by Jenna Rae
Kate Hollister has worked hard to build the life she always wanted. As an analyst in a federal law enforcement agency, she’s become an expert in researching crime and criminal behavior. From the safety of her cubicle, it all seems predictable and manageable. But after her latest heartbreak, Kate looks for a way to escape the confines of her sedate, comfortable life and jumps at a chance to work in the field.
Kate goes undercover as Kate Sooner in Lawless, a remote mountain town in northern California. In a run-down trailer park on the outskirts of town, Kate works to infiltrate a small-time drug ring purportedly run by her new neighbor, Stoney Randall. Though she doubts the value of pursuing such a minor criminal, Kate befriends Stoney’s girlfriend Sierra Finn and her best friend Maggie Herndon.
Kate soon finds that Lawless more than lives up to its name. Everywhere she turns she finds drugs, stolen goods, creepy criminals, mysterious animal disappearances, and the overwhelming odor of marijuana. Turns out the crime behind the data she manipulated so easily in the office is a lot more complicated—now that she’s right smack in the middle of it.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"I’ve always wished for a crystal ball to help me decide when a risk was worth taking. Like everyone else, though, I have to weigh potential outcomes and hope for the best. Kate’s story was born out of my own ongoing struggle to take risks without regrets or second-guessing. She takes a series of big risks and grows from the experience. I like to think she’s taught me to do the same."
“I didn’t know the ho convention was in town.”
“Sierra, oh my God! She’ll hear you!”
Kate glanced to her right to see who Sierra Finn and her best friend Maggie Herndon were giggling about. She watched as they stared openmouthed at the spectacle of Mayor Grimsby’s new wife, Cherry, parading toward them down Main Street in a black polyester dress so short and tight it could have been mistaken for a bathing suit. Her black platform pumps smacked the sidewalk in front of the town’s old-fashioned drugstore, The Soda Counter.
“Is that the worst spray tan you’ve ever seen, or what?” Sierra’s fuchsia-tinted lips twisted in a sneer. “And her hair! The good Lord never made a color that tacky.”
Kate kept her countenance blank, though she agreed that over bleaching had clearly ruined Cherry Grimsby’s crackling tresses. At the same time, Sierra’s masses of curls were dyed an ostentatious auburn no scalp had ever voluntarily sprouted, and Maggie’s sedate low braid was tinted a flattering but definitely unnatural hue of midnight blue. In the northern California mountain town of Lawless, Sierra and Maggie apparently considered themselves the height of stylish edginess while platinum-blond newcomer Cherry Grimsby was just beyond the fashion pale.
Kate caught a glimpse of her own reflection in the window of a passing semi. Cheap dye had stained her shoulder-length mop a brassy brown that was somehow both gaudy and mousy. Along with her wan complexion, boyish figure, and dowdy outfit, Kate’s unappealing hair rendered her nearly invisible. She’d been playing it safe, hoping her nonthreatening presentation would make her more disarming. All it had done so far was allow the subjects of her investigation to ignore her.
Kate edged closer to the women, stiff with frustration over her week-long failure to infiltrate the Lawless drug ring purportedly run by Sierra’s boyfriend, Stoney Randall. She couldn’t pass up today’s chance to get close to Stoney Randall’s lover. She took another sideways step toward Sierra and Maggie.
“Maybe she’s just a little more fashion-forward than we are,” said Maggie with a sideways glance at Kate.
Sierra rolled her eyes. “Nobody dresses like that but hoochies, Mags, and you know it. Besides, that woman is just plain nasty, inside and out.”
Kate jumped into their conversation. “Is she really that bad?”
Sierra stared up at Kate with a frown. “Worse.”
By then Cherry Grimsby was within earshot. Kate watched the young blonde’s green eyes narrow and her bright red lips twist in a sneer not unlike Sierra’s. Kate heard spaghetti Western showdown music in her head and fought a smile.
“Well, look what we have here. The ho patrol,” Cherry drawled with an apparent lack of ironic awareness.
Kate watched Maggie step out of the way at the same moment Sierra’s fists bunched and her stance widened. Having already seen the diminutive beauty launch into a wild physical attack on an obnoxious neighbor, Kate decided to forestall any potential violence. If Sierra was in jail, Kate couldn’t get close to her. She stepped between Sierra and Cherry and pulled out her best finishing-school smile.
“Good morning, Mrs. Grimsby. My name is Kate Sooner. Please forgive my forwardness, but I moved to Lawless just last week, and I’ve been meaning to introduce myself.”
Sierra and Maggie both gawked at Kate. A few passersby stopped as though a street performer had started tuning up a guitar.
The mayor’s bride put out her hands as if warding off unseen demons. “Oh, you don’t fool me, honey. I know you’re with those crazy-ass bitches.”
Kate offered her most innocent look of bewilderment and saw a few more pedestrians had paused to watch. There was now a circle of spectators around the four women.
“Don’t even try to play games, skank. Step away or I’ll call the cops.”
“And here I was hoping you and I could be friends. Maybe I should try introducing myself to your husband instead.” Kate smiled even more sweetly. “I hear he’s much friendlier than you.”
“Don’t you dare talk to him, you slut!”
“I guess I’ll just have to try to restrain myself.” Kate held up her hands in surrender. She allowed herself a small smirk, and most of the clustering bystanders grinned. From what little she’d seen of the mayor, he was short, round, and utterly average, despite a glorious head of thick, wavy brown hair.
Kate almost felt sorry for the young woman before her. She was so underweight that her bones stuck out. She wore a heavy layer of pancake makeup that aged her skin, and her overprocessed hair looked like ivory straw. She’d have been pretty, if she’d just let her natural good looks shine through. Cherry Grimsby was a victim of gendered expectations and she’d sold her youth to a small-time politician in the middle of nowhere—for what? A ranch home and a white Lexus?
But Kate had a job to do, and she mustered her most mean-spirited self to do it. “By the way, Mrs. Grimsby, I love your shoes. Even if they are knock-offs.”
