Chapters and Excerpts

Every Hidden Fear
A Skeet Bannion Mystery

I had dead leaves and cobwebs in my hair and stuck to my face. I couldn't wipe them away because my glove-covered hands were digging wet, smelly leaf slime out of the gutters while my tough old grandmother scolded me for letting my house get into such bad shape. I'd had better afternoons chasing down murderers.

I'd planned on a quiet, restful day for a change since Brian was off with friends. I didn't get those very often any longer with Gran and my ward, Brian Jameson, both living with me, especially lately with Brian’s grumpy mood. I'd thought I might read a book for pleasure or sit on the front porch and knit in the unseasonably warm weather. One of the advantages of giving up a hard-hitting career with the Kansas City Police department and moving to a small college town as head of campus police was the slower pace of life here right outside the city. Perhaps I might take Lady, my collie, for a nice, leisurely walk through town and windowshop on our way to the park. Until I caught that hardheaded old woman up on a ladder, getting ready to clean my gutters. Eighty years old and climbing a ladder as if she had no more sense than a squirrel!

So nothing would do but to give up my peaceful afternoon and climb up to do the job myself with Her Toughness holding the ladder steady and calling out orders, complaints, and warnings while a train hooted its way through the heart of Brewster, Missouri. I just wanted to get finished and off the ladder—I'm not fond of heights—and wash up. But Gran was not a person to be satisfied with a lick and a promise, so I could see I was going to be stuck up there all afternoon, moving slowly around the house.

"You can't neglect things like this, Skeet." Gran's voice was stern as I pulled loose a Virginia creeper vine that had somehow made it all the way to the gutter. "If you're not constantly watching and taking care of little things with a house, all kinds of things will fester in the dark and grow out of sight to damage it until they pull it down on your head."

I sighed. I was a little shocked at how much junk had collected in my gutters, and from this height, I could see more Virginia creeper around the corner and heading for the roof. But I really didn't think I was in danger of my solidly built ninety-year-old house collapsing on my head imminently any more than Gran was going to collapse in a Victorian faint at my feet.

"Those clogged gutters'll lead to leaks in the roof and in the walls, if you don't take care of them. Water's your enemy when you own a house. It'll rot the wood and weaken your whole structure." Gran shook her head as I threw another clump of leaf slime down to the ground, a little too close to her feet. "It's the stuff that's out of sight and hidden from view that does all the damage."

I rolled my eyes as I turned back to the gutter. I was taking care of it, wasn't I? No need to go on and on about my sins of neglect.

"Okay. I just never owned a house before, Gran. I didn't know all this stuff. Now that you've told me, I do. And I'll take care of things." I didn't see why I couldn't hire someone to clean out the gutters and things like that, giving some guy who needed it work and saving my few peaceful afternoons off for myself.

She ignored everything I said. "After this, we'll have to go to the hardware store and get some caulk for the windows. It’s going to be Thanksgiving soon, and you haven't winterized this house. Normally, we'd have had some snow or ice by now, or certainly hard freezes."

"It's the good thing about global warming," I teased as I leaned as far as I could along the front of the house before having to climb down and reposition the ladder. "We're becoming a milder climate here in the tornado-blizzard zone."

"Hmph! Human messes always screw up the earth. No respect, at all." She dodged another handful of twigs and leaf slime. "But the earth is going to slap back. Got a big, bad storm on its way. Need to be prepared."

"Gran, all the weathermen and the weather station say this mild weather's going to last through the holidays. We shouldn’t get any real winter weather before New Year’s Day. Wouldn’t be the first time our first real snowstorm didn’t hit until New Year’s."

I caught myself after reaching too far and started to climb down the ladder. This was the part about heights that I really hated, climbing down backwards, so I concentrated on my feet and the next rung.

"I don't have to listen to yonega weathermen. I hope I have enough sense to read the signs all around me like I've been doing for eighty years, like my grandmother taught me and I tried to teach you." She waved away my attempt at protest. "And the signs all around tell me we've got a blizzard coming, a bad one."

I set my first foot on the ground and breathed a little relieved sigh. "Meteorologists have—"

"Meteorologists! Why are they looking at meteors when the signs are here in the caterpillars and squirrels and foxes and trees and other living beings?" She snorted with disgust and moved away from the ladder as I stepped off the last rung.

"Gran, I don't want to argue with you on such a nice day. Let's take a break and go in for some coffee and some of those cookies you made last night. We can bring them out to the porch here and relax for a minute before doing the rest of the gutters." I reached to take her arm but dropped my hand after seeing the odorous junk from the gutters smeared on my glove. "And I could clean up a little."

"Hmph! You just want to get out of cleaning the rest of those gutters. Don't think I don't know it." A spark of mischief appeared in her dark eyes. "But those were good cookies last night, and they’d go well with some hot coffee."

Before I could agree enthusiastically and lure her on into the house, a noisy, bright green car pulled up in the street in front of us. We both turned toward it just as Brian leaped out of the back of clean-cut quarterback Noah Steen's car and slammed the door. Brian’s best friend, Angie Melvin, had one tattooed arm hanging out the passenger window, and she stuck her head with its burgundy and blue hair out as well. "Bye, Bri. Call me later. Hi, Skeet. Hi, Mrs. Whittaker."

Angie had first-named Gran one time only in the first days after Gran moved herself in with Brian and me. Gran put a stop to that in no time, and she was the only adult in town that Angie didn't call by first name or some sarcastic nickname. Mine, when she was pissed at me, was Supercop.

Brian nodded and waved, then turned a scowling face in our direction as Noah and Angie drove off.

"Didn't you have fun with Angie and Noah?" I asked. "You look like you lost your best friend."

"Maybe that's because I have," he snapped back at me. "Angie just hangs on that stupid jock's every word and ignores me. I don't know why they ask me to come along. Sometimes I think she doesn't want me there, at all. He's the one who always asks. Just trying to get in her good graces. Like he's so sensitive and caring. Hah!"

"Whoa, Brian. She didn't sound like it just now, asking you to call her later and everything."

"That's just so she can go on and on about handsome Noah and every little thing he said and did. And isn't he just wonderful, Brian? Isn't he the greatest? The most boring phone calls in the world."

I opened my mouth to try to make things better somehow, but Gran jabbed me in the side with her bony elbow and frowned at me, so I just shut my mouth and focused on Brian the way I would focus on witnesses in silence to lead them to say more than they intended when I was investigating crimes. Brian stood in frowning silence for about half a minute. Then, the technique worked its magic.

"Sometimes I don't think Noah really likes Angie, at all. Not that way, you know. I think he's just playing a game with her, and she's going to get hurt real bad." He lowered his eyes and shook his head impatiently. "And I don't think I can stand it because she's already been hurt so much. I don't see how she'll survive it. I'd like to hit him, but he's older and bigger and a jock, and he'd probably wipe up the floor with me. Then he'd just take Angie off and hurt her anyway."

He swiped at his eyes angrily. “She deserves better than him. I can't see what she sees in him. She's usually so smart. Just brilliant. But right now, she's being so dumb.”

“She can't see that there's a great guy, smart and talented and honorable, who would treat her much better, can she?” Gran asked quietly.

Brian stood in silent shock. “I don't...” He shook his head furiously and ran up the porch steps and into the house, banging the screen door behind him.

I started after him, but Gran laid her hand on my arm. “Let him go. He needs to cry it out and hit walls, and he won't be grateful to have any witnesses to that later.”

“He's in love with Angie? That can't be! He's too young. Only fifteen. I know he thinks the world of her. But that's just friendship. He can't be in love at his age. Can he?”

I'd had custody of Brian for less than a year since his parents died. Pretty soon, the adoption would be final, if nothing got in the way. I had a bad feeling love might be one of those things that could derail it.

“Skeet, his age is when the worst of love hits. And he won't know what to do with it. He feels totally out of control.”

That sounded like love at any age to me—or at least my experience with it. I was not a fan of Cupid's.

Gran went on over my thoughts. “It was bound to happen. He's always thought the sun rose and set on Angie, so when the hormones kicked in, she's where all his feelings ended up.”

“Oh, shit! Hormones. Sex. Please, no. Not to my boy. Brian's too young to handle all that. Hell, I'm too young to handle all that, so how can a kid manage? And how on earth can I help him?”

I couldn't guide a kid through first love. I'd made a mess of my own love life, marrying an exciting, handsome fellow cop who made me laugh and thrill with passion, only to find that he couldn't handle a strong woman who made a success of her career and had to manage his fears by being verbally abusive and sexually unfaithful. I had nothing to teach poor Brian, except the lesson I'd learned--avoid romance and love.

