THE CLEARVIEW WAL-MART WAS ALWAYS CROWDED. SOMETIMES it seemed to Sheriff Dan Rhodes as if the Wal-Mart were, in fact, the only store in town, and that half the population could be found there at any given hour. Which wasn't too far from the truth, considering that the downtown section of Clearview had virtually disappeared over the course of the last few years. Well, it hadn't disappeared so much as been abandoned. And then some of the buildings had started falling down. Rhodes didn't much like to drive through what was left of downtown these days.
But as the downtown had crumbled, the area around the Wal-Mart had thrived. There was a new restaurant called the Round-Up, a new car dealership, a Sears catalog-order and appliance store, a big grocery store, and even a McDonald's. No wonder the parking lot was crowded.
But it was even more crowded than usual because something special was going on, something bigger than anything that had happened at the Wal-Mart since Elijah Ward had chained himself to the exit door and tried to keep the customers from leaving.That had been Ward's way of protesting the death of downtown Clearview, although it hadn't worked out quite the way Ward had planned. Before too long Ward himself had been deader than downtown, but that was another story.
The Wal-Mart was crowded today because there was a book-signing going on. The book was Wild Texas Wind, and the author was Ashley Leigh, better known to residents of Clearview as Vernell Lindsey, a local resident who had been trying for years to sell a romance novel and who had finally succeeded.
But although Vernell had become moderately notorious in Clearview for having written what some people considered a pretty sexy book, she was not the main attraction: Terry Don Coslin was there, too.
Terry Don had grown up in Clearview, gone away to college about ten years previously, and been discovered by a modeling agency. He had become a popular cover guy for paperback historical romances by virtue of his handsome face, his flowing locks, and his well-formed pecs, which Rhodes's wife, Ivy, had once said looked hard enough to strike a match on. Rhodes was pretty sure his own pecs weren't quite that well formed or nearly that hard.
Standing in the Wal-Mart parking lot, thinking about going inside for an autograph, Rhodes felt a little ridiculous. Not because of his inadequate pecs, and not because he hadn't read the book. He had. But he didn't feel right coming for autographs when he should have been working for the county.
Ivy had helped him rationalize it, however.
"You need to be there for crowd control," she said. "I can't get away from the office, but you can go. I can get Vernell's autograph any time, but Terry Don Coslin hasn't been back here since he graduated from high school, and he probably won't be back again. If you don't get his autograph on that book, I'm going to be really depressed."
"But we already have a copy of the book," Rhodes said. "Iwouldn't feel right, taking it in the store to get it signed."
"They wouldn't want you to, either," Ivy said. "They're there to sell new books, not to sign copies covered with reading creases. You can buy another one."
"But it costs five ninety-nine."
Ivy had a way of saying "So?" that precluded arguments, so Rhodes agreed to buy another copy of the book. And to engage in crowd control if need be.
The crowd was certainly there. There were cars, pickups, and SUVs parked in every available space in the Wal-Mart parking lot, and in the grocery store lot as well. They were parked along the shoulder of the road and in the fire lane. They were parked wherever there was a space big enough to hold them. And sometimes where there wasn't.
Rhodes didn't even consider writing any parking tickets. In the first place, he'd never written a parking ticket before, and he wasn't ready to start. And in the second place, he didn't want to start an anti-law-enforcement riot because, in the third place, his own car was illegally parked. So he ignored all the parking violations and started walking toward the store entrance.
He hadn't gone far when he passed two women who were standing beside an SUV that towered over both of them. They were talking about Wild Texas Wind, and about Terry Don Coslin.
"I didn't think Vernell knew anything about sex," one of the women said. She was tall and lanky and wore Levi's and a checked western-style shirt. "But that book's pretty hot."
The other woman was neither tall nor lanky. She had on a faded blue sweat suit that she'd probably bought at Wal-Mart a year or so previously and washed two or three times a week ever since.
"I don't know about Vernell," she said. "But I'll bet you Terry Don Coslin does."
Both women noticed Rhodes at that moment and laughed self-consciously. Rhodes pretended he hadn't heard them. He already knew who the main attraction at the signing was, and he was willing to bet there wasn't a single male in the line to get an inscription, not unless the male had been sent there by his wife, as Rhodes had been.
The crowd inside the store was even larger than Rhodes had expected. Most of the cars, pickups, and SUVs outside must've been carrying two or three people at least. There was hardly room to move once Rhodes got inside the doors. The harassed greeter tried to wave at Rhodes over the heads of the mob, but there was a sudden surge and she disappeared completely. The manager had long since given up trying to maintain order, and Rhodes wondered if maybe Ivy hadn't been right about the need for crowd control.
