JEWEL HART - WHEELHOUSE
Born in San Antonio a month beyond her due date, Jewel Hart still prefers to do things on ‘Texas time’. Unconventionally conventional, her personal Alpha-hunk, two boy children, and assorted fur-babies keep her grounded when she's lost in her latest sappy romance, quirky suspense, or future urban legend.
Laughter, tolerance, and chocolate are daily necessities. Puns and irony are a few of her favorite things. When not reading or writing, her other hobbies include collecting useless trivia and poking bears.
Check me out at www.jewelhart.com
The Wheelhouse's worn stool fit Mia Clark's rear as if it had been molded to her. She'd been coming to this neighborhood bar six months but it already felt like a second home. The outdated music and the smell of nicotine took her back to her childhood. As usual, the muted TV over the bar was tuned to the local station where, currently, the late news aired. She read subtitles and nursed her vodka tonic, scrunching her face after each sip. She never liked the antiseptic taste but the bubbly burn kept her from overindulging. The daughter of an alcoholic, she remained conscious of the risk.
Augie, the bartender, leaned an elbow on the counter. "Did you hear about Jack Whitlock?"
She gave him a puzzled look. "What about him?"
"He up and left his wife and kids last week. Just like Blake Martin a few months ago. Did you know Blake?"
She shook her head. As a writer, she spent most of her time in the quiet country rental her publisher arranged. Her circle of friends was limited to The Wheelhouse’s regulars.
"Didn't think so. Anyway, Jack copied Blake’s disappearing act right down to the Dear Jane letter. Mailed it local so the wife can't know which direction he went."
Mia fingered her swizzle stick. "From what little I knew of Jack, his wife's better off without him."
Augie reached for a rag and wiped drink sweat off the bar. "Probably, but she don't think so."
"Came by asking questions."
She chewed her lip. "Did you give her answers?"
Augie nodded. "Didn't want to, but she wouldn't drop it. Last I saw him, he was headed to Teddie's. "
The gentleman’s club is a few miles down I-35 and does more business than a town this size should warrant. The pastor’s car had even been spotted there on occasion. It's unlikely he was there for spiritual guidance.
An image drew Mia’s attention to the television. Augie followed her eyes. As if conjured by their conversation, the pretty blonde on the screen had been a dancer at Teddie's. Her body was found last week. She'd been raped and murdered. There was a reward for information.
He absently returned to wiping the bartop. "You think Jack coulda done something like that?"
Mia scowled at her drink. "Jack was a jerk, not a killer."
Augie shrugged. "I guess." Then he stopped to give her his eyes. "But you're too trusting. It's a dangerous world out there."
"Thanks for the bulletin."
He snickered. "Saw you with Brady last week."
Her cheeks turned to hot coals. "What of it?"
He slid a hand over hers. "I worry about you."
She carefully extracted her hand. "Thanks, Augie. You're sweet. I can take care of myself."
"Brady's got a temper."
Saving her from more awkward conversation, the waitress set her tray on the bar and called out the drinks she needed. It was a busy Friday night at The Wheelhouse—at least fifteen other folks in attendance. The shift from the sanitation plant had let out early. They huddled around the pool tables, still in their work clothes.
Two stools over, another customer bellied up.
Augie greeted, "Be right with you."
The man laid a twenty on the bar. "I'm in no hurry. I'll take a Shiner when you're free." He glanced to the side, noticed Mia, then did a double-take. "Excuse me. Are you Mia Clark?"
She angled toward him but didn't answer. About thirty-five years old, dressed preppie, with soft-hands and sharp eyes, he had an average-guy appeal. But how does he know my name?
"You're a writer. Right?"
She eyed him skeptically. "You know my work?"
"Sort of. I never read them, but my wife always had your books laying around."
At mention of his wife, her gaze went to his left hand. No ring.
Understanding, he raised his hand and forced a tight smile. "Ex wife. Old habits. One of these days it'll sink in." His shoulders dropped when he tracked to where his wedding ring should be. Tenderly, he placed his palm on the bar, still focused on his ring-less digit.
She hadn't brought it up, but seeing the man's melancholy struck a soft spot. She took a healthy swallow of her drink and sighed. "I’m at a disadvantage. You got a name?"
His mood improved instantly. If he'd been a dog, he'd have been wagging his tail. "Jim. Jim Spenser." He slid over and held out a hand.
She took it. "Nice to meet you, Jim."
Next to them, a Shiner plopped on the bar with enough force to make it foam over. Augie eyed Jim. "Haven't seen you in here before."
"Haven't been in before."
"What brings you now?" The question had an accusatory quality.
Mia rolled her eyes for Jim’s benefit. "Geez, Augie. Your hospitality sucks. No wonder this place is never packed."
Jim masked his chuckle with a cough, but Augie wasn't amused.
She jerked to face him.
"Don't forget what I said."
Crazy, overprotective Augie. She lowered her eyes to her drink and mumbled, "I remember."
From the other end of the bar, someone called for a refill. Augie backed away slowly, glaring at Jim long enough to issue a silent warning.
When he was free of the bartender’s leer, Jim tilted to Mia and whispered. "I think I’m growing on him."
