Murder by the Acre

     The librarian and the reporter are back! This time Bernard and Lisa stumble on a body of a local jeweler and ladies’ man in an underground house. As the couple and Police Chief Donaldson investigate, they find themselves drawn into a confusing mystery of lies and alibis that involves the upper crust of Ryton, Oklahoma. Questions abound: Who killed him and how? Why doesn't the widow care that her husband is dead? Why doesn't his mistress? What does the mysterious Aventura Corporation have to do with the murder? What is the corporation hiding?
     Soon events spiral out-of-control as the killer strikes again and again. As the three dig for the truth, they upset powerful, vengeful people. The chief might lose his job, but Bernard and Lisa could lose their lives in this suspenseful sequel to Murder by Dewey Decimal.

Murder in a hobbit house

     Later Lisa told Bernard it was no wonder that Mrs. DeMatt screamed, “You killed him!” After all, Lisa was kneeling over a dead man with blood on her hands.
     Until that moment, the afternoon had gone pleasantly enough. Millie Sader, the day aide at the Ryton Memorial Library, returned from lunch on time for once so Librarian Bernard M. Worthington was ready to go when Mrs. DeMatt showed up. Lisa Trent pulled into the library parking lot a few minutes later. Mrs. DeMatt drove the couple around the small city of Ryton looking at various homes on the market.
     “I think you’ll find this next house to be really special,” Mrs. DeMatt said, one hand on the steering wheel and the other handing him a paper that gave information about the home and showed a couple of photos.
     “Look at this,” Bernard said, turning to show the listing to Lisa who was in the center of the back seat of Mrs. DeMatt’s car. “It’s an underground house.”
     “Earth sheltered,” Mrs. DeMatt said. “That’s the correct term. A home sheltered by the good earth who is mother to us all.”
     Bernard and Lisa exchanged a glance.
     “I know it’s a bit more than you wanted to spend,” Mrs. DeMatt said. “But quality is worth the extra expense, I always say.”
     They reached the earth sheltered home around three. It was located at the edge of Ryton city limits on Watts Ridge Road. The closest home to it was nearly a mile away.
     “It’s like being in the country, but you still have the convenience of city water and sewer,” Mrs. DeMatt said, flipping through her listing book. “Let’s see. It was built in the seventies during the energy crisis. As you might guess, it has very low heating and cooling bills. The savings are considerable.”
     “I like the idea of saving money,” Bernard said.
     “And it’s so good that your home can conserve energy and help save the environment,” Mrs. DeMatt said. “When I sell a home like this, I feel like I’m doing my part.”
     “Isn’t it dark inside?” Lisa asked. Built back into a small hill, the house reminded her of a hobbit hole. Wonder if Bilbo is home, she thought.
     “Oh, no, not at all,” Mrs. DeMatt said, leading them up the walk from the driveway. “It has these large windows in the front and skylights in each of the bedrooms and the master bathroom. I think that you’ll be surprised at how airy and bright it is. It has such a spacious feeling.” The real estate agent reached up with a key and tried to unlock a small box fastened near the top of the door. “This doesn’t ... seem to want ... to turn,” she said. “Mr. Worthington, if you could?”
     “Sure,” Bernard said, taking the key from her. He started to fiddle with the box.
     “I don’t know why they fasten the lockboxes so high,” Mrs. DeMatt said. “I know I could turn it if it was lower.”
     “Maybe it keeps kids from messing with them,” Bernard said. “Here it is.” The lockbox opened, and Bernard extracted a key from it. He handed it to the real estate agent.
     “Thank you,” she said. “Oh, the door is open.” She frowned. “Someone forgot to lock it. I run into this all the time. The younger agents aren’t as careful as they should be. That’s one of the reasons so many people count on DeMatt Real Estate: They know they can depend on us to practice due diligence at all times.”
     Mrs. DeMatt opened the door and let Bernard and Lisa enter the home before her. “There are a few things left in the house that go with it,” Mrs. DeMatt said. “When the current owner was transferred up north, he wasn’t able to take everything. It’s mostly living room furniture and, I think, a few things in the master bedroom.” She led the way down the short entryway and turned to the left. “This is the living room.”
     “Wow,” Bernard said.
     Lisa echoed the sentiment. The living room was huge. It stretched the width of the house. Tall windows let in light from the warm middle-of-June sun. A couch, covered with a gray drop cloth, sat in the center of the room. Two small tables, also covered, nestled against it – rather like tiny puppies pressing against their mother, Lisa thought.
     “Didn’t I say it was spacious?” Mrs. DeMatt said.
     “It’s certainly that,” Lisa said, moving out into the room. “What in the world could they possibly have had in here?”
     “A grand piano would be about right,” Bernard said. “Or maybe Rodin’s Thinker.”
     With a quick glance at Bernard, Mrs. DeMatt said firmly, “I know it seems a little daunting, but a room this size is not meant to be a space in itself. You can easily create conversation niches by careful arrangement of furniture and accessories. I can see one by the windows and, of course, another toward the center of the room and a cozy arrangement by the fireplace.”
     Lisa nodded doubtfully, thinking it would take a lot of furniture and several plants – maybe even a tree or two – to make the room livable.
     A shrill beeping sounded. Mrs. DeMatt fumbled in her purse, brought out a pager, and turned it off. “I need to call my office. I’ve been expecting a call from my daughter. Do you mind? You could look at the rest of the house. I’ll just be a minute. I left my cell in my car.” Not waiting for an answer, she bustled out the door.
