Broken Family Sneak Peek


Chapter One

Sheriff Joe Mauro examined the body. The woman rested along the shore of the lake, her head tilted away from him and her long, straight chestnut hair damp from the early April fog. In her mid-forties, she was tall for a woman and slender in stature. Wearing latex gloves, Joe separated some hair along the back of her head, which revealed a blow to the skull. He returned the woman’s hair to its normal state, effectively covering the wound, and rolled the body flat on its back.

“Who’s the victim?” A woman’s voice inquired from behind.

Joe didn’t even bother turning around. He knew who it was.

“Claire Gass,” he said. “Is Ira with you?”

“She’s coming down the hill right now,” the woman answered.

Joe rotated his head with his knee to the ground, looking in the direction of the deputy. Janelle Bowden, an African-American woman with wide brown eyes, stared back at him. Her coffee-colored hair was tied up in a bun.

“Looks like someone hit her over the head and dumped the body here,” Joe said. “A fisherman discovered her early this morning when he was putting his trailer in the water.”

“A forced drowning?” Janelle asked.

Joe shook his head. “I don’t think so. The body would be bloated and show signs of decay. Plus, it can take days or weeks for a drowned body to surface. They usually float on top of the water, not wash up on the shore of a still lake. This body is fresh. I figure she died in the last twelve hours.”

“Any other markings?”

“None that I see at the moment.”

“What can I do?”

“I want you with me for now. We’re going to need to notify the family and talk to them.” He paused for a few seconds. “I’m going to have Ira work with the coroner’s office on this one.”

“Ira?” Janelle’s eyes tightened. “She’s still going through her probation period as a deputy. Wouldn’t it make more sense for me to work with the coroner on this one?”

“She can do with some additional responsibility,” Joe commented. “Plus, I have a little more faith in her than you do.”

“It’s not that I don’t have faith in her,” Janelle said.

Joe looked off to the side, which seemed to temporarily distract Janelle’s train of thought. He nodded at Ira, who approached Janelle from her back side.

“What’s going on?” Ira came to a stop. Her curly ponytail whipped around as she glanced over at Janelle and then back to Joe, ultimately focusing her attention on him.

“Looks like a homicide,” Joe answered. “You feel like getting a little dirty today?”

“How so?” Ira replied.

“Coroner’s office,” Joe answered.

Ira perked up and smiled, her almond-shaped eyes growing bigger. “Really?”

“Yeah. That’s if Deputy Bowden here doesn’t object,” he said.

Janelle exhaled. “Of course not,” she said with a sarcastic tone. Janelle turned toward the car, brushing Ira’s shoulder on the way by. “Why would I mind?” Her voice trailed off as she walked away.

* * * *

“You need to cut Deputy Batista some slack,” Joe said from the driver’s seat of the car. “Do you have something against Hispanic women?” Janelle gave him a dirty look when he peeked over at her. “Did I say something wrong?”

“Sometimes you can be really ignorant,” Janelle said.

“Meaning what?”

“Meaning you have two female deputies on your staff. You don’t realize it, but some people think we’re a joke. They don’t take us seriously.”

“I apologize if that’s the case,” he said. “I take the most qualified candidates regardless of race or gender. I don’t care what people think as long as you get the job done.”

“So taking on Ira wasn’t some scheme to win over support from the Hispanic community? They’ve been pressuring you for years.”

“Not at all. Look…” Joe hesitated. “I know you probably think I’ve been favoring Ira ever since she started, but I see a lot of potential in her. That being said, you’ve got several years on her, and I’m not blind to what you’ve done. You’re my right hand, and if you’re going to be sheriff one day, you need to learn to teach those working under you.”

“Sheriff.” Janelle angled her head back and laughed. “That will be the day. No one in this county will ever vote for a black female sheriff.”

“I would,” Joe said, offering a warm grin.

* * * *

Joe looked at the reflection in the glass, brushing a few fingers through his wavy and chalk-colored hair.

“You look fine,” Janelle said. “Just knock already.”

Joe held open the glass door and put his knuckles to the wood behind it. He took a deep breath. Informing family members of a death was never easy. He would have preferred that someone else do it, but Joe always burdened the responsibility himself given his position.

The door opened, and a young girl appeared. Decked out in black, her beady brown eyes looked Joe up and down. She was a little taller than Janelle, maybe by a couple of inches, but much heavier and with dyed red hair down to her shoulders.

“Hi,” she said.

“Stephanie Gass,” Joe stated.

The girl nodded her head. “Yes. Is something wrong?”

