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“You’re trying to kill me,” I said.
After a lifetime of desert living, I had not expected a watery death. I’d grown up in Arizona, spent much of my adult life as a war correspondent in the Middle East, and had returned to Arizona a few months earlier after a bomb tore up my leg. Now my sister had determined that I should do a “fifty at fifty” challenge, where I tried fifty new things the year I turned fifty. It was hard to say no to Jen, mainly because she ignored the word and rolled right over you anyway. My birthday was a couple of weeks away, so we’d started early. At least she was paying for this “adventure” (in the financial sense; I might wind up paying in other ways), and she was doing it with me.
“Don’t be a baby,” Jen said. “Lots of people do paddleboarding. Children do it.”
“Uh, you do realize it’s called stand-up paddleboarding? Have you seen me stand lately?”
Jen gave a dramatic sigh. “You’re fine. You’re getting too dependent on the cane anyway.”
Easy for her to say. She wasn’t the one who had to use it. To be honest, my leg had gotten stronger over the last few months. I still limped and bumped into walls when I first got up after sleeping or sitting for a while, but once I’d taken twenty steps or so, I could usually walk straight. And the paddleboard instructor knew about my . . . situation. I still hesitated to use the word disability. It didn’t seem fair to claim that status when my injury was sudden and hopefully temporary. Plus, I didn’t want to be disabled. Granted, who did? Most people probably faced that future kicking and screaming, or in my case, punching and screaming, since kicking got harder when you had a bad leg.
The instructor got each of us set up with a life vest and a safety whistle. The whistle was required by law, in theory to warn boaters, but I figured it would also let me call for help if I got in trouble. An ankle leash would keep the board close, and the board could also be used as a flotation device. The paddle would help us move out into the lake and back again. Then we had hats, sunglasses, and long-sleeved shirts for sun protection. I’d gone into war zones with less equipment.
While the guide, Misty, helped the other people in the group, I quickly checked my email on my phone. I was hoping for a response from my boss at the Associated Press on my latest submission. I hadn’t been able to return to the field, and I reluctantly had to admit I might never be fit enough for that kind of reporting. As if the injury weren’t bad enough, my body didn’t bounce back nearly as quickly anymore. I’d started writing longer, more in-depth stories targeted at magazines, but I hoped to give my AP boss an excuse to keep me on a little longer since I needed the health insurance I wouldn’t get as a freelancer.
No response from her. I did see an email marked Urgent: Private, which was intriguing enough for a quick look.
Mayor Todd Paradise is taking bribes. Do you have the courage to publish the story?
I went cold, and not from the cool breeze off the lake. Todd Paradise had been a year behind me in high school. He’d gone from junior class president thirty years ago to mayor of our local town within the greater Phoenix area. I’d been spending time with him since I got home, and he seemed as nice and honest as ever.
The note wasn’t signed, and the email address didn’t provide any clues to the identity of the sender. It would be easy to dismiss the accusation, but that wouldn’t do Todd any favors. I could see three possibilities. Todd was taking bribes, in which case the story should be told, regardless of my personal feelings. Todd had done something that led someone to incorrectly believe he was taking bribes, in which case it was better to find out what was going on now, before the accusations became public. Or someone was targeting Todd with lies, in which case he needed to know that.
I emailed back: I’ll need proof and I need to know who you are.
“Time to put your phones away,” Misty said. Many people had been taking pictures of themselves or each other as they geared up. Now Misty collected the phones to stow them in the van. None of us could guarantee we wouldn’t take a spill into the water, and I could pretty much guarantee I would. The company had waterproof cameras for sale for those who wanted to record their adventures. Jen had one, of course.
We practiced getting onto the board and standing up several times on land before wading into the water. “I’m going to get you for this,” I whispered to Jen. “Be honest. Your real business plan is to make money off of humiliating pictures of me, isn’t it? You realize I don’t have any money to pay blackmail.”
“That’s fine,” she said. “The real money is in ads on YouTube videos. I’ll need you to go viral though, so make it good.”
