I stared down at the man’s face and tried to care that he was dead. I tried to ignore the bloody dent in his head and focused instead on his relaxed features, which lacked the cunning and malice they’d worn in life.
“Do you recognize this man, Ms. Reilly?” I blinked as the Long Beach police detective prompted me for the second time. “Billy Reilly-Stinson. William.” I paused. “He’s my cousin.”
“My condolences for your loss.”
“I didn’t know him at all.” I looked at the cop. “I only met him two years ago, and he made it clear he didn’t want me in the family.” I glanced at Billy again, seeing the clumpy, oatmeal-like substance in the blood on his shoulder. My stomach lurched. Brain matter. I turned away and breathed deeply.
The detective gestured across the parking garage toward the stairs I’d descended with him five minutes prior. I’d been a few hundred yards away in the temporary paddock for the Grand Prix of Long Beach Media Day, when he’d called asking for my help with something. His request seemed benign at the time.
He walked me around the corner of a half-wall so I couldn’t see Billy’s body, which settled my stomach, but not my emotions. This was my third body in as many years, and I didn’t like seeing anyone dead. I felt sorry for Billy and his family—my father’s family—even if I had a hard time convincing myself I’d miss Billy. Then I felt ashamed I hadn’t liked him and worried about my proximity to death. Again.
The detective pulled a notepad and pen out of his sport coat pocket. “What can you tell me about the deceased?”
“You said you’re Detective Barnes…you’re with homicide?”
He raised an eyebrow. “That’s correct. Mr. Reilly-Stinson didn’t do that to himself. We’re looking for another party.”
I really didn’t expect my ten-day trip to California to start with murder. I studied Barnes: stocky, bowlegged, of mixed Asian and Caucasian heritage. His face was comfortably lined, and his eyes shone with intelligence. I hoped he was smart and fair. I’d gone down the suspect road before, and I wasn’t in the mood.
“Ms. Reilly? What do you know about him?”
“It’s Kate.” I stuck my hands in the back pockets of my jeans. “We were acquainted. We had no reason to communicate or be friends. Neither of us wanted to. We rarely saw each other.” I considered. “I haven’t run into him in more than a year. And I’ve never seen him alone. He’s usually with his cousin, Holden Sherain.”
“Is Mr. Sherain here?”
“Not that I’ve noticed.” I bit my tongue on the fact I’d caught sight of Billy that morning and deliberately avoided him.
“Can you tell me your whereabouts today?”
I felt a flash of alarm at his question, even though I’d been through the drill before and knew I had an alibi. “I got to the track at eight to meet the race staff. From nine to twelve, I was in a pace car doing laps for media or I was with the woman I’m coaching for the celebrity race. I had lunch around noon with the other drivers. After that, more hot laps or coaching, from one until you called me. I’ve been with people all day.”
“Who can verify that?” he asked, then wrote down the five names I gave him.
When a crime scene technician beckoned, Barnes crossed to the landing of the stairs where the tech stood next to a garbage can. A dozen other official types crawled around the half-full parking structure, moving from car to car, shining a flashlight under, around, and between, looking for evidence. Still others stood talking and looking down at Billy’s body.
I shivered, not cold, but remembering Billy’s bloody head. I wrapped my arms around myself. I supposed I should be mourning Billy’s loss of life. I did, in theory. But I hadn’t liked the guy, and I wouldn’t pretend I’d miss him. I did wonder how the rest of my family would take the news. I wanted to stay out of that. Barnes shifted, the movement drawing my attention, and I saw what he and the other man were looking at: some kind of pipe or stick and a wallet.
The detective returned to me, looking down at his notebook, and I spoke before he could. “Was that the murder weapon? In the trash can?”
He hesitated. “It could be. We’ll have to test it to make sure.” “And Billy’s wallet?”
“Yes, with his identification.” “How long ago was he killed?” “Not long. Anything else?”
My big question: “Why did you ask me to identify the body?” “The only item in the victim’s pockets was a marketing card with your name and photo—a ‘hero card,’ someone said—with your cell phone number handwritten on it. Any idea why he’d have that?”
