South of Nowhere: New Excerpt

South of Nowhere by Minerva Koenig is a Julia Kalas Mystery that finds our heroine traveling from small-town Texas to Mexico on the trail of a missing persons case, while a murder charge yields a warrant for her arrest (Available February 2, 2016).

Julia Kalas has found a place for herself in small-town Texas. After being forced to relocate by the Aryan Brotherhood and witness protection, she's working on getting her budding construction business off the ground. But her newfound status as a sometimes-problem solver doesn't stop local cops from giving her the hairy eyeball when a dead body is found stuffed in the upstairs closet of her latest remodeling project.

Not up for another game of pin-the-tail-on-the-murder-suspect, Julia takes private detective John Maines up on an offer of employment working a missing persons case at the Texas-Mexico border. The fat check he dangles in front of her as payment will be enough to set her up in comfortable retirement far away from the tiny Texas backwater, which suits Julia just fine.

However, fate, as usual, has other plans for her. In South Texas, Julia learns that the dead man in her closet has been identified and that a warrant has been issued for her arrest. As she tangles with Mexican drug lords, shady surgeons, and a gang of Native American women with an axe to grind, she can't ignore the sinking feeling that things are about to get a hell of a lot worse before they get better.

Chapter 1

“He’s been dead awhile,” Liz Harman said, rocking back off her knees to open the field case she’d set next to her on the scarred wood floor.

The doctor, who also served as the coroner in this tiny little Texas backwater, wasn’t telling me and Benny Ramirez, Azula’s newly minted chief of police, anything we didn’t already know. The parts of the body sticking out of the red bedsheet it was wrapped in looked like beef jerky.

Liz reached into her case, withdrew a thermometer, and leaned back down into the coffin-sized hole in the floor where the dead guy lay. I’d found it while ripping out some old linoleum in the wreck of a farmhouse I’d bought last year. I shouldn’t have been working on the place, since I didn’t legally own it yet, but my life had been feeling out of control lately, and the only fix I know for that is to tear up some vintage real estate and then put it back together again. I’ve found everything from mummified rodents to meteor fragments in the course of that therapy, but this was a first.

The hole had been covered with well-fitted, loose wood planks instead of the longleaf pine flooring that was typical in the rest of the house. The planks were easy to lift, and I’d done it, to see what was underneath: an old heating chase, full of dead guy.

Liz snapped on some latex gloves and motioned to Page, her young goateed assistant. Benny got hold of my elbow, dragging me back a few steps. “Are you for real?”

I gave him my best what-the-fuck look, but he didn’t blink, so I said, “You know who I bought the place from, right?”

He didn’t say, “The broad who tried to slit your throat last winter?” because we’d both been up to our ears in all of that. Instead, he just grunted and glanced toward the two medicos. “Any guesses on cause, Doc?”

“The man’s a raisin,” Liz snorted, with her characteristic gruffness. “He’s got some holes in him, but there’s no way to tell from what until I get him back to the shop and look under the hood.”

Through the wavy old glass in the tall windows, I gazed down the long slope to the river at the south edge of my future property. Neffa Roberts and her father, Lavon, were out in their vegetable patch up the other side, eyes shaded in our direction. Cop cars and ambulances were rare beasts out here.

“I’ve got to go up to Gatesville this afternoon to finish up some real-estate paperwork with Connie,” I told Benny. “Want me to ask her if she killed the guy?”

“We don’t know that anybody killed him yet,” he said, lowering his head to look at me from under his thick black brows, “and you oughta be hoping it stays that way.”

I opened my mouth, but he didn’t slow down. “This is the second dead body you’ve stumbled across in less than a year.”

“I wasn’t responsible for the first one, either, if you’ll recall.”

That shut him up. He looked away, adjusting his equipment-swollen gun belt with the insides of his wrists, like James Cagney. “You going up there by yourself?”

“Why shouldn’t I?”

His eyes dropped to my left shoulder, where Connie had stuck the knife in. “It’s just weird.”

Most people don’t maintain a friendship with their would-be killer, so I could see where he was coming from, but the remark irked me. “She didn’t know what she was doing, Benny.”

“The shrinks said she was sane.”

“Sane’s a relative term.”

Liz got up and came over to us, stripping off her gloves. “My best guess on time of death is more than three months ago, but less than six. That’s about as close as I can get right now.”

