The Mystery Lady
Danny Walker used to enjoy chasing criminals, but after being kidnapped and nearly killed, he longs to close the Wild Blue Detective Agency and live a simpler life. Forced to take leave from the police force, he has a long way to go to convince the shrink he’s even close to sane, especially when he helps his former partner solve a series of murders, which endangers the woman he’s tailing.
Wanna-be writer Lucy Stephen never wrote about murder until her husband moved out and thinks some man in a blue car is stalking her. When her husband and his girlfriend take her kids on vacation, Lucy discovers a hidden package of jewelry her husband desperately wants. The more she learns about the assorted pieces, the more Lucy realizes she may never see her kids again and needs to fight back with the help of the man who stalks her.
Danny awoke to a cool draft and snuffling near his face. Images flashed through his head sleepy mind. Sitting in an overheated car, a drive through the country, scraping old paint off walls, falling asleep in a dusty sleeping bag at three o’clock when he could no longer keep alert. Finally, he remembered falling asleep in the old sleeping bag at the old Victorian house he’d purchased last month.
Only now he wasn’t alone.
“Shit.” Danny opened his eyes in time to see a furry gray and black rump disappear around the corner of the livingroom. The raccoons were back in spite of his many attempts to keep them out.
He jerked his arms out of the warmth of the sleeping bag, reached for his revolver, and vowed to get those beasts out of his house if it was the last thing he did. By the time he got to his feet, the critter had vanished. So had the pizza crusts from last night’s dinner.
Danny stomped on the scarred wood floor then ranted to let the raccoons know exactly what he’d do when he caught them. Somewhere in the upper levels of the old Victorian house, generations of raccoons probably laughed hysterically at him.
Anger vented, he ran both hands through his rumpled hair. What he wouldn’t do for a cup of coffee. Town was only a fifteen minute drive. Since Java Jo’s would open for business in less than half an hour, he figured he might as well get some work done before breakfast.
He turned to the cupboards and resumed sanding the ugly paint off the hardwood doors. Who painted their kitchen cupboards puke green?
Deep in his pocket, his cell phone vibrated. He stopped sanding and hesitated. The only people awake to antagonize him this early were his partner in the detective agency Leo Blue, his uncle Ray and his sister Hannah. When the phone stopped ringing, he blew out a relieved sigh and went back to work.
Up until last month, living life chasing criminals appealed to him. He’d loved his job as a police officer in Newville. Since meeting Katie then being kidnapped and nearly killed in a bookstore, he longed for a quieter simpler life. Taking leave from the police force wasn’t his idea, nor was meeting with a psychiatrist twice a week to get his head straight. That same psychiatrist was far from thrilled to learn Danny was dating Katie, the cause of both the kidnapping and his near death. So far, he had a long way to go to convince the shrink he was even close to sane.
His phone rang again.
This time, Danny set aside the sander and answered. “This better be important.”
“I’ve been trying to call you all night. Where the hell are you?” Bobby Holland was Danny’s partner in the Newville Police Department and current conscience. “I could really use your help on this case.”
“You know I can’t go back to work until the shrink clears me and so far he’s still convinced I’m crazy.” Danny rubbed grit out of his eyes. “I can’t say I blame him. I haven’t been able to explain to him otherwise.”
“You were kidnapped by a bunch of crazy writers. Anyone would have nightmares after that.” Bobby’s words weren’t exactly reassuring. “Any other excuses you want me to swallow?”
He blew out a long breath. “I have another case.”
“Are you kidding me? That domestic you mentioned?” Bobby snorted. “Buddy, I thought you gave up the private detective business for the sake of your sanity so you could get back to being a cop. Taking another case will only confirm the shrink’s evaluation.”
Bobby was still very much a cop.
Before he bought the house, Danny was nearly killed by both mobsters and a few senior citizens in his hometown. The department forced him to take a leave of absence to fix the things he hadn’t seen when his life flashed before his eyes. Home. Wife. Stability. Sanity. The basics. “I was, but Leo already committed us to this one so I have to see it through. After this one, I’m moving to New Mexico to run a jackalope farm.”
Bobby chuckled. “Oh yeah? Well, if you’re well enough to work on a case for Wild Blue, you’re well enough to help me solve a few murders. I need you to come back to Newville and help.”
