town. Plan on making another trip off island to stock up on things.” She had walked on ahead into the kitchen. 

Billy Jo tapped Mark on the chest and looked up to him, making a face. 

“What?” he said in a low voice. “I’m here, aren’t I?” 

She only shook her head as she walked ahead of him, and Mark called out, “Beer sounds good, Gail.” 

Gail had filled a bowl with water and set it on the floor, and Lucky was already lapping it up. Billy Jo took in the counter, which was filled with empty bottles: wine, beer, a few liquors. In the family room, boxes were stacked in the corner, and in the fireplace she could see half-burned paper. She made herself look over at Gail. “Never been a beer drinker,” she said. “I’ll just have some water.” 

Gail pulled a beer from the fridge and held it out to Mark, saying, “Here you go.” 

“Thanks, Gail.” Mark twisted off the cap. 

Billy Jo listened to Lucky lapping up the water as she shrugged out of her dark blue jacket and set it over the back of the chair. Mark had settled the pizza box on the counter. She realized Gail was already drinking a beer, evidently having started before they came. She was distracted, carrying the weight of everything on her shoulders. She’d already forgotten about Billy Jo’s water. 

“Let me get some plates,” she said. 

Damn, this was awkward. Maybe she should have come alone. She glanced over to Mark, who was looking around, staring at the boxes. He took a swallow of beer and shot her a look, having picked up on the problem. Billy Jo listened to the clatter as Gail set the plates down along with a roll of paper towels, then lifted the box lid. 

“Mark, come on,” she said. “I know you never shy away from eating. Dig in, considering you brought the pizza.” 

Billy Jo didn’t wait. She dropped a piece of pizza on a plate and handed it to Mark, and his blue eyes didn’t pull away. He really was struggling with being there. What was it with guys? She supposed Mark never got into an emotional black hole when he was struggling. She dropped another piece on a second plate and said, “Here, Gail,” then waited for Gail to take it before getting a piece for herself. 

Mark sat at the head of the table with a scrape of his chair, Gail at the other end, and Billy Jo took a bite of the pizza before she walked over to the cupboard and pulled out a glass. 

“Oh, geez, Billy Jo, I forgot about your water,” Gail said, scooting back her chair to get up. 

“Don’t worry, I got it,” Billy Jo said. “Sit down, Gail.” She filled the glass from the tap, brought it and her plate to the table, and fetched the box from the island as well before sitting down at the empty chair in the middle. 

Mark shoved the last of his piece in his mouth and reached for another. Gail took the tiniest bite ever and kept looking awkwardly over to Mark. Damn, the silence was unnerving. 

“So what’s with the empty bottles?” Billy Jo said after taking another bite. “You been drinking alone or cleaning house?” 

Gail dropped her half-eaten pizza on her plate and wiped her hands together before leaning back, reaching for her beer, and tipping it to drink. She looked over to Billy Jo, gesturing with the beer in her hand as she said, “Cleaning up, you could say. Those are from a while ago. Knowing you were coming, the place was…well, let’s just say I’m not much of a cleaner lately. It was so bad that I realized I needed to at least run the vacuum. But once I started vacuuming, I had to pick up, and one thing led to another…” Gail took another swallow of her beer and finished it. 

Billy Jo couldn’t help wondering how much she’d been drinking. She took in the short haircut she was sporting and the dark circles that had appeared under her eyes since Mark had told her about Tolly. “You sleeping?” she asked. 

Gail shrugged. 

Mark had finished off another piece and reached for a third, but this time he shot a quick glance to Billy Jo and then to Gail, and she realized he was listening more than she’d realized. 

“Is that a yes or a no?” she said. “I see you’ve lost more weight, too.” 

Gail let out a heavy sigh and a rough laugh. “Yes, Mom, the nights suck because that’s when the ghosts come out.” She reached for her pizza again and made herself take a bite. “I’m sleeping a few hours at a time. Had a nap before you came, so there is that. But I’d rather talk about anything else. You two, you look happy, good. Tell me what’s going on with you, the new house, anything. Come on, I need a distraction.” 

Billy Jo had to fight the urge to redirect the conversation back and make her talk about the ghosts, her feelings, and how she was really doing. 

“I’m investigating everyone on the island,” Mark said, leaning back in his chair with a creak. He took another bite and chewed, then swallowed, and his heavy gaze connected with hers. She felt every day that they were more and more on the same page, but then there was this. 

“You’re investigating everyone? Why? For what?” Gail leaned on the table, her pizza back on her plate. 

“We had a den of pedophiles here in positions of power, and the entire time I’ve been on this island, there has been one bad actor after another. It seems the elite of the world use this place as their personal playground. I’m looking into everyone. I want to know why everyone is here, how they make their money, and any secrets they’re hiding. Everyone has them, so I’m going to do my due diligence and find out what everyone is about, one by one. I will look into everyone’s closet so that never again will shenanigans of any kind happen on this island.” 

