Book excerpt

Every Hidden Fear

A Skeet Bannion Mystery

Skeet Bannion Series

Linda Rodriguez

St. Martin's Press

CHAPTER 1
 
 
I had dead leaves and cobwebs in my hair and stuck to my face. I couldn’t wipe them away because my glove-covered hands were digging wet, smelly leaf slime out of the gutters while my tough old grandmother scolded me for letting my house get into such bad shape. I’d had better afternoons chasing down murderers.
I’d planned on a quiet, restful day for a change, since Brian was off with friends. I didn’t get those very often any longer with Gran and my ward, Brian Jameson, both living with me, especially lately with Brian’s grumpy mood. I’d thought I might read a book for pleasure or sit on the front porch and knit in the unseasonably warm weather. One of the advantages of giving up a hard-hitting career with the Kansas City Police Department and moving to a small college town as head of campus police was the slower pace of life here right outside the city. Perhaps I might take Lady, my collie, for a nice, leisurely walk through town and window-shop on our way to the park. Until I caught that hardheaded old woman up on a ladder, getting ready to clean my gutters. Eighty years old and climbing a ladder as if she had no more sense than a squirrel!
So nothing would do but to give up my peaceful afternoon and climb up to do the job myself with Her Toughness holding the ladder steady and calling out orders, complaints, and warnings while a train hooted its way through the heart of Brewster, Missouri. I just wanted to get finished and off the ladder—I’m not fond of heights—and wash up. But Gran was not a person to be satisfied with a lick and a promise, so I could see I was going to be stuck up there all afternoon, moving slowly around the house.
“You can’t neglect things like this, Skeet.” Gran’s voice was stern as I pulled loose a Virginia creeper vine that had somehow made it all the way to the gutter. “If you’re not constantly watching and taking care of little things with a house, all kinds of things will fester in the dark and grow out of sight to damage it until they pull it down on your head.”
I sighed. I was a little shocked at how much junk had collected in my gutters, and from this height, I could see more Virginia creeper around the corner and heading for the roof. But I really didn’t think I was in danger of my solidly built ninety-year-old house collapsing on my head imminently any more than Gran was going to collapse in a Victorian faint at my feet.
“Those clogged gutters’ll lead to leaks in the roof and in the walls, if you don’t take care of them. Water’s your enemy when you own a house. It’ll rot the wood and weaken your whole structure.” Gran shook her head as I threw another clump of leaf slime down to the ground, a little too close to her feet. “It’s the stuff that’s out of sight and hidden from view that does all the damage.”
I rolled my eyes as I turned back to the gutter. I was taking care of it, wasn’t I? No need to go on and on about my sins of neglect.
“Okay. I just never owned a house before, Gran. I didn’t know all this stuff. Now that you’ve told me, I do. And I’ll take care of things.” I didn’t see why I couldn’t hire someone to clean out the gutters and things like that, giving some guy who needed it work and saving my few peaceful afternoons off for myself.
She ignored everything I said. “After this, we’ll have to go to the hardware store and get some caulk for the windows. It’s going to be Thanksgiving soon, and you haven’t winterized this house. Normally, we’d have had some snow or ice by now, or certainly hard freezes.”
“It’s the good thing about global warming,” I teased as I leaned as far as I could along the front of the house before having to climb down and reposition the ladder. “We’re becoming a milder climate here in the tornado-blizzard zone.”
“Hmph! Human messes always screw up the earth. No respect, at all.” She dodged another handful of twigs and leaf slime. “But the earth is going to slap back. Got a big, bad storm on its way. Need to be prepared.”
“Gran, all the weathermen and the weather station say this mild weather’s going to last through the holidays. We shouldn’t get any real winter weather before New Year’s Day. Wouldn’t be the first time our first real snowstorm didn’t hit until New Year’s.”
I caught myself after reaching too far and started to climb down the ladder. This was the part about heights that I really hated, climbing down backward, so I concentrated on my feet and the next rung.
“I don’t have to listen to yonega weathermen. I hope I have enough sense to read the signs all around me like I’ve been doing for eighty years, like my grandmother taught me and I tried to teach you.” She waved away my attempt at protest. “And the signs all around tell me we’ve got a blizzard coming, a bad one.”
