The Free Friday Read

Read the first chapter of the next Billy Jo McCabe mystery!

 December 3, 2021

By  Lorhainne Eckhart

Coming Soon

The Last Stand

The Last Stand

From New York Times & USA Today bestselling author Lorhainne Eckhart comes a new Billy Jo McCabe mystery set on a small island town in the Pacific Northwest. On the eve of Police Chief Mark Friessen’s wedding, a fierce snowstorm blankets the island, knocking out power, and the body of a woman is discovered in the church. The only clue is the note in her hand, a list of names—all members of Mark’s family.

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Chapter 1

Mark stared at the weekly report of problems, a revolving door of the same people, those he could do something about and those who just got better at hiding their crimes. He heard the knock on his door just as he took a swallow of coffee, and he turned where he was standing beside his desk.

“Hey, Chief,” said Carmen. “Just got a call from Lisa Jenkins about a man who’s openly threatening her. His hostility is over the top, so much so that she fears for her safety. She said she showed up for a wellness check on his kids and believes he’s hurting them and interfering with her taking them.”

He just stared at Carmen as she shrugged on her heavy coat, wondering whether he was supposed to know who Lisa Jenkins was. Maybe his expression gave him away. He set down the printed three-page report, which had been waiting on his desk when he walked in an hour earlier.

“Taking kids, wellness checks? You lost me. Who is this?” He let out a heavy sigh, feeling the weight of everything. His parents were on their way, his brothers, their families, and Billy-Jo’s family. He still needed to pay the restaurant, pick up his new suit, and make sure he stopped in at the church at some point that day to make sure everything was a go for the wedding. He gave his head a shake, willing himself to get back in the game.

“Lisa…” Carmen said. “You know, the junior social worker brought in to help with the rise in the case load? For your fiancée.”

Right. He thought Billy Jo had mentioned that at the church before their meeting with the minister who would listen as they said “I do” and officially proclaim them mister and missus. Maybe that was why he was feeling a gigantic pressure right in the middle of his chest. Mark reached for his cell phone on his desk but saw no message from Billy Jo.

“Billy Jo didn’t call,” he said. “Is she there too?” He had his phone to his ear already, and it was ringing, but it went right to voicemail.

“Hello, this is Billy Jo McCabe, with DCFS. I can’t take your call right now. Leave me a message and I’ll call you back when I can. If this is an emergency…”

He hung up. Right, she wasn’t going in to work that day because Chase and Rose were flying in, and she was doing all the last-minute stuff involving her dress and something else he couldn’t remember.

He realized Carmen was still standing there. “No answer.” He held his phone up. “I’ll come with you. Have you met this Lisa?” He reached for his keys in his drawer and shoved his phone in his pocket, looking to Carmen as he strode over to the coat tree and reached for his black down winter coat. His gun was holstered on his favorite blue jeans, and his sheriff’s badge was pinned to his shirt.

“Only once,” she said. “She’s young. Don’t think she’s been doing this long. You want to follow me?”

Mark shrugged on his coat. “Yeah. So tell me again who she is and what’s going on. Would have thought this would go through Billy Jo. You said this social worker is taking the kids? She’s supposed to call us first, or have I missed something?”

Carmen had already pulled open the door to the station and was walking out. A blast of cold swept over him as he glanced back to his dog’s empty bed. Billy Jo had Lucky at home. Maybe that was also why he felt so off that day. His routine was being completely screwed up.

“Lacy,” he called out.

“I already know,” the dispatcher replied. “I took the call and patched it through to Carmen.” She was behind her desk, Gail’s old desk, and she gestured to him as she stood up. So damn efficient, but he wondered when he’d stop comparing her to Gail. “You’ll be at the Clarks’. I got it.” She just lifted her hand, and Mark took in Elisha’s empty desk, as well, knowing she was already doing rounds on the island.

“Well, good,” he said. “If Billy Jo calls, tell her to call me.”

He didn’t miss what he thought was the hint of a smile tugging at the older woman’s lips. Her hair was a mix of dark and white, and he was pretty sure she was as tall as Gail.

