Crash and Burn

Moreno & Hart Mysteries
September 2013
Socal Press, LLC
ISBN-10: 0-989-72370-4
ISBN-13: 978-0-9897237-0-1

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Named one of the best books of 2013 by Suspense Magazine

New York Times bestselling and award winning authors Allison Brennan and Laura Griffin team up for this exciting new series featuring the unforgettable Southern California detective duo, Moreno & Hart.

Trial by Fire…

Three years ago LAPD Detective Scarlet Moreno and rookie cop Krista Hart were nearly killed during a botched sting operation. Now, they’re best friends and partners in the Orange County private investigation firm of Moreno & Hart. But their routine assignments are anything but safe …

Crash…

Scarlet Moreno has her hands full with a cheating spouse case when the bartender at her favorite pub becomes a murder suspect. Worse, the detective in charge of the investigation threatens to arrest Scarlet for obstruction—even when she tries to give him valuable information. Scarlet risks her PI license and her life to find out the truth, absolve her friend, and track down a killer—with or without the help of the arrogant, mysterious Detective Alex Bishop.

And Burn…

Krista Hart is burned out on catching deadbeat dads and philandering husbands when a big-time criminal defense attorney hires her for a choice assignment: find the sole witness to murder the day before the trial. The case could be a boon for Moreno & Hart, but the witness is in hiding, someone is following Krista, and her own client is withholding information. The last person she wants help from is sexy investigator R.J. Flynn, but he claims he’s willing to share intel—for a price. If she can solve this case, it’ll elevate Moreno & Hart above being divorce voyeurs, but first she has to survive, with her life and heart intact.

Reviewers Say...

"Two gripping stories told by a pair of amazing talents merge into one fantastic book ... Impossible to put down."
—Suspense Magazine

"If you enjoy strong women, fascinating men, and mysterious cases – then you don’t want to miss CRASH AND BURN."
—Heroes & Heartbreakers

"Be prepared to take a RIDE and you might want to hold on tight!"
—A Tasty Read

"A fun, quick, exciting read that will keep you up late turning pages."
—RT Book Reviews


Read an Excerpt

Of all the no-tell motels in Orange County, Brad Stark had picked the dumpiest one. Why? Krista didn’t know. Stark had plenty of money. Or rather, his wife did, and Stark had plenty of access to it.

So the crappy motel baffled her. The Palm sat on a wedge-shaped patch of asphalt just off the Santa Ana Freeway, under a permanent cloud of road dust and hydrocarbons. Flanked by a used furniture store and sex shop, the place was a touch on the sleazy side—and not in a good way.

The only thing it had going for it besides hourly rates was the Salvadoran food stand across the street. Krista sat there now, munching a pork tamale and waiting for her mark.

She’d been tailing her client’s husband for three days, and something told her he was onto her. Just a feeling, but her feelings had saved her ass more than a few times, so she’d learned to listen to them. This morning she’d switched tactics and started tailing the presumed girlfriend.

As of an hour ago, Krista hadn’t been one-hundred percent sure about the girlfriend, a blond yoga instructor who worked at Stark’s gym. But when the woman swung her adorable yellow Mini into the Palm’s parking lot and pulled in beside a familiar silver Lexus, Krista got her confirmation. Now she just had to get her money shot and write up her report.

Krista checked her watch and sighed. Domestic cases were her least favorite, which made it all the more ironic that the PI firm of Moreno & Hart was known for them. They hadn’t intended on the specialty, but they’d taken a few suspicious-wife jobs when they were first starting out and one thing led to another. Now domestic work was fifty percent of their business, which was nothing to take for granted. They were good at it, too, but Krista dreamed of the day when she could quit chasing dickheads and do some investigating that more closely resembled police work. Like working for a defense attorney. Or better yet—the D.A.’s office. Those jobs paid well and didn’t usually entail spying on people’s sexcapades.

Krista inhaled a lungful of car exhaust and slurped her Diet Coke. It was nice to dream, but for now she had a shot to get before she could go home to kick off her shoes, empty her bladder, and pop open a beer.