     Bernard and Lisa looked at each other.
     “I think this is where we’re supposed to wander around the house and fall in love with it,” Bernard said.
     “Let’s do our part,” Lisa said.
     Bernard looked around the room. Two entrances led further into the house. “I’ll take the right. It’s the kitchen. Maybe they left food.”
     “Ah, my hunter-gatherer,” Lisa said. Bernard smiled, sketched a mock salute, and marched out the door. Lisa watched him go, enjoying a warm feeling she seemed to be experiencing often these days. She headed for the left opening, which turned out to be a hall that had four doors off it. She found the hall light switch and flipped it on, then started trying the doors. The first opened into a bathroom, and the second and third to empty bedrooms. The average size of all three rooms surprised Lisa; after seeing the living room she had expected more. The bedrooms had frosted skylights that gave the rooms a brighter feel than Lisa had imagined. Maybe that’s just the way hobbits build things, she thought.
     She opened the fourth door. It belonged to the master bedroom, which was larger than the other bedrooms, not on the scale of the living room, but larger. A king-size bed divided the room in half and lay beneath a large frosted skylight. Lisa was surprised to see a red satin bedspread pulled back on the bed, revealing red satin sheets and red satin pillows. Yuck, she thought. It looks like something from the Playboy school of decorating. She heard the front door open.
     Lisa stuck her head around the corner and yelled up the hallway. “I’m back here, Mrs. DeMatt. Bernard’s in the kitchen.” She waited, but the real estate agent didn’t appear. Lisa shrugged and walked back into the bedroom.
     Beyond the bed, an open door revealed the master bath. Lisa walked toward it. Something crunched under her shoe. She stepped back and looked down at the squashed body of a bee. It was still moving so she stepped on it again.
     “I hope there aren’t any of your friends around,” she said. People say bees won’t bother you if you don’t bother them, she thought. The problem with that was the bees were the ones who made the decision about what bothered them.
     Looking to see if any bees were flying around the room, she headed for the bathroom again. Her foot caught on something. She stumbled, tried to direct her fall on the bed, but missed. She fell beside the bed on something lumpy and wet. She raised her head and realized that she had fallen on a man. She gasped and scrambled back.
     The man didn’t move. Lisa’s eyes traveled up his bare legs to the black satin boxers to the blood pooled on his bare back.
     “Oh no, oh no, not again,” she said. “Bernard! Bernard! Come here!”
     She carefully crawled over to the man and gingerly reached out, intending to see if he was breathing.
     “You killed him!” Mrs. DeMatt screamed from the doorway. “You killed him!” She stumbled back into Bernard, screamed again, pushed past him, and ran down the hall.
     “Are you okay?” Bernard rushed to Lisa and knelt beside her.
     “I was going to look at the bathroom, and I tripped over him!” Lisa pointed at the man and then realized the man’s blood was on her hands and blouse. She started to shake.
     “It’s okay, it’s okay,” Bernard pulled her to him, held her for moment, then gently pushed her behind him. “I need to see if he’s ...” Bernard checked the man’s wrist. “I can’t feel a pulse.” He turned the man over and felt the man’s neck. “Nothing.”
     “He’s dead?” Lisa said
     Bernard nodded and stood up.
     “Are you okay?” Lisa asked, remembering that the sight of blood sometimes made Bernard ill.
     “Yeah,” Bernard said. “Here.” He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and handed it to Lisa. “You’ve got blood on your face.”
     “We’d better call the police,” Lisa said, wiping her face and hands.
     Bernard tried his cell phone. “No signal. Maybe Mrs. DeMatt will call them after she stops running – unless, of course, she’s driven to town to get them.” Bernard looked at the man again. “Do you recognize him?”
     “No,” Lisa said.
     “I think it’s Danny Nelson,” Bernard said.
     Lisa took a closer look at the dead man. “Are you sure?”
     “Yeah. Look at his ring,” Bernard said, pointing to a large diamond nugget ring on the man’s hand. “He showed it to me at Lion’s Club last Tuesday. He designed it himself. Tried to convince me that I needed one like it.” He shook his head. “Not on my salary.”
     Danny Nelson owned StarBright Jewelry in downtown Ryton. Now that Bernard had identified him, Lisa recognized the man. She had seen him driving his sports car around town when she still worked for the Journal. “His face ... it’s swollen or something.”
     “Maybe he was hit before he was killed,” Bernard said. “Except I don’t think he’d have time to bruise, would he?”
     “I don’t know,” Lisa said. “I guess it depends on how long it was until he was killed. But it doesn’t look bruised.” Suddenly, she remembered to do her job. Rummaging in her huge purse, she pulled out a notebook and started taking notes.
     “What are you doing?” Bernard asked.
     “I want to fix the scene in my mind for when I write it,” she said, moving closer – but not too close – to the dead man. “I wish I hadn’t left my camera in my car.”
     Bernard nodded. “When you’re finished, we’d better go outside so we don’t disturb anything.”
     “I don’t see that there’s a lot to disturb,” Lisa said. “I wonder where his clothes are.”
     “Probably in the bathroom,” Bernard said, walking over to it. “Yeah, they’re here.”