“Give him room, for one thing, Skeet. A lot of the love miseries a person's just got to sort out on their own.” Gran shook her head. “He's right. Angie's already had a lifetime of hurt, and she doesn't need more. And he's probably right about the other boy's feelings. Brian's a good observer.”

I wanted to throw something. Angie had had such a rough time lately. I'd been glad to see Noah show up and some color and happiness come back into her cheeks once she'd healed enough physically to go back to school. With her mother a drug addict, her father murdered, and the stepmother I believed had tried to kill her in charge of her, she'd been through hell. Recovering from physical injuries and surgery to remove her spleen had left her bereft of a lot of her admirable strength and vitality.

“This is all too complicated.” I gestured with my stained glove toward the front door. “Let's go clean up and figure out what to do over coffee.”

“And cookies,” Gran added, as she started up the porch steps.

As that same train gave a mournful whistle from the far side of town, I followed her, wishing I could go back to being on the ladder wrist-deep in gutter muck and blissfully innocent of the problems roiling beneath the surface of my life. Gran was right. What you couldn't see could destroy you. I suspected that, the way water was your enemy if you owned a house, love was your enemy if you wanted a happy, peaceful life.


The next day was a bright, clear Sunday, and Gran talked Brian into going fishing with her and my old friend, Sid Ambrose, our part-time county coroner in his retirement from the medical examiner's office in Kansas City. Sid got a kick out of Gran, and she enjoyed having a fishing buddy up here. I was glad to see Brian off to spend some time with two of the wisest people I knew.

I had a lazy morning sitting in my pajamas and knitting in the company of Lady and Wilma Mankiller, my scrappy street cat that I’d brought with me from Kansas City. Wilma used to constitute my immediate family, but it had since been expanded to include Lady, Brian, Gran, my dearest friend Karen, and others.  I had to shake my head sadly when I remembered those days of just Wilma and me in a drab city apartment.

She seemed much happier now, too, as she batted around at the pink yarn moving past her head or thrust that head under my hand, demanding petting. Wilma was not the shy and retiring type. She went after what she wanted.

Eventually, I dressed and drove to the Clubhouse Restaurant located on the public golf course next to River Walk Park. They had a great Sunday brunch buffet, and if I was lucky, we’d get a table overlooking the river where I could watch eagles and herons, as well as the constant ripple of the Missouri’s powerful current. I'd promised to meet Pearl Brewster, last descendant of our town’s founder, for a lunch meeting with my friends, Miryam Rainbow and Annette Stanek. Pearl had a project she wanted us to help her with, probably something to do for teens. Pearl was the local champion and mentor of teens with any kinds of problems, and her projects were usually useful and sensible.

As I left my car, I could hear another train in the distance, the regular background music of Brewster, Missouri. Train tracks ran through the heart of town to a station on the edge of the wide Missouri River. As one of the earliest river ports, we’d always been a natural stopping place for trains, with tracks leading both north to Omaha and Des Moines and south to Kansas City and beyond to Oklahoma and Kansas. Passenger trains no longer held much importance in American life, and the old station was now a hip restaurant, but freight trains still ran both directions through Brewster night and day.

The train moaned off into the distance, and I saw Joe Louzon, Brewster’s chief of police, walking toward me. I gave a little moan of my own. He’d asked me to have lunch with him that day at the Clubhouse, and I’d been happy to claim a previous commitment. You’d think he’d have known I’d never agree to go to lunch, just the two of us. That would feel too much like a date, something I was definitely not doing.

“Skeet, did you change your mind?” he asked eagerly, a bright smile lighting up his broad, muscular face.

“No, I’m meeting friends for lunch. Just the way I told you.” I had to stop my forward motion because he planted his stalwart body directly in my path like the defensive end I knew he’d been back in high school football. “It so happens we’re eating here.”

Joe'd been good for a long time about not pushing his desire for anything beyond friendship. He knew my ex-husband was still in my life because we shared care for my ailing father, but that never bothered Joe, who always seemed secure and rock-solid sensible.

 “What friend exactly are you meeting?” he asked with intensity. “Don’t bother with some little white lie. I saw your hired-gun pal, Heldrich, go in just a second ago.”

I rolled my eyes and sighed. It was only when Terry Heldrich came into town that Joe suddenly became jealous and downright pushy about wanting more from me than I could give. It wasn’t fair when we’d never been more than friends, and I’d made it clear I wasn’t ready for anything else. Besides, Terry meant nothing to me. He might have had other ideas, but I just avoided him. Still, I felt like I’d lost a good friend in Joe.

“I imagine you’ve seen a number of people go inside recently. Some of them might be the people I’m having lunch with, but Terry’s not one of them. Would you please move out of my way? I’m going to be late for lunch.”

He tightened his mouth into a straight line with a little skeptical pursing of the lips at the center. I missed the days when he used to smile warmly at me and make me feel that he was happy with me just the way I was. I missed my friend.

He stepped to the side and gestured me to go ahead with his strong right arm. His eyes, half-sad, half-angry, followed me as I passed.

I couldn’t help turning to tell him, “I’m meeting Pearl, Annette, and Miryam, honestly.”

He rewarded me with a half-hearted smile, neither one of us getting what we wanted.

I shook off the sadness the encounter caused me as I entered the dark, fragrant interior of the Clubhouse Restaurant with a crush of people, most of them coming in off the links after playing rounds of golf. I wouldn’t let it ruin my day. I looked forward to hearing what Pearl had to say and to getting the reaction of the others. I liked old Pearl, and no one knew this town her great-great-grandfather had founded better than she did.

In front of me as we moved through the walnut-paneled halls, some of the town politicos chatted with the local sensation, wealthy developer Ash Mowbray, who'd apparently played a round of golf with them. Ash had one of those big, deep voices that dominate a whole room, as if the owner never learned as a child how to use his indoor voice.

"Don't tell me it's a cinch if it isn't, Harvey," he blared. "You're the mayor. You should know whether you have the votes or not."

I noticed poor old Harvey Peebles turn a sickly shade of yellow as he looked up and rushed to reassure the much-taller Ash in a smaller, more civil voice.

Behind me, someone set a gentle hand on my shoulder, and I turned directly into Terry Heldrich's chest, covered in a dark T-shirt under a battered leather bomber jacket. Immediately, I bounced away in embarrassment, brushing off his hand.

"I'm sorry," he said, looking down at me with a grin that gave the lie to his words. It lit up his dark eyes above those cheekbones other men might have paid for, if they could have. "Didn't mean to startle you. I just wanted to say hello."

His employer, Walker Lynch, swept past us imperiously in another group of golfers without a break in his conversation even when they were directed to a table.

"Hello," I said. "You'd better catch up to your party. Your boss may want you for something."

Terry knew I didn't approve of who he worked for and what he might or might not be doing for Walker, but he kept showing up in my path anyway. I had to give him points for perseverance, if not sensitivity.

I could tell the first time we met that he was nothing but trouble for any woman, especially me. When we had to run background checks on him as part of a murder investigation, we kept coming up blank. He had a military special-forces background that was classified before he did some mercenary work that also seemed classified and then some government work that was—guess what?

He should have disappeared back to Kansas City shortly after with his wealthy employer, Walker Lynch, but to my dismay, Terry rented an apartment in Brewster and commuted to the city—like a growing number of people. Brewster was in danger of becoming just another Kansas City bedroom community and losing its charm and identity.

Annette waved at me from the bar, tall enough that I could see her red head over the crowd. I knew the shorter Miryam and Pearl must be with her.

“There’s my party. I'd better be going, and so had you." I started out toward my friends.

"Skeet," Terry called as I pushed on through the crush of people in the lobby. I turned toward him. His grin had subsided into a tight-lipped smile, and his hands rested on his hips. "I'm still expecting you. To come see my new apartment. Have you lost the address?"

I shook my head. "I haven't lost your address. I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you."

He laughed out loud, throwing his head back and showing perfect teeth. "But that's the wonder of it. You are so very not me." He brushed the tip of his hat in salute, and I marched away from him to where Annette and the others stood waiting. I could feel him staring at me, a heated area between my shoulder blades where his eyes rested. He thought he was so funny—and so hot. I’d continue to ignore him, and he’d eventually take the hint and leave me alone.

"Pearl, how are you?" I asked as I reached my destination. I learned at Gran’s knee that you always greet elders first. Among the Cherokee, elders are highly respected and valued. Not the way most American society functions. I figured when I got old I’d better move back down to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to live where I’d still count for something.

"I'm doing well, Skeet. Well enough to be sorry I haven’t just played a round of golf." Pearl was only six or seven years younger than my grandmother, but like Gran, she was physically fit and active, more so than a lot of her younger colleagues. They just made women tougher in those days, I think. Pearl entered a lot of golf tournaments where she was a prized partner because her teams usually tended to win or come in high in the running.

