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Authors: Kay Finch

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Tyanne turned to me. “Isn’t this exciting?”

“Sure is,” I said in spite of my panic about the deadline.

Two bottles of wine later, the majority of it consumed by Kree, we wrapped up our meeting. I thanked the agent profusely, and at the last minute remembered to give her the gift I’d picked up at the wine store. I had worked myself up from “concerned” to “terrified.”

Two weeks? Is that even possible
?

Before Tyanne left to drive Kree back to her hotel, my friend gave me her sternest look. “Go home and write. Now. Tonight.”

Okay, I knew she had my best interests at heart. I needed to write at every possible moment. But how could I let go of the investigation and leave everything in the sheriff’s hands? I lived at the scene of the murder, with my aunt on the suspect list, and the dead man’s sister visiting us.

Night fell as I headed back to my car. I walked down the bookstore’s sidewalk and punched the key fob to unlock the driver’s door. A shadowy figure stepped out from behind the tree by my car, startling me. A short figure.

I inched closer and realized it was Twila Baxter. She was wearing the same type of high-collared dark dress she’d had on the day I visited her at the antiques store.

The woman approached me and stopped in the glow of a streetlight. “Miss Sabrina, good evening.”

“Twila,” I said. “What are you doing here?”

The shops in town were closed, and we were quite a distance from her place.

“I need to apologize for my son’s boorish behavior last night,” she said.

I frowned. “You mean Eddie?”

“Yes.” She shook her head and tsk-tsked. “I raised him better than that.”

“No harm done,” I said. “Don’t give it another thought.” How did she know what had happened at The Wild Pony Saloon? Had someone seen Eddie hitting on me and reported back to his mother? Or had
he
told her? Either way, her feeling the need to bring this up was plain weird.

“Also,” Twila said, “I wish to congratulate you on your good fortune.”

I waited, wondering where she was going with this.

“Your book will be a hit,” she said. “Your career as an author will take off.”

“And you know this how?” I said.

“I see things,” Twila said with a sly smile. “I see good, and I see bad. That was the good.”

This woo-woo vibe of hers creeped me out even more than it had during our first meeting.

“I don’t want to hear bad news, Twila. I need to get home and work on that book.”

“You go home, Sabrina,” she said, “but take care. Bad news will come very soon.”

I couldn’t stop myself from asking, “What bad news?”

“You will know when it comes.”

I halfway expected her body to vanish right before my eyes, but the woman turned and shuffled down the sidewalk.

26

O
N THE WAY
home, I tried to forget crazy Twila’s comments about fortunes, good news, and bad. I didn’t care to hear from people who thought they could see into the future any more than I wanted to hear talk about a cat bringing bad luck. I refused to speculate on how Twila had learned the things she knew. I was too busy being overwhelmed about Kree’s reaction to my book and couldn’t wait to tell Aunt Rowe.

When I got to the house, a sheriff’s department car was parked in the driveway next to Becky’s Lexus. Funny that Sheriff Crawford would still be here, assuming he had arrived shortly after I left for my meeting. I hoped he’d come alone. The last thing I wanted tonight was a run-in with Rosales to kill my good mood.

I entered quietly through the back door so I could take off if I found Rosales was inside. I crept through the kitchen and down the hall. The murmur of low voices drifted to me from the living room. Rosales had a strident voice, and I decided she wasn’t present. Thank goodness.

I walked casually into the living room, ready to greet Aunt Rowe with my book news, and froze when I saw Sheriff Crawford and Aunt Rowe seated intimately close on the sofa. The sheriff was turned toward my aunt and held one of her hands in his.

Holy moly.

I began to back out, but the sheriff caught sight of me and smiled.

“Hello, Sabrina,” he said.

Aunt Rowe shifted and pulled her hand out of his grasp. Her cheeks seemed flushed. “How was your meeting? C’mon in. Have a seat. Tell us all about it.”

I grinned at her. “I’m sure the sheriff is too busy to hear about my book news.”

Aunt Rowe kept her expression bland.

The sheriff said, “Never too busy to share a friend’s good news, or so I’m guessing by your happy face.”

My expression had as much to do with finding Aunt Rowe in close proximity to him as it did about my news. Saying so would annoy Aunt Rowe, so I told them all about Kree Vanderpool’s comments, including the deadline she’d given me.

