Being handed the keys to a Texas-style castle sounds good, but Jolene’s surprise inheritance is anything but a free ride. For starters, there’s the pesky toxic waste buried amongst the pump jacks and the surly contractors hired to deal with it. Even more disturbing, the grand gift is forcing her to do what she swore she never would—move back to Texas.
Admitting that Hell has frozen over and she’s choosing to live in it is bad enough, but true to form, her mother is making things exponentially worse. Despite the fact that her broken hip is healing fast, Lucille swears the rehab center staff are out to kill her. Jolene’s not buying it—or facilitating an escape. But when she sees a body roll by on gurney and then Lucille’s friend down the hall goes missing, she’s on the hunt for answers. Finding way more than she bargained for, Jolene is thrown into the middle of something very big and very deadly.
Things at the new estate aren’t on the upswing either. Oh, sure, the luxurious house is nice—and enjoying it with the sheriff would be even nicer—but with rehab patients hiding out in the bedrooms, bats in the belfry, a mysterious explosion on the hill and an illegal stash of goods on the jobsite, it’s anything but home sweet home. And with Lucille waging war on the rehab center, there’s no guarantee anybody’s going to live through all these Killer Moves.
* * * *
Here's how the story starts....but, here's a spoiler alert! You better read the other three books first!
“You’ll have to speak up, Mother, I can’t understand you.”
“I can’t speak up,” she hissed. “They’ll hear me. I’ve told you they watch me like a hawk.” Lucille paused then said louder, but more muffled as if she had her hand over the phone. “They’re trying to kill me, Jolene. I mean it. You better listen to me this time.”
“I know it’s painful to do the exercises—”
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, it’s not that. There are things here that just aren’t right.”
Yes, and I was talking to one of them. “Do tell.”
“Don’t patronize me, Missy. I already told you that Fred Dirkus just up and died for no reason at all not twenty-four hours ago. Darlene Smithers started sweating and having chest pains for no reason at all and liked to have died too. And just a few minutes ago, Helen Williams’ arm fell down at her side like a dishrag and she’s here for her knees! Do you hear what I’m saying? This is no rehab hospital, it’s a Nazi death camp. And besides that, the food is horrible and I’m starving to death! You have to get me out of here. Right now!”
I reached for my ever-present bottle of antacids still sitting on my now-empty desk. I’d packed away just about everything else in my house, but thanks to my mother, those mint-flavored stomach-soothers had become as vital to me as air and water. I shook two tablets out of the bottle and popped them into my mouth. “Mother, dear, you have a new hip and an old femur held together with steel pins and rods. You need rehabilitating and that’s why you’re there.”
“You aren’t listening to me!”
“I have heard every single word you said, just as I have heard every single word from every one of your previous phone calls. Specifically, on day one, you wanted me to come get you immediately because the place was a loony bin. You were the only sane person in there—staff, patients or otherwise—and there was no way you were going to get better surrounded by people like chain-smoking alcoholic Fred and hypochondriac-kook Darlene. And to further recap, eating fresh fruit will not kill you and the therapists do not wear black masks and carry whips. I could go on.”
“You listen to me!” she said in a whispered shriek. “Things are not right here, and you have to come get me. Right now!”
“I will be there in a few days, Mother. But you need help and they won’t release you until you’re ready to go.”
“Well, if you don’t hurry up, they’ll be releasing me to the funeral home, that’s what they’ll be doing!”
I sighed, hung up the phone and reached for another mint.
Unlike some of my other forced sojourns to Kickapoo, Texas, I’d escaped the last one without taking a bullet. Of course, getting shot might have been less painful than what actually did happen.
The skeletons my mother had entombed in the family closet were doozies. I still couldn’t integrate them into any kind of reality that actually pertained to me, so we’re going to ignore the emotional trauma and mental anguish aspects of the situation and focus only on the cold hard facts, such as that I became an heiress of sorts overnight. No kidding.
