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“Coward.” My sister spat the word at me.
I glared back from where I reclined on the sofa. “Oh, please. How many killers have I faced down just in the last few months?”
Jen gave a sniff. “And yet you draw the line at stand-up comedy.”
I shifted the heating pad against my left leg, the one that had been torn up in a bombing six months before. I considered a comment about how standing up was still not my strong suit, but if that hadn’t worked to get me out of stand-up paddleboarding, it wasn’t going to work with stand-up comedy. In any case, it wasn’t the standing that worried me about stand-up comedy.
“You’re never going to get through fifty new things in a year at this rate,” Jen said.
“You know numbers are arbitrary and time is imaginary. Age is a mindset and all that.”
Jen rolled her eyes. “And we’re both trying to find new meaning in life. That’s why I’m doing the challenge with you, even though I’m only forty-eight.”
She’d decided we should try fifty new things during the year I turned fifty. Pointing out that I had never agreed to the challenge wouldn’t make a difference to Jen. She’d spent the last thirty years raising teenagers and commanding parent and community groups. I’d only traveled the world as a journalist. Turns out interviewing warlords and covering natural disasters had not built up the mental strength I needed to survive a battle of wills with my sister. I missed the days when being older meant I was bigger than she was, and I could simply hold her down to get my way.
“Open mic night can’t be that hard,” Jen said. “Clarence and Arnold do it.”
Clarence and Arnold were friends of my father, senior men who seemed to live for bad jokes and causing trouble.
“You’re not exactly supporting your case,” I said. “They could use a few more boundaries. Anyway, I’m a writer, not a speaker. The idea of watching amateurs at an open mic makes me cringe. Why would I want to do it myself and make other people cringe?”
“You’re supposed to be pushing your boundaries,” Jen said. “That’s the whole point of the fifty at fifty challenge.”
Pushing boundaries sounded good in theory. Not so long ago, I didn’t think I had boundaries. But my injuries had forcefully reminded me that I was aging, in a way the mere number “fifty” could not. Now I sometimes found myself wanting to pull back, take it easy, play it safe.
Maybe I did need to push boundaries. That didn’t mean I could let Jen have her way without a fight. If I gave in too easily, who knew what outrageous thing she’d have me doing next? No, the way to deal with Jen was to resist strongly at first, slowly giving in to a compromise so she’d think she’d won, and I . . . Well, I’d know I lost, but not as big a loss as it might be otherwise.
Dad came downstairs and paused in the foyer, looking at us in the living room. “I’m going out for a bit.”
“Are you visiting Mom?” I asked. “Maybe I’ll join you.” Anything to get away from my annoying sister, or at least distract her. If she came along, she could boss around Mom and the staff at Sunshine Haven for a change.
Dad’s gaze flicked between us. Finally, he said, “I have some errands to run first. I can pick you up later if you want to visit your mother.”
“Anything I can do?” I asked.
Now that Dad and I were roommates, I tried to do my fair share of grocery shopping, cooking, and chores. I wasn’t paying rent, since the house was paid off and I was underemployed. I’d finally had to retire from my job with the Associated Press, since I couldn’t go back to the field full-time. Now I was merely a freelancer, writing articles on spec—and occasionally investigating crimes, but I had yet to get paid for that.
“No, no, it’s fine.” Dad smiled vaguely and left.
“I hope he’s not developing memory problems too,” Jen said. “Has he been acting odd lately?”
“He seemed distracted, that’s all.” I did not want to have another parent with dementia. It was bad enough dealing with my own aging, without admitting that my parents were nearing the ends of their lives. Dad was only in his seventies. He could live another twenty years or more—if nothing went wrong.
I mentally reviewed the last few days. “He got a phone call yesterday. He was pretty quiet after that. I hope it wasn’t bad news about Mom. Surely he would’ve told us.”
“Maybe.” Jen offered me a saccharine smile. “It’s not like anyone in this family would ever keep secrets.”
“Hey, when I first got back, you were being fairly obnoxious. Now you know as much as I do about our investigations. Probably more.”
She slumped back and blew out a breath. “Yeah. I just wish we could go public. I could get us so much work! But getting a PI license takes forever.”
Jen had decided we should go into business together as private investigators. She’d been working on the business side of things. In Arizona, getting a PI license required working for three years full-time for another PI or for a government agency, but if anyone could find a way to skirt those rules, it was Jen. She’d already tried to talk Todd, the local mayor and my almost-boyfriend, into hiring me for the city. Unfortunately, our little town within the greater Phoenix area really didn’t need an investigator on staff.
Todd was facing a challenging reelection after the recent scandals. He hadn’t been responsible for the scandals, but the mayor looked bad if he didn’t realize city employees were falsifying work orders and faking overtime.
Hmm, given the amount of corruption we’d uncovered, maybe Todd did need a PI. However, it might look like nepotism if he hired his almost-girlfriend.
The doorbell rang.
I stroked Harlequin, my parents’ black-and-white cat, who liked to snuggle with me whenever I had the heating pad on my leg. “Sorry, can’t disturb the cat.”
Jen heaved a theatrical sigh and headed for the door. We weren’t expecting anyone, so it was probably a delivery—or else Clarence, with a report on some odd crime he thought we should investigate to keep him entertained. Since I’d been home, I’d helped get three murderers arrested. Bored retired men remained the biggest danger in my life, followed by my restless sister.
