A series of mysterious fires lead Mackenzie Cross and her partner, sheriff’s deputy Veronica Birdwell, into an investigation into the past, to a part of local history some people would rather forget. Who is the hauntingly strange Japanese woman present at the fires both present and seventy years ago? If Mackenzie and Veronica don’t figure it out soon, the whole town of Antioch may go up in flames.
Here’s an excerpt from the forthcoming novel:
Few things frightened Mackenzie Cross. Almost dying of a rattlesnake bite in the recent past had turned her liver white, as Meemaw Cross used to say, but haunted by the ghost of a murdered woman from the Fifties? Not so much. She’d been more annoyed than scared until Annabel Coffin had taken a poisonous revenge against her killer and presumably gone on to whatever reward awaited her on the Other Side.
World without end, amen.
However, sitting in her office and confronting the attorney seated across from her desk turned her heart to a cold, lumpy fist clenched tight in the middle of her chest.
“Well, Ms. Cross, here we are,” Alexander Purvis said primly, every syllable laced with poisoned honey and surrounded by an artificial smile. “Anyone can make a mistake. Oh, good heavens, yes, even I’ve been wrong a time or two.” His expression suggested otherwise. “But my client trusted you to make a fair and informed valuation of his…let me see—”
Mackenzie interrupted. “Reproduction desk,” she said flatly.
“No, no, no,” Purvis said, wagging a finger at her. “A secretary desk in the Chippendale style crafted by Goddard and Townsend, circa 1780, worth an estimated seven point five million dollars. Your negative, and may I say, negligent, ill-advised, and incorrect appraisal of my client’s property caused him to underinsure this valuable antique, which was subsequently destroyed in a warehouse fire last month.”
Mackenzie shook her head. Was this jackass serious? “The piece of furniture I examined was a modern replica worth, on a good day, a couple of hundred dollars.”
“My client strongly disagrees with you.” Purvis extracted a sheaf of papers from his briefcase. “He’s suing for the full value of the piece. However…” He paused.
“What?” Mackenzie snapped.
“If you agree to pay him reasonable compensation of a million dollars plus legal fees and expenses, he’ll agree to drop the suit,” Purvis said, his eyes gleaming. “An out of court settlement will save you a great deal of hassle, not to mention the expense of—”
“Get out,” Mackenzie gritted, clutching the edge of her desk to prevent herself from leaping over the top and knocking the smug bastard over the head with a blunt object.
He had the audacity to pretend surprise. “I beg your pardon?”
“I said, get the hell out of my office, you blackmailing son-of-a-bitch.” She rose from her chair, buoyed on a wave of righteous indignation. “You can tell your client, that goddamn chicken hearted, lily livered, moronic ass clown Turnip Erskine—”
“Turner Erskine,” Purvis corrected.
“There’s a reason we called him Turnip in school,” she went on darkly. “If you’d ever seen the boy without his Underoos, you’d understand.” She let a breath whistle out between her bared teeth. “You tell him he’ll not see one red cent of my money, nor will you, sir. Now get your overpriced butt out of my office before I call the police.”
“I had hoped to avoid unpleasantness.”
“Very well.” Purvis stood, his dignity intact. He took a moment to smooth his tie. “I will so inform my client. Good day, Ms. Cross. I’ll be in touch with Mr. Erskine’s decision. If you’ll take a piece of advice, free of charge: hire your own attorney. You’ll need one.”
As soon as Purvis left, Mackenzie collapsed in her chair. She knew, with a certainty in the very marrow of her bones, the piece of furniture she’d examined for Turner Erskine two years ago as a favor for his sister, Debbie Lou—her ex-girlfriend and Queen Bitch of the Universe—had been a reproduction, likely no more than a few years old.
“What the hell is Turnip’s game?” she wondered aloud.
The answer was a no-brainer: to extort money from her, of course. Turner had a pretty good chance of getting some kind of payment, too. In a case of his word against hers in court, the judge might rule in his favor.
On the plus side, she had a much better reputation than a jailbird who, at last count, owed support to two ex-wives, a passel of illegitimate children, and lived with a stripper named Twinkle Starr. On the negative side, she had no proof her assessment had been correct in the first place since the secretary desk in question was gone, destroyed in a fire…wait a minute. An incredibly convenient fire.
She halted the train of suspicious thought, reached for her cell phone and called her friend James “Little Jack” Larkin, a reporter at the local newspaper, the Antioch Bee. He answered the call on the first ring, surprising her until she heard a series of rapid-fire beeping tones. “Jack!” she cried loudly. “I’m on the line!”
