Cover image for Neely Jones : the Medusa pool
Neely Jones : the Medusa pool
Wren, M. K.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Minotaur, 1999.
Physical Description:
313 pages ; 22 cm
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X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Election day in Wesport, on the magnificent Oregon coast, changes everything for Deputy Cornelia Faith Jones, the only woman and the only African American in the Taft County Sheriff's Office. As a result of a write-in campaign that Neely did not encourage, she is elected Sheriff --a job she did not want.

Neely accepts, however, when Jan Koto's body is found submerged in the jellyfish display tank in the Oceanographic Center. The victim is marine biologist Jan Koto and Neely's lover.

Grief and rage drive Neely to find Jan's killer, and she learns the hard way that small towns are not exempt from racism, rape, violence, and murder --and greed. When ex-sheriff Giff Wills is also murdered, Neely discovers she is dealing with a wide-ranging conspiracy.

Author Notes

Martha Kay Renfroe was born in Amarillo, Texas on June 5, 1938. She wrote mystery and science fiction novels under the pen name M. K. Wren. Her books included the Conan Flagg series, the Phoenix Legacy Trilogy, A Gift Upon the Shore, and Nitty Gritties: The Pursuit of the Perfect Manuscript. She was also an artist whose work was shown in galleries and shows. She died on August 20, 2016 at the age of 78.

(Bowker Author Biography)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Wren, author of the Conan Flagg books, debuts a new series featuring Cornelia "Neely" Jones, an African American sheriff in the small town of Westport, Oregon. When Neely's Japanese boyfriend Jan Koto is found murdered at the Oceanographic Center where he works, she begins an all-consuming search for his killer--while trying to avoid being killed herself. There is enough bigotry and hatred on view in these pages to keep readers continually angry. Rarely has the n word been used so frequently in a mystery novel, and it's painful to read. It also calls the reader's attention to some credibility problems: if people are so racist in this small town, how is Neely elected Sheriff in a write-in campaign? It is testament to Wren's ability to build character that, in spite of these obstacles, she has created a strong and endearing heroine. Despite its flaws, this emotionally draining novel promises well for the future of the series, if Wren can maintain a little better control of her material. --Jenny McLarin

Publisher's Weekly Review

The "token black female deputy" in the lily-white Taft County, Ore., sheriff's department, Neely is stunned when she's elected sheriff, beating out the misogynist, bigoted good-ol'-boy who's reigned for years. Since she's experienced nothing but harassment from her fellow officers, she decides to turn down the honor. But before she can, she discovers an envelope filled with money hidden in her predecessor's desk and receives a phone call telling her she will get $100,000 if she resigns. The bribe, however, changes her mind, and she embraces her new post. Not long afterward, she finds the body of her lover, Jan, a biologist with the local Oceanographic Center, floating in one of the Center's jellyfish pools. Sickened and outraged, Neely vows to clean up the county and wages an uphill battle to link the hush money, the Center's operations and Jan's murder. She'd love to pin the guilt on Jan's gorgeous colleague, Andrea, with whom he had a fight. But although she dislikes the beautiful rival who lies about owning a gun and who has taken the backup disks in Jan's office, Neely thinks there's more to his murder than sexual and professional jealousy. When she learns that the DEA has pinpointed a drug smuggler in the area, and then the former sheriff is found murdered, Neely thinks she's on the right track. Meanwhile, she overcomes the department's resentment at her election and begins to form alliances. Wren's prose is often melodramatic, and the deluge of troubles Neely must overcome is excessive. Nonetheless, Neely's innate honesty and determination make this a good series kickoff by the author of the Conan Flagg mysteries (Curiosity Didn't Kill the Cat, etc.). (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Wren's new series features African American Neely Jones, who surprisingly wins a write-in campaign for sheriff in apparently racist and antifeminist Westport, OR. At first determined to resign, Neely instead stays to confront antagonistic co-workers as she immerses herself in the racially motivated murder of her Japanese American lover. Neely earns grudging respect and admiration, both from deputies and from the public, as she handles the murder, a cat-kidnapping case, a rape involving the son of a prominent lawyer, and corruption within the department. Strong prose, good procedural details, and an interesting protagonist; recommended for most collections. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Bloodred and night black, chrome flashing like a biker's chains, the big customized pickup rumbles north, headlights sweeping vacant asphalt. At this hour--nearly midnight--the pickup encounters no traffic in Westport, except a semi heading south.     The first Tuesday in November.     And keenly cold, yet the sky is as clear as summer. The moon shimmers on the lamé surface of the Pacific Ocean, gleams on the asphalt seam of Highway 101, the Coast Highway, traces the pale outlines of an angular construction, built from the trunks of two alder saplings, lying in the bed of the pickup. A five-gallon gasoline can rattles against the tailgate.     Westport, Oregon, population 4,207, seat of Taft County, is divided vertically, but not evenly, by Highway 101; on the west side, only a few blocks separate the highway from the beach. On the east lies the mass of the town, sequin lights, pink-gold and blue-white, clustering around Chinook Bay, a dark, irregular square that might be a landlocked lake except for the narrow passage to the sea in the northwest corner. High above the churning waters in that rockbound passage, a bridge soars on neo-Gothic arches of steel.     The red-and-black pickup rumbles over the bridge, gaining speed, then flashes past rows of restaurants, shops, and tourist traps, all closed except for the Salty Dog Tavern. As the pickup passes the tavern, the twang of country music escaping its open door strikes a brief dissonance with the boom of hard rock from the truck's radio.     At the corner where 101 meets Highway 13, the pickup barrels through a red light. Northeast of the corner, the Taft County Courthouse stands square and brick-solid. Lights glow in the elections office on the second floor, where the last ballots are being counted. Beyond the courthouse, the pickup swings left, boom-booming along a residential street for three blocks, turns right, and accelerates up North Front Drive with a brassy roar, hitting sixty within six blocks.     Then abruptly it shrieks to a stop.     A side street strikes east from North Front: Kittiwake Drive. The pickup's radio and headlights switch off as it turns and prowls around the curve where Kittiwake hooks north toward a dead end.     The four houses along the street are tucked into jack pines on a ridge just high enough to give them an ocean view: three short-term rentals, empty at this time of year; an A-frame with two wings--kitchen on the north, garage and makeshift dojo on the south.     There's a light in the A-frame's loft bedroom.     The bloodred-and-night-black pickup growls at idle, and three men emerge, unload the truck bed, then move like dark leaves blown along a gutter toward the A-frame. Moonlight glances on shaven heads and on silver swastikas adorning the backs of black leather jackets.     The leader carries the gasoline can. The other two pant under the shared weight of a crudely cobbled cross. Chapter Two In the a-frame's loft bedroom, Neely Jones sleeps, too exhausted by a week of double shifts to be disturbed by the reading light and, for the moment, unaware of the midnight moonlight men outside.     Neely lies curled on her side, the pillow wadded under her head, her bronze skin glossed by the gold reflected from the fir paneling. Her dark hair, cut short and left natural, defines a long, narrow skull and absorbs the light, and under the deep, convex curves of her eyelids, a dream plays out in shadows of motion.     Next to her, close enough to touch her, Jan Koto sits propped with pillows against the headboard, his wire-rim glasses slipping down a nose that offers no purchase, while he focuses intently on a slim treatise titled Cnidocyst Neurotoxins in Medusae of the Eastern Pacific Rim .     He doesn't hear the distant rumble obscured by the constant rush of the surf.     But the next sounds are closer, louder.     Shouts, echoes of rowdy, abandoned laughter.     The sounds seep into a dream Neely will never remember, and she comes abruptly awake, listening, black eyes wide, fiercely unblinking.     