Described as “Making a Murderer meets Scandal,” K.A. Tucker’s latest offering is a complex, sexy, thrilling story of police corruption, family secrets, and forbidden desire, and I have a sneak peek for you. Keep Her Safe releases on 23 January 2018.
“In one mile you will arrive at your destination.”
“Good job for getting me here, Sally.” I let the last drops of my coffee hit my tongue and then I chuck the empty Styrofoam cup to the passenger side floor, where it joins the others. The caffeine stopped doing the trick around El Paso, and I had to pull over in a Waffle House parking lot to crash for a few hours. I guess the lack of sleep over the past week finally caught up with me.
Now it’s pure adrenaline that’s keeping me going. As if having ninety-eight grand in cash sitting in a gym bag in my back seat isn’t enough to stress me out, I’m about to hand it all to a girl who is basically a stranger, without any explanation, because I don’t have an explanation to give.
Will Gracie Wilkes even remember Mom or me? Doubt it. The papers didn’t say how old she was when Abe died, just that she was young. I’m guessing five or six? The only thing I remember from when I was five was the day I shat my pants at recess.
Add fourteen years and that would make her nineteen, maybe twenty. What will this Gracie do when a strange guy shows up at her home and hands her a pile of money? How many questions will she have for me?
“In two hundred and fifty feet, you will have arrived at your destination,” Sally chirps.
I’m on the outskirts of Tucson. A vast expanse of sand and tall, leggy cacti stretches out to my left, all the way to the mountain range in the distance. It’s a lot greener here than I imagined, and yet plenty different from Texas or Seattle, or anywhere else I’ve been.
A sign ahead of me on the right sways in the light breeze—a metal plaque hanging haphazardly by one chain; rust eating away at the edges. Sleepy Hollow Trailer Park. Named after the street it’s on, obviously.
So Gracie Wilkes lives in a trailer park.
The only park I’ve ever been to was the one on Lake Chelan—outside Seattle—that my friend and his family went to every summer. We’d stay for two weeks, playing tennis and swimming, making out with girls by the bonfire after the parents went to bed.
“You have arrived at your destination.”
I guess not all trailer parks are created equal.
I turn into the main entrance. Rows of mobile units line either side of the lane. They’re all a little different in color and size, but equally dented, stained, and surrounded by junk. Some have chain link fences to give the illusion of having a yard, but those “yards” are filled with old furniture, scraps of metal, corroded cars. One even has a toilet sitting outside the front step.
It’s close to 2 p.m. and empty of people, and yet I feel plenty of eyes on me as I roll through in my black Jeep Grand Cherokee—fresh off the lot only three months ago—at five miles per hour, searching in vain for unit 212. It’s a game, because nothing is consistent. Some doors display their number in brass, others are scribbled in black marker on pieces of wood, and hung on fences. Another has a cardboard sign taped to the street light.
These people are dirt poor, there’s no two ways about it. That means Abe’s daughter is dirt poor. I guess that answers one question for me— this girl is going to take the money and run without a second glance at me.
But how did they end up here? Dina must not be alive.
If she is…
The Dina Wilkes I remember wouldn’t be caught dead in a place like this, let alone let her daughter live here.
A woman as old as Moses sits in a ratty chair on her front porch, watching me intently. I lower my window, and a waft of hot, dry air and dust invades my cool air-conditioned interior. “Afternoon, ma’am. Can you please tell me where 212 is?”
Her eyes narrow. “Vete a la chingada.”
Spanish. Shit. My Spanish sucks.
“Uh… Lo siento… Número 212?”
“Come mierda!” Leaning over, she spits on the ground next to her.
Yeah… it doesn’t sound like she’s going to help me. I give the truck a little bit of gas and keep rolling forward. A small white sign with the numbers 212 neatly written hangs from the fence post ahead of me. I glance back at the old lady—Gracie’s next-door neighbor, I now realize—to find her glaring at me. I wonder if she’s suspicious of everyone who comes through here, or just the corn-fed Texas boy with the nice ride.