Yep, it isn’t every day that some attorney tracks you down to hand you the keys to a ranch in Texas peppered with your very own oil and gas wells. Now, given that scenario, there’s not a soul alive who wouldn’t envision herself as the next Jed Clampett—I did.
Well, the first thing you know Jo-lene’s a millionaire…
It was amusing for about thirty seconds, but the more the attorney talked, the more I realized that what I’d actually inherited was a job, a liability and a royal pain in the ass.
Oh, to be sure there’s a truckload of assets associated with the estate. There are also creditors, liabilities, lawsuits and other various vermin swimming in the cement pond trying to drain it.
Technically, I didn’t actually know what all was in the estate since the attorneys only hit the highlights then informed me that I had to be present in Texas to deal with it. They also informed me that it would not be a speedy process even if there wasn’t toxic waste buried amongst the pump jacks and mesquites, which, of course, there was.
Said waste presumably came from a large plastics manufacturing plant in Redwater Falls that, to everyone’s dismay, now claimed me as major stockholder. There was a pending sales contract for the culprit company, and the legal beagles on both sides of the fence were scrambling to figure out how the hazardous waste and I fit into their picture of corporate bliss. It was a tossup as to which problem seemed to worry them the most.
I suppose you’re thinking that I could have just said “no thank you” and declined the inheritance. Well, you would be wrong, because Lucille Jackson made that virtually impossible to do by entangling her properties into the mess in some way that I will probably never understand. So, by order of the team of attorneys who now apparently ran my life, I was heading to Texas.
In a moment of delusional optimism, I’d arranged for professional caretakers to live in my house for three months. The attorneys had strongly suggested three years. I’d made strong suggestions for them as well, but it didn’t really change anything. Like it or not—and we all know I did not—I was going to Texas for an extended stay.
As I’d done a thousand times before, but would not be doing again anytime soon, I swiveled my chair around and looked out my big bay window. The view of the Rocky Mountains was magnificent. The tallest peak in the distance had a smattering of snow still in the upper crevices. Framed by the deep blue of the high altitude sky, it was picture perfect. The temperature outside was about seventy degrees and the air was crisp, clean and virtually bug-less—pretty much everything Kickapoo, Texas was not. Yet tomorrow morning, I was heading south.
Yes, I know I told my mother I wouldn’t be there for a few more days, and yes, I know lying is bad. However, I needed some time to adjust to my own captive situation before I had to go deal with hers.
And well, I had some other things to deal with too. Truth be told, my mother’s injuries and the bizarre estate problems might have forced my hand, but what really made me cowboy-up for the long haul in Texas was the need to know if Jerry and I could sustain a relationship that wasn’t based on my mother’s propensity to commit felonies. We’d been crazy about each other in high school, but ego, pride and plain stupidity on both our parts caused us to go our separate ways. Having Lucille become the county’s most wanted after my dad died had come in handy for reuniting us, but the majority of interactions we’d had with each other had been around just that. What would a normal everyday full-time relationship that didn’t revolve around a homicidal investigation look like?
Yeah, I couldn’t picture it either.
Jerry had strongly hinted that he wanted to find out though. Okay, he hadn’t hinted, he’d very clearly asked me to marry him—and I’d panicked. The mini-meltdown that followed wasn’t pretty, but he’d talked me down off the ledge and it had actually turned in to a moment of honesty about things that we both needed.
It wasn’t news to me that I’d become jaded about that thing called marriage—having your husband leave you and your children for a doe-eyed teenager will do that. But cynicism aside, the cold hard truth is that no matter how you dress it up with flowers, lace and romantic notions, marriage is first and foremost a legal contract between you, your partner and your state government. And getting untangled from it can gut you like a fish mentally, emotionally, spiritually and financially—at least it had me.
