OTHER NOVELS BY
GREG JOLLEY Danser Dot to Dot The Amazing Kazu Whereâ€™s Karen?
MURDER in a VERY SMALL TOWN Copyright ÂŠ 2017 Greg Jolley All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without prior written permission of the publisher. This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the authorâ€™s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Published by Open Window an imprint of BHC Press Library of Congress Control Number: 2017938465 ISBN-13: 978-1-946848-06-2 ISBN-10: 1-946848-06-9 Visit the publisher at: www.bhcpress.com Also available in ebook
Dedicated to Greg Dirksen, a true compadre for so many good and interesting years.
In Memory of B.B. and Jared Danser and Baby Ruth
Do Not Drive Into Smoke
Somewhere between Albuquerque and St. Louis, a road sign read, Do Not Drive Into Smoke. Wiki raised her black shades, scanned both sides of Interstate 40 and frowned. Nothing but endless miles of dirt on both sides of the two-lane road. Not a wisp of smoke. Nothing but dust and brush. She took her stub of a pencil from behind her ear and wrote on the Post-it pad stuck on her bare, upper thigh. She copied the words from the sign followed by a dash and the word “RES” for research. She had been driving for hours, watching the changing sky. Storm clouds and occasional lightning filled the sky north of her. It was more interesting than the countryside. She brushed a spill of blonde hair from her brow and took another bite of the slice of pie she had bought that morning. Looking down from the sky, she saw a long-haul truck up ahead probably doing eighty along the two-lane road. Wiki glanced at the speedometer and noted she was doing ninety-ish. Without thinking about it, she hit the blinkers and passed the truck. Lowering her shades, her thoughts turned to Sara’s last message. A typed one, which was odd, because they both preferred voice memos. “Voice has coloration,” Sara had explained, adding with her throaty laugh, 11
“and our nervous breathing.” Wiki had agreed with a giggle. Their messages were often naughty, definitely sassy and fun, and endearing. As the best of lover’s letters are. However, there it was, in text. Wiki glanced at the passenger seat and asked her iPad to read the message to her. The stilted voice repeated Sara’s last-typed message. It was almost fun to hear that clinical voice stumble along the lines of her lover’s seductive and wicked words. Sara was kissing Wiki’s lower tummy and might have been offering her husky breath, but the iPad voice was making the intimate moment sound like harshly typed porn. Wiki was becoming aware that her hem had ridden up, and she was naked under the dress. She wanted to rest her pale small hand on the warm skin of her belly. Grinning under her shades and remembering to watch the barren road ahead, she kept both hands on the wheel but wanted to do otherwise. “Feeling frisky,” Wiki said to the view. The mechanical voice and the lack of Sara’s breathing helped her behave. She blinkered and passed an RV and a small car loaded to the roof with camping gear. She did not look at the drivers she passed; she was now more amused than aroused as she listened to Sara’s last missive being mispronounced and broken by oddly-placed pauses. She passed a dusty-looking town with low pale hills in the distance, speckled by lonely, black oaks. Wiki reached into her lap and pulled her hem over her naked self. She wondered if maybe the voice-to-text app was getting frisky with itself, and she twisted her smile to one side. The message was getting more descriptive, but not explicit. Sara had a way of describing without being graphic. The scene that Sara was giving her was becoming more heated, more active. Wiki was about to turn the message off—it was interesting, but it wasn’t gonna cause any naughty trouble with that voice. She noted and forgave some of the descriptions that seemed unlike Sara’s normal and slow lovemaking. The wit is gone, Wiki decided. Not as much playfulness. “She’s just trying to do me,” Wiki decided, and this felt odd. This was something that never happened in their beds. She was looking at the iPad, 12
MURDER in a VERY SMALL TOWN
forming a frown, when Sara mentioned something that had always been taboo for the two of them. Wiki glanced out the windshield, saw that the road was hers alone, and then looked again to the iPad and listened to what Sara was doing. In the next lines, Sara brought something new into their bed—a device they had discussed and both negated. When it was clear that Sara was not kidding, that she really was going to do what she had hinted at, Wiki killed the message. She carried the frown for the next twenty miles and then pulled off to gas up the rental car again. Standing between the pumps and the car, she pulled her long black coat tightly around herself, covering her favorite smock dress: white with small-embroidered suns. Her legs were cold, but her feet were warm in her gray wool socks and brown work boots. She shivered, looking over the roof of the car to the exit ramp. The wind was harsh and cold on her face. She saw a billboard that advertised “Fantasy Land” over a prone model in a negligee. Wiki felt her first smirk since turning the iPad off. She had seen a few of these kinds of billboards out on the interstate. New to America, her