     Lisa came over. A white shirt and navy pants were hanging neatly from a towel rack. A pair of wingtips sat on the floor with a pair of socks stuffed in one shoe.
     “Look,” Bernard said.
     A champagne bottle nestled in ice in the sink. Two glasses sat beside an open tin of caviar and a small box of crackers on the counter.
     “He was meeting someone,” Bernard said.
     “Isn’t – wasn’t he married?” Lisa asked.
     “I think so,” Bernard said. “Her name is Melissa. I’ve met her a couple of times at Lion’s Club events. She seems nice.”
     “Oh, that poor woman,” Lisa said.
     “Yeah.” Bernard grimaced. “Unless she was already here.”
     Lisa glanced at Danny’s body, shivered, and took Bernard’s hand. They headed outside to wait for the police.
     Chief Charles Donaldson looked around the bedroom again. He’d seen all there was to see and more than he cared to. He walked through the echoing living room and outside into the bright sunlight. He motioned to one of the policemen. “Sims, have you called Dimes yet?”
     “Yes, Chief, but it’ll be a while,” Lieutenant Ron Sims said. “His office said he was finishing up an autopsy. They’ll send him out as soon as he’s finished.”
     “Okay,” the chief said. “Start taking prints, but don’t go in the bedroom until Dimes gets here and gets finished.”
     “We found his car parked around back,” Sims said. “It’s locked. I looked through the windows, but couldn’t see anything interesting.”
     “You mean no bloody knife was left in plain view?” the chief asked dryly. “His keys were in his pants. Get them out of the evidence bag – wear gloves – and open the car. The trunk, too.”
     “What about Bimmer and Lisa?” Sims asked, using a nickname for Bernard. Bernard’s initials were B.M.W. like the name of the German automaker, and since the car was called a ‘Bimmer,’ so was Bernard. Although, as far as the chief knew, Sims was the only person who called Bernard that.
     The chief looked at the couple. Bernard was standing by the open door of a patrol car while Lisa sat inside. He could see that the reporter was taking notes.
     “I’ll talk to them now,” he said. Lisa looked up and got out of the car as he approached.
     “Well,” the chief said, placing his hands on his hips. “Who would imagine this after what happened last summer? You two finding a body again.”
     “Bernard and I were talking about that,” Lisa said. “It’s actually the first body we’ve found together. We found the other ones separately last time.”
     “Let’s hope it doesn’t go like last time,” Bernard said. “I’ve had quite enough hospital food, thank you.”
     Bernard looked fit and healthy now. If the chief didn’t know different, he would have never been able to guess that a year ago Bernard had been close to death after being shot by a man who had murdered three Ryton residents and nearly killed both Bernard and Lisa in an attempt to cover up an embezzlement involving the Ryton Memorial Library. Now, Bernard was the Head Librarian, and Lisa, who had reported for the defunct Ryton Journal and News, worked for the Oklahoma City Dispatch as a “roving reporter” who covered events around the state. Although Lisa seemed to specialize in county fairs and festivals, the chief knew she was quite capable of covering this murder.
     “I don’t think it will be anything like that, thank God,” the chief said. “So how are you doing, Lisa? I run into Bernard once in a while, but you’re always traveling around.”
     “Doing okay,” Lisa said. “I like my job. They’re treating me well.”
     “Maggie subscribed us to the Dispatch so she could keep up on you,” the chief said. “Give her a call sometime. I know she’d like to hear from you.”
     “I’ll do that,” Lisa said. “Chief, can you tell me anything yet?”
     “Not until the coroner gets here and I have more of a chance to think about it,” the chief said. “Don’t release his name, of course, until we have a chance to notify his family.”
     Lisa nodded.
     “It’s Danny Nelson, isn’t it?” Bernard asked.
     “Yeah,” the chief said. “Did you know him?”
     “Not very well,” Bernard said. “He’s in Lion’s Club with me, but we didn’t talk much. He was there last week and showed me the ring he’s wearing now. That’s how I recognized him.”
     The chief nodded. “Listen, you’ll have to give your statements again to Sims later, but why don’t you go ahead and fill me in.”
     After they finished telling their story, the chief sat in thought, then looked at the two of them. “A couple of questions. Why are you looking at houses? Finally tying the knot?”
     Lisa looked at Bernard.
     “No, nothing like that,” Bernard said, a little too heartily. “I’m getting tired of paying rent. With the housing market depressed the way it is, I thought it might be a good time to get into one. No, we’re not getting married. Lisa was just helping me look around.”
     Lisa looked back at the chief, her face set and lips tight. Oops, I touched a nerve there, the chief thought.
     “What’s your other question?” Bernard asked.
     “Did Mrs. DeMatt schedule your arrival here?” the chief asked. “Did she plan for you to show up here at this time?”
     “I don’t know,” Bernard said slowly. “We saw a lot of houses today.”
     “She could have,” Lisa said. “She was the one who suggested we look at this even though it’s out of Bernard’s price range. Do you think she had something to do with it?”
     “Don’t know,” the chief said. “But she might have been planning on embarrassing her competition.”
     Bernard snapped his fingers. “Oh, yeah, I think I see what you’re getting at.”
     Lisa looked from Bernard to the chief. “I don’t understand.”
     “I guess you don’t keep up on the town gossip now that you travel so much,” the chief told her.
     “So tell me,” Lisa said.
     The chief looked at Bernard.
     “I’m not even sure if it’s true or not,” Bernard said.