Now, I trusted Jerry not to do that—I trusted him implicitly—which was something I certainly never said about Danny or the rebound guy who came after him. But the biggest problem in the situation was that I didn’t trust me. Not that I was going to cheat on him—that’s not in my DNA. I didn’t trust that I would still be “me” if I got married. Saying, “I do,” apparently activated some subconscious “Stepford Wives” programming that turned my brain to mush and rearranged my priorities to not include me—I lost myself. That crazy train could only lead back to Lucille, but I had enough family baggage to unpack without adding that to the pile, so I’d decided to ignore the whole marriage thing for the time being.
Ditto for ignoring my mother. She had at least a month in rehab, which meant her ability to cause trouble was limited. I realize history does not support that theory, but it’s my delusion and I’m keeping it.
“Miz Jackson, are you on that phone again?” A short stocky woman in blue scrubs rolled a wheelchair into the room. “It’s a good thing you have that wireless earpiece, because holding that phone up to your head all day would have your arm and shoulder in a big mess and then we’d have to be working on that too.”
“I don’t know why you’re so worried about what I’m doing, Christine,” Lucille said, keeping eye contact with the physical therapist as she slipped the cell phone into her pocket.” She made a show of pulling off the earpiece and putting it in the drawer of the bedside cabinet. “I haven’t seen a sign anywhere saying that inmates can’t make phone calls.”
“You can’t talk while we’re working and you know it,” she said, pointing to Lucille’s pocket. “Put that away too.”
Lucille huffed and tipped her nose in the air as she pulled out the phone and put it in the drawer. “I don’t see what it hurts to have it with me. I might need it.”
“You won’t,” Christine said, as she set the brakes on the wheels and flipped up the foot holders. “You’re here to get that leg of yours working again, not talk on the telephone. You can do all the talking you want once you’ve done your therapy and exercises. I get paid to get you better and you’re going to get better whether you like it or not.”
“I could do just fine by myself at home right now. I don’t need this.”
Christine propped a hand on an ample hip and shook her head. “We lost half an hour yesterday afternoon arguing about this very same thing, now you get yourself into that chair.”
Lucille clenched her fists. “I don’t want to.”
Christine put the other hand on the other hip and glared at Lucille. “Miz Jackson, you better tell me what’s going on with you these last two days. We’d been making good progress, much better than expected even and now you’re acting like this. You keep this up and you may never get out.”
“Well, I darn sure don’t want to get out the way Fred Dirkus did.”
The physical therapist’s eyes narrowed. “Just what are you trying say?”
Lucille realized her mistake, but it was too late to take it back the accusation. However, it was never too late to adjust her story. She sucked in a ragged breath and grabbed a tissue from the cabinet. “It’s just that, well,” she said, sniffing a little and pretending to wipe a tear. “I guess I’m just afraid I’m going to die here. That’s what scares old people the most, you know.” Implying that she was old to get on the good side of some little thirty-something dumpling went against her grain, but it might keep her alive, so she swallowed her pride, sniffed and dabbed the corner of her eye. “Nobody wants to die in a nursing home.”
Christine continued to scowl. “If you want to tell yourself you’re in a nursing home, you go right ahead, but I work in a rehabilitation center. If you want to worry about dying, you can do that too. Right now, you look ten years younger than you are. You sit in this room and don’t exercise and you’ll look ninety in a month.”
Lucille’s head snapped up. “Well, that’s just a plain hateful thing to say.”
“It’s the truth.” Christine clasped Lucille’s arms and guided her into the chair. “I’ve seen time and time again. Is that what you want?”
Lucille settled herself then pulled another tissue from her pocket. “You just watch,” she said, dabbing at her nose and sniffing for effect. “I’m going to surprise everybody and get out of here sooner than you think. A lot sooner.”
“I hope you do, Miz Jackson,” Christine said, pushing the chair out the door. “Believe me, I really hope you do.”
As they made their way down the hallway to the workout room, Lucille made it a point to look in every open door that she could, waving at whoever might be in there. It wasn’t her way, and seemed highly undignified, but that was beside the point. It made her look like she was just being friendly rather than suspicious, which she very well was. She doubted that she’d catch a nurse smothering somebody with a pillow, but she had to start somewhere, and keeping tabs on who was in what room seemed a good start.
