Authors: Terri L. Austin
Tags: #mystery, #mystery and suspense, #high heels mysteries, #humor, #cozy, #british mysteries, #mystery series, #detective stories, #amateur sleuth, #murder mysteries, #mystery novels, #cozy mystery, #english mysteries, #cooking mystery, #women sleuths, #chick lit, #humorous mystery, #mystery books, #female sleuth, #murder mystery, #whodunnit
Praise for Terri L. Austin’s Rose Strickland Mystery Series
DINERS, DIVES & DEAD ENDS
“Austin’s debut kicks off her planned series by introducing a quirky, feisty heroine and a great supporting cast of characters and putting them through quite a number of interesting twists.”
“With twists, turns and surprises that left me hanging on right to the end, I couldn’t put it down. I absolutely can’t wait to see what is in store for Rose and her quirky friends next.”
– Cozy Mystery Book Reviews
“I strongly recommend picking a copy up to read this summer. I know I am looking forward to reading more books by this author. Five stars out of Five.”
– Lynn Farris,
National Mystery Review Examiner at Examiner.com
LAST DINER STANDING
“Austin’s second course has the menu of feisty underemployed gal detective with a side order of romance down pat.”
“Fast, fun, and full of laughs!
Last Diner Standing
has it all—mystery, action, and a spicy dash of romance...a must-read!”
– Ann Charles,
Award-Winning Author of the Deadwood Mystery Series
“No sophomore slump here in the second book starring spitfire Rose Strickland….This fast-paced and action-filled story kept me plowing through the pages as fast as I could because I had to know what happens next in this thrilling and riveting drama.”
– Dru’s Book Musings
Books in the Rose Strickland Mystery Series
by Terri L. Austin
DINERS, DIVES & DEAD ENDS (#1)
LAST DINER STANDING (#2)
DINER IMPOSSIBLE (#3)
DINERS KEEPERS, LOSERS WEEPERS
(in HEARTACHE MOTEL)
A Rose Strickland Mystery
Part of the Henery Press Mystery Collection
Kindle edition | November 2013
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission from Henery Press, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Copyright © 2013 by Terri L. Austin
Author photograph by Lauren Snedden
This is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Printed in the United States of America
This one’s for you, Mom.
They say you never forget your first time, but of course some firsts are more memorable than others. A first kiss. A first car. That first disastrous sexual encounter with a prom date because you figured what the hell, might as well see what everyone’s talking about. Turns out, they were talking about something completely different than what James Palmer and I did, fumbling around in the back of a white limo. The point is this: life’s chock full of first times. Some good, some bad, but all of them are turning points, dividing lines separating your life into befores and afters.
My name is Rose Strickland and tonight I racked up two more firsts. A clandestine meeting with a cop and a visit to a restaurant called Bob’s Fine Italian Cuisine. I still wasn’t sure if agreeing to meet with my nemesis was wise, but Bob’s definitely fell under the bad idea category.
Situated on the edge of Huntingford, Missouri and the county line, Bob’s wasn’t fine. The only lighting came from drippy white candles placed at all twelve tables and the darkened interior sucked me in, left me a little disoriented, able to make out only vague shapes and silhouettes spread throughout the small room. What it lacked in illumination it made up for in odor. Overpowering garlic and the stench of fish that had not only gone bad, but had turned downright evil.
In fact, if I could have seen two feet in front of my face, I’m sure I would have been horrified at Bob’s lack of fine. Either this was the best place in town to bring a mistress or they didn’t want customers to notice the numerous health code violations.
Thrusting my hands in my coat pockets, I hunkered down and glanced through the deep gloom, searching for Officer Andre Thomas, or as I liked to call him, Officer Hard Ass. Somewhere in his early thirties, he was built tight, with long, lean muscles and chiseled features. His dark wavy hair was cut so short it was just a whisker shy of buzzed and his café au lait skin accentuated his hazel eyes. Those sharp eyes watched the world from behind frameless glasses and didn’t miss a thing. Smart, handsome, observant. Unfortunately, he also had a stick shoved so far up that firm ass, I wasn’t sure how he managed to sit down.
He’d stopped by Ma’s Diner earlier that day where I’d been serving pancakes and coffee—lots of coffee—to a table of young moms surrounded by strollers and screaming babies. When the bell jangled over the door, I glanced up, surprised to see him march inside, looking highly official in his starched police uniform and working an even starchier attitude.
He waited until I was through plopping down plates and syrup amidst the sippy cups and teething rings. Then he nodded a greeting.
“Miss Strickland, I need to speak with you.”
I strained my brain, but I couldn’t think of a single law I’d violated lately—and by lately, I meant the last couple months. Maybe he was here for my past offenses. If so, I could be in big trouble.
I nervously led him past my boss, Ma, and Roxy, my blue-haired bestie, to the small office in the back. I shut the door behind me and parked my butt on the edge of the dusty, faux wood desk. Determined not to talk first, I waited him out.