"Annette. Miryam. How are you guys?" I smiled at them, a little uncomfortable as they both hugged me. We’re good friends, but I’m never been much of a hugger or cheek-kisser. Not a lot of call for that as a police officer.

"Great, Skeet,” Miryam said with a flip of her blond curls. I knew most of the male eyes in the room would be focused on Miryam, and so did she. “Looking forward to having lunch with you and hearing what Pearl wants to rope us all into now.”

Pearl called over a waiter and arranged for our table. Within a few seconds, the waiter came back and led us to a table at the back of the dining room by the windows that overlooked the river, a prime location thanks to Pearl’s status in town. Unfortunately, it was directly next to the big table where the politicians and Ash sat.

On the other side of Ash's table sat Bea Roberts, owner of Aunt Bea’s Antiques and Collectibles, with Peter Hume, owner of Creative Home Design, and his young companion, Dante Marcus. That was a bad juxtaposition. Bea and Peter were very vocal leaders of the opposition to Ash Mowbray's plans to build a huge shopping mall (financed in large part by Walker Lynch) out by the wealthy Wickbrook neighborhood. Bea and Peter both owned shops on Brewster's courthouse square, as did Miryam, and all three believed that Ash's development would destroy the square and all its stores.

Bea had run against Harvey Peebles for mayor and barely lost to him. She was revving up for another campaign, determined to defeat him, especially after he fell right in with Ash's mall plans. Peter, who’d always seemed a quiet, laid-back guy before, had transformed into an enraged, aggressive quarreler once Ash appeared to be finding traction for his project. I knew with those two tables of enemies right next to each other, someone wouldn't have an enjoyable meal, and I was afraid it might be us.

In fact, Harvey looked downright sick as Bea and Peter glared at him, though Ash himself seemed oblivious. The two city council members with Harvey, Professor Aldo Lutz and Ian Parguenter, fidgeted and shifted in their seats, as well.

"This is my treat," said Pearl as she opened her menu. "So order something you've always wanted."

"Oh, my." Annette chuckled. "You must be planning on seducing us into a hell of a lot of work, Pearl."

We all began to consider our menus and make our choices.

"Everything's so fattening," Miryam complained.

"Nonsense! You're not a model or actress anymore. You don’t have to adhere to those stupid, unhealthy diets any longer." Pearl shook her head vigorously. "Eat something so you can build muscle. Like Skeet here. You won't age well, if you don't."

Miryam opened her mouth to defend herself, but was overridden by Bea's angry voice.

"You're just letting him buy this town, Harvey. Lock, stock, and barrel. What happened to your backbone? Or don’t estate lawyers have one? Can't you stand up to Ash Mowbray and Mr. Deep Pockets Lynch behind him? What happened to your principles? Or didn't you ever really have any to start with?"

"Now, Bea. That's uncalled for." Harvey's voice sounded almost like a bleat. “Besides, this isn’t the place for that. We’re not here on business. Just having lunch after a game of golf.”

A waiter hovered between the two tables, making calming gestures.

“And how many of your fellow citizens did you sell out during this game of golf?” Peter demanded. “How much did they slip into your pocket to betray our interests?”

“That’s just out of line, Peter,” said Aldo Lutz in the voice of a professor calling a student onto the carpet. “You, too, Bea. You don’t agree with the position Harvey and the rest of us are taking. You’ve made that clear. Honest people can disagree on the issue. But don’t throw personal accusations around like that. You’re verging on slander there.”

“Yes,” Harvey agreed in a small voice.

“Oh, it’s just the old town elite carrying on in its death throes.” Ash’s big voice boomed out into the room. “Modern times call for modern solutions—and modern men.” He grinned as he held up his hands, as if to show off himself as an example of the modern man.

“I don’t like that man Walker’s brought to town,” muttered Miryam under her breath as the hostess decorously headed in the direction of the trouble.

“You don’t have to worry about these toothless old relics, Harvey and Aldo.” Ash waved his hand as if brushing away a mosquito or gnat. “Just ignore them. They’ll wither away in no time. Their day is long past, and deep inside, they know it.”

A wordless squeal of rage burst from Bea’s mouth. I stared as her face turned red and swelled. I wondered if she would have a stroke or heart attack on the spot.

“You! I remember you, Ashton Mowbray!” Bea’s voice was loud with a hard, mean ring to it. “Son of a drug dealing crook and a drunken whore. A charity case all your life. We all remember who you are. White trash of the worst sort. A bad seed. You ran away from here where people knew who you were, but you couldn’t leave that behind. You still carry your dirtiness with you, no matter how much money you have now.”

“What’s she talking about?” I whispered to Pearl, who always knew all the gossip in town.

Pearl frowned. “Ash Mowbray grew up here, like she said. Poor. With worthless parents. The only thing he ever had going for him was his athletic prowess.”

Ash’s self-satisfied smirk faded as Bea’s words shot out. His mouth set in a hard line. The politicians at his table all looked aghast.

“You crusty old bitch!” Ash’s voice blared out so loudly that the entire dining room turned to stare. The hostess was hurrying to reach the back of the dining room now. “Don’t forget, I know the secrets of this crummy town, too. I know which upstanding citizens liked a little dope from my old man or a little slap and tickle from my mom—and which old ladies liked a young boy’s body in their beds after he mowed their lawns and got all hot and sweaty.” Bea gasped, and her eyes widened in shock at his words. “Better keep your mouth shut, old woman, or you’ll get more than you bargain for.” He’d all but come out and accused Bea of seducing him when he was a kid, and everyone was staring wide-eyed.

At that moment, I’d have been glad for Joe’s presence, so I wouldn’t have had to try to keep the peace. But since I’d turned him down for lunch, he wasn’t around. I sighed and stood up. “None of this stuff from Bea or you does anyone any good, Ash. Let’s just shut it down. You’re both disturbing the peace.”

“You’re picking the wrong team, Skeet Bannion,” Ash said in a threatening manner. “These old bigwigs are on the way down. They’re crashing, and if you side with them, you’ll crash with them.”

“I’m not siding with anyone, Ash.” I kept my voice emotionless. “I’m just trying to get all of you to settle down and let everyone else in the restaurant have a pleasant lunch. But if you and your friends would rather I call out the city cops, I can always do that.”

I looked over at Harvey and his councilmen, who were shaking their heads and waving their hands wildly in negation. “That what you want me to do, Harvey?”

“No, Skeet. No! There’s no need for anything like that.” Harvey turned in appeal to Ash.
“We don’t need any trouble just now. Right, Ash?”

Ash smiled. It transformed his whole face. “I’m not one to cause trouble, Harvey. You know that.” Then, he shot a suddenly hateful glance at Bea and Peter. “But if trouble comes, I’ll always be the only guy who walks off the field at the end. My motto is take no prisoners. All you old-timers should remember that from my football days.”

By this time, Harvey and Aldo each had one of Ash’s big arms in their hands as they seemed to be begging him to behave. It was amazing the crap people would put up with from someone with lots of money.

As the hostess arrived, breathless, Peter threw down his napkin and stood. “If we have to sit here and be threatened by this piece of trailer trash, I’m leaving. Come on, Dante. We can find some place to eat with a higher quality clientele.”

“That’s not necessary, sir,” the hostess said. “I can move your table to the other side of the dining room if this person is bothering you.”

“I don’t want to leave, Peter,” Dante said. “And I don’t want another table. I like this one with the view of the river, thank you very much.”

In frustration, Peter turned to the hostess. “Why do you have to move us when this cretin is the problem?” He pointed at Ash. “Why don’t you move—or remove—him?”

“Peter, you and Bea started this whole shouting match.” Aldo Lutz stood now, as well. He turned to Harvey and the others. “I think we’d all better leave and find another place where we can eat in peace.”

Harvey and Ian Parguenter nodded and stood, as well, shoving back their chairs.

“And sell out your fellow citizens?” Bea asked with curled lip.

 “Are you coming with us, Ash?” Harvey asked, and Ash shrugged and moved out from the table to join them.

“It’s not necessary for anyone to leave,” the hostess said in desperation. “We can rearrange the seating. This is a large restaurant.”

“Let’s go,” said Ash, and the three politicos followed him toward the front door.

Miryam looked troubled as we all watched them file out of the restaurant. Her hand shook when she picked up her glass of water.

“Are you all right, sweetie?” Annette asked, as Miryam soaked up water from the tablecloth with her napkin.

Pearl smiled. “She’s probably just a little stunned, that’s all. So much anger. Almost a violence in the air.”
Miryam nodded. “You’re probably an empath like me, Pearl. I’m full of toxic energy now from that scene. That Ash Mowbray is the most hostile creature I’ve ever encountered. Leave it to Walker Lynch to bring such a beastly guy to town.” She looked up at me. “Maybe we should leave, too, Skeet. I think I need to lie down away from all this negative influence.”

