Shepherd's Pie now available - published by Wings ePress. 
cover by mpMann

I'm proud to announce that Shepherd's Pie has been awarded the Golden Wings award from Wings ePress. It was also a finalist in the 2007 Author Island Reader's Choice awards for mystery.

                                    
                                            

                                                         

                                                   Chapter 1

                       

            The bullet whizzed by Mike Shepherd’s left ear and he threw his tall frame to the ground.  He drew his Smith and Wesson in the middle of his leap to safety. 

            Well, relative safety, considering someone taking potshots at me.

            The shot came from behind barrels stacked just inside a South Cicero warehouse.  That warehouse, earmarked for destruction to make way for a high-rise, was not supposed to be used for target practice.  Mike rolled for cover behind the rusting, black ‘95 Olds 98 he had been tailing for half an hour, which now blocked the alley next to the warehouse.    

             Mike Shepherd, sweating profusely in the sultry August evening, looked down at the knee that took the brunt of his dive into the gutter.  “Hell!”  He cursed the jagged hole in the pants of his only suit and the smudge of blood around the edge of the tear. 

            The Olds belonged to Ferlin Lewis, a nasty lowlife who had spent more time behind bars than in them in the past twenty years.  Assault, grand theft, bank robbery, larceny and the current record in the Chicago Motor Vehicles files for delinquent parking violations populated his rap sheet.  Ferlin had crammed a nearly unbelievable 422 traffic citations in the glove box of that Olds.

            For five minutes Mike huddled behind the car waiting for some sign of movement or noise.  The silence in this part of Cicero was eerie considering it usually bustled with gang bangers, prostitutes, drug dealers, or all of the above.  Perspiration dripped onto the dial of his Desert Storm military watch.  He raised himself to a crouch and peered around the fender of the Olds.  Another bullet ricocheted off the concrete inches away from his hand and fragments of the pavement peppered the right side of his face. 

            Shepherd, you got yourself pinned down good here. 

            Twenty minutes ago he should have been sitting down in a restaurant with Diana Barton.  She wasn’t going to be happy waiting there all alone.   On top of everything else Mike had neglected to recharge his cell phone and had no way to call Diana.  By now she’d be royally pissed and had probably informed everyone in the restaurant what a bum Mike Shepherd was and made a not-so-subtle exit. 

            Nuts!  Bad timing.  Horrible timing!  But he’d spotted his nemesis tooling down the Dan Ryan Expressway and couldn’t afford to pass up the two thousand dollar reward a bail bondsman offered for Ferlin’s capture.  

            A door slammed somewhere deep inside the warehouse.  Was Ferlin trying to get away or was he just wanting Mike to give him a target?  Mike brushed off his clothes and ran the back of his hand across his forehead to swab away as much perspiration as he could.   He waited beside the car for the next bullet to imbed itself, hopefully somewhere other than in his body.  Nothing happened.

            He took a deep breath.  Now or never.  Up and running.

            Moving quickly past the open double doors of the warehouse, he paused long enough for his eyes to acclimate to the darkness.  The only noise coming from inside was the click of his leather heels echoing off the walls as he began to creep across the concrete floor.  Then, just outside, a car started up and screeched away. 

            Mike reached the other side of the building and hit the crash bar at a dead run.  The clank of the door reverberated in the vastness of the building, but no alarm announced his exit.  A lone streetlight brightened a large section of the alley, empty except for a dumpster buried in overflow against one wall of the warehouse.  No Olds.  Mike held his gun pointed toward the ground as he checked up and down the alley.  No one was around.  Ferlin and the Olds had disappeared.

            Mike shoved his pistol into the shoulder holster, and then he noticed the untorn knee of his suit pants sported an oil stain, so big not even one of those fast-talking television spokespersons could claim to be able to remove. 

            Drat!  Well, there goes my two thousand bucks and the date with Diana.  Ferlin, when you take a shot at me, ruin both my only suit and my night out, you’re in for it.

            Anger boiled over as he settled behind the wheel of his ’92 Buick Riviera.  Even the stuffy August heat was no match for his internal thermometer.  He’d been looking forward to a quiet night with Diana, which they had not had for sometime, and a great steak dinner.  Shepherd, well-known in Chicago as a private investigator, hated the term private investigator because it sounded so old fashioned.  He called himself a researcher.   His latest jobs had demanded much fast-food and little sleep while delivering paltry paydays.

            In the past three months Mike hadn’t even gotten a glimpse of Ferlin until tonight.  Ferlin, arrested for a daring daylight bank robbery, had escaped from jail where he was being held until his trial and disappeared, avoiding his old familiar haunts.  The robbery had netted two hundred thousand dollars, and his capture would result in a two thousand dollar reward from the bank.  While collecting his booty, Ferlin had looked up at the bank’s video camera and thumbed his nose.  Ferlin’s reputation had never included the word ‘smart.’  But he was daring.

            What am I going to say to Diana?  That’s assuming she would ever listen to another explanation.  The truth sounds too hokey and nothing else sounds reasonable. 

