After almost ruining her marriage because of her habit of involving herself in dangerous business, E.J. Pugh is determined to stay out of any sleuthing and pay attention only to her husband, children, and writing career. How hard can it be?
But through no fault of their own, E.J. and Willis are plunged into another crisis when someone hides a black satchel in Willis’ truck, apparently while they were using it to cart their son—and all his stuff—to the University of Texas at Austin. And their foster daughter, Alicia, finding no ID inside, decides to make it her new backpack.
When Alicia suddenly disappears, along with the satchel, E.J. and Willis are beside themselves, and E.J. has no choice but to get involved in another mystery, possibly connected to a murder in Austin—and this time, solving it is more urgent than ever . . .
“Plenty of red herrings and amusing characters who could have been friends of Stephanie Plum.” —Kirkus Reviews
“One of today’s finest mystery writers.” —Carolyn Hart
About the Author
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We were the lead car in a caravan heading for Austin. I should say lead truck. Willis and I were in his huge, four-ton pickup with the ridiculously fat tires that even I, at five feet and eleven inches, had to use the sissy bar and the running board to get into. Before he bought the new love of his life, back when he was a thinking man, we used to laugh at trucks like this, what a friend had dubbed 'Texas Clown Trucks.' And to add insult to injury, this one was painted mustard yellow (or, alternately, depending on to whom I was speaking, baby-poop yellow). We were in this monstrosity because we needed the cargo space for all of our son's stuff. In the next car in the caravan, a 1993 Toyota Celica, was our son Graham with his more personal stuff and, in the last car of the caravan, a Volkswagen so old even my VW snob husband approved, was Leon, Graham's best friend since the second grade, and his personal stuff. Our cargo area also carried some of Leon's bigger items.
Where were we going with all this stuff ? To Dobie Hall on Guadalupe Street in Austin, right on the edge of the University of Texas campus. U.T. has no dormitories on campus – they're all off. Dobie was very close, within walking distance to most of the buildings where undergraduate classes would be, and was the dorm I lived in when I went to U.T. The bottom floor, street level, was filled with fast-food places and the basement held a theater. Fortunately they played mostly art films, so my 'if the lead doesn't have superpowers then it really isn't a movie' son probably wouldn't spend a lot of time there. I tried not to dwell on the fact that he was going to be in the same dorm where I drank my first whiskey, smoked my first weed, and lost my virginity – at least the latter part was down to my son's father, who deflowered me shortly after we met. These are not the kinds of things a mother wants to think about.
It took an hour and a half to drive there, and then we had to eat at Threadgills, the original, on North Lamar, where Janis Joplin was known to show up unannounced and do a duet or two or three with Mr Kenneth Threadgill himself. Their second location, in the southern part of the city, was practically a museum for the old Armadillo World Headquarters, the first of the premier music venues in a city self-proclaimed as the 'live music capital of the world.' Unfortunately the Armadillo had been torn down in 1980, several years before I made it there for my freshman year. And Janis's days at Threadgills had been even longer ago than that.
If I actually lived in Austin, Threadgills could be my downfall. Even though I'd been able to keep off the thirty-five pounds I'd lost last winter, I couldn't help but order the chicken fried steak and cream gravy (the best in Texas and Texas has the best in the world), the San Antonio squash, and the broccoli rice casserole. And all this with plenty of melt-in-your-mouth yeast rolls and cornbread.
Even though we knew the boys were eager to get started on their new lives, Willis and I lingered over coffee and a shared dessert – buttermilk pie. We hadn't discussed it, but both of us needed to slow this whole thing down, keep our baby boy with us a little bit longer. An extra minute or two. Because this would be it. He'd come home for a weekend here or there, and holidays, but after four years and his degree, he'd probably stay in Austin – so many graduates of U.T. did. There would be more work for him there and, let's face it, Austin was an exciting city, a hell of a lot more fun for a young adult than Black Cat Ridge. We'd had the pleasure of his company for eighteen years, and now it was time for the world to get to know Graham Pugh, and for Graham Pugh to get to know the world.