“What?” Leaning down to roughly wrench a stiletto off her foot, Cherry glared at Kate and held the shoe in front of her like a talisman. “These are the real deal, trailer trash. I can tell you don’t know any better, what with your Walmart rags, but these here are Louboutins, and they cost a thousand bucks!”
Kate whistled softly and shook her head as if in wonder. The small crowd of townspeople had edged closer and each face reflected a mixture of amusement and curiosity. Like Kate, nearly all of them were wearing cheap jeans and T-shirts with either boots or sneakers. Like Kate, nearly all of them looked at Cherry Grimsby as if she might have escaped from a cut-rate reality show. The mayor’s new wife wasn’t making any friends with her gauche snobbery, and Kate knew it even if Mrs. Grimsby didn’t.
Absently, Kate noted that every single face she’d seen in Lawless so far was white. She blinked before she spoke again, wondering if this was an important feature of the town and her investigation.
“I’m sorry to tell you, Mrs. Mayor, but those are not Louboutins. You got ripped off. See the red on the bottom there? It’s the wrong shade.”
Cherry Grimsby gasped, stomping her bare foot and then wincing. “Like hell, it is! Anyways, what would you know about it?”
Thinking quickly, Kate retorted in a sharper tone, “Have you considered learning to read? There was a big article about fake Louboutins in that magazine, Inside Glamour, or whatever it is. I read it in line at the Dash and Dine last week.” Kate pointed up the street at the town’s only full-service grocery store, and more than one head turned as if to verify the existence of the supermarket.
“Oh, please, spare me. There’s no way anyone in this backwater town knows a single thing about fashion, least of all you. And that stupid magazine doesn’t know diddly either.”
Kate held out her thumb and forefinger in a measuring gesture. “Plus, the heels on your knockoffs are about a quarter-inch too high. That’s why your toes are all swollen and red and hurt so much. That magazine said the angle of the fakes puts too much pressure on the front of your foot. See for yourself. Those poor toes of yours look like boiled baby hot dogs.”
A dozen pairs of eyes swiveled down to the Cherry Grimsby’s bare, ravaged foot.
“Well, she’s right, isn’t she? Those little toes are all red and swolled up!” Elderly Mrs. Whittaker, head of the Lawless Ladies Brigade, spoke at a volume about twenty decibels higher than did most people in regular conversation, and about forty decibels higher when she was surprised. Kate flinched at the noise level and noticed several others doing so as well.
Sierra laughed loudly. “They are!”
Maggie pointed, her gesture an echo of Kate’s. “She’s right!”
Sierra confided in a loud mock-whisper, “I bet that’s why she’s such a bitch. Her feet must be killing her.”
“I think I remember that story,” put in Mrs. Whittaker in an eardrum-shattering holler. “She’s right! They had a picture and everything!”
Kate nodded at the octogenarian and was relieved to see others following suit. Though there had been no such article in any such magazine, the old woman’s corroboration made Kate’s lie more credible. By suppertime at least a dozen people would remember seeing the magazine in line at the grocery store and would cluck their tongues over the gullible wastrel their mayor had married.
“I hope that wasn’t Lawless money you wasted on your fake shoes, Mrs. Mayor,” growled Jed Fontaine, who’d run for office against Grimsby the year before and lost. He ran his stubby fingers through his thinning salt-and-pepper curls. “We don’t want to pay for the real thing, much less a knockoff.”
Mrs. Grimsby squealed in frustration. “These are not fakes! And of course it wasn’t this crappy backwater town’s money!”
There was a collective gasp and Kate smirked at Sierra and Maggie. Her mission’s success depended on her making connections with the right people, and she thought going after the unpopular newcomer might have helped her forge a link with her targets more effectively than anything else she’d tried. She’d been here seven days already and dreaded facing the end of September with nothing to show for her efforts.
Kate had a moment’s guilt for her lie and for humiliating the witless woman. She squelched it with thoughts of her real life back in Virginia, where a neat row of her favorite shoes sat in her overstuffed walk-in closet. The value of her entire shoe wardrobe was less than that of a single pair of the heels she was maligning. Kate had worked hard her whole life and had to watch her budget, while this mayor’s new bride strutted around toting a six-hundred-dollar purse and thousand-dollar stilettos. Resentment surged in her empty belly and subsumed her conscience, and she gazed serenely at Cherry Grimsby’s splotchy face.
“Can you believe this girl?” Mrs. Whittaker’s teased lavender curls fairly vibrated with outrage, and her voice rose with her ire. Kate took a small sidestep away from the older woman and noticed Sierra and Maggie exchanging amused grins.
“Why am I even talking to you idiots? Just you wait, I’m gonna tell Bobby about this!” With that, Cherry crammed her swollen foot into her undersized pump and stomped back to her white Lexus. The tires squealed in protest as she yanked the wheel and raced away.
At her departure the small crowd melted away. Kate fought a smile until Sierra rushed over to smack her on the arm in what was apparently an affectionate gesture.
“That was beautiful!”
Kate half-smiled. “Not too mean, you don’t think?”
“Are you kidding me? That woman is a grade-A bitch, and you put her right in her place!”
Sierra’s gleeful smile was infectious, and Kate let herself enjoy the moment. Until now, Sierra had coolly rebuffed Kate’s efforts to befriend her.
“I’ve seen you around before,” Sierra asserted, narrowing her eyes. “You moved into Mikey’s old place, right?”
Kate shrugged. “It was empty when I got there. Mikey a friend of yours?”
“He was okay. Kind of a pig.”
“You’re Sierra? And Maggie? I’ve seen you both around too.”
“Yeah, you’re next to me and Stoney. Maggie lives right across the way, next to that weird old guy.”
“Mr. Greeley? How old is he, a hundred? And how come he never wears any actual pants?”
Maggie shuddered. “He’s so gross. I think he knows those boxers don’t hide everything.”
“Duh, he’s a perv!” Sierra made a gagging sound. “I wish somebody would just shoot him and put us all outta his misery.”
