A Bad Day for Sunshine by Darynda Jones: New Excerpt
By Darynda JonesMarch 2, 2020
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Welcome to Del Sol,
a town full of sunshine,
fresh air, and friendly faces.
(Barring three or four old grouches.)
Sunshine Vicram pushed down the dread and sticky knot of angst in her chest and wondered, yet again, if she were ready to be sheriff of a town even the locals called the Psych Ward. Del Sol, New Mexico. The town she grew up in. The town she’d abandoned. The town that held more secrets than a politician’s wife.
Was she having second thoughts? Now? After all the hubbub and hoopla of winning an election she hadn’t even entered?
Hell yes, she was.
But after her night of debauchery—a.k.a. her last hurrah before the town became her responsibility—she thought she’d conquered her fears. Eviscerated them. Beaten and buried them in the dirt of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
Either Jose Cuervo had lied to her last night and given her a false sense of security, or her morning cup of joe was affecting her more than she thought possible.
She eyed the cup suspiciously and took another sip before looking out the kitchen window toward the trees in the distance. The snow had stopped last night, but it had restarted with the first rays of dawn. Snowstorms weren’t uncommon in New Mexico, especially in the more mountainous regions, but Sun had been hoping for, well, sun her first day on the job. Still, snow or no snow, nothing could stop the brilliance that awaited her along the horizon.
Thick clouds soaked up the vibrant colors of daybreak and splashed them across the heavens like a manic artist who’d scored a new bottle of Adderall. Orange Crush and cotton candy collided and dovetailed, making the sky look like a watercolor that had been left out in the rain. The vibrant hues reflected off the fat flakes drifting down and powdering the landscape.
Sun was home. After almost fifteen years, she was home.
But for how long?
No. That wasn’t the right question. Somewhere between her karaoke rendition of “Who Let the Dogs Out?”—which bordered on genius—and her fifth shot of tequila, she and Jose had figured that out the night before as well.
This was the opportunity she’d been both anticipating and dreading. Since she had a job handed to her on a silver platter, she would stay until she found the man who’d abducted her when she was seventeen. She would stay until he was prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. She would stay until she could shed light on the darkest event of her life, and then she would put the town in her rearview for good.
The right question was not how long she would stay but how long it would take her to bring her worst nightmare—literally—to justice.
She tucked a strand of blond hair behind her ear and appraised the guesthouse her parents had built, studying it for the umpteenth time that morning. The Tuscan two-bedroom felt bigger than it was thanks to the vaulted ceilings and large windows.
All things considered, it wasn’t bad. Not bad at all. It was shiny and new and warm. And the fact that it sat on her parents’ property, barely fifty feet from their back door, was surprisingly reassuring.
She’d worked some long hours as a detective. Surely, as a sheriff, that wouldn’t change. It might even get worse. It would be good to know that Auri, the effervescent fruit of her loins, would be safe.
The kid felt as much at home in the small tourist town as Sun did, having spent every summer in Del Sol with her grandparents since she was two. The fact that she’d twirled through the apartment when they first saw it like a drunken ballerina? Also a strong indicator she would be okay.
Auri loved it, just like Cyrus and Elaine Freyr knew she would. Sun’s parents were nothing if not determined.
And that brought her back to the malfeasance at hand. They were living in an apartment her parents had built. An apartment her parents had built specifically for Sun and Auri despite their insistence it was simply a guesthouse. They didn’t have guests. At least, not guests that stayed overnight. The apartment was just one more clue they’d been planning this ambush for a very long time.
They’d wanted her back in Del Sol. Sun had known that since the day she’d left with baby in hand and resentment in heart. Not toward her parents. What happened had not been their fault. The resentment that had been eating away at her for years stemmed from a tiff with life in general. Sometimes the hand you’re dealt sucks.
But if she were honest with herself—and she liked to think she was—the agonizing torment of unrequited love may have played a teensy-tiny part.
So, she ran, much like an addled schoolgirl, though she didn’t go far. Also, much like an addled schoolgirl.
She’d originally fled to Albuquerque, only an hour and a half from Del Sol. But she’d moved to Santa Fe a few years ago, first as an officer, then as a detective for SFPD. She’d only been thirty minutes from her parents, and she’d hoped the proximity would make her abandonment of all things Del Sol easier on them.
It hadn’t. And now Sun would pay the price for their audacity, their desperate attempt to pull her back into the fold. As would Auri. The fact that they didn’t take Auri’s future into consideration when coming up with their scheme irked. Just enough to cause tiny bouts of hyperventilation every time Sun thought about it.
