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"This is Gabby Rogillio. Thank you for tuning in and sharing your love stories. Join me again tonight at ten. Until then, live and love well, Mystique." She clicked off the on-air button, queued KLUV's station identification announcement, slipped off the headset and glanced at the clock again.
Where was Howard? The early-morning deejay should've reported at six, yet she hadn't seen hide nor hair of him, and it was eight. She'd called his house several times, to no avail. Was he sick? Lord, I hope not. The fast-approaching-fifty Howard had just gotten over a nasty spring allergy attack. Early March in Mississippi always seemed to trigger everyone's allergies.
But this morning was important. Robert Ellison, owner of the station, had called a meeting. A mandatory one. In all the years she'd worked for KLUV, he'd never done such a thing. And it had to be important to call the meeting at nine on a Friday morning.
She pushed the buttons to loop the commercials and call numbers, giving her almost fifteen full minutes until she had to queue up again, then grabbed her coffee cup. The morning news reporter would be in soon. Until he came, she'd just have to wing it.
A hum filled the corridor to the break room, and the overhead lights flickered. She'd have to remind the station's manager, Eric, to have the fluorescent bulbs replaced.
Bam! Bam! Bam!
She turned the corner, the hairs on the nape of her neck standing at attention. The station's back door batted in the breeze coming off the Gulf.
Startled, Gabby spun around.
Kevin Duffy, the early-morning newsman, loped down the hall. His bright red hair stuck up all over in contrast to the black jeans hanging loosely off his hips. It never ceased to amaze Gabby that he had the smooth voice of gilded gold, but the appearance of a young lion. A tall stranger, decked out in a black suit, stood beside Kevin.
Her heart hiccupped, but this reaction had nothing to do with being surprised.
The man had amazing eyes. Were they hazel or more gold? Who was he? New to town, that much was for certain. He had a totally different demeanor than the men in Mystique. This stranger was more…suave, debonair, cultured. He smiled, a single dimple twinkling under the hall's humming lights.
She tore her gaze from the man back to Kevin. "You scared the daylights out of me."
"Sorry." He hitched a thumb toward the man. "This is Clark McKay."
Gabby nodded at the handsome man and forced a smile. "Mr. McKay."
Robert had been making noise about wanting to sell the station and leave town, but she'd thought he'd only been rambling. Then he'd announced he'd found a buyer. Mr. McKay. Was that the reason for the mandatory meeting? Please, God,
help me. New management could very well mean she could say goodbye to the hope of her show being syndicated. Scratch that—she could be out of a job. How would she afford the down payment on her house on Bridges Street if she lost her job or had to take a pay cut?
Searching for any distraction, Gabby glanced toward the gaping rear entrance and then looked at Kevin. "You left the back door open."
"I didn't come in that way."
March morning sunbeams peeked around the edges of the opening, teasing Gabby with their bright rays. While she loved being the ten-to-six disc jockey, the harsh morning sun killed her attuned-to-nighttime eyes. "Then who did? It's open."
"Dunno." Kevin gave a shrug, his locks brushing against his shoulder.
Pivoting, she reached for the swinging door, then stopped before she grabbed the knob. Slivers of wood stuck out from the door frame—the knob hung askew. This wasn't just a door ajar. This was a break-in.
Gabby nudged the door open with her toe.
And sucked in air as her heart caught in her throat.
Howard Alspeed lay on the gravel, a red circle in his chest spreading like a bull's-eye. Adjacent to him, sprawled out on the stairs lay Robert Ellison. Neither man moved.
Shock froze her to the spot. She gasped for air and blinked several times. This couldn't be happening.
She dropped to her knees and laid trembling fingers against Howard's throat.
Nothing. "Noooo!" She placed the pads of her hands just below his sternum and pressed. Once. Twice. A third time.
She tilted back his head and opened his mouth.
Mr. McKay appeared at her side. He checked Howard's pulse.
Gabby bent to place her mouth over Howard's. Mr. McKay pulled her back. "Let me."
Her hands trembled as she let him take her place.
She swallowed against a dry mouth and scrambled to Robert's side. His pulse was strong and regular, but he didn't stir. His head lay against the corner of the bottom concrete step, blood pooling beneath. She touched his face. "Robert, Robert."
Kevin hovered over her. "We need to call the police. There's a gun."
Sure enough, a handgun lay inches from Robert's hands. What did that mean?
She patted Robert's shoulder. "We need to call an ambulance. And Sheriff McGruder."
Mr. McKay continued to perform CPR on Howard. No response. Tears spilled from her face.
Poor Howard, he'd been with the station since Robert bought it—he was as much of an icon of KLUV as anyone. "I'm so sorry," she whispered as tears soaked her cheeks.