“Atta girl,” Aunt Rowe said. “I knew you had talent. You’d better get right to work so you finish on time.”

Is she trying to get rid of me?

“How far along are you?” the sheriff said.

“My first draft is almost finished,” I said, “but I won’t be able to concentrate until you catch me up on what Becky said after I left.”

The sheriff shook his head. “You know I can’t discuss an ongoing investigation with you, Sabrina.”

“For Pete’s sake, Jeb,” Aunt Rowe said. “If you don’t tell her, I will. This is no state secret.”

“Where
is
Becky?” I said.

“She turned in early. Glenda gave up the guest room for her.” Aunt Rowe picked up a glass of what looked like tea and took a swallow. “Bottom line is Bobby Joe didn’t tell his sister anything about where he got the money he deposited into that bank account. Far as she knows, he doesn’t have a business. Worked at an appliance store for a while, but they fired him sometime last year. Could be he scammed a whole slew of women the same way he scammed Marian Kauffman and got the money that way.”

Apparently, Aunt Rowe had shared Marian’s visit the night before with the sheriff. I wondered how he’d interpret Marian’s story and if he’d look closely at Luke Griffin as a result.

“Does Becky know the names of other women Bobby Joe dated?” I said.

“No such luck,” the sheriff said.

Aunt Rowe said, “Another possibility is he hung on to part of the paltry sum he inherited when his daddy passed. Becky used her share for living expenses. She came into that money around the time her husband left her with next to nothing.”

“You think Bobby Joe would share his money with Becky because hers ran out?” I said.

“Doubtful.” Aunt Rowe shook her head. “Now that I’m thinking this through, it’s more likely he burned through his in a month.”

“Where does that leave us?” I looked from Aunt Rowe to the sheriff.

He stood. “That leaves the rest of the investigating to Deputy Rosales. Come tomorrow, she’s taking the lead in this case.”

My heart lurched. I knew we could trust Sheriff Crawford to do the right thing while keeping Aunt Rowe’s best interests in mind. With Rosales in charge, all bets were off.

“You’ll still keep an eye on things, right?” I said.

He shook his head. “Better if I distance myself. I’m too close to this.” He looked at my aunt. “Rowe, it’s been a lovely evening. I best call it a night.”

“Goodnight, Jeb.” Aunt Rowe made no move to get up. “Thanks for coming over.”

I said, “I’ll walk with you.”

When we were out of Aunt Rowe’s earshot, I said, “Are you going to take a look at Becky’s bank account?”

“I’ll report everything to my deputy,” he said, “and that’s all you need to know.”

“I learned more about Claire Dubois tonight, and you should take a closer look at her, too.”

He stopped walking and looked at me. “You learned this information at your meeting with the agent?”

“No.” I filled him in on the conversation I’d heard between Claire and her mother. “One thing that struck me was her reference to keeping the wine store’s books a secret from Claire’s father. He and his wife own the vineyard and may own the store as well. Sounds like there’s something fishy going on accounting-wise. What if their accounting issue is connected somehow with Becky’s bank account?”

“As a mystery writer, you ought to know big leaps in logic are problematic,” the sheriff said. “I’m going now.”

Okay, that
was
a leap, but it wasn’t impossible that Claire had siphoned money out of the wine business and given it to Bobby Joe to deposit into the account in Becky’s name. Of course, I had no evidence of any such thing. I kept pace with the sheriff as he left via the front door and approached his car.

“Did you know Frank Palmer is still holding on to his anger about his sister’s death?”

He sighed and stared down at me. “We already covered that ground. End of discussion.”

“You’re no fun,” I said in an attempt to humor him.

“Nothing funny about this case.” He looked at his feet and rubbed his chin before meeting my eyes. “I’m doing what I can, Sabrina, but none of it can hide the fact that Rowe has the best motive for wanting her cousin dead.”

I struggled to swallow. “You can’t know that until you know everyone else’s motive. Besides, Aunt Rowe has no connection to Becky’s bank account.”

“The money may be a different issue,” he said. “Deputy Rosales will follow the evidence. That’s the way this thing needs to go.”

He climbed into his car, gave me a wave, and backed out of the driveway.

I was busy reading between the lines of what the sheriff had and hadn’t said. I knew he cared about what happened to Aunt Rowe. How could he simply step away from the investigation knowing that doing so placed her in danger?

