Maisy Farley, a Georgia peach transplanted to Pittsburgh, has won the hearts of her audience as their favorite hometown news anchor for seven years running. Then she dared to report the truth about the influential and eccentric billionaire who bought the TV station where she’s worked for over a decade. Now, she’s out of a job but sitting on a pile of money thanks to the golden parachute in her contract. It’s the perfect time to follow her dream of being an independent investigative reporter.
But Maisy’s plans are falling apart. The station’s delaying her payout, and her savings are dwindling fast. Worse yet, she can’t seem to land her first story. Then she encounters the ex-wife of Landon Lewis, a brilliant but troubled tech genius who jumped to his death.
His still-reeling ex-wife insists he was pushed: Why would he kill himself when he was on the cusp of receiving a one-hundred-million-dollar windfall? Maisy has no idea, but she knows one thing: she’s just found her story. All she has to do is follow the money—and stay alive long enough to break the story.Longtime readers of the Sasha McCandless legal thrillers have known Maisy for years. Now, Sasha's irrepressible friend takes center stage in a mystery of her own. Steeltown Magnolia will both delight Sasha fans and serve as the perfect chance for new readers to dive into the interconnected world of Melissa F. Miller’s mysteries and thrillers.
Release date: February 27, 2023
Publisher: Brown Street Books
Reader says this book is...: action-packed (2) clever protagonist (2) emotionally riveting (2) entertaining story (2) female sleuth (2) realistic characters (2) satisfying ending (1) suspenseful (1) unexpected twists (1) unputdownable (1) terrific writing (1)
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Steeltown Magnolia: A Maisy Farley Novel
Melissa F. Miller
Thursday, December 22
Maisy Farley strolled along the sidewalk, humming a Christmas carol and keeping an eye out for icy patches. Christmas was in just three days, but she sensed very little holiday spirit in the air. Despite the garlands, twinkling lights, festive wreaths, and gleaming menorahs that dotted the front windows and doors of the houses she passed, it felt as if the city had already hunkered down and settled into the long, grumpy wait for winter to end and for spring to show a glimpse of itself.
She didn’t blame her neighbors. She blamed the stores that rolled out their Christmas goodies before Halloween had come and gone and then filled their shelves with Valentine’s Day cards and heart-shaped candy boxes in late December. The accelerated retail pace of the holidays was out of sync with the calendar, not to mention Mother Nature’s rhythms. It made folks testy, tired, and short-tempered all season long.
But not Maisy.
After fifteen long Pittsburgh winters, the sight of snow still filled her with a wonder that made her breath catch in her throat. She didn’t much enjoy the cold that seemed to seep into her bones, but she accepted it as the tradeoff for the beauty of ice-laced trees, fresh white snow, and frosty whitecaps dotting the gray rivers. She raised her face to the sky and darted her tongue out to capture a soft snowflake as it fell.
Growing up in Spanish Oak, a sleepy town on the southeast coast of Georgia, Maisy had never seen snow—not once. Each Christmas Eve, Maisy and her parents piled into the minivan for the drive out to Aunt Alice’s place. Maisy would swim in the lake with her cousins before they all ate a big barbecue meal followed by peach pie and a bonfire on the shore.
The memory of Spanish Oak hit her chest like an icicle. The cold stabbing sensation was one she knew all too well: guilt. She’d missed the last fifteen Christmases, staying in Pittsburgh to work instead of making the trek south to see her family.
Well, as her mama always said, the best time to make amends is before you need to, and the second best time is now. Like most of her mama’s sayings, it sounded good after a few vodka tonics but made little, if any, sense to Maisy. All the same, she should call home.
She jogged up the stairs to the tall skinny red brick building that housed her favorite coffee shop and her lawyers’ offices. She hurried inside and stopped in the hallway just outside the entrance to Jake’s Coffee to pull out her phone. As she waited for one of her parents to pick up the call, she stamped the snow off her boots.
“Hi, Mama, it’s me.”
“My lands, Maisy, your daddy and I were just talking about you. Are your ears burning?”
She laughed. “Yes, ma’am, they sure are, but I think it’s because I forgot to wear a warm hat this morning.”
“Oh, is it cold there?”
