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Seeds of Vengeance
A Kendall O'Dell Mystery
By Sylvia Nobel
Nite Owl BooksCopyright © 2007 Sylvia Nobel
All rights reserved.
I should have been paying attention. But, I wasn't. Instead of tuning into the animated chatter of our informal editorial meeting, staying focused on story assignments and considering proposed feature possibilities from my co-editor, Morton Tuggs, and staff reporters, Jim and Walter, my thoughts rolled away like a tumbleweed in a stiff wind.
If I angled the ring finger of my left hand just right, the two-carat diamond caught the luminous rays of November sunlight slanting through the blinds behind me. The mesmerizing collage of radiant colors temporarily resurrected the giddy elation that had consumed me when Tally slipped it on my finger that glorious Saturday evening twelve days ago. A mere forty-eight hours later, my sky-high euphoria had crashed and burned. The very day we'd planned to announce our engagement to his mother, Ruth, came word that Tally's uncle, Superior Court Judge Riley C. Gibbons, had been reported missing, having failed to return from a weekend elk-hunting trip in the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff. Despite a rigorous ground and air search conducted by the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office and Posse, of which Tally was an active member, hopes dimmed that the judge would be found alive in the rugged wilderness after a fierce winter storm slammed into the area. It sent temperatures plunging and blanketed the northern part of the state with more than two feet of snow, while lower elevations endured three days of snow flurries interspersed with icy rain.
Much to my dismay, Tally had suggested that, in light of his mother's fragile emotional state and her deepening despair concerning the fate of her former brother-in-law and lifelong friend of Tally's late father, Joseph Talverson, it would be advisable to delay our announcement until there was some news of the judge's whereabouts. It was hardly a secret that I resided at the very top of Ruth Talverson's least favorite persons list and even though Tally hadn't stated it aloud, I knew he feared that the knowledge that I would soon be her daughter-in-law might push his mother to the brink of a mental meltdown, where in my mind the disagreeable woman had never been all that far from in the first place.
I swiveled the chair a few inches to my left and glanced out the window, amazed at the surreal transformation of the normally bone-dry desert now covered with two inches of fresh snow dumped during the second storm in slightly over a week. An anomaly to be sure. A mound of creampuff clouds obscured the craggy mountain peaks while the surrounding foothills looked as if they'd been sprinkled with powdered sugar. Across the street in the vacant lot, the stately saguaro cactus had assumed a rather whimsical appearance, sporting a cap of frosty silver while the tips of its six upturned arms reminded me of white mittens. Snow. I hadn't thought I'd ever see it again since leaving Pennsylvania last April. After sweating my brains out for the past eight months, the longest, hottest summer of my entire life had mercifully ended. I'd have to check to be sure, but I think autumn consisted of approximately five hours followed by this sudden winter. Bam. No subtlety to the weather here in the desert, no sir. Back East, the first week of November usually ushered in endless months of leaden gray skies. Not here. Today, brilliant sunlight prevailed, promising to bump the temperature up into the 50's, which to me seemed totally comfortable at last, but had my co-workers scurrying to don winter coats and whine vociferously about the freezing cold. Apparently I still had not yet undergone the magical blood-thinning phenomenon that supposedly affects people who relocate from colder regions to Arizona. Because of the expected warm-up, Tally had informed me that he would not be coming into the office so that he could participate in the search party once again. After spending a blissful night together snuggled in each other's arms, he'd grimly advised me at breakfast this morning that if the judge wasn't found by the end of the day, it was likely the search would be called off. Permanently. It was obvious by his anxious glance that he feared such a decision would magnify his mother's ongoing emotional crisis.
"Which means what?" I'd demanded, eyeing him with suspicion, my tone edging towards petulant. "Are you saying that we postpone telling her indefinitely?"
"Well ... um...."
The ensuing hesitation transmitted volumes. "Tally! Our engagement party is less than six weeks away." His noncommittal shrug combined with his taciturn expression ignited my ultra-short fuse. I inhaled to the bottom of my lungs before responding in a voice that sounded perfectly reasonable to me. "How long do you think it's going to be until someone tells her that we've rented the entire ballroom at the Whispering Winds?"
Appearing pained, he began, "Look, I understand how you feel —"
"Do you? In case you've forgotten, you invited half this town, and my whole family is coming, including some cousins from Ireland I haven't seen since I was in high school!" I smacked my hand on the table for emphasis, causing my new kitten, Marmalade, to leap about three feet in the air. Orange fur spiked on her back and claws scrabbled on the tile for traction as she streaked from the kitchen.
Observing the kitten's reaction to my outburst, Tally leveled me a perceptive frown and pushed away from the table. "Well, I wondered how long it would take," he groused, crossing to snatch his fleece-lined Levi's jacket and black Stetson from the coat rack. "Apparently your promise to practice the fine art of patience is now history. And in less than two weeks."
