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Three Motives for Murder
By Michelle Perry Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2007 Michelle Perry
All right reserved.
Chapter One Brady Simms sat quietly while the mayor and county sheriff argued. The stiff collar of his dress blues made his neck itch, but he felt the eyes of the town council members upon him and tried not to fidget. So far, he hadn't been asked to comment.
How had he let Mike talk him into this?
Brady wasn't sure he wanted to be tied to this town, but the thought of putting chief of police on his resume was tempting. He wouldn't find this opportunity in a larger town.
In two weeks, he would be twenty-three, the minimum age to apply to the FBI, but he knew he was probably years away from an appointment. Despite the minimum listed, the average age of new agents was twenty-nine. Anything he could do to add to his work history might shave a few years off that.
"He's too young, Mike. You can't put a kid like that in charge of your police department." The sheriff, Pete Richards, hitched up his pants and paced in front of the handful of citizens who'd gathered in the cramped city hall for the special meeting. His beefy face reddened when Mike smiled.
"Sheriff Richards, we're lucky to have a man like Simms." Mike tapped the bulging folder in front of Councilwoman Clark. "I think his record speaks for itself."
"You have to have five years police experience-"
"He has that," Mike said.
"Dispatching doesn't count."
"Read your rule book. It counts."
The sheriff glanced at his nephew, who perched on the front row in the audience section. "Joe has eight years on-the-job experience as a deputy."
"But he doesn't live in Coalmont, and he doesn't have his bachelor's degree."
"The late chief Lowrie, rest his soul, would expect you to appoint someone with the experience to carry out the job."
Uh-oh, Brady thought.
Mike frowned and pushed away from the table. The tall, skinny mayor towered over the short, fat sheriff. "Gus Lowrie trusted Simms implicitly. I have a copy of the recommendation he gave Simms for his FBI application. I believe if he were here today, this is the choice he'd make. Also, promotion should be within the department. Since Roscoe Noone doesn't want the job, Simms is the next in line of succession."
"Nowhere in the book does it say that promotion should be within the department," Sheriff Richards said.
"If you want to get technical-no, it doesn't. That is my personal opinion. But it does say that all officers-including the sheriff-are required to pass a physical test every two years. How long has it been since your last physical, Pete?"
"Gentlemen ..." Councilwoman Clark shot Mike an admonishing look. "The council has reached a decision."
She nodded at Brady, and he stood to face them.
"Officer Simms, this is an impressive file. I'll hit the high points for the audience." She flipped through the papers. "Brady Simms began taking college credit classes while still in high school. At the age of twenty, he graduated Summa Cum Laude from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville with a dual major in Criminal Justice and Accounting. He's been working toward a master's in Criminal Justice while simultaneously working as a deputy for the city of Coalmont. He completed police academy certification and also has a certification from the National Forensic Academy. His I.Q. has been measured at-" She paused and lifted an eyebrow. "-147. That's genius level, folks."
Mike walked over to stand beside Brady. He winked at Brady and clamped an arm around his shoulder.
"After careful consideration this week, the board unanimously backs Mayor Wilson's motion to hire Officer Simms as the police chief of Coalmont. We believe you will be a great asset to the town of Coalmont and can only hope the FBI doesn't steal you away from us anytime soon. Now, is there any further business?"
When no one spoke, she banged her gavel. "This meeting is adjourned."
The sheriff stalked out of the city hall with his nephew in tow, and most of the onlookers dispersed with them. Brady and Mike walked over to shake hands with the council.
"Thanks, Bea," Mike said, and grasped Councilwoman Clark's hand.
"You're welcome." She smiled at Brady. "I'm going to miss Gus. I was so saddened to hear of his heart attack, but I agree with the mayor. This is what he would've wanted. I've heard him speak of you many times. 'Boy Wonder', he called you."
Mike grinned. "I thought that was Joe's nickname."
She gave an unladylike snort. "I wouldn't trust Joe Richards to take care of my garbage pick-up, much less my town. Which is what he'd probably be doing, if his uncle wasn't sheriff." Glancing at her watch, she said, "I have to run, but congratulations again, Brady. Make us proud."
He and Mike were the last to leave. They walked into the warm July night, and Mike locked the door behind them.
"Well, Genius, we got you in. I bet old Gus is laughing right now. Did you see Richards's face?" Mike rubbed his hands together. "Just wait. I think I'll start spreading the rumor that we're prepping you to run for sheriff next year."
Brady groaned. "No, please. He's still technically my boss."
Mike's smile faded. "Yeah, but Coalmont is yours. He doesn't have a lot of business here. Don't let him root you out. He'll be pulling some power plays, I'm sure, but hold your ground. I expect you to be as big a thorn in his side as Gus was. Speaking of which-" Mike dug a set of keys out of his pocket. "-you have a new ride, Chief."
Brady looked over his shoulder at the gleaming white Ford Explorer. A lump rose in his throat when he pictured Gus behind the wheel, singing along with his Merle Haggard tapes.
"I had my boy detail it for you today. Do you have any personal stuff in the patrol car?"