She shook her head at her mother’s perpetual surprise that Pittsburgh had four seasons. “It’s not too bad. Low thirties. I wish you could see the snow.”
“No thank you, darling. No snow for me. In fact, your daddy and I were just packing up our swimsuits when the phone rang.”
Her mother’s voice grew muffled, and Maisy pictured her covering the receiver and turning toward the den from the telephone table in the entrance hall.
“Percy! Maisy’s on the phone. Come on out and talk to her.”
“Swimsuits? Since when do you two swim at Aunt Alice’s?” Maisy stifled a laugh at the image of her parents splashing around in the lake and playing Marco Polo with her cousins’ kids.
Her mother made no effort to hold back her laughter. “Saints alive, could you imagine?” Once she’d caught her breath, she clarified, “We’re not going to Aunt Alice’s for Christmas Eve.”
“You’re not? But you always—”
“Percy, how’s this speaker phone work? Oh, here we go. Maisy, can you hear us?”
“Hello, sweet peach.” Her father’s slow drawl, warm as honey, trickled down the line.
“Hi, Daddy. Yes, I can hear you both. Now, what’s this about you skipping Christmas with Aunt Alice and all the kids?”
“Gosh, Maisy, we haven’t had the Christmas Eve barbecue out at Alice’s place for … what, at least five or six years, isn’t that right, Bunny?”
“Seven. The last year was when Laura Lynn’s youngest got engaged to that fella from Canada.”
“Canada, now that’s cold,” her dad observed.
“Wait. I don’t understand. What do you do for Christmas, then?”
Maisy’s cheeks burned. In part from the steam heat hissing up from the radiator along the wall, but in larger part from shame at the fact that she had no idea how her parents spent the holiday.
“We usually get together with Alice and her flavor of the month for brunch after church. It just became too unwieldy once all your cousins started popping out babies,” her mother explained.
“Well, they do. They pop ‘em out like biscuits. I swear there’ve gotta be over a dozen now.”
A dozen? She’d missed a dozen baby showers, christenings, and first birthday parties? Her face flamed brighter.
“Your mama’s not lying. Babies and toddlers running all over the place. It got to be too chaotic. Christmas brunch with Aunt Alice is quiet. Peaceful, even.”
She shook her head at the notion, then screwed up her face. “Why do you need your swimsuits to have brunch with Aunt Alice and her latest boyfriend?”
Her mother’s laughter—like the tinkling of ice in a Mason jar full of sweet tea—pealed in her ear. “You’re a hoot. This year we’re doing something different. Alice and her beau, Jerome or Jethro or—”
“—Jared, Bunny. His name’s Jared. Unless she’s already traded him in.”
“This year, your father and I and Alice and Jared are taking a holiday cruise.”
“A cruise?” Maisy repeated.
“A ten-day Caribbean cruise through the tropics. We’ll celebrate Christmas in Mexico and ring in the new year in Panama.”
She couldn’t help but smile at the girlish excitement in her mother’s voice. “Oh, that sounds great, Mama.” She infused her voice with as much enthusiasm as she could muster.
Her dad wasn’t fooled. But then, he never was.
“You weren’t fixin’ to come home now, were ya?” His voice oozed concern.
“Of course she’s not, Percy. She can’t get away from work. You know that. Besides, she’s already shipped all the gifts. Alice told me the little ones are bursting to see what’s in all those packages.”
Maisy swallowed around the lump in her throat and lied. “Mama’s right. I’m swamped. I was hoping I could come for a visit next month, though. Y’all can tell me all about the cruise.”
“Well, that’d be a real joy. It’s been too long since you’ve been home.”
She blinked back tears. “It has. Let’s plan on it.”
“We’d love to see you, sugar,” her mama said in a sweet voice. “And feel free to bring along your flavor of the month, too.”
She forced a laugh. The family joked that Maisy took after Alice in her rapid catch-and-release approach to dating. But Maisy and Aunt Alice both knew it wasn’t true. Alice ran through beaus like tissues because she’d already had and lost the love of her life. God rest Uncle Ray’s soul. Maisy ran through them because she was still searching for her Uncle Ray.
“Well, I best be going. I have a meeting with my lawyers.”
“Love you, peach.”
“Love you too, Daddy. And you too, Mama.”
“Merry Christmas, darlin’.”
