A bank heist turns sleepy little Wagon Mound, New Mexico, on its ear. It’s no straight-forward, “demand all the money at gun-point and hustle out the front door” kind of robbery. It’s a sneaky tunneling that probably took months to complete and landed the thieves in a room of safe deposit boxes—not the vault with two million bucks for a ranch sale next door. Was this some mistake, or was the thieves’ target the Tiffany-designed sapphire and diamond necklace belonging to eighty-five year old Gertrude Kennedy, a family heirloom from the days of the Titanic?
The necklace is insured with United Life and Casualty for half a million. The company sends their ace investigator, Dan Mahoney, a Chicagoan still in New Mexico recuperating from events in Flash Food, and romancing the intrepid Elaine Linden, to the scene of the crime. Delayed when his Jeep overheats, Dan catches a ride and is the hapless passenger in a rollover that kills the driver and lands Dan in Santa Fe’s hospital.
Dan soon learns the rollover was no accident. Someone wants him kept out of Wagon Mound at any cost. Dan hasn’t lived his life looking over his shoulder and he’s not starting now. But when Elaine disappears and people close to the case, like the bank’s manager, turn up dead, he suspects there’s more going on than a robbery. The note slipped under his rented room’s door in the dead of night says it all—“it’s not what you think”." Fast-paced from first to last, Rollover combines the murder mystery with the caper for a captivating read.
About the Author
Susan is the author of the Ben Pecos series (Pumpkin Seed Massacre, A Way to the Manger, Yellow Lies and Thunderbird), a stand-alone (Five O'clock Shadow), a women's fiction novel (0 to 60), a para-normal short story in Rod Serling's commemorative Twilight Zone Anthology (Eye for an Eye), and the first in the Dan Mahoney series, Flash Flood. Susan lives on the Atlantic coast and writes full-time.
Read an Excerpt
A Dan Mahoney Mystery
By Susan Slater
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2014 Susan Slater
All rights reserved.
"Damn!" Dan watched the needle on the heat gauge go into the red and then hold at the top. If he thought he was seeing things, the steam that curled out from under the hood made him a believer. He coasted to the side of the two-lane highway and shut the engine off. What had the historical marker called this area? La Frontera del Llano, the edge of the plains. He idly wondered what Spanish was for the edge of nowhere.
He popped the hood, grabbed a rag from under the seat and got out. "Stay," Dan ordered the rottweiler who tried to follow him out of the car. He hoisted the hood touching only the side, propped it open, then wrapped the rag around his hand, and gave the radiator cap a couple of quick turns before jumping back. Wow. That was some serious steam. He wasn't going anywhere very fast.
He looked up and down New Mexico Highway 120. Not a car in sight. He was probably twenty-some miles west of Roy just past Mills Canyon, but a tow truck would have to take him to a Jeep dealer and that would be either Las Vegas or Santa Fe—another sixty to a hundred miles west. He punched 4-1-1 into his cell and watched it search for a network ... without luck. He'd try again later but knew reception would be spotty. His bright idea of driving up the back roads from Hobbs didn't seem very bright anymore. There were some things to be said for living away from civilization, but not very many. That was probably the Chicago in him talking—still difficult to adjust to wide-open spaces. He snapped the cell shut. Now what?
"You think you need to get out?" Simon was whining his discontent. Dan walked to the passenger side of the SUV and opened the door. The rottweiler didn't wait for an invitation but hit the ground in one leap from the seat. "Simon ..." The dog paused and looked up. "Stay close." Not that the dog understood the command; still, he paused and didn't go bounding off. Dan watched as Simon turned to sniff a knee-high patch of weeds, then weave back and forth before stopping on point where some new scent caught his attention. Dan was beginning to feel envious of not having anything more pressing to do than pee on a bunch of grass and a couple fence posts.
