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This was the sort of morning that scrubbed the shadows from Megan Burke's heart. The sun peeked over Grand Mesa's ramparts east of town, golden rays spearing between houses and trees, leaves fluttering in the crisp breeze.
Definitely a TGIF kind of day.
Two of the patients on her schedule for today lived out of town, so she was looking forward to a long, beautiful drive through the autumn day under a brilliant turquoise sky.
Automatically giving thanks for the day the Lord had made, Megan locked her front door behind her and skipped down the steps, heading for the driveway, which hugged the boundary line of her small yard.
She set her bag of patient charts in the back seat of her car then went to the gate next to her garage.
After she rolled her trash can out to the curb, she went back for the recyclables.
Her neighbor Helen Russell waved to her from her kitchen window where she kept an eye on the comings and goings of the neighborhood. Megan waved back, hoping Helen wasn't as stressed as she'd been yesterday. As usual, Helen's cat sat on the windowsill, its gaze fixed unblinkingly on something in one of the trees whose large branches draped over the garage and driveway. Probably the regularly visiting raccoons that Megan had heard pulling over the garbage cans earlier. If they had, there would be a mess to clean up.
Helen disappeared, then opened the back door a second later. "Good morning, sweetie," she said. Deep smile lines creased the corners of her eyes. "It's sure a gorgeous morning." The cat rubbed against her legs, purring loudly.
"It is," Megan replied, thinking Helen sounded better today. She was glad for that. Her neighbor was the closest thing to familythat Megan had, something she hadn't anticipated finding when she had moved here three years ago.
Helen's only living relative, her grandson, Robby, had returned to Natchez from Denver three weeks ago after losing his job. He had moved into Helen's basement bedroom and was trading heavily on his old reputation. He hadn't lived in Natchez in ten years, but was still regarded as one of the town's own, a status Megan doubted she'd achieve even if she lived here twenty years. Megan's concern was that Robby worried Helen with his late-night comings and goings, his loud music and his apparent lack of job prospects.
"How are the heads for our apple dolls looking this morning?" Along with several other people, Megan and Helen had peeled and carved over a hundred apples last night in Helen's inviting kitchen. To raise funds for the seniors' center, the dolls were going to be sold at the Apple Festival coming up at the end of the month.
"You should come see," Helen said with a smile. "Personality is beginning to pop out all over the place."
"Tonight," Megan promised, with a glance at her watch.
"Glenna Adams told me you were coming to see her today. She lived across the street, you know, until her husband retired. Poor thing. He died less than a year later," Helen said. "Does she still live with her daughter out in Granger Gulch?"
"She does." Megan responded as though this was the first time they'd had this identical conversation. Helen's lapses of memory had seemed worse over the past month, which had coincided with Robby's unexpected arrival. "And I'll be late if I get sidetracked."
"You don't need to worry about taking my trash out," Helen said. "Robby told me he'd do it when he left a little while ago."
Though Megan knew the trash barrel wasn't out by the curb, she looked back toward it anyway. "It's not there. It will just take me a minute to grab yours."
"That boy." Helen shook her head as though he really was a boy instead of a grown man in his midthirties.
"His car is still here," Megan added, "so he's probably still around somewhere."
Personally, she hoped he'd find someplace else to stay soon, since she was nearly positive he had been stealing from Helen. She had vast collections that included expensive jewelry, Italian ceramic figurines, hundreds of colorful, hand-painted pitchers from all over the world and a plastic washtub filled with old coins, some predating the Civil War. Every time she had been in Helen's house since Robby's arrival, he was asking his grandmother about her things and how much they were worth. Megan suspected his interest wasn't just a simple matter of curiosity.
"He came through the kitchen like a whirlwind about a half hour ago," Helen said. "He told me he had errands to run and that he'd be gone all day because he was checking out some prospects." She shook her head, her short, white curls bouncing a little. "I wish I understood what that meant. If he was applying for a job somewhere, why couldn't he say so?"
Helen had talked about that, tooRobby's job hunting or lack of itevery day.
Megan wished she knew how to tell her neighbor that Robby was stealing from her. Not an easy thing to do, since she couldn't prove it. Besides that, Helen saw him as needing sympathy because of his recent bad luck after losing his job in Denver.
"Is there anything you need today?" Megan asked. "I've got to stop at the grocery store on the way home."
"You're such a dear to ask, but no." Smiling, Helen gave a little wave, scooped up her cat and went back inside.
Megan headed for Helen's trash cans, her thoughts on her busy day as she pulled open the gate.
And there was Robby, sprawled on the ground next to an overturned trash barrel, a bloody gash at his temple, his sightless eyes fixed on the brilliant autumn sky.
* * *
His old stomach ulcer burning, Detective Wade Prescott arrived a half hour later at the address on Red Robin Lane in response to a personal call from the chief. Natchez, Colorado, had its first murder in more than thirty years.
