Excerpt: Lambda Literary Finalist in Gay Mystery: Fair Game by Josh Lanyon

Fair Game by Josh Lanyon

Excerpt:

Elliot was still brooding—and increasingly annoyed with himself for doing so—as his car topped the pine-tree-lined drive and his headlights illuminated the dark cabin.

The porch light was out again.

Maybe there was a short in the wiring on the front of the house. The cabin wasn’t new. Or maybe he’d forgotten to turn the light on when he’d left that morning. He couldn’t specifically recall doing so, but leaving the light on was automatic by now.

There was nothing concrete, but he felt uneasy.

He pulled into the garage, turned off the engine and removed his pistol and flashlight from the glove compartment. He racked the Glock’s slide and slipped out of the car, leaving the door open.

The garage was nearly pitch-black and Elliot spared a grateful thought that he hadn’t lived in the cabin long enough to accumulate much junk. He edged past the cabinets and tool bench, crossed behind the Nissan, and made his way as noiselessly as possible to the side door. He unlocked it, eased it open and stepped out into the crisp, cold night.

Above the serrated silhouettes of the pines he could see the moon sailing serenely through the silver edged clouds. The spicy scent of pine mingled with the faint tang of the sound.

The rough wooden logs caught at his jacket as he inched down the length of the cabin. He held his pistol at low ready. When he came to the sunroom, he craned his head and stole a quick look. The room was in darkness. He could make out the shape of furniture in the gloom. Nothing moved.

The only sound was the wind soughing through the tree tops.

Moving across that wall of windows would be a mistake if someone was waiting for him inside, and though his knee was better than it had been on Saturday, the days when he could crawl along the ground commando style were gone.

He thought it over and then went back the other way along the side of the house, pausing by the side door to the garage and listening intently.

Nothing.

FairGame_Josh Lanyon

He peered inside. No light shone from under the kitchen door. Not the faintest glimmer.

Continuing along the wall of the cabin, Elliot climbed with some difficulty onto the side of the shadowy porch, and ducked past the nearest window. He pushed gently against the front door. It didn’t budge.

He touched the handle.

Locked.

Was he overreacting? If he really believed there was a threat he needed to get down to Steven’s cabin and summon the Pierce County Sheriff Department.

Stubbornly, he resisted the idea of not being able to deal with this, not being capable of handling his own problems—assuming his problem was anything more than too much imagination.

If someone was in the cabin they would be expecting him to enter through the kitchen door leading onto the garage. Second best guess would be the mud porch entrance which he might use if he had gone around to the back to get firewood or dump something in the trash cans. He used his keys to quietly unlock the front door. He pushed it wide.

It swung open with a yawning sound.

Elliot stayed well to the side to present the smallest possible target and avoid being backlit by the bright moon behind him. A quick scan showed the front room bathed in quicksilver: furniture, rugs, fireplace. All looked perfectly, reassuringly normal.

He pulled the flashlight from his waist belt and advanced into the room, using the hands-apart technique: his gun hand extended, his left holding the flashlight at random heights. He intermittently pressed the tailcap sending short bursts of radiance bouncing across the room. It was a long time since he’d done this and it felt awkward—not to mention silly—but the advantage was it made it difficult for his possible quarry to mark his position. It there was someone waiting for him, the moving light would theoretically draw fire away from his center-of-mass.

The flashlight beam caught and spotlighted the empty rocking chair, the face of the grandfather clock, the painting over the fireplace of the Johnson Farm, the black oblong of the hall entrance.

He proceeded to the hallway. The light illuminated family photos and the staircase at the far end.

Elliot turned the opposite direction and walked toward the kitchen. His empty water glass sat on the counter, a copy of William L. Shea’s Fields of Blood rested on the table where he’d left it that morning before leaving to catch the ferry for the mainland.

No sign of any disturbance. No sign of any intruder.

But Elliot’s unease, his sense of something wrong, was mounting. His scalp crawled with tension, his back and underarms grew damp.

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He stepped into the sunroom, still pressing the flashlight button at irregular intervals and alternating the light position.

At first quick glance the sunroom seemed just as he’d left it. But the next instant the flashlight beam highlighted the half-full crystal wineglass balanced on the edge of the diorama.

Elliot’s heart stopped and then his pulse went into overdrive. He flashed the light around the room, finger quivering on the Glock’s trigger.

