Charli Cross Series: Book Two
read an excerpt
The heavy shot glass clanked against the granite bar top, causing more than one patron to jump at the sound. Bryce Mowery didn’t care. In fact, he enjoyed the attention.
Tequila still burned in Bryce’s throat as he waved the bartender down. “I’m done. Close out my tab.”
The silver clock on the wall insisted it was eleven-thirty, meaning that last call was only ten minutes away. If it were up to Bryce, he’d be out until two at the earliest, like he’d been the previous summer when visiting friends in Los Angeles.
He needed to get out of Savannah. The laws regarding alcohol sales were merely one of the many reasons he was ready to move.
But how could he leave when he was a king here? A big fish in the small pond, his dad’s money got him anything and everything he wanted. Women followed him like eager puppy dogs, and every man in this town wanted to be him. If he ever left, he’d be a nobody, and Bryce hadn’t known an existence where attention didn’t rain down on him like a spring thunderstorm.
Even now, a petite blonde from across the bar was making eyes at him. Stirring her drink with a skinny red straw, she bit her bottom lip as Bryce’s fingers slowly grazed his equally blond hair.
“You know what? I’ll cover her tab too. Why not?” Bryce leaned back in his chair, reaching for the bulging wallet in the pocket of his blue jeans.
The bartender’s crimson lips frowned. He’d seen her around before, and she had one of those resting bitch faces he liked to avoid.
“Don’t you have a girlfriend?” She slid him both receipts but made no effort to hide the judgment in her voice.
“How the hell would you know?” Bryce’s disdain for the woman was evident in every syllable.
This was why he didn’t come in on weekdays when these nobody bartenders were around. Markus usually worked weekends and treated him like a god the moment he walked through the front door. Why did the bastard have to be sick today?
“You’re a Mowery, right? You’re Montgomery’s son?”
Bryce didn’t even try to hide the cocky smile that formed on his face, though the bartender’s words dripped with contempt. What could he say? He enjoyed being known, even if it was in infamy.
“Sure am. And whether I am or am not in a relationship is really none of your business, sweetheart. You know my name, so you know Mowery is plastered on every egg carton you’ve got in the back. Without my family, you wouldn’t be able to serve up mediocre omelets on your brunch shifts. You might want to mind yourself, take this card, and pay for whatever that nice young woman ordered.”
The credit card flopped on the bar. She took it wordlessly, teeth grinding behind her cheeks, her eyes flashing fire.
That was fine.
Bryce thought nothing of being judged by the working-class trash of this town. At the end of the day, most of them lived in houses the Mowery family name built. His father had his hand in almost all new housing developments in Savannah. Actually, he had his hand in a good chunk of land…from housing to farming to business districts.
And in turn, life was good for Bryce Mowery.
The bartender nearly tossed the card in Bryce’s face after ringing him up. Bryce ignored the laborer and simply slid the credit card back into his wallet before leaving a single dollar as a tip. He winked at the seething woman before making his exit. He was already one foot out the door when a voice rang out from over his shoulder.
“Wait!” The skinny blonde was chasing after him, receipt in hand.
“Yes?” Bryce got a better look at her for the first time. She was attractive enough, petite with dimpled cheeks. Personally, Bryce liked his women with more curves.
“Did you pay for my bill?” Her voice had that whiny edge he detested.
“I sure did.”
She giggled and twirled a lock of hair around her finger. It was a little too cutesy for Bryce’s taste. He liked his flirting subtle. Bryce was a man who enjoyed the chase.
“That was really sweet of you.” She stepped closer, looking up at him through her lashes. “You’re Bryce, right? Where you headed? We could go back to my place if you don’t have any plans.”
She was making it too easy for him. “Nah, actually, I’ve gotta get home.” He drew his keys from his pocket, hoping to signal he wasn’t interested without having to tell her to go away.
Not that he would have minded doing that, either. He just didn’t want to deal with female drama right now.
Maybe he would’ve been interested if she hadn’t come charging over, but for a guy like Bryce, who had women fawning over him daily, desperation was a turnoff.
She dropped her hair, and her eyes went wide. “Wait, you’re driving? But aren’t you too drunk for that?”
Bryce shrugged, giving a cocky chuckle as he withdrew into the doorway. “The only way to get better at drunk driving is to practice.”