“Bon voyage,” she told them.
She ended the call, took a breath, and pushed open the door to Jake’s cafe. She needed a big old glass of sweet tea, extra sugar. But she’d have to settle for a gingerbread latte.
* * *
After a frozen moment, Maisy carefully placed her latte on the white marble coaster in front of her. She shook her head, and her blonde curls bobbed against her shoulders. She blew back the long tendrils that danced forward and tried to fall over her face. Then she gave her head a slow shake and stared at her attorneys.
“I don’t understand.”
The lawyers, who also happened to be two of her best friends on the planet, exchanged a look that Maisy couldn’t read. The silence stretched over McCandless, Volmer & Andrews’ sleek, minimalist conference room and hung heavy in the air.
“Naya?” she prompted.
Maisy had known Naya Andrews for more than a decade. When they’d met, Naya’d been working as a legal assistant, keeping their mutual friend Sasha on her toes, and dodging her long-suffering boyfriend Carl’s hints about marriage.
Now, a dozen years later, Naya was a corporate law partner with the shiny luxury car to prove it. And she was still giving Sasha hell and still evading Carl’s attempts at proposing. Naya’d changed plenty over the years, but her forthright, no-nonsense attitude hadn’t.
Maisy held her gaze and waited for her to explain. So, when Naya mumbled “Mac” and cut her eyes toward Sasha, demurring to the not-quite-five-foot dynamo, Maisy’s confusion ticked up a notch and turned to worry.
Sasha McCandless-Connelly reached across the table and patted Maisy’s hand. “Oh, that’s a pretty color. What’s it called?” she asked, as if she were intensely interested in Maisy’s manicure.
Maisy narrowed her eyes. “Pomegranate punch, and since when do you care about nail polish? You two are freaking me out. Just tell me the station finally ponied up my money, and it’ll be in my account before the year-end.”
Sasha took a long sip of her steaming hot coffee before answering. “Here’s the thing. You will get your payout—”
Maisy exhaled and managed a shaky laugh. “Good gravy, but you two were making me nervous. So, when do I get it?”
“You’ll get it,” Sasha repeated. Then she drew her brows together and sighed. “But we’re gonna have to fight for it.”
“Fight for it? My contract said …” she trailed off and gave Naya a long look. “You told me my contract said if the station fired me—for any reason—I’d get a million-dollar payout. Were you wrong?”
“It’s not that,” Sasha hurried to assure her. “Naya was right. Naya is right. You’re entitled to a one-million-dollar lump sum payment.”
“So what’s the holdup? It’s been months already.”
“The holdup is that Leith Delone is one of the richest people in the world, and he just happens to own the station now,” Naya explained.
Sasha jumped in before Maisy could sputter a protest. “And you did go on live television and accuse him of interfering in a federal court case. So you can see how he might not be eager to pay you, right?”
Maisy felt a hot flower of anger bloom in her chest and struggled to keep a calm tone. “He doesn’t have to be happy about it; he’s contractually obligated to pay me.”
Her statement sounded strong and reasonable to her, but it was met with silence.
She gnawed at her lower lip. “I mean, he is, right?”
“That’s right. He is,” Naya agreed. “But he’s playing hardball.”
Maisy caught the sidelong glance Naya shot toward Sasha.
“Did you offer Jocelyn a job?”
She blinked at Naya’s question. “Well, yeah. I mean, I’ll need a camera operator. Why?”
“The station’s threatening to sue her for violating her non-compete if she leaves to work for you.”
“That’s not fair.”
“It may not be fair, and, frankly, a non-competition agreement with someone other than on-air talent is unlikely to hold up in court. But its existence is just gonna drag this out further. Wait until you get your payout, then start hiring away the station’s employees,” Naya suggested.
“Y’all, I’m running out of money. I need to start generating content before I’m out on the street. How can I do that without Jocelyn?”
The silence stretched on just a beat too long.
Then Naya asked, “Are things that dire? You know, you can always stay with me. Or I’m sure Sasha’d let you stay at her place, But Carl’s not as noisy as the twins—at least, not usually.”
“And I’ll bet he’s less likely to pour syrup on a dog to see if it’s really that sticky,” Sasha deadpanned.
