Like to Die: New Excerpt

Like to Die

David Housewright

Twin Cities P.I. Mac McKenzie Series

June 19, 2018

Like to Die by David Housewright is the 15th book in the Twin Cities P.I. Mac McKenzie series, where a seemingly simple investigation—done as a favor for a friend—takes McKenzie down a dark and twisted path.

Once a police detective in St. Paul, Minnesota, Rushmore McKenzie has become an unlikely millionaire and an occasional unlicensed private investigator, doing favors for friends. The favor, this time, is for a friend of a friend―Erin Peterson, a local business person and owner of a growing food company called Salsa Girl. Someone seems to have a beef with her: the outside locks on her factory having been systematically filled with superglue. But for some reason, Erin doesn’t want to report this harassment to the police. As a favor to his poker buddy and hockey teammate Ian, McKenzie agrees to stop by and chat with Erin.

At first Erin denies there’s anything going on and then, when the harassment escalates and threatens her business, she also asks for McKenzie’s help. The further McKenzie digs into the situation, the more complicated―and deadly―it becomes. And somewhere, in the middle of it all, is Erin, playing all sides against the middle, leading McKenzie to wonder if you ever really know who your friends are.

ONE

My inner voice screamed at me. Don’t do it. Do. Not. Do It.

I studied the face across the table from me; the smirk. How I wanted to wipe that smirk off that face.

It’s a trap. You know that, right?

No, I don’t know that, I told myself.

Yes. You do.

Dave Deese leaned forward and smirked some more. “I’m supposed to sit here all night?” he asked. “Show me something, McKenzie.”

He’s trying to goad you into making a mistake.

I tossed three red chips into the center of the table. “Call,” I said.

Deese’s smirk became a smile. He threw his cards down. Three jacks.

Dammit.

I laid down my own cards—a pair of tens. Deese rubbed his hands together in delight and dragged the pot toward him.

“You are the worst poker player I’ve ever seen,” said Bobby Dunston.

“That is so untrue.” I pointed at the man sitting next to Deese. “Ian hasn’t won a game since college.”

“Actually, I was the big winner last month,” Ian Gotz said. “I didn’t make a fuss about it because, unlike you guys, I don’t have self-esteem issues.”

“You’re an accountant,” Harry said. “Of course you have self-esteem issues.”

“Says the man who carries a gun wherever he goes.”

“I’m a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It’s required. Whose deal is it?”

Ian pointed at Bobby Dunston. “How ’bout you?”

“The St. Paul Police Department makes the same demands,” he said.

“And you?”

Gotz was pointing at me.

“I never carry when I play poker for fear of shooting Dave.”

“Hah,” Deese said. He gathered the cards together and started shuffling.

“What’s your point?” Harry asked.

“Penis envy,” Ian said.

“Excuse me, what?”

“Have you guys ever shown each other your guns to see which is bigger?”

Bobby and Harry stared at each other for a beat.

“Mine is,” Harry said. “U.S. government issue.”

Bobby thought that was awfully funny.

“It’s not how big your gun is,” I said. “It’s how well you use it.”

“Is that what Nina tells you?” Deese asked.

“Let’s not go there.”

“Talk about self-esteem issues,” said Harry, whose real name was Brian Wilson, same as the Beach Boy, but who everybody called Harry because of his uncanny resemblance to the character actor Harry Dean Stanton.

“Five-card draw,” Deese said. “Aces wild, jacks to open, trips to win.”

“Is it even possible for you to play a straight game of poker?” Bobby said.

“Dealer’s choice. Are you the dealer? Ante up boys, ante.”

We played three more hands. I lost them all.

“You know, it’s okay to throw in your cards every once in a while,” Bobby said. “You don’t have to play every hand.”

“I only play when I have decent cards,” I said.

“The trouble is, you think all of your cards are decent.”

“McKenzie’s an eternal optimist,” Deese said.

“Do I call you names?” I asked.

“Last hand?” Harry suggested.

“Why last hand?” Deese wanted to know.

“Because it’s late and I’m still ahead.”

“I knew there had to be a good reason.”

“Hey,” Ian said. His eyes flew from Bobby to me. “Before you guys leave, can I talk to you?”

“That sounds ominous,” Harry said.

“Sure,” I said.

“What about?” Bobby asked. “You have a problem?”

“Not me,” Ian said. “Erin Peterson.”

“Salsa Girl?” Deese said.

“What about her?” Bobby asked.

“Someone’s messing with her,” Ian said.

