Authors: Susan O’Brien
Tags: #cozy mysteries, #humorous mysteries, #cozy mysteries women sleuths, #female sleuths, #traditional mystery, #murder mysteries, #women sleuths, #mystery series, #english mysteries, #detective novels, #humorous fiction, #british mysteryies, #humor, #mystery and suspence, #whodunnit, #private investigator series, #amateur sleuth, #cozy, #book club recommendations, #suspense
Praise for the Nicki Valentine Mystery Series
FINDING SKY (#1)
“O’Brien has written one of the most warm-hearted yet realistic cozies I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.” –
Mystery Scene Magazine
“Nicki Valentine, the heroine of O’Brien’s engaging cozy debut, has her hands full as a widowed mother of two…When her best friend, Kenna, phones to tell her that Beth, the 18-year-old mother-to-be of the baby Kenna plans to adopt, has disappeared, Nicki seizes the chance to put what she’s learned in her PI training course to work…Nicki proves a resourceful sleuth as she gets on the trail of the missing teen. The conclusion will leave readers eager for the next installment.”
“Author Susan O’Brien deftly combines motherhood and mayhem in this lively tale of a single mom tracking down a missing teen. Lots of fun!”
– Laura Levine,
Author of the Jaine Austen Mystery Series
“Has a heart and soul and the minute I started reading it, I knew it was something special. Nicki Valentine, the sleuth at the center of the mystery of a missing pregnant teen, felt like an old friend to me and the lengths to which she will go to help a friend is just one example of her integrity and loyalty. I can’t wait to read more about Nicki and her journey as a single mom and modern-day Nancy Drew.”
– Maggie Barbieri,
Once Upon a Lie
and the Murder 101 Mystery Series
“This debut mystery offers menace without violence, intrigue, and the realistic depiction of a single mother struggling to find an identity outside of motherhood. The hint of romance and element of humor further ensures that this novel will attract a following of cozy-reading fans for the upcoming sequel,
Kings River Life Magazine
Books in the Nicki Valentine Mystery Series
by Susan O’Brien
FINDING SKY (#1)
SKY HIGH (#2)
A Nicki Valentine Mystery
Part of the Henery Press Mystery Collection
Kindle edition | October 2014
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission from Henery Press, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
Copyright © 2014 by Susan O’Brien
Cover Art by Stephanie Chontos
This is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Related subjects include: cozy mysteries women sleuths, amateur sleuths, private investigator series, humorous mysteries, book club recommendations, murder mystery books, whodunnit
Printed in the United States of America
I am forever grateful to everyone who helped
(and me!) come this far.
My loving, supportive, fun family—Pete, our children, Mom, Dad, Sarah, David, Peter, Gayle, and our extended families.
My steadfast friends—Noelle, the St. Anne’s Healing Prayer Group, Audree, Alice, Sue, Eileen, Michelle, Terry, Shevene, and many others.
The extraordinary Henery Press team—Managing (and Simply Amazing) Editor Kendel Lynn, Art C. Molinares, Stephanie Chontos, Erin George, Rachel Jackson, and the entire Hen House.
Generous experts—John L. French, Sgt. Ken Dondero, Dan Wright, Abbe Levine, S. Pierre Paret, and Terri L. Chadwick. (This is a work of fiction, so they aren’t responsible for any mistakes or liberties taken.)
And my ultimate source of blessings and peace—God.
Countless individuals have knowingly and unknowingly provided encouragement, strength, and inspiration. I’m thankful to every one of them, especially the readers, who are making my dreams come true!
If it hadn’t been for the herd of wild animals thundering through my kitchen, I wouldn’t have agreed to my best friend’s plan so quickly. I don’t live on a Montana ranch or an African preserve, but my suburban Washington, D.C., home more than qualifies as a zoo, especially on playgroup days.