"Good. I'll drive it back to the station for you."
"Don't mention it."
Brady smiled. "No. I mean thanks for everything."
Mike surprised him by giving him a quick hug. "You're welcome. Now get to work."
Brady slid into the leather seat that gleamed with a fresh coat of Armor All. The smell of the glass cleaner almost masked the cherry scent of Gus's cigars.
He jumped when the CB crackled to life.
"... didn't copy, Mary Ann. Where did you say Brady went?"
Brady fumbled the mike out of its holder and keyed it. "I just got out of the town meeting. What's going on?"
"Turn to my favorite channel."
Roscoe wanted a private conversation. It took Brady a moment to find the switch in the dark. "Okay. I'm here."
"First of all, how did the meeting go? Am I talking to the new chief?"
Brady grinned. "You are."
"Yee-haw. Glad I'm not stuck with that dip Richards." Roscoe cleared his throat and chuckled. "Well, Chief, you ain't gonna believe this, but you're getting broken in right and proper. We've got a 187 at Miller Subdivision."
Brady blinked and hesitated before he keyed the mike again. "You're kidding me."
"Wouldn't kid about a homicide. Now you know why I didn't want the job. You've been chief for what-"
"-ten minutes. Ten minutes on the job on a perfect July night, and Coalmont has its first murder of the year. It's some kind of cosmic thing, like when you drop your car insurance to liability only and the next day you total the thing-"
"Where are you?" Brady asked. He'd be sitting there all night if he let Roscoe launch into one of his theories of the universe.
"Third house on the right entering the subdivision. Thought I'd give you a heads-up before I put in the call to dispatch. I was working another call, a drunk and disorderly, when a girl came running down the sidewalk, screaming her head off."
"So ... it's a domestic situation?"
"No. She told me-ah, you'd better just head over. I gotta log it with dispatch too."
"I can be there in five."
Brady flipped on his lights and roared out of the parking lot.
Four minutes later, he slowed when he entered the subdivision. This was the kind of place where kids were left to their own devices. It had been dark for an hour now, but still children played kickball in the street.
He hit the brakes when a little girl with matted blond hair darted in front of him. She couldn't have been older than five. Her wan face looked dirty and sad in the amber glow of the streetlights, and Brady wondered if her parents knew-or cared-where she was right now.
One of the lost ones, Gus would've said. As methamphetamine became an increasing problem in this area, they saw more and more of these lost children.
When he rolled down his window, she sprinted toward one of the houses. A boy of about ten emerged from the shadows of the porch and took her arm. Although Brady couldn't hear their muffled conversation, he appeared to be scolding her. With a sigh, Brady rolled his window back up and cruised around the block until he spotted Roscoe's squad car. Its blue lights danced across a ramshackle brown house with dangling green shutters.
Roscoe appeared in the doorway, then hopped off the sagging porch to meet him. The gray-haired deputy wore no sign of his usual good humor.
"Who is it?" Brady asked.
"I haven't gotten an ID on the victim yet, or talked to the witness. Thought I'd better secure the scene first."
Brady started across the yard. "Who does the house belong to?"
"Mildred Bright, but she rents it to a ..." Roscoe paused to glance at his notepad. "... Natasha Hawthorne."
Brady felt like he'd taken a hit in the solar plexus. He lurched to a stop, and Roscoe collided into his back.
No, no, no.
This whole night was some crazy, stupid dream. This wasn't happening.
Roscoe yelled something, but Brady couldn't stop. He bounded up the steps and through the doorway.
The corpse slumped in a recliner. Even though half his head was gone, Brady recognized him immediately.
Brady covered his mouth with his hand and squatted, trying to regain his equilibrium in the crazily swaying room.
Roscoe entered behind him, banging the screen door.
"His name is Bobby McBee," Brady said.
"Friend of yours?"
Brady glanced at the wooden cane lying beside the faded blue recliner. His chest hurt, and it was hard to push out the question. "The girl ..."
"What?" Roscoe asked.
A TV blared canned laughter into the cramped living room, and Brady struggled to raise his voice over it. "Is the girl okay?"
"Yeah. She's with the landlady."
Sirens screamed down the street, and Brady forced himself to stand, though his legs were shaking.
Sheriff Richards appeared in the doorway. "Simms," he barked. "What are you standing in?"
Brady glanced at his shoes, then followed the yellowish stream to the seeping carton of Tropicana. "Orange juice."
For the first time, he noticed the groceries scattered in the doorway. The sheriff slipped in a puddle of cola and inadvertently sent a can of peas skidding across the cracked linoleum floor. It rolled to a stop against Bobby's recliner.
The sheriff caught himself-just barely-and huffed, "You and Roscoe get out of here. You're contaminating my crime scene."
Brady wiped a hand over his mouth and replied, "Actually, it's my crime scene until the state gets here. You can assist, but you can't push us out."
The sheriff grunted, but didn't say anything else as he strode toward the body. "So, what makes you think it's a homicide instead of suicide?"
Roscoe cleared his throat. "Other than the lack of a weapon, we have a witness who says it was."