     “I’d be interested in hearing if your story is something I’ve heard,” the chief said.
     “Well, Millie told me that Danny was supposed to be fooling around with Janice Davenport,” Bernard said. Lisa looked startled. “And I guess the chief is interested in when Mrs. DeMatt brought us here because Janice is a real estate agent, too. Is that right, Chief?”
     “Close enough,” the chief said.
     “I haven’t talked to Janice in years,” Lisa said.
     “Do you know her?” the chief asked.
     “We were friends in high school,” Lisa said. “I lost track of her when she went off to college. I didn’t know she was back in town.”
     “She moved back about six months ago,” the chief said. “She opened her own office and is doing pretty well, I hear, although that’s not surprising, considering all the Davenports around here. I understand she’s ruffled feathers by being really aggressive in getting listings and making sales. A lot of the older and more established agents aren’t happy with her.” The chief noticed Lisa making notes in her pad. “Lisa, you keep this out of your story for the time being. It’s nothin’ except idle talk right now.”
     Lisa nodded, then frowned. “Where is Mrs. DeMatt?”
     “She’s at the station,” the chief said. “She was almost hysterical so I had her wait there.”
     “Did she say I killed him?” Lisa asked.
     “No, she didn’t,” the chief said. “In fact, she was very concerned for your and Bernard’s safety. She was afraid the murderer could have been still lurking around, and she had left you two stranded. She said she didn’t think of that until she was nearly at the station.” He paused. “She could have been right, you know.”
     “I’m glad she wasn’t,” Lisa said. “But it’s not like we could have gone anywhere.”
     “What did she say about bringing us here?” Bernard asked.
     “She said she was showing you some houses and had no idea anyone would be here,” the chief said.
     A blue and white van pulled up the drive and stopped. A tall, thin man hopped out and went around to the back.
     “Looks like the coroner’s finally arrived,” the chief said. “I’d better go over there. I’ll have Sims drive you back to the station so he can take your statements.” He shook Bernard’s hand and patted Lisa’s shoulder before moving off to follow County Coroner Josh Dimes into the house.
     As the chief waited for Dimes to complete his preliminary exam, he went over the little he knew of Danny Nelson. Nelson was in his early forties and known around town for his fast cars, gambling, and overspending. He owned StarBright Jewelry and wrote bad checks occasionally that his mother always seemed willing to cover. The chief had met Danny once when he went in StarBright a couple of Christmases ago to get a pearl necklace for Maggie. Nelson had kept pushing the chief to spend more than he could afford. The chief would have left, but Maggie wanted a particular necklace displayed in the window. It did look good on her, the chief thought.
     Thinking of the necklace, the chief wondered how Maggie was doing at the orchard. A few years ago, he had purchased a peach orchard as a way to earn money for their retirement. They had promptly lost their first harvests to drought, insects, crop stress, and fungus.
     But this year, due to an unusually warm and sunny spring, the peaches were already ripe and hung golden and beautiful on the dwarf trees. He and Maggie had decided to make the orchard into a “Pick Your Own” to avoid having to find a buyer and shipping the peaches. They ran a few ads in the local newspaper and on the radio. They hadn’t been prepared for the response. It had nearly worked the couple to death, taking care of the customers. After two weeks of working at the police station and coming to the orchard after that so that Maggie could have some help, the chief had hired Darlene Ogden and Todd Timson. And even with them, it was hard to keep up. At least the money is coming in, the chief thought. Of course, considering the first years, we probably need nine or ten more years of good harvests to make up the losses. He became aware that Dimes was standing up and cleaning his hands with an alcohol wipe.
     “Okay, take a full shot, and that’ll be it,” Dimes told his assistant who had been snapping pictures. The two men placed Nelson in a body bag, and Dimes zipped it up. The chief watched the jeweler’s face disappear, slowly covered by black plastic.
     “Let’s go outside so I can smoke,” Dimes said. The chief followed him outside, slightly surprised. He had never seen the coroner smoke.
     “So when did you start that?” he asked as they walked down the long porch that stretched across the front of the house.
     “What? Oh, I’ve smoked for years,” Dimes said. “But I don’t at crime scenes. Some idiot is always finding the ashes and attempting to link them to the criminal.” He lit a cigarette and took a long pull.
     Sims joined them. “We got the car open. Nothing of interest other than his cell phone. It was charging.”
     “Get a list of the numbers called over the past few days,” the chief said. “And drive Lisa and Bernard back to the station and record their statements. And tell Mrs. DeMatt that she can go home if she hasn’t already.” Sims nodded and left. The chief turned to Dimes. “So?”
     “You know, I won’t know anything for sure until I get back to the lab,” Dimes began.
     “I’ve noted the disclaimer,” the chief said. “For the umpteenth time.”
     “Got a smart mouth on you these days,” Dimes said.
     “Probably the type of people I work with.”
     “Probably,” Dimes said, grinning. He started to flip the cigarette out over the lawn, evidently thought better of it, and, after putting it out, slid it back into the cigarette pack. “Well, this is going to be a good one, I can tell.”
     “Why does that make my ulcer hurt?” the chief asked no one in particular. “Why is this a good one?”
     “A bit of his back is missing,” Dimes said.
     Although startled, the chief kept silent. He had worked with Dimes long enough to know not to interrupt. Dimes would tell him everything he could.
