Arizona Heat (formerly published as Deadly Deceptions)
Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2008
Mojo is trying to enjoy her posh new home, but she’d rather be back living over Bad-Ass Bert’s Biker Saloon, where life was simpler. Her sexy cop boyfriend can’t let go of his past, while her wealthy sister is being blackmailed for secrets in hers. And Mojo’s smack in the middle of it all.
As the murders pile up, Mojo is starting to uncover secrets that even the dead don’t want disturbed…
I was so innocent then.
Don’t get me wrong-I’d been through a lot, starting with the savage murders of both my parents, when I was only five years old. I’d been kidnapped and raised mostly on the road, by the late, great Lillian Travers, living under an alias that has since become more representative of who I really am than my given name-Mary Josephine Mayhugh-could ever be.
I’m Mojo Sheepshanks now, and as far as I can tell, I always will be.
Then again, you never know.
That’s what I’ve learned since the day I sat in the back of an overcrowded church in Cave Creek, Arizona, on a hot day in early May, too shaken to cry. You just never know-about anything, or anybody.
The casket in front of the altar was painfully small, made of gleaming black wood, and it was open. The body of seven-year-old Gillian Pellway lay inside, nestled on cushions of white silk, clad in a blue ruffled dress, her small hands folded across her chest. I know it’s what people always say, but she really did look peaceful, lying there. She might have been asleep.
She wasn’t at peace. If she had been, her ghost wouldn’t have been sitting in the folding chair next to mine, still clad in the single ballet slipper, pink leotard, tights and tutu she’d been wearing when she was murdered a week before, sometime after a rehearsal for an upcoming dance recital ended.
It wasn’t as if I’d had a lot of experience dealing with dead people. Early trauma and the years on the road with Lillian notwithstanding, I’d led a pretty ordinary life. I wasn’t psychic. I didn’t have visions.
Then, one night in April, I’d awakened to find my ex-husband, Nick DeLuca, in bed with me. Not too weird-divorced people sleep together all the time. Except that Nick had been killed in a car crash two years before. I saw him often, over a period of a few weeks, and I probably owe him my life.
But that’s another story.
Nick opened some kind of door, and I’ve been seeing ghosts ever since.
They’re easy enough to spot, once you know what to look for. Their clothes are usually outdated, and they often seem lost, as though they want to ask directions but can’t get anybody’s attention. I encounter them all the time now-in supermarkets, busy restaurants, even in dog parks.
I wish I didn’t, but I do. I try hard not to make eye contact, but it doesn’t always work. Once they realize I can see them, they tend to get in my face.
That day, sitting through Gillian’s funeral, I had mixed feelings. Of course it was a tragedy-the apparently random slaughter of a little girl. That goes without saying. But most of the people weeping in that church were crying more for themselves than for Gillian-because they’d miss her, because it might just as easily have been their own child lying in that coffin, because they thought death was an ending.
It might be simpler if it were.
As I said, I was innocent then. I’d figured out that death wasn’t the final curtain, but the beginning of a whole new act in some complicated cosmic play. The proof was sitting right beside me, leaning against my arm. But the transition is rocky for some people, especially when it happens suddenly, or violently. Back then, l had no idea how many ghosts get caught in the thin, shifting, invisible web that separates this life from the next. A surprising number of them think they’re dreaming, and wander around waiting to wake up.
Helen Erland, Gillian’s mother, sat stiff-spined in a front pew, occasionally shuddering with the effort to hold in a sob. Her husband, Vince, wasn’t there to share in her grief and lend support-he was in jail pending a murder charge. Though Mrs. Erland apparently had no family to lean on, the place was packed-many of the mourners, I suspected, were the parents of Gillian’s classmates at school.
I wished I could tell Helen that Gillian wasn’t really gone, but how exactly does one go about that? By tugging at the sleeve of the bereaved mother’s cheap but tasteful black suit and saying, Excuse me, but your daughter is more alive than you are?
I don’t think so.
