An excerpt of A Bad Day for Mercy, the fourth in the Stella Hardesty series by Sophie Littlefield (available June 19, 2012).
A call from Stella’s little sister brings the news that Stella’s step-nephew, Chip, has been threatened with serious bodily harm if he doesn’t settle his unpaid gambling debts. Stella makes the drive to Chip’s home in Wisconsin, only to walk in on a wee-hours dismemberment. Chip and his Russian girlfriend, Natalya, insist the man was left, already dead, on their porch. Suspicious but compelled to help family, Stella tracks down other suspects, including the deceased’s business partner, a purveyor of black-market Botox, and a jilted violist. Matters are complicated by the unexpected arrival of BJ Broderson, who has picked the worst possible time to pursue his amorous intentions toward Stella. Meanwhile, thoughts of Sheriff “Goat” Jones make Stella blush and wonder where, and with whom, she will spend her fifty-first birthday.
Jogging home from the Freshway at sunset on a sultry evening in late May had been a fine idea. Trying to carry home a box of frozen taquitos, a carton of pistachio ice cream, a family-sized bag of Fritos Scoops, a tub of French onion dip, two cans of vegetable soup, a three-pack of Dove Beauty Bars, and a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black in her backpack had not been a very good idea—even if the pack was a BlackHawk Raptor model, cleared for special ops use. The heavy load bounced and jostled against Stella Hardesty’s spine as each step brought her closer to her little white house on Poplar Street.
She hadn’t had much of a choice, anyway—her Jeep was in the shop for a suspension problem that she suspected was the result of too many fast drives down too many bumpy dirt roads, an ill-advised habit that she enjoyed to an unseemly degree for a middle-aged woman.
Stella considered slowing down to a walk, but she’d decided to train for the Bean Blossom Half Marathon in Casey, which was less than three weeks away, and that meant she had to stick to a strict and grueling schedule. Today’s entry read “5m run + strength,” and while Stella had given herself a two-mile advantage due to the added weight she was carrying and credited herself for assembling a Quilter’s Dream 2140 cabinet using only hand tools, she figured that fiftyish ladies burdened with a few extra pounds were probably not good candidates for creative tweaking of the recommended regimen.
Not to mention the fact that she was planning to take the day after tomorrow off to observe a certain minor milestone. Or ignore it. She wasn’t certain yet, and she wasn’t entirely sure that an extra-generous serving of junk food and whisky would be exactly clarifying, but either way she wasn’t about to put herself through any contortions of the physical fitness variety on the day she began her fifty-second year on earth. Besides, her daughter, Noelle, was coming over to give her a birthday mani-pedi, and she didn’t intend to risk messing up the polish by putting her sneakers on afterward.
No, she definitely needed to get her huffing and puffing and muscle augmenting and stamina building in today, or it would be that much harder to pick up the pace on Sunday, when she was due to go for a leisurely nine-mile jog around Homer Reservoir with Camellia Edwards, her good friend Dotty’s energetic half-sister who was pursuing an associate’s degree in exercise physiology and would surely know if she’d been slacking.
A startling little tremor at her waist caused Stella to break stride until she remembered that she’d tucked her phone into the pocket of her shorts. Stella didn’t like to be without the device, since one never knew when a potential client might call, and Stella’s clients weren’t the sort one wanted to leave hanging too long. She dug the phone out and was pleased to see her sister’s number. Never, in the quarter century since Gracellen had moved to California, had she missed Stella’s birthday
“You’re a couple days early,” Stella said by way of an answer. “Not that I’m complaining.”
“I’m sorry, Gracie, I can’t much hear you,” Stella interrupted as her sister’s faint voice blipped in and out of static. “Y’all up at the cabin?”
Gracellen and her husband, Chess, owned a cabin up near Lake Tahoe that was about twice as large as Stella’s house and ten times fancier. It had fake log rafters and wall hangings featuring bears cavorting with moose—despite the fact that Stella was pretty sure there were no moose in California—and a leather sectional sofa and a fifty-five-inch wall-mounted TV, but for all that you couldn’t get a lick of cell phone reception. Chess liked to say that he’d paid extra for the phones not to work, since he was so besieged by underlings and customers and whoever it was he dealt with on a daily basis that he had to drive three hours just for a moment’s peace.
