Deeper Than the Grave: A Tai Randolph Mystery #4

Deeper Than the Grave: A Tai Randolph Mystery #4

It's taken almost a year, but Tai Randolph has her new life together. She's running a semi-successful Atlanta gun shop catering to Civil War re-enactors. Her lover, the sexy-if-security-obsessed Trey ...

About The Author

Tina Whittle

Tina Whittle is a mystery writer working in Statesboro, Georgia. Her short fiction has appeared in The Savannah Literary Journal, ...

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

Trey’s mouth was at my ear, his chest solid against my back. “Slowly.”

“Got it.”

“Firm and gentle pressure.”

I sighed. “I have done this before, you know.”

“And yet you’re still snatching.” He adjusted my grip on the revolver so that the butt of the gun rested solidly in my left palm. “Take a breath. Half exhale. Then squeeze. One smooth motion.” His voice was muted through the fancy electronic hearing protection muffs, but that hardly mattered—he was saying the exact same thing he always said. I wiggled my nose to adjust the safety goggles, sighted along the barrel. The revolver’s sights bobbed red against the target, a human-sized silhouette with concentric rings highlighting its heart. I took one deep breath in, trickled it halfway out. Then I dropped the barrel a smidgen and squeezed. The .38 kicked in my hand as a fresh bullet hole appeared at the target’s groin.

Trey examined the result. “You’re supposed to aim for center mass.”

“I’m supposed to stop the threat. Which I certainly did.” His blue eyes flashed annoyance behind his safety   glasses.

“Do you want to learn proper technique or not?”

I sighed again. Then I took my stance and emptied the rest of the rounds into the target. The holes clustered in the figure’s chest region, right at the heart. Or where the heart would have been had I not pulped it.

I gestured with my chin. “There. How’s that?”

Trey eyed me reproachfully. He was a stickler. I could recite his mantras from memory—watch your muzzle cover, watch your periphery, watch your background.

“Why didn’t you do that with your first shot?” he said. “Jeez, boyfriend. Unwind a bit, it’s just practice.”

“It’s not practice, it’s training. There’s a difference.”

“So you keep saying. Over and over again.” I double-checked the cylinder to make sure the gun was empty before laying it on the shelf in front of me. “Let me try yours.”

Trey retrieved his H&K nine-millimeter, popped the empty magazine. He thumbed bullets into the mag, then clipped it into place with the heel of his hand and handed it to me, careful to keep the muzzle downrange.

“Feet hip-width apart, slight lean forward, right arm straight, not locked.”

I racked the slide. “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Got it.”

Trey’s P7M8 was very much like him—sleek, powerful, efficient—and I savored the control and punch of it, even if the pleasure came with an edge now. It had been only four months since I’d held that same gun in my hand, the sights centered not on a paper target but on a human being. I remembered that same gun in Trey’s hands, later that same rain-slashed night. Three shots, precise and ruthless.

I squeezed the grip to cock it, then fired three times fast, twice at center mass, then once at the forehead. To my dismay, only the first two hit home.

Trey stared at me. “What are you doing?” “Mozambique triple tap.”

“You don’t need—”

“I’ve needed a lot of things I didn’t think I would.”

Trey didn’t argue. He simply held out his hand. “Give me that.”

I handed the nine back to him. He stepped up, then hit the switch with a closed fist and the target rattled its way toward him. He fired two shots, then a third a half-second later. As the target flapped to a stop in front of us, I saw two serrated holes in the center of the heart, and one final shot right below the nose. If the two-dimensional paper had been flesh and blood, the last bullet would have ripped a trajectory through the medulla oblongata, dropping the body like a meaty marionette with its strings cut. “There,” he said. “Triple tap, properly known as a failure drill.

Useful in circumstances when direct hits to center mass do not stop the target, most likely due to a tactical vest.” A cock of the head. “Is that what you want to learn?”

I fingered the ragged paper. “Yes.”

“Okay. Then work on your stance, your form, your breathing, your aim, your draw, and the ability to target center mass. Because without those basic skills, you’ll never master this one.” He checked his watch. “We’ve got fifteen minutes. Back to triggering.”

 

Chapter Two

Trey drove me back to the gun shop. During our time inside the range, the sun had set, and I huddled into my jacket as I stepped out of the warmth of his Ferrari and into the night. The evening wasn’t terribly cold by most standards—low fifties, zero wind—but I was a creature coddled in the briny marsh of the Georgia Lowcountry, where winters were mild and smelled of clean pine and the ocean. February in Atlanta, however, was twenty-eight odd days of seasonal mood swings. All during the summer and fall, the cold lay low in the upland mountains, deep within the granite, until sometime around Christmas when it came slinking down into the city. Now it sprang like a wild animal from unexpected places, bolting up stairwells, rushing at a canter across parking lots.

