Big secrets run deep. Former FBI agent Jack McBride took the job as chief of police for Stillwater, Texas, to start a new life with his teenage son, Ethan, away from the suspicions that surrounded his wife's disappearance a year earlier. With a low crime rate and a five-man police force, he expected it to be a nice, easy gig; hot checks, traffic violations, some drugs, occasional domestic disturbances, and petty theft. Instead, within a week he is investigating a staged murder-suicide, uncovering a decades' old skeleton buried in the woods, and managing the first crime wave in 30 years. For help navigating his unfamiliar, small-town surroundings, Jack turns to Ellie Martin, one of the most respected women in town—her scandal-filled past notwithstanding.
Despite Jack's murky marriage status and the disapproval of Ethan and the town, they are immediately drawn to each other. As Jack and Ellie struggle with their budding relationship, they unearth shattering secrets long buried and discover the two cases Jack is working, though 50 years apart, share a surprising connection that will rattle the town to its core.
About the Author
Melissa Lenhardt writes mystery, historical fiction, and women’s fiction. Her short fiction has appeared in Heater mystery magazine, the Western Online, and Christmas Nookies, a holiday romance anthology. Stillwater was a finalist for the 2014 Whidbey Writers’ MFA Alumni Emerging Writers Contest. She is a board member of the DFW Writers’ Workshop and vice president of the Sisters in Crime North Dallas chapter. Melissa lives in Dallas, Texas, with her husband and two sons.
Read an Excerpt
A Jack McBride Mystery
By Melissa Lenhardt
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2015 Melissa Lenhardt
All rights reserved.
A line of flashing blue and red lights led the way to a pale green singlewide trailer. Firemen, sheriff" deputies, and EMTs huddled in front of the house, talking, looking around, and laughing. All eyes turned to Jack McBride's car as it pulled into the dirt-packed front yard, which doubled as the driveway.
Jack set the alarm on his phone. "Stay in the car," he told his thirteen-year-old son, Ethan. He opened the door, got out, and leaned back in. "I mean it."
"I know, Dad."
Neighbors grouped behind yellow crime-scene tape. Some wore pajamas, others wore work clothes. Women held babies, children craned their necks to see better, eager for information to share at school. A young officer guarded them — Officer Nathan Starling.
It was his file that had fallen from Jack's lap when he was startled awake by the early morning call. If Jack hadn't read Starling was the youngest and newest member of the force, he would have guessed it from his role as crowd control. Starling shifted on his feet and looked over his shoulder at the crowd, as if debating whether he should leave his post to introduce himself or stay put. Jack waved an acknowledgment to him and moved toward the trailer.
Jack nodded at the group of first responders as he walked by and received a couple of muttered hellos in return. Some looked from Jack to Ethan and then back. Jack climbed the uneven concrete steps, stopped at the door, and put on paper booties and gloves. Behind him, he heard a low conversation start back up, the words alone, wife, and no one knows carrying across the yard as if announced through a bullhorn. The screen door slapped shut behind him, cutting off the rest of the conversation.
The smell of chili, paprika, and cumin hung in the air of the trailer. Flimsy wooden cabinets topped with a chipped orange Formica counter were wedged against the back wall of the main room by a strip of ugly, peeling linoleum. Brown shag carpet, flattened by years of traffic, marked off the living area of the room. Left of the door, under a loud window unit dripping condensation, sat a couch of indeterminate color too large for the room. A black-haired man with bloodshot eyes and a green tinge underneath his dark skin sat on the couch, chewing his nails. He looked up at Jack and stopped chewing — a signal for his leg to start bouncing. A bull-necked police officer, his thumbs crooked underneath his gun belt, stood guard over the man.
"Officer Freeman," Jack said.
If Michael Freeman was surprised Jack knew who he was, he didn't show it. His face remained expressionless.
A third officer stood at the mouth of the hallway to the right with a portly, elderly man. Relief washed over the officer's face. He moved forward, hand outstretched. "Chief McBride," he said. "Miner Jesson. This here is Doc Poole."
Jack shook their hands. "Sorry to meet you under these circumstances, Dr. Poole."
"Helluva case to get on your first day, eh?" the doctor said.
Jack nodded and gave a brief smile. He pulled gloves and more paper booties from his coat pocket and handed them to Jesson and the doctor. Jack walked down the hall and entered the room. Jesson stopped at the door.
"Gilberto and Rosa Ramos," Jesson said. "Found dead this morning by Diego Vasquez." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the man sitting on the couch. "Says he's Rosa's brother. He don't speak much English, but from what I gathered, he came to pick Gilberto up for work and heard the baby screaming. When no one answered, he let himself in. Door was open. Found them just like that."
They were both nude. The woman lay face down, covering half of the man's body. The right side of the man's head was blown across the pillow. Blood and brain matter were sprayed across the bed, under the woman and onto the floor. A clump of long dark hair was stuck to the window with blood. Her right arm extended across the man's chest, a gun held lightly in her grip.
Jack walked around the bed.
Doc Poole stood next to Officer Jesson. "It takes a special kind of anger to kill someone you are in the middle of fucking, doncha think?" Doc Poole said. "Ever see that in the F-B-I?" Derision dripped from every letter.
