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First pages

CHAPTER 1

Cold! Cold! Gracie Hofner looked down. I can’t believe I did that. While reaching for her buzzing phone, she’d poured the remains of her water bottle, intended for her impatiens, over her bare feet. She pressed the button. “Hi, Nicky.”

“Morning. I’ve got something you may want to see.” The voice on Gracie’s phone belonged to Nick Rivera, her partner.

Former partner. Their paths had been the same—patrol, homicide detectives, and then detectives in the San Antonio Regional Intelligence Center—SARIC. San Antonio Police Department all the way. Except unlike her, Nick had found his niche there.

In addition, they were friends. “Fun or work?”

“Nothing fun about murder, Gracie.”

She went inside for a pad and pencil, greeted by the aroma of the coffee that had brewed while she jogged. “Are we cleared?”

“Negative. Double homicide. Missing family.”

“If the family’s missing, who’s dead?”

“Hector and Therese Cantu. You ever heard of Cantu Electric?”

“Don’t think so.”

“Good reputation on the West Side. They’ve been around since my dad was a kid—started by Hector Cantu’s father back in the fifties. The old commercial was like Cantu can do. Hector’s son runs the business now. Mr. Cantu’s retired. Rephrase—now he’s good and retired. He and his wife are the deceased.”

She moved to the table and put her phone on speaker so she could take notes. “Who’s missing?”

“The Cantus have three kids, two daughters and the son, all grown. Besides the electrician business, the son owns an upscale retail lighting store. High end only. Kim and I went in there after we bought our house. I couldn’t afford a switchplate, much less a lamp or fixture. The son and his family are missing.”

“How many?”

“Three. Husband, wife, daughter.”

Daughter. Please, not a missing child. For a second, Gracie couldn’t breathe. “What about his sisters?”

“Homicide’s talked to both. One’s married and lives out of town. Her family’s all accounted for. The other’s single, teaches at St. Mary’s—ethics, philosophy. She’s the one who found the bodies.”

“How?” Gracie pulled some paper napkins from the stack and wiped her feet.

“She comes over for coffee every morning.”

“That’s a bitch.” Gracie leaned back in the chair. “What makes you think Bastion would be interested?”

“A hunch. It stinks. This was a hit.”

The planned kill plus missing family would’ve been what prompted Homicide to call in SARIC. Cartels and gangs used such tactics.

“We know who orders hits like this. The why must be something important.” Nick’s voice was tight. In Gracie’s mind, he clenched and released the muscles in his jaw.

Nick was a good detective. His hunches usually amounted to something. Gracie couldn’t help herself. She had to ask about the daughter. “How old is the girl?”

“Don’t do this to yourself, Gracie.” Better than anyone, Nick understood how she was.

“How old?”

“Six.”

A knot formed in Gracie’s stomach. Kids were the ones caught in the middle every time. “Let me run it by Jackson. I’ll get back to you.”

Gracie punched off and called her boss, Roland Jackson, Coordinated Solutions Director at The Bastion Group. Gracie was part of a small staff that reported directly to him.

He must’ve been holding the phone in his hand. “This better be good, Hofner.”

“Morning, sir! I realize it’s Saturday, but that’s never stopped us before, right?”

“You’re not on assignment.”

“Not yet, but I just got a call from my former SAPD partner.”

“Rivera?”

“Yes. Double murder, missing family members, including a little girl.”

“Let’s not talk about the girl yet. Why does he believe Bastion would be interested?”

“I asked him that same question. He said the deceased were an older couple, well-established in the community, and it looked like a hit. He also said it stinks. I trust his nose, sir.”

“It’s slow. I figured something was going to break. I’ll call my contact over there, make sure this ticks enough of our boxes.” He hung up before she could say anything else. Jackson knew how she was with kids, too.

After showering, she brushed her teeth and pulled appropriate clothing from her closet—buttery tailored slacks and a short-sleeve navy and white polka dot blouse. She had her hands on a pair of Nikes when Jackson called back.

“We’re a go. Are you going to be all right about the girl if it doesn’t go well?”

Gracie took a deep breath. “I’ll handle it. But I’ll do everything I can to make sure it does go well first.”