Auri’s voice drifted toward her, lyrical and airy like the bubbles in champagne. “It looks good on you.”
Sun turned. Her daughter, short and yet somehow taller than she had a right to be at fourteen, stood in the doorway to her room, tucking a T-shirt into a pair of jeans and gesturing to Sun’s uniform.
Instead of acknowledging the compliment, Sun took a moment to admire the girl who’d stolen her heart about three seconds after she was born. Which happened to be about two seconds before Sun had declared the newborn the most beautiful thing this world had ever seen.
Then again, Sunshine had just given birth to a six-pound velociraptor. Her judgment could’ve been skewed.
Though not likely. The girl had inherited the ability to stop a train in its tracks by the time she was two. Her looks were unusual enough to be considered surreal. Sadly, she owed none of her features to Sunshine. Or her grandparents, for that matter.
Auri’s hair hung in thick, coppery waves down her back. Sunshine’s hair hung in a tangled mess of blond with mousy brown undertones when it wasn’t French braided, as it was now.
Auri’s hazel eyes glistened like a penny, a freshly minted one around the depths of her pupils and an aged one that had green patina around the edges. Sun’s were a murky cobalt blue, much like her grandmother’s collection of vintage Milk of Magnesia bottles.
Auri’s skin had been infused with the natural glow of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors. Sunshine was about as tan as notebook paper.
The girl seemed to have inherited everything from her father. A fact that chafed.
“Mom,” Auri said, pursing her pouty lips, “you’re doing it again.”
Sun snapped out of her musings and gave her daughter a sheepish grin from behind the cup. “Sorry.”
She dropped her gaze to the spiffy new uniform she’d donned that morning. As the newest sheriff of Del Sol County, Sun got to choose the colors she and her deputies would wear. For both their tactical and dress uniforms, she chose black. Sharp. Mysterious. Slightly menacing.
And because she wanted to look her best first day on the job, she’d opted for the Class A. Her dress uniform. She ran her fingertips over the badge pinned above the front pocket of her buttondown. Inspected the embroidered sheriff’s patch on her shoulder. Marveled at how slimming black trousers really were.
“I do look rather badass, don’t I?”
Auri adjusted the waist of her jeans and offered a patient smile. “All that matters is that you think you look badass.”
“Yeah, well, it’s still crazy. And if I’m not mistaken, illegal on several levels.” How her parents got her elected as sheriff when she’d had no idea she was even running was only one of many mysteries the peculiar town of Del Sol had to offer. “Your grandparents are definitely going to prison for this. And so am I, most likely, so enjoy my badassery while it lasts.”
“Mom!” Auri threw her hands over her ears. “I can’t hear that.”
“Badassery?” she asked, confused. “You’ve heard so much worse. Remember when that guy pulled out in front of me on Cerrillos? Heavy flow day.” She pointed to herself. “Not to be messed with.”
“Grandma and Grandpa won’t go to prison. They’re too old.”
Unfortunately, they were not too old. Not by a long shot. “Election tampering is a serious offense.”
“They didn’t tamper. They just, you know, wriggled.”
Sun’s expression flatlined. “I’ll be sure to tell the judge that. Hopefully before I’m sentenced.”
Auri had been about to grab her sweater when she threw her hands over her ears again. “Mom!” she said, her chastising glare the stuff of legend. The stuff that could melt the faces off a death squad at fifty yards. Because there were so many of those nowadays. “You can’t go to prison, either. You’ll never survive. They’ll smell cop all over you and force you to be Big Betty’s bitch before they shank you in the showers.”
She’d put a lot of thought into this.
Sun set down the cup, walked to her daughter, and placed her hands on the teen’s shoulders, her expression set to one of sympathy and understanding. “You need to hear this, hon. You’re going to have to fend for yourself soon. Just remember, you gave at the office, never wear a thong on a first date, and when in doubt, throw it out.”
Auri paused before asking, “What does that even mean?”
“I don’t know. It’s just always worked for me.” She walked back to her coffee, took a sip, grimaced, and stuck the cup into the microwave.
“Grandma and Grandpa can’t go to jail.”
Sun turned back to her fiery offspring and crossed her arms over her chest, refusing to acknowledge the apprehension gnawing at her gut. “It would serve them right.”
“No, Mom,” she said as she pulled a sweater over her head. “It wouldn’t.”
Sun dropped her gaze. “Well, then, it would serve me right, I suppose.” The microwave beeped. She took out her cup and blew softly, having left it in long enough to scald several layers off her tongue, as usual. “But first I have to check out my new office.”