We spread out in the shallow water, far enough apart that if one of us fell, we wouldn’t crash into the next person. Then Misty led us through the process of getting onto the board in a kneeling position, then crouching, and finally standing.
My muscles strained with the effort to balance. Falling into the water wouldn’t actually kill me, but I wanted to prove something, if only to myself. At the very least, I didn’t want to be the first person in the group to fall.
“See? I told you it wouldn’t be so bad,” Jen said.
I very slowly and carefully turned to look at her.
“Hold on. I want a photo to prove this happened.” She shifted her paddle to her left hand and fumbled with the waterproof camera strapped around her wrist.
My board bobbed gently in the waves at the edge of the lake. My bad leg ached as I tried to keep my knees bent and my back straight, as instructed. I attempted a smile that felt more like a grimace.
As Jen got the camera up to her eye level, she wobbled. Her paddle smacked against the side of the board. Her arms flailed, the camera flying to the end of its wrist strap.
Jen plunged into the cold lake water.
She came up spluttering and tossing her head. I laughed so hard I had to kneel on my board and grab the sides. The water rocked the board and splashed my hands and knees, but at least I didn’t fall off.
When I could breathe again, I said, “Don’t forget to get a photo of yourself. I want to prove this happened.”
Jen grinned, pointed the camera toward herself, and took a picture as she leaned on the board with one arm.
Maybe this fifty at fifty thing wouldn’t be so bad after all.
I forgot about the mysterious email until I was dry, fed, and back home relaxing. I checked for a response.
I have to be anonymous or I could lose my job. But I can get you proof. Will you tell the story?
Any so-called proof would have to be quadruple-checked. Paperwork, photos, and recordings could all be faked.
I replied: The proof will have to be rock solid. I can’t trust an anonymous source.
The photos came in minutes later. A series of three pictures showed one white man passing a small duffel bag to another. As far as proof went, they were barely mediocre. First off, the duffel bag could have held anything—gym clothes, maybe. Second, the man passing off the bag wore sunglasses and had a hat shading his face. That wasn’t particularly suspicious in Arizona, and it meant it would be hard to identify him. Finally, the photos only showed the back of the man who was presumably supposed to be Todd. It could’ve been almost any man of medium height and build with short brown hair.
I tried zooming in on the photos, but the quality was too poor to get any detail in a close-up. Even cell phone cameras could take high quality photos with lots of pixels per inch. Either the photos had been taken from a great distance, or the quality was intentionally poor to make it hard to identify the men.
I strongly suspected someone was setting up Todd. And I greatly resented their attempt to use me to do it.
I emailed back: Poor quality photos of a bag being passed along aren’t good enough without a reliable source to back them up. What else do you have?
Then I called Todd. “I need to see you. In private.”
“Oh?” He sounded hopeful.
“Sorry, it’s nothing good. Politics.”
“Oh,” he groaned. “Well, maybe we can still enjoy ourselves. Why don’t you come to dinner?”
“At your house?”
“You said we needed privacy. My kids will have dinner with us, but I guarantee they have priorities other than hanging out with the boring old folks.”
“Speak for yourself,” I said. “I’m fascinating.”
“True, but hearing their dad talk about local politics will be enough to drive them to their video games.”
He had two teenage children I had yet to meet. I’d never been to his house. We’d gone on a handful of dates, but none of them had involved going back to one of our homes. Well, unless you counted the sting operation at a bar where we raced back to save my father from a killer. That wasn’t the worst date I’ve ever had, but it wasn’t exactly romantic to say goodbye surrounded by family, friends, and police officers and realize later you had makeup smeared all over your face.
Even though this was a business meeting, of sorts, it felt like a step forward in our relationship. I swallowed, nodded, remembered he couldn’t see me through the phone, and said, “Sounds good.”
I forwarded the anonymous message and photos to Mackenzie, a computer genius who sometimes did me favors. Then I caught up on some email, left a note for my father since he was visiting Mom in the care home, and headed out.