Benny scratched his ear, peering at her. She gave him an annoyed look and said, “I assume you want it on the front burner, as usual.”

Page had spread a body bag on the floor, and now Benny stepped over to help him haul the corpse out of the hole next to it. The back of my neck started to crawl, and then came that familiar lurch of high, cool nothingness, and my mind turned off like someone blowing out a match.

My gut has always run several lengths ahead of my conscious thought process, so I’m used to a certain level of intellectual vacancy, but this was different, and it had been happening more and more often since the events of last winter. The brain wasn’t even loading into the starting gates anymore. Not all the time, but often enough that I was getting used to people looking at me funny. In addition, a recurring feeling of suffocation was waking me every morning; a sensation of pushing something wet and heavy off me so that I could float up into wakefulness. It felt like I was doing my thrice-weekly weight-training workout with my brain as well as my body.

When my gray matter came back online, everybody had changed places: Benny and Page clomping across the downstairs porch, Liz at the door on the other side of the room, watching me with a question on her face.

Not anxious to find out what it was, I stepped out into the big central hallway and shut the bedroom door. Little puffs of paint dust huffed out around the door frame, and I pulled the musty odor in, lead be damned. Nothing smells like an old house. If I could bottle it, I’d wear it as perfume.

Liz fell in behind me as I started down the stairs and said, “Have you been out to see Dr. Conroy yet?”

Liz Harman’s “crusty old country doctor” act—a bit of a stretch for someone probably in her mid-fifties—hid a terminal case of motherly concern, which manifested itself in frequent bouts of unsolicited advice to her patients about stuff that was none of her business. My mental health had been at the top of that list for months now, and it was getting old.

“Do you get a kickback for referrals or something?” I cracked at her over my shoulder.

She chuckled, but when we got to the bottom of the stairs, she still hadn’t taken the hint.

“Look, whatever’s going on with you isn’t going to get better on its own, and it might be real simple to fix. You’re not going to end up in a padded cell, if that’s what’s worrying you.”

“I’m fine,” I said, letting some of my annoyance show now.

“You’re not fine,” she replied, with surprising alacrity, “but you’re not irrational, so I don’t understand why you keep resisting treatment.”

Because I’d done my eight rounds with the head-shrinking profession when I’d been drafted into the U.S. Federal Witness Security Program three years ago, the prospect of a rematch was about as repulsive an idea as any I could think of. The inside of my head was no place for strangers, no matter how weird it was getting.

There wasn’t any point anyway; I was pretty sure I’d have to tell the truth about my life history to get anything out of psychiatry, which meant letting someone in on who I really was. Now that I was no longer under WITSEC’s wing, having been unceremoniously kicked out after my keeper had turned up dead under mysterious circumstances the previous November, that was information I couldn’t afford anyone else to get. Not even a professional who promised confidentiality. That’s how I’d gotten into my current situation.

A weary anger prickled across my shoulders. I was so tired of this worn little paranoid crevice between rock and hard place. The house and my burgeoning construction business helped a little—they kept my attention occupied enough that I didn’t fall off a psychic cliff every fifteen minutes—so that’s what I focused on. There was enough crumbling architecture in Azula to keep me off the shrink’s couch indefinitely, if I could just manage to find some buildings without dead people in them.

I stepped out onto the long front porch and waited for Liz to follow suit before closing and locking the door. She headed for her county-issued Pontiac, and the ambulance started down the long caliche driveway.

“You coming?” the doctor asked, pausing at her car.

“Yeah, in a little bit.”

She hesitated for only a fraction of a second before getting in, but that was enough to set off my preternaturally sensitive internal radar. I thought about it as I walked to my truck, questioning, as I always did now, whether the alarm was legitimate or if Liz had just inadvertently stepped on something sensitive but meaningless. Having to second-guess an instinct I’d been able to trust completely in the past was a pain in the ass, but I’d been scared straight by my near-death experience the previous winter. Maybe my self-doubt was an improvement. Who knows how many times I’d been wrong before and not known it?

Chapter 2

It felt close to a hundred degrees when I hit the town square. Benny’s cruiser was parked behind the courthouse, near the basement entry to the police station, and the doctor’s car was next to it. The ambulance was absent, probably on its way to Memorial Hospital, fifty miles south, where Liz did her autopsies.

