At Large

At Large

by Lynne Murray


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A king-sized case for a queen-sized sleuth. In the third Josephine Fuller mystery, Jo is working undercover at a women's skills center when she spots an old acquaintance. Jo last saw Teddy in Kathmandu when her photographer husband ran off with Teddy's mountain-climbing wife, leaving the spouses to commiserate. Now Teddy has a new problem-his latest girlfriend is missing. Jo agrees to track her down, and the trail leads straight to his estranged wife, murdered with a climbing axe. Jo suddenly finds herself a major suspect in the death of the woman who broke up her marriage. Add to that Jo's already muddled love life, an apartment filled with haunting memories, and suspects ranging from the victim's lesbian vegetarian sister to her fading film star mother, her politician stepfather and her mooching father, and Jo's got her hands full.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781597190442
Publisher: Pearlsong Press
Publication date: 01/09/2013
Pages: 228
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.52(d)

About the Author

Lynne Murray was born in Decatur, Illinois, and grew up in Texas, Alaska, Washington, and Southern California. She now lives in San Francisco. She has published numerous articles in local and national newspapers and magazines and has written and directed a play.

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Chapter One

Of all the women's job skill centers in all the towns in all the Pacific Northwest, he walks into mine. It had been a rocky week already, and it wasn't Friday yet. In fact Thursday morning was moving so slowly that if I hadn't personally witnessed each second tick off on the big black schoolroom clock across from my desk, I would have sworn that time was standing still. It didn't help that no one was buying my best impersonation of a mild-mannered receptionist. As a woman who has never weighed less than two hundred pounds in my adult life, you might not guess that I can be inconspicuous, but if I keep my head down and my mouth shut, I can usually pull it off. Unfortunately the earnest blue silk pantsuit, pearls and expression of well-bred naivete weren't working.

    Something about this job skill center wasn't quite right. I needed to find out what it was for Mrs. Madrone, so that my wealthy employer could decide whether to award the place a grant. Maybe I had asked too many questions.

    By the time Ted showed up, I was already on Delores Patton's radar. The center director was an African-American woman who commanded respect with an attitude that could clean brass at twenty paces. She knew I wasn't your usual do-gooder. She just hadn't decided how to deal with it. Ted's arrival made up her mind, and managed to get me fired from a volunteer job—not as easy as it sounds.

    Teddy Etheridge was the first male who had entered the office in the three weeks I had been volunteering there. The center was located in Bremerton, about an hour's ferry ride southwest of Seattle.I'd stayed in Bremerton during the week answering phones, helping out and nosing around. On the weekends in Seattle I saw my Persian tomcat, Raoul. Thor Mulligan took care of the cat for me during the week.

    I had a crush on Mulligan, but he was still grieving over the death of Nina, his lover and my best friend. It had been three months since she died and I was mourning her too. But I was also fighting off a terrific yearning for Mulligan, who had drastically mixed feelings about getting involved with me, or maybe with anyone at this point.

    We had tested this theory by spending a night together six weeks earlier. The night itself had been wonderful—right up until the emotional tidal wave of guilt and grief swept over Mulligan and left me untouched.

    He had backed away from me after that. We hadn't talked about it much. I felt guilty about how I didn't feel guilty. As for what I could do next—the short answer appeared to be "not much."

    For a split second when Teddy walked in the door, I thought he might be a potential employer who had strayed in without an appointment. Not that I'd ever seen an actual employer on the premises. They did call from time to time to get cheap labor. Oops—I mean to support the Women's Job Skill Center.

    Then I recognized him. "Teddy!" It was always Ted or Teddy to his friends. Never Theodore, not even on his book covers. He wrote humor books for a living.

    When he realized it was me, his bearded face lit up in a huge grin. "Josephine Fuller!"

    "Ted Etheridge. The last of the hopeless romantics."

    I came around the desk to shake hands with him, and he pulled me into a big hug. An inch or two over six feet tall and square as a teddy bear, Ted was not quite fat because he was so intensely physically active. I pulled back to take a look at him. Now in his late thirties, he would always be boyish, with a shock of red-brown hair that seemed to fall into his eyes no matter how short it was cut.

    Our last conversation had lasted over a dozen hours—the night in Kathmandu when both of our marriages died.