No one was there, but an open bottle of Lopez Island merlot sat on the fireplace mantle. It gleamed dully in the overbright glare of the flashlight.

Was anything else was out of place? No. Or was it? He stepped forward, shining the flashlight on the diorama. The diminutive hand painted houses and trees, the miniature gardens and roads popped up in the spotlight. Something was wrong…

JEB Stuart’s entire cavalry unit was gone.

Vanished.

He checked the diorama to see if they had been moved. They had not. The flashlight beam finally picked out what was left of the resin and alloy men and horses crushed and broken in the fireplace grate. Stuart’s small plumed hat winked like a jewel in the ashes.

The mudroom door slammed shut, the bang reverberating through the dark cabin. Elliot spun, the incautious move sending pain flashing through the damaged nerves and muscles of his knee. He ignored it and sprinted for the back of the cabin.

 

EXCERPT: Lambda Literary Award Finalist – DeadFall by David Lennon

Chapter 4

He’d spent the afternoon cleaning and vacuuming. Other than a different floral wallpaper and “brick” linoleum in the kitchen, and shortened drapes in the living room and study, the house hadn’t changed in the thirteen years since he’d been there. He opened a window over the kitchen sink and pressed his right hand against the screen, savoring the feel of the cool evening air against his skin for a moment.

A knock startled him and he spun around. Through the screen door he could see the shoulder of a dark blue shirt and a badge. His heart did an unexpected quickstep as he moved cautiously to the door.

The officer looked to be in his late thirties, though the soft belly swallowing the top of his belt buckle suggested older. His face was unremarkable, his receding hair faded blond. Only his eyes were interesting. They were pale green, watchful.

“Can I help you?” Danny asked.

The officer just stared back. Danny licked his lips and stole a quick glance at the silver nameplate pinned above the right breast pocket: Holtz. An image of mirrored sunglasses and a thick blond mustache flashed in his mind. “Dick Hole,” he whispered involuntarily, then tried to cover it with a cough.

“Nice to see you, too, Danny,” Weston Police Lieutenant Rick Holtz said dryly, then gave a tight smile. “Or is it Dan now?”

“Danny’s fine,” Danny replied. “Sorry about that.”

“It’s okay,” Holtz said. “As I recall, I may have earned the name a few times. I heard you were back in town and just wanted to stop by to say hello. All right if I come in for a minute?”

Danny immediately felt wary, but pushed the door open. Holtz stepped stiffly past him into the hallway, then turned right into the kitchen. He took a look around before turning back to Danny. Danny leaned against the door frame, cradling his left arm across his stomach with his right hand.

“Settling in okay?” Holtz asked.

“Yeah, I guess so.” Danny’s mouth suddenly felt dry. “You want something to drink?”

“Do you have any coffee?”

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Danny shook his head. “Sorry, I don’t drink it.” He felt oddly embarrassed. “I guess I just never acquired the taste.”

“Mommy has a headache. Make mommy some coffee, just the way I showed you.”

“Probably just as well,” Holtz said. “Stains your teeth and rots your gut.” He nodded toward the family room. “Shall we?”

“Yeah, sure,” Danny said uneasily.

Holtz sat on the plaid couch, while Danny took the orange twill recliner by the fireplace. He shook a Marlboro from a pack on the side table, then looked up. “You mind?”

“It’s your house,” Holtz shrugged.

Danny clamped the cigarette between his lips and lit it.

“So is your left arm paralyzed?” Holtz asked. It came across as detached curiosity rather than intrusive.

“No,” Danny replied. “The nerves are okay, but it got busted up pretty badly and the bones fused in this position. By the time I was stable enough for surgery, they would have had to re-break them all. Didn’t seem worth it since no one expected me to wake up.” He looked down and wiggled his fingers. “Maybe some day I’ll get it fixed, but right now I don’t want to see the inside of another hospital for a long time.”

“I’m sure,” Holtz nodded. “So are you planning to stick around for a while?”

“Yeah. Seems like a good place for me right now.”

“Emotionally comfortable,” Holtz offered.

Danny considered it, smirked. “Well, let’s just leave it at emotionally familiar. Plus my mom’s going to need me to cart her around for six months until she gets her license back.”

“When does she get out?”

“Monday.”

Holtz nodded. “I’m sure it’ll be good for her to have you here. I think she got lonely out here by herself.”

The words hung there for a moment, and Danny wondered if he’d imagined a note of blame. He decided to change the subject. “So how long has the Gardners’ house been empty?”

