Linda Rodriguez’s third Skeet Bannion novel, Every Hidden Fear, releases today from Minotaur Books. Her second Skeet mystery, Every Broken Trust, was a selection of Las Comadres National Latino Book Club and is currently a finalist for both the International Latino Book Award and the Premio Aztlan Literary Prize. Her first Skeet novel, Every Last Secret, which won the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition, was a Barnes & Noble mystery pick and a finalist for the International Latino Book Award. Her short story, “The Good Neighbor,” which appeared in Kansas City Noir (Akashic Books), has been optioned for film. For her books of poetry, Skin Hunger and Heart’s Migration, Rodriguez received numerous awards and fellowships, including the Midwest Voices and Visions Award, Thorpe Menn Award, Elvira Cordero Cisneros Award, and Macondo and Ragdale Fellowships. She is immediate past president of the Borders Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime, founding board member of Latino Writers Collective and The Writers Place, and a member of Wordcraft Circle of Native American Writers and Storytellers, Kansas City Cherokee Community, and International Thriller Writers. Find Linda on Twitter, on Facebook, and at The Stiletto Gang blog, Writers Who Kill, and Linda Rodriguez Writes.
Excerpt from Every Hidden Fear
© Linda Rodriguez 2014
I shook off the sadness the encounter caused as I entered the dark, fragrant interior of the Clubhouse Restaurant with a crush of people, most of them coming in off the links after playing rounds of golf. I wouldn’t let it ruin my day. I looked forward to hearing what Pearl Brewster had to say. I liked old Pearl, and no one knew this town her great-great-grandfather had founded better than she did.
In front of me as we moved through the walnut-paneled halls, some of the town politicos chatted with the local sensation, wealthy developer Ash Mowbray, who’d apparently played a round of golf with them. Ash had one of those big, deep voices that dominate a whole room, as if the owner never learned as a child how to use his indoor voice.
“Don’t tell me it’s a cinch if it isn’t, Harvey,” he blared. “You’re the mayor. You should know whether you have the votes or not.”
I noticed poor old Harvey Peebles turn a sickly shade of yellow as he looked up and rushed to reassure the much-taller Ash in a smaller, more civil voice.
Behind me, someone set a gentle hand on my shoulder, and I turned directly into Terry Heldrich’s chest, covered in a dark T-shirt under a battered leather bomber jacket. Immediately, I bounced away in embarrassment, brushing off his hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking down at me with a grin that gave the lie to his words. It lit up his dark eyes above those cheekbones other men might have paid for, if they could have. “Didn’t mean to startle you. I just wanted to say hello.”
His employer, Walker Lynch, swept past us imperiously in another group of golfers without a break in his conversation even when they were directed to a table.
“Hello,” I said. “You’d better catch up to your party. Your boss may want you for something.”
Terry knew I didn’t approve of who he worked for and what he might or might not be doing for Walker, but he kept showing up in my path anyway. I had to give him points for perseverance, if not sensitivity.
I could tell the first time we met that he was nothing but trouble for any woman, especially me. When we had to run background checks on him as part of a murder investigation, we kept coming up blank. He had a military special-forces background that was classified before he did some mercenary work that also seemed classified and then some government work that was—guess what?
He should have disappeared back to Kansas City shortly after that, but to my dismay, Terry rented an apartment in Brewster and commuted to the city—like a growing number of people. Brewster was in danger of becoming just another Kansas City bedroom community and losing its charm and identity.
Annette waved at me from the bar, tall enough that I could see her red head over the crowd. I knew the shorter Miryam and Pearl must be with her.
“There’s my party. I’d better be going, and so had you.” I started out toward my friends.
“Skeet,” Terry called as I pushed on through the crush of people in the lobby. I turned toward him. His grin had subsided into a tight-lipped smile. “I’m still expecting you. To come see my new apartment. Have you lost the address?”
I shook my head. “I haven’t lost your address. I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.”
He laughed out loud, throwing his head back. “But that’s the wonder of it. You are so very not me.” He brushed the tip of his hat in salute, and I marched away from him to where Annette and the others stood waiting.
I could feel him staring at me, a heated area between my shoulder blades where his eyes rested. He thought he was so funny—and so hot. I’d continue to ignore him, and he’d eventually take the hint and leave me alone.
“Pearl, how are you?” I asked as I reached my destination. I learned at Gran’s knee that you always greet elders first. Among the Cherokee, elders are highly respected and valued. Not the way most American society functions. I figured when I got old I’d better move back down to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to live where I’d still count for something.
“I’m doing well, Skeet. Well enough to be sorry I haven’t just played a round of golf.” Pearl was only six or seven years younger than my grandmother, but like Gran, she was physically fit and active, more so than a lot of her younger colleagues. They just made women tougher in those days, I think. Pearl entered a lot of golf tournaments where she was a prized partner because her teams usually tended to win or come in high in the running.
“Annette. Miryam. How are you guys?” I smiled at them, a little uncomfortable as they both hugged me. We’re good friends, but I’ve never been much of a hugger or cheek-kisser. Not a lot of call for that as a police officer.
