Max Mantel, the killer McQuaid put away years ago, has busted out of the Huntsville prison and appears to be headed for Pecan Springs. McQuaid knows there’s only one way to stop the vengeful convict—set a trap with himself as bait.
China wants to stay by her husband’s side and keep him from harm. But McQuaid insists that she get out of town and go to the Last Chance Olive Ranch, where she’s agreed to teach a workshop on herbs.
When China and her best friend arrive at the ranch, she learns the owner, Maddie Haskell, has her own troubles. She inherited the ranch and olive oil business from the late matriarch, Eliza Butler, but Eliza’s nephew is contesting the will.
While China throws herself into helping Maddie, McQuaid’s plan backfires when Mantel executes a countermove he never saw coming. Now McQuaid’s life is not the only one at stake—and this time may really be his last chance...
About the Author
Date of Birth:1940
Place of Birth:Danville, Illinois
Education:Ph.D., University of California at Berkeley
Read an Excerpt
More in the garden grows than the gardener knows.
I hate it when the telephone rings at night.
Granted, it wasn't night, technically speaking. It was five a.m., according to the clock on my side of the bed. But the only light in the room was a dim nightlight and my husband and I had both been sound asleep. To me, that qualifies as night.
The phone is on McQuaid's side of the bed, so he was the one who groped for it, found it on the fourth ring, and growled, "Who the hell is this and whaddya want?"
My sentiments exactly, although I admit to lying very still, stiff with apprehension, conducting a mental inventory of the people I love while McQuaid listened to the voice on the other end of the line. Caitie, our daughter, was asleep down the hall, but our son, Brian, is a student at UT Austin. He's not the kind of kid who gets into trouble, but accidents do happen. Not to mention that my mother's husband, Sam, has a history of heart problems, and that my mother-Leatha-is no spring chicken. And Mom and Dad McQuaid are both nearly eighty and-
"Aw, hell," McQuaid said, drawing out the word, profoundly regretful. "He's dead?"
Dead. I pulled in a breath and held it, squeezing my eyes shut. "Who?" I whispered. Who was he? Brian? Sam? Dad McQuaid?
McQuaid pushed himself into a sitting position, pulling the pillow behind his head. "So where did this thing go down?" His voice was tense, urgent. "Yeah. Southwest Houston, right? Bellaire?"
Southwest Houston. I relaxed a little. Sam was at home at their ranch in South Texas-I'd talked to my mother just the night before. McQuaid's dad didn't drive, and anyway, he and Mom McQuaid were home, too, in Seguin, east of San Antonio. Which left Brian-but he was in Austin.
I caught my lower lip between my teeth. I thought Brian was in Austin. He was between terms, working part-time at The Natural Gardener, out on Bee Cave Road. He hadn't mentioned going out of town. But kids are kids. He and some friends might have decided to drive to Houston on a lark and he'd forgotten to let us know.
"Who?" I asked, louder now. I propped myself up on one elbow and put a hand on McQuaid's bare forearm. The room was dark, but the glow-in-the-dark clock cast a faint green shadow over his face. "Who's dead? What's going on, McQuaid?"
McQuaid looked down at me and shook his head with a brisk don't-interrupt-me-now frown-his cop frown. No, his ex-cop frown. I flopped back on my pillow. I didn't think he was talking about Brian. And if it wasn't about family, it must be about work. My husband is a part-time private eye, and PIs don't punch a clock. He's been known to work twenty-four-hour shifts, catch a couple of hours of sleep, and do it all over again. Still, he doesn't usually get calls at this hour of the night. I squinted at the clock again and groaned. Morning. At this hour of the morning.
McQuaid was shaking his head as if he didn't quite believe what he was hearing. "How in the hell did he manage that? Death Row is tight." He listened a moment more, then spat out, "Damn it, Jessie, if they can't keep a better handle on their prisoners, maybe they deserve to lose a few."
Ah. There had been a prison break. And Jessie had to be Jess Branson, one of McQuaid's cop buddies from his days as a detective in Houston Homicide. But that still left the question of why Jessie was calling our house at the unholy hour of five a.m. about a prison break. McQuaid no longer wore a badge. If a prisoner or two had escaped, tough titty. Somebody else was dealing with it. I closed my eyes. So go away, Jess. Get some coffee, get a doughnut, get off the phone.
"It doesn't sound good," McQuaid was saying grimly. "Okay, you guys work it at your end, and I'll get on it here." He leaned over to peer at the clock. "Hell, no, not now, Jess. It's not even six yet. Nothing's going to happen in the next hour, man. Max may be a freakin' genius, but he hasn't learned to fly. So far as I know, anyway."
