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Private investigator Jason Wilder has the toughest boss in River City: It's his mother. She and her husband were legendary police detectives when Jason was growing up. Wild Bill Wilder has since died, and Mom is running the detective agency they had founded with a loving but definitely iron hand.
Working under Mom (also known by her staff as "Queen Victoria" and "Her Highness") is adventurous, no denying that. Jason's present assignment, to locate a missing businessman, leads to some unexpected surprises. He locates the man in a dreary motel, with orders to return him to his worried wife. Instead, the man shoots at him. Before he can recover from the attempt, he is surrounded by police, who punch him, handcuff him, and inform him that his subject is wanted for homicide. From there the case expands, plunging Jason into some twisted bypaths. Why are the members of the suspect's family (including his enchanting sister) fighting tooth and nail over a dilapidated movie house the sister is restoring? Why was the dead man's body found just outside it? Is there something hidden there---and what? With Jason doing the footwork and Mom supplying the know-how, they get dangerously close, and Mom is going to have to take a hand herself.
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Michael Siverling is a detective in real life. His real-life expertise, his brilliant characterization of Mom and her crew, and the low-key humor that spices the action make it clear why this debut mystery won the Best Private Eye Novel Contest. He lives in Sacramento, CA.
Sterling Inheritance, The
CHAPTER ONEI'd been waiting in the dark for hours.The room was in one of those innumerable pay-by-the-night-cash-up-front motels that litter the outskirts of River City. Judging by the traffic I could hear around me, it was the only room in the place not being treated to frequent visits by the working boys and girls with their anonymous clientele. At least the sounds of the performances that leaked through the too-thin walls helped keep me awake.I was telling myself for what seemed like the thousandth time that I was going to give it just fifteen minutes more before giving up and going home when I heard the door lock turning ever so quietly. My heart rate jumped. I stood up from the rickety chair and took two gliding steps to the wall. The door opened a couple of feet and my quarry slipped in, quickly closed it, and fumbled with the security latch before reaching for the light switch. I could barely see the man, but I could've located him with my eyes closed by the alcoholic aroma he exuded.I was happy to see that he was alone. Judging from the neighborhood he chose to hide out in, he could have had his choice of any number of boys, girls, or gender-indistinct persons for company. The fact that I caught him by himself was going to make my job a lot easier.The cheap, low-wattage lighting illuminated a man cloaked in a rain-slick black coat and hat. Before he turned completelyaround from the door, I said, "Mr. Sterling? I have a message for you."That turned out to be a mistake, judging by the way he yelled, spun around, and shoved a gun at me.Without a thought, I slid a step closer to him and my hands automatically made a scissoring motion designed to snatch the gun right out of his hands. I'd been trained for years for just such a moment as this, but no amount of preparation could brace me for my shock when the gun went off as it arced out of the man's hand. The explosion stunned and deafened me, and for a split second everything seemed to freeze, including my assailant's look of surprise. Then some kind of animal survival instinct took over and I slammed the heel of my hand into his pale, round face, bouncing the back of his head into the door and sending his hat flying. He slid down in slow motion to the floor and sprawled out on the ratty carpet.For a moment, all I could do was stare at him. Except that he was now bleeding from the nose and his gold-framed glasses were askew, he matched the photographs I'd been given, from the wispy, sparse light-colored hair to the thirty-one-year-old pudgy frame. But the Anthony Sterling I'd been sent to find was a local investment broker with absolutely no criminal background, which didn't quite mesh with the dissolute-looking--and -smelling--man who just pulled a gun on me.I glanced around the room and spotted the gun lying on the floor. It looked to be a full-size .45 automatic pistol. I scooped it up in my shaky hand and activated the magazine release, racked the slide, and ejected the last cartridge, just in time for Sterling to scramble up to his feet and bolt for the door. Dropping the gun onto the bed, I was on him in one