Chess had been a stuffy red-faced soft-palmed overdressed young executive of thirty-two when he happened on Gracellen waitressing in a St. Louis pub. Over his parents’ strenuous objections, and despite the eleven-year age difference, he’d whisked her off to Sacramento a week later, stopping briefly in Vegas to get married. Now Chess was a stuffy red-faced soft-palmed overdressed middle-aged executive of fifty-eight, and Stella never could find anything to talk about with the man, but he kept her sister in designer duds and nice cars and cabin weekends, so Stella couldn’t help but overlook his incredible boringness, especially since her sister didn’t seem to mind putting up with him too much.
“Yes ut err ett!” Gracellen’s voice, at least the little bits of it that came through seemed highly excited.
“Mmm hmm, darlin’, thank you so much for calling, but how about you call me when you get back to town where the phones work?”
“Onnn aim uh—”
“Nice talking to you, too, sweetie,” Stella said and snapped off the phone. She loved her little sister, but a conversation with Gracellen was likely to go on for hours, and Stella figured it was just as well not to have it in the middle of Hickory Street with her ponytail stuck to her sweaty neck and her running shorts riding up her behind.
She gave her shorts a little tug and tried in vain to shift the contents of her pack to a more comfortable position, but as she set out down the street again it felt as though the soup cans were fighting for space against her vertebrae, and she had just allowed herself a lengthy stream of colorful curses when a car pulled over and idled along next to her, maintaining her pace.
Not just a car, Stella realized with a flush of embarrassment as she glanced over to see who was acting as her pace car—BJ Brodersen’s tricked-out Ford 250. Even without the custom curlicue sparkly decals in a sort of vaguely cresting-wave design along the side, Stella would have recognized the big, sleek truck—there weren’t too many folks in Prosper, Missouri, who had the ready cash to spend on fog lights and a winch mount and sport exhaust and fiberglass bed cover. But BJ’s bar did a steady business, and since he lived behind the bar in an old garage that had been converted into a tidy bachelor apartment, his expenses were low, so he had the money to spend lovingly tending to his prized possession.
“Evenin’, Stella,” BJ said, his bulky forearm resting on the driver’s side window. “How are you?” Stella rolled her eyes and tugged at her shorts again, wishing she’d worn the cute ones that Noelle had given her recently to replace the ragged ones Stella usually wore and was in fact wearing tonight. The cute shorts were folded carefully in Stella’s drawer, waiting for Stella to lose just a few more pounds, along with the darling matching fitness top.
Stella knew about how she looked. She had put in half a day at her shop, Hardesty Sewing Machine Repair & Sales, assembling the Quilter’s Dream display table and stocking a shipment of Gütermann thread while her assistant, Chrissy Shaw, hunted down an error in the billing from the Viking folks and harangued their customer service department into making it right. After lunch she’d paid a visit to a gentleman over in Harrisonville related to her other business, the one she did under the table and outside the shadow of the law and, whenever possible, out of earshot, and while the gentleman was far sorrier than he had been when he woke up in the morning, Stella had pulled or twisted or otherwise abused a muscle in her shoulder and broken a couple of nails and smudged her makeup in the process of settling their differences. A big chunk of her hair had escaped her ponytail and hung in her face, and her T-shirt was several sizes too big and bore the phrase “Only my hairdresser knows,” an obscure reference to a hairstyling product carried by the salon where Noelle worked.
Not expecting to run into one of the few appealing and eligible bachelors in Prosper, Stella had thrown on not only the butt-crack-wedgie shorts but an old pair of socks that came up over her ankles and made her legs look shorter and dumpier than they actually were. Still, she managed a pained smile and a little wave. “Evenin’ yourself, BJ.”
