To Bruce. Just Bruce.
I’m so glad you like that I’m no angel.
OF ALL THE PLEASURES in the life of Mortimer Potts, he’d have to call being the patriarch of a small Pennsylvania town among the finest. In the single year that he’d been living in Trouble, having purchased the bulk of it to save it from bankruptcy, he’d watched the place emerge from its cloak of depression the way a pretty flower might pop out amid a field of weeds and scrub. Not fully in bloom yet, it merely offered a hint at the color curled within its tightly wound petals. Observing it blossom had become his favorite pastime.
But the town wasn’t his greatest pleasure. It couldn’t compare, say, to spending time with his family—his grandsons and new granddaughter-in-law. Or having an eighty-one-year-old body that could perform all its necessary functions without benefit of odious amounts of fiber or Viagra. At least, most of the time. There had been that one occasion with the Feeney sisters when he’d discovered what the hoopla over that little blue pill was all about. It was a wonder his heart had survived the unexpected adventure. Still, watching the town emerge from its sleep was infinitely better than needing the obituaries to see who he’d outlived.
“I heard that sigh,” a disapproving voice said, the clipped British accent unaltered by decades of life in the U.S. “You’re thinking of those wretched sisters again, aren’t you? Either that or the time we rescued the harem in forty-six.”
Mortimer smiled in reminiscence. “A noble adventure.”
Roderick, his manservant—and best friend—sniffed, the same supercilious sound of disapproval he’d made since the day they’d met. “I doubt the sheikh would have been so quick with his golden reward if he knew how many of his wives thanked you personally.”
Ahh, yes. He did enjoy being thanked.
His fond memories quickly faded, Roderick’s words suddenly making him feel very old. Gone were his journeys to other continents, where he and his majordomo had been freewheeling adventurers. Or even, in his later years, where they’d been freewheeling parents, the two of them raising Mortimer’s grandsons.
Having lived life as a citizen of the world, he’d seen no reason to bring the boys up any other way. So while other youngsters their age studied faraway places by reading about them in textbooks in stuffy schoolrooms, his grandsons were visiting those spots.
Now, however, there were no more adventures. No more trips to other continents. If he were foolish enough to get on a horse today, he’d be more likely to break a hip than to win a race across the desert.
“Is everything prepared for Michael’s arrival?”
Roderick nodded. “Right down to his favorite dish.” His brow scrunching in disgust, he added, “Chili. How very—”
“Don’t tell me, let me guess,” Mortimer replied, his tone dry. “Pedestrian?” It was one of Roderick’s favorite words.
“I was going to say uninspiring.”
“No, you weren’t.”
“You can’t read my mind, Mortimer.”
Chuckling, Mortimer said, “I know you well enough to know how it must have pained you to shop for canned kidney beans.”
Rod laid one hand on Mortimer’s broad, oak desk and leaned over, as if exhausted. “You’ve no idea. It is impossible to purchase fresh chili peppers, or even cumin, in this town. I had to settle for a few of those dried-up, yellow envelopes full of mystery spice.” He sounded as disgruntled as if he’d been forced to substitute Chicken of the Sea for beluga.
“How very pedestrian,” Mortimer murmured, purposely gazing at his paper, though he saw Roderick puff up like a porcupine out of the corner of his eye.
What a funny, prickly man. And the truest friend anyone could ever ask for. They’d been together since the Second World War, crossing the globe in search of adventure. Mortimer’s family money and high spirits had led the way while Roderick’s common sense had kept them out of trouble. Well, it hadn’t kept them out of trouble, but it certainly had extricated them from a few…tricky…situations.
Even when the occasional marriage had divided them, they’d remained close, and Rod had been the first person a widowed Mortimer had called when he’d experienced the second great loss of his life—the death of his daughter. As always, the stoic Englishman had come to his side, stepping forward with Mortimer to parent three orphaned little boys, who’d lost their father less than a year before in the first Gulf War.
“The point is,” Rod said, as usual changing the subject when he was losing an argument, “Michael has developed horrifyingly middle-class tastes.”
Mortimer smiled, lifting his drink to his lips, eyeing the amber-colored whiskey and suddenly wishing he’d helped himself to one of the beers he’d put on ice for his grandson. “Yes, he has, but considering he is a New York City police officer, I’d say that’s probably appropriate.”
“A police officer.” Roddy couldn’t have sounded more disdainful if Michael had decided to become one of those male go-go dancers. “If he had to go into law enforcement, couldn’t he at least have gone into the MI5?”