Wade had moved here from Chicago six months ago to be closer to the vast expanse of wide-open spaces that had captured his imagination when he'd come to the area on vacation last year. He also wanted to live in a community where the crime rate was so low that he was the only detective in the county. The position had been described to him as more of a community outreach than an investigative job, and that had sounded perfect for a burned-out cop who had prayed to never investigate another murder. The one that haunted him daily had occurred twenty-two months ago, and involved two little girls who had been executed by their father and whose mother was now serving a life sentence for taking his life. The case had shaken Wade to the core, making him question whether he was fit to be a cop. Worse, he wanted to rage at God for the injustice of it all.
The houses in this older neighborhood were modest, with neat yards and big shade trees. The place was the quintessential small town. When he'd first moved here, he kept expecting to see Andy and Opie emerge from one of Natchez's tidy houses with their fishing poles over their shoulders.
He knew he was at the right place because of the people standing in clusters on the neighboring lawns. A police cruiser, a fire truck and an ambulance were parked in the middle of the street, effectively blocking traffic and adding to the chaos.
The first thing he noticed was a body bag and an old woman who couldn't take her eyes away from it.
A body bag. Surely some fool hadn't moved the body.
His gaze went back to the old woman who was being comforted by a much younger woman whose shirt and slacks were stained with blood. Both looked familiar to him, something that still surprised him even after six months. Natchez was a community of three thousand in such a remote part of the state the nearest city of any size was a three-hour drive away. That was undoubtedly why everyone had begun to look familiarbecause he was seeing them all the time at places like the grocery store, the local diner and the Independence Day picnic. Firemen from the volunteer station were standing around, and the officer talking to them was Aaron Moran, a rookie who had been on the squad a whole four weeks.
Moran came toward Wade as he got out of the car.
"I'm sure glad to see you," he said as another police cruiser drove up and a hearse from the funeral home parked behind Wade's vehicle.
"Where was the body found?" Wade asked.
"Over there by the trash cans," Moran answered, waving in the direction of a partially open gate with a rose-covered arbor. "The neighbor found the body when she went to take out Mrs. Russell's trash."
"Take Mrs. Russell inside," he told Moran, saving the talk about securing the crime scene and getting witness statements for a moment when he wasn't irritated. "Get her statement, and stay with her until I come get you."
He called to Officer Jim Udell, who was getting out of his cruiser. "Cordon off the crime scene," Wade told him, "starting there." He pointed to the curb about sixty feet in front of the gate. Then he headed down the driveway toward the young woman who was following Moran and Mrs. Russell into the house.
"Miss," Wade called to her.
She stopped, her vivid blue eyes filled with the dazed expression of someone unexpectedly exposed to violence. He felt an unexpected tug of sympathy for her. "You're the one who called this in?" he asked.
"Yes." Her gaze left his and drifted to the body bag.
"I need to talk to you." Noticing a picnic table under an umbrella in the backyard, he waved toward it. "Do you mind waiting for me over there? I shouldn't be more than five minutes."
He'd had years of experience securing people's cooperationjust the right amount of authority in his voice without making people afraid. Yet, she reacted to him as though he had shouted at her. She was pretty, something he noticed as a man more than as a cop, a notion that didn't please him a bit, as he studied her face. There was a time and a place, and this was neither.
Her shocky expression faded a bit. With a nod, she walked away from him, leaving him with the feeling there was more to her than a neighbor simply finding a body. Tucking away that thought to re-examine later, he turned back toward the chaos, determined to get control of the crime scene.
Firemen, EMTs, a couple of guys from the funeral home, and the county coroner were the only other people left inside the perimeter that Officer Udell had blocked off with crime-scene tape. "Talk to the folks standing around," Wade told him, "and see what they saw or heard. Find out who belongs on this street and who doesn't."
"I'm on it," Udell said.
Doc Wagner, a family practitioner who had first been elected as the county coroner close to forty years ago, came toward him. Since there wasn't much crime in Natchez, there was no medical examiner to help investigate and make sure evidence was preservedjust this family doctor who was a fixture in the community.
"Just need your okay to hand the body over to the mortuary and I'll get out of your hair," Doc Wagner said, smiling as if it was already a done deal.
"Can you hang around for another minute?" Wade asked, doing his level best to hide his irritation. How could the man not know to leave the body alone?
Without waiting for an answer, he headed for the firemen. "Are you guys finished up here?" he said, instead of demanding that they get out of his crime scene.
"Who are you?" one of them asked.
"Detective Wade Prescott," he answered, flashing his badge. "Clearing the crime scene so I can start my work."
"I know this guy," the fireman said, pointing at the body bag. "We went to school together."
"Yeah?" Wade reached for the notebook in the pocket of his jacket. "What's your name?"