“Great, Skeet,” Miryam said with a flip of her blond curls. I knew most of the male eyes in the room would be focused on Miryam, and so did she. “Looking forward to having lunch with you and hearing what Pearl wants to rope us all into now.”
Pearl called over a waiter and arranged for our table. Within a few seconds, the waiter came back and led us to a table at the back of the dining room by the windows that overlooked the river, a prime location thanks to Pearl’s status in town. Unfortunately, it was directly next to the big table where the politicians and Ash sat.
On the other side of Ash’s table sat Bea Roberts, owner of Aunt Bea’s Antiques and Collectibles, with Peter Hume, owner of Creative Home Design, and his young companion, Dante Marcus. That was a bad juxtaposition. Bea and Peter were very vocal leaders of the opposition to Ash Mowbray’s plans to build a huge shopping mall (financed in large part by Walker Lynch) out by the wealthy Wickbrook neighborhood. Bea and Peter both owned shops on Brewster’s courthouse square, as did Miryam, and all three believed that Ash’s development would destroy the square and all its stores.
Bea had run against Harvey Peebles for mayor and barely lost to him. She was revving up for another campaign, determined to defeat him, especially after he fell right in with Ash’s mall plans. Peter, who’d always seemed a quiet, laid-back guy before, had transformed into an enraged, aggressive quarreler once Ash appeared to be finding traction for his project. I knew with those two tables of enemies right next to each other, someone wouldn’t have an enjoyable meal, and I was afraid it might be us.
In fact, Harvey looked downright sick as Bea and Peter glared at him, though Ash himself seemed oblivious. The two city council members with Harvey, Professor Aldo Lutz and Ian Parguenter, fidgeted and shifted in their seats, as well.
“This is my treat,” said Pearl as she opened her menu. “So order something you’ve always wanted.”
“Oh, my.” Annette chuckled. “You must be planning on seducing us into a hell of a lot of work, Pearl.”
We all began to consider our menus and make our choices.
“Everything’s so fattening,” Miryam complained.
“Nonsense! You’re not a model or actress anymore. You don’t have to adhere to those stupid, unhealthy diets any longer.” Pearl shook her head vigorously. “Eat something so you can build muscle. Like Skeet here. You won’t age well, if you don’t.”
Miryam opened her mouth to defend herself, but was overridden by Bea’s angry voice.
“You’re just letting him buy this town, Harvey. Lock, stock, and barrel. What happened to your backbone? Or don’t estate lawyers have one? Can’t you stand up to Ash Mowbray and Mr. Deep Pockets Lynch behind him? What happened to your principles? Or didn’t you ever really have any to start with?”
“Now, Bea. That’s uncalled for.” Harvey’s voice sounded almost like a bleat. “Besides, this isn’t the place for that. We’re not here on business. Just having lunch after a game of golf.”
A waiter hovered between the two tables, making calming gestures.
“And how many of your fellow citizens did you sell out during this game of golf?” Peter demanded. “How much did they slip into your pocket to betray our interests?”
“That’s just out of line, Peter,” said Aldo Lutz in the voice of a professor calling a student onto the carpet. “You, too, Bea. You don’t agree with the position Harvey and the rest of us are taking. You’ve made that clear. Honest people can disagree on the issue. But don’t throw personal accusations around like that. You’re verging on slander there.”
“Yes,” Harvey agreed in a small voice.
“Oh, it’s just the old town elite carrying on in its death throes.” Ash’s big voice boomed out into the room. “Modern times call for modern solutions—and modern men.” He grinned as he held up his hands, as if to show off himself as an example of the modern man.
“I don’t like that man Walker’s brought to town,” muttered Miryam under her breath as the hostess decorously headed in the direction of the trouble.
“You don’t have to worry about these toothless old relics, Harvey and Aldo.” Ash waved his hand as if brushing away a mosquito or gnat. “Just ignore them. They’ll wither away in no time. Their day is long past, and deep inside, they know it.”
A wordless squeal of rage burst from Bea’s mouth. I stared as her face turned red and swelled. I wondered if she would have a stroke or heart attack on the spot.
“You! I remember you, Ashton Mowbray!” Bea’s voice was loud with a hard, mean ring to it. “Son of a drug dealing crook and a drunken whore. A charity case all your life. We all remember who you are. White trash of the worst sort. A bad seed. You ran away from here where people knew who you were, but you couldn’t leave that behind. You still carry your dirtiness with you, no matter how much money you have now.”
“What’s she talking about?” I whispered to Pearl, who always knew all the gossip in town.
Pearl frowned. “Ash Mowbray grew up here, like she said. Poor. With worthless parents. The only thing he ever had going for him was his athletic prowess.”
Ash’s self-satisfied smirk faded as Bea’s words shot out. His mouth set in a hard line. The politicians at his table all looked aghast.
“You crusty old bitch!” Ash’s voice blared out so loudly that the entire dining room turned to stare. The hostess was hurrying to reach the back of the dining room now. “Don’t forget, I know the secrets of this crummy town, too. I know which upstanding citizens liked a little dope from my old man or a little slap and tickle from my mom—and which old ladies liked a young boy’s body in their beds after he mowed their lawns and got all hot and sweaty.” Bea gasped, and her eyes widened in shock at his words. “Better keep your mouth shut, old woman, or you’ll get more than you bargain for.”