“We were just going to the Redwood. Join us for lunch?” Maggie’s warm smile made Kate grin.
“Love to. I’m starving.”
“Man, you made my whole fuckin’ day,” Sierra enthused. “I hate that fake-ass bitch. If she keeps looking down her nose at me, I’ll break it for her. Do you know she’s only been here three weeks and she’s already trying to act like she runs this town? She’s in that cop shop every five minutes trying to get somebody busted. Thinks she’s the queen of Lawless.”
As Sierra continued her tirade, the trio meandered down Main Street toward the Redwood Café. Kate kept her manner casual and her breathing easy. After less than a year of working various short-term undercover jobs, she felt like an analyst pretending to be a field agent pretending to be Kate Sooner.
“Were you telling the truth? Are her shoes really fake?”
Kate shot Maggie a wicked smile. “Who knows? She was right. Look at me. I don’t know anything about fashion.”
The three cackled as they entered the popular Main Street burger joint. Within seconds they were seated at one of Redwood Café’s four booths along the north wall and were examining red plastic menus. Kate looked around. The vinyl booths were Pepto Bismol pink with red tabletops, the walls were painted an eye-searing mint green, and the floor’s black linoleum had faded to mottled gray. Scattered around the small space were a half-dozen bright red tables surrounded by dark purple chairs. The café looked like it had been dipped in a vat of melted prom dresses and left to dry in the sun for a couple of years. She looked across the table at Maggie, who was picking a cuticle and watching her.
“It’s high noon on Monday,” she noted, shrugging in Maggie’s direction. “Why isn’t this place packed?”
“End of the month.” Maggie made a face. “People have run out of money by now. The jobs went away years ago, and now half the town is living off government checks. The other half… Well, you can imagine.”
Kate grunted. She couldn’t help but wonder how many people turned to crime because they couldn’t find legitimate work.
Sierra tapped on the table with her menu as if to close the subject. “Well, it is what it is.”
Kate nodded and followed the cue, smiling brightly. “So, what’s good here?”
“Ohmygod, girlfriend, are you a Redwood virgin?” Sierra’s playful smile was accompanied by a hard pinch to Kate’s arm.
Kate rolled her eyes and resisted the urge to punch Sierra in the throat. “Well, I only moved here a few weeks ago, and I don’t really have any friends yet. I know it’s silly,” she confided, leaning forward and lowering her voice, “but I don’t like going to restaurants alone.”
“Me either,” gushed Maggie. “I feel really self-conscious.” She blushed, her pale skin pinking from her chest to her forehead.
“Not me,” claimed Sierra. “I’m not afraid of anything.”
“It’s true, she’s not,” declared her best friend. “What else haven’t you done since you moved here?”
“Well, I don’t know. What should I do? Where should I go?”
Maggie ticked off on her fingers. “Every place on Main Street. Everything’s been here forever. Some places closed, but you already know that, I guess. There really isn’t much else. Swim in the river. We can show you where the prettiest places are. Unless you have someone else to show you.”
Kate shook her head.
“That’s pretty much it. Main Street is all there is. I know it’s hokie, but that’s all we have.”
Sierra jumped in. “Girlfriend, eat a tamale from the truck in front of Bob’s. They’re the best. Everyone goes there and they’re cheap too. The truckers empty the truck every afternoon, so beat the crowd if you can. Oh, and get a milkshake from The Soda Counter.”
“Truckers? Like, driving cargo trucks? Or like construction-type trucks?”
Sierra shrugged. “Who cares? Cargo, I guess. The important thing is the tamales. Seriously.”
“Tamales from the truck and milkshakes from The Soda Counter, huh?”
“Definitely.” Maggie smiled. “The ones here are pretty good, but they’re amazing over there. Expensive, though.”
“But worth it,” said Sierra. “Seriously. If you don’t like their milkshakes, we can’t be friends. I mean it.”
Kate smiled at the younger woman’s bluster.
“Hey, hold on, gimme your phone.”
Kate handed it over and watched Sierra pull up the texting app. She was glad now that she’d taken the time to set up a fake texting history with Crystal and Jared. Sierra texted herself and Maggie and handed the phone back.
“There. Now we all have each other’s numbers.”
“Cool. Have you two been friends for long?”
Sierra reached up to twist her voluminous auburn curls into a loose knot at the top of her head and snapped a wide clip around it. “Maggie started here in the tenth grade, and we were both total outcasts. The teachers didn’t give a shit when we got bullied, so we had to stand up for ourselves. We stuck together then, and we still stick together. Always will.”
Maggie nodded, her eyes wide and damp, and Kate held her gaze, surprised at the pulse of attraction that ran through her. Maggie was at least five-ten and blessed with generous curves she probably hated. She wore faded black jeans, broken-in black Reeboks, and a black Hello Kitty T-shirt.
She looked like a living doll, with her perfect bone structure and flawless skin. Her pretty features, including beautiful dark eyes, were untainted by makeup. The contrast between her light skin, dark eyes and hair were striking.
She had looked exactly the same every day for the week Kate had been watching. The only thing that changed was which black Hello Kitty shirt she wore on a given day. She was graceful and quiet and radiated calm intelligence. She was exactly the sort of woman Kate had always been attracted to. Other than her fair skin and casual wardrobe, she looked like Kate’s ex-girlfriend, Gail.
At that thought, Kate took a deep breath to steady herself. She’d squandered her relationship with Gail, she knew, by taking the smart, beautiful woman for granted. She’d been so focused on her career that she’d assumed Gail would be around when she finally decided to get serious about their relationship.
“I’m like a sex doll you think you can store in the closet and pull out when you want something,” Gail had said as a parting shot the last time they broke up.
Kate hadn’t even argued. She’d already decided at that point to go into fieldwork and told herself it was better to do so without a girlfriend. But seeing Maggie reminded her of Gail, and by her third day in residence at the trailer park, Kate had reminded herself that her cover was a straight girl who would not stare longingly at the anime-inspired beauty she monitored every day.
