There’s nothing like an overenthusiastic canine to ruin a stakeout. I have my eye on a blue sedan parked across the street from the Walsh estate where I’m visiting, but it’s deuced difficult to concentrate with an obnoxious Jack Russell terrier barking up at me from the driveway. All of the other cars belonging to the guests of the massive party going on at the house behind me are parked in a nearby field, but the men who directed the parking are long gone. The dark-haired woman in the sedan is a latecomer, and she stares unmoving at the Walshes’ posh house, her eyes hidden by sunglasses. With no small degree of nonchalance, I stretch across the top of the deliciously warm brick pedestal at the edge of the drive and squint down at Jocko, the offending white and tan, perky-eared creature. Who has ever heard of such an idiotic moniker? Jocko, indeed.
I know for a fact that Sherlock Holmes never had to deal with such an annoying canine—not counting that Baskerville brute, of course. Sherlock, who is my role model and personal hero, made good use of an intelligent chap named Toby that was half-spaniel, but these Jack Russell types are thoroughly mad. They dash about the countryside yapping constantly, chasing down rodents (an occupation much more suited to accomplished cats such as I), and bothering horses.
I warn Jocko to calm down with a low growl. In return he whines and pants and waggles that ridiculous curled tail. What a hopeless wretch he is.
At home in Wetumpka, Alabama, my human, Tammy Lynn, would never have such a beast hanging about. But she and I came to western Kentucky to visit Erin Walsh, whose late mother was Tammy’s childhood babysitter. Unfortunately Tammy was called to Milan, Italy, to authenticate a priceless book that some monks found in their library. The Italian antiquities bureaucracy would only make it available for a few days, and she had to leave me behind with Erin.
It’s true. I don’t sound like I’m from Alabama. I spent much of the first of my nine lives studying that excellent Cumberbatch actor’s Sherlock Holmes films, and acquired a bit of an English accent. Of course only other cats like my brilliant detective father, Familiar, can hear it. But I have no problem motivating the humans around me when I engage in traditional feline vocalizations.
The woman in the car is staying put. I consider popping across the street or chasing the hapless Jocko her way to get some movement from her—angry-looking people who stare at houses usually mean danger—but the foolish dog would no doubt be run over by a passing tractor or pickup truck. One somehow feels responsible for the Jockos of the world.
Instead I leap onto the impeccably paved driveway, inches from Jocko’s head, making him jump back a mile. Anyone who says cats can’t smile has never seen me after I’ve played a clever trick.
The party has been in full swing since my third nap of the day. Most of the guests—employees and their families from Bruce Walsh’s (Erin’s father) car dealership—are swimming or fishing or careening about on noisy Jet Skis on the Cedar Grove Lake cove that meets the Walsh property. The Walshes have even set up a few picturesque changing cabanas near the property’s strip of manmade beach. The less adventurous guests are in the swimming pool or eating. But I’ve done the rounds back there and want to avoid further contact with the youngsters and their sticky hands, so I enter through the carelessly open front door with Jocko panting behind me.
Hearing angry voices I continue to the library door, which is open a few inches, and slip neatly inside. Hapless Jocko, who doesn’t seem to understand that he could push the door open a bit further to enter as well, sits down in the hall and whimpers pathetically. But Jocko’s not my concern right now.
Erin, a sweet, strawberry blonde co-ed who’s home for the summer from the University of Kentucky, leans forward, her hands balled into fists at her side. Her face is pink beneath her freckles, a sign that she’s angry and frustrated. I’ve seen that look on Tammy Lynn’s face a time or two. But when I see the other woman, who wears a canny, unpleasant grin, I understand why Erin is frustrated. The woman is her stepmother, Shelby Rae, who’s only a dozen years older than Erin. Shelby Rae is also Jocko’s human, and believes it’s her job to meddle in Erin’s business.
Neither of them glance at me as I stroll to one of the many tall windows overlooking the front garden and settle on the back of an enormous couch with stripes like a cafe awning. From there I can find out what’s wrong between Erin and Shelby Rae and observe the car out front. What does the woman in the car want? Is she dangerous? I intend to find out.