I set my first foot on the ground and breathed a little relieved sigh. “Meteorologists have—”
“Meteorologists! Why are they looking at meteors when the signs are here in the caterpillars and squirrels and foxes and trees and other living beings?” She snorted with disgust and moved away from the ladder as I stepped off the last rung.
“Gran, I don’t want to argue with you on such a nice day. Let’s take a break and go in for some coffee and some of those cookies you made last night. We can bring them out to the porch here and relax for a minute before doing the rest of the gutters.” I reached to take her arm but dropped my hand after seeing the odorous junk from the gutters smeared on my glove. “And I could clean up a little.”
“Hmph! You just want to get out of cleaning the rest of those gutters. Don’t think I don’t know it.” A spark of mischief appeared in her dark eyes. “But those were good cookies last night, and they’d go well with some hot coffee.”
Before I could agree enthusiastically and lure her on into the house, a noisy, bright green car pulled up in the street in front of us. We both turned toward it just as Brian leaped out of the back of clean-cut quarterback Noah Steen’s car and slammed the door. Brian’s best friend, Angie Melvin, had one tattooed arm hanging out the passenger window, and she stuck her head with its burgundy and blue hair out as well. “Bye, Bri. Call me later. Hi, Skeet. Hi, Mrs. Whittaker.”
Angie had first-named Gran one time only in the first days after Gran moved herself in with Brian and me. Gran put a stop to that in no time, and she was the only adult in town that Angie didn’t call by first name or some sarcastic nickname. Mine, when she was pissed at me, was Supercop.
Brian nodded and waved, then turned a scowling face in our direction as Noah and Angie drove off.
“Didn’t you have fun with Angie and Noah?” I asked. “You look like you lost your best friend.”
“Maybe that’s because I have,” he snapped back at me. “Angie just hangs on that stupid jock’s every word and ignores me. I don’t know why they ask me to come along. Sometimes I think she doesn’t want me there at all. He’s the one who always asks. Just trying to get in her good graces. Like he’s so sensitive and caring. Hah!”
“Whoa, Brian. She didn’t sound like it just now, asking you to call her later and everything.”
“That’s just so she can go on and on about handsome Noah and every little thing he said and did. ‘And isn’t he just wonderful, Brian? Isn’t he the greatest?’ The most boring phone calls in the world.”
I opened my mouth to try to make things better somehow, but Gran jabbed me in the side with her bony elbow and frowned at me, so I just shut my mouth and focused on Brian the way I would focus on witnesses in silence to lead them to say more than they intended when I was investigating crimes. Brian stood in frowning silence for about half a minute. Then the technique worked its magic.
“Sometimes I don’t think Noah really likes Angie. Not that way, you know. I think he’s just playing a game with her, and she’s going to get hurt real bad.” He lowered his eyes and shook his head impatiently. “And I don’t think I can stand it because she’s already been hurt so much. I don’t see how she’ll survive it. I’d like to hit him, but he’s older and bigger and a jock, and he’d probably wipe up the floor with me. Then he’d just take Angie off and hurt her anyway.”
He swiped at his eyes angrily. “She deserves better than him. I can’t see what she sees in him. She’s usually so smart. Just brilliant. But right now, she’s being so dumb.”
“She can’t see that there’s a great guy, smart and talented and honorable, who would treat her much better, can she?” Gran asked quietly.
Brian stood in silent shock. “I don’t…” He shook his head furiously and ran up the porch steps and into the house, banging the screen door behind him.
I started after him, but Gran laid her hand on my arm. “Let him go. He needs to cry it out and hit walls, and he won’t be grateful to have any witnesses to that later.”
“He’s in love with Angie? That can’t be! He’s too young. Only fifteen. I know he thinks the world of her. But that’s just friendship. He can’t be in love at his age. Can he?”
I’d had custody of Brian for less than a year since his parents died. Pretty soon, the adoption would be final, if nothing got in the way. I had a bad feeling love might be one of those things that could derail it.
“Skeet, his age is when the worst of love hits. And he won’t know what to do with it. He feels totally out of control.”