Like any cop in this town would dare to give him a DUI. He’d been caught drinking and driving multiple times. As soon as those pigs read the name on his driver’s license, they backed off real quick. Occasionally, one of them would deign to call Bryce’s father, but the most Bryce got from him was a twenty-minute lecture.
On his drive home, Bryce kept the windows of his silver Cadillac Escalade EXT rolled down. The Savannah wind felt good on his flushed skin while heat from the tequila still warmed his body.
He was just the right amount of tipsy. Just enough to make his worries seem not so pressing.
The closer he drew to his house, the more the skyline in front of him became dotted with the sparkle of stars. His family farm encompassed hundreds of acres of land, far out of view of the city streetlights.
Bryce had his own home on his own plot of land. It had started out as a guest house, but he’d torn that old thing down and built himself a home he could be proud of. Adjoining his family’s property, it was distanced from the main homestead, so his dad rarely saw the onslaught of women coming in and out of his place.
His mom? He didn’t like to think about her. About how her body had been devoured by the cancer. Or how disappointed she would be to see him drinking himself into a stupor most nights.
“I’m going to do something good, Mom.” He glanced out the window at the stars that seemed to twinkle in response. “You’ll be proud of me. I promise.”
In fact, he was going to start acting on that promise on Monday.
As he pulled up on the bumpy gravel road that led to his house, a familiar car was parked out front. Shit. Had he forgotten they were getting together? Bryce racked his mind but couldn’t think of anything. He wasn’t the kind to keep a strict schedule.
His Escalade pulled to a slow stop, and he left it running as he hopped out. The windows of her car were down as well, so Bryce hollered toward the car. “Hey, sweetheart, were we supposed to chill tonight?” He was damned glad he hadn’t brought the skinny blonde home now. “I hope you weren’t waiting long. I’m down to hang, though.” In fact, he was already growing hard. Bryce lowered his head to look through the car window. “I just—”
He stopped when he realized he was talking to no one. The vehicle was empty, even though the headlights were on, illuminating the path in front of him.
He started to turn. “What the—?”
Something slammed against his temple.
The blow to his head didn’t hurt. Not at first. It was too much of a shock for Bryce’s body to process the pain. As he tried to stand, his feet crisscrossed and the world begin to spin harder, and not in the familiar way that binging on alcohol made the room turn. No, this was far more severe, bringing bile to his throat.
He fell to his knees as his vision narrowed, and a new source of bright hot pain went through his wrist just before his body hit the ground. Bryce held onto the last bit of consciousness as his cheek pressed into the stinging gravel.
The headlights faded…
When Bryce’s eyes fluttered open again, he had no idea how much time had passed. Was the sun up? No, that wasn’t the sun lighting up the barn. It was from a flashlight sitting just a few feet away.
Hay pushed through the thin material of his pants and scratched at Bryce’s calves, forcing him to take in his surroundings despite his searing headache. Why the hell was he sitting on a bale of hay in one of the barns?
He reached down to relieve his now itchy legs, but his arm refused to move forward. He yanked at it, only to discover his hands were bound behind his back.
The memories of what happened flooded his senses. Someone had hit him in the head, but why? He didn’t have time to figure it out. Adrenaline rushed in, and he managed to get to his feet before running toward the open barn doors.
Before he was halfway there, two figures appeared in the opening. Was it two people, or was Bryce seeing double? He was still intensely dizzy, having to force one foot in front of the other. He squinted. The headlights behind them turned their images into silhouettes, but it was definitely two people. One was her. The other was…wait, what was he doing here?
“What’s going on, man? Why am I tied up? This some type of joke?”
They’d been friends for years. This made no sense. As his buddy approached, Bryce half-expected him to help with the restraints.
He got a sucker punch to the stomach instead.
Bryce’s voice was hoarse as he recoiled from the blow, stumbling backward. It took all his effort to stay on his feet.
He failed when the man in the ski mask delivered a second punch. Bryce doubled over in pain, causing him to gasp for a breath. The late steak dinner he’d eaten before heading to the bar was now threatening to come up. He used to think the term “seeing stars” was just an expression, but the twinkling he had witnessed while driving home had followed him into the barn. Little fireballs danced in his vision.
From their stalls, horses began to grow restless, some blowing in agitation.