While she’d been sworn in and taken office on January 1, she had yet to step foot inside the station that would be her home away from home until the next election in four years. Barring coerced resignation.
She and Auri had taken an extra week to get moved in after the holidays. To prepare for their new lives. To gird their loins, so to speak.
“I need to decorate it,” she continued, losing herself in thought. “You know, make the new digs my own. Do you think I should put up my Hello Kitty clock? Would it send the wrong message?”
“Yes. Well?” Auri stood up straight to give her mother an unimpeded view. She wore a rust-colored sweater, stretchy denim jeans, and a pair of brown boots that buckled up the sides. The colors looked stunning against her coppery hair and sun-kissed skin.
She did a 360 so Sun could get a better look.
Sun lowered her cup. “You look amazing.”
Auri gave a half-hearted grin, walked to her, and took the coffee out of her mother’s hands. That kid drank more coffee than she did. Warning her it would stunt her growth had done nothing to assuage the girl’s enthusiasm over the years. Sun was so proud.
“Are you nervous?” she asked.
Auri lifted a shoulder and downed half the cup before answering, “No. I don’t know. Maybe.”
“You are definitely my daughter. Indecisiveness runs in the family.”
“It’s weird, though. Real clothes.”
Auri had been in private school her entire life. She’d loved the academy in Santa Fe, but she’d been excited about the move regardless. At least, she had up until a few days ago. Sun had sensed a change. A withdrawal. Auri swore it was all in her mother’s overprotective gray matter, but Sun knew her daughter too well to dismiss her misgivings.
She’d sensed that same kind of withdrawal when Auri was seven, but she’d ignored her maternal instincts. That decision almost cost Auri her life. She would not make that mistake again.
“You know, you can still go back to the academy. It’s only—”
“Thirty minutes away. I know.” Auri handed back the cup and grabbed her coat, and Sun couldn’t help but notice a hint of apprehension in her daughter’s demeanor. “This’ll be great. We’ll get to see Grandma and Grandpa every day.”
Just as they’d planned. “Are you sure?” Sun asked, unconvinced.
She turned back and gestured to herself. “Mom, real clothes.”
“I swear, I’m never wearing blue sweaters again.”
Sun laughed softly and shrugged into her own jacket.
“Plaid?” Sun gasped. “You love plaid.”
“Correction.” After Auri scooped up her backpack, she held up an index finger to iterate her point. “I loved plaid. I found it adorable. Like squirrels. Or miniature cupcakes.”
“Oh yeah. Those are great.”
“But the minute plaid’s forced upon you every day? Way less adorable.”
“Okay,” Auri said, facing her mother to give her a once-over. “Do you have everything?”
Sun frowned. “I think so.”
Sun patted her pants pocket. “Check.”
She tapped the shiny trinket over her heart.
She scraped a palm over her duty weapon. “Check.”
Sun’s lids rounded. She whirled around, searching the area for her soundness of mind. She only had the one thread left. She couldn’t afford to lose it. “Damn. Where did I have it last?”
“Did you look under the sofa?” Keeping up the game, Sun dropped to her knees and searched under the sofa.
Auri shook her head, tsking as she headed for the side door. “I swear, Mom. You’d lose your head if that nice Dr. Frankenstein hadn’t bolted it onto your body.”
Sun straightened. “Did you just call me a monster?”
When her daughter only giggled, she hopped up and followed her out. They stepped onto the porch, and Sun breathed in the smell of pine and fresh snow and burning wood from fireplaces all over town.
Auri took a moment to do the same. She drew in a deep breath and turned back. “I think I love it here, Mom.”
The affirmation in Auri’s voice eased some of the tension twisting Sun’s stomach into knots. Not all of it, but she’d take what she could get. “I do, too, sweetheart.”
Maybe it was all in her imagination, but Auri hadn’t seemed the same since she’d let her go to the supersecret New Year’s Eve gathering at the lake. The annual party parents and cops weren’t supposed to know about. The same parents and cops who began the tradition decades ago.
She’d only let Auri stay for a couple of hours. Could something have happened there? Auri hadn’t been the same since that night, and Sun knew what could happen when teens gathered. The atmosphere could change from crazy-fun to multiple-stab-wounds in a heartbeat.
“You know, you can stay home a few more days. Your asthma has been kicking up, hon. And your voice is a little raspy. And—”
“It’s okay. I don’t want to get behind,” she said.
“Do you have your inhaler?”
Auri reached into her coat pocket and pulled out the L-shaped contraption. “Yep.”