“It’s not,” Holtz said. “Joey lives there.”

Danny blinked back. “It looked abandoned when I drove by.”

“Yeah, he hasn’t exactly kept the place up. I don’t know if anyone told you, but his mother committed suicide a few months after Bryce was killed. Pills. His father has some sort of degenerative brain disease. Joey moved back to take care of him about five years ago but had to put him into a home last year.”

Danny nodded, only half-listening. It hadn’t occurred to him that he might see Joey again, at least not so soon. “Is he married?” he asked. “Any kids?”

Holtz frowned. “I don’t think he’s exactly the marrying kind. He pretty much stays to himself at the house. We see him in town once in a while, though never for long.”

So he’s some kind of freaky homo hermit now?

The neurologist had told Danny “the voice” was just unconscious thought bubbling up from a part of his brain that hadn’t reintegrated with the whole yet. He preferred to think of it as a remnant of his fifteen-year-old self, lurking in some corner of his brain. He found the idea comforting.

“You should stop by and visit,” Holtz said. “I’m sure Joey would appreciate seeing you. And it might be good for both of you.” He looked at a grouping of family photos on the wall above the mantel for a moment, then pushed to his feet with a grunt. “I should get going. I’m sure you still have a lot of unpacking to do, and my wife’s holding dinner for me. Like I said, I just wanted to stop by to say hi.” He paused for a half-second before adding, “Though I would like to sit down and talk with you at some point.”

Danny’s stomach clenched. “Why?”

“I’d like to hear what happened the night you and Bryce were attacked.”

Danny considered just telling the truth—that he didn’t remember anything from that night or the weeks leading up to it—but something in Holtz’s tone struck him as odd. “Why? What does it matter?” he asked. “Tim Walczak’s already in jail.”

Holtz shrugged casually. “You never know. You might remember something that didn’t come out during the original investigation.”

“Like what?” Danny pressed, beginning to feel annoyed.

Holtz smiled as though he’d just discovered Danny was slow. “If I already knew, then there wouldn’t be any reason to talk to you, would there?” Before Danny could reply, Holtz took out his wallet, removed a card, and handed it to him. “Give me a call when you have some time. I’m not on patrol anymore, so I’m usually at the station.” He patted his stomach and offered up a grin that seemed intended as self-effacing. “Or grabbing a bite at Ye Olde Cottage.”

Danny felt the old dislike come rushing back.

Chapter 5

Danny watched the taillights disappear down Cherry Brook, then went back inside and locked the door. He grabbed a Coke from the fridge and lit a cigarette.

He wasn’t sure what to make of Holtz’s visit. Clearly it had been more than just a social call. How had Holtz even known he was back? He’d been in town for less than nine hours and had made only a quick stop at the boutique grocery store that replaced the Triple A Market.

The Holtz he remembered had been petty, insecure, and desperate to have his authority respected. He’d been like the substitute teacher who starts class by warning the kids not to test him or they’ll be sorry. It might have made him dangerous if he hadn’t also been predictable. Danny had always gotten off with a slap on the wrist because it had been so easy to push Holtz’s buttons and get him to undermine his own credibility.

This Holtz seemed outwardly different. More direct, at ease with himself, maybe even thoughtful. Yet Danny had still sensed the old Holtz lurking behind the not-so-shiny new facade, and the visit had definitely felt like a warning shot.

But for what, and why did he need to stop by so soon? It’s been thirteen years. What difference would another few days make?

His thoughts began to move faster.

Or another few years? Walczak’s already in jail, so what does it matter? Why does he want to talk with me at all? I don’t know anything. I didn’t have anything to do with the murders. I was almost killed. But what if he doesn’t believe that? What if he’s been waiting all this time to prove that I was the killer, and…

Danny caught himself and laughed. He took a drag on the cigarette to slow his racing pulse, and shook his head. Or maybe he’s just missed me because he hasn’t had anyone to hassle since I’ve been gone. He cracked the tab on the Coke, took a sip, and headed upstairs.

*****

Though he’d expected to be immersed in his past when he moved back, he hadn’t realized it would be quite so literal. His room was a virtual time capsule. Marantz receiver and Technics turntable still on a low stand under one window, albums neatly arranged beneath. Bookshelves lined with classic adventure and mass market paperbacks. Walls a who’s who of stoner rock—Pink Floyd, Hendrix, the Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Aerosmith, the Allman Brothers, Cream, Skynyrd, Marley. Paint and a new mattress were definitely in the near future, he decided.

