Main Three Courses of Murder

Three Courses of Murder

Murder and merriment are served up hot in this collection of the first three Breezy Spoon Diner cozy mysteries! When Dani O'Shea moves back to her quirky little hometown of East Spoon Creek City and renovates the run-down diner where she used to waitress as a teenager, she wasn't expecting murder to be on the menu! This set includes: The Desert Corpse Dani has opened the Breezy Spoon with great success and found a new apartment; things are really looking up.... until a dead body with a chocolate pie smashed in his face shows up in the dumpster behind the diner! Brutally Kaled Dani knew that the citizens of East Spoon Creek City were eccentric, but she wasn't counting on a Bigfoot hunt or a customer getting murdered with her famous kale salad! Smothered in Onions When a reformed criminal comes back to town and runs for mayor, only to end up dead in a crate of onions, Dani has to add “find the murderer” to her list of things to do!
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The Loner's Lady

Three Courses of Murder

A Breezy Spoon Diner Mystery Collection

by Tracey Quinn

The Dessert Corpse

Brutally Kaled

Smothered in Onions

copyright 2018-2019 by Tracey Quinn

All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination and not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

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Table of Contents

The Desert Corpse

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Brutally Kaled

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Smothered in Onions

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

The Desert Corpse

Chapter 1

It was a quiet Tuesday afternoon when a tall, very good-looking man came into the Breezy Spoon Diner and asked if he could talk with the owner about a business deal. Did I mention that he was tall and very good-looking? Blond buzz-cut, hazel eyes and built like, well, someone who works out a lot. For some reason he didn't seem to have any eyebrows but the rest of the picture was great. At that moment I was very glad that I was the owner so I came out from around the counter and invited him to sit down in one of the booths. I asked Charlene, my teenaged waitress, to bring us some coffee. I wasn't interested in any business deals but, hey, I'm single and the number;  of unattached men in a town of 1200 people is limited to say the least.

I guess I should introduce myself. My name is Dani O'Shea. Dani, short for Danielle, because my mother loves Danielle Steele novels, and O'Shea because my great-grandfather came over from Ireland in the 1800's. I have an older brother named Bob --- Mom also loves Nora Roberts. I am 34 years old, have blue eyes and shoulder length black hair which I usually keep in a pony tail. I'm 5'6” and weigh about ten pounds more than I should but I'm a civilian now so, who cares?

After 14 years in the military I moved back to my old home town, East Spoon Creek City. The town isn't exactly on the Top Ten List of the most exciting places to live in the U.S. I mean, the motto under the sign at the edge of town is “You've Got To Live Somewhere”. But I grew up here and so it's home to me.

I bought the local diner where I used to waitress when I was in high school. Well, actually I made a down payment on the local diner and will be paying off the mortgage for the next 20 years or so. The former owner, Jesse Timkins, had met someone one the Internet, married her and moved to Florida, and needed to sell the diner. Some folks in town criticized him for marrying someone 20 years younger than he was, but he was 82 and I doubt if it mattered.

I refurbished the diner inside and out, updated the menu and changed the name from “Jesse's Joint” to The Breezy Spoon. Apparently the locals were tired of Jesse's soggy meatloaf covered with ketchup, powdered gravy over instant mashed potatoes and canned green beans, so the new menu which featured fresh fruits and vegetables along with entrees such as roast beef, grilled chicken, steak, shrimp and fresh fish, brought in a lot of new customers. My best friend Tammy Stevens, who owns the bakery down the street, provides fresh baked bread and rolls daily as well as some of the greatest pies and Danish that I've ever tasted. It all adds up to make the mortgage payments and then some.

And so it was that I was sitting at a booth in The Breezy Spoon with Tall, Blond and Dishy. He introduced himself as Mark Adams, and I had just told him my name when the door flew open and my self-appointed nemesis Millie Farnsworth strode over to our table.

“Everyone in town will know the truth about you in....” she said to me, ostentatiously looking at her watch, “...about 15 minutes.”

She tossed down a copy of the East Spoon Creek Gazette in front of us. It was folded over so that Town Notes by Amelia was displayed with a section highlighted. “It has come to our attention that claims have been made about one Dani O'Shea that she has been a helicopter pilot in the US Army and as such has participated in rescue missions in the Middle East. In the interest of truth we have been informed by a confidential source that since the name Danielle Gwendolyn O'Shea is a common name in the Army and particularly in the area of female helicopter pilots. This matter is under current investigation and should in no way be considered accurate. We have no confirmation that the military helicopter pilot Danielle Gwendolyn O”Shea is in any way connected with the local waitress, Dani O'Shea.”

I laughed. “Oh, Millie, why don't you settle down before you get high blood pressure. Charlene can bring you some pie and coffee. You like lemon meringue, don't you? It's on the house.”

“The name is Amelia, not Millie,” she snarled. “And don't think you can get better press by trying to bribe a reporter.” She turned to look at Mark. “I understand that you're the new fireman in town. I'm Amelia Farnsworth of the Farnsworth Bank and Trust family. I work as an investigative journalist for the award-winning East Spoon Creek Gazette. You may not know this, but this establishment has a very unfortunate reputation. I would be happy to have you as my guest for dinner at the Oxen Lake Hunting Lodge and Golf Club so that you can associate with a better class of people.” She placed her business card on the table in front of him and turned to go. “Call me when your eyebrows grow out.”

Here's some free advice: don't start to laugh when you're in the process of swallowing coffee. I only hoped the stain on the front of my white uniform would wash out.

As she reached the door, Millie turned and looked back at me. “Oh, you're so disgusting!” she huffed, and stalked out.

“Are you okay?” Mark asked.

“Absolutely,” I replied. “Sorry about that. I hope I didn't spit on you.”

“No, I was out of the spray zone,” he said, “but what was that about?”

“Oh, just a 'Millie Attack',” I said. “They occur every now and then. You learn to ignore them.”

He shook his head as he picked up the copy of the Gazette. “How can the paper print something like that about you? Are you going to sue them?”

“Oh, no, Millie's just a silly goose and everyone in town knows it. Her father owns the Bank and her uncle owns the newspaper. Her father gave her uncle the loan to buy the paper and he still owes on the mortgage, so he has to keep Millie on the staff. Therefore, even if it did bother me, which it doesn't, it would be a waste of time to complain. Wait till you read a few more of them; they're always hilarious.”

“Why does she have it in for you? Did you steal her boyfriend, break up her marriage or what?” Mark asked.

“No, she broke up three of her own marriages but I didn't have anything to do with it. She hates me because I got engaged before she did. We were seniors in high school and Johnny Winston won a $12 cubic zirconium ring at the spring fair. He asked me if I would marry him as soon as we graduated. He was a nice guy so I said, 'Sure, why not?' He gave me the ring and I was engaged for all of three weeks until the Uptown Famous Movie Theater showed the musical Showboat continually for a month and I fell in love with Howard Keel. I gave back the ring to Johnny and the next day he asked Millie to marry him. She was miffed because she wasn't asked first, but she said yes.”

“So did they actually end up getting married?” he asked.

“Yes, they did,” I replied. “She was a gorgeous June bride with 12 bridesmaids and they had a humongous reception at the country club. The marriage lasted about a month before the annulment. Johnny worked part-time at the car wash and they couldn't afford a place of their own so after the reception they each went back to their own homes and never lived together. They didn't seem to like each other very much to begin with, but she managed to be the first girl in our class to get married and that satisfied her. She beat all of the rest of us 'old maids' to the altar and that meant she won. Ah, the good old high school days or should I say d-a-z-e?”

“Daze is right!” Mark laughed. “I'd just as soon forget about my time in high school. I don't even go to reunions because I don't want to anyone to remind me of all the stupid stuff I did back then. By the way, did you fly helicopters when you were in the Army?”

“Sure, for about 10 years,” I answered. “A lot of people did. I enlisted when I was 20 and after I was in for about four years I got the chance to train to be a helicopter pilot. It was interesting work. Were you in the military?”

“Oh, yes,” he replied. “I was in the Middle East, too.”

“Not flying helicopters, I assume.”

“No, just trying to stay alive, mostly. I was Special Forces and folks over there didn't seem to want to make nice with us. They kept wanting to shoot us or blow us up.”

“Did you ever get shot?” I asked.

“Nothing too serious. I had a bullet graze my scalp once and got a flesh wound in my arm. Although I've got to say, when you hear someone on TV say, 'It's nothing serious, just a flesh wound,' I'm pretty sure they've never had one. Hurts like hell! What about you?”

“Just bumps and bruises,” I replied. “And a couple of times I pulled my arm out of the socket getting out of the helicopter too fast because I wanted to get to cover before someone did shoot me. I had a sore throat for days from all the screaming I did when they put it back into the socket.”

“How did you end up buying a diner?”

“When I got back home I heard that the owner had it up for sale, and I've always loved the place, so I snapped it up. You see, I liked to cook back when I was a kid. My Dad was the high school principal and my mom taught math, so when I was a teenager I started doing some cooking to make it easier on my mom. I got cook books from the library and tried different recipes, most of which didn't turn out very well. When I was 16 I went to work as a waitress at this diner. It was called Jesse's Joint back then. Why Jesse ever started a diner, I'll never know, because he hated to cook. He started letting me do some of the cooking and I enjoyed it. I liked to 'chef it up' and make the food taste a little better and look nicer.

“The same customers would come into the diner a lot and we all got to know each other. It was sort of like an extended family. It was a comfortable feeling, safe and secure around people that you know and like. But after a few years of that I guess my sense of adventure kicked in. I decided to join the Army and see what the world looked like outside of East Spoon Creek City.”

“I guess the world looked mostly like the Middle East at that time,” he said. “Not what you'd call 'safe and secure'.”

“True. But you're not from around here, right? Why did you decide to be a fire-fighter in an out of the way little l town like this?”

“Well, it's a funny thing. Since I was a kid I always wanted to be a fireman. Then after I got out of high school and learned a lot about the war in the Middle East, I decided that I wanted to go fight the bad guys. Keep the world safe from the folks that wanted to destroy it, that kind of thing. When I came home I took some time off trying to figure out what I wanted to do.

“My brother Dave is a police detective up in Chicago and he mentioned that there were openings in the Fire Department there, so I applied, not expecting to get it because I was over 35 years old, but I guess they didn't have a lot of candidates who were willing to work in certain areas of the city. After I worked there for a couple of years I could see why! After a while I got tired of being shot at by gangs while I was trying to put out a fire. Then I read an article in the military newspaper about a little town 500 miles south of there where people get together every week to make up packages of goodies to send to soldiers in the war zones, and since I was looking for a change, I thought I'd see if I could get on the fire department there. So here I am. Do you guys still do that? The packages thing, I mean.

“Oh, sure,” I replied. “I think you'll find the people here are really nice even though some of them are, shall we say, marching to a different drummer. I don't know exactly how to describe this town but you'll see what I mean after you've lived here a while.”

“That's what I wanted to talk to you about,” he said.