Mark hadn’t pulled his gaze from Gail. For a moment, Billy Jo couldn’t wrap her head around what he was doing, bringing up the very thing he’d said he didn’t want Gail anywhere near. 

“You’re investigating people who haven’t done anything?” Gail said. “Kind of stepping over the line there, Mark.” She put her pizza down and brushed her hands together. “But I have to say I agree with you.” 

Billy Jo turned to Gail, taking in the awkwardness and a hint of something she hadn’t seen in a long time. She wondered sometimes about the shadows that haunted her still. When would Tolly and what he’d done, what he’d been part of, leave her? 

Gail glanced out the window and then back to Mark. “Can I help?” 

Billy Jo turned to Mark, she was still holding her pizza. Mark was considering as he finished chewing, wearing that look he had when he was focused, saying nothing. She dragged her gaze back over to Gail, who was watching Mark expectantly. For a moment, she wanted to kick him under the table. 

“Yeah, actually, you can,” he said. 

Billy Jo whipped her head back to him. This had been her idea, and he’d said hell no. He must have realized she was staring at him, but he didn’t look her way. 

“Wonderful,” Gail said. “How?” 

Billy Jo angled her head, and now Mark did glance her way. 

“What can you tell me about Shana Guzman, who owns the Dog and Whistle, and her ex, Walter Crandall, who just moved back to the island?” he said. “She hates him. He disappeared for a while and now wants to make amends, though I don’t know for what, exactly.” He moved in the wooden chair, and it creaked again as he leaned back, setting a hand on the table. “Let’s start there. Tell me everything you know about both of them—who he is, what he does, and any ideas you have about why he’s suddenly back on the island. I want to know what he did and for whom, because I have to tell you, something about this and him isn’t sitting right.” 

Mark had that look about him again. Billy Jo didn’t know who the hell he was talking about, but he glanced back over to her as he said, “I get a feeling when something is off, and I have it now. Walter Crandall and Shana Guzman, I want to know everything about their story and what, exactly, he’s hiding in his closet.” 

Chapter 5

Billy Jo had a way of watching him that felt as if she were shooting daggers his way. She was intense, bold, and he couldn’t pull anything on her. He knew he should have talked to her before bringing up Shana and her ex, because Billy Jo and surprises couldn’t coexist. In fact, she was likely to pull him out of the room soon and ask him what the fuck he was doing. 

But instead of letting her, he leaned forward and set his hand over hers, and she stiffened. She settled down only when she was damn good and ready. Then there was Gail, who had seemed to brighten from the sadness and despair that was sucking the very life out of her. 

“Sorry, babe,” Mark said. “I know I should have mentioned this. Just been a shitty day. Never know what’s going to come out of left field. Gail, you should know that my wife suggested I ask you to lend a hand and give your insight into the people here, and I think she’s right. I mean, you know the people on this island better than I do, better than most, and could likely save me a lot of time and digging.” 

Gail leaned back, having suddenly gone quiet, and he didn’t know what to make of the expression on her face. “You know, Mark, I do know the people on this island, but some of the people I thought I knew, I realized I didn’t know them at all. You’re right about one thing: People can hide horrible secrets, and what you see isn’t always what’s real.” 

Now he knew she was talking about the preacher and Tolly. He wondered if he’d ever get the image of the last moments of Tolly’s life out of his head. He knew Billy Jo was right; he was going to have to sit down and talk with Gail about Tolly, only he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to find the words. 

“Yes, that’s true about everyone, Gail,” Billy Jo said, “but you know people here, and I think you can help make it easier for Mark so he’s not starting from scratch when he’s looking into them. This island has a lot of people who own places here but live elsewhere. You know who parks their money in real estate, who visits maybe a few weeks a year, and who lives here full time, and you know who the original residents of the island are. I bet you know a lot of secrets Mark doesn’t.” 

Mark hadn’t expected this reasonable encouragement from Billy Jo, who had pulled her hand out from under his and leaned back, crossing her arms over her chest. At times, she was so damn hard to read, and he knew he had to tread carefully. 

“Did you have any idea of the wise woman you were marrying, Mark?” Gail said. 

He had to remind himself every day. “I know how lucky I am,” he replied. 

Billy Jo didn’t look at him right away, but when she did, that familiar awkwardness was there. She still didn’t know how to take a compliment. Gail was watching them both closely, and Billy Jo didn’t appear amused. 

“Okay, so Shana and Walter,” Mark said, then sighed and leaned forward, resting his forearms on the table after he had pushed his plate away. He reached for his beer and took a swallow. Billy Jo was still watching him, and he knew she wanted a word or two with him. 

“Shana is a damn hard worker,” Gail said. “She and Walter were never a match. You know how some men marry beneath them? Well, Walter comes from that world. With his people, with the circles he moved in, Shana never fit. I have no idea how they met, but I do know Shana is one of the island kids. She grew up with backwoods bonfires, swimming at the local lakes, roasting hotdogs over a fire, and crushing peanuts on the floor of the old bar, whereas Walter is all about black tie events, Gucci, and getting a reservation at a five-star restaurant where the dinner service placement confuses the hell out of the average person. Shana wouldn’t have a clue which fork to use, or which knife, or that the drinkware depends on the wine you choose. Don’t even get me started on the bread plate and whether it goes on the right or left. The types of formal dinners Walter was accustomed to have a dress code, jacket and tie or dress and heels, with butlers and etiquette to boot. 