Pearl seemed about to disagree when she looked at Miryam, who really did look distressed. “You don’t look well, dear. I suspect you’re right. It’s probably put us all off our feed. We’ll just reschedule and try to make sure none of those idiots battling over the mall are around when we do.”

Annette stood. “That’s fine, Pearl. Do you want a ride home?”

Pearl stood slowly, and I was reminded that she was almost as old as Gran. “Yes, if you don’t mind. I don’t really feel like walking, after all that. Isn’t it amazing how emotional outbursts can take more out of you than physical exertion?”

Miryam stood, as well, and moved to offer Pearl a little support at her elbow.

“I’m sorry this messed up your lunch party, Pearl.” I looked at the table with its menus still spread out on it.

The old woman shrugged and gave me a tight little smile. “I’ll just set up another one to finagle you all into my little project. Don’t worry. You won’t escape me.” She turned, seeming slightly more fragile than usual, and Miryam and Annette walked with her toward the door.

I couldn’t blame Miryam and Pearl. All the shouting and threats left everyone unsettled, even me, and I was used to them—just not in peaceful little Brewster. Ash Mowbray obviously had some grudges against the town, and he seemed determined to cause as much trouble as he could as a way of getting a little of his own back from the town which had obviously looked down on him in his younger days. I thought of the hate in Bea’s voice, the rage in Peter’s, and the threat in Ash’s. Ash had come back intending to stir things up, apparently, and he was definitely getting his wish. A dangerous wish, it seemed to me.



“This won’t work!” I slammed the door to Forgotten Arts behind me, shutting out stifling late-August heat. Ignoring the bell swinging on red handspun, I glared at Karen Wise who was hosting a party at my house because her farm was too far from town. She promised I just had to make my house available and show up. I’m not a party-giving woman. Now, I was hosting a welcome party for the new dean of Chouteau University’s Law School.

Karen looked up from spinning the fluffy mass of gray wool into yarn, stopped the wheel, and wound a strand of wool over a peg, taking her time as I fumed. Normally, I enjoyed the spinning wheels and looms around us.  I bought colorful yarn and fondled fiber from sheep, goats, and alpacas. This Thursday, I wanted to throw things.

“Lunchtime, Skeet,” Karen announced in her usual mild tones.

“How many more did you invite to this ‘little’ party?” I tried not to grind my teeth. “You’re out of control.”

Smiling, Karen strolled over to the wall, plucked a filmy lace shawl from a peg, and threw it over her sundress. “Look in the mirror for the out-of-control person.”

I huffed. “You’re not sticking to our agreement.”

Just before leaving my office at Chouteau University, I received more RSVPs for Sunday evening. I’d ask her to stop inviting people, reminding her she promised just a few. Then, more RSVPs would roll in, leaving me livid, Karen calm and cool.

She stepped to my side, taking my arm with a smile. I looked down at her dark, serene face. Years as a therapist taught her to keep her countenance under control. I resented the heck out of it. “They’ll be waiting. You really don’t want to see Annette when she’s had to wait for lunch.”

I sputtered in exasperation. Karen laughed, tugging me toward the door. By the time we walked in blistering sun and thick air across the town square to the Herbal Coffee Shop, I was resigned. Sunday night would be a disaster, my house packed with people I didn’t know. The university carillon played its on-the-hour measure of Bach, sounding like a dirge.

“Sometimes,” I muttered.

“Perhaps,” she said. “But not now. Mel was Jake’s best friend. Many of these people were his friends. You’ll do it for Jake.”

I’d do this miserable party. For her late husband’s sake—and Karen’s.

Entering the Herbal’s air-conditioning was a relief.  The cooler air filled with scents of mint, lemon balm, and angelica drained the last of my anger. Dolores Ramirez, the owner, and her college-student waitresses bustled back and forth between kitchen and tables, carrying plates of food, herbal iced tea, and fresh lemonade. Enough to calm any temper.

Maybe I was just irritated by Missouri’s late-summer heat. Maybe I’d hide out from the party in the kitchen, playing video games with my fourteen-year-old ward.

“Over here. We already ordered.” Annette Stanek waved us to the corner table she and Miryam Rainbow shared. Annette, a tall, heavy redhead, looked elegant next to Miryam, a blonde former model.

Once settled in, I ordered curried chicken salad, and Karen ordered herbed walnut-quinoa salad. Annette and Miryam already had the special, Asian peanut slaw.

A scrawny old guy with a red-veined face called, “Karen.” He trudged from the doorway, calling her again.

Karen muttered, “What’s he doing here?”

“Who?” I asked.

Karen faced me. “Leonard Klamath. I wouldn’t know him, if I hadn’t run into him at a fundraiser. Amazing the damage alcohol causes.”

The man looked thirty years older than he had four years earlier when Jake died. This man could be that Leonard’s father.

He shuffled to the table. “I want to talk, Karen. Been thinking about this.”

“Leonard, sit down. Can we pull up another chair?” Karen placed her hand on his arm, looking into his worn face with concern.

I stood automatically, pulling an empty chair from the next table. “Here you go.” I pushed it behind to help him into it. He looked disturbed. I wondered what happened to the man I used to know.

“Skeet? What are you doing here?” He peered into my face, frowning.

“She lives here now. I finally talked her into it.” Karen sounded and looked self-satisfied.

Leonard examined my face as if not sure I was really Marquitta “Skeet” Bannion. “Do you commute?”

“No, I left KCPD.  I’m chief of Chouteau University’s police department.” My voice held a little defensive stiffness. I made a good decision for my life, but most folks I knew as a homicide detective and administrator with KCPD saw my move as a step or three downward.

“You still a cop?” Leonard struggled to his feet again.

“Always. You know me.”

He nodded. “What else could you be? Big Charlie Bannion’s daughter.”

I cringed. That’s what I fled—always being Big Charlie Bannion’s daughter, living in his shadow, tied to his name and his mistakes. Here in Brewster, no one knew Charlie.  I could be myself, unshadowed.

Karen tugged at his sleeve. “Sit back down. You don’t look well. You want to talk to me. What is it?”

He brushed off her hand. “Changed my mind. We can talk Sunday. Can’t we?”

Karen looked puzzled. “Yes, but... If you want privacy, we can go to my shop.”

Leonard shook his head, looking at me rather than Karen. Frightened. He wasn’t when he arrived. Just determined.

“No. Gotta go back. See you Sunday.” He exited faster than he’d entered.

“Why did he change his mind?” Karen mused.

“Looked like he was scared of Skeet.” Annette gave me a long look. “Did you do something to him?”

I threw up my hands. “Not that I know of. We got along fine when he worked with Jake.”

“Of course you did.” Karen shrugged. “I’ll find out Sunday night.”

“Leonard’s coming to this party, too?” I tried to keep bitterness out of my voice.

“Are you two still fussing over that?” Miryam took a big bite of salad.

Annette gave me a disgusted look. “No one would guess you’re best friends. All over a party.”

“We’ve made up,” Karen said. “It’s all good.”

I tried to look like it was all good. “Change the subject.”

“I know,” Miryam bounced with delight. “Annette told me about this new mystery she read with a woman detective who’s a sniper in the Army.”

I smiled. “They don’t allow women snipers in any of the services.”

Karen’s laugh was deep. “Maybe she’s a sniper in the Israeli Army? Women do everything there.”

“They let women go into danger over there?” Miryam asked.

“We let them here,” Annette pointed her fork at me. “Look at Skeet. Women police officers go into danger every day. It can be as dangerous on a city’s streets as any war zone.”

The waitress brought Karen’s lunch and mine to the table. Behind her stood Reverend Matt Lawson, waiting to get to his own table. He smiled, nodded as our eyes met, then moved on as his path opened.

“There’s someone who could tell you about women in the military.” I indicated Reverend Matt with my head. I’d grown up with folks who believed pointing a finger directed power. Rude and dangerous.

“He was a chaplain, wasn’t he?” Miryam watched Reverend Matt join his wife, Helen. “I’ve never figured out why such a handsome man married such a plain woman.”

We all looked at Matt with his thick auburn hair going slightly white at the temples and his clean-cut features with soft, full lips. Next to him sat Helen, ex-nun, graying dishwater-blonde hair hanging limp to her shoulders, prominent nose, the rest of her features faded. Yet as she spoke, passion behind her words animated her face, making her look more alive than anyone in the room.

“It’s not all about looks.” Karen frowned. “Helen has lots of charisma.”

