A Kelly Pruett Mystery - Book 3

In the third thrilling book in the Kelly Pruett mystery series--Her world was falling into place. Then women started dropping off the map.

PI Kelly Pruett finally feels like she’s coming into her own. With her personal life well on track, a gig uncovering what drove a client’s granddaughter underground could be good for business. But after her undercover operation at the homeless shelter reveals rampant drug dealing, she’s suddenly kicked off the case… just as another girl goes missing.

Vowing to expose the truth even if it means pro-bono work, Kelly is taken aback when her half-sister helps her hunt down answers in a tent city brimming with distrust. When her investigation doesn’t move quickly enough to save a second woman from a vicious murder, Kelly doubles her efforts unwilling to accept defeat.

Can Kelly stop a brutal killer in their tracks before the body count rises?

5 stars

“This mystery hits all the right notes! In the third book of the series, Kelly Pruett’s undercover investigation of a homeless shelter leads to missing girls, drug dealing, and murder. Heartfelt characters and a twisting and turning plot kept me turning the pages. Another winner from Mary Keliikoa.” 

David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Anthony and Thriller Award-winning author of Winter Counts



Don’t get me wrong, I was Mitz’s mom, and Kyle’s girlfriend, and my own best advocate, but PI work is often considered “guys work.” So, to get a call from Bernie Sokol about “a delicate matter which requires a pro” was validating—although not a complete surprise. 

Bernie’s firm had been a longtime client of R&K Investigations. My dad had been called to Bernie’s home many times over the years to handle cases for him, but most of the work I did came from his assistant in the form of serving documents. This call had come direct from Bernie to me, and that said he had more than process serving on his mind. Now I was cruising through his well-to-do neighborhood, with its McMansions and heated pools and security systems after dropping Mitz off at school.

Raindrops laced with snow dripped from the gray January sky, and my droopy-eyed and musky smelling friend, Floyd, lay curled in a ball on the passenger seat. I came upon Bernie Sokol’s S emblazoned wrought iron gate fast and skidded into the driveway, hoping the four million cameras hadn’t caught my less than graceful arrival. I hadn’t mastered my new-to-me Ford Focus, purchased after my Triumph Spitfire had an ending that rivaled an installment of Fast & Furious. Easing up the circular drive, I parked under the wide columned portico. A valet dashing out to greet me wouldn’t have felt out of place. 

Good thing I’d dressed for the occasion, opting for black pants and a white blouse instead of my usual grey Nike warmup jacket and blue jeans. I was the CEO of my own agency now—time to act like it. I ran a hand over Floyd’s bony head and down one of his long ears, ignoring the butterflies taking flight in my stomach. 

“Back in a jiff,” I said.

More than a decade younger than my thirty-two years, a girl dressed in grey sweats answered the door. She had light freckles across her upturned nose and had a baby boy in blue-footed PJs perched on her hip. He pulled on the long blonde braid she’d thrown over her shoulder. 

“Mrs. Sokol?” I asked. I’d never known much about Bernie’s family life other than what his assistant, Carla, had shared. Word was he’d traded in his first wife, Katherine, who had forty years of marriage on the clock.

The girl rolled her eyes so hard they almost disappeared into their sockets. “Yeah, no. I’m Morgan.” She tilted her head and yelled. “Mom.” She turned back to me. “She prefers Candy Appleton, by the way.”

My face flushed at the misstep, even as I wondered if the child on Morgan’s hip was her son or her half-brother. I was afraid to ask. The kid coughed, sounding croupy. Morgan rocked him and kissed him, patting his back. “Bad cold,” she said.

The real Mrs. Sokol, or Ms. Appleton as I’d been informed, jogged out from a back room of the house dressed in hot pink stretch pants, pink sparkle sports bra, and black heels. She’d pulled her red hair into a messy bun that sat on top of her head like a giant tarantula. Large hoop earrings hung from her ears. 

Her bracelets jingled with each step, and her five-carat ring shot shimmers of rainbow colors around the foyer. “Morgan, don’t be rude. Let the lady in,” she directed.