Killing the engine, I reach for the gym bag.
And then second-guess that move.
Is getting out of my car with a pile of cash safe? Checking my rearview mirror, I spot a gangly man leaning against a fence and watching me, looking all kinds of shady. I can’t tell if he’s just curious, or if he’s looking for an opportunity. I outweigh him by at least forty pounds and I can hold my own if I have to, but I’m guessing people who survive around here don’t rely on physical strength to protect themselves.
Just in case…
I punch the code into my portable safe and fish out my Glock.
As much as I’d feel safer with it on me, I don’t know that showing up at Gracie’s door with a gun is going to comfort either of us. Plus, I didn’t bring a holster—I left Abe’s where I found it, under the floor—and I didn’t even look up the carry laws for Arizona, too eager to hit the road.
Still, I want it easily accessible, should I need it in a rush.
Tucking it into the gym bag with the money, I leave both on the back seat. I step out of my SUV, locking the doors behind me.
A mangy mutt strolls past, making me falter a step. I’ve never seen a dog look so rough. It’s missing an eye and a chunk out of its floppy ear. Its dull brown matted fur looks like a soiled shag rug from the seventies. Still, it has a light trot to its step as it passes me, that one eye narrowed as if warning me away from the twitching rat within its jaws. I can’t help but grimace.
With a quick glance around me—creeper is still creeping, and the old lady is still rocking and staring, but at least not spitting—I climb the steps to the old trailer. Taking a deep breath, I knock on the door.
No one answers. There’s no sound of footfalls, but I can hear the television through the cracked window. Maybe they left it on to make people think someone’s home? No, I can’t see people who live in a place like this bothering to take that kind of precaution.
Plus I smell the faint waft of a grilled cheese sandwich coming from inside. Someone’s definitely home.
I knock again.
Still no answer.
“Gracie?” I call out.
What do I do? I can’t sit around here, not with that old woman burning holes in my back. I guess I could find a hotel to chill for a few hours. Get sleep and a shower. Come back later, when she feels like answering. She had better answer. I need to get rid of this money and move on.
“What’d you want with them?”
It’s the fence lurker, strolling over like he doesn’t have a care in the world. His white t-shirt clings to his body, colored with streaks of dirt, the pits stained yellow. I’d say it hasn’t seen a washing machine in weeks, if ever.
Them. So Gracie doesn’t live alone. Is she with a boyfriend? A friend? Does she have a kid already? What does she look like? I had a lot of hours to kill during my drive last night, and I spent some of that wondering if I’d recognize her.
I turn to face this guy dead-on, keeping my stance casual and my voice relaxed. “I’m a friend of the family.”
His calculating gaze drifts over me from head to toe and then shifts to my Cherokee. “I ain’t seen you ‘round here before, friend.”
I don’t like this guy, and it has nothing to do with him living in this dump. He has bad news written all over him, like if I were lying in the gutter, he’d ask me how hurt I am so he’d know how hard I’d fight when he went through my pockets. I’m regretting not tucking my gun into my pants. At least he’s not carrying, from what I can see.
I decide to keep playing it cool. “That’s because I’ve never been here before. Do you know if anyone’s home?”
He pauses as if to consider my question, his mouth twisting up as he sucks on his teeth. “Dina’s ‘round.”
So she does live here after all. I don’t trust this guy at my back, so I stay facing him as I knock again. After ten seconds and no answer, I say, “She must be asleep.”
“Yeah, maybe.” He smirks, like that’s somehow funny.
That settles that. I’ll have to come back later.
I’m a second away from heading to my SUV when a female yells, “Hey, you! On my steps!” I can tell she’s pissed before I even spot her charging toward me.
Her striking face tight with anger.
Her haunting pale green eyes locked on me.
A switchblade open and gripped in her fist.