Moonlighting in Vermont – Sneak Peak

Chapter 1

 

“Why. Won’t. You. Open!” With every word I pushed my shoulder into the door. I gave the wood a two-handed shove but all that got me was stinging palms. “I just love being a housekeeper,” I muttered, put my back to the panel, bent my knees and drove my weight backward. The door gave a little and I heaved again. The gap widened and I turned to put my eye to the crack between the door and the jamb.

“Oh my God.” I sank to my knees. The thing blocking the door was my boss. My dead boss, if the amount of blood on the floor was any indication. Holy shit! I knelt down peering through the crack in the door to see her chest to rise, finger to twitch, anything to suggest Vera was still alive. Nothing. “Damn it.” My eyes started to burn and I blinked the tears away.

I squeezed my arm through the space to see if I could feel a pulse, but she was cold. Dead cold. I sat down on the floor, put my head between my legs and willed myself not to throw up.

Not throwing up is a life skill I haven’t developed. My name is Bella Bree MacGowan. Bella is Italian; Bree—well technically, Brie—but my mom couldn’t spell, is French; and MacGowan is Scottish. Basically, my name means good cheese. Or maybe, pretty cheese. Either way, it’s cheese, and what kind of life skills can you expect a cheese to develop. Definitely not dealing with dead bodies, I’ll tell you that much.

I sat gulping air and trying to minimize the shaking without much success. I was telling myself to breathe when the two-way radio on my belt went off.

“Bree! What’s taking you so long?” The hotel manager’s voice came through. “I need you back here.”

I fumbled for my radio, my head still between my knees. “Brian, you need to get out here.”

“What?”

I took a deeper breath. “Get. Out. Here.”

“Bree, what the hell is going on?” I heard the aggravation in his voice and sat up.

“You’re going to have to come out here.” I looked back and caught a glimpse of blood through the crack in the door. “Vera.” My voice cracked. “Vera’s -”

“Bree, I don’t have time for this.”

“Vera’s dead, Brian. She’s dead. Put down the damn radio and get out here.”

Silence. I pictured Brian trying to wrap his head around that last statement. The radio squawked again. “Bree, did you say Vera is dead?”

“Yes.” I could understand how he felt, it didn’t seem like it could be true. If it wasn’t for the all-too-real corpse.

“You’re kidding me, Right? I wouldn’t be so lucky.”

“I wish I was kidding.”

“I’m on my way.”

I scooted to the edge of the porch and sat in the sun waiting for Brian to get there. The evening light was dappled with the color of the autumn leaves. I was thankful for the cool air and tried not to think about Vera ten feet away from me in the housekeeping closet. All that blood. I had my head back between my knees and my eyes closed when Brian showed up.

Brian stalked down the path to the cottage in his Armani pants and jacket which would have been impressive if I hadn’t grown up with him. I stood up and met him at the foot of the stairs. He looked me straight in the eyes.

“If this is a joke, I’m going to kill you.” He heaved himself up the stairs to the door and glanced in. He paled and steadied himself on the wall before turning and letting himself in through the front door of the cottage. I heard his key turn the hidden latch that opened the inside door to the housekeeping closet.

He came out a few minutes later, white faced and thin lipped and sat down next to me on the porch.

“You going to be all right?” he asked

“Better than she is.” I stifled a laugh. “Sorry. Nerves.”

“Yeah. I called the cops.” He glanced my way. “We’re going to have to move Ericson to another cottage after the cops get here.”

“Ericson’s still at dinner in the main house?”

Brian nodded

“Damage control, then. He likes to drink. You could probably keep him up there for most of the evening. Break the news about having to move him when the other guests have gone back to their rooms. We can have his stuff moved to another cottage before dinner’s over.” I was glad to have a problem to distract me.

“As long as the cops will let us move his stuff,” Brian said gloomily. “Ericson will pitch a fit if he has to be separated from his clothes. Why the fuck did Vera have to die here?.”

“Because at home she can order someone else to climb the ladder for her?”

We sat together on the porch waiting. The sun glinted through the windows of another cottage on the hill above us. I wondered how the other housekeepers were doing. The team was down by two now. Vera, and me. We had a full complement of guests and the housekeepers had only a couple of hours to freshen up and turn down all the rooms. And, it had to get done without anyone being seen or heard while the guests were at dinner. Whispering Birches housekeepers—the house elves of the muggle world.

It was past sundown when the state troopers came down the narrow dirt road that led to Coydog Cottage. While Brian let the officers into the cottage, I sat in the cool evening getting goose pimples from the breeze and trying not to think. Steve Leftsky, a tall, sandy blond State Trooper I’d known since high school, squatted on the porch beside me. Steve wasn’t a handsome guy, his face was pockmarked from teenage acne, but he was good people and he had the kind of eyes that wrinkled at the edges when he smiled.

“Trying to get my attention, Bree?” He smiled at me. “You know if you want to see me all you have to do is call.”

“Very funny. I’m not likely to be going through withdrawals from the State Police.”

“Yeah, and one of these days you’ll actually get a ticket.”

“Nah. You like me too much.” I glanced back at the cottage. “How’d she die?”

“Won’t know anything officially until the medical examiner sees the body. How’d you get to be the lucky one who found her? Or wait, you didn’t kill her did you? I know she’s your favorite person.”

“Quit. I’d happily get her fired if I could, kill her? No.”

“Tell me how you found her.”

“We store the extra carafes out here. Dotty broke one and asked me to grab another one for her. I couldn’t figure out why the door wouldn’t open.”