He looked at the lone poster over the bed, a stark black and white shot of Robert Plant and Jimmy Page from a 1973 show at the Boston Garden. Plant’s shirt was open, his hips thrust forward, his cock and balls gaudily outlined against his upper thigh. Danny smiled, remembering Caroline staring at the poster with a combination of disapproval and curiosity. How did she not know? he wondered. I hardly ever listened to Led Zeppelin.

She was married to Jerry for seventeen years.

He knelt in front of the stereo and pressed the ON button. After a few seconds the tuner glowed blue. He set the function to FM and slowly turned up the volume. A station promo—“WBCN Boston. The more you listen, the longer it gets.”—segued into the frenetic marimba organ loop of Baba O’Riley.

Guess that hasn’t changed either, he thought. He opened a box and began sorting clothes into the dresser.

The idea of seeing Joey scared him. It wasn’t just the disturbing picture Holtz had painted. What if things between them were too different? Though he knew it would be ridiculous to assume they could pick up like no time had passed, what if there was no connection at all?

He pushed the drawer shut, opened another, and began filling it with socks and underwear. He had a vision of Karl giving him an exasperated look and straightened up the underwear.

He’d never been one of the popular kids or even part of a clique, but he’d always felt like he belonged. It wasn’t just pieces of his memory that were missing. He’d lost that sense of belonging. The world he’d been part of had moved on without him, but he didn’t feel part of this one yet either. Something was missing. He’d hoped he could find it by coming home. Maybe Joey would be part of that.

He pushed the drawer shut and reached into the bottom of the box for the porn magazines Abby had slipped into his bag as a going-away present from Shady Meadows. He already had them pretty much memorized, but couldn’t bear to part with them. He crossed to the nightstand and opened the top drawer. All thoughts of Joey faded.

The drawer was empty save for an oversized white book with horizontal bands of both bright and dark green above blocky hand-drawn type: WESTON 78. It was the yearbook of what should have been his graduating class.

He laid the magazines on the nightstand, sat on the edge of the bed, and took the book out, resting it on his lap. He stared at it for a moment, then ran his fingers over the cover. He felt a tingle run through his body, raising the hair on his arms. He took a deep breath and flipped it open.

The inside cover and fly leaf were covered top to bottom with scrawls of blue and black ink. Danny leaned closer and studied them. There were a few short notes, but mostly signatures. He recognized nearly all the names, and felt a lump form in his throat. He looked self-consciously into the hallway as though Caroline might be watching.

He turned the page. On the right was a photo from his last Christmas morning, proudly modeling the fleece-collared Levi jacket Caroline had gotten him. His long sandy hair was disheveled and his eyes still a little puffy with sleep, but he looked genuinely happy. He was sure it was the only choice Caroline had given the yearbook committee. She’d told him it was her favorite photo of him because he was always sweetest in the morning, before he remembered to be a teenage boy.

Across the top of the page it read DEDICATION, and just above the photo, To Our Friend Danny Tyler. Below it, We Miss You. Love, The Class of 1978.

Danny began to cry.

 

Excerpt: Lambda Finalist in Lesbian Mystery: The Acquittal by Anne Laughlin

THE ACQUITTAL

  • 1 •

CHAPTER ONE

Friday, February 15

Lauren flipped on the kitchen lights and saw the body of her lover sprawled at her feet, a bullet hole centered on her forehead. She knelt and felt for Kelly’s pulse. There was no need, really, since half of her head appeared to be stuck to the breakfast room wall. The body was still warm, the smell of the gunshot still fresh in the air. Kelly’s glorious hair was fanned out and drenched in blood. Her arms and legs were shooting out at curious angles, so at odds with the graceful woman she’d been. Lauren had to turn away. She saw her own revolver on the floor a few feet from the body. When she touched it she could feel it was still warm as well.

A tremendous clatter came from the hallway behind her, booming in the dead quiet. Lauren grabbed the revolver and shot blindly, splintering a kitchen cabinet. All was quiet for a moment before her cat came rocketing out of the doorway, galloped across the family room, and flew onto the fireplace mantel. She licked herself furiously. Lauren dropped the gun where she found it.

She sat next to the body and watched a small rivulet of blood make its way toward her, heedless of the ridiculously expensive business suit she wore. Kelly had given it to her as a gift. She was quite generous that way, as long as she was using Lauren’s credit card. She felt guilty thinking ill of Kelly. The things she complained about were the very things she’d found charming about her when they first got together.

