With Gram’s Country Cooking School on spring break, Betts and Gram are taking part in this year’s cowboy poetry convention, offering lessons on frying catfish over an open campfire. But when a staged gunfight ends in real death and her brother Teddy becomes a prime suspect, Betts may be the one to jump from the frying pan into the fire.
After her ghostly guardian Jerome appears to watch her back and a spectral Pony Express rider gallops into town with some unfinished business, Broken Rope starts to seem more like a cowboy ghost convention. With trouble on both sides of this mortal coil, it’s up to Betts to clear her brother, put the spirits to rest, and make sure the true killer doesn’t become the one who got away.
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“Believe it or not, I do know how to fish,” I said. “I’ve done this a time or two.”
“I do believe you, Isabelle, but why would you use a worm that isn’t real?” Jerome asked as he leaned back against the tree and folded his hands on his lap.
“Because I don’t like the feel of real worms. They’re slimy and alive and gross. These fake worms are wonderful inventions. And I believe we call them lures now. To lure the fish, you know.”
“Lures,” Jerome said with a disgusted sigh.
“Missing the good old days?” I said.
Jerome smiled his half smile. “Always. Not in the ways you might think, though.”
I was sure that Samuel Clemens himself would have been inspired to pen another great American novel if he saw Jerome and me in the woodsy setting.
I wore my oldest, most faded overalls and one of my mom’s straw hats. If the hat had seen better days, they were days before my time. My white T-shirt was new and clean, but surely Mr. Clemens would have forgiven that minor fault in my country look. I’d even had the urge to pick a long piece of grass and hold it between my teeth, but so far I’d resisted. Jerome was Jerome, dressed in his cowboy hat and cowboy-ish clothes—the clothes he was wearing when he was killed in 1918.
For the fishing excursion, I’d picked a spot in the woods that I was familiar with. It was close to town, very close, and still a secret to most of our visitors—the tourists who ventured to Broken Rope every summer, as well as the current group, who’d been more a surprise than a plan. The river was one of Missouri’s more narrow rivers and about a hundred feet back from the jail side of Broken Rope’s Main Street, the place where the buildings and businesses were set up to duplicate their original Old West incarnations. I’d fished this river a number of times, and I knew about the abundance of catfish it held. Well, it might not be so abundant at the moment, but it would replenish quickly, even after Broken Rope’s recent run on catfish fishing. It was only two days earlier that many of the town’s full-time residents, Gram and me included, had been standing side by side up and down the river with our lines in the water. We’d all had a successful outing.
As a town, we had—well, Jake had, and the rest of us had gone along—agreed that Broken Rope could feasibly host a cowboy poetry convention this year, since the cowboy poets’ normal campsite had been destroyed by fire the previous summer. For our contribution, Gram and I would be teaching a couple outdoor cooking classes—frying catfish over a campfire and Dutch oven techniques. Along with the frying, there’d also be large amounts of catfish eaten over the next four days. We’d had to stock coolers and freezers with enough fish to support a bunch of healthy, fueled-by-fresh-air appetites.
The convention was almost a day and a half old, and if Jerome and I listened hard, we could hear sounds from the skit currently being performed on Main Street—something about a pioneer wife’s disloyal ways that would, of course, result in a gun battle. We’d already heard a gunshot. I hadn’t been needed for this particular skit, so I’d decided to take a few hours of downtime just for me. Before Jerome arrived I was just going to go for a head-clearing drive. There were a couple reasons I felt I needed to get away from the activity. A little quiet time might help me refocus; the convention had conveniently been scheduled over the cooking school’s April spring break, and all the students had left town, so they didn’t need any immediate attention, but the timing also meant I’d gone from busy cooking school teacher to busy convention-planning assistant. My normal spring break day or two of recharging wasn’t going to happen this year. Fortunately, even though the cooking school year had started off rough, things had been sailing along smoothly, and busily, since January.
But with Jerome along, my biggest reason for ditching the long drive idea and escaping a hundred or so feet into the woods was that I wanted and needed a place other than my car or my house to talk to him without the possibility of being overheard or interrupted by something more than a fish tugging on the line.
