Dead Man Running

Torie O'Shea Mysteries (Volume 9 of 11)

Rett MacPherson

Minotaur Books

Chapter One
I have come to the conclusion that boys are different from girls. 
Case in point: My son never stops moving. He’s almost three, and I don’t think he’s stopped moving since last March, not even in his sleep. He has a lot more spit than my daughters ever had. Everything comes with sound effects, even if it’s just milk being poured into a glass. With Matthew, nothing is ever what it is. A ball isn’t a ball. It’s a spaceship ball flying through space at a zillion miles an hour. A dog isn’t a dog. It’s a secret agent dog. Not that he can comprehend exactly what a secret agent is, but he and our wiener dog, Fritz, have their own secret code that only they can speak. He’s constantly telling me what Fritz is thinking. The worst part is, I’m beginning to think he really does understand what Fritz is thinking.
Then there was that lovely week when after having seen Finding Nemo my son spoke nothing but whale. Every single sentence was in whale. By the end of the week I was getting pretty good at deciphering whale, although I’m not sure which dialect it was—but that’s beside the point. There’s a reason people say things like “boys will be boys.” I never knew that ball bearings and a stick shift could make that much difference in the sexes.
My husband, Rudy, is a perfect example of a male. When he’s driving down the road he isn’t thinking of what bills to pay or what to have for dinner or . . . or where pomegranates actually come from. No, he’s thinking of . . . nothing, and he thinks of nothing like nobody else I’ve ever seen. I mean he’s really good at thinking of nothing. Men do that so much better than women. If I’m looking at the Mississippi River, I’m thinking of how pretty it is or how polluted it is or Gee, I wonder just how many gallons of water are in that sucker? Not Rudy. No, he’s looking out there going, River. Water. Mmmm.
My father, another male. He insists on wearing white gym socks with dress pants, because nylon socks, especially colored ones, are for sissies. And only a man would go off into the woods and fish without any sunblock or bug spray, no cell phone, no weapons, nothing. Just worms and a pole. He’ll suck the poison right out of snakebite—I’ve seen him do it, twice. I stopped camping with him, by the way, after the second time. Yuck! But that same man squeals like a baby if he has to get a shot and freaks out when food is left in a can. My father firmly believes he will drop dead of botulism if he eats anything that has sat in an open can for more than ten minutes.
Last but not least, my stepfather. The sheriff, Colin Woodrow Brooke. He’s not happy with being sheriff. No, he has to be mayor. So the whole town of New Kassel, Missouri, is plastered with his big ol’ signs that read brooke is better. In response, the current mayor, Castlereagh, put up bigger signs that read new kassel is in good hands with kasselreagh! At which time my esteemed stepfather put up even bigger signs that read brooke for mayor. at least he can spell. The signs just keep getting bigger and bigger, because, you know, it’s that whole bigger, faster, farther thing with men. The only thing left is a billboard.
Now my wonderful, cozy tourist town of New Kassel looks as if a carnival has taken up permanent residence. If I, Torie O’Shea, were running for mayor, I would do it with a bit more aplomb. Just the fact that I can use the word “aplomb” shows that I would be better at the job than either one of them. If I ran against my stepfather and lost, though, there’d be no living with him, and if I ran against him and won, there’d be no living with my mother. Since I firmly believe I would win, I’m not running. My mother’s wrath is far worse than my stepfather’s.
So, on a glorious Tuesday afternoon in autumn, this is what I was thinking about in my office at the Gaheimer House on River Pointe Road. I was sitting there, pulling my hair out, strand by strand, clicking my ballpoint pen nervously, wondering just what it would be like to have New Kassel testosterone free for one week, and hoping like hell that none of the men in the town were smart enough to think “billboard” next.
Having said all of that, with the exception of my stepfather, I couldn’t live without any of the men in my life. Even if it means dealing with spit, secret agent dogs, whale speak, empty minds, white gym socks, and botulism. It was just bugging me today for some reason. Maybe that’s because I felt totally helpless to do anything about the complete insanity that had taken over my town.
I should probably think about the other things at hand. My daughter Rachel’s marching band season, my daughter Mary’s volleyball season, the Octoberfest coming up, which I am managing, and the possibility that my son might need counseling if he didn’t start speaking English as well as he could speak whale.
“Earth to Torie,” somebody said from the doorway. I looked up to see Helen Wickland, one of my good friends and the owner of the Lick-a-Pot Candy Shoppe, which was across the road. She’s usually good stress relief and almost always comes bearing things good for the soul, like chocolate. She’s known throughout the county for her fudge, but it’s those chocolate-covered cherries that I can’t stop thinking about. I find myself daydreaming about them. At any rate, she’s also the vice president of the historical society, of which I am the president. It’s nice when your vice president is a chocolatier. I couldn’t have planned that better if I had to.
