As the only female Native American officer on the Bryson City, North Carolina police force, Inola Walela, must always play her A game. All bets are off when during a routine traffic stop the passenger insists her son has been kidnapped but is struck by a car before Inola can glean any hard facts. An altercation ensues and Inola’s partner is felled by a bullet—possibly from her gun. On administrative leave, fraught with guilt for allegedly killing her partner, and obsessed with the possibility of a missing child out there somewhere, she defies the force and her fiancé, Sheriff Steven Hawk. Inola sets off on her own journey to find the missing boy.
Preston Durand tapped the black muzzle of a .32 caliber Beretta Tomcat against his thigh. He paced a tight circle. Glowered at Billy Carlton. An ominous creak and the steady drip from a leaking pipe in the boiler room beneath the Sylva, North Carolina cotton mill unnerved him. Dust so fine, the grit crunched between his clamped teeth. A rat scurried into a corner. Preston shuddered.
All he wanted was a little cooperation from his ex-wife’s boy-toy. Why wouldn’t the prick talk?
“Where is my son?” Preston asked Billy for the tenth time. Again, the bloodied young man shook his head, moaned, uttered no reply.
This was supposed to be so easy for Preston. Find his kid and take him back to Chicago so that his dying father would amend his will. Instead, he and Hondo Polk, the private investigator with a dubious past, had traveled across five state lines chasing his damned elusive woman. He was sick of staying in shitty motel rooms, missed his glass and chrome condo loft that overlooked the high-rise towers of downtown Chicago.
If he’d have known an heir would be so important to his father, he would have told him about the kid years ago. Now it was almost too late. He would have to prove the boy was his. Hondo would see to that—hell, he’d forge a paternity document if Preston needed him to.
Less than a week ago, in Chicago, the bitch had said she’d have the boy ready at nine o’clock the next morning. But she must have taken off with the kid the second they hung up. He should have gone right to her apartment instead of hitting the Blackhawks game, downing a few celebratory Stoli’s afterward, then partying with a long-legged blonde until dawn. By the time he kicked in his ex’s door, she and the boy were gone.
It took all of the following day for Preston to find the right man for the job he needed done “post haste” as his father often said. And a lot of money. Hondo had agreed to put his other cases aside and accompany Preston in his quest—for a ten thousand dollar fee. He immediately pulled out his checkbook and endorsed payment for half. The check wouldn’t clear, but he was willing to take the risk they would find the kid and mend the severed relationship with his father before Hondo caught on.
Preston glared at Billy, just out of his teens by the looks of him. He sat bound to a folding chair, his hands secured with ropes. Face bloody, left eye swollen shut, long hair dripping with sweat.
“Please, you gotta stop, man,” Billy pleaded, a slow Southern drawl. “I don’t know where your boy is.”
Preston looked at Hondo who sat on his haunches stroking his rust-red beard as he studied Billy. “Do you believe him?” Preston asked.
“Neither do I.” Preston swiped at a smudge on the lapel of his full-length, charcoal-colored twill coat. “All right then, let’s back up. Where is my wife?”
“Ex-wife,” Billy muttered.
“Ah, kid.” Hondo’s massive chest covered by a 3XL Hawaiian shirt jiggled as he chuckled. “Big mistake.”
Preston was accustomed to parking lot fights with anyone who disparaged his Hawks after a hockey game. The prick in front of him was half the size of most punks he’d taken down. He took a step closer and punched Billy in the gut. Billy’s legs jerked upward and he gasped with the impact.
“Where is she?” Preston roared.
Billy shook his head back and forth. Preston backhanded the younger man with the butt of his Beretta. A trail of blood coursed down the gash in his cheek, to his jaw, cascaded to the cement floor.
When Billy’s head collapsed to his chest, sumo-sized Hondo withdrew an ammonia inhalant from his breast pocket, broke the capsule in half and waved it under Billy’s nose. Billy’s head snapped up and he thrashed back and forth.