To redirect herself yet again, she recalled a college seminar on sartorial social markers and the disguising nature of self-imposed uniforms. Maggie was trying and failing to make herself invisible, and this only served to draw Kate’s eye even more. Don’t stare at her. She’s the subject of your investigation, not the object of your desire. It helped that Maggie’s personality was quieter than Gail’s. Gail was often quiet, like Maggie, but she was also fierce in a way this more washed-out California version of her didn’t seem to be. It was Gail who’d elicited from Kate the frustrations inherent in being a woman in a federal agency, Gail who’d asked why Kate didn’t fight for more autonomy and visibility.
“You teach people how to treat you,” she’d insisted, her dark eyes flashing. “And you’re teaching them you don’t deserve to be respected or valued.”
Kate had snapped back something sharp, she recalled, feeling defensive because as usual Gail was right. Now she wondered why she’d been so resistant to Gail’s message. It had often felt like Gail was trying to change her, trying to remake her into some new person who didn’t have Kate’s insecurities and fears.
It was Gail who wanted to move in together and Kate who refused to do so. It was Gail who wanted to get married and Kate who insisted they weren’t ready. And it was Gail who finally walked out without a backward glance on their third anniversary, after Kate gave her a fitness watch instead of an engagement ring. If I’d been willing to move the relationship forward, I probably wouldn’t be here. She dragged her thoughts into the present, eager to leave behind her frustrations over that unfulfilled relationship.
Thin, wiry Sierra stood just over five feet in her battered Doc Martens, and her brown eyes glittered with barely contained intensity. She wore enough makeup for two showgirls, most of it sparkly and either fuchsia or cobalt blue. She seemed to own an endless array of colorful low-cut Ts and skintight jeans, though at home in the trailer park she traded her black ankle boots for leopard-printed Uggs.
Sierra’s wardrobe was another kind of uniform. She dressed like every other young woman in the trailer park and most of the young women in Lawless and its surrounds. If a hunter wore camouflage in the woods to disappear into the scenery, wasn’t a grown woman dressing in the uniform of working-class teens another way of disappearing?
The thought gave Kate pause. Sierra did look more like a high school sophomore than a woman in her mid-twenties. Maggie looked even younger.
Kate realized they’d probably sported the same looks for the last decade. Those black boots Sierra wore could well be her first pair, bought when she was still in high school. The two friends were like actors in a play about prolonged adolescence, and Kate wondered how much of their costuming and posturing was real and how much for show. She realized how absurd it was for an undercover agent to speculate on the falseness of her subjects’ presentation and exhaled to clear her mind.
Tuning in to the end of a story of mutual loyalty between her two subjects, she said, “A true friend is a real treasure.”
“Amen, girlfriend.” Sierra snapped her fingers over Kate’s shoulder, presumably to summon the server. “You work?”
Kate shrugged. “Sorta. I input stuff in the computer. You know, like transcribing.”
Sierra narrowed her eyes. “Sounds hella boring. Does it pay good?”
“It is hella boring, and it definitely does not pay good.” She shrugged again. “But I couldn’t find anything else. It’s not like I went to college or beauty school or whatever.”
“Don’t feel bad,” Sierra added. “College is for rich assholes. Mostly. Except for Mags.”
“I’m surprised you get fast enough Internet here to do a job like that.” Maggie’s solemn gaze belied the casual tone she’d used, and Kate noted her quiet intelligence. “I take a few online classes, and I’m always running into trouble.”
“So am I. It’s barely fast enough on a good day. I have to wait forever for it to load and at least once a day it just craps out and I have to put all the data in all over again. But the rent here was the cheapest I could find, so what can you do? Lucky for me, the company reimburses me for my Internet. But they’ve always been a few months behind and moving slowed it down even more. They probably sent my last check to my old place, and my ex probably cashed it and I’ll never see it.”
Sierra and Maggie exchanged a glance, and Kate took a moment to decide on the Goldmine burger. It was loaded with bacon, an onion ring and all the fixings. With tax and tip, the meal would end up costing two-thirds of her remaining cash, but she was starving. Her stomach was so barren she thought it might start echoing when it growled. Besides, she told herself, she needed to spend some time with Sierra and Maggie.
Maggie narrowed her bright blue eyes. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but while we’re talking about it, can I ask why exactly you moved to Lawless? There’s nothing here. No jobs, no colleges, no tourist areas. We don’t even have a motel here. I know the rent is cheap, but it’s not like most people come here on purpose. They get stuck here. So tell us. What’s the story?”
Kate had prepared a response for this question weeks ago but wasn’t sure it would work now. She was glad the waitress, whose faded nametag read Darla, interrupted them to take their order.
“What can I get you girls?”
Darla’s petulant voice and languid posture suggested she’d like to get them a sharp poke in each eye, but Maggie smiled and ordered a veggie burger in a polite tone. Sierra’s manner with Darla was both friendly and imperious, and Darla seemed to take this in stride. Kate ordered and saw the waitress’s glance flick in her direction, her naked curiosity a surprise.
“You here on vacation?”
Kate shook her head, staring up at Darla’s heavily lined hazel eyes. The woman had been pretty once, she realized. Fine-featured, tall and lithe. Had she been born into a higher socioeconomic circle, Darla would have been able to keep her skin soft and smooth and her figure toned. Diner waitress Darla was too careworn and rough-edged to present as anything but tired and bitter. Oddly, Darla reminded Kate of Cherry Grimsby, or what the mayor’s wife might look like in ten years, despite her husband’s money. Kate looked away, wondering if her pity showed on her face.
“Just moved here last week.”
Darla harrumphed and flicked imaginary lint from her uniform’s purple apron.
Surely, Kate thought, she wasn’t the first Lawless newcomer to eat at Redwood Café. She watched Darla stalk away with her burnished ponytail swinging and pink uniform skirt belling out with each heavy step. What could possibly be so off-putting about a drab new customer? She’d gone out of her way to be a blank canvas, but the hostility Darla evinced was unmistakable.