So I sat there, and I watched and listened, and I wondered if the real murderer was present, gloating or guilt ridden. Although Gillian had yet to speak a word to me since she’d appeared in the backseat of my sisters Pathfinder soon after her death, she had indicated that Vince Erland hadn’t killed her. It seemed more a matter of instinct than certainty.
Conundrum number two. How to explain to the police that they were probably holding the wrong man, and you knew this because the victim had shaken her head when you asked if he’d been the one, but either couldn’t or wouldn’t tell you who had ended her life. All without winding up in some psych ward yourself.
My gaze wandered to Tucker Darroch. He was sitting up near the front, with one strong arm around his ex-wife, Allison, her head resting on his shoulder. Their seven-year-old twins, Daniel and Daisy, friends of Gillian’s, weren’t present.
I knew what was going to happen, of course.
Allison would need Tucker.
And he would move back in with her, if he hadn’t already.
Whatever had been starting between Tucker and me would be over.
I tried not to care. I wasn’t in love with the man, after all. But we were definitely . . . involved.
The service was ending.
I squeezed Gillian’s small hand, cold but substantial, and then Helen Erland rose shakily from her seat and walked to the coffin. With a soft wail of sorrow that pierced the lining of my soul, she laid a single white rose inside.
I felt Gillian pull away, and I tried to hold on, but it was no use. One moment the child was sitting beside me, the next she was standing at her shattered mother’s side, her little face upturned, her whole being crying out in a silent plea. I’m here, see me!
What could I do?
Rush up there and gather a child no one else could see into my arms? Drag her back to the rows of folding chairs that had been setup in the rear of the church to accommodate the overflow?
There was nothing I could do. So I sat still, clenching my hands together, my face wet with tears.
Helen Erland, understandably focused on the body in the coffin, was oblivious to her real daughter, standing right beside her.
Gillian, I called, without speaking. Come back.
She turned a defiant glance on me, shook her head and grabbed ineffectually at her mother’s hand. I was vaguely aware of a young woman at the periphery of my vision, a video camera raised to her face, and a slight shudder went through me.
Enduring the actual funeral was hard enough. Who would want to replay it?
Let this be over. I prayed distractedly. Please let this be over.
Gillian vanished, and did not return to her chair beside mine.
Tucker left Allison long enough to go to Helen, help her back to her place.
I couldn’t stand any more.
I got up and slipped out through the open doors of the church, doing my best not to hyperventilate. I would have given just about anything to have one or both of my sisters there, but Jolie, recently hired as a crime-scene tech by Phoenix PD, was going through an orientation program, and Greer was caught in the throes of a rapidly disintegrating marriage.
So I was on my own. Nothing new there.
I took refuge under a leafy ficus tree, grateful for the shade, one hand pressed against the trunk so I wouldn’t drop into a sobbing heap on the ground. I was dazed by the intensity of my mourning, and I didn’t trust myself to drive. Not right away, anyhow.
The service ended.
People flowed past, murmuring, the men looking stalwart and grim, the women dabbing at puffy eyes with crumpled handkerchiefs.
The pallbearers, Tucker among them, carried Gillian’s casket to the hearse, waiting in the dusty street with its rear doors open like the black wings of some bird of doom, ready to enfold the child and carry her away into the unknown. The minister helped Mrs. Erland into the back of a limousine; I looked for Gillian, but she was nowhere around.
When a hand gripped my upper arm, I was beyond startled. I could no longer assume I’d been approached by another human being-not the flesh-and-blood variety, that is.
I turned and saw Allison Darroch standing just behind me, her eyes red rimmed from crying, her flawless skin alabaster pale. She had lush brown hair, pulled into a severe French twist for the occasion, and she wore a black sheath that accented her slender curves.
“What,” she demanded in a furious undertone, “are you doing here?”
I swallowed, stuck for an immediate answer. I couldn’t say I’d come to Gillian Pellway’s funeral because the dead child had practically herded me there. Especially not to Allison, who clearly saw me as the Other Woman, even though she and Tucker had been legally divorced for over a year before I even met him.
Allison leaned in. “It’s sick-this is a little girl’s funeral-but you’ll do anything to get close to Tucker, won’t you?”