I heard a woman’s voice from outside. “Kate Tessler?”
Jen stepped back and gestured toward me.
A petite woman, probably my age, give or take a few years, stepped into the foyer. Her gaze landed on me and she marched forward. “April Tran, editor in chief of the Sun.” Her chin-length black hair swung forward as she leaned over to hold out her hand.
I shook the offered hand. “Pleased to meet you. What can I do for you?” I tried to keep my demeanor professional. It would be the only professional thing about me. I wore baggy shorts and an ancient Def Leppard T-shirt with a coffee stain down the front, and my short, silver hair stuck up all over. I hadn’t bothered to shower that morning, since I wasn’t expecting to see anyone important.
April Tran couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds, but she dropped down on the other end of the sofa hard enough to bounce the cushions and make Harlequin grumble.
“I need your help.” She frowned at the cat and the heating pad. “I hope you can help me.”
“If you explain what you need, I’ll let you know,” I said.
Jen quietly took her seat across the coffee table and picked up the notebook and pen she always kept within reach.
“Gabriella told me about you,” April said.
Gabriella Dempsey was a reporter with the Sun. I’d done her a favor a few weeks before by giving her info about cyberbullying at a local high school. Well, technically, I’d distracted her from the bigger scandal involving Todd’s political opponent and a shady developer who’d committed murder. But the cyberbullying story tied into that, and since the bigger story broke, Gabriella had been covering it as well.
“I’ve been following her reports,” I said. “She’s doing well.”
“She’ll have my job one day,” April said without heat. “At least, if she lives long enough.”
I stared. “Is that a general comment, or are you worried about her safety?”
“She was in a car accident last night,” April said. “Gabriella is in the hospital.”
“Oh no. Is she—” I wouldn’t ask if Gabriella was all right, given what April had already said. “What are her injuries?”
“Broken arm, cracked ribs, burns. She’s conscious, but between the breathing tube and the burns on her hands, she can’t really communicate.” April gulped a couple of times. “She can’t talk or write.”
I felt light-headed. My damaged leg was bad enough. Losing the ability to speak and write was devastating, especially for a reporter.
I made myself breathe. “Do they think she’ll recover?”
April gave a shrug and half shake of her head that suggested uncertainty.
“Is that what you meant by if she lives long enough?” I asked.
“Not exactly.” April’s hands made fists on her thighs. “The accident wasn’t an accident. Someone ran her car off the road.”
Jen gasped. “Intentionally?”
“We don’t know for sure. Gabriella was driving on a winding road east of the city, toward Malapais Mountain. Her car went into a gully. In a way, she’s lucky the engine caught fire. The flames attracted the attention of the next people to drive by, and they got her out. Otherwise . . .” April’s chin trembled, and she pressed her lips together.
Jen and I exchanged glances, eyes wide at the horror of being trapped in a burning car. If no one had spotted the wreck, it could have been days before someone found her—her remains, at that point.
“That sounds terrible,” I said. “I’m still not clear on why you came to me.”
April’s chin firmed. “Gabriella was working on the political corruption story. I think someone tried to get rid of her because of it. She told me you gave her that lead. We’re always short-staffed, as you can probably imagine. With Gabriella in the hospital—and I haven’t been able to reach Andres, he’s not answering his phone or returning messages—anyway, I need someone to take over for Gabriella.”
“You want me to cover the political story?”
I’d have to think about that. Technically, I should recuse myself from following that story, since I had a personal relationship with someone involved. On the other hand, I already knew most of the details, I had access to some of the people involved, and April needed experienced help. Plus, I could use a paycheck, even the minimal pay I’d probably get freelancing for a smallish local paper.
“Yes, and I want you to find out whether one of those horrible men ran Gabriella off the road,” April said.
That was an entirely different challenge.
“If Gabriella can’t communicate, how do you know another car was involved?” Jen asked.
“Oh, didn’t I say? The left rear panel of Gabriella’s car had silver paint on it. Her car was totaled, but the police found that much evidence.”
“That suggests someone bumped her,” I said. “It could still have been an accident—a hit-and-run by someone trying to pass, rather than attempted murder.”
“Either way, it’s criminal,” April said. “I want them caught. I can’t let someone get away with hurting one of my reporters, especially if it was an attack. I mentioned the possibility to the police, but they’re not taking me seriously. I don’t have anyone else to spare, no one with enough experience. That’s why I need you.”
More likely, she didn’t want to put more of her own people in danger. I’d take that as a compliment to my experience rather than a comment on my expendability.
“I have a guy on the political beat, but he’s asthmatic and diabetic . . .” April glanced at the heating pad against my leg. My return to Arizona after the bombing injury had been covered in the news, since I was a minor local celebrity, so no doubt she knew all about it. Would she rethink her offer, since I was hardly at peak physical ability either?
April looked up. “More to the point, he’s lazy and prefers to do his interviews by phone or over drinks. I don’t have anyone used to being on the front lines. I want you to take over Gabriella’s story and include an investigation into her accident—the attempt on her life.”
I should consider the ramifications carefully. I’d be going up against men who were rich, powerful, and ruthless. At least one man was already dead at their hands. If they’d tried to get rid of Gabriella, it suggested she’d found more evidence against them. They wouldn’t want me on the same trail. It was definitely a situation that called for caution.
“I’d love to help,” I said.
Jen leaned forward. “Let’s talk about our rates.”
End of Excerpt