She checked her Nikon again to make sure everything was ready. Photo ops were fleeting, and she didn’t like to miss them, especially for a client like Diane Stark.

Diane was the typical woman who hired Moreno & Hart. She was smart, accomplished, and deep in denial about her husband’s activities. Clients like Diane needed pictures—and not just of cars and license plates. She needed action shots. Hence, Krista had set herself up in the perfect location, as far away from the motel as she could get and still take a decent picture. Setting up too tight was a good way to get burned.

The phone rattled on the picnic table beside her and Krista read the text. Are you on him? Obviously, hubs had cooked up some lame excuse as to why he wasn’t home at ten o’clock on a Monday. She pictured Diane in her posh Laguna Beach condo, sipping wine and staring out the window. Krista’s heart went out to the woman, but she ignored the message. She’d learned long ago never to tell a client her husband’s exact whereabouts until after the fact. Hell hath no fury like a woman dropped for Yoga Barbie.

“Come on,” she muttered, staring across the street at room 125. They couldn’t take all night.

Or maybe they could. Krista loathed Viagra.

At last the door swung back and Stark stepped out. He had his collar unbuttoned and his sport coat draped over his arm. He cast a furtive look around, guilty as hell, before stepping onto the sidewalk and closing the door behind him.

At thirty-five, Stark still had the juiced up look of an aspiring actor. Krista hated actors after having been married to one for five minutes during her early twenties. But even though Stark still looked the part, he’d years ago abandoned showbiz to sell Lexuses at a dealership owned by his wife’s family. He was pretty good at it when he wasn’t busy running around.

Krista watched him now. Where was Blondie? Stark popped the locks on his car and tossed his coat in the back. More sideways glances and then he bent down and retrieved something from the backseat. A gym bag. He rooted around in the duffle for a moment, then tucked something into his pocket.

Krista eyed the door again. A cold knot formed in her stomach. Where was the woman?

Stark started back for the door as she emerged. Krista readied her camera. Stark pulled her in for a kiss and squeezed her butt as Krista snapped the shot. Perfect. She lowered the Nikon.

And then it happened. Eye contact.

Damn. Krista looked away and lifted her phone to her ear. From the corner of her eye she studied her camera, hidden behind her black nylon backpack on the table. A lot of women carried backpacks. Nothing suspicious. She just hoped her ball cap concealed her face as she gazed at the freeway and carried on a fake conversation.

When she finally hazarded a glance at the motel, both the Lexus and the Mini were exiting the lot. They turned onto the feeder and joined the river of taillights flowing toward the freeway.

Krista breathed a sigh of relief and checked her watch. She took out her phone and tapped in a few case notes that would later become part of her report. Then she collected her gear and gave up her table to a trio of twenty-somethings in artfully ripped clothing. Krista circled the weathered wooden building and crossed the parking lot to her dinged white Impala.

She pulled open the door. A hand clamped over hers, and Brad Stark’s mottled red face loomed over her.

“Gimme the camera.”

Excuse me?” She jerked her hand away, and he gripped her arm.

“Hand it over.” His voice was low, almost a snarl. His gray eyes were narrow and angry, and Krista’s heart stuttered.

“Look, I don’t know who you are, but—hey!”

He reached around her with both arms and grabbed for her backpack.

“Hands off, pervert!”

Krista packed a loaded Ruger but whipping it out would attract attention and maybe even the police. Instead she ducked out of his grasp and popped up with a jab to his solar plexus. He stumbled back, shocked.

She shifted into her tae kwon do fighting stance. “Back off, I’m warning you.”

Instead, he charged her. She did a quick jab to the face, followed by a reverse punch in the ribs that sent him tripping backwards.

He came at her again, face flushed. She sidestepped him and pivoted into a sidekick that put him on his knees, howling. He grabbed for her and she responded with a powerful down block before backing away.

