In this third installment of the Lindsey & Ike romantic mystery novella series, things don’t add up after a suspicious hunting accident. The more Sheriff Ike Harper and newspaper editor Lindsey McKay dig, the more questions they find. Will a dead man tell tales?
Despite the distant rumble of thunder, the first dinner in our new home on River Road was amazing. I couldn’t stop smiling at Ike and his eight year old son Trent. Sure, we’d grilled burgers and hot dogs here before, but tonight everything tasted extra special.
I’m Lindsey McKay, editor of the Gazette, Danville, Georgia’s, weekly newspaper. Sheriff Ike Harper is my partner in housing and love. He’d been burned in matrimony once so we were trying a less traditional route with our nearly nine-month romance. We’d joined our names on a property deed and called it good.
In principle, I agreed with Ike. A piece of paper saying we were married wasn’t a guarantee of happiness, but I also valued tradition. Living in the moment was challenging.
Forks clanked on plates, drawing me from my musings. I passed the platter of grilled meat since the baked beans and watermelon bowls were empty. “Seconds?”
Trent dug in like he hadn’t eaten in a week. Ike settled back in his seat, a goofy smile on his face. “We should’ve done this months ago.”
We’d struggled with our commitment level this summer, or so I’d thought. Turned out we had communication and processing issues. Since summer had turned to fall, I’d been learning to speak guy, and he’d been doing his best to make me happy. How was it possible to be deliriously happy and yet worried that I might mess it up?
“What?” Ike said. “You scowled.”
“I did? Sorry. Thinking of something else.”
“You must not like that something else.”
“It’s no big deal,” I said, hoping he’d let it drop.
Lucky for me, Trent distracted his dad with a question about football tryouts, and less than five minutes later, an emergency call came in for Ike. Hunting accident.
After Ike left, I thought how my role had shifted. Before, I’d chased cops to a scene to get the story for the paper. Now I lived with a cop and had more information than I could print. Best of all, I chose to stay home with Trent when these afterhours calls occurred.
From the incident details I overheard, one man accidentally shot the other in the swamp when he heard a noise. I didn’t know the name of the shooter yet, but Dispatch mentioned he seemed broken up about the tragedy.
The victim, John Starling, tended bar at Fiddler’s at the north end of the county. I’d met him once when he came into the office to buy a newspaper, not long after he moved here this spring.
Time flew as Trent and I played cards, bathed, and got ready for bed. Ike returned in time to tuck his son in for the night. “Was it bad?” I asked when we were cozied up on the sunporch sofa.
He drew me into his arms. “Seemed straightforward. Both men were hog hunting in the swamp. Neither was aware of the other. Sonny Mowrey shot the bartender, thinking he was a hog. Mowrey was so upset he could barely hold it together to give his statement.”
“I’ve shot a gun before, at targets mind you, but I’ve never shot a person, and I hope it never came to that. I’d be a wreck too.”
“Seemed cut and dried to me. Accident all the way.”
An accident. Many people today thought “accident” meant no one was responsible. Surely that wasn’t the case for a human life. “Will Mowrey face charges for killing someone?”
“I’m running his fingerprints right now, something he isn’t happy about.”
“Why? He said he shot the guy.”
“Learned this lesson a long time ago. Tie up loose ends or they’ll bite you in the butt. Whatever happened out there, I’ll get to the bottom of it. It’s always best to follow procedure.”
“I want to see the police report tomorrow.”
He nuzzled my neck. “I expected no less, Madame of the News.”
I swatted him playfully, enjoying his attention. “You make me sound like something dirty.”
“You make me think wild thoughts.” His hands drifted lower. “How about we take ourselves up to our bedroom and let the world take care of itself?”
“Sounds good, but I have one more question.”
Ike groaned. “What is it?”
“Where was the bullet hole?”
“Straight through the heart. Two kill shots.”
Swamp hogs came in all sizes and were ferocious. You did not want to be charged by one, so you made sure you aimed at the right spot. “A person is taller than a hog.”
“Shouldn’t Mr. Mowrey have aimed lower if he was hog hunting?”
“Good observation, but these people barely knew each other. Let’s not look for murders. The simplest explanation is usually the best.”
“I’m not looking for anything. My mind went there on its own.”
He studied me for a long moment. “You have good instincts, Linds, and I’ve learned to trust them. We’ll find out the angle of the shots at autopsy. Now, can we let the dead sleep long enough for us to have some privacy?”
I pulled free of his embrace and rose. “Race ya.”
Cousin Janey, my best friend and sleuthing buddy, stopped by my office first thing in the morning. Her face glowed from all the time she was spending with Junior Curtis, so things between her and the bail bondsman must be going strong. “I heard.”
Though I was pretty sure I knew where she was headed, I couldn’t resist teasing her. “About what? The first night Ike and I spent in our home?”
She slouched in a guest chair and propped her sandal-clad feet on my desk. “Well, that too. Nothing like buying property to cement a relationship. Or destroy it.”
Janey was a Realtor. She’d seen it all with the clients she’d chauffeured around in hopes of a sale. “We’re going for cementing our relationship. Don’t jinx us.”
“Got it, but you guys are golden. With home ownership, you and Ike are legally bound. You’re as good as married now.”
“Keep that on the down low. Ike’s scared to death of the M-word.”
“At least you got a commitment out of him. My guy goes home every night. No hint of a ring or a future.”
“Junior makes you happy, and he lights up when you enter the room,” I said. “I’m glad he turned out to be a nice guy.”
“Me too. If he’d been with the mob as rumored, I’d be in deep trouble by now because I can’t stay away from him. He’s got this magnetic pull.”