“I’m Sheriff Mauro. This is Deputy Bowden,” he said with a finger pointed at Janelle.

“Is it my mother?”

Joe bobbed his head. “I’m afraid so.” He went silent, trying to muster the courage to continue. “We found her body this morning over at Sweetwater Lake.” He paused again. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Stephanie commented, her reaction surprising Joe.

“What do you mean by that?” Janelle jumped into the conversation.

“She was a control freak,” Stephanie clarified. “She tried to run everyone’s life, including mine. I figured she’d piss off the wrong person at some point.”

“This is your mother we’re talking about,” Janelle said with a stern tone. “We never mentioned anything about foul play. Why would you assume it?”

“Easy,” Joe said, speaking directly to Janelle and quickly turning his attention to Stephanie. “Do you mind if we come in?”

“What’s going on?” A scrawny boy walked into the foyer.

“Is this your brother?” Joe posed the question.

“No,” Stephanie replied. “This is my boyfriend, George. My brother, Chris, is away at college.”

“Cops,” George said nervously.

“We’re with the Stone County Sheriff’s Department,” Joe said, eventually stepping inside. “Ms. Gass is dead.”

“Holy—” George stopped himself from cursing. “How?”

“We’re not sure yet,” Joe said, “but we’d appreciate it if you could give us a few minutes.”

“Sure,” George said. “We felt something was wrong,” he added as the four of them walked into a living area.

“Why’s that?” Joe stopped in his tracks.

“Uhhh.” George stuttered for a moment. “She works the night shift at the hospital, and we hadn’t seen her this morning.”

“Where were the two of you last night?” Joe got directly to the point.

“At George’s house,” Stephanie answered. “His parents can vouch for us.”

“I’m assuming, based on your prior comments, that you and your mother didn’t have the best of relationships.”

“It was rocky at best,” Stephanie said. “She didn’t like George and me being together, but—then again—she didn’t approve of a lot of things in my life.” She took a moment to ponder. “I’ll be honest. I never truly cared for my mother, especially after she left my dad, but I would never murder her. This is my last year of high school. I’m off to college in the fall, so I’m just biding my time.”

“Is your mother’s car here?”

“Yeah,” Stephanie replied. “It’s in the garage.”

Joe ventured into the kitchen and pointed. “Does this door lead out to the garage?”


Joe opened the door and glided his hand along the wall in search of a light switch, catching a strong whiff of something as he flipped it on. A blue sedan, maybe a few years old, sat in the two-car garage.

“You smell that?” Janelle interrupted.

“Yeah,” Joe replied. “Exhaust.” He turned to face Stephanie. “She obviously came home this morning. What time does her shift usually end?”

“Around four a.m.,” Stephanie said. “The garage door will sometimes wake me up. I heard it this morning, but I never heard her come in.”

“Does your house have a security system?” Janelle asked.

Stephanie shook her head. “No.”

Joe descended the garage steps, putting a hand to his mouth and coughing at the intake of exhaust. “Do you mind opening the garage door?” His voice was muffled.

Janelle removed a pair of latex gloves from her utility belt and put them on. She pressed the button on a small console next to the doorway. The garage door lifted as the wheels squeaked against the metal support frames overhead.

Joe walked outside to get some fresh air. Once he felt his airways were clear and most of the trapped exhaust had left the garage, Joe strolled back inside, making his way over to a second door along the side of the house. Like Janelle, he whipped out a pair of examination gloves. Joe gripped the door knob, attempting to turn it.

“Locked,” he said. “Besides you, who else has keys to the house?”

“My brother,” Stephanie replied.

Joe took out a small flashlight and circled around to the driver’s side of the car. “Does your father still live in the area?” He bent over and shined the light inside the window.

“A few minutes away,” Stephanie said.

“And what about your mom? Was she seeing anyone?”

Stephanie nodded as Joe looked at her. “A guy named Dan. I don’t know how serious it was, but they’ve been dating for a year or so. He lives across town. Actually, now that I think about it, he has keys to our house, too.”

Standing upright again, Joe turned off the flashlight. “We’re going to need to talk to both of them. We’ll also need to take a look inside your mom’s car.”

Chapter Two

“What do you think?” Janelle posed the question as she and Joe made their way to the car.

“There’s definitely motive for both of them,” he said, “but you know how it is.”

“What? Being kids?”

“Yeah. We were their age once. Most kids have issues with their parents at some stage, some even outright hating them. However, few go to the lengths of killing them.” Joe paused. “We’ll keep an eye on them, nonetheless.”