I’d never labored under the delusion that Allison and I would ever be friends, but l did respect her. She was a good, if overprotective, mother to the twins, and in her capacity as a veterinarian she’d recently saved Russell, a canine friend of mine, from certain death,
“I know Helen Erland slightly,” I said, with what dignity I could muster, considering I still felt as though I might faint, throw up, or both. It was true, too, which admittedly isn’t the case with everything I say. Helen clerked in a convenience store in Cave Creek, and I occasionally stopped in to buy lottery tickets or gas up my Volvo, “My coming here has nothing to do with Tucker.”
“I don’t believe you,” Allison said.
“Back off,” I replied, after reassembling my backbone vertebra by vertebra, “I have as much right to be here as you do.”
Tucker appeared in the corner of my eye, handsome and anxious in his dark suit. His hair was butternut-blond and a little too long, like before, but he didn’t look like the undercover DEA agent I knew him to be. His normal uniform was jeans, a muscle shirt and biker boots.
“Get in the car, Allison,” he said.
She stiffened, gave me one more poisonous glare and walked away. Got into the big SUV parked at the curb.
For a long moment Tucker and I just stared at each other.
I figured it was his place to speak first, because he’d been the one to stumble into the hornet’s nest.
On the other hand, there was a lot I wanted to tell him, because he was, after all, the only person in the world who knew I could see Gillian Pellway.
I bit my lower lip and stood my ground.
Tucker shoved a hand through his hair. Sighed. His green eyes were haunted, and I wondered how long it had been since he’d slept through a night. Certainly not since Gillian’s body had been found, if appearances were anything to go by.
“Allison’s pretty torn up,” he said. “So are the kids.”
I merely nodded.
“She asked me to move back in. Just for a while.”
Tucker had a condo in Scottsdale, but he wasn’t there much; when he was working, he tended to disappear into some mysterious underworld, one I knew little about.
My stomach pitched, and bile scalded the back of my throat. I swallowed and nodded again.
He moved as though he might take a gentle hold on my shoulders, or even pull me into his arms. Then, after glancing toward the SUV with its tinted windows, he looked at me again, his eyes begging me to understand. I figured his Harley, his usual favorite mode of transportation was probably gathering dust in some garage.
“You’re going to do it,” I said.
Tucker thrust out a breath. “Mojo, this isn’t a reconciliation. Nothing like that. It’s temporary-just until Allison gets over this. Daisy’s having bad dreams, and Danny freaks if every light in the house isn’t on all night long.”
I thought of Gillian’s silent insistence that Vince Erland wasn’t her killer, and gulped back another throatful of bile. I believed her, and that meant the real murderer was still out there, perhaps already stalking another child, I shivered.
“Do you think the twins are in danger?” I asked when I could summon up enough breath. I cared about Tucker Darroch big-time, and I wasn’t planning on sharing a bed with him as long as he was bunking in with the wife and kids, but Daisy attended the same dance school Gillian had, wore the same tiny-ballerina getup. Just thinking of that made me cold to the core.
“I don’t know,” Tucker said.
I took a step toward him, touched his hand, “See you,” I told him.
He caught hold of my arm when I would have gone past him, climbed into my car and motored for Greer’s place, on the chic fringes of Scottsdale. Until a week before, I’d lived in an apartment over Bad-Ass Bert’s Biker Saloon, but following an unfortunate incident with a psychotic killer, I’d moved into my sister’s guesthouse.
“What do you mean, ‘see you’?” Tucker demanded.
I pulled my arm free, though I didn’t make a show of it. I knew Allison was watching from the SUV, and I didn’t want to spike her drama meter, which was already bobbing in the red zone. “I mean,” I said evenly, “that while I certainly understand that you have to be there for your family, I don’t intend to sleep with you in the meantime.”
A muscle bunched in Tucker’s fine, square jaw, and he nodded once, sharply. I thought he’d turn and walk away, but he didn’t. His eyes searched mine, probing and solemn. “Have you seen Gillian again-since the day we talked on the phone?”