I was able to keep the tears contained as we unloaded the two new roommates, found their room – a carbon copy of the one I'd had back in the eighties – and got them semi-unpacked. And then Willis and I just stood around for a while.
And the boys stood there and watched us standing there.
And we watched them watching us standing there.
And so on.
'Well,' Willis said.
'Yeah,' Graham said.
'See ya!' Leon said.
'I guess we should be going,' I said.
'Ya think?' Leon said, and I wanted to take him over my knee and beat the crap out of him. Of course, I've wanted to do that for eleven years and have yet to succumb to the internal pressure.
'Leon, shut up!' Graham said. To us he said, 'Come on, I'll walk y'all down.'
And so he did. Except we took the elevator. The stairs would have taken longer. We should have taken the stairs.
And we stood by the shotgun side of the truck, all three of us, until a very pretty girl walked by and both Graham and his father turned their heads to watch her pass.
'OK,' I said, hitting Willis on the arm. 'Go meet her,' I said to my son. 'We're out of here.'
I hugged Graham to me, still surprised at how I had to reach up to get my arms around his shoulders. And I kissed him on the cheek. OK, maybe more than once.
'Call!' I said, my voice breaking and the tears starting to flow.
I jumped in the passenger seat and tore my eyes away from my husband and my son embracing. Then Willis was in the driver's seat and I looked out of the window to see my son's retreating back.
I looked at Willis. Tears were brimming in his eyes. 'Shit,' he said. 'I wish I had a cigarette.' This from a man who had quit smoking right about the time he graduated from this same university.
The next morning, we packed our overnight bags and headed downstairs to breakfast. We'd made plans and reservations to stay overnight at the Driscoll Hotel, a beautiful old hotel downtown with lots of history. The night before we got to our room, we went downstairs to the dining room and discovered we were both too bummed to eat. Turned out later we were too bummed for sex, too.
Willis sat on the edge of the bed, elbows on knees, and said, 'We should have just driven straight home and saved the money.'
'Yeah,' I said, too bummed to even argue the point.
By morning, his appetite had improved considerably, as revealed by his purchase and consumption of half the menu items, but my stomach was still processing the pain of losing my son – and maybe the over-indulgence of the whole Threadgills experience. I had coffee and fruit; he had enough food to feed a high-school football team.
He ran away from them as fast as he could, but he'd had that knee operation last year and he wasn't as fast as he used to be. Rounding the corner in the parking garage, he saw one of those great big trucks with the even bigger tires, this one painted mustard yellow. It had one of those silver boxes attached to the bed, right at the back by the cab. He knew from having seen his brother-in-law's truck that there was a space underneath that. He threw the satchel in the bed of the truck, shoving it under the big silver box.
Two men, one big and beefy, the other smaller and more agile, but both light in the intelligence department and heavy in the following orders department, rounded the corner just as the first man shoved the satchel under the box. Seeing them, he turned and headed away, up, up, and up the winding ramp of the parking garage.
The two men communicated silently, the smaller one following the first man up the ramp, the other heading for the pickup, just as a couple came out of the elevator two cars away from the pickup.
'You can't be hungry, we just ate,' the man said.
'You ate! I just had coffee,' the woman said.
'And fruit,' the man said.
'Well, it wasn't filling,' she said.
'I'm not stopping between here and home, and that's final.'
'Yeah, says me,' he said, throwing the bags he was carrying into the cargo area of the pickup. He clicked the remote and the two got into the cab of the mustard-yellow truck, still arguing.
The man who had been heading for the pickup hid between two cars. Taking a felt-tip pen out of his shirt pocket, he wrote the license plate of the truck on the palm of his hand.
Then, when the pickup had gone around the corner, he came out of hiding and ran up the ramp after his partner and their quarry.