“What in the world were you thinking, child? Your daddy’s going to be so upset. You know we think tattoos are trashy on women.”
If she hadn’t been so angry, Erin Walsh would’ve laughed out loud at her stepmother. Shelby Rae, with her bottom-grazing miniskirts and heavy makeup, had the market cornered on trashy. Her family wasn’t much better and seemed to have no visible means of support aside from the little helper checks (Shelby Rae’s words) Erin knew she’d been writing for years. But it was her condescending child that made Erin want to wipe the Corral Me Coral lipstick off Shelby Rae’s collagen-injected lips. She didn’t believe in the stereotype of an Irish temper, but she could swear she felt the anger in her bones.
“I’m not your child, Shelby Rae, and I won’t be talked to that way by you or anybody else. Daddy has asked you, and I’ve told you a thousand times, to stay out of my business.”
Seven years ago, just after Erin’s mother died, Shelby Rae, who worked as the receptionist at the dealership, had taken Erin under her twenty-something wing and become like a big sister to her. They went shopping together in Louisville, and traveled down to Nashville to see a Taylor Swift concert. They did cosmic bowling and Shelby Rae even helped her buy a bra that was more substantial than her training bra. It was Shelby Rae who drove her to the drugstore to pick out sanitary pads after Erin called her whispering, “Shelby Rae, I started.”
But two years later, Erin’s father asked her to come into the library—the very room in which they now stood—and with a beaming Shelby Rae at his side said, “We have wonderful news to tell you, honey.”
If only her father had instead taken her out alone on a walk on the lake trail, or driven her in the boat to dinner at The Captain’s Table on the other side of the lake to tell her. Or he could’ve asked her how she felt about Shelby Rae and if she thought it was a good idea for him to marry her. She might have understood. She might even have been glad to have her suspicions confirmed. She wasn’t blind or stupid. Her father sometimes stayed out late, and he and Shelby Rae shared significant looks when she came to pick up Erin. If only…
That’s not what happened, though, and here they were.
“Oh, come on. Did you forget you have a tattoo on your backside?” Erin pointed at Shelby Rae’s ample left hip. “You have a snake back there. What kind of person has a snake on their butt?”
Shelby Rae pursed her lips and stuck her recently-altered nose in the air. “It’s an asp. Like Cleopatra. And it’s gold and blue. It’s art.”
Erin scowled. “I’m nineteen. It’s perfectly legal if I want to tattoo my whole face.” She pointed to her lightly freckled forehead. “I could get a freaking butterfly parade all across here.”
In fact she’d completely forgotten about the new tattoo when she’d taken her shorts off by the pool. Seeing the tattoo, Shelby Rae had pulled Erin away from her best friend, MacKenzie Clay, and hurried her all the way into the library. Erin only just now wondered why Shelby Rae had been watching her in the first place.
“You’re being silly.” Shelby Rae shook her head. “Only criminals have tattoos on their faces.”
“Oh, so I guess it would be okay if your Uncle Travis, who’s out back drinking Daddy’s beer and about to eat the biggest steak from the outdoor fridge, gets a tattoo on his face?”
Shelby Rae crossed her arms across her breasts. Erin knew she hadn’t had to have those fixed like she’d had her nose done. She’d once overheard one of the salesmen at the dealership comment on Shelby Rae’s enormous assets.
“Why are you so hateful, Erin? I’ve never done one single thing except be nice to you. This is a very stressful time, with the lawsuit just over with. You haven’t been here. You don’t know what it’s been like. That woman from the lawsuit has been hanging around, and I’ve hardly even seen your father for months.” Her high voice stretched into a familiar whine.
The lawsuit. Erin’s father had brushed it off whenever she called him from Lexington. A woman named Tionna Owens was killed when her car’s brakes failed just minutes after she’d left the dealership’s service department. She’d dropped in to ask them to take a quick look at the brakes because she thought there was something wrong. According to Earl Potts, the service manager, he’d told her they were very busy and she could make an appointment for another day. He said she’d grown angry and declared she would take her business elsewhere. The county didn’t find grounds to prosecute, but her family brought a civil suit against the dealership declaring that they it had a record of the car’s brake problems and a duty of care to examine it immediately. But the case had been dismissed.