The gift buying, the elaborate care she took of herself, the relentless cheerfulness morphed over time into reckless spending, shallowness, and inability to take anything seriously. They’d had a bad fight about her spending that morning.

But Lauren felt real sorrow. They’d been together a number of years. There’d been many good times. She stood and reached into her bag for her phone. She dialed 911 and then went to see if the cat was okay.

 CHAPTER TWO

Friday, September 6

The paint was barely dry on the walls when Josie Harper’s first client walked through her office door. Josie sat cross-legged on the floor of the reception room, trying to put together an Ikea chair. She hadn’t expected any business her first day, but now an exceedingly tall woman was standing with one hand on her door, reading the words stenciled on the glass—Josie Harper, Private Investigations.

Josie got up from the floor. She was shoeless and wore a tattered Led Zeppelin T-shirt and blue jeans. She was dressed for back-room assembly, not front-room sales.

“Can I help you?” Josie said. She could feel a flush of color move up her face.

“I’m Sarah DeAngeles. I have an appointment with Stan Waterman. I think his office is past yours.”

Sarah appeared to be in her thirties, good-looking, if your preferences ran to cheerleader faces and ponytails. Josie’s did not. She watched Sarah’s eyes as they traveled from her ancient ball cap, past her old 501s, down to her polka-dot socks. They might as well have been different species.

“Sure, I know Stan,” Josie said. He ran Shield Detectives down the hall.

“When I saw your name on the door I decided to come in,” Sarah said. “I’d much rather work with a woman on this matter.”

“Naturally,” Josie said. She had no idea what the matter was, but was happy to take advantage over a PI with more experience than her—a group that included every PI in Chicago.

“Is this a good time to talk?” Sarah said.

“Of course. Let’s go into my office.”

Sarah took a minute to cancel her appointment with Stan Waterman before following Josie through the Ikea detritus and into her office.

The window faced east toward Lake Michigan. The light streamed over the desk and visitor chairs that were fortunately assembled and ready for business. The rest of the room was a mess. Josie’s laminated wood desk would be peeling in a year’s time. It was littered with office supplies still in shrink wrap. Josie could see the wary look in Sarah’s eye as she took the chair in front of her desk.

“I’m sorry things are such a mess. Setting up an office is a real pain,” Josie said.

“But you’ve been in business for a while?”

“I was a cop for over ten years. I’ve been doing investigations for a long time.” Josie felt that was true, depending on what definition of “long” was being used. Or “investigations,” for that matter. She’d been a property crimes detective for a couple of years before leaving the department. “Why don’t you tell me what brings you here?”

“I’m a member of the board of directors for Wade-Fellows Publishing. Our president and editor-in-chief was recently acquitted of murdering her partner. We need help clearing her name and I’ve been put in charge of that effort,” Sarah said.

It took a moment for the words to sink in and Josie felt a twinge of panic. Murder? It didn’t seem possible her first case would involve murder. And Sarah hadn’t delivered the statement with the right amount of gravitas. She sounded like she was inquiring about getting new carpet for her home.

The Acqittal 300 DPI

“What did you say?” Josie said. She’d placed her hands flat on her desk and leaned slightly forward.

“You sound surprised. Haven’t you handled murder cases before?” Sarah said.

“Not as a private investigator. You won’t find many of us who have.” Josie didn’t want to tell Sarah that Stan Waterman was one of the few PIs with actual homicide experience. Hell, he was a former homicide detective.

“Then you have at least two things in your favor,” Sarah said. “You’re female and you have police experience. Should I tell you the story now?”

“Please.”

Sarah got herself settled in her chair. Apparently she was one of those women who constantly drink water. She’d already taken several long pulls from the bottle she’d walked in with. She dropped her bag to the floor and took another swig before shrugging out of an expensive high-tech climbing jacket Josie doubted would ever brush up against a mountain.

“Are you familiar with the Lauren Wade case?” she began.

“Not really. I’ve heard her name on the news once or twice.”

“It’s unusual for a woman to be accused of murdering her female lover. I’d have thought it would grab your attention.”

“Why would you say that?” Josie asked.

Sarah cocked her head to one side. “Am I getting this wrong? I read you as lesbian. I was thinking that I’d gotten very lucky when I walked through your door.”

Was she that obvious? Josie thought of herself as average. Average height and weight, average face. Not average lesbian. Simply average.

“For the record,” Sarah said. “I am too. But you probably guessed that.”

No, she hadn’t. She would have lost a lot of money on that bet.

“So your company is concerned?” Josie prompted.

“Yes, of course. Having our top executive arrested for anything would be of concern to the board, especially a murder charge. But Wades have always been at the head of the company; Lauren Wade is naturally given a lot of leeway before action would be taken against her by the board.”

“But she was acquitted,” Josie said.

“The board thinks that still leaves the question of whether she committed the murder hanging in the air. There was no evidence that she didn’t do it. The jury simply felt the prosecution didn’t meet their burden of proof. There are plenty of people in the business world who think she may be guilty.” Sarah looked hurt at that opinion, as if it reflected on her personally.

“Why is that a concern?” Josie asked. “The system says she’s not guilty.”

Sarah looked at Josie as if she’d just said something odd. Or stupid. “Obviously there are authors and companies who will refuse to do business with us.”

Josie shrugged. “What about the police? Won’t they be trying to catch the real killer?” Josie knew that was unlikely. Once someone’s acquitted, the file’s unofficially closed. The police always think they got it right the first time.

“I’m sure they think they already have. We’re not counting on further action from the police. We want you to identify the killer.”

Josie pulled a notebook out of her bag and wrote Lauren Wade’s name on a fresh page. The pages before it were filled with notes from when she was a police detective. “What’s your relationship with Lauren Wade?”

She’d been reading books on how to be a private investigator. One stressed the importance of knowing your client’s true motivation.

Sarah, however, seemed taken aback by the question. “Why do you need to know that?”

“It’s pretty basic information. Is there some reason you don’t want to tell me?” Josie said.

Out came the bottle of water again. Sarah appeared to be buying some time by taking a long drink. Finally she capped the bottle.

“Initially, Lauren and I had a strictly business relationship, which goes back a few years now. In addition to sitting on the board, I also publish books with Wade-Fellows. We’re not best friends or anything, but we’ve had enough meals together to say the relationship goes beyond business.”

“Did you urge the board to fund this investigation?” Josie said.

“I don’t know why you’re questioning my motives,” Sarah said, sounding a little annoyed. “I’m trying to help her, not harm her.”

Josie didn’t want to lose her first client before she even got started, so she backed off. “Why don’t you tell me the story and we can figure out where to go from there.”

Sarah relaxed and sat back in her chair. “I know a little about Lauren’s relationship with Kelly. They’d been together for five years when Kelly was murdered, and from what Lauren told me they were happy.”

“When did she tell you this?” Josie had zero experience in happy relationships.

“It was several weeks before Kelly was killed. They’d just finished redoing their house. I don’t think you do a renovation when your relationship’s on the rocks.”

“Why not?” Josie said. “People have babies to try to save relationships.”

“True, but Lauren seemed genuinely excited. I got the impression they were a pretty solid couple. It turns out there was trouble. But I’ll get to that.”

She didn’t think Sarah had been unhappy to hear Lauren and Kelly’s relationship was shaky.

“Tell me about the murder,” Josie said.

“You’ll find all this in the trial transcript, which I’ll give you, but the bare facts are Lauren came home around eight thirty on February fifteenth and found Kelly dead on the kitchen floor. She’d been shot through the head. When the police arrived they discovered Lauren’s own revolver next to the body and no sign of forced entry anywhere in the house. The gun had been recently fired and they found powder residue on Lauren’s hands. They took her in for questioning and then charged her with the murder.”

“How did Lauren explain the gun and the residue?”

Sarah leaned forward. “That’s what’s so weird about this whole thing. Lauren wouldn’t say anything at all to the police.”

“You mean she requested a lawyer?”

“No, she refused a lawyer. She wouldn’t say anything to defend herself. The detectives and their lieutenant took her refusal to answer questions as tantamount to a confession. They felt they had enough to charge her.”

Josie was drawing question marks in her notebook. “Tell me more about Lauren’s work.”

“Wade-Fellowes Publishing is an old family company. They produce hobby and lifestyle books,” Sarah said. She sounded very formal. “I write crafts books and publish with them, which is how I first knew Lauren. I joined the board only recently. I was scheduled to have a business lunch with her the day after her arrest and I had to call her office several times to find out why it was canceled. None of her staff would say anything, but one referred me to the Tribune’s website, where the story was breaking. Everyone was stunned, of course,” Sarah made this sound like she spoke for the nation.