Krista pulled out her phone as he struggled to his feet. “Get near me again, and I’m calling the cops.”

The muscle in his jaw twitched, and he looked about ready to tear her head off. He eyed the phone in her hand. Krista’s pulse roared in her ears as the seconds ticked by.

Stark hawked up a ball of phlegm and spit at her feet, then he turned and hobbled away. She watched him round the corner of the building and returned to her car, ignoring the stunned stares from people in the parking lot.

Krista slid behind the wheel, locked the doors, and let out a breath. The confrontation had left her sweaty and rattled. She wiped her palms on her jeans and waited for her heart rate return to normal. She’d seen homicidal rage before and it looked a lot like Brad Stark.

How the hell had he gotten the drop on her? It was bad. Embarrassing, even. And it would have to be reported to the client.

The car choked and sputtered as she started it up and steered out of the parking lot. She thought about the look in Stark’s eyes. She should consider herself lucky. He outweighed her by sixty pounds and he’d been highly motivated, and still she’d walked away unharmed.

With the exception of her bruised ego.

# #

Moreno & Hart occupied one-fourth of a Spanish-style building six blocks from the county courthouse. She and Scarlet had picked the location in hopes of crossing paths with a steady stream of attorneys, which would naturally lead to some business. Three years later the cases hadn’t magically materialized, but they’d grown used to the neighborhood. What it lacked in glamour, it made up for in location. They were just a stone’s throw away from the 405 and only a short commute from Krista’s house in Huntington Beach and Scarlet’s apartment in Newport.

The morning was balmy, and Krista drove to work with the windows down, enjoying the smog-banishing breeze off the Pacific. She checked her mirrors all the way in, out of habit and also out of concern over the look she’d seen on Brad Stark’s face last night. She doubted he’d had the presence of mind to copy down her plate, but it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out who she was, especially if his wife had left any info sitting around. When she was satisfied she didn’t have a tail, she pulled up to the office and swung into the tiny lot beside the building. A white Lexus convertible occupied a meter less than a block away, and Krista wasn’t surprised to see Diane Stark standing beside one of the jacaranda trees flanking the door.

“Good morning,” Diane said as Krista approached the stucco building.

“Morning.” She pulled open the carved wooden door and motioned for her client to go in first.

“I take it you bumped into Brad last night?” Diane’s tone was chipper, but Krista could tell from her makeup that she’d been up all night, possibly crying.

“He mentioned it?”

“He was limping when he left for work.”

Diane followed her through the Saltillo tile lobby and up a flight of stairs to another pair of wooden doors. Krista didn’t bother with a key because she’d spotted Mac’s dinged Hyundai outside.

She ushered Diane into the office, where her erstwhile assistant sat at a computer, deep into a game of Settlers of Catan. Mac had officially left the agency after starting grad school in Fullerton, but he still showed up about once a week to wade through their computer work and earn a little extra cash.

“Coffee?” Krista asked Diane, glancing at their shiny new machine.

“No.”

She was relieved. Scarlet had brought the thing in, but Krista could never get it to work.

She led her client into her cluttered office and moved a stack of files off a chair so she could sit down, but Diane walked over to the window and stood stiffly with her arms crossed. She wore a red St. John suit and matching Louboutin pumps. She’d probably chosen a power color because she felt fragile today.

Diane turned to her. “So what happened?”

She was a straight-to-the-point client, and Krista liked her for it.

“He noticed me outside the motel. Tried to take my camera.”

She flinched at the word motel. Women like Diane Stark didn’t frequent motels. The St. Regis was more her scene.

Diane shifted on her feet. “You have pictures?”

Krista sat down and booted up her computer. She’d emailed herself the report just this morning, anticipating this meeting, although she hadn’t expected to be having it at 9:03. She sent the report to the printer and looked at her client.

“Her name’s Alexa Arnold.”

Diane’s breath whooshed out. “God, she sounds like a stripper.”

Krista pulled the report off the printer, and it smelled like toner. The photos were embedded in the text on page two. Diane immediately flipped to them and looked like she’d bitten into a lemon.