“Here we are,” Christine said, pushing through the automatic doors into the therapy room. “Are you ready to work that leg?”
Lucille pushed herself up out of the chair and stood. She was still a little wobbly at times, but she was far better than she let on. As she shifted her weight, a slight twinge shot down from her hip all the way to her toes. It hadn’t really hurt, but she moaned because she figured the therapist expected it.
“It’s normal for it to hurt; you’re still very early in the healing process. Age makes a difference too. Bones just don’t heal as fast as we get older.”
“Mine do, you hateful heifer,” she muttered under her breath.
“Do you want a pain pill?”
Lucille gritted her teeth as if biting back pain, which she was because having to keep her mouth shut made her so mad she could spit nails. On her way out the door of this awful place, she’d give them all a what-for. “I don’t need a pill,” she said, taking long deep breaths like Melody had taught her. It calmed her enough that she could release her grip on the wheelchair—and the overwhelming desire to hurl it across the room at the ridiculousness of it all. “Pain pill my hind foot,” she hissed. “Kill-me-dead pill is more like it.”
“What was that, Miz Jackson?”
Another deep breath and stifled snarl. “I said I’ll do whatever I have to, Christine. Now, let’s get this over with.”
I pulled into the driveway at Mother’s house around midnight. It felt like I’d been driving for days, although, technically, it had only been about fourteen hours. Considering that I’d made at least thirty-two procrastination stops along the way—a pathetic attempt to delay the inevitable—I’d actually made the 700-mile trek from Colorado in good time. Also amazingly, I’d gotten relatively good gas mileage for having the Tahoe’s every nook and cranny packed tight with things I couldn’t live without during my extended stay here. (No, I am not moving, only staying for a bit—that’s my coping strategy, so, like Texas, don’t mess with it!)
With only a few days to handle the arrangements, I was pretty impressed with myself for getting caretakers in and getting my stuff out. I’d packed all my personal essentials, including most of my clothing and some special things I didn’t want to leave behind with the caretakers. I’d also loaded up all my office equipment and supplies since I had a job to do and needed the means to do it.
Now, staring in the rearview mirror at the mass of stuff behind me that had to be dealt with, I wasn’t feeling quite so smug. There was no reason for me to have hauled all this crap down here just so I could haul it back. Particularly since I—or at least the estate—had the means to buy whatever I needed, including a whole freakin’ computer store apparently. Well, maybe…possibly. “Oh, hell, I really have no idea how much money there is and if or when I will have access to it. And that is exactly why I have avoided thinking about any of it.”
Before I continued talking to myself, I grabbed my purse and a duffel bag that I’d efficiently packed with everything I would need for the night, locked the car and headed toward the house.
Light flashed and flooded the area.
I screamed and jumped, then remembered. “Damn, motion detectors!”
The lights were not a new addition. I’d bought them and installed them myself not long ago. So why was my heart racing like a scared rabbit? “Oh, I know,” I said, opening the back porch door. “It’s because there’s usually good reason to be scared around here.”
But it wasn’t really that—well, it wasn’t just that. I was on edge for a lot of different reasons, none of which I could really do anything about at the moment. However, what I could do was get myself inside the house, try to semi-relax and possibly even sleep at some point.
After making my way through the back porch, I unlocked the interior door and pushed it open. A thick wall of hot stale air rolled over me. I hit the lights, made a beeline for the thermostat on the wall in the kitchen and turned on the air conditioner. The unit clicked on and the fan whirred to life. After an initial blast of heat, cool air began to pour down from the overhead vent. So did an eerie feeling that I couldn’t define.
I’ve been in my mother’s house alone many times, of course, including a few days ago when I’d locked it up to head home. There had been so much going on then that I had been on autopilot. But coming in here tonight without her here, the house closed up and unlived in, was just plain giving me the creeps. Of course, it didn’t help that the last time I’d been here alone at night—because Mother Dearest had dumped me to go on a date—I’d wound up having a very bad time. Bad as in a kidnapping, a high-speed chase on back roads in the dark and terrifying gunfire—in this case, the gunfire happened to be mine, but I want it duly noted that I was badgered into it. Things didn’t get much better at the police station either, but that’s another story.