“Did you touch anything, move anything around?” Steve took his notebook and pencil out of his shirt pocket.

“I must have moved her when I shoved the door open. And I reached in and touched her wrist to see if she was alive.” A shiver ran through me.

“Was she warm?”

I shook my head.

He lowered his voice. “Know anybody who didn’t like her?”

“Are you kidding? Even Dotty won’t speak to her half the time.” I took a couple of breaths. “Can I go soon? I’d really like to get out of here.”

“Yeah, I think it would be a good idea for you to leave before the meat – uh, ambulance gets here.” He glanced at me appraisingly. “Are you going home from here? It might be better if you’re not alone.”

“I have to feed my animals. But I think I’ll go to Jim’s house after that.”

“Fisk? He’s got a stick up his… uh.” He looked around to see one of the other officers watching him. “You’re too laid back for him.”

Steve smiled and dropped a hand on my shoulder to steady himself as he stood.

“Shouldn’t you be investigating the scene or something?”

“I’m interrogating a witness.” Steve winked at me. “You’ll need to make a statement down at the barracks tomorrow. I’m thinking the VBI is going to want to investigate this and they’ll want to talk to you.”

“VBI?”

“Vermont Bureau of Investigation. They’ll be involved. At least until murder can be ruled out.”

 

***

 

Halfway home I started to shake, the image of Vera’s body burned into my mind. Where was the brain bleach when you needed it? I remembered earlier, when Vera said, “You’re useless,” to me in front of the other girls. She was always bitchy. Now she was dead. And I was left feeling guilty because I didn’t really care.

Cell phone service in Vermont is a crapshoot; you never know when you’ll have it and when you won’t. Besides that, if you have service and move ten feet in any direction you’re likely to lose it. I pulled over in a pullout that had a reputation for good reception.

“Hey MacGowan, how’s it going?” Jim’s voice was warm and cheerful on the other end of the line.

“Hey back.” I tried to sound cheerful but my voice shook and my eyes were starting to tear up.” Bad.” I took a breath. “I, uh, found a dead body today.”

“My God, are you all right?”

“Yeah, But can I come over?”

“I’m still at work. Maybe later?”

“No. That’s okay. I’ll just go home.” I hit the steering wheel in frustration. I was starting to notice a pattern here. When the going got tough, Jim had to work.

“Who was it?” he asked.

“Who was who?”

“The dead guy.”

“Dead girl. Vera. You know, my boss.”

“The bitch that shorted your tip at Christmas?”

“Yeah. The supervisor from hell.”

“Well good then. Maybe you’ll get a better tip this year.”

“Jim!”

“Have you stopped shaking?”

“Uh, yeah.” Somewhere in the conversation I’d stopped being freaked out.

“That’s my girl. Keep your chin up. I’ll be over around eleven.”

“Can you bring pizza?”

“Barbecue chicken with pineapple?”

“Yeah. Thanks.” I wiped my eyes with my sleeve.

Ten minutes later I pulled into my drive and my dogs mobbed the car. I’d like to think they were welcoming me home, but they were just looking for food. I’d barely gotten out of the car when Ranger, A young but huge wolfhound, leaned on my leg and shoved his nose under my hand. I rubbed his ears and he relaxed into me.

“Okay, buddy,” I said. “Let’s go feed the animals.”

The dogs trotted to the barn with me. They snuffled around, sniffing out rodents and snakes. I tossed Lucky, my old pony, some hay and dug a carrot out of the bin. He took it from my palm, his soft mouth soft. I picked up his rubber curry comb and he lowered his head and sighed as I brushed, relaxing into me. I leaned back pushing my weight into his leg and the awful day slipped away from me. It was the superpower of ponies, the ability to remove all traces of a bad day.

I fed the horses my elderly neighbor Max boards on my property, then the rabbits and the barn cat. I threw pellets to the chickens. They’d stopped laying again. I was feeding twenty-eight chickens and getting three eggs a day in return. My neighbors thought I was nuts, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat them. How could I fry up Speckles or Hermione? Meg’s kids had named every single one of those chickens. Besides, I didn’t know which three were laying. With my luck I’d eat the only three hens that gave me eggs.

After that I fed the dogs. Ranger, the wolfhound pup I’d found at the river earlier in the year. Hank, an affectionate and over-large two-year-old yellow Lab who lives up to his color and was dumped on my doorstep the previous year. Diesel, a two-year-old boxer with a shoe fetish that I’d taken in when a graduating law school student hadn’t been able to keep him. And Annie, a three-year-old female beagle cross who calls the shots. I’d found her running loose on Route 14. Actually, I fed the dogs after my fur-ball tabby of a housecat named Annabelle. She wouldn’t tolerate being fed last.

It was late when I finally walked into my kitchen and Jim was already there eating pizza out of the box. There was an open bottle beer and a jar of Parmesan cheese on the table. His legs were stretched out in front of him, long and lean, with his hiking boots propped on the rungs of my kitchen stool. He was dressed in his casual clothes; tan Dockers, immaculate golf shirt. The hiking boots were his fashion concession for coming to my house: in town he wore loafers.

Jim’s brown hair curled around his ears, too long for a lawyer. He smiled at me when I walked in and the smile reached the corners of his lash rimmed grey-green eyes.

Jim reached out as I walked by, pulling me down in his lap. He dropped a kiss on my collarbone. “What happened at work today? You were kidding about Vera, right? Did one of those rich snobs ask you to do something perverted?”

