Reckoning and Ruin: A Tai Randolph Mystery #5

Reckoning and Ruin: A Tai Randolph Mystery #5

Reckoning and Ruin. That’s what Savannah is to Tai Randolph who’s gladly rebooted her life in Atlanta and is celebrating several landmarks. A year running the Confederate-themed gun shop she ...

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, ...

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Chapter One

Trey’s head snapped back. “Ow!”

Gabriella ignored him and pressed her hand harder against the nape of his neck, her eyebrows knit in concentration. She had him sitting backwards in a kitchen chair, shirtless and annoyed, while she poked and prodded the muscles across the top of his shoulders.

I stayed on the sofa with my Garden and Gun magazine, not saying a word. Through the terrace doors, a spring sunset flick- ered behind Atlanta’s Midtown skyline, gilding the black and white apartment with golden light. This was not how I’d envi- sioned my Saturday night—up on the thirty-fifth floor instead of down in the vibrant scrum of Buckhead. But I guessed from Gabriella’s cocktail dress and sky-scraping Louboutins, she’d had other plans too.

She was barefoot now, her lips pursed prettily. She was Trey’s bodywork therapist, alternative medical adviser, and former lover. The first two were fine by me. The last one sucker-punched me every time I saw her place a deceptively delicate-looking hand on his bare skin.

I licked my finger and turned another page. “Is it bad?”

Gabriella blew one red ringlet from her forehead. “I am still evaluating.”

She moved her hand across the plane of his upper back to his left arm, then pushed her fingers into the muscle of his shoulder. Trey closed his eyes and curled his hands into fists. If he’d been a cursing man, obscenities would have been spilling from his lips.

He grimaced up at her. “Well?”

She slipped back into her shoes. “Not dislocated, and not torn. But you have severely strained the acromioclavicular.”

“Does it require a doctor?”

“No. But you will need to treat it with care for a while.” She left him in the chair and opened the leather carry case on the counter with a snap. “How did this happen?”

Trey shot a look my way. I buried my face in my magazine. Gabriella caught the look. “I see. You will need to take more care,  especially  with  your  more…energetic  activities. You’re predisposed to subluxations, and every injury—” “Increases the risk of further injury, I know.”

“Then behave as if you do.” She smacked two bottles on the counter. “Turmeric and boswellia capsules. Liniment and tape. Ice tonight, then moist heat.”

“I know how to deal with this.”

“I was explaining for Tai, since she is to be stuck with you this evening, not I, par la grâce de Dieu.” She turned to face me. “He can’t drive for twenty-four hours and must leave the holster at home for a week. Is he fully stocked on painkillers?”

“Everything from aspirin to oxycodone.”

“Good. That shoulder will hurt comme de le merde in an hour.” A rueful smile twitched at the corner of her mouth. “Of course, fifteen milligrams of oxy, and he will be utterly useless to you for the rest of the evening.”

“Yeah. I figured as much.”

She closed her case and slipped the strap over her shoulder. “But congratulations on the occasion, nonetheless. A year together is a year together, yes?”

Across the room, Trey reached for his tee-shirt, black hair mussed, blue eyes prickly with pain and simmering anger, although I couldn’t tell if his wrath was directed at me in particular or the world in general. He and I were supposed to be celebrating that year together. Had started celebrating, in fact, before our unfortunate tangle and tumble. Now he was a tornado of irritation.

Gabriella nodded toward the hallway, my cue to follow her. I did, shutting the door behind me as I walked her to the elevator. She carried herself like the ballet dancer she’d once been.

“I understand your enthusiasm, ma chère, but you must be more gentle with him. The hypermobility—”

“The what?”

“Hypermobility. Double-jointedness, yes? Surely you have noticed?”

My brain sifted through several very specific memories. “That explains some things.”

Probablement. But it also predisposes him to injuries like this, especially if he is overtraining, which from the state of his deltoids, I am guessing he is. Has the PTSD returned?” When she said it, the acronym sounded exotic, flowing with French trills and gliding vowels. Peety-Essdie.

I shrugged. “It’s hard to tell.”

“Have you consulted your brother? He has a specialty in this, yes?”

I felt the knot tie up again. Yes, my brother Eric was a cognitive behavior psychologist, and he did indeed specialize in post-traumatic stress rehabilitation. And yes, he knew the situation exceedingly well, having once served as Trey’s occupa- tional therapist. But I was reluctant to approach him. Asking my brother’s advice about Trey invited him to offer advice about me, and that never went well.

“Eric recommended some books on clinical exercise physiol- ogy, which is why Trey has upped his training regimen into the Iron Man zone.”

“Is this regimen working?”

“Yes. No. Maybe.” I shook my head. “I can’t put my finger on it. He seems…I don’t know. Like he’s trying too hard.”

“Have the nightmares returned?” “No.”

“Is he sleeping properly?”

“Yes.”

“And sexually—”

“Working just fine, thank you.”