He’d arrived the previous night. I awakened briefly and thought I smelled wood smoke, but he hadn’t appeared in my bedroom like he had the last time he’d visited. When I smelled the smoke and didn’t see the ghost attached to it, I attributed the scent to my slightly open window and someone’s fireplace. April in southern Missouri was somewhat unpredictable, weather-wise, but lately the nights had been comfortable enough to either open the windows a crack or light a fire, depending upon your temperature preference.
Instead of the awkward bedroom appearance of his previous visit, he’d waited until I left the house and then joined me in my old blue Nova—he’d simply appeared and said hello. He’d startled me, but at least I’d been fully dressed this time.
We’d sat in front of my house for a few minutes and caught up in the awkward way of catching up that we’d become accustomed to. If any of my neighbors had been watching, they would have wondered why I was sitting in my car talking to myself, but that sort of scene isn’t too strange anymore, considering cell phones’ hands-free features. After a few minutes of initial greetings, I called Jake and Gram to confirm that neither of them truly needed me until later in the day, changed into my favorite overalls, grabbed my tackle box, and drove us out to the woods.
“So, you think you’re here to save me?” I said, repeating a question I’d asked when we were in the Nova. The question had been one of many, and I didn’t think it had been answered yet to my satisfaction.
“I think so, Isabelle. I’m still fairly certain that’s why I come back now, to keep you safe from harm.”
“But you don’t know why I’m in danger?”
It looked like that question, among others, might never be answered to my satisfaction.
“So maybe you’re just here for a visit? Maybe you were only meant to save me the last time or two you showed up. The rules do keep changing.”
Jerome thought a long minute and then said, “S’pose that’s possible.”
I smiled, but it wasn’t a totally happy smile. I appreciated his seeming raison d’être, of course. Even though there was a healthy-sized part of me that thought I was pretty good at saving myself, who wouldn’t want to be rescued by a handsome, long-dead cowboy? However, the ability to communicate with ghosts had made me somewhat less effective when it came to protecting myself from dangerous situations that included one or more of the spectral beings. I thought it commensurate that one should be able to save me every now and then.
The ghosts of Broken Rope’s past were now a solid part of my life. I’d never been much into history, but my fairly new, and apparently inherited from my gram, awareness of their existence had changed everything, including my interest in our Old West legends, as well as my personal definition of safe. The ghosts had certain uncanny and unpredictable abilities that had put me and people that I loved in harm’s way more than once. And, more than once, Jerome had saved me from a grim outcome.
Unfortunately, I also felt things for him that might be defined as unsavory and were most definitely strange. I liked him a lot; I’d talked myself out of being in “love” with him, but, truthfully, I wasn’t sure yet. I was one hundred percent sure that I loved my alive and still-breathing-oxygen boyfriend, Cliff (who didn’t know about and couldn’t communicate with the ghosts), so I’d decided that that love should trump my uncertainty about Jerome. It was a stupid thing to feel anyway—love for a ghost I’d only recently met. But, even though we hadn’t known each other long and even if he was technically not alive, no matter how hard I tried, I still couldn’t quite ignore those stupid and confusing emotions. I was working on it, though.
“But I don’t seem to be in much danger. Even the river’s not running too quickly. If I fell in, I could probably get out just fine. And I haven’t seen a ghost since the last time you were here, when Gent visited.”
Jerome squinted and thought a moment. “I surely don’t know, then.”
I pulled my attention away from the water and peered at him from under the brim of my hat. Though we were in shaded woods, a few stripes of sun were able to shoot through the high limbs and new spring leaves. Jerome was patterned; the parts of him in shade were more solid than the parts that were being hit by sunlight. In the dark—and when I was in the general vicinity—the ghosts became dimensional and touchable, though they didn’t feel like people as much as they just felt like something solid.
“You’re just going to hang around, then?” I said.
“I don’t have much choice,” Jerome said, but then he cleared his throat. “I mean, if I had a choice, Isabelle, of course I’d want to . . . what were the words you used? Hang around? I’d want to hang around with you, but my coming and going isn’t something I control, you know that.”
I smiled fully and tipped my straw hat back. It was a gesture I’d seen him do many times with his own hat. Suddenly, I felt a tug on the line.
“Oh, here we go.” I stood from the fallen tree trunk I’d been sitting on. I pulled the pole and wound the line.
“That was quick,” Jerome said as he stood and moved next to me.
“Much better than real worms,” I said, but I was startled by the strong pull from the sunken end of the line. “Hey!”
“Don’t lose him,” Jerome said as he crouched down and peered into the murky water.