     “Someone cut a piece out of his back. It goes down an inch or so with an inch-and-a-half opening. He was still alive when it was done. Lots of bleeding.” Dimes looked at the chief. “But listen to this: His tissues seem to be swollen with fluid. I think he was in anaphylactic shock, and that’s what killed him.”
     “Anaphylactic shock?” the chief asked.
     “It’s an allergic reaction,” Dimes said. “In this case, a severe one.”
     “That can kill someone?”
     “It can close off the airways, stop the heart.” Dimes shrugged. “More people die of insect stings each year than are killed by sharks, snakes, and bears combined.”
     “So what caused it?”
     “I don’t know,” Dimes said. “I might be able to tell you more when I do the autopsy, or I might not. It’s hard to tell sometimes.”
     “So you’re saying he had a reaction to something, someone came along and cut a hole in his back and took off with what they cut out, then he died,” the chief said.
     “Score one for the geezer,” Dimes said.
     “Was he being tortured?” the chief asked.
     Dimes shrugged. “Hard to say, but I don’t think so.”
     “Lisa said she stepped on a bee,” the chief said. “Could it have stung Nelson? And he died from that?”
     “Maybe,” Dimes said. “We bagged the bee, and I was about to mention it to you. We’ll check him for bee venom.”
     “Then maybe his death was accidental,” the chief said. “Except why would anyone cut him up?”
     Dimes shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe they were trying to let the poison out. But why wouldn’t they call an ambulance?”
     “Maybe it was someone who wasn’t supposed to be here,” the chief said. “What about the time of death?”
     “I’d guess around noon or so,” Dimes said. “That’s all I can tell you now.”
     “This doesn’t make much sense,” the chief said.
     Dimes smiled. “I said it was a good one. Have fun. And won’t Brunson enjoy this happening in an election year?” His smile widened.
     The chief looked at Dimes sourly. Ryton Mayor Otis Brunson was up for re-election this year in a hotly contested race with local businessman Brice Ledbetter. The chief and the mayor had always had an up-and-down relationship, and lately it had been more down as the election tension wore on Brunson. The mayor would be all over the chief to get this solved quickly, particularly since it involved a prominent citizen of Ryton.
     “Remind me to write you a parking ticket the next chance I get,” the chief said. Dimes started to say something, but the chief cut in, “Oh, never mind, I won’t forget.”
     “So do you think Mrs. DeMatt wanted us there at a certain time?” Bernard asked Lisa as they sat in his office at the Ryton Memorial Library. Lisa had stayed quiet on the trip back to town and at the station, giving her statement to Sims briefly and replying in monosyllables to Sims’s questions. Usually she and the young policeman enjoyed a quick war of wits whenever they were around each other. Although ordinarily Bernard was jealous of their rapport, he would have preferred them talking to her silence. He had a good idea about what had upset her, and he was not looking forward to discussing it.
     “I don’t know,” Lisa said. “Maybe.” She walked over to the window and stared at the library’s small flower garden.
     Might as well get it over with, Bernard thought. “What’s wrong?”
     “Nothing,” she said and was silent for a few moments. “I mean, it’s probably trivial considering we found a dead man this afternoon.”
     “What is it?” Bernard asked.
     “Why did you have to say it like that?” Lisa asked, not turning around. “‘No, nothing like that.’ You made marriage to me sound like it was something ridiculous.”
     “Lisa, you know I didn’t mean it to come out that way,” Bernard said. He walked over to her.
     Lisa faced him. “You understand, it’s not like I want to get married. But I don’t want it to sound like it’s something silly.”
     “Like I said, I didn’t mean it that way,” Bernard said, taking her shoulders. “It wouldn’t be silly to marry you. It would be the most intelligent thing a man could do if you wanted to get married.”
     “Which, of course, I don’t,” Lisa said slowly.
     “Of course,” Bernard echoed.
     “We’re not ready for that yet,” Lisa said.
     “No, not yet,” Bernard said, leaning close to her.
     “I mean, that’s a big step,” Lisa said softly.
     “A big step,” he said. He kissed her.
     “Bernard – oh, I’m sorry,” Millie said from the doorway, but she made no move to leave, watching the two of them with avid interest.
     “Did you need something?” Bernard asked Millie.
     “The computer’s acting up,” Millie said. “Again. It’s not letting us check out any books.”
     “Great,” Bernard said, sighing. “Do you have someone waiting?” At her nod, he continued, “Just take their card number and the book cards for now.”
     Millie left. Bernard looked at Lisa ruefully. “If I had known computerizing the library would be such a pain, I would have never started it.” He sat on the couch and patted the cushion beside him, inviting her to join him.
     “It’ll be worth the hassle,” Lisa said, looking distracted.
     “What are you thinking about?” he asked, enjoying the way the sunlight was glinting off her hair.
     “I was thinking about Janice,” Lisa said. “It really surprises me she was having an affair with anyone, much less a married man. You said you know Danny’s wife?”
     “I met Melissa a couple of times, I think, at Lion’s Club events and maybe at the baseball park,” Bernard said. “I don’t remember much about her. Why does that surprise you about Janice?” He patted the cushion again and winked at her.
     Grinning, Lisa walked over to the couch and sat beside him. “She was always so confident in school. It’s hard for me to imagine her settling for that type of relationship.”
     “Love’s weird sometimes,” Bernard said, pulling her close to him. “Present company excepted, of course.”