“Before he became a minister, Matt was a Ranger in Somalia and Bosnia,” I added.

“Black Hawk Down?” Miryam’s voice rose. “They should have had him in the movie. He’s better-looking than any of the actors. Except Orlando Bloom.”

Karen made a disgusted sound. “When will you learn life’s more than appearance?”

“How’d you learn this?” Annette stiffened. “I’m on the First Methodist council and didn’t know.”

“River running early in the morning. We’re not always out on the same days, but often enough we stop to compare battle stories. He downplays what he did overseas. I googled him. He was given medals. I don’t think he likes what he did as a Ranger. Modest man.”

“I can see why he wouldn’t want to publicize any killing he had to do as a soldier,” Annette said.

“If it was like the movie, he had to do a lot of killing,” Miryam said in a cheerful voice and took another bite of slaw.

I smiled at Annette. “He’d agree with you that city streets are as dangerous as a war zone.”

“Don’t you miss the excitement of the streets?” Annette lifted her chin, examining me.

“Gran always said, ‘Happy’s lots better than exciting.’ Now that I’m older, I agree.” I took a bite of chicken salad.

 “Still, your days here aren’t full of action like when you tracked down murderers in Kansas City,” Annette said wistfully.

“What about when she tracked down that murderer here last spring?” Miryam turned to me with an excited smile. “Maybe we’ll start having them all the time like the city.”

I shuddered. “I can do without that.”

“Miryam, someone has to die for a murder.” Karen raised an eyebrow. “Maybe it should be you. Think of the excitement as you breathe your last.”

Annette laughed. Miryam stuck out her tongue.

I choked back laughter. “No thanks.”

“Surely, you miss the adrenaline from the streets!”  Annette pointed her fork at me.

I shook my head. “That life was as boring as anything here and much more stressful. Even working Homicide, which I do miss, was nothing like your mystery novels.”

Annette stabbed her salad. “What’s the good of having a real police detective as a friend if she’s as boring as I am?”

“She’ll find the killer if someone murders you,” Miryam said with satisfaction.

Karen and I laughed. Annette pinched her mouth in exasperation.

“I promise to track down and imprison your murderer.” I laid my hand over my heart.

Karen shuddered. “Someone’s walking on my grave.”

I sat back as we continued to joke with each other. In Kansas City, I had few women friends. Since I worked mostly with men, my friends wound up being male cops. Here, Karen made me part of this group. My decision to relocate was paying off.

A short time with friends swept away my irritation. Still, the party hung over me like a distant threat.

*          *          *          *

At day’s end, I headed for my Crown Vic, fitted out with radios for city and campus police systems and a twelve-gauge shotgun. Not exactly a family car. Still, I was picking up my ward, Brian Jameson, from afterschool tutoring. Thunder growled in the west. I stopped halfway to the car to see if a storm would finally bring us needed rain, but the air was thick and heavy, no promise of rain in its burnt scent. In the distance, I heard a train, Brewster’s daily background music. Lightning flickered way across the Missouri River. I got in the car, throwing my briefcase in back with a frustrated sigh. Another false promise.

When I pulled up at the entrance to Ormond, Brian darted out of the air-conditioned building into the car, slinging book-bag and flute case into the back.

“Watch that!” I ducked his backpack. “How was class?”

“We’re getting into real cool stuff. Pentatonic scale used in tribal folk music.” Brian leaned back against the seat. “It doesn’t look like much. So short. Professor Garton says it shows what you do, even with simple materials, makes art—not the materials themselves.”

“Sounds good.” I tried to sound interested.

Garton taught the university’s music students. He tutored Brian because he thought Bri, a gifted flautist and promising composer, could get a scholarship to Juilliard. He told me working with Brian made up for the dull students he had to teach. I’d have been one of those students, but Brian always came from class excited.

He chatted about his day as I drove College Hill Road’s narrow twists. Where it ran into Girlville (name given before the college turned coed), I turned left to the town square with its courthouse surrounded by beds of purple coneflowers and blackeyed susans. In the old days, I wouldn’t have known the flowers. My new life turned me into a gardener, dog owner, and—well, mother might be too strong a word.

Once parked, we walked past shops as a train rumbled through town. We waved at Bob and Kathy Lynch on their B&B porch and hurried past, trying to get to Pyewacket’s before the wait became too long. I cooked at home more now that Brian lived with me. Simple food, pleasing to a fourteen-year-old. When I didn’t want to hassle with it, we went to Pyewacket’s.

Inside the restaurant, Pal Owens put names on a waiting list, long gray ponytail cascading down his back. Pal always wore tie-dyed T-shirt and bellbottom jeans with Birkenstocks. His wife Sandi, supervising the kitchen and wait staff, wore the same.

The Owens kept themselves and the décor of Pyewacket’s locked in the sixties. The food, however, was 21st-century. Basil tomato tartlets with lemon balm bread. Broccoli-potato torte with chives. A nice change from my cooking.

“Brian, Skeet, how’s it shaking?” Pal asked.

“How long’s the wait?” I looked at the crowd without much hope.

He ran his eye down the list. “Thirty minutes. Jumping tonight, babe.”

I sighed. “Put us down.”

“Sure thing.” He scribbled my name and greeted the couple behind us.

I stepped back, and Joe Louzon’s daughter Julie waved us to a place next to them. Waving back, Brian headed over.

At eleven, Julie’s golden brown hair skinned back from her round face in a ponytail with several long strands hanging down, escaped from the elastic. Her mother left her and Joe when Julie was a toddler, but Julie always seemed happy, no hidden shadows. Now, shadows appeared behind that little face from her ordeal earlier in the year. Brian’s face and even mine held shadows from the same incident. Karen was helping us all make it through the shadows.

“How’s your day been, Skeet?” Joe said.

I shrugged. “Karen’s inviting crowds to a party at my house I don’t want to give. The faculty senate wants me to stop building the desperately needed parking structure and give the money to them for European junkets. The half-hour wait to get in here’s just frosting on the cake.”

“We should be called next,” Julie said in an enthusiastic voice. “You can eat with us. I’ll tell Pal.”

She darted away on her errand of mercy, ponytail bobbing at waist level through the crowd. I took a deep breath of air filled with rosemary, garlic, and sizzling meats and began to relax.

“You know Julie,” Joe apologized. “She’d love to eat with you. She never stops to think you might not feel the same.”

Brian laughed. I smiled at Joe. “It’s okay. Company for dinner sounds good, doesn’t it, Bri?”

Brian nodded. “It’ll feel more like a family.”

I stiffened. Wasn’t I giving him a real family experience? I wasn’t much good at family stuff, never had been. But I was trying to do my best for him.

“I always wanted a sister,” Brian went on. “When we’re all together, it feels like a TV family.”

“I feel the same way, Brian.” Joe smiled at him, not looking at me. He wanted a relationship but didn’t pressure. One of many things I appreciated about him.

Julie dodged back through the crowd. “Pal says no prob.” She giggled. “I love his old slang. Groovy. It’s so fun coming here. Like walking into a sitcom.”

I nodded. “I come for the food, but the hippie thing’s amusing. Even if it’s before my time.”

“Louzon, party of four.” Pal called out, and we walked over. “Way to go, man. You and Brian have the foxiest chicks here tonight, Joe.”

As we followed the waitress, Julie giggled. “Foxy chicks. Way to go, man.”

I winked at her. “Don’t make fun of your dad’s time period. You shouldn’t hurt his ancient feelings.”

Julie giggled. Brian grinned. Joe assumed a look of pain. “That was my older brothers’ time. I was a toddler.”

Laughing, we settled into our booth, Brian sliding in next to me with Joe and Julie across from us. I felt the day’s tension melt away. Once the waitress left with our order, Joe told a funny story about breaking up a fight between Art Williamson and Bea Roberts. Bea and other upscale shop owners had been trying to get Art’s working-class bar off the square for years. Their verbal brawls were legendary.

Our food arrived. I started on salmon-lentil salad with dill bread. Brian munched a steakburger with onion strings, and Julie nibbled chicken fricassee with mashed potato cakes while Joe ate orange-steak kabobs on rice pilaf. A waitress led four people in and seated them across the room.

“There’s the source of all my troubles.” I tipped my chin toward the group and realized I’d avoided pointing my finger again.

“Who?” Joe asked.

I looked at the lone woman in the group. The first time I’d seen her in person. I’d heard way too much about her. I nodded in her husband’s direction. “George ‘Mel’ Melvin, former U.S. Attorney for Western Missouri. Failed candidate for Missouri Attorney General. New dean of the law school. The reason Karen’s stuffing my house with people Sunday night. I wish to heck he’d stayed in Kansas City.”

“Which one is he?” Brian asked.