“About living here in town?”

“Yeah, I wanted to know if you'd like to move in with me.”

This was interesting. Here was a guy who wanted to cut to the chase!

“Move in with you? No dinner and a movie first?” I asked. “Well, here's something that I want to know: would you like for me to stab you in the chest with the steak knife or the butter knife? I'd recommend the butter knife because it will be easier for the undertaker to hide the wound since it doesn't have serrated edges.”

He laughed. “I think you misunderstand me.”

“Would you care to explain or do we go straight to the knife thing?” I asked.

“First of all, I play softball with your brother Bob on Saturdays and he suggested that I might want to come and see you. I just bought the old Henderson house on Oak Street,” he began.

“You bought the safe house?”

Mark looked surprised. “You knew it had been a safe house?”

Charlene, my 16-year-old waitress, had just come over to the table to top off our coffee.

“Oh, good, are you going to start doing the safe house tours again?” she asked. “My boyfriend Jimmy and I had signed up for the tour, but then they had that shooting thing there and the Sheriff wouldn't let anyone go in anymore.”

“Safe house tours?” Mark was wide-eyed. “Are you kidding me? How did anyone find out it was a safe house?”

“That would be thanks to your next door neighbors, Heather and Helen Jameson, the biggest gossips in the known world. They're sisters, both in their eighties, and have nothing better to do than to find new stories to spread around town and even further. I was in Afghanistan when I first heard about the safe house; my cousin Phil who lives in New Mexico wrote and told me about it. His sister-in-law Amy teaches school in Des Moines and she had told him.”

“Well, whose idea was it to put a safe house there?” he asked.

“When old Fred Henderson passed on, he left his house to his nephew Ralph who sells insurance in the state capital,” I responded. “Ralph had an affair with a woman who worked for the city administration and he managed to convince her to have the city buy the old house for a hefty sum so that their witness protection program could use it as a safe house. I don't know all the details, but the house consists of two apartments, one upstairs and one downstairs, so it probably seemed like a place to put witnesses and keep an eye on them. Didn't work out so well, as you can see.”

“So what was the shooting about?” he asked.

“There was a lot of shooting there, but if you mean the last shooting, I can tell you about that,” I replied. “A marshal named Russell was sent down here to guard a witness. Her name was Tiffany something-or-other and she was supposed to testify in a bank robbery trial. She had been the driver for the getaway car when her boyfriend Chuck and two other guys robbed a bank. After the robbery she and the boyfriend dropped off the two accomplices along with the bag of cash at his apartment while he and Tiffany went for booze and cigarettes. Since the accomplices had the bag with the money, the they weren't suspicious when Chuck and Tiffany didn't come back right away.

“However Chuck had hidden a bag filled with paper under the tire in the back of the getaway car. It was identical to the one with the cash in it. He had switched bags as he was putting the money in the trunk while the others were rushing to get into the car. After he left the guys at the apartment he and Tiffany went to the bus station where he put the bag of cash into a locker. The police had a description of the car from the cameras outside the bank and they caught up with them not long after they had left the bus station.

“Tiffany was arrested and charged with driving the getaway car. She didn't care to go to jail so she offered to give them all the evidence they needed to convict Chuck and the other two in exchange for a lesser plea. Since the other two guys were at large and she was the prosecution's star witness, they decided to put her in a safe house, and what could be safer than East Spoon Creek City?

“It worked out fine until a friend of one of the robbers stopped at a station outside of East Spoon Creek City for gas, and the station attendant told him that with a fill-up he could get $2 off a ticket for the tour of the safe house. She explained that the tours were only available when Russell and Tiffany were out to eat breakfast, lunch or dinner or when they were hanging out at Sammy's Bar and Lounge in the evenings.”

“Wait a minute,” Mark cut in, “They left the safe house to go out to eat and go bar hopping?! No wonder everyone knew their names! What's the point of a safe house if they don't stay in it?”

“ Russell and Tiffany had gotten all lovey-dovey and they were treating the whole situation like a romantic vacation; well, as romantic as you can get in East Spoon Creek City, so they didn't spend a lot of time at the safe house.”

“So which one of them ended up getting shot?” Mark asked.

“Neither one, actually,” I explained. “The two other bank robbers came down here and watched the house until some time in the middle of the night they saw Russell's car leave, and then they stormed the place with guns blazing. They had heard that the police had only recovered part of the money from the robbery, and they figured to threaten Tiffany to make her tell them where the rest was before they killed her. When they broke into the house they couldn't find her, so they figured there must be a secret room and they started firing shots through the walls at random to scare her out of her hiding place. However, since Tiffany's hiding place was the back of Russell's car and Russell's car was headed for the Mexican border with the rest of the money from the robbery, they were out of luck. It seems that while Chuck was double-crossing the others, Tiffany was double-crossing him, and she had secreted a lot of the money away before the bag made it into the bus station locker, and had put it in a second locker. End of story.”

“Amazing!” Mark exclaimed. “Do you know how much money they had stolen?”

“Not exactly,” I replied. “Since my brother Bob is the Deputy Sheriff he told me that he had heard that the amount was about $50,000. Supposedly no one knew that Tiffany had it, But I've got a feeling that Russell knew.”

“Well, that explains the bullet holes in the walls that I had to Spackle over,” he said. “I assume the two guys that shot up the house were arrested?”

“Oh, yes,” I answered. “The Jameson sisters watched the place like hawks, since it was such a great source of juicy gossip, and they called the police as soon as they saw two strange men forcing their way into the house. And since the robbers stuck around looking for the money besides taking time to shoot up the place, there wasn't much chance that they'd get away.”

“That's unbelievable!” Mark said. “Well, I can understand if you're not interested, then.”

“Interested in what?” I asked.

“Interested in renting the first floor apartment in the safe house. It's four rooms, all furnished,” he responded. “I mean, you could have the second floor apartment but I've already moved my stuff in and ---”

“If you're asking me if I want to rent an apartment from you, the answer is yes, how soon can I move in?” I asked. “One more day of renting a room from Mrs. Hamsky while she tries to pair me up with her son Ham-Ham will about do me in.”

“Do you want to know how much the rent is, and do I want to know who Ham-Ham is?” Mark asked.

“Yes, and Hamilton Hamsky. He's a lawyer whose wife ran off with her boss about five months ago,” I said. “Ever since I came back from the military I've been renting a room from his mother, and she's been trying to pair me up with him. She calls him Ham-Ham, which of course, he hates. He's really a nice enough guy but he still loves his wife and I think if she showed up at his door he'd take her back in a heartbeat. Anyway, almost every day when Mrs. Hamsky is rifling through my belongings; she leaves little notes on my bedside table letting me know that Ham-Ham will be available to go with me to the movies, or to a play or whatever she can think of.”

Charlene, who was listening in, as usual, said, “And some of Miss O'Shea's underpants have gone missing and she says that her creep-itude detector has gone through the roof. Ham-Ham doesn't live there but he visits, so the question is whether it's Ham-Ham or Mrs. Hamsky, and Miss O”Shea says ---”

“Miss O'Shea also says that the customers in those two booths over there might want you to take their order if you're finished eavesdropping,” I suggested.

“Oh, sure, Miss O'Shea,” she said. “You can tell me all about it later.”

Mark seemed amused. “About those underpants ---” he started.

“About the rent,” I asked, “how much, and are utilities included, and when can I move in?”

“Well, the mortgage is $1000 a month so $500 a month sounds good. The apartments have separate utilities, so we each pay our own,” he replied. “And you can move in whenever you want.”

“Great, I agree to all of the above,” I said, reaching across the table to shake his hand. “It's 1:35 now and I get off at two. Is that too soon to move in?”

“Seriously? Don't you want to look at it first?” he asked.

“Not necessary,” I said. “Bob went on the tour. I still have the video he sent me.”

“Of course! Silly of me not to have thought of that!” he said, shaking his head. “So you really want to move in this afternoon?”

“Sure, if that's okay,” I replied. “I can write you a check as soon as you let go of my hand.”

“Oh, sorry! Well, this is great. I'm off work now and my truck's outside if you want me to help you move your stuff today.”

“Not necessary,” I replied. “I'll buy some bedding from Letty at the dry goods store, grab my overnight bag and get the rest of my stuff tomorrow. Just think, I'll be able to sleep tonight without keeping my Glock under the pillow!”

“Good, I don't need more bullet holes in the wall.”

“It's a deal, then.”

“I suppose I should ask though, aren't you concerned that there might be gossip about two single people living in the same house together?” he asked. “Your brother thought it would be okay.”

“The heartbeat of East Spoon Creek City is gossip,” I replied with a shrug. “You just saw Millie's column. You don't have to do anything around here for someone to gossip.”

Jimmy Taylor, Charlene's 16 year old boyfriend and my busboy, was just passing the booth. “Besides you don't look like Howard Keel,” he said. “Everyone knows that Miss O'Shea isn't interested in anyone who doesn't look like Howard Keel, and you don't. No offense intended, sir.”

“None taken,” Mark replied, grinning. “I get that a lot. Perfect strangers coming right up to me and saying, 'What the hell, man, you don't look anything like Howard Keel.' Doesn't bother me at all any more.”

“No stuff!” said Jimmy. “I guess you can't take it personal.”

“Damn straight,” said Mark. “I'm used to it by now.”

“Jimmy,” I said, “I don't think that ---”

“Of course, the last two guys she was engaged to when she was in the Army did look like Howard Keel but the one cheated on her with an Army nurse and she said the other one just wanted a green card,” Jimmy continued, “but since you were in the Army, too, you probably already heard all about that.”

“Absolutely,” Mark replied. “ We share information with each other in the Army. Band of Brothers, that kind of thing.”

“I figured as much,” said Jimmy. “I'm fixing to join myself.”

“Jimmy, there are dirty dishes on tables right now and I wonder if you could figure out something to do about that,” I said.

“Oh, sure, Miss O'Shea,” he answered as he turned to go.“I'm on it.”

I turned to look at Mark. “'Band of Brothers'? 'We all share information'? What was that?”

“Well, from the look on your face I got the impression that you didn't want him to rattle on,” he replied. “Usually people are satisfied if you agree with whatever they say and they move on. Problem solved. Now there's just one more thing I'd like to discuss with you.”

“Yes, I'll bet there is. You're wondering if I'm a total nut case and if it's safe for you to rent part of your house to a crazy woman, am I right?”

“No, I just wondered if it's too late to get the lunch special,” he replied.

“The lunch special?” I asked.

“Yeah, that roast beef sub with a side of au jus gravy to dip it in sounds good, ” he said. “I know it's almost two so is it too late?”

“No, no, of course not,” I hesitated. “Uh, you still want to rent to me?”

“Well, not till after lunch,” he said. “but after that, why not?”

“Oh, sure,” I said, breathing a sigh of relief. “The sub comes with hand-cut steak fries, and your choice of garden salad, three-cheese bacon mac and cheese, or barbecued baked beans.”