Max. I frowned. He had to be talking about Max Mantel. Bad Max Mantel. McQuaid had been the lead detective on the team that tracked him down and arrested him. Mantel had been charged with killing two teenage girls who were trying to blow the whistle on his sex trafficking ring. McQuaid had once said that Bad Max was one of the smartest criminals he had ever put away, which was why the man had managed to keep his slimy slave trade hidden under the rocks for so long.
That had been ten or twelve years ago. McQuaid and I had been dating then, and I had listened to his take on the prosecution's case with a great deal of interest. While it is true that there is nothing in the law that I detest more than the death penalty, it is also true that every now and then there's a case-and a criminal-that causes me to think twice about my objections. Bad Max was one of them. I've never blamed McQuaid for saying-and only half joking-that it was too bad he hadn't pulled the trigger when he had Mantel in his gunsight and saved the state the cost of an execution.
Anyway, I was rooting for the prosecution, which had been deftly handled by smart-mouthed assistant district attorney Paul Watkins, whom I had also dated once upon a faraway time. Paul was a flamboyant showoff who loved being the center of attention. But he had the better case, hands down, and the jury did just what he asked them to do. They sent Bad Max to Huntsville. To Death Row.
My eyes popped open.
Max Mantel had escaped? But Huntsville was a maximum-security prison. Nobody had gotten out of there since 1998, when a Death Row inmate cut through a fence, scaled a roof, and went over the top of two security fences, clad in a clumsy suit of cardboard body armor to protect him from the razor wire. Finding the guy took a full week, five hundred officers, and a half-dozen tracking dogs, assisted by four cop choppers equipped with heat sensors. No doubt a similar team would be assembled and sent out to recapture Bad Max. But McQuaid was no longer on the payroll. I didn't see what any of this had to do with him, especially at this hour.
I slid down and pulled the sheet over my head. Maybe I could manage a few more minutes of sleep before I had to get up and pack. Today was Friday, and Ruby and I were driving to the Last Chance Olive Ranch, where we were leading a workshop on Saturday afternoon. Ruby had been trying for months to get me out to the ranch, which is owned by her friend Maddie Haskell. She had even suggested that we tack on a couple of extra days-Sunday and Monday-for a little R and R. I was glad to agree. The month of May had been busy at the shops, and I was looking forward to the quiet pleasures of a long weekend. But I wasn't going to get any more shut-eye.
"Okay. I'll do that." McQuaid's voice was clipped. "In the meantime, you'd better call Carl Zumwalt. He's retired now, but he was the other lead on the Mantel investigation. He's still living in the Houston area-Pearland, I think. If Max is the one who took Watkins out, he might go for Carl next. Tell him to watch his back."
I flapped the sheet down and propped myself on my elbows. "Took Watkins out? Paul Watkins?" I sucked in a breath, hardly believing what I'd heard. "Mantel went after the district attorney?"
Because Paul Watkins, the larger-than-life prosecutor who had sent Mantel to Death Row, had gotten a career boost out of the case. He was now the Big Cheese he had always wanted to be: Harris County district attorney. I'd been hearing from people who knew him that he'd be the next candidate for Texas attorney general. After that, maybe governor.
McQuaid gave me a surprised look, as if he'd forgotten I was there. "Sure, Jessie," he said into the phone. "Listen, I can't get into it now. Thanks for the heads-up. I'll give you a call in a couple of hours." He hung up and switched on the small bedside light. "Mantel got out of Huntsville night before last. They're still trying to figure out how he did it-must've had inside help. The dogs went out, but they lost him at the highway. He probably had outside help, too. An accomplice waiting with a car. They're not sure where-"
"Wait a minute." I was still trying to get my mind around what I thought I'd heard. "Max Mantel killed Paul Watkins?" Paul-bigger than life and twice as vigorous-was dead?
McQuaid rubbed a hand across the dark morning stubble on his jaw. "They don't know for sure it was Mantel, China. But one of the Huntsville snitches reported that he'd been threatening to kill everybody associated with his conviction." He slanted me a quick look, and I knew he had said more than he intended. He cleared his throat and added hastily, "Somebody was waiting when Watkins and . . . When Watkins got home late last night from a party. Shot him. Jess says his team is still processing the scene."
I was still grappling with the terrible news about Paul, but I snatched at what McQuaid had just said. "Kill everybody associated with his conviction? That means-"
"Big talk," McQuaid said firmly. "You know how these cons are, China. They like to blow hot air. Mantel is probably in Mexico by now. And Watkins has put away more than his share of criminals since he's been in the DA's office. Any one of a couple of dozen would have been glad to pull that trigger."