The sheriff leaned to peer at the corpse. "Ayuh, I know this one. Nothing but trouble."
Brady glanced at the body. For once, he and the sheriff could agree on something.
"Hey, men." Ian Kirby stuck his head in the doorway, and Brady lifted his chin in acknowledgment at the Tennessee Bureau agent. "What do we have here?"
Roscoe briefed him, and Kirby nodded. "Okay. I'll get busy in here."
"I'll question the witness," the sheriff said.
"I'm going with you." Brady moved past the sheriff before he could object.
Kirby slapped Brady on the shoulder when he passed. "I hear congratulations are in order, Chief."
Brady smiled. "Word travels fast."
"That it does, my boy. That it does."
The sheriff grunted behind them.
"Mildred's house is the yellow one at the end of the block," Roscoe called.
Brady stalked toward the house with the sheriff on his heels. He heard the man's heavy breathing, but made no effort to slow for him. Finally, the sheriff gave up the pace and trailed behind.
Natasha sat on the front steps of the house. An older woman sat beside her, puffing a cigarette and awkwardly patting her shoulder. Nat glanced up at him, and the sight of her tears stopped Brady cold.
In all the years he'd known her, he could count on one hand the times he'd seen her cry, and every one of those times had been somehow related to that damned Bobby McBee.
Her beautiful green eyes widened in surprise. "Brady," she squeaked.
He heard the sheriff lumbering up behind him, and her gaze shifted. Her eyes grew hard when she looked over Brady's shoulder. "I told you this would happen. I told you the stalker was going to kill one of us."
Brady glanced at the sheriff, then back at Nat. "What stalker?"
She pushed a lock of dark hair behind her ear. "Some psycho has been calling for the past two weeks. First, he only threatened me, but then he started threatening Bobby too."
Brady shifted. Too thin. She looked too thin, and tired. He noted the Quik Mart logo on her shirt, and it saddened him that someone as smart and vibrant as Nat had ended up working at a gas station.
"What, some guy has a crush on you or something?" Brady could write a book on being obsessed with Natasha Hawthorne.
She blinked and stared up at the streetlight. Then she laughed, a sad, hopeless sound that tore at his heart. "The accident. He said it wasn't fair that we survived."
Brady lifted his eyebrows. "Wh-the car accident? That was four years ago. Why would anyone be coming after you now?"
Nat shrugged. She looked so miserable and small sitting there, so defenseless, that his first impulse was to take her in his arms.
"I-uh, I'm not sure, unless it has something to do with the trial date. The civil case is coming up this month. That's all I can figure. He's been calling, and he vandalized the house last week. If that's not it, I simply don't know."
"Is this person threatening Reed too?"
She bit her lip and stared at her fingernails. "I don't know," she said finally. "Reed doesn't talk to me anymore."
The sheriff grunted. Brady glanced over his shoulder at him and was startled by the hard look on his face.
The memory of Nat's trial forced its way to the front of Brady's mind. The sheriff had testified against Nat and asked for justice for his niece and the other slain teenagers.
Brady rubbed a hand down his face. How had he forgotten that the sheriff was Melanie Cox's uncle? But in a town the size of Coalmont, he'd probably be hard pressed to find anyone who wasn't somehow connected to one of the six teenagers involved in the accident.
Sheriff Richards had dragged his sister down the courthouse steps that day while she'd screamed curses and protested Nat's two year sentence to the juvenile center. Would Richards even try to help Nat if she was being stalked?
The sheriff stepped up and crossed his arms over his chest. "It was probably a drug deal. McBee was no angel."
Brady expected Nat to argue, to defend Bobby as she always had, but she simply lowered her head. Where was the proud girl he'd known?
"What happened this evening?" he asked.
"I got off work around six, then I stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few things."
"The one on the corner. I don't drive anymore."
"Can anyone verify you were there?" the sheriff asked.
"I paid by check. I guess they can."
"I saw the receipt in the bag. It would have the time on it," Brady said.
Nat shot him a questioning look. "Yes, I'm sure it does. Anyway, I walked home. I yelled for Bobby to let me in because my hands were full. He never came, but I thought I saw him walk by the window, so I yelled again. Finally, I set the milk down and opened the door myself. Bobby was sitting in the recliner. A man in a black shirt and black ski mask stood behind him." She took a great, gulping breath. "He had a gun, pointed at Bobby's head."
The sheriff waved his hand impatiently. "What happened then?"
"I dropped the bag. Bobby yelled for me to run, and I took off. Oh, God. I left him there. I heard the gun go off, and I knew he was d-dead." Her teeth chattered, though the temperature had to be in the mid-seventies. Once again, Brady fought the urge to go to her.
She lifted a hand to her face, then lowered it again.
Brady caught a glimpse of her raw palms. "Nat, you're bleeding. What happened?"
She stared at her hands. "I tripped when the gun went off and fell down the steps. I scraped my hands on the sidewalk."
Excerpted from Three Motives for Murder by Michelle Perry Copyright © 2007 by Michelle Perry . Excerpted by permission.
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