“I'll go for the bacon mac and cheese. I had salad for breakfast,” he said.

“A salad for breakfast?” I asked.

“Well, it was a couple of BLT's but that's all a bunch of salad stuff between two slices of bread, so it's the same thing,” he replied. “Hey, how about some of that pie over there that looks like it's chocolate with the whipped cream on top?”

“All right,” I said. “I'll put the order in right away and I'll bring you the rent check. Lunch is on the house because I'm celebrating my new digs.”

“Thanks a lot. And I'll help move the rest of your stuff from Mrs. Hamsky's tomorrow.”

“Deal,” I said. I was walking on air as I went back to the counter. No more Mrs. Hamsky and Ham-Ham, a real apartment not just a room, and a landlord who seemed laid back and presumably easy to get along with as well as, I may have mentioned, a total hunk.

Chapter 2

East Spoon Creek City was founded in the 1840's by Samuel Oliver Brown more or less by accident. Sammy Brown was heading west on an old trail when he stopped to rest overnight next to a creek. The country there was hilly and warm with lots of vegetation and he decided to camp out there for a while before traveling on. Sammy was a man who liked his booze and he had packed his saddlebags with as much as he could cram in there. One night a stranger came up to camp there overnight and Sammy felt obligated to offer him a drink. The guy accepted but insisted on paying him for it. Sammy took it gladly and that gave him an idea.

You see, he wasn't too keen on traveling any further on horseback if he could help it, and after surveying the area he saw a lot of interesting things growing all around him. Some things he recognized, such as skunk cabbage, wild onions, and dandelions and some stuff he didn't, but he knew that most plants will turn into alcohol if left sitting in water long enough. Would it be the kind of alcohol that would be safe to drink? Who knew, but since his buyers would be traveling on before they drank it, who cared? His plan was to give them a free drink from his store of real whiskey and then sell them as many bottles of his home made hootch as he could. But where would he get the bottles? That was a problem solved by the arrival of Albert Steven Sholes.

Al Sholes was a peddler who traveled from town to town selling anything from needles and pins to wash tubs and shovels. He also sold bottles. When he saw Sammy's encampment by the creek, he stopped to see if he could sell him anything. Sammy bought as many bottles as Sholes had and Sholes asked him what he was going to use them for. Ordinarily he sold bottles and jars to women for canning, and he doubted that Sammy was going to can anything. Sammy explained his plan and Sholes immediately smelled an opportunity for himself; he and Sammy would go into business together.

The idea was that they would each build themselves a shack next to the other at the side of the trail. Sammy would sell his moonshine to the men who were passing by and Sholes could sell the household items he had been peddling to the women. This worked pretty well for a while, but they weren't getting as much business as they had hoped.

So they came up with a plan. Once in the spring, the rains had made the creek overflow and cover a portion of the trail. People traveling West hung around by their little outpost for a few days until the trail dried out enough for their horses and wagons to get through, buying from the shops all the while. So when they saw this, Sammy and Sholes worked for days on end cutting down trees and brush, and built themselves a dam. When business was slow, they would damn up the creek to overflow the trail for a while and get more money from their captive travelers.

One day as they prepared for another day of selling, Sammy noticed a tree branch that was about three feet long and had a hollow at the end of it that looked like the bowl of a spoon. He thought it was funny and he showed it to Sholes. Sholes said maybe they ought to call the creek Spoon Creek, and the name stuck.

The city eventually grew up around the outpost because of the occasional damming of Spoon Creek. The first residents were a farmer had been heading West with his wife and five sons, and had spent a few days stuck in the mud. He saw a couple dozen other travelers camping out by the side of the trail sleeping in their wagons or just at the side of the trail. Traveling West had been hard and the farmer had just about had enough of it, so he and his family set up a large cabin not far from the creek and opened a bed-and-breakfast. The beds were just wooden cots and the breakfast consisted of biscuits and gravy, porridge, slab bacon and coffee, but for an extra fee a person could get a warm bath in a wash tub, homemade soap and burlap towel included. Soon the flooded creek was bringing them good business, too.

It wasn't long before other travelers were stopping and staying, some farming and growing fresh vegetables and fruit to sell to travelers, and others finding that cotton grew well in the area. An herbalist stayed on, building his own version of a pharmacy, and a doctor set up a practice right next door. And so Spoon Creek City began. (The “East” part was added years later when Sammy Jr. and Al Sholes II broke ground on a “West Spoon Creek City” on the opposite side of the creek over some dispute with the town fathers of Spoon Creek City, which no one knows anything about now. Whatever their differences were, they were patched up before anything was built on the other side, but after that the town was known as East Spoon Creek City.)

Not long after the town was established, my great-grandfather Seamus O'Shea moved in with his wife Bridget and their three children and set up a blacksmith shop at the edge of town. My grandfather was a blacksmith, too, but my father broke the tradition and became a school teacher, eventually rising all the way to principal of the high school before he retired a few years back.

As I lay in my new queen sized bed in my new apartment I was thanking great-grand-dad for moving here. I hadn't been so thankful when I first moved back and had to deal with Mrs. Hamsky and her nocturnal visits, but Mark had put a lot of work into fixing up the new apartment and it was nicer than I had expected. The neighborhood was quiet, too, and although Mark had a key to my door, he had shown no Hamsky tendencies and I felt sure he wasn't the creepy type. He had given me a key to his apartment in case of emergency, as well. He worked 24 hour shifts at the fire station every other day so it made sense.

I had slept well, at least I had until my cell phone rang. I looked at the time and it was 5:36 am.

It was Charlene.

“What's wrong, Charlene?” I mumbled.

“Oh, Miss O'Shea,” she whispered. “Jimmy was getting the diner set up to open and he heard shots from behind the diner and he waited till they stopped and he went outside and looked in the dumpster and he saw it and if he could see it anyone could so he didn't want to call the police until we warned you and gave you a chance to get away!”

I was seriously tempted to hang up and put my head under the pillow in case she called back, but of course, I couldn't.

“Calm down, Charlene,” I said. “I don't understand what you're saying.”

“It's Mark, Mr. Adams, I mean,” Charlene said, still whispering. “Jimmy found his body in the dumpster all wrapped up in bubble wrap! It looked like there was a chocolate pie smashed into his face!Mr. Adams likes chocolate pie because he had some for lunch, so Jimmy knew it was him and wanted to give you a chance to escape.” She was sniffling now making it even harder to make out what she was saying. “I mean, we care about you, I mean we really love you, and we understand how these things happen. Things don't always work out right when you move in together with someone, and he may have that Syndrome that sometimes people get if they've seen bad war things and ---”

“Are you saying that Jimmy saw Mark Adams body in the dumpster behind the diner?” I asked in amazement. “How can that be? I just saw him a few hours ago!”

”Don't admit that to anyone, Miss O'Shea,” she said. “Jimmy said a woman isn't responsible if a man tries to go too far.”

“Look, this is insane,” I said. “If Jimmy actually saw a body in the dumpster why didn't he call the police?”

“Jimmy thought we should warn you first and give you a chance to get out of town,” she replied. “Jimmy said it's like in the Lynyrd Skynyrd song 'Gimme Three Steps Towards The Door'.”

“I don't need three steps, Charlene! I didn't shoot Mark! I'll call the Sheriff, but Jimmy will have to talk to him.”

“No, no, please don't do this to yourself, Miss O'Shea!” she cried. “I'll get Jimmy to hide Mark's body in the woods and you can get a head start for the border!”

“Charlene, listen to me,” I said. “Don't let Jimmy go anywhere near the body. It's not Mark. Look, I have a key to Mark's apartment. I'll sneak in and show you a picture from my phone that he's in his bed and the body isn't his. Then we have to call the Sheriff right away. Just stay on the phone.”

“Okay,” Charlene answered, “but be sure you don't leave any fingerprints.”

I got up and found the key. This was all kinds of crazy, but if I could just convince Charlene that Mark was alive and Jimmy shouldn't be contaminating a crime scene by moving a body I would have to do it. I mean, I could lie to them and say I was leaving town right away but that still wouldn't stop Jimmy from “helping” me get a head start by moving the body. If there was a body. But I couldn't take the chance that there wasn't.

I went out my kitchen door and crept up the stairs to Mark's apartment as quietly as I could. With any luck he wouldn't wake up and think I was a prowler and shoot me as I tried to get close enough to the bed to take his picture.

I opened the door which fortunately didn't squeak, then slowly tiptoed to toward the bed, leaving the door open behind me. Mark was lying there asleep. I quickly snapped a picture and sent it to Charlene.

“It's too dark,” she whispered. “I can't tell who it is.”

“Who do you think it is?! Zoom in!” I hissed.

“I did, but I still can't be sure who it is,” she answered. “Can you turn on the lights for just a second?”

I looked around and saw a mini flashlight on Mark's bedside table. That could work. However it was attached to his keys. Keys rattle. Feeling like I was getting as crazy as Charlene, I carefully closed my hand over the keys, picked them all up in a bunch, turned on the flashlight and snapped the picture before turning it back off.

“There!” I said, “You can see that Mark's alive! Now I'm going to call the sheriff.”

“But his eyes are closed and he's not moving,” she said. “Is he okay?”

“Charlene, he's asleep!” I snapped, “He's not dead and he's certainly not in the dumpster behind the diner!”

“Okay, Miss O'Shea,” Charlene said tentatively. “But who's in the dumpster?”

“I don't know,” I replied, “but I'm going to go downstairs and call the sheriff right now. Please go to sleep!” I hung up.

“Go ahead and call from here,” Mark said, startling me. “I might as well hear the back story on all this.”

I decided to call my brother Bob, the Deputy Sheriff instead of Sheriff Wilkerson. Bob was less likely to charge Jimmy with anything in case this was all a mistake. When I explained the situation to Bob the best I could, he said he would check it out right away and let me know what was going on. I didn't go into the details about Charlene and her suspicions that I had murdered Mark. I thought it best if that subject never came up.

Mark leaned up on his elbow and looked at me. “So let me get this straight. You just told your brother that Jimmy, your 16-year old busboy, identified my body, not by DNA, but by means of a chocolate pie smashed into my face. He immediately decided that you must have smashed the pie into my face and then shot me behind the diner, several shots, mind you, because I was getting fresh with you. Then, for some bizarre reason, you proceeded to wrap me in bubble wrap. Next you, who are about half my size, hoisted my 185 pound body up over the side of a five foot high dumpster and made it all the way back here in about five minutes when Charlene called you?” he summarized. “So now none of them can call the cops, because of course they like you and they have to give you a chance to skip town before the law closes in. You, therefore, decide to see if I'm alive because apparently you aren't sure whether you murdered me or not. Have I got that right?”