“You mean someone besides you?” Deese said.

“Cut it out. This is serious.”

“How serious?” I asked.

“Yesterday someone filled all of the locks in her building with super glue. She had to call a locksmith to have them drilled out and replaced before her employees could get inside to work. It was a big deal because Friday is when she loads the reefers that deliver her product throughout the Midwest. It put her way behind schedule. She had to pay overtime to get her salsa out.”

“What’s a reefer?” Deese asked.

“Refrigerated semitrailer,” I said.

“Look at you knowing how things work,” Harry said.

“Her business is located off University near Raymond, right?” Bobby said. “That’s the Western District. Who’d she talk to?”

“No one,” Ian said. “Erin never called it in.”

“Why not?”

“She said she was afraid of bad publicity.”

“What’d her insurance company have to say?” I asked.

“I doubt she called them either.”

I glanced Bobby’s way.

“Revenge prank?” I said.

“Has Erin fired anyone lately?” Bobby asked. “Layoffs?”

“No layoffs,” Ian said. “Her business has been doing very well. She’s in fifteen states now. If she fired someone for cause—that I couldn’t say.”

“It was probably a dissatisfied customer,” Deese said. “The new batch of salsa she’s selling, the one with the green chilies, I don’t care for that at all.”

“Industrial espionage,” Harry said. “A business rival is attempting to sabotage her product. Maybe I should interview her.”

“Really, Harry?” I said. “You want to make a federal case out of it?”

“Any excuse to spend time with Salsa Girl is a good excuse.”

“She is a fetching lass.”

“Her name is Erin,” Ian said. “I wish you would stop calling her Salsa Girl. She doesn’t like it.”

“Not even in bed?” Deese said.

“Stop it.”

“How long have you kids been dating now?”

“We haven’t been dating. We’re just friends.”

“Friends with benefits?”

“Stop it.”

“No kidding, Gotz,” Harry said. “You’ve been brooding over this woman for how long now? Six years? Seven?”

“So what? McKenzie has been pining after Shelby for twenty years.”

“Closer to twenty-five,” I said.

Bobby raised an eyebrow. “Is that right?” he said.

“Don’t you know?” Ian asked. “You must know.”

Of course he knows, my inner voice reminded me.

“This is the first I’ve heard of it,” Bobby said. “I thought they were just good friends dating back to college.”

Ian stared back as if he had accidentally opened a deep emotional wound and didn’t know what to do about it. Bobby gave him a slight smile and a head shake to let him off the hook.

“Besides,” Deese said, “unlike you, McKenzie has moved on. You’ve met Nina, right?”

“She’s not as pretty as Shelby,” Ian said.

“That’s for sure,” Bobby said.

“Hey,” I said.

“On the other hand,” Bobby added, “you guys are going to mention my wife once too often, and the next time will be once too often.”

“Are we playing cards or what?” Harry asked.

“You’re dealing,” I reminded him.

“What we’re saying, Ian,” Deese said.

“We?” Bobby said.

“It’s time to move on.”

“What I’m saying is that Erin and I are friends,” Ian said. “Like McKenzie and”—he paused when he saw the look in Bobby’s eye—“the woman whose name will never again be mentioned. Besides, I’m her accountant.”

“This is where I would make a joke about going over her figures,” Harry said. “But I know none of you would laugh.”

“I wouldn’t,” Ian said.

“That’s because you have no sense of humor,” Deese said. “Deal the cards, Harry.”

“Ian,” Bobby said, “if Erin doesn’t want to call in an act of vandalism, there’s not much I can do about it.”

“Actually, I was thinking McKenzie,” Ian said.

“Why me?”

“Why not?” Harry said. “You’re like that amateur sleuth on the Hallmark TV channel who finds dead bodies every time she goes to a garage sale.”

“You watch the Hallmark Channel?” Bobby said. “That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“The wife likes it.”

“And you claim Ian is whipped.”

“McKenzie, what about it?” Ian asked.

“After my last disaster, I’ve retired from the amateur sleuthing business.”

“Who are you kidding?” Harry said.

Only yourself, my inner voice told me.

Bobby put an elbow in my ribs. “C’mon,” he said. “Flirt with someone else’s girl for a change.”

“She’s not my girl,” Ian said.

“In seventeenth-century Europe flirting was referred to as coquetry,” I said.

“Only you would know that,” Bobby said.

“Okay, Ian,” I said. “Tell Salsa Girl that I’ll call her Monday morning.”