She’d been haunting me pretty much nonstop, but that was neither the time nor place to go into details. The way things were going, there might never be a time or place. “Yes” was all I said.
He absorbed that. Nodded again. “We have to talk.”
“Not today,” I answered.
“You’re still living at your sister’s place?”
The SUV’s horn sounded an impatient, wifely little toot.
“Until further notice,” I said, and this time when I started for my car, Tucker didn’t try to stop me.
* * *
I would have liked nothing better than to go back to Greer’s, strip to the skin and swim off some of my angst in her backyard pool, but I knew with my light, redhead’s skin, I’d freckle and fry if I did. So I settled myself in the front seat of my Volvo, switched on the ignition and turned the air-conditioning up as high as it would go.
I sat, watching other people drive off in their cars. The young woman with the video camera passed by, accompanied by another teenage girl with a mascara-streaked face.
The crowd consisted mostly of couples, though, going home to commiserate together.
Tucker and Allison among them.
I closed my eyes for a moment. They had each other. I had two distracted sisters and a very small ghost. Not much comfort there.
Told myself to get a grip.
Okay, so Tucker and I were on hiatus. Maybe we were even over, as I’d thought earlier. It wasn’t as if I didn’t have a life, after all. I’d recently started my own one-woman, kitchen-table detective agency, which I’d dubbed Sheepshanks, Sheepshanks and Sheepshanks, to give it some substance, and I’d inherited a biker bar. I had friends-so what if they were in Witness Protection and I was never going to see them again?
I sighed. My palms felt damp where I gripped the steering wheel.
Was there a Damn Fool’s Guide to Making New Friends? I made a mental note to scour the bookstores and the Internet for a copy.
I shifted into Drive and pulled away from the curb, made a wide U-turn and headed for Bad-Ass Bert’s.
Cave Creek isn’t exactly a metropolis, so I was braking in the gravel parking lot the next thing I knew. Staring at the weathered walls of my saloon, cluttered with rusted-out beer signs. My old apartment was upstairs, and the last time I’d been in residence, I’d nearly been murdered myself.
Still, I missed the place, and it bugged me that I was afraid to stay there. I wasn’t comfortable at Greer’s, luxurious as it was. For one thing, I was worried that her husband, Alex Pennington, M.D., not exactly my greatest fan, might turn up beside my bed in a ski mask some dark night, and for another, Greer was really getting on my nerves. She had plenty of problems, including a cast on her left arm-some guy had tried to wrestle her into the back of a van in broad daylight just a few days back, and if Jolie hadn’t been there to scald the perp with hot coffee, Greer would have been toast.
It wasn’t as if she was out of danger, either.
One thing at a time, I thought. As if there was some universal crisis monitor out there someplace with a clipboard, making sure I didn’t get overloaded.
On an impulse, I pulled the keys from the ignition and got out of the car. Locked up and headed for the outside stairway leading to my second-floor apartment. Okay, I definitely wasn’t ready to move back in, but I was up for a little immersion therapy. I was a grown woman, twenty-eight years old and self-supporting, and I’d survived some pretty hairy situations in my time.
I could stand walking through my empty apartment.
Sooner or later, I’d have to come to terms with the things that had happened there-some of them bad, some of them very, very good.
All the very, very good stuff involved Tucker, unfortunately. And it wasn’t just the sex, either. We’d shared a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches in that apartment, swapped a few confidences, laughed and argued, too.
I climbed the stairs, and my hand shook only a little as I jammed the key into the lock and turned it. The door creaked on its hinges as I pushed it open, and I forced myself to step over the threshold.
Dark memories rushed me, left me breathless.
I switched on the light in the short hallway, even though it was three o’ clock in the afternoon and the sun was blazing through every window.
My heart began to hammer as I moved into the living room. The atmosphere felt thick, smothering.
I half expected my dead ex-husband to appear, but he didn’t.
Even he would have been some consolation that day.
I stayed close to the walls as I did reconnaissance, as cautious as if I were a member of some crack SWAT team staking out dangerous territory.
