Saturday Excerpt: Kansas City Confessions by Julie Miller
About Kansas City Confessions:
His protection instincts on high alert, KCPD detective Trent Dixon knew something was wrong with Katie Rinaldi. The special investigator had obviously uncovered a dangerous piece of evidence while looking into a cold case. So dangerous, in fact, that the single mother’s life was now in jeopardy. But as much as Trent told himself he was keeping tabs on Katie and her young son as part of his job, he couldn’t ignore the very real feelings he had for her. Still, as a professional, he was bound to the badge and would give Katie all the security she deserved. And not give in to the attraction he was having trouble containing…
“God bless us, every one.”
Katie Rinaldi joined the smattering of applause from the mostly empty seats of the Williams College auditorium, where the community theater group she belonged to was rehearsing a production of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. The man with the white hair playing Ebenezer Scrooge stood at center stage, accepting handshakes and congratulations from the other actors as they completed their first technical rehearsal with sound and lights. The costumes she’d constructed for the three spirits seemed to be fitting just fine. And once she finished painting the mask for the Spirit of Christmas Future, she could sit back and enjoy the run of the show as an audience member. Okay, as a proud mama. She only had eyes for Tiny Tim.
She gave a thumbs-up sign to her third-grade son and laughed when he had to fight with the long sleeves of his costume jacket to free his hands and return the gesture. His rolling-eyed expression of frustration softened her laugh into an understanding smile.
She mouthed, Okay. I’ll fix it. Once he was certain she’d gotten the message, Tyler Rinaldi turned to chatter with the boy next to him, who played one of his older Cratchit brothers. One of the girls joined the group, bringing over a prop toy, and instantly, they were involved in a challenge to see who could get the wooden ball on an attached string into the cup first.
Although extra demands with her job at KCPD and the normal bustle of the holidays meant Katie was already busy without having to work a play into her schedule, she was glad she’d brought Tyler to auditions. The only child of a single mother, Tyler often spent his evenings alone with her, reading books or playing video or computer games after he finished his homework. She was glad to see him having fun and making friends.
“Note to self.” Katie pulled her laptop from her lime-green-and-blue-flowered bag and opened up her calendar to type in a reminder that she needed to adjust the costume that had initially been made for a larger child. What was one less hour of sleep, anyway? “Shorten sleeves.”
“I think we might just have a show.” Katie startled at the hand on her shoulder. “Sorry. I didn’t realize you were working.”
Katie saved her calendar and turned in her seat to acknowledge the slender man with thick blond hair streaked with threads of gray sinking into the cushioned seat behind her. “Hey, Doug. I was just making some costume notes.”
The play’s director leaned forward, resting his arms on the back of the seat beside her. “You’ve done a nice job,” he complimented, even though she’d been only one of several volunteers. His professionally trained voice articulated every word to dramatic perfection. “We’re down to the details now—if the gremlins in this old theater will give us a break.”
Doug looked up into the steel rafters of the catwalk two stories above their heads before bringing his dark eyes back to hers. “I don’t know a theater that isn’t haunted. Or a production that feels like it’s going to be ready in time. Those were brand-new battery packs we put in the microphones tonight, but they still weren’t working.”
“And you think the gremlins are responsible?” she teased.
Laughing, he patted her shoulder again. “More likely a short in a wire somewhere. But we need to figure out that glitch, put the finishing touches on makeup and costumes, and get the rest of the set painted before we open next weekend.”
“You don’t ask for much, do you?” she answered, subtly pulling away from his touch. Doug Price was one of those ageless-looking souls who could be forty or fifty or maybe even sixty but who had the energy—and apparently the libido—of a much younger man. “It’s a fun holiday tradition that your group puts on this show every year. Tyler’s having a blast being a part of it.”
Katie smiled. Despite dodging a few touches and missing those extra hours of sleep, she’d enjoyed the creative energy she’d been a part of these past few weeks. “Me, too.”
“Douglas?” A man’s voice from the stage interrupted the conversation. Francis Sergel, the tall, gaunt gentleman who played the Spirit of Christmas Future, had a sharp, nasal voice. Fortunately, he’d gotten the role because he looked the part and didn’t have to speak onstage. “Curtain calls? You said you’d block them this evening.”
“In a minute.” Doug’s hand was on her shoulder again. “You want to go grab a coffee after rehearsal? My treat.”
Although she knew him to be divorced, Doug was probably old enough to be her father, and she simply wasn’t interested in his flirtations. She had too many responsibilities to have time to be interested in any man besides her son.