“You were saying?”
Kate refocused on Maggie and Sierra, noting with interest that brash Sierra left the grilling to sedate Maggie.
“Why did I move here? It’s kind of embarrassing,” she said, blinking rapidly to moisten her eyes. “I was living with my fiancée, Jared, and things fell apart real sudden. I just got in the car and jumped on the I-5. There I was, driving along, and I didn’t have anywhere to go, so I just kept going for a couple hours, basically just in a daze.”
Maggie nodded encouragement.
“Anyways, then I stopped for gas, and I heard this guy talking about his ex who lived in Lawless and how he shouldn’t have to pay child support because of how cheap it was to live here. I figured this was as good a place as any, so I looked it up on my phone, and here I am.”
“Whaddya mean, things fell apart?” Sierra pinched Kate’s arm. “Spill.”
“Basically, Jared was cheating on me with my sister.”
“Wow.” Maggie shook her head. “Your sister and your boyfriend? That’s terrible.”
“What a fuckin’ dog!” Sierra smacked her palm on the table. “Tell me,” she demanded, twisting in her seat to face Kate, “you set his car on fire or slashed his tires or something.”
Kate covered her face with her hands and slowly drew them down to her sides. “Well,” she said, her cheeks burning, “I did put a dead rat in his trunk.”
Sierra hooted with laughter and Maggie gaped at Kate. “What? How did you—what happened?”
“Jared has a couple of big pet snakes, and I would buy those frozen rats. He would forget to get fresh ones pretty much all the time. I mean, I didn’t like the snakes, but it wasn’t fair to starve them to death, right? When I found out he was cheating with my sister, on my way out the door, I put a frozen rat in his trunk.”
“Oh, girl, that’s hella quick. Give us the gory details. How did you find out? Did you slap the bitch? What the fuck happened?” Sierra’s light brown eyes glittered.
Kate swallowed hard, letting her pain show. “Jared has a thing for sexy underwear, and it was our anniversary, so I wanted to make him a nice dinner and have a little romantic evening, you know? I thought we were doing great. He was finally ready to announce our engagement, and we were talking about buying a ring and everything. I was going to pay for it myself, but that was okay, I didn’t mind. Anyway, Crystal and I went to the mall. I was looking at all this fancy stuff, and Crystal grabbed a bright red thong and said she thought he would like it. And she looked at me real hard, like she was trying to tell me something. Then she picked up this bra and said he would love that too, because it was his favorite kind. I asked how she would know, and she said—”
“No!” Maggie gasped. “She didn’t!”
“Yes, she did. I couldn’t believe it. She went on and on for like ten minutes about how poor Jared was so bored with me because I was too old and ugly—I’m twenty-four, okay? And they were sleeping together for months, and he told her she was so much better in bed than me, and all this poison.”
“Bitch!” Sierra shook her head like a dog throwing off water.
Kate let tears form in her eyes and blinked to make them run down her cheeks. “I just stared at her. I couldn’t say anything. This was my baby sister, you guys. I used to sneak into our neighbor’s house to steal food for her. I brushed her hair and washed her clothes and cleaned up after her my whole life. I protected her. I went hungry for her. I practically raised her.”
“Disloyal,” Sierra muttered, looking away. Tension rolled off her tiny frame. “Fucking disloyal bitch.”
Kate nodded slowly. “You guys, I couldn’t even get mad. I just walked away and left her there in the mall. I mean, honestly, I felt more betrayed by her than Jared. He was my boyfriend, sure, but she was my sister. She was the only family I had left. Now I never want to see her again. After everything I did for her, I still can’t believe she would turn on me like that. I don’t know why she would do that. I’ll never understand it.”
“Did you ask him about it?”
“By the time I got home, he was standing there in the carport, staring at me with this stupid look on his face. I thought, what did I ever see in him? He’s not even that cute. I didn’t even ask. I could tell by his face it was true. I went in and started grabbing my clothes and everything, and he followed me and started saying all my stuff belonged to him, and if I took it, he’d call the cops. After everything I did for him!”
“He’s a pig.” Sierra again smacked the table with her open palm, knocking a fork sideways.
“Just like Crystal. I paid the bills. I cooked for him. I washed his dishes. I did his laundry, even though I was the one working and he never had a job in his life that lasted more than a week! But he would call the cops, just out of spite, and for all I knew they might believe him. It would be this big drama, right there in front of God and everybody. And all I wanted to do was leave. I was so mad all I could do was cry, and he was laughing at me for crying.”
“What a dick!” Sierra covered her cheeks with her hands and gaped at Kate.
Kate’s tear splashed on the red tabletop and she rubbed it with her finger. “I took my purse and the computer—it’s not mine, the company owns it—and I just walked out. He got on the phone with Crystal and said come on over, the bitch is leaving. I’m right there in front of him, and he says that! I threw a beer at the TV, and he freaked. He told me to get some towels from the kitchen and clean it up. Seriously? While he was wiping off the TV, I took a rat out of the freezer, and when I went out I threw it in the trunk of the car I bought for him after his truck got repo’ed. I knew he’d be up a creek when the rat thawed out and really started to smell, but by then I’d be long gone. He’d have a hell of a time figuring out why the car stank so bad.”
The story was essentially true, and Kate thought about her heartbroken twenty-year-old self, the sobbing girl who tucked a frozen rat under the spare tire in Jessica’s trunk before taking off with nowhere to go. It had been stupid and petty, but it had also been deeply satisfying.
Maggie’s wide, dark eyes examined Kate. “Are you glad you did it?”
Kate decided to answer honestly. “I’m a little embarrassed, actually. It was kind of tacky and pretty gross. But it was the only thing I had, you know? Like, he humiliated me, he betrayed me, he took away the only people I loved, him and my sister, but at least I got him. At least it was something.”
“Good for you!” Sierra shook Kate’s arm. “I like you. You’re a crazy-ass bitch. And you’re not old or ugly.”
