Authors: Gina Conroy
Tags: #Christian Fiction, #mystery, #Cozy Mystery
I shook my head.
“Would you like to tell me what—” An engine sputtered. Officer Taylor held up his pointer finger. “Wait here, please.” He ambled to the vehicle, his hand on his gun as the man tried to escape.
Officer Taylor stood at a distance and spoke to the old man who, from afar, appeared more pathetic than psychopathic.
After Officer Taylor administered a sobriety and breathalyzer field test, he handcuffed the driver, placing him in the rear of his police car. Minutes ticked endlessly as he sat in his cruiser talking on his radio. I checked my watch. Ten minutes later he emerged and plodded toward me.
“Mrs. Duggins, you’re one lucky lady. His blood alcohol level was 1.5. I’ll have to take him to the station to do an Intoxilyzer test so it’ll hold up in court, but he was driving without a license or insurance. Looks like a typical DUI. You must have connections with the Big Guy.”
I glanced at Matt, texting on his iPhone. “I don’t know about connections, but I’d agree we were pretty lucky.”
Forty-five minutes later, after we filed the police report, the paramedics had checked us, and another policeman had escorted the driver to the police station, Officer Taylor had our car towed.
“You sure you’re going to be all right? I could give you a lift home.” Officer Taylor’s concern blanketed me with warmth.
“No, I called someone. He should be here soon.”
“Promise me you’ll get yourself checked by your doctor. Pain has a sneaky way of creeping up on you after a wreck like this.”
“I promise.” I waved as Officer Taylor drove off. A splinter of embarrassment pricked my conscience. I had judged him unfairly earlier, and in a few hours he had managed to plant a seed of affection in my hardened heart.
Standing by the side of the road, I smoothed my wrinkled black skirt and retied my scarlet cardigan. There wasn’t enough time to run home and change before my interview. What would the station think about my casual attire?
Picking at my pinky nail, I wished I could flick off the returning heaviness. I needed to call Dawn, my nail tech. Maybe there was still time to get my nail fixed and make it to the high school to get Matt’s Jeep.
Dawn understood my absence, but no amount of sympathy could squeeze more minutes into her full schedule. She regretted she had to charge me half price for our session she wasn’t able to rebook. Maybe I had used all my luck on the accident. I ended the call and searched for Matt.
Slumped on a bench, he had his phone in his face, fingers moving fast, while my legs ached for a rest. Instead of invading his teenage space, I shuffled to the stone wall near the parking lot strip mall. Leaning against the wall provided some relief to my lower back.
After calling several other nail salons, I admitted defeat, wishing I had kept my loose pinky nail so I could have at least glued it to my nail bed. Sighing, I found my makeup case from my bag. The stack of letters from Henderson’s desk caught my eye. I removed the first one from its envelope. A sweet, floral scent greeted my nostrils. I sneezed. I really needed to get some allergy medication.
Unfolding the stationery, I glanced around and chewed my pinky nail thinking about what I had told Matt.
Ma’at represents the laws and concept of right and wrong, which are characterized by truth and a respect for creation, life, and relationships.
It wasn’t like I was snooping for gossip, like Candy. These letters could have important information pertinent to the investigation. I didn’t want to contact Lopez if they turned out to be nothing. I opened the first letter.
I can’t begin to express how special the other night was. I hope you feel the same way too. I’m waiting with bated breath until the next time.
The next letter contained the same sweet-smelling perfume and vague relationship babble. I scanned the remaining four, each one more detailed than the last in Henderson’s relationship with C.S., their involvement in the university, and hinting at an unwanted pregnancy. I tried to swallow the last lines of the sixth letter, but they sat in my mouth like week-old Italian bread.
I’m sorry, Theron, but I’ve refused the money you offered for the abortion. I cannot bring myself to kill what we brought to life. I will always love you, but I cannot be with you any longer. Please understand why I have to do this.
rose, my gut churning like a tropical storm. Detective Lopez would want to see them. But could I trust him to do the right thing? I tucked the letters in my bag. Something pressed me, and it wasn’t my full bladder.
Had I actually stumbled on the blackmailer—or maybe worse, Henderson’s murderer? As I scanned the approaching cars, my mind raced through the faculty members. Who was C.S. and what happened to her baby? I chewed on my pinky nail, yielding to the question I’d been avoiding.