Trey had moved into his winter wardrobe months ago—the Prada trench coat and the Armani wool suits, the finely textured cashmere scarves and leather driving gloves, everything black as bituminous coal. He stood very close behind me as I wrestled with the door to the gun shop.

I felt the deadbolt give. “Wait here a second. I want to surprise you.”

“I don’t like surprises.”

“Go with it, this one time.”

He made a noise of acquiescence, so I ducked inside, punching in the security code that would disable the multiple alarm systems, then taking him by the hand and pulling him in after me. The smell of sawdust and fresh paint and industrial adhesive rolled over the threshold in a wave, clean and chemical mixing in a singular wallop. Trey stepped gingerly, his patent-leather Brionis making soft echoes on the linoleum.

I punched the light switch, and the overhead fluorescents sputtered to life. “Ta da.”

He opened his eyes, and his expression shifted to pleased astonishment as he took in the front room. My counter, formerly paint- splattered, now stripped and refinished in a rich golden maple. The newly scrubbed and re-waxed floor. Fresh yellow paint on the walls. Of course the rest of it was a mess. Dozens of my Uncle Dexter’s framed photographs remained propped against the walls, waiting to be rehung. I’d managed to find space in the storage room’s gun safe for all the firearms, but the ammo was still on the floor, the edged weapons crammed into a single display case. The cash register sat in the empty planter boxes, the dead marigolds in the trash, and I’d stuffed all the reenactment uniforms into a friendly blue and gray tangle, a Confederate-Union mishmash that would have offended my uncle no end had he been there to see it. There was a rumor of order to the place, however, and

Trey noticed.

“You’ve been working,” he said.

“I have. I found every single gun missing from the inventory. I wish I could say the same for the other stuff.” I shook my head. “God rest Uncle Dexter’s soul, he loved this shop, but I don’t know how he stayed in business.”

Trey surveyed the box next to the cash register, a jumble of looseleaf papers that I was attempting to turn into an official Acquisition and Disposition book for the ATF. “Will you have this ready by Friday?”

“I will.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’m sure.” I smiled at him. “And don’t worry. I destroyed all the paperwork surrounding our little ‘sex for handguns’ arrangement.”

He ignored the joke and reached inside. “I could—”

I intercepted his hand. “Leave it be. I want to do it myself.” “But—”

“For real, Trey.”

He reluctantly left the scattered A&D materials alone, but it pained him physically, I could tell. And he was right to be concerned—all joking aside, if I didn’t pass the audit, I lost my Federal Firearms License, and without an FFL, I couldn’t sell guns and ammo and black powder. And there would go seventy-five percent of my income.

He surveyed the rest of the shop. “You took down the new security camera.”

“Did not.”

“Then where is it?” “You tell me.”

A pause, then his eyes tracked the room. He scanned the empty shelving units, the cabinets, the walls, finally stopping on the deer head mounted behind the counter. He stepped closer and scrutinized the mangy relic.

I joined him underneath it. “Damn. That was fast, even for you.”

“Where did you get…that?”

“The attic.” I knocked on the muzzle of the cockeyed creature, its left antler broken at the tip, its nose dented and dinged. “It’s fake, felt and plastic on the outside, hollow as a balloon inside. Perfect for a single-lens covert camera.”

Trey peered into the deer’s glassy eyes. “You hooked it into the wireless grid?”

“Yep.”

“What about the—”

“Primary and secondary power supplies, yes.” I put my hands on my hips. “You think I don’t listen to you, but I do. Every word.” He pulled out his phone and tapped in a code. Two seconds later, his screen filled with an image of the shop, the two of us looking up at the deer head. Even in two-dimensional black and white, Trey was a six-one, black-haired, haute couture hot dish. My charms were more down-to-earth—dirty blond curls rioting under a baseball cap, faded jeans, scuffed work boots. We seemed utterly mismatched on the tiny screen, like two people on a disastrous blind date. Regardless, there he was, at my side. As usual. I took his arm in mine, watched my video twin do the same, and then the image switched to the back lot, where my Camaro was parked next to the dumpster.

Trey pulled up the third feed, the parking lot out front, with the entrance, burglar-barred windows, and his Ferrari in plain view. There was no fourth image, however. This was Trey’s current worry point.

“Have you talked to your neighbor about setting up a camera in the alley?” he said.

“Brenda? I tried, twice, but she won’t go for it. And since the alley is technically her property, not mine—”

“But that makes no sense.”

“Sure, it does. Dexter sold access rights to the previous owner, when Aunt Dotty got sick and he needed the money. Now Brenda’s using that to make me miserable so I’ll leave and she can have this end of the square all to herself.” I folded my arms. “She complained about your Ferrari, you know. Said it damaged her ears.”

