Nicky Wright was a two-timing, good-for-nothing scoundrel. A rascal, a scalawag who had cheated on his wife, impregnated his girlfriend, and then refused to leave his wife for his girlfriend.
And now he was dead.
The prime suspect in his murder:
His girlfriend, Amber Riggs, a miscreant who’d sweet-talked Nicky into impregnating her, and then turned into a raving, murderous lunatic when he told her he couldn’t leave his wife and other children.
Now, she was gone. Neither her cat lady neighbor nor her pot-smoking co-worker could remember when they’d last seen her or whether she’d said where she was going.
Nicky Wright’s wife, Sarah Wright, a lonely housewife who wanted nothing more than for her husband to be a good father and breadwinner, was now bravely facing life as a widow.
At least, that was the picture the police painted at the press conference.
What Detective Joey Mancuso actually said was, “Amber Riggs is the main suspect in this case. She’s a resident of Juniper but we’re uncertain of her whereabouts and we’re asking for the public’s help in locating her. Silent Witness is offering a reward.”
“Skipping town is definitely suspicious,” Sally Jo whispered.
Before I could respond, David Greene, the radio reporter with the dirty socks cologne, said, “I heard she was pregnant.”
Everything went dead quiet. The air left the room.
Mancuso’s silence was an affirmation. He cleared his throat. “That’s all the information we can give you at this time.”
“Mancuso looks awful,” Sally Jo said, under her breath. “Look at those bags under his eyes.”
I nodded. “I’m sure they’ve been working on it straight through since yesterday, you know?”
She popped her gum, then answered. “Yeah. Think it’s her?”
I shrugged one shoulder. “I mean, she left town. If she wasn’t guilty, why would she leave?”
“Hide her pregnancy?” Sally Jo said.
It was a viable reason.
Sally Jo and I had gone to high school with Amber Riggs. Back then, she was tall and gorgeous—she had the legs of a gazelle and a kitten’s face, with long, flowing blond hair. She hung out with the popular girls, who ate lunch sitting side by side on the top row of the quad’s amphitheater.
As an adult, she was still tall, but she was all blue eyeliner and too much mascara: rough around the edges. She’d refused to get a real career and had instead bounced around from retail shop to retail shop, selling t-shirts, souvenirs, and ice cream.
“I can’t say I’ve spoken more than two words to her,” I said, still talking in a whisper, since all the other reporters were acting responsible and asking questions. “I have no idea. You?”
“Same,” Sally Jo said. “Although she was the one who finally got that jerk—what was his name?”
“Mike Mooney,” I said, remembering his big teeth and acne-riddled forehead well from our high school days.
“Yes!” Sally Jo said. “Amber Riggs came up with the best insult—which caught on like wildfire. And he finally stopped making fun of my freckles.”
“I remember that,” I said.
The press conference was officially over. Joey Mancuso had excused himself and left the room.
In unison, our voices growing louder now as Mancuso walked through the exit, Sally Jo and I said, “If I wanted to kill myself, I’d climb your ego and jump to your IQ!”
“Good old Mike Mooney.” At some point, Patrick had come over, and he stood behind us, a hand on each of our chairs.
Sally Jo turned around, but I remained steadfast in my staring contest with the podium.
“You remember Mike Mooney?” she said. I could just feel the hearts fluttering from her eyes.
“How could I not?” Patrick said.
Then, he leaned down and spoke into my ear: “I remember everything about high school.”
“I didn’t hear why you’d moved back to Juniper,” Sally Jo said. “Did you, Rosie?”
I stood up to leave. “I’ll catch you later, Sally Jo,” I said. “I’ve got to get to work.”
I sat in my car in the police department parking lot, with a two-pronged goal: to calm myself down after interacting to Patrick and to create an action plan. This delay would end up costing me, but of course, I underestimated Patrick’s sense of professionalism: cunning and cutthroat.
After a few sips of moonshine and some deep breathing while smoking two clove cigarettes, I opened my notebook and started a fresh page for brainstorming.
I’d love, more than anything, to talk to Nicky’s girlfriend, Amber Riggs. But I doubted I could connect with her.