A woman called out to them then. A feisty woman with graying blond hair and an inhuman capacity for resilience. “Tallyho!”
They turned as Elaine Freyr lumbered through the snow toward them, followed by her very own partner in crime, a.k.a. her roughish husband of thirty-five years, Cyrus Freyr.
Sun leaned closer to Auri. “Did your grandmother just call me a ho?”
“Hey, Grandma. Hey, Grandpa,” Auri said, ignoring her.
The girl angling for the Granddaughter of the Year award hurried toward the couple for a hug. “Mom’s worried you guys are going to prison.”
Elaine laughed and pulled the stool pigeon into her arms.
“Snitches get stitches!” Sun called out to her.
“Your mother’s been saying that for years,” Elaine said over Auri’s shoulder, “and we haven’t been to the big house yet.” She let her go so Auri could give her grandfather the same treatment.
Cyrus took his turn and folded his granddaughter into his arms. “Hey, peanut. What are we going to prison for this time?”
Auri pulled back. “Election tampering.”
“Ah. Should’ve known.” Cyrus indicated the apartment with a nod. “What do you think of her?”
“She’s beautiful, Grandpa.”
His face glowed with appreciation as he looked at Sun. “And it’s better than paying fifteen hundred a month for a renovated garage, eh?”
He had a point. Santa Fe was nothing if not pricey. “You got me there, Dad.” She gave them both a quick hug, then headed toward her cruiser, the black one with the word sheriff written in gold letters across the side.
“Sunny, wait,” her mother said, fumbling in her coat pocket. “We have to take a picture. It’s Auri’s first day of school.”
Sun groaned out loud for her mother’s benefit, hiding the fact that she found the woman all kinds of adorable. She was still angry with them. Or trying to be. They’d entered her into the election for sheriff without her consent. And she’d won. It boggled the mind.
“We’re going to be late, Mom.”
“Nonsense.” She took out her phone and looked for the camera app. For, like, twenty minutes.
“Here.” Sun snatched the phone away, fighting a grin. It would only encourage her. She swiped to the home screen, clicked on the app, and held the phone up for a selfie. “Come in, everyone.”
“Oh!” Elaine said, ecstatic. She wrapped an arm into her husband’s. “Get closer, hon.”
The cold air had brightened all their faces. Sun snapped several shots of the pink-cheeked foursome, then herded her daughter toward the cruiser, her father quick on her heels.
When Auri went around to the passenger’s side, Sun turned to face him.
He offered her a knowing smile and asked, “You okay? With all of this?”
She put a hand on his arm. “I’m okay, Dad. It’s all good.” She hoped. “But don’t think for a second you’re off the hook.”
“I rarely am. It’s just, I know how much you enjoyed putting this place in your rearview.”
“I was seventeen. And one shade of nail polish away from becoming goth.” She thought back. “Nobody needed to see that.” After sliding him a cheeky grin, she stomped through the snow to the driver’s side.
He cleared his throat and followed again, apparently not finished with the conversation. “Well, good. Good,” he hedged before asking, “And how are you sleeping? Any, you know, nightmares?”
Ah. That’s what this was about. Sun turned back and offered him her most reassuring smile. “No nightmares, Dad.”
He nodded and opened the door as Elaine called out, “You and Auri have a good day. And don’t forget about the meeting!”
Sun looked over the hood of her SUV. “What meeting?”
Elaine sucked in a sharp breath. “Sunshine Blaze Vicram.”
She hopped inside the cruiser before her mother could get any further with that sentiment. Nothing good ever came after the words Sunshine Blaze Vicram.
She gave her eagle-eyed father one last smile of reassurance as he closed the door, then backed out of the snow-covered drive, confident she’d done the right thing. Telling him the truth would only exacerbate the guilt she could see gnawing at him every time he looked at her. There was no need for both of them to lose sleep over something that happened in Del Sol so very long ago.
There is simply no way everybody was kung fu fighting.
—SIGN AT DEL SOL MIXED MARTIAL ARTS AND DANCE STUDIO
Five minutes later—small-town perks—Sun pulled into the Del Sol High School parking lot. She put the cruiser in park and turned to her auburn-haired offspring. “It’s time.”
Auri gaped at her. “Oh, god. Mom, not again.”
“This is just a refresher.”
“It’s not really the first day of school. We already had this conversation in August.”
“Yes, but that was for the academy. This one is for Del Sol High School. Your new stomping ground.”
Auri propped an elbow onto the armrest and dropped her face into a hand.
