Here is a sneak peak at my latest suspense release, GIRL
UNDONE. This book is the third in the TJ Peacock and Lisa Rayburn suspense series. If you enjoy these first two chapters, please go to Amazon.com for your
own, personal copy.
A pale figure sat slumped in a tufted, red velvet and carved-gold throne while a handful of gaping shoppers gathered behind the roped off area in front of a work-in-progress Santa’s Village.
On the floor above, private investigator TJ Peacock walked past the Boston Store, her eye on a possible shoplifter. She’d been making rounds in the mall since six in the morning when the doors of the mall’s department stores opened. TJ hated mall duty, especially the stiff, uncomfortable uniform she had to wear, but she had contracted with the mall to provide additional holiday-season security, figuring her employee would be the one handling the job. That one employee was recently hired to cover the security part of TJ’s PI business, the part TJ found boring. But so far, security work was the part that paid the bills.
By nine, when the other stores opened, TJ was already experiencing sensory overload. She never had understood women’s shopping mania. There were very few men in sight that morning, and in her opinion, they were the ones who knew how to shop. When men needed something, they went to the nearest store that sold the item and they bought it—end of story.
Spending hours in a mall, deciding which was just the right dress or gift to buy, was nothing but a huge time waste—time that could be better spent doing something productive—unless the bargain-hunter was a shoplifter. That person’s time in the mall could be super productive, provided she either needed the item she lifted or knew how to profit from selling it—like the woman TJ noticed walking out of the Boston Store. She was carrying a shopping bag with the store’s logo, but TJ quickly observed that the bag didn’t have the Christmas design like those carried by the other shoppers exiting the store. Just as TJ moved toward the woman, intending to question her about the bag’s contents, something on the lower floor caught her eye.
The store had already set up an extravagant North Pole Village in order to lure in parents next week for its grand opening. The activity TJ had spotted near Santa’s Village—people hurrying toward it—didn’t make sense since the village was still under construction and not many of the stores on that level were open yet. Deciding that the unseen attraction on the lower level might be more threatening to store security than a shoplifter, TJ ignored the woman with the out-of-sync bag and ran for the stairs.
When she approached the shoppers in front of the village, they pointed at Santa’s throne. A mother with two young boys abruptly turned them away from the scene and hurried her sons into the nearest store.
On a large throne in the center of the display sat a dark-haired young woman wearing nothing but a pale-blue hospital gown, its ties loose on her arms. She was slumped to one side, her dark eyes open in a fixed stare. Immediately suspecting the girl was on something, TJ ran to her while dialing 911 for paramedics. She secured the ties on the woman’s gown and explained to the operator where she was and what was needed. After ending the call, she took off her jacket and covered the young woman who didn’t respond when TJ asked her name.
The girl’s face looked familiar, but TJ couldn’t place where she’d seen it before.
She radioed for more of the mall security team, who arrived quickly and in minutes had set up a protective barrier of tall dividers. Only moments later, a pair of paramedics arrived. One of them asked, “What have you got?”
TJ, still sitting next to the woman, said, “I don’t know. She just showed up here. She’s conscious but not talkin’. Couldn’t even give me her name. Looks like she ran out of a hospital. Drugged, maybe.”
“We aren’t far from the Mental Health Center,” he said, taking out a blood pressure cuff. When he finished checking her, he announced, “Her vitals are decent. We can move her.”
“Where you takin’ her?” TJ asked. If the girl was who TJ thought she was, she had to act quickly—and discreetly.
“Closest place, Froedtert ER. They’ll figure it out.” He motioned to the other paramedic to bring the gurney for transporting the girl to their ambulance. TJ watched as they covered her with a blanket and strapped her to the gurney. She dispersed the onlookers and took out her phone, not expecting to get through to the person she needed to talk to but determined to try.
A voice answered, “Rina’s phone.”
“My name is TJ Peacock. I’m a private detective and I have some information for Rina Petretti.”
“Put me through to her. She needs to hear this herself.”
“I can’t do that unless you state the nature of your business.”
“It’s about her niece.”
Several seconds passed. “One minute, please.”
TJ suspected the girl she had found was Petretti’s niece, Kelsey Blasko. Rina Petretti was a business owner in Milwaukee who was rumored to have ties to the city’s crime underworld. Though Petretti usually shrank from media attention, she had apparently agreed to an article about her and her niece’s equestrian accomplishments, which TJ had seen in an area newspaper. TJ, like Petretti, lived in Wauwatosa. The photos that accompanied the story featured Petretti’s saddlebred horses that had been entered in a local horse show. Petretti and her niece Kelsey were shown with their mounts, the women looking more like mother and daughter than aunt and niece. They had taken first or second place ribbons in every event they entered. What little TJ knew about Petretti told her the woman would not want the media glomming on to an unfavorable story about her niece.