This little setback would probably cost him an afternoon—maybe an overnight. Today was Monday and he needed to have the investigation wrapped up and be out of here by Thursday. There was a Friday morning reservation on American for London in his name. He couldn't suppress a grin. Yeah, he was looking forward to seeing Elaine and enjoying a little downtime. Hadn't they earned it after a crazy summer in Tatum? It irked him that he'd even taken this assignment. But his boss had a point. As long as Dan was in the state, it'd be a lot more efficient—economical, Dan had amended—to just check out a claim now instead of having to come back. Good ol' United Life & Casualty still owned a piece of his soul but that wouldn't be forever. He could see the proverbial light. And at fifty-two, he was heading toward that tunnel—if his ten-year plan worked.
He leaned against the Cherokee ... might as well enjoy the scenery—blue grama mixed with buffalo grass as far as the eye could see. The short-grass prairie of the southern Great Plains. Who knew that New Mexico could lay claim to such an area? Once crowded with buffalo, now cattle outnumbered people probably ten to one. He thought he'd read somewhere that, on average, less than one person inhabited each square mile of the area. He sighed. The wait could be a long one. Should he start walking? Leaving luggage in an unattended car out in nowhere didn't sound like a good idea and dragging it down the road seemed even worse.
At first the truck coming up on his left was just a speck—tough to determine if it was a mirage or for real. But as it got closer and pulled to a stop behind the Cherokee, Dan didn't know whether to be relieved or disappointed. He wasn't sure he'd ever seen a truck that old still running. But it didn't have anything on its driver—they were the same vintage.
The old man, six feet tall but stooped, slipped out from behind the steering wheel, steadied himself, and then walked toward Dan. Splotchy skin, a week's white bristly beard, matted hair that looked like it'd been cut with cuticle scissors—the old guy must live by himself, Dan deduced. Simon stopped his exploring long enough to offer a low growl, but Dan shushed him. Didn't want to spook what might be the only living being that would happen along that way for a while.
"See yer having some troubles." The old guy had the overly loud voice of the deaf. He walked past Dan and leaned in under the hood.
"Overheated." Dan offered.
"I can see that. 'Cause yer drivin' a Jeep, probably."
"I'm not following."
"Got the worst maintenance record of American cars. I'm a Ford man, myself. Jesse here's been with me since birth."
Dan wasn't sure whose, but let it slide. "Dan Mahoney." He held out his hand and waited while the man wiped his right palm on stiffly starched overalls before following suit.
"Chet. Chet Echols."
Dan wondered at the tremor. Palsy? No reason it'd be nerves. And a quilted flannel shirt? This was a beautiful fall day—not mid-winter. But circulation often left something to be desired in the elderly, he guessed.
"Any chance you could give me a tow?"
The short laugh startled Dan. "Not with Jesse. Haven't found his bumpers in six months. Put 'em somewhere—just don't know where. But I can give you a lift. Nearest gas station with a tow truck's only about twenty miles back up the road."
"I'd appreciate that."
"That yer dog?"
Dan swallowed any smart retort like whose dog would be sitting quietly by his side if not his own and simply said, "This is Simon."
"Well, I don't allow no dogs in the cab. He'll have to ride back there."
"Okay." Dan signaled Simon to jump in the truck's bed. There wasn't a tailgate but he doubted the truck would go fast enough to cause him to worry. "Let me lock up the Jeep."
Dan grabbed his suitcase from the Cherokee along with a shaving kit and put both next to Simon. "Watch." They'd been working on the command and Simon immediately sank down, nose touching the suitcase. "Good boy." He gave the dog an appreciative pat.
Chet opened the truck's passenger-side door, gingerly closing it after Dan climbed in and then held it in place. "Sorry 'bout this but I gotta wire this dang door shut. Hinge's a little rusty. Don't wanna lose ya." More laughter.
The old guy sure seemed the jolly sort but the door thing vaguely bothered Dan as he watched Chet thread baling wire through a small hole at the base of the A-post and then wrap it around the door frame. The door seemed ill-fitting and there was no need to worry about rolling the window down—there wasn't any. The dash seemed to have more wires sticking out than contained. And the front seat was all gaping holes with foam and springs poking up through the worn plastic covering. He didn't want Simon to ride in the cab? Simon had the better deal.
"Give me a minute to rev 'er up and git 'er turned around and we're off."