So I crossed out her name and wrote down the next best source: Sarah Wright, Nicky Wright’s widow. Also, I could head over to the Antelope Golf Course, where I knew Nicky had a membership. The manager would know if he had a regular group of golfing buddies.
“That’s a good start,” I said to myself.
First stop: the Wright household. According to the property records I found online, the family of four lived just outside of downtown.
As I drove over there, I thought about how to approach the wife of a dead man. Sarah would undoubtedly still be in shock, and I wondered what that would look like. Would she be crying? Inconsolable? Numb?
When I pulled up to the curb of the cozy, cheerful-looking cottage, I noticed right away that all the curtains were closed, which I had expected. I did not expect the front door to open when I arrived, as if someone was waiting for me.
What I expected even less: for Patrick Longmeier to walk out the door.
I stopped, frozen in place on the path that led from the sidewalk to the house.
Patrick brushed past me. “Taylor,” he said, giving me a brief nod.
As if he’d spun me around, my body turned to face the street. There was no car in sight. He walked up the sidewalk away from the house, striding purposefully as if he had somewhere to be. I gave my head a little shake, to clear it, and made my way to the front door, which was already closed again. I gave it five brisk knocks.
Sarah cracked the door a few inches to reveal half of her face. From what I could see, her eyes were dry and clear. Her expression looked tense and pinched.
“Yes?” she said.
“I’m Rosie Taylor, reporter from—”
“The Bugle,” Sarah said. “I know. Patrick told me you’d be stopping by. Look, I—”
“I’m sorry for your loss, Sarah.”
“Thank you.” She looked down, and then back up at me. “I can’t talk to you, okay?”
I nodded, my mind scrambling for traction. She’d talked to Patrick, at least enough to let him into her house.
I pointed a thumb over my shoulder towards the street. “Patrick—”
“I gave him an exclusive. Okay? He told me he’d write a separate front-page feature story about the fundraiser I’m starting for the kids’ college if I promised not to talk to any other reporters. I can’t turn that down. I’m sure you understand.”
With that, she shut the door. I stood there on the porch, stupefied.
Back in the car, I took another swig of moonshine, closing my eyes as I let the heat flow down to my stomach. I checked my brainstorming list. Next up: the golf course. This time, I knew enough to look for Patrick before I went in. I realized then that I didn’t even realize what kind of car he drove.
He wasn’t in the parking lot, but according to the manager, Stan, a middle-aged guy with skinny legs and a fat paunch, I was too late. Patrick had come and gone, and convinced Stan to give him exclusive access to the golf course reservations list.
Which meant he had contact info for Nicky’s golf buddies.
“How’d he convince you?” I said.
Stan rubbed his hands over his face. “Threatened to run a story about how I knew Nicky was having an affair with that Amber woman. They’d come in here a couple times a week, maybe more, and make use of our uh, private, um, conference rooms.”
He shrugged, an unspoken apology in his expression.
Determined not to let Patrick best me, I scrambled for my next move.
Surely Nicky had held down a job. Between ever-growing swigs of moonshine, I used my phone to scour the Internet for Nicky Wright’s employment history, but turned up useless results: a restaurant that was now defunct, a pest control company that had moved its headquarters to New Orleans, and an assembly line for an electronics enterprise, which had closed up shop two years ago.
As I clicked through the never-ending search results, a text from Gram popped up: What about the Skee-Ball?
Was there a correlation between the murder and the Skee-Ball? I shook my head. Now I was losing it.
I wrote back: Okay, Gram. This thing with the Skee-Ball is a little weird. I can’t see a correlation.
She didn’t respond right away, and my search for Nicky’s employment history only became more dismal. It was time to go back to the office.
Midge was sitting in my chair. “Whatcha got, Rosie?”
I sighed. “Not much of anything.”
I told her how Patrick had beat me to every source I’d tried, and how he’d either sweet-talked or blackmailed each of them into an exclusive.
Her eyes narrowed. “You’d better get over to the PD.”
“What will they tell me, beyond what they said at the press conference?”
“You won’t know until you get there, will you? And, Honey? If this Patrick fellow’s playing dirty, don’t be afraid to do the same. I don’t care how you get the info. Just get it. We’ve got to have something the Daily News doesn’t have.”