Petretti’s assistant must have been taking time to look TJ up and check her out.
A new voice answered, a pleasant contralto with a subtle Mediterranean accent. “This is Rina Petretti.”
“My name is TJ Peacock. I’m a private investigator. I had to work the Mayfair Mall today because one of my employees called in sick. A young woman showed up here wearing nothing but a hospital gown. She looks a lot like your niece. The girl is awake but unresponsive, and the EMTs took her to Froedtert. In case she is your niece, I thought you should know.”
Seconds of silence passed.
“How long ago did they take her there?”
“Just now. They probably haven’t left the parking lot yet.”
“Good. I need you to intercept them before she’s checked into the hospital. I’ll have my own physician look at her.”
The woman was used to giving orders. TJ wasn’t used to taking them, but a contact like Petretti wasn’t to be taken lightly by a PI trying to get her business off the ground.
“On my way,” she answered. TJ had no idea whether the EMTs would agree to wait for Petretti. She sprinted to her car while making a hurried call to mall security to explain why she’d left. She left a message and figured the worst thing that could happen is they wouldn’t use her service again.
Taking a back route to Milwaukee Regional Medical Center, TJ pushed her Mini Cooper as much as she dared in the post-holiday traffic and pulled into Froedtert’s ER entrance right behind the ambulance.
She rushed over and tapped on the window. “Hey, change of plans. This girl’s family is coming to pick her up, and they don’t want her admitted.”
The driver stepped out, a big guy with a military buzz cut. He appeared to be the one in charge. “Who do you think you’re giving orders to? I already radioed ahead. She’s going in.”
TJ knew it wouldn’t make a difference, but she pulled out her PI creds, hoping to at least buy some time. He glanced at the card.
“So you’re a PI. Big fucking deal. We’re taking her into the hospital.”
“Give her aunt a minute to get here, okay? Another few minutes won’t hurt her, right?”
The big guy’s name badge read Kurt Kipfer. He stood a foot taller than TJ and had at least a hundred pounds on her. Her authoritative attitude wasn’t cutting it. She could tell he was about to shove her aside when a black Lincoln Town Car with tinted windows pulled up next to the ambulance. The woman who stepped out exuded an air of authority that caused even Kurt the bruiser to step back. She wore sleek brown riding breeches and a pair of black leather boots that reached to her knees. Her dark hair sat on her neck in a shiny, braided twist.
“Where is my niece?” she demanded.
“Uh, hold on a minute. Who are you?” Kurt said.
“I have received information that you are carrying my niece in this ambulance. I demand that you turn her over to me.”
A gray-haired man in his seventies stepped out of the limo. “I’m Doctor Emil Worthington. I’m on staff at this hospital.” He produced an ID that he waved in front of the driver. “Miss Petretti is under my care, so you may release her to her aunt now.”
Kurt inhaled, expanding his broad chest. “How do I know this girl is even your niece?”
His menacing frown disappeared along with his inflated posturing the minute Petretti slipped him a wad of hundred-dollar bills. Quick as a magician, he stuffed the bills into his pants pocket. “You better make sure this is your niece and show me some ID for her.”
His partner, out of the vehicle now, opened the rear doors. The girl lay strapped to the gurney, unmoving.
Petretti gasped when she looked inside the vehicle.
“Get her out of there,” she said to Dr. Worthington. Then to Kurt, “Find a way to expunge this incident from your records and leave our names out of it.” She passed him more bills. “If I find out the press got hold of this, I’ll know where it came from.”
The doctor, aided by the paramedics, transferred Kelsey to the back of the Town Car. Petretti turned to TJ. “Thank you for calling me.”
TJ raised a hand to protest an offer of money and then slipped the woman one of her business cards. “If I can ever be of service.” Petretti grabbed the card without a word and hurried into the car.
Lisa Rayburn listened intently as her last patient of the day complained about her husband’s unfaithfulness. Ordered to attend counseling after a domestic dispute incident had been filed, Emma Le Gesse had yet to exhibit any true signs of remorse. It wasn’t often Lisa came across a situation in which the woman was the physical abuser, mainly because most men were ashamed to report it.
True to form, Emma had been raised in a household where corporal punishment had been an everyday occurrence.
“I understand it must be painful, finding out your husband cheated on you,” Lisa said, “but, Emma, you need to find a way to deal with your anger without resorting to violence. Let’s go ahead and work together toward that end.”
Emma ran a manicured hand through her long, ash-blonde hair. “I should just divorce the son of a bitch.”
“That is an option, Emma. But you understand that wouldn’t resolve your problem, don’t you?”
Emma shrugged. “I suppose.”
Often, Lisa had deal with the fact that a therapist couldn’t do much to help a patient who didn’t want to face their problem. Emma had been taught early in life that if she did something perceived as wrong, punishment in the form of a slap or the end of a belt wasn’t long in coming. Children typically carried that lesson into their adult lives.
