From the bestselling author of the DI Bliss series comes an enthralling mystery thriller.
The truth can set you free – or bury you.
When FBI Agent Sydney Merlot returns to her home town in northern California to wind down her late father’s PI business, she soon finds herself on the wrong side of the aftermath of a high school shooting.
Sydney’s childhood friend – who is now county sheriff – plus the local PD, the mayor’s office, and most of the town’s inhabitants, are convinced the horror ended when the gunman was killed. Now they just want to be left alone to mourn. But Sydney has other ideas – and she is not alone.
While having to work through her own personal grief, Sydney is openly intimidated and receives anonymous threats. After discovering she is under surveillance, she begins to fear for her life. During her investigation she gains several allies, but as the days pass, Sydney doesn’t know who to trust, and which new friends might actually turn out to be foes…
Sydney Merlot thought the man standing half in and half out of the yawning doorway had the most haunted eyes she had ever seen; glistening windows into the soul of someone who had suffered a great tragedy and had not yet come to terms with his grief. He appeared uncertain and lacking in confidence as he straddled the threshold. His eyebrows angled towards each other, and when he removed his ball cap, both hands squeezed and twisted it as if wringing out slops from a beer towel.
‘I… I’m looking for Sidney Merlot,’ he said. ‘I was told this was his office.’ He squinted as if hoping she might transform somehow into the man he was expecting to find.
Sydney smiled back at him, having experienced similar misunderstandings over the past couple of days. ‘I’m his daughter,’ she said, rising to her feet and moving briskly around the desk. She rubbed her right hand on the leg seam of her blue jeans before extending it, appraising his unruly, tangled hair and deep stubble of beard, eyes shot with red marble and white-hot agony. As they exchanged greetings she continued, ‘I do apologise, but my father no longer runs this agency.’
The man blinked at her twice before responding, in that moment looking both unanchored and crestfallen. She felt a twinge of sympathy for him as he shook his head, seemingly still bemused by the turn of events.
‘I see. Only, just this morning, somebody who led me to believe they know the agency well, gave me this address and told me to ask for Mr Merlot.’
Sydney gave a weak smile. Here was the next part of what she had already discovered would be an entire scene to re-enact in the coming days and weeks. As was her nature, she took a deep breath and confronted the issue head on.
‘My father passed away a short while ago,’ she explained, not allowing her tone to become grave. ‘I’m here to wind the business down in respect of existing clients.’
‘My condolences to you. So, you’re not keeping the agency going?’
‘Thank you. And no, not personally. I live and work in San Diego. I’m hoping somebody will take it over as a going concern, and that they’ll keep the name of Merlot at least during the period of transition. Oh, and to add to the confusion, despite my father no longer being with us, you’re still talking to Sydney Merlot. My name has the female spelling. Just think of the city in Australia.’
Sydney offered up the delicate laugh she’d been practicing to go along with the explanation. It sounded every bit as contrived and unconvincing as it had in her head while rehearsing it in the mirror over the weekend.
‘You are Mr..?’ she went on, seeking to recover before he turned on his heels and fled the building.
‘Muller,’ he said. ‘Dexter Muller. I’m so very sorry for your loss, Miss Merlot. And for bumbling in here like that asking for your father. An acquaintance who used to work with him gave me his details. I guess they were unaware of his passing.’
Muller came across as awkward, which was understandable given the circumstances. In what she hoped was a reassuring manner, Sydney told him the private investigations agency was, for the most part, a one-man band. Her father’s clients had respected his tenacity and integrity, putting their faith in an honourable man who served them to the best of his ability.
‘I hope to follow in his footsteps in the limited amount of time it takes me to sift through his current list of clients,’ Sydney finished, hoping she had done justice to her father’s work ethic and professionalism.
While Muller continued to regard her with a pained expression, he also visibly relaxed along with the easy rhythm of her words. Energised by the change she saw in him, Sydney made a swift decision.
‘Would you care to sit?’ Sydney indicated the soft chair by the desk, its wooden arms highly polished by the sleeves of many previous customers. ‘I’m not looking to take on any new business, but you’re here and I have time to hear you out. Please, feel free to explain why you came. If I think I can help, or refer you to another appropriate agency, I’ll tell you. If you don’t like what I have to say, then you’ll have wasted only a few minutes of your time. How does that sound?’
‘Good,’ he answered on a sigh. ‘It sounds good.’
After taking their seats, Muller continued to look disconcerted. Sydney guessed this was due to the reason behind him seeking an investigator in the first place. She gave him a few moments to formulate exactly what he wanted to say, and eventually he sat forward and nodded at her.
‘I assure you I heard only positive things about your father. However, I was also told he was the most experienced PI in the region. If you don’t mind my asking, as your father mostly worked alone, how long have you been in the business?’
Sydney shrugged. ‘Including this morning? Two and a half days.’
The man grimaced and huffed a sigh of disappointment. His entire body took on a dejected air. Sydney decided to use the speech she had rehearsed in her bathroom mirror a few hours ago. Hoping to allay his concerns, she insisted that although her experience of being a private investigator had begun only on Monday morning, she’d held a PI licence for a good while, renewing it several times. In addition, she was currently an FBI agent, having spent many years prior to joining the Bureau working in various forms of law enforcement.