For a heartbeat, Maisy forgot her troubles. She gasped. “They didn’t.”
“Oh, but they did. Well, Finn did. Fiona was the evil mastermind, though. She convinced him that Mocha, like all chocolate labs, has a syrup-repelling coat.”
Maisy laughed at the image of the poor syrup-drenched dog, and the tension in her chest eased a bit. She turned to Naya. “It’s sweet of you to offer. And, no, my financial picture’s not that bleak. Yet. But I do need that money. Starting an independent news station is expensive.”
“Why don’t you just do a podcast?” A clear voice rang out from the end of the conference room.
They all turned toward Jordana. The legal intern had slipped in without their noticing and was gathering up the dregs of an earlier breakfast meeting.
“You’re sneaky,” Naya told her. “Like a cat.”
“Sorry. I didn’t want to interrupt. But Maisy should look into podcasting. Minimal start-up costs, low production costs, and she’ll reach a whole new audience.”
Sasha twisted her mouth into a skeptical knot, but before she could knock down the college student’s idea, Maisy raised a hand to stop her.
“What kinda audience, sugar?”
To her credit, Jordana—currently experimenting with a neo-goth look that included a black and red split dye of her long glossy hair and an all-black wardrobe—didn’t flinch at the term of endearment.
“A younger one. Nobody watches the local news anymore.”
“Plenty of people watch the news,” Naya corrected her.
“Old people watch the news. Everyone listens to podcasts.”
“Maisy’s a local celebrity. People will tune in to an internet broadcast that features her,” Sasha insisted.
Jordana shrugged. “A lot more people will subscribe to a podcast, especially if she’s got a juicy story.”
“How would that earn money?” Maisy wondered. “Isn’t it free to listen to a podcast?”
“It’s the same financial model as the local news. The advertisers pay, the audience doesn’t.”
Maisy tilted her head and considered the idea. Her plan was to offer her internet news broadcast as a paid subscription. It was the only way to cover the costs of professional filming, editing, and production. She had big dreams. But, from the sound of it, she also had—at least for the foreseeable future—a shoestring budget.
“Interesting.” Excitement stirred in her chest for the first time in a long while. She turned to Sasha and Naya. “May I take your intern out to lunch and pick her brain?”
Naya waved a hand. “She’s all yours. She’s not even supposed to be working today. She’s hiding out here to avoid a Hanukkah party at her grandmother’s place tonight.”
At that, Jordana lost her business-like composure and rolled her eyes. “I can’t spend the entire long weekend in Maryland. I have things to do. And working for the law firm is the one excuse Bubbie will always accept. She thinks I’m going to be an attorney.”
“She’s right, isn’t she?”
Maisy caught the look that passed between Naya and the younger woman at Sasha’s question.
Leaving it unanswered, Jordana quickly hefted the catering tray and turned toward Maisy. “Let me dump this in the kitchen and grab my bag. I’ll meet you at the elevator.”
They watched her leave the room.
Once the door swung closed, Sasha remarked. “She’s a smart kid. She’s gonna make a great attorney.”
Naya tilted her head, thinking. “Maybe a podcast is just the thing, Maisy. At least for now.”
“Maybe,” Maisy agreed. “Now all I need is a story.”
“A juicy story,” Naya corrected.
Juicy, dried-up, or something in between would suit Maisy just fine. She just needed to find something to sink her investigative teeth into. She’d turn it into podcasting gold.
Sasha interrupted her musing. “When are you leaving for the holiday?”
Maisy let out a small sigh. “Turns out my folks are going on a cruise. So, I’ll be sticking around.”
“Then you’ll come to Christmas Eve dinner at my parents’ place,” Sasha informed her.
“And then brunch with Carl and me on Christmas Day,” Naya insisted. “Don’t worry. It’s a small get-together, nothing like the McCandless crowd.”
“This’ll be a small one by McCandless standards. Only nineteen. Twenty with Maisy.”
“Listen, y’all are sweet. But I’m not crashing your Christmases. I’ll be fine. Besides, I haven’t celebrated Christmas in years.”
It was true. She always worked the holiday broadcasts. At first, it was because she lacked seniority, and in the news business, like most businesses, everything rolled downhill. But even after she’d clawed her way to the anchor desk, she kept working them. She didn’t have any family in town, and she hated for anyone to miss out on that time with their loved ones. Even Chet, her self-satisfied, bloviating former co-anchor, deserved to be with his kids on Christmas.