    Ted had been married to Francesca Benedict Etheridge, a gifted mountain climber. It had looked as if she might attempt an ascent on Mount Everest. That climb fell through, and she ended up ascending my husband—as he then was. Leaving Ted to entertain me in the lobby of the Everest Vista Hotel which, incidentally being quite a distance away in Nepal, does not have a view of Mt. Everest.

    I had been married to Griffin Fuller, world-renowned as a photographer, and well-known (except to his wife) as a philanderer. Teddy had been playing the part of the supportive husband of a climber, helping Francesca field media coverage, and occupying himself by gathering local color in Nepal. He had a gift for mingling with serious trekkers and climbers, who sometimes mistook him for one of their own. But his appearance was deceptive. Teddy dabbled in climbing and a variety of other sports. But in everything he did, he was always looking for a punch line.

    "Josephine, I haven't seen you—well, since that infamous night. Is it still Jo Fuller or did you get divorced?"

    "Yes to both questions. My maiden name was O'Toole, so I kept Griff's last name in lieu of alimony. What about you and Francesca?"

    He shrugged. "It's in the works."

    "Is that anything like 'the check is in the mail'? 'The divorce is in the works'?"

    "You can't know what hard work that is," Ted said. "It's backbreaking labor to convince Francesca to let go of anything she once controlled. Speaking of which, she's still with Griff. Did you know that?"

    "I made it a point not to know."

    That night in the hotel lobby was etched in my memory. Ted and I had met a few days earlier, as both he and Griff had assignments from the same travel magazine. As we waited in the lobby, it became clearer with each hour that our respective spouses, scheduled to arrive at any moment, were both not showing up.

    We adjourned to the bar, and began comparing notes. We were able to put together a pretty strong case for the suspicion that my husband and his wife were spending the night together. Ted and I had some quantity of time to reflect on the qualities we both expected in a spouse. Loyalty was high on both our lists, but the partners we were with didn't seem to feel the same way.

    We got along famously. We managed to laugh quite a lot, considering the situation. The Scotch whiskey might have helped. There was never any possibility that we might have wandered up to one of the rooms together that long dark night for some mutual comfort. True, we did both have that little kink about not cheating.

    But, I must also note that, as a large-sized woman, I've developed extra-sensitive radar for men who see me as a sexual being, versus men who see a surrogate mom. Ted had cried on my shoulder that night in Kathmandu. No problem, we were consenting adults crying on each other's shoulders. Now I got the sinking feeling that he viewed me as a warm, fuzzy shoulder to lay his head on, and indulge in another sympathy session.

    I was in no mood. I needed to stop that in its tracks.

    "So what brings you here, Ted? Are you planning a sex-change operation, and lining up future employment? I hate to tell you, but the pay cut is the most unkindest cut of all."

    Teddy burst out laughing, which seemed to knock him out of what looked like a looming self-pity jag. "Et tu, Josephine!" he quipped with his hand over his heart. "You'll have to stand in line today—grab a knife and take a number."

    "Ouch!" I chalked him up a point for quick recovery and the edgy image of Teddy as Caesar surrounded by knife-wielding, female assailants.

    But there was a gasp from behind me, and I saw the center director, Delores Patton. She was the image of the Black executive woman of today from her copper-colored wool business suit with matching nails, to her short Afro hairstyle and take-charge expression. Delores had already expressed doubts about whether I should be there. My joking with Ted sent the room temperature zooming downward until I could almost hear her opinion crystallize into a solid, frozen, "No."

    Ted got in a flash that I had shocked Delores, and that tickled him even more. He was amazingly good-natured for a humorist—a job that usually comes with neurotic baggage. He wrote a syndicated column, Ted's Wide World of Bumbling, based on his attempts to try new and daring destinations and modes of transportation, usually with hilarious results. He also wrote a series of books about adventure travel for the clueless, which had bumbled onto the bestseller list. The first one was Bumbling Through the Jungle—about a tourist wandering the rainforests of the world. This was succeeded by Bumbling Around in Boats—about sailing boats of all sizes. In Nepal, he had been gathering material for Bumbling Along the Roof of the World.

    Delores blinked as if she recognized Ted's name when I introduced him as a bestselling author. Ted stared at his feet and mumbled, "Aw, shucks." But Delores continued to look grim.