He was right about that. Paul had been in the justice business for a long time. Anybody he'd ever prosecuted, any gang he'd gone after-they could all have him on their hit lists.
"Didn't have to be Mantel," McQuaid added firmly. "Probably wasn't, in fact."
As if that settled everything. As if I should just slide down under the covers and go back to sleep.
"But it could have been Mantel." The goose bumps were prickling across my shoulders and I could taste the sour fear at the back of my throat. I was remembering the awful night when McQuaid took a bullet in the neck and I thought he was going to die. Cops die, yes, every day. You never think it's going to happen to your cop, until it does, until he doesn't come home, never comes home again.
I swallowed hard. "Jess was calling to warn you, wasn't he? And you told him to warn Carl Zumwalt, too. You think Mantel is going to-"
I broke off, thinking that it really might have been better if McQuaid had taken Mantel out when he had the chance. Paul would still be alive right now, and McQuaid wouldn't be in danger.
"Hey." McQuaid swung toward me, his weight on one elbow, one eyebrow quirked. He touched my lips with his finger. "Don't sweat it, babe. I've been threatened by crooks who are a damn sight meaner than Mantel. I'm a big guy, you know. I can take care of myself." Eyes light, he bent over me, humorous, confident, macho. "Hey. I can take care of you, too."
I knew he was trying to reassure me. I also knew that he was about to use sex to distract me-which usually works because I am easily distracted by the prospect of sex with my husband. I pushed the fear down deep inside of me and brushed the dark hair off his forehead.
"Oh, yeah?" I was willing to go along, to play his game. It might make both of us feel better. It might make me forget that Paul-so full of life, with so much to live for-was dead and that the man who killed him might be coming to kill my husband. "You think so, do you, big fella?"
"I know so," he whispered, and put his hand on my breast. "Just watch me."
And for the next little while, we did what two people do when they're in bed and fully awake and it's not quite time to get up and face the world.
It was a lovely few moments. But I wasn't distracted.
And I could still taste the fear.
Out of this nettle, danger, we pluck this flower, safety.
William Shakespeare Henry IV, Part I
The early-morning phone call prompted a change in the weekend plans.
Originally, we had planned that Caitie would stay home with McQuaid while Ruby and I spent Friday through Monday at the ranch. But Jess's unsettling call had given me some serious second thoughts. It would be a major inconvenience for Maddie Haskell-the ranch owner-if I canceled the Saturday workshop. It would be costly for her, too, since the workshop was sold out. She'd have to refund everybody's money and send them home, or reschedule, or try to find a replacement.
But as I got dressed and went downstairs to make breakfast-quietly, because Caitie was still asleep-I was remembering that Mantel, now on the loose, had been convicted of killing two teenage girls. I ought to cancel the workshop. I ought to stay home and keep an eye on Caitie, who owns a large chunk of my heart. And be close to my husband, in case . . . well, in case Mantel showed up. In case something happened.
In the kitchen, I was greeted by Winchester, the three-year-old basset we adopted at Basset Rescue a couple of months before. Winchester (like our beloved Howard Cosell, departed but fondly remembered) is lengthy and low-slung, with floppy brown ears, saggy jowls, a tendency to drool, and a remarkably doleful air. Clearly, his previous life brimmed with calamities and catastrophes, and he's not fully persuaded that his present life is an improvement-especially because he hasn't yet been allowed to spend the evening in McQuaid's leather recliner, or claim the entire foot of our bed, or get away with stealing bagels. But when I put his breakfast kibbles into his bowl, he clambered out of his basset basket and gave me a look of polite appreciation before he dug into it. Winchester may be a bagel thief, but he is a gentleman, through and through.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A quick read, interesting duel story line.
As always, Albert has given us an outstanding read that easily holds your interest. Great for relaxation reading. Stephanie Clanahan
Wow! I totally enjoyed this story! It's more like two stories woven into one. Seeing Brian as a young man, getting just a peek of his life, was an added gift. I'm looking forward to more of the saga of China, Mike, the youngsters, Ruby and ????. Yup, read the book; its great fun!
This book is interesting and then it just ends abruptly.
She's done it again!
Dont think I.ll get anymore of her books.
It’s hard to believe this is the 25th installment in the China Bayles Mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert. The author keeps the stories fresh and engaging. She continues to let her characters grow and develop from story to story. New readers to the series won’t be in the dark when it comes to the characters and their relationship even though they have missed the characters growing and flourishing over time. Returning fans will delight in following the characters as they head out on new adventures. The story moves at a good pace with adrenaline-fueled moments spread through. The author focuses on two plots that takes readers on separate journeys while intermingling them from time to time. While this story doesn’t focus just on China, it shows how police work impacts the entire family. The author features the usual comfortable small-town atmosphere while blending in bits of suspense and intrigue for a tantalizing thriller. The twists and turns will keep you guessing. In addition to entertaining readers with an enticing mystery, the author includes tasty recipes and informative tidbits on olives. THE LAST CHANCE OLIVE RANCH is a captivating story you don’t want to miss. FTC Full Disclosure – A copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher. However, receiving the complimentary copy did not influence my review. The thoughts are completely my own and given honestly and freely.