“I wasn’t kidding about Vera.” I reached out, snagged a slice of pizza and stuffed half of it in my mouth. “I found her lying in a pool of blood.” I slid off his lap. I needed a beer.

“You sure she was dead?”

“Yeah I’m sure.” I jumped up, grabbed a beer from the fridge and popped it open. “I touched her. She was cold.”

Jim stood up and slid his arms around me. I rested my head on his chest, relaxing into him and he held me tight. I could feel his heartbeat and the warmth of his chest against my face. He smelled good, like sandalwood. He leaned down and kissed my neck.

“Hmmm. You’re warm.” I tipped my head and kissed him back. His mouth was soft and cool from the beer.

“Bet I know how to make it better.”

“You’re good, but not that good.”

“Is that a challenge?”

I kissed him again. “Yes,” I said against his lips. “Make me forget.”

Jim slid his hands down, cupping my ass and pulling me against him. “That I can do,” he said. He was up to the challenge.

 

***

 

The sun was shining in the window when I woke to Jim’s cell phone ringing. He reached across me to grab it off the night table. His hand hit the lamp and the phone was knocked to the floor.

“Shit!” Jim dove across my body, caught the lamp before it toppled off the table, and slid off me on to the floor in a tangle of sheets. He rolled over, handed me the lamp and felt around under him for his phone.

“What? Yeah.” He untangled himself from the sheets and walked into the hall. He closed the door behind him.

Laughing, I put the lamp back on the table and headed for the shower. I needed to be at work early. Housekeeping at Whispering Birches is my second job; by day, I’m a paste up artist for the Royalton Star, our town’s weekly paper.

I could hear my cell phone ringing when I walked out of the bathroom. I wrapped my towel tighter around my body and went searching for it. When I got downstairs Jim was standing in the kitchen holding my phone in his hand.

“I’ll give you your phone back if you promise to show me what’s under the towel.”

I rolled my eyes, dropped my towel on the floor and laughed when his mouth fell open.

“Gimme.” I grabbed the phone from him. Jim slid his arms around my waist as I reached down to pick up my towel.

“No way, I’m not done looking yet.”

I scowled at him and flicked open my phone. “Hello?” I gasped as Jim ran his fingers up my spine.

“What took you so long to answer? Are you out at the barn?” It was my mother.

“No, Mom, I’m dealing with inside animals at the moment.” I shot Jim an elbow in the ribs. “Stop it!” I hissed at him. “Hang on.” I said into the phone. Jim was running his hands down my thighs. I batted him away, grabbed my towel and scooted into the living room. I put the phone back to my ear.

“I’m back.”

“Is that James Fisk? You should be nicer to him. You’ll never get married if you keep bossing your boyfriends around like that.”

“I’m not bossing him around, Mom.” I tucked the phone between my ear and shoulder and headed for the bedroom.

“It sounded bossy to me.” She had her resigned what-am-I-going-to-do-about-my-daughter voice on. “When are you coming to visit? We haven’t seen you since July.”

My mom and dad moved to South Carolina a couple of years back. My mom decided she didn’t fancy being old in the snow and bought a condo on the beach with the money her mom had left her. My dad followed along. I think he figured South Carolina with mom was better than Vermont without her. He was still suffering from culture shock.

“I’ll come down at Thanksgiving. And maybe Christmas if I can get someone to take care of the animals.” I rooted around in my closet and shrugged on my robe.

“I guess I’ll have to be content with that. I know it’s hard for you to get away. But when you have children I’ll expect you to come more often.”

Sheesh. I rolled my eyes as I clicked off the call.

When I walked back into the kitchen Jim was on the phone again. He was scowling and scribbling notes ferociously on a scrap of paper. “I told you earlier.” He had the phone between his shoulder and ear. “I don’t think that’s necessary. Besides, it’s intrusive. My personal life is not their business at this point.” He glanced up at me. “I’ve got to go. I’ll discuss this with you further when I get to the office.”

“Trouble?”

“Just the usual.” He picked up his coffee cup. “I’m going to take this with me. All hell is breaking loose in Hanover today, and I still have to go home to shower and change.” He gave me a quick kiss, took his coffee and left.

I was chewing a piece of toast when the phone rang again. A truck rumbled by on the road as I answered and the dogs all started barking.

“MacGowan?” It was Leftsky. “You there?”

“Yeah, wait a sec.” I opened the door and let the dogs out.

“Sounds like all hell is breaking loose over there. You need me to come rescue you?”

“Nah. It’s just the dogs warning me that a truck was going by. They feel it’s their duty to protect me from harmless strangers. I suppose you need me to come down to the barracks?”

“Yeah, first thing.”

“Okay. I’ll be there, soonish.”

“Good. I’d hate to have to come up there and arrest you.”

“Very funny. I bet I could get you in trouble for saying stuff like that.”

“Yeah. But you won’t.”

Shit. I was going to be late for work. I headed back upstairs to stand in front of my open closet. What did you wear when you were giving a statement? Would it help if I dressed like a slut? What about a business suit? Should I dress casually and look unconcerned, or wear church clothes to make a good impression?

I sat down on my bed without choosing anything from the closet. I felt numb and my mind refused to focus. Relax, it doesn’t matter what you wear. “But it does matter. First impressions are the most important. The credibility of my statement could be determined just by how you look. Shit. Now I’m talking to myself.”

Finally I grabbed my usual jeans and Tee. I slid a blazer over my top so I wasn’t too casual and pulled on my favorite footwear, slouchy black cowboy boots that made me feel braver. Just like Calamity Jane. Calamity Jane? Surely there were some other cowgirls? Cow women? Cattle women? There had to be lots of strong dames in the old west. Running ranches. Holding down the fort.