“Okay, as we’ve previously discussed, boys are usually born with this little thing I like to call a penis.”
“And girls are often born with this little thing I like to call a vagina.”
“I’m moving in with Grandma and Grandpa.”
“But these two components, the penis and the vagina, need never meet.” Sun waved an index finger back and forth. “Not ever. In fact, being a lesbian is very avant-garde. So, you know, you could always go that direction.”
“Mom, being gay is not a choice.”
“Not if you don’t give it a chance.”
“Fine.” Auri looked around at the growing number of gawkers. “I’ll give it a try. Can you just turn off the emergency lights?”
Sun looked around at the faces reflecting the red lights from her cruiser. “They’re just jealous. How many kids your age get a police escort on her first day of school?”
“I’m going to have to change my name.”
“Now, normally, tab A fits rather nicely into slot B—”
“—but not in your case.” Sun paused for dramatic effect, then looked at her daughter from behind sad eyes. “Honey, I didn’t want to tell you this until you were older.” She placed a gentle hand on Auri’s arm, infusing her expression with concern and something akin to heartbreak. “But I have no choice. Auri, you were born with a horrible, ghastly disfigurement.”
“Okay, this is new.”
“You know. Down there. In your nether parts.”
Auri gazed out the window. “Does our insurance cover therapy?”
“Trust me when I say it’s something you never, ever want a boy to see.”
“Too late. Scarred for life.”
“Especially a boy with a penis.”
“People say that, the whole scarred-for-life thing, but I don’t think they really mean it.”
“You just don’t want to open yourself up to that kind of ridicule.”
“I, on the other hand—”
“That kind of ostracism.”
She turned to her mother in a huff. “This conversation is making me very uncomfortable.”
“Okay, I’ll stop, but if anything happens, just ask yourself, WWLSD?”
“No, I mean it. Anytime you get into a hairy situation, ask yourself: What would Lisbeth Salander do?” She gave her daughter a minute, then prompted her. “Well?”
After a heavy sigh, Auri replied. “She’d cut a bitch.”
“Exactly. And if that doesn’t work?”
Another sigh. “She’d set a bitch on fire.”
“Precisely. And if that doesn’t work?”
“Mom,” Auri whined, shifting in her seat. “If that doesn’t work?”
“Fine. She’d eviscerate a bitch’s online presence and get him or her sent to prison for kiddie porn.”
Sun placed her hands over her heart. “I’m just . . . I’m so proud of you.”
“Can I go now?”
“Absolutely.” When Auri opened the door, Sun added, “Just as soon as you tell me what’s really bothering you.”
Normally, the mere mention of Auri’s hero, Lisbeth Salander, cheered her up. Sun had closed with her best material and . . . nothing. Absolutely nothing.
No way would she let the kid go now. If she had to take off yet another day from work, so be it. The last time her daughter had such a drastic about-face, the last time Auri hid what was really going on beneath her dangerously intelligent surface, she was seven years old, and the outcome almost ended in the worst kind of tragedy imaginable.
“Nothing’s wrong, Mom.”
Sun leaned forward and put her fingers on a switch on the dashboard. “Have you heard the siren on this baby?” Auri’s hands shot up in surrender. “Oh, my god, okay.”
Having won, Sun leaned back and gave Auri a minute to compose herself.
After closing the door so no one would hear, she said softly, “It’s just, I know how you worry.”
Sun’s chest inched tighter around her heart, but she forced her expression to stay neutral.
“And my asthma has been bad, and I know that really bothers you.”
That did it. “Sweetheart, your asthma doesn’t bother me. I mean, I feel horrible for you, but . . .” She thought back to the morning she’d found Auri passed out in the bathroom not two weeks earlier. “When I found you on the floor—”
“I know. I’m sorry, Mom.”
“Auri,” Sun said, exasperated. “Why do you do that?”
“Do what?” she asked, leaning away as though suddenly selfconscious.
“Every time you have an attack, every time you get sick, you apologize. Like it’s somehow your fault.”
Auri crossed her arms, her shoulders concaving. “I know. I just . . . I don’t want you to be put out.”
“Oh, honey.” Sun leaned over and draped an arm over her daughter’s wilting shoulders. “Why would you even think such a thing?”
“I just don’t want to be a problem.”
Sun closed her eyes and blocked out the vise crushing her chest. Auri had always been this way. She’d always apologized for getting sick. Or spilling milk. Or, hell, even tripping. What kind of kid apologized for tripping?
And it all started that pivotal period Sun referred to as the Dark Age. Before that summer, she’d had no idea a child, especially one so young, could become clinically depressed. She’d had no idea a child, most especially one so young, could become selfdestructive.