Lisa knew the only way to make women like Emma want to change, was to help them find other ways to deal with anger and frustration. The challenge was motivating the patient to desire that change, because he or she was usually resistant. “Before we break today,” she said, “I’d like you to keep a diary of your emotions for a week and note exactly how you respond to them. And most importantly, begin thinking about alternatives to striking out with violence.”
Frustratingly, advice advocating alternative responses tended to work only when the abuser realized that once they were in the judicial system, a second violation would mean jail time.
After Emma left, Lisa checked her messages and found one from her friend Shannon, marked urgent. She played it back. “Lisa, I want to give you a heads up on this. That crime blogger, Bart Kosik, is going to do a series of articles in December about murders that happened during that month. He’s starting out with the one we worked on. I think our best bet is to ignore it, don’t you? I’ll be in the office in about an hour. We can talk about it then.”
Lisa felt a heavy ache in the pit of her stomach. She turned on her computer, opened up Kosik’s blog, and skipped to the final paragraph of Bart’s Crime Beat.
A new month begins in four days. My December blogs will be about famous crimes that happened during the month of Christmas Carols, shopping, lights, and Nativity scenes.
To kick it off, the first one will be none other than the one that happened right here in our own fair city. To be accurate, this crime didn’t happen only in December but was spread out over a matter of years throughout Milwaukee County. Yes, I’m talking about the case of the missing women that made headlines here less than two years ago. We’ll be looking at the crime, the killer, and the people who brought the case to the attention of the MPD. Stay tuned!
Lisa closed the computer and took a few deep breaths—Kosik was going to examine the people who brought it to the attention of the police. Not again. A December blog wouldn’t be the blogger’s first article on the subject, but it would be the first in more than a year. She had been naïve to think that her and her friends’ involvement had been forgotten.
More than a year ago, Lisa and TJ, along with Shannon, Jeff Denison and Eric Schindler, had turned over enough evidence to the Milwaukee police to force an investigation into the reason why so many abused women were going missing. Jeff and Eric were husbands of two of the missing women. The men had not abused their wives, although both had misguided 911 calls in their backgrounds, which had brought them under suspicion. Bart’s Crime Beat had publicized the part all of them played in revealing the murders of the missing women—and not always in a positive way.
Lisa considered calling TJ or Eric and then decided she might be overreacting; she’d talk to Shannon first since she was due in any time now. Shannon, who worked for the attorney Lisa shared space with, acted as Lisa’s receptionist when she was around and had become a close friend.
Lisa made herself a cup of tea and sat where she could gaze out at the lake. Under the dull November sky, the waters of Pewaukee Lake were lifeless, the color of wet cement.
The case of the missing women, abused women, had changed her life in many ways, some good, and some disturbing. Her friendship with TJ would never have come to pass without their common goal of bringing the police proof that foul play had increased the usual number of missing women. And Eric—their relationship hadn’t gotten off to an amicable start but had ultimately become the most important one she’d ever had with a man, one she promised herself would be her last. Remembering the good things, Lisa resolved not to stress over anything Bart Kosik had to say about them.
Shannon rushed in, cheeks red from the brisk, late-November wind. Her black, waist-long hair was tied back into a loose tail with a bright orange scarf. She asked, “Are you all right?”
“I’ve been better,” Lisa replied. “I had hoped all of this was behind us.”
Shannon dropped her backpack on the floor and hung up her coat. “Damn books get heavier every semester.”
In her second year of law school in Madison, Shannon commuted to her classes from her home in Waukesha and still worked afternoons at the real estate office next to Lisa’s office whenever she could. Earl Albright, the attorney who owned the business, was grooming Shannon to take over when he retired. Albright owned the building that housed his law business and Lisa’s office.
Shannon picked up a cup, filled it with tea and took a seat across from Lisa. “We can’t stop this blogger from writing about us. We can only sue if he publishes something that isn’t true. And even that gets tricky. The guy is a master of the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t spin.”
“Sue him? You’re kidding. He would probably love that. The man is always trolling for publicity. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of suing. You’re starting to sound like a lawyer already.”
“I was getting around to saying that the best course of action for now is to ignore it,” Shannon said. “You know how these things go, tomorrow he’ll have someone else to rake over the coals, and we’ll be back-page news.”
I am so excited to be releasing my third book in a series. This is the TJ Peacock and Lisa Rayburn series, which starts with the first suspense book I wrote, She’s Not There. When I wrote it I had not planned on it being a series, but many readers wanted more. I was so happy about that I wrote Trespass as a follow up, and now, this one, Girl Undone. If you're interested in receiving notices for book deals and new release specials, please sign up for my mailing list.
Hope you enjoyed the preview chapters. Thanks for stopping by.