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Kelly Shannon could remember every face and name of the victims she’d had to deal with in her eight-year career with the Whitefish Police Department, but she knew none would weigh on her as much as Danny Mizzoni.
And here she was, about to meet with Danny’s older brother Mick, at Mick’s request. She took a deep breath then pulled open the door to Grizzly Grounds. The addictive aroma of espresso pulled her into the queue at the counter. Most of the tables were occupied and twinkling lights and garlands of juniper seemed to be everywhere.
Though it was early December she wasn’t in much of a holiday mood. She’d just as soon skip Christmas this year. Though her supervisors assured her she’d acted ‘by the book’ and Danny’s fatal motor accident wasn’t her fault, she still felt lousy about it. Especially since Danny had left behind a wife and two very young children.
Recognizing Mick Mizzoni’s voice she turned and spotted him at a table close to the potbellied stove at the back of the café.
As always, her heart did a little skip when she saw him. Mick had olive-toned skin, dark wavy hair, sensuous lips and warm brown eyes. He had the physique of a Navy SEAL—tall and broad-shouldered—which was totally wasted on his job as editor and journalist at the Whitefish Journal. That combination of brain and brawn got to her every time.
They’d known each other since they were kids and before Danny’s death they’d had an amicable relationship. He often came to her for information when he was working on a story for the Journal. They crossed paths now and then in social settings, too. Last year they’d attended—separately of course—the wedding of a mutual friend. And she saw him occasionally when she was skiing on Big Mountain. Usually she’d be with a friend and he would be alone. A bit of a lone wolf was Mick.
In the back of her mind lived a hope that he might ask her out one day. But his banter was always casual, never flirtatious. Maybe he still saw her as Maureen and Cathleen’s baby sister. Or maybe she just wasn’t his type.
“Thanks for meeting me,” Mick said as she took the chair across from him. His voice was polite, but tense, and he didn’t look her directly in the eyes. “I ordered you a latte and huckleberry scone—did I get that right?”
She nodded, not sure what it meant that he remembered her standard order. Probably just that he had a good memory. A helpful trait for a journalist.
A closer look at Mick revealed lines of exhaustion around his eyes and mouth, and a heartbreaking sadness in his eyes. Grief and regret clamped hold of her heart. No matter what her superiors said, she still felt it was her fault Mick was going through this.
“I’m sorry about Danny. But I’m not sure there’s much more I can tell you about that night.”
Mick had arrived at the scene, prepared to do his job and report on the accident. He’d had no forewarning that the victim in the single-vehicle accident was his brother. Kelly hadn’t spoken to Mick that night—she’d been too busy.
But she’d seen him react upon hearing the news from Sergeant Springer—folding over like he’d been punched in the gut. When Springer put a hand on Mick’s shoulder, he’d jerked away from the sergeant, then began pacing tight circles in the middle of the closed highway.
Mick either didn’t hear her, or didn’t believe her. He rested his elbows on the table and leaned in. “I’ve read the reports. But I want to hear it from you. Can you start at the beginning?”
Kelly’s throat thickened. She did not want to go through those events again. The only reason she’d agreed to meet Mick was out of the vague hope that she could help him come to terms with his brother’s death.
But how could she deny him?
And so she let her mind go back. She was in the cocoon of her patrol vehicle’s driver’s seat, sipping from the thermos of coffee she’d brought from home and listening to late-night radio as she cruised the streets of her sleepy little city.
It had been a Thursday night, quiet—the ski hill still wasn’t open this early in the season so there weren’t many tourists in town. When the call came over the radio, her adrenaline had kicked in, but only moderately. She’d been expecting to hand out a speeding ticket or maybe a DUI. She’d never guessed how serious it would turn out to be.
“It started with a call from dispatch,” she told Mick. “They got a complaint of someone driving a Land Rover erratically just west of town on the 93. So I went to investigate.”
“You didn’t know it was my brother?”
Kelly waited while the server came with their coffees and treats. She adjusted the position of the mug and the plate, not sampling either. She noticed Mick wasn’t paying any attention to his black coffee or muffin either.
