Dead Pool Sample


The Harry Starke Novels Book 21
Blair Howard

This is an advanced sample and may contain some errors


Chapter 1

May 9, 2022

Saturday Morning


Victoria Blue wasn’t exactly anti-social. At least, not in the sense that she stayed inside with the curtains drawn and the phones unplugged. But if she was pressed, she’d have to admit she was at least uninterested in being social. Kind of a funny change, really. As a girl she’d been the typical, almost stereotypical chatty, pigtailed, rope-skipping kid who didn’t stop talking until she fell asleep. And even then, if the stories were true, she kept up the grinning and muttering in her happy dreams.

It wasn’t that anything particularly bad had happened to her either, driving her into her shell and making her keep the rest of the world at arm’s length. No, it was more of a steady, consistent, only mildly irritating experience with people that had led her to slowly keeping her guard up.

She hit the button on the one-cup coffee machine in her kitchen, thinking, not for the first time, that Hilden Heights was not quite what she’d been led to believe. Sure, it was wealthy. One of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the city. But as the saying goes, money can’t buy class.

Maybe that was too harsh. But as much as she hated to admit it, there was a glaring difference between old money and new money and if anyone doubted that, all they had to do was drive around a few of the neighborhood streets and take a look at what new money could do. Pools, intricate landscaping, too many cars to fit in the multicar garages. Boats left out in driveways. It was funny; in a lot of ways, the new money wasn’t entirely unlike neighborhoods with no money at all. The only difference was the cost of the items left out in the elements.

But that wasn’t her concern. She knew very well that she was extremely fortunate to be born into the family she was and that it was through no effort of her own that she ended up in such a comfortable position. Even with her work, which she was proud to say supported her lifestyle without any of dad’s, or grandma’s, or great-grandpa’s money, she would be doing just fine. Maybe that was just another blessing of wealth though. Not every kid grew up with a computer, let alone multiple ones, and it had surely given her a jumpstart when she’d taken an interest in software engineering.

She was a quick study though, and she put the hours in. So sure, maybe she’d picked the Heights to be in what seemed like a familiar position, socio-economically speaking. But she also liked being able to just hunker down at home, do her work, create her programs, and be left alone. No harm, no foul, as her dad would’ve said.

You’ll never get a man like that; her mom would’ve muttered.

But who needed a man when you could take care of yourself? And besides, she had Dipper.

She patted her thigh softly and the little black and brown Yorkshire Terrier stood up in his dog bed, stretching his front legs before trotting over to where she stood at the kitchen island.

Victoria pulled a thin rawhide chew from a bag in one of the cupboards and tucked it in her back pocket. Dipper immediately sat, attentive but not overly rambunctious, another thing she knew she had to be thankful for. Yorkies weren’t known for their calm demeanor, but she’d hit the lottery with Dip.

The coffee maker let out its final gurgle and whoosh and, grabbing her laptop from the marble island, she took her work and her dog and stepped out through the sliding glass door into a screened-in porch, and then out onto a concrete patio. Off to her right, a small pool glittered in the morning light, the pool jets sending quiet arcs of water out to keep the salt and chlorine mixing. To her left was her workspace, at least on days like this. A solid roofed pergola, complete with outdoor couch and round concrete table awaited her.

Dipper skipped along at her side, eyeing the pocket wherein she’d deposited the treat as she walked over and set her things down on the concrete table. The sun was warm, though not hot enough to prevent her from getting a few hours of work done before she headed in for lunch. She sat down and handed the rawhide treat to Dip, who took it gingerly in his jaws and then circled the table a few times before finding what was apparently the perfect spot for snacking.

Maybe a ranch would’ve been wiser, she thought, glancing at the fence around her backyard. A lot more work, and Dip wouldn’t be able to run quite so free—she’d heard more than one story about owls and hawks making a meal of small breeds like his—but it would at least give her a place where she felt as if she could relax. Here, the neighbor’s roofs and windows were visible, despite the required extravagant space between homes, and even with her thick curtains, she always felt like she was just too exposed.

The feeling was only confirmed when she realized the bubbling of the deck jets wasn’t the only water she could hear. A shape moved on the other side of the fence, casting a shadow through the slats and sending misty sprays of water into the air.

“Gotta get those flowers, don’t cha, Nel?” Victoria said under her breath just as a head poked up over the fence between her and her nearest neighbor’s yard.

“Good morning, Vickie!” Nel Modesto called. “I thought I heard you out here.”

