by Kathryn Flatt
Jack Watson Series, Vol. 1
Tabitha Solo thought nothing of dropping the name of Scot Cunningham, the object of her high school crush who recently died in a car crash, as the inspiration for her first hit song, “Dreamer,” during a TV interview. But now, the FBI is asking about him, people are following her, and Carren Bixby--Tabitha’s manager and Scot’s one-time girlfriend--is behaving suspiciously. When Tabitha finds a listening device in her bedroom, she runs away and hires private detective Jack Watson.
Jack met Tabitha once before and suddenly believed in love at first sight, but he was recovering from a disastrous marriage then and had yet to fight off the commanding influence of his ex-wife. When Tabitha arrives in his office looking for help, he is both thrilled and disappointed because his professional ethics forbid him from becoming personally involved with a client. He gets the career-making case he had been longing for in finding out why Tabitha’s life has been turned upside down.
Was Scot’s car accident actually murder? Does someone in the Bixby family know the truth? Was Carren in on it? What secret does everyone think Tabitha knows? As the bad guys close in around her, the bond between Jack and Tabitha grows. If they can stay alive by figuring what role Tabitha plays in this chess game for power, can love flourish or is Tabitha’s case the only thing holding them together?
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Not An Accident
August - Bloomington, Indiana
The man in the black hooded poncho stood beside his minivan and trained binoculars on a stretch of Old Route 37 across the wide valley. A light rain slicked the deserted pavement which snaked around rolling hills through uninhabited countryside. He smiled at the perfection of the setup.
A combination of nerves and exhilaration set his heart thumping as he checked his watch. Almost one a.m.; two minutes to go until Scot Cunningham died. He touched the button on his phone headset and heard one ringback.
He gritted his teeth. "You're supposed to be Alpha and I'm Beta. No names, remember?"
"Sorry. You see it yet?"
"No." Resolute calm displaced the constant anxiety he had lived with over the last few weeks since his discovery. But tonight, if the plan worked, he would be on track to freedom.
"Just remember to wait for the signal," Reinhold instructed.
"You gotta hit it just right, because--"
"I know, I know! If you're so worried about it, why aren't you out here instead of me?"
Reinhold sighed. "Okay, okay. It's just that I never killed anyone before."
"You think I have?" He caught a twinkle of light behind a distant stand of trees. "Wait. I think I see it."
He raised the binoculars again and followed the progress of an old Chevy Impala as it climbed a steep grade across the valley. Ahead at the summit, he knew the road made a tight curve where a joke of a guardrail offered no actual protection from a headlong plunge over rough ground.
"We're in action," he reported, and another surge of adrenaline swept through him as he lowered his field glasses. He stuck his left hand under his poncho and brought out the remote control box, and his right hand appeared to be a mile away as it extended the short antenna. He positioned his left thumb over the button.
The Chevy accelerated as it neared the curve. He let his thumb rest lightly on the button and held his breath. When the car's dome light came on, he pressed the button and a small flash bloomed near the right front tire. He heard the engine roar as the car accelerated, smashed through the flimsy barrier, and plummeted down through brush and scrawny trees until it hit a rock near the bottom of the hill. After a moment, the gas tank exploded and the car became a fireball.
"Whoa," he breathed. "Awesome." He turned away to duck into his car, charged with wild glee.
"Did it work?" Reinhold asked on the phone.
He laughed. "Scotty go boom."
One month later, Chicago
Tabitha Solo listened to playback of the first cut of her debut album and resisted an urge to jump up and dance for joy. After years of struggling to launch her singing career into the big time, she now had a record deal less than four weeks since bumping into Carren Bixby at Scot Cunningham's wake.
"Beautiful," proclaimed recording engineer Ollie Berkus as the song ended. "You're going to be a star, Tabitha. I mean it."
"One track down and nine to go," she remarked, thrilled by the lofty compliment from a real professional. "You've made it so easy, Ollie."