He stepped out of the office and kept walking down the steps, feeling the icy chill. The salt on the steps crunched under his cowboy boots. Heavy clouds loomed overhead, but he knew it was too cold for rain.

Carmen was already in the sheriff’s cruiser as Mark pulled open the door of his Jeep and started the engine. Carmen backed out, swinging around and flicking on her siren. So they were there, kids in trouble, a desperate situation. Damn, he hated that. He wished Billy Jo had filled him in more on this Lisa.

He followed Carmen as she pulled down a road he was familiar with and took in the houses so close together. Cars pulled over to the side as they flew past another road, more trees and privacy. Carmen pulled up in front of a small older two-story. He could see a man in the doorway, dark skinned, tall, lanky, and a woman on the porch.

Carmen was parked behind a burgundy Hyundai, and Mark stopped in front, turning off his engine, feeling his sidearm. He stepped out of the Jeep, his coat now zipped, and reached for his brown knit hat in his pocket. As he pulled it on, feeling the bite of cold, he strode across the grass, Carmen already two steps ahead of him.

“Thank goodness you’re here,” the young woman said. “This man is preventing me from doing my job. He’s openly harassed me and been verbally abusive…”

“I did no such thing, you lying bitch. You showed up here, coming in my house, disrespecting me,” the man cut in. He wore a long-sleeved faded brown shirt and what looked like sweatpants. He had no coat. Mark figured the woman was Lisa, who had called.

“Okay, so what exactly is going on here?” Mark said, resting his foot on the bottom step.

Lisa was young, early twenties, he thought, wearing dark-rimmed glasses and holding a clipboard close to her chest. He glanced once to Carmen, who appeared right beside him. Mark was very aware of the man’s anger toward Lisa. He stepped up onto the porch, looking down on her, putting himself between them.

“And you are?” he said to the man.

“That’s Nathan Clark,” Lisa cut in behind him, and he didn’t miss the snark in her tone. He glanced back once to her, knowing Nathan was fisting his hands. Just her opening her mouth had provoked him.

He turned back to Nathan, who looked past him with dark eyes locked on to the short social worker. He knew when a man had been pushed too far. “Nathan, I’m Chief Friessen. We got a call about some trouble…”

The man was already shaking his head and had pulled his arms across his chest. He had to be cold. Mark took in the closed screen door and could hear voices inside, a woman and kids, he thought.

“Look, I don’t know what she’s yapping on about, but she showed up here, walking through my house, and yelled at me to get away from her when I did nothing. She was the one disrespecting me and my wife. She’s going on about us hurting our kids, which is an outright lie…”

“I’m just doing my job,” Lisa said. “You have no right to interfere, and that was exactly what you were doing in there, following me right on my heels and yelling at me, scaring me. This is a state matter, and you are interfering—”

“These are my kids,” Nathan said. “You coming in here, turning your nose up at me and—”

“Hey, hey, enough,” Mark said. “Just cool down, both of you. Nathan, give us a minute.” He turned to the new social worker and wondered why Billy Jo hadn’t called him. “Come with me. I want to talk to you.”

He went down the steps, seeing her legs were bare under her coat. She wore a short dress underneath, he thought, and light brown ankle boots. He gestured to her and then took in Carmen, who said nothing as she stood there. He had only to nod before he heard her say something to the father, who was standing guard at that door.

He turned around, taking in how short Lisa was, about Billy Jo’s height. She really looked like a kid. “What’s going on here? Billy Jo sent you?” They were far enough away that he couldn’t hear what the father was saying to Carmen, but he could see how upset he was.

“I’m the social worker on call today, and this is a wellness check. A complaint came in, and it was given to me. This has nothing to do with Billy Jo, who’s away now. Everything will come through me until she’s back from her time off.”

The way she was looking at him, he realized she didn’t have a clue who she was, but then, he knew Billy Jo didn’t go around sharing her personal business. Evidently, Lisa wasn’t in the know.

“Billy Jo is getting married to me. I’m her fiancé. You should know, filling in for her, that we have a protocol on the island. In any cases where you’re removing a child, you are required to contact my office, and a deputy is to accompany you.” He kept his voice low.