What was wrong with me? Thinking about cowgirls instead of getting my butt down to the barracks. I went into the bathroom to brush some color on my face.

 

***

 

The State Police are housed in a brand new building on Route 107, right on the line between Royalton and Bethel. I pulled into the parking lot and took a couple of breaths. The barracks intimidated me. I gathered myself together, squared my shoulders and swung out of the car.

“Hey MacGowan,” Steve called as I walked in. “I saw your car by the side of the road last night.” He walked over to me. “Everything all right?”

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I grimaced. “Just had a little reaction to finding a dead person.”

“Your first time?” He grinned. “Don’t worry. It gets easier.”

“If it’s up to me that will be the last time. Do you want to take my statement?”

“Not me. Lieutenant Brooks. Like I said yesterday, the VBI pulled this case. I can’t really say anything, but I hope you have a good alibi.” He laughed. “By the way, the inspection sticker on your car has expired. I didn’t want to ticket you, knowing you’d had a bad day and all, but you might want to get that taken care of before one of the other guys does.”

“Tom stapled his business card to my driver’s license. I’ve got a get out of jail free card.”

“That won’t keep them from stopping you. Heck, three or four of ‘em would stop you just for the chance to ask you out.”

“Give me a break. Nobody around here would take a second look at me.”

“Not true. Officer Smith’s looking for a companion.” Steve laughed. Officer Smith looked to be about a hundred years old.

A uniformed officer stepped into view and Steve motioned to him. “Looks like Lieutenant Brooks is ready for you. See you later. Don’t forget to get that car inspected.”

I’d never met Lieutenant Brooks. He was so good looking he made me nervous. I wished I’d dressed up a little. Not because I wanted to impress him, I felt outclassed. The man knew how to wear a uniform. It amazed me that women weren’t crashing their cars into the barracks every day just to catch a glimpse of him.

“Ms. MacGowan.” Lieutenant Brooks fixed me with clear blue eyes and offered me his hand. “Miles Brooks. In here, please.”

I followed Brooks into the conference room, his dark hair was out of regulation curling where it touched his collar. I wondered if I should tell him and suppressed the urge to laugh. He probably wouldn’t thank me for telling him he needed a haircut. I wiped my hands on my jeans . What was it about attractive men that made me so dang nervous? I wrenched my mind back to the matter at hand. He smiled at me as I sat down and I hoped like hell he couldn’t tell what was going on in my head.

I ran Brooks through yesterday’s event. I couldn’t think of any new details, and frankly wanted to forget what I did remember. At the end of our interview Lieutenant Brooks looked me in the eye. “Did you have reason to dislike Vera?”

“Everyone dislikes Vera. Even her sister can’t stand to work the same shift with her.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because she likes, um, liked to make trouble. If two girls weren’t getting along she’d team them up just to watch the fireworks. She told Trish that Rose was going out with her boyfriend. Rose wasn’t. She spread the rumor Dotty was pregnant. Dotty hasn’t dated since her husband left her. And while everyone else was busting their butts getting rooms done, she’d sit on hers and eat. Besides that, if you got on her bad side, you get assigned all the shit jobs to do.” I’d been on the wrong end of that stick a number of times.

“I understand you are also employed at the Royalton Star. What do you do there?”

“Typesetting and paste up.”

“Do you like that job?”

“Yeah. I get to work with my best friend. Why?”

He flicked his hand like it was nothing still focused on his notepad. “Just background information.” Now he fixed me with those eyes. “Why work part time as a housekeeper? It can’t pay all that much.”

“I have a lot of animals. Feed and Vet bills add up after a while.” Where the hell was he going with this?

“And you’re content to remain as a housekeeper? You aren’t gunning for a management position? To earn more?” He was totally focused on me now.

“The general manager is a friend of mine. He needed a couple of housekeepers he could rely on to show up. I needed the extra cash. Management isn’t flexible enough to accommodate my job at the Star.”

“Do you usually work in teams at the Inn?” He was making notes.

“Yes, we do.” I rubbed my palms on my pants again.

“Why’s that?”

“To protect the guest from getting their stuff taken and to protect us from being accused of theft.”

“But last night you were working alone?”

I thought I could see the pattern now. He looked at me when he was interested in my reaction. He looked down when he was pretending the answer didn’t matter.

“We were short-staffed. I offered to work by myself. Brian trusts me.”

“It was your idea to go off by yourself?”

“Yeah.”

“And why did you go to that particular cottage?”

“I was there because Dotty broke a carafe and we keep the extras in that closet. I would have eventually been the one to find Vera anyway. That cottage was on my list of rooms to turn-down last night.”

“Do you turndown that cottage every night?” He seemed to be only half listening to me now, but I bet he heard every word.

“No. I never know what rooms I’ll be doing on any given night until assignments are made. Why do you want to know this stuff?”

“Someone suggested you might be in line for Vera’s job.”

“Lovely.” My heart sank into my stomach and I wondered who would tell him that. And why.

“Thank you for the information, Ms. MacGowan. Please let us know if you intend to leave the area.”

I could feel his eyes on my back as I left the room.

I wanted to ask Steve what he thought, but he wasn’t at his desk or in the incident room. I even took a quick look into the briefing room, but he wasn’t there either. I changed tactics and tracked down Tom in his office.

Tom was on the phone when I peeked in his door. He motioned me in and I sat on one of the wooden chairs in front of his desk.