Morgan huffed and stepped aside so I could enter the marble foyer that divided two living spaces. To my right, low slung couches, and sleek, modern lines; to the left, French provincial, matching the furniture I’d seen at Baumgartner & Sokol’s offices. A house divided. Not just by age, but by taste. Or lack thereof. I checked myself. She was Bernie’s wife, and I’d done enough sneaking around in bushes and peering in through windows to be aware that wives often knew what was happening in their husband’s lives long before they hired me. I couldn’t alienate her. 

Ms. Appleton smiled with her blinding white teeth. “You making a delivery?” 

“No, ma’am. I have an appointment with Mr. Sokol.”

“Oh, God, don’t call me ma’am. I’m only forty-nine.”

“And a young forty-nine at that. Right, grandma?” Morgan bounced the baby on her hip.

Candy smiled, but her jaw flinched. “Honey, show the lady up to your dad’s office.”

“Dad?” Morgan said.

“The man pays for your education. Show a little gratitude. It’s the least you could do.”

Morgan met my eye, her mouth held in a tight curve. “Follow me.”

Glad to see I wasn’t the only one with the occasionally strained family relations. Except I didn’t have to live with my ex, Jeff, or his mother, Arlene, who happened to be my neighbor. But Bernie’s new wife was an interesting choice, and given the amount of jewelry and education he sprung for, I wondered if Candy was in it for more than love. 

We climbed the grand staircase, red oriental carpet running up the middle cushioning our footsteps, while I made scrunchy faces at the little guy on Morgan’s hip. He mimicked them back at me. 

“Your son’s a cutie. What’s his name?” I said.

“Thomas, but we call him bubbles because he likes it when I blow bubbles into my soda with a straw. Don’t we, bubbles?” She rubbed her nose on his and the kid burbled right back at his mom, pulling her braid harder.

I missed those years when they were focused so tightly on every action; a sound could get a giggle. My mom had a thing she did with spoons and a piece of aluminum foil that used to crack me up when I was a toddler—that’s what my dad had told me—but I couldn’t think about that. I was here on a matter of business, not a walk down memory lane.

Three mountains worth of staircase later, we reached Mr. Sokol’s office. 

Morgan pushed open his door. “Some chick’s here to see you.” She didn’t wait for his response and took off down the hall. Cool, I was a chick.

Mr. Sokol leaned back, an old-school phone in one hand and a cigar in the other. He set the receiver down and peered over his wired spectacles. He rounded the desk wearing a burgundy warmup suit with a white stripe down the legs. His salt and pepper hair had a precision cut. Except for dark circles shadowing his eyes and a slump to his shoulders, he hadn’t changed much since the last time I’d seen him, which was at my dad’s funeral. 

“Ms. Pruett, my apologies for not greeting you at the door.” He nodded at his phone. “Trying to settle a case ahead of trial.”  

I extended my hand. “No worries, and it’s Kelly.” 

He had a firm grip that was friendly and not overly-familiar. They say a lot can be told about a person by their handshake, and they’re not wrong. Bernie was clearly in charge of his world. 

He motioned me to sit and returned to his chair behind the desk. He spent a few seconds puffing on his cigar, sizing me up and assessing whether I could handle the job. 

I shifted in my chair. “What can I do for you, Mr. Sokol?”

“It’s Bernie.” He balanced his cigar on the edge of the ashtray. His elbows rested on the arms of his chair, and he drew up his fingertips, forming a steeple close to his mouth. “I could always rely on your father. He was thorough and got the job done every time. Hell of an investigator. But he’s not here and I need your help at the women’s homeless shelter, Loving Grace.”

Bernie told me about founding Loving Grace and how it had been inspired by the drug-related death of his sister—Grace. I’d learned as much when prepping for the meeting. But it was good to hear him tell the story as I knew how grief could shape a person from my own experience of losing both parents. It also might help me understand why he called me here. Even decades after his sister’s death, the tears came readily and he had to stop to compose himself. I’d be in the same emotional state if I allowed myself to talk about my parents, which I didn’t. “I’m sorry for the loss of your sister.” 

