Death Notice

Kat Campbell Mysteries (Volume 1)

Todd Ritter

Minotaur Books

MARCH

ONE

“Chief Campbell!”

Kat’s name rattled up Main Street as soon as she set foot on the sidewalk. She had just stepped out of Big Joe’s, a Star-bucks wannabe, carrying an extra-large coffee, for which she had paid Starbucks’ prices. Normally, the concept of four-dollar java would have annoyed her. But it was a gray and frigid morning, and she needed the heat and clarity that coffee provided. Unfortunately, the sound of her name, now being shouted a second time, prevented her from taking that first, precious sip.

“Hey, Chief!”

The source of the yell was Jasper Fox, owner of a flower shop burdened with the name Awesome Blossoms. Despite the cold, perspiration glistened on his face as he barreled up the sidewalk. Huffing and puffing, he waited until he reached Kat to finish his sentence.

“I’ve been robbed.”

Kat, coffee cup suspended in front of her mouth, blinked with disbelief. In Perry Hollow, robberies happened about as often as solar eclipses. Its pine-dotted streets and exhaustingly quaint storefronts were mostly trouble-free.

“Robbed? Are you sure?”

Jasper had an absurd mustache that dripped from his face like two dirty icicles. Whenever Kat saw him, she thought of a walrus. That morning, the mustache drooped even lower than normal.

“I think I’d know,” Jasper said.

His hangdog expression told her he had been expecting a different response. Something action-packed and decisive. Maybe Kat could have lived up to his expectations had she been given a chance to take a sip of her coffee. Instead, she could only lower the cup and watch Jasper as he watched her.

She knew what he was thinking. She read it in his eyes. He saw a woman five feet tall, ten pounds overweight, and six years shy of middle age. A woman who darkened her blond hair in order to be taken seriously. A woman who had bags under her eyes because the furnace was on the fritz and her son was up half the night with a cough. Most of all, he saw a woman—with a badge pinned to her uniform—idling on the sidewalk when she should have been investigating the town’s first theft in more than a year.

Knowing all of this was going through Jasper’s brain, Kat asked, “What was stolen?”

“I’ll show you.”

She followed him down Main Street, which was waking up faster than she was. She spotted Lisa Gunzelman unlocking her antiques store and Adrienne Wellington adjusting a floral-print frock in the window of her dress shop. Similar activity took place on the other side of the street as store owners got ready for another day of commerce in Perry Hollow, Pennsylvania.

Their efforts were in vain. The town had seen few visitors since the Christmas rush, simply because January and February were too cold for shopping. Now it was the middle of March, and although store windows showed off shorts, sunglasses, and tank tops, the scene outside was anything but springlike. Just two days earlier, a nor’easter had dumped six inches of snow on the roads. That was followed by an arctic chill that froze the plowed snow into miniature icebergs against the sidewalks. Kat stepped around one as she followed Jasper into his own store, two doors down from the dress shop.

Once inside Awesome Blossoms, Jasper made a beeline to the rear of the store and pushed open a door that led back outside. Kat followed him through it, finding herself in the center of a vacant parking lot covered with a thin sheet of ice. Only then did she begin to understand the situation. Jasper’s delivery van—a ubiquitous white Ford with the store’s name painted across its sides—had been taken during the night. The realization gave her an inappropriate kick. At last, something to investigate.

“Are you positive this is where you parked it last night?”

“Of course.”

“I know you think I’m asking the obvious,” Kat said. “But these are the things I need to know if you want me to find your van.”

Jasper pointed to an empty patch of gravel. “I parked it right there.”

“Are you the only person with a set of keys?”

“I keep a spare set in the glove compartment in case someone else needs to make a delivery.”

“Let me guess. You leave the van’s door unlocked, too.”

Jasper didn’t need to speak. His mustache did the talking for him. And when it sagged sadly, Kat knew the answer was yes.

As stupid as his actions sounded, Kat couldn’t hold it against him. Perry Hollow was the kind of town where you could leave your car unlocked with the keys in the ignition and know it would be safe. Until now, apparently.

