“So, Murphy, what are you doing here, anyway?”
Mandi Murphy raised the beer bottle to her lips, pausing before drinking. The last of the evening sun was still visible through the windows and in a corner, she noticed a crack running diagonally across the glass in one of the panes. “Here?”
“Not here at Cross Roads Tavern. Here…in town.”
Murphy leaned her head back, staring at the ceiling. She’d been in town over a month already…here in tiny Sawmill Springs. Lori, Chief Dixon’s admin—after spending the first several weeks asking subtle questions—had finally talked her into a drink at the local beer joint. Murphy had deflected both personal and professional questions, choosing instead to fade into the background as much as possible and just do her job. Of course, after a fifteen-year career in Houston—working in both vice and homicide—she was having a hard time adjusting to riding in a patrol vehicle all day. Lori, however, was staring at her questioningly, and Murphy knew she had to give her something.
“It…it had been a hell of a week,” Murphy said. “A week that changed my life.”
Lori leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “I’m a good listener.”
Murphy lifted an eyebrow questioningly. “Why?”
Lori shrugged. “Because you’ve been so secretive. And so has Earl,” she said, referring to Chief Dixon. “Nobody knows anything about you except that you came from Houston.”
“Oh, I see. And you’ve been charged with finding out about me, huh?”
Lori smiled. “Well, I’m curious by nature and I’m a bit of a gossip. So yeah, they voted me in.” She tipped her beer bottle at her. “You’ve been here five weeks and not a peep out of you. The only thing we’ve learned is not to call you Mandi or we get the death stare.”
Murphy smiled slightly. “My mother is the only one who still dares to call me that.”
“So? Why are you here?” Lori asked again. “Why did you leave an exciting job at Houston PD to come here, of all places?”
“Exciting? Is that what you think?”
“Compared to Sawmill Springs? Yeah. It’s a big night here when someone gets arrested for assault. The guys get all jacked up over a burglary, which might happen once a month if they’re lucky. But murder? No. Very, very rare.” She leaned forward. “You worked in homicide, Earl says. I’m sure you’ve seen your share.”
“More than my share,” she admitted.
“So why leave?”
“Like I said, it was a bad week.” She picked absently at the label on her beer bottle. “My grandmother lived with me. My dad’s mom,” she explained. “Had been with me about six months, I guess. I came home one night, found her sitting in her recliner, my cat in her lap—which really wasn’t odd. That was the same position they were in when I left.” She finished off the beer, wincing at the lukewarm temp of the last swallow. “There was this eerie stillness in the room though. It was too quiet.”
“Oh, no. She was dead?” Lori asked in a near-whisper.
Murphy nodded. “She was only eighty-one. In relatively good health too.”
“Why was she living with you if she was in good health?”
“She had a vision problem. Couldn’t drive anymore. Had a hard time in the kitchen.” She smiled. “It was weird having her there at first, you know. I guess I didn’t think I’d miss having her around.” She sighed. “That old cat missed her too, I guess. Four days after she died, I found Tuffy in his bed by the window, the sunlight on him, just like he loved.”
Lori gasped. “Oh, no. Not your cat too?”
Murphy knew Lori loved cats. She had several pictures of them on her desk. She blew out her breath, hoping she looked properly sorrowful. “Yeah, my cat wasn’t sleeping. He was dead.”
Lori covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes nearly tearing up. “Oh, my God. That’s so sad.”
“Yeah. Bad week all around.”
Lori frowned. “That’s why you left Houston? Because your grandmother and your cat died?”
Murphy brushed at the dark hair on her forehead, pushing it out of her eyes. Couldn’t she have come up with something better than that? She hated cats, for one thing. Hated the little monsters. And Nana would kill her if she knew she’d fabricated her death. As she pictured her beloved grandmother—with that old tabby cat of hers sitting in her lap—she couldn’t help but smile. Lori punched her in the arm.
“You made that story up!” she accused.
Murphy laughed quietly. “What? You don’t believe me?”
“That was so mean,” she said. “I love cats. I love grand-mothers.”
“I hate cats. I do love my grandmother though.”
“Is that your way of saying it’s none of our business why you left Houston?”
Murphy shrugged. “There were a lot of reasons,” she said evasively. Nothing she wanted to talk about, especially not with a woman she barely knew. How could Lori possibly understand?
