Freebie Friday

On Fridays I’m going to share a chapter a week from one of my books. The first book is Souls Lost. If you wish to purchase it to read faster, you can find it at your favorite retailer.

In that summer, the one two years or so ago that was so hot the air conditioning sales people ran out of product leaving people to suffer, there were three deaths not related to the heat. In large towns such deaths might have gone unnoticed, just another middle-aged woman dead in her garden, perhaps a heart attack or stroke, and boy wasn’t she too young to die like that. But not in a small town like Corbin Meadow.

There people talked, mostly in whispers, across the shiny white laminate tables that would have looked as at home in 1950 as they did in the retro diner over on Main sixty-plus years later. The fans on the ceiling, turning slowly, offering some slight relief from the heat that the air conditioner wasn’t quite able to keep up with—what with the grills and deep fryers all out and open to the main restaurant—made people feel as if they’d gone back in time. Many of them probably wanted to.

The whispers were about who the women were. Ordinary enough. But not so ordinary to the town. Bethany Shields was the secretary to the mayor. She was found first. The police searched high and low, but the only clue was the fact that she was out in her garden in her work clothing, lying on her side, a garden trowel nearby. There were no fingerprints on said trowel and no trace of injury—nor anything else more salacious.

Amanda Gregg was next. She, too, was in her garden in the afternoon, having come home from work. She’d taken off her shoes and walked barefoot into the yard, but there wasn’t any trace of injury to her either. She’d been on the tiny police force, in line for the chief of police once she’d gotten a couple more years under her belt. No one knew exactly what she had planned for the small garden trowel beside her. Amanda didn’t garden.

Finally, it was Jodie Mason-Hyer. Jodie, of course, was on the city council.  Like Amanda and Bethany, there was no reason for her to be dead. But she was, a small garden trowel by her side.

No one had ever found a link or reason. The mayor and his office claimed to have nothing on the table that the women were either for or against. The gossips had no grist for their mills and gave up only to start again when Jodie Mason-Hyer’s daughter waltzed back into town.

Zoe Mason-Hyer Parker, as if anyone could believe a name like that, really, was thirty-three, married with no children, the summer her momma died. She was thirty-five when she returned to the town without her husband—as if being Jodie Mason-Hyer’s daughter wasn’t enough to start tongues wagging.

Zoe was, in the words of Clara, the waitress at the diner who suffered the not quite cool enough air conditioning year after year, looking scared. And lonely. And maybe a little bit regretful. Probably because, having left her momma and gone west to the Left Coast, there had been no one there to look after her and perhaps notice anything wrong in her life. You couldn’t actually count on a husband for those types of woman things, could you?

“Don’t know about that, Clara,” Taran said. Taran Rees was the new, but no longer shiny new, chief of police in Corbin Meadow. He sat on the stool next to the cash register where he always started his day. He’d done that for two years, ever since Frank Nilsen had retired as police chief shortly after letting the murders of the three women fall into the cold case files.

“How would you know?” Clara asked. She turned to Taran, a hand on her hip and staring him down. The register next to her was an old silver thing, purchased new a few decades after the diner had lost its first blush, and it looked like an antique, what with everyone going to computers.

Clara, too, was something of an antique, still wearing her silver gray hair big and bold, held up with a scarf tied around it, like you might have seen in 1970. The lines around her eyes and mouth mostly trended upwards, which told Taran she’d spent the better part of those forty odd years smiling and laughing with customers, not complaining like she’d have you believe.

Taran took a sip of his coffee, the mug plain beige but without a chip on it. His grandmother probably had some that looked exactly the same. He was nearing forty, happy enough with his lot in life. He’d been married once to a woman who’d lived in Corbin Meadow all her life but shortly after the murders—or perhaps it started during the murders—she’d decided the town was too dull. Perhaps she’d always said that and Taran had finally heard her when she began packing her stuff to move to the northern part of Virginia where she now lived just outside of D.C. A place where, she said, life actually happened.

His radio sputtered at him and Taran pressed a button, saying, “Okay. Over.” He was momentarily thankful to the person who had called in forcing him away from uncomfortable questions he might have to answer with Clara. She had a way of dragging information out of you that would likely get shared around the community as others came in—bless her heart, as his momma would say.

“You gotta get there, Chief.” Mattie, their new dispatcher, was practically in tears.

Taran needed to rethink having a local dispatch. Maybe they ought to go through dispatch out of Hickory or something, where you got folks with some real training who weren’t about to cry.

“What and where?” Taran was already standing, putting a few bucks on the counter for Clara.

Clara, for her part, was already picking them up, pressing the numbers into the register so he could get his change. Not that he needed any, not that morning. He’d been fortunate to come prepared.

“It’s Ms. Wilcox, the librarian. She was found in her garden. Like…” Mattie trailed off.

The advantage of living in a small town, Taran knew, was that he didn’t have to pull any more information from Mattie. He could have been and gone back to the Wilcox house in the time it would take him if he had had to do that, what with Mattie sniffling and crying and all, not that he blamed her if it was bad, like the words Mattie had left unspoken suggested.