Joe’s cell phone buzzed. He saw the number on the touch screen and answered it. “Hello, Ira,” he said, coming to a stop next to the car.

“Sheriff,” she acknowledged. “There isn’t much to report. The preliminary autopsy results won’t be ready until this afternoon. I’m just sitting around here waiting.”

“That’s fine,” Joe said. “Why don’t you meet Deputy Bowden over here at the Gass house. I’d like you two to talk with the victim’s boyfriend.” He glanced over at Janelle. She appeared less than enthusiastic about the team-up but forced a smile. “I’m going to talk with the ex-husband,” he concluded.

“Okay,” Ira said. “I’ll be there shortly.”

“Thanks.” Joe terminated the call. “Why don’t you see if Michael can use a hand until Ira gets here,” he said, speaking to Janelle.

Joe called in one of his reserve deputies to sweep the victim’s car. Though Michael specialized in forensic investigation, Janelle wasn’t half bad at it either.

“Sure,” she said.

Joe eased into his car, placing the keys in the ignition and quickly speeding off.

* * * *

The man wept in front of Janelle. He wiped tears from both cheeks, rubbing several fingers over his five o’clock shadow.

“I can’t believe she’s dead,” Dan said.

Janelle watched as Ira got up from the couch beside her and sat on the love seat next to Dan. Ira gently lifted a hand to Dan, but she quickly withdrew it, glancing back at Janelle.

“We’re sorry for your loss,” Ira said.

Janelle focused on Ira, surprised at her actions.

“I think I’m okay,” Dan said. “Thank you.”

Ira nodded and returned to her place next to Janelle.

“How long did the two of you know each other?” Janelle inquired.

“About fourteen months,” he replied with a sniffle. His fine black hair—greased and slicked back—rested atop a wide forehead and slanted brown eyes. Stocky and tanned, he looked very masculine and not the sensitive type who would typically break down and cry, but Janelle knew better than to judge a book by its cover. “We were actually married a few weeks ago,” Dan added.

“We were under the impression you hadn’t married,” Janelle commented.

“We eloped,” Dan said. “We haven’t told the kids yet. We wanted to wait for Chris, her son, to come home from college in a few weeks before announcing it to everyone.”

“Do you know anyone who would have wanted to harm your wife?” Ira intervened, properly addressing the victim as his wife now that it had been made public.

“No,” he said, shaking his head, “but she worked odd hours like me, so I’ve always been worried about her coming home so early in the morning.”

“And what do you do, Mr. Johnson?” Janelle took control of the conversation again.

“I’m a security guard for a technology company. I work the night shift. That’s one of the things that initially drew us together. We both have similar schedules, so as odd as our work hours are, we were always able to spend quality time together.”

“What time do you typically get off?”

“A little later than her. My shift ends at six a.m.”

“Can your company confirm this?”

“We’re required to carry a card at all times. We have to swipe it every time we come and go, so there should be a log if you need it.” He paused for a moment. “Wait,” he said, the purpose of the question apparently sinking in. “You’re not accusing me of having something to do with this, are you?”

“Not necessarily,” Janelle answered, “but you have to understand everyone is a suspect until we can prove otherwise.”

“If that’s the case,” Dan stated, “I feel the need to tell you something.”

“Any information, no matter how insignificant you might think it is, can possibly help us, Mr. Johnson.” Janelle waited for Dan to speak.

“Right after we were married, I became the primary beneficiary of Claire’s life insurance policy. She made the change a few days after we eloped.”

“Why do you feel the need to disclose this?” Janelle was curious. “If anything, it gives you motive.”

“Which is exactly why I told you,” he said. “I want to be honest and forthcoming. I didn’t have anything to do with Claire’s death, so I have nothing to hide.”

* * * *

“That was weird,” Ira said as the two of them strolled back to the car. “I didn’t expect him to give up that last bit of information. If it’s any consolation, though, I think he’s telling the truth. What do you think?”

“It’s possible,” Janelle replied, “but sometimes people will tell you what you want to hear or—in this case—something that even incriminates them. It can be a mind game with some of these people. You’ll learn that in time.”

Ira’s cell phone rang, forcing Janelle to look over at her.

“Hello,” Ira said, answering the call. “Yes. This is Deputy Batista.” She remained silent for a few seconds. “Great. I’ve been waiting to hear back from you, doctor.”

* * * *

Joe knocked on the office door. A gentleman in a suit swiveled around in his chair to look. The man was clean-cut with dark hair, parted to one side.

“Yes, sir,” he said. “May I help you?”