How bad did things have to be to convince a seven-year-old, a seven-year-old, to contemplate taking her own life?
The reality suffocated Sunshine every time she let her thoughts drift back to that summer. It still haunted her to the very depths of her soul. And while she and Auri were about as close as a mother and daughter could be, there was a part of her child that Sunshine had never seen. A shadow. A darkness behind the light that had become her reason for breathing.
She swore she’d never let things get that bad again. She had no choice but to get to the bottom of this. And she was hardly above blackmail. Obvs. “What’s bothering you, hon?”
Auri fidgeted with her nails. “It’s stupid.”
“Hey, if you can’t be stupid in front of your mother, who can you be stupid in front of?”
Auri looked out the window again, ignoring the kids gawking, and said softly, “Ever since the New Year’s Eve party at the lake—”
She knew it. She should never have let her go.
“—everyone at school thinks I’m a narc.”
Her asthma had been getting steadily worse for the last . . . wait.
Sun stilled when her daughter’s words sank in. She blinked in surprise, then asked, “I’m sorry, a narc?”
“Two of your deputies showed up and confiscated the keg.” “They had a keg?” Sun asked, her pitch rising an octave.
“And someone said it had to be me because my mom was going to be the new sheriff and the deputies had never shown up before and—”
“Where’d they get a keg?”
“—and so I probably told my mommy on them.” She’d added air quotes to Sun’s title.
“I swear, if—” Then it all made sense. Her BFF’s New Year’s Eve party. She’d wondered where he’d scored a keg that late at night. “That’s where he got all that beer.”
Quincy Cooper had been Sun’s best friend since kindergarten. He’d grown a bit since then, however. He was now a cross between a refrigerator and a bank vault door. And he was one of her deputies. What were the odds?
She winked at Auri. “You get enough beer in that boy and he’ll strip.”
“Mom!” She pulled out her inhaler and took a hit.
“Sorry, hon.” Sun switched back into mama-bear mode. “Who? Who would say such a thing about you?” She leaned toward her. “Just give me a name.”
“I don’t have one. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Everyone’s saying it now. You can’t arrest everyone.”
“Arrest them?” Sun snorted. “I’m going to send them a thankyou card. Or a fruit basket. Or a lifetime supply of anti-itch cream. That stuff comes in so handy.”
Auri’s jaw dropped.
“This solves all my problems.” She rubbed her hands together, not unlike a villain in a comic book. “Think about it. The rich kids won’t invite you to parties because they think you’re a narc. The druggies won’t invite you to parties because, again, they think you’re a narc. All my worries gone in one fell swoop.”
“This is the best news I’ve had all day. High five?” She raised her palm and gave her daughter a once-over, only to realize the kid wasn’t falling for it.
Auri crossed her arms over her chest. “I know you.”
“Good thing, since you call me Mom. It would be awkward if—”
“I can handle this. It’s my problem.”
“I know.” Sun feigned offense. “But you know, if you happen to find out who started such a vicious rumor—”
“I wouldn’t tell you.”
“I’m appalled,” Sun said, appalled.
“Unlike my new rep, I am not, nor have I ever been, a narc.”
Sun knew that for a fact. Boy, did she know. “Fine. Just remember, if you do have to cut a bitch—”
“I know, I know.” Auri slid the strap of her backpack over her shoulder. “Don’t leave any DNA evidence at the crime scene.”
“Oh. Right. I was going to say don’t leave any witnesses alive, but that works, too.” She leaned over and gave the fruit-of-herloom a hug despite their ever-growing audience. Cool thing was, Auri let her.
God, she loved that kid.
Having taken the scenic route through town, Sun pulled into her parking space at the station with a nostalgic smile on her face. She’d forgotten how beautiful Del Sol was, especially when blanketed with fresh snow. It was enchanting and mystical and serene.
Passersby would find the town tranquil. Spiritual, even. And it was. She’d give it that. But it was also quirky and charismatic and unpredictable. Just like the people who inhabited it. For the most part.
A large black font graced the side of the stucco building that read Del Sol County Sheriff’s Posse.
God, she’d always wanted a posse. Of course, she’d envisioned them all on horseback, racing over the rugged countryside in search of a man with a black hat and a handlebar mustache, but this would do.
Sadly, a sharp rap on her window startled her out of her prepubescent fantasy. She hadn’t even gotten to the good part where a Native American named Tarak saved her after the bad guy shot her in the shoulder, and they made sweet, sensuous love by a campfire—apparently, she healed really fast—before resuming the search the next day, capturing said bad guy, and taking him to be sentenced by the Hanging Judge, thus making the Great Plains great again. And bad-guy free.