“The stocky one with the wife who looks better than any model. She can afford to. She’s richer than anyone, except the tall guy.” I turned to slather butter on my lemon balm bread with a sigh.

“Who is she? Who’s the tall guy?” asked Joe. “And that long-haired tough guy?” Intently , he checked them out, small-town police chief pondering new residents and the troubles they might bring.

“The tall guy’s Walker Lynch. Millionaire. Still lives in Kansas City, last I heard. He and Mel are tied politically. I don’t know the dark bad boy. Bodyguard, maybe.”

Joe nodded. “He’s got the look.”

“The woman’s Liz Richar. Stovall banking, real estate,” I said. “MidAmerica United and L.J. Stovall Properties. Her mother was Stovall’s only kid. She married Gard Horner. Horner Petroleum. Not as rich as Stovall but up there. Whole family’s dead and little Lizzie’s everyone’s heir. Never met her. Just seen her on the news. She’s involved in politics.”

Julie stared at the quartet. “She’s beautiful!”

“Skeet’s better-looking,” Brian tossed in loyally.
I grinned. “It’s okay. I’m nowhere near her class. I know it.”

“Some of us prefer our women more natural, don’t we?” Joe smiled at him.

Brian nodded. “She looks plastic.”

“This guy Lynch? What’s the scoop?” Joe asked.

“Big philanthropist. That’s how I know him. He supports causes I worked for. Met him at events and on boards. Shelters for the homeless, runaways, domestic violence. He gives tons of money. The kind of rich person I’d want to be.”

Joe nodded. “A good guy.”

“How are they a problem for you, Skeet?” Julie asked.

Brian jumped in before I could answer. “Karen’s giving the new dean a party. At our house ʼcause she’s out in the boonies. Skeet said yes.”

“Not knowing the ‘few people’ she mentioned would balloon.”

“You could have said no.” Brian’s face was stern.

I shook my head. “I couldn’t really.”

“Why not?” Julie asked.

I stared at Mel again. “Karen’s husband Jake worked for Mel. They were friends.”

Joe looked at me. “The dead husband?”

I nodded. “She says Jake would have given the party.” I shrugged. “I don’t think Karen likes Mel much since he dumped his first wife to marry Liz. But she’s sure Jake would want this, so...”

Joe quirked an eyebrow at me. “As Brian mentioned, you could have said no.”

I looked away. “Jake and Karen sort of adopted me when I first came up from Oklahoma to the academy. My dad wasn’t happy about it. I was all alone. They were my support system.” I looked back at him. “Jake would have given Mel a big party to introduce him to folks in his new town. I couldn’t say no.”

Brian tapped my shoulder. “So quit fighting with Karen about it. After Sunday, it’s over.”

 “The hostess with the mostest,” Joe muttered.

“She’s supposed to handle all the work. I’ll hold her to that, no matter how many hundreds of people she invites to my house.” I put a melodramatic frown on my face and folded my arms in front of me, doing my best bad gangster impression.

They laughed. I joined in. We ate the delicious food, talking and laughing. As I savored the mix of flavors in my salad, the cloud of dread over the party moved out of my mind.

The kids ordered dessert. Joe and I decided on coffee. As Julie ate her orange pound cake ala mode and Brian dug into his hot fudge sundae, I settled back into my seat next to Brian, feeling content, unwilling to move.

Walker Lynch and his shadow moved into my view, stopping at our booth. “Skeet! Are you in Brewster now?”

“Walker.” I nodded. “More than a year.”

“Is it your house we’re going to Sunday night? I heard Karen’s party was at someone else’s house.” Walker took in Joe and the kids, and one of his eyebrows rose slightly.

“Karen’s your hostess. I’m not the Martha Stewart type myself.”

He chuckled. “I wouldn’t have thought so. But then Martha’s not a decorated homicide detective.”

The hard-muscled guy with black hair, mustache, and goatee leaned forward to inspect me closely.

I smiled. “Walker Lynch, this is Joe Louzon, Brewster’s chief of police, and his daughter Julie. This is my ward, Brian Jameson.”

Walker’s brows lifted again at Brian’s introduction. “You, a family woman? That’s unexpected.”

“Skeet’s a great family woman,” Brian said sullenly.

Joe’s jaw tensed. “Skeet does a great job as a parent. In a few more months, Brian’s adoption will be final. She’ll be his mother.”

Walker held up his hands in defense. “I meant nothing negative. It’s simply not a role I’d ever seen Skeet in. It surprised me.”

I laughed softly. “It surprised me, too, but I try to do my best. Brian’s forgiving of my errors.” I smiled at Brian. “We landed together by accident, but we do pretty well.”

He reached for my hand under the table and squeezed it. “We make a great family.”

“One of the best I’ve seen,” Joe added.

Walker laughed and pulled the dangerous-looking guy further forward by the arm. “I don’t think you’ve met my associate, Terry Heldrich.”

I extended my hand to shake his. “No, I haven’t.”

Terry took my hand in a firm grip and stared into my face. His high cheekbones and straight slash of nose separating large, dark eyes could have belonged to any of my uncles or relatives down in Oklahoma. He was more alert than anyone I’d ever seen, almost canine in his awareness, like a highly trained guard dog hearing higher frequencies and smelling scents that passed us by.

“What do you do in Walker’s company?” I asked, making conversation with someone who seemed to expect attack.

“Terry’s my chief of operations,” Walker replied as Terry shook my hand and gave me his measuring stare. “Every man of theory needs someone practical to get things done.” Walker gave another chuckle. “Terry’s that guy. He makes my dreams work in the real world.”

Terry let my hand go and switched his assessing gaze to Joe as they introduced themselves and shook hands. He looked like a wolf preparing to attack while Joe reminded me of a family pet facing a threat to that family. I could almost see the hackles rise on both of them.

“How did you two find each other?” I asked Walker, trying to break the tension.

To my surprise, Terry answered, dropping Joe’s hand to face me. “Walker recruited me. He knew my previous… employer.”

His voice was softer than I expected from that muscular body. He had no accent, but the clear way he fully enunciated every word, along with his bone structure and slightly darker skin like mine, made me wonder if he wasn’t from one of the tribes.

Walker laughed, slapping him lightly on the back. “Terry really is my right-hand guy. We’ll let you go back to dinner. I look forward to the chance to talk Sunday night.”

The two men strolled out as Joe and I watched. Once, Terry turned and looked back at us before following his boss.

“That one’s serious trouble.” Joe spoke softly as Brian and Julie started a joking conversation behind us. “Recruited him from the SEALs or Special Forces.”

“Higher status than a bodyguard.” I stared after them. “I thought you two would come to blows or growls, at least.”

Joe laughed sheepishly. “He gets my threat-response going, that’s for sure. I wouldn’t want to face him in a dark alley.”

“How about the party Sunday night? He’s with Walker, so Karen’s probably invited him.” My jaw tightened. “She’s invited everybody else.”

Joe stared at the doorway through which they’d left. “Makes you wonder what kinds of things Walker needs that freak for.”

“Walker’s a good guy. Special Forces uses strategists, too. Maybe that’s what Walker pays him for.” I set my hand on Joe’s shoulder. He turned with a smile. We sat to let the kids finish their desserts.

Now my worries about the party included the need to keep Joe and Terry apart. Joe had me wondering what kind of operations Walker needed Terry for—intimidation, protection… I didn’t want to take that any further.

Every Last Secret: A Mystery


I look back and second guess myself about Andrew McAfee, imagine I could have seen further into the cloud of dangerous secrets that surrounded him. But I know nothing that happened can be changed, no dead brought back to life. I had no way of recognizing the tangled webs all around me at the very time I thought I had found sanctuary.

A middle-of-the-night call used to mean a dead body. All that changed when I moved twelve miles out of Kansas City to this little college town. Not only did I trade the war zone of inner-city policing for a peaceful college campus, but I owned a house, a dog, and plants that were actually alive. Now, my collie Lady was barking at the ringing phone, unaccustomed to disturbances at two in the morning.

I jerked awake in practiced reflex. My first thought was of murder, but my new reality came back to me. Couldn’t be Homicide. Was it my ex-husband to tell me my dad had wrecked his car while driving drunk?
I grabbed the phone from the bedside table. “Bannion here.”

“Chief! It’s Dave Parker. I found a body!”

On automatic pilot, I swung out of bed, wondering how the hell that brand-new hire for the campus police had managed to find a corpse on Chouteau University’s pristine campus. Wilma Mankiller, the survivor cat I brought from the city, jumped from her side of the bed and hid. She knew the phone in the middle of the night meant I’d be storming around with no patience for pets.

“Where? Report, Dave.” I pulled underwear and a sweater from drawers.           

