Five Star/Gale, Cengage, February 2013, 328 pp., $25.95
Kindle edition, August 2013, $3.19
After a bullet shatters Phoenix Smith’s career as a CIA covert operative, she returns to her rural Missouri hometown to recuperate and regroup. She arrives as her lifelong friend, civic leader Annalynn Carr Keyser, buries her husband, the sheriff. Everyone except the widow believes he shot his mistress and himself. Annalynn begs Phoenix to help prove he, too, was murdered. The old friends employ their diverse skills and conflicting attitudes to discover what really happened and to survive.
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Made it. I turned off the two-lane highway onto the residential street leading to safety and sympathy. A pothole jarred me. Pain erupted beneath my ribs. Pulling to the curb, I held my breath until the agony became an endurable ache. I reached over to my purse and fumbled for the oxycodone bottle beneath my Glock 27. The trick would be to placate my wound without fogging my brain. I swallowed half a pill and opened the window to cool off while I waited for it to work.
Freshly mowed grass scented the air. A bed of white and purple irises beautified a yard in front one of the old white frame houses. My mother had loved irises. Did hers still bloom? They’d add to the house’s curb appeal when I put it on the market.
Or when Annalynn did that for me. I’d looked forward to seeing her again through five long days of stop-and-go driving. I could tough it out the last two blocks. I pulled away from the curb and, a block later, turned right onto Franklin Street. Ahead, Annalynn’s pinkish tile roof and gray limestone walls towered above my childhood home, now nothing but a vacant little brick house. A yellow Volkswagen Beetle sat in her driveway so I parked in mine.
Pots of white calla lilies lined her front porch wall.
Not Annalynn. Surely not Annalynn.
A slender blonde woman in a snug turquoise dress rushed out the front door and down the porch steps toward the Beetle. Connie Diamante—as blonde and as irredeemably perky as she’d been in high school. She always knew what was going on.
She did a double take and scurried to me. “Phoenix! Thank God you’re finally here!” She bent to kiss my cheek. “When you didn’t show up two days ago, I called your brothers in California and your office in Vienna to get your cell number. You really—”
I couldn’t stand more of her prattle. “Has something happened to Annalynn?”
Connie stepped back. “You don’t know.”
Obviously. “Is Annalynn okay?”
“No, she’s not.” Connie flicked away a tear. “Maybe it’s better—kind of cathartic—for her to tell you about it herself.”
Enough melodrama. “You tell me. Right now. The short version.” I reined in my impatience and softened my tone. “Please, Connie.”
“Okay, okay, Ms. Bossy.” She threw her head back and closed her eyes. “Boom died five days ago.” She opened her eyes and waited for my reaction.
I nodded, my concern for Annalynn rather than her husband. “Heart attack?”
“I wish.” She glanced toward the house. “A maid found Boom and a young woman in a sleazy motel room. The police say he shot her and then himself.”
“No! I can’t believe he’d cheat on Annalynn.” The thing I’d liked most about the handsome, extroverted jock was that he adored his wife.
“Then that makes you the second person in Laycock. In the whole state of Missouri. His staff at the sheriff’s department, his son and daughter, his minister—everyone except Annalynn—says he did it. She insists someone set him up.”
I shook my head to clear it. Connie still stood there looking little older than she had the last time I’d seen her, some twenty years ago. “You think Annalynn’s wrong.”
Connie leaned down to my window as though to hide her words. “Yes, but I haven’t had the nerve to tell her why, and I don’t have time to tell you now. I’m singing at a big hundredth-birthday party and I’m running late.” She straightened, a single worry line on her forehead. “She’s alone. Her kids and their families left town a couple of hours ago, right after the funeral. They couldn’t deal with their father’s death, or with her reaction. She’s been waiting for you, Phoenix. She’s counting on you.”
And I’d never been less capable. How could Annalynn—the perfectionist, the judge’s daughter, the town’s chief do-gooder—cope with her husband’s death and public betrayal? “What can I say to comfort her? What does she need to hear?”
“You’ll know what to say. You always do.” Connie patted my shoulder. “But before you go in, fix your face. Your skin is the color of cement.”
“Gee, thanks.” Same old Connie. She’d always envied my bond with Annalynn. And that I stood four inches taller than Connie’s five foot two.
She hurried toward her car in three-inch heels. “See you in church tomorrow.”
Not likely. I hadn’t gone into a church except as a tourist for decades. I flipped down the visor mirror. Bloody hell! If Annalynn saw me looking like this, she would freak out, call a doctor, and destroy my cover story. I retrieved my makeup kit and spent two minutes approximating my normal light-tan complexion. I ran a hand through my short black hair to plump it up. And to pull out a rare gray strand. Ready.