“He doesn’t even listen to me,” Shelby Rae continued. “Nobody listens to me!”
“That’s because you’re a drama queen. Nobody needs your drama, and I’m sick and tired of it. Stay out of my business.” Erin knew she was being as dramatic as Shelby Rae, but she was beginning to wish she had kept her apartment in Lexington and had picked up a part-time job there for the summer, or just volunteered at a rescue shelter. Bumming around New Belford and hanging around the house—even if she was often with MacKenzie—was turning out to be a bad idea.
Shelby Rae huffed out of the library. When she pushed open the door Jocko barked up at her with frantic joy. Erin saw the startled faces of two women she didn’t recognize over Shelby Rae’s shoulder. Great. Now everyone would know they’d been arguing. How long would it be before her father was asking her why Shelby Rae was so upset?
Erin walked over to the window. The library had always been one of her favorite rooms. She put a hand on the end of the high-backed sofa and Trouble, the clever black cat Tammy Lynn had asked her to look after, nudged her hand with his velvety nose.
“Sorry about that,” she said, scratching the cat behind the ears. “I don’t really hate her. She just gets to me sometimes.”
The cat purred. Tammy Lynn had told her that Trouble was good at solving mysteries and had saved her more than once.
“Don’t worry. I can’t promise you any mysteries, but we’ll find something to do that gets us away from here.”
Erin gazed out the window as she stroked the soft fur on Trouble’s back. She could see a blue sedan parked across the road with a woman inside who appeared to be staring the house. A shiver went up Erin’s spine. She knew the woman: she was Bryn Owens , Tionna Owens’ wife.
Bryn and Tionna Owens had owned New Belford’s Two Hearts bakery together; and while Erin and MacKenzie were in high school, they often met there for coffee. Tionna had a special fondness for MacKenzie who, like Tionna, had a mother who was black and a father who was white. Erin’s eyes were opened wide when Tionna told them about times in the city when she and her parents were ignored in restaurants or cursed at on the street. Erin knew there were a few people in and around New Belford who felt the same way, but she never thought of it as affecting MacKenzie. To Erin, MacKenzie had always been just MacKenzie, her best friend since kindergarten, and MacKenzie’s parents were Mr. and Mrs. Clay. Now, she knew better.
After Tionna died in the wreck, Bryn put a closed sign in the bakery window. The sign was still there. Erin was familiar with grief. The pain in her gut had lessened considerably in the seven years since her mother had been killed, but it never really went away.
Trouble snapped to attention, slipping from beneath her hand to stand on his back legs and put his front paws against the window. The cat never missed a thing.
A rumbling motorcycle pulled up behind Bryn’s sedan and stopped. Erin wondered if this was someone she was supposed to know.
A guy wearing blue jeans and a slim black T-shirt whose sleeves took on the taut muscular shape of his upper arms and shoulders, put down the motorcycle’s kickstand and took off his helmet. When he pushed his sun-streaked brown hair from his face, she recognized his profile. His look was different—a little more relaxed and, frankly, sexier—than she remembered.
Noah Daly had been two years ahead of her in school, and he’d been a loner. A bit geeky, but still a loner. A lot of girls thought he was cute, but their mothers made sure they didn’t get too close because Noah’s father, Jeb Daly, was known to be bad news. When Noah was about to enter high school, Jeb did the unthinkable—he used a gun to rob the New Belford branch of the Kentucky Patriot Bank.
At the time of the robbery, Erin’s mother, Rita, was in the building to drop off a dozen of her special mocha and cranberry cupcakes as a birthday surprise for a friend. But it wasn’t Jeb Daly who killed Rita. Zach Wilkins, the deputy who responded to the silent alarm, shot her accidentally.
A few years later Erin’s father hired Noah Daly to work in the dealership’s service department. What had he been thinking? And what was Noah Daly doing talking to Bryn Owens?