“Paul Griggs?”

“Yes. My name’s actually on the door there.” Paul pointed at it and smiled.

Joe didn’t notice it at first, but Paul was correct. Though slightly embarrassed, he gave Paul no indication of it. “Do you have a few minutes?” Joe asked, keeping a serious face.

“Sure. I was about to head out to lunch, so I can spare a few minutes. In fact, if you haven’t eaten yet and would like to talk over a meal, I’d be happy to—”

“No,” Joe said, waving his hand. “Thank you, though.”

“Have a seat then…” Paul bent over his desk, eyeballing the tag on Joe’s shirt. “Sheriff Mauro,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.” Paul extended his hand.

Joe shook his hand and took a seat.

“Are you looking to invest?” Paul asked.

“I’m afraid not,” Joe replied. “This relates to Claire Gass.”

“She’s my ex-wife.”

“She’s dead,” Joe blurted out. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean for it come out like that.”

Paul’s eyes grew big, his mouth open like a dental patient. “Oh, my God. What happened?”

“We don’t know the exact cause of death yet, but we believe there’s foul play involved.”

“So the most logical assumption would be the ex-husband,” Paul said, joking.

“You have to understand,” Joe said. “We need to exhaust every avenue in cases like this, and most of the time, we’re just looking for information, not trying to incriminate people.”

“No. I understand,” he said. “I’m not trying to get in your way.” Paul paused for a moment. “What can I help answer?”

“How long have you and Claire been divorced?”

“About two years now?” Paul eased back in the chair.

“Do you keep in touch with her at all?”

“Not really,” he said, sitting up in the chair and putting his elbows on the desk. “The only time we ever really speak is when I visit the kids, particularly my daughter since she lives with her.”

“Your son is away at college, correct?”

“Yeah. He goes to Appalachian State. This is his second year there. I actually visit him from time to time.”

“And Claire allowed this?” Joe continued to press him.

“She had custody of the kids but allowed me to visit whenever I wanted for the most part. Since she worked night shifts at the hospital, I would often visit in the evening or meet up with the kids for dinner. As far as Chris goes, she never minded me visiting him at school because he needed the supervision every now and then.”

“Why’s that?” Joe locked his hands together and placed them on his lap.

Paul glanced down at the desk and then looked Joe in the eyes. “He has a history of drugs. Nothing too hard, mostly recreational stuff, but it’s something we’ve been trying to address.”

Joe nodded his head. “I see. Did you know of Claire’s relationship with Dan Johnson?”

“I never officially met the guy,” Paul said, “and I never talked to Claire about him, but the kids did mention him to me on occasion.”

“Did you have any problems with the two of them seeing each other?”

Paul laughed. “I see where this is going now. Jealous ex-husband murders wife for seeing another guy.”

“So,” Joe said, “you’re admitting you were jealous of the relationship?”

“Not at all. If anything, the kids always had good things to say about him. If I was jealous, it would be because I still had feelings for my wife. If that were the case, I would go after Dan. I wouldn’t hurt her.”

“Why did the two of you divorce?”

“Oh, God,” Paul said. “There are a lot of reasons, but the main one was we simply grew apart. Because of our jobs, me working all day and her all night, we rarely saw each other in the end. It took a toll on our relationship. She talked about divorce several years ago, but we decided to tough it out a couple of years for the kids, at least until Chris went away to college.”

Joe nodded his head and looked at Paul one last time. “Well, I appreciate your time, Mr. Griggs,” he said. Joe stood up from the chair and shook Paul’s hand.

“No problem.”

Joe walked away, stopping about halfway to the door. “I’m curious about something, Mr. Griggs,” he said, turning around. “It’s personal. It doesn’t have anything to do with the case.”


“You work as a portfolio manager or something?”

“I’m a hedge fund manager,” Paul clarified.

“It sounds like a lot of work and responsibility.”

“You don’t know the half of it,” he said. “The amount of paperwork involved is insane, and you have regulatory bodies breathing down your neck looking at every little thing you do. There’s a lot of pressure.”

“I can imagine,” Joe said. “I never realized you could run something like that from someplace as small as Stone County.”

“Today’s technology makes it possible to manage a fund from just about anywhere.”

Joe bobbed his head. “It’s good to know a place like ours can support big business.”

Paul stood up from his chair and walked toward Joe. “Please. Let me walk you out,” he said. “As I mentioned before, I was about to take my lunch anyway.”

End of sampler. For more information, please visit Broken Family.

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Meet MJ LaBeff
Suspense Thriller Author

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