I sidestepped around the edges of the living room, the kitchen and finally the place I was most afraid to go-the bedroom. There was a peculiar humming thud in my ears, and my stomach kept bouncing up into the back of my throat.
I got down on my hands and knees, snagging my panty hose in the process, and peered under the bed. No monsters lurking there.
A tap on my shoulder nearly launched me through the ceiling.
I smacked my head on the bed frame and whirled on my knees, stoked on adrenaline, prepared to fight for my life.
It was only Gillian.
Her blue eyes glistened with tears. I wondered if she’d gone to the cemetery, seen her coffin lowered into the ground.
But no, there hadn’t been time for that. And I knew there was no graveside service planned.
Her mother and a few friends would be there, no one else.
I straightened and pulled her into my arms. I didn’t even try not to cry.
She clung to me, shivering. She felt so small, so fragile. Ethereal, but solid, too.
“Talk to me, sweetheart,” I whispered when I’d recovered enough to speak. “Tell me who-who did this to you.”
She shook her head. Was she refusing to tell me, or was it that she didn’t know who her murderer was? Yes, she’d denied her stepfather’s guilt with a shake of her head, but that didn’t mean she’d recognized her killer. He or she might have been a stranger. Or perhaps she hadn’t actually seen the person at all; I wasn’t even sure how or where she’d been killed. The police weren’t releasing that information and there was no visible indication of trauma in her appearance, either.
Still, I had a strong intuitive sense that she was keeping a secret.
I got up off my knees, sat on the edge of the bed I was still too afraid to sleep in. Gillian perched beside me, looking up into my face with enormous, imploring eyes.
“Honey,” I said carefully, “did you see the person who hurt you?”
Again, she shook her head, another clear no. There had been a slight hesitation, though.
I let out a breath. “But you’re sure it wasn’t your stepfather?”
She nodded vigorously.
I was about to ask how she could be so certain when the phone on my bedside table rang, a shriII jangling that made my nerves jump.
Gillian instantly evaporated.
I picked up the receiver more out of reflex than any desire to talk to anyone, “Hello?”
I closed my eyes. Opened them again right away, in case some psycho was about to spring out of the woodwork and pounce. “What?” I asked, none too graciously.
He let out a sigh, “Look, I don’t blame you for being upset,” he said after an interval of brief, throbbing silence. “But we still need to talk.”
“How did you know I was here?”
“All right, I drove by after I dropped Allison off at home, and I saw your car in the parking lot at Bert’s.”
“Where are you?”
“Standing at the bottom of the stairway, trying to work up the nerve to come up and knock on your door.”
“Don’t,” I said.
“Mojo, we need to talk-about us, about lots of stuff. But today it’s all about Gillian. I’m not planning to jump your bones, I promise.”
“Okay,” I heard myself say, taking him at his word. In fact, Tucker was about as easy to resist as a tsunami. “Come up, then. The door’s open.”
Tucker rang off, and I heard him double-timing it up the outside stairs.
I replaced the cordless phone on its base, stood, straightened the black dress I’d borrowed from Greer-it was the same one I’d worn to Lillian’s funeral, not that long ago-and smoothed my wild red hair, which was trying to escape from the clip holding it captive at the back of my head.
“You should have locked the door,” Tucker said, standing just inside my door in the tiny entry hall. He’d shed his suit coat, but he was still wearing the dark slacks, a crisp white shirt and a tie, the knot loosened. He looked like some next-dimension version of himself, just slightly off.
“As far as I know,” I replied circumspectly, keeping my distance, “nobody is trying to kill me.”
“Hey,” he said with a bleak attempt at a grin, “given your history, that could change at any moment.”
“Let’s have coffee,” I said, turning toward the kitchen. I needed a table between us if we were going to talk about Gillian, and something to do with my hands. “With luck, it hasn’t been poisoned since I was here last.”
Tucker followed me through the living room.
I felt a pang, missing Russell, a very alive basset hound, and my equally dead cat, Chester. Russell was in Witness Protection with his people, and Chester, after haunting me for a while, had gone on to the great beyond. Now he only haunted my memory.