Jack ignored him. "Where's the baby?"
Jack hoped the revulsion on Jesson's face meant scenes like this were rare in Stillwater. If he had wanted to deal with shit like this on a regular basis, he would have taken a better-paying job in a larger town.
"Officer Jesson?" Jack said. "Where's the baby?"
"Oh. It's with a neighbor."
"Has anyone called CPS?"
"To take care of the baby."
"The neighbor offered."
"And what do we know about this neighbor?"
He shrugged. "She didn't speak much English."
"So, she could be in the next county by now?"
"Oh, I doubt that," Jesson said. "She seemed like a nice sort. Very motherly."
Jack cocked his head and puzzled over whether his most senior officer was ignorant, naïve, or an amazing judge of character.
He turned his attention to Doc Poole. "What's the time of death?" "Sometime last night."
"Can you be more specific?"
"Didn't see the need. Seems pretty obvious what happened."
"Oh, are you a detective?"
"No. I'm a general practitioner."
"You're the JP, aren't you?"
"No. I used to be." He chuckled. "Too old for this now."
"Yet, here you arc."
"JP is on the way, Chief," Jesson said.
Jack kept his focus on Doctor Poole. "So you heard this over the radio and decided to come? Or did someone call you?"
"Well, I —"
"Do you have the instruments necessary to establish a time of death?"
"Not with me, but —"
"Then get off my crime scene."
The little man straightened his shoulders and lifted his chin. "I can see why Jane Maxwell liked you." He started to leave but turned back. "We do things different here in Stillwater."
"Not anymore we don't," Jack said.
Jesson watched in slack-jawed astonishment as Doc Poole walked away. Jack waited for him to explain what the man had been doing there or to contradict Jack kicking him off the scene. Instead, Jesson snapped on his left glove and stepped into the room.
"Ever seen anything like this, Officer Jesson?"
"Call me Miner." He shook his head. "Don't get many murders here."
Thank God. "Assuming this is a murder-suicide, like it looks," Jack said. "What else do you see?"
Miner stepped toward the bed, turned green, swallowed. Stepped back. "Nice gun. Beretta M92. Preferred by military wannabes and veterans. Would've thought the gun'd fallen out of her hand, what with the recoil."
"Me too. Do you know the victims? Ever been in any trouble with the police?"
"I ran their names on the way over. No record of them."
"Which means they're illegal."
"Says he's new in town. Haven't run him yet, but illegal as well, I imagine."
"But he stayed until you got here anyway?"
"Huh." Jack removed his gloves. "Who's responsible for processing the crime scene?"
"For something like this? The county crime-scene tech. Yourke County got a nice mobile unit last year. He's on his way."
Miner shrugged. "Probably pretty quick. It's only ten miles to Yourkeville. I'm surprised he ain't here."
Jack walked back to the living room. He could feel the vibrations of Diego's bouncing leg through the floor. He motioned for Freeman to come into the hall.
Michael Freeman stared down the witness, freezing the man in place.
He was Jack's height but at least fifty pounds heavier; seven pounds of Kevlar and forty-three of muscle. The short sleeves of his perfectly pressed uniform shirt bunched above his bulging biceps. Miner, by contrast, was so slight of build, his rumpled uniform might have been handed down from a taller, fatter brother. One was prepared for an invasion, one looked like he'd rather be fishing. Their dissimilarities didn't stop there. Freeman's eyes were vacant, neither hostile nor compassionate. Jack knew he would perform any task given him without comment or question. Miner's eyes were large, brown, and in constant motion.
"Freeman, get your crime-scene kit and take pictures. Start in the bedroom. After the tech has processed the scene, search all of the drawers and photograph what's inside. In the closet, under the bed. Everything. While the tech is working, unless he needs your help, photograph the rest of the house and outside."
"Yes, sir." He left.
"Miner, you talk to the neighbors. See if anyone heard anything, what Rosa and Gilbcrto's relationship was like, if they've seen anyone around lately that shouldn't be around."
"All right," he drawled.
"First, find the baby and call CPS. Shouldn't there be another cop here?"
Jack nodded. One fewer person to have to win over and one more thing to add to his to-do list: hire. "Get one of those sheriff's deputies out there to guard the front door.Tell him not to let anyone in this house that isn't properly booted and gloved. I'll talk to Diego."
The man on the couch stood as Jack approached.
Jack motioned for him to sit down. "Hola, Diego. Me llamo es Jack McBride."
"Bueno. Habla espanol?"
The man relaxed, as Jack knew he would. Jack continued in Spanish. "Tell me what happened."
"I came to pick Gilberto up for work. I got to the door, heard the baby screaming, and came in.
"I found the baby in her crib, red faced, like she'd been crying a long time." Diego leaned over, elbows on his knees, and stared at his clasped hands.
"I knew it was bad. If they were in the house, they would not have let Carmen cry like that. I walked to their bedroom. Before I got to the door, I could smell the blood. Tire shit. I didn't want to look, I wish I didn't, but I thought one of them might be okay." He wiped his eyes roughly. The palms of his hands were wet. "I called 911 and waited."