I chuckled. “They’re called pheromones, Cous, and you are hooked on his.”
Janey took her time answering, as if she were considering the matter at great length. “Junior’s all-consuming. We talk, we make out, we, you know, and then he goes home. Both of us want that so we don’t have to explain that he slept over to my daughter or to my ex.”
“Y’all are finding your way. It’ll work out.”
“I suppose, but I didn’t come over to talk about either of our relationships. I heard about Sonny Mowrey. I know him.”
My curiosity spiked, and I leaned forward. “You do?”
She nodded. “I sold Sonny and Deena that foreclosure house out on the point a few years ago.”
I grabbed a notepad and a pen, eager to take notes. “What can you tell me about them? Where’d they come from?”
“They were vague about their hometown, but they moved here from Florida. Just wanted a place on the water that was off the grid.”
“Lot of people come here for that reason. Who’d they get their loan through?”
“No loan. They paid cash.”
Even though my folks gave us a good price on the house, Ike and I had to get a mortgage to buy this place. “Cash? For a house?”
“It was an easy sale and a quick closing. They offered on the house and owned it less than a week later. They told the people they could leave any furniture they didn’t want in the house. First I ever heard of anyone doing that.”
The furniture part wasn’t too weird. Mom and Dad left a lot I still needed to go through. But we were family. “Weren’t you suspicious?”
“I needed the money,” Janey said. “But now, I’m wondering if I should mention it to Ike.”
“Ike already believes I read murder into every 9-1-1 call. Are you thinking Sonny Mowrey didn’t have an accident? That he meant to kill John Starling?”
“Something is strange about the Mowreys. Both of them had short bleached blonde hair when they moved here. Now Sonny’s totally dark-haired with a full beard and a ponytail. Deena’s sporting a pink doo at the moment. I don’t know how she walks with so many rings on her toes. Have you ever worn a toe ring?”
“Me neither. What’s wrong with us?”
I shrugged. “I dunno. Seems like with our racy ancestress, we’d be on the forefront of every trend. Guess the Episcopalian upbringing trumps the Beulah McKay exhibitionist genetics.”
“Speak for yourself. I’ve been letting my inner exhibitionist have free rein lately. It’s more fun, and Junior likes it.”
I did not want to know what they were up to at her place in the deep dark of night. “Enough about us. Can you think of any reason Sonny Mowrey might’ve shot John Starling?”
“Well. The obvious thing is two men and one woman.”
“Deena came between them?”
“Not saying she did. You asked if there was any reason. Deena seemed very flirty and . . . accessible when she was my client.”
“She flirted with you?”
“She turned on the charm everywhere we went. I always had the sense she was working a room when we hit a restaurant or the Bar and Grill for lunch.”
“Extroverted wife. Introverted husband.” I weighed the ideas in each hand. Given Janey’s observations, I had no trouble picturing a love triangle. “What was Sonny’s response?”
“He didn’t react to her flirting, but he always sat beside her in the back of my car.”
“Doesn’t sound like he’d go into a killing rage if she strayed. Do you ever see them out and about in town?”
Janey studied the ceiling for a moment. “I waved to them at last year’s Fall Festival, but I was in the kid area with CeeCee. They didn’t wade through the screaming children to speak to me, and I couldn’t leave my daughter there alone to go speak to them.”
“So they keep to themselves. They haven’t been in trouble with the law since I moved back home last fall. I ran their name through our archive and there’s never been anything in the paper about them. Then it occurred to me that I was looking in the wrong place. I searched for their names online. You know what I found?”
Janey grabbed my orange stress relief ball, squeezed it several times, and returned it to my desk. “What?”
“Nothing. I even checked the Census listing. I was stunned. They should have some digital footprint other than property ownership. Is Sonny a nickname or his legal name?”
“It was the name he signed on the contract and the name on his Florida driver’s license.”
“I wonder if Ike knows about this,” I mused, thinking out loud.
“He doesn’t like you nosing around in his cases.”
“I’m fact finding for my feature story. He can chase all the bad guys he wants. I want nothing to do with that end of things.”
“I’m sure he’ll discover this much on his own,” Janey said. “How come there’s no other information on the Mowreys?”
“Perhaps they’re not newsworthy people. If not for Aunt Fay’s membership in the DAR and her property deed, I couldn’t find her online. I checked.”
“Get real. The Mowreys are our age. Look up any late twenty-something online and you get a ton of hits from the search engine. Something’s fishy about this duo.”
“I’m getting that sense myself. What about the bartender? You know John Starling?”
“He asked me out once. I was attending a high school classmate’s birthday party at his bar not two months ago.”
“Did you do it?” I reached for the stress relief ball and massaged it absently.
“Nah. No chemistry. After my divorce, I thought I wouldn’t date again. I was devoting myself to being the best Mama ever.”
“And look at you now. How do you explain Junior to your daughter?”
“I just say we’re seeing each other. CeeCee doesn’t have a problem with it one way or another.”
“And your ex?”
“He’s steamed about Junior, but he’s keeping his mouth shut. Junior’s badass reputation is serving me well.”
“My, how the tide has turned.”
We were grinning at each other like silly fools when the front door burst open. I heard my assistant’s voice go from placating to loud in the lobby. Ellen is a good gatekeeper, and she keeps the public at bay when I’m busy. She only allows people back if they’re blood relatives, Ike, or someone we’re interviewing for our next paper.
A buxom woman appeared in my doorway. She was pretty in an overdone, big pink hair and fake eyelashes kind of way. The short dress, bare legs, and high heels made a feminine statement. A closer look revealed shiny rings on her toes.
Deena Mowrey had come to me. Oh, joy.