Grunting, Mortimer lowered his drink, still wanting that beer. “Aside from the fact that he’s an American, not a Brit, and would therefore have been more likely to choose the CIA, my grandson could never be a spy. He’s far too noble.”
Roderick’s eyebrows rose until they almost blended in with his gray hair. “The boy’s the toughest fighter I’ve ever seen.”
Well, yes, he was that. The youngest of Mortimer’s three grandsons had reacted differently to the loss of his parents than his brothers had. Morgan, the oldest, had become an adventurer, much like his grandfather. Max, before settling down with his new wife last year, had been a playboy, with women dogging his every step.
Michael, though…He’d grown hard. Tough. Self-protective. And the boy did have a bit of a temper. Mortimer suppressed a chuckle, remembering the time he’d bailed his teenage grandson out of jail. He’d been arrested for brawling with three boys who’d made the mistake of harassing a young lady Michael liked. A born protector, that one. “He needs a good woman, that’s all.”
“Surely you’ve learned your lesson about matchmaking.” Roderick managed to sound both scandalized and interested by the idea. “Hasn’t the woeful expression on the face of your secretary been enough to cure you of such impulses?”
Hmm…true. His latest effort had backfired. When Allie, his assistant, had left here an hour ago, she’d seemed very blue over her botched summer romance. “Perhaps Allie and Michael…”
“No. He’d chew her up and pick his teeth with her bones.”
Roderick was probably right.
“Michael needs someone much tougher.” Slowly pouring himself a drink and sitting in the leather chair opposite Mortimer’s, Roderick pursed his mouth in concentration. “Someone smart. Independent. A woman who won’t let him dominate her. Who will stand up for herself. Someone…”
“I was going to say strong. Self-confident.”
“Yes, yes,” Mortimer said, waving an airy hand, “but sly. One who’ll humor Michael’s need to protect her, never letting on that she doesn’t really need protecting. You do know how much he likes taking care of people.”
“Taking care of women,” Roderick said with a sigh.
Yes, Michael did do a lot of that, especially since he’d become a police officer. But something had happened to the boy a few years ago, involving two women. His grandson had gone from a smiling good guy with a mildly quick temper to a brooding good guy with a lightning-fast one.
A good man in a fight. While Maxwell was the grandson Mortimer would have loved to have with him when he’d entertained a half-dozen ladies of the evening in a dingy, shadowy Bangkok bar, Michael was the one he’d have loved to have at his back in the alley behind that bar later that night. When the ladies’ protectors had tried to relieve him of his belongings.
They hadn’t succeeded. But they had left Mortimer with an interesting, half moon-shaped scar on his shoulder. One of many.
As for Morgan…He’d have liked to have had him along when he’d been forced to claw his way out of an ancient tomb in Oman, where he’d been walled up for smiling at the wrong sultan’s wife.
“I suppose I cannot talk you out of this?”
Mortimer stared at his friend. “Were you trying to?”
The other man flushed slightly, then shrugged, giving up all pretense. “No. I don’t like to see him so hardened…. He needs to find something more for his life.”
“So we’re agreed.” Like Roderick, Mortimer wanted to see that smile return to Michael’s face. No, he would never become a prankster like his brother Max. But there was no reason for Michael to go through life with his guard always up. “He needs someone who will make him stop taking himself so seriously.”
“But he won’t go into that willingly,” Roderick said. “We’ll have to make him think things are very serious indeed.”
Lifting his glass again, Mortimer tried not to laugh. “Are you saying we’re partners in this sly, matchmaking venture?”
Shaking his head so hard a strand of graying hair fell over one eye, Roddy stood. “That is your purview.” He headed to the door, but before leaving, looked over his shoulder. “Though I suppose I can be counted upon to…supervise.”
Mortimer hid his triumphant smile.
Roderick continued, “Now, where do you think we’ll find this completely contradictory strong/weak, intelligent/dim, exciting/calming, tough/loving woman?”
When put that way, it did sound impossible. Then the image of a face swam into Mortimer’s mind. He was surprised he hadn’t thought of it sooner, since he’d been quite enjoying reading the young lady’s sarcastic advice-to-the-lovelorn book this morning. She was feisty and brash, yet pretty and soft. Just the ticket for Michael, who needed to play protector but could never be with a woman who’d let him ride rough-shod over her. “You know, it so happens I recently met a young lady who would be perfect.”
Roderick waited expectantly.
“Her name,” Mortimer said, drawing out the suspense, sure of his friend’s reaction, “is Feeney.”
He wasn’t disappointed. Roderick began to sputter, then turn bright red. “No. Not those two…”
“Their niece. A lovely young woman.”