“Don’t worry,” she said. “We’ll find the van. Everyone in town knows what it looks like. Some kids probably took it for a joyride and left it behind the Shop and Save.”

Kat assumed this theory would relieve Jasper in some small way. Instead, the florist’s face scrunched with worry.

“There was something else in that glove compartment, Chief.”

“What?”

Jasper hesitated, just for a moment. “A pistol.”

Kat groaned. It wasn’t the best thing to do in front of Jasper, but it was better than her first instinct, which was to throttle him. How could he be so stupid as to leave his van unlocked with a gun in the glove compartment? And why did he have a gun in there to begin with?

“I had it for safety reasons,” Jasper said, sensing the unspoken question that hung like a clothesline between them. “I had a permit for it and everything. I just kept it there in case I got carjacked.”

Unless he made regular deliveries to West Philadelphia, Jasper had no reason to worry about a carjacking.

“Was it loaded?” Kat said.

A sad nod from the florist told her this was a bigger problem than she had first suspected. She needed to find that van. Pronto. And when she did, hopefully the gun would still be there.

Quickly, she made her way back through the store and onto Main Street. When she reached her black-and-white Crown Vic—still parked in front of Big Joe’s, thank God—Kat heard Deputy Carl Bauersox trying to reach her on the radio.

“Chief?” his voice squawked as Kat slid behind the wheel. “You there?”

Carl, her sole deputy, worked the night shift. Kat was usually in the station by that hour to relieve him of duty. But she had been sidetracked by Jasper’s van troubles, and now Carl was probably wondering when he could go home.

Kat grabbed the radio. “I’m on my way, Carl.”

“We have a big problem, Chief.”

Kat doubted that. Two crimes taking place on the same day would be some sort of record for Perry Hollow. It was probably more like a cat in a tree, which in Carl’s world did amount to a big deal.

“What kind of problem?”

“A truck driver called. Said there’s a wooden box sitting on the side of Old Mill Road.”

As Carl spoke, Kat realized she was still carrying her neglected Big Joe’s house blend. She raised the cup to her lips and, just before getting to that long-delayed first sip, said, “Why didn’t you go out there and move it?”

“Because it’s more than a box.”

Kat stopped herself mid-sip. Again. “More than a box how?”

“Well, Chief, the trucker swears up and down that it’s a coffin.”

A coffin. On the side of the road. The idea was so preposterous Kat knew it couldn’t be true. The truck driver was mistaken. It was simply a box. And now her job was to move it before some distracted driver smashed into it, possibly necessitating the use of a real coffin.

“I’ll check it out,” she said. “In the meantime, do me a favor and put out a countywide APB on Jasper Fox’s delivery van. It was stolen last night.”

She didn’t mention the gun. It would have been a good idea with anyone but Carl, who flapped his gums faster than a hummingbird worked its wings. If he knew about the gun, the news would be all over Perry Hollow within an hour.

Carl signed off with a chipper “Righto, Chief,” leaving Kat to reluctantly lower her coffee, start the Crown Vic, and head out to whatever awaited her on Old Mill Road.

When Kat found the box, it was indeed sitting on the side of the road, resting on a patch of frozen snow. Although the truck driver who spotted it called it a coffin, Kat, in true police chief fashion, refused to speculate on the matter. Squinting against the sun’s reflection on the snow, she peered through the windshield at the box sitting a few yards away. Rectangular in shape, it looked to be made of untreated wood. Probably pine, if Kat cared to guess. Which she didn’t.

She climbed out of the car, her breath forming a brief ghost of vapor that floated away in the frigid breeze. It was too damn cold for March, which Kat thought was bad news in several ways. For one, the prolonged winter depressed her. Second, the cold had kept the tourists away for too long. And most folks in Perry Hollow depended on them for their livelihoods.

Finally, the cold seemed to Kat a shivery warning of impending danger. It was too sharp, too unnatural.
When she finally got around to taking that first sip of coffee, it was in a vain attempt to steel herself against the chill. But the java itself had already succumbed to the cold, not helping her one bit. Kat instead had to rely on her parka, which she zipped up to her chin.

