“You don’t look like a cop.” Wish I had a dollar for every time I heard a version of that opinion. My boss says it when he explains why I’m so valuable as an undercover drug agent. Drug sellers say it on the rare occasions my cover slips. My grandmother Fern says it after she’s arranged my hair in a complicated updo. And several characters involved in my latest homicide case were similarly puzzled by my appearance.
First, there’s the heroin dealer I tussled with until my partner Fredricks came to my rescue: Scottie rolled onto his side and gave me a stink eye. “Damn. You a cop? I don’t believe it.”
The next day I was heading home when I saw a teenager hitchhiking. I screeched to a halt and waved her into my car. She hopped in but it wasn’t a free ride–she had to listen to my lecture on what happens to teenage girl hitchhikers:
“Thanks,” she said. “Women never stop.”
“Where are you going?”
“Silver Hills.” An expensive gated golf community a few miles north.
“I’ll take you there if you’ll listen to these numbers.” I was making an effort to keep calm, not throttle her for terminal stupidity. “There are almost six thousand registered sex offenders in this state. They’ve been convicted. But only one in seven men arrested for rape is convicted, and only one in twenty-five reported rapes results in an arrest. And most rapes aren’t reported.”
She closed her eyes and puffed out a breath, fluttering her bangs. “Spare me the lecture. I have to babysit, and the kid’s dad didn’t pick me up like he said he would. I waited at the school bus stop for an hour. What was I supposed to do?”
“Let me simplify. Predators look for girls like you. Girls are picked up and never seen again.”
“Yeah, yeah. What makes you so smart?”
I showed her my ID. “What’s your name?”
“Nikki Truly. You’re a cop? You’re no older than me.”
“What makes you so smart?”
She laughed, showing even white teeth, transforming her face from sullen to cute. “OK. I get it. Next time I’ll call a cab.”
I’ll spare you the details of what I found at Nikki’s employer’s house in Silver Hills. I think you can imagine, since this is a murder mystery. I joined the investigation, of course. The only forensic evidence was a bloody fingerprint so I started interviewing subjects, among them the victim’s nineteen-year-old half-brother. I met Bryce at his gym, where he was working out:
The gym was a huge open space with very high ceilings festooned with ropes and metal bars. . . Bare walls held white boards with inspirational sayings and workout times. The place smelled like sweat, with undertones from the Chinese restaurant next door.
A class was in process. About twenty people were doing pushups, deadlifts, jumping on and off the boxes, squatting, throwing massive balls up against a wall. They grunted, groaned, and screamed encouragement at each other. Hip-hop music blared, barbells clanked, sweat flew. Body shapes ranged from pudgy to wiry, ages from twenty to seventy, but they all looked oxygen-deprived, hence confused, and after ten minutes of this, not a few were wobbly. One by one they screamed “time” and collapsed–chests heaving for air, streaming sweat–onto the floor. . .
I had never met Bryce, so I didn’t know which of the near-dead bodies was his, but after a few minutes the bulkiest of the young men staggered to his feet and waved at me. . . I know people who work out—some fellow agents are in the gym every day—but I’d never been up close to a body like his, bulging with muscle everywhere. . . His hair was gorgeous: thick, honey blond, cascading over his shoulders. I … invited him to sit in my car. He slid the seat all the way back and turned to face me. . .“So you’re a cop? You don’t look like one.”
I’m not offended; I know what I am. And not looking like a cop is a good thing when you’re trying to buy illegal drugs. That’s illegal, but not as illegal as trying to sell them.
It gets to me sometimes–the danger, lies, and necessary betrayals. That’s why I’ll always join a homicide investigation when I get the chance. And this recent one–the murder of Kent Mercer–was a doozy, churning up a half-dozen suspects, all related somehow: family, neighbors, work. Liars, every one, protecting their secrets.
COLD HEART is the second book in the Stella Lavender mystery series published by Five Star Publishing, January 2017.
Motivated by her mother’s long-ago unsolved abduction, Stella Lavender has joined the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation only to be severely challenged by her first assignment: undercover drug agent. Stella works nights, buying drugs from paranoid drug dealers, gathering evidence to send them to prison or turn them into informants. She’s great at the job because, as her boss says, “you don’t look like a cop.” But the physical danger and the necessary betrayals are getting to her. When she sees a chance to work homicide, she’ll always take it.
One afternoon Stella gives a hitchhiking teenager a ride to her babysitting job in a wealthy neighborhood. Horror awaits them—the father lies dead in a pool of blood, and his toddler is missing. Stella joins the murder investigation as the puzzle quickly grows. Most importantly, where is the toddler? A dizzying array of plausible suspects provides more questions than answers.
At the same time, Stella’s personal life offers plenty of distractions. Her grandmother Fern, a free-spirited artist with male admirers wrapped around every one of her paint-stained fingers, needs Stella’s help with expensive house repairs. And Stella’s attraction to three very different men means her romantic life is, well, complicated.
Cold Heart draws the reader into a darkly delightful page-turner as Stella rummages through every strata of society in her relentless and sometimes unconventional pursuit of a cold-hearted murderer who won’t stop at just one victim.
“Fans of the regional mystery, rejoice! (Stella) is back, and the murder that sets off the action is even more engrossing than her first.” – Margaret Maron.
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About the author
Karen Pullen’s fiction includes two Five Star mysteries, Cold Feet (2013) and Cold Heart (2017). She also edited the Anthony-nominated anthology Carolina Crimes: 19 Tales of Lust, Love, and Longing (Wildside, 2014). She has an MFA from Stonecoast at the University of Southern Maine, serves on the board of Sisters in Crime, and lives in Pittsboro NC. For updates, see www.karenpullen.com.
All comments are welcomed.
Giveaway: In keeping with the title of her January release Cold Heart, Karen will send a silver heart pendant to a commenter selected at random. US addresses only, please. Check back on January 25, 2017 to see if you won! Good luck everyone!