Hands gripped the top of his arms, thrusting him backward. Bryce was too disoriented to do anything but go along with it. His fight left him…until a rough material scratched against Bryce’s neck. He knew instantly what it was.
Growing up on a farm, you became well acquainted with the way thick rope felt against your skin. Not that he actually worked much, but he and his cousins used to try to wrangle each other like farm animals with any spare rope they found.
“No, no!” Bryce used every bit of energy he had to push his body forward, but it only made the rope tighter around his throat.
“Hurry up!” He heard someone yell, but Bryce’s heart was beating in his ears so loudly, he couldn’t tell who had spoken.
“Don’t do this! You were right…I won’t say a thing. I’m so sorry!” In his weakened state, hands bound behind him and, outnumbered, there was no fighting these guys. Bryce’s last and only defense was to beg.
But his pleading did nothing to stop his feet from rising from the floor. He stumbled to his tiptoes, loose hay sliding along the hardwood against his foot. His airway was already constricted, and within seconds, only rough gasps traveled in and out of his mouth.
“Put your weight into it and fucking pull!”
The rope tightened, and he was thrust upward several more inches, then several more. A ladder stood just a few feet from Bryce. Not one of the brands his father normally bought for the farm. Why had the thought even crossed his mind? The ladder, the rope…it all clicked for Bryce in his last moment. He knew exactly why his friend would do this.
Because of freaking animals.
But it was too late to do anything about it.
As he was pulled farther and farther into the air, the horses in the stalls became visible. Jennifer, his favorite, looked terrified, her eyes rolling as harsh breaths blew from her mouth.
He focused on the animal as his vision dimmed and his lungs burned for air. She was such a good girl, strong but gentle. She didn’t look gentle now.
The last thing he saw was Jennifer rear back, her front legs higher than the stall. It was almost like she was trying to escape, trying to save him.
Detective Charlotte Cross stared at her boss, hoping she’d drifted to sleep at her desk and that Sergeant Ruth Morris wasn’t standing in her office doorway.
She blinked, but her boss’s figure remained where she stood. It was a Saturday, for goodness’ sake, and Charli had only come into the office to finish up the paperwork on the evil bastard she’d just caught for killing several young girls.
“Can you please say that again?”
Ruth looked annoyed, the smooth dark skin of her face tightening into a frown. “I said that a young man was just found hanging inside his own stable.”
That’s what Charli thought she’d said, but she still couldn’t figure out why Ruth was bringing this information to her. Suicides didn’t fall under her division. As a detective with the Savannah Police Department, she investigated criminal cases. Though it certainly felt criminal when someone took their own life, those sad cases were not usually dropped onto her desk.
Charli let out a small sigh, hoping with all her heart that Ruth wasn’t about to ask her to lead a press conference or something public relations related like that. Whenever her sergeant needed a favor, it usually involved dealing with the public in some manner. Whether it was a press conference or visiting a victim’s family, the last thing Charli wanted to do was take time out of her day to interact with other people. It wasn’t her strongest suit.
And Ruth knew it.
Charli sat back in her chair, mentally preparing herself for the worst. “What do you need me to do?”
“I need you to make a house call. I’ve got a man claiming foul play in his son’s apparent suicide.” Ruth rubbed her eyes. Her exhaustion was palpable.
Charli couldn’t blame her. She was also exhausted after the crazy case they’d just had.
“A suicide? But why would I have to go out for a suicide? Forensics would have gone over this already, right? Do they have reason to expect foul play?”
“No, not really. They haven’t finished with their investigation, so there is always the chance something else will pop up, but from the original scene, it looks to be a straightforward hanging. No immediate evidence of a struggle or signs that anyone else was present. We’re still waiting for forensics to finish up at the site, though.”
Charli raised her eyebrows, waiting for the explanation that must be forthcoming. It wasn’t routine to send a detective out to an investigation after a suicide. Not even when a family insisted their loved one didn’t kill themselves.
Sadly, it was fairly common for family members to refuse to believe someone had ended their own life. It created too much guilt. Suicides left lingering questions that had no easy answer. But to go out to a family and entertain the idea there may have been foul play only gave them false hope and hindered the grieving process.