The water was too dark and just slightly too deep to see the fish until I got it a little closer to the surface. But as I wound and pulled some more, it fought hard.
“It’s a big one,” I said.
Jerome looked up and tipped his hat back, just like I had done a moment before. “Once I caught a catfish that was so big it might have wrestled me back into the water.”
My forearms already felt twinges of pain up to my elbows.
“This one might be related to that one,” I said.
“I don’t know. I bet mine was bigger. I used a real worm.”
I laughed, but only for an instant. I had to pull and wind some more.
“I might have to let this one go,” I said. Those were words I’d never uttered before and never thought I would, but this creature was besting me quickly.
Jerome stood and put his hands on his hips.
“No, you can pull him in. Don’t give up yet.”
As much as I didn’t want to give in to any fish, this one was rapidly becoming not worth the effort.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Here, let me help,” Jerome said.
Neither of us took a moment to consider that it would be impossible for him to help. Though he’d been striped in shadow and slightly more opaque in parts, we weren’t surrounded by darkness, so he couldn’t be completely solid.
Nevertheless, he put his hands over mine and together we pulled, yanked, and wound the line.
An eternity of about half a minute later, the fish was at the surface.
“That is the biggest fish I’ve ever seen,” Jerome said. “Keep bringing him in.”
The Loch Ness Catfish Monster, as I’d suddenly decided to name him, fought, writhed, twisted, yanked back, and might have growled, if such a thing were possible.
“On three, one last big pull,” Jerome said. “One, two, three!”
The fish, which truly was one of the monsters of the river, I was sure, sprang up and into the air in front of us. Even as he was flying up, he was writhing and spitting. He was probably the biggest catfish I’d ever caught, but he wasn’t gigantic; I thought I should be able to handle him. He looked me in the eye right before he spit out the line, hook, and lure, and then splashed back into the river, drenching me from straw hat to cute tennis shoes. The force of the release sent me, Jerome, and the pole with the masticated fake worm to the ground.
An instant later, Jerome and I looked at each other and laughed.
It wasn’t long, though, before I sobered and the laughter transformed into something not funny at all.
“Wait, I felt your hands on mine,” I said.
“Oh?” Jerome held his hands up and looked at them.
“I’m not supposed to be able to feel you unless it’s really dark. It’s not really dark; it’s not dark at all.”
Jerome looked up toward the high treetops. “It’s not bright sunlight in here either.”
“But still.” I wanted to reach out and see if I could feel him. But I didn’t. I did not want the ever-changing rules with the ghosts to be changing again. I couldn’t keep up with all the edits, and accepting each new change took me time and contemplation.
Jerome looked at me, his eyebrows tight together. “Maybe I showed up to save you from the fish.”
It was an absurd statement, of course, but I didn’t laugh.
“No, you’re still here,” I said.
“Let me see,” I said as I tentatively reached for his hand again.
I’d placed my cell phone on another fallen tree trunk a little farther back from the river. It suddenly buzzed and vibrated and slid onto the ground. I pulled my hand back and got up and hurried to gather the phone.
“Gram?” I said. “What’s up?”
I listened to her words and tried to focus on their content, but she was saying some pretty unbelievable stuff.
When she was done, I said, “I’m on my way back. Stay inside and Cliff will get to you in a second, I’m sure.”
“What is it, Isabelle?” Jerome said after I ended the call.
“I’ve got to get back into town. There’s been a shooting. Someone was killed,” I said.
The details Gram had given me were so gruesome that I couldn’t bring myself to repeat all of them for Jerome.
“I’m going with you,” he said.
“That’s probably a good idea.”
All thoughts of testing Jerome’s solidity were left beside the river with my tackle box, pole, and probably an amused Terminator catfish. But, eventually, all things forgotten would have to be remembered.
At first I couldn’t find Gram. She’d said she’d gone inside the saloon, but she wasn’t there. The place was crowded, but mostly with people I didn’t readily recognize. There were so many convention attendees—we had dubbed them the poets—and I didn’t know most of them well enough to approach anyone and ask if they’d seen Gram. We had a number of visiting actors as well. I knew a few more of them because I’d helped with skit rehearsals, but my quick search didn’t yield any actor, poet, or Broken Rope native that I recognized. I looked for Orly, the man who was in charge of the poet group. He was tall enough that I’d spot him quickly if he was there. I saw plenty cowboy hats, but none that reached up high enough to have been perched on the tall man’s head. I moved out of the saloon and to the boardwalk to continue my search.