“What’s up, Bella? I don’t usually see you down here.”

“I had to come see Lieutenant Brooks about Vera’s death. I’m the one who found her.”

“That’s right. Steve told me he’d seen you there. I wouldn’t worry. Brooks probably just wanted to talk to you in person. That’s pretty standard.”

“Do you know how Vera died?”

“I can’t hand out details about an ongoing case without talking to the OIC first.” Tom smiled. “Especially to a newspaper shark like you.”

“Yeah, right, because paste up techs are known for their investigative research skills? What’s an OIC?”

“Officer in charge. In this case, Brooks. Not to change the subject, but I haven’t seen John lately. Do you know what he’s been up to?” John, my older brother, had been friends with Tom since pre-school.

“He’s around. I think he’s been hanging out with one of his girlfriends a lot lately.”

“That man needs to settle down. Last I talked to him he had three girls in three different cities.”

“He’s always been like that. Not settling down kind of runs in the family.”

Tom laughed. MacGowans were notorious for not making long-term commitments. The exception was my father who fell hard for my mom in high school and never looked back. His brothers and sisters had never married. I had plenty of cousins; they just had parents who had never tied the knot.

“Next time you see him, tell him not to be such a stranger, will you? I’ve got something to show him.”

“Yeah. Sure. But don’t hold your breath. It’s not like he spends a lot of time up at the farm.”

“Speaking of time, aren’t you supposed to be pasting up the paper? I’m not going to be too happy with you if my wife comes home cranky tonight because you couldn’t get the paper done before midnight.”

“Talk to your Lieutenant Brooks. I would have been at work hours ago if I didn’t need to come down here. It took me forty minutes just to figure out what to wear. If you’re going to blame anyone for Meg’s cranky mood, blame him.”

 

 

 

Chapter 2

 

I zipped down Route 107 to Route 14 and it only took me ten minutes to get into town. I was feeling lucky because I didn’t get stuck behind a tractor, or a flat lander who wasn’t used to dirt roads. And don’t forget leaf peepers. I’d seen peepers stop in the middle of the road and get out of the car with camera in hand. There were lots of slow moving hazards on Vermont roads.

South Royalton is a pretty typical New England Village. An assortment of shops, a couple of churches and one big ass green. The Royalton Star has its office in the upper floor of the row of Brick buildings across from the green over the Laundromat and the café, so we’re never too cold or hungry.

I parked next to the green across from our office, jogged across the street and took the stairs two at a time to the second floor. Meg was sitting at my desk frowning when I flung open the door to the office. Her curly bangs had fallen over her eyes and she absentmindedly blew them out of her face. She looked up at me and blinked.

“I don’t know how you stare at this computer screen all day. I’ve only been here a couple of hours and already my head hurts. Nothing fits right on the page.”

“Sorry I’m late.” I tossed my blazer over a chair. “I got called into the barracks.”

“Tom told me.” She squinted back up at me. “You should have called me though. I might have worried. Here take your desk. You can do your job for a while.” She pushed away from my computer. “See what you can do with that mess, will you? Or we’ll never make it to press tonight.”

We went to press every Tuesday night. The paper came out on Wednesday mornings. Every Tuesday we worked like madmen to finish the paper and every Wednesday morning we slept in. Normally, we’d both be in here early inhaling coffee and working out the bugs together. My visit to the barracks had messed up our schedule.

I dropped my bag on the shelf behind my desk and sat at my computer. “This whole Vera thing has me discombobulated. I didn’t sleep great last night. I let my mom get the better of me on the phone this morning and now I’ve got the impression that Brooks doesn’t think Vera’s death was an accident.”

“What makes you say that?”

“They asked me to notify them before I leave town.”

“Are you leaving town?”

“I hadn’t thought about it until he asked me not to. Maybe I should.”

“No. You should not leave town. They’ll probably have this whole thing straightened out within the week.” Meg looked at the ceiling. “By the way, Tom says your car needs to be inspected. It’s four months overdue.”

“Yeah, yeah. Steve told me that too.” I laughed. “He started to tell me that Jim has a stick up his butt. What is it with cops and lawyers, anyway?”

Meg snorted. “He’s right. Jim does have a stick up his butt. Did he come over last night when you told him you found a dead body?”

“Yeah. He came over.” I kept my voice light.

“He came right over.” She raised her eyebrows at me.

“Not right over, but he was there by the time I’d finished the chores. No point in him getting there any earlier than that. And he brought me pizza.”

“Huh.”

“I’ve got work to do,” I said. “We’re going to be here until midnight again.”

 

***

 

I spent the first couple of hours double-checking ads I’d designed last week. Then I checked to see if anyone had requested specific page placement. I always try to place ads in logical places; the fundraising dinners near the calendar, the employment ads in with the classifieds and the birthday announcements that read “Ain’t it nifty, look who’s fifty!” and featured school pictures sporting goofy smiles, braces and awful glasses, near the local interest articles. Sometimes someone wants to shake things up and get prime placement for their ad on the third page. I’m fine with that as long as everything fits.

Except for the occasional “Crap!” it was quiet in the office; our reporters avoid coming in on Tuesdays. They know they’ll get roped into running errands, bringing coffee and lunch. Locals that might be tempted to drop by other days of the week knew better than to show up on a Tuesday. Meg and I could get pretty testy during paste up.

At three o’clock Meg looked up. “I’m going down for a sandwich. Do you want anything?”

“Yeah.” I fished around in my wallet for some bills. “And I need caffeine. A soda’d be good.”