“Sorry. I’ve got work to finish.” She gestured to her laptop and saw the screen-saver picture had come up—a picture of Trent Dixon, a longtime friend and coworker. Trent, a former college football player, was carrying her son on his big shoulders after a fun day spent in Columbia, Missouri, at a Mizzou football game. Dressed in black-and-gold jerseys and jeans, both guys were smiling as if they’d had the time of their lives—and she suspected they had. Trent was as good to Tyler now as he’d been to her back in high school when she’d been a brand-new teenage mom and she’d needed a real friend. As always, the image of man and boy made her smile…and triggered a little pang of regret.
Katie quickly pushed a key and sent the image away before that useless melancholy could take hold. She’d made her choices—and a relationship with Trent wasn’t one of them. She needed the brawny KCPD detective as a friend—Tyler needed him as a friend—more than she needed Trent to be a boyfriend or lover or even something more. She’d nearly ruined that friendship back in high school. She’d nearly ruined her entire life with the foolish impulses she’d succumbed to back then. She wasn’t going to make those mistakes again.
Katie pointed to the small brown-haired boy onstage. All her choices as an adult were based on whatever was best for her son. “It’s a school night for Tyler, too. So we need to head home.”
But Doug had seen the momentary trip down memory lane in her lengthy pause. He reached over the seat to tap the edge of the laptop. “Was that Tyler’s dad?”
The scent of gel or spray on his perfectly coiffed hair was a little overpowering as he brushed up beside her. Katie leaned to the far side of her seat to get some fresh air. “No. His father signed away his rights before Tyler was born. He’s not in the picture.”
She realized the tactical error as soon as the words left her mouth. Doug’s grin widened as if she’d just given him a green light to hit on her. She mentally scrambled to backtrack and flashed a red light instead.
Easy. She clicked the mouse pad and pulled up the screen saver again, letting Trent’s defensive-lineman shoulders and six feet five inches of height do their intimidation thing, even from a picture on a small screen. “This is Trent Dixon. He’s a friend. A good friend,” she emphasized, hoping Doug would interpret her longtime acquaintance with the boy who’d grown up across the street from her as a message that she wasn’t interested in returning his nightly flirtations. “He’s a cop. A KCPD detective.”
If Trent’s imposing size wasn’t intimidating enough, the gun and badge usually ensured just about anybody’s cooperation.
“I see. Maybe another time.” Doug was king of his own little company of community theater volunteers and apparently didn’t accept the word no from one of his lowly subjects. “I’ll at least see you at the cast party after opening night, right?”
For Tyler’s sake, she’d go and help her son celebrate his success—not because Doug kept asking her out. Katie lowered her head, brushing her thumb across the bottom of her keyboard, studying Trent’s image as plan B popped into her head. Trent was Tyler’s big buddy—the main male role model in her son’s life besides her uncle Dwight, who’d taken her in when he’d married Katie’s aunt Maddie nine years ago. Trent would be at the show’s opening night. She’d make sure to introduce the big guy to Doug and let the handsy director rethink his efforts to date her. Katie was smiling at her evil little plan when she looked up again. “Sure. All three of us will be there.”
“Doug?” Francis Sergel’s voice had risen to a whiny pitch. “Curtain call?”
“I’m coming.” The director waved off the middle-aged man with the beady dark eyes. “By the way, Tyler’s done a great job memorizing his lines—faster than the other kids, and he’s the youngest one.”
Katie recognized the flattery for what it was, another attempt to make a connection with her. But she couldn’t deny how proud she was of how her nine-year-old had taken to acting the way she once had. “Thanks. He’s worked really hard.”
“I can tell you’ve worked hard with him. He stays in character well, too.”
“Douglas. Tonight?” Francis pulled the black hood off his head, although his dark, bushy beard and mustache still concealed half his face. “I’d like to get out of this costume.”
“Coming.” Doug squeezed her shoulder again as he stood. “See you tomorrow night.” He clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention onstage and sidled out into the aisle. “All right, cast—I need everybody’s eyes right here.”
But Francis’s dark gaze held hers long enough to make her twitch uncomfortably in her seat. The man didn’t need the Grim Reaper mask she was making for him. With his skin pinched over his bony cheeks and his eyes refusing to blink, he already gave her the willies. When he finally looked away and joined the clump of actors gathering center stage, Katie released the breath she hadn’t known she’d been holding. What was that about?
Dismissing the man’s interest as some kind of censure for keeping the director from doing his job, Katie turned to Tyler and winked. She tilted her head to encourage him to pay attention to Doug before she dropped her focus back to the computer in her lap. Francis was a bit of a diva on the best of nights. If he had a problem with Doug trying to make time with her, she’d send the actor straight to the source of the problem—aka, not her.