With what Gram had said on the phone, I was surprised that the crowd wasn’t more panicked. Concern wavered throughout, but maybe shock was taking over, replacing the initial fear. I hoped Dr. Callahan, our local doctor, had some help.
“Jerome, see if you can find Gram. Tell her to call me,” I said.
“Will do,” he said after he pondered the request a moment and then disappeared. He was probably weighing the chances of me being in danger before he left my side.
We’d run back into town and directly to the saloon. It would have taken more time to drive. So far, I hadn’t paid any attention to the spot where the victim had most likely been shot. I knew the skit had been performed at the other end of Main Street, opposite to where I now stood outside the saloon. Even though the street wasn’t all that long, there were plenty of people on it and on the boardwalks—everyone unsure of where to go and what to do. It looked like some crowd control was needed, but I wasn’t sure how I could help.
I stepped off the boardwalk and tried to see what was going on down the street. There was definitely a large crowd of people gathered, looking at one spot. I assumed it was at the body. I had no desire to join them, but I ached to know who’d been killed.
“Let’s go, folks. Come on. Please move inside somewhere,” an authoritative voice said from behind me. “Each shop or business has someone who will ask to check your purses and pockets and identification. We assure you that you’ll be fine.”
No one in the saloon had checked my pockets or asked for identification.
Jim Morrison, the police chief, was attempting to direct traffic, but it was an uncooperative crowd. Some of the officers had been dressing as cowboys in deference to the fun convention atmosphere, but Jim had kept with his official uniform, which at the moment seemed like a wise idea. His bald head was shiny, and though he was gifted with the ability to keep calm in horrible situations, I could see the concern in his eyes behind his thick black plastic-framed glasses. I hurried to join him.
“What happened, Jim? Can I help?” I said.
“Betts, just get inside somewhere. And try to calm down anyone who needs calming.”
I looked back toward the saloon just as someone I recognized went inside through the swinging doors. Officer Jenkins, Broken Rope’s newest police officer, would attend to everyone there.
I looked around. “I’ll head to Stuart’s.” Stuart owned the shoe repair shop, and from where I stood, it looked like only a few people had sought refuge there.
“Good.” Jim turned to the others on the street. “Now, folks, please, we’ve secured the area, but please get inside.”
I didn’t think the area had been secured, but I’d play along. Jim had done what he could to prepare for the unusually large April population, but there were just some things that a small-town police force could never be prepared for. Someone being gunned down in the middle of the street and in the middle of a skit was probably one of those things.
I turned to hurry to Stuart’s but was interrupted by a pounding rumble that seemed too loud, and even though I heard the rumble, oddly, I couldn’t feel it. As I looked toward the other end of the street again, I saw a man on a horse coming this direction.
“Jim?” I said, but my voice was quiet enough that he didn’t hear me.
When the man and his horse rode directly through the concerned group without harming anyone or knocking anyone over or even stirring up enough wind to cause hair to flutter, I realized that no one else saw either the horse or the man. The sun was behind a cloud, but it was still bright enough that the new arrivals were mostly transparent. I could see them both fairly clearly, though.
With intense purpose, the man steered the horse directly toward me but didn’t seem to notice that I could see him. It was the distinct scent of leather that came with animal and man that finally assured me that another ghost had come to visit, or rather two ghosts: the rider and the horse. The man seemed young, and he wore a cowboy hat that was even more beaten up than Jerome’s. His dirty face, grimy long tan pants, and grungy white shirt made me think that his scent wouldn’t be as pleasant as leather if he was alive. As he stopped the horse only a few feet away from me, I saw that he also wore a badge, but I didn’t think it signified law enforcement. He sat on a satchel of sorts that was over his saddle. Something in the back of my mind sparked. I should know what that satchel was, but I couldn’t quite place it.
“Missouri Anna Winston!” the young man proclaimed as the horse turned in place, impatient to get back to running.
The man’s voice made me think he was more a boy than a man. I looked even more closely at his face, but it too was smudged with dirt and he was moving around too much for a thorough inspection.
“Hey,” I said, trying to get his attention only and no one else’s. “Hey.”
He looked down at me. “You can see me, hear me?”