“Appreciate that.” He pulled himself together so he could continue. “But she’s not why you’re here. My granddaughter Amber has been missing for the last five days….” He took off his glasses and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. “Drugs…”

Surrounded by wealth and splendor, with a snazzy new wife downstairs, the man was still grieving. He continued, “I can’t lose another…”

“What do the Portland police…?” I began.

Bernie let out a wry laugh before I could finish my sentence. “Amber Moore’s just another homeless drug addict as far as they’re concerned. The police asked a few questions, wrote down what I told them, but she’s 18. Let me translate that for you: they don’t have the time or the inclination. They filed the report. Case closed.” 

The news reported almost daily that drugs and addiction were an epic problem in Portland, but my newly promoted Portland Police Detective boyfriend, Kyle Jaeger, might be able to give me more information on that report. 

I was about to share that fact, but Bernie shook himself, seeming to come back to the moment. “That’s why I called you.”

“You’d like me to find her?” I said.

He waved me off, wrangling his emotions into a tiny box. “No. Not find her. It’s more delicate than that. Amber was only twelve when her mother left. I did my best, but a girl needs a mother.” 

That fact hit home for me since I’d lost mine when I was young. I kept my face straight and looked at him as he continued with his story.

“As a teen, Amber fell in with the wrong crowd and the downward spiral began. By the time she was fifteen, she’d dropped out and was dodging my calls and shooting up in alleyways and abandoned buildings. The best I could hope for, I thought, was that she had a safe place to retreat to when things got too rough. She had a permanent bed reserved for her at Loving Grace.” He stubbed his cigar out, without taking another puff. 

There was something in that gesture. I leaned in, trying to home in on what he wasn’t saying. “She’d even gotten some assistance at the pain and rehab center across the street. She didn’t know I knew, but I kept an eye out. About six weeks ago, I saw she’d checked herself into rehab for a spell.” He shook his head. “I actually slept a few nights after that. Not worrying. Do you have any idea what that’s like to worry all the time?”

“I have a nine year-old daughter,” I said.

“Then you do.”

One hundred percent. Mitz had been born deaf, a result of Waardenburg syndrome. We had our own special language, even though we weren’t always together because Jeff lived closest to her school. During the week, it made the most sense she was with him. But when I wasn’t working, all I wanted to do was be with her. I couldn’t imagine a life without her in it. 

“Well, my grandbaby made it through rehab and found herself a little job as a filing clerk. Nothing fancy, but it was honest work. I couldn’t remember the last time she’d had a job. I didn’t get in touch. She’s like a cat. She needed to come to me.” His eyes filled again. “Then, out of the blue, she did. Two weeks ago, she called to say she was clean and had sworn off drugs and was learning some new skills—pulling her life together. She sounded good and I believed her.” He frowned. “It was short lived.”

First his sister, and now this. It didn’t sound good.

“Her last calls to me say she’s in trouble. It’s not the same old same old. This is something new.” He reached into his top drawer and pulled out a handheld recorder and pressed play.

“Papa. I’m close. They’re definitely dealing. Now I have to work out who all’s involved. Don’t come down here. Don’t come looking for me.” There was a crinkling sound in the background like she had crunched a candy wrapper in her hand and thrown it in the trash. “You stand out, Papa. And, anyway, they prepare when you do a visit. Hide things. Go underground. You need to let me ride this one out. I’m so close. Promise me you won’t come or send the police? I’ll have the evidence soon. I love you, Papa. Thank you for being on my side. Now I want to do this for you.” There was a hitch in her voice, like she was swallowing or holding back tears. “I’m almost there. I just have to make sure they don’t find me.”

He stopped the recorder, flipped it open, reached into his desk and found a second cassette. Old school. 