“All right then. Get over there and let me know what’s what as soon as possible.”

CHAPTER 2

When Gracie disconnected from Jackson, she texted Nick to give him the news and get the address. His return text came while she was eating a slice of peanut butter toast. She finished eating, but ended up pouring half a cup of coffee down the sink.

So much for a free Saturday—and the vinca and lantana she wanted to buy and plant. Absently, she turned to dry her hands, but encountered the upper cabinet instead. “Ow!” She rubbed her fingers above her eyebrow. They came away with a red smear.

“Dammit.” She grabbed the towel and pressed it to her head while she fished out her first aid kit. This is gonna burn like a sonofabitch. She squeezed some alcohol on a cotton ball and pressed it to the cut.

After the burn went away, she took the antibiotic cream and a bandage with her to the mirror in the hall. The cut was tiny. Last, she inspected her blouse and slacks. Blood free. She was good to go.

Fifteen minutes later, she parked her beat-up Jeep Cherokee at the curb behind a long line of police vehicles on San Antonio’s West Side.

Her Jeep wasn’t really beat-up, but it was ten years old, and the color of a slightly sun-bleached cow patty. Too ugly for anyone to want to steal, so that was always one less worry. She liked it because it let her blend into the night when that was important. It also had the biggest, baddest V-8 that would fit under the hood, giving her instant power when she needed it. And it had the coldest air conditioner in the state.

The neighborhood was filled with small mid-century frame houses with tidy yards. After clearing her entry with a patrol officer, she ducked under the crime scene tape and strode past the medical examiner’s van backed into the driveway.

SAPD Sergeant Neva Salazar stood on the front porch. Gracie and Neva went back to Gracie’s early days in Homicide. A confidant for sure, but also a mentor.

The week before, Gracie had gone to a surprise birthday party for Neva’s fortieth. Gracie hadn’t realized she was eight years younger than her friend—she’d guessed five, max. Neva didn’t look forty, even though she’d been heading one of the homicide teams for three years.

Gracie stopped at her side. Neva pointed at the Band-Aid. “What happened?”

“I tried to make love to a kitchen cabinet.”

“That’s not what they mean by a woody, Hofner. Rivera told me you were coming before Gherkin did.” Gherkin was what everyone called Lieutenant George Pickle, head of Homicide. Even the chief called him Gherkin. His wife, too.

“Who’s leading it on your side?”

“Jones and O’Connor.”

“May I go in?”

“Suit up first. Gear’s over there.” Neva inclined her head toward a chair near the door. “Don’t mess with the cabinets.”

Gracie donned the shower cap, booties, and gloves, pulling the shower cap to her eyebrows.

Nick met her between the living and dining rooms. “Hey, blondie. It’s been a while since you’ve worked a homicide. You ready?”

He looked at her but wouldn’t hold her gaze. This was the first time they’d worked together since she’d left SARIC, but they met once a month or so just to reconnect. She hadn’t forgot his tells. Something was up. “As ever. Let’s go.”

“They’re in the kitchen.” Nick turned and she followed him.

The living and dining rooms reminded Gracie of her grandmother’s house, with seemingly unrelated pictures covering the walls and knickknacks sitting on every flat surface.

They entered the kitchen.

The bodies of Mr. and Mrs. Cantu leaned against each other at the kitchen table, fully clothed. Mr. Cantu’s feet were clad in Spurs socks, and Mrs. Cantu’s leopard-print flip flops complimented her bright red toenails. Coffee spilled across the table surface and onto the floor from Mrs. Cantu’s overturned mug.

Together, even in death. Gracie took a moment to pack down the rush of sorrow that made her knees weak and threatened to overtake her. Murder scenes had been like that for her from the very first one. Suck it up, Grace Elizabeth, and do your job. Right now, it was business and nothing more. She could and would worry over the couple later. That was why she’d transferred out of homicide in the first place.

The investigator from the ME’s office showed Gracie the bodies. A small caliber bullet hole centered each forehead, but it was behind the right ears that Gracie lingered. Each victim had been tapped two more times to ensure they didn’t survive. The shooter had a plan long before he arrived.