“Thanks,” Kate said, pretending her arm didn’t hurt from all the smacking and pinching and shaking. “I like you too.”
Darla arrived to drop their heavy plates on the table with an impatient huff, and hungry Kate forgot all about her arm. She kept things light during the remainder of their lunch, making sure she didn’t seem too curious about their lives. Her restraint paid off. The less interest she showed in their histories, the more Sierra and Maggie chatted about their friends, the lameness of their small town, the various dead-end jobs they’d had, and the juiciest gossip about the mayor’s wife and the folks in the trailer park they all lived in.
Throughout their disclosures, Kate focused on her food and the other patrons of the restaurant as much as she did on their stories. She didn’t ask any but the most rudimentary follow-up questions, though dozens occurred to her. She still had to remind herself of her training every time she interacted with subjects: don’t be too eager, don’t be too direct, use pieces of your own history as the history of your cover, and don’t forget your objective. It was a lot to keep in mind while seeming entirely casual, and it was exhausting.
The food helped. For seven days, constrained by her cover’s financial difficulties, she’d been living on canned soup and carefully rationed cookies. The week of deprivation made it easy to focus on the burger, milkshake, and fries. The bacon was crispy, the meat was juicy and the onion ring was perfectly singed.
She almost laughed in pleasure at her first greedy bite. The fat, salt, and sugar entered her bloodstream like a caloric cavalry, and her mood lifted with every hot, greasy bite and every cool, sweet slurp. She fought the urge to moan aloud, not entirely sure she succeeded. Every cell in her body was alive with joy and awareness, and she couldn’t help smiling when she saw Maggie watching her. Then Maggie’s gaze drifted to an attractive young man at a table across the restaurant. Kate’s food-awakened senses tingled at the sight of the lovely Maggie staring at the good-looking man.
Kate felt a flash of jealousy that surprised her. Maggie was the most desirable woman in Lawless, but she was clearly focused on the flannel-clad man across the diner. Six-two, one-ninety. Early thirties. White. Brown eyes, brown hair. Kate blinked at her own disappointment at Maggie’s obvious interest in the man. I have no right to care who she’s attracted to.
“Cute, huh?” Sierra’s sharp laughter accompanied the question. “Steve Anderson.”
“Fine as fuck from every angle, I’m telling you. Wait and you’ll see.”
“From what I can see,” Kate murmured, “it’ll be worth the wait.”
Sierra whooped. “He’s cute as hell, single, and straight. And he even has a legit job, if you can believe that shit. Manager at Bob’s.”
“Oh?” Kate compelled herself to focus on her food and not look across the room. She felt herself getting more and more fidgety and finally risked another guilty peek at red-faced Maggie, who was sneaking covert glances at Steve Anderson, who was busy talking to his lunch companion, Mayor Grimsby. Grimsby was by far the richest resident of the town, and from what Kate had seen, the town treated him like a celebrity. She knew money could cloud people’s perceptions, and the mayor did have a nice smile and good hair, but she wasn’t sure he would stand out anywhere but in this small burg. Big fish in a little pond.
Absently, Kate wondered if the mayor had seen or heard any of the recent exchange between herself and his wife.
“Tell her about Steve,” Sierra ordered Maggie.
“Tell her what? He manages the store. Bob Grimsby is his boss.”
Kate gave a neutral grunt.
“I can introduce you,” Sierra offered. “It’s better than looking at the back of your skull all day.”
Kate turned to look directly at Sierra and grimaced. “No, thanks. I’ve sworn off men.”
Sierra bumped her with a pointy elbow. “You don’t have to marry the guy.”
“After all the garbage I just went through with Jared, I’m not looking at another man ever again. Ever. Again.” The statement was closer to the truth than anything else she could say.
“Right.” Sierra pinched her arm. “You tell yourself that.” She threw a fry onto Kate’s plate with surprising accuracy. “And when you want to be introduced, you just let me know.”
“Is he single?”
“Does it matter?”
Sierra laughed at Kate’s shocked expression. “Yes, he lives right behind the store, basically, on Redwood Drive. He could take you home with him right now.”
“Uh, yeah, what part of no men is confusing?”
“The part where you’re fucking delusional, that part.”
Kate laughed with Sierra and noticed Maggie was again staring at Steve Anderson. Maggie caught her looking, and they both dropped their gazes.
While Sierra chattered about various boys and men she’d dated through middle and high school and beyond, Kate and Maggie nodded and smiled at the appropriate places.
At some point Mayor Grimsby and Steve Anderson left the restaurant. Sierra nudged Kate and chucked her chin at the men. Kate avoided looking at Maggie, wondering why Sierra seemed completely unaware of her best friend’s obvious attraction to Anderson.
Kate blotted her mouth with a rough paper napkin, speculating on the possibility that Sierra knew exactly how Maggie felt about the man she was pitching to their new acquaintance. Would it benefit her investigation to feign interest in the man Maggie was clearly interested in and just as clearly too shy to approach?
Kate pushed the question to the bottom of her consciousness and focused on Sierra’s long story about a pair of brothers who’d fought over her. She smiled and nodded at the appropriate places, wondering why the pretty, vivacious young woman felt so strongly compelled to prove that she had a history of successfully enticing guys. Attracting men was shooting-fish-in-a-barrel easy. Attracting women was much harder. The lunch went on until almost two, and Kate had to force herself to pay attention to Sierra’s self-aggrandizing with seemingly rapt attention.
At some point Jed Fontaine came in to occupy the same table Steve Anderson and Bob Grimsby had vacated, and Kate surreptitiously studied the man who’d lost the election to Mayor Grimsby. He seemed to be everywhere she went in Lawless. In the soup aisle at Dash and Dine, she’d looked over and seen him eying the canned beans. Pumping gas at the cheapest of the town’s three chain gas stations, she’d noticed him cleaning his truck’s windshield in the next row.
