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About The Author

Tricia Fields

Tricia Fields lives in a log cabin on a small farm with her husband and two daughters. She was born in Hawaii but has spent most of her life in small-town Indiana, where her husband is a state trooper. She won the Tony Hillerman Prize for her first mystery, The Territory,... More

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EXCERPT

ONE
 
 
Peering out her sidelight window, unnoticed by her boss, Josie tried to imagine what could possess him to visit her at home at 6:30 A.M., over an hour before her shift started. Josie checked the safety on her Beretta with her thumb and tucked the gun into the back of her uniform pants.
Mayor Steve Moss knocked again on Josie’s door, looking as if he’d rather be anywhere else in the world but on her front porch.
Under normal circumstances, if Moss wanted her assistance he would have called and summoned her to his office: he would have never given up home-turf advantage. Their mutual distrust had started long before Josie’s appointment to chief of police six years ago, and their animosity for each other had only grown.
“Dammit.” Her bloodhound sniffed at the door and whined softly at the early morning intrusion. Josie snapped her fingers so Chester would lie down and then opened the front door. “Morning, Mayor. Come in.” She pushed the screen door open and stepped back.
He cleared his throat, took off his cowboy hat, and stepped inside. The mayor would have been a couple of inches shorter than Josie, who was a trim five foot seven, but he wore custom cowboy boots with three-inch heels that put him at eye level. He was built like a bulldog, with wide shoulders and narrow hips, but Josie noticed he’d begun to add some weight around his midsection as well. Top-heavy was the term that came to mind.
Standing uncomfortably close to him in the small entryway, Josie motioned toward the living room.
“I know you have to get to work. Just need a minute. Off the record,” he said as he took a seat on the edge of the couch.
As she pushed back the room’s curtains to let in the bright morning sun, Josie knew her wariness at the early morning visit was going to be justified. She imagined off the record probably meant off the books. She was inclined to tell him they should move the conversation to the police department, but she was a firm believer in choosing one’s battles, and it wasn’t yet clear if this was one.
Looking around the cream-colored room, anywhere but at her, the mayor pointed to a large red and black wool rug that hung on one of the stucco walls. “That Navajo?” he asked.
Josie took a seat on the bench below the window and smiled. “No, but it’s a good fake.”
He nodded, his expression unchanging.
As the chief of police in a small town, Josie knew how difficult it was to approach a local officer. Family turmoil was hard enough without getting the cops involved. In the heat of a late-night domestic dispute, intimate details were often shared with the police: violence, bankruptcy filings, late child support, papers served, and on and on. Regret came the next morning like a bad hangover. As a kid, Josie had weathered the humiliation of a mother too occupied by the grief of her husband’s death to worry about raising a child. Josie had watched the cops enter her home on several occasions, trying to straighten out the problems her mother had created but couldn’t solve. As much as she disliked the mayor, she realized how difficult it was for him to approach her, and she stayed quiet.
The mayor leaned his forearms on his knees and stared down at his clasped hands. “I heard through a reliable source that Roxanne Spar went to Officer Cruz last night and filed a complaint.”
Roxanne was a thirty-something waitress at Mickey’s Bar and Grill who dressed like a hooker, but her sharp tongue and short temper typically kept potential gropers at arm’s length. Roxanne had also taken on a second job this past year at Whistler’s Pub in nearby Marfa, which Josie had heard through the grapevine was the mayor’s weekend spot.
“About what?” Josie kept her voice level, free of judgment, though she already suspected sex was involved.
“She says I’m harassing her. Stalking her, for god’s sake! The whole thing is ridiculous.” His voice got louder.
In his midforties, Moss still had a thick head of brown hair, and he ran his hands through it when under stress. Josie watched him as he did it now. She hadn’t remembered such deep-set wrinkles around his eyes and the corners of his mouth. His eyes were puffy and red and he looked as if he hadn’t slept well in days. She wondered if his wife figured into the drama. Rumors floated around town that she was ready to take her money and move on to a more lucrative investment.
“Why don’t you tell me how all of this got started?”
“It started with me trying to do the lady a favor.” He sighed heavily. Josie couldn’t help feeling that his reticence was part of a calculated act.
“I went to Marfa last week with some guys to celebrate Joey Gunther’s birthday,” he finally went on. “You know him?”
She tilted her head. “Vaguely. I know who he is.”
“There were eight of us. We went to Whistler’s Pub. That old-man dive bar in downtown Marfa?”
She nodded. She had visited Whistler’s to interview the bartender for an investigation about a year ago: dimly lit, sticky floor, tired waitresses, and a jaded bartender. She figured Roxanne had been hired to breathe some life into the place, and it sounded like she had.
“We got there about ten. Drank some beer. By midnight things started to get a little crazy. Some of the guys were talking to a group of women across tables. Drunk talk. Yelling back and forth.”
“Friendly yelling?”
