Here is a special extra chapter from Beauty From Ashes, or A New Chapter for the sake of the blog. We are almost to the end! I mentioned yesterday that the book releases April 26. If you want to pre-order it, you can do so HERE, or HERE but I am also going to be offering to send a copy to my blog readers for free once I have the final version.
If any of you are interested in being on the launch team for the book, you can sign-up HERE. Signing up doesn’t require a large commitment. I just ask that you share the information I will send you about the book on your social media sites leading up to the release of the book and afterwards. In exchange for your help, you will receive a free ebook copy of the book. If you have the opportunity to leave a review of the book on the various sites it will be on sale on, that would be nice too.
Feel free to let me know what you think about this latest chapter in the comments.
The crisp morning air was helping to wake Matt up, but he knew a cup of coffee from the Community Cup coffee shop would help even more. Sure, he’d had coffee at home, but not with the fancy foam on top that made everything better. Maybe the barista, Wendy, would even swirl a heart into the whip cream for him like she normally did.
Liz’s comments about him being beloved by the town snuck into his mind as he walked. He’d never considered himself someone women flirted with and it had never occurred to him that maybe Wendy had been flirting all this time until now. Oh. He probably shouldn’t have winked all those times and told her she was his favorite barista ever. He’d have to be more careful about sending mixed signals from now on. The only one he wanted to send signals to was Liz.
He turned at the sound of Stan’s voice from across the street and raised his hand in a greeting. Stan waved him over. Looked like the coffee would, unfortunately, have to wait.
“Hey.” Stan stepped aside to allow Matt into the real estate office, the other desks in the main office empty. “You got a minute?”
“Sure. I’m sure you’ve heard that I have more than a minute these days.”
Stan winced. “Yeah. When I first heard about it, I thought it was because we’d been sneaking around that building.” He gestured toward his office in the back. “Coffee?”
It wasn’t Community Cup coffee, but — “Sure. I could use another cup.”
Stan poured two mugs from a coffee pot that looked like it had seen better days. “Hate to say this, but in a way I’m glad you decked that Martin guy. No one deserved it more than him. I know it’s not the Christian thing to say, but sometimes I feel like if some of these kids had been paddled more as children they wouldn’t have turned out to be such awful adults.”
Matt took the mug of coffee and sat in a chair across from Stan’s desk. “You might be right.”
“Speaking of Martin, I have some news about who owns the abandoned building.” Stan slid a sheet of paper across his desk as he sat down. “Terry ‘Buck’ Simms.”
Matt made a face. “Who?”
“Buck Simms was a business owner who used to live here.” Stan sipped from his coffee and winced, then stood and poured creamer into the sludge. “Owned several buildings, warehouses, a few stores and essentially became a small-town slum lord. All those houses they tore down on the other side of the tracks last year were once his. He never took care of them, didn’t help the tenants, charged them crazy rent. He moved away from here about ten years ago. The deed is still in his name.”
Matt nodded. “Okay. That’s great. Once the property is released from the police, maybe you can track him down and he’ll sell the land.”
Stan leaned forward on the desk, shoulders stooped. The sunlight streaking in through the window hit his face and Matt noticed the puffy skin under his eyes, and the pale pallor to his skin for the first time.
“That could be a problem. No one has been able to find Buck in ten years. The council tried to track him down years ago to get those buildings either fixed up or torn down. They finally seized them through a court order after Buck never responded to all the messages sent to his last known address somewhere in Montana.” He took the paper again, pondered it and sat back in his chair. “Here’s the other thing. Some of Buck’s family still lives here in Spencer.”
Matt took a longer sip of the coffee. He didn’t know what brand Stan was brewing but it was certainly waking him up. “So maybe we can track them down, find Buck, and get the property signed over.”
“Again, might be a problem. It took me a bit, but I finally remembered who Buck was related to. Gabe. On his mom’s side. He’s Gabe’s great uncle.”
Matt set the mug down on the desk. “Oh. Okay, well that does change things.”
“Yeah, it does.”
It also makes Bernie’s story a lot more believable, Matt thought as he stared into the coffee mug.
The opening of the front door startled both men.
“Must be Emily. I gave her the morning off. Her mom’s been sick, and she’s been taking care of her.” He looked at his watch and quirked an eyebrow. “She’s a little early, though.”
It wasn’t Stan’s secretary who stood in the doorway of Stan’s office a few seconds later, though. Mud streaked across Bernie’s cheek and dark circles marked the skin under his eyes. A hole was ripped in the knee of his jeans, and he was breathing hard.
“Matt, I need to talk to you.”
Matt set his coffee mug down. “Yeah, I need to talk to you too.” He stood and gestured toward the door. “Let’s talk outside.”
Bernie shook his head, stepped into the office, and shut the door. “No way. The cops are looking for me, but I’m guessing you know that by now.”
Matt glanced at Stan whose coffee mug was half to his mouth, his eyes focused on Bernie.
“Why don’t we let Stan head out then?”
Bernie shook his head. “No. I don’t want him calling the cops. Not until I talk to you.”
Bernie sat in the chair across from Stan’s desk. Matt remained standing, leaning back against a bookcase on the far wall. “Why did you run, Bern? Were those drugs yours?”
Bernie shook his head vigorously. “No. No. They were planted. I’m telling you the truth, Matt, just like I was telling you the truth about Gabe. I’ve got proof now too.”
Matt folded his arms across his chest. He wasn’t sure he was buying this story. “Where?”
“On my phone.” Bernie thrust the phone toward him. “I also emailed it to myself and uploaded it to the cloud for safe keeping. I ran because there was a meet up with Gabe and another dealer and I knew if I told the cops they wouldn’t believe me. I heard the other guy talking about it when I was leaving after I dropped that package off. I didn’t know if it was still going down but I needed to try. I had to get the proof, get myself off the hook. Gabe saw me, though, and now they’re all after me — the cops, Gabe and the other guy he was with. At this point it’s just a matter of who gets to me first.”
Stan set his mug down. Matt could tell he was bewildered, maybe even a bit anxious, but he was hanging in there. He looked less freaked out than when they’d found the drugs at least.
Matt took the phone and pushed play on the video.
Great. That was definitely Gabe with another guy at a building that looked similar to the abandoned one. He couldn’t make out every word they were saying but Gabe was gesturing toward packages that looked a lot like heroin and the man across from him was shouting back, something about “It’s not my fault if your mules are incompetent!”
He kept his eyes on the screen as Gabe took a stack of cash from the man. “We need to get this to the state police.”
Gabe turned toward the camera seconds before it went black. “How did you get away?”
Bernie ran his hands along his jeans, letting out a breath. “I had a head start. It was dark where I was, I didn’t think he saw me, just heard the twig break under me when I stepped back. I was in my car and part way down the road when I heard him yelling. There was a couple of gunshots, but I kept driving. I hid out at Lover’s Valley until about 3 a.m. and then I walked to your place and waited behind your woodshed but fell asleep.” He laughed softly, dragging a hand through his hair. “Some criminal I am, huh? Anyhow, when I woke up you were pulling out, so I took the risk and followed you to town. I knew you’d listen.”
Matt glanced out the window. “You think anyone followed you?”
Bernie leaned back in the chair, shrugged a shoulder. “I don’t know. Like I said, I’m not really very good at this criminal stuff. You should know that better than anyone.”
Matt huffed out a small laugh. He was right. Professional criminal Bernie was not. Nailing him for the burglary and all the other petty crimes he’d committed had been fairly easy all those years ago.
Stan stood and separated the blinds with his fingers. “I don’t know if Bernie was followed by Gabe or the other guy, but there’s a trooper pulling up across the street.”
Matt stood behind him, looked over his shoulder. “That’s Dan. He’s probably looking for me to see if we found out any more about who owns the building.”
Behind them Bernie stood, shifting his weight anxiously from one foot to the other. “Is he coming here? He can’t come here. I can’t get caught.”
Matt turned to face him. “Bern, you’ve got proof.”
“Not that those drugs aren’t mine.” He slid his hands behind his back and when he pulled them in front of him one was holding a 9 mm. “I’m also not supposed to have this. I’m on probation.”
Stan scowled, his hands still on the blinds. “Then why do you?”
“For protection.” He tipped his head up toward the ceiling, sucking in a breath. “It was my dad’s. I know it was stupid, but I didn’t know what I was going to face when I got to that meet up.”
Matt watched Dan climb out of the police vehicle and head across the street toward the office. “We don’t have much time here. We need to make a decision. Pretty sure Dan knows I’m in here. Not sure about you.”
Bernie paced in the small office space between the chair and the bookcase, the gun in his hand. “He’s not going to listen. I know he’s not. If I keep you guys in here, maybe then he’ll stop long enough to listen.”
This situation was going to bad to very bad in a very short amount of time. “Bernie, you’re not thinking clearly. It’s just Dan looking for me to discuss the case. You’ve already run from the state police and now you’re going to hold me and Stan hostage? If we have any chance of getting you out of all this and keeping you out of jail, then I’d advise you not to even think of that scenario.”
Bernie stopped pacing and looked at Matt. “Yeah, I know. It’s stupid. I don’t want to do that. I just need some time.”
Matt walked toward the door. “I’m going to stop him in the front of the office. We just need to talk to him, show him the video. We’ll figure the rest out later. If he can get to Gabe, then maybe he can get him to fess up to trying to set you up for the fall.”
Bernie clutched at the hair at the top of his head, chewing on the inside of his cheek. “I don’t know, man. I don’t think this is going to work.”
Matt held his hand up. “Stay calm, Bern, and put that gun away. You’re not helping your case right now.”
Bernie’s eyes flicked toward the gun, and he nodded, stashing it in the back of his jeans again.
Matt stepped out of Stan’s office, pulling the door closed behind him, at the same moment Dan stepped in.
“McGee.” Dan nodded in the curt way the way state troopers do, which always made Matt wonder if the hat made their heads too heavy to nod normally.
“I thought I saw your truck down the street and took a hunch you might be meeting with Jefferies. Has he got anything on the building owner?” He propped one hand on his duty belt and leaned his hip against Emily’s desk with the other.
“He does, but I’m finishing up another meeting in here. Can we meet at the coffee shop in a few minutes?”
Matt caught a flash of suspicion in Dan’s eyes as he glanced at the closed door over Matt’s shoulder, but he nodded that curt node again. “Sure. Ten minutes?”
Matt tried the curt nod and had to admit it was a bit more efficient and easier on the neck in some ways. “Yep. Perfect.”
Dan turned toward the front door, hesitated and turned back toward Matt again. “Everything okay in here?”
Matt smiled. “Yeah. Totally fine. Just some private real estate business.”
He hated lying but he needed a couple more minutes to convince Bernie it was in his best interest to talk to Dan.
Dan narrowed his eyes but he reached for the handle of the front door. “Okay, then, see you in a bit.”
He walked out but Matt could tell he didn’t believe him. A good cop wouldn’t, and Dan was a good cop. His instinct had kicked in, which meant Matt didn’t have long to talk Bernie into turning himself in and working out a deal with the staties.
When he entered the office Bernie was pacing again, rubbing his fingernails across his front teeth, looking at the floor. Stan was sitting at his desk watching him, his arms folded across his chest, his brow furrowed. Matt was sure this wasn’t how he’d expected to spend his morning. He’d already looked exhausted before Bernie walked in. He was looking completely beat down now.
Matt sat on the edge of the desk. “Okay, Bern, here is the deal. I’m meeting with Dan down at the coffee shop down the street in ten minutes. I want you to come with me and talk to him. It might mean you being taken into custody for a short time but —”
Bernie looked up sharply and shook his head. “No. I can’t go back to jail.”
Matt held up his hand. “Calm down. They’ll just need to question you. I’m going to vouch for you, show Dan the video and convince him that you’re not involved other than delivering that one package.” He leaned forward slightly, returning his hand to a position in the crook of his arm. “That’s all you did, correct.”
“Yes!” Bernie’s tone denoted his frustration and he tossed up his hands. “That’s it. I swear to you.”
Matt crossed one ankle over the other, doing his best to appear relaxed, even if he didn’t feel it. “Then you’ll be fine. We’re going to walk down there together and work this out. I’m going to have your back, okay?”
Bernie had been lied to a lot in the past. Matt was sure of that. He also knew that trust was a hard thing to have when so many had broken that trust before. “I know it is going to take a huge leap of faith for you to trust the guy who arrested you in the past.” He tipped his chin up to keep his eyes focused on Bernie’s. “But I need you to trust me that want to help keep you on the right track and bring you home to your kids. Let me help you, okay?”
Bernie let go of the hair he’d been clutching on the top of his head and stopped packing. He looked up at Matt, locked eyes with him, and inclined his head in agreement. “Okay.” His Adam’s apple bounced as he swallowed hard. “I trust you. Let’s go do this.”
Matt gestured toward the door, tipped his head toward Stan. “Wish us luck. I’ll be in touch about what I find out about the property.”
Stan nodded back, concern clouding his eyes. “I’d appreciate it.”
Matt set his shoulders back, hoped he looked more confident than he felt at the moment. Would Dan accept Bernie’s explanation? Or would he slap the cuffs on him before Bernie could even speak? He held the door for Bernie and then followed him out onto the sidewalk.
He slid his sunglasses on as the sun came out from behind a cloud and then zipped his jacket up to his chin when a cool breeze brushed across his skin. The coffee shop was only a block away and Bernie wasn’t enough of a wanted man they couldn’t walk that far in broad daylight.
The round of gunshots that exploded beside and around him in the next second sent a bolt of shock through him and left his ears ringing. He grabbed Bernie’s shoulder and shoved him to the sidewalk, reaching for the handgun gun strapped to his ankle. The revolver was his personal gun and the only one he had since he was on suspension. He clutched the back of Bernie’s shirt and dragged him backward into the doorway of Millie’s bakeshop, frantically scanning the parked cars and the second story windows in the buildings across the street.
Two people walking out of the diner down the street, ducked back inside and he watched the front window fill with curious, and frightened, onlookers. A groan next to him pulled him from his surveillance and he looked down to see Bernie crouched over, clutching his stomach, red dripping through his fingers and staining the concrete doorway of the bakery.