He’s an honorable man, that’s how.

Crawford cared about truth and justice, and he didn’t want the ultimate court case to be influenced by the fact that he and Aunt Rowe were friends. That made a lot of sense, but I wasn’t a fan of the sheriff’s straitlaced character under these circumstances.

This might be Twila’s bad news.

With my heart pounding, I turned back to the house and was shocked to see Hitchcock sitting next to the back door.

“How on earth do you get out of that cottage?” I rushed over to the cat and picked him up. His purr was going ninety-to-nothing. “I guess now that you’re here, this is a good time to introduce you to my aunt Rowe. We could use some pet therapy right about now.”

I carried the cat into the living room with me and made the introductions.

“He’s a good-lookin’ fella,” Aunt Rowe said as Hitchcock walked from the sofa to the ottoman to rub against her cast. “Does he happen to be
the
black cat that has Thomas practically fearing for all of our lives?”

“I’m afraid so.” I sat beside her on the sofa and watched the cat as he stretched to sniff at Aunt Rowe’s pink-polished toenails protruding from the cast.

She shook her head. “Sometimes Thomas doesn’t have the sense God gave a billy goat.”

“So you’ll take my side and ask him to stop setting traps to catch Hitchcock?”

“I’ll tell him I think what he’s doing is a load of nonsense,” she said, “but he got the superstitious streak from his mama. I’m afraid it’s there to stay.”

Hitchcock’s fate was one problem, but not the biggest one at the moment. I sighed.

Aunt Rowe put her hand on my leg. “What’s the matter, little girl?”

I smiled at her. “Many moons have passed since I was your little girl, but I’ve missed you calling me that.”

“You grew up too fast,” she said, “but I’ll always feel the same way about you, Sabrina. Granted, I’m not the soul-baring type, and I’m hard on people.”

“Not too hard.”

“In case I’ve never told you,” she said, “you have brought great joy to my life.”

I rested my head on her shoulder. “And you to mine.”

My eyes teared, and the lump in my throat was so big, there was no way I could speak around it. Even if I could, I didn’t know whether I should voice my fear that Deputy Rosales was not compiling a list of suspects, that she was likely to show up on the doorstep with an arrest warrant.

“For the life of me, I don’t know why Jeb’s deputy continues to suspect me,” Aunt Rowe said as if she’d read my mind. “It’s insane for her to think I had anything to do with Bobby Joe’s murder.”

I blinked rapidly to clear my tears. “I know, right? It had to be someone Bobby Joe cheated out of money.”

“Do you suspect Becky?”

I shrugged. “Didn’t we watch some movie where a character said everything is suspect and nothing is what it seems? That sums up how I’m feeling about it all.”

“Mrreow,” Hitchcock said.

Aunt Rowe laughed. “Inspector Clouseau said ‘I suspect everyone and I suspect no one.’ Let’s hope Jeb’s department is a little more savvy than the Pink Panther detective.”

“Surely they are,” I said.

And that’s what worries me most.

27

A
CALL FROM TYANNE
woke me the next morning. Hitchcock, amazingly still curled at the foot of my bed even though it was daylight, barely slitted his eyes to glare at the phone.

“Are you basking in the glow of impending publication,” Tyanne said, “or are you writing?”

“Neither.” I yawned. “I was asleep.”

“That’s not good.”

“But I wrote until two in the morning.”

“Better. I was hoping you’d say that.”

“Something about the dire situation around here, with the murder investigation going on, put me in the mood for writing the critical black moment scene.”

“I’m looking forward to reading it,” she said. “Has something new happened with the murder investigation?”

“Bobby Joe’s sister, Becky, showed up, and she shared interesting facts about a bank account she kept for him because he didn’t want the money in his name.”

“Whoa,” Tyanne said. “I didn’t see that coming.”

“Neither did we.”

Hitchcock stood and stretched, then walked up the bed to rub against my hand holding the phone. I filled Tyanne in on what we’d learned since Becky’s arrival, gave her a rundown of my visit with Debbie Sue/Vick, then shared my conversation with Felice Dubois at the wine shop.

“All that when you could have spent the time writing,” Tyanne said.

She was like a broken record, and I ignored her comment.

“I did a reverse lookup of the phone numbers from Felice’s phone,” I said. “In the past few days, she’s made several calls to Claire’s number, a couple to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Austin, and one to some guy named Colin Guidry, also in Austin.”