    "Sorry, ma'am, I just bumbled into your office by mistake," Ted said, giving Delores his most boyish look. "What a wonderful surprise to find my old friend Josephine. Can you spare her for lunch?" He asked her, as if begging a parent to let their child come out to play.

    "You're supposed to ask me, Teddy," I said, although Delores's reaction was interesting.

    "I was getting to that, Jo. If this gracious lady can spare you for an hour."

    Delores stepped past me, punched the intercom, and called one of the counselors to cover the phones. She muttered that I was free to go now if I wanted. She didn't say anything about not coming back. But it was there if I wanted to hear it.

Chapter Two

So I found myself unexpectedly set free from the office, strolling with Teddy into the late morning overcast of August in Bremerton.

    "Would you mind if we took the ferry to Port Orchard?" he asked. "There's a mom-and-pop restaurant here that's good, but I'm not their favorite person these days."

    "What? You didn't tip?"

    "It's a long story. Let me buy you a good seafood lunch, if you can spare a little more time. It's only a twenty-minute ride."

    I thought about Delores, no doubt waiting to pounce when I went back to the center, and decided I would wind up that assignment, no matter what she did. "Okay."

    We didn't have to wait long for the ferry. It was for foot traffic only, no cars, and it followed the waterfront all the way to Port Orchard. "You seem to know your way around this part of the world," I said.

    "It's a long way from Kathmandu."

    "At least we're not praying for an avalanche."

    Teddy laughed a little grimly. We both watched the onshore world slip by in silence, thinking back to that night.

    If we hadn't both been tortured by thoughts of what our spouses were doing together, we would have had a hilarious time. With each hour that they did not show up, the jokes got sharper and seemed immensely funnier than they could have at any other time. We decided that news of our spouses having been killed in an avalanche might be welcome or unwelcome, depending on the position of the bodies and the amount of clothing they were wearing when discovered.

    As the night wore on, Ted would sneak an occasional amazed look at me. The unspoken subtext was, "What a fantastic woman. I'd go to bed with her in a minute if she weighed about a hundred pounds less."

    I had a sharp reply ready. Whenever a gentleman decides to share this priceless insight with me—and an amazing number do—I am forced to cut him, and then stand back out of the way so he doesn't bleed on my rather expensive plus-sized outfit. The violence is confined to words. But it's surprising how respectful even a self-important male can become when he grasps that should he overstep the bounds of politeness, you can slice out his ego and hand it to him on a plate.

    But Ted made me laugh and never ventured an insult—just those occasional cautious glances. Yep, got it right the first time, she's fat. I guess he'd never spent that much time with a large woman.

    I gave him the benefit of the doubt because we were crouching on the same ledge in hell, and he was good company in hell. His face today testified that he'd managed to find a return ticket. We got off the ferry and he led the way to the Bay Street Restaurant, which had crisp white tablecloths, warm bread and a comprehensive seafood menu.

    Sure enough, he ordered a double Scotch, single malt. Already planning my drive back to Seattle, I decided to stick with coffee, ordered the grilled sole lunch plate and sat back, resigned to listening.

    "Okay, Ted, what's this sad story?"

    "It's so incredible running into you like this, Jo. Because you really are responsible for my pathetic and heartbroken state."

    "This is not about Francesca," I guessed.

    "No. I've been lucky in love since Fran and I broke up. At least I thought I was lucky. I came into that center looking for the woman who was the love of my life. She just left me. But if it wasn't for you, I never would have found her to begin with."

    "What's her name?"

    "Lucille. How can I describe her? She was a goddess."

    He was using the past tense. I sighed noiselessly. Lucille was either dead, or her goddess status had been revoked.

    "That night in Kathmandu I couldn't help but kick myself for never having noticed you before. But more than anything that night, I hated Francesca. Did you know I left Nepal the next day?"

    "No. I was a little preoccupied. Griff and I spent a few days fighting before I left."

    "I still hear from Fran. I'm bugging her to sign the divorce papers. But she still hasn't quite accepted the fact that I didn't retire to a monastery after we broke up. But you don't care do you? You've found someone else—I can tell."

    I was a little startled by his remark, but I didn't deny it. "Yes, I guess I have, but—it's complicated."

    "But you're happy."

    I almost said, "I am?" But I didn't want to get into my problems. Neither did he. He wanted to talk about his.