“Is she a murderer, too?”
Mortimer knew what Roderick was referring to. There had certainly been gossip about the Feeney sisters, Ida Mae and Ivy. He wasn’t sure it was true, however. “That’s never been proven.”
Roderick marched back into the room, picked up his half-empty tumbler and tossed the remnants of his whiskey back in two gulps. Finishing, he breathed deeply and said, “You’re willing to risk Michael’s well-being by involving him with a Feeney woman. I say, Mortimer, have you quite gone off your nut?”
Perhaps. Some people certainly thought he had, at many times in his life. Including, most recently, when he’d purchased this weary town and taken up residence in a ram-shackle old mansion. “Who better to liven up Michael’s life than a woman he can never be sure of? Is she good…is she bad? Is she trustworthy…or dangerous?” He smiled and chuckled, liking the idea more and more. “Oh, yes, I think young Miss Feeney could be the answer to our prayers.”
“Do people pray for devil-women?”
With a frown, Mortimer snapped back, “She’s a nice girl.”
“Must not take after her relatives.” Obviously seeing Mortimer was not to be swayed, Roderick let out a long-suffering sigh. “I do hope you know what you’re doing. Do you truly want to find yourself tied to the Feeney sisters?” As if he knew the moment he’d said the words that he’d given Mortimer a risqu? opening to reminisce about his adventures with Ida Mae and Ivy, Roderick immediately threw his hand up, palm out. “Don’t answer that. There are some things I just don’t want to know.”
Still chuckling as Roddy left the room, Mortimer settled back in his chair. Sipping his whiskey. Thinking of Borneo. Of his wives. Of Carla, his daughter. He also thought of three little tearstained faces watching him from across a flower-laden casket and remembered the vow he’d made on that day, to see to it that his grandsons lived very happy lives.
Maxwell certainly was. His happiness with his new wife rang clearly in his voice every time he called from California, so there was one taken care of. While Mortimer had not set out to “set up” his middle grandson, judging by how things had worked out, finding the right woman had been the key to Max’s happiness. So perhaps it would be the same for the other two. But since neither seemed interested in following their brother down the path of wedded bliss, they might need a nudge.
His oldest grandson Morgan was currently in China, photographing the great terra-cotta army near Mount Lishan for National Geographic magazine. Oh, what Mortimer wouldn’t give to be with him; though, of course, his knees could barely manage the stairs of his house these days.
Anyway, with Morgan out of the country, beyond Mortimer’s reach, there was only one single grandson near enough to work on. That was the youngest. The one who probably most needed a soothing, loving relationship in his life to counter the violence he dealt with on a daily basis.
Yes, it was most definitely time for Michael to fall in love. And if he needed a little assistance in that direction?
Well, Mortimer Potts was more than happy to oblige.
Every man dreams of having a supportive little woman standing behind him. He just doesn’t realize that eventually she’s going to be holding a cast-iron skillet aimed directly at his skull.
–Why Arsenic Is Better Than Divorce by Jennifer Feeney
THE SIGHT OF A TALL BRUNETTE with a great ass trudging down the side of the road would have been enough to make Mike Taylor slow down for a better look, even if the woman hadn’t been barefoot. And swinging a tire iron. And, judging by her tight shoulders and clenched fists, mad as hell.
But she was all of those. Which made her more interesting.
He quickly ran through the possible explanations. “No broken-down car,” he muttered as he pulled his foot off the gas pedal of his Jeep, slowing to a crawl a few yards behind her. “No houses around.” Since leaving the highway, he hadn’t seen a single building or gas station. Just a few road signs counting down the miles to hell…make that Trouble, PA.
So maybe she’d been mugged and had fought off her attacker. Or maybe she’d been the attacker and was still clinging to her weapon. His eyes shifted to the tire iron, looking for any telltale signs that it had been used to beat someone recently. Dripping blood, hair, any of that stuff. He saw nothing.
The woman trudged on, impervious to the dig of gravel into her feet as she stuck to the shoulder of the two-lane road. Her soft, filmy dress swirled around her thighs, the afternoon breeze kicking it up a bit higher with each step. High enough to let him know her backside wasn’t her only terrific feature. The woman had some legs to go along with her obviously leather-skinned feet.
He suddenly suspected she was talking out loud. Something was making it impossible for her to hear the six cylinders pistoning a few yards behind her. Judging by the bounce of her brown hair across her shoulders, he suspected her one-sided conversation was a heated one.
“Interesting.” He wondered why he wasn’t tense, as he’d normally be if he spied a person armed with a dangerous object.