C’est la vie.
She peered through the window, first at a police-issue flashlight angled against the glass, second at a blond-haired, blue-eyed, half-Latino in a starched black uniform and a gun at his hip. The refrigerator-sized intruder wore a grin that could weaken the knees of a sisterhood of nuns.
Quincy. Of course he’d be there to greet her.
She opened the door and jumped into the arms of her very best friend on planet Earth. Apart from Auri. And her hamster, Gentleman Jack, but he’d died decades ago. So, Quincy had moved up a notch.
She’d warned him at the promotion ceremony he had some mighty big shoes to fill. Or he would have if hamsters wore shoes. But Quincy took it all in stride, confident in his ability to run on a spinning wheel and crawl through plastic tunnels.
They were five. Their aspirations hadn’t been particularly lofty.
He lifted her off the ground with a chuckle, and she squealed, the sound very unsherifflike.
“Sunburn Freyr,” he said when he put her down and held her at arm’s length, “as I live and breathe.” He acted like he hadn’t seen her in decades when, in truth, they’d met for one meal or another every chance they’d gotten over the years, which wasn’t nearly as often as Sunshine would have liked. And they’d even brought in the New Year together. With a confiscated keg, apparently. But the enthusiasm was welcome.
Still, she settled a warning glare on him.
He cleared his throat and made a correction. “Vicram. Sorry, love. Still can’t get used to that.”
“I’ve been a Vicram for over fifteen years.”
“I’m set in my ways.”
“Well, I can’t get used to the He-Man you’ve become.” She squeezed his biceps. “How much do you eat?”
“Don’t you worry, gorgeous. It’s all muscle.” He flexed the guns for her appraisal.
Sun snorted. Flirting was a part of their shtick. They’d done it since they were kids, before they’d realized what it meant. But now they were in a professional relationship. Their playful banter would have to stop . . . eventually.
He gestured toward the building. “You ready for this?”
She studied the letters again, her stomach doing somersaults. “I don’t know, Quince. How’d they do it?”
“I can’t be sure, but I’d bet my last nickel they used a stencil.”
“I like to think I am.”
“Spill,” she said, infusing her voice with a warning edge.
Quincy laughed and decided to study the snow. “Let’s just say your parents are very talented.”
Talented they may be, but Sun was genuinely worried about her mom and dad. “They got me elected, Quince. Without my knowledge.”
He winced and patted the air, urging her to keep it down.
She lowered her voice to a harsh whisper, which probably carried farther than her voice would have. “How is that even possible? There was a debate, for God’s sake!”
“You did great, by the way. I especially liked your ideas on how to eliminate drunk driving.”
Sun pinched the bridge of her nose, wondering how she managed to debate the previous sheriff when she’d had no clue she was even in the running. “Someday you’re going to have to tell me how they did it.”
The grin he wielded like a rapier served two purposes: to disarm and to charm.
And here Sun thought herself immune to the charisma of Quincy Cooper. Well, okay, she was immune, but she could see the appeal. The allure of the chick magnet—his words—he’d become.
In high school, Quincy had been popular enough. Very well liked. But he’d never been what one would call a ladies’ man. Now, the chunky—his description—former sugar addict looked less like a huggable marshmallow and more like a boulder. His waist had narrowed and his shoulders had widened and his smile had grown into something girls of all ages longed to gaze upon every chance they got.
What did the women at her mother’s book club call him? Ah yes. Stupid hot.
She’d certainly give him that. But deep down, she still saw that sweet kid who fought back tears after skinning his knees on the playground.
And now, after almost fifteen years, the Dynamic Duo—a.k.a. Quincy and Sunshine—was finally back together. Sun could hardly believe the roller coaster of events that had led her here.
“Are you sure you’re going to be okay with my being your boss?”
Her chief deputy snorted. “Like anything has changed. When haven’t you bossed me around?”
“Good point.” She hadn’t planned on bringing it up so soon, but she needed to know what awaited her. “All right, Q. Cards on the table. Is the mayor going to let this rest?”
Mayor Donna Lomas seemed to be the only one questioning the legitimacy of Sunshine’s win over Del Sol’s former sheriff. Well, besides said former sheriff. And Sunshine herself.
Quincy turned away from her, but she saw the muscles in his jaw flex as he worked it, a sure sign that not everything was popping up daisies in the Land of Enchantment.