ideas about the Midwest being a conservative and puritanical place were an odd juxtaposition. She filled the tank and decided to go take a look-see, which sounded to her like something a local might say based on the DVDs she had watched at la Diana, the South American resort where she had lived most of her life. She got inside the car, saw that she had forgotten to wash the windshield, muttered “Guano,” and took off. The Fantasy Land exit was four miles up the road. “I need to see it,” she whispered, frowning, referring to what Sara had tried to bring to their bed. Three minutes later, she clicked on her blinkers. She entered the store, a cocoon of purple, red, and lavender. There were a lot of silvery nighties and sheer gowns. Most of the store, at least the front half, was definitely male-with-female focused. Wiki kept her shades on and wandered about, feeling the sideways grin on her face. A sweet young woman welcomed her, and Wiki paused when she beckoned her with a bending finger. 13
Wiki stepped to the display case and watched the woman’s hand gently reach to her face. The fingertips straightened her crooked sunglasses. “Better, hun,” the woman smiled. Wiki liked her smile and thanked her. A telephone started to ring, and the woman behind the counter raised her pointer finger to Wiki before turning to answer. Wiki wandered to her right, her small hand brushing the glass top of the display case. Near the end of the last case, she recognized what she thought Sara had tried to introduce into their love life. Wiki lost her grin and turned away, stepping deeper into the store, looking for women-with-women accessories. She found oils, fragrances, and a new line of Glow-In-The-Dark Dual Bullets, which caused her the first sincere, delighted laugh of the day. Her iPhone purred. New message. She and Sara wanted or needed nothing, and Wiki had seen the object Sara had tried to bring into their beds. She tapped the phone and read the first line. Wiki, about the baby, and us well, I’ve been rethinking… She stopped reading. First off, Sara rarely used her first name; the use carried a weight. And “rethinking?” And in text, not with voice? She started walking to the door. The woman behind the counter was watching her with the store phone still at her ear. Wiki’s expression started to crumble and tremble. She almost dropped her iPhone when she tried to slide it inside her coat pocket without thinking and missed. “You’re okay?” she heard the saleswoman. Wiki did not turn. She stood looking out through the store window to her car buffeted by wind in what looked like a mix of rain and snow. “Where am I?” she whispered, but the saleswoman heard the words. The woman stepped out from around the counter, studying Wiki’s gaze. She told Wiki the name of the town and added, “Missouri.” Wiki ignored the name of the town and whispered, “I’m in misery?” “Oh, love. Come here,” the woman stepped closer and lowered her eyes to hers. She reached out and gently raised Wiki’s dark glasses from her eyes. 14
MURDER in a VERY SMALL TOWN
Wiki’s chin was trembling and her eyes were red, but there were no tears. She felt more shocked than hurt, but the hurt was there, too. The saleswoman saw the phone in Wiki’s small shaking hand and put her hands on Wiki’s shoulders and pulled her close. She wove her head trying to catch Wiki’s gaze, but Wiki’s eyes were focused on the weather and the car outside. “Bad news?” the young woman asked, knowing the question was redundant. Wiki didn’t reply. She turned away and stepped from the light embrace. Pocketing the iPhone, she started to the door, walking in stilted steps, unlike her normal light gait. “Hun? You don’t want to be driving right now. Not out in that, and not when you’re upset. Come—” Wiki heard the words but continued to the door. She stepped from the garish décor, lights, and heat and walked to her rental car. Rain and slush were sweeping her and rocking her tiny frame. As she steered to the on ramp, she braked long enough to thumb her phone off. She drove, and the hours passed. She had to stop to refill the car, which she did; robot-like, barely aware of her actions, the wind having its way with her long coat and dress. She noticed that the storm was growing stronger because it affected the visibility and the road itself, which was becoming white. The shoulders of the interstate were rising with snow, and the cars she passed were often sending low white trails of snow smoke that swept across the pavement. There were many more miles and more stops for fuel. She had the Danser family cottage as a target—where she was supposed to carry the baby, their baby, after the scheduled insemination in Ann Arbor. Now she was driving because, really, she didn’t know what else to do; had nowhere else to go. When she entered Michigan, she noted it only because a sign welcomed her to “Pure” Michigan. This made no sense to her and her fingers went to her 15