    "I was as happy as you, until a couple of months ago."

    A chill went down my spine for some reason. "What happened?"

    "Her name was Lucille. She was a waitress at a little mom-and-pop place in Bremerton."

    "The one where you're no longer welcome." I raised my eyebrows.

    He managed a faint smile. "It's your fault, Jo, that I noticed her the way I did. She was bigger than you—over three hundred pounds, not that I could estimate. She told me that later. She had green eyes and the most amazing hair, like twenty-four-carat gold, with wonderful olive skin that set it off. She had this luminous cheerfulness about her. She just wore a simple white blouse and black skirt, but when she stood next to the table and I looked up, her breasts seemed to go on forever. We chatted a bit, and I guess I just basked in her simple friendliness. When she brought my order, I told her about my book and she seemed thrilled—which got my attention." He smiled.

    "So you're telling me she gave signs of sharing your enthusiasm for yourself?"

    "Yes, I love that in a woman." This time he came up with his most winning smile but then stared back into the middle distance and conjured up the past. "When she went to get me more coffee, I told myself here was a warm, charming, lovely woman whom I once would never have given the time of day to. So I flirted a bit, she flirted back, and that was the end of it. I told her I was about to bumble across the country on my motorcycle, and I'd see her in a few months. That was when I was writing Bumbling and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

    "Right. I read it. Great stuff."

    "Thanks. Anyway, Lucille told me that sounded like a lot more fun than slinging hash, but she guessed she'd still be doing that when I returned. It was fun to talk to her. I told myself I must be over Francesca, because what could be more unlike her than this unpretentious waitress? Fran was always—well, you remember Fran."

    "Oh, yeah." Fran was petite but muscular, the kind of woman who looks like she's wearing an elegant designer outfit when she's sprawled on a sofa in jeans and a thermal undershirt. I had spent lots of time successfully not thinking about her, and I wasn't about to start dwelling on her now.

    "I don't know why, but somehow just flirting with Lucille, I felt pleased with myself," Ted continued. "As if I had tried some exotic dish I'd heard rumors about."

    "You sampled her dish?"

    "No, no. We just talked, but I thought about it."


    He sighed. "Once I got on the road I started to get this obsession with her. That hair, those eyes, those breasts."

    "Okay, okay, I get it. Turn your motor off."

    "Sorry. Anyway by the time I'd got my material, and was settling down to write, I told myself I was creating an ideal woman out of a wild fantasy. Still, I could write anywhere, so why not down here on the peninsula near that charming mom-and-pop restaurant?"

    "So you came back here."

    "I found a place, and started writing. I took my meals at the restaurant. Lucille was still there. She seemed glad to see me, but I noticed she was nice to everyone. It was like I was a kid again. She wasn't wearing a ring. She didn't seem to be going out with anyone. But I just couldn't get up the nerve to ask her out."

    "What happened?"

    "It came to the point where I couldn't stand it anymore. I found out when she got off, and rode over there on my motorcycle just before quitting time. I asked if we could talk. I told her how I felt, and she agreed to go out with me."

    I sighed. "Well, that's good, Ted, what happened then?"

    "We were great together, amazing. One thing led to another." He smiled in a way that made me distinctly uncomfortable. "I sampled her dish, as you put it. We were so happy." I nodded. Ted leaned forward, gazing past me into that earlier time. "I was writing; we moved in together. We even talked about her maybe taking some night classes. She was fascinated with my work. She was a great reader. But her family owned the diner where she had worked since junior high school. No one ever told her she could go to college. I would have been delighted to support her in anything she wanted to do. It turned out what she wanted to do was lose weight."

    "That wasn't your idea?"

    "I believe on that memorable night when you and I talked, I got an earful of your views on that subject." He looked up at the ceiling and recited, "'Long-term studies show that all but a tiny fraction of the people who do lose weight gain back every pound, some gain back more,' et cetera, et cetera."

    I blinked at him. "Gosh, I don't even remember telling you any of that. It's true, but I can't imagine how the subject came up."

    "You can't remember how you told me off?" He stared at me, incredulous.

    "Sorry. Don't take it personally. That was a crazy night. I gave you a hard time, huh?"