“Well, sort of,” I said, “but you don't understand ---”

“Here's what I do understand,” he went on, “I, a weary public servant, was sleeping peacefully in my bed after being up half the night fighting a fire, and I hear someone creeping up the stairs and see the door slowly open. I know it has to be you because you are the only one with a key to my apartment. I watch you sneak over to the bed and I wonder if you want to get to know me better, but no, you want to take my picture while I'm sleeping. And text it to your 16 year old waitress. Apparently the first picture wasn't satisfactory so you shined a light in my eyes. I assumed this was all part of a somewhat strange fetish until you said you were going to call the Sheriff. That got my attention, but since you called Bob I figured he'd sort it all out and maybe we could each try for a few more hours of sleep.”

“Look, I'm sorry about all this, but there's no need for sarcasm and insults,” I retorted.

“By the way, that night gown is see-through,” he commented.

“By the way, shut up!” I said. What with dealing with Charlene, I hadn't paid any attention what I was wearing. I grabbed a denim jacket from the back of his chair and wrapped it around me as I stalked out.

Chapter 3

Later that morning around 9:30 I was startled to hear what sounded like someone moving around in my kitchen. I could smell coffee. I went into the kitchen and found Mark making coffee.

“What do you think you're doing?” I asked. “How dare you think you can just break into my apartment and help yourself to my coffee!”

He turned and looked at me. He was wearing a rumpled tee shirt and pajama shorts. His face had dark circles under the eyes, beard stubble, still no eyebrows.

“You seriously want me to answer that?” he growled.

Actually, I didn't. On the other hand, I've never been a pushover for anyone.

“Well, somebody got up on the wrong side of the cage this morning,” I replied. “And if you're referring to that little incident last night, which, by the way, only lasted about two minutes, I think you should put on your big boy pants, and just suck it up like a grown-up.”

“First of all, you knocked my big boy pants onto the floor and kicked them somewhere when you stole my jacket,” he replied, “and the only thing I want to suck up is a lot of coffee but you have this stupid, single-serving coffee maker which takes forever to spit out a thimble full. What do you do when you have guests over, give everyone a teaspoon and tell them to help themselves?”

“That coffee maker makes 14 ounces which incidentally would be enough to share,” I said, “but you're welcome to it. I'll just get something to eat.”

“You have food?” he asked. “You didn't stop anywhere when you followed me here yesterday.”

“I work at a diner,” I said. “Linda had a box of stuff ready for me to take with me.”

“Who's Linda? If she's anything like Charlene I wouldn't recommend opening the box.”

“Linda Williams works the late shift for me at The Breezy Spoon with her husband Don, and no, she is nothing like Charlene, thank God,” I replied. “Linda and Don have the apartment above the diner. She has a lot of restaurant experience and he is a retired highway patrolman.”

Mark opened the refrigerator door. “Let's see, looks like sliced ham, Swiss cheese, potato salad, deviled eggs, mustard, mayo and a whole banana cream pie. No chocolate pie, for obvious reasons.”

“No reason to be snarky,” I said. “What happened last night was an emergency; I had no choice.”

“Well, we could debate that forever,” he responded as he started to make some sandwiches. “Didn't you think about how dangerous it was? I keep my gun next to the bed. I could have shot you.”

“Of course I knew that might be a possibility but I thought that if I saw you go for it I'd let you know it was me,” I replied. “Plus I could hit the floor and start rolling. I've been trained in that kind of stuff, as you know.”

“In what?” he asked. “Rolling around back and forth on a bedroom floor so fast that a sniper couldn't shoot you? Guess I missed that part of basic training.”

“You're a sniper?” I asked.

“I'm a fireman,” he replied. “Where are the pickles?”

“On the door of the fridge next to the Arizona iced tea,” I said.

“Wait,” he said. “You have Arizona iced tea and you want half of my cup of coffee?”

“First of all, a cup holds 8 ounces and the coffee maker makes 14 ounces at a time,” I explained. “And, no, I didn't want half of the coffee but I thought you should share because it's my coffee and it would show that there's no hard feelings.”

“Overcome with fatigue as I am, I just made you a very nice sandwich which should prove that there are no hard feelings,” he replied, handing me the plate, “although I have made a list of crimes the police could charge you with if I decided to turn you in.”

“Crimes!? What crimes? I just took a picture!”

“Breaking and entering, for one,” he answered in between bites of sandwich.

“Cross that one off,” I said, “you just broke and entered too, so we're even.”

“Fair enough,” he agreed. “Then there's obstruction of a public servant in the performance of his duties.”

“And assuming that you're the public servant, how did I obstruct you?” I asked.

“Well, I can't perform my duties if I don't get enough sleep, so you were obstructing me from being capable of rescuing widows and orphans and, quite often, cute little puppies, et cetera. You should feel very ashamed about that, yes, you should. Pass me a couple more of those deviled eggs.”

“I'll never forgive myself,” I said. “Anything else?”

“Texting inappropriate pictures to a minor child,” he said.

“Inappropriate?” I said. “It was just a picture of you! What was so inappropriate?”

Mark stood up, spread his arms out and slowly turned around. “What's a young romantic teenager going to think about when she sees this?” he asked.

“Probably that you didn't stand too close to your razor this morning and that you've got mustard on your chin. If you're finished listing my crimes you can get some napkins from the drawer over there.”

“I'm not finished,” he replied. “Next: theft of vintage jacket.”

“Vintage jacket?” I scoffed. “You should be grateful that I took it out of the room. The odors of motor oil all over it probably would have overcome you. Not only that, it got motor oil on my nightshirt and I had to take another shower before I could get in bed. You should be especially grateful because I put the disgusting thing in the washer and I'll return it to you when it dries. Plus I had to wash my nightshirt and that's why I had to sleep in my old diner uniform. Is that everything?”

“Almost,” he replied. “The last is intent to defile.”

“In your dreams, cowboy!” I said. “You couldn't possibly think that you were in danger of being ravished in your sleep!”

“Indeed I was,” he replied. “I sat up in my bed for hours, just cowering there with my covers pulled up to my chin, afraid that you were planning on having your way with me. By the way, you don't have any ice cream for the pie. You might want to make a note of that.”

“Uh, excuse me, but you were snoring before I was halfway out of the room,” I said. “Didn't think you were too terrified.”

“That wasn't snoring,” he said, as he finished eating. “That was sobbing. I was very concerned about my virtue. By the way, my TV isn't set up yet, so can I check out the weather channel on yours? I want to know whether I need to put the cover on the truck bed before we go get your stuff at Mrs. Hamsky's.”

“Sure,” I said, “but the set in the living room isn't hooked up, so you can use the one in the bedroom.”

“Gotcha,” he replied. “Oh, and just to show my good will, let me know if the motor oil stains don't wash out of your night shirt because I'm willing to go over to the mall in the next town and spend all day going through everything they have in Victoria's Secret till I find a replacement.”

“I'll bet you would,” I said. “You're a regular prince among men, Mark, yes, you are. No doubt about it.”

“I get that all the time,” he replied as he left the room.

I was just finishing clearing up the kitchen when I heard the doorbell ring. I wasn't expecting company and didn't particularly want any right then. My hair was sticking out in every direction and I was still wearing the wrinkled diner uniform that I'd slept in. Through the front window I saw my brother Bob's car out front so I opened the door.. He'd seen me looking a lot worse plenty of times before. You don't have to look nice for family.

“Hi, sis,” Bob said. “Thought I'd come by and hook up your TV for you and let you know what happened about the body in the dumpster.”

“Who was it?” I asked. “Was it someone that we know?”

“Yes, it was the Invisible Man,” Bob replied. “There wasn't any body in the dumpster. Nothing in there but the usual trash, no signs of anything out of the ordinary. Don came down and helped me look around for shell casings or anything that would indicate that someone had been shot, or that anything had happened at all, for that matter, but there was nothing.”

“But Jimmy was so sure,” I said.

“He's still sure. He keeps telling me that he's eaten a slice of that pie before so he's positive it couldn't be anything else. And then Charlene starts chiming in with her theories....” He threw up his hands and sighed.

“I know all about Charlene's theories,” I groaned. As Bob sat down in the recliner I began to recount the details of my early morning adventure. I wanted to be sure he heard the truth before he got Mark's interpretation.

He was still laughing when Mark came out of the bedroom.

“Hey, Bob,” Mark called, “did you find the body in the dumpster and was it me?”

“No body. From what I hear, you were here the whole time being tortured by my kid sister.”

“Now, wait a minute,” I objected, “I was going by what Charlene said, and she was totally upset!”

“Let's see now, didn't you tell me last week that Charlene said that she and Jimmy were walking by the lake under the full moon and they saw two glowing red eyes shining out of the water?” Bob asked. “If I recall right, you said she asked you to email '60 Minutes' to see when they could send a camera crew out here, because she was sure it was one of those lake monsters from the internet! But she told you to let her know when they were on their way so she could get her hair done first?”

“Hey, that's funny,” said Mark. “A couple days ago some old lady with a couple of dogs on leashes rushed into the fire station and said she had been walking her dogs by the lake and she saw two fiery red eyes staring at her from the water. She wanted to know if she was supposed to report it to us or the Sheriff's office. We felt sure that you guys would want to handle it.”

“Yes, I'll bet you did,” said Bob. “That would be one of your next door neighbors, either Heather or Helen Jameson. They've got a couple of those yapping little mutts. Sheriff Wilkerson said one of them came in and told him about the lake monster.”

“Did he check it out?” I asked.

“Seriously, Dani?” he laughed. “They used to babysit Charlene and they're still close. The sheriff thought we might hold off on opening a lake monster investigation for a while.”

“Charlene assumed that Dani had to murder me because I made a pass at her,” Mark cut in. “I guess you know by now that nothing like that happened?”

“No, not possible, you don't look like Howard Keel,” Bob affirmed.

“Now, that's true,” said Mark, “but I've given it some thought. You know in those old movies how the actors would wear that thick pancake makeup?”

“Say, I think I know where you're going with this,” Bob said. “We don't know what old Howard looked like without that makeup, which was probably a couple inches thick. Hell, man, you two could have been twins!”

“Absolutely,” Mark replied. “Separated at birth. It could have happened.”

“But can you sing?” Bob inquired.

“Only when I'm about five beers deep, but yes, I do sing.”

“Well, there you go. No doubt about it.”

“Pardon me for interrupting,” I said, “but if you're both finished mocking one of the greatest movie actors of all time, perhaps Bob would be so kind as to set up my TV so he can get some sleep and I can go to work.”

“If you're working the night shift you might as well go ahead home,” Mark said to Bob. “I'll hook up the TV before we pick up Dani's stuff from Mrs. Hamsky's.”

“Thanks a lot, buddy,” said Bob. “I'll spot you a beer after the game Saturday.”

“You got it, man.”

Later, after Mark had hooked up the TV, he told me, “I can be ready to pick up your stuff in about 20 minutes. I assume it's a grand piano, a couple of refrigerators, and a lead safe, stuff like that?”

“It's six cardboard boxes for which I will gladly give you a free lunch at the diner,” I replied.

“No need,” he said. “I can't keep bumming free food off you.”

“Today's special is Double Cheeseburger, sunny-side up egg optional, chili-cheese fries, and choice of green salad or corn on the cob,” I told him.