Caught by surprise, she barked out a laugh, which triggered giggles and earned them curious glances. She waved them off to bask in a rare bout of levity with an interesting man.
Once they got to talking, Mia and Jim had an easy rapport. He told her he'd been contracted to teach management techniques at the sanitation plant. Pretty boring, but Jim was funny and relaxed.
As the night wore on, Mia considered inviting him home, but the opportunity passed when he checked his watch and announced his departure. He had an early class in the morning. Mia watched him go. Had she missed an opportunity?
Augie reappeared in front of her. His mouth was twisted into a hateful snarl. "You have a good time?"
Her brows furrowed. "What's with you tonight?"
He put his face close to hers and growled, "Tired of watching you throw yourself at that schmuck."
"Who I talk to is none of your business. I'm a paying customer."
Quick as a rattlesnake, Augie grabbed her arm. "Don't toy with me, woman!"
Her mouth fell open as she tugged back, but he had a tight grip. "That hurts!"
All eyes turned toward the commotion and Augie let go.
Shaking, she dug around in her purse and tossed some bills on the bar.
Augie's expression softened. "Look, I'm sorry. I shouldn't—"
"No! You shouldn't have." She practically ran to the door, not stopping until she was safely in her car. She sat there allowing the sound of her own breathing to soothe her. She wasn't prepared for Augie’s assault, but he'd darn sure never touch her like that again. When her anger subsided, she started her Jeep and pulled away.
The drive home took her past Teddie’s. She slowed to a crawl as she passed the sinful club. Each car in the lot represented a wife or girlfriend pining for her man to come home. Most would be happier if they didn’t. Her father used to enjoy such places.
She pushed him out of her mind and sped up.
The rental house was well off the road, sufficiently isolated to meet her publisher’s deadlines. She committed to six books in two series and she'd already finished five. Soon, Mia would have to decide whether she’d stay for the remaining six months on the lease, or return home to downtown Dallas.
Emotionally exhausted, she climbed the porch steps to unlock the door. Most locals didn’t bother with locks, but it was her routine after years in the city. Still, the rural life had dulled her senses.
Too late, she felt the wood shift beneath her feet. Then, pain erupted.
Everything went black.
She woke, tied to a kitchen chair, with a nasty headache. Music played from somewhere else in the house and someone was standing across from her. The figure was too blurry to make out. She blinked to focus, but rendered only vague shapes and colors.
"I didn’t mean to hit you so hard. I got carried away."
She knew that voice. "Wha-" She swallowed and tasted blood. It coated her tongue. She used it to check her teeth. All were intact. A small boon, but she’d take it.
She tried again to speak. "Why…"
"Why you? Your realtor was at Teddie’s the other night. Told everyone about the secluded hideaway he’d rented to a pretty lady. Right then, I knew you’d be my next victim."
His soft hands came into view.
Next? Her throbbing head felt light and heavy at the same time.
Jim bent close and grinned. "Too bad you won’t live to write about me. I’d make a great villain. You’re my tenth. No—make that eleventh. But you're my first celebrity."
She could see him clearly now, but only with her left eye. She probably had a concussion. "You’ve killed eleven people?"
"Women. I only kill women. My wretched wife was first. Had to make it look like an accident. Now I can take my time. You’ll see." He spotted the wine the realtor gave her for housewarming. "Lets start with some vino."
He rummaged through the kitchen drawers. "Where's your corkscrew?" At the third one, he stopped. Staring for a beat before he reached inside.
When he brought his hand up, he held an eight-inch knife. Not the kind most people keep in a kitchen. More like for hunting. The quarter-moon shape was serrated on one side and smooth on the other.
He examined it, then picked at deposits trapped in the handle’s grooves. As he rolled the extracted bits between his forefinger and thumb, he stumbled toward Mia. When his toes bumped hers, he stopped and cocked his head to the side.
Mia kept her gaze focused on Jim’s face.
He parted his fingers and frowned at the bloody bits. "Huh."
He was about to say something else when a bag slipped over his head. The knife dropped, narrowly missing Mia’s foot.
Jim bucked and spun. He grabbed at the bag. He backed into cabinets and walls, trying to disengage his assailant. His aggressor held fast, but his efforts waned. He had no stamina. His office job made him soft. Finally, his struggle ended and he went down.
Jim woke, tied to a spindle chair exactly like the one he bound Mia to—maybe the same chair. There were more shadows than light, but, along with the piercing stench of rot, dank earth and chalky concrete suggested he was in a basement. He turned his head to assess his prison.
From behind him, a girl yelled. "Mom, he’s awake!"
Quick footsteps overhead grew louder, then she was on the stairs. She toggled a switch, and there was a flash of light before darkness endured.
“Darn. Baby? Would you run around and flip the breaker?”
“Sure, mom." The girl bounded up the stairs. "Don't start without me.”
As casually as if they were back at the bar, Mia mused, “Kids. So much energy. Only fourteen and she bested you.”
She came around him and he glimpsed the angled blade.
Her tone chilled. "You really should have read my books."
The light flipped on and what he saw caused warmth to run down his leg. He couldn't know them all, but he recognized Jack Whitlock among the mutilated bodies.
Mia bent close. "My villains are always female."
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