It was amazing the truck started, but it did and they bounced up, over the edge of the asphalt, and Chet made a wide turn to head back in the direction he'd come.
"You hungry?" Chet held out a bag of beef jerky.
"No, I stopped at Roy."
"Bet you ate at the Chill an' Grill."
"Yeah, had to."
"Yep, only place in town anymore. Used to have Sam & Ella's—"
"Salmonella?" That wasn't very appetizing.
Chet gave an explosive guffaw. "Sorry, I forget newbies to this part of the world ain't gonna know the history. Sam ... and ... Ella's. Husband and wife, Armijo was the last name. Made the best sour cream chicken and onion enchiladas with red on the face of the Earth." Chet paused, "I'm not saying the Chill an' Grill ain't as good—that roadkill entry on the menu sure is popular with the tourists. Tell me, you meet the cook?"
"Former lawman ... now his daughter's got him flipping burgers. Bet you heard the story 'bout how he handcuffed a black bear and threw him in the back of his cruiser?"
Dan shook his head.
"Shame. Good story."
He waited for him to tell it, but Chet's attention seemed to be on the road and checking the rearview mirror. It had been a while since Dan had seen someone look behind him as often.
"You know, speaking of lawmen, I'm guessing you're one."
"Same thing. I gotta nose for smellin' cops. Bet yer out this way 'cause of that robbery in Wagon Mound last month."
Dan nodded, "Yeah, some people are pretty upset."
"A mite poorer, too. Can you believe those guys tunneled into that bank—God knows how long that took 'em—then spent three days jus' pickin' and choosin' their loot? Used the Bean
Day parade as a cover-up. Now that's a smart bunch of crooks."
Dan wasn't sure he agreed, but was saved from comment.
"Ain't gonna find nothin'."
"Ain't gonna catch 'em. Everybody in town says it was an inside job. You know, somebody needed drug money—nobody's saying what was lost, but I understand it was plenty. Coin collection, jewelry—what'd yer client lose?"
"Don't know yet." And damned well wouldn't share that information anyway. The loss of the hundred-and-ten-year-old diamond and sapphire necklace with matching earrings designed by Tiffany was information for Dan only. Five hundred thousand insured dollars' worth of jewels that had survived the Titanic but not a bunch of tunneling bandits in a one-horse town. Who said life was fair?
He looked at the driver. Chet was the nosey sort, but jawing was socially acceptable and probably his only recreation. And he didn't seem to want to push it, accepted Dan's noncommittal answer and dropped the inquiry. They rode—Dan decided that was a misnomer, more like bounced—along in silence for a couple minutes before Chet turned his way.
"What's yer best insurance story? You know the kind of stuff that's kept you punching the clock over the years?"
Dan thought a minute. A personal favorite was solving the disappearance of the heifer Grand Champion Tabor's Shortcake Dream last summer, but that story might lead to a little more disclosure than he'd be comfortable with ... "I guess my favorite is the one they tell on Jackson Pollack."
"Yeah. Seems he got drunk at a friend's party one night, locked himself in their bathroom and painted the toilet seat. The family had it framed and over the years thought of it as their nest egg ... until years later when a house fire took care of the nest egg."
"How'd you settle that claim?"
"That's just it. At the time Pollack's paintings were going for a million or better, but a toilet seat? And nobody could corroborate the story. Just hearsay and twenty dollars' worth of doughnut shaped wood with some smears of paint—I think they settled for around ten thousand."
Chet chuckled. "That's a good one." Another minute or two of bouncing along, then he said, "Bet you can't guess what I used to do. I'd a thought that my name might'a been familiar. Echols don't ring a bell?"
Dan ran the name Echols through his mental Rolodex but didn't get a match. "No, not unless you're that guy who landed the state's biggest wide-mouth bass last August. Over at Abiquiu?"
This brought a burst of laughter. "That's a good one. Not that I haven't tossed a few beauties on the shore before—in my time." The laughter at the double meaning was now almost maniacal but ended with Chet coughing, finally gasping for air, hands locking on the steering wheel as he slumped forward.