“Sorry, Helen,” I said. “What’s up?”
Helen is almost fifty. I know this because she’s ten years or so older than me, with a generous dash of gray in her hair, and I’m almost forty. I don’t have a dash of gray in my hair—I look as if somebody tripped and spilled the whole damn salt shaker on my head. If it weren’t for Clairol, I would have looked like the Bride of Frankenstein years ago. The other day, Mary got a good look at my gray hair, because it’s in bad need of coloring. She screeched and said, “Mother, you’re dying! All the color has faded from your hair.” It took me three days to convince her that just being gray did not mean that I would kick the bucket any time soon. She still looks at me with big puppy-dog eyes, as if she’s expecting me to expire at her feet.
Kids are supposed to keep you humble. If Mary continues at this rate, I’ll be more humble than Gandhi.
“I’ve been calling your name for like ten minutes,” Helen said. “What is going on in that head of yours?”
“Oh, come on. Don’t you want to guess?” I asked.
“The mayor’s race?”
I nodded my head.
“It’ll be over soon,” she said in a comforting way.
“Good, because I think I may be bald if it goes on much longer,” I said. I wouldn’t need to worry about having anything to color.
“Well, I just came by on business,” she said. She handed me a white bag, and I knew what was inside. I peeked: chocolate-covered cherries. I nearly kissed her right then and there. “The bands are a go.”
That’s the great thing about a small town. People actually come by, rather than using the phone. It’s quicker and easier for Helen to run across the street and tell me something than to pick up the phone, dial, and wait for me to answer. “The only thing I’m having trouble with is getting Bill to sign off on the parade,” she added.
Bill Castlereagh. The current mayor. The man who hates me the most. The man who will be the A-number-one suspect in my murder, if it ever happens. I find it important to know who your enemies are, just in case you ever turn up mysteriously dead. “Why won’t he sign off on it?” I asked, and sank my teeth into chocolaty, gooey, creamy, fruity goodness.
“Says it will cause discord in the town,” she said. “You know, he’s just a stick-in-the-mud. He can’t stand change of any kind. We’ve never had a parade for the Octoberfest, well, actually for anything, so of course, he’s going to fight it. It must be painful to be that . . .”
“Big of an ass?” I said.
“Unbendable,” she said.
“Oh, of course,” I said. “That’s what I meant to say.”
“And his wife doesn’t want us to release balloons. She says they do something bad to the ozone.”
“I’m surprised Mrs. Castlereagh even knows what the ozone is.”
Helen laughed and took one of the chocolate-covered cherries and plopped it into her mouth. “My,” she said in between chews. “You’re feeling . . .”
“That’s a good adjective, too. That would have been my second choice.”
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s just that, well, Rudy and I started building on the new house a few weeks ago, and . . .”
“And? I thought you were excited about building a new house.” She licked her fingers, one by one. Can I just say that I find it extremely unfair that Helen owns a candy shop, she’s a chocolatier, and she’s not the least bit overweight? All I have to do is work across the street from her shop and I gain ten pounds from the fumes.
“I am,” I said. “And you know I’ve always wanted some acreage. For the chickens. Maybe get a horse or two. It’s just that I won’t be in town any more.”
“No offense, Torie, but we’ll survive with you living a mile and a half outside of town,” she said.
“It’s almost two miles,” I said. “I know New Kassel will survive, but I might not. And talk about stressful. Do you know how many questions I have to answer every day? Like, how many plug-ins do I want in the master bedroom? How the heck should I know? I just assumed there was a standard number of plug-ins.”
She laughed.
“Plus, the sheriff and the mayor are driving me insane. Rachel has a boyfriend. I’m drowning in testosterone, and I need to color my hair.”
“Rachel has a boyfriend?”
I nodded. Rachel is my oldest child. I’m not sure why people have children if they’re not prepared for them to become grown-ups, but, boy, was it hard to get through this midteen thing.
“She’s dating a trumpet player,” I said.
“You say that as if a trumpet player is the worst thing in the world,” she said and laughed. She eyed the bag of chocolate-covered cherries. If she ate another one, I would chop her hand off.
“In marching bands, it is a well-known fact that the trumpet players are the playboys.”
“Really? I thought it was the drummers.”
“Well, in New Kassel it’s the trumpet players. Remember Tommy Whitmore?”
“A little after my time, but yes . . . I remember him,” she said. “I think he was personally responsible for eight virgins biting the dust.”