Neva Salazar walked in. “Rivera, talk to me.”

“They knew the killer. No jimmied doors or windows. Nothing broken. He shot them in the forehead first. Quick. Neither had time to react. The killings happened last night before they went to bed. Mrs. Cantu still had on lipstick, but it’s not fresh as if she’d put it on this morning. And the coffee in the pot was cold when I got here at six-thirty. Plus, rigor’s just beginning—the A/C was jacked down to sixty, so they’ve been dead since at least midnight. More like nine or ten.”

“Hofner?”

“The first shot went to Mr. Cantu. He was the bigger threat. When he was shot, Mrs. Cantu jerked and spilled her coffee. Mr. Cantu’s mug is upright. I think the killer sat or stood across from Mr. Cantu.” Gracie pointed to the chair she meant. “His wound is right in the center. Mrs. Cantu’s is a little off. The shooter fired before she completely faced him.”

“That’s it.” Nick grinned. “Come back in here and show me up.”

“What else?” Neva ignored Nick’s comment and spoke to Gracie.

“Nick’s right that they weren’t threatened by the shooter. He had coffee, too. Or at least something to drink. In the kitchen—a friends and family place. Maybe there were cookies or something else sweet. Have the crime scene investigators check the trash—inside and out—and print all the plates, platters, saucers, and mugs that match the ones the Cantus used.” Gracie waved toward the kitchen work area. “Use Bastion’s investigators and labs if you need to. We’re working for you—that means all of us, not just me.”

Neva smiled. “The more, the merrier.”

“Tell them not to forget spoons and forks. Glasses and liquid containers in the fridge. The tabletop and edges around the two vacant chairs. The shooter cleaned up evidence of himself sitting here, but maybe he didn’t wear gloves when he did. And he damn sure wouldn’t have worn gloves while sharing coffee with his targets. It’s the little things.”

Neva tapped her tablet. Nick paced, unable to stand still, not looking in their direction. Something bothered him, but Gracie would wait until they were outside to find out what.

“Another thing. Check the coffee, both in the pantry and in the cups. The Cantus were older. If both regular and decaf are in the pantry, they need to check what’s in the cups. If it’s not decaf, chances are the deaths occurred earlier in the day.”

Neva nodded as she tapped. “Anything in the rest of the house?”

Nick shook his head. “No.”

“Yes,” Gracie said. “Check for prints and bodily fluids in the bathroom. Toilet, vanity area, medicine cabinet, linen closet. Entire door and window area, wall above and floor around the toilet.”

“You think he took a leak?”

“Maybe. I think he excused himself to use the bathroom and retrieved his gun while he was in there. If he didn’t use a revolver, he probably flushed to mask the sound when he racked the slide. The autopsy will show the angle on the forehead bullets. He probably shot them from a standing position as soon as he returned.”

“Now I remember how Gracie works.” Nick walked around. “Have them check the TV remotes, too. A Spurs game was on last night. I remember someone saying that Mr. Cantu was hard of hearing, and I don’t see any aids. The volume would’ve been raised, and that would’ve masked the sound of gunfire. Otherwise, someone would’ve called in on six shots unless he used a suppressor. Cantu may have turned it off, but if not, the shooter would’ve done so before he left.”

“Good call, Nicky.” Gracie had missed him and their brainstorming sessions. He was like her fourth brother, as if she didn’t have enough sibs already.

“Will do.” Neva tapped her tablet again. “Hofner, any chance the missing son could have done this?”

“About as much chance as you falling off the edge of the earth. There’s nothing personal about these killings.”

“That’s the consensus. Just looking for confirmation. The out-of-town daughter called me. I’m going to text you her number, Rivera. I told her you’d be calling and for her to tell you what she told me. After you talk to her, call me. I want you to hear the story from her before we decide on a plan. After we do, you can relay the total package to Hofner.”

Neva handed Nick her card, with information handwritten on the back. “Here are the son’s home and business addresses. Check out the home first.”

CHAPTER 3

Gracie stopped Nick as they entered the dining room. “I want to look around in here and in the living room. Probably take some photos, too.”

“Go for it.”