“I can. I’m Missouri’s granddaughter.” I looked around. Fortunately, the new ghost was the only one paying me any attention.
“That’s amazing. Good to meet you. I’m Joe,” he said.
“I don’t have any idea,” he said with a laugh. “Just Joe.”
“Betts!” a voice called from somewhere behind me.
“Miz!” Joe said.
Gram had emerged from a crowd that was gathered in front of the Jasper Theater. She wore jeans and a red and blue Ole Miss T-shirt.
“You okay?” I said. I performed a quick visual inspection. There was no blood marring the red and blue. She looked unharmed, but not unharried.
“Fit as a fiddle that needs to be restrung,” she said. “It hasn’t been a fun morning.” She looked up. “Hello, Joe. It’s always good to see you, but you’ve picked an interesting day to visit. Come along, let’s see if we can find a place to talk without all this commotion.”
But our efforts were thwarted.
“Miz, Betts, come help,” another voice said.
It took a second to realize that the voice was attached to Stuart, the owner of the shoe repair shop I’d intended to go to before the ghost appeared. He was older than Gram, and I’d noticed that his short stature had gotten somewhat shorter lately. He was leaning out through his front doorway and signaling for us to come over.
“Sorry, Joe, we’re going to have to confer later,” Gram said.
“But, Miz, the letters? We’ve only got a few more,” Joe said.
“Sorry. We’re busy. Meet us back at the cooking school later.”
Evidently, Joe thought his letter emergency was more important than the ruckus that was still going on in real life, but the ghosts were typically fairly self-involved. He harrumphed and then disappeared.
Gram sighed and shook her head at me. She didn’t need to remind me how annoying she sometimes found our otherworldly visitors.
“Here we go again?” I said.
“Something like that,” she said. “Well, I like Joe, but now’s just not the best of times. Come on, let’s see what Stuart needs.”
We hurried off the street.
“I have a couple ladies in here, and I’m particularly concerned about one of them,” Stuart said as he held the door open.
“Do they need medical attention?” Gram asked as we hurried past him.
“I don’t know, but no one is answering any phones anywhere. I saw you two and hoped you’d have a better idea of what to do. I’m not prepared for damsels in distress.”
If someone other than Stuart had used those words, it might seem like they were attempting a joke, but damsel in distress was still a contemporary phrase for the gentle, quiet man who spent most of his waking hours sitting at his back worktable either fixing shoes or crafting leather belts, which were selling at a brisk pace to both visiting tourists and Internet customers.
The repair shop was long and narrow. Akin to the scent that had wafted my direction with Joe’s arrival, the shop also smelled of leather, but there were other scents inside Stuart’s shop that made it one of my favorite places in Broken Rope. Polish, an assortment of oils, and Stuart’s never-empty coffeepot added smells that blended perfectly with the leather. The smallish lobby was comfortable, with four old vinyl-covered, cushioned chairs. Two of the chairs were currently occupied.
“Hi. I don’t know what to do for her. Can you help?” one of the women said when she saw us. Her words were tight with wiry nervousness. She was leaning toward the woman in the other chair, who had her head back with a cloth on her forehead. The woman leaning back was breathing quickly, and her cheeks were flushed.
They were relatively young; probably still in their mid-twenties. They both wore jeans and embroidered cowboy shirts, like so many of the poets and actors. The damsel in the most distress had a long black ponytail that hung down the back of the chair. The other woman had short, blazing red hair. I always considered my auburn hair to be almost-red. There was no “almost” about hers.
Gram crouched next to the woman in trouble and put the back of her hand against her flushed cheek.
“What happened?” Gram asked.
“I’m not exactly sure,” the redhead said. “It was after the shooting—was someone shot dead, for real?”
“I don’t know for sure,” Gram lied.
The redhead nodded and blinked and shook her head all at once. “After whatever happened out there, it seemed like everyone was in a panic, running every which direction. Vivienne”—she looked at the brunette—“ran into me and was very upset. I thought she might pass out, so I brought her in here. It was the closest spot.”
“Her name’s Vivienne?” Gram asked.
“Yes, Vivienne. I’m Esther. She and I met yesterday, at the campsite.”
“Vivienne,” Gram said gently, “can you hear me?”
Vivienne swallowed and then nodded, the back of her neck still resting on the back of the chair.
“Good. Stuart, can you grab her a cup of water or something?”