“Mommy’s on the phone!” I yelled as four kids screeched by, seemingly oblivious. Two of them were mine, so I blamed myself for their manners. But where was Irene, the other mom? I hoped she wasn’t using Jack and Sophie’s bathroom upstairs, which looked like it had been hit by a monsoon. That’s what happens when you bathe children while devouring
Things get out of hand. It had been the most peaceful time of day so far.
“What were you saying?” I asked Kenna while trying to zero in on the kids’ destination with my Supermom sense of hearing. I felt guilty for being distracted when she called, as usual, but she’d understand soon enough when she adopted her baby.
“I said Beth is missing!”
This would have shocked and devastated me, except I had no idea who Beth was. Throwing playgroup etiquette to the wind, I hollered, “Irene! Can you watch the kids for a minute?”
She emerged from the basement with a rocking horse a child must have wanted. Her wide-eyed expression could have been due to my booming request or the mountains of unfolded laundry she’d witnessed downstairs. I consoled myself with the fact she hadn’t seen the kids’ bathroom after all.
“Sorry,” I mouthed. I pointed at the phone and shrugged apologetically.
She shooed me back to my conversation and headed in the general direction of a huge crash and hysterical laughter that carried from somewhere upstairs.
“Kenna, who is Beth?”
“She’s the birth mother,” she croaked.
“Oh my God.”
In all our talks about adoption, she’d never mentioned the birth mother’s name. I’d been so elated that she and Andy had been “matched” with someone—especially after four miscarriages and a year in adoption limbo—that I’d focused on the big picture, not the details. That was partly because Kenna did the same thing. When I suggested we shop for baby supplies, for example, she said, “Let’s wait until things are final. Anyway, you have all your old baby stuff.”
Uh, not really. I couldn’t break it to her that when Sophie turned three, I’d given away every last piece of baby crap I owned. I cherished the memories of my precious infants, but if I had to climb over one more baby gate or catch even a whiff of Eau de Diaper Pail, I might go insane. I needed to move on...into a world that wasn’t a poop-scented obstacle course. I’d be happy to get her fresh, new necessities.
“What do you mean
?” I asked.
“She hasn’t shown up for anything this week. Not checkups, not counseling, not even classes.”
“What kind of classes? Childbirth?”
“No. Summer school. She’s trying to graduate. She’s only 18.”
Wow. I had no idea the birth mother was so young. It dawned on me there must be a lot we hadn’t discussed. After twenty-five years of best friendship, it felt a little awkward.
“What does the adoption agency say?”
“They think she ran away. Her parents do too. They told the agency she’s done it before, and she’d do it again.”
“A pregnant girl, about to give birth, on the run?” I pictured myself at thirty-eight weeks. I could barely get off the couch, never mind flee. And I certainly wouldn’t have gone undetected.
“She was so committed to this adoption plan. There’s no way−” Her voice broke. “No way...”
There were only so many disappointments a person could take, even someone with Kenna’s unfailing buoyancy. I finished her sentence in a near-whisper. “No way she changed her mind?”
“Mmm hmm.” Sniffles. “I know she didn’t run away. Something happened. You have to find her.”
She couldn’t be thinking what I thought she was thinking.
“Kenna. I’m sure the police are working on this,” I said to comfort both of us.
“They are, but they think she’s a runaway. And they’re preoccupied. They’re not going to do enough.”
By preoccupied she meant focused on a local case making national headlines. A terrorist plot to bomb D.C.-area venues had been thwarted, but several suspects were at large. The pressure was on. Like many crimes, it fascinated me, and that’s why I was becoming a PI. I wanted to solve cases someday—someday when my kids were in school full time and I had a millisecond to think straight. That is if years of playing Candy Land and watching
Barney & Friends
hadn’t obliterated my brain cells.
“If she’s 18,” I said, “and her parents think she’s a runaway, maybe the police won’t suspect anything else. But she’s pregnant. That’s a big deal.” I probed a little. “Are there any other reasons you think she’s in trouble?”