‘I’m the first to admit that I still have things to learn about what it means to be a PI,’ she conceded. ‘But I have been an investigator in one form or another for more than fifteen years.’
Dishevelled, his eyes heavy with regret, Muller looked back at her with a new-found respect. Judging by his appearance, he had stopped taking care of himself in recent weeks; presenting as a troubled man in need of help. When he spoke he lacked confidence, but his fortitude eventually drew her in.
‘Miss Merlot, I confess my coming here today was pretty much a last resort. I’ve been to a couple of larger agencies and they wanted nothing to do with me. Sure, they never exactly said that out loud, but when somebody tells you they’ll get back to you and then they don’t, and when you call and leave messages and they still fail to respond, you eventually have to accept they’re not interested.’
Sydney ran both hands through her hair, sweeping it off her forehead and continuing on until both sides became tucked behind her ears. What she hoped to reveal in her eyes when she spoke next was the level of sincerity she truly harboured.
‘If that’s your experience so far, sir, then you have my sympathy. I can’t speak for anybody else. I’m taking over my father’s business slowly but surely in order to complete his ongoing work, and I guess I won’t do things the exact same way he did. But if I say I’ll do something, then I will do it. And if I’m not interested, then I’ll tell you that, too. At the very least, what you’ll get from me, Mr Muller, is a certain kind of bluntness. Not everybody can deal with that. If you can, then perhaps I may be of some help to you.’
Muller released what sounded to her like the sigh of a man about to unburden himself. ‘That sounds like a positive beginning,’ he said. ‘But I can tell you’ve not lived in these parts for quite some time, Miss Merlot. Otherwise, I’m sure my name would have been familiar to you by now.’
‘And why would that be, sir?’
‘I take it you know about the school shootings we had in town a few months ago?’
‘Of course. A terrible tragedy. Fourteen dead, as I recall.’
‘In fact, it was fifteen.’ Muller’s voice caught in the back of his throat. He swallowed something down, and by the twisted look on his face it was vile-tasting. ‘There were fifteen coffins either lowered into the ground or burned as a consequence of what happened that tragic morning, Miss Merlot.’
‘Please, call me Sydney. And I stand corrected.’ She narrowed her gaze, a terrible realisation creeping over her. Tiny hairs sprang erect on her forearms as his name suddenly seemed familiar. ‘Sir, forgive me, but did you lose a child that day?’
Muller sucked air through his nose and sat upright, as rigid as a steel crowbar. ‘I did. My son, Kevin.’
‘I’m so terribly sorry for your loss. It must have been an awful thing for you to have experienced.’
‘Do you have children, Sydney?’
‘No, I do not.’
‘Then let me tell you it is the very worst of experiences when you lose one. It’s a cliché that says parents should not have to outlive their children, but it’s also a fact. It’s not something you ever get over.’
‘I can’t even begin to imagine. So, what can I do for you, Mr Muller.’
‘I’m looking for some kind of justice for my son.’
Sydney frowned. Her mind ran through everything she had learned about the events of that harrowing day, both from news reports and a couple of brief conversations with her father. ‘Sir, am I wrong in believing that law enforcement from local PD and the sheriff’s office shot and killed the perpetrator on school grounds shortly after the shooting?’
‘No, you’re right about that. He was, in point of fact, the fifteenth student to die that day.’
‘So, if the gunman is already dead, what kind of justice are you looking for exactly?’
‘My son was murdered. I want his killer or killers brought to trial.’
‘Once again, I apologise, Mr Muller, because I’m clearly not understanding this correctly. But given the circumstances, I’m not at all sure how you think that is possible.’
He expelled a long breath and moistened his lips while he fought some kind of inner turmoil. Shoulders hunched forward and slanting in, he looked as if he wanted nothing more than to fold himself into a protective ball.
‘Miss Merlot, it was the police, the sheriff, and his deputies who murdered my son that day. Please understand I’m not seeking any form of compensation. I wouldn’t take it if it was offered to me. What I do want is for them to admit their mistake.’
Edging closer in her chair, Sydney was irritated with herself. She didn’t know what this bereft and gentle man was trying to tell her. ‘Excuse me if I have this wrong yet again, sir, but I thought the gunman murdered all the children who died that day.’
‘Not all of them, no.’ Muller shook his head firmly. ‘You’re forgetting there were fifteen coffins in all. Miss Merlot, my son was not killed by the gunman. According to the sheriff, he was the gunman.’
Tony J Forder is the author of the bestselling DI Bliss crime thriller series. The first seven books, Bad to the Bone, The Scent of Guilt, If Fear Wins, The Reach of Shadows, The Death of Justice,
Endless Silent Scream, and Slow Slicing, were joined in December 2020 by a prequel novella, Bliss Uncovered.
Tony’s other series – two action-adventure novels featuring Mike Lynch – comprises both Scream Blue Murder, and Cold Winter Sun.
In addition, Tony has written two standalone novels: a dark, psychological crime thriller, Degrees of Darkness, and a suspense thriller set in California, called Fifteen Coffins which was
released just last November.
Tony lives with his wife in Peterborough, UK, and is now a full-time author. He is currently working on Bliss #8, The Autumn Tree.
Twitter: https://twitter.com/TonyJForder @TonyJForder
Amazon Author: https://www.amazon.co.uk/l/B01N4BPT65