When she reached the box, Kat understood why someone passing by could think it was a coffin. It certainly looked casketlike. More than six feet long, three feet wide, and about two feet deep, it was definitely big enough to hold a body.

Kneeling next to it, she inspected the box for signs of where it had come from and, hopefully, where it was supposed to go. She looked for an invoice stapled to the side or a company’s logo branded into the wood. She found neither. As she ran a hand across the box’s top and along its sides, the rough wood scraped her palm. Whatever its intended use, the box was definitely homemade, most likely by an amateur. Any craftsman worth his salt would have subjected the wood to at least some form of sanding.
Leaning in close, Kat sniffed deeply, detecting a faint trace of pitch. Pine. Just as she had suspected.
She wanted to believe the box had simply landed there after falling off a truck, but instinct told her otherwise. It was in perfect condition. No scratches or scuff marks. No signs of impact with the road. The way it sat—on its back, stretched tidily across the ditch—also raised suspicion. No box tumbling from a truck could have landed so perfectly without some assistance.

Its location was no accident. Someone had placed it there. Someone had wanted it to be found.
Finished with her examination, Kat saw no point in delaying the inevitable. Coffin or not, the box needed to be opened. Tugging on the lid, she noticed it was nailed shut at the corners and at two points along each side. She marched back to her patrol car and grabbed a crowbar from the trunk before returning to the box. With the crowbar’s help, the nails barely resisted when she pried the lid open and yanked it away.

The first thing she saw was a pair of wheat-colored work boots. Next was a pair of mud-streaked overalls that continued over a red flannel shirt. Finally, framed by the shirt’s collar, was the face of a man in his late sixties.

The full picture sent Kat scrambling backward. Standing halfway between the box and her car, she turned away and clamped one hand over her mouth to calm her gasping. She pressed the other hand against her right side, where a sudden fear jabbed at her ribs.

When a minute passed, Kat willed herself to look at the coffin again. The second glance was accompanied by the sad, stomach-sinking realization that she knew who the corpse was.
His name was George Winnick, and until this morning he had been a farmer who tended fifty acres on the outskirts of Perry Hollow. Kat didn’t know him well. Other than exchanging greetings at the Shop and Save or in passing on the street, they had barely spoken. But he was enough of a fixture in town for her to know he had been a decent man—hardworking and dependable. She also knew there was no reason he should be lying dead in a pine box on Old Mill Road.

“George,” she whispered as she unsteadily approached the body again. “What happened to you?”

His corpse had been crammed inside the coffin like a doll stuffed into a shoe box. His arms were folded across his chest, each open hand resting against the opposite shoulder. The ashen shade of his hair matched the pale flesh on his hands, neck, and face.

Two polished pennies sat atop each of his eyes, hugged by bushy, gray-studded eyebrows. Both coins had been placed heads up, Abe Lincoln’s profile glinting in Kat’s direction. The effect was eerie, the pennies looking like eyes themselves—dead and unblinking.

A wound marred the right side of his neck, partially hidden by his shirt collar. Pushing the fabric out of the way, Kat examined the gash. About three inches long, it had been stitched shut with black thread. Beads of blood had frozen to the thread, like raindrops in a spiderweb.

Similar ice crystals could be seen on George’s lips, which were coated with rust-colored flecks of dirt. That’s when Kat realized it wasn’t dirt she saw. It was dried blood. Lots of it, crusted around more black thread that crisscrossed his lips.

George Winnick’s mouth had been sewn shut.

Kat gasped again as the pain in her ribs deepened. It was an overwhelming sensation—part nausea, part horror. Still, she managed to make it back to her patrol car and radio Carl.

“I need you to listen closely,” she said. “Call the EMS squad. Tell them to get here immediately.”

“There’s someone inside the box?”

“Yes. George Winnick.”

Carl reacted the way Kat had expected him to—he prayed. She waited as he murmured a quick prayer for George’s soul. After the amen, he asked, “How did he die?”