“I don’t know, Sunny. She’s pretty worked up about the whole thing.”
“And she should be.” Sun collapsed against her cruiser. “I mean, isn’t there someone more qualified? You know, someone sheriffier?”
“Okay,” he said, joining her at the cruiser with arms folded across his chest, “let’s think about this. You have a master’s degree in law enforcement. You single-handedly solved one of the highestprofile cases the state has ever seen. And you were the youngest officer to make detective in New Mexico history.” He tilted his head. “I’m thinking no.”
Sun straightened, faced him, and adjusted his tie before replying, “First off, I have a master’s degree in criminal justice, not law enforcement.”
“Second, I was the third-youngest officer to make detective in New Mexico history. I was only the youngest in Santa Fe history.”
“Well, then, I take back everything I said.”
“And third, no case is ever solved single-handedly.” She patted his cheek. “You should know that by now, Chief Deputy Cooper.”
He let a calculating smile widen across his face. “Keep telling yourself that, peaches. I read the file.”
“Hmmm.” Refusing to argue the point, she returned her attention to the building.
“I’ll give you a minute,” he said, starting for the door. “Let you gather yourself. Make a grand entrance.”
“Great, thanks,” she said, neither grateful nor thankful.
After he disappeared, she drew in a deep breath and watched it fog in the air when she exhaled before grabbing a box of her personal effects and copies of all the open cases out of her back seat. Then she locked up the cruiser and went inside the pueblo building via a side door.
A hallway separated the station from a small jail that sat in back. From that point, her entrance involved two electronically coded doors in which her master key came in very handy. Once inside, she stopped to take in her surroundings.
The station was nice. More up to date than she’d imagined it would be. Drywall with a light beige paint made up the bulk of the surroundings, but the renovators had kept much of the older wood accents. Remnants of an earlier version of the establishment.
Desks took up most of the main room, and a glass wall separated the public entrance and the administration area up front.
Quincy, who was pretending to be hard at work, spotted her first. He turned in his chair, and the sound of typing and papers shuffling ceased immediately from the other deputies present.
“Hey, boss,” Quincy said, leaning back into a giant stretch. “Oh, I meant to ask, how’s the bean sprout?”
She nodded to the two other deputies present and the office manager, who doubled as dispatch. Anita Escobar—no relation— was a pretty woman in her early thirties with a wide smile and thick, blond-streaked hair she always wore in a ponytail. According to Sun’s ever-studious mother, Anita’d had her eyebrows tattooed on. So, there was that.
Turning back to Quince, Sun balanced her box on two stacks of files that took up half his desk and picked up a pen with a gold deputy’s badge on it. After clicking it open and shut several times, trying to decide if she should steal it or if blatant theft would set a bad example for the other law enforcement officers in the room, she said, “Everyone at school thinks she’s a narc.”
“Sweet. Less trouble she can get into.”
She returned the pen and narrowed her gaze on him. “It’s bizarre how much we think alike. The accusations stem from a certain raid on a certain New Year’s Eve party at the lake.”
“Oh, snap. They think she called us?”
He snorted. “Like anybody needed to call. Don’t they know the secret annual New Year’s Eve party at the lake is the least secret event in this town?”
“Kind of like Mrs. Sorenson’s breast augmentation.”
He laughed out loud, then sobered, his expression wilting a little. “Those aren’t real?”
Sun consoled him with a pat on his head. She knew he’d take it hard.
“Poor kid,” he said, switching back to Auri. “She’s so great. Are you sure she’s really yours?”
“I hope so. She borrows my clothes.”
She thought back longingly to an amazing burgundy sweater that had never been the same after Auri wore it on a field trip to the zoo in Albuquerque. Something about a boy named Fred and a monkey named Tidbit.
She snapped out of it when she realized all work had come to a complete standstill and her staff was gathering around the coffeepot. She leaned closer to Quince. “Should I address the troops?”
“Price is still out on a call. And besides, you have a visitor.” He gestured toward what she assumed was her office.
“Already? I just got here.”
“Yeah, well.” He cringed, his face lined with sympathy. “Proceed with caution. She’s been waiting for twenty minutes.”
“And you kept me standing outside chatting for ten of them?” When he offered her a noncommittal shrug, she dropped her head, dread leaching into her pores. “Christ on a cracker.”
“Good luck,” he said like a manic cheerleader after one too many energy drinks. Then he abandoned her in her time of need to join the other cowards hovering around the coffeepot.
With a withering moan, she lifted her box and headed toward her office to meet her fate.
Copyright © 2020 Darynda Jones.
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