“She told me some things.” They’d been talking? Another surprise. “There’s so much to...”
Her voice was drowned out by an oncoming train. Four children, linked hands-to-shoulders, were
toward me on an imaginary track with Irene as a derailed caboose.
“Shhhhh,” Irene begged. “Your mom’s on the phone.”
I pressed a hand over my free ear and raised my voice. “I can’t hear you, Kenna,” I said. “Playgroup ends in a few minutes. I’ll call you the second it’s over. We’ll figure this out.”
I had no idea if that was true. But more than anything else, I wanted it to be.
After twenty minutes of gathering toys, strapping on shoes, and saying goodbye, Irene finally dragged her little guys, Ryan and Will, out the door. I made my regular silent vow to quit playgroup, which I never kept. I dreaded adding mayhem to my life, but four-year-old Sophie and six-year-old Jack thrived on socializing. At least it got me to vacuum occasionally.
I stuck juice boxes in their hands and a DVD in the machine. Guaranteed thirty minutes of relative freedom, I dialed Kenna.
“It’s Nicki,” I said to her voicemail. “Playgroup’s over. Call me.”
I maneuvered around race cars and action figures to peek out the front door at her driveway. Being neighbors means knowing what the other person is up to in a non-nosy,
kind of way.
Her red convertible Solara wasn’t in its usual spot, so I assumed she was running errands. Sunday was her day off from teaching aerobics at a health club. It was a nice supplement to Andy’s work as a reporter, and it kept her in disgustingly good shape.
Way back in middle school when we met, I was insanely jealous of Kenna’s long legs, wavy blond hair, gray-blue eyes and fair skin—just the opposite of my short, dark self. Over time, things have stayed exactly the same. Once we went to a neighborhood Halloween party as Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise. Convincingly. We won “best costume.” Yet it didn’t feel like a prize to me.
I stepped into the July humidity and put my life at risk. The warnings in effect were staggering—air quality, West Nile, Lyme disease, terrorists. Years ago we’d even had a local outbreak of malaria, not to mention snipers on the loose.
I relaxed as much as possible until Kenna pulled in. She looked striking as usual. Shades on, hair glistening in the sun. It wasn’t until she pushed back the glasses that I noticed her splotchy complexion, a sure sign she’d been crying, since she doesn’t break out. I raced across the lawn to meet her.
“Come over,” I urged. “Let’s talk.”
We sat on opposite ends of my wicker porch sofa, Kenna’s legs stretched over floral pillows, mine tucked beneath me. She clutched a large fast-food cup, a clear violation of our recent pact to give up soda. Looking at her made my heart sink. Usually her eyes sparkled with energy. Today they were blank and downcast. I almost hoped she was sucking on forbidden caffeine.
“I can’t believe this. What did you mean when you said Beth told you some things?”
“We’ve been talking on the phone every week to get to know each other and make sure everything feels right. The agency set up calls after her checkups.” She sniffed.
“Was Andy on the phone too?”
“At first. Then he’d hang up so we could talk about girl stuff.”
“Like Beth’s relationship with the birth father, Marcus.” She took a deep breath. I waited for her to go on. “He’s in a gang. She had a huge crush on him and wanted to turn him around.”
“Uh oh.” How many guys had I tried to “turn around”? I’d never been successful. And turning around a gang member sounded a wee bit risky.
“Yeah. She slept with him, and he dumped her. He wouldn’t even admit the baby was his.”
“Oh my gosh.”
A pang of empathy hit my gut. Adolescence is packed with insecurity and emotion. To deal with it along with pregnancy must be torture.
I chose my next words carefully, mindful we were discussing the baby’s birth father. I’d learned from experience how much father-related criticism can hurt. My husband Jason died in a boating accident with a lover I didn’t know about, but no matter how many times I’ve badmouthed him, I don’t want anyone else to do it. He’s still my kids’ dad. So I went with a simple question: “How did Beth take it?”