The morning newsman cleared his throat. "I'll call McGruder and ask for an ambulance."
Gabby swiped a sleeve across her face. She stood, wobbling a bit. "Let me call the sheriff." She pointed at Kevin. "You stay with them."
She rushed inside, her heart thumping hard. She washed her hands quickly, a lump lodging in her throat as she watched Howard's blood trickle down the drain. Tears threatened to spill again, but she couldn't break down. Not now. She dried her hands, strode to the reception area and lifted the phone. After punching in the number to the sheriff's office, Gabby pinched the bridge of her nose. Mystique didn't even have 911 capabilities yet.
"Sheriff McGruder." His voice sounded like gravel in a barrel.
"It's Gabby Rogillio at KLUV, Sheriff." She swallowed, forcing the panic from her voice. "Howard Alspeed has been shot. And Robert Ellison is unconscious. We need an ambulance."
"What? Wh—Never mind. I'll call it in. Don't touch anything. I'm on my way." He barked orders harder than a Doberman after a petty thief. Good thing the sheriff's office was only a block away, the hospital only three.
The phone went silent in her hand. Silence… dead air! She tossed the receiver back on its base and rushed into the studio. Sure enough, her loop had ended and nothing but silence filled the airwaves. Gabby quickly grabbed a previously recorded segment of her show and queued it up, not bothering to explain on-air. How could she?
She shut the studio door just as the front door lock disengaged with an echoing click. Gabby jumped, then let out a long breath as station manager Eric Masters waltzed inside.
"Morning, Gabby. It's a beautiful day—" He cut off abruptly and studied her. His wet-from-the-shower hair lifted from the blast of the air conditioner. "What happened?"
"Oh, Eric. Howard's been shot and Robert's unconscious."
His eyes widened. "When? Where?"
She shook her head, struggling to push the words past the mountainous lump in her throat. "The back door was wide-open. Sheriff's on his way. So is the ambulance."
"Did you see anything?" He set his briefcase on the desk and moved around her toward the hall, shoving his hands into the pockets of his slacks.
"Nothing. Kevin's on the back steps with them. Mr. McKay is there, too—he's doing CPR."
Eric rubbed his clean-shaven chin. "I'll check it out."
"Sheriff McGruder said not to touch anything."
"I'm not. Just gonna look around and see if anything's missing." Eric took two steps down the corridor.
She bit her bottom lip, pushing down the panic knotted in her gut from seeing Howard. And poor Robert, the man she looked up to like a second father… Well, her heart ached.
Eric didn't look back at her, only continued to stride down the hall.
The front door swung open, letting sunlight spill into the station. Gabby blinked a few times until her eyes adjusted.
"Gabby." Sheriff McGruder nodded at her. His tall, lithe frame wore the standard uniform well.
"EMS should be here any minute. Where's the crime scene?"
No polite exchanges—all business.
"Back door. Come on." She moved around the desk and took one step down the hall, the sheriff silently following.
Tears clogged her throat as she led the way down the hall. A siren wailed outside, followed by the crunch of tires on gravel.
Eric joined them in the corridor, leaning against the wall and crossing his arms over his chest. "Sheriff, I've looked over the offices. Nothing appears to be missing."
"Y'all stay here while I secure the scene and direct the paramedics." The sheriff moved to the back door and stepped outside.
Kevin and Mr. McKay entered, faces long. Gabby raised a brow. Mr. McKay shook his head. "Is there a place I can wash up?"
"I'll take you." Kevin moved toward the hallway. "I called Mrs. Ellison," he mumbled over his shoulder.
Long moments passed with no one willing to break the uncomfortable silence. Each apparently lost in their own grief and thoughts.
What had he gotten himself into?
Clark studied the people around him. While the men paced or worried the carpet with their toes, Clark's attention was drawn to
the woman deejay… Gabby. Such a take-charge attitude, yet looking very soft and vulnerable. Something about her drew him in.
With the nine-o'clock hour approaching, the other employees trickled in.
"Hey, y'all," a brunette college-age girl hollered out.
Gabby turned and rushed toward her. "Oh, Ellen. We've been hit with a horrible tragedy."
The girl's eyes widened. "What kind of tragedy?"
Gabby wrapped an arm around the young part-time receptionist's waist and quietly explained. She kept her voice soft and tone low…so sensitive to the young girl's horror. Just when Gabby got Ellen a cup of coffee and dabbed her tears, a tall, graying-haired man looped down the hall.
"Gabby, what's going on?"
She turned. "David," she all but whispered. Gabby disengaged herself from the girl and gave the man a quick hug, whispering in his ear what had occurred.
He mumbled under his breath as Gabby leaned toward him, her hand lying on his forearm. After she finished talking with him, he excused himself to the studio, taking charge of the on-air segments.