“Sure,” he said before he hurried behind the front counter and back toward his worktable and office.
Gram took a deep breath and said, “Vivienne, is there any chance you can sit up? I’m just going to be honest here—I need to see if you’re okay. We’re worried. My granddaughter has her car right outside. We can get you to a hospital if we need to, but we need to know how bad a shape you’re in.”
There were a number of problems with what Gram had just said: My car wasn’t close by, but I could run and get it if I needed to, I supposed. The closest hospital was about an hour and a half away. And finding out how “bad” a shape someone was in might not be the most delicate way to handle the moment.
But Vivienne seemed to respond favorably. She pulled the cloth off her forehead and sat up straighter. “I think I’m okay. I just got freaked.”
She was very pretty, even with splotchy skin. Her bright blue eyes were perfectly spaced over high cheekbones. She had a small mole above the right side of her mouth. Gram would call it a beauty mark; it worked well on her. Her full lips and bright white teeth made me think of plastic surgery and long hours in a dentist’s chair, though the end result on Vivienne wasn’t fake at all; just striking.
“That’s understandable,” Gram said.
“Here you go,” Stuart said as he reappeared with a bottle of water. He twisted the lid a little and then handed the bottle to Vivienne.
“Thank you,” she said as she smiled briefly at him. She took a drink and then wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She was still breathing a little faster than normal, but I wasn’t as alarmed as I’d been a moment earlier. She turned to Esther. “Thank you, too. I’m sorry.”
“Not a problem. I’m just glad that you’re going to be okay.”
Vivienne looked at each of us, one at a time. Gram answered the unspoken questions.
“I’m Missouri Anna Winston. This is my granddaughter, Betts Winston. And we’re all in Stuart’s shoe repair shop.” She smiled at Stuart, who looked relieved that all damsels were most likely going to recover.
“Nice to meet you all. Thank you again. I’m okay, really, but can any of you tell me what happened out there?”
I had no idea, and Gram didn’t go into detail.
“The skit was being performed in the street,” Esther began. “It was about a woman who’d cheated on her husband.”
I’d watched the short skit a number of times in rehearsal. I would have recognized the actors—one in particular. One of Cliff’s cousins had been given the role of the disloyal wife, and it had been fun to see her again, since her last visit to Broken Rope had been when Cliff and I were still in high school. Jake had scrambled for April actors. Most of Broken Rope’s thespians somehow managed to take summers off from their real jobs so they could volunteer to entertain the tourists. But most of them couldn’t make themselves available in April to help with the convention. I knew Jake had brought in some actors from Kansas City and St. Louis, but he’d still put a call out for more. Cliff’s cousin Jezzie had already planned on visiting, and she thought it would be easy and fun to participate in a skit or two, so she volunteered.
I still hadn’t heard who exactly had been killed. A cold string of dread suddenly ran through my gut, and I couldn’t help but interrupt. “Who was killed? Man or woman? Tell me the details.”
Gram blinked but seemed to understand my sudden need to know.
“Oh, she’s fine, Betts,” she said. “I’m afraid it was one of our visiting actors. I didn’t know him, and I haven’t heard his name, but he was playing the part of the good guy.”
“Norman?” I said. “I think his name was Norman.” I hadn’t known him, either, but I’d met him, and we’d shared a little small talk.
Gram’s mouth pinched tight as she shrugged.
“It was horrible, but it also seemed to be a part of the skit—you know, a gunfight and everything—until it got awful and real,” Esther said.
“The person who was killed was definitely named Norman,” Vivienne said. “I met him last night at the campsite.”
“I did, too,” Esther said, “but I didn’t talk to him all that much. Did you talk to him?”
“Was he shot during the skit?” I asked as I removed the straw hat that I’d forgotten about and that suddenly made me feel claustrophobic. I placed it on Stuart’s front counter and wiped a few stray hairs off my forehead.
“Yes,” Vivienne said. “It was confusing, because he was shot by the bad guy at the same time. We were all laughing because it was kind of a funny skit and then the bad guy pulled out his gun and fired it. It . . . I don’t know, did it sound funny?” Vivienne asked Esther.
“Yes.” Esther nodded. “It boomed, but from somewhere that didn’t seem like the same spot where the bad guy was standing. Like behind us or something,” Esther said.