That sounded like love at any age to me—or at least my experience with it. I was not a fan of Cupid.
Gran went on over my thoughts. “It was bound to happen. He’s always thought the sun rose and set on Angie, so when the hormones kicked in, she’s where all his feelings ended up.”
“Oh, shit! Hormones. Sex. Please, no. Not to my boy. Brian’s too young to handle all that. Hell, I’m too young to handle all that, so how can a kid manage? And how on earth can I help him?”
I couldn’t guide a kid through first love. I’d made a mess of my own love life, marrying an exciting, handsome fellow cop, who made me laugh and thrill with passion, only to find that he couldn’t handle a strong woman who made a success of her career and that he had to manage his fears by being verbally abusive and sexually unfaithful. I had nothing to teach poor Brian, except the lesson I’d learned—avoid romance and love.
“Give him room for one thing, Skeet. A lot of the love miseries a person’s just got to sort out on their own.” Gran shook her head. “He’s right. Angie’s already had a lifetime of hurt, and she doesn’t need more. And he’s probably right about the other boy’s feelings. Brian’s a good observer.”
I wanted to throw something. Angie had had such a rough time lately. I’d been glad to see Noah show up and some color and happiness come back into her cheeks once she’d healed enough physically to go back to school. She’d been through hell, and recovering from physical injuries and surgery to remove her spleen had left her bereft of a lot of her admirable strength and vitality.
“This is all too complicated.” I gestured with my stained glove toward the front door. “Let’s go clean up and figure out what to do over coffee.”
“And cookies,” Gran added, as she started up the porch steps.
As that same train gave a mournful whistle from the far side of town, I followed her, wishing I could go back to being on the ladder wrist-deep in gutter muck and blissfully innocent of the problems roiling beneath the surface of my life. Gran was right. What you couldn’t see could destroy you. I suspected that the way water was your enemy if you owned a house, love was your enemy if you wanted a happy, peaceful life.
*   *   *
The next day was a bright, clear Sunday, and Gran talked Brian into going fishing with her and my old friend, Sid Ambrose, our part-time county coroner in his retirement from the medical examiner’s office in Kansas City. Sid got a kick out of Gran, and she enjoyed having a fishing buddy up here. I was glad to see Brian off to spend some time with two of the wisest people I knew.
I had a lazy morning sitting in my pajamas and knitting in the company of Lady and Wilma Mankiller, my scrappy street cat that I’d brought with me from Kansas City. Wilma used to constitute my immediate family, but it had since been expanded to include Lady, Brian, Gran, my dearest friend Karen, and others. I had to shake my head sadly when I remembered those days of just Wilma and me in a drab city apartment.
She seemed much happier now, too, as she batted around at the pink yarn moving past her head or thrust that head under my hand, demanding petting. Wilma was not the shy and retiring type. She went after what she wanted.
Eventually, I dressed and drove to the Clubhouse Restaurant located on the public golf course next to River Walk Park. They had a great Sunday brunch buffet, and if I was lucky, we’d get a table overlooking the river where I could watch eagles and herons, as well as the constant ripple of the Missouri’s powerful current. I’d promised to meet Pearl Brewster, last descendant of our town’s founder, for a lunch meeting with my friends, Miryam Rainbow and Annette Stanek. Pearl had a project she wanted us to help her with, probably something to do for teens. Pearl was the local champion and mentor of teens with any kinds of problems, and her projects were usually useful and sensible.
As I left my car, I could hear another train in the distance, the regular background music of Brewster, Missouri. Train tracks ran through the heart of town to a station on the edge of the wide Missouri River. As one of the earliest river ports, we’d always been a natural stopping place for trains, with tracks leading both north to Omaha and Des Moines and south to Kansas City and beyond to Oklahoma and Kansas. Passenger trains no longer held much importance in American life, and the old station was now a hip restaurant, but freight trains still ran in both directions through Brewster night and day.
The train moaned off into the distance, and I saw Joe Louzon, Brewster’s chief of police, walking toward me. I gave a little moan of my own. He’d asked me to have lunch with him that day at the Clubhouse, and I’d been happy to claim a previous commitment. You’d think he’d have known I’d never agree to go to lunch, just the two of us. That would feel too much like a date, something I was definitely not doing.