lips, but there was no stub of a pencil there and her Post-it pad was on the passenger seat, where she had set it when she pulled into Fantasy Land. “All those scribbles,” she said with tight teeth, feeling heat, shock, and anger. “My little travel notes and longings, all typed and sent each night, and now this?” She glared at her iPad, “I’m gonna flame her tonight.” She got into a rhythm with her car and its pedals and wheel, staying in the furrows of the large truck twenty yards ahead. They drove for mile after mile through the storm and the change from evening into dark. She and the truck rolled along ever slower, the truck setting their pace of twenty-five miles per hour. There were no other cars on the road in either direction. Wiki stirred from the hypnotism of the view when the truck’s rear lights started blinking red. She slowed with the truck to ten miles an hour. The truck pulled off slowly to the side and braked to a stop. Now Wiki had the view of her headlights glaring into the snow-swept road—the two beams illuminated heavy snowflakes falling at an angle. The steering wheel felt fluid in her small hands, and she slowed down again to five miles per hour. Snow was clouting the underside of the car and sometimes white waves crashed up over the hood. There were furrows out before the car, from prior vehicles, but they were becoming harder to see and stay within. Anxiety, perhaps fear, changed the pace of her breaths and chilled her palms on the wheel. A highway sign appeared, lit by the white headlights. It read, Exit 143. No name of a town, just the distance to the exit. Even from within her personal storm of shock and sadness, Wiki understood that she could not go on much further. She turned on the right-side blinker, something that in her normal life would have made her giggle, what with her being the only car for miles. She slowed some more and began to watch for the furrows to sway off to the right. A single car-wide set of tracks continued into the narrow tunnel of the storm and Wiki turned off, staying within the white tire marks. The off-ramp was tree-lined and rose over a knoll, and there was a single yellow light swaying in the distance to her right. She rolled slowly down the other side of the 16
MURDER in a VERY SMALL TOWN
hill and saw a tangle of cars, headlights, and movement. There was an accident at the base of the hill. Wiki lifted off the gas completely and began lightly braking the car. She was studying the scene a hundred yards away, feeling the car slowing and lazily wiggling its rear. The bridge supporting the trestle tracks was what changed everything. The car felt like it somehow accelerated. It is also began to slide sideways. Wiki took the wheel tight in both hands. She tried more pressure on the brake pedal. The accident was less than forty yards away, and she could tell that her car was picking up speed as it slid down the snow-covered ramp. Sara, the baby, and the heartbreak were forgotten. She could see two men working between three wrecked vehicles, prying on a door. Her hand went to the horn and stayed there, pressing it in a solid cry as she and the car slid closer and closer. Neither man seemed to hear or care about her approach. Not knowing what else to do, Wiki turned the wheel all the way to the right. The car stayed on its steady course for impact. Ten yards away one of the men finally looked up, but there was no time to do anything more than that. Her car struck the two men and hit the wrecked cars. Wiki rebounded on the seat after clouting her head on the wheel, and the two cars spun slowly away and her car, now crushed in at the front, slid past. Her car stopped when it crashed into a third vehicle. This impact had more force as she had hit a large tow truck. Her temple hit the steering wheel again as her car finally stopped. Wiki sat perfectly still, looking out around the raised hood of her car to the tow truck, ignoring the bump on her head, watching her wipers continue to brush snow from the windshield. She began to shake and could hear the storm wind and the damaged engine of her car. She was sitting there staring out into the view when her door opened and a frigid blast of air and snow swept in. She turned and thought she saw a woman’s face close to her; the woman had cloth across her mouth and her head was deep inside a fur-lined parka hood. “Lady, are you okay?” She heard, and thought it odd to be addressed as “Lady.” 17
The cold and wind coming in through the door jarred Wiki into the current moment. She turned her attention to the woman and nodded, “Yes?” The woman’s glove pressed Wiki’s chin and turned her eyes to hers. “You better get out. Another car might come. Come on, take off your belt.” Wiki heard and understood, but sat staring. Then she remembered her car striking the two men and that got her going. She unbuckled and climbed out, the wind whipping her heavy coat and summer dress and thin bare legs. She looked back up the exit ramp to the two cars she had struck. Their headlights were shining in the blowing snow, and she saw a man staring at the chaos with his jaw dropped. The woman had her arm around Wiki and turned her away toward the tow truck. “We need to get inside,” the woman said, leading her to the passenger door of the large yellow vehicle. “There’s nothing we can do out here but freeze.” “Should we call the police?” Wiki asked, feeling more and more in the moment. The woman opened the door and climbed in first with her hand out to Wiki. “Can’t call the sheriff,” the woman replied, waiting for Wiki to close the door. “Why not?” Wiki asked. She turned on the seat and looked out to the accident. “Because he’s under your car.”