“It startled us all,” Gram added. “And then we all were uncertain and confused as to what was going on, or what we thought might be going on.” Gram shook her head. “Then we saw the fella on the ground. It was bad.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
The door to Stuart’s shop flew open, causing the bell above it to ring at the same time as it slammed into the wall. We all jumped and turned.
“Everyone here all right?” Officer Jenkins said. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. He normally worked the night shift at the jail. He’d probably been roused when the murder had occurred and hadn’t had time to put on either his uniform or the more casual cowboy gear.
“We’re all right,” Gram said after she looked at each of us for a confirming nod or blink.
“Good. I’d like for you to all come with me. We’re gathering as many people as possible at the jail so we can take statements and get contact information in a timely manner.”
“I was just here in my shop, Officer,” Stuart said. “I didn’t see or hear anything. May I just stay here? I won’t leave until you okay it.”
Officer Jenkins wasn’t from Broken Rope. He also wasn’t as conditioned as Jim, or even Cliff, who was fairly new to the force, at keeping a neutral facade. Concern and suspicion pinched at his eyes as he glanced outside.
“No, sir, we’d like to talk to everyone there,” he said.
I interpreted that this was code for “We don’t know if everyone is safe from danger yet and we’d like everyone where we can see them.” A glance at Gram told me I wasn’t the only one reading in between the lines.
“Come on, we’ll be nice and cozy in there, but I imagine they won’t keep us long—will you, Jenkins?” Gram said.
“No, ma’am, we’ll have you out of there as quickly as possible.”
“Let’s go,” Gram said.
As we exited the shoe repair shop, I saw Jerome standing beside the entrance to the Jasper Theater, which was the spot where I’d originally noticed him on his first visit to Broken Rope. The theater was only two doors down from Stuart’s, but I thought that Gram might have been in too much of a hurry to get everyone to the jail to notice that he’d returned. If she saw or smelled him, she didn’t give any indication. I lagged behind the group and then hurried to him.
I didn’t hesitate to reach for his arm, and then his hand, and then his shoulder. My own hand went through him every time. There was nothing solid under my touch.
Jerome watched my movements, but didn’t comment. When I finished he said, “I think you’re fine for now, Isabelle. I can’t go into the jail, but I’ll be close by.”
“Why could you help me with the fish in the woods, Jerome? Why could I feel you? It wasn’t dark.”
“I don’t know, darlin’,” Jerome said as he moved his hand gently toward my face, but he pulled it back before it got even halfway. “I don’t have any idea.”
I put my hands on my hips and looked around. I didn’t know how the jail was going to hold everyone who’d been in town, but the boardwalk was emptying quickly.
“What about everyone else? I’d like to know that everyone is okay,” I said.
Jerome sighed. “Can’t help you there, Isabelle. I wish I could.”
I wished he could, too.
“We’ll talk more later?” I said.
“I think so.” Jerome smiled. “I haven’t left yet.”
Actually, he’d left me a few times now, but he had come back, so I didn’t point out that nitpicky and self-involved detail. For now, at least.
I tried to “feel” him one more time, but my hand went right through his shoulder again. I didn’t want to leave him. I wanted to talk to him more, find out more, but I wasn’t even sure what my exact questions were.
“I’ll see you later,” I said before I hurried to the jail.
“I wasn’t in town,” I said. “I was back there, fishing.” I pointed toward the back wall of the jail. I wished I was still there, beyond the wall and the crowd, with the fake worm in the water or hunting down the evil catfish. “I heard a gunshot, but I couldn’t tell you if it was from a popgun or from something real.”
“Catch anything?” Cliff asked.
“Yep. It was huge, but it freed itself, gave me the evil eye, and took off,” I said with a sad smile.
“The one that got away, huh?”
There was no good reason for the two of us to have stepped back from the crowd for a moment just so we could both make sure the other one was okay. Cliff had a job to do, and taking time away from that job wasn’t fair, but we’d done it anyway. He’d told me he was glad to see me, because he hadn’t been able to find me in the crowd after the shooting.
“Do you think we were all in danger or just Norman?”
Cliff shrugged. “We don’t know, Betts. This is bigger than anything we’ve ever dealt with. I won’t say that Jim and the rest of us are in over our heads, but we simply don’t have the manpower to effectively deal with something like this—someone shot out in the open who was in the middle of a larger crowd. We’re doing the best we can, and we’ve called in some help.”