When she looked up at him, he could see she wasn’t on the same page, maybe because she was shaking her head. “With all due respect, Chief, this was not a visit where I planned to take the kids. But, just showing up here and seeing what I saw, I’m alarmed. The condition of the premises, the dirt, the locked doors…and there was feces on the floor. The father is volatile, and the kids appear unbathed. One little girl, who I understand has special needs, appears neglected.” She was so damn matter of fact, and he sensed she would argue about everything.

“Volatile? I think you need to be a little more specific about what your concerns are. You suspect abuse, hurting his kids?” He gestured, wondering why she had a clipboard.

“You saw him up there, the way he looked at me, yelling at me. He stalked behind me in the house when I expected answers from him. He was disrespectful…”

Mark angled his head. He wanted to call Billy Jo again, but if he did, he knew her well enough to know she’d likely be in her car and on her way over there. Maybe there was something more about this situation that he didn’t know.

“You showed up here about his kids. I’m seeing a father who’s trying to protect them. You want to take his kids away? I would be surprised if a father let you do that without fighting back. You want to walk me inside and show me what the issues are?”

The way she pulled the clipboard up close to her chest, he wondered if she’d say no. “Fine, but I’ll need your assistance getting the kids out of the house. This is a state decision, and I’m acting on behalf of the state. I’ll need to take the kids, all of them, to the hospital for a doctor to look them over.”

Then she turned and started walking back to the house, and Mark followed, seeing that Carmen and Nathan were staring at him long and hard.

“I’m going in the house with Lisa,” he said. “Nathan, Carmen will stay outside with you. We won’t be a minute.”

Lisa had pulled open the screen and walked right in, and Mark reached for the door.

Nathan lifted his hands in the air and linked them behind his head in frustration. “Fine. My wife is there.”

“How many kids?” he asked. He could hear Lisa inside, speaking with the kind of voice that expected answers, but about what, he didn’t know.

“Two girls, two and five,” Nathan said.

He only nodded and walked inside, taking in the small entry, the wood floors, an older sectional with piles of clothes on it, a laundry basket, toys and papers scattered on the floor. A woman with dark hair, a few inches taller than Lisa, was holding a towel. Her hair was half out of a ponytail.

“Down here, Chief,” Lisa said to him as she gestured to a narrow hall with doors closed. He only nodded at the woman standing there, wide-eyed, a little girl jumping around her with a thumb in her mouth. Then he realized another girl was there, naked, her hair a mess, shoving ripped paper into her mouth.

“No, no, no, Dana,” the woman said and ran over to the little girl to pull the paper from her mouth. The girl squealed and swatted at her.

Mark saw the mother struggling, and he took in something smeared on the wall in the hall. He could smell it from there and knew it was feces. The social worker was looking at him expectantly as she stood by a door locked with a deadbolt, which needed a key, and another door with a sliding bolt.

“Every door here, all four, has a lock on it,” Lisa said. “Do they lock the kids in? I’m sure you can smell that a child defecated, and it’s on the walls. One has no clothes on, and there’s something wrong with the other, too. The place is a mess. The kitchen is not the neatest I’ve seen, and there’s food in the corner on the floor.”

He slid the bolt on one of the doors and opened it to see a bathroom—not a mess but reasonable, with a towel on a hook, toothbrushes by the sink, and a bathtub with no shower curtain.

“Look, I don’t know what to say,” Mark said. “I see the mess. Is there something wrong with the one screaming out there?” He glanced down the hall. Everything in the house felt tense, but then, he supposed having DCFS show up like this only ramped up family problems.

“Special needs, I think. Not really sure, but something is wrong…” She was flipping through her chart, lifting papers and reading, and then she shook her head and let out an exasperated breath. “But, regardless, the care is seriously lacking. I’ll need some help getting the kids loaded up. I think I’ve seen enough here.” She clutched her clipboard to her chest. The way she said it had been dismissive, and damn, did he hate this. She brushed past him, leaving him standing there.

“Okay, I’m taking the kids,” she said. “Are there car seats? I need clothes on these girls, too…”

She was cold, unfeeling. Nothing about this felt right. The mother wore a look he knew too well, shellshock. He put his hand on the screen door and pushed it open, and Nathan and Carmen both stopped talking and looked at him.

