Click on image to enlarge.
by Ed Lynskey
Description: Quiet Anchorage, Virginia, looks like paradise. When she's accused of murdering her fiance, however, the small town is anything but heavenly for Megan Connors. With her fingerprints on the murder weapon, it looks like an open-and-shut case, and Sheriff Fox, running for reelection and anxious to get credit for 'solving' a murder case, intends on ramming through charges and getting a conviction. Megan's only champions are her aging aunts. They don't believe she's guilty, but what can two senior citizens do against the powers of the state and the evidence against Megan? Isabel and Alma Trumbo may be aging, even worried about memory loss, but they've read just about every mystery published in the past half-century. They're sure they've picked up the skills and knowledge they need to prove Megan's innocence. Starting with the town's gossips and loafers, then scaling up when the sexy ex-girlfriend of one of the Sheriff's deputies joins them, they search for alternate suspects, possible motives, and any evidence that might exonerate their niece. Author Ed Lynskey creates a memorable cozy mystery with a pair of sympathetic and interesting sleuths, plenty of local color, a sassy sidekick in the form of Sammi Jo, and a gentle humor that kept me smiling through the story. My earlier experience with Lynskey was with his hard-boiled detective stories and I was impressed how smoothly he handled the cozy format.
eBook Publisher: BooksForABuck/BooksForABuck.com, 2011
eBookwise Release Date: March 2011
1 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [315 KB]
Reading time: 185-259 min.
Within the same hour as the murder took place, Isabel Trumbo sat in her armchair dozing, an Alaskan outdoor magazine lying open on her lap. Her kid sister, Alma fidgeted in the other armchair, from time to time picking up her newspaper folded over to the day's crossword puzzle.
She had lettered in the spaces for one word across and two down. Tapping the ink pen on her pursed lips, she stared at the blanks, and her attention wandered. Of late, her life had grown too boring and predictable.
She flipped over the newspaper and browsed another editorial on Sheriff Fox's incompetence. You could tell the elections were around the corner.
Just then, Isabel roused and wetted a thumb to flip to the next page. Alma squirmed in her armchair.
"Boy, you're restless," said Isabel.
Alma glanced at her. "Is it that obvious?"
"Indeed. So put on the TV."
Alma sighed again.
"If that isn't enough excitement, go change the light bulb over the mud room."
"Why don't I try bungee jumping or something just as crazy? I'd climb up on the stepladder and tumble off." Her words too sharp, Alma softened her voice. "What's on TV?"
Isabel's eyes flicked to the TV Guide on the ottoman. "Don't the soaps still run on afternoons? When we lived on the boulevard, you watched General Hospital, so tune it in again."
"No such thing ever happened on the boulevard." Alma refolded the newspaper. "I'd rather sit and watch concrete dry than watch the soaps."
"I know what." Isabel reached under the end table, took out the game board, and rattled the Band-Aid box containing the letter tiles. "It's been a week-and-a-half since our last Scrabble game."
"The Z tile is still missing."
"Well, reading a magazine gives me enough entertainment."
"Well, my crossword puzzles are growing too sedentary."
"Ah, so you want a challenge." Isabel used a sly tone. "The blown out light bulb still waits in the mud room."
"Ha-ha. What is a Mayan unit of measure?"
"The Mayans used no unit of measure."
"Then this puzzle clue is wrong. Now, who invented the Internet?" Alma ticked off six spaces. "Al Gore, right?"
"Didn't Al save the dolphins, and Mr. Clinton invent the Internet?"
"I'd forgotten. The memory, doctors say, is the first thing to go." Alma felt a leap of fear inside her. Over the past weeks she'd come to dread the onset of Alzheimer's, and her every absentminded lapse became magnified, and it upset her.
Attuned to her sister's fear, Isabel spoke in a reassuring way. "Relax, your mind is still the proverbial steel trap."
"Really? Look at what happened to Ruth Brittle."
"Seeing how poor Ruth is is why I'd never lie to you."
"We should visit her again."
"Very soon, I believe."
"The newspaper is calling for Sheriff Fox's head again."
"He has a tough row until election time."
Alma's fling landed the crossword puzzle on the ottoman, and she elevated from her armchair. Its Tartan plaid pattern clashed with Isabel's lime green velveteen armchair. A decade ago when Isabel's husband Max had died, they'd moved in together and merged their possessions. Neither sister brought any fussy teapots, canaries, sachets, or doilies, but lots of other stuff had to either stay or go. Looking at the lime green gave Alma the willies. Her suggestion to slipcover it in a more subdued color had garnered Isabel's frosty stare, and Alma had dropped the matter.