I waited, hands folded in my lap, brain working overtime and forming several questions. Why weren’t the police interested in a drug bust if Amber was right and drugs were being sold at Loving Grace? Why hadn’t Bernie gone down there himself? I’d be dragging Mitz out whether she liked it or not. What was Amber trying to tell him about the shelter? What was she trying to do that put her in danger? Had he played this cassette when he called the police? 

“This one came in at midnight the last time I heard from her.” He clicked play again. Amber’s voice was a whisper. “They’re onto me, Papa. They know. Gotta go.” That was the end of the message. She’d hung up without saying that she loved him or what she’d found or anything that could remotely be construed as a lead.

Bernie came around his desk and propped himself up beside me. “Whatever Amber found at Loving Grace, I believe it was so damning that she’s gone into hiding.”

I didn’t want to state the obvious, but if there was a drug ring as Amber suggested, I had no choice. “Are you sure she’s alive?”

“Yes. And I intend to keep her that way, which is why you can’t go looking for her,” he said. “She’s scared. She’s in danger. People are watching her.”

Those facts were something for the police, surely. Drugs. Threats. Missing girl.

“I went after Grace and look how that ended.”

His sister had OD’d. I had a horrible feeling I was about to learn more about how and why.

“She’d spiraled out of control.” He squeezed his eyes shut, tight. “We got her into rehab. Best place. Top-notch. Doctors available round the clock. Therapy. The works.” He stared at me without seeing me; the hole in his heart showed through his eyes. “Once released, she worked for me in the law offices. She kept her head above water. Even started dating.” He rubbed his face like there was something that wouldn’t come off. “I didn’t see it coming.”

“I’m sorry.” The statistics on recidivism weren’t encouraging. People relapsed. There was a particular danger for people who’d gotten clean but remained close to their old friends. They had to get out of the old circles of influence if they were going to make a clean break. Many didn’t.

“She called me.”

I nodded, not sure which she we were talking about.

“Grace said she was sorry. A hundred times. That she didn’t mean it. That she would try again.” He stared at the curtains. The carpet. Anywhere but me. “I told her how disappointed I was. How she’d let me down. How she was weak and…”

Ouch. On the one hand, I got it. Grace had gotten clean only to fall right off the wagon. If she overdosed after that conversation, I could see why he was reluctant to let me go after his granddaughter.  

“I can’t mess up again, you understand? I only want you to find out if things are a foul at Loving Grace. If people are dealing drugs inside my shelter, then you tell me exactly who they are.” Bernie returned to his side of the desk and plopped down, helping himself to another cigar. “When they’re gone, Amber will see that she’s safe.” He lopped off the top of his Cuban. “You see where I’m coming from?”

Despite his logic, it came down to don’t find Amber because of mistakes he’d made in the past. I did see, but I didn’t agree that sending me in on a fact-finding mission would be enough. 

“You look like him, you know.” 


“Your dad.”

“I do have his eyes.” Although mine weren’t as wise as my Welshman father, but I had my mother’s round chin, her smile, and long wavy hair. 

“Not just that. He looked at me the same way when I asked him to do something he wasn’t sold on. But I listen to my gut and I’m usually right. Wish he was here to confirm that for you.”

I wished that too and hoped that didn’t show on my face. “I’m glad my dad trusted you and you him.”

“That’s what it’s all about,” he said. “Trust.”

“I hope you’ll learn to trust me in the same way, Bernie.”

He held my gaze for far too long. “Me too.”

If I hadn’t been one-hundred percent committed before that look, it sealed the deal. I wouldn’t let this man down. He’d seen enough disappointment. I’d find the people who were dealing drugs. Once he cleaned house, I’d convince him to hire me to find his granddaughter.

We talked a few more minutes about the details of my going in, about my fee, and I agreed to stay in touch with him via phone. He also provided me a picture of Amber with her short brown hair and wide innocent eyes. It was taken when her mother was alive. “It was the last time she was truly happy,” he said as he escorted me to the door. 

Now I just had to find a way into Loving Grace and come up with a plan to begin my investigation.