Todd lived in a typical Arizona house in a typical Arizona suburb: a one-story house in tan stucco surrounded by a xeriscaped yard with some cacti and bushes. Not very interesting, but not as ostentatious as you might expect from a politician.
He got out of his car in the garage as I pulled up. He met me in the driveway and gave me a quick kiss. “Hi, Kate. I meant to be home half an hour ago. One of those days, you know.”
I nodded, though his version of “one of those days” and mine were probably different. Until recently, my worst days involved bombs and shootouts, while his probably meant dealing with red tape. Still, I’d take a showdown with tribal warlords over a city council meeting any day. At least it would be easier to stay awake.
He unlocked the door and led the way in. A dog trotted over to meet us. At least, I assumed it must be a dog, given the floppy ears, enormous jowls, and huge paws. Besides, Todd surely wouldn’t keep a miniature horse inside the house. The dog immediately pushed his giant head into my crotch, knocking me back a step.
“Whiskers!” Todd grabbed the dog’s collar and hauled him away. “Sit.”
The animal dropped its butt. Its tail whisked across the tile floor like a drum brush on a snare drum. I held out my hand for him to sniff and managed to withhold an “Ew” as my hand disappeared momentarily inside the big lips.
“That’s quite a lot of dog,” I said, withdrawing my wet hand.
“Yeah, he was supposed to be medium-sized.” Todd circled a kitchen island to the sink and washed his hands. “We think he’s part mastiff and part Sasquatch. Still, the kids adore him. Whiskers helped a lot during the divorce. He’s a good boy.”
Whiskers took that praise as permission to get up and join us in the kitchen. I took my turn at the sink, washing off the drool. Now his tail whacked against the cabinet like a bass drum. The dog was a whole percussion section all by himself.
“Kind of a therapy dog?” I asked.
“Yeah. Anyway, kids should have pets. It was a rough time, for a lot of reasons.”
I gave Todd a look that could have been questioning, encouraging, or sympathetic. We hadn’t talked much about that part of his life.
“Things were okay with Pammy,” he said. “Not great, maybe, but what can you expect after fifteen years of marriage and lives that revolved around busy jobs and growing kids? We got along well enough. I thought she was a good mother.” He handed me the towel and leaned against the counter. “Then our youngest announced he was male and wanted to transition. Pammy couldn’t handle it.”
I hung up the towel and leaned against the opposite counter, rubbing Whiskers’s oversize ear. He leaned against me with a moan of delight.
“It’s not that she was against being trans in theory,” Todd said, “but she’d always wanted a little girl. She said if she knew we were going to have two boys, she would have tried for another. She always dressed our youngest in frilly clothes. Wanted to have doll tea parties. Took a group of girls and mothers to a fancy place for high tea as a fifth birthday party.”
He shrugged. “I didn’t really get it, the obsession with gender roles, but I figured as long as it was okay with the child, it didn’t matter. Alec didn’t seem particularly into it, but he didn’t rebel. He was eleven when he wanted to transition. I did the research, got him into therapy, made sure this was not just a whim or stage, as Pammy hoped. In her mind, she was losing her little girl.”
“That’s rough.” I couldn’t sympathize much with Pammy. It seemed like a parent’s first duty was to their child, not their own desire for what they wanted that child to be. On the other hand, since I’d never had kids, it was easy for me to pretend I would have done better in her place.
“Yeah. Eventually we had to split, for Alec’s sake. I couldn’t have him growing up with that. She didn’t even fight me for him.” Todd blinked a few times. “If she couldn’t have her pretty little daughter, she wasn’t as interested in being a mom. Or maybe she hoped forcing Alec to choose would work in her favor. Finn chose to stay with me as well. So, here I am, forty-eight, single, with two teenage boys and a ridiculously large, drooly dog.” The last sentence came out hoarse. He cleared his throat.
“They’re lucky to have you,” I said.