“Guidry,” Tyanne said. “That sounds familiar for some reason.”

“Doesn’t ring any bells for me,” I said, “and the text messages weren’t very telling. They were brief, like ‘all good’ and ‘keep you posted.’ Claire said ‘we’ a few times. Wherever she is, she’s not alone.”

“Claire’s probably not worth worrying about,” Tyanne said.

“Unless she killed Bobby Joe before she took off.”

“That doesn’t feel right to me,” she said.

“Nothing feels right, that’s the problem.”

“I wish they’d hurry up and solve the case so you could focus.”

“If Deputy Rosales has her way, it’ll get solved all right, but not the way I’d like.” I swung my legs around to the side of the bed and placed my feet on the floor. The cat jumped down from the bed and ran toward the kitchen.

“What do you mean?” Tyanne said.

“They’re not finding evidence pointing them to anyone except Aunt Rowe, who, according to the sheriff, has the best motive.”

“That’s frightening,” she said.

I could tell by the long pause that she was struggling not to tell me to ignore everything else and write. In terms of priority, Tyanne knew Aunt Rowe’s safety was always going to come out in the number one spot.

“What are you going to do?” she asked.

“Keep investigating. I’m going to talk to Frank Palmer later today. He’s a good suspect the sheriff refuses to consider.”

Another pause told me she knew better than to mention my book again.

“Good luck,” Tyanne said and hung up.

•   •   •

A
FTER
breakfast, I dressed for a walk around the grounds. My late night had me feeling sluggish, and I needed to get my blood moving to think about how to approach Frank Palmer.

I told Hitchcock I’d be right back and that if he knew what was good for him, he’d stay inside, then set out into the glorious spring morning. It was after nine, but I’d made one lap around the cottages before spotting anyone else outside.

Molly Hartman sat on the front step at the Barcelona cottage. She looked pouty, so I stopped to say hi.

“You doing okay?” I said.

“I guess,” she said. “I wanted to see that kitty and tell him bye before we go, but I can’t find him anywhere.”

“When are you leaving?”

“This afternoon.”

I thought about taking the girl to my place and letting her play with Hitchcock for a while, but not without getting her father’s permission first.

“Where’s your dad?”

“He went to town,” she said, “with Sophia.”

“They left you here alone?”

“My brother’s inside.”

Molly’s brother couldn’t be more than ten years old, and I didn’t like the kids being here by themselves.

“They’ll be back soon,” Molly said.

“You don’t look happy about that.” The girl seemed upset. “Is something wrong?”

“Dad and Sophia are getting
engaged
.”

She stressed the word “engaged,” making it sound like a fate worse than death.

“I take it you don’t like the idea.”

“I’d rather have Mom and Dad stay married.”

“A lot of kids who go through this feel the same way,” I said, “but it’ll be fine.”

She was looking past me toward the road. “Here they come. They’re bringing breakfast. Don’t tell them I told you. I’m not supposed to tell anybody.”

I made a zipper across my lips.

Molly jumped up and ran to meet the adults, so I continued my walk.

My brain was deep into sorting out various motives people might have for killing Bobby Joe when I came up behind Aunt Rowe’s house and saw that lying jerk—“Adam Lee”—sitting on the back deck beside my aunt. I was in no mood to keep up his charade.

I hurried over to the deck.

“Good morning, Mr. Ledwosinski,” I said, loudly enunciating each syllable of his real name.

Aunt Rowe looked around to see who I was talking to while Ledwosinski met my gaze. He raised his brows, as if saying
touché
, then turned and said something to my aunt. He left the deck, taking the steps opposite the ones that I climbed up.

Aunt Rowe watched him go, then turned to me. “Were you talking to Adam just now?”

“You mean the man who calls himself Adam.”

She looked confused. “What are you saying?”

“He’s
not
Adam, that’s what.” I explained what I had learned about the private investigator. “I can’t figure out what he wants, Aunt Rowe. What does he talk to you about?”

“You think he’s here to investigate
me
?”

“I don’t know. He always seems to be with you.”

A blip of a police siren sounded, startling both of us.

“What the heck?” I said.

A car door slammed.

“Stay here,” I told Aunt Rowe, as if she could race around the house on her crutches. “I’ll see what’s going on.”