“Now what-all are you up to?” he asked, as they continued their slow process down the street. BJ was not a thickheaded man, only painfully polite and rather shy, so Stella resisted pointing out that his query belied the obvious.
“Oh, you know, out for a little run.”
“You’re lookin’ real good there, Stella,” BJ observed without actually meeting her eyes, his gaze focused carefully and politely somewhere around her collarbones, well above any regions that might be considered inappropriate or lecherous. BJ was about a thousand times more gracious than the average customer in his bar, who tended to include folks who weren’t well dressed enough or flush enough to drink anywhere else and who rarely bothered to filter or censor their conversations, especially as the evening wore on. He didn’t hold anyone else to his mild-mannered standards, welcoming all comers with equanimity, which Stella appreciated. Among the lessons of middle age was an abiding distaste for folks who thought their bank account made them better than other folks, especially as Stella’s side business seemed to prove over and over that aside from the minority of folks who were genuinely and irritatingly and sometimes profoundly mean, most people were basically just as flawed as everyone else no matter how many zeroes were on their paychecks.
“Why, thank you, BJ,” Stella said. “You’re looking, um, very nice, too.”
Only then did she take a closer look at him, slowing down to a halt at the sight of his rather surprisingly shiny shirt, which in the slanting last rays of sunset appeared to be a bright pink. His name was stitched in a fancy script over his pocket, with tiny hearts instead of periods after each initial. While the shirt did look nice against his neatly combed salt-and-pepper hair and smooth-shaved, square-jawed face, it was an unexpected fashion choice for a man whose taste usually ran to faded golf shirts and Levi’s belted a little lower than his gut not unlike his shirt. “I. Um. This. You see . . . I’m going bowling. League Night.”
“Oh.” More polite nodding. Tuesdays and Fridays, the Prosper Bowl did a brisk business with the many club teams from all over the south half of the county, since the only other bowling alley in Sawyer County was up in Fayette.
“Yeah. See, the little gal from Seagram’s. . . she . . . e . . .”
“Oh,” Stella said shortly, suddenly feeling even more self-conscious. While she was far more buff than she’d been a few years ago when she devoted her time to basic housewifery, she was still a robustly shaped woman of a certain age, and no amount of sugarcoating was going to allow her to compete with the sort of tight little package that was the domain of most females who hadn’t yet counted out three decades.
“Junelle . . . why, she’s like a little niece or something.”
“Oh,” Stella repeated, brightening.
“And she and her girls, they weren’t going to be able to compete in this tournament if they didn’t come up with a fifth, since one of ’em’s out having a baby. So now I got Jorge helping out nights, I figured . . .” BJ gave a sheepish little shrug that looked positively adorable. “Which is why I’m now a Seagram’s Sister.”
For a moment they beamed at each other, BJ peeping out of the corner of his eyes and Stella sneaking yet another tug at her offending shorts. There was something about a bashful man—she half wanted to pat his brush-cut head, and half wanted to…well, enough of that.
Stella had been carrying a torch for a particular man for over three years. Unfortunately that man was the local sheriff, a fellow by the name of Goat Jones. He was about as bashful as a firecracker, as hesitant as a bull, as unassuming as a July marigold. While it was evidently a permanent condition that Stella ran out of both breath and inhibition around the man, she was a little tired of the way their careers conspired to keep them apart. Him being a lawman, and her being…well, a lawless woman. By necessity of course, and for the good of the downtrodden…but all the fiery principles in the world didn’t much help when one of them was trying to observe the capital-L letter of the law and the other of them, that being Stella, was trying to thread her way through it like silk through a straw needle.
A while back, Goat had brought her a gift that other women might not have found romantic, it being a waterlogged photo of Stella beating the shit out of a local loser who’d abused his wife once too often until Stella got wind of the situation, but to Stella it beat a big box of candy and a truckload of roses. There was nothing that said “I Heart You” like destroying evidence that could send a person to jail.