“Murders?” He needed a strong cup of coffee far more than he needed to do more work. He could drive to Java Jo’s, but his sister’s house was closer. “What are you talking about?”
“While you were undercover investigating Maddox, the rest of us worked some cases dealing with women on the who’s-who list who were found raped and strangled with their heads bashed in for emphasis.” Papers rustled while someone shouted in the background.
Danny rubbed his forehead. “Rings a bell. What about them?”
He growled then lowered his voice. “Don’t you watch the news anymore? The latest was a thirty-five year old woman was strangled in a downtown real estate office last night. The janitor heard noises in the back room, but never saw anyone come in or leave. He discovered the body when he went into an office to clean. From the marks on her neck and face, it’s the same MO as the others. Raped, beaten, then strangled.”
“Then you don’t need me.” He leaned against the dusty cupboard. “You might be able to solve this one single handedly.”
Bobby sighed. “You’d think so, but unfortunately, I do need you. On a hunch, I’ve done some digging into some cold cases lately. Over the past few years, there were five unsolved murders with too many things in common. I need you to come back and be a second set of eyes.”
Danny brushed dust off his bare arm. This wasn’t the news he wanted to hear. “Who’s on the case with you?”
“An entire task force has been wading through cold case files for weeks. They brought me and a few other guys in after someone found the fifth body yesterday.”
“Five bodies and no suspects? Are you serious?” Danny nearly slid off the bed. “What do you want me to do?”
“Correction. Five bodies and an truckload of suspects. We’re wading through thousands of leads and need some fresh eyes. I’ll send you some info. Unofficially, of course. I don’t want you in trouble with your shrink. Or your sister.” Bobby chuckled then hung up.
Hannah would toss her hair and give him “the look” if he bothered to mention he’d ignored the psychiatrist’s advice. The nights he didn’t collapse in an exhausted heap in his semi-renovated disaster home, he drove the ten minutes to occupy her guest room. Her opinion carried a lot of weight since her kids slept down the hall from him. After their parents died in a car accident when he was ten, he and Hannah had moved in with Ray. Hannah had taken over as his mother and never looked back.
Bobby’s e-mails began to arrive to his phone less than a minute later.
Danny ignored them long enough to drive to Hannah’s house. He showered and dressed then chugged down two cups of weak coffee. By the time he got to the desk in the guest room, over thirty messages awaited his attention. A dull ache grew behind his eyes as more and more messages popped onto his screen. The case was far bigger than he’d expected.
Finally, he threw his pen across his room and blew out a long breath then ambled back downstairs for a third cup of coffee. He needed to think. According to Bobby, the murder cases had several clues that didn’t seem to add up and no witnesses. Even the janitor hadn’t seen anything concrete.
He returned to his computer and clicked thought through the digital gallery of names and faces Bobby had sent. None of the suspects were low-lives and all had indisputable alibis. Either someone was lying or they all were. The biggest problem was their suspects had all appeared at high society events on the nights in question. Photos and write ups in local papers to confirm all their stories. The victims ranged from corporate executives to a secretary in a real estate firm. All were women.
To be a good detective, one had to work backward. Start with one body, mix in a handful of clues and a few low-life suspects then retrace your footsteps. As much as he didn’t want to be immersed in the life of a cop again, he couldn’t resist the lure. The challenge of solving the case. The adrenalin.
There were so many other things Danny needed to take care of. At the top of his to-do list was getting to know Katie Mullins, the attractive red-head who’d bought his uncle’s bookstore. Despite the fact she’d single-handedly brought both Packham and three mobsters, one the notorious Gerard Maddox, from Newville to their collective knees, he slept much better at night knowing she was on his side.
Number two, was working on the hundred year old Victorian house. Five miles from Packham, and two miles from his sister’s house, it was perfect—aside from the raccoons and long list of repairs that currently rendered it unlivable. Fixing up the house was his feeble attempt at relaxing until the shrink deemed him fit for action.
With Maddox and his wife Margaret behind bars, Danny decided to close the Wild Blue Detective Agency he’d opened only to go undercover at Maddox’s firm DMR Architectural. Leo, his partner in the Agency, refused to let him.