Nineteen-year-old Jame Spiral steered his pickup into the brick-lined, narrow driveway and cursed, like every night, at having to lower his window and type in the code that opened the gate. He got the code right even with the wind and cold shaking his fingers. He cranked his window up quickly and watched the five-car parking lot appear within the glow of his headlights. The lot was under four feet of undisturbed snow, save the faint track of Eric Adamsâ€™ Jeep, which looked like a white shoe. Jame parked one space over from the Jeep and gathered up his tool belt, metal order case, and sippy cup of hot cocoa. He pulled on his gloves and got the key to the building ready in his hand before he opened the truck door. It was eight steps to the heavy metal door to the Central Office, and he trudged as quickly as he could, paying close attention to each and every sure and solid step. A single bulb glowed above the heavy metal door, and he used the light to aim and insert the key. He had to pull harder than usual on the door; there was two feet of frozen snow against it. The C.O. was well lit with fluorescent lights and warm, and there was the familiar hum of telephone-switching hardware. After stomping the snow from his boots and lower pants legs, he started walking along the room-length 19
mainframe, where rows and rows of wired cross connects providing dial tone to the town of Dent and the houses around the lake. He could go looking for his temporary supervisor, Eric, who had to be somewhere either on the opposite side of the mainframe or back in the equipment bays. Instead, he entered the two-seater office. It was furnished with very old metal cabinets, a single desk, six beat-up lockers and the open door to the single restroom. Jame frowned at the open bathroom door and sat down in the tired chair at the desk. Staring at his order case, he heard Eric shout out his name from deeper inside the C.O. He ignored the call. Another work shift, the two of them the only employees, and here’s Eric, calling out what? Expecting someone else? He swiveled to the dusty black terminal and keyboard. After typing the C.O.’s pass code, he used the arrow keys to scroll to the Print option, which followed the day’s date. The actual day’s date meant nothing to Jame, but it did register the approaching holiday season and his worries about his mom and dad, both ill. The terminal blinked green words on the black screen and a few orders began to print, the dot matrix underneath the terminal sucking in box paper and clicking ink across it. He took a sip of cocoa and watched that night’s workload, such as it was, begin to spit out. There were no new orders. Not surprising; the town of Dent was not exactly booming or growing. He had four disconnect orders and four change orders consisting of about an hour’s worth of work. It looked to be another shift of doing equipment and frame maintenance, which wasn’t needed, but filled the nights. He and Eric kept the place up and followed most every spec and step as prescribed by Ma Bell out of a sense of responsibility and, well, because they sure as hell had the time. Jame pulled the row of orders off the printer and reluctantly got up to go say hello to Eric. There was tired eighties’ rock and roll coming from the opposite side of the mainframe and cold air. 20
MURDER in a VERY SMALL TOWN
“Fucking Eric,” Jame said as he rounded the end of the mainframe, the side that looked like miles of cable and pair blocks. There was the ever-present smell of melting solder from the iron set on the rolling ladder as he passed, heading toward the music and the open back door. He knew what Eric was doing—smoking cigarettes. A hundred yards up the aisle, he noticed frame wire had been used to keep the side door open to the tiny porch. Propping doors open was another no-no. You could get written up for it, but like working in his socks instead of insulated shoes, he and Eric took some leeway. Jame didn’t like the smell of cigarettes but that was not the first thing on his mind; it was Eric letting weather into a building hot with electronics. He liked Eric, but the guy was annoying. He and Eric would not have another talk; they’d had that, and nothing had changed. Eric was the boss—the temporary boss. Jame was not really upset, but just feeling cranky. It was another night under fluorescents with stale circulating air and bad music. “Jame?” Eric greeted him as though it was a question. “Hey,” Jame watched Eric take a puff and blow smoke outward, right into the wind. This gave Jame his first smile of the night. He started to bob his head slightly to the rhythm of the music from the radio. Terrible song, but he did like the drums. Eric was nodding too, as he puffed and exhaled. A brushing of snow swept in onto the hard concrete floor, and Jame used the side of his foot to push it back outside the door. He received his second smile as he pulled his damp sock back. “I’ll sweep,” Eric said, “Let me finish.” “You have a good night. Watch the roads.” “Do my time card for me?” Eric asked. Same question, every night. “Sure, and I’ll pad it well.” “Thanks. Have a good—” The crack of a rifle shot was clear, even with the wind. Eric stopped talking. They both stepped back into the building, watching the night outside. There was another shot. This one also sounded nearby.