All the unpleasant and near-fatal memories I’d collected here in the last year were more than enough to make me jittery, but this was different, sad, almost like a flash-forward into the future when I would have to deal with all of this alone—when she was really gone. I scolded myself for even having such a thought, because, as I’ve said repeatedly, I am certain the woman will outlive me by a decade at the very least.
Still feeling unsettled, I locked the doors and checked the windows. I also checked inside the closets and under the beds, but it didn’t help me shake off the odd feeling that had started building when I’d turned off the main highway toward Kickapoo. Foreboding was the only name I could put to it, which didn’t fit exactly, but it was disconcerting enough that I stopped searching for a better one. It also took me from falling down exhausted to wide-eyed and nervous. I wouldn’t be sleeping anytime soon.
The air conditioner had cooled the house enough that the prospect of a hot bath seemed potentially relaxing, so I grabbed the appropriate bag and headed that direction. The hot water did help, but the uneasy feeling was still there. Deciding a snack was always a good and comforting option, I headed to the kitchen.
I made a cursory look in the refrigerator just in case some decent food had miraculously appeared there in the time I’d been gone—it hadn’t. Lucille rarely cooked, but she was darned certain to have munchies stashed somewhere. After a little rustling around, I found a box of cheese crackers I would regret eating and closed the cabinet. Then, I jerked it back open.
Had I just seen what I thought I had? Yes, indeed. Sitting beside a box of vanilla wafers were binoculars. Lucille had been conducting intense surveillance on the drilling activities behind her fence for quite some time, so it wasn’t a great shock to find her viewing tools, but it did make me curious.
Since I had nothing better to do, including sleeping apparently, I took the binoculars out on the back porch and gazed at the eastern sky. The thick Texas air and wispy clouds made a fuzzy haze over the landscape and only a few stars twinkled through. I was just about to give up on spotting a satellite, the space station or galactic cruiser when I caught a flash of light over to the southeast, near the horizon.
I kept panning the narrow field of vision until I found the light again. From what I could tell, it was probably a vehicle, going up an incline. Since there was only one such non-flat place anywhere around, it had to be at Bob Little’s house. Well, technically, it was now my house, the one on the hill at my newly gifted ranch—the one I hadn’t seen yet. I vaguely remembered something about there being a caretaker at the place, so it was probably just that guy making a security check.
In reality, I was vague about a lot of things. I’d been so in shock over the whole estate thing that I really hadn’t paid that much attention to the minor details, the major ones having nearly exploded my brain. Now, however, it was right in front of me, and becoming more real by the second—I had to deal with it. A call to the attorney in the morning would be the first order of business. If they had a security service or foreman, or both, I needed to know about it. “And so it begins,” I muttered.
As I stepped back inside the kitchen, the front door bell rang.
I jumped, pure fear shooting through me. I slammed the back door shut and snapped the deadbolt in place then crept into the living room. Leaning over the back of the couch, I peeked out the front window onto the porch—and screamed.
Like a three-year-old. Or maybe like a thirteen-year-old. Whatever the case, the forty-something fool leaped away from the window and ran to the door, flung it open and grabbed the uniformed man on the other side and dragged him into the house.
“You’re here!” I said, stating the obvious, gleefully, perhaps with the abandonment of a child seeing Santa Claus. “I thought you weren’t going to be back in town tonight. I’m glad you are, of course”
Sheriff Jerry Don Parker did not respond verbally to shut me up. He did, however, respond. Oh, God, did he respond! And you are just going to have to use your imagination about what all happened in that moment and in the delicious ones that followed. Use a lot of imagination!