“Sure. It was friendly,” he said. “We ended up taking both of the pool tables at the place. Roxanne was waitressing, but she’s joking with us all night long. She’s friends with some of the other women, so she’s passing out free shots.” He paused and gave her a look, like he didn’t really want to go on with the story. “Thing is, she was hitting on me. Big time. It got awkward if you want to know the truth.”
“What did she do?”
“At one point, we’re playing pool. The lady leans over the top of me, her arm over mine holding the cue stick.”
“By lady, you mean Roxanne?”
“Yeah, exactly. She’s basically lying on top of me. So the guys start blowing me,” he paused, “blowing me grief. I’d try to get her to back up. They’d laugh and egg her on some more.”
“Why didn’t you leave?”
“I tried to! I drove me and two other guys. Every time I talked about leaving they’d harass me. Come on, one more beer, that kind of bull.”
She nodded, keeping her expression neutral. The mayor had a reputation in town as a skirt-chaser, but Josie was never sure if the reputation was deserved, or if it was his lecherous personality that got him into trouble. She couldn’t imagine any woman finding him attractive, but she wasn’t exactly an expert when it came to romance.
Josie glanced at the clock on the wall and saw ten minutes had passed. Dillon would just be getting out of the shower and she hoped he wouldn’t come into the living room. The conversation was awkward enough as it was.
The mayor continued his story. “Finally, the bar closed at two and I told the guys I was leaving. They said they’d get a ride home with someone else. I don’t know where they went after Whistler’s, but they didn’t ride home with me. Then, outside in the parking lot the waitress asks if I’ll follow her home. Said she hated driving all the way to Artemis so late at night. Nothing between here and there if she had some kind of trouble. I actually felt sorry for her and followed her home to make sure she made it okay.” He shook his head as if he couldn’t believe it.
Josie nodded again, though she wondered if he really expected her to believe the story. Roxanne managed the thirty-minute drive home unescorted every other night she worked. What Josie really wanted to ask him was how long he had to wait in the parking lot for her to count her tips and close up the bar.
“So, you drove separately. And you followed her back to her apartment?”
“That’s it. I did what she asked, and now she’s turned on me.”
“Did you get out of your car once you reached her apartment?”
He hesitated just long enough for Josie to know he was spinning damage control in his head. “She said she was scared. I got out to walk her to the door. That’s it.”
Chester wandered over to the mayor and tried to sniff his pants. The mayor leaned back as if the dog might soil his clothes, and Josie waved the dog away.
“Did you enter her apartment?” she asked.
“I swear, nothing happened. She wanted me to help her into her apartment, and she promised I could leave then. She said her place had been broken into. Said she was scared. She wanted me to walk around. Check out the rooms.” He gave Josie an imploring look and dropped his voice. “It sounds ridiculous now. But that’s what happened.”
“And you only followed her home once?”
He shrugged. “A few times. I was worried about her. A woman driving home through the desert that time of the morning? Who knows what might happen. I was trying to be a nice guy. And this is what I get.”
“Does Caroline know about any of this?”
He sat up and then slouched back into her couch, allowing his head to fall back against the cushion, hardly the posture of a person who usually presented himself as the man in charge.
“Are you kidding?” He laughed miserably. “She’d kick my ass all the way to Mexico. Then she’d divorce me. And she wouldn’t care what the facts were.”
“I’m not sure why you’re telling me this,” she said.
He looked at her in surprise. “I’m telling you because I expect your support! If that woman filed a report I want you to do something about it!”
“I can’t control who files a report. That’s her right as a citizen. And, I’m bound by law to investigate it. Honestly, I don’t even know if charges have been filed.”
“My marriage is hanging on by a thread.” He stared at Josie as if he couldn’t believe she wasn’t on his side. “If Caroline finds out about some woman filing charges, my marriage is over. I want this paperwork to go away.”
“I can’t do that.”
He sat forward, leaning toward her on the edge of the couch. “You can do that. You’re the damned chief of police! You can do anything I tell you to do!” The mayor’s face had turned red. He took a deep breath, then blew it out slowly. “Look. Roxanne is a gold digger. She’s trying to ruin my marriage and my career.”
“If she’s a gold digger why would she want to ruin your career?”
He pointed a finger at her. “This is not a joke. You are mocking me, and I won’t stand for it.”
“Mayor Moss, I’m not mocking you. I’m trying to understand why you’re sitting on my couch this early in the morning asking me to destroy paperwork that I haven’t even seen.”
“I won’t be insulted like this. I came to you as one professional to another. I expect you to do the right thing.” He walked to the front door, opened it, and left without another word.
Josie followed Chester to the living room window, where they watched the mayor climb into his pickup truck and back out of her driveway, spinning gravel in his wake. Caroline will kill him, she thought.
*   *   *
Josie turned and headed back toward the kitchen, where she found Dillon knotting his tie.
“What was that all about?” he asked. He wore pressed khakis and a starched white shirt and silk tie, the same outfit he wore every day to work, with only slight variations in color.
“The mayor’s got trouble,” she said.
“What kind of trouble?”
She walked up to Dillon and straightened the knot in his tie. “Police business.”
“Sounded to me like he was trying to make his trouble your trouble.”
Her eyebrows shot up.