My throat tightened as I grabbed the carafe off the coffeemaker, rinsed it at the sink and began the brewing process. I heard Tucker drag back a chair at the table behind me and sink into it.
“You’ve seen her again,” he said, “Gillian, I mean.”
I nodded without looking back at him. I couldn’t, just then, because my eyes were burning with tears. “She was at the funeral.”
Tucker didn’t throw a net over me, for my own safety and that of others, or anything like that. He was the most rational man I’d ever known, and his brain was heavily weighted to the left, but as a child, he’d had an experience with a ghost himself. He’d believed me when I told him about seeing Nick, and Gillian, too.
I don’t know what I would have done if he hadn’t.
“She doesn’t talk, Tuck,” I said, groping to assemble the coffee. Open the can, spoon in ground java beans.
“She wouldn’t,” Tucker answered, “She was a deaf-mute.”
I turned, staring at him, forgetting all about my wet eyes. He got up, took the carafe from my hands, poured the water into the top of the coffeemaker and pushed the button.
“I guess that shoots the theory that people leave their disabilities behind when they die,” he said when I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth.
“There’s apparently some kind of transition phase for some people,” I replied when I was sure my voice box hadn’t seized and rusted. “In between death and whatever comes next, that is.” I paused, moved away from him to get two mugs down off a cupboard shelf and rinse them out with hot water. “Why didn’t you tell me Gillian couldn’t hear or speak?”
Tucker leaned against the counter, his arms folded, the ancient coffeemaker chortling and surging behind him, like a rocket trying to take off but not quite having the momentum. Tilling his head slightly to one side, he answered, “It didn’t come up, Mojo. We haven’t talked that much lately.”
“She didn’t see who killed her,” I told him. “God, I hope it was quick-that she didn’t suffer, or have time to be scared.” I finally faced him. “Tucker, was she-was she-she wasn’t-”
“She wasn’t molested.” Tucker said.
Relief swept through me with such force that my knees threatened to give out, and Tucker crossed the room in a couple of strides, took me by the shoulders and lowered me gently into a chair.
“How did she die?” I asked very softly. I didn’t want to know, but at the same time I had to, or I was going to go crazy speculating.
Tucker crouched in front of my chair, holding both my hands in his. The pads of his thumbs felt only too good, chafing the centers of my palms. “You can’t tell anybody, Mojo,” he said. “That’s really important.”
I knew that. I’d read The Damn Fool’s Guide to Criminal Investigation. The police always keep certain pertinent details of any crime under wraps, for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is the danger of compromising the case if word gets out before the trial.
“Tell me.” I said.
“Gillian was strangled,” he told me. “With a piece of thin wire.”
I swayed in my chair, “Oh, my God-”
“According to the ME, it happened quickly,” Tucker said, but he looked as though he was thinking the same thing I was.
Not quickly enough.
“You’re sure she ruled out the stepfather?” he asked when I didn’t say anything.
I nodded. “I asked her twice.”
“Mojo,” Tucker told me after rising from his haunches and taking a chair near mine, “he has an arrest record. Vince Erland, I mean. Solicitation of a minor-sexual context. ”
My stomach roiled. I slapped a hand over my mouth.
The coffee perked.
“He’s a pedophile?” I asked, my voice coming out as a croak.
“We’re not sure. The alleged victim was seventeen, and there was some evidence that she encouraged his advances. The charges were dismissed.”
“But still . . .”
Tucker nodded grimly. “Still,” he agreed.
“Gillian might have been mistaken,” I murmured, “or maybe she simply didn’t want to believe her stepfather, someone she trusted, would hurt her.”
“Nine times out of ten,” Tucker said, “the perp is somebody the victim trusts. Lousy, but true.”
“But it could have been a random attack, right?”
“It could have been, but it probably wasn’t.”
“How can you be so sure?”
Tucker closed his eyes, opened them again. “Vince Erland picked Gillian up after the dance rehearsal. According to him, they stopped off at a supermarket on the way home and Gillian vanished. The report’s on file-but he didn’t call it in until he got back to the trailer. Most people would have been on the horn to 911 the second they realized their child was missing. Why did he wait?”