The shouts and laughter fade, but she can still hear the distant rumble, and she knows exactly what it is. With an adrenaline rush that explodes her out of bed, she mutters, "Riker!" Jan stares at her while she shrugs on her hapi coat then reaches for the leather gun belt on the chair near the bed and unholsters the Glock 9-mm semiautomatic.     Deputy Neely Jones's duty weapon.     An aging Alinco DJ580 transceiver is clipped to the belt. She grabs it and heads for the stairs, spirals down to the living room.     But at the foot of the staircase, she stops, staring through the huge, black triangle of glass at a blinding cross as tall as a man, a cross of flame. Her heart pounds erratically, but she can't be sure whether fear or rage impels it.     Neely, honey, if you can't tell the difference between mad and scared, better use the mad to think with and the scared to get you moving.     So said Gramma Faith Jones, and it seems all her equivocal scraps of wisdom hide, ready to emerge at any time, in the recesses of Neely's memory.     No, Gramma, it's the mad that gets me moving.     And it's the yellow obscenity outside that sends her bolting across the living room to the glass door. She unlocks it, slams it back against its metal frame, and steps out onto the deck, the Glock raised and ready.     The cold of the wood under her bare feet registers at the same moment she recoils from the heat and the stink of smoke tainted with gasoline. Hungry flames gulp the night air and spit it out, rippling-hot and roaring. The blaze illuminates the length of Kittiwake Drive, but it's empty. No red-and-black pickup. And she knows it was Riker's pickup she heard. That sound she can't and won't forget.     Eugene Buxman, aka Dirk Riker, the fish-white, skinny-shanked, bald-shaven representative of the Aryan master race who, with his two similarly masterful sidekicks, are the tip of the iceberg of racism in lily-white Westport, Oregon.     Three times this year Eugene and his merry men have decorated the house with spray-painted swastikas and graffiti: JAP MONGRIL! NIGGAR BITCH! DIE NIGGAR FUCKER! The representative of the master race can't even spell.     But there's no graffiti this time: only this ultimate Christian symbol turned to viciously unchristian purpose.     Neely pulls out the tranceiver's antenna. Charlie Eckholm should be on dispatch now. Not that that's anything to shout about. "Charlie? This is Neely Jones. We have a cross burning in progress at our house. I need a deputy as witness, and make sure he has a video camera."     Charlie replies through a rattle of static, "Neely, we ain't got the men to check out every kid's prank in the county, and you know it."     "I'm reporting a crime , Charlie! Who's available?"     According to Charlie, no one is available at the Taft County Sheriff's Office. All six of the men on duty are out on calls or on patrol.     Neely stands with the Glock heavy in her right hand, listening to the voracious panting of the fire, bitterly aware that even if there were twenty men sitting on their butts at the TCSO, Charlie wouldn't admit it. He won't even bother to scribble a note about a cross burning.     A kid's prank.     "Charlie, at least put out an APB on Eugene Buxman. Riker! Whatever he calls himself."     She signs off, letting her rage drown out the despair underlying it.     "Neely?"     She turns. Jan Koto is standing in the doorway, like Neely barefoot and clad in a hastily donned robe. His right hand is clenched on the frame of the glass door. A strong hand, and she knows all too well how strong.     He taught her karate, the art of the "empty hand."     And that's how he has always approached life: Strong hands empty, as he seeks the way of peace and harmony.     The firelight reflects on the lenses of his wire-rim glasses, sheens his silk black hair, flashes in his black eyes, but there's more bewilderment there than anger. He looks at the cross and says succinctly, "Shit!"     Neely nods, facing the flames as she places the transceiver and the Glock on the railing. Her hands are shaking. "That honky bastard! I'll never get used to it, Jan. Never! "     She feels his arms slip warm and easy around her.     "Why should you, Neely, any more than you get used to murder and beatings and kids stoned on crack?"     "This is different. This is personal." She turns in the circle of his arms and bends her head into the curve of his shoulder. "For both of us."     