I felt a sense of dread as I rounded the house to find Deputy Rosales standing next to the cruiser. She and Ledwosinski appeared to be deep in conversation.

I hurried up to them. “Can I help you with something, Deputy?”

Rosales turned to me. “I need to see Thomas Cortez. Where is he?”

I frowned. “Thomas? I don’t know. What do you want with Thomas?”

Ledwosinski said, “He’s down by the river working on those steps.”

I glared at the man. “Is this any of your business?”

Had Rosales hired the PI to investigate Thomas?

“I need to see Cortez,” Rosales said, “and I need to see him now.”

Aunt Rowe had not stayed on the deck. I heard the
click-clomp
of her crutches as she crossed the driveway behind me.

“Why are you asking to see my employee?” she said.

“Not that I’m obligated to explain,” Rosales said, “but I’m sure you’ll find out anyway, so I may as well tell you now. Thomas Cortez’s fingerprints are on the shovel that killed Bobby Joe Flowers, and I’m arresting him for murder.”

Aunt Rowe’s good leg buckled, and I reached out to grab an arm before she toppled. Ledwosinski beat me to it and supported my aunt while she hollered at the deputy.

“Are you out of your mind? Thomas would never hurt anyone. This is my property, and I want you to—”

“Stop.” I placed myself in front of Aunt Rowe, blocking her from the deputy’s view. “Don’t say another word. This will only make things worse.”

“I’ll say whatever I please,” Aunt Rowe said through gritted teeth.

“Your niece is right,” Ledwosinski said, still holding on to Aunt Rowe’s arm.

“Did anyone ask you?” I said.

Behind me, a car door opened and then slammed shut. The engine started up and tires crunched on the gravel driveway.

“Rosales is headed for the river, isn’t she?” I said without turning around.

“Good guess,” Ledwosinski said.

“Let go of me.” Aunt Rowe squirmed out of the man’s grasp. “I’m getting my golf cart. I won’t leave Thomas alone to face that woman.”

“Would you rather she arrest
you
?” Ledwosinski said. “’Cause that could happen if you rub her the wrong way.”

“I don’t care what happens to me,” Aunt Rowe said. “I have to get down there.”

“No, you don’t,” he said. “You’d be more help to Thomas if you call a good criminal attorney. She’ll probably take him to Riverview, and the Lawton County DA will arraign him there. I can get you some names if you need them.”

I stared at the PI. “And pray tell, how does a photographer—wait, let me be more specific—a bird-watching photographer, know so much about the criminal justice system?”

“You’re not helping the situation,” he said.

I hated to admit he was right. Aunt Rowe’s face was screwed up in pain, more mental than physical I guessed, but I couldn’t be sure.

I took her hand. “I’ll go to Thomas. I’ll tell him you’re contacting a lawyer. This will be okay. I promise.”

It has to be okay.

“Go, then.” She flung my hand away.

I yanked the garage door up and jumped into the golf cart. Following the road would take too long, so I cut across the yard with my foot to the floor. The cart bounced so hard over the grass that I might have flown out if I hadn’t been gripping the steering wheel for all I was worth.

I could see Rosales and Thomas standing at the head of the stairs before I reached them. His arms were at his sides, so she hadn’t handcuffed him, thank goodness. At least not yet.

Rosales was holding something, and I could hear her talking.

“You have the right to remain silent—”

I brought the cart to a skidding stop, jumped out, and ran toward them.

“Thomas,” I yelled. “Don’t say anything.”

“I didn’t kill Flowers,” he said.

I glanced at Rosales, but she was focused on completing the
Miranda
warning and kept right on talking.

“Of course you didn’t,” I said. “We all know you didn’t do anything.”

“It
was
my shovel,” he said. “I used it to plant rosebushes on Thursday.”

“Thomas, keep quiet.” I shook my head and held an index finger to my lips, but he wasn’t finished.

“When I went back Friday morning to finish planting, the shovel was gone.”

“Thomas, Aunt Rowe is going to get you a good attorney. The best attorney. Don’t say one more word. Okay?”

“What I’m telling you is the truth,” he said. “There is only one reason this is happening to me now.”

Even though I had told him to be quiet, I couldn’t help myself. “What reason?”

Deputy Rosales stopped speaking to wait for his answer.

“El Gato Diablo crossed my path not one hour ago,” he said. “Now here I am, headed to jail.”

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