“Sure, but this year, you can’t exactly show up at the midnight potluck and karaoke bash at the station,” Sasha told her. “Come on, it’ll be fun.”
Jordana stuck her head into the conference room and saved her from answering. “Are we doing this or what?”
Maisy gathered her things and fled from the room before the dynamic duo could twist her arm any further.
San Francisco International Airport
Flight 220, nonstop from San Francisco to Pittsburgh
11:00 PM Pacific Time
Deanne Lewis hugged her tote bag close to her body and sidled past a college kid trying to shove an entirely too-large duffel bag into the overhead compartment. Ordinarily, she would have murmured ‘excuse me’ or at least offered an apology. In this case, it would have been an exercise in futility. For one thing, the young man was fully engrossed in his struggle with the overstuffed bag. For another, his music blared so loudly that she could hear the bass through his earbuds.
She shuffled forward as a flight attendant bustled over to tell the student he’d have to check his bag. She paused alongside a row of seats, pulled out her phone to check her boarding pass, and confirmed that this was her row.
She mustered up an apologetic smile and cleared her throat. “Hi. I’ve got the middle.”
The woman in the aisle seat glared up from under a red Santa cap. The glow of her laptop screen illuminated her scowling face. She huffed and stood. Instead of stepping out into the aisle to let Deanne through, she dumped her laptop on her seat and planted herself in front of it, arms crossed, as though Deanne were personally responsible for the seat assignments or, perhaps, for the existence of middle seats themselves.
Nice holiday spirit, Deanne thought crossly as she squeezed by.
Not that she had room to talk. She was cranky, too. But at least she wasn’t dressed to mislead people into thinking she was bursting with goodwill and itching to break out into a carol. She plopped into her narrow seat and plunked her bag down on her lap. She dug through it to unearth her weighted eye mask and matching travel blanket. Then she shoved the bag under her seat. She’d just gotten her lap belt buckled when a flight attendant stopped in the aisle and smiled down at Deanne’s seatmate.
“Ms. Collins, I have good news. Your standby upgrade came through after all. Would you still care to move to the first-class cabin?”
“What do you think?” The woman shot to her feet, tossed her electronics into her laptop bag, and followed the flight attendant toward the front of the plane against the tide of the crowd.
Deanne nestled against her seatback with a sigh of relief. She was a nervous air traveler under the best of circumstances, and sitting next to a grumpy Grinch of a business traveler for a five-hour-long overnight flight was not the best of circumstances.
Maybe she’d get lucky and have the row to herself. She slipped the eye mask on, leaving it perched on the top of her head like a tiara so she could pull it down over her eyes as soon as her fellow passengers were all seated, seatbelts were checked and emergency instructions given before takeoff, and the cabin lights were dimmed. The melatonin she’d gulped down with an overpriced bottle of water from the airport newsstand would work its magic, and she’d sleep all the way to the godforsaken city on the other side of the country.
As she was powering down her phone, a shadow fell over the row and her dreams were dashed. The student in the Santa Clara University sweatshirt who’d lost his battle with his duffle bag popped out his earbuds and smiled. “I’m the window.”
She smiled back and undid the lap belt. He stepped back, and she stepped out into the aisle like a normal human to let him through. Then she settled herself in the aisle seat.
“The woman on the aisle got bumped up to first class,” she explained as she reached under the middle seat for her bag. “Maybe they won’t put anyone there.”
“That would rock. Early Christmas present.” He laughed at himself. “Of course, I don’t celebrate it. But my girlfriend’s family does. So, I’m flying out to Pittsburgh to meet them and spend the holidays.”
“That’s nice.” She said, striving for a tone somewhere between polite and uninterested. The only thing worse than suffering through a red-eye flight next to an unpleasant, Santa-hat-wearing road warrior might be a talkative college student.
“What about you? You headed home for the holidays?” he asked.
He waited with an expectant expression, but she didn’t elaborate.
How, exactly, would she explain her trip? No, see, I’m on my way to spend the holidays clearing out my dead ex-husband’s apartment and office space because he didn’t have the courtesy to change his will and name a new executor before plummeting out of a window to his death.