A lace tablecloth draped the table. Gracie got on her knees and looked underneath. Clean. Same with the chairs. A buffet and a bar cart were the only other furniture pieces in the room. She pulled a yellow plastic swizzle stick from a plastic glass filled with shiny tropical birds and fish. She put it back.

The living room provided more choices—books, magazines, and doodads all over the place. “I’m taking shots of the bookcases, tables, and TV. Plus the remotes, if I see them out.”

No response. She looked around. Nick stood on the porch taking off his gear. Gracie went back to work. Too many things to take in while he waited for her. He’d had hours to look at it all. When she finished, she took one last shot of the room from the front door to keep everything in perspective. In a homicide, anything at all could become important in closing the case.

Nick was talking to a patrol officer who left when Gracie joined him. She poked his arm. “Did you do a full check on all the furniture?”

She got the look—a probe clear to the soles of her feet by two deep brown eyes searching for her brain.

Nick was five-ten, and she was two inches shorter. They stood almost eyeball to eyeball, although she may have outweighed him by ten pounds, given her strong farm-girl bones and ample girly parts. One of which delighted in squirrelling away every single bite of anything sweet that passed between her lips.

“Do you think I forgot how to be a cop just because you left?” Nick placed his hands on his hips, daring her to give him any guff.

“Mea culpa.”

He gave her a one-armed hug. “I forgot you’re such a pain in the ass. Hard to forget the klutzy parts, though. I still have scars. Ready to go?”

They would always be partners—even though it wasn’t official. Just like with Neva, Gracie and Nick had bonded through those early years of academy and patrol.

Nick stayed quiet on the way to his pickup. He opened the passenger door. “Get in. I want you to listen to this call, too.”

Inside the truck, Gracie touched his hand. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. I can’t figure out why someone would want them dead. He never hurt anybody.”

“Maybe one of them saw something they shouldn’t have.”

“People are fucking crazy.” He hit the top of the steering wheel with the heel of his right hand.

Whatever bothered him was magnified by the murders. “That’s old news. Something else is wrong with you.”

“Nah. I’m just tired.”

“Uh-uh.” She shook her head. “We worked together too long. I knew the first time you wouldn’t look at me back there. What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“I’m the Queen of Nothing, so don’t give me that. What’s wrong?”

“Kim and I had a fight. That’s all.”

“And you’re waiting for her to call you? Ball’s in your court, dude. That’s what my dad told my brothers. Doesn’t matter what you fought about. Or who had the last word. Or even if there’s no way in the world she’s right. You fight, it’s your duty to be the bigger man. I consider you a brother, and my dad’s not here, so I’m passing his orders on.”

A puff of air escaped between his lips. “I’ve actually missed you, Hofner. Nobody’s butted into my life since you left.”

“Now I know why you really called me. We all need someone to butt in, especially when we think we don’t.” She flashed him a grin. “Back to business. Get the Cantu daughter on the horn, and let’s see what she has to say.”

Nick started the engine and turned on the air conditioning before putting up the windows. “I don’t want anyone out there overhearing.” He found the number and put the phone on speaker.

A female voice said, “Hello?”

“This is Detective Rivera, San Antonio Police. With me is Gracie Hofner. Who’s speaking, please?”

“Carmen Leal. Carmen Cantu Leal. Sergeant Salazar said you’d be calling. Thank you.”

“Sorry for your loss, ma’am. The sergeant said you have something to share with me.”

“Is it all right to tell you with the other officer there?”

“Yes, ma’am. She’s also involved with your parents’ case. You’re on speaker, and this call is being recorded.”

“Okay. Victor—that’s my brother—Victor’s always reached for the brass ring, if you know what I mean.”

The pain in her voice came through loud and clear.

“I do, but since this is a call, I’d appreciate your being more direct as to what you mean.”

“I’ll try.” She made a little sound in her throat, not quite a sigh. “Growing up, Victor was like all the rest of us. But when he got older, he was all about show. He wanted the trendy clothes, a newer car. He started running with a faster crowd.”

Gracie and Nick exchanged glances.

Carmen blew her nose. “I’m sorry. It hurts, you know?”