“I didn’t know it was Danny. When I came up from behind, he was driving eighty miles an hour and weaving. I hit the lights to pull him over, but he reacted by speeding up.”
“Did you, too?”
Kelly hesitated. She knew Mick was trying to figure out if she had provoked Danny into the accident by giving chase. “Everything happened so fast at that point, I didn’t have time to react. When Danny accelerated, he must have hit a patch of black ice at the same time.” In one dreadful and fatal moment, the Land Rover had gone careening off the highway, full speed into the trunk of one of the ancient larch trees that lined that stretch of the road.
Kelly wrapped her arms around her body, remembering the violent shakes that had overtaken her immediately after it happened. Somehow she’d forced her trembling fingers to call in the accident, then gathered the courage to step out into the dark, cold night and go check on the occupants of the vehicle. Only to discover a single occupant. Clearly dead.
“He went instantly. He didn’t suffer.” The picture was there, in her mind, something she’d likely never forget. The impossible angle of Danny’s neck, the blood trickling from his mouth, the glazed look in his eyes. “He looked—and the autopsy later confirmed—like his neck had broken. I forced open the door and checked his pulse to be sure. But he was…he was gone.”
“Did you consider CPR?”
“His injuries were too massive. I’m sorry.”
And she was. Danny had been her age, and like her he’d grown up in the small mountain city of Whitefish, Montana. As a kid, he’d been a bully. He’d even stolen her bicycle when she was ten years old. As an adult, he’d lived up to his early potential by amassing a record of drug-related arrests and charges, and even spending some time in prison.
He and Mick had the bad luck of growing up with a single mother who had serious problems with alcohol. But while Mick had risen above his circumstances, putting himself through college and avoiding legal problems of any kind, Danny had sunk lower.
But Kelly had never considered him beyond hope.
“My brother had some issues and made some pretty stupid mistakes,” Mick said. “But he wasn’t all bad. He was an amazing fly fisherman. And when he was sober, he was a good husband and father.”
When he was sober, was a pretty big caveat. But this wasn’t the time to bring that up. “How are Sharon and the kids doing?”
Mick frowned, the expression not diminishing his attractiveness one iota.
“Not good. I’m worried about Sharon, whether she can cope without Danny. Like I said, he had his flaws, but he loved his children and he made sure they had the basics. Whereas Sharon…”
Kelly was familiar with Sharon, too. Several years younger than her husband, she also had alcohol and drug issues. Just a few months ago Kelly had been forced to contact child protective services out of concern for the children. “You think she’s neglecting the children?”
Mick looked at her assessingly, as if deciding if she could be trusted with the truth. Then he nodded. “I’ve been over almost every day since Danny died. Half of the time she’s wasted. If I didn’t bring groceries, there wouldn’t be enough food for Billy and Amanda. I’m doing all the laundry, as well. And some cleaning, though it’s hard to keep up with.”
Kelly sucked in a breath. This sounded worse than she’d expected. “Is Sharon abusive?”
“She doesn’t hurt them, at least I’ve never seen any signs of that. But she’s neglectful. For sure.”
Kelly’s hopes for the small family plummeted. “Does she have any family for support?”
“Nah. Her parents live on the East Coast. They don’t visit much. Sharon has a sister who lives with her boyfriend in Kalispell, but she’s a party girl. Which leaves me.” Mick finally took a drink of his coffee, then looked at Kelly squarely. “I told Sharon I’d take the kids for a while, while she gets back on her feet, but so far she’s resisting.”
“It sounds like you need to involve child protection.”
“No.” Mick’s voice was firm. He glanced across the room, eyes unfocused as if he was looking back on a different time. “You may or may not know that Danny and I were removed from our mother’s care for a few years.”
“I—don’t remember that.”
“Yeah, well, you would have been young. I figured out early how to look after myself and my brother. And I knew how to manage our mother, too. The do-gooders working for government meant well, I’m sure, but those two years in foster care were the worst of my life. I won’t put Billy and Amanda through that.”