We'd just left the parking garage adjacent to the hotel, hauling our bags ourselves since my cheap-ass husband hadn't wanted to pay valet parking the night before. We headed east, back home to Black Cat Ridge, where our three daughters were being watched over from next door by our neighbor Elena Luna, the cop. All three were a little in awe of her, which I hoped meant they'd behaved themselves.
What had been an hour-and-a-half trip yesterday took about an hour today. Speed limits? Willis Pugh didn't need no stinking speed limits! Not now that his son was gone. We reached the house and I got out, letting my husband deal with the bags. Sometimes I play the southern belle card. Not often, but when it's needed, like not hauling crap, I know it's available to me. And as I walked in the back door into the family room, thoughts of my son zoomed out of my mind.
'I didn't say you could wear it!' Megan yelled at Alicia.
'You didn't say I couldn't!' Alicia yelled back. I smiled. Alicia's our foster daughter and I was happy she was finally getting enough spunk to yell at Megan, who usually needed to be yelled at.
'You're supposed to ask!' Megan yelled.
'And you're supposed to pick it up off the living-room floor! Anything I find in a communal room I shall deem wearable!'
Good one! I thought. 'Hey, girls!' I said.
'Hey, Mom,' came a new voice from the sofa. Bess, our adopted daughter, was lying there reading a book.
'How can you read through all this?' I asked.
She pulled earphones from her ears and said, 'Huh?'
'Mother! Alicia's wearing my sweater and she didn't even ask to borrow it!' Megan wailed.
'She's just jealous because I can wear her clothes and she can't wear mine!' Alicia, three sizes smaller than Megan, shouted back.
'I can't help if it you don't have boobs! I do!' Megan said, sticking said boobs out. 'And wearing your clothes would just make me look cheap.'
Alicia: 'Well, wearing your own clothes so tight already makes you look cheap!'
Megan: 'Oh no! You didn't just say that!'
Alicia: 'Uh huh! I did! And I'll say it again!'
Megan: 'Do and I'll slap your face!'
Alicia: 'Yeah? You and what army?'
New voice: 'What the hell's going on here?'
Both girls in unison: 'Daddy!'
'Well, you see,' I said, turning to Willis. 'It seems that Megan has big breasts —'
Turning red in the ears, Willis, who still held our bags, said, 'I don't need to hear this!' and headed to our room beyond the kitchen.
'Mom!' Megan said, hands on hips.
The family room and my beautifully large kitchen are connected with an open bar area separating the two, and a larger open space. I glanced to my right. The cabinet under the sink was pushed open by trash accumulation spilling out of the can inside.
'What's this mess?' I said, or yelled, or whatever, pointing to the trash.
Alicia said, 'We divvied up chores and guess whose chore that was?' The look she sent Megan was – only one word for it – smug.
I sighed. 'Megan, deal with that now, please.'
'What about my sweater?' she yelled, pointing at the too-big cotton-knit blue-and-gray-striped sweater that fell to Alicia's knees. She appeared to be wearing nothing else. I prayed for panties.
'I think Alicia's idea is a good one. And it goes for all three of you. You leave something – anything, not just clothes – in the common rooms, whoever finds it can use it.'
'Mom!' Megan wailed.
'Trash! Now!' I said, pointing.
'I can't believe this shit —' Megan mumbled under her breath as she headed for the kitchen. I didn't get on at her about language. With Willis and me as role models, it's just a miracle they didn't start cussing while they were potty training.
We have satellite TV, and get most of our local stations from Austin, although we do get a couple from Houston. Black Cat Ridge on the north of the Colorado River and Codderville on the south are sort of in the middle, between the two cities, although slightly closer to Austin. I was in the kitchen fixing dinner and the girls and Willis were in the family room arguing over the remote.
'There's something on MTV I want to watch!' Megan said, grabbing for the remote in Willis's hand.
'I'm watching the news!' her father said, and I saw him swing the remote out of Megan's reach, this way and that, while trying to watch the news around her body.