“Okay. Fair enough. But you could lighten up a little, you know. You keep everyone at arm’s length.”
“I’m sorry. I’ll try to be a little more open.”
“Good. Because we’re like a family here. And I’d like to include you in that too.”
Lori was probably a few years older than she was. Married, two kids. They had nothing in common, really, other than they were the only two women in the police department. It was a small town and they had a small staff. She was one of eight officers. Chief Dixon had her riding with Tim Beckman, a rather burly man who’d worked there since he was twenty-three—nearly eighteen years—and he was now pushing forty.
He’d taken her across town to the county sheriff’s department a couple of times. They also had one female on patrol—Gloria Mendez. Gloria was young and not in the least bit shy. She’d asked her out to lunch the first time they met. Nothing fancy, just a quick meal at the Arby’s near the interstate—it was Gloria’s lunch break. Four days later, they had dinner. At Gloria’s place. Chili con carne, Gloria’s grandmother’s recipe. It was delicious.
However, the conversation lagged and Murphy wondered if it was due to their nearly ten-year age difference. Even so, Gloria had made it no secret that she was interested in getting to know Murphy better…in a much more intimate way than simply dinner. Unfortunately, Murphy didn’t have the same feelings. Six months from now, she might be feeling differently. Hell, even a month from now. Right now, though, she wasn’t ready. She was still trying to ease into the town itself, which she’d found more difficult than she’d imagined.
Maybe because she was used to the city, used to the fast pace, used to being alone. When she and Sean—her partner—had ended their shift, he went home to his wife and she went home to an empty apartment. Or when she had the energy, she’d hit the local pub where most of the guys hung out. Friendly wagers on pool or darts was the norm. It got loud and rowdy sometimes, but it was all in fun…a bar full of cops trying to shake off the stress of their jobs for a few hours. Some of them, like her, were married to the job only and had no one to go home to. She’d found, though, that the job made a lousy spouse. She sighed. Maybe this time it would be different. Maybe this time, she wouldn’t be juggling open homicide investigations. Maybe this time, she wouldn’t be in the middle of an FBI sting operation. Maybe this time, no one would get killed. And who knows…maybe in a few months, she might take Gloria up on her offer of staying the night.
“I should get going,” she said. “My shift starts at six.”
“Earl still got you riding with Timmy?”
She smiled. “He’s nearly forty years old and weighs two hundred and sixty pounds. Can’t believe everyone calls him Timmy.”
“Oh, he’s a big teddy bear, that’s all he is.”
She nodded. “Yeah, he’s okay. And I’ve got one more week with him, and then I switch to nights.”
“I’ve been here six years now and I still have a hard time keeping up with the schedules,” Lori said. “Ten-hour shifts, three days on then two off, then two on and three off. I finally get them down, then you switch to nights and I’m all mixed up again.”
“Doesn’t bother me,” she said. “If I was married and had a family, it would probably suck.” Lori eyed her for a second and Murphy knew what question was coming next.
“You ever been married?”
“Are you fishing for more gossip?”
“I suppose it’s nobody’s business, but we are a small staff.” Lori smiled. “And we’re family and family tends to gossip about one another.”
“And what conclusion did we come up with?”
“Let’s see…six votes for gay, three for straight and one—Jeff—is afraid of you and didn’t want to vote.”
She faked a smile. “Wow. I got three votes for straight. That hasn’t happened in a while.”
“Guys—what do they know? They all think you’re too cute to be gay.”
She stood up. “Yeah…haven’t been called cute in a while either.”
“There’s also the rumor that you and Gloria Mendez went out,” Lori continued, still fishing for information.
“Is that right?” She gave Lori a friendly nod. “I need to get going. Thanks for the beer.”
She was conscious of the curious glances that followed her as she made her way to the door.
“Come back and see us.”
She turned, nodding at the bartender as she left. She’d learned—after Lori had been greeted with a hug when they’d gotten there—that her cousin owned the place. It was a local dive, dark and shadowy along the edges, but a pool table with a bright light overhead made it seem welcoming. There was even an old-fashioned jukebox in the corner, one that had been playing outdated country songs for most of the night. She figured she’d come back sometime. The house she was renting was lonelier than her apartment had been. Who knows? Maybe she could make some friends here. She had a vision of leaning over the pool table with a cue stick, lining up a shot. The only person she knew in town besides her own staff was Gloria. For some reason, she couldn’t picture Gloria at the Cross Roads Tavern.