He glanced around the room, his eyes sweeping over the metal shelves filled with cleaning supplies and paper products. When he got tired of staring at gallon bottles filled with off-brand Formula 409, his gaze found its way back to me.
“I’d like to have dinner with you this evening, Miss Strickland. There’s something I need to discuss.”
Whoa. Didn’t see that one coming. Usually he read me the riot act, threatened to lock me up for some lame reason, or interrogated the crap out of me.
“Um,” I said.
“I’ll meet you at Bob’s, an Italian place off Junction County Road. Seven o’clock. It’s a private matter, so discretion is important.” Then he nodded again, pivoted like he was performing a military exercise, and left.
Stunned, I sat there for a couple of minutes and wondered what he could possibly want to discuss with me. And why the need for secrecy? It niggled at me for the rest of the day, like an itch between my shoulder blades I couldn’t quite reach.
So now here I was, at seven on the dot, trying to find him through the dark, stinky cavern of Italian Fineness.
“Miss Strickland.” A tall figure waved from the back of the room. With mincing steps, I made my way toward it, bumping into the corner of a table with my hip. “Sorry,” I muttered to the shadowy occupants and kept moving.
When I reached him, Hard Ass held out a chair and handed me a menu before taking his place across from me. Oh my God, did he think this was a date? That possibility never occurred to me.
“You’re probably wondering why I asked you here this evening,” he said.
I was wondering why he’d ask anyone to come here. Unless he
me to contract food poisoning. “I don’t think I mentioned this earlier, but I’m sort of dating someone.”
“Ha.” That was the extent of his laugh. I could barely make out his features by the stingy light of the candle, but the small grin he wore betrayed his amusement.
“Why is that funny?” I asked. “I’m a very datable person.”
“You’re not my type, Miss Strickland. Besides, I would never bring a date here. However, this place affords privacy, and since we can’t be seen together, it’s a perfect meeting place.”
“You’re not doing much for my reputation either. Officer.” Seriously? This was what I’d waited for all day, to be insulted? Feeling like an idiot for even showing up, I grabbed my purse and pushed back my chair, ready to blindly stumble out in a huff.
Hard Ass reached out and touched my shoulder. “Stay where you are, Miss Strickland. As I said this morning, I have something to discuss with you and to be honest, this is rather difficult for me. So please. Stay.”
The man actually said please. It didn’t make up for the snarky I-can’t-be-seen-in-public-with-your-ass comment, but that ‘please’ and my insatiable curiosity had me sitting back down.
“Fine. Spill.” I crossed my arms and leaned back, giving him my coldest stare, which was entirely wasted due to the lack of light.
“I have a favor to ask—”
He was interrupted by a waiter who brought a basket of bread and two glasses of water. I ignored them both. I wouldn’t put my lips on that glass if you paid me in Snickers bars.
When the waiter left, Officer Thomas leaned forward and kept his voice low. “As you may have heard, Martin Mathers’ secretary, Delia Cummings, was murdered five days ago.”
Of course I heard about it. It was all over the news. A young woman knifed to death in her own home. The world was a scary place.
As far as Martin Mathers was concerned, the Chief of Police was as crooked as a coiled rattler. Although I’d never met the man in person, during my previous sideline endeavors, I knew he had more vices than a high school shop class.The chief enjoyed illegal gambling a little too much. And judging by the size of his debt to the biggest criminal in town, he wasn’t very good at it. He also had a penchant for strippers and sexing women who weren’t his wife. No matter how you looked at it, Martin Mathers was a bad apple.
I uncrossed my arms and placed my elbows on the table, bending toward him until Hard Ass and I were face to face. “What about it?”
“As you may remember, Martin was my mentor.”
“Was?” I asked. I never understood the connection between the two men. Mathers and Andre Thomas were polar opposites. Where Mathers blatantly disregarded the laws he was supposed to enforce, Thomas was a straight arrow who never met a jaywalker he didn’t want to arrest.
“When I joined the force ten years ago, he took me under his wing, showed this rookie cop the ropes. Even encouraged me to get my Master’s Degree. There’s talk going around the station that he’s guilty of killing Delia Cummings. And I can’t touch this case.”
“I’m a uniformed officer. I don’t have the authority to investigate a homicide, especially a high profile case like this. Delia was one of our own. If I go sniffing around, I’ll lose my job.”
The candlelight flickered and reflected off his lenses. It was too dark to read any emotion in his eyes, but his voice was matter-of-fact.
think he did it?” I asked.
He hesitated for a moment.
“I don’t believe so. But I want to know what really happened. While your methods are unorthodox, you defy rules and laws, you surround yourself with oddballs, and you seem to know a lot of criminals—”
“Hey,” I said, rapping my knuckles on the table. “Is this going somewhere?”
