Chapter 1

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I flicked on the porch light and discovered grief standing in front of my door. In a dead-flat voice my visitor said, “Seamus, I’m glad I caught you.” Skyler Weaver’s hollow eyes sucked me into her pain and silenced my response.

“I was at church,” she continued. “A music committee meeting—and figured since you were on my way home, I’d see if you were in.” Her gaze flicked down to her hands clasped at her waist and then back to my face. The corners of her lips curled in an attempted smile that died. “Well, you’re not exactly on my way home, but …” She shrugged.

I ushered her through the foyer and into my library. She walked with leaden steps to the fireplace and examined the cherry mantle and Rookwood tile. “It’s beautiful. Does it still work?”

She turned around. Now that she was in better light, I was struck by the creases that etched her face. She was a shell of the woman who, at the Sunday service following her fiancé’s murder, had leaned heavily on the minister as the two stood on the chancel. Gripping the microphone, tears streaking her face, she asked us to keep her and Samuel Presser’s family in our thoughts after the senseless tragedy. During the summer I had let it slip away and in her presence I felt guilty.

“All six fireplaces were designed for coal,” I said, “but none works. Would you like a tour?” I remembered belatedly my duties as host. “Or something to drink?”

“I love these big old Cincinnati Victorians.” She slid into the rocking chair, her back to the stained glass window. “But, it’s late …”

I moved the antique Hitchcock chair to face her and sat down. I didn’t know Skyler well. She sang soprano in the St. John’s Unitarian Universalist Church choir and sat in front of me at rehearsals. I’d seen her at church functions and choir parties, but since I was old enough to be her father, our social paths didn’t otherwise cross. Was she an emissary to ask me to join the music committee? I lined up my excuses.

“I can see you’re wondering why I’m here.” Deep breath. “I’m not satisfied with the police investigation. I want to hire you to investigate his murder. You come highly recommended.”

My stomach clenched knowing I would have to disappoint her. “Oh, Skyler, I am so sorry for your loss, but I’m afraid someone’s misinformed you about what I do.”

Her gunmetal-gray eyes locked onto mine. “I’ve talked to a number of people this week. I know you can help.”

With each word she spoke, my distress increased. “Skyler, you need a licensed private investigator. I’m just an analyst for Criminal Investigation Group. Besides, that’s not how CIG works. I wish I could help, but you have to find someone qualified.”

She rocked hard, causing a fault in the ancient rocker to click in protest. Several seconds later, she stopped and leaned toward me. “Look at me, Seamus. I’m a wreck. I can’t sleep. I’ve lost twenty pounds, and I jump at the slightest noise.”

I plucked a tissue from the box on the side table and handed it to her. Now that she mentioned it, I noticed her print blouse with flowers in the Georgia O’Keefe style hung off her shoulders, and she’d cinched in her black dress slacks so tightly its fabric gathered at her waist. She dabbed away the tears welling in her eyes.

“It’s been two months since Samuel was murdered. The police say they haven’t given up, but I know they have. They’ve got new killings every week.” She sprang from the chair and paced. “They’re overworked and can only do so much. I know that. I need a miracle, and people tell me you and your CIG sometimes find them. Lieutenant Hastings herself confirmed that your work last year unraveled a frame-up where they had charged the wrong person. I know you can do it … if you want to help me …”

Hoping to ease my discomfort, I stood. No help. “Skyler, it’s not my CIG. I work for them. I don’t do independent work.” I caught myself pressing on my forehead with both hands, trying to smooth the furrow lines. I dropped my hands to my side.

She bunched the tissue in her hand. “You’ve got pull. You can get CIG to help—if you want to.”

“It’s just not that simple. Maybe Lieutenant Hastings failed to mention that CIG only works on cases where we’ve been invited by the local police. That’s our whole modus operandi: we provide additional resources to police departments who don’t have the expertise or are understaffed or—”

Her breath erupted in short steam-engine bursts. Feeling trapped in the midst of a lecture, I bumbled on. “They’re often cold cases―years after the crime. We—”

She whirled to face me, hands turning white on her hips. “Shay-mus Mac-Cree,” she pronounced each syllable with emphasis. “You remind me of Samuel, and not just because you both have dark, curly hair. You spew mountains of information—all accurate—but you don’t answer the question. So, I’ll rephrase it. How much would it cost to hire you and CIG to investigate Samuel’s death? I don’t care whether the police cooperate or not. I need to know why Samuel was murdered.”

Her mournful eyes reminded me of the confusion, and pain, and searing need I had felt to bring meaning to my father’s death. Besides, if the police were stumped—because the police were stumped—I was intrigued.

“Let me do this,” I said. “I’ll call Lieutenant Hastings tomorrow and see if I can find out anything.”

“And you’ll talk with CIG?”

I tried to smooth my brow with the heels of my hands. Why hadn’t I just said no? “Unless the Cincinnati police invite CIG to assist, there’s nothing I can do. They’re not my rules, they’re CIG’s rules. I promise I’ll call Hastings. But you need to promise me you’ll look for a licensed investigator. Maybe Hastings can recommend one.”

We closed by shaking hands as proper dealmakers do. I should have read the small print.

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