In his late forties, the short, slight widower owned the tattoo parlor down the street and was the president of a local motorcycle club that went on scenic rides together. Why he could possibly be curious about her, she couldn’t imagine. It certainly wasn’t for her looks. She’d done everything she could to be dowdy.
She ran her gaze over the other diners, but no other faces were familiar. Again she was struck by the absence of diversity. Everyone had light skin. Everyone had blond or brown hair. There were no Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, or Middle Eastern people in Lawless, if their appearances were to be taken as proof of ethnicity and racial identity. Kate had studied the demographics of the town before her insertion, but she didn’t recall an absolute absence of diversity. Of course, she reminded herself, she’d only been around for a week. Maybe she’d assumed the town would be mostly white, given its remoteness, and she was suffering from confirmation bias.
Finally the juicy burgers and greasy fries had been devoured, the milkshakes drained, and Sierra’s stories and gossip had dried up. When Sierra glanced at the diner’s big black wall clock, Kate decided to be the first to make a move. She grabbed a wad of crumpled dollars from her pocket and counted out her share, ensuring she left the small tip Kate Sooner could afford and not the more generous one her real self, Kate Hollister, would have left. The devil was, as her training had stressed, in the details.
“Listen, guys, I gotta go. I’m supposed to be working, and I better get back to it.” She slid out of the booth and brushed crumbs and salt off her oversized gray T-shirt. “Thanks for inviting me. That was the best burger I’ve ever had and very good dining company. Thank you.”
“Yeah, we gotta go too.” Sierra nodded at Maggie, who picked up the bill and started counting out cash to add to Kate’s. “So, you have like nothing, right? Since you left all your shit behind?”
“I got a few things from the thrift store, you know, plates and towels and that, but my money ran out pretty quick and my paycheck is late.”
“That sucks,” Sierra noted.
Maggie eyed Sierra before addressing Kate. “Is there anything you need? In terms of necessities?”
“Well,” Kate made a face, “I should be okay, survival-wise, as long as I get paid in the next few days. This meal,” she said, gesturing at the table, “was way out of my budget, but I was about to kill somebody if I didn’t get some meat soon.”
“Right?” Sierra let down her hair and shook it out like a retriever after a bath. “I hear that.”
“Seriously, do you need help?” Maggie peered at her, and Kate flushed and looked away.
“As long as I don’t run out of food, it’s cool. I’d like a microwave and a TV, and maybe a coffeemaker, ’cause instant coffee sucks, but those aren’t actual necessities.”
“I don’t know,” Sierra put in, “they sound like necessities to me.”
“Well, I’m hoping to get a check in the mail in the next few days. It’s way overdue.”
“If you get desperate,” Maggie murmured, “let us know, okay? We’re your neighbors. We can’t let you starve to death.”
Kate offered an embarrassed half-smile. “Thanks,” she muttered gruffly. “I really appreciate that.”
“One more thing you should know about.” Maggie’s delicate features bunched in a frown. “Something’s happening to the animals.”
“What do you mean?”
Sierra scoffed, a brittle sound. “You don’t look like a roadkill chef to me, but since you were saying…Anyway, any critters you see, don’t eat ’em. There’s some kinda problem with animals eating something and then being, like, toxic or something.”
Kate shook her head, almost forgetting to stay in her cover’s headspace. “Who’s looking into that? I mean, something must be causing this, right? What if the thing that’s making animals toxic is in the well water, and we’re ingesting it too?”
Maggie nodded slowly. “That’s the exact same question I asked. But no one wants to talk about it, so don’t bring it up. Just don’t make friends with any woodland creatures and don’t eat anything you didn’t buy in a store.”
Sierra snorted and shook her shoulders like she was shedding the topic. “Listen, why don’t you come by tomorrow night? My man’s gonna be gone, and me and Maggie are gonna hang out.”
“Okay.” Kate shrugged. “You want me to bring anything?”
“Oh! Nice.” Sierra grinned. “I dunno, let’s play it by ear. It sounds like if you don’t get that money pretty soon, you won’t have anything to bring but your own narrow ass.”
“Too true. Okay, see you.” She kept her demeanor as indifferent as possible while casually striding out of the diner. She’d made it to her car, a wheezy brown Mercury deemed by her handler Marcie to be the appropriate vehicle for Kate Sooner, before she let herself take a deep breath. She’d done it. She’d made the first inroads into the tight social circle of Stoney Randall.
She took her time heading north on Main Street, soaking in the odd mixture of quaint charm and neglected upkeep in the small town of just over three thousand souls. Main Street was at the tail end of a small highway off the interstate, and it was, as Marcie had told Kate, nowhere. As Main Street left Trinity County and led into Siskiyou County, it became a different, newer byway—Deer Hill Road and then Deer Hill Highway—and eventually led into another, slightly larger town with better views, cuter shops, and a larger tax base.
The last bits of Lawless trailed off Main Street just before the county line in a cluster of trailer parks. It was to one of these trailer parks that Kate headed now, somewhat reluctant to leave the charm of the town’s retail row for the confines of her tiny trailer. Stuck in the sluggish traffic caused by Main Street’s five stoplights, she eyeballed the thoroughfare’s landmark stores.
The town’s founders had apparently liked cute little names, as many of the businesses sported monikers both distinctive and descriptive. The west side of Main Street featured Redwood Café, the town’s two chain banks, The Soda Counter Drugstore, Jed Fontaine’s tattoo parlor Ink About It, Fashion City, a beauty parlor called Tilt-a-Curl and a sprinkling of boarded-up storefronts. The bright paint colors were faded and needed touch-ups. Many signs were missing letters. The town looked like a movie set that had been abandoned decades earlier.
Main Street’s east side was dominated in its center by the looming turquoise supermarket, Dash and Dine. This was bracketed on both sides by coffee shops, Bean’s Brew and Sip-a-Drip. South of Bean’s Brew stood a small post office and a shoe repair store. North of Sip-a-Drip, presaged by a pair of boarded-up stores, gleamed the orange monstrosity that was Bob’s Sporting Goods Emporium, which specialized in hunting and fishing gear and oddly, sewing and craft supplies.