“Sorry. I just never…”

I seized one of my old black Homicide pantsuits from the closet and started to dress. “Slow down and breathe, Dave.” I heard him take several uneven breaths. “Now, report.”

“Sorry, Chief. I was making rounds, going past the News offices like you wanted.”

I had asked the whole department to keep a special eye on the Chouteau University News editor-in-chief, Andrew McAfee after breaking up a fight between him and his news editor and hearing from the faculty advisor about sexual assault theft claims against him.  My second-in-command belittled me in front of night and morning shifts for using woman’s intuition. Frank Booth thought I stole the chief’s job from him--though they’d never have hired him since he lacked investigative experience. I retaliated by claiming I was using detective’s instinct. Then, I insisted everyone keep watch for trouble from McAfee.

“A light was on in the inner office so I opened the door,” Dave continued. “To make sure it wasn’t someone it wasn’t supposed to be. It was McAfee. I thought he’d just fallen asleep till I got close enough to see the blood. God!”

Blood. Damn! I fastened my belt and put on my shoulder harness. “Manner of death, Dave.” Pulling open the drawer in my night table, I checked my gun before holstering it.

He took a long, deep steadying breath. “Back of his head’s smashed in.”

“Did you touch anything?” My voice jerked as I ran down the stairs to the front door.

“Just the door. When I went in. Once I saw him, I backed out quick into the hall and… I guess I panicked. I haven’t called it in to Dispatch yet or anything. I called you because it was like you knew. Having us keep an extra eye on him and all.”

That extra cop-sense at the back of my skull had niggled at me ever since my run-in with Andrew McAfee. I’d lived down the street from him, his wife and stepson, who walked my dog and mowed my lawn, but I’d never really met Andrew until breaking up that fight and learning he was probably stealing money from his student reporters.

 “Your first time finding a body is hard, Dave. You’ve done fine. Kept the scene intact.” I reached my car and unlocked it. “Call Dispatch and have them contact Gil and the coroner and the county evidence techs. Tell Dispatch not to send anyone else over there. I’m on my way to you. I don’t want anyone messing up the scene. Keep everyone out till I get there or Gil does.”

“Okay, Chief.” His voice sounded less strained.

“And Dave,” I added, as I started the car and peeled away from my peaceful house into the night, “you did fine.”
My name’s Marquitta Bannion, but everyone calls me Skeet. Don’t ask. My mom is Cherokee and nutty. They’re not necessarily connected, but I’m not responsible for what she decided to name me. I left the Kansas City Police Department six months ago after becoming their highest ranking female officer, and I’m now chief of the campus police force of Chouteau University in nearby Brewster, Missouri. Some, like my ex-husband, might see it as a comedown. My best friend and surrogate mother, Karen Wise, tells me not to worry about what they think, but she’s the one who talked me into coming here in the first place. I wanted to get away from the city and the job that ate my life—and, most of all, my dad and the Internal Affairs investigation that led to his retirement. Between Big Charlie and me, the name Bannion used to mean a lot in the KCPD. I didn’t liked seeing that change, so I left—force, father, and ex-husband. It was an easy decision.

My Cherokee grandmother always said, “If you’re waiting for things to be perfect in life, young lady, you’ll be waiting a long time.” Though I’ve always ignored what my mother and stepfather told me and finally learned to ignore Big Charlie, I listen to Gran. I’ve learned not to wait.
I made that short drive back to campus in record time and parked illegally in front of Moller Hall. Using my master key to let myself in, I paced through the dark, echoing building, carrying my crime scene kit from the trunk of my car.

The shadows moved with me as I headed to the offices of the university’s student-run newspaper. At the end of the hallway, Dave Parker stood nervous watch in the gloom surrounding the pool of light that poured through the office door. With his young face, he could have been one of our students, if not for the uniform.

“How are you doing?” I asked.

Beads of sweat stood out on his ashen face despite the chill of the hallway. Dave had recently graduated from the regional police academy and joined our department just two days earlier. Night patrol had seemed a safe, innocuous place for him to start.

“Are you going to be okay here? Or should I ask Bill to trade with you? He’s seen dead bodies before.”

Dave shook his head resolutely. “I’m okay. You don’t have to drag the sergeant out. It was just a shock at first.”

I nodded and smiled to reassure him. “What have you done, and what have you touched?”

“I left the lights on,” he said. His hand twitched in the direction of the light twice before he got it under control. “I turned on these in the newsroom as I went through to the office where I saw lights already on. When I came out, I left them on.” He grimaced. “I didn’t think to turn them off at first. I just wanted to get out and call you. Then I figured it’s best if I don’t add any more fingerprints.”

“That’s fine. No sign of anyone?” I set my kit on the floor and opened it.

He shook his head vigorously. “I checked pretty good.”

He probably had, dismayed at standing watch alone in a place that might be hiding a murderer. I squatted on the cold tile floor and dug through my bag to pull out surgical gloves for my hands. “So you just touched that light switch and the door to the office?”

“And the body. I checked for a pulse. That’s what we’re supposed to do, right?” He looked at me, frowning and biting his lip.

“You handled this like an old pro.” I stood and slipped on the gloves.

His face relaxed and regained some color. “I sure didn’t want to mess up something this major.”

I smiled at him. He was going to be worth bringing along. “Was the exterior door to Moller locked when you entered?”

Dave nodded. “Had to use my master to open it.”

I frowned. Either the killer had an office in Moller or access to a Moller key or master.

Closing my kit, I picked it up. “Is Gil on his way? And the coroner?”

Dave nodded. “Dispatch said she’d send them out and notify the sheriff’s office for techs.”

“You keep watch here. Only those people get in. Call Bill to cover the front in case the media show up. He can keep them out.”

As Dave nodded and pulled out his radio, I headed into the newsroom of The Chouteau University News, eyes scanning the room. To my left, a bulletin board fluttered with flyers, a large poster from the movie Front Page beside it. On the next wall, another bulletin board held the last issue of the News, comments in ink scribbled all over the pages. The work of the faculty advisor, I assumed. Six desks crowded the room. The staff would tell us if anything was out of place.

I took a deep breath before moving through the door opposite the hall. No matter how many I’ve seen—a lot—I never get completely used to corpses. I’d never have made an undertaker.

Facing me in the shallower room inside was a beat-up wooden desk. The body sat behind it, bloodied head resting on the desk surface. Moving into the room and to the side, I could smell the coppery blood scent and the odor of feces and urine, an inevitability of death. Another reason for the deep breath before entering. Death stinks.

I could see the face of the dead man, Andrew McAfee. Since the blows damaging the skull had come from behind, his face was basically undamaged. Andrew didn’t look surprised or in pain. He looked unconscious with the faded waxiness of death and mottling where blood settled in the cheek on the desk. He wore jeans and a striped sweater. The blood on the back of his head had darkened in the thick hair, so he hadn’t just been killed.

I remembered two days earlier when I’d had to break up the fight between him and his news editor, Scott Lampkin, Scott furious and accusatory, Andrew mouthy and profane. He’d been so angry, so irritating, and so very alive. Andrew had obviously been headed for trouble, but I hadn’t expected it to catch up with him quite so soon or so violently. I hoped Scott Lampkin had a good alibi. I had liked that kid, but he’d had a real mad on for Andrew.

Hearing voices in the hall, I whirled to see Gil Mendez pulling on gloves as he spoke to Dave. I moved around the room, checking for signs of violence other than the dead man at the desk. A large hole in the plaster wall next to the door caught my eye, and I walked over to it as Gil entered the newsroom.

“Come on back. Found something here.”

Gil crossed the threshold next to me as I measured the hole in the wall. His eyes were fixed on Andrew’s bloody head, and his face looked pale but determined. “First dead body?” I’d forgotten that, when it came to violent death, most of my force was going to be as inexperienced as young Dave.

Gil turned to face me. “No, but my first murder victim.” He might look a little shaken, but his voice was steady.

I smiled at him. “Probably not a lot of that here.”

I indicated the hole in the wall with a jerk of my head and silently cursed myself for not pointing. I couldn’t break that habit, formed so young because my mother and Gran would never point a finger. Gran always said a pointed finger carried power, and it was rude to inflict your power on others. I don’t buy all that, of course, but I still have to make a conscious effort to point like normal people do. “This looks recent,” I said quickly, hoping Gil hadn’t noticed.

I knelt where flakes of plaster lay crushed against the flat-pile carpet. “Not scuffed into the carpet yet. Still right on top of the fibers.”

As I stood again, Gil examined the smashed-in wall. “Looks like something heavy did this. Same kind of thing that would do that to a man’s head.”

I nodded. “That’s what I thought. I’ve looked around. Don’t see anything that’d do either. At least not in this room.”