“I left Lauren’s assistant a message with the name of the criminal defense attorney recommended by our general counsel, but I didn’t know at the time she was refusing counsel. Lauren eventually ended up using that lawyer. I was touched she took my advice.”

Josie looked up from her notebook. She saw Sarah had a little color on her cheeks. Even a PI with Josie’s limited experience could see she had a thing for Lauren, and the crush, or whatever it was, was probably enough to convince Sarah of Lauren’s innocence.

“The trial only took a few days,” Sarah continued, “and most of that was jury selection. Lauren didn’t take the stand. All her lawyer could do was argue the evidence was insufficient to meet the beyond-a reasonable-doubt standard.”

“Why do you think Lauren didn’t testify?” Josie found Lauren’s silence the most disturbing thing about the story. How could she help someone who didn’t want to be helped?

“I really don’t know,” Sarah said. “I haven’t had any contact with her other than sending her the attorney’s name. She refused to see me when I went to Cook County Jail for a visit.”

“So far I don’t see how Lauren got acquitted.”

“I think it was due to Nancy Prewitt, Lauren’s lawyer, who gave an amazing closing. She pointed out what I think the jury already thought—the prosecution had done a half-assed job and the police investigation may have been worse. The jury couldn’t see past the fact Lauren was unlikely to be stupid enough to shoot Kelly with her own gun and then leave it next to the body before calling the police.”

“The prosecution didn’t offer anything else at trial?”

Sarah looked uncomfortable. “The only other thing that came out was Kelly was having an affair with another woman and Lauren had recently found out about it. That’s what I meant about Kelly and Lauren not being as happy as I thought they were.”

It also gave Lauren a whopping motive. Josie contemplated what to say next. The case seemed tremendously fucked up and probably nothing but trouble. But it was a paying case—if she could manage to get hired.

“Have you considered the possibility my investigation may prove Lauren did murder Kelly?” Josie asked.

Sarah looked unconcerned. “There’s no downside. Lauren can’t be retried for the same crime. And after all, that’s the information the company wants an investigator to find.”

“True, but perhaps it’s something you’d rather not know.”

Sarah waved that away. “I’m not worried about it. I don’t believe for a minute she’d hurt anyone. But you can see how murky the whole thing is and why it’s important to remove that doubt.”

Josie couldn’t, really. She’d think Sarah would thank her lucky stars for the acquittal and leave it at that. It seemed Lauren had.

“I can check on the status of the police investigation,” Josie said. “I have contacts in homicide.” She thought that should impress Sarah.

“What does Lauren think of this effort of yours? She doesn’t seem very interested in keeping her name untarnished.”

Sarah fiddled with her water bottle. “She doesn’t know anything about it.”

Josie stopped writing and looked up, careful to take the sarcasm out of her voice. “You want me to find the person who killed Lauren’s girlfriend, presuming it’s not Lauren herself, without her knowledge? Won’t she know the board hired an investigator?”

“We’re not volunteering the information, but we’re aware she’ll find out as soon as the investigator starts interviewing people.” She paused. “You sound like you may believe she’s guilty. I need you to be on board.”

Josie didn’t believe in causes. She believed in paychecks and getting the job done. She stole a look at her watch. She was going to be late for her therapy appointment.

“I have an appointment I need to get to, so we’ll have to stop here. I have to think about this before I can agree to take your case.”

“Of course. And I’ve not yet decided whether to hire you,” Sarah said. She pulled a thick file out of her bag and pushed it across the desk. “You’d find most of this on the Internet, I imagine, but I’ll save you the time of looking it up. These are the media reports and trial transcript. Maybe you could read them and we’ll meet again tomorrow morning.”

Josie looked at the file skeptically. She wasn’t a particularly fast reader. She’d just finished the Lord of the Rings trilogy and that took forever. This was a very thick file. “I could meet you back here at four tomorrow afternoon. That’ll have to do.”

Sarah rose and put on her jacket. “Fine. I assume all this will remain confidential?”

“Of course.”

There was a hint of a smile on Sarah’s lips as she turned away and left the office. Josie took a moment to whisper a thank-you for the possibility of a paycheck and another thank-you for all the medications that made it possible for her to take on this case. She grabbed the Lauren Wade file, found her shoes, and hurried to her fifty minutes of torture.