"Look, it's not going to be a big deal if we wait a few more days. You're being overly dramatic as usual and just a tad unreasonable."
I thought my chest would burst. "Come on, Tally, give me a break. I think ... I believe I've been super patient so far and I know how much you're dreading this encounter — trust me I am too — but we have to tell her tonight. Delaying is not going to make it any easier. She's going to hate the idea of us being married whether she finds out tonight, a month from now, or — and please don't take this the wrong way — whether your uncle is found today or not. So ... can't we just get it over with?"
He jammed his hat on. "Also typical. It's your way or no way."
Remembering the look of wounded agitation darkening his ruggedly handsome features before he'd stomped out the door made my heart shrink with regret. I wished now that I could take back my ultimatum. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to wait until the weekend. When, oh when, would I ever learn to keep my mouth shut?
As if sensing my unhappy thoughts, Walter Zipp piped up, "Hey, Kendall, any more news about Judge Gibbons since they found his pickup on that forest service road?"
I turned back to the group. "Nope."
Lips pursed solemnly, he murmured, "That's too bad."
"Yeah," I concurred, hoping against hope that a miracle would occur and they'd find the man today alive and well. But, what were the chances of surviving a second storm with sub-zero temperatures?
"Kind of a strange coincidence that he disappeared at this particular time, if you ask me," Jim Sykes remarked, flicking a lock of bleached blond hair away from his forehead while he eyed us with his usual bratty know-it-all smirk.
All eyes turned to him, so I asked, "What makes you say that?"
He tipped his chair back, laced his fingers behind his neck, and said with an air of self-importance, "Oh, nothing much." He paused for effect before continuing with, "It's probably just a fluke, but ah ... guess who I heard was back in town?"
"Who?" we all chimed in simultaneously.
Tugg nodded sagely. "Je-zuss. I wondered if he'd come back here."
Walter Zipp, who'd hired on less than two months earlier, echoed my own puzzlement. "Who's Randy Moorehouse?"
Jim threw in, "A real bad-ass dude better known to his old biker buddies as Pig Pen."
Tugg chuckled. "I'm not sure why he's called that, but you can ask Tally when you see him. I remember him mentioning one time that he went to high school with Moorehouse and his sister."
I frowned at Jim and Tugg. "So, what's the guy's connection with the judge?"
"Ready for a gruesome story?"
I perked up. "Always."
"Hmmm. Let's see, I guess it's been about ten years ago," Tugg began, looking introspective. "I was still working at the Arizona Republic in Phoenix at the time, but from what I recall Moorehouse was sentenced to Death Row for murdering his old lady."
"Really? He killed his mother?"
A wry smile. "No. Old lady is biker lingo for girl-friend, right, Jim?"
"Correctomunde," he replied, a speculative gleam lighting his eyes. "Of course, Randy swore up and down that he'd been framed, but he couldn't explain why the ax that had been used to chop the poor lady up like a cube steak was found hidden underneath his mobile home two days later."
"Interesting," I murmured, repulsed, but oddly intrigued as well.
"Moorehouse had been in trouble a couple of times before. He was a member of an outlaw biker gang called the Desert Devils." Tugg continued, "Three weeks ago he was released from prison."
He shook his head in disgust. "You know the drill. One of these zealous anti-death-penalty lawyers got hold of his case and after eight years of appeals finally got him a new trial. The prosecution's main witness, a woman who claimed she'd seen him and another man standing alongside his motorcycle close to where the body was found that night, could not be located. The blood evidence against him had been misplaced and they could not conduct any DNA tests so ..." he palmed his hands upward, "the judge overturned his conviction."
Jim leaned forward expectantly. "Who do you think put Randy Moorehouse on Death Row in the first place?"
Uh-oh. An uneasy mixture of excitement and cold dread wrestled around in my stomach. "I'm guessing the honorable Judge Riley C. Gibbons."
Jim clicked his tongue and nodded. "Bingo."
I sat back in my chair. Well, well. That added a disturbing element to the equation. Thus far, none of our inquiries to the sheriff's office had netted any hint of foul play. If Tally was aware of the man's return, he hadn't mentioned it to me. And now with this evening's showdown looming, did I dare broach the subject to him beforehand? No. Probably best to wait and tell him afterwards. "Walter, why don't you see what you can find out about Mr. Moorehouse's activities since he's come back to town," I suggested, jotting it on the assignment sheet. "And it might also be noteworthy to check out some of the judge's other cases and determine if anyone else may have had a score to settle with him."
His face fell. "How much time do you want me to spend on this? There are probably hundreds of cases and I'm betting the cops are checking them out right now."
"I'm sure they are, but they've got a lot of fish to fry and we've got time."
"Okay. How far back do you want me to go? It could take months."
I pondered his question. He had a point. Since the U.S. Supreme Court changed the law, Arizona juries now imposed the death penalty instead of judges. "Concentrate on cases prior to 2002, but I'm also interested in unexpected rulings like hung juries or mistrials, questionable plea deals, anything where either the accused or members of the victim's families may have felt the judge rendered an incorrect decision. Who knows how many people are out there holding a grudge."