I don’t know what time Jerry left that morning, but I do know that he left with a smile on his face. He also left one very happy girl curled up in her old bed with the blue velveteen headboard and worn out mattress. Maybe this Texas thing wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
A bleary glance at the clock on the dresser said it was only nine, so I hadn’t slept the day away even though I really wanted to.
Dammit. Now what? I hurled myself out of bed, grabbed my jeans and shirt and scuttled into them as fast as I could. The bell still rang two more times before I managed to get myself to the door.
Agnes Riddles stood in the doorway with a big brown sack. “I saw you were here this morning when I went by on my way to the post office, so I thought you’d probably need some food,” she said, stepping inside and heading to the kitchen.
Agnes was about Lucille’s age, with chin-length light-brown hair, gold-rim glasses, tasteful matching knit separates and a genuinely good heart. She was also one of Mother’s two best friends in the whole world—the down-to-earth sane one. The other was Merline Campbell, and I was never sure how the term “friend” fit into that relationship—competing but loyal cobras would be a more apt description. I followed Agnes into the kitchen, feeling uncomfortable with the gift. “That’s very thoughtful…”
“No, buts,” she said, setting the bag on the counter. “Your mother insisted I come over and clean out the refrigerator. I did, but it was hardly worth the trouble since she never keeps a speck of decent food in the house anyway.”
She had a point, but it still wasn’t her problem. I started to tell her that, and that I’m a big girl and quite capable of finding my way to the grocery store and perhaps even cooking something, but I didn’t. That’s just how people were around here sometimes—how Agnes was anyway—and to refuse her gesture would have hurt her feelings. “Well, thank you very much for thinking of me, Agnes. I really appreciate it.”
“You’re quite welcome. I certainly feel better knowing you have some good things to eat. You need to take care of yourself. You’ve got a lot to deal with.”
That was the understatement of the year. “Speaking of which, have you talked to my mother this morning?”
“Oh, yes, she called about seven.” Agnes pushed her glasses up on her nose and smiled. “I didn’t tell her you were here, but I expect she’ll be calling you shortly to see when you will be.”
I expected it too. “Thanks. I thought I’d surprise her later today.”
“That’s good. She’s carrying on something fierce about that rehab place. It seems awful nice to me, more like a hotel and spa, but she’s having a fit about everything.”
“As I understand it, she’s next in line to be murdered.”
Agnes nodded and sighed. “I suppose collecting evidence keeps her occupied, but it sure makes her determined to find an accomplice for a jailbreak. I’m just glad you’re here now to talk some sense into her.”
Optimistic thought, that, but hardly realistic. I’d never been able to talk my mother into or out of anything and Agnes very well knew it. But, hope springs eternal I suppose. “We’ll see,” I muttered.
Agnes put the last of the containers in the refrigerator and closed the door. “It was just a blessing that she got her broken hip the way she did. If she’d fallen here at home by herself, well, I just don’t know if she could have stood the indignity of it—those were her words, of course.”
Of course. But I had to agree. Falling at home was an “old people” thing. Being injured in the course of a homicide investigation—or, technically, interfering with one—was the stuff celebrities were made of, not that she didn’t have enough notoriety already.
“Me, I have two artificial hips and am quite glad of it,” Agnes continued. “Never bothered me for a second, but you know how your mother is.”
Yes indeed, we all know how my mother is.
Agnes folded the sack and tucked it under the sink then walked to the front door. She pulled a slip of paper out of her pocket and handed it to me. “These are all the phone numbers of the people around here in case you need them. Call me any time, of course.”
“Thank you, again, Agnes,” I said sincerely, “for everything.”
She pushed open the glass storm door and stepped outside. “If you want me to go up the hill with you to the house, just let me know.” Looking me in the eye, she added, “It’s probably best not to go up there alone.”
I opened my mouth to ask her what she meant by that, but she’d already turned and scurried to the car. I had plenty of reasons why going alone sounded like a bad idea, but I had a feeling she had better ones. “Well, shit,” I said, closing the door and continuing to talk to myself. “That just can’t be good.”