Heard, or saw? Victoria thought. The situation was only made worse by the fact that she could see the woman, which only meant one thing. Nel Modesto was standing on one of the landscaping structures. Most of the homes, Victoria had noticed when house-shopping, had backyards that were more concrete than grass. Not that she had any right to complain, she supposed. But the Modestos had built themselves a kind of brick and concrete bench all around the outside of their backyard, then packed in enough potting soil and flowers to make God rethink the Garden of Eden. The fact it also allowed Nel to “unobtrusively” glance over her fence whenever she felt like it was certainly just a coincidence. Heavens no, folks in the Heights would never be that snoopy. Lordamercy.

“Morning, Nel,” Victoria called, deciding it was pointless to request the Nel stop using the diminutive. ‘Vickie’ made it sound like they were friends, good neighbors, confidants. If that’s how Nel wanted folks to view them, well, it wasn’t exactly Victoria’s problem. “Thirsty flowers today?”

“Oh, these passion flowers,” the woman said, stepping back down and out of sight, though her voice carried just fine, even with all the running water. “You’d never guess they were wildflowers with all the attention they demand. You know—”

Victoria groaned inwardly.

“This is actually one of two state flowers. Quite the fuss over it a while back. Most folks wanted the lily, but here we are.”

Victoria mouthed the last four words along with Nel. She’d heard the story at least half a dozen times and all she really wanted to do was get down to work. But, she supposed she couldn’t fault the woman for trying to be friendly. It wasn’t Nel’s fault Victoria preferred Dipper to any human companion she’d ever had.

“The weather’s been cool in the evenings yet,” Victoria said, hoping to wind things up. “I’m sure you’ll get it figured out. You’ve always got the perfect concoction to make them grow.”

“Oh,” Victoria heard Nel say. “You’re flattering me. Mostly it’s just water and sun, but now that you mention it, I do have a new plant food I’ve been wanting to tell you about. Let me see if I can find it in the garage.”

Victoria watched the shadow move through the fence slats back toward the house. It was a childish move, but she also knew this was her chance to get back inside and avoid wasting a good forty-five minutes of talking about soil nutrients with a woman she was only truly slightly acquainted with. Victoria closed her laptop and picked up her coffee, looking around for the dog.

At some point, he’d apparently given up the rawhide, a usual choice for her little guy. Instead, he was standing over at the corner of the fence, stock still and rapt on something.

“Dip,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. She supposed she could leave him out, but Nel would be just as likely to come grab the dog and bring him to Victoria’s door as anything. Just being a good neighbor, and all, of course.

When the dog ignored her completely, Victoria put down her things and walked over to the fence. The lots on this side of the Heights were off-set, meaning that while she and Nel shared a fence line, the home behind them actually was split down the middle, half butting up on Victoria’s side and the other half on Nel’s. Dipper, for his part, was staring right through the corner of the fence, meaning whatever had his attention was happening in Hattie Baker’s backyard.

What that could be, however, was beyond Victoria. Hattie hadn’t even reached thirty yet, and she was enjoying all the things that youth and new money could bring. Her favorite of which seemed to be sleeping until at least noon every day. But that didn’t mean a partygoer hadn’t decided to sleep in a lounger by the pool, or more likely, food had been left out on one of Hattie’s garishly expensive platters.

Silver platters but not land, or stocks, or literally anything else, Victoria thought. Grandma would roll over in her grave.

She walked over to the dog and, fully aware that she was doing exactly what she’d just been irked by Nel for, Victoria tried to peek through the wooden slats and see what had Dipper so attentive.

At first it looked like nothing. Hattie’s backyard was empty besides the overflow of pool furniture. The house looked dark; its curtains drawn. Then, just beyond the edge of her little slit of vision, she thought she saw it. Someone was in the pool. Early morning floats weren’t exactly Hattie’s style, but as she’d been keen to let everyone know, despite the ridiculous size of the pool, it was heated and could be used “even on the most frigid Tennessee evening; it’s practically a giant hot tub!”

Victoria almost dismissed it and turned back inside, but something in her brain registered the scene as being off, just a little wonky, as her dad would’ve said. Like a state having two state flowers, as Nel would be saying shortly if Victoria didn’t get back inside.

But still, she couldn’t help but be curious, and before she realized she was doing it, she’d pulled a chair over and stepped up, trying to keep her head low while at least figuring out what exactly was going on in Hattie’s yard. The woman always played music when she was out and was rarely out alone. And again, it was barely the crack of ten o’clock in the AM.