“Your kids in there,” he said. “Something wrong with the little girl with no clothes on?”

The man was much calmer now. He wondered what Carmen had said to him. “My older one, she’s five. She’s got autism. Can’t keep no clothes on her. She takes them off as soon as they’re on.”

Mark realized Carmen hadn’t looked away from Nathan, yet she said nothing. “You have locks on the doors in there. You lock the kids in?”

Nathan shook his head and gestured. “No, sir, no way. Those locks are to keep Dana out. She wears a diaper, but we can’t keep it on her. We lock the doors because she goes in and wipes her shit on the walls everywhere, so we have to keep her in one small part of the house. Look, we’re doing the best we can, but I’m not always here. I have to work off island a lot, and it’s just my wife here. My daughter, she screams if you try to brush her hair. Can’t get socks on her at all. I tried to explain all that to the social worker in there, but she wouldn’t hear none of it…”

“Hey, Nathan, I get it,” Carmen cut in. “You just need some help, is all. Sometimes these state workers only check boxes and can’t see or hear anything. I know you’re just trying to protect your family, and I can hear how upset you are. She probably didn’t understand all that. She’s not from around here and doesn’t know you.”

Damn, how did Carmen do that? The door squeaked open behind them.

“Chief Friessen, I’m ready to go,” Lisa said. “Can you get some car seats so I can take the kids?” There was something so inexperienced about the social worker. She had so much to learn about people.

“I have car seats, but I want the name of your supervisor,” Nathan said.

Lisa was still standing in the doorway. “My direct supervisor is away right now. You want the name of my acting supervisor this week?” Now she sounded way too helpful.

“I do, name and phone number. I’m calling and making a formal complaint about you.”

He wondered whether Lisa would say no, but she only shrugged and said, “Sure. Grant—”

“Billy Jo is in charge here. Pretty sure you report to her,” Mark couldn’t help himself from saying.

Lisa seemed to stiffen and then shook her head. “Ms. McCabe is away, and that’s not how the chain of command works. Grant is who I report to right now.” Damn, she was so matter of fact. “You have a pen?”

Carmen, bless her, pulled one from her pocket along with paper and handed it to Nathan, who was going to have his kids pulled out of there. Mark listened to her rattle off Grant’s name and number.

“I’ll help you with the car seats,” Mark said to Nathan. He listened to screaming in the house as he followed him down the stairs and over to an older off-white minivan, and all he could think was that nothing about this seemed right.

Newly Released

“Insightful, raw and eye-opening…highlights a topic we all find uncomfortable, that perhaps we choose to ignore, and prods us to take a deeper look and be an advocate for change. It is timely and well worth reading.” ★★★★★ Rebmay, Amazon Canada Reviewer

Finding Home

Finding Home

What happens when a family loses everything and has no place to go?

Terrance Mack has a wife and two young boys. Never in a million years did he expect to find his family living on the streets, with no home, no jobs, in a position where everything they owned has been taken from them in the cruelest of ways. As the family struggles to stay together, they encounter a hard and unfriendly way of life, having to move from town to town, being harassed by the police and by locals, and confronting danger each day. Living on the streets is nothing as he expected.

All Terrance wants for his family is for someone to give them a chance—a chance for a new beginning, a roof over their heads, the opportunity to once again build a life without constant fear, having to look over their shoulders, feeling as if the rug will continue to be yanked out from under them again and again.

The worst is seeing the light in his wife’s eyes slowly diminish, along with the hope they once had. Terrance carries a constant weight, and every day brings a new challenge as doors close and they’re forced to move on. Even though they’ve stayed together, finding a place to stay has forced the family into survival mode, living one day at a time. The dignity Terrance once took for granted has become something he struggles to hold on to as he dreams of one day being able to have a peaceful night’s sleep.

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Now on Audio

Narrated by Arlene Seberg

When Joe Wilde surprises his new bride, Margaret, with a honeymoon, she is speechless—but not from surprise!  She soon wonders, should she be running the other way?

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