fast step, slapping a neck nerve takedown on his shoulder that sent him down on his knees. I wrapped my free arm around his neck and suddenly knew what life on the rodeo circuit must be like.I was trying to figure out how I could keep a hold on my squirming, screaming opponent and get to my cell phone whenthere was a loud pounding on the flimsy door, followed by the shout, "River City PD! Open the door!""Can't!" I yelled back. "Come on in!"The cops didn't need a second invitation. The door instantly seemed to explode inward, unfortunately just when Sterling's struggles rolled my head into the door's flight path, knocking me right off Sterling and flopping me onto my back. There was a confused moment of shouting and foot stomping, and someone rolled me over onto my stomach and roughly pulled my arms painfully up my back. "Wait a minute! I can explain!" I said. "Sure, pal," a voice grumbled. "Everybody's got an explanation."I was quickly and professionally handcuffed and then yanked up to a sitting position from which I could see that the room had been invaded by a gang of plainclothes cops. In this case, plain clothes meant wardrobes that no self-respecting Hell's Angels would be seen in. I guessed that I was now in the midst of a team of River City narcotics officers, two of whom were still wrestling with Sterling, who hadn't given up the fight yet.I caught the eye of the oldest officer present, a grizzled, unshaven veteran in an old black trench coat that was dripping rainwater. He had the kind of face that, if you could read the lines carved into it, would probably tell you a very scary story. He was about to bring a police radio up to his lips when I said to him, "Like I said, I can explain. I'm with the Midnight Investigation Agency."The officer stopped, frowned, and said, "You're from what, now?""I'm a private detective," I explained.The officer made a face as if I had just confessed a particularly unpleasant perversion. I sighed and added, "My name's Jason Wilder. My ID is in my wallet. I'd show it to you, but ..." I shrugged and let my words trail off, indicating my inability."Uh-huh," the officer said as he nodded toward the bed. "And is that your gun?""No, sir. That's the gun that Anthony Sterling pulled on me tonight. He's the gentleman on the floor over there." Sterling was sporting a pair of handcuffs as well, lying facedown and sobbing uncontrollably. His hands, now that I got a good look at them, were both wrapped up in soiled bandages. The officer in charge rolled his eyes in disgust and called out, "Earl! Get Crying Boy out of here. And get those people away from my door!" I could see now that a small crowd had gathered in the hallway outside, chatting and pointing at us. In most places, all the excitement would draw a lot more people out of the woodwork, but in a place like this the clientele usually take pains to avoid the police. Not to mention that the sound of a shot was hardly a rare occurrence in this neighborhood.One of the other officers, a younger man with long brown hair and beard, dressed in street-person chic, took charge of Sterling, pulling him up to his feet and using him as a battering ram to get past the gawkers. "Look out! Coming through!" he called out as he hustled his prisoner down the hall. As Sterling was being propelled along, I heard him bleat, "You don't understand! They're going to kill me!"The senior policeman helped me over to the bed, fished out my wallet, and flipped it open. As the remaining officers dispersed the crowd and left for parts unknown, I became aware of the ringing in my ears from the gun blast of a few minutes ago. "Now, let's see here," the officer said, holding my ID out at arm's length to read it. "How do I know this is real?" he asked."You know Officer Morales?" I inquired."Eddie Morales?""No, Hector. He's a patrolman. Badge 1156. He can vouch for me, and he should be working tonight.""Really?" the officer said dubiously. He dug out a cell phone and punched in some numbers. "Yo, dispatch? This is Detective Sergeant Wentworth. Get me a hookup with Morales, badge 1156." The officer waited, not looking at me, then said, "Morales? This is Detective Sergeant Wentworth. Listen, I got a JasonWilder here says you know him." Sergeant Wentworth glanced from my ID to me and said, "He's five-eleven, 190 pounds, dark hair, green eyes." The sergeant suddenly grinned. "Is he ugly, you say?""Tell him I'm not as ugly as his cousin Maria that he tried to set me up with," I spoke up loudly."He says ... oh, you got that ... uh, huh ... but he's legitimate, right? Okay, thanks." Wentworth clicked off his phone. "Officer Morales says to tell you that as far as you being legitimate, he's met your mother and he's certain you're adopted. But