Victoria’s eyes widened as she took in the pool, then she quietly, albeit shakily, stepped down from the chair and scooped up her dog. The work could wait. Nel could wait indefinitely. Victoria needed to make a phone call. This was absolutely not the thing she was anxious about getting involved in when she’d first moved to the Heights, but it certainly did nothing to cancel out her concerns about being too close to people. Now she’d be involved. There’d be more questions. Interviews. Gossip. More than anything gossip.

But, she thought, an anonymous call might at least buy her some time. If nothing else, it would keep the cops from showing up at her door the same time they did at Hattie’s. At least, she hoped so.

Whatever her own concerns were, she couldn’t in good conscience just go back inside and wait. Hattie Baker, even if she did sleep in and did listen to loud music and keep late hours, she didn’t deserve to have her dead body floating in the pool until someone happened by in the next who knew how many hours.

Victoria slipped back through the porch and pulled the sliding door closed behind her, Dipper in the crook of her arm and her coffee and laptop still out on the table. She took a deep breath, and called 911.

"911, what's your emergency?"

“I’d like to report a death…”



Chapter 2

June 11, 2022

Friday, Eight Weeks Later

There are certain days in life that, as much as you don’t want to, you realize you’ve just kind of cast them off. When I was a cop, it was Tuesday afternoons. Nobody was doing anything interesting on Tuesdays, though I suppose it was just a matter of time before people start figuring that out and everything shifts. But Friday nights, Saturdays especially, when your real troublemakers are still half-cocked from the night before, those are days to look out for. Tuesdays though… Just about the only time less interesting than Tuesday was Friday afternoon.

Fridays, you know trouble might be looming, but you’re so close to the inciting incident, as they say, that it’s strangely calm. You always had your day-drinkers, but they were usually alcoholics who we’d seen so many times in and out of rehab and drug court and the drunk tank that they’d greet us by name when we pulled them over. After I got out of it, I’ll admit I was a little surprised to see that things changed.

When you’re a private detective, you’re not waiting for someone to come over the radio and let you know about a crime in progress, you’re waiting for someone to come knock on the door of your office, or hunt you down on Google. Usually, a good long time after either their conscience or their nagging doubt has gotten to them. And even then, as much as I hate to be a guy who takes money for moral retribution, we don’t come cheap. My staff, my office, and to be fair, my skill set, cost me a pretty penny, and I’ve gotta cover it some way or another.

The thing is though, I’m human. And on that Friday afternoon, when the phones were quiet and the staff were all off chasing down their own little tail-ends about cheating wives and missing savings, I was sitting at my desk, for once, a little bored again.

Maybe it’s one of those things you don’t appreciate until it’s taken from you. I’ve been through the wringer with a lot of cases since I’ve gone freelance, and more than one of them had involved bullets coming at me. But that also meant the days when there were no bullets, my adrenaline was keyed up with nothing to focus on. Thank goodness for Amanda and Jade. Refocusing had been a thing I’d struggled with. One of the things Amanda had almost not married me because of. But times passes and old cops turn into old detectives and sooner or later, no matter how many bullets you fire, miles you run, or cases you solve, you realize those things pass. Family is the thing that sticks around.

If I’d learned anything from the people who came in my office with their life savings and a hope I could help them, it’s that family sticks around.

Depending on the family, I suppose.

Either way, it was late, I was bored and, if we’re being honest, in the very Family Man way I’d been trying to take on, Amanda and I had accidentally started a tradition. I say accidentally because it was more out of my own laziness than anything and Jade was far too young to get the idea of a habit. But, hey, you do what you can.

So, for us, Friday was pizza night. Amanda had gotten to the point where she could work when and how she wanted, and my job didn’t exactly come with a punch-clock, so we sort of fell into it. And it was good for me to not spend every other night in my car outside of a motel sort of hoping and sort of not hoping a guy would show up with a wedding ring in his back pocket.

I texted Amanda just to double-check, something we’d fallen into more for her sake than mine. You spend a lot of years bolting out the door concerned only about your weapon… and it’s tough to adjust to the idea of texting “be home soon honey” and double-checking her pizza preference.

But she was worth it.

Amanda texted me back “yes!” like it was the first time we’d done it and I didn’t have her order written down in the notebook I kept of important things. Pizza orders maybe don’t count as important to most folks, but I like to know. It’s her, after all.