“Make that fifteen minutes,” he said, heading for the door.

Chapter 4

Later that afternoon Mark stopped in to The Breezy Spoon to inform me that my belongings had been successfully freed from the clutches of Mrs. Hamsky. He had polished off his free lunch, including the egg and the corn on the cob, and then left to run some errands. I was still grumpy about the early morning dramas, but Jimmy had left before I had gotten in, and Charlene's shift didn't start until later, so I had to keep it to myself.

As I was rehearsing the choice words I'd say to them when they arrived, I saw that the needlework ladies were just finishing their lunch, too. Business is always slow in the middle of the afternoon so I had agreed to let the local needlework club have their own corner of the diner to get together and work on their latest projects and share town gossip. They would arrive at one, have lunch, and could stay until five when the diner business started picking up. The club consisted of about ten ladies as well as one man, Tom Jordan, the local pharmacist, and beside the regulars a few others would sit in on occasion when the gossip was good.

Tom's wife, Henrietta, was a loud, obnoxious bully and we always assumed that he joined the club to have at least four hours a week in peace. When they were dating, Henrietta was all sweetness and light; jolly, cheerful, a very pleasant person to be around. After the wedding she dropped the act and Tom found he was married to what my Dad used to call “Satan's Mouthpiece”. My Dad was Tom's friend and advised him to consult Dr. Maloney to see if Henrietta had some mental imbalance. He thought maybe some medication could help. After examining her though, the doctor told Tom that “She's not insane, she's just damned mean.” His recommendation was to see a divorce lawyer.

Tom is such a nice person that most of us were inclined to agree with the lawyer, but he's a very religious man and believes that those marriage vows are meant to last forever, no matter what. But one day he went to the library where Jenny Morris, the librarian, found him a book on needlework, and he got hooked on it, so to speak. He decided that crocheting would be the easiest to learn and started practicing, and Jenny invited him to the needlework club. He seems to enjoy it a lot, plus he always sits next to Jenny at the meetings so she can help him. His project is a queen-sized popcorn stitch bedspread. He usually manages to complete one or two rows every week so he should be finished sometime before the end of the century.

“Hey, Dani,” called Abigail, my former high school English teacher and founding member of the club, “don't you do crocheting anymore?”

“No, I haven't had the time,” I replied as I was wiping off the counter. “But it might be a good idea to start again. They say that doing needlework helps a person relax. I read about the president of some big company who does crocheting in his office when he feels stressed. I could do with less stress.”

“Well, if he quit crocheting and spent more time running his business he probably wouldn't feel so stressed!” chimed in Audrey, who was seated opposite Abigail. “That's a man for you, playing around when he should be turning his hand to some work!”

Audrey's husband Arthur used to run the grain mill, and when he passed on 18 years ago Audrey took over. The mill was on the verge of bankruptcy because the big companies that had modern machinery could grind flour, cornmeal, and the like a zillion times faster that an old grindstone could. Audrey recognized that there was a huge market for specialty “stone-ground” organic grains and she turned the business around in less than a year after Arthur met his maker.

Of course, Arthur could have done the same thing when he was alive, but he spent most of his time at Sammy's Lounge drinking away all his troubles. One morning he slipped on the wet floor as he was leaving the lounge and fractured his skull on the corner of a pool table. Sammy was afraid that Audrey would sue him for sure, but she didn't. While on some level she loved Arthur, she was also glad that he was out of the picture.

Helen Jameson, who was seated next to her sister Heather, said, “You really should take up crocheting again, Dani. You were good at it. I remember when you won a blue ribbon at the spring festival.”

“Yes, I remember that too,” I said, “Mom kept after me to enter the Kid's Project Contest and I crocheted an eight inch square pot holder. I beat out Freddie Smith's helicopter that he made from used yogurt cups. Quite a victory.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” Heather said. “Did you hear about Freddie Smith's cousin's wife's landscaper's brother getting arrested?”

“It's quite a scandalous story, from what I hear,” Helen continued in a hushed voice.

Just then Jeff Goodwin, local reporter for the East Spoon Creek City Gazette, came in and strolled over to the counter.

“Ah, if it isn't the gorgeous Dani O'Shea,” he said. “Tell me, what do you do to make yourself more beautiful every time I lay eyes on you?”

“I spend eight to ten hours a day around boiling oil, steaming pots of water, and dirty dishwater,” I replied. “I highly recommend it. What can I do for you today?”

“Marry me and bear my children,” he suggested.

“You know that you don't look anything like Howard Keel,” said Audrey, “Give it a rest.”

Jeff turned toward the needlework club.

“Ah, now that's where you're mistaken,” he stated. “If you would have bothered to come watch last month's production of East Lynne at the Spoon Theater you would have seen me in makeup with a false mustache and my hair slicked down and dyed black, looking very much like Howard Keel.”

“How on earth did you get roped into playing a villain in a 1920's melodrama?” I laughed.

“Well, as you know I'm engaged to the lovely Teri Farnsworth, who unfortunately is Millie's sister, who I even more unfortunately work with,” he said. “Millie was playing the leading role in the show and five different leading men had quit, so I was drafted to fill in. I do believe that I gave each of you free tickets to the play right here in this very diner, and yet not a single one of you showed up to see it.”

“I had the flu,” Abigail said.

“I was out of town,” said Jenny.

“I think I was filling a prescription,” Tom added.

“We all hate Millie,” said Audrey.

“Who doesn't?” Jeff said, “But you could have at least been there to make sure I got out alive! I forgive you, but you should be ashamed of yourselves.”

“Oh, quit bellyaching, you big baby!” said Audrey. “Order some food! Dani's got a mortgage payment next week. And don't make her mad or she'll wrap you in bubble wrap, hit you in the face with a chocolate cake and pitch you in the dumpster!”

“No, Audrey,” said Helen. “Jimmy said it was a pie because the shiny, silver pie pan over the face made him think it was a space alien at first.”

“Ah, yes,” said Jeff, “the body in the dumpster. Toby, our copy boy, said Jimmy told him there must have been a dozen gun shots, possibly from a machine gun. You're really going to have to work on your aim, Dani. I would love to interview you and get the killer's perspective, but Millie, as our chief investigative reporter, has insisted on covering the story herself.”

“That's a shame, Jeff. This story could have won you a Pulitzer,” I said.

“I know! I had come up with a great headline, too: 'Local diner owner serves up a Dessert Corpse'!”

A wave of groans issued from the needlework club.

“Everyone's a critic,” Jeff said. “Anyway, if Millie uses it for her article, just know that she stole it from me.”

“I assume you'd like to drown your sorrow in some lunch?” I asked.

“As a matter of fact, I would,” he replied, scanning the menu on the wall thoughtfully. “Let's see, I'll have the 'Giant Baked Spud' with chili, cheese, onions and jalapenos, and the steak sandwich, some of that cinnamon apple pie with caramel ice cream, a large Coke, oh... and throw in a house salad with ranch so that I might actually digest all that.”

“Sour cream and butter with the spud?” I asked.

“Why not?”

I could think of a lot of reasons why not, but the customer is always right. Jeff never skimped on food and he never gained weight. I was envious. Jeff not only worked as a reporter, but several years ago he had started an advice column called “Ask Auntie Lou”. The column started out as sort of as a joke, but to his surprise it became so popular locally that other newspapers wanted to buy it. He now had more than 300 newspapers running “Ask Auntie Lou” and Jeff was doing pretty well financially to say the least.

He and Teri Farnsworth had been in love for years and they had finally set the date, and of course Millie tried to do everything she could to prevent them from getting married. Like most folks in town, she didn't know that Jeff was Auntie Lou, and she thought of him simply as a lowly beat reporter, not worthy to marry a Farnsworth. Teri runs a very successful organic vegetable and herb farm but, of course, Millie looks down on her as well. She doesn't understand why Teri would stoop to working as a “simple farmer”. Teri and Jeff don't give two cents about Millie's opinion though, which only infuriates her more.

After I placed the order I went up to the cash register where Jerry West, coach of the East Spoon Creek High School basketball team and an old classmate of mine, was waiting to pay his bill.

“How's it going, Jerry?” I asked as I rung up his check. “Are we going the win the basketball tournament this year?”

He looked up and smiled. “Oh, sure,” he said, “no doubt about it. We'll make history this time.”

None of the East Spoon Creek High School teams had never never come close to winning the tournament in the whole history of the school. Jerry was a fine coach but you have to have the right material to build a winning team and East Spoon Creek City wasn't exactly brimming with talent. Even though championships were out of reach though, we all held out hope every year that we would at least beat our arch-rivals Pumpkin City. That didn't happen a lot either, but often enough to keep hope alive.

“Oh, that reminds me of something, Dani,” Jerry said. “The Junior/Senior Prom is coming up and I'm in charge of rounding up some chaperons. Millie Farnsworth will be there and she's bringing Jack Hartley, but I need a few more couples. I could always count on Sheila and Hamilton Hamsky, but that's obviously not possible this year, so I thought of you and Mark Adams.”

Chaperon a high school prom. Spend four or five hours trying to keep a bunch of teenagers from being naughty. And Millie would be there. Not my idea of a good time. I tried to think of a plausible lie as quickly as I could.

“Gosh, I wish we could help,” I said, “but Mark's schedule at the firehouse is pretty tricky. Of course I'll ask him if he can get time off because I'm sure he'd want to help too, but....”

“I understand,” Jerry said. “Let me know if he can do it.”

He paid and left, and not two minutes later, I saw Mark walking in the door with another milk shake in his hand.

“That was a close call!” I muttered.

“Hey, Dani,” Mark called, “I'm going to change the oil in my truck this afternoon. Does your Firebird need the oil changed?

“Actually, it does,” I replied, “I haven't had the time to go over to Pumpkin City to get it done.”

“Let me guess,” he said. “Last time you got your oil changed over at McGarity's and he let Cooter do the job and your car hasn't been the same since.”

“Don't tell me it happened to you, too?” I laughed.

“Yep,” he answered. “Bob warned me about it, but it was too late. When I picked up the truck, the wipers wouldn't turn off, the brakes didn't work and two of my tires had lost air.”

Cooter James was a 30 year old goofball and an accident waiting to happen. If there was a careless or boneheaded mistake to be made, Cooter had probably made it at one time or another. Since he had started working at McGarity's garage, no car in East Spoon Creek City had been safe, and no customer had been happy with Cooter. This was unfortunate for him, but it was even more unfortunate for the manager of the Farnsworth Bank, James Cooter, who was constantly receiving phone calls from Cooter James' angry customers.

You couldn't find two more different personalities; James Cooter was a responsible person who had held a good job since he graduated high school and was as fastidious a manager as they come. Cooter James, on the other hand, worked here and there, never held a steady job, and was all in all, just Cooter. He wasn't a bad guy and wouldn't purposefully do anything to hurt anyone, but whatever he did he screwed it up big time. Needless to say, James Cooter was not Cooter James' biggest fan.