Meg took my money and headed down the stairs. I turned my attention back to the computer screen, but my concentration had been broken. I put my head down and closed my eyes. The image of Vera’s face floated into my brain and I pushed it away. I hadn’t smelled the blood the night before, but it was there now, along with the clammy feel of her skin. No. Think of something else.

Somewhere on the edge of my consciousness I heard Meg come back in the room and I jerked my head up off my desk.

“Too late.” Meg laughed. “I know you were sleeping. And I know why. You let Jim sleep over last night.” She started singing, “He likes you. He wants your babies…”

I threw an eraser at her head and missed. “Give me a break. Where’s my soda? We’ll never get the paper done if I don’t get some caffeine. The Royalton Star, the only paper in Vermont that comes out on a different day every week.”

Meg scowled at me and set our sandwiches and sodas on my desk. She grabbed her chair and rolled it over. “How far are you from finishing?”

“Hmmm, I’m guessing I’ll be zapping it over to the printer around ten tonight. Why?”

“I wanted to talk to you about something. I’ve got a problem.”

“What? Is Jeremy giving you trouble again?” Meg’s oldest was fourteen and a great kid, but he had a mind of his own and puberty wasn’t treating him kindly.

“No, it’s not the kids. It’s me. I have a problem. A huge, horrible problem.”

“You’re not sick are you?” I was puzzled. Meg’s life seemed perfect. “You’re not pregnant?”

“No. Tom and I haven’t had any time alone together in ages. I’m not pregnant.” Meg looked down, her face flushed. “You know Scott Howe? The guy we hired to build the new barn?”

“Um huh,” I nodded. “Hotty Scotty.” Scott Howe is Brad Pitt in a tool belt. He’s in his early thirties and has a reputation as a good, honest contractor and a nice guy. I’d seen him over at Meg’s. He was easy on the eyes and had a quick smile.

She sighed. “I’m attracted to him.”

“Jeez, Meg. Every woman in a fifty-mile radius could say that. You’re married, not buried, as Val would say.”

“No, it’s more than that. I’m really attracted to him. If-he-made-a-pass-at-me-I’d-drag-him-into-my-bed kind of attracted. And I can’t stay away. Whenever I have three seconds free I find myself down at the new barn, flirting.”

“Does he flirt back?” Bells were going off in my head. If Scott made a pass at Meg, things could get really ugly. Tom wouldn’t tolerate another guy hanging around his wife.

“God, I don’t know.” Meg sounded miserable. “He’s always been friendly.”

“What are you going to do?”

Meg bit her lip, then blurted out. “I’m thinking of telling Scott I’m attracted to him.”

“No!” I said, on instinct, visualizing Tom running down the town’s hottest contractor with his police cruiser. “I mean, why?”

Meg pulled at the napkin in her hands. “I don’t know. Maybe he’d be more careful around me. God. I don’t even know if he likes me.”

“Of course, he does. You’re hot.”

Meg smiled weakly. “Yeah. Right. Four kids later and I’m as hot as ever.”

“Oh shut up,” I said. “You know, telling him could backfire.”

“I suppose.” She blinked hard.

My heart froze in my chest. “You still love Tom don’t you? You don’t want to leave him?”

“I never even see Tom anymore. I need companionship, I need affection and I need sex! If I don’t get some soon I’m going to burst. And don’t tell me to take care of myself. Doing it alone in the shower is not the same thing!”

“Hey, I didn’t say anything about a shower.” I stood up and walked over to the window. “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. I get worn down from all the bickering up at the house. Those kids are at each other all the time. Even with the banging and hammering, the barn seems peaceful and quiet. And Scott is nice to me.” Meg eyes started to tear up. “No one is nice to me anymore. The kids are horrid and Tom doesn’t notice them or me. He comes home late and exhausted, shovels dinner in his mouth and disappears into the den. I guess he still loves me but it’s hard to tell for sure. I thought things would be better when he was promoted to captain, but they’ve gotten worse. No money was better than no Tom.”

I made a mental note to corner Tom next time I saw him.

Meg sniffed and blew her nose on a tissue. “We’d better get back to work.” She pushed her chair back over to her desk.

“Listen, if you do decide to have an affair with Scott, I don’t want to know about it. This is not a secret I could keep.”

“What if I have an affair with someone besides Scott? Could I tell you about that?” She sounded miserable.

“No! I’ve known Tom my whole life. I don’t think I could keep a secret from him if I tried. He’d get it out of me. You know he would.”

“I know.” Meg spoke quietly. “I’m not planning an affair. I don’t want to ruin what I’ve got with Tom. But if something happens I promise not to tell you. Shoot, I promise not to tell me. I can’t keep secrets from Tom any better than you can.”

Meg proofed pages while I worked on getting everything laid out. It was a system we’d been using for a couple of years. After I’d worked on something for a while I couldn’t see typos or missing lines and Meg had hawk eyes when it came to that stuff. We printed a hard copy and laid it out on a master so Meg would have copy to mark up.

It was 9:40 before I made the last change and transferred an electronic copy to the printer and we were done for the night. Meg and I tromped down the stairs together and out into the chilly night air

 

***

 

The next morning I called our local auto shop, Rockin’ Rob’s Automotive Repair. Rob could fit me in for an inspection if I got there before ten. I fed my animals, spent a little time grooming my old pony, Lucky, and made myself coffee and an egg sandwich. I ate the sandwich in the car on the way to the auto shop. Eating while driving on the narrow back roads isn’t always the best idea, but I got lucky and didn’t meet anyone coming the other way.