I sent her some nonsense about anchovies and pineapple, jokes I knew were tired but also part of the Tradition, and started gathering up my things. With any luck, it was going to be a calm weekend. Amanda and I were even considering just hitting the road for a few hours. Jade was still probably too young for most of the fun parks, but nobody really gets hurt by spending an afternoon in the mountains. Especially if you’re in a baby-hitch on your dad’s back.

I grabbed the last few files and shoved them into my collapsible folder, figuring the worst-case scenario would be me reading on the back porch over a cup of coffee and then just passing the underwhelming news on to Jacque, Heather, TJ and the rest come Monday.

But Jacque, as she tends to do, and not that it’s her fault—at least not entirely—apparently had other plans. Just as I zipped up my laptop bag and stood up from the chair, she popped her head around the open door and, quite unnecessarily, knocked on the frame.

“Got a minute, boss? You might like this one.”

You might like this one from Jacque was the most ephemeral phrase there could be. Sometimes it meant a real brain buster, sometimes it meant a bag marked ‘Free Money,’ shoot, sometimes it was a joke.

I raised an eyebrow and looked at her. “How so?”

“How so,” she said, strutting into the office with a folder in her hand, “depends on how involved you want to be. If you want my opinion, there’s not a lot here. But you know how people like to have Harry Starke working for them. So I’m passing this one up the ladder. See if you learned anything in your Business Ethics classes.”

“That bad?”

“I don’t know if I’d charge for it,” she said as sat down in the chair across the desk from me, and I sat as well. “But I’m not running this show. You get the hard questions.”

“What is it?”

“Accidental death.”

I sighed and shook my head. These were the worst. Some sad guy or girl comes in, unable to cope with the fact that sometimes life, and death, just happen, and they’re ready to throw money at you all day long just to help it make sense to them. There’s always another path to track down, another person to interview. And in the end, it turns out your brother or husband or girlfriend was cleaning his gun or hit his head on the side of the pool or didn’t follow the instructions on the side of the medication bottle. The ethics behind them was gray, especially if you were a guy who was in it for the money, but I’d told my staff to bring me the gray ones every time. We aren’t hucksters and we aren’t looking to drain your bank account before we tell you what you couldn’t quite yet admit to yourself. But, and I know this is selfish, it was throwing off pizza night. My family counts too, after all.

“Was this a call or an email?” I ask, not bothering to open the folder she sat on my desk. I can find out quicker from asking.


I groan. “He’s out there, isn’t he?”

She nodded. “I know you hate a/d’s. If it helps, I’ll stick around. We’ll talk him out of it together. Sometimes it helps to, you know…” she shrugged.

“Have someone with a little more ‘mom’ in them. Yes, I know.”

“I don’t know if I would’ve put it quite that way, but yes. More opinions concurring, more validation to the argument.”

I glanced at the file and then back at her. I knew I’d done the right thing, but I was reminded weekly, if not daily, how accidentally lucky I’d been. “All right,” I said. “No time like the present.”

Jacque smiled one of her trademark quiet smiles, and stepped out of my office. I had time to pull a notepad out of my center desk drawer, get a pen, and at least arrange myself in a way that didn’t look like I was gunning to get out of Dodge in the next few minutes, before she appeared in the door again, an arm out to usher in my next consultation.

I stood up and held out a hand. “Harry Starke.”

“Mason Willis,” the young man said, his eyes just barely flitting between Jacque and myself. “Is this a private meeting?”

I sat back down and gestured for the two of them to do the same. “If you’re looking for help, I’m not exaggerating in any way when I say this young woman might offer you more than I even can myself.”

Willis glanced over at her and then back at me again, as if to verify what I was saying. Jacque in no way looked like a private detective, but then again, you say those two words to most people and they think of Humphrey Bogart. Shoot, I don’t even look like Bogey.

“Well,” Willis looked down. “I s’pose it doesn’t matter who helps. I heard you were the best, and if you trust her, then she must be the best, too… right?” He glanced back and forth again.

“I don’t mess around, Mr. Willis,” I said. “My associate tells me you're here about your girlfriend? An accidental death?”

He paused for just half a beat, and I knew. He wanted to see me, and he got Jacque, and he adapted. This wasn’t going to be a quick consultation.

“Well,” he said, rubbing the back of his neck. “The thing is, that’s what they say. The cops I mean. But, no. It wasn’t an accident. She was murdered.”

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