“Here, Mom.” Noah handed his mother, Annette, an insulated tumbler of sweet iced tea. She took the tea and smiled up at him from her chair at one of the umbrella tables by the pool. Only eighteen when he was born, she was younger than the mothers of most of the guys he knew, but her beauty had faded quickly. She’d long ago started dyeing her auburn hair to hide the gray that showed up before she turned thirty. And because she worked long hours managing a big convenience store near the interstate, she didn’t get much exercise, and so carried a little extra weight. But the thing Noah noticed most about her was that her eyes didn’t sparkle as they had seemed to when he was little. Still, unlike most guys he knew, he’d never once been ashamed to be seen with his own mother.
“Why aren’t you out on the lake, honey? The Jet Skis look like so much fun. Didn’t you bring swim trunks?”
Noah glanced around him. The women near the pool wore sundresses or shorts or bathing suits, and the kids were either in the pool, or dripping water as they played close by. Most of the men he worked with were in swim trunks and T-shirts in or near the lake. All of their girlfriends wore bikinis.
“Not going in the water today, Mom. Not in the mood. I just didn’t want you to stay at the house today.”
She leaned close to him, whispering. “You have nothing to be ashamed of, Noah.”
“I don’t want to talk about it, okay? We’re here, and that’s what’s important.”
A tall man wearing relaxed khaki shorts and a comfortably faded polo shirt ducked his head beneath the umbrella and laid one of his large hands on Annette’s shoulder. The hair at his temples was gray, but the rest was what Noah had heard his mother call strawberry blond. With his friendly green eyes, Bruce Walsh always looked like he was about to share good news.
“So glad you could make it, Annette. I told Noah I hoped he’d bring you to the party this year.” He nodded to Noah. “Even if young Noah here decides to bring along a sweetheart, you’re always welcome to come, too.”
He didn’t let her finish. “Please, Annette. Call me Bruce, and don’t get up. We get to be the grownups here, right?”
“It’s a wonderful party,” she said, settling back down in her chair. “Look at all these fancy decorations! Even these pretty tumblers are red, white, and blue. I’m so happy all these children are having a good time.” As they watched, a small girl shrieked with delight as she started down the pool slide, her arms waving above her head. When she splashed into the water, then quickly popped to the surface, even Bruce laughed.
“Shelby Rae and I feel a deep sense of gratitude to the people who make Walsh Motors successful. It’s a family, and I like to take care of that family.” He held out a freshly-opened bottle of Budweiser to Noah. “Something cold? Hot day to be out on that Yamaha of yours. You know, the invitation is still open for you and the boys in the department to fish off our docks any time.”
“Thanks, Mr. Walsh.” Noah took the beer with a nod. “I’ve come out here early a few mornings this spring and summer. But I park over on the access road and fish off the far dock so I don’t disturb you all. The yellow perch and bass are running big this year.”
“Oh, that bass,” his mother said. “That’s something special.”
To Noah, the most impressive thing about Bruce Walsh was his sincerity. Sometimes he sounded like a politician, but Noah knew that Bruce always kept his word. When he hired Noah on, he said he didn’t expect any more or any less from him than any other employee, but that it would be a great favor to him if Noah would keep his father, Jeb, from coming around after he got out of prison. Keeping the man who was ultimately responsible for his boss’s first wife’s death away from his place of business was a promise Noah had been happy to make. Especially because he didn’t want to have anything to do with his loser father either. He was glad Bruce didn’t know that promise might soon be tested.
Shelby Rae, who had married Bruce long before Noah started at the dealership, was more of a mystery. When she visited, she certainly didn’t hang around the service department. A few of the guys called her a gold digger and others referred to her as a nice piece of ass. Right now she was a dozen feet away, among a tight group of men surrounding Junior, the hired cook. The men were all older and a couple of them were checking out the plunging neckline of Shelby Rae’s short white sundress as though they wanted to fall in. One of the less obvious guys put a hand on her back, and she whipped her head around so that her long, curled ponytail nearly hit the man on the other side of her.
“Quit it, Uncle Travis!”
Noah smiled. The guy deserved it, but he merely chuckled and pushed his thin black hair away from his forehead, unfazed.
A couple of the other men, including Earl Potts, the service manager, dropped back, embarrassed. It could have been one of them instead of the intrepid Travis. He was her uncle? Talk about awkward.