“I don’t know,” I said, pondering. “I didn’t see this on the news, Tuck. That Mr. Erland was the last person to see Gillian-”
“It’ll be out there soon enough,” Tucker said. “His story is that he’d promised her a dog, and then had to go back on his word because he didn’t have the money. He broke the news at the supermarket. She got mad and took off, and he thought she went home-it’s a hike, but she probably could have done it.”
“But the police don’t believe it. That’s why they’re holding Erland.”
Tucker looked conflicted. He probably knew a lot more about the case than he would admit, and he was deciding how much to tell me. “Partly,” he said. “They’re concerned for his safety, too. When it comes out that he was with Gillian just before she died, especially with his background, a lot of people aren’t going to presume he’s innocent until he’s proven guilty. I don’t need to tell you that emotions run high in situations like this. Some of the vigilante types might not be able to resist the temptation to take the law into their own hands.”
I was still thinking about Gillian. She was a deaf-mute; she couldn’t have cried out for help when she realized she was in trouble. Still, small as she was, she was determined, too. I believed she would have put up a struggle, however futile.
My heart ached, imagining that.
“Where was Mrs. Erland during all this?”
“Working,” Tucker said with a shake of his head.
“No one saw anything? There must have been other shoppers in the store-clerks, passerby on the road . . . ”
Tucker didn’t answer.
“You’re a DEA agent,” I prodded. “How come you know so much about this investigation? Surely it isn’t under federal jurisdiction.”
“I resigned,” he answered. “I’m with the sheriff’s department now-homicide division.”
“And right off the bat you were assigned to this particular case? Isn’t that a conflict of interest, considering that Gillian and Daisy were friends?”
“Cave Creek is a small town,” he reasoned quietly. “Helen Erland grew up here. Anybody who caught the case would have at least a passing acquaintance with the family.”
I got up, because the coffee had finally stopped brewing, and poured a cup for Tucker and one for myself.
“I could help, Tucker,” I said. “With the investigation.”
Tucker’s jawline immediately tightened. “No way,” he replied tersely. “This is serious police work, Mojo. There’s no place in a murder investigation for an amateur with a mail-order P.I. license and a stack of Damn Fool’s Guides on procedure.”
“Gillian came to me,” I pointed out, generously letting the gibe about my credentials pass. “There must be a reason.”
Tucker, about to take a sip of his coffee, set the cup down with a thunk. A muscle bunched in his cheek. “I mean it, Mojo,” he warned. “Stay out of this case.”
“Too late,” I answered. “I’m already in.”
“How do you figure that?”
“You’re the one with the badge,” I admitted, “but I’m the one being haunted by a seven-year-old in a ballerina costume. I think Gillian’s trying to help me figure out who killed her, and I wouldn’t turn my back on her even if I could.”
“Can’t you just tell her to go into the light, or something? Like that woman on TV?”
I sighed. “I wish it were that easy. Do you think I like having a little girl’s ghost pop up every time I turn around? Gillian’s not going anywhere, including into the light, until she’s ready.”
Tucker paled under his biker’s tan. Rubbed his palms together and stared as though he could see through my kitchen floor and into the closed bar beneath.
“It’s okay,” I said.
I wanted to reach out, touch his cheek or his shoulder, but I didn’t dare, because I knew where it would lead. We both needed comfort, and I was pretty sure any physical contact between us would be supercharged by grief and frustrations. As much as I would have liked to lose myself in Tucker’s lovemaking for a little while, if I did, I wouldn’t be able to stand it when he went back to Allison.
“What’s okay?” he rasped, understandably convinced that nothing ever could be “okay,” in a world where children are murdered.
“Being relieved that this didn’t happen to Daisy or Danny. It’s a normal human reaction-and it doesn’t mean you don’t care about Gillian.”
He glared at me. “Where did that come from? The Damn Fool’s Guide to Bullshit Psychology? ”
I sighed. “Go home, Tucker.”
He did. He got up out of his chair and walked out, without another word or even a backward glance.
I should have been relieved, but I wasn’t.