“No, I’m lucky to have them. I won’t bore you with the whole ‘parenting is the greatest thing I’ve ever done’ speech. I imagine that’s annoying to people who don’t have kids, and anyway, sometimes it seems like an excuse when people aren’t doing anything else useful with their lives. But I have never for one moment regretted having the boys or ending my marriage for their sake. Alec is great. They both are. You’ll like them.”
“I’m sure.” I didn’t know much about teenage boys, or girls for that matter, even though I’d been one of those. But the teenagers I’d met since coming home had been pretty cool. Of course, whether Todd’s kids would like me was another matter entirely. Regardless of how they felt about the divorce, they might not be thrilled about their father bringing home another woman. Or maybe he did it all the time, but I doubted that.
Whiskers swung around, his back end hitting me hard enough that I might have stumbled if I hadn’t been supported by the counter. The dog bounded to the door, oblivious to the havoc he’d nearly caused.
“The boys are home,” Todd said.
“I’d never have guessed.”
The door opened. Two teenagers came in. They greeted Whiskers with something almost approaching the dog’s level of enthusiasm.
Then their gazes landed on me. They both straightened and stared, looking almost like twins, except one was shorter and appeared younger.
“That’s Alec on the left, Finn on the right,” Todd said. “Boys, this is Kate Tessler. She’s staying for dinner.”
“The reporter?” Alec asked.
“My fame precedes me.” I hadn’t expected teenagers to be up on local news.
“Dad told us about how you went after the guy who tried to hurt your father,” Finn said. “And about the nursing home.”
That explained it. They studied me intently. Because I was the infamous reporter who had been making local waves, or because they knew I had been on dates with their father? I probably didn’t look like what they would expect from either a reporter battling evil or a girlfriend. I was five foot two inches, starting to build up a little of the muscle I’d lost after the accident, with short hair gone silver and no makeup on my sun-damaged skin. I smiled and let them look their fill. If they didn’t like what they saw, there wasn’t much I could or would do about it.
“Why don’t you take Whiskers into the backyard?” Todd said. “Dinner’s in half an hour.”
They headed back through the house with the dog trotting behind. Todd pulled things out of the refrigerator. He put a pot of water on the stove and then got a cutting board and started chopping onions.
“I guess I should ask, anything you don’t like or won’t eat? I was going to make veggie pasta. Finn’s vegetarian and Alec mostly is.”
“That’s fine.” I moved around the kitchen island so I could lean my elbows on the other side and watch while he worked. “Is now a good time to discuss the serious stuff, while the kids are out back? Or should we wait until after dinner?”
He grimaced. “It’s not like I want to hear it, but I won’t relax until I do. Maybe not after that either, given your expression. Let’s get it over with.”
“We’ll deal with it.” I explained the emails I’d gotten.
He put a pan on the stove and added some oil. “And you’re telling the subject of your investigation? Is that ethical?”
“In this case, I think my investigation involves finding out who’s targeting you. Granted, I may be letting my personal feelings influence me.”
He gave me a quick smile. My face heated.
“Not—I mean, I’ve known you for years,” I explained. “We may not have seen each other for a lot of those years, but I haven’t observed anything since I’ve been back to convince me you’ve changed that much.”
Stop rambling and get to the point.
“I know you’ve had some political enemies,” I said. “This seems more like someone trying to eliminate a rival or get revenge. Maybe that city councilmember we found taking bribes? People often want to deflect their own guilt by trying to throw it on someone else.”
“Maybe. More likely his financial backer.” Todd sighed. “Or any number of other people, I suppose. I appreciate you telling me about this, Kate.”
“You don’t seem surprised.”
“Hardly. If you thought high school politics were ridiculous, try city council. Oh, sorry, you’ve probably seen a lot worse covering news in the Middle East.”
“At least when countries are at stake, people will stab you in the front instead of the back. You have a better chance at dodging if you see the knife coming.”
“I guess there is that.” He stirred the onions and they sizzled cheerfully.
“I have Mackenzie working on anything identifiable in the photos and trying to trace the email. I’ll see what else this guy comes up with to ‘prove your guilt.’” I made air quotes. “Or this woman, I suppose.”