    "I was pompous, I deserved it." He looked a little sheepish. "I made some casual remark about losing weight, and you told me in a rather dramatic fashion what an ignorant ass I was."

    I shrugged. "Okay, I can imagine my saying something like that. A lot of the details of our conversation were driven out of my mind by the sight of Griff giving Francesca a pelvic exam along with a farewell kiss in the lobby."

    "That was a shocker, wasn't it? But I got the impression you were more surprised at what Griff did than I was at Fran. It just confirmed what I'd been suspecting for months. She was always looking for a higher mountain and Griff was it. Poor bastard." He shook his head. "Anyway, I told Lucille what you said about the futility of dieting. Maybe it lost something in the translation. She said it sounded like sour grapes to her. All I could say was I loved her, and I would still love her no matter what. I went on an assignment for a travel magazine to Costa Rica. I was gone for a month, did some book promotion along the way. When I got back to Bremerton, Lucille had lost forty pounds. In the next year she lost another sixty. I had never been around anyone on a serious diet before. It was like she had PMS for a bloody year. Both of us were nervous wrecks."

    "And?" I was wondering if I should even bother to go back to the center. We had finished our lunches and I'd had a refill on the coffee. It was getting late.

    "The more weight Lucille lost, the more hyper she got. Her doctor had her on some prescription diet pills. She lost a hundred and fifty pounds in a year and a half. I scarcely recognized her, but I still loved her. I was worried that she was having some kind of breakdown, she was so anxious. Then she just disappeared. I think she left town. Her family refused to tell me where she had gone."

    He pulled a piece of pale blue stationery from his pocket. The handwriting on it was large and rounded but very clear:

    Dear Ted,

It's not that I don't love you, because I do. I always will. But I have to love myself more and try to be the best Lucille I can. Maybe it's because of my weight that you haven't gotten divorced even though you said you loved me.

"Ted!" I looked at him.

He gazed at me sadly, "I don't know what to do."

    "Well, how about getting a divorce, Ted? I'm with her on that one."

    "I know, I know!" He threw up his hands. "The web around Francesca is harder to untangle than it should be. We've got some small property that I should get half of. Maybe I should just let it go, but I think I've persuaded her. If only I could contact Lucille, I could explain what I'm doing."

    "Ted." I reached out and patted his hand. "I like you. We suffered together on a very dark night of the soul, but you can't expect a sensible woman to stay with a married man, even if he is separated and working on a divorce."

    "You're right. But I'm married in name only, and even that will be over soon. I love Lucille. Losing her is driving me crazy. She told me she was getting so much male attention nowadays that she was afraid there was too much temptation there. Maybe she already had another man." He looked so miserable that I put aside my exasperation.

    "Were you guys getting along otherwise?"

    "I thought we were. I adored her. We made love several times a week, and she came like a freight train. Is that what you wanted to ask?"

    "Gosh, Teddy, mince me some words, would you?" I laughed, but now he was making me very nervous.

    "Well, you wanted to ask didn't you?"

    "Um, well—anyway, thanks for sharing." I knew in his way, he was paying me back for the crack about the sex change operation. Fair enough. That was another thing I remembered about Teddy—he kept track of who made fun of what. I could almost see him mentally chalking one up for himself.

    I had felt so comfortable with him during that long night of suffering. It took a minute to see what was different. He wasn't shy about looking at me now.

    I decided to try the man-to-man approach. "You need to clean up that unfinished business, Ted. That might go a long way toward mending things with Lucille. Otherwise—how shall I say this? If you have broadened your tastes to include large women, there are even more wonderful ladies out there than you ever imagined."

    He sighed. "You think I'm not serious about finding Lucille."

    "It's not that. But she doesn't seem to want to be found right now."

    "I was a sucker for an ambitious woman. Again."

    He looked so stricken that I reached out to offer another comforting pat, but he captured my hand and squeezed it. I pulled free as soon as I could without being rude. I didn't know much about Francesca Benedict Etheridge. I had purposely kept it that way. Now Teddy told me she was still married to him, even though she was living with my ex-husband. I didn't waste any energy feeling sorry for Griff. Francesca might be a black widow spider, but I suspected my very resourceful ex kept a packed suitcase in the closet for those sudden escapes.


Excerpted from AT LARGE by Lynne Murray. Copyright © 2001 by Lynne Murray. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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