Book 3: The Stillwater Trilogy
The people of Stillwater, Mississippi, are asking questions about murder. Again.
Twenty years ago, Madeline Barker’s father disappeared. Despite what everyone else thinks, she’s convinced her stepfamily had nothing to do with it. But the discovery of his car proves he didn’t just drive away. Worse, the police find something in his trunk that says there’s more to this case than murder.
With no other recourse, Madeline decides to hire a private investigator—even if the cops don’t like it. Even if her family doesn’t like it. But when PI Hunter Solozano begins to uncover some shocking evidence, someone in Stillwater is determined to put a stop to Madeline’s search for the truth. And that means putting a stop to her. Permanently.
“The first condition of human goodness is something to love; the second something to reverence.”
George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans, English novelist 1819-80
Was his body inside?
Hunched against the freezing January rain, Madeline Barker’s fingernails cut into her palms as, along with her stepbrother, stepsister and stepmother, she watched police and several volunteers attempt to pull her father’s car out of the abandoned water-filled rock quarry. Her head pounded from lack of sleep, and her chest was almost too tight to breathe, yet she stood perfectly still…waiting. Everything she’d ever believed about the disappearance of her father rested on the next few minutes. After twenty years, she might finally have some answers.
Toby Pontiff, Stillwater, Mississippi’s police chief, knelt at the lip of the yawning hole. “Careful, careful there Rex,” he called above the high-pitched whine of the winch attached to a massive tow truck.
Joe Vincelli and his brother Roger, Madeline’s first cousins, hovered on the other side of the quarry, their faces filled with eager anticipation. They spoke animatedly to each other, but Madeline couldn’t hear them above the grating noise. She was fairly certain she didn’t want to. What they had to say would only upset her. They’d long blamed her father’s disappearance on her stepfamily–Irene, Grace and Clay–who were gathered around her now. Unfortunately, finding the Cadillac in the quarry barely five miles outside of town would only convince them that they’d been right all along. It would certainly prove that her father hadn’t driven off into the sunset.
The black seal-like heads of two divers who had gone down a few minutes earlier popped up and, with a gasp, Madeline realized that she could see the front grill of her dad’s car through the murky water. Experiencing a sudden rush of tears, she instinctively moved closer to her stepbrother, Clay, who remained as dark and silent as the surrounding rocks.
The car didn’t break the surface. Rex hit a button that stopped the clamoring winch, halting progress. The sudden silence made Madeline’s ears ring.
Her stepmother, a short busty woman with hair like Loretta Lynn, whimpered at the sight of the barely visible car. Grace shifted to try and comfort her. But Clay didn’t move. Madeline glanced up at him, wondering what was going on behind his intense blue eyes.
As usual, it was difficult to tell. His expression mirrored the gray, overcast sky. Maybe he wasn’t thinking. Maybe, like her, he was simply surviving the cataclysm of emotions.
It’ll be over soon. No matter what happens, knowing is better than not knowing. She hoped….
“This is starting to make me nervous,” Rex complained. Short and wiry with the tattoo of a woman partly visible on his neck, he frowned as he joined Chief Pontiff. “What if we clip the edges of the rocks? The car could get hung up.”
“It’s not gonna get hung up,” a police officer by the name of Radcliffe said.
The tow truck driver ignored the unsolicited input in favor of keeping his focus on the man in charge. “I don’t think this is gonna work,” he insisted. “I say we get a crane in here, Toby, before someone gets hurt or we ruin my truck.”
Toby, a slight blond man with a neatly trimmed mustache, had become Chief Pontiff only six months earlier and was a friend of Madeline’s. They’d grown up together; she’d been close with his future wife all through high school. He shot Madeline a sympathetic glance then, lowering his voice, turned away from her.