Nick stayed silent for a few moments to give Carmen a little space. “Just tell us what you can. It’s hard to know what’s important at this point. Take your time.” Nick’s voice was gentle. No one Gracie knew at the PD or Bastion was as good as Nick at getting witnesses to cooperate. He had a gift.

“We weren’t wealthy, but somehow Dad and Mom managed to send all three of us to college. And we all graduated. Mom was so proud of that. She used to brag about us all the time. The priests told her she needed to quit.” Carmen giggled.

“What’s funny?”

“Mom got tired of hearing it and just stopped telling them about it at confession. She said it was her right and a privilege.”

Gracie made a fish face to keep from laughing. Any woman with blazing red toenails and leopard print flip-flops wouldn’t balk at holding out on a priest or two.

Nick chuckled. “Go on.”

“Anyway, not long after Victor graduated, he tried to get Dad to sell the business, but Dad wouldn’t hear of it. He kept on working, but when he was sixty-three, he had a mild heart attack and decided to retire. Victor had been working alongside him, and he took over. Dad made him promise not to raise prices to the regular customers or to anyone living on the West Side. Victor didn’t like it, but he promised.”

“Did he keep the promise?”

“He did. Victor’s degree was in business—he knew what he was doing. He advertised heavily in other areas of town and also pumped up the commercial part of the company. Cantu Electric took off.”

“What happened then?”

“Victor got enough together to start San Antonio Lighting, and it’s successful, too.”

“How successful? Did he share any specifics with you?”

“No, but successful enough that he and Jessica—that’s his wife— recently bought a big new house in Stone Oak.”

Figures. Stone Oak was a pricey area in far north San Antonio. Some of the homes up there edged toward the million mark. A few were already there.

“He’s doing good. What is it you think we should know?”

“Jessica called me last week.”

“Is that odd?”

“No, we’re close. It’s odder that I haven’t heard from her since then.”

“What did she tell you?”

“Victor had been acting strange for a week or so, and she wondered if I knew what was going on.”

“You and your brother were close, too?”

“Yes, we always have been. I’m the older sister. He’s the middle child. Usually he’d tell me stuff before he told Mom, hoping he could figure a way to stay out of trouble. But he hadn’t told me anything. I was going to give him a few days to see if he called, and then I planned on calling him. He called me the day after Jessica did.”

Gracie could relate to that, being the youngest of five. Clearing things with an older sibling often helped to refine what she told her mother.

“He asked if it would be all right for Jessica and Maya—that’s their daughter—to come stay with us for a few days. Maybe a week. I told him sure, but asked about school. He said he would make arrangements with Maya’s teacher. My niece is in first grade, and while she’s smart and likes school, she’s still very young emotionally. Very tied to Mommy and Daddy.”

While Carmen talked, Gracie’s phone vibrated. She sent Jackson to voicemail. He wouldn’t be thrilled, but he knew where she was. If it was urgent, he’d call back.

“Victor told me he was having trouble with someone and he’d feel better knowing Jessica and Maya were safe.”

“Did he give you any additional information?”

“No. I asked if it was someone at work. He said he couldn’t say, but he’d tell me later. I pressed, but all he said was that if anything happened to him, he wanted to make sure that I kept Jessica and Maya safe.”

CHAPTER 4

Gracie fiddled with the air conditioning vents, aiming those on her side at her face, while Nick continued to jot details of the conversation as he wound up the call. Carmen and her family lived in Corpus Christi. She owned a small nursery. Her husband worked for the port. They had two teenage sons.

When he hung up, he slipped his phone into his shirt pocket before looking at Gracie. “Now you know as much as I do. What do you think?”

Gracie readjusted one of the vents. The smell of death hadn’t been pronounced, but it still lingered. Probably in her mind more than in reality. “Most likely the shooter was male, and for sure he didn’t just waltz in on a whim and decide to off them. Not a gang punk. The shots were precise, the bullets large enough to do the job without making a big mess.”

Nick studied something unseen on the knee of his trousers, rubbing his thumb over and over the same spot. He wasn’t picky. He was nervous. She’d give him a little while to remember how they always shared. If he didn’t fill her in, she would ask. Keeping it inside could create a barrier between them as well as with his investigation. His head wouldn’t be in it, and that was dangerous.