he also said you're a real dick, whatever he meant by that."I shook my head, then regretted it because of the lancing pain my movement caused, the result of my collision with the door. "Okay, now that we got that cleared up, would you mind terribly?"Wentworth grinned again and said, "Turn around." A minute later I was free of the handcuffs and rubbing the circulation back into my chafed wrists. "Now, what the hell are you doing here, screwing up my nice little surveillance?" Wentworth asked."Working. My agency was hired by Anthony Sterling's wife to find him. All I knew was that he'd gone missing several days ago.""And he shot at you?""Well, maybe not," I admitted. "When he pulled the gun I did a two-hand gun take-away. Only the gun went off in the process.""Two-hand take-away? Where the hell did you learn to do a move like that?"I shrugged. "I was a student of Timmy O'Toole's."The sergeant's eyes popped wide. "Terrible Timmy? Used to be a cop?""The same. He works for the Midnight Agency now.""Wait a minute," Wentworth said slowly. "Wilder? You any relation to Bill Wilder?""My dad.""Well, I'll be damned," he said, grinning. "So you're Wild Bill's kid? I rode with your father back in the day." Wentworth'senthusiasm suddenly faded. "And I was damned sorry when he died. He was one of the best. So how come you're a private detective? I'da thought you'd be a cop, too.""Seemed too much like working for a living."That got a bark of a laugh out of Wentworth, then he said, "Aw, crap. Looks like I'll have to take some paper on this one." He sighed and pawed though his clothes, coming up with a pen and a small notebook. "Okay, from the top. What happened here tonight?"I tried to get my thoughts in order quickly, sensing I was still on dangerous ground. Sergeant Wentworth's opinion of me might have been tempered by the fact that he used to work with my father--which, if it didn't exactly make me a member of the cop family in his eyes, put me in the position of a not too distant cousin--but that wouldn't cover me on the little bit of breaking and entering I committed tonight to track down Anthony Sterling. I took a breath and launched into my story."Well, a couple days ago, Tony Sterling's wife came to the office and hired us to find her husband. She'd already tried to file a missing persons report with the police, and someone suggested to her that she give us a try, too."Wentworth nodded. "Go on.""Anyway, the background investigation we did didn't turn up anything unusual. He'd never been in any kind of trouble, never had any reason to just take off."Worthington grunted, glancing at the pistol on the bed.I continued. "Mrs. Sterling gave us Tony's bank and credit card information. We spotted a couple of charges on his card dated after his disappearance. One of those was for this room."Wentworth looked up from the notes he was scribbling. "Yeah. A lot of people get lost around here. Go on.""Well, I took up a spot in the parking lot here tonight, but it started raining. Also, it's kind of hard not to get noticed in a place like this. So I thought I'd better wait for him in his room."Sergeant Wentworth's pen stopped in midstroke. He shookhis head and said, "Let me get this straight. You broke into his room?""Well," I said as innocently as I could manage, "the door wasn't locked in any kind of serious way. Did I mention it was raining outside?""Just what," Wentworth said ominously, "did you intend to do with Sterling when you found him?""Nothing. Honest. All we were hired to do was locate him. I was just going to confirm that I'd found the right man and tell him his wife wanted him to come home, and then for all I cared he could have told me where to go and what to do with myself. And I really didn't expect him to pull a gun on me." I looked down at my still-shaking hands. My eyes followed the fresh furrow the bullet made in the cheap carpet and saw the pistol lying on the bed. The big gun sported a pair of grips that looked like ivory, which didn't make the thing any less ugly from where I sat. I heard myself murmur, "Scared the hell out of me."Wentworth made an almost sympathetic-sounding grunt as Officer Earl popped his head back in the door. "Hey, Sarge, you're gonna love this one, man.""What?""That dude we took out of here? We ran a warrant check on him.""Yeah? So?""Seems the guy is wanted for questioning.""What for?"Earl flashed a toothy grin as he announced, "One-eight-seven."Wentworth whistled loudly at the news, and I confess my heart jumped a beat. One-eight-seven is the California Penal Code's numeric designation for murder.THE STERLING INHERITANCE. Copyright © 2004 by Michael Siverling. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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