She examined me almost as keenly as Trey did. They’d been together for over five years when I came along, three of those years before Trey’s car accident, two of them after. And yet she seemed to hold not one hint of resentment against me. Quite the opposite, in fact, something I found terribly suspicious. But according to Trey, she’d saved his life. Since he wasn’t a man to exaggerate, I tolerated the phone calls, the herbal remedies, and the vegan soup she brought over regularly. I remained skeptical, though. And watchful. She tilted her head. “You are upset he is not spending as much time with you, yes?”

“I didn’t say that.”

“No, you did not, true enough.” She crossed her arms and tapped one crimson-tipped fingernail against her shoulder. “Let me guess. His schedule is becoming tighter and more regimented. More work, more training, less time to be your significant other.”

I started to argue, but realized she was right. Our now-defunct dinner was to have been our first date-date in over a month. Her expression was one of commiseration. “You must be patient. Recovery from a traumatic brain injury is a complicated process.”

“I know that, but—”

“You and your folie du jour have made his life interesting, yes. And that is good. But interesting can be problematic at times.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard her correctly. “My what?”

“Your hazards and exploits. Trey cannot help wanting to protect you, and this sometimes involves him beyond his capa- bilities. You must not let your life choices interfere with his well-being.”

“What exactly are you trying to tell me?”

She smiled with infuriating patience. “When I was a little girl, I visited my grandmother in Provence every spring. One day I found a butterfly struggling to free itself from its cocoon. I wanted to help it, but mémère told me, “Non. It is the struggle that makes it strong enough to fly.’”

I stared at her. “That’s your contribution to the situation, a butterfly story?”

Her lips compressed in a straight line. “Then here is the story without the pretty butterfly. This isn’t about you. Your wants, your needs, the way you wish things were or were not. What matters is Trey. And right now, he is stable and functioning. I am determined to make sure that does not change.”

She got in the elevator and punched the first floor button. I grabbed the door before it could close.

“Are you threatening me? Because that sounded like a threat.”

Her eyes flashed. “We do not need to threaten each other because we both want the same thing.”

“That thing being Trey?” “That is not what I mean!”

“I think it’s exactly what you mean.”

“I meant…ugh! Now is not the time for this discussion. I am late for dinner with Jean Luc.” She straightened her back, smoothed the anger from her perfect face. “If you would kindly step back, please.”

I hesitated only one second, then pulled back my hand and let the doors close.

Chapter Two

Back in the apartment, I locked the door behind me, engaging the drill-proof deadbolts with more force than purely necessary. Trey eased himself to standing, wincing as he straightened.

“Your ex is asking for it,” I said. “And she’d better be glad I… why are you giving me that look?”

He narrowed his eyes. “Because this is your fault.”

I put my hands on my hips. “You’re the one who fell out of bed.”

“I did not fall, I was pushed.”

“You were not pushed, you fell and landed where there was no bed.”

“Because you pushed me where there was no bed.” “Because you…” I closed my eyes, counted to three,   then opened them. “Never mind. This isn’t a real argument. You’re hurt and sexually frustrated, both of which make you belligerent. I feel your pain, boyfriend, believe me. So let’s not take it out on each other.”

He grimaced and rubbed his shoulder. I knew he’d landed badly the second he’d hit the floor with me on top of him. I’d felt the unnatural give in the shoulder, the full force of my weight coming down on that one precarious joint. I’d banged my elbow up, bruised my knee, but he’d been hurt worse. And things had been going so well up to that point.

He stamped his way to the bathroom, tee-shirt balled in his hand. I followed, propping myself next to the sink while he rummaged in the medicine cabinet. His body was taut with muscle, but the accident and the SWAT ops and a decade of Krav Maga had taken their toll. He was no longer a cocky twenty- something, and had the scars and pinned knees and titanium- screwed spine of a hard-lived thirty-five years. I took the PT tape from the shelf along with the scissors. “Let me do this.”

“I can—” “Just let me.”

He hesitated, then nodded. I stood behind him and traced a line from his shoulder blade down the curve of his upper arm. The deltoid lay on top of the joint, a finely honed slice of muscle connecting the bicep in the front and the trapezius in the back, and I followed its contours.

“There?”

He nodded again. The grumpy was burning out, replaced with an exhausted composure. I cut off about eight inches of tape, scissored it into a Y shape, then stretched it along the top of his shoulder. I crisscrossed that with another length of tape along the scapula. The result resembled an exotic tribal tattoo, slick ebony against his pale Irish skin.

I cut off a final strip of tape. “You sure you’re okay?” “I will be in the morning.”

“No, I mean the other kind of okay.”

Trey sucked in a breath as the last piece of tape pulled the injured muscle into place. “You need to keep the tension—”

“At sixty percent, I know. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from a year of being with you, it’s how to use kinesiology tape.” I smoothed the final result with my thumb. “And you didn’t answer my question.”

“Oh.” He dipped his head forward, exposing the back of his neck for me. “I’m okay. Work has been challenging, that’s all.”

“Work with Phoenix or work with Garrity?” “Both.”

“Anything serious?”

“The usual at Phoenix. Marisa wants me more involved in the client intake process.”