He saluted. "I'm all over it."
We nailed down assignments for the next day and then moved on to the following week. "Jim, can you do a piece on the antique car show opening next weekend?"
"Can't. I'm gonna be out of town."
I had forgotten and made note of it.
"I'll take it," Tugg offered, scribbling on his notepad. "A pal of mine's entering a car he just restored."
I studied the list of upcoming events. "Okay, well, Walter, if you can cover the bowling tournament and square dance competition, I'll handle the dedication of the old Hansen House and do a piece on the arts and crafts festival. I have to be out at the fairgrounds anyway since I promised Ginger I'd help her and Nona in their booth for a couple of hours Saturday afternoon."
Walter scratched his sizeable belly and yawned. "Will do."
The four of us exchanged story ideas for another fifteen minutes or so and then chairs scraped as everyone rose. I chatted a few minutes longer with Tugg and he'd no sooner ambled out than Ginger appeared in the doorway, her honey-colored eyes sparkling. She tapped the thick pile of folders cradled in one arm and announced with an eager smile, "Sugar, put on your thinkin' cap. We got a boatload o' decisions to make about this here shindig. You want to mosey on over to the Iron Skillet and yak over lunch or ya want me to snag us a couple of sandwiches off the roach coach and eat at your desk?"
I made a face at her. "Is it just me, or do the words roach and sandwich not sound terribly appetizing in the same sentence?"
Giggling, she swiped a hand in my direction. "Oh, flapdoodle, the food ain't that bad. But, any hoot, I'd just as soon scoot over yonder to the café. A little bird told me today's special is their signature homemade chicken potpie."
I grinned. "Say no more."
"Gimme five and I'll meet ya out front." She scurried down the hallway and I smiled to myself and thought as I had many times these past eight months how lucky I was to have found a loyal friend like Ginger King. It had been her idea to have an engagement party in the first place, and she was so pumped that she'd insisted on assuming responsibility for the lion's share of details involved in the planning — extra details that I couldn't seem to wedge into my tight schedule.
Chicken potpie. My usually robust appetite, dulled by the tense exchange with Tally earlier, returned with a vengeance that sent my belly into a series of squeaky spasms. Best eat a hearty meal now because I had a feeling I'd be too stressed out to eat again before driving out to the Starfire Ranch for my five o'clock rendezvous with Tally. I shrugged into my windbreaker and hauled my purse from the bottom desk drawer. By the time I got to the reception area Tugg's daughter, Louise, was positioning the headset over her short, dark curls. She issued me a full-toothed grin while chirping, "Good morning, Castle Valley Sun." I smiled back. Luckily for us she'd agreed to help out in a pinch by assisting Ginger at the reception desk and temporarily holding down the fort in classifieds until we had news of our absent — and much missed employee — Lupe Alvarez. She'd been deported back to Mexico where she awaited word on her application for legal immigration. I still suffered a measure of guilt knowing that my involvement in the mind-boggling story I'd broken only weeks ago had made me partially responsible for her deportation. We'd all been heartened when our new publisher, Thena Rodenborn, had agreed to hire an immigration attorney to help expedite her case.
My mouth dropped open at the sight of Ginger bundled into a bulky coat, hat, scarf and fur-lined boots. "Good grief, Ginger, it's not that cold outside. This isn't Alaska."
"Speak for yourself, darlin'," she sniffed, pulling on a pair of bubblegum pink gloves. "Wait 'til you been here a while longer. Pretty soon when it drops below seventy degrees you'll be huntin' for a sweater like the rest of us."
Once outside, I had to admit it was chillier than I'd expected. When a strong gust of icy wind grabbed a handful of my hair and slapped it across my face, I zipped the windbreaker a little higher and stuffed my hands into the pockets. Watching the parade of fluffy white clouds sail across the sky, I couldn't suppress a pang of sadness when I thought about the plight of Judge Gibbons. Even though Tally had told me he was in excellent physical shape for age sixty-two, what were the odds that he could still be alive after almost two weeks in the elements? I chastised myself again for appearing to be unsympathetic in Tally's eyes. I'd make it up to him later.
I found the cold weather bracing, but Ginger's teeth were chattering like a pair of maracas after we'd walked the three blocks to the Iron Skillet. Pushing inside the double glass doors, a wall of warm air saturated with animated conversation and clanking dishes met us as we threaded our way through the crowded restaurant answering the friendly waves and greetings of local townspeople. The appetizing aroma of oil-drenched French fries lifted my spirits as we slid into a booth. "Aren't you going to take off your coat?" I asked, peeling mine away and setting it beside me on the red vinyl seat.
Excerpted from Seeds of Vengeance by Sylvia Nobel. Copyright © 2007 Sylvia Nobel. Excerpted by permission of Nite Owl Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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