I pulled in at the curb in front of Guerra’s, the bar where I still held my nominal day job. I’d been living in the upstairs apartment since the previous winter. It was cooler inside, but not much. I walked down the narrow path between the old mahogany bar and the blood-red Naugahyde booths clinging to the opposite wall, breathing in that musty old-building smell that I loved, and went to the thermostat mounted on the wall by the back stairway. Remembering the “heat wave” that had been in progress when I’d arrived just after Halloween last year made me laugh now. If I’d known what summer had in store, I’d have banked my complaining. June in Central Texas was like Death Valley with humidity.

Wishing I could reverse the laws of thermodynamics, I clomped up the wood stairs, wondering how Hector Guerra, the bar’s owner and my erstwhile lover, had tolerated living up here without air conditioning. He’d paid to have it installed downstairs, rightly grasping that a Texas bar without air conditioning had roughly the same chance of survival as an ice cube on a hot plate, but he hadn’t had enough money left over to do the second floor. If I left the stairwell door open, some of the coolth from the bar wafted up, but it was never enough to make the apartment bearable during the day. At night, I opened the big bay windows that looked onto the courthouse square and blew the heat of the day out with a fan, but anytime before sundown the place was a sauna.

Luigi, Hector’s big black-and-white cat, was napping on the kitchen table when I came in. He jumped down to wait by the food bowl as I dropped my keys on the stainless-steel kitchen counter. I’d been a little skittish around him for a while after he’d spoken to me in Aymara last winter, but he hadn’t seemed to notice, eating what I fed him and sleeping on my feet at night no matter how hot it was. I put down some kibble and went into the bathroom to crank up the shower, but turned it off again when I heard the phone.

It was Mike Hayes, the bartender who’d inherited the business after Hector disappeared. “I need the night off. Can you cover me?”

“Why bother?” I said. “You know how slow Thursdays are, and it’s not as if we’ve got an on-site supervisor.”

Every month, paychecks with Hector’s inscrutable signature appeared in our mailboxes, and the bar bills were paid the same way. It was the only way we knew he was still alive out there somewhere. There’d been no word from him, to anyone, since his hasty departure for Cuba in November with John Maines, the former Azula county sheriff, who’d turned out to be less of a cop but more of a human being than anyone suspected.

“Principle of the thing,” Mike grumbled.

“Like you’ve got principles.”

“Any bites on the help-wanted ad?” he asked me.

“Yeah, three or four good prospects. Hire one of them, you should be good to go next week.”

He grunted his approval, then said, “You sure you don’t want to stay on, just part-time? Me, I wouldn’t start a lemonade stand in this economy, much less a construction business.”

“Eh, it’s always feast or famine with that stuff, no matter what the rest of the economy is doing,” I shrugged, “and I’ve got my own place to work on until some of these nibbles turn into actual projects.”

“You got enough to live on until then?”

“I’ll be OK for a month or two.” I could hear Mike’s doubt crackle through the phone line, and added, “If worse comes to worst, I’ll come back to work for you. Provided you’re still in business.”

There was a thick pause on the other end of the line, then Mike muttered, “He’ll be back,” like he always did.

Not for the first time, I wondered what bound him and Hector together so tightly. They seemed to share some subterranean psychic-twin connection that I knew Hector and I never would, no matter how long we swapped bodily fluids.

Which I missed. He’d been gone close to nine months, and his bed was feeling bigger and lonelier as the days passed. I sometimes wished I hadn’t washed his sweet burnt-leaves smell out of the sheets.

Mike and I covered a couple of work details before hanging up, then I went back to the bathroom, still thinking about Hector. That wasn’t unusual—I thought about him a lot—but there was something in the air.

I don’t kid myself I’m psychic or anything, with this radar, but I’ve come to understand that it picks up stuff beyond the reach of my conscious awareness, like a microexpression on someone’s face, or flashing on a phone number without being overtly aware that I’ve seen it somewhere before. It’s like magic, sometimes. I’ll have a little whiff of something, and then a few days or hours later, the something will show up. Not always. That’s the hell of it. It’s not predictable.

So I tried not to get too attached to the thing in the air while I showered and got dressed, grabbed my real-estate folder and wallet, and headed back downstairs. Crossing to the truck, though, I glanced up the sidewalk and pulled up short. A lanky man in a tan felt hat was ambling toward me. A slow thrill prickled up my ribs.