Bruce and his mother were still talking. Noah wasn’t sure what he’d missed, but the conversation had turned back to the expensive tumblers used for the party’s drinks.
“Shelby Rae went a little crazy on making sure everything matched. I think she planned on about a thousand guests instead of a hundred and fifty. Everyone gets to take one home, but let’s get you a couple extra boxes, too.”
Noah’s mother laughed. “Oh, I couldn’t let you do that. They’re so expensive. I’m sure your wife will want to return the rest.” But Noah could tell from the way she was looking at the tumbler on the table that the idea excited her. They had so few nice things at home. She insisted that Noah put half his paycheck in the bank “for college, maybe, or a house of your own someday.” He hated that she worked so hard but couldn’t afford nicer things, even if they were just thick plastic drink glasses.
“You’d be doing me a favor.” Bruce gave her a wide smile, and his eyes were kind.
“Erin, honey?” Bruce called to his daughter, who was sitting beside MacKenzie Clay at the opposite side of the pool. “Can I get you to come here for a minute?”
Erin Walsh said something Noah couldn’t hear to MacKenzie, who had been in an economics class with him senior year. Then she gave her father a small smile and lifted her long legs from the pool to stand. She removed her reflective gold aviators from the top of her head and put them on so that her strawberry blond hair swung free. Unlike her stepmother, she was dressed down, wearing cream-colored shorts that rested softly on her narrow hips. Her purple Allman Brothers Band T-shirt was tied into a knot, revealing a triangle of pale, flat stomach. The glimpse of her skin put a different kind of knot in Noah’s stomach, and he glanced away.
He and Erin had never been friends, but they were always aware of each other. Neither of them had been allowed to attend his father’s trial because they were too young. He saw more of her when she started at the consolidated high school as a quiet freshman. People referred to her as “Erin Walsh, that girl whose mother got killed.” But Noah thought of her as something more: the girl whose life his father had ruined. It didn’t matter that Jeb Daly had been bluffing with an empty gun during the robbery, and that it was Deputy Zachary Wilkins who actually shot Rita Walsh. His father was still responsible.
It wasn’t until last Christmas that Noah started to think of her in a much different way. She’d come into the dealership with Shelby Rae to be surprised with a spanking new Challenger that her father had bought her for Christmas. Its 700 horsepower engine only had 42 miles on it, but Noah had put twelve miles more on it himself after Earl told him to take it out to make sure it ran perfectly before Erin arrived. The sleek black car was a beauty, with sports suspension and paddle shifters on the wheel that meant the driver could switch to manual without even touching the stick.
Driving that car on the highway and on a couple of backroads he knew well had been among the sweetest fifteen minutes of Noah’s life up to that point.
But the day only improved when Bruce Walsh later called back to the department to ask that the car be brought around. Almost everyone was gone for the day, so Noah started the Challenger with the special red fob that engaged the full 700 horsepower (instead of the black fob that gave you only 500), and drove it around to the front of the dealership.
Erin stood on the sidewalk, her hair tucked into a knitted cashmere beret, her mittened hands covering her eyes like a little kid. Her father’s arm was around her shoulders. When she uncovered her eyes, Noah saw a look of pure delight. She turned and hugged her father. When she finally pulled away, a lock of her hair fell from her beret and brushed her lightly freckled cheek. It was in that moment Noah knew, given half a chance, he could fall in love with her.
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copyright 2018 by Laura Benedict
Laura Benedict is the Edgar- and ITW Thriller Award- nominated author of seven novels of suspense, including the forthcoming The Stranger Inside (February 2019). Small Town Trouble, her latest book, is a cozy crime novel. Her Bliss House gothic trilogy includes The Abandoned Heart, Charlotte’s Story (Booklist starred review), and Bliss House. Her short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, and in numerous anthologies like Thrillers: 100 Must-Reads, The Lineup: 20 Provocative Women Writers, and St. Louis Noir. A native of Cincinnati, she lives in Southern Illinois with her family. Visit her at www.laurabenedict.com to read her blog and sign up for her quarterly newsletter.
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Amazon Link: https://www.amazon.com/Small-Town-Trouble-Familiar-Legacy-ebook/dp/B075YGNYGP