Ruth closed the door behind her. “If I can be quite frank with you, we’re dealing with a pillar of the community. I’m sure you’ve heard of Mowery Homes.”
Charli nearly said “duh” but managed to keep the sound behind her teeth. “Of course. I drive by two of their new housing development signs on my way to work.”
“Montgomery Mowery runs that company as well as several substantial farms. His son was found hanging in one of their barns.”
Charli wrinkled her nose. “I refuse to buy their eggs because they keep those poor chickens in cages all their lives.”
Ruth gave Charli a stern look for interrupting before going on. “I’d love to live in a world where we treat the poorest of our citizens the same as the rich. Lord knows that would have benefited my family greatly growing up. And while I try to give fair attention to all our cases, the reality is that someone like Montgomery Mowery will usually receive special treatment. He’s got a lot of ties to local politicians, and I don’t need the department coming up in a negative light.”
“Okay, fine, so we’re playing the game a little.” Charli could get behind this. “But why me?”
Ruth shook her head. She was clearly in no mood for Charli’s griping, but what did she expect? Her boss knew Charli loathed these kinds of tasks. There were other detectives on the force who would complain a lot less about dealing with this. Besides, she’d been at the station late last night and then early again this morning. It was a Saturday, for goodness’ sake. She could have just stayed in bed, but no…
“Your face has been plastered all over the news since you brought in the Marsh Killer. You’re the city’s hero. I have no doubt that Montgomery knows who you are, and I want him to know we’re sending our very best.”
Charli had to forcibly hold back an eye roll and glanced down at all the Marsh Killer paperwork she was still working on. It hadn’t even been twenty-four hours since she arrested the man for killing teenage girls. Plus, it was a weekend, for cripes’ sake.
“If I knew doing my job well was going to mean I had to placate a bunch of rich people, I would’ve stopped saving lives years ago.”
“Hardy har.” Ruth was scary when she was being sarcastic.
Charli held up a hand, wishing she had a white flag she could wave. “Okay, fine. I guess I’ll head out there…all by myself…on a Saturday.”
Her partner, Matthew Church, had hopped on a plane as soon as they’d closed their last case, heading to California to see his estranged daughter and ex-wife. The deaths of so many teen girls had gotten to Matthew more than Charli had even imagined. Almost as soon as the case was closed, he’d reported that he was going to visit Chelsea.
Ruth’s expression turned lethal. “Since you’re on salary…yes, you’re going alone on a Saturday.”
Charli held back a sigh. She didn’t like working cases without Matthew.
As a rational, by-the-book detective, Charli didn’t believe in gut feelings, instead relying on facts and figures to run her investigations. Matthew was the opposite, often letting instinct lead his work. He could be a bit of a hothead at times while Charli remained impartial.
Ruth had paired them together as partners, thinking their differences would complement each other. Nobody thought the pairing would last except the steely eyed sergeant. With her many years of experience, Charli had come to trust that her boss knew what she was doing. She’d been right. They’d become the most effective partnership at the precinct.
“Besides, he doesn’t need to help you with this. It’s a very simple task. One I know you can handle alone.” Ruth’s eyes narrowed, and Charli knew better than respond. “If it wasn’t Montgomery Mowery who was asking, I wouldn’t even be sending one detective. Daddy can bemoan all he wants, but it’s probably a suicide.”
There was no arguing this. As much as Charli wanted Matthew by her side, this really wasn’t a two-person job. Not that his presence wouldn’t help her. When she had these types of home visits to make, she always appreciated him.
Charli grabbed her ever-present notepad and pen. “Anything I need to know about the case?”
Ruth handed Charli a file. “Besides what you’ll find in here, just be aware that Bryce Mowery was a troubled individual. He had constant run-ins with the law.”
“He has a record?”
“Nope.” This time, Ruth’s scowl wasn’t directed at Charli but at the slim folder in her hand. “A lot of incident reports made about him, but no arrests. No beat cop has any interest in taking on the Mowery family in court. Any arrest would have been challenged by the best lawyers money can buy. He got away with a lot, but it’s clear something was wrong with him. Plenty of bar fights, drunk driving. He definitely had a substance abuse problem.”
The more Charli heard, the more the signs did indeed point to suicide.“Get out there as soon as possible.” Ruth huffed again. “Nobody keeps Montgomery Mowery waiting.”