The Last Chance Olive Ranch by Susan Wittig Albert is the twenty-fifth book in The China Bayles Mystery series. Mike McQuaid and China Bayles are awakened early by the phone ringing. The call is for McQuaid to let him know that Max Mantel, a convict he put away in prison, has broken out of Huntsville prison. Mantel has already killed Paul Watkins, the prosecutor at his trial. McQuaid is glad that China is going out of town for the weekend to teach a conference. China, though, would rather stay in town and make sure that McQuaid is safe. McQuaid is not going to risk China’s life, so he ensures that she is off with Ruby. China agreed to teach a workshop at Maddie Haskell’s Last Chance Olive Ranch. After teaching on Saturday, they will have the rest of the weekend to relax. It turns out that Maddie has a little problem. She inherited the ranch from Eliza Butler and Eliza’s nephew, Billy Butler is less than thrilled. Billy is contesting the will and has the probate judge in his pocket. The weekend is not going to be as restful as China was hoping nor as safe as McQuaid was expecting. Meanwhile, McQuaid is setting a trap to capture escaped Max Mantel. The plan goes awry when Sally, McQuaid’s crazy ex-wife shows up in town. Sally ends up getting kidnapped by Mantel who believes he has China. Mantel wants McQuaid to turn himself over in exchange for Sally. McQuaid sets out to capture Mantel and reluctantly save Sally (she is one nutty lady). China and McQuaid are in for a rough weekend. The Last Chance Olive Ranch is nicely written and has some interesting information about olives and olive oil. I did not know olives could grow in the United States. I found the pace to be a little slow at times especially during the McQuaid sections (it did help me fall asleep one night). The story is told from two different perspectives: China and McQuaid. I would have preferred third person to make the story more cohesive and logical (instead of switching back and forth every other chapter). Personally, I wish the author had only done one storyline. The McQuaid sections are not the type normally included in cozy mysteries. I keep hoping the author will find a way for McQuaid and China to solve cases together (cozy mystery cases). Actually, I was a little bored with no mystery to solve. The revelation regarding Maddie was no surprise. I am sure that the majority of readers will figure it out long before the secret is revealed. I give The Last Chance Olive Ranch 3 out of 5 stars. I did not find this novel to have any suspense (and it was supposed to). The writing is descriptive (overly so), and I never was able to get into the story. This is one of those books that I just read. I love it when a book fully engages my attention and draws me in. While reading the McQuaid storyline, I kept hoping that McQuaid would capture Max and Sally would get hit by a stray bullet (and then bite the bullet if you get my meaning). I found Sally to be a very unlikeable character and an unwelcome addition to the book (I do not understand why she is not in a mental health facility). While The Last Chance Olive Ranch is the twenty-fifth book in the series, it can be read alone. The author provides all the necessary background details on China, McQuaid and the family (including Sally). I preferred the early books in The China Bayles Mystery series. I did appreciate the ending of The Last Chance Olive Ranch. It is sweet and nicely wraps up
THE LAST CHANCE OLIVE RANCH, is a novel packed with action. Between the chapters dealing with China, and the other chapters dealing with her husband McQuaid, readers with be hard pressed to find any down time in this story. Both characters have their hands full in their respective storylines. Splitting the chapters as she does, author Susan Wittig Albert makes her books feel like two or more stories in one, yet having them cross at times to connect everything together. As always, I love that each chapter starts off with something interesting. In this case, each chapter featuring China, had a fact to do with olives. The chapters featuring McQuaid simply start by following a time line. This was a story with so much energy, at times I felt a rush of adrenaline so strong that I just wanted to get to the end of the book so I could take a deep breath. In the end I was I satisfied with the outcome, and found THE LAST CHANCE OLIVE RANCH to be a great story. I have noticed that with the China Bayles Mysteries, the author is slowly branching away from the more traditional feeling mystery, and getting closer to being considered (at least to me) a suspense thriller series. So far, you will still see cozy-ish things like small towns, an educational aspect, and wonderful recipes, but you will also see a few edgier scenes, and a bit more cursing. No matter what genre author Albert is aiming for, the one thing that can’t be denied is her truly wonderful writing.