Feeling the need to tune out Doug and Francis and the prospect of another late night, Katie turned back to her computer. Blocking the final bows and running them a few times would take several minutes, leaving her the opportunity to get a little work done and hopefully free up some time once she got home and put Tyler to bed.
With quick precision, she keyed in the password to access encrypted work files she’d been organizing for the police department—sometimes on the clock, sometimes in her own spare time. Katie had spent months scanning in unsolved case files and loading the data into the cross-referencing computer program she’d designed. Okay, so maybe her work as an information specialist with KCPD’s cold case squad wasn’t as exciting as the acting career she’d dreamed of before a teenage pregnancy and harrowing kidnapping plot to sell her unborn son in a black-market baby ring had altered her life plan. But it was a good, steady paycheck that allowed her to support herself and Tyler single-handedly.
Besides, the technical aspects of her work had never stopped Katie from thinking, imagining, creating. She loved the challenge of fitting together the pieces of a puzzle on an old unsolved case—not to mention the satisfaction of knowing she was doing something meaningful with her life. She hadn’t had the best start in the world—her abusive father had murdered her mother and been sent to prison. Helping the police catch bad guys went a long way toward redeeming herself for some of the foolish mistakes she’d made as an impulsive, grieving young woman trying to atone for her father’s terror. Working with computers and data was a job her beloved aunt Maddie and uncle Dwight, Kansas City’s district attorney, understood and respected. She would always be grateful to the two of them for rescuing her and Tyler and giving her a real home. Although she knew they would support her even if she had chosen to become an actress, this career choice was one way she could honor and thank them for taking her in and loving her like a daughter. Plus, even though he didn’t quite grasp the research and technical details of her job, Tyler thought her work was pretty cool. Hanging out with all those cops and helping them solve crimes put her on a tiny corner of the shelf beside his comic book and cartoon action heroes. Making her son proud was a gift she wouldn’t trade for any spotlight.
Katie sorted through the first file that came up, highlighting words such as the victim’s name, witnesses who’d been interviewed, suspect lists and evidence documentation and dropping them into the program that would match up any similarities between this unsolved murder and other crimes in the KCPD database. The tragic death of a homeless man back in the ’70s had few clues and fewer suspects, sadly, making it a quick case to read through and document. Others often took hours, or even days, to sort and categorize. But she figured LeRoy Byrd had been important to someone, and therefore, it was important to her to get his information out of a musty storage box and transferred into the database.
“There you go, LeRoy.” She patted his name on the screen. “It’s not much. Just know we’re still thinking about you and working on your case.”
She closed out his information and pulled up the next file, marked Gemma Gordon. Katie’s breath shuddered in her chest as she looked into the eyes of a teenage girl who’d been missing for ten years. “Not you, too.”
The temperature in the auditorium seemed to drop a good twenty degrees as memories of her own kidnapping nightmare surfaced. This girl was seventeen, the same age Katie had been when she’d gone off to find her missing friend, Whitney. Katie had found her friend, all right, but had become a prisoner herself, kept alive until she could give birth to Tyler and her kidnappers tried to sell him in a black-market adoption scheme. Thanks to her aunt and uncle, Tyler was saved and Katie had escaped with her life. But Whitney hadn’t been so lucky.
She touched her fingers to the young girl’s image on the screen and skimmed through her file. The similarities between the old Katie and this girl were frightening. Pregnant. Listed as a runaway. Katie had fought to save her child. Had Gemma Gordon? Had she even had a chance to fight? Katie had found a family with her aunt Maddie and uncle Dwight and survived. Was anyone missing this poor girl? According to the file, neither Gemma Gordon nor her baby had ever been found.
“You must have been terrified,” Katie whispered, feeling the grit of tears clogging her throat. She read on through the persons of interest interviewed in the initial investigation. “What.?” She swiped away the moisture that had spilled onto her cheek and read the list again. There was one similarity too many to her own night-mare—a name she’d hoped never to see again. “No. No, no.”
Katie’s fingers hovered above the keyboard. One click. A few seconds of unscrambling passwords and a lie about her clearance level and she could find out everything she wanted to about the name on the screen. She could find out what cell he was in at the state penitentiary, who his visitors were, if his name had turned up in conjunction with any other kidnappings or missing-person cases. With a few keystrokes she could know if the man with that name was enjoying a healthy existence or rotting away in prison the way she’d so often wished over the years.
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