“The PD or Bastion can search databases and come up with a list of the usual suspects,” Gracie said. “You know that drill. We haven’t talked to the local daughter yet, but my money’s on the son. There’s some kind of involvement. We have to locate him, and not just because he has a young daughter. He’s the key.”

Nick nodded. “I agree about the son. And the shooter.”

“I’m trying to figure out what makes the most sense. It doesn’t feel like retaliation. Could be the son was being blackmailed and refused to pay.”

“Blackmailed about what?” Nick turned in his seat and leaned against the door.

“Anything. Maybe the shooter learned he kept a girlfriend. Or a boyfriend.”

“One of each.” Nick moved again, and his elbow hit the horn.

He was edgy. Gracie wished he’d hurry up and tell her what was going on. “Could be. Maybe the son’s a trafficker—people, drugs, guns, cash. The possibilities are endless. If that’s the case, SARIC should be able to pick up on it easy enough.”

Whatever the reason, the son had put his daughter at risk. That gave him a black mark in Gracie’s book. “We can hope they find prints that shouldn’t be here. Or DNA. And that whatever they find will match something in a database. Bastion can process everything faster, but I don’t know if Gherkin will allow us to work it.”

Nick’s head popped up. “He’s not completely onboard with you guys yet. Neva trusts you, but not all the other. Both people she doesn’t know and how far Bastion can reach. She thinks Bastion’s too much like Big Brother.”

“She told me. We chatted the other day at her birthday party. I told her she should be happy Bastion exists—we’re one of the things keeping Big Brother from taking over. Gherkin still thinks we’re doing the same thing the department does. He doesn’t get that we don’t conduct official investigations.”

“You do poke into ours from time to time.”

“True, but we’re nearly always looking for something different. No way to avoid that. I’m glad Jackson’s contact sees us as we are.”

“I realize you’ll never come back to the job ’cause you won’t give up your fancy phone. But don’t you miss all this?”

Nick was right about not giving up her phone. It looked and operated like any other iPhone. But inside she had space for five separate encrypted lines, which was a real plus when she worked undercover. It also had special filters and construction that didn’t allow for noise leakage beyond a few inches in either direction. Unless she used the speaker, those in the next seat couldn’t hear anything from the person on the other end. She used her speaker a lot.

Gracie grinned. “I do miss it. A little. Not enough to come back. I like Bastion much better. Less routine, more broad-view thinking. Much less paperwork. Besides, I got tired of gang bangers spitting on me.”

“Yeah, there is that.”

An image popped into Gracie’s mind. A little girl with dark hair playing with a doll. She sat in a woman’s lap, but the woman’s face was out of view. The vision in her head wasn’t like an image her subconscious put together from clues, but more a comforting picture. Was she imagining Maya was safe? Or was it something sinister? Something to make her get on the ball? What the hell? Gracie wiped a hand down her face.

“Don’t let the little girl eat you up, Gracie.”

“I can’t stop thinking about her. Maya. Now she doesn’t have a grandma and grandpa. And it may be that the son and his family are already dead, too.”

“Percentage?”

Over the years, she and Nick had developed their own shorthand. He wanted to learn how likely she thought it was that Victor and his family were deceased. “Low. I think they’re alive. Running or hiding.” Maybe that’s what the image in her head meant.

“Agree.”

“If you find them, you’ll have a better lead on who killed his parents. And why.”

“It’s going to be a bitch until something turns up. I hope it doesn’t take long.” He stared out the windshield, chewing the inside of his cheek. “One thing bothers me.”

“What’s that?”

“How would either of the Cantus know a hit man well enough to let him in?”

Gracie shrugged. “Could’ve been a hit woman.”

“Still, though, the type of personalities involved.”

“Sociopaths turn it on and off. You don’t see what you’re not looking for—that goes double for people like the Cantus. Could be an old friend or an old friend of one of their kids, even a neighbor. It’s someone with a connection to the son or his wife, but that connection may be hidden.”