It also sported the tamale truck Sierra had mentioned. Set up twenty feet from the front door of Bob’s, it was parked there every day and always buzzed with a line of eager customers. Bob’s store and his tamale truck seemed to be the most prosperous businesses in town, and Kate filed this away for later analysis. She hadn’t been to either the truck or the store yet, but she vowed to visit both once her fake paycheck showed up.
The Mercury’s gas gauge would edge down as she drove up the hill, but she really was low on money and reluctant to spend it until the gauge hit the red zone. Besides, she’d have to turn around to get to one of the three gas stations clustered at the south end of Main Street, just past a particularly blighted section of the town.
There seemed to be some unspoken message to the southbound traveler: this was once a nice town, but it’s dying, and you should gas up and escape while you can. Kate found herself wishing she could make a U-turn and do just that, if only to escape the pungent, ever-present odor of marijuana in the town and in the trailer park.
She forced her tired sedan up the hill toward the trailer park. As Main Street veered north, the residential section reflected the same mix of charm and seediness seen downtown. Weeds had smothered scraggly lawns and weather had worn away paint on the small ranch homes that lined the potholed road. It was depressing. Human markers grew meaner and smaller in comparison to the ever more magnificent trees as the hill road turned toward the mountain. Kate sighed as she reached the fork that led to Lawless Manor.
She veered around the circle of mobile homes and pulled up in front of her faded red-and-white Shasta trailer, the oldest and smallest in Lawless Manor. She eyed her neighbor’s empty carport with a casual glance.
Sometime after six or seven in the evening she could expect to see Stoney’s black Corvette. Sierra’s brown Toyota Corolla came and went from the trailer park several times a day, always with Maggie behind the wheel, and it was nearly always parked at Maggie’s trailer across the way.
A brown-and-white Staffordshire pup lay sleeping in the afternoon sun, its tiny neck weighed down by a heavy collar at the end of a chain hooked to Stoney’s trailer. Kate had to look away. She hated to see an animal suffer, and it seemed like all the poor little dog did was loll around in the dirt. The green plastic water bowl always seemed to be empty, and she’d never seen anyone feed him.
Kate forced herself to get out of the car without staring at Stoney’s double-wide mobile home. She stopped to unlock her front door and heard the puppy’s chain rustle. She had to steel herself against meeting its sad, curious eyes. She swallowed hard, focusing on the job at hand.
Suddenly it occurred to her that befriending the subject’s dog might be a good idea tactically. She used Stoney’s tangled, leaking hose to fill the dog’s water bowl and crouched to pet the wriggling pup for a few minutes. Its eager licking and yelps of joy broke her heart. She resolved to check in on the little animal every day, figuring she could make her excuses for being a softie if she needed to.
She headed inside her trailer with a last quick look around the mud-spattered collection of mobile homes that formed her new neighborhood. The whole place was shady by late afternoon because of the towering redwood, fir, spruce, and pine trees that collected around the park like a protective green cape. The curved wall of flora presaged a steep climb up the rocky mountainside. She’d known even before she’d started her journey north from Sacramento in the battle-scarred Mercury that the ground would be muddy, the nights cold, and the sunlight brief but searing.
She had a moment’s anxiety about her real life. Would everything simply drift away while she was here? She reminded herself that she’d set up automatic payments on all of her bills and had stopped her mail. She’d given away her houseplants and disposed of her perishable foods. Her furniture would be dusted and the bathroom and kitchen wiped down by her weekly cleaning service. Her work friends, who comprised most of her social circle, knew she would be out of touch. Her real life, the one she’d worked so hard to build, would be hers again as soon as she finished this assignment.
By Kate’s reckoning, Lawless Manor was a good place for a drug dealer. Its proximity to the county line would help a dealer use jurisdictional boundaries to evade local law enforcement entities. The trailer park was also only a couple of hours from the Oregon border, and it offered several escape routes, both conventional and unconventional. No one was interested in calling the sheriff or Child Protective Services, and there was no homeowner’s association board to meddle in residents’ affairs. Poverty was an island, and to the islanders, outsiders—particularly official folks—were not to be trusted.
Kate had drawn a map of the park and identified the residents and regular visitors in each unit. By her count there were thirty-five adults, about twenty preadolescent kids, ten teenagers, and two dozen regular visitors. Of course, she’d burned the map immediately after memorizing it, feeling like a character in some overdone spy novel as she bent over the trailer’s one decorative item, a green glass ashtray, and poked at the curling, blackened paper. Having grown up in a series of trailer parks, Kate knew their range of community temperaments. There were some nice, safe communities of mobile homes and some hazardous dens of neglect, despair, and ever-brewing violence. Lawless Manor was on the far low end of that spectrum.
In the week Kate had been living in Lawless Manor, she’d breathed an ever-present cloud of marijuana smoke, listened to countless screaming fights, and averted her gaze from a score of scruffy, leering men. The poverty, despair, filth, and loneliness were all too familiar. Even the rush of attraction to Maggie and subsequent jealousy of Steve Anderson was tinged with bittersweet nostalgia. A beautiful stranger distracting her from her purpose? That was her entire life, chapter and verse.
Now here she was. She’d pushed herself out of the nice, safe, comfortable analyst’s world she’d built. She’d traded all of it for this new life, working undercover and stumbling through an echo of her chaotic childhood in rural Tennessee. She fought to take a deep breath and quell the panic that bubbled in her chest. I am not Kate Sooner and I’m not stuck here forever.
She’d planned this all very carefully, the way she planned everything very carefully. She would spend a few years doing fieldwork and then move up the ladder in her agency or make a jump to a higher level in another agency. She might even end up in the private sector, where the money was better and the choices more varied. It was temporary, her foray into this stark, ugly world. She knew that. She was confident of the truth of this.
But being in Lawless was like going home, and home was the very last place she wanted to be.