            Diana lately had insisted if they were ever to have a more meaningful relationship Mike would have to be in a different job.  She scolded him for wasting his mind and talents on such a dangerous and stupid occupation.  She often said, “I would rather you drive a truck than to be out trying to get yourself killed.”  Mike always made the same mistake, replying, “I’m not trying to get killed.  I happen to like what I do.  Someone has to do it, and I’m good at it.”  Those arguments regularly surfaced, and occasionally Mike and Diana vowed never to see each other again.  But neither one of them would ever let that happen.

             Stopping by Diana’s apartment seemed like a good idea, until he discovered she refused to answer her buzzer.  Mike pushed the button next to the name D. Barton at least twenty times.  The building was one of the newer brick structures housing condos in Naperville, and Diana’s three bedroom apartment occupied almost half of the second story.  Mike always wondered if the architect only had one set of plans or if he was just in love with a single design.  The neighborhood included almost 100 identical units.  

            Diana was one of Chicago’s top decorators and Mike was proud that her condo had been featured in the May 2003 issue of Architectural Digest.  Mike hesitated to touch anything in the apartment because he didn’t want to break something expensive.  Diana always tried to calm his fears, telling him she didn’t care about “things” as she called them.  But he knew she did because why else would she have them?  Some of those “things” were worth more than his annual earnings.

            Mike jabbed the buzzer another ten times in rapid succession.

            “Come on, Diana, let me in.  I want to apologize.  It couldn’t be helped.”  He hoped Diana was listening to the intercom.  “Just let me in, please.”

            “I never want to see you again.  This is the last straw.”  The words spit out of the speaker in a sputtering crackle.

            “Di, I’m really sorry.  Please let me explain.  I finally spotted this guy I’ve been looking for for the last three months.  Please?”  Groveling was good.  Groveling sometimes worked.

            “Why didn’t you call me?  I sat in that restaurant for almost an hour.”

            “Honey, my cell phone was dead, and in the chase I couldn’t stop to find a phone booth.  Please.  I feel terrible.  I thought I finally had everything in place to have a nice quiet evening with you.  I even wore my suit, which is now ruined.  I got shot at, and when I hit the ground I got oil or something on my pants.”

            “You were shot at?  Are you hurt?  You didn’t wear jeans?”

            “I’m okay.  He missed.  And no, I didn’t wear jeans.  I was taking you to dinner!”  The subject of jeans was a real sore spot with Diana.  Every time they went anywhere Mike wore jeans.  Sometimes he wore a sport coat to dress them up, but the jeans were always present.  She had gotten to the point of not commenting on them, but she would roll those big, brown eyes at him in disgust.  Maybe he had found a weakness with the admission he had worn his suit.  After a few seconds of silence the familiar click of the door lock confirmed that she had granted him an audience.

            His knock on her door was barely audible.  The dead bolt lock clanked its release, but the door remained closed. There was no way to gauge the reception he would receive.

            “Diana?”  His voice was just a whisper.

            “Come on in, Mike.  The door’s open.”  Her voice said she was just tired of the whole mess.  That’s often how she described their relationship, a mess.  She had changed into some jeans, which made the point about Mike always wearing jeans, and her favorite old, blue Yale T-shirt.  Diana was jabbing a spoon into a recently opened carton of chocolate chip ice cream that occupied the center of one of her wooden TV trays.  The container was new because a golf ball size hole had been carved in the center and the tear-open strip lay on the arm of Diana’s chair.

            “Honey, I’m so sorry.  I ran into this guy I’ve been looking for and when I tried to call to let you know, my cell phone was dead and I was doing 90 on the Dan Ryan.  Please, I wanted this to be a special evening.”  All this spewed out in one breath, before Mike stepped back and swallowed.  His throat felt as if someone had shoved a hair dryer down there and turned it on max.

            “Mike, do you like me?  I mean really like me?”  She showed him the tablespoon she was using to pick out the chocolate chips.  Mike recognized that since she was not in her best clothes, going out again was not an option.  “We’ve been together for over two years now, and I get the feeling we don’t communicate well.  We keep making dates and something always happens.  I know it’s not your fault entirely.  But good God, it never fails.  Last week we were talking and it was great.  A real conversation.  You were even looking at me.  We weren’t on a stake out or tailing someone.  Then your cell phone rang and you didn’t even hesitate.  You picked it up and I knew I’d have to take a cab home before you ever said one word.  I sometimes feel I’ve become Diana, the private investigatress.  And I know that’s not a real word.  It’s hard to be involved with anyone who is only halfway participating.”  Tears had started a slow drip into the ice cream.

            “It’s all my fault, Di.  Things happen so fast in my line of work that … ”

            “There it is.  The real problem.  Your line of work.  Mike, you’re a smart guy.  One of the smartest I know.  You could do anything, and here you are a PI.  Why are you wasting your life?”  Mike would rather have faced Ferlin again than rehash this conversation.  He knew the ice cream was Diana’s way of dealing with anxiety.  Then she could blame any weight gain on him because she had sworn off the delicacy two weeks ago when she’d taken up one of the latest diet fads.