“Doctor Livingston, I presume,” I said as he approached and stopped, giving me what passed for a smile on his pale hatchet face. “How was Cuba?”

John Maines shrugged, lifting his hat to mash down the springy strawberry curls underneath with one freckled hand. “I didn’t go in. Just got him there.”

It had occurred to me before then that both of them might end up rotting in a secret prison somewhere, seeing as how their mission to return some artifacts to one of the island nation’s most infamous families was sanctioned by neither government, and involved a historical point of some embarrassment to both. Now, seeing Maines without Hector in tow, the worry became more pronounced.

“So, did he?” I asked Maines. “Leave?”

The son of a bitch didn’t answer me. Instead, he reached for an envelope sticking out of the pocket of his plaid shirt and said, “I need a favor.”

He drew out the envelope’s contents in his deliberate way and handed them to me. It was a typed letter, two pages, from the federal marshal’s office, authorizing him to release $51,240.00 to me upon the fulfillment of “the previously stipulated requirements.”

“What the fuck is this?” I said, baffled.

“It’s the money WITSEC owes you.”

“I know that. I thought it was forfeit when they kicked me out. How did you get involved?”

He lifted his high, narrow shoulders, looking deferential.

I wasn’t buying it. “Just rip the Band-Aid off, will you?”

He went into his shirt pocket again and gave me a business card: JOHN MAINES, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR, TEXAS LICENSE NUMBER A25843. “Got my first case this morning. Missing person. I need help with it.”

“So, these ‘previously stipulated requirements’ are that you keep an eye on me and make sure I don’t spend the money setting up a new criminal empire or something. Is that it?”

“I’m to use my professional judgment about when and how much to give you.”

“Same difference.”

“Hey, I don’t wanna be shackled to you any more than you do to me,” he said, holding up his long hands, palms toward me. “I’ll give you the whole chunk if you’ll just help me with this one case.”

“Which is?”

“Local gal went for some medical treatment at a clinic in Ojinaga. That’s in Mexico. Just across the border. Never came home. Her people are worried.”

“They should be,” I said. “The cartels are running wild down there right now.”

“No body,” Maines replied. “Those guys always make sure you find at least parts. Sort of the point, in fact.”

“What kind of medical treatment?”

Maines hesitated briefly, then said, “Lap-band.”

My face went hot. “Oh, I get it. You need a fat broad for a decoy. So naturally you came to me.”

He kept his faded-teal eyes leveled at mine. “It’s amazing how loaded that word is.”

I’d used more than one, so I kept my mouth shut until he got more specific.

“‘Fat,’” he said, in his terse monotone. “The way people use it now. It means all kinds of shit it never used to mean. Lazy, unattractive, stupid. None of which describes you.”

He wasn’t flirting with me; he lacks the gene, and we’d spent enough time together for him to know that I did, too, even if I had any interest, which I decidedly did not. The only other logical alternative was that he was giving me a legitimate compliment, which I hate.

Ignoring the possibility, I said, “So, what do you want my fat ass to do for you?”

His faint twitch of a smile flashed by. “Get you into the clinic. Yahoos who run it are way off the beam and jumpy as hell. I go in there, the place turns into a dental office soon as I clear the door.”

I noticed that I was holding my breath, and realized that the tickling sensation behind my belly button wasn’t indigestion. I went ahead and asked my question directly. “Where’s Hector?”

Maines’s expression went crafty. “It’s a six-hour drive from here to the border. Plenty of time to tell you alla that.”

I considered for a few minutes. It’d be nice to get the hell out of Azula, if only for a couple of days, but doing it with John Maines wasn’t my idea of a vacation. Neither did I much like the prospect of letting him torment me with whatever information he had about Hector. Plus, if I stopped working, or thinking about work, even for an hour, I might have to face the black thing lurking in my subconscious. I wasn’t in the mood.

“Good luck with your case,” I said to Maines, and got into my truck.

 

Copyright © 2016 Minerva Koenig.

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Minerva Koenig is a licensed architect running her own one-woman practice. When not architecting or writing, she likes to sew, read, play chess, do yoga, dance, wrangle cats, and fight the patriarchy. Koenig lives in Austin, Texas.

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