When Wylie Lewis sells his half of the detective agency he owned to move into the house his grandfather willed him in the small town of Earlston, he expects he'll have work to do refurbishing and redecorating it. He doesn't expect that Garry Parish, the handsome restaurant owner who lives two doors down, would offer his assistance, as well as put him in contact with Carl, a handyman who could do most of the manual labor.
Wylie also doesn't expect to be the sheriff's prime suspect when Nelly, a young woman who works for Garry, disappears a week after Wylie arrives in town. As if that isn't bad enough, a second woman, Emma, vanishes a few days later.
Wylie, Garry, and Carl team up to try to locate them before the sheriff decides to arrest Wylie, but things take a deadly turn when they find Nelly's body. Will they be able to discover who the killer is in time to save Emma, while Wylie and Garry deal with their growing attraction to each other? Or will Wylie become the killer's next target, with deadly results?
"Mind if I join you for a couple?"
"Hell, no," Wylie replied to Garry's question. After Garry sat, Wylie asked, "Where's my favorite waitress? Is she off tonight?"
"If you mean Nelly, I have no idea where she is. She was scheduled to be here at four. When I tried calling to find out where she was, she didn't answer. The call went straight to voicemail and she hasn't returned it."
"Has she ever done this before?"
"Never. She's probably the most reliable waitress I have."
"Does she live in town?"
"No. Her house is in the boonies." Garry smiled wryly. "Well as much in the boonies as is possible for a small town. It's on one of the roads running through the hills to the north of town."
"Any neighbors you can call to check on her?"
"The nearest one is almost a mile away from her. I did call and ask him to drive by, to see if she was sick. He called back to say he knocked on her door but got no answer, and none of the lights were on."
"Have you talked to the sheriff, just in case?"
"Yeah. That was him you saw me with when you came in. He claims there's nothing he can do for at least twenty-four hours since she's of legal age. And then someone would have to file a missing-persons report before he could enter her house."
"I don't know the local or state laws, here, but that's probably true," Wylie replied. He drummed a finger on the table before saying, "If you want, I can go see what I can find out. I have no problem with the idea of going inside, as long as she hasn't locked her doors. I gather around here that's highly unlikely."
Garry nodded. "It is, even for folks living well outside of town."
"I take it she has no family here, or a boyfriend."
"Nope. She had a boyfriend, but they decided to call it quits when he went off to grad school. She told me neither of them was interested in a long-distance relationship."
Wylie started to get up, stopping when Garry said, "Eat, first. I doubt half an hour's going to make a difference. If she is sick, she probably turned her phone off so she could sleep. I would if it were me."
"Which is undoubtedly what's going on, but I know you're worried so I'll check on her."
Garry thanked him and left the table just as the waitress brought Wylie's meal. He ate it hurriedly, barely tasting it, flagged her down for the check, and as soon as he paid he walked to the door. It wasn't until he was outside that he realized he didn't know her address. Going back inside, he looked for Garry, spotting him talking to one of the customers. When he caught his attention, he beckoned, asking for Nelly's address when Garry came over.
"Yeah, that would probably help." Garry wrote it down. "Call as soon as you know anything."
Once he'd programmed the address into his GPS system, it took Wylie seven minutes to get to her house. It was small, only one story, set well back off the road. Pulling into the driveway, he parked, leaving the headlights on, and walked along the dirt path to the front stoop. There was no doorbell, so he knocked, once -- and then harder when there was no response. Still getting no answer, he went around to the rear of the house, figuring there had to be a back door. There was, and he knocked loudly. He could hear the sound echoing inside, but she didn't come to see who was there.
"Time to get proactive," he said under his breath as he tried the door handle. It turned, and he pushed the door open a couple of inches, calling out, "Nelly, are you here?"
There was no answer, so he opened the door and went inside. He used a knuckle to feel for the light switch and when he found it, he turned the light on. He was in a small kitchen. Across from him was another door. Before going to it, he picked up a dish cloth lying over the edge of the sink. Instinct, from his years as a private detective, and probably unwarranted, he thought, but in case something was wrong he wasn't about to destroy any fingerprints. Wrapping the cloth around his fingers, he opened the door.
The moment he stepped into the living room it was obvious there had been a struggle. An armchair was overturned, as was the chair by the dining table, which was also on its side, a shattered plate and the remains of what he could only presume was her interrupted supper beside it. Worst of all, there was blood spattering the floor by the front door.
Backing into the kitchen, he called Garry. As soon as he answered, Wylie said, "Let the sheriff know he should get out here ASAP, since I don't have his number. Something's happened to Nelly."
"Damn it, Wylie. Are you sure?"
"Yeah, I am." He quickly described what he'd found. "Tell him I'll wait in my car until he gets here."
"I'm coming, too," Garry replied before hanging up.
Before going back to his car, Wylie walked to the front stoop again. This time he saw what he'd missed the first time, a few dark spots going from the door down to the path, where they disappeared. He was certain they were blood. Dried blood, as he must have stepped on them when he was on the stoop a few minutes earlier but he hadn't tracked any of it away when he'd left. Whatever happened, it wasn't tonight.
He crossed to his car, leaning against the hood while he waited for the sheriff and Garry to arrive. The sheriff got there first, which was no surprise. He pulled up behind Wylie's car, got out and strode over to him.
"So you're the hot-shot big city PI," Sheriff Kingman said after introducing himself. "Heard about you." He pointed a finger at Wylie. "This state doesn't have any reciprocity agreements so your license isn't valid here. That means you keep your nose out this. Got it?"
Wylie was sorely tempted to tell him to shove it, but decided it wasn't worth getting on the sheriff's bad side any more than, for whatever reason, he apparently was already. Afraid I'll show him up? Perhaps. "Got it," he replied quietly.