She got into her truck and sat there for a few moments, wondering—once again—if she’d been too hasty leaving Houston. She started the engine. No. While it may have seemed to be an impulsive decision, she knew that it had been past time to leave.
Leon’s death wasn’t the only reason she’d fled Houston…but it was the main reason.
She stared off into the darkness, picturing his face. In her mind, she ignored the ugly scar on his cheek, the scar that split his lower lip in half, giving him a permanent crooked smile. It was his dark, compassionate eyes that she remembered the most. Soulful eyes…tender and kind.
She took a deep breath, then blew it out quickly as she pulled away, Leon’s image fading from her mind as the warm summer breeze blew in through the opened windows.
“So, you sick of me yet, Murphy?”
“Sick of your constant chatter, yeah.”
Tim laughed heartily, his bushy mustache lifting up as he smiled. “What can I say? I like to talk.”
That was an understatement, but at least it helped pass the time. Like most everyone else in the department, Tim had been born and raised in Sawmill Springs. And he, like the others, knew nearly everyone in this town of forty-five hundred souls. He’d introduced her around everywhere they went, and while she was greeted with smiles and handshakes, she could tell they viewed her as an outsider.
He turned into the parking lot of Knott’s Café. “You got a preference for lunch or is this okay?”
She looked at the nondescript, stone building situated between a car wash on one side and a self-storage building on the other. “The café again?”
“Thursday is meatloaf day,” he said.
“And Wednesday was chicken-fried steak,” she said, echoing his reasoning for stopping yesterday.
“It was damn good, wasn’t it?”
“It was. Would have been better for dinner. I’m not used to eating that big of a meal at lunch.”
“That’s how I keep my figure. Eat a big meal at lunch then skip dinner.” His bushy mustache lifted up as he grinned. “Kidding, of course. I never miss dinner.”
They were greeted at the door by the same woman who had welcomed them yesterday—Paula.
“There you are,” Paula said. “I was thinking you wouldn’t be able to pass up Brenda’s meatloaf.”
“Of course, I wouldn’t miss it. Her meatloaf is better than my momma’s and that’s sayin’ something.”
“I see you brought your friend back with you,” Paula said with a smile.
Murphy cringed at her statement but returned her smile. “Officer Murphy, ma’am. Good to see you again.” She deliberately adjusted her duty belt, placing her hand on the butt of her weapon. Maybe Paula failed to recognize her uniform, but surely the presence of her weapon told her that she wasn’t Tim’s friend. Perhaps she should have whipped out her handcuffs and spun them around on her finger.
“Lighten up. She didn’t mean anything,” Tim said after they’d scooted into a booth.
“So how long do I have to be here before they treat me like a cop? Or is it because I’m a woman?”
“You’re a stranger and a woman. Two strikes against you,” he said as he sipped from a glass of water. “If they have a choice of vegetables, get the green beans. There’s chunks of bacon and ham in there. And if you ask, they’ll put a pat of butter on top too.”
She stared at him for a second, then shook her head. “That is so not good for you.”
“Oh, man. That’s some good stuff right there.”
They weren’t given a menu when they came in and she wondered if she dared to request something other than the meatloaf. She glanced around them, noting a few curious glances, but for the most part, the café patrons were enjoying lunch and quiet conversations.
“Hey, y’all,” the waitress said. Murphy couldn’t remember her name from yesterday so she simply smiled at her.
“Hey, Sherry,” Tim greeted.
Oh, yeah. Sherry.
“Y’all both want the special today?”
“Sure do. You got green beans on the menu?”
“Sorry Timmy, not today. Brenda’s got squash instead.”
“That’s fine. I like her squash too.”
“Actually, I don’t think I want meatloaf,” Murphy said, causing both Sherry and Tim to stare at her as if she was talking gibberish. “Do you have something like a…a club sandwich? Turkey?”
“Got some ham left from breakfast. Will that do?”
“That’d be great. Lettuce? Tomato?”
“I’ll get her to fix up a sandwich for you.”
“I’ll just have water,” she said.
When Sherry left, Tim looked at her disapprovingly. “If you want to fit in, eat the daily special. Look around,” he said with a wave of his hand. “Nobody’s eating a sandwich.”