At that moment, I’d have been glad for Joe’s presence, so I wouldn’t have had to try to keep the peace. But since I’d turned him down for lunch, he wasn’t around. I sighed and stood up. “None of this stuff from Bea or you does anyone any good, Ash. Let’s just shut it down. You’re both disturbing the peace.”
“You’re picking the wrong team, Skeet Bannion,” Ash said in a threatening manner. “These old bigwigs are on the way down. They’re crashing, and if you side with them, you’ll crash with them.”
“I’m not siding with anyone, Ash.” I kept my voice emotionless. “I’m just trying to get all of you to settle down and let everyone else in the restaurant have a pleasant lunch. But if you and your friends would rather I call out the city cops, I can always do that.”
I looked over at Harvey and his councilmen, who were shaking their heads and waving their hands wildly in negation. “That what you want me to do, Harvey?”
“No, Skeet. No! There’s no need for anything like that.” Harvey turned in appeal to Ash.
“We don’t need any trouble just now. Right, Ash?”
Ash smiled. It transformed his whole face. “I’m not one to cause trouble, Harvey. You know that.” Then, he shot a suddenly hateful glance at Bea and Peter. “But if trouble comes, I’ll always be the only guy who walks off the field at the end. My motto is take no prisoners. All you old-timers should remember that from my football days.”
By this time, Harvey and Aldo each had one of Ash’s big arms in their hands as they seemed to be begging him to behave. It was amazing the crap people would put up with from someone with lots of money.
As the hostess arrived, breathless, Peter threw down his napkin and stood. “If we have to sit here and be threatened by this piece of trailer trash, I’m leaving. Come on, Dante. We can find some place to eat with a higher quality clientele.”
“That’s not necessary, sir,” the hostess said. “I can move your table to the other side of the dining room if this person is bothering you.”
“I don’t want to leave, Peter,” Dante said. “And I don’t want another table. I like this one with the view of the river, thank you very much.”
In frustration, Peter turned to the hostess. “Why do you have to move us when this cretin is the problem?” He pointed at Ash. “Why don’t you move—or remove—him?”
“Peter, you and Bea started this whole shouting match.” Aldo Lutz stood now, as well. He turned to Harvey and the others. “I think we’d all better leave and find another place where we can eat in peace.” Harvey and Ian Parguenter nodded and stood, as well, shoving back their chairs.
“And sell out your fellow citizens?” Bea asked with curled lip.
“Are you coming with us, Ash?” Harvey asked, and Ash shrugged and moved out from the table to join them.
“It’s not necessary for anyone to leave,” the hostess said in desperation. “We can rearrange the seating. This is a large restaurant.”
“Let’s go,” said Ash, and the three politicos followed him toward the front door.
Miryam looked troubled as we all watched them file out of the restaurant. Her hand shook when she picked up her glass of water.
“Are you all right, sweetie?” Annette asked, as Miryam soaked up water from the tablecloth with her napkin.
Pearl smiled. “She’s probably just a little stunned, that’s all. So much anger. Almost a violence in the air.”
Miryam nodded. “You’re probably an empath like me, Pearl. I’m full of toxic energy now from that scene. That Ash Mowbray is the most hostile creature I’ve ever encountered. Leave it to Walker Lynch to bring such a beastly guy to town.” She looked up at me. “Maybe we should leave, too, Skeet. I think I need to lie down away from all this negative influence.”
Pearl seemed about to disagree when she looked at Miryam, who really did look distressed. “You don’t look well, dear. I suspect you’re right. It’s probably put us all off our feed. We’ll just reschedule and try to make sure none of those idiots battling over the mall are around when we do.”
Annette stood. “That’s fine, Pearl. Do you want a ride home?”
Pearl stood slowly, and I was reminded that she was almost as old as Gran. “Yes, if you don’t mind. I don’t really feel like walking, after all that. Isn’t it amazing how emotional outbursts can take more out of you than physical exertion?”
Miryam stood, as well, and moved to offer Pearl a little support at her elbow.
“I’m sorry this messed up your lunch party, Pearl.” I looked at the table with its menus still spread out on it.
The old woman shrugged and gave me a tight little smile. “I’ll just set up another one to finagle you all into my little project. Don’t worry. You won’t escape me.” She turned, seeming slightly more fragile than usual, and Miryam and Annette walked with her toward the door.
I couldn’t blame Miryam and Pearl. All the shouting and threats left everyone unsettled, even me, and I was used to them—just not in peaceful little Brewster. Ash Mowbray obviously had some grudges against the town, and he seemed determined to cause as much trouble as he could as a way of getting a little of his own back from the town which had obviously looked down on him in his younger days. I thought of the hate in Bea’s voice, the rage in Peter’s, and the threat in Ash’s. Ash had come back intending to stir things up, apparently, and he was definitely getting his wish. A dangerous wish, it seemed to me.
Linda Rodriguez is adept at handling multiple layers of Brewster’s cultural and political interactions. What keeps this large cast of characters from running together in the reader’s mind? Have you read her other books?