Trey made a scoffing noise. “The threshold for short-term hearing damage is one hundred and twenty decibels. The F430 produces ninety-six point nine decibels at full throttle, which—”

“My point is she has an agenda.”

But Trey wasn’t listening anymore. He abandoned me under the deer head to check out the new door to the storage room. It was an innocuous-looking hunk of wood—beige, bland as baby food—but he ran his hand across it with an almost sensual reverence.

“It came,” he said.

“It did.” I stepped beside him. “I was expecting something less ordinary.”

“It’s designed to look ordinary, but underneath the veneer is a hardwood core with fiberglass sheathing. It has a UL rating of four, which is military grade. Guaranteed to defeat ballistic assaults up to .44 magnum caliber, resistant to .50 cal.”

He punched some numbers on the keypad, and the deadbolt clicked opened with a well-engineered snick. I saw the twitch at the corner of his mouth that was almost a smile.

He stepped inside, and I followed. What used to be Dexter’s secondary storage room was now a state-of-the-art safe room. Well, not as state-of-the-art as Trey wanted—he’d envisioned something along the lines of the Pentagon—but an adequate compromise. The walls were already concrete, the ceiling inaccessible from the front room. All it needed was a bulletproof door, which I now had, thanks to him.

He walked under the casement window, a three-paned hand-cranked antique installed when Dexter built the place back in the sixties. The window was one foot tall and three feet wide and provided the only outdoor light in the room. Trey glared at it.

I stood beside him. “I know you don’t like the window, but it’s staying for the time being.”

“But—”

“It’s ten feet off the ground and too narrow for a person to get through. Plus you’ve got glass-break sensors on it.”

“Nonetheless—”

“One thing at a time, boyfriend. I’ll fix it when I get the camera situation figured out and the audit completed.”

“Still—”

“Hush.” I slipped my arms around his waist, resting my palms flat against his lower back. He smelled like gunpowder and the ghost of his Armani aftershave. “Use your mouth for something besides talking.”

His eyes narrowed. “You’re trying to distract me from the point, which is—”

I stood on tiptoe and kissed him quiet. On the training mat, at the range, he was pure masculine force—direct, active, aggressive. In all matters romantic, however, he preferred to follow my lead. I moved my hands upward, across the plane of his back, the familiar geography of rhomboids and deltoids.

“It’s been two weeks since I’ve had my way with you, boyfriend.”

“Six days. Don’t exaggerate.”

“We can fix that, you know. Upstairs. Where there’s now— surprise surprise—an honest-to-goodness real bed. With 600-thread-count, Egyptian cotton Frette sheets.”

He leveled a look at me. “You took my sheets.”

“The spare ones, yes. Also your shampoo and a pair of paja- mas. And some towels. Do you mind?”

He shook his head. I could almost see the picture forming in his mind. No longer was my upstairs living space a wretched hovel. Tiny, yes, as cramped as a ship’s cabin. But thanks to a trip to Goodwill and a teensy raid of his bathroom closet, well stocked with everything he’d need to feel at home, at least for a few hours.

I looped my arms around his neck. “Stay here tonight.” “I can’t, I’ve—”

“So stay right now.” “That doesn’t…Oh.”

I flicked a glance at his watch. “It’s seven-fifty-five. Your bedtime is nine o’clock. The drive will take forty-eight minutes tops, which leaves seventeen free minutes.”

His eyes slid to the right, the better to access his perfectly sharp left frontal lobes, the seat of logic and time management and schedules. The right side of his brain had some hiccups still, an artifact of the car accident three years earlier, but the rest of him agreed with me, that two people could do a lot with a new mattress and seventeen minutes.

I moved closer, hip to hip. “Sixteen minutes and counting.” He exhaled softly, his posture loosening, and I knew the battle was mine. His left brain made a formidable opponent at times—rigid, calculating, inclined to lock down the systems at the slightest emotional chaos—while his right brain tended to lurch into paralyzed befuddlement. My strategy was simple— bypass the neuronal circuits and go straight for the body, which had its own agenda.

I reached to loosen his tie. And he froze. “Tai?”

“Yes?”

“Did you hear footsteps?”

Reviews of

Deeper Than the Grave: A Tai Randolph Mystery #4

“To unearth the connection between the two corpses, she’ll have to tangle with Civil War re-enactors, relic traders from the Russian Mafia and a ring of thieves stealing laundry detergent. Tai’s fourth (Blood, Ash, and Bone, 2013, etc.) connects murders past and present—not to mention the mystery and the hot-sheets romance—with gratifying conviction.”

Kirkus Reviews

“Smoldering, sinister, and consistently entertaining.”

Hank Phillippi Ryan, Agatha, Anthony, Macavity, and Mary Higgins Clark award-winning author

FacebookTwitterEmail
Goodreads