I groaned, turned around, and walked to my car.
Several unsavory ways to get a scoop ran through my mind, but I wasn’t prepared (yet) to follow through on them. There wasn’t enough moonshine in the City of Juniper to convince me to seduce Joey Mancuso. Instead, I figured, I’d resort to good, old-fashioned investigative skills. Like perseverance and wily thinking.
“No, I’m sorry, Miss.”
Marci, The woman at the front desk refused to call me by name despite the fact that I’d come in to check reports every single day for the past six years. “Detective Mancuso asked me not to let anyone back.”
“Can you ask him to come up, then? Tell him it’s—”
My shoulders tensed immediately. Patrick was here, too?
“Are you stalking me, Patrick?” I said, without turning around.
Marci beamed at him. “Hi there, Patrick. Nice to see you. Go on back.”
Yes, she called him by name. And she said, “Go on back.” She pressed the button near her desk and the door between reception and the office area clicked to the unlocked position. Smooth as butter, Patrick walked past me.
I almost missed my opportunity. I almost stood there, frozen in disbelief. But I gathered my wits and in two big strides, I caught up to him and squeezed through the door behind him.
As the door closed, he spun around to face me. Marci hopped up from her desk and came toward us, her hands flapping.
“Not you, Miss,” she said. “I have permission to send Patrick back. But not you.”
Then I said something I’d wanted to say a million times in high school, but never could … something I would have sworn never to say as an adult: “I’m with him.”
I grabbed his arm and yanked him down the hallway, even though I had no idea where we were going. I couldn’t see her, but it gave me pleasure to think of Marci standing there, mouth open, eyes blinking in slow motion.
Patrick waited until we turned a corner, and then he yanked his arm out of my grip and turned to face me.
“What the hell are you doing?” we said at the same time.
He waited. I waited.
Before I knew what had happened, my back was against the wall and Patrick’s mouth was on mine. And it felt so good. My hands found their way to his hair and his arms encircled my waist and we kissed like we hadn’t kissed in a decade, which we hadn’t.
Then it was over.
Patrick wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and I stood there, staring at him, not sure what to make of all this.
Fortunately, I didn’t have time to find out. Detective Mancuso stepped out of an office a few doors down and cleared his throat.
“I’ve gotta go, Taylor,” Patrick said. “You shouldn’t follow me.”
“Sorry, Sweetheart,” the detective said to me. “I can’t talk to you, today. Only Mr. Longmeier, here.”
Now my mouth dropped open in disbelief. How was this even possible? Patrick didn’t give me another glance as he walked away. Mancuso shut his office door, and I was left alone in the hallway.
Thirty minutes later, Patrick emerged from the police department headquarters. He didn’t know I was waiting for him, and I felt more than a little satisfaction when a surprised expression crossed his face before he had a chance to hide it.
“What are you doing here, Taylor.”
His propensity for putting questions in statement form was one of the things I used to find endearing.
“Just wanted a little chat, is all.”
“Are you drunk,” he said.
“You shouldn’t be drinking on the job, Rosie.”
“What’s it to you?” I said.
Then I realized that this conversation was in serious danger of veering wildly off-course.
“Patrick,” I said. “What the hell is going on, here? How are you getting exclusives from everybody I try to talk to?”
“I told you,” he said. “I’m not going to make this easy on you.”
I shrugged. “I know you did. But I didn’t know you were going to pull all my sources out from under me.”
“Have dinner with me.”
“Have dinner with me. Right now.” He looked at his watch. “It’s dinner time. I’m hungry. You must be hungry. If not, you should be. You need something to soak up all that booze before you do something stupid and get yourself fired. Have dinner with me.”
“Well, that’s a resounding, ‘no.'”
“We have some catching up to do,” he said.
“Do we?” I said. “We also have deadlines to meet.”
Ten minutes later, we were sitting at a bar overlooking the most picturesque part of Juniper: Granite Trail, which also happened to be the location of Nicky Wright’s death.
“I’ll have a dark beer, to start,” Patrick said to the bartender. “And she’ll have a water. And could we please get a menu.”