Sometimes Neely wonders if one of the reasons they find such comfort in each other is that they both understand certain things. Her great-uncle was lynched by the Klan in New Orleans. Jan's father was a child when his family was shipped to an internment camp during World War II. That was the past, yes, but it isn't over. Neely closes her eyes, holding on to Jan. To hope.     My prince of the empty hands, seeking peace where discord prevails, making harmony where it never existed. In my heart, at least.     Yet Jan Koto hasn't a clue about this flaming obscenity. Not really.     In the Westport Oceanographic Center, the science-focused institution where he's worked for two years, there's a mix of races and ethnic origins among the twenty scientists on the research staff, and Westport treats all of them with respect.     But then the center provides a respectable payroll and, with its museum aquarium, a respectable tourist attraction.     This white-bread town likes its bread.     It's a different town for her. She works in an understaffed, underfunded, all-white-male department where she's Sheriff Gifford Wills's token woman and token African-American in one. Her world is in the darkness behind closed doors and in midnight alleys, where people reveal all that is worst in human nature, and where she tries to light small candles of hope for the survivors.     Jan's world is the sea, a magnificent and infinite mystery, and every day he tugs at the veils of the mystery and sometimes catches a glimpse of an answer and treats it as a gift from a capricious goddess.     In time, Neely has come to share his joy in the sea's revelations. That's his gift to her.     Maybe someday she'll believe it's her world, too.     The cross shivers. Neely looks around in time to see its arms crack and break off, fall in a hissing rain of orange sparks. Finally, Jan says, "I'll get the fire extinguisher," and disappears into the house.     Neely waits at the railing until Jan returns with the red cylinder of a fire extinguisher and goes down into the yard to blast the flames with spewing white clouds that take on a coral light until they succeed in suffocating the blaze. Something within Neely rebels at the desecration of a crime scene, but she's documented Buxman/Riker's "pranks" before, and Sheriff Giff Wills wasn't interested.     When nothing is left of the cross but a blackened post, the November chill sweeps in around her as if into a vacuum. Jan returns to the deck and draws her close to him, kisses the soft, yielding hair at her temple.     "Come on, Niri-san, let's go back to bed."     She smiles at that ironic pet name. He pronounces it with an exaggerated Japanese accent: Nee-ree-sahn . He's fourth-generation American, and she knows his Japanese vocabulary extends only a few words past sayonara and sushi .     They retreat into the living room, and Jan has just locked the glass door when the phone rings. He says, "I'll get it," as he crosses to the table at the end of the couch and reaches for the phone.     Neely climbs up to the loft, puts the transceiver and gun in their proper places on the leather belt, then gets into bed and pulls the covers up against a chill that won't let go. She hears Jan's voice but not his words. At least it isn't a call from the TCSO ordering her to report for duty. Jan's laughing.     She's still exhausted, but she knows she won't sleep soon. She finds herself gazing at the wall above the chest of drawers where a samurai sword in a brocaded sheath is mounted. That lethally beautiful weapon, Jan told her, was presented to him when he came of age, by his father, Ando Koto.     But Jan also joked to her that he ordered the sword from the Franklin Mint.     The chill has subsided by the time Jan climbs the stairs to the loft. He sits down on the bed next to her, regarding her with a secretive smile that makes no sense, and says softly, "Congratulations."     "For what?"     "Congratulations on your election as sheriff of Taft County."     Neely sits up, staring at him. "What are you talking about?"     "That call was from Lydia Quigley, and--"     "Lydia! What did she want?"     "To talk to you, but I managed to put her off. Which she took with some grace, actually. At least she didn't seem surprised."     Neely begins irritably, "Lydia's never surpr--" Then with a sensation in her stomach that reminds her of her first ride on a roller coaster, she asks, "What did you say about the election?"     "You won , Neely!" He takes both her hands, smiling proudly. "The first time a write-in candidate has won a major position in this county, and definitely the first time an African-American woman has been elected sheriff. You'll be sworn in on New Year's Day!"     "Oh, Jan, that's crazy. Lydia must be drunk."     But Neely is grasping at straws. Lydia Quigley, éminence grise of Taft County politics, stinging gadfly among the good ol' boys, a teetotaler with the willpower of a Puritan, albeit a liberal Puritan--Lydia drunk?     Jan is still grinning as he adds, "Lydia said there's plenty of margin. No chance the absentee ballots will tip it. She wanted you to come to her house for the victory celebration tonight."     " Victory? Damn it, I told her I didn't want the job!"     "Right. If nominated, you won't run. If elected, you won't serve."     She hits his shoulder with a hard fist. "Jan, it's not funny! The men will never tolerate me as sheriff! And Giff--nearly two months to live with Giff Wills before I'd be sworn in? Ever since the Barany case--I mean, if I did beat him ..." Her voice fails her as the full import of those words finally sinks in.     Then like a woman drowning, she flings her arms around Jan. "Baja! Poseidon 's leaving Thursday for Baja, isn't she? Take me along. I'll cook for the crew. Anything!"     "Neely, you can't cook, and you know I'm not going on this voyage. I saw all I needed to see of gray whales in September. I don't know why Ben scheduled another expedition to Baja so soon after the last one--unless it's the R and R in Cabo San Lucas. Anyway, if I go on any research jaunts, they'll be closer to--Oh, damn."     "What?"     "Nothing important. I just remembered I can't have lunch with you tomorrow. We're going scuba diving off the Lands End Point. Mersky offered to take us out in his boat, and with him, we have to strike while the iron is hot--or while his boat's working."     Neely hasn't been focusing on what he's saying, but she does now.     "You and Andrea the Amazon?"     "Hey, don't give me your Benin sorceress look." There's a defensive cast in his tone now. "If Andrea's analyses show any decent results, we'll all be rich and famous one day."     Neely knows Jan thinks she's jealous of Andrea Olenick, chief biochemist at the center. But she's not. She just knows that Andrea's in love with Jan, and since he discovered the new jellyfish--now officially named Chrysaora kotii --and the rare chemistry of its stings, and since Andrea pointed out its potential value as an analgesic, he's had to spend a lot of time with her. But as far as he's concerned, Andrea is in it for the money. Not for him. Not even for science.     Jan doesn't pursue the subject of Andrea Olenick. With solemn pride, he cups Neely's face in his hands. "You'll be the best damn sheriff this county ever had. You've got more training than the rest of them put together, and you can survive two months under a lame-duck Giff Wills. You're tough, and I've never seen you wave a white flag."     She's had no choice about tough , but Jan can't imagine what she'll be facing if she accepts this "victory" Lydia Quigley has dumped on her. But Neely has nothing to prove here, no reason to accept a no-win situation.     "Of course, I can resign tomorrow."     "And let Giff win?"     "The better part of valor. And Chief Kleber will give me a job. He said he'd love to have me, and it's only a thirty-mile commute."     Jan doesn't argue with her. In the five years they've lived together--three in San Francisco, two here in Westport--he has always respected the decisions that are hers alone to make.     Only once did he express any doubt about a decision of hers.     That was when she resigned from the San Francisco Police Department to encourage him to accept the post at the Westport Oceanographic Center.     It meant exchanging her sergeant's stripes for the bottom-rung rank of deputy, but Jan could only carry out the research he finds so compulsively engaging in a place like Westport. Here he has access to the technical facilities he needs, and in the waters offshore the medusoid populations he's made his specialty to proliferate.     Where Jan Koto goes, she goes. It's that simple.     She gently removes his glasses and leans close until their lips whisper together. "Jan, I love you...."     He sighs, giving in, and perhaps neither of them understand what he's giving in to, as he pushes the covers aside and stretches close against Neely, and they both laugh. And if they don't understand that laughter, either, after what this night has brought them, it doesn't matter.     Tonight laughter and love and making love are a triumph.