Rob’s shop is always spotless inside. He’s the cleanest mechanic I’ve ever seen. No tools lying around, grease and oil kept to a minimum. Floor always swept up. I’ve never been in his bathroom but I’m willing to bet the toilet and sink aren’t black with dirt like they are Royalton Video down from the paper. Thank God for evidence that men aren’t genetically incapable of using a toilet brush.

Rob McCullough is tall and solid with short dark hair, dark brown eyes, long lashes and an engaging smile. He likes to listen to French music while he’s working on cars and he keeps himself as clean as his shop. He’s got pictures of his motorcycle hanging in the shop and if you encourage him he’ll stand around talking about riding across Canada for half the day. When I was younger I used to have a crush on him. Who am I kidding? I still think he’s fabulous, but we’ve never been more than mechanic and the girl with the Junker. The Junker changes every now and again, but I keep my mechanic.

I strolled into the shop and Rob went out, pulled my car into the bay and put it up on the lift. He fussed around underneath it for ten or fifteen minutes then came to join me by his workbench.

“I’m guessing you were hoping to drive out of here today.” I nodded and he shook his head. “You’ve got a bad ball joint. I can’t give you a new sticker until you get it fixed.”

“How much is that going to cost me?” I love my old Toyota but it’s starting to fall apart. I’m afraid I’ll be driving on the back roads one day and the thing will just rattle itself to death, leaving a string of car parts in the road behind me.

“I’ll call you with an estimate. I’ll need to get in touch with the parts shop. I can get you a quote today but I won’t be able to finish the work right away. I could get it back to you the by end of next week.”

“Crud. If I don’t get the dang thing fixed I’m going to end up with a ticket. If I do get it fixed I’m going to have to stop eating for a month.” I puffed out some air. “Do you want me to leave it with you?”

I called Jim to see if he could pick me up and take me to the office but he wasn’t answering his cell. I called Meg. But Meg was home with a sick seven-year-old. She called Tom to see if he could pick me up. Tom sent Steve to come get me. I felt like the proverbial hot potato.

Rob laughed when he saw the cop car pull in. “Nice taxi you got there. This is going to be good for a few laughs at the bar tonight. I don’t know what’s going to be better, teasing Steve for picking you up, or teasing you for getting picked up by a cop.” He grinned and disappeared back inside his shop.

I slid into the passenger seat of Steve’s car. “Thanks for coming to get me. Pretty sad when a state trooper doesn’t have anything better to do than give rides to stranded women.”

“The only reason you’re getting a ride is that the boss thinks he needs to watch over you. Otherwise you’d be walking like everyone else.” He smiled.

“Anything cooking on Vera’s death? Lieutenant Brooks asked me not to leave town. That doesn’t sound like accidental death to me.”

“Not my case,” Steve replied, his eyes fixed on the road.

“But you’ve heard something, haven’t you?”

“Not my place to say.” Steve looked unhappy. He shot me a look. “I don’t want to lose my job, which is what will happen if I tell you anything at this point.”

Steve dropped me at my house. I was majorly bummed about my car but I did have a backup. My dad’s old 750 Kawasaki Spectre was stored in my barn. The weather was getting a little chilly for riding, but it was better than puttering around town on a tractor. A tractor could put a real damper on a person’s style. I’d discovered this in high school when hunky Bucky Osborn dumped his truck in the river and had been reduced to driving his John Deere into town. His date-ability factor dropped dramatically.

I tromped into my barn and pulled the sheet off the bike. It wasn’t too dusty. I’d ridden it during the summer and only put it up for the winter a couple of weeks ago. I got my motorcycle license in my early twenties when my dad bought himself a Honda Goldwing and lent me the Kawasaki. We used to ride together a lot. Zipping up Route 100 on warm summer evenings and riding the scenic road up Stowe Mountain.

I checked to see that no essential parts had been chewed by critters and rolled the bike out of the barn. I grabbed the gas can and put a couple of gallons in the tank. The engine turned right over, purring like a big cat. I rode it up to the house and went inside to grab my helmet, gloves and leather jacket. My Dad had drilled the importance of protective gear into me. “I don’t ever want to have to watch someone picking gravel out of that pretty face,” he’d say to me. I didn’t want anyone picking gravel out of my face either.

The phone rang while I was in the house searching for my gloves.

“Hey, Bree. It’s Rob. It’s four hundred and fifteen dollars to get your car repaired and inspected. And I don’t take credit cards, in case you forgot.”

“Okay, Rob. Go ahead and fix it. Thanks, I guess.” What kind of businessperson doesn’t take credit cards? And where was I going to find four hundred big ones by the end of next week? Crap and double crap. I pulled on my gear and mounted the bike. I shot off to work to raise the money to fix my car.

 

***

 

I’d been sitting at my desk at the paper for a couple of hours when the phone rang.

“MacGowan.” It was Jim on the phone. “I’m downstairs in the diner. How about coming down for a coffee?”

Our local café is small. Three booths crammed against one wall, with four tables crowding what space was left over the blue and white tile floor. Opposite the booths is a counter normally packed with locals. Most of the time it’s so tight in there you have to reach over someone else’s head to pay the bill.

I joined Jim in one of the booths against the wall. Jim studied the menu like he’d never seen it before. He could be quiet sometimes, but not usually when we were out together. I felt a big, fat ball of unease building in my stomach. There was too much weird stuff going on these days. I touched Jim’s hand.

“You’re powerful quiet.” I used my best Vermont drawl.

