Sneak Peek: Chapter One of The Worried Man (Q.C. Davis Mystery #1)

The Worried Man, the first book in my new Q.C. Davis mystery series will be released May 1, 2018. Here’s how it starts:

Chapter 1

The first time I met Marco, we talked about death. His. The police asked a lot of questions about that later.

We met the night The Harmoniums, the three-person a cappella group I belong to, sang at Kensington Pub in Lincoln Square. I noticed a guy with all his hair–dark, curly, and a little on the long side—walk in during our second set.

I guessed him in his late thirties, which meant he brought down the average age of the audience by a decade or two. Most Kensington patrons are from the Old Town School of Folk Music across the street. Lots of baby boomers with gray hair and ponytails (the men) or silver hair and gauzy skirts (the women). The Harmoniums don’t sing traditional songs, but we do a mix of Simon & Garfunkel, Indigo Girls, blues, gospel, and anything that lends itself to good harmonies, so we appeal to the same audience.

Our last song was California Dreamin’, a guaranteed crowd pleaser during late fall when the trademark gray skies and icy winds of Chicago’s winter threaten. After we finished, I stepped away from the corner that we used as a stage area and hunted around for my charcoal blazer. I’d taken it off when it got too hot with three of us crowding around one microphone.

As I straightened from retrieving the blazer, which had slipped under a table, a smartphone was thrust under my nose.

“I figured it out,” the guy with all the hair said. “You’re Q.C. Davis.”

He smiled, showing teeth that looked bright white against his caramel-colored skin. He wore jeans and a short-sleeved T-shirt that looked like he’d pressed it.

No body art that I could see, which was good. My first boyfriend was inked everywhere and it’s a bad association. Not fair to all the great guys with major tattoos that I shy away from, but I can’t get past it.

I brushed dust bunnies off my blazer. “Quille.”

“What?”

“My name. It’s Quille.”

“But you’re the Q.C. Davis.” He pointed to the phone. It showed an old profile from early in college when I was still acting. “Aren’t you?”

Despite my abhorrence for the name, I was impressed he’d found it. I’m thirty-two, but I’ve had a couple of career changes already. Because of that, and through some serious effort on my part, “Q.C. Davis” comes up on Page 3 at the earliest in search results. Q.C. belongs to a different part of my life, one I’m finished with.

“You’re a good Googler,” I said.

He laughed. It made his eyes bright and brought out little lines around them. Maybe he was forty?

“Me and everyone else. I’m pretty sure I saw you in Token Woman at Northlight Theater when I was in med school.” He held out his hand. “I’m Marco. And it’s nice to know you can actually sing really well.”

His grip was warm and not too tight.

“Thanks,” I said.

Playing a character modeled after notoriously bad real-life soprano Florence Foster Jenkins had been one of my favorite roles. It had also been my last, and the end of my life as Q.C. Davis.

I pulled my black zipper sweatshirt over the blazer, and my fleece-lined jacket over that. Layers are important to survive winter in Chicago. To survive at all in Chicago.

Joe, who sings bass, had his long cashmere coat and gloves on. He and our alto, Danielle, stood near the door talking with some of our regular fans.

Slim and tall, Joe towered over everyone, so it was easy for him to catch my eye. He arched one heavy, dark eyebrow and tilted his head, silently asking if everything was all right. A lot of men come up to talk after shows. It’s not that I’m so attractive. I can appear striking with the right make up, but day-to-day I’m only a little prettier than average, mainly because of my hair, which is long and dark and wavy.

As any performer will tell you, though, the instant you step on stage you become ten times more appealing, if not a hundred.

Most people who talk to you after a show are nice, but now and then you get someone who raises red flags, so the three of us watch out for one another.

“Excuse me,” I said to Marco, who had his back to Joe. I waved to Joe that everything was fine.

Marco glanced toward the door. “I don’t want to keep you from anything.”

I put on my fuchsia scarf and gloves. In my day-to-day life I’m a lawyer, and my wardrobe is mostly black, gray, and white. I use bright-colored accessories for variety, and because I’m less likely to overlook or forget them. Daley Center courtrooms swallowed up dozens of black umbrellas before I figured that out.