Could there be a murderer walking the halls of Lyndon University?
“SORRY ABOUT YOUR VEHICLE, Mrs. D.” Danny Evans flashed his Osmond smile and opened the car door for me.
“Thanks.” I waved Matt over and scooted in the rear seat of Danny’s Honda Civic. The blonde in the front turned around. I smiled, sneezed, and pulled a tissue from my bag. “Hello, Cherilyn.”
“Hi, Mrs. Duggins.” Red-rims outlined her cloudy sapphire eyes, which appeared brighter, yet still overcast with thoughts of the morning, no doubt. “Are you okay? You’re not hurt, are you?”
Matt slipped next to me with earbuds still attached like a growth. Danny climbed in next to Cherilyn, studied her with a goofy grin, and started the car.
“A couple of bruises, but I’ll survive. Though I could use some Tylenol.” For the minefield exploding in my head, throwing shrapnel at my neck and shoulder.
“I think I have something.” Cherilyn dug through her big, black purse and offered a bottle of Midol. “Sorry, it’s all I got.”
“Thanks, I’ll take anything that’s legal. There are only two left.”
“That’s okay. I won’t need them for a while.”
I swallowed the last of the gel caplets without water. “How are you holding up? You had quite a shock earlier.”
Cherilyn forced a smile, the polite kind that kept people at a distance. Yet she couldn’t mask her true feelings. “I’m doing better. Danny’s helping me sort through things. It’s just … is it true about Professor Henderson? He was murdered?”
I glanced at Matt, who mouthed the words to some rock song. “Campus news spreads fast.” I inched toward the seat. “I don’t think there’s any need to worry. The detectives aren’t positive Henderson was murdered. It still could’ve been his heart.”
“What do you think?” Danny’s brown eyes locked on mine through the rearview mirror. “You knew the man. You must have an idea whether anyone would want him dead.”
My conviction wrestled with my instinct to shield Matt. “I can’t say. I guess he wasn’t the most scrupulous man at LU, but that doesn’t mean someone wanted him dead.”
“If someone killed him, then are we in danger?” Cherilyn’s eyes darted left then right, as if trying to connect the dots of the past to those of the uncertain future.
“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about,” I rasped, trying to generate some moisture in a mouth that felt like the Sahara.
“If you hear anything, you’ll let us know?” Cherilyn tapped her pointer finger to her bottom lip. “I mean, if we’re in any danger, you’ll tell us, right?”
I touched her shoulder. “Of course. But I’m sure no one’s in danger. You haven’t told me how you and Danny know each other.”
“He’s been tutoring me in computer class. I can’t seem to grasp all the lingo and coding. When it comes to programming, Danny is a real geek. Oh, I mean that in a good way.”
Matt slipped off his earbuds and leaned forward. “Hey, dude, can you drive through McDonald’s or something? I’m starved.”
“We don’t have time for fast food,” I said.
Matt turned and glared at me, mumbling.
“You can get something at the university after Danny drops me off to get your Jeep.” My face flushed. Nausea bubbled. I probably shouldn’t have taken the Midol on an empty stomach.
Matt slapped the seat. “Great, I’m dying here!”
Danny reached into his backpack and passed two protein bars over the seat. “Here. You can snack on these.”
Matt grabbed one and tore into it while I contemplated the orange-packaged stick of well-balanced proteins and carbs. “Is it any good?” The roar of hunger protested my delay.
“They’re great energy boosters when there’s no time to grab a decent meal. I eat them all the time.” Danny pulled into traffic. “It’s no Cajun Roll, but it’ll do the trick.”
“Cajun Roll? I could go for some Sushi,” Matt said, demonstrating how selective hearing works. “Let’s stop at Sakai’s. It’s on the way.”
“Sorry, dude. Mrs. D. said no, though I could really go for something spicy.”
Cherilyn smacked Danny in the shoulder. “Get out, you just devoured two orders of jalapeño cheese poppers. You must have a lead stomach.”