“She was hurt. But she’s amazing. She found an adoption agency and made a plan, even though her parents didn’t approve.”
“Wow. That’s impressive. Remember us at her age? I don’t think I could have done that. Was she afraid of Marcus at all?”
“I asked her and she said no, even though she admitted his gang is violent. She thought deep down he cared about her, or at least about the baby.”
Yikes. Gangs were in the local news all the time. Being miles from the inner city didn’t make us immune.
“I hope she has friends to help her.”
“There’s at least one. She went to every appointment with her best friend April.”
“That’s a relief. Do you know Beth’s last name?”
She shook her head. “No. But I have this.” She pulled a crinkled white envelope from her purse and passed it over.
I reached inside. A wallet-size portrait of a young woman spoke for itself. She had bright green eyes, honey-colored hair and a closed-mouth smile that somehow managed to look sad. Layers of makeup couldn’t begin to hide her natural beauty. I guessed she was on the fringes of the in-crowd—too rebellious to be a follower, too pretty to be an outcast.
“This is Beth? She’s beautiful.”
“I think so too. It’s from last year.”
“You got it from the agency?”
“Yeah, with a bunch of information about her. I’m putting it together for you. It’s got her height, weight, medical history, a little bit about her family and hobbies.”
I felt a mental twinge, probably disappointment that she hadn’t shared any of this until now. Usually we talked about everything in excessive detail. I exhaled and let it go.
“Okay,” I said. “Do you know where she goes to school?”
“It can’t be far from the agency. She stopped there after school a lot.”
“First Steps Adoption, right?”
She nodded, and just then I heard my sweeties belting out the
Dora the Explorer
finale song. From experience, I knew they were also jumping on the couch in celebration.
“Want to come in?” I asked.
“Auntie Kenna! Auntie Kenna!” Jack and Sophie shrieked as we entered the family room. Sophie hopped from couch to coffee table, brown curls bouncing, right into Kenna’s outstretched arms.
“Nice catch,” I said. There should be awards for such childcare skills—best retrieval of an airborne child, least traumatic hair rinsing method, fastest removal of a bandage, most creative use of furniture as an indoor playground.
“You guys aren’t going to believe it,” I said. Their eyes doubled in size.
“What?” Sophie asked.
“You get to watch another show.” That broke my hour-a-day rule, but it was unavoidable.
“Hooray!” Sophie shouted.
“Which one?” Jack was skeptical. No baby shows for him. I was lucky to get away with
“Let me see.” I grabbed the remote and searched for something that wouldn’t cause nightmares or expand their bad-language vocabulary (currently limited to
rerun elicited cheers, so I stopped there.
“Your mom loves
,” Kenna teased. I was so glad to see her perky side that I didn’t mind the teasing. So what if I have a tiny crush on certain TV hosts? I’m a thirty-six-year-old stay-at-home mom. My options are limited. And those Kratt brothers
is great,” I agreed. “Sophie, sit on the couch, sweetie.” Kenna lowered her next to Jack, and their matching brown eyes glazed over in seconds. I trusted their brains would survive the extra assault.
Kenna followed me down the hall to the only fully organized area of my life. French doors with childproof locks led to a study, complete with a bay window, banana-yellow paint and white, built-in bookcases lined with textbooks and mementos. A model airplane crafted by my late father, a retired pilot, hung from the ceiling.
Kenna sprawled on a creamy velvet chaise. I sat at an antique desk incongruously topped with a high-end computer, a graduation gift to myself when I finished an M.A. in forensic psychology. Sometimes the Internet felt like my only connection to the outside world. I logged on.
“Why are you doing that?” Kenna asked. She hated computers and refused to get comfortable with them. I understood, since the idea of gyrating my spandex-covered ass in front of a class of hardbodies didn’t agree with me. We each had our comfort zones.
“I’m looking up Beth’s school.” I typed and clicked away.