     “Of course,” Lisa said. “But I can’t see Janice being swayed by love.”
     “She didn’t have much use for men,” Lisa said. “She was quite the feminist. I remember she got expelled once for calling our principal an unprincipled pig – which he was.”
     “Sounds like a fun girl,” Bernard said.
     “Oh, she could be nasty,” Lisa said. “But she was the first person that I ever let read my writing. She really encouraged me. I think I’m a writer today because of her.”
     “So that’s who we blame,” Bernard said.
     “Smart aleck,” Lisa said. “Just for that, I think I’ll go.” She rose, picked up her purse, and swung it over her shoulder.
     “Hey, I was kidding,” Bernard said. “You know I cherish every word you write.”
     “You could try to sound more sincere,” Lisa said. “You have wounded my sensitive feelings. It’s over between us unless …”
     “Unless?” Bernard asked.
     “Unless I get dinner out tonight with a handsome man.”
     Bernard screwed up his face, like he was thinking hard. “That possibly could be arranged.”
     “Oh, you know a handsome man, do you?” Lisa asked brightly.
     “I thought you said Janice was the nasty one,” Bernard said, smiling and catching her wrist. He gently kissed the back of her hand. “Shall I pick you up at seven, my lady?”
     “That would be satisfactory,” Lisa said, tossing her hair. “I’ll tell the maid to expect you.”
     “Until then,” Bernard said and walked her out. At the library door, she paused and gave him a quick kiss. He watched her leave. He sighed. The library seemed darker. He turned. Millie smirked at him.
     “So the computer isn’t working again?” he asked, making his way over to the machine. As he sat down at the keyboard, he thought briefly of poor Danny Nelson. I hope the chief catches whoever killed him, he thought. And I am glad that there’s no way Lisa and I can be involved this time.
     He stopped, his fingers poised over the keys. He was glad, wasn’t he? He frowned at the thought, and then began to wrestle with the digital monster.
     The laptop computer flashed a message that the email had been sent. Lisa picked up her cell phone. “Did you get it?”
     A pause, then Cameron Veit, the editor of the Oklahoma City Dispatch, said, “Yes. Let me look through this. Hold on.”
     Cradling the phone between her head and shoulder, Lisa reached down and absentmindedly scratched Obsidian. The black cat purred and arched his back.
     “Okay, it looks good,” Veit said. “Can we release the victim’s name yet?”
     “No,” Lisa said. “I called the station, and they haven’t told his family yet.”
     “Stay on top of it and send anything you get as soon as you get it,” Veit said. “Do you need a photographer?”
     “No,” Lisa said. “Unless you’d like a photo of the house?”
     “Don’t think so,” Veit said. “Good story.” He hung up. Lisa followed suit. She unplugged the laptop from the phone line. Although she had owned the laptop for a couple of months, she still marveled at how easy it was to send her story to Oklahoma City via her computer’s modem. Prior to this, she had to fax stories to the Dispatch. With her next paycheck, she intended to get a faster Internet connection. Dial-up was terribly slow compared with the speed the library had on its computers.
     The doorbell rang. She looked at the clock. It was nearly six-thirty – too early for even the ever-early Bernard. Walking down the stairs, she went to the front door and looked out the peephole. A woman in a navy blue suit stood with her back to the door. The woman looked vaguely familiar, and when she turned to face the door, Lisa recognized her. Janice Davenport, Lisa thought, surprised.
     Janice looked up as Lisa opened the door but didn’t say anything, just stared at Lisa.
     “Janice?” Lisa began uncertainly. “How are you? It’s good to see you. Uh, hello.” Lisa floundered.
     “Lisa, I know it’s been a long time,” Janice said, looking to the side like she didn’t want to meet Lisa’s eyes. “I’ve been meaning to get in touch. I thought about calling a few times, but you weren’t ... in the book.” Janice stopped, obviously struggling with some emotion. “I shouldn’t have come here, but I have to know. Did you –” she swallowed “– did you find him?”
     “Come in, Janice,” Lisa said, holding out a hand to Janice. “Let’s talk inside.”
     “No, no, I need to know, is it true?” Janice said, tears starting to run down her cheeks. “Is it true? Please tell me. I called the police, and they won’t say. No one will tell me anything. Is Danny dead?”
     Stepping outside, Lisa tried to take the woman’s hand, but Janice moved back, still staring at Lisa. Caught by the desperate appeal in Janice’s eyes, Lisa searched for words, couldn’t find any to soften the blow, and finally nodded slowly.
     Janice closed her eyes. “Oh. Well. A friend of mine called me, you see, and said …” Her eyes rolled back in her head, and she fell. Lisa caught her, but couldn’t hold her up. Both sank to the porch.
     Lisa looked around for help and spied Bernard who was pulling in the driveway. “Bernard, help me!”
     Bernard was out of his car and at Lisa’s side. “Are you okay?”
     “Yes, of course,” Lisa said. “Help me get her inside.”
     “Who is she?” Bernard asked, sliding his hands under the unconscious woman.
     “It’s Janice Davenport,” Lisa said. “Can you get her?”
     “Yeah, I think so.” Bernard picked the woman up. He carried her into Lisa’s living room and laid her on the couch. “What happened?”
     Lisa lifted Janice’s feet and placed a pillow under them. “She came by and asked me if Danny Nelson was dead and if I found his body. She fainted when I said yes.” She chafed Janice’s hand. “Get some water.”