“You have a knack for uncovering the truth. I’m not a stupid man, Miss Strickland. I know Martin isn’t a clean cop, but if he’s innocent of murdering Delia, I don’t want to see him railroaded. So I’m asking you to look into this. I’ll help you behind the scenes in any way I can, but if you get caught, I’ll claim no knowledge of your investigation. Is that clear?”
I scoffed. “You’re assuming I’ll say yes. That guy’s not just a dirty cop, he’s eyebrow deep in shit. What do I care if Martin Mathers is under suspicion?”
“Maybe I have it wrong. Maybe you don’t care about the truth at all.”
Maybe I didn’t. The way I saw it, the truth was usually ugly and a tad overrated.
I drummed my fingers on the table. “Since when did you start caring so much about the truth?” In the last six months, I’d stumbled my way into a couple of criminal tangles. The first was a missing person case—my pally, Axton, being the person missing. In the second, my study buddy, Janelle, had been accused of bashing her ex in the head and landing him in a coma.
“You didn’t give a rat’s ass about Axton. He was just another stoner who’d taken off, right? And let’s discuss my friend, Janelle. If I recall, you slapped the cuffs on her yourself. Where was your concern about the truth then?”
He thrust his face even closer to mine. Another inch and we’d rub noses. “Unlike you, Miss Strickland, I go by the book. I follow where the evidence leads. I have to; it’s my job. That’s why I’m asking for your help. You can work outside the system I’m sworn to uphold.”
The prospect of finding justice for the dead woman battered at my conscience. And despite myself, I was intrigued. Curiosity was my weakness—well, one of them anyway. Once I sniffed out a mystery, I couldn’t stop. I got a rush from learning all the players, searching for clues, placing that final piece in the puzzle. Still, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to entangle myself in another mystery.
I tilted away from him to give myself a little breathing room. “Tell me about this Delia woman.”
He folded his hands as though he were getting ready to pray and bowed his head slightly. “Delia wasn’t well liked. She thrived on gossip, used it like a commodity, and took everything she learned back to Martin. She was his eyes and ears. She only had one friend that I know of, Randa Atherton, a clerk at the station. I often saw them with their heads together over lunch. Rumor also has it that Delia was pregnant when she died.”
I swallowed the lump in my throat. That piece of information added a horrific turn to the story. “Who was the father? And why is suspicion falling on Mathers?”
“It’s common knowledge Mathers and Delia were having an affair. Talk at the water cooler says Delia wanted to keep the baby and threatened to tell Mathers’ wife, Annabelle. He killed her to keep her quiet.”
“Sounds like a good motive to me. If by some crazy chance Martin Mathers isn’t guilty,” I said, “who do you suspect?”
“I know nothing about her personal life. Like I said, Delia didn’t have many friends at the station. People were afraid of her. She loved finding people’s weak points—used them as currency. If a person got on her bad side, she had the ammunition to hurt them. Just a few weeks ago, Delia took a dislike to a new dispatcher. A very young, pretty girl who traded risqué pictures with one of the officers, which is a violation of the morality clause in our contract. Delia wasn’t fond of him, either. They were both terminated.”
I squinted at him in the darkness. “And you think Delia orchestrated that?”
“All I hear are rumors and innuendo. But where there’s smoke, there’s fire.”
Nibbling on my lower lip, I ran through the story in my mind. A person like Delia must have had countless enemies. Finding the one who actually killed her would be a challenge. “She sounds like a real bitch,” I finally said.
“She was. But she didn’t deserve to be killed for it.” He waited a beat. “So, are you interested?”
I didn’t want to be pressured into a hasty decision. I needed time to think, even though I could already feel that familiar tug of interest pulling at me. “I’ll get back to you tomorrow. Dare I call you at the police station?”
He ignored my sarcasm. “No. Call my cell.”
I dipped my hand into my purse and scrounged around for my phone. He gave me his number and I added it to my contacts.
“You may not hold any respect for Martin, Miss Strickland, but his family is being affected by this, too.”
“His family?” Damn. The families always took the hit. “How many kids does he have?”
“Two. I’m sure this is affecting them. How would you feel if your father was being called a murderer?”
How could it not affect them? I rubbed my forehead. Finding justice for Delia Cummings was one thing. But sometimes the living deserved justice more than the dead. And innocent kids didn’t need this kind of crap following them around. Officer Hard Ass had just found my Achilles heel. But I wasn’t going to show my hand. I still wanted time to think it through.
“By the way,” he said, “Randa Atherton likes chocolate. The expensive kind in pretty boxes.”
“Who doesn’t? I haven’t agreed to any of this, you know. And I shouldn’t have to bribe police clerks with candy. It’s weird.”
“Don’t think of it as bribery. Think of it as an investment in uncovering the truth. I look forward to hearing from you.” There was a note in his voice I couldn’t quite identify. But it sounded suspiciously like arrogance.
I nodded, rose, and with my arms stretched out in front of me, staggered through the murky room to the front door.
Officer Hard Ass asking for my help. Yep, this was definitely a first I’d always remember.