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Dire Straits (Aspen Falls Novel) by Melissa Pearl, Anna Cruise (1)

1

Thursday, June 22

7:40 am

The sun was already up. It had been up for hours, it seemed, even though it was just shy of eight.

Jessica Claret sat in her cruiser, watching as cars rolled by on a Thursday morning. She was parked in the weed-filled lot attached to a boarded-up gas station, a relic from Aspen Falls’ early years. The pumps had long been abandoned, and the building boasted a roof with missing shingles and wood siding that seemed to shed more paint with each passing day.

It was an eyesore, one of a few in a town that had morphed and grown over the years, with old businesses closing shop as new roads created new traffic patterns, and as the needs of the town constantly changed. Jess hadn’t grown up in Aspen Falls—her home was up near the North Shore, in a tiny town called Cloquet—but she’d learned enough about its history in the few years she’d lived there since joining the Aspen Falls police department. She knew the town had nearly tripled in size over the last fifty years, not because of some weird baby boom but because people were leaving the cities, looking for small towns to raise their families and even start their businesses. Because the community college had opened, bringing jobs and luring students from neighboring towns who might otherwise have foregone a post-secondary education or who might have moved elsewhere.

But even with the growth, some businesses had shuttered their doors. A sign of the times, as feed mills and other agriculture-related businesses became fewer and far between, and as the needs of the town and its citizens changed.

She glanced at the dilapidated building, a small smile tugging at her lips. Despite its roughshod appearance, she found the old gas station charming. She could almost see the attendants coming out from the shop garbed in mechanic blues, their hair slicked back, thick with grease, cigarettes hanging out of their mouths. And then she shuddered as she thought of the hazard that would have created, realizing no one seemed to have those concerns back in the 50s, which was when this station would have been in its prime.

An old school bus painted white lumbered by, dragging her back into the present. It was an older bus, probably decommissioned by some school district, which, according to the stenciling on the side, had since been purchased by a church from a neighboring town. Jess smiled as it drove by, its seats filled with kids, their backpacks and blankets visible alongside them. They were probably headed to camp. It was summer, after all, when most Minnesotans tried to soak up the warmth as much as they could, capitalizing on the few short months where swimming in the lakes and kayaking and canoeing were actually comfortable.

She sat for a few minutes longer, keeping her eye on the light flow of traffic but making sure she paid attention to the time, too. Her shift was almost over, and she was about five minutes away from heading back to the station to wrap up her day.

Night, she reminded herself. Wrap up her night.

Her schedule had changed recently, and for the past few weeks, she’d been working the overnight shift. It wasn’t her favorite—she’d never really been a night person—but when Kellan had asked if she’d switch, she’d immediately said yes.

Because she always said yes.

To everything he asked for.

And not just because he was the chief of police and therefore her boss. No, she said yes because she had plans. Plans to be more than just a beat cop. Plans to be more than just an officer sitting in the pothole-filled parking lot of a long-abandoned gas station, watching cars and trucks and busses go by, patrolling a small town where nothing much ever really happened. Plans to get a promotion, to be a detective, to seize and take hold of the opportunity her dad had wanted in his own career in law enforcement.

She sighed and tapped her hand against the steering wheel.

Plans.

The word stuck in her throat.

Her plans felt like they were getting her nowhere.

A pickup truck sped by, the sound of its muffler startling her. She didn’t know squat about cars, but she was pretty sure something was about to detach from the undercarriage.

She was also pretty sure it was speeding like a bat out of hell.

Jess slipped the cruiser into Drive and peeled out of the parking lot, her tires skidding on the pockmarked pavement. She flipped the switch for her lights and floored the gas pedal, quickly gaining on the red pickup.

The truck didn’t immediately slow down, and she felt a surge of adrenaline course through her. Should she call it in? Was the person behind the wheel evading her? Trying to outrun her?

She was just about to turn on her sirens and reach for her hand comm when the truck’s brake lights illuminated. The driver slowed, finally pulling over to the gravel shoulder alongside the two-lane highway.

Jess sat in her cruiser for a minute and quickly ran the plates on her computer. They came back clean, registered to a Bruce Lindell. Now she just needed to find out if Bruce was the one behind the wheel…and why he’d been driving with a lead foot on the gas pedal.

She kept her hand on her holster as she approached the cab of the truck, keeping an eye on the man behind the wheel. Both of his hands were on the steering wheel, and he’d already rolled his window down.

Good signs, Jess thought, but she was still on high alert. It was Aspen Falls, not Brooklyn Center or the north side of Minneapolis, but she knew to always keep her guard up.

Just in case.

“In a bit of a hurry?” she asked as soon as she got to the driver’s side door.

The man seated behind the wheel offered a sheepish smile. “Just trying to get to the recycling plant right when they open. Gotta be at my job by eight thirty, so time’s a little tight.”

“You have your license and registration?”

He nodded. “License is in my wallet.” He lifted one hand off the wheel and dug into the pocket of his jeans. He handed it over. “Insurance and registration are in the glove box.” He leaned toward the passenger seat and popped the compartment open.

Jess studied the papers. Everything looked like it was in order. The name on the ID matched the registration information she’d pulled up, and the photo she was looking at was the spitting image of the man inside the vehicle.

“Recycling center?” she asked, coming back to his statement from just a moment earlier.

Bruce Lindell jerked a thumb toward the bed of the truck. It was covered with a custom-made topper so Jess couldn’t see too well inside of it. “Just some scrap metal I want to drop off at the recycling plant. Doing some renovating and thought I’d bring it in for a little cash instead of hauling it all the way out to the dump.”