She’d hoped that little keepsake might be followed up by some vigorous hay-rolling, or at least a night at the movies, but Goat had been keeping his distance. Stella supposed she could understand: After all, the man had broken his most solemn oath by handing over evidence. Still, she was getting a little restless waiting for his conscience to settle itself down enough for him to indulge his inner bad boy in her direction.
“Say,” she said, aiming for an offhand tone. “The tourney play don’t start until later in the evening, isn’t that right?”
BJ blinked at her from under long fringy lashes. “That’s so.”
“Well, I was just thinking, I mean I understand you might have dinner plans already, but I could fix us a little something, I mean nothing special but—”
“Yes,” BJ said quickly.
Stella smiled, deciding she wouldn’t point out that she hadn’t got around to actually laying out the terms of her invitation. A gentleman’s enthusiasm in the face of one’s flat-out womanly mysteries was a powerful thing.
BJ’s blush deepened. “Lemme do a U-ie and come around so you can hop on in.”
“Don’t be silly,” Stella said, as she crossed daringly in front of the truck, not even trying to dislodge the tight Lycra fabric from her ass and adding a little sway to her step.
Half an hour later the taquitos were in the oven, the onion dip upended in a pretty Fiestaware dish, the chips mounded in a salad bowl, and Stella was fresh out of the shower and subtly spritzed with White Diamonds. She emerged from her bedroom to find BJ peering at the latest Redbook, a pair of half-moon specs perched on his nose. The gin and tonic Stella’d mixed sat nearly untouched on the coffee table.
When BJ noticed Stella he hastily snatched the glasses off his nose and stuffed them into his embroidered shirt pocket.
“Those glasses look nice on you,” Stella said, plucking her own drink—a neat slug of Johnnie in a tumbler—off the counter and joining him on the couch. She chose a spot that left a foot of chintz between them. Far enough apart for decorum . . . but close enough, she hoped, to signal a world of potential.
“Oh, now, Stella, don’t be mean,” BJ mumbled, ducking his chin down practically to his pearly pink collar.
Stella reached out before she had a chance to think and hooked a finger under his strong, bristly chin. She tipped his face caught her breath to note the equal parts longing and uncertainty all mixed up in their depths.
“But I meant it,” she whispered. “Just about anything looks nice on you, BJ.”
After that followed one of those moments that you wish you could dip into acrylic and plate with gold and mount on a stand with a gilded plaque with the date and a thousand exclamation points—the kind of moment that even when you’re in it you know will be playing on the pull-down screen in your mind on your dying day. Here was a man who wanted her, who—unlike Goat—offered nothing more complicated than a sweet lusty romp, with maybe the potential for something even more sweet and uncomplicated to follow.
BJ’s hand traveled all slo-mo like up to Stella’s, and he wrapped his warm fingers around hers and drew her hand around his neck. She closed the distance with a happy little sigh, and when her lips landed squarely on his she was only a little surprised at the rather generous and fleshy nature of his tongue, the funny way he patted at her waist as though he were shaping dough into a loaf—so unlike Goat—before a wave of pure animal lust came crashing from sources unknown and Stella figured she’d just throw caution to the wind and go with it.
Stella was very familiar with the contours and curves of her pink chintz sofa, having fluffed its pillows and vacuumed its crevices about a thousand times in the past decade, so she was able to drag BJ down on top of her with no fear of smacking her head on a sofa arm or dislodging a stray throw pillow. For his part, BJ seemed fine with the whole animal attraction approach and swiftly maneuvered a knee between her willing and pliant thighs. A nagging little voice in the back of Stella’s mind whispered reminders of the way Goat’s hands—callused and wind-weathered and strong as steel— felt when they tugged her hair or grazed a nipple, but even that voice dimmed as BJ’s sweet doughy lips trailed a path across her cheeks, under her ears, down her neck, settling with a happy sigh between her breasts.
“Erm bermferm,” he muttered, giving her soft little kisses while his hands stole shyly to her hips, where they settled tentatively, almost reverently.
“Come again?” Stella said contentedly, letting her eyes flutter shut and throwing her head back so her shoulder-length hair, recently colored a shade somewhere on the red side of auburn by Noelle, could spill luxuriously over the edge of the sofa.
