She undresses men—to photograph them. He chases drug lords—and is burned out.
Mayor Chris Layton secretly supports Lead Gulch’s proud, elderly, destitute citizens by photographing models in the rugged outdoors for Hot Hunks calendars. J. J. Coburn leaves the LAPD drug squad for Lead Gulch in search of his uncle’s murderer, to be followed by some welcome solitude. When Chris’s photo shoot goes terribly wrong and she gets tangled up with the drug cartel that ordered the murder, can Coburn and the geriatric townies rescue her?
Lead Gulch, CA. Elevation 4079 feet. Population 12...and dropping.
Chris Layton had never been in old Jake’s bedroom before. Not that she was exactly in it now. She gripped the doorframe hard enough to leave dents in the splintery wood and stared around the Spartan room, stared at everything except Jake’s body stretched out on the narrow bed. Until she couldn’t avoid it any longer.
Jake, cold and still but somehow peaceful looking, his hands folded on his chest. Except for being completely motionless and stiff, he looked like he was sleeping.
She crossed the room with halting, reluctant steps and touched his hand. Cold.
She glanced around the room. No sign of a struggle, no overturned furniture, nothing out of place. Just a silent, too-still man stretched out under a faded, gray quilt.
Strange things had been happening in Lead Gulch lately, but Jake’s death looked to be natural and peaceful. Not a bad thing for him, even if it happened too soon. A very bad thing for those who depended on him, which included everyone in town.
Jake’s death not only meant loss of a good friend. It also meant more responsibility to weigh down her life. For most of the others, it might mean death if she couldn’t handle that responsibility.
She had to stop dithering. For a moment she wished she could shriek and wait for someone to rush in and take care of all the pesky little details that were going to have to be taken care of. Not going to happen, though. She was in charge, the mayor, even though Lead Gulch wasn’t really a town. It was up to her to deal.
So she would.
But she lingered, standing at the side of the bed. “Goddammit, Jake,” she whispered. A tear streaked down her face. “Goddammit. I’m gonna miss you, old friend.”
She touched his cheek, a last brief connection with the man who had meant so much in her life, and turned away to go tell the other inhabitants of her town that the population had dropped to twelve. In a town where the average age was in the seventies, the news wasn’t all that unexpected, but it was always a blow.
They would all grieve for the loss of an old friend. She was the one who had to deal with the loss of the town treasury.
* * *
Detective J. J. Coburn, LAPD, knew the day was turning to shit when Captain Delacourt ended the morning briefing by saying, “Dismissed. Coburn, come by my office before you leave.”
Burn picked up his notes and followed the captain down the hall into the Office of Reprimand. Lucky that didn’t mean anything to him any more. He was out of here in another week. Some things were more necessary than jobs, and finding his uncle’s killer was one of them.
Delacourt threw himself into his chair and glared at Burn across his terrifyingly bare desk, his face hard and angry. “What’s this shit about?” he demanded, waving Burn’s letter of resignation.
Burn assumed the parade rest position, face impassive, hands locked behind his back. “It’s my resignation, sir. My request for leave was denied—” As if the captain needed to hear that. He’d been the one to do the denying. “—so I quit.”
Delacourt leaned back in his chair and got that slit-eyed look that boded no good for whoever was standing in front of him. “Sit down.”
Years of obeying Delacourt’s orders had Burn dropping into a chair. Anger and grief over Jake’s death had him speaking up. “I’m not open to argument, sir. I will be leaving.”
Delacourtsteepled his fingers and regarded Burn thoughtfully. “I checked with the Inyo County sheriff after you requested leave. He didn’t think there was anything hinky about your uncle’s death. ‘Natural causes, no suspicious circumstances’ was what he told me.”
“He also told me you called him with some interesting ideas.”
“They didn’t seem to interest him much.”
“That’s because there’s absolutely no reason, no reason at all, to suspect anyone in Lead Gulch of killing your uncle.”
“Jake was healthy as a horse. He didn’t die of any heart attack.”
“I’ve cut you a lot of slack recently, Coburn, and not just because you got shot and your partner…” He cleared his throat.
Burn waited silently. He knew Todd’s death had hit the captain almost as hard as it had hit him.
“I saw what a mess you had with that girlfriend,” the captain continued. “And you took a big hit when your dad died. It hurt the rest of us, too. Fine man, your dad. One of the best officers the department ever had.” He paused. “Now, this business about your uncle. You have any other family?”
Burn shifted uncomfortably. “No, sir.”
“You’ve had a lot of bad news lately.”
No shit, Sherlock. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“You are not handling it.” Delacourt leaned forward. “This crazy idea of quitting is proof of that.”
“I owe Jake. If there’s anything off-color about his death, I need to take care of it,” Burn said stubbornly.
The captain switched gears. “You’ve been trying to tag Modesti for three years now.”
Modesti. A scum-bucket drug lord with the lowest profile in the world. Burn knew he’d ordered the hit that had taken out Todd. “Yes, sir.”
“Man can get discouraged after so long. That bothering you?”
“Bother you enough that you’re quitting? I never figured you for a quitter, Coburn.”
The taunt stung. “I’m no quitter. I figure I must have made progress or Modesti wouldn’t have put out the hit on...on Todd and me.”
“You had a pretty close call. Might have scared you some.”
If waking up with his hand on his gun at every noise in the night was scared, yeah. He had scars to prove how close the call had been. And Todd had a tombstone. “Give it up, sir. Uncle Jake is more important. Someone else can take Modesti from here.”
“Take a leave of absence.”
Burn shook his head.
“All right, Coburn. You win. Turn in your gun and badge and get out of here. You can call next week sick leave.”
Burn pulled the badge folder out of his pocket, flipped it open and looked at it. It had been part of his life for close to fifteen years now, years he’d spent trying his best to live up to the department motto. The words didn’t appear on the badge, but they were engraved on his soul. To protect and serve.
Yeah. He’d done a great job. Serving had gotten him shot by Modesti’s men. As far as protecting went, his track record was pretty pathetic. That girl, he couldn’t even remember her name, but he’d never forget the way she’d died, trying to get to him for protection. His dad, dead, because Burn hadn’t been on duty that night. No matter what the captain said, Burn knew it was his fault. And Todd, dead, his blood scarcely dry on the pavement, because Burn had pushed to go after Modesti. Now Uncle Jake, dead, and only God knew how or why.
He handed the badge to Delacourt, unbuckled his shoulder holster, and set it on the desk.
“When you come to your senses, Coburn, know this: none of it was your fault.”
Back in his office, Burn slumped into his chair and began cleaning out drawers. Todd’s empty desk stared back, a never-ending reproach. Despair swept over Burn. Too many people he should have protected. Too many people dying on his watch. Once he settled whether Uncle Jake was murdered—and caught the low-life who did it—he would never be responsible for anyone ever again. Never.
The captain wanted him to stay. To keep risking everything to get Modesti and avenge Todd. Part of him wanted to. But Uncle Jake deserved avenging too. So screw Modesti. Burn was out of here.
Jake’s house out in the California desert was his now. He’d move out there. Be a hermit while he figured out how Jake died. And stay a hermit after that.
No more worrying about others.
No more responsibility.
No more deaths on his watch.