Jess gave him a nod. “Sit tight for a minute.”

She walked back to the cruiser and put his info into the system. She waited a minute, finally getting the all clear. Bruce Lindell was clean.

She drummed her fingers on the steering wheel and stared at the truck in front of her. She knew she wouldn’t be writing him a ticket. Her radar hadn’t been hooked up when he’d shot past her, and even though she’d thought he was speeding, she would have to show up in court if he decided to challenge the ticket. And going to court was not something she particularly enjoyed.

Besides, he’d given her a reason for his excessive speed. It didn’t excuse his behavior, of course, especially if he’d been breaking the law, but she appreciated his honesty, along with the fact that he was just a regular guy looking to make a little extra cash from his DIY project.

Jess stepped out of the car. Her Blauers, shined to a sleek, glossy black, kicked up dust as she made her way back toward the pickup. She handed him back his information.

“Keep your speed down,” she told him.

He flashed her a grateful smile. “Will do, ma’am.”

As soon as she got back to her cruiser, the truck pulled away from the shoulder. Its blinker was on, and she noticed how carefully the driver eased back out onto the road. She smiled. She was pretty sure her stop would slow him down for the rest of the morning, if not the entire day. And that was all she could really ask for.

She waited a minute, then checked the clock and realized it was definitely time to head to the station. She had some paperwork to file, and she wanted to check with Kellan to make sure she was still set for her vacation the following week.

The drive back into Aspen Falls proper took her right past the recycling plant Bruce had been speeding toward before she stopped him. She slowed as she watched him unload the back of his truck, pulling out a large crate filled with old pipes. The topper’s back window was open, and she had a perfect view inside of it. She cocked her head, squinting as she tried to see inside.

There were more pipes.

She frowned.

A lot more pipes.

She didn’t stop, but as she drove back to the station she wondered about it. Bruce had said he was doing some renovations and was bringing in scrap metal to recycle. It wasn’t uncommon, especially in these parts. A lot of people in Aspen Falls were hardworking, resourceful. It was like it was bred into Minnesotans. A significant portion of the community was decidedly middle class and wouldn’t turn away from an opportunity to cash in, especially if it was just something lying around the house that didn’t serve much use anymore. There was a reason garage sale season started as soon as the snow melted, and often occupied not just the weekend days but spilled into weekdays, too. People were always looking for ways to make an extra buck, and Jess was sure that Bruce Lindell was no exception.

But still, she thought as she drove through town, passing Lulu’s and Shorty’s and the sign for the hospital as she made her way toward the police station, that was an awful lot of pipe for one person to be hauling in. What kind of reno work is he doing? Tearing down his whole house?

Jess’s brow furrowed as she thought through different scenarios. And then the disappointment washed over her as quick and heavy as a waterfall.

Shit.

She should have asked the driver more questions. She should have dug a little deeper when she’d pulled him over. No, she didn’t have any right to search his car, but she could have at least talked to him for a little while, maybe see if he’d let something slip. Because the more she thought about it, the more she was now convinced that the pipes Bruce Lindell had been unloading from his truck weren’t from some small DIY job at his own house. He’d probably ripped them out of an abandoned building. A vacant home for sale. Or even new construction.

Jess swallowed as she got out of the police cruiser, slamming the door shut. How was she ever going to make it to detective if she couldn’t even do this part of her damn job right?

She marched past her own desk and directly toward Kellan’s office. His door was partially closed so she knocked, a quick rat-a-tat-tat on the metal doorframe that stung her knuckles.

“Come in.”

She poked her head in first, then stepped fully inside. Kellan was at his desk, not looking at her.

“How was your shift?” he asked, his eyes still on the papers in front of him. “Uneventful?”

“For the most part.” She cleared her throat. “But this morning, I pulled over a guy. Speeding. Let him off with a warning.”

Kellan looked up then, one eyebrow arched, and waited.

“He was going to the recycling plant. Superior Metals,” she continued. “I let him go, then drove past him on my way back to the station. He had an awful lot of scrap metal to unload. In the way of pipes.”

The other brow went up. “Is that so?”

She nodded, a small thrill of excitement running through her. She’d piqued her boss’s interest. “Not sure what it means, but I’m happy to head back over there to check it out.”

Kellan lifted a sheet of paper, seemingly consulting something underneath. “Cam is due in any minute. I’ll send her out, have her ask for APS records.”

“I can do it,” Jess said quickly. “I mean, it’s probably nothing. I’m sure Cam has better things to do than ask for a database search for scrap metal sales.”

“You’re off,” Kellan told her. “And Cam can make time for it.”

Jess felt a surge of disappointment. “It’s really no problem,” she said, still lobbying. “I can go off the clock.”

“Go home.” Kellan’s voice was soft but firm. “You just worked a twelve-hour shift. Cam will take care of it. Thanks for the heads-up.”

Jess opened her mouth to say something, then closed it. Wordlessly, she shuffled to the locker room and stripped out of her uniform. She yanked her street clothes from her locker, pulling on black yoga pants and a lavender T-shirt, then slammed the locker door shut. The sound of metal crashing into metal made her wince.

She raked her brush through her short dark hair, almost relishing the pain it caused as she tore through the tangles.

She wasn’t angry at Kellan.

He was just doing his job.

Nope, she was angry at herself.

She’d blown it.

She’d had the opportunity to do something…more. And what did she do?

She’d let it slip right through her fingers.

So much for plans.

At the rate she was going, her plans were never going to materialize.