Still, she could–barely–make out his words. “That’ll take another day or two. Look at that group over there. See the woman in the middle? The one who’s white as a ghost? Her mother killed herself when she was ten years old. Her father went missing when she was sixteen. And she’s been standing here since dawn, getting soaked. I’m not going to send her home until I get her father’s car out of this damn quarry and see if his remains are inside. It’s already taken me a week to arrange it.”
“If she’s waited so long, what’s another two or three days?” Rex asked.
“It’s another two or three days!” Toby nearly shouted. “And she’s not the only one with an interest in what’s happening here, as you can tell.”
Obviously, he was talking about the Vincellis, who’d long been impatient with police for being unable to discover what, exactly, had happened to their beloved uncle. No doubt Pontiff didn’t want them going over his head to the mayor again, as they’d done with the previous police chief.
“My entire town is sitting on pins and needles,” Toby continued, his voice evening out. “I’m going to catch more grief than you can imagine if I don’t put an end to it. Soon.”
The man called Rex scowled and shoved his hands into the pockets of his heavy coat. Madeline had never met him before. A distant relation of Toby’s, he’d been called in from a neighboring town when their local tow truck owner said his truck wasn’t capable of getting the job done. “I’m sorry,” Rex said. “But with all this water and silt, combined with the weight of the car, there’s no need to take the chance of burning up the engine of my–”
“If we wanted to wait, we would have waited,” Toby interrupted. “We wouldn’t be standing out here in the cold, freezing our asses off. But we called you, and you said you could do it. So can we please get this damn thing out of the water? Your truck’s powerful enough to tow a semi, for cryin’ out loud!”
Madeline flinched, her nerves too raw to cope with the anxiety and frustration swirling through the men working around her. It had been an emotional seven days. A week ago, a group of teenagers had come here to party and a girl had fallen into the water who was too drunk to climb out. She slipped under the surface before anyone could reach her and the resulting search for her body, which police located as darkness set in almost twenty-four hours later, had finally turned up the Cadillac missing since Lee Barker disappeared.
As the owner, editor and largest contributing writer of the Stillwater Independent, Madeline had followed the tragedy of the teenage girl since the first frantic call. But she’d never dreamed that the incident would lead to this. Had her father’s car been here, so close, since she was sixteen? That was the question she’d been asking herself for seven interminable days, while the town first dealt with the immediate tragedy of losing Rachel Simmons.
Rex spat on the ground. “Toby, the divers don’t know what the hell they’re doin’. With the color of this water, they can barely see down there, even with a light. I can’t trust that we won’t break a tow cable and send that car crashing right back to the bottom.”
Clay spoke up for the first time. “The divers said they found the windows down, right?”
Toby and Rex turned to face him. “What does that have to do with anything?” Rex asked.
“If the windows were down, they were able to get the cables through. You’re going to be fine. Just pull it out.”
Typically the strong silent type, Clay was respected for his physical power and mental acuity, but he’d also endured enough suspicion where her father was concerned to give him a pretty big stake in all of this. Madeline knew the Chief of Police had to be thinking of that as he considered the stubborn set of Clay’s jaw. She could almost read Toby’s thoughts: Are you trying to help because you don’t know what’s in that car? Or are you merely trying to cover the fact that you do?
Madeline wanted to scream, for the millionth time, that her stepbrother couldn’t have had anything to do with what happened to her father. Clay could be fierce, but she’d only seen him that way in defense of someone he loved.
“Let me handle this, Clay,” Toby said, but there was no real edge to his voice, and his hazel eyes returned to the water-filled quarry before his words could be taken as any sort of challenge. Apparently, even the Chief of Police was a little uneasy around Clay. At 6’4” tall and 240 pounds of lean muscle, Clay certainly looked formidable. But it was his manner more than anything else that made folks uneasy. He was so self-contained, so emotionally aloof it was easy for others to believe him capable of murder.
“Rex,” Chief Pontiff prodded. “Let’s get this done.”
Rex indulged in a particularly colorful string of curses but finally stalked to his truck. The winch started again, slowly pulling the car from the water.