'Daddy!' she wailed.
'Go watch it upstairs!' he said.
'This TV gets better reception!'
'Bullshit! It's just bigger!'
'Well, yeah, duh!'
'Stop!' Willis shouted. 'Get out of the way! E.J.! Come here!'
By the sound of his voice, I didn't think it had anything to do with my daughter's hijinks. I went into the family room, my hands dripping water.
Willis turned up the sound as a reporter appeared on screen. 'The man appears to have jumped, or possibly fallen from the top of the parking garage. His identity is being withheld pending the notification of his family. Again, the body of an unidentified man was found just moments ago outside the kitchen entrance of the Driscoll Hotel in downtown Austin. The APD and hotel security are looking into the matter, but at this time they will not say whether or not the man was a guest of the prestigious and historical Driscoll Hotel.'
'Oh my God!' Alicia said. 'Isn't that the hotel y'all stayed in last night?'
'Yeah,' Willis said.
'God, how awful,' I said, setting a hip down on the arm of the sofa next to my husband.
'Mom, you think it was murder?' Bess asked.
'They didn't say a word about murder, missy!' Willis said. 'They said fell or jumped. Nobody said a word about him being pushed.'
'Well, if they found him just now, then no one really knows, do they?' Bess said.
Willis shot her a look. This was all we needed – one of the girls trying to start sleuthing. Willis and I had separated briefly during the summer over my involvement in too many murders. I can't help it. I feel like I need to help people in these situations, and that I can, so I do. And, yeah, sure, I like the puzzle. I admitted that to Willis. And he admitted that he was scared I was going to get myself or the kids killed. We got back together because we love each other, and we're trying for a ceasefire, which has been fine since the summer's puzzle was solved. And now here was Bess trying to build a puzzle out of nothing.
I stood up and headed back into the kitchen. Over my shoulder I said, 'Bess, honey, the guy fell, or he jumped. Don't try to make a mountain out of a molehill. The only point of interest here, other than for his wife and family, of course, is that your father and I were in that very parking garage only this morning.'
Bess jumped up. 'Then you might have seen something!'
'They only found him a little while ago, honey,' Willis said. 'We left the parking garage at around eleven this morning.'
'So how often do the kitchen people go out that door? Hum? How long could he have lain there?' Bess all but shouted.
'I'm sure the police will look into that,' Willis said.
I decided to ignore them and went back into the kitchen. Since losing thirty-five pounds, I've been learning to cook in a more healthy fashion. Tonight we were having broiled salmon with corn on the cob and a green salad. I knew my husband would go to the pantry and pile his plate with a couple of pieces of bread – wheat not white, there's no white bread in the house! – but it was still better than having mashed potatoes or pasta. I know, I know, corn is a carb, but it's still better than the alternatives.
'It wasn't on him,' the smaller of the two men, Mr Smith, said into the phone.
'Then where is it?' the man on the other end of the phone, Mr Brown, demanded.
'Mr Jones saw him throw a satchel into the back of a pickup truck. He got the license plate number.'
'Give it to me!' Mr Brown demanded.
Mr Smith grabbed Mr Jones' arm and read the numbers off the palm of his hand to Mr Brown.
'Stay put,' Mr Brown said. 'I'll call you back with a location.'
'Yes, sir,' Mr Smith said and hung up.
'What's this?' I asked Willis that night as we got ready for bed. He had finally brought our bags up from where he'd deposited them right next to the back door when we first came home. I was pointing at a black satchel that wasn't mine and wasn't his.
'Isn't that yours?' he asked.
'No, I only had the one bag,' I said.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, bringing the satchel to my lap. 'There's no ID tag on the bag. Should we look inside?'
'Cool!' Willis said, always waiting for that pot of gold to show up. He sat down beside me. 'Open it!'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Gone in a Flash"
Copyright © 2013 Susan Rogers Cooper.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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