“He was like a plague in our town,” I said. “Whitmore was a trumpet player.”
“Oh,” she said. “I’m sure everything will be fine. I’m sure Rachel’s boyfriend is nothing like his predecessors.”
I rolled my eyes, grateful for her vote of confidence but not believing it for one minute. “Well, I’ll talk to Bill about the parade,” I said.
“You think that’s a wise thing to do? The mayor hates you.”
“I realize that I am his least favorite person in this town—well, probably period,” I said. “But maybe I could appeal to his more sensible nature.”
“He has a sensible nature? Huh,” she said, and smacked her lips. She was eyeing my chocolate. “Guess I missed it.”
“Yeah. I’ll use the mayor’s race against him.”
“Of course,” I said.
“Are you gonna eat that last cherry?” she asked.
“I’ll kill you if you touch that bag.”
I walked down River Pointe Road, which is the main road in town, to city hall and the mayor’s office. New Kassel is a tiny town in the shape of a square, made up of about ten streets crossing each other. Of course, there are farms and outlying subdivisions that are considered part of New Kassel, so the town actually covers several square miles, but “downtown” New Kassel is completely accessible by foot, which I love. The mayor’s office is the ugliest building on River Pointe Road. Of course, I could be biased. It might be because I know the mayor is in the building that I think it’s so ugly. It could also be because it’s the color of vomit, perfectly rectangular, with a flat roof. It looks like a giant brown brick. The fact that it stands next to the Murdoch Inn doesn’t help matters, since the Murdoch—as it’s known by the locals—is a gorgeous white Victorian building with porches and turrets and shutters.
Rose Gunther is the mayor’s secretary. In fact, she’s been the secretary for every mayor since 1954. I think she’s over seventy, but probably not by much. As I entered the office, her face blanched. Usually I only enter the mayor’s office when I’ve come to yell at him over something. Well, maybe not always, but regardless of my intentions, yelling and cursing usually happen before I leave the building. Sometimes it’s him yelling at me. I’m not always the troublemaker. He would never publicly admit that he hates me. Publicly he says that he hates my chickens, which I keep in a coop in the backyard. In reality, my chickens are just the excuse. He despises me with every fiber of his being.
Rose Gunther is a tiny thing, about five feet even, with narrow shoulders and bright, youthful blue eyes. It was almost as if I were looking at a twenty-year-old trapped in a seventy-year-old body. She was in mourning because the NHL was in a lockout. She’s a die-hard hockey fan and drives a little red Mazda with vanity plates that read blusfan.
“Torie,” she said. “What can I do for you?”
“I need to speak to Bill,” I said.
“Well,” she said pretending to glance at a date book, “he’s full up this afternoon. Has an interview with one of the local news stations.”
I crossed my arms. “Why don’t you just buzz him and see if he wants me to come to his house this evening or if he’d rather talk to me now.” I was betting he would rather talk to me now. There were witnesses all around, in case things got ugly. There wouldn’t be any at his house.
She smiled and buzzed the mayor. Sure enough, he’d rather talk to me now. “Hang on just a second, Torie,” Rose said as a man walked into the building and up to the desk. Rose smiled at him. He was about fifty, with dark, slicked-back hair, and he was at least six-foot-four and three hundred pounds. I counted no fewer than four gold rings on various fingers.
“Hi,” he said, and winked at Rose. “I’m Tiny Tim Julep.”
“Oh, yes, the new shop owner,” Rose said.
“You’re opening a new shop?” I asked, and turned to him.
“Why, yes,” he said. He extended his hand to me.
Something told me that Tiny Tim Julep wasn’t his real name. I smiled and shook his hand all the same. “I’m Torie,” I said. “I run the historical society. What sort of shop are you opening?”
“Tiny Tim’s Tobacco,” he said. “Pipes and cigars. No Cubans, though.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “I heard we were getting a tobacco shop. How exciting.”
There was a buzz behind the desk, and Ruth smiled at me. “Go on back,” she said.
“You know, Rose, don’t take this the wrong way, but you are way too nice to be working for Bill,” I said.
“That’s why I’m hoping, come November, I’ll be working for your stepfather.”
I contemplated that as I headed back to Bill’s office. I was used to having Colin as the sheriff. Life in this town would be so different, not because he would be mayor, but because he wouldn’t be sheriff any longer.
I wasn’t so sure it would be for the best. Although I would never tell him that. And to think, none of this would even be possible if he didn’t have a dual citizenship and own an antique shop here in town.
Besides, then who would be sheriff?
I knocked once, heard Bill say, “Enter,” and went in. “Hello, Bill.”