Todd went still.
“What did I say? Did you think of a woman who might be targeting you?”
He glanced toward the doorway where the boys had disappeared. “No. It’s only . . .”
I whispered, even though the kids were supposed to be outside, “Your ex?”
He shook his head. “I can’t see that. She has been making noises about changing our custody agreement. The thing is, the boys are fourteen and sixteen now. They have a lot of say in the matter. She knows perfectly well if they wanted to live with her, or even spend more time with her, they could.”
“If she knows they could and don’t choose to do so, that might hurt her enough that she wants to hurt you.”
“Yes. She also didn’t get alimony since I have the kids, and she makes as much as I do.”
“So this could be a negotiating tactic? Force you to send the kids to her or pay her off?”
“I hate to think it of her. When you’ve loved someone . . .”
“Yeah.” I let that sit for a minute before I continued. “People do change. Not always for the better. She might be hurt enough to lash out in ways that would normally seem out of character. It’s worth considering. But if she’s involved, it wouldn’t be about getting money, I think. If she followed through with a threat to ruin your career, that would hurt your ability to pay anything.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
I didn’t like the frown my news had put on his face, but it was better to know what you were facing.
I thought I heard a shuffle from the hallway. Had the boys come back? Had they heard what we said about their mother? I cocked an ear in that direction, but before I could think of a way to warn Todd, he went on.
“I don’t mind honest political enemies. Of course we’re not all going to agree, not on priorities and not on how things should be handled. I fully expect to have to defend my ideas. But this stuff—people taking bribes, maybe someone setting me up to make it look like I’m taking bribes, it’s crazy. This isn’t why I got into politics.”
A murmur followed by a shh came from the hallway.
“Why don’t you boys come out?” I called.
Todd’s eyes widened. I gave a little shrug. It had happened; all we could do now was deal with the fallout.
Finn and Alec came in looking sheepish. Finn ran a hand through his hair, which was short on the sides and longer on top. “Sorry, Dad.”
“I told you to go out back.”
The boys exchanged glances. “Yeah,” Finn said. “We did, but . . . Well, sorry.”
“You have something to tell us?” I might not know teenagers, but I recognized the expressions of people who were desperate to share something but not sure they should.
They looked at each other. Finn nodded at Alec.
Alec scrunched up his face but turned to speak. “We wondered if Ms. Tessler was here to investigate something.”
“Call me Kate.” I wasn’t sure if I should be pleased or annoyed that they’d assumed I was here on business. Maybe it would make whatever was happening between Todd and me easier if the boys got to know me without wondering whether they were going to get a new stepmother.
Alec looked at me. “We know you helped Dad with that guy from the council.”
“You shouldn’t worry about any of that,” Todd said. “You have enough on your plates with school and band and soccer.”
“Yeah, but . . .” Alec looked at his big brother again.
Finn nudged him. “Tell them.”
“It’s just I’ve been getting these emails.”
Todd went still again, this time with his head lifted and his gaze focused on Alec like a hunting dog on alert. “What kind of emails?”
Alec shrugged. “You know. Saying things about me.”
“What kind of things?” Todd’s voice sharpened, but clearly his annoyance wasn’t at his son.
Alec rolled his eyes. “Dad, come on. You know people say stuff and make jokes sometimes.”
“Because you transitioned?” I asked. Might as well get it out in the open that I knew about that.
He nodded. “Most of the kids at school are fine. They don’t care. A few give me a hard time. It’s no big deal. If they didn’t rag on me for that, they’d find another reason. They pick on everyone.”
“If you’re being bullied, we need to report it,” Todd said.
“Dad, hang on,” Finn said. “Let him finish.”
Todd drew in a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was ready to charge into battle for his kid, but he knew listening came first. Something tender blossomed in my chest. I had no maternal instincts, but I could still appreciate a good father.
“This last week has been different,” Alec said. “Now they’re saying things about you as well.”
Todd stared. “About me?”
End of Excerpt