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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

A Beautiful Corpse

A Harper McClain Mystery

A Harper McClain Mystery (Volume 2)

Christi Daugherty

Minotaur Books



“Eight ball in the corner pocket.”

Leaning over the edge of the pool table, Harper McClain stared across the long expanse of empty green felt. The cue in her hands was smooth and cool. She’d had four of Bonnie’s superstrength margaritas tonight, but her grip was steady.

There was a delicate, transient point somewhere between too much alcohol and too little where her pool skills absolutely peaked. This was it.

Exhaling slowly, she took the shot. The cue ball flew straight and true, slamming into the eight, sending it rolling to the pocket. There was never any question—it hit the polished wood edge of the table only lightly, and dropped like a stone.

Yes.” Harper raised her fist. “Three in a row.”

But the cue ball was still rolling.

Lowering her hand, Harper leaned against the table.

“No, no, no,” she pleaded.

As she watched in dismay, the scuffed white cue ball headed after the eight like a faithful hound.

“Come on, cue ball,” Bonnie cajoled from the other side of the table. “Mama needs a new pair of shoes.”

Reaching the pocket lip, the ball trembled for an instant as if making up its mind and then, with a decisive clunk, disappeared into the table’s insides, taking the game with it.

“At last.” Bonnie raised her cue above her head. “Victory is mine.”

Harper glared. “Have you been waiting all night to say that?”

“Oh my God, yes.” Bonnie was unrepentant.

It was very late. Aside from the two of them, the Library Bar was empty. Naomi, who had worked the late shift with Bonnie, had finished wiping down the bar an hour ago and gone home.

All the lights were on in the rambling bar, illuminating the battered books on the shelves that still covered the old walls from the days when it had actually been a library. It could easily hold sixty people, but with just the two of them, the place was comfortable—even cozy, in its way, with Tom Waits growling from the jukebox about love gone wrong.

Despite the hour, Harper was in no hurry to leave. It wasn’t far to walk. But all she had at home was a cat, a bottle of whiskey, and a lot of bad memories. And she’d spent enough time with them lately.

“Rematch?” She glanced at Bonnie, hopefully. “Winner takes all?”

Propping her cue against a sign that read BOOKS + BEER = LIFE, Bonnie walked around the table. The blue streaks in her long, blond hair caught the light when she held out her hand.

“Loser pays,” she said, adding, “Also, I’m all out of change.”

“I thought bartenders always had change,” Harper complained, pulling the last coins from her pocket.

“Bartenders are smart enough to put their money away before they start playing pool with you,” Bonnie replied.

There was a break in the music as the jukebox switched songs. In the sudden silence, the shrill ring of Harper’s phone made them both jump.

Grabbing the device off the table next to her, Harper glanced at the screen.

“Hang on,” she said, hitting the answer button. “It’s Miles.”

Miles Jackson was the crime photographer at the Savannah Daily News. He wouldn’t call at this hour without a good reason.

“What’s up?” Harper said, by way of hello.

“Get yourself downtown. We’ve got ourselves a murder on River Street,” he announced.

“You’re kidding me.” Harper dropped her cue on the pool table. “Are you at the scene?”

“I’m pulling up now. Looks like every cop in the city is here.”

Miles had her on speaker—in the background she could hear the rumble of his engine and the insistent crackle of his police scanners. The sound sent a charge through Harper.

“On my way.” She hung up without saying good-bye.

Bonnie looked at her inquiringly.

“Got to go,” Harper told her, grabbing her bag. “Someone just got murdered on River Street.”

Bonnie’s jaw dropped. “River Street? Holy crap.”

“I know.” Harper pulled out her notebook and police scanner and headed across the room, mentally calculating how long it would take her to get there. “If it’s a tourist, the mayor will absolutely lose her shit.”

River Street was the epicenter of the city’s tourism district—and the safest place in town. Until now.

Bonnie ran after her.

“Give me a second to lock up,” she said. “I’ll come with you.”

Harper turned to look at her. “You’re coming to a crime scene?”

The music had started up again.

“You’ve had four margaritas,” Bonnie reminded her. “I made them strong. You’ll be over the limit. I’ve only had two beers tonight.”

Behind the bar, she opened a concealed wall panel and flipped some switches. In an instant, the music fell silent. A second later, the lights went off one by one, until only the red glow of the exit sign remained.

Grabbing her keys, Bonnie ran to join Harper, the heels of her cowboy boots clicking against the concrete floor in the sudden quiet, her short skirt swirling around her thighs.

Harper still wasn’t convinced this was a great idea.

“You know there’ll be dead people there, right?”

Shrugging, Bonnie unlocked the front door and pulled it open. Steamy Southern night air poured in.

“I’m a grown-up. I can take it.”

She glanced over her shoulder with a look Harper had known better than to argue with since they were both six years old.

“Let’s go.”

* * *

River Street was a narrow cobblestone lane running between the old wharves and warehouses that had once serviced tall ships sailing for Europe, and the wide, dark water of the Savannah River.

The most photographed street in the city, it would be packed in a few hours with workers, tourists, and tour buses, but it was virtually empty now.

Most bars had closed at two A.M., and the heat wave currently underway sent everyone who might ordinarily have lingered by the river scurrying for air-conditioning.

Bonnie swung her pink pickup, with MAVIS painted on the tailgate in bright yellow, into a parking spot and killed the engine.