"Me?" he countered happily. "You're the talent here. It's you that made it easy."
She glanced across the room at Carren who paced and talked to her cell phone wearing her serious-manager frown. She always became more intense when on the job, but her intensity had played a huge role in landing the record deal in the first place. In a short time, Tabitha's one-time rival had become not just her manager, but a best friend, surrogate mother, and guardian angel rolled into one.
Ollie nodded in Carren's direction. "She's a go-getter. Where'd you find her?"
"Back in high school, I had this huge crush on her boyfriend." An image of Scot came to mind unbidden: blond hair, tanned muscles, manly even as a teen, the golden god she once worshiped. "Carren and I ran into each other at his funeral last month. She had a business degree and a crappy job and thought she could help me get something going." She shrugged. "What can I say? Her family is super rich and they know a lot of influential people."
Ollie made a sly wink. "Well I guess there's no grudge about the boyfriend since she's busting her butt for you."
"Grudge? Nah! Even back then she was cool with it." She fondly regarded her friend again, the now familiar elegant face, the close-cropped honey-colored hair, and the air of total confidence. "Look at her. She was that gorgeous even in high school. He had her, so why should the most popular guy in the senior class even look at a skinny, shy sophomore like me?" Her face grew warm at the memory of the summer day when, on a dare, she sneaked up and kissed Scot as he slept in a hammock beside the Bixby's pool. The memory of his furious reaction could still shrivel her soul with humiliation, and how Carren had laughed! "It's been ten years, and we're both grownups now. I just had a stupid teenager's infatuation."
Carren slapped her cell phone closed, and the furrow in her brow smoothed. Her doe-like brown eyes twinkled as she approached and she grinned. "Sheez-louise, kid. That sounds terrific!"
"I told her she's going to be a star," Ollie added. "I don't think she believes it yet."
"I don't," Tabitha agreed. "If I keep pinching myself, I'll be black and blue all over."
"And she's a dream to work with." Ollie reached an arm around her shoulders and gave them a squeeze. "Great vocal control and perfect tone. I think I'll call her One-Take Tabitha."
Another blush made her cheeks hot. "Well, I had good teachers back at the Conservatory."
"We'll wrap the album in record time at this rate," he observed as he stood and stretched. "But we still need a headliner cut, so maybe you can think about it over the weekend."
"Consider it done," Carren stated confidently.
"See you both here Monday then." He sketched a wave and sauntered to the door.
Tabitha basked in a sense of contentment almost as strong as her disbelief in her sudden success. She owed it all to Carren. And to think she almost skipped Scot's funeral since she had not seen him since he graduated and scarcely thought about him anymore. But if she had not gone, she and Carren never would have linked up and she would still be playing two-bit bars for low pay and tips.
Carren's hand landed lightly on her shoulder. "You know what? We should celebrate this landmark occasion."
She certainly felt like celebrating, and she regretted the need to delay it. "Well, it'll have to wait until after my gig tonight. Artie's, remember?"
Carren snapped her fingers. "Oh, yeah. I forgot."
Tabitha blinked in surprise because Carren never forgot anything, especially performance dates. She wondered if her phone call had upset her. Had she looked worried during it? Then, with relief, she remembered how Carren insisted she quit playing joints like Artie's Tap now that she had a real career. Carren probably forgot because, for her, the weekly Artie's date was a thing of the past.
"It's the last one," Tabitha apologized. "I promised him through the end of the month, and it's just a couple of hours. We'll be celebrating before ten."
"Sure," Carren agreed amiably. "Why don't you drop me at home and take the car?"
Minutes later, they were in Carren's car bound for the Gold Coast apartment they moved into soon after Scot's funeral. Tabitha stole a glance at her friend's profile and remembered how she once thought she could never compete for Scot's affections against Carren's combination of beauty, brains, and money. How odd that the man who once would have driven them apart had brought them together, and together they were going places.