He knew where Elaine Wilcox lived, over on Cedar across from the school, about half a mile from the library which allowed her to walk to work every day and get in a mile no matter the weather, which was generally nice. When weather was at its worst in January, and there were a few inches of snow on the ground for a few days, the town, like all towns in the Carolinas—even those on the fringes of the Appalachians—closed down and the kids played.

“I’ll be there in three,” Taran said as he reached his cruiser. Three minutes assumed some traffic and hitting the light on Main and Gardenia. If he missed both, and so far he was missing traffic as there was only one other car on the street going the opposite direction, he would be there in two.

The cruiser purred along through the green light and the roads remained clear, which meant Taran beat his three-minute estimate by a good forty seconds. He’d slowed when a child had poked his head out of the chain link gate on the side of the school as if he wanted to cross the street. Instead, he’d watched the cruiser, fascinated to see it driving past the school during morning recess.

The Wilcox home was a neat 1950s era ranch-style home, all red brick and white trim. At some point Elaine had removed the narrow concrete stoop that so many of them had and added a wood front porch partially shaded by angled two-by-fours. The garden in the front was framed by low boxwood shrubs that stood about knee high. A crepe myrtle tree stood in a far corner offering shade in the summer to what was probably a master bedroom. Lavender and rosemary cuddled in the corner closest to the sidewalk.

It suited Elaine Wilcox down to the garden gnomes she kept in her front garden, which were not, of course, quite typical gnomes as they all wore Starfleet uniforms. Taran remembered when she had found those online. She had crowed about them for days. Today they didn’t look funny and welcoming. They looked slightly ominous, unhappy with having to wear their Starfleet uniforms when everyone knew gnomes were creatures of the earth, not space.

The slam of the door as Taran got out of the cruiser was loud on the quiet street. Someone was playing the radio, an oldies station, music that reminded him of his early childhood and his momma dancing around the kitchen to Madonna.

Mary Jo Strand and Louella White stood hugging each other at the end of the driveway. Mary Jo was head of the library board and lived around the corner. Louella was a different matter. She was the principal of the high school and more importantly, in Corbin Meadow, she was black. In most of the world it was the twenty-first century, and while the racists were coming out of the woodwork they’d been hiding in, in Corbin Meadow the races hadn’t ever really mixed enough for the racists to get angry. Still, a white woman hugging a black woman wasn’t something you saw every day in Corbin Meadow. Not on a public street, anyway.

“She’s back there.” Mary Jo pointed with her finger, around to the back.

Which told Taran they were, indeed, the women who had found Elaine. Mary Jo, probably because she’d have noticed when Elaine didn’t come in. She’d have called Louella to walk with her in case she needed help, perhaps thinking Elaine had fallen and injured herself. The careers of the three women had intersected many times and they were a common sight to be seen, arguing as they walked downtown or in the park on the weekends. The hug might be a surprise, but the friendship was well known in Corbin Meadow. Mary Jo always was a hell-raiser, according to Taran’s daddy.

The location wasn’t a surprise to Taran. Hadn’t the others all been in the backyard, lying out there with that damned trowel next to them? He’d seen them all working with Frank. He should have been working with Amanda right now. Instead, he was working alone, leaving Johnny Andress on traffic duty. Johnny had been on night duty when the first murders occurred. He had no real experience in major crimes, nor had he been present when the first women had died. Taran couldn’t see a good reason to bring him in, not right then.

The driveway was a long, narrow cement path that ran next to the house back to the detached single garage that sat behind. Most of the neighbors had expanded the garage to a two-car building, but not Elaine. She’d lived there alone. Always had.

Taran wondered if she was old enough to have purchased the place new. Decided she wasn’t and continued around the back. There was no fence. Not even the tidy border of bushes like in the front. The yard was deep and only a few feet wider than the house. There was a kidney-shaped plot of grass that bent around a rounded brick patio. The corner angles of the yard were filled with another crepe myrtle, this one, Taran knew, bloomed pink to the front one’s white, though it was past the time when it would bloom, despite the unseasonable warmth. Other bushes that he wasn’t familiar with huddled in groups gossiping with each other from various corners of the yard. There were bird feeders beneath the tree. A bird bath sat close to the house where bathing beauty birds could be seen easily from the cushioned rattan chairs sitting on the patio.

There was a retractable awning overhead, now closed. It was late in the season, although still warm. The remnants of the hurricane brushing the coast would bring with it tropical weather, unseasonably warm, probably the next day. Along with winds. If the power went out, Taran didn’t know what he’d do.

His knees buckled but only slightly before he made himself stand upright, looking down at Elaine Wilcox. She was dressed as if on her way to work at the library in nice khaki slacks and a short-sleeved blouse in blue. She was on her side. The garden trowel close at hand, as if she had been out to dig bulbs or something.

Except Taran knew he wouldn’t find anything like that ready to be dug. Wouldn’t find that the trowel looked used at all. He wiped the sweat that had appeared from his forehead, as if he was already feeling the tropical heat. He did not want to have to deal with this.

Chapter 2 will be coming next Friday. Don’t want to wait? Find the book here.

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