“Skeet, did you change your mind?” he asked eagerly, a bright smile lighting up his broad, muscular face.
“No, I’m meeting friends for lunch. Just the way I told you.” I had to stop my forward motion because he planted his stalwart body directly in my path like the defensive end I knew he’d been back in high school football. “It so happens we’re eating here.”
Joe’d been good for a long time about not pushing his desire for anything beyond friendship. He knew my ex-husband was still in my life because we shared care for my ailing father, but that never bothered Joe, who always seemed secure and rock-solid sensible.
“What friend exactly are you meeting?” he asked with intensity. “Don’t bother with some little white lie. I saw your hired-gun pal, Heldrich, go in just a second ago.”
I rolled my eyes and sighed. It was only when Terry Heldrich came into town that Joe suddenly became jealous and downright pushy about wanting more from me than I could give. It wasn’t fair when we’d never been more than friends, and I’d made it clear I wasn’t ready for anything else. Besides, Terry meant nothing to me. He might have had other ideas, but I just avoided him. Still, I felt like I’d lost a good friend in Joe.
“I imagine you’ve seen a number of people go inside recently. Some of them might be the people I’m having lunch with, but Terry’s not one of them. Would you please move out of my way? I’m going to be late.”
He tightened his mouth into a straight line with a little skeptical pursing of the lips at the center. I missed the days when he used to smile warmly at me and make me feel that he was happy with me just the way I was. I missed my friend.
He stepped to the side and gestured me to go ahead with his strong right arm. His eyes, half-sad, half-angry, followed me as I passed.
I couldn’t help turning to tell him, “I’m meeting Pearl, Annette, and Miryam, honestly.”
He rewarded me with a halfhearted smile, neither one of us getting what we wanted.
I shook off the sadness the encounter caused me as I entered the dark, fragrant interior of the Clubhouse Restaurant with a crush of people, most of them coming in off the links after playing rounds of golf. I wouldn’t let it ruin my day. I looked forward to hearing what Pearl had to say and to getting the reaction of the others. I liked old Pearl, and no one knew this town her great-great-grandfather had founded better than she did.
In front of me as we moved through the walnut-paneled halls, some of the town politicos chatted with the local sensation, wealthy developer Ash Mowbray, who’d apparently played a round of golf with them. Ash had one of those big, deep voices that dominate a whole room, as if the owner never learned as a child how to use his indoor voice.
“Don’t tell me it’s a cinch if it isn’t, Harvey,” he blared. “You’re the mayor. You should know whether you have the votes or not.”
I noticed poor old Harvey Peebles turn a sickly shade of yellow, almost the color of the big gold tie pin he always wore because it had been some award. He looked up and rushed to reassure the much-taller Ash in a smaller, more civil voice.
Behind me, someone set a gentle hand on my shoulder, and I turned directly into Terry Heldrich’s chest, covered in a dark T-shirt under a battered leather bomber jacket. Immediately, I bounced away in embarrassment, brushing off his hand.
“I’m sorry,” he said, looking down at me with a grin that gave the lie to his words. It lit up his dark eyes above those cheekbones other men might have paid for, if they could have. “Didn’t mean to startle you. I just wanted to say hello.”
His employer, Walker Lynch, swept past us imperiously in another group of golfers without a break in his conversation, even when they were directed to a table.
“Hello,” I said. “You’d better catch up to your party. Your boss may want you for something.”
Terry knew I didn’t approve of who he worked for and what he might or might not be doing for Walker, but he kept showing up in my path anyway. I had to give him points for perseverance, if not sensitivity.
I could tell the first time we met that he was nothing but trouble for any woman, especially me. When we had to run background checks on him as part of a murder investigation, we kept coming up blank. He had a military special-forces background that was classified before he did some mercenary work that also seemed classified and then some government work that was—guess what?
He should have disappeared back to Kansas City shortly after with his wealthy employer, Walker Lynch, but to my dismay, Terry rented an apartment in Brewster and commuted to the city—like a growing number of people. Brewster was in danger of becoming just another Kansas City bedroom community and losing its charm and identity.
Annette waved at me from the bar, tall enough that I could see her red head over the crowd. I knew the shorter Miryam and Pearl must be with her.