Gil nodded. “You think he took it away with him.”

“He may have brought it with him and taken it away again.” I shrugged. “We won’t know about that until we find out what was usually in here.”

On the desk sat a phone and a folding double frame with pictures of Tina and Brian Jamison, my neighbors, Andrew’s wife smiling, his stepson looking very serious. I would have to tell them both that murder had invaded their lives.

“Wonder if the techs will be able to pull anything from those?” Gil asked, pointing to a stained copy of the News and other documents on which Andrew’s bloody head lay.

“You’d be surprised what they can find.” I looked around the room for anything else that might have done this job on Andrew’s head.

A waist-high bookcase ran the length of the wall to the left of us. On top of it were several piles of books and papers and a cardboard box. I walked over to check inside the box. An eight-inch tall trophy lay on shiny conference programs and brochures.

“Did you know the News won a trophy for best reporting?” I asked after reading the engraving and tilting the box to better read the program cover. “At a regional conference of campus newspapers. I wonder why the trophy wasn’t out on display in the newsroom?”

“Think it could be our weapon?” Gil asked from across the room near a pair of French doors.

“Not the right size or shape, I’d think, and it looks clean, but Sid’ll know for sure.”

He turned back to the doors, examining the catch. “Skeet, these have been opened.”

I left the box undisturbed and hurried over. All the old French doors in the building had had deadlocks installed. Keys were kept in the campus locksmith’s storeroom, and those to any student office would never have been handed out. Security policy.

This one had been unlocked and opened from the inside, however. Whoever exited through it had pushed it closed but not quite all the way. I inspected it closely. Old and stiff. It had been locked so long that it wouldn’t quite swing shut. From the outside, it might well have looked as if it were, though. Someone thought he’d been slick.

Voices in the hall pulled my attention away. “The county guys. Why don’t you bring them up-to-date?”

He nodded and headed away from the murder victim with relief on his face. I knelt to check the low sill for any visible footprints. Nothing certain. A smudge. Maybe the evidence techs could get something from it, though. And they could check outside once the latch was dusted. If the murder had been committed after the evening’s storm, there should be footprints.

“Look at this. Got the heap big chief out in the middle of the night.” The sneering voice came from behind me. I turned to face the skinny form of Dud Bechter, my least favorite tech from the Deacon County Sheriff’s Office.

Like the town police force, the campus police didn’t have evidence technicians on staff or a lab, even a less sophisticated one like the county’s, to process crime scene findings. So in any major crime investigation, we relied on Sheriff Dick Wold’s techs and lab.

The sheriff was a crony of my resentful second-in-command, Captain Frank Booth. He also didn’t approve of women officers, let alone chiefs, making this quite clear when we first met. I’d made it equally clear that I expected professional cooperation, or I’d just turn to KCPD and tell the media and voters why in his next election. Since then, I’d had no problems getting the help I needed, but from the attitude of some county officers, I could tell the sheriff was still seething.

“Whatcha got?” Dud set down his kit on the edge of the bookcase. “Must be somebody important to bring the chief out at this hour.”

I gestured his partner, Cal, over to me. “We’ve got a possible footprint here. I don’t know if it’s enough to get anything, but—“

“But we’ll try,” answered Cal with an easy-going smile. I never understood how he could bear to work with Dud. He headed over to the corpse with a camera to take photographs.

Gil returned to the room with Sid Ambrose, the county coroner. Sid had an ambulance team with him, which surprised me. Since the county ambulance service had been put under the sheriff’s supervision, it had deteriorated to the point that everyone expected to wait thirty minutes or more when one was needed. As usual, Sid looked half-asleep, clothes wrinkled and hanging awry, but he could describe most of the room if I quizzed him. I’d come to have great respect for the sloppy old man when he was with the medical examiner’s office in Kansas City before he retired to be Deacon County’s part-time coroner, a less stressful job that added to his pension and left him with time to fish.

I acknowledged his languid wave as he trudged over to the body.

“Who do we have here, Skeet? Do we know?” His voice rumbled like a truck on the highway through town.

“Student employee. Editor of the campus newspaper. Andrew McAfee.”

“Does the young man have any family here in town?” Sid drew on gloves and flicked on a small penlight. He leaned forward to shine the light into the bloody mess that was the back of Andrew’s skull, whistling under his breath.

“Yes. A very nice wife and stepson.”

“You haven’t sent anyone to notify them already, have you?” Sid hated it when hysterical survivors showed up at his scenes.

“No. I’ll do that myself when I’m done here. They’re neighbors.”

“So you knew this guy? Should we take your prints, too, Chief?” Dud snickered.

“Sorry to disappoint you. The wife and kid are the ones I know.”

“How well do you know them?” Sid asked in his usual death-scene growl. “I suppose the wife will want to come down and make the official identification? And fall apart in my morgue?”

“They can’t help it if they start to cry when they see their loved ones all cold and dead.”

Sid harrumphed and went on examining the death wound. “Don’t see why she couldn’t let you ID. Save herself the trip down.”

“Because they never do. People always have to see for themselves before they can believe in death. It’s human nature, Sid.”

He snapped off his penlight and straightened up with a groan. “Animals are smarter.”

“Look at this and tell me if you think it could have been done by whatever did the damage to the vic,” I made myself point to the hole in the wall with a deliberate effort.

Sid walked over, carefully avoiding the pile of plaster at the base of the wall. “Yes. The same object could have hit this wall. Have you found anything? It would be damn bloody. Something heavy and rounded but rough or carved on at least one side. Not a smooth surface.”

“Could it have been this?” I indicated the trophy.

“No. You’d need something more rounded and much heavier. A rock or paperweight.” He looked into the distance for a moment. “Or the weighted handle of something carved or rough-surfaced.”

“Chief, do you see the problem I do?” Gil looked from the body to the hole in the wall.

I nodded. “If whoever did this threw whatever it was into the wall first, why on earth did Andrew let him come up behind him with it in his hand? And if he did it afterward, why aren’t there any traces of blood on the plaster?”

Sid led the ambulance team over to the body. “Are you ready for us to take him away?”

I nodded, and the team began to maneuver the corpse into a body bag for the trip back to the morgue.

“Have you got a time of death for me, Sid?” I asked.

Still whistling, he peeled off his gloves with a snap. “10:00 p.m. to 1:00 a.m. That’s it for now. I may be able to narrow it down some with the autopsy. Then again, I might not. You know how these things go.”

I nodded. “At least, that gives us a time frame. I’ll send Gil over to witness the autopsy.”

“Breaking in the boy the hard way?” Sid grinned.

I gave him a rueful smile. “He’s all I’ve got. It’s a far cry from KCPD Homicide here. He’ll do fine.”

I looked around the room. Gil sorted through papers on the desk. Dud fingerprinted the French window. Cal had finished with the plaster and was measuring the hole in the wall and photographing it.

I walked over to Gil. “Stay and see the rest through.”

“You going to break the news?” he asked.

I nodded. “I’ll head for home after I get the wife settled and someone to stay with her. God knows how long that’ll take, and I have to be up early to meet with the chancellor. If you need me for anything, just call.”

Gil looked at me quizzically. “Sure you want to leave me in charge when you know I’ve never done a murder?”

“You’re a good investigator. Look at that vandalism and theft case you just closed. The only way you’ll ever get experience of a murder is to handle one.”

I smiled to encourage him. Gil was my only investigator and had two left feet, falling all over himself from nervousness. When he was investigating a case for the department, however, he was a different man, logical, rock-solid. He was the most valuable member of my team.

“I’m not leaving you holding the bag. We’ll both be investigating this baby. But you’re capable of handling crime scene ops. You’ve done it before. It’s pretty much the same thing, now that they’re carting off the body. Just make sure they look for footprints outside the windows. That ground’s wet. It should hold some.”

Gil smiled broadly. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

I turned to stare at the body bag being lifted to the gurney, then back at Gil. Gil looked as grim as I felt. “I never thought I’d see something like this in Brewster.”

“It’s happened here now. Our job is to catch the guy who did this and make sure he can’t do it again.” I looked back at the medics strapping down the body bag. Turning back to Gil, I patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll have a sunrise meeting with the chancellor. Get some rest once you’re done. I want you to witness the autopsy, and you don’t want to do that when you’re exhausted. Trust me. We’ll be working irregular hours. Rest and eat whenever you can.”

I headed out through the echoing halls into the night to call on Tina and Brian. I hated the idea of bringing to two people I liked news that would tear their world apart.

Violence always threw the world out of balance. I knew this from Gran’s earliest teachings. The Cherokee are big on balance. They think imbalance allows dangerous forces into the world. I had to agree. My job was to bring this small world back into balance again, and tonight I had a long way to go.

1 comment: