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A Vega and Middleton Mystery
BY SUE HINKIN
When Los Angeles TV news photographer Lucy Vega, whose family was killed in a car crash, investigates another crash during the worst El Niño storm in decades, she is horrified to learn the victim is her uncle. Though the medical examiner declares the death accidental, Lucy suspects otherwise. She sets out on a murder investigation of her own, and soon discovers secret underworld involvement by Mexican cartel members. Bent on finding answers, Lucy travels to Mexico, where she meets a handsome but burned out CNN war correspondent who helps her trail the cartel deep into their own territory. Corruption and brutality are rampant, and Lucy must risk all to find the truth behind her uncle’s murder.
“One of the more suspenseful and fully engrossing books I’ve read in a long time, DEADLY FOCUS grabs you in the first chapter and never lets go. With a gift for instant and vivid characterizations, Sue Hinkin has created a highly sympathetic heroine in Lucy Vega whom you will never forget and will want to follow as the series unfolds. Lucy’s raw sorrow and constant struggles are so truly written and common to the human heart that your soul will recognize and feel them deeply. Thriller, mystery, and mainstream readers have a new author to follow and enjoy, year after year. Keep ‘em comin’, Sue!”
—Sonja Massie, author of more than 60 published works including the highly acclaimed Savannah Reid Mysteries under the pseudonym G.A. McKevett and the bestselling novel Far and Away adapted from the movie by Ron Howard starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman
It was two in the morning when her cell phone rang out with a dreamy Celtic tune—a soothing sound to wake up to, usually. Lucy rolled over toward the charger on the nightstand. Her eighty-pound yellow Lab mix, Maddie, snorted, stretched, and oozed across the warm space Lucy had just vacated on the bed.
She pushed her long, tangled dark locks behind her ears; the old St. Olaf College T-shirt Lucy wore clung to her slim body. Who the hell was trying to get her at this hour? She groped for the phone. Although she wasn’t on call, the ID identified the newsroom. She hit call back.
The line picked up immediately.
“This had better be good,” she said, rubbing her eyes.
The contrite intern explained it all quickly.
“Yeah, Brent, okay, uh-huh. You’re right, no point in Vargas coming out here, it’s only about fifteen minutes down Kanan. Okay. I’m on my way.” She clicked off the phone, turned on her bedside lamp and sipped the last inch of day-old Diet Coke from a dented can. Yuck. She’d grab a hot cup of coffee and some oatmeal at the Paradise Cove Beach Cafe after she finished with the accident assignment.
Throwing off the flannel sheets, Lucy headed for the bathroom. She took a one-minute shower, threw on jeans, a sweatshirt, rain boots, a waterproof jacket with the station logo, and jogged across the stormy yard to the garage. Maddie at her heels beelined it to the dog door at the Spanish rancho style main house and disappeared outside. The pup knew the drill. The plastic flap thwacked shut behind her.
As Lucy pulled out, the door to the house opened. Eighty-year-old Elsa Christianson, her father’s cousin from Norway who was both Uncle Henry’s housekeeper and Lucy’s quasi-grandma, waved her down.
“Everything okay, sweetheart?” She wrapped a pink chenille robe tightly around her small, petite form. Skinny legs rose from tan UGGs. Her beagle, Bugle, poked his head out the door and sniffed. Maddie’s face appeared above his. A doggie totem pole. They playfully snapped at each other and disappeared into the house.
“Go back to bed, Elsa. Just a routine on-call thing.”
“Okay. But be careful honey. We’ve got to work on that special dinner tonight for Henry. Gotta whip up those Mexican-Norwegian tortillas. But no lutefisk this year. Salmon or sea bass, I promise.”
Lucy laughed as she recalled that disastrous culinary experiment from many years ago. Pickled Norwegian whitefish was something that did not have wide appeal, even smothered in salsa. “I’ll be back soon. Love you.”
Lucy couldn’t shake the sense of discomfort that had been niggling at her since she got the call from the intern. It was a rough night, but it felt like something beyond the weather threatened. Water and hillside would be flowing down the mountain along with boulders that could wipe a semi off the road. Another crazy El Niño storm. But this was all part of her job. She pushed the lever that engaged her Jeep’s 4-wheel drive.
In the deep-gray light of a rainy pre-dawn, a murder of black crows circled overhead before descending en masse into a stand of sycamore trees along the bloated, churning expanse of Medea Creek. Several of the big inky birds fought over a bloody morsel that screamed and struggled, then quieted. Finally, one of the winged creatures managed to secure the dying prey in its beak and disappear into the low, leaden sky.
Pulling into a turnout just north of the third tunnel, Lucy eased to a stop between a Los Angeles County fire rescue vehicle and a Malibu cop car—both empty. No other news folks had arrived but it wouldn’t be long. She hopped out, grabbed her gear and headed for the fire road that scaled the edge of the canyon and led down to the water. The loose, decomposing granite scree and slick adobe mud created an added struggle to the trek.
Lucy zipped the video camera into the front of her jacket in hopes of keeping it dry and secure. Despite its nylon cover, the lens was getting wet and she hated those blurry, rain-pocked weather shots the other camera operators cranked out. She knew her cinematic tastes were classic in the midst of a period where halting, unfocused, and blurry were supposed to the give the viewer a sense of raw “reality.” Reality was way overrated. She’d learned that early.
As Lucy made her way down to the scene, the L.A. County Fire Department backhoe tractor began pulling a wrecked silver Lexus sedan out of the creek. Her uncle had one just like it. Lucy looked forward to his coming home tomorrow, which was now, happily, today. She and Elsa would make those tacos with their delicious dill, mayonnaise, red onion, and cabbage salsa. The salmon would be wild caught from Alaska. Pricey, but worth it.
As she cautiously hiked her way down to the edge of the creek, one of the firefighters she’d befriended on other stories gave her a quick wave. Taut chains screeched in protest as the backhoe shivered and the car struggled to emerge. The windows were rolled up. The car’s interior resembled an untended aquarium, full of greenish water slowly draining. The windshield hadn’t shattered. The passenger side door and the pleated rear end appeared to have taken most of the hit.
A body floated against the glass. Lucy swallowed hard and held down a pang of nausea. Anxiety built in her diaphragm and the roar of the ocean rose in her ears. This was too close, too close to home. To the brutal loss of her family in a similar catastrophe.
I’m okay, I’m okay, she told herself. Focus on the story, on the work. The work saves you, always has. Lucy clambered up the bank a bit to get a better angle on the accident, careful not to slip on the sharp rocks. She took a wide shot of the roiling water surging toward the Pacific a mile away.
Documenting the dangerous, hard work of the first responders, she grabbed a close-up of the whitewater moving an empty surfboard along the shore then shifted focus to her friend the fire department rescue worker in a bright yellow rain suit.
As the car finally cleared the shore and settled on a sandy berm, he tried to open the car doors with some kind of slim-jim tool but they wouldn’t oblige. One of their colleagues appeared with the Jaws of Life but after a quick consult, he grabbed an ax and smashed in the windshield.
Water gushed forth like murky vomit. The floating body slid into view atop the Lexus’ silver hood. A shoeless foot tangled against the steering wheel.
Lucy screamed, shook her head and stumbled backward. Surely, she was hallucinating. This couldn’t be real.
Her camera dropped to the ground. For a moment, she was paralyzed.
She swallowed a sob then rushed toward the ruined car. Oblivious of the hands reaching to restrain her, Lucy threw herself into her uncle’s cold, dead arms.
Sue Hinkin is a former college administrator, television news photographer and NBC-TV art department staffer. With a B.A. from St. Olaf College, she completed graduate work at the University of Michigan and was a Cinematography Fellow at the American Film Institute. She lives with her family in Denver.
About Literary Wanderlust…Literary Wanderlust publishes well-written novels and short story anthologies in the romance, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, women’s fiction, and mystery/suspense genres, as well as nonfiction. Visit us at www.literarywanderlust.com.
Links to Sue’s website, blog, books, etc.
Website and blog www.suehinkin.com
Amazon author page at www.amazon.com/-/eBO78SC7CFP