BJ lifted his head from her breasts and gave her a heavy-lidded gaze, his cheeks flushed dark with exertion and, Stella fervently hoped, lust. “You’re beautiful,” he clarified, before diving back into his happy task, and that gave Stella the extra assurance she was looking for. She put her hands on his and gave them a little push, willing BJ to surge past tentative to, say, willful and unstoppable, or at least untamed and demanding, or even needful and greedy. For one wild and headstrong moment he slid his hands under her rear and squeezed, but then he retreated, his hands coming to rest once more in the no-combat zone of her general waist area while he continued his gentle exploration of the valley between her breasts.
Stella tried once more, giving his hands a less subtle shove in a downward direction, but he resisted, adding a polite little moan—and a memory came unbidden into Stella’s mind: Goat, here, on this couch, during a makeout session a few months ago. He had not been tentative. He had not been polite. He had been all wanting and taking and insisting, and the thought of the way he’d nearly thrown her down and grabbed great handfuls of her soft and willing flesh caused a moan of her own to escape her lips.
Stella’s eyes flew open and she found herself staring at BJ’s chin, and she had time to note that he’d missed a little patch with the razor before he was scrambling off her as fast and furiously as though he had discovered he’d accidentally mounted a prize boar. Before Stella had a chance to protest or demand an explanation, she looked past BJ and saw the source of his consternation, and suddenly she was racing BJ in an effort to look as though they hadn’t just been doing precisely what they had been doing.
“Is that—Mr. Brodersen, is that you?” Todd Groffe asked with unprecedented awe, his fourteen-year-old jaw dropping impressively.
“Hello, Todd,” Stella said briskly, standing and dusting off the front of her capri pants as though she’d been doing nothing more exciting than pulling a few stray weeds from the flower bed. “Say hello as though you were not brought up in a barn.”
“Does the sheriff know he’s here?” Todd stage-whispered, never taking his eyes off BJ, who was making furtive adjustments to his trousers while crossing his legs and sliding as far away on the couch as he could.
“He’s not—I don’t—what are you doing here, anyway?” Stella managed to get out. “Don’t you and your hoodlum pals have a date to smoke crack behind the Arco or something?”
“We done smoked it,” Todd said, his voice settling back to his too-bored-to-be-bothered register now that the excitement had waned, along with BJ’s ardor. “And we also knocked over Dumfree Liquors and all got blow jobs and burned us up a flag, so you can just hold on to your lecture, Stella. It’s too late for savin’ me.”
“Is that right,” Stella said, getting her composure back. She picked up a throw pillow that had fallen victim to the recent lust storm, fluffed it, and placed it primly between herself and BJ while Todd sprawled in the easy chair. “What did Chanel think of that business?”
She noted with satisfaction that Todd’s smart-ass smirk disappeared in a flash of sweet and tender adolescent self-doubt. Todd tugged at the collar of his T-shirt, which inexplicably bore an image of a duck with a human skull and a cigarette hanging out of its beak.
“I said, how is your young lady friend?” Stella repeated smugly.
“She’s fine, I guess,” he mumbled.
“And her mother?”
“Fine, prob’ly.” Todd slid further down in the chair until his bony butt hovered off the edge. “And old Mrs. Tanaka? Out at Crestview Care?” Todd scowled. “How’m I s’posed to know, Stella?” Stella beamed with triumph. Winning a round with her young neighbor gave her all manner of satisfaction, especially now that he was getting older and cagier. His romance with the hottest girl in eighth grade had been given a boost not long ago when Noelle gave him a makeover, which he had assiduously kept up with gallons of goopy hair product. Noelle, who apparently had decided that Todd was a perfect substitute for the little brother she never had, bought him ridiculous T-shirts and baggy plaid shorts and overpriced jeans at the mall over in Coffey, thirty miles away, where she lived. When she came for her weekend visits, the two of them talked music and movies and school while they did Noelle’s laundry.