"We'll con Jake into changing the light bulb," she said.
"Sure, let him slip off the stepladder and break a leg."
"More agile, he can climb stepladders easier than we can."
"Do you think he'll ever walk Megan down the aisle?"
"Everybody has sat on pins waiting for the big announcement."
"How much longer before they make up their minds?"
"He's the one dragging his feet."
"He has too many distractions in skirts." Alma sniffled.
"Hopefully he's stopped his tomcatting."
"Hopefully. Sounds like your allergies are back. Why don't you call Vernon Spitzer?"
"I saved out a few pills from last summer."
Isabel flipped to the next page. "Their shelf life has expired."
"They'll tide me over until we can get to the drugstore."
"Who's that young lady staying in the walk up apartments over the drugstore?"
"Several young ladies live up there."
Isabel wagged her head. "I mean the one sashaying around with barely a stitch on, and her boobs spilling out of her top like watermelons."
"Her name was on the tip of my tongue. Megan said she was Sammi Jo." Alma gave a dry smile. "So, my memory isn't slipping."
Isabel smacked her prim lips. "She'd better put on a bra, or she'll sag like an old heifer."
Doing an eye roll, Alma switched topics. "My old folks' insurance is a rip off, so I'm letting the premium expire."
"I told you to drop it after my fiasco when Max died."
A rap came at the front door. The sisters gazed at it, then each other before Alma with a puzzled shrug volunteered to answer it. A petite lady in her mid-twenties fidgeted on the porch behind the screen door. She wore a striking blue sundress, but the dark lines bracketing her shrunken mouth and puffy eyes alarmed Alma.
"Megan, this is a surprise."
Her eyes widening, Isabel let the forgotten magazine slide between her legs to the floor. "Hello, Megan."
"Am I interrupting anything?" she asked. "Were you napping or watching your TV shows?"
"Alma suggested we should watch the concrete dry, but I vetoed it," replied Isabel.
Confusion clouded Megan's serious face. "Huh?"
"Ignore Aunt Isabel," said Alma. "Her quirky mood makes her all but impossible today."
"Come in, Megan, before you faint from sunstroke." Standing, Isabel's hand motioned at their grand niece.
Alma nudged out the screen door, and Megan almost tripped coming into the foyer. They hugged, and Alma felt Megan's frame trembled in her arms. Alma caught Isabel's troubled eyes behind Megan's back, but Isabel could only shrug in wonder.
Megan stepping back let her glance switch from Alma to Isabel and return to Alma. No doubt about it, thought Megan. Created as much alike as any sisters ever had been, their resemblance started with their matching red-and-white polka dot blouses. Since she was a young girl, she had matched their eye colors to their different personalities.
Alma flared impetuous blue eyes were always ready to spring into action while Isabel's hazel eyes viewed a calmer world. Alma was a bit heavier while Isabel a bit taller. The two aunts had been Megan's closest family since her parents' tragic death in a house fire when she was just out of high school. She'd always been proud of their grit of surviving the great depression and Second World War.
"What's wrong?" asked Isabel.
A wheat blonde, Megan twisted her watchband as her delicate-featured face drained of its natural color. She blurted it out. "Jake is dead!"
Alma reacted first. "Jake is dead?"
"Good Lord, when? ...Where?... Why?" asked Isabel.
Megan strangled on any further words. She lunged past the sisters, collapsed on their sofa, and the rising sobs racked her. Alma and Isabel hurried over and sat on each side as Megan cried into a pillow. Alma gave Megan gentle pats on the shoulder while Isabel picked up the box of tissues, and Alma plucked out three, one for them each. As an afterthought, she added a few extras.
"Pull yourself together, Megan, or we can't understand you," said Alma.
"You can let it out when you're ready." Isabel frowned her stern white eyebrows at Alma. "We're right here, aren't we, Alma?"
Feeling guilty over having tried to rush things, she agreed. "Absolutely."
"All right." Megan sat up from the sofa, dropped her hands from her distraught face, and gulped in a lungful of air. "All right." She squared her shoulders and swabbed the tissue at the corners to her tear-streaked eyes. "I'm better now." Sniffing, she sponged the runs in her mascara and managed a wan smile. "Sorry for this little meltdown on your sofa."
Isabel did a dismissive hand wave. "It's just Alma's sofa, and I've never liked it." Before Alma could object, Isabel asked, "What happened?"
"It all started when I found Jake," said Megan. "He lay on the shop floor, so I ran to him and tugged on his shoulder. I turned him over, and his shirt was all bloody. I felt his wrist but I got no pulse there. He'd been shot dead. It was awful."
"Did you see a handgun or brass shell casings?" asked Alma.
The pointed question seemed to ground Megan's focus and composure. "No, but I called the sheriff on my cell phone and waited just outside the shop. Within minutes, the deputies arrived and tied up the yellow tape. They asked me a slew of questions, but I had few answers for them." She stopped and sniffed.
"Did they expect you to solve Jake's murder?" said Alma.
"Go on," said Isabel, sending Alma a disapproving look.
Megan did. "A short while later, Sheriff Fox came in his squad car. He took me aside and asked me the same questions, but I couldn't quit thinking of Jake sprawled out dead on the shop floor."
"Sheriff Fox has such a sympathetic manner," said Alma, sarcastic.
"I told the sheriff that I only saw Jake," said Megan. "A deputy dropped me off here. I'm a just bundle of nerves. What will happen now?"
"Things will get interesting," replied the angry Isabel.
Alma pursed her lips. "Very interesting," she added.
* * * *
Earlier that same afternoon found the future murder victim, Jake Robbins, disappointed. Business at his auto repair shop had been flat all morning. No customers, in fact, had dropped in for any mechanical work.
He fiddled around his office, the old sun porch on the rear of his brown stucco house, dumping the wastebaskets and catching up on his filing piled up on a desk corner.
Three green steel file cabinets, most of their drawers pulled out, stood beside the enormous walnut desk. He stacked the repair manuals (for autos, pickups, and motorcycles) taken from the drawers on the desktop. He had a valid reason to keep the repair manuals locked up in the file cabinets.
The repair manuals--Jake had spent years collecting them to work on used vehicles, the bulk of his fix-it trade--contained vital information he'd no wish to share with any competing local garages. Let them dig up their own manuals, he figured. To some in Quiet Anchorage, his reasoning bordered on paranoia, but he saw it as just sound business sense.
A traveling tool sales rep had told him the same repair manuals were available online and on DVD, but he wasn't impressed. Other things besides safeguarding his repair manuals troubled him.
After he accounted for all of the repair manuals, he returned them to their respective drawers while grumbling under his breath.
"Megan expects too much from me. Girls dress skimpy in the summer, and flashing that much skin at hot-blooded males can't be fair. Now you take Sammi Jo over the drugstore." He whistled between his teeth. "At one look, I know she's loose as a goose. I'm itching to take another midnight ramble to hook up with my blonde honey in Mechanicsville."
Jake dragging his mind out of the gutter realized the challenge was to press on with his afternoon work. Since his dad Hiram had died of a sudden heart attack in June, Jake had let their house go to smash. Walking through the disheveled rooms and hallways dealt him a sinking sensation in the pit of his stomach. The fear of his own mortality had grown too intense, so he seldom ventured into the house area where his dad had lived.
So, the auto repair shop behind the house became Jake's haven where he slept in a barber chair. Unlike thrashing on his narrow bed and finding little rest, Jake slept like a cat in the barber chair. He didn't awaken until the dawn light spilled through the east window into his eyes. He believed he could stay all the time inside the shop.
Of course, once he and Megan got married, they'd move away to their own place and having to face that prospect chilled him. He'd never want to leave his auto repair business and work as a half-baked mechanic at some oil and lube shop or repair heavy equipment for a fly-by-night diesel garage.
He'd found living with Hiram tolerable. Like Jake, Hiram kept to himself, and their household resembled two independent bachelors sharing the same roost. They took half-hearted turns at taking care of the cooking and cleaning. The only contentious issue was Jake's passion for speed. The stoop-shouldered, wiry Hiram deplored Jake's toiling all week to fix a racecar only to tear out its gears or transmission while competing at Kyle Reynolds's drag strip on Sundays. Jake had tried to explain the simple concept of fun to his dad. One recent conversation came to mind as he continued to fit the manuals into the file cabinet drawers.
"Your mother and I never took a vacation in our twenty-three years of marriage," Hiram had told Jake.
"But don't you see how much fun you missed out on? I'll book a vacation as soon as my business gets some traction and I take in a little money."
"There's nothing wrong with a strong work ethic, son."
He gave a frown. "Dad, I want to enjoy life before I get too old. Why is that so hard for you to understand?"
"But that's what I don't understand. Hard work is a source of personal pride and how a man stays happy."
"So I'll slave away for fifty weeks of the year, but the other two weeks I'd like to relax."
"Uh-huh. Tell me, do your customers also take off those two weeks?"