Jame was about to tell Eric to close the door when Eric tossed the cigarette and jogged away. “C’mon,” he said. “That sounded close. Let’s go look out front.” The two young men walked along the mainframe. “What season is it?” Eric asked. “I don’t remember,” Jame said, realizing Eric meant hunting. They entered the office where Eric pulled on his coat and gloves. He opened the front door a couple of inches, and they stood shoulder to shoulder, listening. It was quiet except the wind. Eric opened the door as far is it could go with the blocking mound of snow and stood before the night. The single lamp above the door illuminated falling snow. They stood there for a minute, Jame staying behind Eric. “See you tomorrow?” Eric asked, as if there is more than one answer. Jame didn’t reply. Eric stepped out and trudged to his Jeep. Jame watched him back up and steer away, raising his hand when the headlights washed over him. The Jeep paused at the security gate, and the snow glowed in the red taillights. Jame watched the vehicle turn and drive away into the storm. He began to close the front door when its heavy metal shuddered, followed by a rifle crack. Jame launched himself backwards. He saw the bullet hole that had pierced the door and he kicked it closed. He sat there on the cold concrete, staring at the bullet hole that had missed his head by a few inches. Inside the office, Jame dialed the sheriff while scanning the room. He pulled on his boots and laced them as the phone continued to ring. He unhooked his tool belt and let it fall to the floor. The phone was still ringing when he pulled on his coat. Hanging up the phone, he decided to leave, and go find Sheriff Doyle. If a drunk was out there shooting at lights and buildings, someone might get hurt. Jame knew it might be foolish to leave the thick walled, bunker-like building. He could hunker down and be safe. He left the office and went to the maintenance bay, to the stacked sections of gray bar. Selecting a thin piece that was four feet long, he jogged to the front door and opened it just wide enough to slide the metal bar out into the night. 22
MURDER in a VERY SMALL TOWN
Pumping the bar up and down, ignoring the wind and cold, he focused on adjusting his aim an inch or so with each upward strike. The glass light cover shattered and the front porch went black. Leaning against the interior concrete wall, he listened for nearly a minute. All he heard was wind singing off the metal edges of the building’s trim and gutters. He took out his truck keys and got the ignition key ready in his hand. Before he started out, he killed the interior lights. Out the door, Jame stomped through the thigh-high snow. He moved hunched over, trying to stay as small as possible until he was inside the truck. He leaned low on the seat as he started the engine, backed out, and steered for the gate. With his headlights off, he clipped the security code post. He quickly rolled down his window, typed, and leaned low again as he steered through. The truck had been locked in four-wheel drive for nearly a week so he had no trouble making it out onto Main Street. He had no idea who was shooting or why; had to be one of Dent’s hard drinkers or was he the target? Jame crunched low in his seat. I don’t have any enemies. Certainly no issues with anyone that would bring on gunfire. Jame hunched low and drove slowly. The shop fronts were closed and shadowed. The single traffic light that hung across the center of town was swaying a constant yellow in the white wind. He felt the tires churning and struggling as he crept up the street. In the distance, the lights of the Quickee gas station illuminated the far end of town. He headed for them. Then he got a better idea. A brave idea. He stopped the truck, set the brake and shifted the transmission into neutral. Leaning over the seat, he dug through two neat stacks of folded clothing and pushed his roadside toolkit aside before he found the leather rifle case. He struggled with its awkward weight as he pulled it over into the front seat. Jame unzipped the case and pulled out his road-kill rifle, which he had not used in years. He remembered the last time he’d fired the rifle—a deer laying against the guardrail on the expressway, all four legs pedaling until he stopped its agony. The rifle was not dusty, but it felt old and distantly familiar. 23