“There’s my party. I’d better be going, and so had you.” I started out toward my friends.
“Skeet,” Terry called as I pushed on through the crush of people in the lobby. I turned toward him. His grin had subsided into a tight-lipped smile, and his hands rested on his hips. “I’m still expecting you. To come see my new apartment. Have you lost the address?”
I shook my head. “I haven’t lost your address. I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were you.”
He laughed out loud, throwing his head back and showing perfect teeth. “But that’s the wonder of it. You are so very not me.” He brushed the tip of his hat in salute, and I marched away from him to where Annette and the others stood waiting. I could feel him staring at me, a heated area between my shoulder blades where his gaze rested. He thought he was so funny—and so hot. I’d continue to ignore him, and he’d eventually take the hint and leave me alone.
“Pearl, how are you?” I asked as I reached my destination. I learned at Gran’s knee that you always greet elders first. Among the Cherokee, elders are highly respected and valued. Not the way most of American society functions. I figured when I got old, I’d better move back down to the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma to live where I’d still count for something.
“I’m doing well, Skeet. Well enough to be sorry I haven’t just played a round of golf.” Pearl was only six or seven years younger than my grandmother, but like Gran, she was physically fit and active, more so than a lot of her younger colleagues. They just made women tougher in those days, I think. Pearl entered a lot of golf tournaments, where she was a prized partner because her teams usually tended to win or come in high in the running.
“Annette. Miryam. How are you guys?” I smiled at them, a little uncomfortable as they both hugged me. We’re good friends, but I’ve never been much of a hugger or cheek-kisser. Not a lot of call for that as a police officer.
“Great, Skeet,” Miryam said with a flip of her blond curls. I knew most of the male eyes in the room would be focused on Miryam, and so did she. “Looking forward to having lunch with you and hearing what Pearl wants to rope us all into now.”
Pearl called over a waiter and arranged for our table. Within a few seconds, the waiter came back and led us to a table at the back of the dining room by the windows that overlooked the river, a prime location thanks to Pearl’s status in town. Unfortunately, it was directly next to the big table where the politicians and Ash sat.
On the other side of Ash’s table sat Bea Roberts, owner of Aunt Bea’s Antiques and Collectibles, with Peter Hume, owner of Creative Home Design, and his young companion, Dante Marcus. That was a bad juxtaposition. Bea and Peter were very vocal leaders of the opposition to Ash Mowbray’s plans to build a huge shopping mall (financed in large part by Walker Lynch) out by the wealthy Wickbrook neighborhood. Bea and Peter both owned shops on Brewster’s courthouse square, as did Miryam, and all three believed that Ash’s development would destroy the square and all its stores.
Bea had run against Harvey Peebles for mayor and barely lost to him. She was revving up for another campaign, determined to defeat him, especially after he fell right in with Ash’s mall plans. Peter, who’d always seemed a quiet, laid-back guy before, had transformed into an enraged, aggressive quarreler once Ash appeared to be finding traction for his project. I knew with those two tables of enemies right next to each other, someone wouldn’t have an enjoyable meal, and I was afraid it might be us.
In fact, Harvey looked downright sick as Bea and Peter glared at him, though Ash himself seemed oblivious. The two city council members with Harvey, Professor Aldo Lutz and Ian Parguenter, fidgeted and shifted in their seats, as well.
“This is my treat,” said Pearl as she opened her menu. “So order something you’ve always wanted.”
“Oh, my.” Annette chuckled. “You must be planning on seducing us into a hell of a lot of work, Pearl.”
We all began to consider our menus and make our choices.
“Everything’s so fattening,” Miryam complained.
“Nonsense! You’re not a model or actress anymore. You don’t have to adhere to those stupid, unhealthy diets any longer.” Pearl shook her head vigorously. “Eat something so you can build muscle. Like Skeet here. You won’t age well, if you don’t.”
Miryam opened her mouth to defend herself but was overridden by Bea’s angry voice.
“You’re just letting him buy this town, Harvey. Lock, stock, and barrel. What happened to your backbone? Don’t estate lawyers have one? Can’t you stand up to Ash Mowbray and Mr. Deep Pockets Lynch behind him? What happened to your principles? Or didn’t you ever really have any to start with?”