Madeline caught her breath. God, this is it.
“Watch those divers,” Rex called.
Chief Pontiff had already motioned them away. “Let the winch do the work, boys,” he called. “Stay back.”
The scrape of metal against rock made Madeline shudder. It was an awful sound–almost as awful as watching the dark, dirty water seep out of the car that had belonged to her parents when she was a child. Why was the Cadillac in the quarry? Who had driven it there? And–the question that had plagued her for twenty years–what had happened to her father? Would she finally know?
As the tow truck driver had predicted, the car got caught up on a particularly large, sharp rock. “I told you!” he shouted, cursing again. But before he could shut down the winch, the rusty rear axle broke and the Cadillac continued to emerge like a soulless zombie, groaning as it climbed out of its watery grave.
Madeline’s nails cut more deeply into her palms. The familiarity of that vehicle threw her back to her childhood–almost as if someone had yanked her by the shoulders and deposited her in the front seat at age five, six or seven. She used to sit right beside her mother while Eliza drove around town, visiting various members of her father’s congregation, taking food and comfort to the sick and needy.
Madeline had believed, then, that her mother was an angel.
Squeezing her eyes shut, she pressed a hand to her forehead, trying to stave off the memories. She rarely allowed herself to think about Eliza. Her mother had been a gentle soul–everything good to Madeline. But, as Madeline’s father had pointed out so often after Eliza’s death, she was also weak and fragile. Lee had had little good to say about his first wife, but Madeline had never blamed him. She hadn’t been able to forgive Eliza, either.
Clay’s arm went around her shoulders, and she turned into his coat. She wasn’t sure she could watch what was coming next.
“It’s okay, Maddy,” he murmured.
She took what comfort she could in his constant, warm strength. He was capable of surviving anything. Secretly, she wished she was as tough. She also wished Kirk could be here with her. They’d dated for nearly five years, but she’d broken off the relationship just a few weeks ago.
“That’s it.” Pontiff waved the divers out of the water as Rex towed the Cadillac farther onto stable ground.
This time when he stopped the winch, Rex turned off the engine of the truck also. Madeline felt Clay tense, so she forced herself to look at what was happening and saw her cousins hurrying to the car.
Chief Pontiff gave her an anxious glance, adjusted the hat keeping the rain out of his face and intercepted them. “Stand back,” he said, barring them from huddling too close.
Madeline was glad that Irene, Clay and Grace stayed put, or she would have been standing alone. She couldn’t get any closer to that car. She had no idea what she might see and feared it would only fuel her nightmares. Every few weeks, she dreamed that her father was knocking on her front door in the middle of the night. He was always wearing a thick, heavy coat that, when she answered, parted to reveal nothing but a skeleton.
Grace, a more refined, elegant version of Clay, took her hand and Irene edged closer. Clay stepped in front, but he seemed even more reserved than usual. No doubt he was thinking of his new wife and stepdaughter and how this might affect them. Since marrying Allie, he was happy at last. But for how long? The police were always quick to point a finger at him. Last summer they nearly put him on trial for her father’s murder, without a body, without an eye witness, without any forensic evidence at all. Unless there was something in the car that proved Clay wasn’t involved, this could put him at risk again.
“Door’s rusted shut,” Pontiff said. “Get a crowbar.”
Radcliffe, who was barely in his twenties and had the baby face to prove it, returned to one of the police cars and produced the crowbar, which he carried to his chief.
As Pontiff began to pry open the door, the car complained loudly, ratcheting up the tension that made Madeline’s muscles ache. Her heart lurched as the metal gave way and the water from inside came pouring out over everyone’s shoes.
Pontiff didn’t seem to notice. No one did. They were all busy staring at the gush of water as if they expected parts of her father to come floating out along with it.
How could this be happening? she wondered. How could she have lost her mother and her father–in two separate incidents?
She didn’t see anything, so she inched a little closer, straining her eyes for the smallest bit of clothing or–she grimaced–bone. At least, if her father’s remains were in the car, she’d know that he hadn’t meant to leave her. She’d never been able to accept that he’d walked out on her. As the town’s beloved pastor, he was a God-fearing man, always ready to help out in an emergency, always a leader. He would never abandon his flock, his farm, his family.
Which meant someone had to have killed him. But who?
As the water seeped over the ground to the lip of the quarry, mixing with the run-off from the rain, Madeline clenched her jaw. Nothing macabre. Yet.
They were opening the trunk. The Cadillac’s keys had been left dangling in the ignition, but the locks were too corroded so they were using the crowbar again.
Bile rose in Madeline’s throat as the minutes stretched. She tried to keep her mind busy. But what did one think about at a time like this? The teenage girl they’d buried on Wednesday? The miserable weather? The years she’d lived without her father?
It was no use. She could only chafe beneath the torment….
Pontiff lifted something in one hand. “You recognize this?”
Belatedly, Madeline realized he was speaking to her and nodded. It was the Polaroid camera she’d seen her father use on various occasions. Seeing it caused a chill to crawl down her spine. Finding his camera made him feel close, but it didn’t tell her anything.
“Is that all?” she asked around the lump in her throat.
The police chief pulled out some jumper cables, a couple quarts of oil, a sopping blanket. Familiar items that could be found in any trunk.
He’ll find something that will finally tell the tale. Madeline was praying so hard for a clue that she almost couldn’t believe it when she heard him say, “That’s it.”
“What?” she cried. “There’s nothing there that tells us where he went?”
Pontiff shifted uncomfortably. “I’m afraid not.”
She didn’t move–felt absolutely rooted to the spot–as Clay wiped her tears with his thumb. “I’m sorry, Maddy.”
Sorry didn’t hold any meaning. She’d been expecting so much more than another apology. It couldn’t be over. If so, she was right back where she’d been before they discovered the car. Where she’d been all along–faced with the nagging mystery and the prospect that she might never know.
“There…” Her teeth chattered from the cold and her own reaction. “There h-has to be…something else here,” she said. “You’ll…look, won’t you? You’ll…let the car dry out and…and go over it inch by inch?”
Chief Pontiff nodded, but she could tell he wasn’t optimistic.
“Will you let Allie take a look?” Her sister-in-law had been a cold case detective in Chicago a year ago. Surely, she’d find something.
Sending a grudging glance at Joe and Roger, Pontiff scowled. “You know I can’t do that.”
“Don’t let the Vincellis dictate how you handle this,” Madeline said. “She’s the most qualified. You know it, too.”
“She’s also married to the man who did it!” Joe shouted.
The cleft in Joe’s chin was a little too deep to be attractive. Or maybe it was the narrowness between his eyes that gave him a shifty air. He stood six feet tall and was almost as muscular as Clay, but Madeline had never found him good looking. “Stop it,” she murmured, but he talked right over her.
“Give me a break! Will you listen to yourself? Maddy, if you want to know what happened to your father, ask that man right there!”
He pointed at Clay, but wilted when Clay pinned him with a steely gaze. Not many men could stand up against Clay, and Joe was no exception. He shuffled back, muttering, “Tell ’em, Roger.”
Joe’s brother was even less handsome. His teeth were straighter, but he was thinner, a full three inches shorter, and had a severely receding hairline and a furtive gaze. Although he was the older brother, he typically remained in Joe’s shadow. “It’s true,” he said but softly, weakly, as if he didn’t really want to incite Clay.
Chief Pontiff ignored them both. He was well aware of the suspicion and accusations of the past. He’d been on the force when Clay’s wife, a divorcee at the time, had first returned to town and begun following up on the Barker case. He’d been around when her father, the old chief of police, charged Clay with murder and put him in jail last summer. He’d also been around when they let Clay go because there wasn’t, and never had been, any real evidence linking him to the crime.
“This car has been submerged for more than half our lives,” Pontiff said, his attention unwavering on Madeline. “Look at it. Even the metal has begun to corrode. As much as I hate to say it, the Caddy might not tell us what we want to know. You need to prepare yourself, just in case.”
“No!” She hugged herself to stop the shaking. “There could be a…a tooth, or a comb stuck way down in the crack of the seat. Some evidence, s-s-ome lead.” She watched those forensics shows religiously, recorded them if she wasn’t going to be home. She’d seen thousands of cases solved with the tiniest piece of evidence.
“We’ll check, like I said, but…” He let his words dwindle.
“Oh, Maddy,” Grace said softly.
Madeline didn’t respond to her stepsister. She wanted to calm down, for her family’s sake. They didn’t need the added angst of having her flip out. They’d been through a lot, too. At least no one had blamed her for her father’s disappearance. But she couldn’t seem to keep it together. Not this time. “Don’t prepare an excuse before you even try,” she said. “Find something. I want to know what happened. I need to know what happened.” She grabbed Chief Pontiff’s arm. “Do your job!”
Pontiff blinked in surprise, and Clay quickly pulled her into his arms. “Maddy, stop,” he murmured against her hair.
Had anyone else asked her, she wouldn’t have–couldn’t have–gained control of her wayward emotions. But, regardless of the turmoil inside her, she had too much respect for Clay to ignore his wishes or embarrass him further. Pressing her face into his chest, she started to cry as she hadn’t cried since she was a child, with big wracking sobs that shook her whole body.
He hugged her close. “It’s okay.”
“You’re hugging the man who killed him,” Joe whispered.
“Shut up, Joe,” she snapped. Her stepbrother had been the one to keep their family safe through the dark years after her father was gone. At times, he’d been the only thing standing between them and absolute destitution. It wasn’t Clay.
“I’m sorry,” she said to her stepbrother. She didn’t want to draw attention to him. She knew he simply wanted to go on with his life and forget. She wished she could forget. But it was impossible. She’d tried.
“You have nothing to be sorry about,” he told her.
With a sniff, she pulled away and dashed a hand across her cheeks. “I’m going home.”
“I’ll call you if we find anything,” Pontiff said.
Joe and his brother were still there, but one look from Clay kept them shuffling around the perimeter of the group like jackals attracted to a carcass already claimed by a bear. They obviously wanted to come closer, to say more, but were afraid to risk the consequences.
Madeline turned away from her cousins, the police, what was left of her father’s car and the Montgomerys. The police always said they’d keep digging, keep asking questions, go back through the files, whatever. But they never found anything solid. They didn’t really care about the truth. They just wanted to pin it on the Montgomerys so the Vincellis, who carried more political power, would finally be happy. Maybe Pontiff was a friend of sorts but he was subject to the same political pressures as his predecessors and would probably follow in their footsteps. Nothing would change.
But Madeline couldn’t accept “nothing” any longer. She had to take more aggressive action, do something that would provide answers at last.
She was pretty sure what that something had to be. But her stepfamily wouldn’t like it. And there was no guarantee it would work.
Having read the first two books in this series, I have to say this third installment was just as suspenseful. As always, Novak grabs the reader by the throat and doesn’t let go. I was left both physically and emotionally exhausted – the story was so engrossing I couldn’t put it down until late into the early morning hours…. Fans of romantic suspense won’t be disappointed by this heart-thudding, spine-tingling, roller-coaster ride of a novel.
Mayra Calvani, Blogcritics Magazine
DEAD RIGHT is a complex, layered page-turner with great in-depth characters. It’s about good and evil and family love. Is there any greater more terrifying than bad masquerading as good? The heroine’s long-dead father, who was a preacher, is such a man. As she unravels the truth about his life and death and secrets, she must face the worst any daughter would ever have to face. Wonderful male characters! I loved the heroine’s brother and the hero! I couldn’t stop reading until the last page!