“Don’t you think you’ve had enough, Billy Boy?” Preston asked, squatting down next to Hondo. He reached out and tipped up Billy’s chin. A ripple of excitement stirred in Preston when his captive’s uninjured eye grew wide with fear. “Tell me where they are and we’re gone from your life forever. You want that, right?”
“Yeah, but I swear, I don’t know. She said she was moving on tomorrow. We were just having a drink.” Billy glanced at Preston, then looked away. “And I never even seen your kid!”
Preston let out a burst of air. “What did she offer you to keep quiet? Money? Let me clue you in…she doesn’t have any. Or was screwing her payment enough?”
“Naw, man, it wasn’t like that—”
“Bullshit,” Preston said. “It’s always like that.” Billy shook his head again, then resorted to sobbing. Preston wound a lock of Billy’s hair along his finger. “I don’t think pretty-boy knows where my family is. What do you think, Hondo?”
Preston rose and took a few steps backward, the knot in his stomach tightening with each stride.
“Shoot him,” Hondo said without turning to Preston.
Preston froze. The gun felt heavier in his hand. He gaped at Hondo who seemed mesmerized by the mess of a man in the chair. “What?” he asked over the whimpers.
“You want your kid, you gotta make him understand.” Hondo looked over his shoulder and gave Preston the psychotic grin that always scared him a little bit. “Shoot him.”
Preston lowered his gaze to the Beretta, considering.
“Look, I could do it for you. But, hey buddy, you told me you’d do anything to get your boy back. Prove it.”
“Pleeease, cut me loose.”
“Sure, Billy Boy. I’ll cut you loose.” Preston raised his weapon and fired a round. A hole the size of a dime bloomed between Billy’s eyebrows. A fine mist of blood spattered onto Hondo’s face and clung to the hibiscus blossoms on his chest. The gunfire’s crack reverberated off hard surfaces in the cavernous room. Billy’s head tilted back, lolled to the side. His body slumped in the chair.
Hondo jumped up and swiped his face with his hand. “Goddammed-sonofabitch-ofabitch!” Why’d you go and do that?”
Preston popped his jaw, trying to clear the ringing in his ears. He flicked his fingers over his left ear, amazed they didn’t come back bloody from the eardrum he thought must surely be broken. “You said to.”
“I told you to shoot him—not kill him.”
“Why do you care? He’s a stupid backwoods hick.”
Hondo stroked his beard, red faced, a vein on his forehead pulsating. “He was a stupid backwoods hick.” He took out a knife and proceeded to hack the rope from Billy’s torso. “Now we still don’t know where your kid is. Stupid bonehead move, pal.” Hondo tapped his temple with the tip of the blade and whirled away from Preston. “Stupid.”
Preston took in the dank space, the still air, the lifeless body at his feet—everything so surreal. He’d never shot anyone before. Had no clue he would be able to squeeze the trigger. “She can’t be far from here, right?” Hondo didn’t answer or turn around. “Right?”
He remembered the sight of his ex disappearing in the crowded bar a few hours earlier. They would be forced to track her down again. And now he had the monstrous, clearly pissed off Hondo to deal with too.
He stuffed the Beretta’s warm barrel into his waistband, then crouched to reach into the pocket of Billy’s jeans and retrieved his wallet. Preston pocketed the twenty-seven dollars and a condom, then took out the dead man’s North Carolina driver’s license.
“Look at this, Hondo,” Preston said in a voice he thought would entice his partner. “Billy Boy really is a boy—nineteen years old. What was she thinking? Address is in Bryson City. Ever heard of it?”
“Shit, no,” Hondo said. “Gotta check the map.”
He and Hondo had followed a lot of maps the past five days, crumpling each one as they crossed to yet another state after Illinois: Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, and now North Carolina. His ex-wife baffled him. He had no idea where she was headed. In Chicago, that auburn, doe-eyed bank manager he had lured to his bed before he and Hondo left the city had divulged every transaction on his ex’s credit card and savings account, but the banker had refused to return his calls for two days now.