“Now, Bea. That’s uncalled for.” Harvey’s voice sounded almost like a bleat. “Besides, this isn’t the place for that. We’re not here on business. Just having lunch after a game of golf.”
A waiter hovered between the two tables, making calming gestures.
“And how many of your fellow citizens did you sell out during this game of golf?” Peter demanded. “How much did they slip into your pocket to betray our interests?”
“That’s just out of line, Peter,” said Aldo Lutz in the voice of a professor calling a student onto the carpet. “You, too, Bea. You don’t agree with the position Harvey and the rest of us are taking. You’ve made that clear. Honest people can disagree on the issue. But don’t throw personal accusations around like that. You’re verging on slander there.”
“Yes,” Harvey agreed in a small voice.
“Oh, it’s just the old town elite carrying on in its death throes.” Ash’s big voice boomed out into the room. “Modern times call for modern solutions—and modern men.” He grinned as he held up his hands, as if to show off himself as an example of the modern man.
“I don’t like that man Walker’s brought to town,” muttered Miryam under her breath as the hostess decorously headed in the direction of the trouble.
“You don’t have to worry about these toothless old relics, Harvey and Aldo.” Ash waved his hand as if brushing away a mosquito or gnat. “Just ignore them. They’ll wither away in no time. Their day is long past, and deep inside, they know it.”
A wordless squeal of rage burst from Bea’s mouth. I stared as her face turned red and swelled. I wondered if she would have a stroke or heart attack on the spot.
“You! I remember you, Ashton Mowbray!” Bea’s voice was loud, with a hard, mean ring to it. “Son of a drug-dealing crook and a drunken whore. A charity case all your life. We all remember who you are. White trash of the worst sort. A bad seed. You ran away from here, where people knew who you were, but you couldn’t leave that behind. You still carry your dirtiness with you, no matter how much money you have now.”
“What’s she talking about?” I whispered to Pearl, who always knew all the gossip in town.
Pearl frowned. “Ash Mowbray grew up here, like she said. Poor. With worthless parents. The only thing he ever had going for him was his athletic prowess.”
Ash’s self-satisfied smirk faded as Bea’s words shot out. His mouth set in a hard line. The politicians at his table all looked aghast.
“You crusty old bitch!” Ash’s voice blared out so loudly that the entire dining room turned to stare. The hostess was hurrying to reach the back of the dining room now. “Don’t forget, I know the secrets of this crummy town, too. I know which upstanding citizens liked a little dope from my old man or a little slap and tickle from my mom—and which old ladies liked a young boy’s body in their beds after he mowed their lawns and got all hot and sweaty.” Bea gasped, and her eyes widened in shock at his words. “Better keep your mouth shut, old woman, or you’ll get more than you bargained for.” He’d all but come out and accused Bea of seducing him when he was a kid, and everyone was staring wide-eyed.
At that moment, I’d have been glad for Joe’s presence, so I wouldn’t have had to try to keep the peace. But since I’d turned him down for lunch, he wasn’t around. I sighed and stood up. “None of this stuff from Bea or you does anyone any good, Ash. Let’s just shut it down. You’re both disturbing the peace.”
“You’re picking the wrong team, Skeet Bannion,” Ash said in a threatening manner. “These old bigwigs are on the way down. They’re crashing, and if you side with them, you’ll crash with them.”
“I’m not siding with anyone, Ash.” I kept my voice emotionless. “I’m just trying to get all of you to settle down and let everyone else in the restaurant have a pleasant lunch. But if you and your friends would rather I call out the city cops, I can always do that.”
I looked over at Harvey and his councilmen, who were shaking their heads and waving their hands wildly in negation. “That what you want me to do, Harvey?”
“No, Skeet. No! There’s no need for anything like that.” Harvey turned in appeal to Ash.
“We don’t need any trouble just now. Right, Ash?”
Ash smiled. It transformed his whole face. “I’m not one to cause trouble, Harvey. You know that.” Then he shot a suddenly hateful glance at Bea and Peter. “But if trouble comes, I’ll always be the only guy who walks off the field at the end. My motto is ‘Take no prisoners.’ All you old-timers should remember that from my football days.”