They could see flashing blue lights a short distance away at the water’s edge.

The sight made Harper’s heart race. It was nearly three in the morning. At this hour, the local TV channels might not have anyone on call. This could be her story exclusively.

“Come on,” she told Bonnie, throwing the door open and jumping out.

When her feet hit the curb, the bullet wound in her shoulder throbbed a sharp warning. She winced, pressing her hand against the scar.

It had been over a year since she’d been shot. It was rare for the wound to twinge. It usually only acted up when the weather changed.

“You’ll be a walking barometer now,” her surgeon had remarked jovially at one of her checkups. “Always be able to tell when rain is coming.”

“That’s not the superpower I was hoping for,” she’d responded.

Secretly, she was glad the pain was still there. The wound—which she’d sustained while exposing her mentor, former Chief Detective Robert Smith, for murder—served as a reminder to be careful who she trusted.

Bonnie missed her pained expression—her eyes were on the police cars.

“Damn. It really is right in the middle of everything. That’s just a couple of blocks from Spanky’s.”

Spanky’s Bar was a popular tourist joint. If the murder had happened a few hours earlier, hundreds of people could have been caught up in it.

Harper had already noticed the proximity. She needed to get down there.

“Let’s go.”

Half running, they hurried down a steep cobbled lane toward the river. It had rained earlier, and Harper’s shoes struggled to find traction on the slick, rounded stones.

It was darker down here. The breeze off the river cut a cool path through the humidity.

Harper usually avoided River Street altogether. It was mostly tourist traps, and until now, she couldn’t think of one interesting crime that had ever happened here.

Ahead, crime tape had been strung from light pole to light pole, blocking the narrow street. Flashing emergency lights lit up the jaunty flags outside the locked bars and shuttered shops.

Harper scanned the scene—the road was packed with police cars but she could see no trucks bearing the hallmarks of the local TV news stations.

Bless Miles for staying up all night listening to his scanner.

About thirty yards beyond the tape, a cluster of uniformed cops and plain-clothed detectives had gathered. They were all looking down at something Harper couldn’t see from here.

“Look, there’s Miles.” Bonnie pointed across the street.

The photographer stood alone at the edge of the crime tape. Hearing her voice, he turned and waved them over.

As always, he looked dapper in slacks and a button-down shirt. It was as if he’d been waiting for this crime to happen.

“Well, well, well,” he said, as they walked up. “Is it two-for-one night? I didn’t bring my coupon.”

“Hi Miles.” Bonnie beamed at him. “Fancy running into you at a murder scene.”

“The night is full of surprises,” he agreed.

“What’d we miss?” Harper gestured to the crowd of cops. “Any ID on the victim? Is it a tourist?”

“Nobody’s saying anything,” he said. “The tape was up when I got here. They’ve kept it quiet on the radio—there’s no chatter. I almost missed it myself. I heard some chitchat about the coroner that let me know something was up, otherwise I’d still be home.”

“You call Baxter yet?” she asked.

He shook his head.

“Don’t have enough to tell her.”

Bonnie listened to all of this, but said nothing. Her fine eyebrows were drawn together as she watched the police. They were shining flashlights on something lying on the cobblestones.

In the eight years Harper had worked at the newspaper, this was the first time she could remember Bonnie being at a crime scene. It felt strange. This wasn’t Bonnie’s world. She was an artist—bartending paid for the paint. Murder wasn’t her business.

It was Harper’s.

She’d been a crime reporter since she’d dropped out of college to take an internship at the Savannah Daily News when she was twenty years old. Ever since then she’d spent her nights investigating the city’s worst crimes. Murder no longer turned her stomach as it had early on.

When she looked at a body now, all she saw was the words she’d need to describe it.

In the distance, the crowd of officers shifted. Squinting, Harper saw a small woman in a dark suit, crouching low.

“Daltrey’s lead detective?” She glanced over at Miles.

“Looks like it.” Raising his camera, he took a speculative shot, pausing to check the image on the screen.

It wasn’t terrible news. Daltrey wasn’t the easiest detective to work with, but she wasn’t the worst, either.

Anyway, none of them were very easy to work with anymore.

A rumble broke the stillness, and they all turned to see a white van with the words FORENSICS UNIT on the side rolling up to the crime tape, its tires stuttering on the cobbles.

Its cold, bright headlights swung across the cluster of investigators, lighting up the scene like a film set.

They all saw the body in the same instant. The young woman lay sprawled on her back on the uneven cobbles. She was African American, slim and slight. She wore a black top with a knee-length skirt. Her legs were at an odd angle.

Harper couldn’t make out her face from where she stood but one thing was certain—this was no gangbanger crime.

Lifting his camera, Miles fired off a rapid series of shots.

Harper stood on her toes to get a better look. Something about the woman was familiar.

Beside her, Bonnie made a stifled shocked sound.

“Don’t look at the body,” Harper said.

But Bonnie didn’t look away. Instead, she leaned against the crime tape, pushing hard enough to make it bow.

One of the uniforms pointed his flashlight at her disapprovingly.

“Hey you—get back.”

Harper turned to ask her what the hell she was doing. The last thing she needed was for Bonnie to piss off the cops. Things were bad enough with them already.

But the complaint died on her lips.

All the color had left Bonnie’s face.

“Oh my God, Harper,” she said, staring at the body in the street. “I think that’s Naomi.”

Copyright © 2020 by Christi Daugherty