“Do you know where the shot came from?” I asked.
Cliff nodded. “Yes, we think so, but we can’t find any solid evidence; we’re basing our knowledge on measurement and distance guesses, and Jim’s the only one who has had any training with that stuff. Someone more experienced from St. Louis will be here soon to evaluate what we’ve come up with so far.”
I bit my lip. Were we dealing with someone on the loose who was going around killing randomly, perhaps just building a list of victims, or had someone wanted Norman dead? How in the world could the police begin to figure that out with only measurements and distances?
As if reading my mind, Cliff said, “Betts, there are ways to investigate this. I don’t want you to think we’re standing around wondering what to do next. We do have some ideas.”
“I know,” I said, even though I hadn’t until he’d said so.
For a long moment, Cliff held my eyes with his. Though we were in a corner of the room, there was no real privacy. There were people everywhere. I’d been nudged by the elbows of passersby as we’d attempted the somewhat discreet conversation. And he was a police officer. Even though he was one who’d taken the casual-wear idea seriously, everyone still knew he was an officer. We had to keep it professional. A comforting hug would have been weird.
Cliff squinted. “I’ll call you later, but it will probably be much later.”
“I expected as much.”
He put his hand on my arm, smiled, and then turned to get back to work. I watched him melt into the crowd.
“Betts! Hi! Is this crazier than a three-horned toad?”
Cliff’s cousin Jezzie squeezed her shoulders through a small crowd on my other side.
“Jezzie, you okay?” I said.
She was still dressed in the period costume she wore for the skit—a yellow dress with a starched white apron. Her long blond hair was pulled back into a low bun and her pleasant face was free of any makeup. I didn’t think she ever wore any, which was only one of the things she and I had in common. We’d also both tried law school and both found that it wasn’t for us, and we both adored Cliff, though her adoration was strictly cousinly. Just the day before, she told me that Cliff was her favorite relative and that she was grateful he’d found his way back to me and to Broken Rope. I told her I was, too.
“I’m fine, sweetie, just shaken up. The whole thing was so shocking. The skit happened, and then when Norman was supposed to be shot, he really was. Golly, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“No need for you to be sorry at all. Unless you were the one to pull the trigger, I suppose.” Jezzie laughed and then put her hand to her mouth. “Good gravy, Betts, why in the world would I laugh about anything at all right now?”
“Stress, Jezzie. It happens. Don’t be hard on yourself for that.”
“I’ll try not to be.” She sighed. “He was a nice fella.”
“Did you get to know him?”
“Only a little. We did the skit together, but I also saw him over at the campsite last night. I was going to talk to him, but he was busy with the ladies, if you know what I mean. Oh! And he was hanging out with Teddy, too.”
“My Teddy?” I said, meaning my brother, Teddy.
“Yes, that one,” she said.
“I haven’t seen him today. Have you?”
There was no reason to be concerned about Teddy just because neither Jezzie nor I had seen him today, but the circumstances did make me wonder about his time at the campsite with the murder victim.
“What was he doing last night?”
“I’m not sure. I saw him with Norman, but I also saw both of them flirting with the girls.”
“Teddy and the girls,” I mumbled. Teddy’s ways with girls had frequently caused issues, both when he was paying attention to them and when he was ignoring them.
“Yeah, he’s adorable,” Jezzie said. There was no added weight to her words, as if she wanted me to fix the two of them up—which was something I frequently dealt with. She was only stating a fact.
“Oh my, and the girls were so darn pretty,” Jezzie said. “One had the reddest hair I’d ever seen, and the other looked like a young Elizabeth Taylor.”
Her description fit the two women I’d met at Stuart’s. I craned my neck to look for them so I could point them out to Jezzie, but I couldn’t find them anywhere.
“Were they all together? I mean, were the girls together?” I thought back to the two women. Esther had said that she and Vivienne met only the night before. I hadn’t sensed any sort of bond between them, but I wondered about the logistics of them both potentially vying for the attention of the same guys.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Country Cooking School Mysteries
“[O]ne of those series that has you waiting with bated breath for the next book to come out.”
—Debbie’s Book Bag
“[A] blue ribbon–winning recipe for a tasty read.”
—New York Times bestselling author Jenn McKinlay
"[A] treat for cozy mystery lovers."
—Lesa’s Book Critiques