By this time, Harvey and Aldo each had one of Ash’s big arms in their hands as if they seemed to be begging him to behave. It was amazing the crap people would put up with from someone with lots of money.
As the hostess arrived, breathless, Peter threw down his napkin and stood. “If we have to sit here and be threatened by this piece of trailer trash, I’m leaving. Come on, Dante. We can find some place to eat with a higher-quality clientele.”
“That’s not necessary, sir,” the hostess said. “I can move your table to the other side of the dining room, if this person is bothering you.”
“I don’t want to leave, Peter,” Dante said. “And I don’t want another table. I like this one with the view of the river, thank you very much.”
In frustration, Peter turned to the hostess. “Why do you have to move us when this cretin is the problem?” He pointed at Ash. “Why don’t you move—or remove—him?”
“Peter, you and Bea started this whole shouting match.” Aldo Lutz stood now, as well. He turned to Harvey and the others. “I think we’d all better leave and find another place where we can eat in peace.” Harvey and Ian Parguenter nodded and stood, shoving back their chairs.
“And sell out your fellow citizens?” Bea asked with a curled lip.
“Are you coming with us, Ash?” Harvey asked, and Ash shrugged and moved out from the table to join them.
“It’s not necessary for anyone to leave,” the hostess said in desperation. “We can rearrange the seating. This is a large restaurant.”
“Let’s go,” said Ash, and the three politicos followed him toward the front door.
Miryam looked troubled as we all watched them file out of the restaurant. Her hand shook when she picked up her glass of water.
“Are you all right, sweetie?” Annette asked, as Miryam soaked up water from the tablecloth with her napkin.
Pearl smiled. “She’s probably just a little stunned, that’s all. So much anger. Almost a violence in the air.”
Miryam nodded. “You’re probably an empath like me, Pearl. I’m full of toxic energy now from that scene. That Ash Mowbray is the most hostile creature I’ve ever encountered. Leave it to Walker Lynch to bring such a beastly guy to town.” She looked up at me. “Maybe we should leave, too, Skeet. I think I need to lie down away from all this negative influence.”
Pearl seemed about to disagree when she looked at Miryam, who really did look distressed. “You don’t look well, dear. I suspect you’re right. It’s probably put us all off our feed. We’ll just reschedule and try to make sure none of those idiots battling over the mall are around when we do.”
Annette stood. “That’s fine, Pearl. Do you want a ride home?”
Pearl stood slowly, and I was reminded that she was almost as old as Gran. “Yes, if you don’t mind. I don’t really feel like walking, after all that. Isn’t it amazing how emotional outbursts can take more out of you than physical exertion?”
Miryam stood as well and moved to offer Pearl a little support at her elbow.
“I’m sorry this messed up your lunch party, Pearl.” I looked at the table with its menus still spread out on it.
The old woman shrugged and gave me a tight little smile. “I’ll just set up another one to finagle you all into my little project. Don’t worry. You won’t escape me.” She turned, seeming slightly more fragile than usual, and Miryam and Annette walked with her toward the door.
I couldn’t blame Miryam and Pearl. All the shouting and threats left everyone unsettled, even me, and I was used to them—just not in peaceful little Brewster. Ash Mowbray obviously had some grudges against the town, and he seemed determined to cause as much trouble as he could as a way of getting a little of his own back from the town that had obviously looked down on him in his younger days. I thought of the hate in Bea’s voice, the rage in Peter’s, and the threat in Ash’s. Ash had come back intending to stir things up apparently, and he was definitely getting his wish. A dangerous wish, it seemed to me.

 
Copyright © 2014 by Linda Rodriguez

LINDA RODRIGUEZ is a winner of the Malice Domestic Best First Traditional Mystery Novel Competition. As a poet, she has won the Thorpe Menn Award and the Midwest Voices and Visions Award. Rodriguez is President of the Border Crimes chapter of Sisters in Crime. She is the author of Every Broken Trust and Every Last Secret. Her novels have been selected for the Las Comadres Bookclub, a national Latina bookclub. She lives with her husband in Kansas City, Missouri.