“Sorry. I’m not crazy about meatloaf. And like I said, I’m not used to eating such a heavy meal at lunch.”
“Tomorrow is burger day,” he said.
“I remember. We came here last Friday.” She leaned back against the bench seat. “How about, next week, I pick lunch places.”
“Don’t drag me to any of those fast-food chain places over by the interstate,” he warned.
“If those are off your list, there’s not much left.”
“Got the Dairy Mart. Or we could run out to Cross Roads. They make a mean burger. Sometimes they have fried chicken too.”
“Went to Cross Roads the other night.”
He nodded. “Yeah, with Lori. What’d you think?”
“Typical beer joint. Reminded me of some of the places around my hometown.”
“Oh, yeah? Where’s that?”
“Eagle Lake. It’s out west of Houston, a town a little smaller than Sawmill Springs.”
“Smaller than us? It must be small then.” He nodded at Sherry who brought his tea. He took a sip, and then reached for a sugar packet. “You heard about Earl’s daughter?”
“Didn’t know he had a daughter. What’s up?”
“She’s coming back.”
She shrugged. “Okay. And?”
“She’s a cop.”
“Started out here in the department, way back when,” he said. “She used to do dispatch.”
“And did she knit like Shirley does?” she asked, referring to one of the ladies who manned the call center. She didn’t recall a time she’d ever seen her without knitting needles and yarn in her hands.
“Nah, she left here right after high school. Married Kevin Lade. You know, his family has the Ford place in town.”
She nodded. “Right.”
“Anyway, they married and moved to Austin. She went to college and he got a job. Wasn’t but a year later they divorced and he moved on back home.”
“And now she’s a cop?”
“FBI,” he said. “Earl’s kept a spot open for her, hoping she’d come back one day. Now it looks like she finally is.”
She frowned. “What do you mean, kept a spot?”
“Harvey Fisher retired, oh, six or seven years ago now. Earl never filled his spot. Told us he was keeping it open for his daughter.”
“So whose spot did I take?”
“Larry Bostic’s. He transferred down to Huntsville.” He stirred his tea slowly. “Anyway, we’re all kinda wondering how that’s going to work out with her.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, she’s FBI.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. Maybe she had a desk job.”
“No, no. She was out in the field. She even did some undercover work one time too. She was in Miami for a while. Then New Orleans. Last few years, up in Dallas.”
“So what are you worried about?”
“New officer comes in, they’re low man on the totem pole, you know? Like you. Even though you were a detective and you’ve likely got more experience than all of us put together, you’re still low man on the pole.”
“Right. I understood that coming in.”
“Exactly. But what about her? She was damn FBI.”
“You speak of the FBI as if they’re godlike. Trust me, they’re not. My last assignment in Houston, I was teamed with them. And they can fuck up as well as anybody.”
Tim’s eyes widened. “Damn, Murphy. You got issues with them?”
“You might say.”
“Well, I can’t say that we’re looking forward to Kayla being here, that’s for sure. I mean, she’s nice enough when she comes by to visit Earl, but still, she’s FBI.”
“Kayla? That’s her name? So when’s she coming?”
“I don’t know. In case you haven’t noticed, Earl doesn’t talk much.”
“I thought he just didn’t like me.”
“No, no. He’s a man of few words, as they say. Lori processed the paperwork though. That’s how we found out. Guess he’s going to spring her on us one day.”
“So she’ll be out on patrol?”
“Who knows what he’ll have her do. Makes no sense to me. Why would you leave the FBI to come here?” He must have realized what he’d said as he stared at her. “Of course, you were a homicide detective in Houston. Why in the hell would you leave that and come to Sawmill Springs?”
She lifted one corner of her mouth in a smile. “Well, you see, my grandmother was living with me.”
“Oh, hell, Murphy, don’t give me that shit. Lori’s already told us the story about your grandmother and the cat.”
She laughed, not surprised that Lori—a self-proclaimed gossip—shared her story with them. She was spared having to answer as their plates were brought out. A huge platter of meatloaf, mashed potatoes and gravy and a heap of squash with, yes, chunks of bacon, was placed in front of Tim. He grabbed a fork and took a scoopful even before her plate was slid over to her. On it sat a nice, thick ham sandwich, bulging with lettuce and tomato, with creamy mayo escaping at the edges.
“Didn’t know if you wanted mustard, so I brought the bottle.” She also placed a small bag of potato chips beside her plate.