He smiled at me. “I like it when you talk like an old Vermonter.”

“I am an old Vermonter. My grandparents were born here.”

“Yeah, but usually you talk like an educated American. Not an old timey Vermonter. I like it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind. Especially as now you’ve come out of your quiet spell. Is there something going on?”

“Just work stuff. Nothing to worry about. At least I don’t think it’s anything to worry about. Guess we’ll have to wait and see.”

“We’ll have to wait and see, or you’ll have to wait and see?”

“I can’t tell you about it, therefore I guess technically it’s I’ll have to wait and see.”

I stuck my tongue out at Jim. I don’t know what it is about his job that drops my maturity level down to about second grade. I guess I’m just a Nosey Nora. I don’t like being the one that isn’t in on the secret.

“Is it about me?” I asked.

“Bree!” He was getting annoyed with me.

“I hate that we can’t talk about your job. It makes me feel like I don’t really know you.”

“You know me as well as anybody. You can’t ask for more than that.”

“Yeah, I can ask for more. But that doesn’t mean I’ll get it, does it?”

Sandy interrupted us with a pot of coffee. I ordered my usual muffin. Jim finally settled on a bagel with cream cheese.

“Have you recovered from your little adventure the other day?” he asked

“As long as I don’t think about it. It’s not an experience I’d like to repeat.”

“Not thinking of taking up a life of crime? Or is that a life of crime busting?”

“Neither. I’m not taking up anything that offers up the opportunity for viewing bodies. Or blood.”

“Then I guess you’re going to have to give up your job at the Inn. Because so far that’s the only place you’ve seen a dead body.”

“I wish I could give up that job. In order to do that I’d have to get rid of most of my animals. I just keep getting more and more. I’m a stray animal magnet.”

“You could just stop bringing them home.”

“I can’t just leave them in the street. And after I pick them up they adopt me. I tried to find Ranger a home. But no. No one else is nutty enough to take on a goofy, giant puppy that thinks he’s the size of a corgi. And he ends up with me. Next thing I know I’ll be overrun with hamsters. Or guinea pigs. Or potbellied pigs.”

“Those, at least you could eat.”

“As if. I can’t even eat chickens that aren’t laying eggs.”

“You have a serious problem. You can’t get rid of your animals, you can’t eat your animals and you can’t quit working at a dead-end job because of your animals. You’d never make it as a lawyer. There’s not an ounce of logic in that brain.”

“If I was a lawyer I wouldn’t be lacking in money, which would solve the animal problem. But I’d probably shoot myself in the head out of boredom, which would leave my animals homeless and then you’d have to take care of them.”

“I’d have no problem eating those birds. Every time I had chicken for dinner I’d think of you and how if you only had fewer animals you’d still be alive.”

“Jeez. You’re such a prince.”

I reached across the table for the sugar and knocked over my cup. The coffee ran across the table toward Jim.

“Oh shit!” I grabbed a handful of napkins and tried to stop the hot liquid from running off the table into his lap. As I reached for a second handful of napkins my hand hit Jim’s coffee cup, sending it flying off the table right into his lap.

“Shit!” Jim jumped out of his seat, a gigantic coffee stain spreading across his lap. “MacGowan, you’re a disaster.”

The waitress ran over with a damp cloth and made as if to mop Jim’s lap. Jim swatted her hand away, took the rag from her and blotted his pants. I felt horrible about the hot coffee but there was a bubble of hysterical laughter rising in my throat. I forced the urge down again but the effort must have shown on my face.

“What’s wrong with you?” Jim asked. “Did you get coffee on you?”

“No.” A smile spread across my face despite my efforts to stop it. “I’m fine.” A snort of laughter forced its way out of me.

“Are you laughing at me? This isn’t exactly funny, you know. My legs are burned. To say nothing of other more sensitive parts.”

“I know it’s not funny.” My eyes started to water with the effort. “I’m sorry. I don’t know why I’m laughing.” Another snort of laughter burst out of me.

Jim pulled on his overcoat. “What’s wrong with you? Never mind, don’t answer that. I’m going home to change.”

“I’m sorry. I’ll pay for your suit to be cleaned again. I didn’t mean to laugh. I just couldn’t help it.”

He shook his head at me as he stiff-legged it out the door. I paid the bill and apologized to the waitress for making a mess. Then I made my way out the door. I was going to try and put a dent in the pile of work sitting on my desk.

I tripped on the way up the stairs, stumbled and came down hard. “Damn!” I sat on a step and rubbed my stinging knee. Tears welled up in my eyes and a sob rose in my throat. Pull yourself together, I said to myself. First you’re laughing at things that aren’t funny and now you’re crying over nothing. But I couldn’t stop. My knee hurt and it had been such a hellish week. I sat there sobbing until tears ran off my chin.

I was afraid that someone might come through the lower door and see me crying, but didn’t want to go in the office either. Meg could have dropped in and she’d want to know what was wrong. I couldn’t tell her because I didn’t know myself. I gulped in air and wiped my face on the sleeve of my coat.

I got up and limped up the stairs into the office. It was empty, thank God. I slipped into the bathroom and blew my nose. Then I splashed water on my face and blotted it off with a paper towel. I rummaged around in my purse and pulled out some mascara. I blinked it through my lashes and took a look at myself in the mirror.

I went out and sat down at my desk. I rubbed my knee while my computer came back to life. I was going to hurt for a while. I shook my head. If I didn’t pull myself together they’d be carting me off to the funny farm.

 

 

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