“Oh,” her new seatmate said in an abashed tone. “Sorry. Rosa—that’s my girlfriend—says I’m too nebby.”
“Nebby?” Deanne couldn’t stop herself from asking.
“Ha, yeah. It means nosy. It’s Pittsburghese.”
She drew her eyebrows together in a question.
“Regional dialect,” he explained. Then, “Hey, can I get your opinion?”
She suppressed a sigh. “Sure.”
There was no reason to be a grouch. It wasn’t this kid’s fault Landon had ruined her holiday plans. She’d make chitchat until the plane took off, then she’d gracefully excuse herself to curl up under her blanket, pull down her eye mask, and sleep.
“Thanks.” He stuck out his hand. “I’m Salim, by the way.”
“Deanne.” She shook his proffered hand, then said, “So, Salim, what’s your question?”
“Do Christians really eat anchovies and eels for dinner on Christmas Eve? I think Rosa’s pranking me.”
She blinked at him, then realization dawned. “Is your girlfriend’s family Italian, by chance?”
“Yeah, they are.”
“Well, I hope you like seafood. Some Catholic Italian-Americans celebrate Christmas Eve by having the Feast of Seven Fishes.”
“Yep, seven, often, but not always, including anchovies and eels.” Salim was looking a bit green, so she hurried to reassure him, “But if memory serves, there are lots of other dishes—not all of them are fish. You can probably just take a nibble or fill your plate with other foods.”
He gave her a sidelong look. “And Mrs. Esposito won’t be offended?”
“If the Espositos have a big family or a lot of guests, she probably won’t even notice if you aren’t a seafood lover.”
He exhaled loudly. “I hope you’re right.” Then his relief dissipated and his face clouded. “I didn’t offend you, did I? I mean, if you eat that.”
“No, you didn’t offend me. And I don’t regularly eat the Feast of Seven Fishes. But I did once, a long, long time ago.” She shook her head and gave a small laugh. “I dated a guy in college—Nino Russo. I spent one Christmas with his family in New Jersey. The fish dishes weren’t that bad, honest.”
Salim’s eyes flicked toward her bare left hand. “What happened? Between you and Nino, I mean?”
“I fell in love with someone else.”
Someone brilliant, and funny, and gentle. Someone who promised me a happily ever after. And we had that. Until we didn’t. We married, had a child, raised him, and loved him with all our hearts. But after Josh was murdered, our fairy tale fell apart. So now I’m flying across the country to settle Landon’s affairs and take his ashes off the county morgue’s hands so they’ll stop calling me.
She stared down at her ringless hands, and Salim fell silent. After a long moment, he cleared his throat and reinserted his earbuds. She pulled her blanket up over her shoulders, rested her head on her seatback, and settled the mask in place over her eyes. She pretended to sleep and held back the hot tears that pricked at her eyes.
Home of Zane and Jenna Novak
Some jagoff was leaning on the doorbell. Zane kept his eyes glued to the TV. The chiming continued.
“Babe, get the door, would ya’? I’m tryna watch something,” he shouted.
A moment later, Jenna emerged from the kitchen and swiveled her head toward the screen. Then she rolled her eyes and snapped her dish towel at him.
“Spoiler alert: Muhammed Ali wins. That fight’s older than you are,” she snarked over her shoulder on her way through the room to the door.
He shook his head. She didn’t get it. The Rumble in the Jungle was a classic. Ali’s defeat of the unbeaten champ was a thing of beauty. Zane was four years old the first time his grandad had perched him on his knee and shown him the recording of Muhammed Ali knocking out George Foreman. And he must’ve watched the tape at least two hundred times in the twenty years since that first viewing. He dreamed about it, copied Ali’s shuffle, and tried out his moves at the gym. The other gym rats laughed at him, but Zane had been the one laughing after he used the rope-a-dope to beat DeShawn Anderson into a pulp.
He kept one eye on the screen as he craned his neck to get a glimpse of the front hallway. The multicolored lights strung around the door cast Jenna in an eerie light as they blinked red, green, blue, red, green, blue. Her muffled voice was strained and unnaturally high. He shifted on the couch but couldn’t see their late-night visitor. Given the tension in her voice, he’d bet it was her sister. Amber was always turning up on their doorstep, crying about her latest loser boyfriend.