“Why don’t you come with us?” I said.

I hoped he’d say yes. I hadn’t met anyone I really liked in a long time.

Outside, we stepped between parked cars, inching out to check traffic. Wind and sleet hit my face as I watched for cabs and bikes riding too close to the parking lane. You wouldn’t think people would cycle in the dark and the sleet—I wouldn’t do it—but they do. Sometimes wearing dark clothes with no bike lights.

Café Barcelona, the tapas restaurant next to the Old Town School, is laid out like an L with a bar on the short side. There are always nice people there, and the mixed drinks don’t cost an arm and a leg. Marco and I chose seats at the end of a long table near Joe and his girlfriend.

Marco returned from the bar with a whiskey sour made with rye for me and a bottle of San Pellegrino for him.

“So what kind of doctor are you?” I said.

“Ah, I’m not a doctor anymore. Too much stress.”

I sipped my whisky sour—made just as I liked it with egg white foam on the top and fresh-squeezed lemon juice—as I turned that over in my mind. A non-alcoholic drink on a Friday might not mean much. If he were driving, he might avoid alcohol. But that plus a defection from medicine suggested issues.

“What kind were you?”

“Surgeon,” he said.

“And now?”

He ran his hand through his hair. It looked just past where he ought to have gotten it cut. He had flyaway ends along his part. I liked that. It offset his pressed T-shirt and kept him from looking too clean cut or rigid.

“Insurance adjuster,” he said.

“Do you like it?”

He grinned. “Thanks for not yawning. It’s fun. And sometimes frustrating. I investigate medical fraud.”

I ate a few black olives from the shared bowl. “Like stalking people who might be faking injuries?”

“I focus on medical care providers,” Marco said. “Mostly clinics.”

Joe had ordered a plate of oven-baked goat cheese, tomato sauce, and toast points with garlic for the table. Marco reached for it with his left hand. No ring. Something I ought to have looked for at the outset, but I’m only now getting used to checking.

In my twenties, almost no one I met was married. Now it’s kind of a toss up, especially when I date guys older than me.

The conversation segued into politics. Marco joined in without mentioning his own views and yielded the floor when someone else jumped in.

I liked that. Having been around entertainers since I was five, I’ve had my fill of people who always need to be center stage. A guy like that can be a lot of fun for a couple dates, but what he wants in life is an audience, not a partner.

I get tired of being the audience.

On the other hand, I’d veered too far in the opposite direction with my boyfriend during law school. Now I look for someone who can hold his own in a crowd. Someone I can leave alone for a few minutes at a party without worrying that he’ll be lost.

So, basically, I want the Goldilocks of men when it comes to sociability.

When there was a lull, Marco offered to get me a second drink, and I said I’d have what he was having.

He frowned. “If you’re thinking I’m an alcoholic, you’re right. But you can drink around me. It’s fine.”

“It’s not that,” I said. “One’s my limit.”

One drink helps me relax. Two and I start feeling depressed. Not a place I want to go with my mother’s history.

I offered to buy this round, but Marco stood. “I’ll get it.”

I took it as a good sign. Some guys buy one drink to be polite. Two means interest.

“Could I ask you something?” Marco said after he’d settled in his seat again. “If you can’t answer, it’s okay. You probably hate when people ask you legal questions.”

My stomach dipped and my shoulders sagged. So the drinks were for free legal advice.

“I don’t hate it,” I said, keeping my tone steady to hide my disappointment. “But I might not be able to answer.”

“It’s about a will,” he said. “I made one the year I got married, and I never updated it. My ex-wife’s a good person, but if something happens to me I want any money I leave to go right to my son. He’s thirteen.”

I smiled at him not trashing the ex. I’d met guys who on the first date couldn’t refer to an ex-girlfriend without saying “that bitch.” Which ruled out a second date, as I had no interest in being the next bitch.

I texted Marco the names of three good estate attorneys I knew.

“So the two drinks,” I said. “Was that just in the hope of free legal advice?”

“No,” he said. “I want to ask you out. But obviously I’m really bad at it, or I would have asked already.”

I squeezed the lime into my sparkling water, considering. Ex-surgeon, non-drinking alcoholic, possibly-too-recently-divorced Marco waved a few red flags.