"I'll hire a stand-in mechanic and won't leave them in the lurch."
"They expect you, not some substitute gearhead, to work on their cars. What if the repairs are shoddy, and your disgruntled customers go to the competition next time?"
"What if you fill in for me?"
"I can fix the cars, but Megan has to do your books. My advice is don't take any vacation until you've earned the trust of enough customers."
"Don't worry. I've worked too hard to slack off and let my business flop."
"Quit extending credit to your pals, too. How do you plan to stay afloat if they welsh on their debts? Do you point a gun to their heads and demand they pay you?"
"Nobody is welshing on me."
"Right, your pals like Clarence Fishback are as honest as Abe."
"After our fight, we steer wide of each other."
"Another thing since we're jawing away. When do you plan on marrying that young lady?"
Jake didn't reply at once as his angry lips compressed against his teeth. "What's the big rush?"
Hiram grunted in annoyance. "She'll soon get tired of your procrastination and find a guy who cares enough to marry her."
"She isn't going anywhere. She's nothing but crazy about me."
"You're a crackerjack mechanic, but you don't know jack diddly on women."
"Why? Has she told you something that I don't know?"
"I can tell she's fed up with you always on the prowl."
Jake heeled up his calloused palms. "Don't go there, Dad. That's all buried in my past."
"Don't go trying to dupe me. You're made of my fiber, and I know how you think. You better make an honest woman of her. Have you told her lately that you love her?"
"Not in so many words, no, but we know how things stand between us. She's not interested in seeing other men."
"You'd better wise up because trust is a two-way street."
Irritated with his dad for always having pushed him into marriage, Jake finished putting away his repair manuals and secured the file cabinet drawers with combination padlocks. He returned the business ledgers to the desk drawers and collapsed into the chair behind the walnut desk before interlacing the fingers to his hands, putting them behind his head, and stretching out his long legs.
He took another moment to reflect and had to admit that Megan offered many favorable points: she was a contoured wheat blonde, generous, though perhaps a bit too serious-minded for his temperament. They'd met through mutual friends in the high school cafeteria, and he'd found his sweetheart. He kept a framed photograph of them posing at their senior prom inside his tool chest. Every so often during the work day, he slipped out their photograph for a glimpse, and it left him with a bemused expression.
Making any commitment left him rattled, and he felt the need for more time and space to mull things over before making up his mind for good. Marriage was taking a serious plunge. Megan at first accepting of his ambivalence had more recently grown more agitated. She stalked around his shop, a frown pinching her face. Worse, his dad's funeral had preempted their plans to spend a few days together at Colonial Beach. Then he told her that he didn't want to take off any time away from his business after the funeral.
For that announcement, she'd given him the cold shoulder. Jake without his dad to ground him felt lost at sea. It was easier for him to drift along from day to day than to deal with rendering any big decisions. So he continued sleeping in the barber chair as the summer dragged by, and here it was late August.
The desk telephone rang, interrupting his reverie and, hopeful, he answered, but it wasn't his day's first customer.
"I'm giving my last client a hair perm and can't get away for another hour," said Megan.
"Meg, I've already put away all the business ledgers."
"I suppose you'll have to drag them back out if you expect me to do this week's invoices."
"All right, I'll have everything spread out on the desktop for you."
"Have you rescheduled our Colonial Beach trip?"
"When could I? I've been busy with oil changes and a brake job all morning," he lied.
"You're waffling again, Jake."
"I'll look into it this afternoon. We still have time."
"Huh? The summer is almost over, and we haven't done anything fun together."
"Dad died in June and I haven't been in a fun-loving mood."
"I know Hiram died." She paused. "You must think I'm awful for bringing up Colonial Beach again."
"I understand your need to relax, and I'm overdue for a little break, too."
"Can you round up a mechanic to pinch hit on short notice?"
"I know a couple of retired guys, and they always like making a few extra bucks."
"We still haven't picked out our wedding rings."
"So much stuff needs doing. Right after Labor Day, we'll drive down to Culpeper and shop. How does that sound?"
"I'm ready anytime. Just don't keep me waiting too long."
"I hear more to your warning than just shopping for wedding rings."
"Smart boy," she said before they hung up.
Jake arose from the desk and trudged out into hot, coppery sun, his eyes cowering. Marriage seemed better suited for years down the pike rather than in a few short weeks. Hearing a car's drone on the state road, he smiled, grateful for the diversion. At last he welcomed his day's first customer, but he'd no way of foreseeing within minutes he'd die of one .44 gunshot wound slammed straight to the heart.