“Who is it?” he called.
The door thudded closed, and Jenna walked into the room trailed, not by her sister, mascara streaking her face and snot bubbles clogging her nose, but by an even more disturbing sight.
“I asked if he had a warrant, and he said he doesn’t need one. Said this is a social call.” Jenna jerked her thumb toward the hulking plainclothes detective and arched a brow just in case Zane hadn’t picked up on her skepticism.
He thumbed the remote, and the television blinked off. He half-rose from the couch. “Come on in. You want a beer?”
“No thanks, Zane. Like I said, this isn’t official police business, but I am on duty. I need to talk to you. It won’t take long.” Detective Colchis paused, and his eyes flicked toward Jenna. She’d crossed her arms and was leaning against the wall, eyeballing him hard. “Alone.”
Zane cocked his head to the kitchen. “Give us a minute, babe.”
Jenna shook her head, but pushed away from the wall and left the room, slowing to paint the detective with a look of disgust as she passed him.
“She seems nice,” Colchis cracked.
Zane ignored the jab. “Why are you here?”
The cop’s expression flattened. “That job you did last summer. You did what I told you, right? After it was done?”
“Yeah, of course.” Zane shot a worried look toward the kitchen. “And keep your voice down. Jenna doesn’t know.”
“She’d better not know.”
“She doesn’t.” He frowned, thinking. “Why are you asking about that now? It’s been five months.”
“Reasons. You don’t need to know them.”
His gut twisted. He didn’t like that answer, not one bit. “I think I do.”
“You don’t think. You just do what I tell you.”
“Uh-uh. No. I did what you told me. That was a one-time thing. We’re square now.”
Colchis shoved his face so close that Zane could smell the old coffee on his breath. “We’re square when I say we’re square.”
Zane reared his head back. The ugly truth was Colchis owned him. He knew it, and Colchis knew it. Zane should have told the cop to screw himself back in July. But when Colchis threatened to pop him for felony assault after Zane kicked León Hernandez’s ass in the parking lot of Dogs ’n’ Brews, Zane panicked. León never would’ve cooperated with the cops. But Zane couldn’t risk a collar, not with the promise he’d made to Jenna.
He’d done the job. It had gone south. And now Colchis had him by the balls.
“Whatever, man. I did what you said.”
The detective grabbed a fistful of Zane’s t-shirt in his freckled hands and yanked him close. “You got rid of the phone.”
It was a statement, not a question. But Zane answered it. “Yeah. I pulled out the SIM card and stomped on it, then I threw the phone into the river. Like I told you.”
He pulled his neck back and eyed Colchis. One good thrust, and Zane’s rock-hard forehead would connect with the cop’s nose. He imagined the satisfying crack of bone, the hot spurt of blood, and exhaled through his nostrils.
Something in his expression must have given Colchis a hint of what he was thinking. Colchis released his grip and smoothed the thin material of the worn t-shirt over Zane’s bunched-up shoulders.
“Good. Just had to hear you say it. Now, how ‘bout that beer? ’Tis the season, after all.”
Zane took pleasure in the detective’s too-cheerful tone. The other man was hiding his fear with jolly bullshit. He recognized the strength in Zane’s eyes and feared him. Zane curved his mouth into a smile.
He turned toward the kitchen, “Hey, Jenna, bring us a couple of Irons. And a plate of your Aunt Tina’s cookies, huh? Midnight snack.”
The only response was the sound of beer bottles slamming down on the counter and the banging of the cabinet doors where the cookie tins were stored.
* * *
Later, much later, after Colchis had drunk Zane’s beer and shoveled handfuls of Aunt Tina’s delicate crescent cookies and perfectly shaped Linzer stars into his mouth, he finally stumbled out of the house and down the stoop. Zane, bleary-eyed from staying up so late but too keyed-up to sleep, retreated to the basement.
He snaked his hand behind the hot water tank and patted the cold, damp stone wall until he felt the lid of his granddad’s old metal lunch pail. He twisted at the elbow, contorting his arm at an unnatural angle, and yanked the box out from its hiding space. Squatting, resting his butt on his heels, he popped the pail open and pawed through the old undercard programs, fight flyers, and crumpled baseball cards until he found it. He unwound the thick rubber band that secured the butcher paper and unfolded the squares to reveal his insurance policy.