Sitting in his truck, which was up to its fenders in fresh snow, he looked to his right to the trees, the cottages, and the lake. Wind was nudging the truck, and he turned to the lights of the Quickee market at the far side of town. He unscrewed the scope from the top of the rifle. Holding it to his left eye, his fingertips brushed the focus dials. There was a pause in the wind as the Quickee came into view. Three bundled people were crossing from the direction of the gas pumps to the market. He noted that there were no cars or trucks parked at the island. Even with the absence of wind, there was no report from the third rifle shot. Instead, he saw one of the three people knocked off his feet and crumble to the concrete. The other two turned and lowered, looking to the one who went down. They were waving their arms and moving in panic. Jame recoiled back, dropping the scope into his lap. His eyes were wide, and disbelief was chewing through his thoughts. Without a sound, the front window of the market exploded. The two people left the fallen one behind, scurried to the market door, and clambered inside, looking clumsy and uncoordinated. The lights inside the Quickee went dark. Jame had the scope on the spot where the person fell. It was too dark to see any movement, but he watched, hoping. The wind returned, and the view was blocked. He was breathing fast. He figured out the source of the gunfire, triangulating the first shots at the C.O. and then the Quickee. He scanned the rooftops to his left. None of those angles made sense. He turned toward the lake. The church to his right blocked his view. He was confused—someone shooting from the frozen lake would be too low. The church steps were ten yards away from his truck. He didn’t have to look up to realize where the shooter was; he knew the shape of the building from years of driving by it. The church was the tallest building on Main. Above the roof, there was a bell tower with no bell. It never had one—the town of Dent had paid for the addition of the tower despite a good amount of grum24
MURDER in a VERY SMALL TOWN
bling and a consensus that no one wanted to hear bells ringing at any time on any given day. Jame studied the steps that led up to the closed front doors. He wasn’t sure—there was no light—but he thought he saw footprints rising up the right side of the steps. The interior of the truck was suddenly stifling warm. The steeple window and the shooter were forty feet directly above him. Jame screwed the scope to the top of the rifle. He was out of the truck and lowered beside the hood within seconds, scanning and listening. He raised the rifle barrel upward as a gust formed a spiraling cloud of snow around the truck and the small churchyard. It took a minute before the circling snow moved away. He raised his head and looked through the scope. Within the circular view, all he saw was clapboard. He scanned up and down and left to right. It took a few seconds before he had the steeple in sight. The window facing into town was exposed—someone had removed the boards—and there was movement, a shifting in the shadows. Jame made no decision, but his hands and fingers went to work; it was like watching a movie, removed from the actions, as the safety clicked back and his finger tightened on the trigger. The crack and kick of the rifle was harsh and the barrel jerked. It took a couple of seconds to get the scope back on the steeple window. There was nothing to see. No movement. Jame slid his finger over the trigger and watched, and waited. “I just shot at a person,” he spoke into the cold air with disbelief. It was all so movie-like. He kept the window centered in the round view. He reconsidered his shot; he had fired fast. “I forgot my calm,” he spoke into the white wind. Leaning over the hood of the truck, he stood still, the rifle aimed at the window.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR Greg Jolley earned a Master of Arts in Writing from the University of San Francisco. He is the author of fourteen novels and a collection of short stories about the fictional Danser family. He lives in the very small town of Whitmore Lake, Michigan.
Published on Jul 25, 2017
Published on Jul 25, 2017
Imprint: Open Window Genre: Thriller/Suspense Release Date: 8.10.2017 Book Description: When the storm hits, there will be no place to hide....