“She’s a yoga instructor at your husband’s health club.”

Krista straightened some papers on her desk, giving Diane time to digest things. Her face paled as she flipped through the pages and the inescapable truth hit her.

Krista’s phone bleated, the sound echoing through the outer office where an extension sat on the reception desk. She ignored the call out of respect for the moment.

How many times had she watched that last flicker of hope fade from someone’s eyes? People were so good at kidding themselves, at spinning reality into something better than it was. When Diane had first come to her, she’d had a “funny feeling” something was off about her marriage. But it was way more than that. It always was. People picked up on things, both women and men. They noticed the trips to the gym, the lost pounds, the sudden fondness for cologne, the odd stretches of time when someone didn’t answer the phone. So often the signs were everywhere, but women in particular were adept at explaining them away. Krista had had clients who were being treated for STDs and still couldn’t believe that their spouses were running around.

That’s what pictures were for. They cured denial. They provided Krista’s clients with irrefutable proof, which in turn gave them some emotional high ground. It was the one redeeming aspect to domestic work—Krista gave people a leg to stand on when they got in front of a judge to talk about spousal and child support.

“A yoga instructor.” Diane pursed her lips and flipped the pages. “That explains a lot.” She met Krista’s gaze and her eyes glistened. “I take it I can count on your discretion?”

“Of course.”

Which meant she didn’t know what she planned to do yet, and she didn’t want her dirty laundry aired in public. Krista didn’t, either. One of her the most valuable PI skills was knowing how to find secrets and how to keep them.

“This is good work.” Diane’s voice was all business now as she folded the report and tucked it into her purse. She reached out and gave Krista a firm handshake. “I’ll be looking for your invoice.”

“Let me know if there’s anything else you need.”

Krista ushered Diane out. The phone started bleating again, and she cast a glance at Mac, still riveted to his game. As soon as the door whisked shut, she lunged for the desk.

“Thing’s been ringing all morning,” Mac grumbled.

“Moreno and Hart,” Krista said, glaring at him.

“Krista Hart, please.” It was a woman’s voice, and Krista tried to place it.

“Speaking.”

“Please hold for Drake Walker.”

Krista clutched the phone, speechless. She couldn’t have moved if she’d wanted to.

“Ms. Hart?” Walker’s gruff baritone came over the line. “Glad I caught you.”

The voice was strong and laced with authority. It could be used to blast someone’s credibility on the witness stand or to sweet-talk jurors—whichever the situation called for. Right now it sounded charming, and Krista was instantly suspicious.

“How can I help you?” she asked.

“I need a locate.”

She didn’t respond. Drake “Get-a-Walk” Walker, by far the slimiest and most successful criminal defense attorney in Orange County, wanted to hire her.

She cleared her throat. “A witness, I assume?”

“Lily Daniels. Twenty-two. She’s supposed to take the stand tomorrow afternoon.”

“She move? Skip town?”

Low laughter. “That’s your job. You want the case or not?”

“That depends.” She tried to keep her voice cool. “How much does it pay?”

“A thousand a day, expenses included.”

Krista’s heart lurched. She leaned back against the desk. Mac paused his game of Catan and squinted up at her through his wire-rimmed glasses.

“Fifteen hundred,” she said, and felt a shot of panic that she’d overplayed her hand.

More laughter. “Business is good, huh? You girls are getting pricey. Tell you what, a grand a day, plus a five-K bonus if you find her by noon tomorrow. After that, she’s not much good to me.”

“Done.” Holy crap. Six thousand dollars for probably half a day’s work. There had to be a catch.

“Missy’s faxing over the wit sheet now.”

“Fine. I’ll send over my contract.”

“Let’s not waste time with all that,” he said amicably. “We’ll call it a gentleman’s agreement.”

She managed not to snort. “You call it what you like. I’m sending my contract.”

 

Copyright © 2014 Laura Griffin

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Amazon
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Also now available in audio!
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