“But they wouldn’t be placed with strangers. Not if you, their uncle, are willing to offer them a home.”
“Are you sure? I have a crazy-busy life, no wife or partner to help me. I can’t take the risk that those social workers decide I’m not an appropriate caregiver.” He planted his right hand on the table. “Here’s my bottom line. I don’t want strangers messing around in my family business.”
Kelly shook her head. She understood his issues. But she was a cop, and there was a legal process to follow in these cases. “If Sharon doesn’t release custody voluntarily, you don’t have any recourse but to go through legal channels.”
“I damn well do.” For the first time Mick looked at her directly. Unwaveringly. “And you are going to help me.”
It was easy to read Kelly Shannon’s emotions—worry, concern, caution—by merely looking at her face. Mick found that was true with most honest and essentially kind people. Not that he knew very many of these. Kelly was special, which was why he usually went to her for information when he was working on a story that involved the police department.
But despite all the times they’d met for coffee and discussed a case, despite having grown up less than eight blocks apart, and having attended the same schools, they were far from friends.
The Shannon sisters were favorites in town. Their mother had been the school principal for fifteen years; the girls were all smart, talented, popular. While there had been just eight blocks separating their homes, it might have well been eight miles for all the difference between their neighborhoods.
Their home had been a double-wide while he and Danny had been the equivalent of white trash. Even after he got his degree and his dream job at the local paper, Mick still felt the stigma of his family and his upbringing, especially when dealing with the older, more “respectable” citizens of this town.
He had no doubt Kelly had done everything by the book the night his brother died. But she still felt badly about it. He could see it in the way her bottom lip trembled when she told him Danny hadn’t suffered. And in the worried lines on her pretty forehead. And the nervous movements of her hands as she avoided drinking her latte and eating her scone.
Kelly was the sort of cop who cared, and he was trying to take advantage of that. Maybe it was wrong. But he was so damn angry. Danny had behaved irresponsibly, yeah illegally. But lots of people drove under the influence of alcohol or drugs without paying the ultimate price. Why did Danny have to be the unlucky one?
To Mick had fallen the horrible job of telling the news to Sharon and Billy and Amanda. Mandy was too young to understand, but Billy was a very mature five and he’d taken the news so stoically and silently—unlike Sharon who had cried and railed—that Mick worried all the more for him.
He saw a lot of himself in Billy. The older brother, trying to take care of a younger sibling and dealing with a volatile, alcoholic mother.
“I want my nephew and niece to have a stable home where they can focus on sports and friends and school, instead of making sure they have enough food to eat and warm clothes to wear. All I’m asking is for you to help me make that happen.”
“I’d like those things for Billy and Mandy too. But how can I help? I’m a cop. Not a social worker.”
“By keeping an eye on them, on Sharon and the kids. And make sure Sharon knows it. If you put a little pressure on her, maybe she’ll shape up. Or give me custody of the kids.”
Kelly took a few moments to consider. “I’ll gladly do that. To be honest, I’m already cruising by their house several times each shift. But if I see signs of Sharon neglecting her children, I’m duty-bound to report that.”
“Sure. All I’m asking is that instead of child protective services you report it to me.”
“Damn it, Mick.” Kelly glanced down at her mug of cooling coffee. Then back at him. “What if something bad happens? It’ll be on my head.”
“I won’t let that happen. But I can’t watch out for them twenty-four seven. That’s why I need your help.”
“I have a full-time job, just like you. How can we possibly guarantee the safety of those kids?”
“You think reporting Sharon will change that? Two months ago a social worker was called in. Danny and Sharon knew he was coming so they spruced up the home, put a chicken in the oven, and made sure they were both sober.”
Kelly sighed. “There is a process. Kids aren’t just removed from their homes at the first sign of trouble.”
“I’m telling you I have no faith in the process. The person I trust with those kids is me.” Losing Danny was something he’d never get over. But Danny had been an adult, responsible for his own decisions. Billy and Amanda were completely helpless.
The least he could do for Danny was protect his kids. And he was going to do it.
End of Excerpt