     “Should I call an ambulance?” Bernard asked from the kitchen.
     “I don’t know,” Lisa said. “Bring a wet washcloth, too. Do you know anything about diabetics?”
     “No,” Bernard said. “Is she one?”
     “Yeah, she used to give her herself insulin shots when we were in school,” Lisa said. “I’m hoping she only fainted.”
     Janice stirred and muttered, “No, we can’t do that ... We can’t.” She groaned, and her eyes fluttered open.
     “It’s okay, Janice,” Lisa said, taking the washcloth from Bernard and placing it on Janice’s forehead. “Should we call a doctor? Do you need an insulin shot?”
“     No ... no, I just –” Janice seemed to notice Bernard for the first time; she looked startled. “I need to sit up.”
     “Why don’t you stay there for a few minutes,” Lisa suggested. “This is Bernard Worthington; he’s my boyfriend.”
     “I really need to go,” Janice sat up and immediately sank back. “My head hurts.”
     “Just lie there for a few minutes,” Lisa said. “Would you like some orange juice?”
     “No, thank you,” Janice said, glancing at Bernard.
     Lisa looked at the librarian. “Bernard, shouldn’t you move your car?”
     Bernard blinked. “Oh. Okay, yes, I’d better so it won’t block the street.”
     “I’m going to go with him,” Lisa said to Janice. “I’ll be right back.”
     At Bernard’s car – which was already parked out of the street – Bernard asked, “Well?”
     “I thought she might be more comfortable if you weren’t there,” Lisa said. “Do you mind giving us some time? She might talk better with only me here. She doesn’t know you at all, and we’ve been out of touch for years.”
     “Okay. I guess I could go to the library and work on the computer for a while,” Bernard said. “Call me there when you’re ready.” He kissed her. “Lisa, don’t get involved in something the police should handle.”
     “What a silly thing to say,” Lisa said. “She’s an old friend. I think she needs a shoulder to cry on.”
     When Lisa got back inside, Janice was sipping water from the glass that Bernard had placed on the coffee table. She looked up as Lisa entered.
     “I’m sorry,” Janice said. “I can’t imagine what you must think. It hit me all at once.” She took a deep breath.
     “You don’t have to apologize,” Lisa said. “I know it must have been a shock to you.”
     Janice nodded and looked down at her hands. “I guess you know about me and Danny.”
     “Not really,” Lisa said gently. “Someone said you were involved with him, but I found it hard to believe.”
     Janice shook her head. “Oh, believe it, all right, because it’s – was true.” She started to take another sip of water, then sat the glass down with a shaking hand. “Oh, Lisa, he’s dead, and I …”
     Lisa placed her arms around the sobbing woman and held her until the worst passed. Janice pulled away.
     “I’m so sorry –”
     “Don’t apologize,” Lisa cut in. “Here.” She handed Janice a box of tissues.
     “You must think I’m crazy or something,” Janice said, wiping her eyes.
     “No, I think you’re doing fine considering the circumstances,” Lisa said. “I’m sorry I couldn’t break it to you easier.”
     “No, no,” Janice said. “At least you told me. No one would tell me anything. I even got the nerve up to call his house. No one answered. The police wouldn’t tell me anything when I called.” She twisted the tissue in her hands. “No one wants to tell the other woman anything.” She looked at Lisa defiantly. “And that’s what I was, you know. The other woman, fooling around with a married man.”
     Lisa shrugged. “So? I admit it surprised me. I don’t think I could be happy with that kind of relationship, but if you were, who –”
     “But I wasn’t,” Janice said. “This whole thing didn’t have anything to do with happiness or even love. It ... I don’t know. I didn’t plan it; Danny didn’t plan it. It just happened. I know this sounds dumb, but I couldn’t stop. I’d keep telling myself I should end it, but he’d call and off I’d go.” She shook her head. “I felt so helpless. And it was so wrong. I don’t think I loved him. I think we were just using each other. Now he’s dead, and I don’t know how to feel about it.” She looked at Lisa. “I don’t even know how he died. What happened?”
     “Are you sure you’re up to talking about this?” Lisa asked.
     “Yes, I really need to know,” Janice said.
     “Well, Bernard and I –”
     “Is Bernard your fiancé?” Janice asked.
     Lisa paused. “No, we’re not ready for that yet.” She paused again. “Anyhow, Bernard’s been thinking about buying a house –” Janice looked more interested “– and we went to look at a few this afternoon. Mrs. DeMatt took us to an underground house, and we found Danny dead.”
     Lisa looked at Janice, trying to gauge how she was reacting. “It looked like he had been stabbed.”
     Janice closed her eyes and leaned back on the couch. “Oh, how horrible.” She was silent for a few moments. “Do the police know who did it?”
     “I don’t know,” Lisa said. “I want to ask – Never mind. I really shouldn’t be talking about this. The police haven’t released any information yet.”
     Janice looked at Lisa intently, and then looked away. “Was he with a woman?” When Lisa didn’t answer, Janice said, “It won’t hurt ... too much if he was. Several people told me I wasn’t the only one he was with. I didn’t want to believe them. That’s what it is, isn’t it?”
     “It did look like he was meeting someone.”
     Janice laughed shortly. “I should have known. I must be the biggest fool on earth.”
     “Did you ... meet him at places like that?”
