Authors: Dane McCaslin
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A BIRD IN THE HAND
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Copyright © 2015 by Dane McCaslin
Cover design by Yocola Designs
Gemma Halliday Publishing
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.
For the real Greg, with love
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She stood to her feet in one swift motion, glancing around the small park to see if any of those maddening people were out and about, walking their equally annoying pets. As if they really knew anything about life and problems and those voices…
A sudden noise nearby set her head on a swivel as she tried to ascertain the direction from which it had come. Ah—there. She'd just caught a glimpse of movement from the house nearest the park. She sighed. One more loose end to tie up, but that couldn't be helped. No one and or nothing was going to stop her from achieving her goal. With good humor restored, she set off briskly in the direction of the town's main street, hands jammed into coat pockets, and whistling slightly under her breath.
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"Come on, Caro. It's not that bad, just a few little drops. You could probably walk between them."
Straddling his road bike, my husband gave me his best encouraging smile, an uncanny likeness of the expression he'd worn when our godchildren were younger, teaching them how to solve a mathematics problem or to catch a ball. I don't like to exercise—never have—and I wasn't sure I liked being talked to as if I were five. I shrugged in response, glowering at the sky as if it were to blame.
My name is Caroline Layton-Browning, British expat mystery writer extraordinaire (in my own mind, of course) and spouse of Gregory Browning, Professor of International Law at the local university. We're generally described as "stilted" by our less formal American friends, something I am actively trying to correct, but I absolutely draw the line at using "like" every other word. Like, you know, like, what I mean? I would never say that Greg and I are competitive; rather that we hone each other's particular talents. Rather like iron sharpening iron, with much the same resulting sparks. At any rate, we never seem to have a dull moment, and in spite of his resistance I have managed to tug him along as I meander from one improbable scheme to another.
I am at that point in my life that when I look into the mirror, I am absolutely flabbergasted at what I see. I know that they say, "Forty is the new thirty,"—and I'd like to meet the genius who dreamed up that little phrase—but I beg to differ. With my forties just around the corner, I'm on a constant hunt for wrinkles and crow's-feet, something I never had to worry about when I was a tad younger. What
changed though, is my love-hate relationship with the great outdoors.
To begin with, I detest precipitation of any kind. I figure if the good Lord wanted me to splash around in puddles and get my feet wet—not to mention my hair—he'd have given me feathers.
Be that as it may, my sweet husband, bound and determined to get me fit, had coaxed me outside one overcast afternoon. I was to take our dachshund for a short perambulation around the park that sits in the middle of our subdivision like a crown jewel, replete with shiny swings and a covered area for picnicking. Eating out of doors has never been high on my list of favorite things to do either, so it goes without saying that we've not made use of this particular area of the park yet.
Nor the swings, for that matter. Without the requisite children as props, I'm sure we'd look out of place and most likely be tagged as the local weirdoes that parents warn their children about.
"It's really not so bad, Caro," Gregory was saying, his tone cajoling and just a tad condescending. "And you could do with some exercise. So could Trixie," he hastily added as my eyes narrowed.
His own eyes, still as brilliant a blue as when we'd first met at Oxford University—yes,
Oxford—twinkled at me. I mentally stuck out my tongue at his reassurance. Childish, yes, but it felt good. He knows how I feel about weather.
Snapping the strap on his cycling helmet and giving me a cheerful wave, Gregory set out on a quick ride, only ten miles or so, he had assured me. He'd be back in no time. I succeeded in keeping the eye rolls controlled. Anything over one mile with a skinny seat tucked under my rather generous backside would constitute torture as far as I'm concerned, and I've steadily refused to take up Greg's offer of joining him and his pals on their jaunts through the verdant New York countryside.
I was already in a sour frame of mind, one hand shoving a worn baseball cap down over my hair and Trixie's leash looped over the other, so I returned his wave with a wrinkled nose. And judging by the glare she shot up at me, Trixie was in no mood to get anything damp either. I sighed, ducking down to give her coppery head a conciliatory pat.
"Let's get this over with, girl, so we can curl up with a clear conscience and a good book, okay?" Her eyes, twin chocolate drops in a tiny face, held a look that might have been a plea for mercy, but I ignored it and stepped out onto the wet walkway with the attitude of one being given a dose of very unpleasant medicine.
Half a block to the park, one sweep around its perimeter, and back home,
I encouraged myself. Hopefully I wouldn't get too soggy, although I had to admit that it was more drizzle than drip. Trixie put her head down and began to trudge next to me, her entire body letting me know exactly what she thought of this adventure.
As we walked, I let my mind take whatever tangent it chose. My problem, I've been told more than once and by more than one person, is that I get easily bored. I prefer to think of myself as the epitome of a Renaissance Woman (capitals included), with interests in various directions, and usually substantiate this by doing two or three things at once. I've never seen a need to change. It's simply not in my character to plod. For instance, I cannot focus on one undertaking only but tend to multi-task with a fervor that could melt the heart of every Gemini for miles around. I'm not a Gemini, but I've been informed that I act just like one, so perhaps my birthday was wrongly recorded.
Gregory's idea of relaxation after a long day at the salt mines is to hop on one of his five bikes and cycle away the tension. He's done this for years, even before the phenomenon that was Lance Armstrong and yellow wristbands, and I see no end in sight. He'll probably add stability wheels as he gets older but will still be off for one of his short rides when he is eighty. To this I say, "Whatever floats your boat." I prefer doing new things and cannot imagine sticking with one hobby for as many years as he has.
But I digress. I was currently out in a drizzle, accompanied by a resentful dachshund, and neither one of us was getting much out of it. I tried humming to break the monotony of it all, but judging by the baleful look that Trixie gave me, I decided to give it a rest. Everyone's a critic.
Our homeowner's association, in its almighty wisdom, has decreed that the neighborhood park must have a certain amount of trees and shrubbery and flowering plants within its border. Since the park itself is more handkerchief-sized and not the large acreage that they like to pretend that it is, this tends to lend the entire park a claustrophobic air, or at least that is how I feel whenever I step between the myriad of things growing therein.
I had stepped one foot inside the park's perimeter in order to honestly tell my husband that I had indeed gone there when I saw something jutting out from underneath one of the larger shrubs. Unfortunately, I've always been a little vain when it comes to wearing the eye glasses that I've needed since childhood, so my first view was a bit on the blurry side. I patted my pockets for my glasses, not so silently cursing when I recalled putting them down on the coffee table in order to take this walk. Blast—there was nothing else to do except to step closer than I'd prefer in order to see what was lying there on the damp ground.
Sidling up to the shrub with Trixie pulling back in a manner guaranteed to trip me up should I need to run, I cautiously leaned down to get a better look. At first I was a bit perplexed, not quite taking in what my eyes were seeing. Leather shoes, made darker by the damp weather, seemed to be attached to legs, which in turn appeared to be covered in denim. Was someone actually sleeping out in this weather? I felt indignant for whoever it was, and mentally chastised our fair city for the lack of services available to help those who might need a place to lay their head in such inclement conditions.
I was contemplating giving the feet a nudge when I became aware of why the fellow might be wedged up under the shrubbery: A very large and very red puddle had gathered underneath his legs and had begun to spread toward his shoes in a macabre stream. One of my phobias, in addition to all things that jump and heights, happens to be blood, so I did what I always do when faced with the substance. I fainted dead away, nearly squashing a startled Trixie in the process, my final resting attitude a near mirror image to that of the unfortunate man I'd discovered.
I came to with Greg's anxious face hovering over my own, his hand on my shoulder, and Trixie's high-pitched barking echoing in my ears. The drizzle had become a full-fledged cloudburst, and the only reason that Trixie had stayed by my side was that her leash had twisted itself firmly around my arm and refused to give her purchase. The barking, therefore, was for her own distaste of the outdoors and not out of any concern for her mistress.
Thankfully, though, it was what had brought Greg to my side after discovering that I had not returned to our house. Knowing me as he does, he knew that something was either incredibly wrong, or I'd found something of interest to keep me, and he was determined to find out which it was. Thus it was that he discovered me flat on my back, my head near the pair of shoes that had started this entire episode.
"Caro? Can you hear me?"
My eyes fluttered open, and I looked straight up at my husband's concerned face and nodded, no mean feat since I was still prone. I began to scramble to my feet, but he held me firmly in place. He ran one hand along the back of my head and assessed my predicament, slipping his cell phone out of the case that hung at his waist.
Assuring the voice on the other end that his wife was fine but that the gentleman underneath the bush most certainly was not, he continued running a hand over my various parts, lingering, it must be said, on certain areas that had sustained no injury whatsoever. Judging by my reaction, he seemed entirely convinced that I was fine. With a quick grin at me, he reached over and grabbed my hand, hauling me to my rather unsteady legs. Apparently I was sufficiently enough recovered for him to turn his attention elsewhere, namely the figure lying so still under the shrub.
I took my time getting my bearings, not so much because I still felt woozy, but because I knew what lay just a few feet away from me. Granted, my husband was now between me and said puddle of blood, but I could feel a tremor beginning around my knees by simply recalling what I had seen. Gregory does not suffer from any such queasiness. His many hunting trips and position as one of our town's volunteer firefighters is a testament to this manly trait.
I took a deep breath, peered around my husband's shoulders, and saw that indeed it was as I remembered. With a small groan, I closed my eyes. Unfortunately, the scene had imprinted itself upon the insides of my eyelids, and I shuddered. Although the poor man, whoever he had been in life, could no longer feel the rain falling into his staring eyes or the wound that had caused his death, I still could not keep myself from imagining—in embellished detail—how he must have felt as the end had neared.
As a writer of mysteries—I believe I've already mentioned that fact but I like the way it sounds—I have found that there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to murder and mayhem. I have created enough of it myself to keep an entire police force busy twenty-four hours a day, every day of the year. Unfortunately, life is not a script to be written by the rules. Before I knew it, I was smack-dab in the middle of an investigation that would prove to be an albatross in more than one way and to more than one person. Thankfully, I had my dependable spouse to lean on when things got dicey. And believe you me, before all was said and done, they did just that.
Our rather picturesque burg of Seneca Meadows, New York prides itself on many levels. The main thoroughfares and side streets boast annual flowers that add color, and the sidewalks remain free of litter and clutter thanks to a rather stringent set of laws that are strictly enforced. The chamber of commerce is second to none. We have at least three sister cities that visit our fair boundaries once a year, and even the weather cooperates when any outdoor event is to be planned.