When Mitch Brown, introduced as the part-time studio technician, arrived moments later, she again broke the news with softness and genuine concern.
The gentle manner in which she informed her coworkers of what had transpired sparked flames of admiration in Clark's chest. He barely had met the woman, and already she'd snagged his attention.
The back door opened with a creak.
"I need to ask some questions." The local sheriff stood just inside the doorway, whipping out his little notebook. He licked the tip of his pencil, then shot his gaze around the hall. "Who found this door open?"
"Gabby did," Kevin volunteered.
"Well, only because I heard the banging." She squared her shoulders as she spoke. Her long, dark hair hung over her shoulders, cascading like a waterfall, contrasting with her pale skin. She was certainly striking, but she'd definitely gone into the right line of work. Her husky voice seeped under his skin, warm and hypnotic.
"Uh-huh. Did you see the door open, too?" The sheriff stared at Kevin, pencil poised over the notebook.
"Yeah. When I came in." Kevin shifted his weight from one foot to the next.
"Which was what time?"
"I report at eight."
"You were late." Gabby crossed her arms over her chest.
"How late were you?" the sheriff asked.
"Only about ten minutes or so." Kevin tossed Gabby a stare that would freeze flames. "I had to meet Mr. McKay."
"Right. I'll get to you in a minute." The sheriff gave Clark a glance that traveled up and down his length. Clark fought hard not to squirm under the scrutiny. Why would the sheriff question them together? Back in Philly, people were separated and questioned. Maybe they did it different in small towns down South.
Or maybe they weren't accustomed to dealing with a murder.
The lawman focused his attention back on Kevin. "Did you see anything when you drove up? Anything out of the ordinary?"
"Not that I noticed." He ducked his head, his freckled face turning pink. "I was rushing to meet Mr. McKay. I was running late, remember?"
"Uh-huh." The sheriff tapped the pencil's eraser against his chin. "And just why were you running late?"
Kevin's already ruddy complexion reddened. "I was out late last night and overslept."
"Can anyone verify that?"
His face turned a deeper shade of crimson. "Yes. My girlfriend, Mona. She's still at my apartment."
The sheriff scribbled in his notebook, then asked for Kevin's address and home phone number, as well as that of Mona.
Kevin hung his head as he gave the information.
The sheriff turned to the station manager. "What about you?"
"What about me?" Eric shifted his weight from one foot to the other. "I didn't know anything until I got here and Gabby told me, after she'd already called you."
"Where were you this morning?"
"Home. Having breakfast and getting ready for work."
"Can anyone verify that you were at home?" The sheriff glanced up from his notebook.
Eric tightened his jaw. "No. I live alone."
"Did you stop anywhere on the way in? Talk to anyone on the phone?"
"I see." The sheriff flipped a page in his notebook and nodded at Gabby. "You were apparently here—did you hear anything?"
"No, I was in the studio."
"You didn't hear a gunshot mere yards away? And the marks in the gravel out there indicates there was a struggle of some sort."
She clenched and unclenched her hands. "The studio's soundproof."
The lawman settled his stare on her. "I understand that. Just trying to determine if you saw or heard anything. Maybe saw Mr. Ellison or Mr. Alspeed in the hall?"
"No, I didn't see anything."
The sheriff made further notes, then turned to Clark. "Who are you, and what are you doing here?"
Straightening, he looked at the lawman head-on. "I'm Clark McKay. I was told to be here at eight this morning to meet Mr. Ellison and the station staff."
The sheriff huffed. "What about?"
How did he answer that? It seemed wrong just to blurt out the truth, considering the circumstances. "A business endeavor."
"What, exactly, does that mean?"
All eyes burned into him. Might as well tell the truth. They'd all find out soon enough. "I'm the new owner of KLUV."
Gabby gasped. Eric scowled. Kevin shrugged in that nonchalant way of his. "Cool."
The sheriff scribbled furiously in his notebook. "I see. When did this take place?"
"We finalized the paperwork two days ago."
"And where were you this morning?"
"At my house." Clark straightened. "And yes, someone can verify that. My great-aunt stopped by with homemade cinnamon buns."
Sheriff McGruder glanced at him, scraggly brows raised. "Who would your aunt be?"
The lawman let out a grunt as he scribbled again. "I know her address and phone number."
The door squeaked open and a paramedic stuck his head inside. "We're taking them to the hospital now."
"Thank you." The sheriff faced the group in the hallway. "After I conclude my examination of the crime scene, I'll file my report and call each of you in to sign your statements." Sheriff McGruder pocketed his notebook.
"Wait a minute. Are we, like, suspects?" Kevin straightened, tossing off his slouch like a bad suit jacket.
"Right now, everyone is suspect."