“Torie,” he said. “What can I do for you?”
“About this parade,” I said.
He held a hand up. Bill reminds me of a bowling ball. Bowling is his favorite thing on earth, but he’s also round like a bowling ball—and shiny. All he needs is three holes drilled in his head.
I didn’t really mean that.
“I’ve already said no,” Bill said. “You think I’m going to say yes to you when I’ve already said no to Helen?”
“Well, yes,” I said.
“Why?” he said and smiled from his lofty position of mayorhood.
“The parade is the perfect way to advertise, Bill. Just think. A whole float dedicated to your worthiness for office,” I said.
I could see him mulling it over in his mind. Then he realized that Colin would have just as big a chance to put a float out there with his name on it. The idea was dead in the water. Well, nobody could say that I hadn’t tried to play fair first.
“See ya, Torie. Nice try.”
“All right,” I said. “Everybody will be so interested to hear how afraid you were that your float wouldn’t be as good as Colin’s, and that’s the real reason you nixed the parade.”
“You wouldn’t,” he said.
“I’m on my way to Eleanore’s right now,” I said, and headed for his door. Eleanore, the town’s ink slinger and gossip monger and the owner of the Murdoch Inn, would have a field day with this, and he knew it. “We all know that the real reason you don’t want a parade is because Colin’s float will be bigger and better and make you look like a ninny.”
“You were switched at birth,” he said. “I’ve met your parents. There’s no way you came from either one of them.”
“I am the demon seed,” I conceded, bowing my head.
“Even your mother-in-law is good,” he said.
“Hey,” I snapped. “Don’t you bring my mother-in-law into this.”
He sighed heavily. One of two things was going to happen. Either he’d stick to his guns, just to spite me, because he’d go to any length to make sure my plans were foiled. Or he’d realize that Eleanore’s mouth could do more damage than a thousand Monica Lewinskis.
“Fine, you get your damn parade,” he said. “But if there’s any property damage, the historical society will pay for it.”
“Great,” I said. “Most people have their floats made already. So you better get on the stick.”
With that, I left. It was true. Most people had made their floats over the summer, in case we would get to have the parade. A parade was something I had always wanted, but when Sylvia was alive, there was never any chance of one. Sylvia, the president of the historical society for decades, had been a dear friend of mine and had also been my boss. When she died, she left me everything, including the Gaheimer House, which was home to the historical society and all of its holdings. Sylvia used to be in charge of everything and she hated parades, so we never got one.
It had taken me a while to get used to the fact that I no longer had to worry about money and that I was the owner of the Gaheimer house, but one day I woke up and realized that I was finally in charge. It’s not like I’m some sort of dictator; we do things democratically at the historical society. We vote on everything, but what fun it’s been to suggest something and have it voted on, rather than having one person decide the fate of all. The historical society had voted back in July that we wanted a parade this year. All we had to do was get past the mayor—and I’d just done that.
I waved to Rose on the way out, stepped out into the street, and ran smack dab into my stepfather. Colin, who is a really big guy—like Bubba big, but not as big as Tiny Tim—tried to stop himself before barreling into me, but there is such a thing as inertia, and he couldn’t quite get stopped all the way. I ended up on the sidewalk.
“Oh, sorry, Torie,” he said. “I tried to stop.”
“That’s all right,” I said and stood up and brushed off my butt. He was well over six feet tall, pushing fifty, and . . . an okay guy. He’s twelve years younger than my mother. People used to think the whole age thing bothered me. If my mother had married George Clooney, I wouldn’t have cared about the age difference. My problem with my mother marrying Colin stemmed from the fact that Colin wasn’t George Clooney, and he had actually arrested me once. Okay, he’d arrested me twice now, but at the time she decided to marry him it had been only once, and I was convinced that she was deserting me for the enemy. I’m over all of that now. “Hey, I was just going to call you.”
He glanced at city hall, where I’d just been, and then back to me. He was worried. He always thought I was getting into trouble. Even when I wasn’t. It was a little annoying, and now I knew how my daughter Mary always felt.
“Why?” he asked.
“The parade is a go. Do you have your float ready?”
“You mean it?” he asked, beaming. “How’d you do it?”
“I just told the mayor in no uncertain terms that we had the interest of the town at heart. By depriving us of the parade, he was depriving us of much-needed revenue and county-wide exposure. Besides, our children’s hearts would be broken if they didn’t get a chance to have a parade at least once in their lives.”
“You threatened him with Eleanore, didn’t you?”
“Yup,” I said. “Go get your float ready! We’re parading on Saturday.”
Copyright © 2006 by Rett MacPherson