“Umm.”

“What?”

“She made me promise not to tell anyone what happened.”

“Oh, for God’s sake.”

“Couldn’t you drop by Erin’s office unexpectedly just to say hello and see how she’s doing?”

“Since I’ve never once dropped by Erin’s office unexpectedly just to say hello and see how she’s doing, I think she’s going to be suspicious.”

“Tell her you’ve come to complain about her new salsa,” Deese said.

Harry finally got around to dealing the cards. He gave me an ace, but nothing else. Still, you have to bet the ace, don’t you?

*   *   *

It was rare when Nina arrived home before I did, especially on a Saturday night. She not only owned Rickie’s, a high-class jazz joint and restaurant on Cathedral Hill in St. Paul, she insisted on managing it every minute it was open. Even more uncommon was to find her watching our HDTV in the living room area of the condominium we shared.

I said, “Hi.”

Nina said, “How’d you do?”

“I lost fifty-four bucks.”

“You are the worst poker player in America.”

“So I’ve been told. What are you watching?”

“This is the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen. The tall blonde with the fake boobs is screaming at the tall brunette with the fake boobs for flirting with her man…”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“Meanwhile, the tall redhead with the fake boobs and store-bought hair claims they’re ruining her party and wants them both to leave except they can’t leave because the party is being held on a yacht in the middle of the ocean. I didn’t know being a housewife was so dramatic.”

“Clearly you don’t get out enough. Speaking of which—you’re back early.”

“I work too hard.”

“Yes, you do.”

“Jenness told me to go home.”

“I’m sure she said it in the nicest way.”

“She said she’s either the weekend manager or she isn’t the weekend manager, so what’s it going to be? So I said, ‘Fine. Manage.’ It’s not like I’ve poured twenty years of my life into the place.”

“Too bad there weren’t any cameras. You could have your own reality TV program.”

“Do you think I’m a workaholic?”

“I think your business is running smoothly, your daughter is off to college, and you have a bundle of cash in the bank. You should take more time for yourself.”

“Doing what? Watching TV?”

I gestured at the $60,000 Steinway I bought her a year ago.

“I thought you wanted to get back into music,” I said.

“Who’d hire me?”

“I have a friend who owns a jazz joint. I could put in a good word for you.”

“Would I have to audition?”

“She does have pretty high standards.”

Nina turned off the TV and tossed the remote on the sofa.

“I’m taking tomorrow off to clean the place and do the laundry,” she said. “You’re going to help.”

“Okay.”

“I’m also thinking of taking Monday off. We could go antiquing in Stillwater if you’re up for it. I’ll even buy lunch.”

“Works for me, but I need to meet with Erin Peterson first.”

“Salsa Girl? Why?”

“Favor for Ian Gotz.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Probably nothing. Ian is worried about her, is all.”

I told her why.

“Could be a vengeful lover,” Nina said.

“What makes you say that?”

“Some men, if a woman breaks up with them, they feel the need to punish the woman. You’ve met my ex-husband.”

“If it’s an ex-boyfriend that’s troubling her, do you think she’d confide in me?”

“I doubt it. You need to remember who’s asking for the help. It’s not Erin. It’s Ian. Do you honestly think she’s going to look Ian’s friend in the eye and tell him that she’s being vandalized by someone she was cheating with?”

“I don’t think cheating’s the right word. Ian and Erin are—”

“Just good friends? Is that what you were going to say?”

“That’s what he says.”

“I don’t care what he says. I see the look in his eye when she’s near. Ian might be Salsa Girl’s port in the storm, but she’s the love of his life. She knows it, too.”

“You think?”

“I think. Besides, the only times I’ve spoken to her were at gatherings with you and your friends, and she was very private. Very secretive. Erin loves talking about her business, but not herself. I know very little about her except what she does for a living. We always say that we should get together since we seem to have so much in common, single women who’ve built successful businesses from scratch, only nothing ever comes of it. Each time I’ve tried to arrange something, Erin says she’s too busy. I’m not sure she has much of a life outside of her work.”

“Sound like anyone we know?”

“I’ve got a life. I have Erica.”

“Who’s at Tulane University.”

“I have friends. Like the Dunstons.”

“Mostly they’re my friends, but okay.”

“I have my music.”

“Which you hardly ever play.”

Nina stood, feet apart, her fists pressed against her hips. “I have you,” she said.

“I agree that should be enough for any woman.”

“You’re right. I need to get out more.”

Copyright © 2018 David Housewright.

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