Ann Major, USA TODAY bestselling author
In a gripping finale to her well-conceived Stillwater trilogy (Dead Silence; Dead Giveaway), Novak returns to the small Mississippi town that still wants answers about the mysterious disappearance almost two decades earlier of its popular pastor, Rev. Lee Barker. Now it is Madeline Barker’s turn to get to the bottom of things. Determined to lay to rest the suspicions surrounding her stepbrother, Clay, she hires Los Angeles P.I. Hunter Solozano. Not only is Hunter good-looking, he is also good at his job. As Hunter begins to come close to a solution, someone in town realizes it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes out-unless Hunter and Madeline can be stopped. Well written, nicely paced, filled with appealing characters, and laced with a few surprises, this story neatly wraps up a mystery that has kept readers enthralled for almost a year.
Kristin Ramsdell, Library Journal
In a last ditch effort to find her long missing father, Madeline Barker hires an Ace P.I., Hunter. While the sparks of passion fly between the two of them, Hunter uncovers evidence that Madeline’s sainted father may have been evil beyond her wildest dreams. However, someone close to Madeline wants to stop the truth from being revealed, despite the cost.
This story is outstanding. The plot is twisted and Novak leaves the reader swearing that you know the culprit from the beginning, only to prove you wrong in the end. The characters are real and easy to believe. Novak’s storyline is one that is an easy read, yet will leave you on the edge of your seat wanting more. This was an enjoyable read for me. I had difficulty putting DEAD RIGHT down and was truly shocked at the ending. Novak delivers a true suspense with this novel.
Kym Oetting, Romance Reader At Heart
The final book in Novak’s Dead trilogy is arguably the strongest of the three — in terms of conflict and plotting, at least. All of the characters are well defined, but the hero, heroine and villain are especially well done. This novel is incredibly taut and tense, with some nice sexual tension between the principals — and the denouement is harrowing.
RT Book Reviews Magazine
***4.5 Blue Ribbon Rating***
DEAD RIGHT is the disturbing and magnetic conclusion to Brenda Novak’s Stillwater, Mississippi trilogy. Talk about a powerful punch! Ms. Novak is a fabulous storyteller…Do not miss DEAD RIGHT. Ms. Novak pens a…triumphant story about truth, justice, family ties, and the power of love.
Sarah W, for Romance Junkies
Strong characters bring the escalating suspense to life, and the mystery is skillfully played out. Novak’s smooth plotting makes for a great read…
Dead Right is the third and final book in a compelling trilogy. This last installment is fantastically written. Ms. Novak will take you on a suspenseful journey, unraveling a mystery that is sure to keep you on edge of your seat. I strongly suggest reading the first two books of this series. Each book builds on the other, and fills in pieces of this mystery so that Dead Right wonderfully wraps up this compelling, and very well-written trilogy. Ms. Novak, you have a new fan.
Keisha Hudson All About Romance
Even though each book of the Stillwater trilogy contains a complete romance with excellent character and plot development, to get the most out of the series, I recommend reading them in order.
Jane Bowers Romance Reviews Today
Novak’s characters are solidly written and believable and her writing keeps you on the edge of your seat wondering when and if Allie will discover the Montgomery’s involvement with Reverend Barker’s disappearance.
Karen S. BetterThanChocolateBookCo.com
In Dead Right Novak brings in new blood with the laid back surfer Hunter Solozano who shakes things up as he begins to ask questions that rock the boat. Soon readers are on edge as Hunter and Madeline find themselves thrown together and close to the truth of what really happened. Even those who already know the secret will be surprised as Novak adds more and more of the secret of Reverend Barker. Dead Right is a great suspense with a suspenseful plot and super evil villain that will keep readers entranced and kept me up for a late night just to find out how it ended.
Tracy Suspense Romance Writers
What an amazing series this has been! …These books have been superb.