“I walked into the kitchen and heard you talking to a man. It’s not even seven o’clock in the morning. I was curious.” He cocked an eyebrow and she noticed a nick on his otherwise smooth face. For a moment, she saw him anew, her friend and her lover.
Dillon was a clean-cut, well-dressed forty-three-year-old with neatly trimmed black hair, gray at his temples, and a wide smile he was always quick to use. Josie had been dating him for several years. He’d given up his plea for her to marry him and now appeared content with their arrangement of separate houses and frequent overnight visits. More and more often Josie wondered if one house would do. But it would be up to her to say it. He was through with pressing her.
“You didn’t shave with that razor in the shower, did you?” she asked.
He leaned down and kissed her forehead. “You have time for breakfast? Preferably something other than canned fruit?”
“I don’t have to be in until eight.”
“Good. Come help me. You can fill me in on the mayor.”
*   *   *
Dillon lived in town, in a small subdivision populated by two-career families who tended to commute to larger cities to earn their rather sizeable incomes. Artemis, Texas, was a remote border town suffering the same budget cutbacks and unemployment woes as the other towns along the Tex-Mex border. Sizeable incomes were hard to earn in these towns without a commute or specialty job. As the sole accountant for fifty square miles, Dillon did quite well. He owned his own business, the Office of Abacus, located downtown. Dillon ran the office with his secretary, Christina Handley, an impeccably dressed knockout who Josie tried not to dwell on.
She watched his back as he bent inside her refrigerator to pull out eggs, peppers, mushrooms, and a pound of turkey bacon, the staples he had brought with him the night before. He opened the crisper drawer and turned to face her, holding up an orange with moldy green spots.
“Since when did you start buying fresh fruit?” He winced at the acrid smell.
“Marta gave me that last week. She claims I need Vitamin C,” she said as she watched him walk to the trash can and drop the orange in with a thud.
Josie pulled a wooden cutting board from a kitchen cabinet and stood beside him at the counter. After washing and drying the peppers he swished a paring knife across a sharpening stone several times and placed it on her cutting board. “Half-inch pieces. Uniform in size.”
“So how much did you overhear?” she asked.
Even though the conversation was sensitive, Josie trusted Dillon. He had worked as a pro bono consultant on quite a few cases for the department and understood the necessity of confidentiality.
He handed her the peppers and began cracking eggs over a glass bowl. “Enough. Think there’s any chance the woman’s on the take?”
“She could be. The mayor’s got a good job and a wife who’s loaded. He’s a pretty easy mark,” she said. “But he’s also a first-rate ass with a wandering eye.”
“What about his wife? I’ve met her a few times. She seems reasonable enough. If it isn’t true, why doesn’t he just tell her what happened?”
Josie grinned. “Caroline? She’s reasonable in social settings. She’s also a political diva.” She glanced sideways at him. “I suspect she married Moss with visions of moving up the political ladder. Her dad was a four-term state senator. But after ten years as mayor, Moss can’t make it out of Artemis. I hear she’s pretty unhappy living out here in the middle of the desert.”
“You know her very well?” he asked.
“Well enough. Several years ago I was seated beside her at a fundraising luncheon for the Red Cross. I’d only met her a few times, but she was a talker. She talked about Moss’s struggles with the county council. She told me he had difficulties in working with a female chief.”
He laughed. “That’s a bit of an understatement.”
“Eventually the conversation turned to relationships between men and women. Whether a woman could ever completely trust the man she is married to.”
“Seriously?”
She held her knife in the air. “I’m just repeating the conversation.” She watched him grab another egg and crack it against the rim of the bowl. “You aren’t using the whole dozen eggs, are you?”
“Chester has to eat,” he said.
Josie glanced to the floor where Chester lay stretched in front of the stove, eyeing every move Dillon made. She snapped her fingers and the dog turned his droopy eyes toward her in disbelief.
“Up, up, up. You can’t lie there.” Deliberately slow, one leg at a time, he pulled himself up into a standing position, but he refused to leave Dillon’s side. The dog was a gentle giant, but he had an obstinate side.
“Let that poor dog alone. He’s not hurting anything.” Dillon slipped the dog a piece of bacon. Chester chewed it slowly, his eyes never leaving Dillon’s hands. “So, does Caroline believe men are to be trusted?”
“Caroline told me that the mayor cheated on her before they were married.”
“Could be she’s part of the reason he can’t get anywhere politically.”
“It was awkward. She’d had a few mimosas at that point and she got wound up and couldn’t stop. She told me she laid down the law to him. She said, ‘You do this after the marriage and we’re through. No tears or begging to come back. Marriage over. See you in divorce court.’”
Dillon took Josie’s bowl of chopped vegetables and dumped them into the sizzling frying pan to sauté. He glanced at Josie. “More power to her.”
Dillon had once been engaged to a TV news anchor in California who cheated on him in a very public way, causing him so much humiliation that he moved out of state to Artemis.
She wandered over to the coffee pot, thinking about the heartbreak and embarrassment Dillon had suffered, and poured them each a cup of strong black coffee.
“So, Caroline’s verdict was clear. No man can be trusted. What’s yours?”
“Depends on the man.” She winked. “Fortunately, I got a good one.”


 
Copyright © 2014 by Tricia Fields

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