A former professional boxer and third degree karate black belt, Leo had waded through hell in Afghanistan before a bomb nearly blew him to pieces. Helping Danny to set up the Wild Blue Detective Agency had given him something to live for. Danny envied Leo’s ability to live like a gypsy, taking off to parts unknown when not solving crimes or helping friends.
Apparently, Leo had found his calling hunting down bad guys. Danny grabbed his cell phone and pulled up Leo’s name on the screen. He’d need help to catch a murderer and Leo was one person Danny could trust to watch his back in any situation.
After four rings, Leo picked up. “What now?”
Danny chuckled. “Time to get out of bed. We need to meet.”
Leo’s response was something between a snort and a growl. Two-parts Rambo and one-part Einstein, Leo thrived on the whole detective business, even when the agency was little more than a front. “I already told you everything about my case and I’m not going over it again.”
“This has nothing to do with the gym.” He yawned. “Bobby called.”
“About the murdered woman in Newville?” The tone of his voice changed from half asleep to “tell me more” mode in a blink.
Danny stifled a laugh at how quickly Leo could flick the switch between sleep and full alert. “Good guess. Women. Plural. He sent me a few files to look over that I’ll forward since you’re good at catching things I might miss.”
“Flattery will get you everywhere.” Leo snorted, then yawned. “If you’re e-mailing stuff, why do we need to meet?”
“I need coffee for surveillance and my sister doesn’t have big enough mugs or strong enough coffee. Meet me at Java Jo’s in half an hour.”
Leo laughed. “You know that stuff will kill you, right?”
“I’m not giving up coffee so lay off.” Giving up coffee would only make Danny’s mental state worse. “Meet me at Jo’s so we can talk.”
“Fine.” Leo groaned. “But it’s going to cost you breakfast.”
Danny hung up then called over his shoulder to his sister while he ran down the front steps of the brick farmhouse. “I’m going to work. See you later tonight.”
The shuffle of soft-soled slippers on the tile floor behind him meant Hannah followed him to the door. “Aren’t you forgetting something?”
He stopped on the walkway and searched his pockets. Finally, he glanced up at the silver travel mug and paper bag clutched in her hands. “My coffee and lunch.”
“And your keys.” She held the keys between two fingers and let them dangle like wind chimes as her loose white shirt billowed in the morning breeze. “And the lunch that you hid in the back of the fridge yesterday so Nate wouldn’t take it to work this morning.”
Danny’s breath caught in his throat. Hannah looked so much like their mom and he was overwhelmed with gratitude she hadn’t kicked him out yet to protect her own two boys, especially after his last undercover stint. He blew out a breath. “I’d be lost without you, Sis.”
“I know. You’d better finish renovations on your new place soon or you’re going to run yourself into the ground.” Hannah’s dimples burrowed into her cheeks and she fingered the long black braid that hung over her right shoulder. “You can’t keep doing surveillance all day, work on the house all night, and try to make time for Katie whenever you can squeeze her in. She won’t wait around for a boyfriend who’s never available.”
He bowed his head. Typical. Hannah had a way of making him feel like a whipped puppy without ever raising her voice. He scratched his chin. He’d forgotten to shave again. If he didn’t remember to shave before he met with Katie next, she’d tease him mercilessly. He seemed to forget a lot of things these days.
“Where are you off to today?” Hannah walked out into the morning sunshine.
“Surveillance.” He’d given up lying since she had a built-in radar and saw right through him anyway. “I might go out to the house later and get a little more work done.”
Hannah leaned on the railing. “Or you might try to get some sleep before you’re caught snoozing on the job.”
Danny groaned. “Or I might get some sleep.”
“You’d better see Katie soon or she’ll dump you,” she said in a sing-song voice.
Hannah was right. She was always right. Danny didn’t know where he’d be without she and her husband Nate. Probably face down with a bottle in his hand.
Danny sighed, thankful he’d recruited Leo and one of their high school friends, Clancy Davidson, a local tattoo artist and former bouncer. Not only were both men good at talking to people and rooting out information, no computer could keep secrets from either man. Leo and Clancy could access pretty much anything, anytime, anywhere, which made Danny happy they were on his side of the law.
While Danny still wanted to shut the agency down, Leo fought back, pointing out the case they currently had on the books. Leo had won.