“I remember hearing from her once what a nightmare it was the one time he took her to a charity dinner, a work dinner. She was expecting something resembling what you might see with a local charity, maybe auctions or something with the money going to the needy. After all, what is a charity for? But she was humiliated when she discovered the dinner was only about getting money for a large foundation. She never really understood the people there, who she never in a million years could have fit in with. She said everything about the night was all show. She messed up every protocol possible, using the wrong fork, taking bread from the plate of the man to her right, not having a clue what the hell anyone was talking about. She drank too much and spilled her last glass of wine. 

“That was all she shared. She was embarrassed and uncomfortable, and she said Walter was furious with her. When they got home, she told him not to ever take her to an event like that again. Apparently, he didn’t. He went alone, and she worked at her bar, and eventually he went off island to wherever he went. Never saw them together at all. I do know he worked for some big philanthropic foundation, and when I say big, I mean big, all about money. The people he worked with lived in a world the average person is never invited to. 

“Shana didn’t want any part of it. What exactly he did I can’t tell you, but I do know he worked with private family foundations, handling the kind of money you and I will never see in this lifetime. To tell you the truth, it’s not so much that he and Shana were opposites, because opposites do work at times. It was that Shana didn’t belong in his world. Anyway, he was always away, traveling for work, I suppose, and it wasn’t as if they had been together that long. Don’t know why he married her—on a whim, maybe. But then she was pregnant, and if I recall, he wasn’t even in town when his daughter was born.” She pulled her arms across her chest, and her brow knit. She was thinking. 

“Shana said he walked out when her daughter was two,” Mark said. “He didn’t provide any support, just left.” 

Gail shrugged. “I don’t know about that, but I heard that one day he was there and the next he was gone. Shana kept her head up and moved on. News came that they divorced, but she didn’t share much about it. You said Walter has moved back to the island?” 

Mark didn’t have to look over to his wife to know she was still watching him closely. He tapped the table. “Yes. I stopped in and had a word with Shana. He bought a big property on the west end.” 

“You mean the forty waterfront acres with the boat house and caretaker’s house?” Gail said. “It’s a gated property that was listed at twelve million and change.” 

He really didn’t know the island like Gail. Now he did glance at Billy Jo. “Well, I didn’t have a chance to check that part, but it sounds about right. Take it you know the property? I had Carmen run the address and tax records. Haven’t paid him a visit yet, but I plan to after I run a few checks on him first.” 

Billy Jo had looked away and become unusually quiet. 

“Where would you look first?” Mark said, flicking his gaze to Gail, who looked between Billy Jo and him. 

“Well, I would find out why he’s here,” she said. “Go talk to him face to face and get a read on him before you start digging into his past, his life. Come on, Mark. You have the best instincts in a cop, and you know when someone’s lying to you or something is off. But at the same time, and this is just a word of advice, you also want to be careful how much you dig, because the kind of investigating you’re doing could lead you down rabbit holes you may not want to go down. Everyone has secrets, things they’d never want anyone to know about them. And sometimes those secrets can be dark and dirty, and they change how people see you in the community. If he’s a bad guy, sure, you expose the shit out of him. But if you’re not one hundred percent sure, remember that in the wrong hands, a well-placed lie or assumption can spread like wildfire. And that can destroy someone.” 

He wondered whether they were talking about her now, about how the people of the island had tarred and feathered her over what Tolly had done. Billy Jo still said nothing. 

“I know very well how misinformation and disinformation are used,” Mark said, “and I’m also well aware of how to destroy someone’s credibility with a well-placed and believable lie. You probably know who on the island is trustworthy, who is questionable, who not to trust, and who looks too good to be true.” 

The quiet was unsettling. Gail flicked her blue eyes, which were filled with the weight of the world, over to him as she said, “So how does this work? You want to call me or just swing by when you have questions?” 

Billy Jo pulled in a rather deep breath. “How it works is that you’ll need to leave this house, Gail. You’ll work out of the station,” she said, then turned her sharp gaze on Mark, who knew he was frowning. “That works for you, doesn’t it, Mark?” 

Now what the hell was he supposed to say? He tapped his fingers on the table and took in the tightness around his wife’s mouth. 

“Sure,” was all he said, though he suspected that having Gail work out of the station was not a good idea at all. 


Are you all caught up?

Billy Jo McCabe Mystery
Nothing As It Seems
Hiding in Plain Sight
The Cold Case

The Trap

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The Trap

Above the Law

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Above the Law

The Stranger at the Door

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The Stranger at the Door

The Children

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The Children

The Last Stand

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The Last Stand

The Charity

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The Charity

The Sacrifice

Buy now!
The Sacrifice

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