“This looks great, Sherry. Thank you.”
“Well, it ain’t meatloaf, that’s for sure.” She turned to Tim. “How is it?”
His mouth was full, so he nodded and smiled.
“Good.” She leaned down. “I had Brenda put a little extra on there for you,” she said quietly before walking away.
Murphy lifted the bread and squirted a little mustard on top. “She’s flirting with you. She did that yesterday too.”
Tim blushed. “Sherry? No way.”
“Not anymore. Been divorced several years already, I guess.”
She took a bite of her sandwich, glad she’d requested it instead of settling for the meatloaf. “So, back to Earl’s daughter. How old is she?”
“Kayla? Oh, gosh, I don’t know. In school, I think she was a year ahead of Kent. Kent’s my younger brother,” he explained as he stabbed into the pile of squash. “So she’s probably thirty-two or thereabouts. What did you say you were? Thirty-five?”
“In a few months I will be.”
“Yeah, so, y’all are about the same age, I guess.”
“Kinda young to be quitting the FBI, don’t you think?”
“Maybe something happened.” He looked at her and smiled. “Thirty-four’s kinda young to be quitting the Houston PD, isn’t it?”
Murphy met his gaze. “Yeah. Maybe something happened.”
Kayla felt her stress slip away little by little, as each mile took her closer to Sawmill Springs. Even though she’d resigned from the FBI almost two weeks ago, she felt like she hadn’t had a minute to relax. Coordinating the move had been harder than she’d imagined, especially when she couldn’t find a house to rent. Her mother, of course, had offered up her old room, but that was absolutely not an option. Well, maybe as a last resort, but certainly not up front. The very real possibility of her having to stay with them loomed large, however, as Mr. Foster at the local real estate office continued to come up empty on acceptable rental properties. Her move date was already scheduled and she’d gone so far as to rent a storage building to store her stuff when a duplex had finally opened up. She’d sent her mother over to check it out and she’d given it her approval, but with a warning—tiny, tiny kitchen. As much as she loved to cook, a tiny kitchen still won out over moving into her parents’ house.
She looked in the mirror, seeing the movers she’d hired following behind her in their large truck. She was excited to be moving, and that excitement helped to temper the fatigue she felt. The last week had been filled with goodbye lunches and dinners, and last night, she’d been surprised by a group of seven coming over with pizza and beer for an impromptu goodbye party. Conspicuously absent from last night’s group was Jennifer, the only one of their team not accounted for. Kayla wasn’t sure if she was happy Jennifer had skipped or if she was angry that she didn’t bother to say goodbye. A little of both, she supposed. After all, the main reason she was leaving was because of Jennifer.
Oh, that wasn’t entirely true. Their breakup had simply complicated things more, that was all. She’d had the urge to move on from the FBI long before that. Knowing she had a place to go to, knowing her father had an opening, made the decision easy…once she’d finally decided it was time. These last few months, with her and Jennifer trying to avoid each other as much as possible, had made their working conditions nearly unbearable—not only for them but their team as well. Avoiding Jennifer had nothing whatsoever to do with Jennifer starting to date again. She’d been asked out plenty of times herself. She could also have been dating. She simply chose not to.
“You’re the one who broke things off,” she reminded herself as she slapped at the steering wheel. Yeah, she’d been the one to end it, but that didn’t mean that she didn’t miss Jennifer—at least at first. She’d found that Jennifer was a bit spiteful, though, as if Kayla had simply crushed her with the breakup. Truth was, Jennifer knew as well as she did that their romance was far from perfect. Kayla also knew that it had run its course. She just didn’t realize how vindictive Jennifer would be. More than one person had shared some of the hurtful stories Jennifer was spreading.
With her already waning exuberance for the job, that had simply pushed her over the edge. A phone call to her father had set things in motion, and now here she was, heading back to her hometown, about to join her father’s squad. From FBI agent in a big city, to patrol officer in a small country town—all in a matter of weeks.
She pushed her sunglasses on top of her head, meeting her eyes in the mirror. The eyes that looked back at her were no longer shrouded in stress. No, they were nearly dancing with anticipation…and a little bit of nervousness as well.
She had no idea how the other officers on her father’s staff would treat her. She had no idea if she’d even fit in. Added to that fear was another: would she be bored out of her mind?