He turned the red iPhone over in his hand, a cool rectangle of promise. He studied it, wondering, not for the first time, what had come over him to make him keep it. He hadn’t planned to. He’d intended to do what Colchis had told him to do—what he’d just told the bent detective he had done.
He’d stood on the Hot Metal Bridge and stared down into the silty water. As he’d moved his hand toward the bars that bisected the railing the sun had hit the glossy red phone at just the right angle. Light flared, like a starburst, and Zane’s hand hovered over the water’s edge. It felt like a sign, and the next thing he knew, he shoved the phone into his pants pocket and jogged across the bridge to the bus stop.
He had destroyed the SIM card, though. Not by stomping on it, the way he’d told Colchis. Instead, he’d tossed it in the garbage compactor at his mom’s place. He figured he’d sell the phone to make a little fast, easy money. But when the news of the guy’s apparent suicide hit the local media, he thought better of it and tucked the phone away in the basement instead. One day, he might need it.
He carefully refolded the brown waxed paper around the phone and secured it with the rubber band. He returned it to the pail and covered it with the old memorabilia. He was latching the lid when the bare bulb at the top of the cellar stairs flared to life.
“Zane? You down there?” Jenna yelled down the stairs.
Her voice echoed off the stone.
“Yeah.” He eased the lunch pail back into its hiding spot. “I’m comin’ up.”
He loped up the steep wooden stairs and flicked off the light. Jenna backed into the kitchen, hugging her sweater around her middle, and he pulled the door shut.
“Did your scuzzy cop friend finally leave?”
“Colchis is no friend of mine. But, yeah, he took off.”
“Took his time about it. What are you looking for down there at this hour?” She jutted her chin toward the basement door.
Zane searched for a believable lie and landed on one guaranteed to take her focus off the basement. “I thought we should hang up that little stocking you made last year. Just in case.”
She pressed her lips together in a frown, and furrows in her brow mirrored the downturn. “That’s not … that’s bad luck.” Unconsciously, one hand fell to her flat belly.
He pulled her toward him and wrapped his thick arms around her. “We don’t need luck, Jenn. We have science. Isn’t that what the fertility doctors keep saying? The tests all show we can make a kid—all we need is time.”
“And money,” she added in a tight, defeated voice.
“Forget about the money. I have a good feeling about the last round of in vitro.”
She tilted her chin up and met his gaze. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. So, let’s put up the stocking.”
Her face softened. “Yeah, okay. But it’s not with the extra decorations in the basement. It’s in the … upstairs.”
She eased out of his embrace and headed for the stairs to the second floor. The hinge on the door to the little unused room squeaked. He could picture her, pausing in the doorway to square her shoulders before going into the pink and green nursery she’d set up before that first miscarriage, almost three years ago now.
A wave of shame rolled over him for using her baby fever as a distraction. He batted it away. Hadn’t he taken the money from that job and used it on their in vitro treatments? She’d never asked where he got it, had told her family he’d cashed in some treasury bonds or some crap. But she knew Zane didn’t have any bonds. She didn’t want to know where the money had come from. And she didn’t need to know about the phone.
He heard the nursery door click shut, then her light footsteps tapping down the stairs. He made his way into the narrow living room and stood in the doorway to watch her hang the tiny knit stocking between their two larger ones—his made from the red silk of a pair of boxing trunks, hers a deep emerald color, a piece of fabric from the dress she’d worn to their senior prom. The white Christmas lights on the tall narrow tree jammed into the corner twinkled across her face as she carefully positioned the stocking from the hook in the center of the mantle.
She straightened the stocking, then craned her neck to flash him a smile. “There.”
“Looks great, babe.”
He held out his arms, and she crossed the room to burrow into his chest.
“What did that cop want, anyway?” Her sleepy voice was muffled against his shirt.
Zane took a beat to answer. “Just to bust my balls, I guess.”
He hoped she couldn’t feel the rapid thrum of his heartbeat. Truth was, he didn’t know why Colchis had turned up now, asking questions about a job from last summer. But he’d been around long enough to know it couldn’t mean anything good.
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