“Kenzie?” he asked tentatively after a moment. “I didn’t hear my phone ring.”
Mackenzie put a smile in her voice. “Oblivious and busy as usual.”
“Well, actually, now that you mention it, I am in the middle of something.”
“Just a quick question: did the Bee cover a warehouse fire last month? The one in that industrial park over to the soup factory. I think I saw a piece about it on the news.”
Larkin sounded distracted when he muttered, “Soap factory… soap factory…”
“Oh, come on, Jack. Ma Parker’s Pot O’ Soup. You used to swear by the chicken noodle when you had a cold,” Mackenzie reminded him. “Anyhow, a warehouse close by the factory caught fire and burned to the ground about a month ago.”
“And you want to know if we covered the fire? I’m sure we did.”
“Can you help me out with a copy of the story and any follow-ups?”
“Why don’t you come over later this afternoon, Kenzie? I’ll get an intern to help you with the archives. Okay? Right now I’ve got to—damn it, Roy, that’s not what I asked for!” he shouted, making Mackenzie’s ear ring before the call abruptly disconnected.
She sighed and decided she needed a strong dose of caffeine to get through the rest of what promised to be a long and aggravating day. Leaving the office, she headed around the block to her favorite coffee shop, Mighty Jo Young’s—owned and operated by her best friend since high school, Josephine Joanna Young.
As usual, the shop was busy, the lines at the counter long, and Jo-Jo herself worked frenziedly behind the counter pouring, steaming and sprinkling at the monstrous espresso machine. The space had been customized to accommodate her big boned, broad hipped, Amazonian frame and still allow the baristas access to the machine and other supplies.
Somehow, Jo-Jo sensed when Mackenzie came up to the counter. She turned, her lipsticked mouth curving in a big grin. “Hey, Kenzie!” she called. “What’ll it be?”
For a brief moment, Mackenzie allowed herself to admire Jo-Jo’s magnificent bosom, almost an entity unto itself and covered by approximately an acre of pink, polka dotted, frou-frou dress and a lacy apron. Maybe her ogling was sexist or something, but if Jo-Jo minded, the woman hadn’t said a word in all these years.
Her girlfriend, sheriff’s deputy Veronica Birdwell, theorized that Jo-Jo liked the attention. Case in point: when Jo-Jo had worked as a professional female wrestler, her signature move in the ring was called the Snuggle Pup Slam.
“Cappuccino,” Mackenzie ordered, ignoring the filthy looks she received from assorted customers standing in line. She briefly examined the contents of a new baked goods display case. “And a slice of chocolate Swiss roll with blood orange mousse.”
“Bakery Sam’s trying out some new recipes. I tasted a sliver of the Swiss roll this morning. Gooder n’ grits,” Jo-Jo remarked over her shoulder.
A college age barista, her hair dyed an unnatural shade of blue that clashed with her shocking pink uniform top, slapped a slice of cake on a plate and slid it across the counter at the same time Jo-Jo delivered the cappuccino in a thick, white china cup.
Taking her order, Mackenzie surveyed the tables. Occupied to capacity, damn it. She squeezed through the mass of people at the counter, earning more stink-eyes and muttered imprecations, and took a position in the corner where no one could jostle her. She didn’t need to spill hot coffee down the front of her blouse. She might be scrawny, flat-chested and possess no curves to speak of, but a scalding wouldn’t help.
She tasted the cake, finding it as delicious as advertised. A light chocolate cake, not too sweet and slightly bitter, offset by a tangy orange filling coating her mouth with richness. Sam with the unpronounceable last name, who owned the bakery next door to her office, ought to win gold medals with a cake like this, she thought.
Under the soothing influences of chocolate, cream and sugar, she could almost forget Turner’s bullshit lawsuit. She took a sip of cappuccino and licked foam off her upper lip. A loud siren caught her attention. The sound originated outside in the street and grew louder as the source came closer to Jo-Jo’s place. Police? Ambulance?
She stuck the last forkful of cake in her mouth and moved to the big window at the front of the shop in time to see a fire engine go screaming past, emergency lights strobing red and white. An ambulance and a second engine followed.
Somewhere in Antioch, something burned. She blinked the dazzle out of her eyes.
A man in a business suit stumbled inside. “The police station’s on fire!” he shouted.
The plate and cup slipped from her nerveless hands to shatter on the floor.