“How could Cooter mess up an oil change on a Ford 150 truck?” I asked. “I mean, they're the most common truck sold in the country. I'm sure Mike McGarity had a how-to book on how to change the oil in an F-150.”

“Why, yes, he did,” Mark replied. “Only Cooter explained that he couldn't find it. So since Mike was at lunch and he didn't want to bother him, he used a manual for a Mack Truck. 'A truck's a truck,' he said, 'How different could they be?'”

“Of course he would do that,” I laughed. “When I first moved back to town and took my very precious Pontiac Firebird over to have the oil changed and saw Cooter lugging a can of kerosene and a funnel over towards the car, I told him I had changed my mind and had to leave. I know McGarity is trying to help him out but I don't think he ever told him he could do oil changes. He's supposed to just work in the car wash. Poor Cooter, he messes up, but he's really harmless.”

“Harmless?” Mark said. “I had no brakes, Dani! Not quite what I'd call harmless!”

I agreed that that was the wrong word. “He is good-hearted, though.”

“Sure, but we'd all be a lot better off if he was good-headed. So do you trust me to change the oil on your car?”

“I'd appreciate it a lot,” I replied. “But only if you let me pay you.”

“No need,” he said. “I bought a case of motor oil and I can't use it all. Also this is the third milkshake Brendan gave me on the house.”

Brendan Hurley and I work together on one of the eight hour shifts at the diner and Linda and Don work the other eight hours. Brendan is a retired firefighter who loves to cook, and fixed most of the meals at the firehouse when he worked there. When I opened the diner he came in and asked if I needed help and I hired him on the spot. Everyone in town knew what a terrific cook he was and I was thrilled that he was willing to work for the price I was able to pay.

“Third milkshake!” I said. “What in the world is wrong with you? Why are you drinking three milkshakes? Are you all right?”

“Well, I am now,” he replied. “Tim Donahue has been doing most of the cooking at the firehouse nowadays and he just discovered that jalapenos are not the only kind of hot pepper in existence. He made chili today and added some kind of flaming peppers called Scotch Bonnet. We drank up all the milk at the firehouse so I came over here to see if I could get some relief from the burning taste buds. Fortunately Brendan saved my life with these milkshakes. You should have one. The vanilla with caramel is great.”

“I know,” I said, “but if I start I probably wouldn't stop till I gained ten pounds.”

“You could stand to put on ten pounds,” he said, still sipping his milkshake.

“Mark Adams, I love you!” I said. “Usually people tell me I could stand to lose a few pounds.”

“Dani O'Shea, I love you, too,” he responded. “We could get married this afternoon but I have to do those oil changes.”

“Well, dang,” I said, “and here I was looking forward to saving money on my income tax.”

“Yes, it's a shame, “ he said. “I was looking forward to, uh, well, let's go with saving money on my taxes, too. Yep, that's what I was looking forward to, all right.”

At that moment, the front door of The Breezy Spoon opened and Jerry West came back inside.

“Hey Dani, I think I left my phone here,” he said. “It must have fallen out of my pocket in the booth-- Oh, hey there, Mark! Dani and I were just talking about you.”

“Is she already planning to murder me and toss me in the dumpster so soon after the last one?”

“Not yet,” Jerry laughed. “I was asking her if you and she would be up for chaperoning at the prom this year.”

“And I was telling him about your busy schedule--” I started quickly.

“Sure, we'd be glad to, Jerry,” Mark said. “When is it?”

“This Friday. I really appreciate this. It isn't always easy to find chaperons. You can't imagine how many people had previous engagements that far in advance.”

“Not a problem,” said Mark. “We're looking forward to it.”

Jerry found his phone on the seat of the booth, and when he had gone, I turned to Mark. “'Sure, we'd be glad too, Jerry, we're looking forward to it'! What was that about?”

“I thought you might like to re-live your high school days and go to a prom. Don't you like to dance?”

“Not to Bill Haley and the Comets!”


“Exactly,” I said. “They only allow Golden Oldies so the kids don't snuggle and smooch. Besides, don't you have to fight fires on Friday nights?”

“Only the flames of love that I have burning in my heart for you,” he replied as he stood up to go. “Now give me your keys, and I'll change your oil.”

“They're in my office on the desk. You'll get them yourself if you don't want them thrown at you.”

“Such ingratitude! And here I am saving you from the clumsy clutches of Cooter James!”

He went to the office and returned a minute later with the keys and a DVD.

“Spectre,” he said, “I found it sitting on your desk. Have you seen it yet?”

“No, that's Bob's copy that he dropped off this morning. I'm probably the last person left on earth who hasn't seen it, so he let me borrow it.”

“Next to the last,” he said. “Okay if I borrow it after you watch it?”

“Well, I was planning to watch it tonight,” I said. “If you want to watch it with me I'll bring home some dinner; that is, if you think you'll be capable of eating by seven o'clock.”

“That would be great,” he said, “as long as it's not chili.”

“No chili; Brendan made his famous ground steak meatloaf today. It's stuffed with cheese,and wrapped in bacon. It comes with garlic roasted new potatoes and fresh green beans. I have to go over to Tammy's bakery now to give her advice which she won't take and I'll grab some butter flake dinner rolls and a jar of those peach preserves she makes. Unless you'd like yet another milk shake?”

“No,” he said, “but I'll bring the popcorn, double butter, theater style.”

“After all that food you think you'll want popcorn?” I asked.

“James Bond takes his time getting the bad guys,” he said. “We may need nourishment about half way through.”

“Of course,” I said. “How silly of me not to think of that.”

“Nothing goes better with a movie than eating popcorn with too much butter and salt, drinking a gallon of Coke, and snuggling and smooching like kids at the prom.”

“As they say, 'two out of three ain't bad',” I replied. “I'll get Linda to fix us some sandwiches while I change.”

“Which 'two out of three'?” he asked.

“You'll have to wait and find out.”

Chapter 5

As I walked through the front door of the bakery, I was met by the wonderful aroma of freshly-baked cookies, and by Tammy, standing behind her counter with hands on hips.

“I put a lot of love and effort into every pie I make and I want people to enjoy them, Dani,” she said. “If you're going to keep smashing them in the faces of the men you kill, I may not continue to sell to you.”

“Fine, I'll use a pie from the supermarket for my next victim,” I replied. “How about some peach preserves? Can I get a jar if I promise not to decorate a dead body with it?”

Tammy laughed. She's a few years older than I am but a little shorter and thinner, with naturally curly hair. She had been by best friend even longer than Millie had been my best enemy. “How are you getting along with your hot fireman roommate?” she asked. “Are sparks flying yet?”

“Mark is a landlord, not a roommate. It's strictly a business deal, nothing personal.”

“That's not what I heard from Charlene.”

“Charlene's getting close to becoming my next murder victim!” I laughed.

Tammy placed a jar of peach preserves on the counter in front of me. “Anything else you need?” she asked. “Anything for the diner.... or for Brendan?”

It was my turn to put my hands on my hips. “Why don't you just ask Brendan?”

“Now, don't start on me, Dani!”

Tammy finally divorced her husband Pete three years ago after putting up with his cheating ways for twenty years, and soon after I hired Brendan, he and Tammy began seeing each other. They were even starting to talk about marriage, but now Tammy had backed away from Brendan because of her children.

Her twins, Shannon and Jason, were both in college, and while Jason liked and looked up to Brendan and was all in favor of his relationship with Tammy, Shannon was dead set against it. She was still holding out hope that her parents would get back together, mainly because she hated Pete's new girlfriend and fought constantly with her, and thought that if Tammy and Pete reunited it would mean no more new girlfriend. Of course Tammy doesn't want to alienate her only daughter so it's all a big mess.

“I think it's crazy to throw away a relationship with a good man just because Shannon doesn't want you to move on with your life,” I said.

“I know,” Tammy groaned. “I don't want it to be this way!”

“Then at least talk to Brendan. You know how much he cares about you.”

“I will! I just want to give it a little time; Shannon's going through a lot with college and with Pete's new girlfriend, and I don't want to rush things.”

I disagreed with this approach, but I had also disagreed when Tammy had stuck with Pete, a serial womanizer, until the twins had finished high school because she wanted them to grow up with an intact family life. I didn't think that kind of stress and misery could be hidden from the kids, but ultimately it wasn't my call, just like it wasn't my call about Brendan, either.

“Look, I'll make a deal with you,” I said. “If you agree to talk to Brendan, I'll agree to stop throwing dead bodies in the dumpster.”

“Okay, you've got a deal,” Tammy laughed.

That evening I was setting the table for dinner when Mark came in carrying the microwave popcorn, Cokes and some chocolate syrup.

“Just put those on the counter,” I said. “What's the chocolate syrup for?”

“I like chocolate Coke and they don't make it,” he replied, “so I just put chocolate syrup in my Coke. I've had cherry Coke, lime Coke, even cherry vanilla Coke, but for some reason they don't make chocolate Coke. I wonder why not?”

“Maybe they can't figure it out,” I said, as I took the meatloaf and potatoes out of the oven.

“Well, they should,” he replied. “What are they spending all their money on otherwise? I should write them a letter of complaint.”

“Well, if a letter from a random fireman in East Spoon Creek City doesn't get them started on it, I don't know what would.”

Mark sat down at the table and regarded me thoughtfully. “Your hair is different and you don't have any make-up on,” he said.

“Your eyebrows have grown back and you have a freckle under your right ear,” I said. “Is this some kind of game where we list things that we've just noticed about each other? I'd just as soon eat now and play the next round later, if you don't mind.”

“No,” he laughed, “it's just that you look different without make-up. Younger and cuter.”

“Well,” I responded, “you look different with eyebrows. You don't look startled all the time. Please pass the green beans.”

“Okay, one slice of meatloaf or two?”

“I'll start with one,” I replied. “By the way, how did you get your eyebrows burned off?”

“That would be thanks to Edna Carswell, the town drunk,” he replied. “Apparently she likes to down a bottle of whiskey, go to bed and light a cigarette. When she notices that the bed's on fire, she calls 911 and lays there till someone comes to rescue her. This time it was me. I had gotten her out of her room, down the steps and out the door when she said, 'You got the cat out of the closet, didn't you?' I said, 'There's a cat in your closet? Why didn't you tell me?' and she said, 'You're the fireman, you should have asked.' So I went back up, got the mangy cat that didn't want to be rescued and got one of my eyebrows scorched off in the process.”

“I'm sorry,” I said. “Edna Carswell is a very strange lady. When she's sober she's really very nice; she's just not sober very often. But you said only one eyebrow was scorched off; what happened to the other one?”