To cause me trouble? “Those cards get handed out by the hundreds at a race weekend. I’m sure there are bunches here for the media today. I have no idea why he’d have one, especially not with my number on it, except we’re both associated with Frame Savings.”
“My father’s family founded the bank more than a hundred years ago. I think Billy works there. They’ve just come on as one of my major sponsors for racing.”
Barnes took notes. “Can you tell me Mr. Reilly-Stinson’s next of kin? Who he was close to? A spouse, significant other? Best friends?”
“All I know is Billy and his cousin, Holden Sherain, were as tight as brothers. Billy’s father is Edward Reilly-Stinson. And my father, James Hightower Reilly, is Billy’s uncle. I only have contact information for my father, but he’ll know more.” With the detective’s approval, I called my father, identifying myself and handing my phone to Barnes.
After that, Barnes asked one last question before letting me leave the parking structure. “You and the deceased didn’t like each other. What was the problem?”
“I’m going to need more.”
I sighed. “I was raised by my mother’s family and never met my father or his family until a couple years ago. There’s still… friction with some of his family, including Billy.” Which wasn’t helped by me uncovering his unethical and illegal activities a year ago. “We were antagonistic when we saw each other occasion- ally, but I didn’t spend time thinking about him. That’s why I don’t know the family very well. I’m an outsider, and I plan to stay that way.”
He made a note in his book. “If you’re both an insider and an outsider, your perspective could be useful. I’ll be in touch.”
Fine, just don’t make me solve this one.
I left Detective Barnes with my cell number and the mystery of who killed Billy. The other crimes I’d felt obligated to help solve had involved victims or suspects I cared about, including myself. This one did not.
My spirits lifted as I headed back to the day’s activities. On my right was the Long Beach Arena, a big, round building with a huge mural of an underwater scene painted all the way around it. Yes, the building that hosted concerts, sports, and special events for the City of Long Beach was circular and blue, with life-size whales on it. Only in Southern California.
Ahead of me was a parking lot transformed into a paddock by the addition of chain link, racecars, and transport trailers. At the far side of the enclosure, I could see the brightly logoed Toyota Scions of the celebrity race competitors pulling off the track. I quickened my steps.
The conclusion of the second celebrity practice meant Media Day for the Grand Prix of Long Beach, or GPLB, was a wrap. We were ten days out from the race itself, plenty of time for local media to write stories about the coming event that would fire up the local population and increase attendance. To that end, the day was a dog-and-pony show.
In addition to getting to know the types of cars that would race during the GPLB weekend—including an IndyCar, a Porsche 911 GT3 R, and the celebrity cars—members of the press could interview the stars taking part in the ten-lap celebrity race to benefit charities. To get a real taste for the track, journalists strapped into pace cars for a hot lap at the hands of one of four pro drivers: the current Indy 500 champion, a drifting champion, a Pirelli World Challenge race winner, and me. I’d driven a couple dozen laps that day, and every passenger had exited the car with an ear-to-ear grin.
My driving duties were over for the day, but my work wasn’t, since I was coaching the most famous of the celebrity competitors. I smiled at the security guard monitoring entry to the media area and hurried over to the Toyotas.
The celebrity race was made up of two groups: professional drivers from different forms of motorsport—motorcycle racing, drag racing, or even someone long-retired from sportscar racing—and a variety of celebrities from the music industry, movies, television, news, or other sports. The celebrities were always hit and miss, some years famous and attention-drawing, some years not so much. This year they’d hit the jackpot with a member of the current number-one boy-band and an Oscar- winner with critical success and starring roles in the two biggest box-office films of the last year. That was my client, Madelyn, or Maddie, Theabo.
I aimed for the scrum of media in the center of the celebrity cars, certain what I’d find: Maddie and the boy-band member back-to-back, fielding questions from reporters. I caught Maddie’s eye and pointed to the temporary trailer where the race staff had set up for the day. She nodded, but kept talking.
Two months prior, I’d received a phone call out of the blue from a woman named Penny Warner, who was looking for a driving coach. We were most of the way through negotiations before she revealed she was calling for her employer, Maddie, one of the biggest names in movies. It took two hours for me to get over my fangirl freakout.