A large woman clutching a copy of Wild Texas Wind bumped into Rhodes, shoving him to one side. At that moment, he decided that for once in his life he was going to use his badge to his own advantage.
"Sheriff coming through," he said over and over as he elbowed his way through the buzzing swarm.
Before long he had reached the signing table, receiving only minor scratches and abrasions along the way.
"Hey, Vernell," he said when he got to the table, which was set up on an elevated platform.
Vernell pushed back her long hair and looked up from the book she was signing. She wore a harried look and an outfit that Rhodes thought he recognized. It consisted of an off-shoulder shirt with several buttons undone and a long skirt that was slit most of the way up to the waist. It was almost identical to the outfit worn by the female model on the cover of Vernell's book.
Vernell's appearance had definitely changed, Rhodes thought. She usually dressed in a conventionally buttoned shirt and oldjeans. Her hair was generally caught up and held in the back with a big plastic clip. Rhodes decided that authors would do anything for publicity, not that there was anything wrong with her new image.
"Hey, Sheriff," Vernell said.
That was all she had time for. She looked back down and scrawled something in the book a woman was holding open in front of her.
Terry Don Coslin hadn't even noticed Rhodes yet. He was completely surrounded by women, one of whom was sitting on the signing table. Rhodes was relieved to see that he was fully clothed. After his glance at Vernell, Rhodes had momentarily feared that Terry Don's steel pecs might be in view.
Terry Don in person was imposing enough, even with his short-sleeved shirt on. He obviously either worked out a lot or was one of those truly fortunate humans who was born with the genes of a natural hunk. His biceps bulged impressively, and the shirt strained so at the shoulders that Rhodes thought it might rip apart all the way down the back at any moment.
If that happened, it would be all over. No amount of crowd control in the world could prevent the women from mobbing the table and carrying Terry Don away for private ravishment. Either that, or they'd tear him apart in the struggle. Rhodes didn't even like to think about it.
Rhodes picked up a copy of Wild Texas Wind from the stack in front of Vernell and opened it to the title page. He waited until a red-faced woman who appeared near to weeping (she had just gotten Terry Don's signature and a few kind words into the bargain) got her book back from Vernell. Then Rhodes put his copy down on the table.
"Could you sign that for Ivy, please?" he said.
"I'd be glad to," Vernell said.
"You're selling a ton of books," Rhodes said as she wrote.
She finished writing and closed the book.
"You know something?" she said. "I really am. But it's not really the book they're interested in."
Rhodes nodded toward Terry Don.
"That's right," Vernell said. "When the book first came out, I did a signing here. I sold three copies, and one of those was to my cousin."
"Helps to have good pecs," Rhodes said.
"You can say that again."
Rhodes decided not to.
"I don't mind, though," Vernell said. "I'm getting a royalty on every copy, and all the publicity will be a real boost for the conference."
The conference was something that Vernell had been working on ever since her book had sold. It was a weekend retreat for romance writers to be held at the old college campus at Obert, a little town about eight miles from Clearview. The campus had been deserted for years, but it had finally been restored to something vaguely resembling its former glory and was now open for business, in a manner of speaking. It offered weekend retreats for church groups and businesses, and now it was hosting a writers' conference.
"I'm sure the conference will be a big success," Rhodes said as Vernell handed him his book.
Vernell nodded, already signing someone else's copy, and Rhodes turned to Terry Don, insinuating himself in front of two women who were crowding close to the table.
He put his book down and said, "Could you sign this for me?"
Terry Don looked up. He had very blue eyes, which Rhodes had to admit looked good with his dark hair, hair that was even longer than Vernell's.
Rhodes hadn't known Terry Don when he'd lived in Clearview. He remembered having seen him play football for the Clearview Catamounts a couple of times, though. He'd been awide receiver, and a pretty good one. He'd been all-district his senior year.
"I'd be glad to sign it," Terry Don said. "Is it for you?"
"It's for my wife," Rhodes said. "Her name's Ivy."
Terry Don smiled. His teeth were very white and very straight.
"That's a nice, old-fashioned name," he said.
The women behind Rhodes were jostling him, impatient for their turn with Terry Don.
"She's a nice woman," Rhodes said. "She liked your picture."
Terry Don shrugged. "It's a living."
He signed the book and handed it to Rhodes. Rhodes took it and worked his way back through the women straining to get closer to Terry Don.
When he was nearly to the express check-out lane, Rhodes looked back. Terry Don glanced up and grinned at him over the heads of the crowd. He was clearly having a good time, enjoying the feeling of being famous in his old hometown. Rhodes could see that it was more than just a job to Terry Don. Terry Don was having fun.
A ROMANTIC WAY TO DIE. Copyright © 2001 by Bill Crider. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.