"You did the right thing." Diego nodded his head and stared at the floor. "But," Jack continued, "I have to wonder: why?"
Diego's head jerked up, his expression a mixture of anger and defensiveness. "Because you can't trust us wetbacks to follow the law?"
"No. Because by doing so, you risk being deported if you are here illegally. Officer Jesson seems to think you are. Is he right?"
Diego's leg jiggled.
"Diego, I'm not immigration. I don't care. I'm not about to deport someone who cared so much about his friends, he stayed around to help even when it wasn't in his best interests."
Diego's leg stilled, but his hand found its way to his mouth. He chewed on the outside of this thumb.
"So, why did you stay?"
He removed his thumb, then spit whatever was in his mouth to the floor. Jack tried not to cringe. "That ain't right," Diego said. He returned his finger to his mouth.
"Rosa would never kill Gilberto."
"Diego, come on. This happens all the time."
"No, man. My little sister wouldn't do that." He motioned toward the bedroom. "I'm telling you."
"It looks like she did it. People go crazy sometimes, do things that are very out of character."
"You aren't listening to me, vato."
"You aren't saying anything, Diego. Of course you don't think your sister would blow Gilberto's brains out while fucking him and then shoot herself. But you aren't giving me any other reason why this might have happened. Or who might have done it."
Diego glared at him. "I don't know."
"Were Gilberto and Rosa acting normal?"
"I didn't see any."
"They have any enemies?"
"How would I know? I've just been here a few days."
"They take them? No."
Diego laughed. "No."
"Where are you staying, Diego?"
Diego shifted on the couch and didn't answer.
"You're staying here, aren't you?"
"Where were you last night?"
"I was down the street."
"A girl named Esperanza."
"From about midnight."
Jack sighed. "You know this doesn't look good, Diego."
"When I left, they were still alive."
"When did you get back?"
"About 6:30.1 called the police right away."
And he didn't leave, nor did he try to solidify the murder-suicide theory by saying they were having problems. He went out of his way to say it wasn't possible. He was either incredibly stupid or not guilty.
Jack stood. "All right, Diego."
"Can I go?"
"Where would you go?"
Diego didn't answer.
"Stay here until I get back. Then I'll take you to the station to get your statement."
"I didn't do nothing."
"Then you have nothing to worry about."
Diego looked away. His nervous tics returned in force. Jack didn't think he killed his sister and brother-in-law, but no one with a clear conscience would be so fidgety. He was hiding something.
A sheriff's deputy entered the trailer.
"I'll be back soon. Sit tight," Jack said.
Jack told the deputy to guard Diego as well as the crime scene until he returned. He opened the screen door and stepped outside.
A shaft of sunlight pierced through the clouds and shone across the hood of Jack's car. Ethan sat in the center of the beam, glaring at his father through the windshield.
"Are you serious?"
"Come on, Ethan. It isn't that bad."
"You're right. It's horrible."
Jack leaned across Ethan and looked out the window. "It does look like something out of The Walking Dead."
Ethan rolled his eyes and tried not to smile. His dad was not allowed to be funny while Ethan was mad at him. Ethan scowled. "So, what am I supposed to do after school?"
"I'll pick you up this afternoon and we'll talk about it."
"Have you even thought about it?"
Jack's face tightened, his knuckles turned white on the steering wheel. "Yes, Ethan. We'll talk about it after school. I have to go. Have a good day."
There. That was the dad it was easy to be mad at. Ethan jerked open the car door. "Whatever." He slammed it, hoping that his dad could feel his anger. But no. Ethan stood on the empty school sidewalk and watched his dad drive off without a wave.
School or home? A day of trying to make friends with a bunch of country bumpkins or a house full of unopened moving boxes and an empty refrigerator? Two crappy choices. Just like Mom used to give him.
"You can have green beans or broccoli. Which do you choose?"
"I want potatoes."
"You can have green beans or broccoli. Which do you choose?"
"Jesus, Jules. Just let him have potatoes."
Okay, so his dad wasn't all bad. Lately, though, it was his dad giving him the crappy choices, if he even gave him a choice at all.
Ethan looked at the school. It was long, low, and brown, with bushes pruned down to sticks and very little grass. It might look like something from a zombie apocalypse, but it would make a pretty cool picture. Add a couple of filters, get the light just right, and it might even look good. From what Ethan had seen of the town, it was full of run-down buildings like this. That was something. How pathetic that the most exciting thing in his life now was taking pictures of crappy buildings.
Choice number three: grab his camera and explore the town. He put his backpack over both shoulders and started walking in the direction he thought his house was.
Screw Stillwater and Eisenhower Junior High.
He didn't want to be here. This school or this town. His dad never asked Ethan what he wanted. He just came home one day and said he had a new job. Ethan's first reaction was relief. He could get away from all the stupid people who knew the stupid thing he did. Then he'd thought of his mom. Did this mean she wasn't coming back? Did she know where they were? Had something awful happened to her and his dad just hadn't told him?
Excerpted from Stillwater by Melissa Lenhardt. Copyright © 2015 Melissa Lenhardt. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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