Not that this woman emanated danger. Everything about her screamed frustration, not rage. Which he would have understood if he’d seen a disabled car, a broken cell phone nearby and a pair of woman’s shoes…what, stuck in the mud? Carried off by an animal? “Uh-uh.” Didn’t add up.
She was becoming more and more intriguing by the moment.
He hadn’t expected to stumble across anything intriguing this weekend. Not here, anyway, in the lousy little town his grandfather had been holed up in for the past year. His whole reason for coming here to visit was to try to convince Mortimer to bail out of Trouble. But pissed-off brunettes swinging tire irons did intrigue him, and would have even if he wasn’t a cop.
He had no choice but to stop. No, he wasn’t exactly in his jurisdiction. And, since transferring to NYC Police’s cold case and apprehension squad a few months ago, rarely had cause to interact with current victims of crime. Or, considering the tire iron and her visible anger, potential suspects.
When he interacted with the living at all in his more recent cases, he generally spoke to former neighbors or family members. Or even descendents, given the age of some of the case files. Frankly, he didn’t mind that as much as he thought he would when he’d been ordered to accept the transfer a few months ago. At that point, being forced “for his own good” to leave the twentieth-precinct vice squad had had him ready to tell the city to take their badge and shove it. It had felt like a kick in the gut.
An undercover investigation into a high-end club drug ring run by a slime named Ricky Stahl had ended in a number of indictments…and a few embarrassed public officials with druggie kids they’d rather nobody knew about. It had also meant a transfer for Mike. His bosses claimed the area had gotten too hot for him. Mike thought the transfer was more likely payback from embarrassed politicians.
Whatever the true motivation, he’d been shoved straight into 1PP, aka headquarters. He now spent most of his days pouring through musty, yellowed logs and evidence files that smelled as if they belonged in some grandmother’s basement. When not there, he was on the streets, tracking down hesitant witnesses with failing eyesight and dim memories. Every one of whom wanted to serve him coffee cake while they relived the worst experience of their lives…the murder of a loved one.
Somehow, though, despite his initial insistence to anyone who would listen that he was being wasted, he’d grudgingly found himself getting interested in what he was doing. Maybe it wasn’t that surprising. He’d read his grandfather’s ancient Ellery Queen and Mickey Spillane mysteries by the gross as a kid. Solving puzzles, sifting through clues, he’d gotten a real charge out of that stuff once. Who knew he’d get a charge out of doing it for real as an adult?
It challenged him, exercised his brain in a way that posing as a buyer or a john certainly never had. His first successful cold-case closing—solving the 1998 murder of a shopkeeper who’d been gunned down in his own storage room—had given him more satisfaction than he’d ever experienced in Vice. Not just because of how grateful the family had been, but because he’d felt triumphant at having solved an unsolvable mystery.
He’d been a cold-case junkie ever since. Fascinated by the past, putting together one piece at a time of each intricate puzzle. So maybe that was why he couldn’t drive past the stranger…because she was a puzzle. Alone on the road five miles from town. Furious. Armed. And hot.
“Yeah. Time to stop,” he muttered, not knowing whether the puzzle or the hot interested him more.
Behind him, on the back seat, the closest thing Mike had to a commitment—a scruffy dog—lifted his head off his paw and yawned audibly. “We’re not there yet, go back to sleep,” Mike said, not even watching to see if the animal obeyed. He knew he would. Lie down was the only command the lazy mutt ever heard.
Tapping his horn in warning, Mike pulled onto the shoulder behind the brunette. She swung around immediately, but, thankfully, the tire iron stayed down by her side.
Remaining where she was, she watched warily as he stepped out. He shaded his eyes from the late afternoon sun setting over the town of Trouble ahead, squinting through his dark glasses to make out the woman’s features. He still couldn’t determine much, beyond the suspicion that her shape from the front was as good as it had been from behind. Maybe better, judging by the plunging neckline of her halter dress.
Damn, the woman had more curves than a Spirograph.
She’d stopped right beyond a battered road sign, which read Trouble Ahead. Somehow, he already knew the sign was right.
“Afternoon,” he said with a nod.
The woman wasn’t dressed for changing a tire. Or walking barefoot down a country road, for that matter. No, she looked more like one of the rich princesses who strolled down Park Avenue shopping for glittery purses with their tiny Chihuahuas.
“Having trouble?” he asked as he approached her, the sun continuing to interfere with his vision. “Do you need help?”
“Do you happen to have a gun handy?” was her shocking reply.
Actually, he did. Not that he was going to reveal that to someone eager to arm herself. “Sorry. Not today.”