Good thing Hondo was damned fine at his job. After a few clicks on his laptop, accessing a restricted Internet website, the PI had tracked the ex’s cell phone whenever she turned it on to make a call. Each time, he and Hondo would race to her location, only to find her gone.
Not knowing if Preston would locate his son in time plagued him. If his widower father died before getting the kid back, the entire Durand multi-million dollar fortune would be left to charity. Charity. Apparently Preston wasn’t good enough to receive what was rightfully his. He wasn’t successful, refused to work for the Durand International Fidelity Trust Corporation. Hadn’t made a name for himself. As if being the only child of an elusive blowhard didn’t qualify him as worthy. Preston could only assume that proving a suitable heir would be enough of a reason to change his father’s mind.
Tonight had been their first break, when they pulled up to a neighborhood bar and found his ex’s Camry parked out front. A quick search through the windows of her vehicle gleaned nothing. Not even an empty fast food container. Sure as hell, not his son.
When they’d entered the dive Preston caught a glimpse her long blonde hair glowing in the neon signs hanging over the bar. She fawned over Billy Carlton and stroked a bicep that rippled through his shirt. She must have sensed something because in a blink she vanished. Preston pushed his way through the throng of drunken patrons while Hondo stealthily pulled his own Beretta and snatched Billy. By the time Preston made it outside a different car had replaced her Camry in the parking space.
Preston looked down and scowled at the dead man, arms and legs splayed on the floor. He wondered again why the prick wouldn’t talk. Preston could only hope Billy Boy didn’t have any secrets to reveal. He took hold of Billy’s soaked armpits as Hondo grabbed the legs. Struggling with the cumbersome body, stinking of sweat and piss, they crossed the room and dumped him on the floor.
Hondo pushed a bulbous red button mounted shoulder-high on the wall and a rumble echoed in the bowels of the deserted mill. The incinerator lit and soon the area filled with heat and the stench of oil from the enormous furnace. Hondo took a steel bar from the floor and wrenched open the burner’s cast iron door, fed the ropes to the fire.
“I’ll be tastin’ this loser for days,” Hondo said, wincing. He swept his mitt of a hand over his mouth and spat on the ground. “Don’t pull any more shit like that, got it?”
“Sorry to take all the fun away from you,” Preston mumbled.
Hondo glared at Preston a moment. And then he laughed. The big man’s bellow resounded nearly as loud as the shot from Preston’s gun. “Got me there, Presto. I did wanna kill the little pisser.”
Preston let out a relieved breath, realizing Hondo had calmed down. He tossed Billy’s wallet into the furnace as he caressed the scar on his jaw, the only flaw on his GQ-worthy face. “I’m paying you a shitload of money, Hondo—”
The big man raised his hand. “Don’t worry. Like you said, Belinda can’t be far. We should check the punk’s house. I’ll take Billy’s car. Get yourself a room in Bryson City and keep your phone on.” He bent his imposing bulk and checked the licking flames. “What’ll you do when I find her?”
Preston thought about Hondo’s question as he scanned Billy’s lifeless form. He had been impulsive. But now he’d learned his lesson about reacting too quickly, without thinking about the full ramifications of his actions. He wouldn’t make the same mistake again. He would remind himself to consider what Hondo would do. Next time, he vowed, he would be more patient.
“She’ll tell me where my son is. And if she doesn’t, I’ll cut off her fingers and toes one by one until she does.”
Hondo removed one of Billy’s boots and threw it into the furnace. “You are one sick dude, Presto.” Flames engulfed the leather with a hiss. “I like that about you.”
Deborah J Ledford’s latest novel of suspense, CRESCENDO, is book three of the Steven Hawk/Inola Walela series. Other novels include SNARE, Finalist for The Hillerman Sky Award and the NM-AZ Book Awards, and the classical-music themed STACCATO. Deborah is a three-time nominee for the Pushcart Prize and her award-winning short stories appear in numerous print publications as well as literary and mystery anthologies. Part Eastern Band Cherokee, she spent her summers growing up in western North Carolina where her novels are set.
Click here to buy: Crescendo by Deborah J Ledford