I ripped open the wrapper and nibbled at the chocolate coating. Not exactly Hershey’s, but palatable. My teeth sunk into the dense filling disguising itself as nougat, but it couldn’t put one over on my taste buds. I tried to choke it down, but the lump of goo caught in my throat. Mental note: Chocolate-coated cardboard doesn’t go down easily without water. After managing to swallow and going back for three more bites, I wrapped it and stuffed it in my bag.
“No good?” Cherilyn glanced at me through the sun visor mirror and finished applying her lip gloss. “I don’t blame you.” She angled toward me. “I can’t stomach those things. There’s not much I’ll eat in the cafeteria, that’s why we went out to lunch. But eating off campus is expensive, and I don’t have a car.”
“So, no freshman fifteen for you?”
“Nope, I’m barely maintaining, thanks to the late night pizza delivery man.”
“Wish I had that problem, but my family loved to feed me. It’s the way Italians show they care. ‘Never say
to pasta’ as my Nonna always said.”
“Danny is lucky to be living with you. I’d almost sell my soul for some homemade Italian food.”
“No need for extremes. We’re having lasagna tonight. It’s from Romano’s downtown. Next best thing to homemade.”
“That’s a great idea, Mrs. D.,” Danny said.
“I would love it, if you’re sure it isn’t any trouble?”
“No trouble at all. There’s always room for one more.” Two, counting Fletcher.
I checked my watch and gasped as we pulled into Winton Hall’s parking lot. 2:31. There was no time to get Matt settled in at my office. I’d have to entrust the job to Danny and give Candy the heads up. My well-beyond-full bladder swelled with discomfort as I stepped out of the vehicle. Maybe if I was lucky, I could squeeze in a potty break before my interview.
MY BLACK MESH BOOTS
on the shiny tile, adding to my mental chaos as I followed Jan Carson’s assistant toward KTXL’s green room. Turning off my phone, I tried to switch off my mind, but too many thoughts swirled in my head. Matt’s suspension. Jack’s phone call. My damaged BMW. My unprofessional interview attire. Thoughts of dinner.
Every thought except my interview. I needed to forget everything for an hour and concentrate on my career. My problems would be waiting when I finished. They always were.
As I walked into the enormous green room and inhaled the new leather smell of the couches, my head cleared. The scent of fresh paint lingered in the air. I let out a chuckle as I admired the stylish sage walls. The green room was actually green.
Eye-pleasing Monet prints in brassy gold frames decorated the large room, giving a sense of calm to my nervous energy. What a contrast to our small green room with outdated university office furniture and blinding white walls. My limbs loosened as I lost myself in the impressionistic floral images, grateful their flowers didn’t give off any fragrance.
I removed my mirror from my Coach bag, checked my face, and gasped. The red blotch on the side of my cheek taunted. I dabbed it with powder, taking the brilliance down a couple of notches, and then studied my mangled pinky nail. I’d have to find a way to keep it hidden.
I fixed my bangs over my forehead, then spent the next few minutes pacing the beautiful polished floor, visualizing myself greeting my guests in this room, chatting with my co-host, our chemistry rivaling Regis and Kelly in their heyday. The studio audience laughing, applauding, cheering. Nods of approval from the crew and accolades from the director and producer made me euphoric. Like I could float through the interview. All my dreams, fulfilled. My hopes, reality. Tiny giggles erupted in my belly, then grew stronger.
The assistant’s voice jerked me from my daydream. “Ms. Carson is ready for you.”
My heart sputtered then revved to life, speeding up with each harried step as I followed her through the hall again. I considered saying a prayer, but I didn’t want to be a hypocrite. Besides, God had never listened before. Why should I expect him to hear me now?
No, I could live with the distance between us, but not the rejection.
RAYS FROM THE SUN kissed the top of my head when I stepped out of KTXL. I slipped on my oversized sunglasses and inhaled the afternoon air. A sigh of contentment escaped. I wanted to celebrate. To shout to the world. The interview couldn’t have gone better if I had scripted it myself. Though intimidating on the phone, Jan Carson, the casting director and producer of the morning show, put me at ease. I managed to hide my hideous pinky nail. She loved my Dolce and Gabana boots and complimented my wardrobe choice, saying the stylish, warm feel was what they were looking for in a co-host. I wasn’t about to quit my job at the university, yet my instincts told me I should start drafting my resignation.