“Yeah. Helps to brainstorm. I’m getting rid of frustrations. You’re the only one I can do that with.”

“Anytime. How come you still don’t have a partner?”

“Three of us in the unit—all on our own. New blood’s coming in next month. I’m sure we’ll each get one of them.” Nick blew out another whoosh of air. “I told you Kim and I had a fight.”

Here comes the real talk. About damn time he remembered I don’t bite. “Yeah.”

“It wasn’t a fight. Kim’s having an affair.”

“What?” Gracie had to nudge him to make him look at her. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

He shook his head. “Not kidding.”

“Did she tell you?”

“Hell no. Things have been off for a while.” He barely opened his mouth.

Gracie waited him out. This had to be brutal for him. He’d fallen for Kim the first time he’d laid eyes on her, rookie year.

“I started following her.”

“Oh, shit. Behave yourself, Nicky.”

He nodded.

“Do you know the guy?”

Nick looked straight at her. “It’s not a guy.”

“No. Way.” For one of the few times ever, Gracie had no more words.

“Way.”

#

After goodbyes and a hug, Gracie walked back to her Jeep in a daze. Kim had been far from one of her besties, but Gracie had never picked up on any hint of her being anything other than straight. Or attracted to anyone other than Nick. She started the engine and aimed the air conditioning vents at her face. Nick waved as he drove past. It had been hard for him to tell her about Kim, but she was glad he had. Otherwise, her betrayal would’ve eaten a hole in his gut. Gracie didn’t want to see him travel that road.

She turned off her favorite country radio station before calling Jackson. He hadn’t left a message. “Sorry I couldn’t answer. You called in the middle of an interview. What’s up?”

“You tell me.”

Gracie shared the facts of the Cantu case. It didn’t take long. During the telling, a white van pulled up. The uniformed officer let it pass. On the side were the words Crime Scene Unit. This was the second group. Good. Neva was pulling out all the stops.

“What’s your take? Do they need our expertise or can they handle it? SAPD retains us, but they prefer keeping everything in-house.”

“They’re fully capable of handling it. Could we help? Of course. Should we? In this case, it would be beneficial, especially with searches, labs, that kind of thing. It’s a perfect opportunity to show SAPD what we mean by surge dynamics. We can cut the time in half. Maybe even less. Our presence would give them a lot of bang for their buck.”

“I’m composing my pitch while we talk.”

“Hang on. The bodies are coming out now.” Gracie kept silent as they loaded the first, then the second. How must it feel to know your parents were murdered? To know you’d never see or talk to them again, feel their arms around you, inhale their familiar scents? The medical investigator closed the door. Gracie heard the slam in her head, not through her ears. Final.

She shivered before taking a deep breath. “Okay. As we learn more, we’ll gain a better idea. I’d like to go with Nick to talk to the daughter who found them. Nick’s checking out the missing son right now.”

“I’ll clear it.”

“Thank you. I took some photos of the living and dining rooms. Lots of dust catchers. Something may turn out to be important. Or maybe something is missing.” Gracie’s stomach growled. It was eleven-thirty, and her peanut butter toast was history.


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Carol Kilgore is the author of Jalapeno Cupcake Wench, the first book in the Amazing Gracie Trilogy, and three standalone romantic suspense novels. She's married, with dogs, and lives in San Antonio, the setting for the trilogy. She laughs a lot, mostly at herself.

Q. Why do you write?
A.
I write because my head is always filled with characters, vignettes, and what-ifs. Sometimes, there's even a plot or two hanging around. Writing is the only way to shoo them out. But the more I write, I find I also write for you, hoping to bring a smile. Or give you something to ponder.
Q. Where did the idea for this book come from?
A.
I started writing a novel about an undercover police detective who couldn't cook but was assigned to work in a restaurant kitchen. I had problem after problem, but I kept learning more about Gracie. She wouldn't shut up. The more I learned about her, the more the trilogy took shape.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
Jalapeno Cupcake Wench is the first book in the Amazing Gracie Trilogy. Law enforcement consultant Gracie Hofner, whose special talent is putting random pieces together, discovers she has psychic ability. But she never knows when the power will strike. Or how it will affect her.

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