Todd was family, even if they didn’t have a box for that particular relationship on the U.S. Census Bureau form.
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, “only I’m thinkin’ that little mark on your neck didn’t exactly get there all by itself, see what I’m sayin’?”
Todd’s hand flew to the hickey that peeped up over his collar like a smudge of ketchup and blushed a furious purple. Good. They were even, and she could count on the boy’s silence—for now, at least.
“Mr. Brodersen was just about to—” Stella began. Then she was interrupted by the phone again. She pulled it out and squinted at the display. Gracellen. She didn’t much feel like listening to the static, so she returned it to her pocket. “Mr. Brodersen was about to go to his bowling night. And I imagine you were on your way someplace important, too, right, Todd?”
“Bowling don’t start until seven thirty,” BJ said helpfully. “I might could stay a bit longer.”
Stella gave him a thin-lipped smile. Now that that first wave of lustful feelings had been forced off the road by Todd’s untimely arrival, a measure of uncertainty had crept into her mind. Things had been moving awful fast—after all, she and BJ had never even been on a proper date—and also too slow, if that made any sense. She needed some time, some solitary time, to review in her mind the dance of passion that BJ had been performing on her and figure out if they were hearing the same tune, so to speak.
His tongue had been . . . just so darn fleshy.
Stella felt her face warm at the thought and fixed a glare on Todd, who was sifting through the bowl of mixed nuts that Stella had set out, picking out all the cashews and tossing them into his mouth.
“Let me say it plain, Todd,” she said. “Time for you to go on home. Your mama’s gonna be home with the girls by now.”
Todd had adorable seven-year-old twin sisters and a mother who attempted to keep up with three kids and a job and a house and a stack of bills that would make a weaker woman weep, as well as an ex- husband whose life had recently become a bit more interesting, though Sherilee didn’t know it. Alongside the sewing machine shop Stella had inherited from her dead son-of-a-bitch husband, she had her second, secret business that involved straightening out all manner of abusers and deadbeats and worthless husbands and boyfriends. Ordinarily a fee was involved, a sum tailored to a woman’s means, but in Sherilee’s case Stella was doing a little pro bono work.
After all, Royal Groffe was hardly the worst offender Stella had ever encountered. He’d just let late payment of his child support become a habit since moving from up near the northeast corner of Missouri to Kansas City, where there was more call for experienced pipe fitters—as well as a lot more nightlife to spend his paycheck on. Sherilee was not the complaining sort, so it had taken several months of late payments—months in which she lay awake nights trying to figure out how to stretch a paycheck to cover food for her children while still keeping the lights on—before she’d let slip to Stella how worried she was.
Stella had driven up to Kansas City, where she visited the job site where Royal was employed. From what she could tell, sitting in her Jeep Liberty and nibbling Junior Mints to pass the time while she observed him through her Zhumell short-barrel waterproof binoculars, a pair she favored because they fit easily in her purse, he was a skilled and dedicated worker. That was a check in the plus column, the way Stella saw it, since that meant he was likely to stay steadily employed. Still, Stella met him in the parking lot after work and gave him a manicure with a 30-watt woodburning tool plugged into the power converter she kept in the Jeep and ran off its cigarette lighter, to explain that his lax attitude about sending support payments constituted a check in the minus column.
Since then his checks had arrived early Todd’s scowl deepened, and he tossed the last of the nuts into his mouth and chewed glumly. “Mom said stay outta the house while she fixes dinner.”
Stella’s ears pricked up at that. Sherilee never sent Todd out of the house, with the exception of Sunday nights, when he came over to watch TV with Stella while Sherilee took her girls out for ice cream or a movie or to feed the ducks at Nickel Pond. Until recently she’d had a standing date with her son on Saturday nights, but now that Todd was weighted down with a girlfriend as well as a flock of equally hormonal and sullen friends, he generally made his own weekend plans, which made Sherilee all the more determined to spend as much time with her boy as she could after work. As for Todd, as much as he complained about his pesky little sisters and his mother’s draconian discipline, he took his man-of-the-house role seriously enough to make Stella’s heart ache.