"Hey, watch out." The truck was drifting to the side of the road. Dan glanced at the inert driver, "Oh, shit." He scrambled to his knees and lunged to grab the wheel. But there was enough play in it that even a one-eighty jerk to the left didn't correct the truck's trajectory as it gathered momentum. By then it was too late to tuck his head between his knees. The truck slipped sideways in the soft gravel at the edge of the steep shoulder, clipped a cement culvert blowing the front driver-side tire, and they were airborne.CHAPTER 2
"I should call mother."
"Not until you know something ... Carolyn, for God's sake, sit down." Phillip folded the paper and put it beside him on an end table. Thank God he'd brought the paper with him, there was never anything up-to-date to read in a hospital waiting room.
"Well, at least I need to call Elaine. She left Saturday. She'll be in London by now. I need to catch her before she starts the tour."
"Carolyn, it's eleven o'clock at night in London. Call her in the morning."
"Phillip, just shut up. It's my brother in there ... surgery, a head injury ... I hate this not knowing."
"Well, you're not going to make things move any faster pacing up and down." Phillip picked the newspaper back up, shook it out, and began to read. He wasn't sure which was better—reading about the latest road-rage murder or watching his usually levelheaded wife disintegrate into hand-wringing.
"Thank God we were in Santa Fe when they brought him in. We'd still be on the road trying to get here if we'd been home." Carolyn dug into a side pocket of her purse and pulled out a phone.
Phillip nodded, but he wouldn't mind being in Roswell at the moment. You didn't manage a multimillion dollar electronics business and ranching operation long-distance. He watched his wife tap in a number on her cell. Of course, meeting with a few state legislators was important, too. He was still a very viable candidate in the governor's race and raising money was everything. Certainly the difference between winning and losing.
"I left a message with the tour office. They assured me they could reach Elaine before the group leaves for Ireland." She turned her attention back to the phone and pressed in another number.
"Good." Probably not before morning, he thought to himself. But he did understand Carolyn's need to keep busy. He might not be Dan's biggest fan, but he didn't wish anyone ill. And according to the docs, things didn't look good. He watched Carolyn with the cell to her ear walk into the hallway. Must be her mother.
* * *
It was a joke. It had to be. Elaine read the message again. A rollover accident, Dan in intensive care—head injury, broken wrist. Prognosis unknown. He'd just put her on the plane two days ago. He'd be with her on Saturday. But at gut-level she knew it wasn't a joke. Carolyn reiterated what had happened when Elaine called back.
"I'll get the first flight out."
Numb. She sleepwalked through making arrangements—British Airways to New York, American to Atlanta, Delta to Albuquerque. Done. She repacked, made her apologies to the tour director, tried to get a few hours' sleep, then, a cab to Heathrow, a window seat and thirteen plus hours to think. And not know.
It was a fledgling relationship barely three months old but with all the promise in the world. Dreams coming true, everything she could ever want. The summer had been brutal. Her husband of twenty years gets out of prison only to die in a flash flood, his body washed away. She buries an empty box, but then miraculously Eric shows up with all the bravado and pushy arrogance that she'd come to hate. But he did sign the divorce papers. Was she ready for another relationship? Yes, a hundred times, yes.
"Do you ever think about us?" She'd asked Dan when he dropped her off at Albuquerque's Sunport, then bit her lip. Stupid thing to ask. Somewhere in some how-to-trip-'em-to-the-floor manual she'd just crossed over into the dating no-no's.
She poked him not too gently in the ribs.
He looked down at her, a smile pulling up one corner of his mouth. "If you can't take the answer, don't ask the question." Then he was laughing, taking her into his arms, nuzzling her neck. "You know the answer. Why do you ask?"
"Because suddenly I'm having separation anxiety."
"Hey, easy, I'll be with you in a week." He playfully bit her earlobe and then made a snuffing sound in her ear.
She pulled back to look at him quizzically, "What was that?"
"Puppy snuffs. Simon asked me to say good-bye."
Both laughing now, they walked into the airport holding hands. Maybe the question hadn't really been answered, but the last kiss didn't leave much to imagination and the feeling was mutual.
Excerpted from Rollover by Susan Slater. Copyright © 2014 Susan Slater. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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