“Well, once I got the cat of of the closet and wrapped the darn thing in a sheet while it's going crazy the whole time because it didn't want to be disturbed, I had just got it to the door when I thought I heard a cat meow. I went to Edna Carswell and said, 'I thought I heard a cat. Do you have another cat up there?' and she said no. I went a few more steps away when she said 'Well, there's those kittens. Maybe that's what you heard.' 'Kittens?' I said, 'Where are they?' 'They're in the bathtub, of course,' she said, 'All four of them.' So I handed her cat over to the EMT's and went back and rescued the kittens. Obviously you can't do much to put a fire out until you get everyone out of the house so the flames were pretty aggressive by time I got out of there. Goodbye eyebrow number two. By the way, if you start laughing with your mouth full you'll probably choke and pass out and the food will get cold.”

“I'm so sorry,” I said, trying to stifle my laughter. “It isn't funny except, well, it's kinda funny.”

Mark grinned. “Actually it is sort of funny after the fact, but not so much while you're going through it. This meatloaf is really good; it's too bad Brendan isn't still cooking at the firehouse, although Tim Donahue was doing okay until he discovered hot peppers.”

“Want me to make you a couple of meatloaf sandwiches to take for lunch tomorrow in case he's discovered the Ghost Pepper?” I asked. “We're not going to be able to finish all this.”

“That would be great,” Mark said. “I'm afraid to ask, but what's a Ghost Pepper?”

“It's supposed to be the hottest pepper there is,” I said. “I don't know why anyone would eat one, but apparently they do. Personally, I prefer food that isn't painful.”

“Same here,” he said. “Speaking of scary food, I stopped in at Sammy's Bar for lunch when I first moved here.”

“Oh, no!” I said. “Didn't anyone warn you about Sammy's?”

“Not in time.”

“What happened?”

“Well, I just ordered a burger and a beer. I took one bite of the burger and it was totally encrusted with salt so I took a gulp of the beer and started to gag,” he said. “The big guy that works there hurried over. I thought he was going to Heimlich me but instead he offered me a bottle of water for $5.”

“Oh, that would be Bildad,” I said. “He's Sammy's janitor, bouncer, sometimes bartender and who knows what else. Most bars have salty beer nuts or pretzels to get people to buy more drinks, but Sammy coats all the food with salt, too. The problem with the beer is that he adds his own moonshine concoction because he thinks the customers will like it better. Of course, that makes the alcohol level go through the roof, so people get drunk faster and they end up buying less beer. After all these years Sammy hasn't figured it out. Have you ever gone into his so-called lounge?”

“You mean 'Hotters' which is supposed to be a Hooters knock-off only the waitresses are all on Social Security? he responded. “I looked in but thought I'd pass.”

“You mean you weren't attracted by the short skirts and the plunging necklines?” I asked.

“Please,” he said, “I'm eating.”

“By the way, don't ever try to play pool there,” I warned. “When Bildad fights with his wife he sleeps overnight on the pool tables at Sammy's. If you expect the top of a pool table to be level when you play, Sammy's isn't the place for it.”

“Good to know,” he replied, “although I don't plan to spend much time at Sammy's. Where's Bildad from? He had an accent that I didn't recognize.”

“That's a good question. He always says he's from the islands, but he never says which islands. He's married to a woman names Shua or Teela depending on when you ask her. She's a pretty little woman who seems angry a lot. I suppose being married to Bildad would account for that. She goes around wearing sarongs, so I would guess the islands must be somewhere warm.”

“I think there might be someone in the Bible named Bildad,” said Mark, “but I don't remember anything about him.”

“Speaking of the Bible, have you been to the local church yet?” I asked.

“No, I haven't even been able to figure out what denomination it is.”

I laughed. “Well, you'll never figure that one out,” I said. “The town is too small for any particular denomination to want to build a church here, so years ago the town council members decided to build one big church. They let members of each denomination have one hour each Sunday for their services. They go in alphabetical order so no one can complain of favoritism.”

“You mean like, Anglicans, then Baptists, Buddhists, Catholics, etc.?” he asked as he got up to get some coffee.

“Yes, it's all the denominations all the way down to Z. We had a young guy who was a Zoroastrian for a while until he got tired of it. Every month they all get together and have a pot luck dinner, which works out okay because they all agree not to discuss religion.”

“I think I'll just keep reading the Bible at home till I figure it out,” he said.

“Probably the best idea,” I agreed. “If you're finished I'll just clear up here and make some fudge and we can watch the movie.”

“Make fudge?” he asked. “Isn't that going to take about an hour?'

“Microwave fudge,” I answered. “Three minutes. A bag of chocolate chips, a can of condensed milk, a cup of peanut butter, one and a half to two minutes in the microwave, and that's it.”

“Sounds good,” he said, “I'll clear the table if we go 50-50 on the fudge.”

“Deal,” I said.

Later when we had just sat down on the sofa to watch the movie, the phone rang.

“Are you going to get that?” Mark asked.

“No,” I said. “Whoever it is can leave a message. Spectre is pretty long so we'd better get started.”

Then I heard my Dad's voice leaving the message. “Hi, sweetie, just Dad letting you know that your Mother and I have found a wonderful place to buy a vacation home for all of us! The real estate agent said that this area is an undiscovered treasure and that building a house would be dirt cheap. Coincidentally he has a brother-in-law that builds houses so he could get us a tremendous discount, and we could get in on the ground floor of a housing boom!

“Mom and I are going to take the camper there and spend a few days before making our final decision, so we'll let you know what we decide. It's a little known area in south Nevada not far from the California border called Death Valley. Now, don't let the name scare you; the real estate agent explained that it was named that back in the day when people were more superstitious, still believing in the bogey man and all that, which is why the land is still cheap and undeveloped. Well, I've talked too long and I want to save the battery in my phone. Don't bother to call back because I'm turning the phone off now. Love you, sweetheart.”

I almost knocked over the coffee table as I tried to get to the phone before he hung up, but I was too late.

“A camper in Death Valley; that sounds like fun,” Mark said.

“Dad's always looking for a spot for a great vacation home where he and Mom can spend their golden years, but he's determined to do it on the cheap.” Just then the phone rang again and I answered immediately. “Dad?”

“Nope, just me,” came Bob's voice from the other end. “I guess you got the message too. I just wanted to tell you not to worry about it. All of the money is in both Mom and Dad's names so Dad can't sign anything without her agreeing. You can't possibly thing that Mom would let him buy a house in Death Valley; she always puts the brakes on his ideas when they get too weird. Besides, it gets to 125 degrees in Death Valley and the air conditioning in their nice tin RV isn't going to be able to stay ahead of that. They'll be out of there in ten minutes.”

“You're right,” I replied. “Thanks, Bob. I appreciate your being the voice of reason.”

“No problem,” he said. “So go back to making out with Mark and forget about it.”

“Mark doesn't want to make out,” I said, “he wants to watch James Bond shoot people. Love you, Bob.”

“Love you, too,” he said as he hung up.

“Wait a minute,” Mark cried. “Who says I don't want to make out? I didn't know that was one of the options.”

“Well, it's not,” I said. “It went out the window before dinner when you were criticizing me for not wearing make-up and for having my hair in a braid.”

“I beg your pardon!” he protested. “I was not criticizing you; I said I thought you looked cute. I like the way you look without make-up.”

“And I think you look cute with or without eyebrows,” I said. “Maybe we should watch the movie?”

“If making out is off the table, then we might as well,” he said as he reached for the remote.

Part way through the movie I started feeling that my pillow was too hard. I turned this way and that but I still couldn't get comfortable. Finally I started punching it to soften it up.

“What in the world are you doing?” Mark shouted indignantly. I opened my eyes; I must have drifted off to sleep without realizing it. We were sitting on the sofa, the movie was paused and Mark was holding both my wrists.

“Oh, I guess I fell asleep against your shoulder,” I said, blinking. “I, uh, thought you were a pillow and I was punching it to make it softer. I'm so sorry. Are you okay?”

“No, I'm not. I'll probably have horrible bruises in the morning, and I may never be able to work again. I might have to call the sheriff and charge you with assault and battery. Also you drooled on my shirt sleeve. ”

“I'll wash your precious shirt and I'll give you some Tiger Balm.”

“Will you rub it on?”

“No. Will you rewind the movie? How much did I miss?”

“Only about 15 minutes,” he said. “I'll tell you what happened.”

“But I want to see it.”

“They were mostly just talking in the office. You didn't miss any action.”

“Okay,” I said. “But if you don't rewind I'll probably pout and sigh a lot. I hope it won't be distracting to you.”

He hit rewind.

Chapter 6

The next day was one of those days when you question whether there are any sane people left in the world. If there were, I'm pretty sure they didn't live in East Spoon Creek City. It started at about 5:30 in the morning; Brendan was elbow deep in ground pork and spices, mixing his special homemade sausage links and I was making the honey butter to go on the waffles when we heard shouting from the street in front of the diner.

I went to the front door and saw old Rafe Duval, the town's most cantankerous troublemaker, hammering a sign into the grass by the sidewalk that ran along The Breezy Spoon's front window. A crowd of about a dozen or so of our early morning customers had surrounded the cantankerous troublemaker, disputing angrily with him, and in the middle of the fray stood a tall, handsome young man whom I didn't recognize, who was dressed in a deputy sheriff's uniform.

The deputy was waving his handcuffs above his head and loudly reciting statutes and ordinances which were being violated by the crowd, which was doing nothing to calm them down. I slipped out the door and looked at the sign which Rafe had planted in front of the diner. It read “Danger! Murderers Inside! Innocent Boy Jailed! You Could Be Next! Keep Away!”

“Everyone up against the wall!” the deputy shouted above the din. “You have the right to remain silent!”

I was just thinking that it would be nice if everyone exercised that right, when Sheriff Wilkerson pulled up in front of the diner in the patrol car.

“Rafe Duval, what do you think you're doing?” he shouted as he opened the door. “Get that sign out of here! And Brian, put those cuffs away!”

“But Sheriff, I'm arresting them all for disorderly conduct!” the deputy protested.

“No, you're not! Rafe! I said get that sign down!”

“I got freedom of speech!” yelled Rafe. “And if you done your duty, you'd have locked up the bitch that framed my son and got him put in jail! She's probably the one that killed that man with the pie on his face and throwed him in the dumpster like trash, too!”

Rafe Duval's precious son Lloyd was serving a prison sentence for manslaughter after he killed a man in a bar fight four years ago. He would have been released by now for good behavior, but the behavior wasn't that good, so he had a few more years before he could get out. Lloyd was married to Kitty Benson, a shy, sweet girl who had made the mistake of marrying him when she was only 18. Before she was 18 and a half she had learned two important facts: one, that she was pregnant, and two, that Lloyd was a loud-mouthed bully who could be violent when he was drinking, which was most of the time. Kitty's parents were happy to take her back home and get her away from Lloyd, and by the time she was 19 she was a divorced mother of a darling baby boy named Timmy.

Lloyd's father Rafe insisted that his son was innocent of the bar fight killing and that he was just covering for Kitty. Lloyd claimed that Kitty, who was 5'2” and weighed about 90 lbs soaking wet, beat a man to death with her bare fists in a dive bar in Pumpkin City, and Rafe had decided to believe the story. The fact that Kitty was actually in the hospital at the time giving birth to his grandson didn't change his mind.