I eased out of the car, clung to it until the world quit moving, and walked slowly across the driveways and Annalynn’s lawn and up the porch steps to her front door. After ringing the bell twice, I called, “Annalynn, it’s Phoenix.”
Quick steps sounded in the hall, and Annalynn opened the door. “At last! I’ve been so worried about you.” She’d never been a hugger, but she drew me into the house and enveloped me in a painful embrace. “You shouldn’t have driven all the way from Washington so soon after you left the hospital.”
“I’m fine.” She didn’t notice the lie. “I’m so sorry not to be here for you.”
Her welcoming smile vanished. She stepped back. “You’ve heard about Boom.”
Connie had called it right. Annalynn needed to tell me the story of her husband’s death. “I heard he died Tuesday.” To reconnect, I put my hands on her shoulders. “You know I’ll do anything I can to help you through this.”
“I’m so thankful you’re here.” She drew back. “I’ll pour us the last of Father’s whiskey and tell you what I know.”
“None for me,” I said with regret. “No alcohol until I go off my pain pills.”
“You’re still on medication? Trudy had gallbladder surgery on a Thursday and came to church on Sunday.”
I willed away a wave of dizziness. “She probably had laparoscopic surgery. Turkish hospitals still use the scalpel, or at least they did on me.”
Annalynn frowned. “I thought you had surgery in Vienna.”
Damn! An amateur’s mistake. I revised my cover story. “I went to Istanbul to buy a Kayseri wool carpet for my spare bedroom. My medical evacuation to DC was from Istanbul.” Via a military hospital in Germany.
Annalynn nodded absently and went through the open double pocket doors into the dining room and to the Queen Anne liquor cabinet.
I marveled at her composure. Near the end of a ghastly day, she remained elegant in a royal-blue sheath dress and pearls that surely came from elderly oysters. Her subtle makeup showed no smudges, and not a strand of her chestnut-highlighted brown hair had escaped from an intricate French roll. She wore her public face, the mask of serenity she used to conceal strong emotion.
She poured an undiluted double. “Would you like something to eat? People brought in mounds of food. I put aside some deviled eggs for you.”
“No, thanks. Maybe later.” My digestive system hadn’t quite adjusted to solid food. Did I dare eat the deviled eggs? “Let’s sit in the window seat.”
She led the way down the wide central hall past the staircase to our old favorite spot and stepped out of her low-heeled pumps. She curled her legs up under her the way she had as a girl.
Moving gingerly, I assumed my old cross-legged pose facing her and leaned against the wall. I’d rarely felt so inadequate. “If it’s too hard for you to talk about . . .”
“No, I want you to hear the truth.” She sipped her whiskey. “Monday night I had a committee meeting. Boom went to dinner with a football buddy passing through. Bob or Bill or Bert. I can’t remember. I came home a little before ten. Boom came in five minutes later and fixed some popcorn. We watched the ten-o’clock news together. Then I went upstairs to bed and he went downstairs to his office. I fell asleep.”
Her businesslike tone and precise words told me two things: She had repeated this story many times, and she held her grief in a steely grasp that even she couldn’t maintain. I reached out to take her free hand.
She breathed deeply and exhaled. “About two I missed him and came downstairs. He’d left a note on the dining-room table saying he’d gone out on a call.” Her voice wavered. She took another sip of whiskey.
I squeezed her hand.
She stared out the window into the backyard. “I got up at seven and phoned the sheriff’s department. No one knew anything about a call. About eight o’clock George Brendan, Boom’s chief deputy, came by.” She blinked several times. “I thought he was going to cry. He said—he said that they had found Boom at Sweet Nights Motel with a bullet hole behind his right ear. A woman named Maria Lopez—I’d never heard of her—was with him, and she’d been shot, too.” Body rigid, she stared into my eyes. The public mask no longer hid her anguish.
She needed me to accept her denial of his betrayal. I weighed my response. The police had ruled it a homicide-suicide, but Annalynn hadn’t. Honor her feelings. Respect her judgment. I made my tone curious, nonjudgmental. “Who shot them?”
Her shoulders relaxed. “I don’t know. The sheriff’s department claims Boom shot her and then himself. They refuse to investigate any further.” She hesitated, gripping my hand as if it were a lifeline. “Even our kids believe he was having an affair and—and went crazy.” She waited expectantly.
“I see.” My brain went into a stall. I couldn’t say they were wrong. I mustn’t say they were right.
Annalynn set the whiskey on the windowsill, leaned forward, and clasped both my hands. “He couldn’t—he wouldn’t have betrayed me. Someone set him up.” She lowered her gaze and her face contorted. When she looked up, her eyes held no tears. Her grip on my hands tightened. “I can’t let people brand Boom an adulterer and a murderer. Phoenix, I have no one else to turn to. Please, please, help me find Boom’s killer.”