So whenever Todd seemed determined to stay away from home, Stella had learned to be suspicious. She reached for the backpack Todd had tossed on the rug and dragged it close before Todd could stop her.
“Hey!” he protested. “Ain’t no call to be goin’ through my stuff, Stella!”
“Shouldn’t bother you none, if you ain’t got anything to hide,” she said placidly.
“That’s illegal search!” he protested, and looked like he was going to launch himself at Stella, but when BJ glared and lifted himself an inch off the chintz cushions, Todd sank back in the chair. BJ was six foot three in sock feet, and Todd hadn’t yet finished growing.
“Aha!” Stella crowed, finding a can of Krylon International Harvester Red paint in the bottom of the pack among the broken pencils and empty Cheeto bags and crumpled papers “At it again, are you?”
When Royal Groffe had undertaken a renewed effort to deliver his support payments on time, he’d apparently been so swayed by Stella’s visit that he’d begun bringing the checks in person. Sherilee had marveled that he stayed on the porch respectfully cooling his heels, his hair combed carefully and his hands clasped in front of him like a Sunday preacher. She’d asked him in out of good manners more than anything else, and while his daughters peeped curiously around the corner at this man who was barely more than a memory, Todd remembered enough about his father to be plunged into a fit of burst illusions and broken promises and forgotten birthdays.
To say that the boy was bitter would be an understatement. The second time his father had come inside for a glass of sweet tea, Todd snuck around to where Royal’s silver Mazda was parked alongside the curb and hastily tagged it on the driver’s side. When Royal came out of the house after his fifteen-minute visit, he was greeted by foot-tall red letters along the driver’s side that spelled out
i am an a . . .
—which caused him no end of confusion until he rounded the corner and discovered that the cryptic message continued around the back end of the car, clear across the license plate and bumper:
. . . sshole
—which pretty much cleared it up.
Royal had begun to make a fuss about tanning his son’s hide and taking the cost of repairs out of his support payments. When his ranting turned to threats and yelling, Sherilee called Stella with a desperate plea to come get Todd before he launched his scrawny teenaged self at his father and got himself into even more trouble Stella wandered down in a pink velour jogging suit and gave Royal a sweet smile. If Sherilee was surprised to see her ex swallow his temper and drive meekly away, she hid it well.
Still, Stella wasn’t sure she’d be able to save the boy a second time. She did a swift calculation: Friday was payday, but the support check came only twice a month, and she couldn’t remember whether this was a pay week or not.
“Todd Groffe,” she said, “what have you done now?”
“Nothing! I swear, Stella, that’s just in there from last time. I ain’t got around to putting it back in the garage, is all.”
“Young man, I best not discover that you are lying to this fine lady,” BJ said, his arms crossed over his broad chest.
Todd made an unintelligible sound, staring at the carpet with his hands jammed in his pockets. Stella suppressed a smile and allowed herself to enjoy BJ’s simmering glower before she turned her attention back to Todd. “So if I go look out the picture window, I won’t see your dad’s car over at your mom’s?”
Todd managed a look of grievous injury. “ ’Course not!”
Stella, however, knew better. She sighed and pushed herself off the couch.
“Less by ‘over at Mom’s,’ you mean, like, parked out front or something,” Todd added hastily. “He, uh, might be visiting, I guess.”
Sure enough, Stella spied the outline of the car in the quick-falling evening.
A passing car lit up the street with twin beams, and Stella was already turning away when something about the vehicle caught her attention, and she turned back.
A sheriff’s vehicle. Specifically, the squeaky-clean cruiser operated by the top law enforcement dog of Sawyer County, none other than Goat Jones himself.
Copyright © 2012 by Sophie Littlefield
Sophie Littlefield grew up in rural Missouri. She is the winner of an Anthony Award and an RT Book Award for Best First Mystery. She is also an Edgar Award and Goodreads Choice finalist. The second book in the series, A Bad Day for Pretty, was named a New York Times Notable Book. Sophie lives near San Francisco, California.