Kitty's parents scraped up enough money to hire a lawyer who got Lloyd to sign away his parental rights, which wasn't hard since Lloyd didn't want to have to pay child support when he got out anyhow. His comment at the time was, “The bastard probably ain't mine anyway.”

Needless to say, Rafe cut Kitty and Timmy out of his life completely. Lloyd's mother Rose would have loved to see her grandson, but as long as Rafe was alive that wasn't going to happen. I hired Kitty to work as a waitress and cashier on the shifts when Charlene wasn't here, and since then Rafe has hated me, too. This was the reason for the sign, and the reason that the sheriff making Rafe go away before the crowd outside the diner took matters into their own hands.

“Who do you think you are to harass me like this when criminals are going free in this town?!” Rafe sputtered.

“I'm the one who's going to drag your sorry behind to jail if you don't get that sign out of here and get off Miss O'Shea's property! You got three seconds,” the sheriff growled.

Rafe knew that the sheriff meant business, plus the deputy was having little success calming down the crowd, and their mood was growing uglier by the minute. Like most bullies, Rafe was no hero, so he reluctantly pulled up the sign, sending as much dirt flying onto my sidewalk as he could.

“You ain't got the guts to run this town right, Wilkerson!” he shouted. “Wait till my Lloyd gets back and he'll shape up this place.” He shook his fist at the crowd as he was walking away, and shouted, “And as for you bunch of phonies, you better hope that I don't take me a notion to call the state police and let them know what I seen some of you doin'! Yeah, I seen plenty a' stuff that goes on around here! You better believe I have! You all won't be so high and mighty when your dirty secrets come out, will you?”

Once he was out of shouting range, I opened the door and let the customers come in. Kitty had come in through the back door of the diner.

“I'm sure sorry about Mr. Duval, Miss O'Shea,” she said. “I didn't mean to bring him down on you.”

“You didn't, Kitty,” I replied. “Rafe has been a jerk forever, long before either of us was born. He did as little work in his life as he could get by with, he treats Rose like a dog, and he hates everybody and everything. All you can do with people like that is stay away from them.”

“And that's what I do,” said Kitty. “I dread the day when Lloyd gets out of jail. I've thought about moving to a different part of the country, but Dad says that if Lloyd is dumb enough to try to come after me, it would be better if I'm here where people know me. I hope he's right.”

The customers were filing in now and Jack Hartley, one of my regulars, had just come up to the counter. “Your Dad's right, Kitty,” he said. “If someone's determined to find you they can follow you anywhere. You're better off where the folks in town know you and will look out for you.”

“Well, I don't plan to go anywhere, Mr. Hartley,” she said. “Besides, Miss O'Shea's brother Bob offered to take me to the shooting range. He thinks I won't be so concerned about Lloyd if I know how to protect myself. Bob's so nice. Well, I'd better start taking some breakfast orders; because of Mr. Duval, everybody's coming in at once.”

Jack Hartley was tall, tanned and looked much younger than his 60 years. I think he liked to come for breakfast early to avoid being deluged with dinner invitations by half the older women in town. He had retired here about ten years ago and had a beautiful house built just outside of town. My favorite newspaper columnist, Millie Farnsworth, chased him unmercifully. She was looking for husband number four, and Jack met all her qualifications: He had money. Jack was not nearly as interested in Millie as she was in him, but she still managed to rope him into coming to various social events, like the prom.

Jack sat on a stool at the counter. “What did you think of old Rafe's threats, Dani?” he asked. “Do you think he's got people worried that he'll really call the state police on some of them?”

“Heavens, no,” I replied. “Rafe has been threatening stuff like that for as long as I've known him. He just wants to act like he's a big deal in front of everyone. People know him too well to be concerned about anything he says.”

“Does he come around here a lot? I don't believe I've ever laid eyes on him before, and I can't say that I'm sorry for that.”

“No, thank God. He lives out in the woods by the lake and doesn't come into town all that often, but when he does, it's to make trouble for someone. What can I get you for breakfast today?”

“How about two eggs over easy, a slice of ham, fruit salad and a couple of those homemade English muffins,” he said. “And some of Tammy's blackberry preserves if you have any.”

“Sure do,” I said. “I'd be in big trouble if we ran out. I hear you're going to be chaperoning at the prom with Millie. I'll see you there, I guess.”

“Anything to help the kids,” Jack sighed, managing a weak smile.

I took the order back to the kitchen and found two plates of sausage, scrambled eggs, hash browns and toast ready in the window. Kitty was still taking orders, so I put the plates on a tray and brought them to the table marked on the ticket.

To my surprise, the table was occupied by Sammy Brown and Al Sholes. No, not the Sammy Brown and Al Sholes that had founded East Spoon Creek City (although that would have been surprising, too), but their descendants Sammy Brown the Fourth, owner of Sammy's Bar and Lounge, and Al Sholes III, proprietor of Sholes Famous Emporium.

Sammy and Sholes had hated each for years because each of them claimed that it was their ancestor who founded East Spoon River City. Sammy argued that his great-great grandfather was there first, but Al said that it wasn't a town until his great-great grandfather arrived and they agreed to settle there together. The town council had put up statues to both of their ancestors in the town square in an effort to stop the feuding, but it didn't work. Now here they were sharing breakfast in my diner.

As I approached the table Al saying, “But could he have seen anything? The old buzzard could have been snooping around when-”

“Take it easy! The guy's just a loud-mouth,” Sammy hissed back.

They both fell silent as I reached the table and placed their plates in front of them. I asked if they wanted anything else, but Sholes just shook his head and smiled in a strained sort of way.

I was on my way back to the kitchen when I saw Cooter James standing by the end of the counter, rubbing his hands nervously on his shirtfront. He stepped up to me as I passed him and asked in a hushed voice, “Miss O'Shea, do you think that if a person stole a couple of beers from McGee's Grocery when he was under-aged, he could get sent to jail for it ten years later if someone saw it and told the state police about it? Not that I know anyone who done it but I was wondering if there was a statue of limitations on that kind of thing.”

I almost laughed, but Cooter was serious. “That's statute of limitations, Cooter,” I said. “And no, it would be too late for that person to get in trouble over that now.”

“Well, good,” he said. “I was just asking for a friend of mine. He'll be glad to know that. Say, can Brendan make me a sausage and scrambled egg submarine sandwich or is it too early for subs?”

“Nope, it's never too early for subs,” I replied, “I'll have it to you right away.”

Only in East Spoon Creek City, I thought as I took the order back to the window. Apparently Rafe's blustering had struck a nerve with a lot of people. I guess everyone has something going on that they'd like to keep private. I wondered if he was really trying to blackmail someone; he didn't seem smart enough to be to actually put together some kind of blackmail scheme, but who knows? He didn't seem smart enough to know what a bad idea that would be, either.

I noticed Hamilton Hamsky sitting in a booth by the front window, looking like his coffee needed topped off, so I made my way in his direction. As I was filling his cup, he looked up and asked, “Dani, do you have a minute?”

“Sure,” I said. I poured myself a cup of coffee and slid into the booth across from him. “What's up, Ham?”

“It's this thing that Rafe said,” he began. “I know he's a lying old coot, but if you think about it, he doesn't do a lick of work; he just wanders around and pokes his nose into everybody's business. He might know a lot about the things that go on in town.”

Apparently it was contagious! “I wouldn't give Rafe much thought,” I started.

“I wonder if he knows anything at all about my wife Sheila,” Ham cut in. “I'm not trying to fool myself, but I'm so sure she wouldn't just run off with her boss like that. You just know things about someone when you're married to them. It just wasn't like her. And besides, her boss, Justin McElroy had been dating Letty from the dry goods store since he came to town, and he didn't seem like the cheating type. The whole thing just doesn't make sense.”

A couple of months before I had moved back to East Spoon Creek City, Ham's wife Sheila had suddenly disappeared, along with her boss at the tax preparation office in Pumpkin City where she had worked for years. It made for quite a juicy scandal, and the town was still buzzing about it when I returned. Since then, not a word had been heard from either one of them, and everyone had gradually lost interest. Ham, on the other hand, had only become more suspicious as time went on.

“I know how you feel,” I said. “It was hard for me to believe, too.” Sheila and Ham and I had all been in the same class at the high school, so I knew how close they were. When I was overseas, Sheila had sent me letters every now and then to keep me up to date on the doings back home, and she had always sounded happy in her life with Ham.

“But there's something else I found out,” Ham continued. “Now this is just between you and me, but someone that you and I both know really well in law enforcement has been checking around for me and found that there are no records of Sheila or McElroy's credit cards being used in the last five months. They haven't used their Social Security numbers to get a job anywhere that I can find either. Also, McElroy was a police officer in Illinois before he retired and moved down here to Kettletown, and he was getting a pension deposited into his account every month. Since they disappeared, the account hasn't been touched!”

“They could have changed their names, gotten fake IDs...”

“Sure, but why would they do that? There wasn't any need for hiding. They both knew that I'm not the kind of guy to go chasing after them with a shotgun. Besides, McElroy had a great business going; He had two offices in Kettletown, and then he opened the branch in Pumpkin City a few years back and a couple of months before they disappeared he had come to East Spoon Creek City to find a spot for a new branch here. Sheila was going to be the manager of the new branch; why would they throw that all away to start over from nothing?”

“But if they're not hiding, then what happened to them? I can't think of any pleasant alternatives.”

“Me either, Dani, but I've got to know what happened. It's driving me crazy! If she's with the guy and they're okay, it will still hurt but I love her enough to want her to be happy even if it isn't with me. It just doesn't feel like that's what happened. When I heard Rafe talking, it got me wondering if he might know anything that could help me find some answers. What do you think?”

“I doubt that he knows anything, and I doubt even more that he'd want to help you even if he did,” I said. “He's just not that kind of guy, Ham.”

“I know,” he said, “but what if I offered him some money? He's greedy as hell.”

“I really wouldn't do that if I were you. He'd just lead you on, make up stories and bleed you dry. I know you're desperate but if he had any information he would have tried to get something out of you before this.”

Ham leaned back and sighed. “Yeah, you're right,” he said. “I just need to know.”

I sighed inwardly, wishing there was something I could do to help him. Perhaps his investigating was nothing more than a grieving husband refusing to accept that his wife had left him for another man, but some of the things that he had uncovered sounded strange enough to give me doubts. Suddenly I remembered something that Ham had said about McElroy.

“Ham, did you say McElroy was from Illinois? Where in Illinois?”

“Rockford. Why?”

“Is that close to Chicago?”

“Er, I don't know, but what difference does it make?”

“Sorry, I should explain. Do you know my landlord, Mark?”

“Oh, sure, the new fireman. Nice guy. He plays on our softball team on Saturdays when he's off work. What about him?”

“Well, his brother is a detective in Chicago. Maybe he would have some connections that could help find out more about McElroy. Is it okay if I tell Mark about this and ask if his brother can look into it?”

“That would be so great, Dani. If ther