“You know,” I said, “most people wait until at least the third date before confessing their dark secrets. I’m a little worried.”

“Me too,” he said.

“Why?”

He smiled. “You haven’t told me any of yours.”

* * *

Marco and I saw each other all through that winter and into early spring. When his lease was almost up, we decided to move in together.

The evening before the move I paused in the tulip-filled courtyard of the aging apartment building where Marco lived. I checked my phone again. Still no response to any of my texts or calls.

It was a rare perfect mid-April evening. Warm, light breeze, sun, the smell of fresh grass. I wore a brand new sleeveless green dress that had a flared skirt. We’d been packing for the last couple weeks, so I’d lived in jeans and T-shirts or sweatshirts. Tonight I wanted to look pretty for our last dinner at his place.

Also, this week I hadn’t been much help to Marco. I’d been slaving over other people’s taxes and simultaneously trying to settle a lawsuit between two business partners. But two of my friends, both of whom built sets at Chicago Shakespeare for a living, had reinforced the loft above my bedroom. Now instead of storage it could be used as a sleeping space for Marco’s son when he stayed over.

It had been finished late last night. I’d texted Marco a photo, but he hadn’t responded.

I pressed the third buzzer from the top.

No answer.

Marco had said he had an important meeting today. Maybe it had run long.

I used his entry code and let myself in. The vestibule felt cool and smelled of lime disinfectant. Marco was three flights up. The carpeted steps sagged under my feet. As I reached the second floor a smell like boiled chicken bones overpowered the disinfectant.

I shifted the paper bag from Dinkel’s bakery as I climbed. I’d bought flourless chocolate cake—I was thrilled to have found a man who loved dark chocolate as much as I did—and cherry Coke. In the five months I’d been seeing Marco, I’d discovered a lot of fun non-alcoholic drinks.

Inside the apartment the window air conditioning unit blasted frigid air through the kitchen and dining area and into the hall.

The odor, worse in here than on the stairs, assaulted me. It smelled, literally, like shit with an undertone of ammonia. The smell of a poorly-run nursing home. Or maybe of the apartment of someone with bad stomach flu.

“Marco?”

The apartment was laid out in what my grandmother called a shotgun arrangement. Three rooms jutted out from a long interior hallway that ended with a small bathroom. I dropped the Dinkel’s bag on the scratched kitchen table and hurried down the hall, my flats clicking on the hardwood.

Stacked and taped cardboard boxes stood along the far wall of the deserted bedroom. The double bed was made, its comforter smoothed out and pillows squared, the desk bare. It was something that unnerved me about Marco. I’d never dated a guy neater than I was, but I figured living with a neat freak would be better than someone who left dirty dishes in the sink and clothes on the floor.

I checked the bathroom. It, too, was empty. Its hexagonal tiled floor looked clean and dry.

A wide archway opened onto the living room. Marco’s flat screen TV sat on a low table, the original box and Styrofoam inserts on the floor near it. The sofa, its back to me, faced the TV.

A can of Diet Chocolate Fudge Soda, a glass tumbler, and a bottle of Bacardi Rum stood on the end table. A prescription pill bottle lay next to it.

A wave of dizziness hit as I hurried around the sofa. I put my hand to my mouth and grabbed the back of the armchair.

I couldn’t process what I was seeing.

What looked like a mannequin of Marco, dressed in khakis and a long-sleeved collared shirt, lay on its side on the bright green couch. The face was the color of chalk. One of his arms wedged beneath him. The other pointed out and slanted down.

I leapt forward and pressed my fingers to Marco’s throat, but jerked away at the feel of cold, rigid flesh. I tried again. No pulse.

I tried to shift him onto his back to start chest compressions. His body was too stiff to move. CPR was impossible. I dialed 911.

As I spoke to the dispatcher, I dropped onto the hardwood floor, knees to my chest, arms around them. The stench filled my nostrils, but it didn’t matter.

In a movie, the director would make the actress playing me scream or cover her eyes or sob uncontrollably because that’s how women act in movies.

But I felt still and too silent, too focused, for screaming and crying. As if the world had narrowed and I was looking through a telescope that made things small instead of large.

That made Marco small.

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