            “If you want me to, I’ll quit.  I mean it.  I’ll quit.”  Mike had said that before.

            “That’s all I’d need.  To feel guilty every time I look at you and know I was the cause of you giving up your passion.  Don’t put me in that position.  I don’t want you to do it for me, but for you.  If you can’t honestly say you want to give it up …    I’m afraid we’re just not ever going to work out.  Oh, blast.”  Diana’s spoon slipped out of the hard, frozen desert and landed on the expensive carpet.  She leaned down to pick up the spoon and almost tipped the tray over.    

            “I’m sorry.”  Mike wished he could say something eloquent.

            “I almost had a heart attack just now, when you told me you were shot at.  I won’t be the woman who sits at home waiting to hear her man was a hero, but he died in the line of duty or some other such crap.  I care too much for you to ask you to give up your job.  I tried to ignore the danger you face, but I can’t.  I think we should part friends and go our separate ways.”  She stared up at Mike with another spoonful heading for her hips, as she so often said, curled up in her favorite genuine leather easy chair.  She looked beautiful, and Mike knew he couldn’t live without her.

            “Please, Di, let me try to find something else.  I don’t want to lose you.”

            “You wouldn’t be happy doing anything else, Mike.  And I’d never want to be responsible for making you give it up.  No, I think it’s better if we just call it quits.  I care about you very much, but I know I couldn’t ever be comfortable about your job.  It would eventually tear us apart.  I wish you only the best, Mike, and we’ll always be friends.”  She turned back to prying another chip out of the carton, signaling she was finished talking.

            “Yeah, that’s what I want us to be, just friends.”  His voice was heavy with sarcasm.  “I won’t give up on us, Di.  I care too much.”

            Her head swiveled back toward him and her eyes threatened to burn a hole through his face.  “Mike, have you ever said you love me?”

            “You know I have trouble expressing my emotions.  That doesn’t mean I don’t love you.  I do.  I’ve asked you to marry me.  I just have trouble saying the word.  Don’t I prove I love you in other ways?  I give you flowers and presents, and I even wore my suit tonight.  Come on, Diana.  Can’t we just try a little harder?”

            “My mind’s made up.  I’ve been thinking about this for a while now, and it’ll be best for both of us.”

            “Maybe best for you, but not me.  Have you been talking to Lori again?  She’s never liked me.” 

            No, no.  Bad move. Why did you go there, stupid?  Open mouth and insert size twelve’s.

            Lori was Diana’s best friend.  They went through school together and were more like twins than any twins Mike knew.  Lori Melinoski’s restaurant, Bon Appetite, catered to the sophisticated French palate, as Lori liked to say.  Mike’s not so secret opinion classified her as a snooty little rich girl who got Daddy to spring for the entire venture.  Daddy owned a major trucking firm with national connections.  The restaurant had become a profitable business, succeeding despite Lori’s meddling.    

            “Lori has nothing to do with this.  She does like you.  She thinks you’re cute.”  The eyes were blazing now.

            “Cute!  Ha!  She doesn’t know what cute is.  That’s her way of putting me down.  I don’t fit her definition of a gentleman.  Just look at her current boyfriend, Todd.  There’s a real catch.”

            “Todd is a successful lawyer and very nice.”

            “He’s one of those ambulance chasers who have everyone else do their dirty work and he just makes commercials all day.  His idea of macho is driving his new Hummer around the suburbs.  One thing for sure, if we do break up I won’t miss our double dates with those two.”  One wayward chocolate chip landed on her T-shirt, and she didn’t miss a beat as she scooped it up and deposited it with the rest of the last bite. Then she pointed a razor sharp fingernail at him.

            “I think you’ve said quite enough, Mike.  Lori’s been a rock when I needed her and I won’t have you belittle her any more.  Good night.”  She lurched out of the recliner and headed for the kitchen.  Mike thought he heard a whimper as she thumped barefoot on the ultra plush gold carpet.

            Mike could do nothing else but open the door and make his exit.  Stomping down the steps, he regretted bringing Lori into the conversation.  Diana had lost her parents in a fiery crash on the Eisenhower Expressway five years ago, and Lori had stayed with Diana for a month until she was able to pull herself out of her depression.  Lori had also bankrolled Diana in her architectural design company and referred several major businesses, which had become Diana’s first clients.  Everything Lori touched turned to gold.

            Women.  Why do I try?  It never works out.  Whatever I do is either wrong, or right but done at exactly the wrong time.  I swear, the man who finally figures out what a woman is thinking will win one of those prizes they award in Sweden.

            Mike slammed the door to Diana’s building, or at least tried to slam it.  The door had one of those compression hinges that allows the door to close gently.  So Mike slammed the car door when he got in.  Then he had to get out again to dig his keys out of his back pocket.  After slamming the door once more and pounding the steering wheel twice, he sped away from the curb and headed home.  The dashboard clock registered 8:22 p.m.  This night had begun with so much promise.  Now he felt as though he were piloting the Titanic down the street.

            And, in his haste, he failed to notice the rusting, black Olds parked three cars behind his.