I couldn’t actually blame Marisa; if I’d been his boss, I’d have wanted him out from behind his desk too. He was Phoenix Corporate Security’s top premises liability agent, a math-heavy endeavor involving actuarial tables and crime foreseeability studies—the part Trey loved—and showing up at client meet- ings to explain things—the part Trey hated. But clients were quick to sign contracts if Trey was present. Everybody wanted an Armani-clad bad ass on their team.

I returned the tape to the cabinet. “How about things with Garrity?”

“Good. My LINX clearance came through.” “Meaning?”

“Meaning I’m authorized to generate my own AMMO reports now. I still have to be supervised, of course. But I can start moving into quantitative analysis, predictive policing.”

I recognized the acronyms. AMMO was the Atlanta Metro Major Offenders task force, a combined effort between the Atlanta Police Department and the FBI, currently headed up by his friend and former partner, Dan Garrity, which is how Trey got hooked up with it. LINX was some kind of official law enforcement database, one he’d been unable to access until he passed the second tier of training. Which apparently, he had.

“Congratulations,” I said. “Thank you.”

I smiled at his reflection. “I’m glad you have cop work to do again. I want everything to be good, you know?”

“I know. So do I.” “Us things, too.”

His eyes crinkled. “Us things are good for me. Are they good for you?”

“Yes. Of course. It’s just that…I don’t know.”

Trey frowned, then turned around so that we were face to face. He put his hands on my hips, which took me by surprise. Trey  rarely initiated physical contact, but the doctors   always said the same thing—that even though his frontal lobes would never fully recover from his injury, his brain would develop new coping strategies. I knew this, and it still caught me off guard sometimes, the tiny infinitesimal steps he took into a recovery that looked different every single day, but which tonight looked like his thumbs resting lightly on my waist.

“What’s wrong?” he said.

“Nothing. It’s just that you’ve been working fifty hours a week, plus volunteering with Garrity, plus training.” I gave him my serious face. “And I know that staying super-busy is your favorite coping device when you’re not okay.”

He bristled only the slightest. “A structured schedule is a significant part of my recovery complex.”

I reached behind him and pulled the eucalyptus rub off the shelf. The stuff smelled to high heaven, but worked wonders on stressed and strained muscles.

“I simply want to make sure that you’re not decompensating.

Because Gabriella thinks I’m a destabilizing influence.” “She said that?”

“Sort of.” I massaged some of the liniment into the corded tendon on the left side of his neck. “Am I? You have to tell me if I am.”

He considered. “I wouldn’t say destabilizing.” “What would you say?”

“What’s another word for ‘chaotic’? One that doesn’t sound as…”

“Chaotic?”

“Right. Because that’s not the right word.” He dropped his eyes. “I know this wasn’t your fault. I said that because I was frustrated, and tired, and…you know.”

“I know.”

I wrapped my arms around him gently, trying not to aggravate his injury. My reflection gazed back at me alongside his scarred and taped shoulder. Spring was the reenactment season, and hundreds of hours on the mock battlefield had tanned my skin, lightened my dark blond hair with honey-gold streaks. Even my eyes seemed lighter—a gray-flecked green now instead of the deeper hazel—and I saw new wrinkles at the corners. I was no longer a twenty-something either, thanks to my last birthday.

“You need to lie down,” I said. “Okay.”

“I’ll get the ice pack.”

“Okay.” He raised his eyes. “I really am sorry. About tonight.” I kissed him on the chin. “It’s all right. I would have preferred champagne and dinner to liniment and oxy. But I’ll take   you however you come.”

Reviews of

Reckoning and Ruin: A Tai Randolph Mystery #5

“In Atlanta, gun-shop owner Tai Randolph seems to be the target of her white-supremacist cousin Jasper’s anger. It’s not really surprising: Tai’s boyfriend, a former SWAT officer, was instrumental in putting Jasper in jail. But Jasper has a plan to get himself out as soon as possible, and it seems to involve hurting a lot of people, including, perhaps, Tai’s boyfriend or even Tai herself. The fifth installment in the Randolph series takes Tai back to her hometown of Savannah, where she’s forced to confront her own dark past and the family she worked so hard to leave behind. The focus is on character here: Tai, her troubled boyfriend, her disreputable family. The story is smartly constructed, but it’s the people—portrayed with subtlety and depth—who keep us glued to the page. Fans of the series will enjoy this one very much.”

Booklist

“Tai Randolph has to deal with one peril after another in Whittle’s twisty fifth novel featuring the Atlanta gun shop owner (after 2014’s Deeper than the Grave). If it isn’t the possibility that boyfriend Trey Seaver, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident the previous year, will do something crazy, it’s the intentions of an anonymous stalker, who sends Tai cryptic messages. Meanwhile, Tai must tackle the complex problem of her ex-boyfriend’s sudden disappearance and its connection to the unsavory Savannah, Ga., side of her family—in particular, her cousin Jasper Boone, the leader of a Ku Klux Klan splinter group. Jasper, who’s “awaiting trial on charges from criminal trespass to felony assault to conspiracy to commit murder,” has a new lawyer and a scheme that could create big financial trouble for Tai and Trey. Readers should be prepared for a shocker of an ending.”

Publishers Weekly

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