     “Did we make love in houses on the market? Is that what you’re asking?” Janice asked.
     “Well, yes.”
     “Yes.” Janice drained her water glass. “It sounds stupid now, but it seemed pretty exciting at the time.”
     Lisa tried to restrain her curiosity, but couldn’t. “Did you do that a lot?”
     “A few times a month,” Janice said. “He’d call me and I’d pick a house out. We’d meet there. He’d bring a blanket and wine.” She grimaced. “How sordid it sounds now. I must have been out of my mind.”
     “Janice.” Lisa walked across the room, and then turned to face the woman. “Were you supposed to meet him this afternoon?”
     “No.” Janice started to say something more. She stopped; Lisa could see the realization cross her face. “Oh, no, that’s what the police are going to think, isn’t it? They’re going to think I DID IT! That’s what they think, isn’t it?”
     “No, of course not,” Lisa said. “They don’t have any suspects yet. That’s what the chief told me when I called him for a statement.”
     “You ... why ... did you call him for a statement?” Janice asked carefully.
     “Well, uh, I work for the Oklahoma City Dispatch now,” Lisa said uncomfortably. “I’m a reporter for them.”
     “Oh.” Janice looked around. “Did I have my purse with me?”
     “No, you didn’t.”
     Janice nodded. She set her glass down on the coffee table and rose.
     “What are you doing?” Lisa asked.
     “I think I should leave now,” Janice said. “I’ve taken enough of your time.” She walked to the door.
     “Listen, I think you’re jumping to some conclusion about me that’s all wrong,” Lisa said. “Everything you’ve said tonight has been off the record. I haven’t been talking to you just to get a story. I wouldn’t do that.”
     Janice looked at her and nodded. “I didn’t really think that of you. I do need to go home. I want to lie down.”
     “You call me if you need me,” Lisa said. “Bernard and I are going to grab a bite to eat, but I’ll be back after that.”
     “Thank you,” Janice said. She paused. “I really am glad to see you again. I wish it hadn’t been like this.”
     Lisa reached out and gave the other woman a quick hug.
     “Me, too. Call me tomorrow.”
     As Lisa stood at her door and watched Janice drive off, she frowned. Janice certainly seemed to recover from her hysterics fast, she thought. Oh, there I go again, trying to make a big mystery out of this. Dismissing the thought, she picked up the phone and called Bernard.
     Although DeMatt Real Estate and Property Management closed at six, light still shone through the windows. Mrs. Roberta DeMatt had gone home, but found her house too quiet and too empty after the events of the day. As she always did when she was upset, she went down to her office and tried to make a dent in the ever-present pile of paperwork on her desk.
     She remembered Alex used to say the paperwork bred at night. She resolutely turned from that memory. Her husband had been dead for five years, but thinking of him could still bring sorrow crushing down on her. He wouldn’t want that, she thought. Alex would want me to go on with my life.
     And she had tried hard to do that, attending every civic club she could fit in her schedule, teaching a Sunday school class of teenagers, and working day and night to make DeMatt Real Estate the number one real estate firm in Ryton. And we’re close, Alex, she thought. I wish you were here to see it all. It’s not worth it without you. None of it is.
     She closed her eyes, but the tears came anyway. It was going to be a lonely night. She gave fleeting consideration to calling a couple of friends, but she knew they were getting tired of her sorrow after five years.
     And who can blame them? she thought. I know I’m tired of it. Everyone told her that she just needed time, but how much time was enough? When do I get to stop hurting? When does my life go on? When do I get to be happy again?
     Wearily, she laid her head down on her desk. She knew she should go home and get some rest. It had been such a terrible day. Poor Danny Nelson. And the horrible way she had acted to Lisa and Bernard. She had called the library to apologize to Bernard, but the girl who answered told her that Bernard would not be back until tomorrow. I’ve probably lost that sale, she thought. I’ll send them both a letter of apology first thing in the morning. And call them, too. Maybe they’ll forgive me.
     She shuddered as she remembered seeing Lisa kneeling over Danny and all that blood. Why, oh, why had she immediately jumped to the conclusion that Lisa had killed him?
     “Stupid,” she muttered. And then to abandon them there … She was so ashamed. She had no excuses.
     Of course, she had been on edge for days. Ever since she found those papers. She grimaced. What was she going to do? She knew what she should do, but so many families would be affected. And they would blame her for bringing the whole thing down. Could she live with ignoring the whole matter? She had already pulled her listings, but was that enough? When it all fell apart – as it eventually would – wouldn’t that indicate that she had known? And even worse, she had actually taken the papers. She wasn’t sure of the penalty for stealing legal documents, but at the very least, she had put her license at risk.
     Oh, how she wished she had never gone there. Why did this have to fall on her? She longed for Alex. He would have known what to do. He had always known the right thing to do. He had always been the navigator for her life, and now she was lost.
     Suddenly the hairs on the back of her neck rose. Her heart pounded painfully as she realized someone was in her office. Someone was standing at the door. She didn’t want to move; if she didn’t look, maybe no one would be there.
     She heard a metallic click, a sound she recognized from TV. A part of her wailed in terror. She raised her head. She registered the barrel of a shotgun, and she thought fleetingly of her precious husband before the thunder roared.

Copyright 2013 by Stephen B. Bagley. All rights reserved. No copying without prior express written permission from the author and publisher.