Maddie had gone through the standard celebrity training, four days at a track in the high desert north of L.A. But she wanted more instruction, feedback, and support. Since then, we’d met at different go-kart facilities to work on braking points and lines, and I’d prepped her as well as I could for driving the Long Beach track. But nothing compared to being out on the pavement, and part of my job was to help her make sense of her impressions.
I watched her handle the crush of fans and media, marveling that she didn’t ignore anyone. I understood firsthand how a crowd of media and fans could press in on a person, and I’d only endured it briefly at a racetrack. Away from the track, I was virtually invisible. But everyone recognized Maddie, and she still handled the attention graciously, replying to greetings, smiling at photo-takers, and accommodating everyone who asked for a signature. She’d told me when we met that she knew her success was due to her fans, so she always gave them and the media time. When she finally broke free from the reporters, we ducked into the office trailer, nodding to three staff members huddled over laptops at the far end of the room. Maddie leaned against a desk inside the door, draining the contents of a water bottle. She was thirty-three, with a slender build, an expressive face, and bouncy, wavy, auburn hair half the world coveted.
I eyed the flush in her cheeks. “How was it?” “Nearly as much fun as sex.”
I laughed. “Did anything trip you up? Was the track what you expected?”
Since the Long Beach Grand Prix track was comprised of city streets, which had to be closed to traffic, it was only available during Media Day and the race weekend. The stands, barricades, and fencing lining the course would remain, but the walls shutting down public roads would be moved aside any minute now, to be set in place again a week from Thursday, when the race weekend began. Today’s two sessions, both follow-alongs, single file behind an instructor, were the first time the celebrity competitors had seen the racing surface.
“You’d warned me,” she said, “but the walls were still closer after Turns 5 and 8 than I expected.”
The concrete walls brought in to define the temporary circuit were big and unforgiving, and to wring the most speed out of a car, we ran right next to them. More than one reporter during the day’s laps had flinched at their proximity.
We talked corners for a few minutes until I saw Maddie shiver. “You need to get changed before you catch a chill. Keep thinking about the track, and draw your racing line on the track map I gave you.”
“You’re still coming to the party this evening?” Maddie asked. “And the studio tomorrow? Penny has a car arranged for tonight.” “She does, but I don’t need the car and driver. I drive for a
“It’s easier. You can drink what you like, enjoy yourself, and not be unsafe driving home. Plus parking in the hills is a bitch.” She put a hand on my arm. “For all you’re helping me, it’s the least I can do. Besides, this way, I won’t worry about you.”
I gave in. “What do I wear tonight? I’ve never been to a party in Hollywood.”
“Anything you want, Kate. You’ll see ripped jeans and sequins, sometimes on the same person.” She smiled. “I’ll see you later.” I followed her out of the trailer and watched her purposeful stride through the fenced area, her ever-present personal assistant, Penny, next to her. The fenced-off parking lot was rapidly draining of vehicles as the celebrity race staff took the Toyotas back to their staging area. My work was done. I collected my belongings from the lone IndyCar trailer, waving at one of the IndyCar Series executives as he passed. I also nodded at a member of the grand prix organization, then stopped when she spoke to me.
“Thanks again for giving the press a thrill, Kate.” “You bet.” I shook her hand. “You’re Erica?”
“Erica Aarons. Your team media guy, Tom, said you’d let me set up some interviews while you’re in L.A. for the next week. If that’s all right, I’ll make a plan.”
After swapping contact information, I continued on my way to the GPLB media center in the basement of the Performing Arts Center building, which—combined with the whale- muraled arena, a hotel, and the convention center—formed the heart of the Long Beach circuit. I ducked inside, downstairs, and into the women’s bathroom. One thing I loved about this race facility was the abundance of real bathrooms. I’d been in lots of porta-potties in my career, and I preferred running water. I swung the door open and came face-to-face with Elizabeth Rogers, part of the operations team for the SportsCar Championship, or SCC, the series I competed in.
Elizabeth saw me and dissolved into tears. “Kate, did you hear what happened? Holden is devastated.”
My spirits fell to the ground with a thump. Billy. Dead.