"Really, Lester! Try not to be stupid."
I was in no mood for banter with the overpaid and underworked head of out police department. He knew I hadn't killed Neal. He knew my only active passions lay with printer's ink. I owned The Burrywood Banner, a weekly I'd inherited from my dad. My name was on the masthead - Diana Sackett.
Lester stepped inside, frowning and tight-lipped. I should never have called him stupid. He doesn't take well to criticism. Now he'd have to prove himself-at my expense. "How long you been here?" His voice was raspy and contentious.
"Maybe four minutes."
"Long enough." He moved toward me, the bits of leather and metal hanging about his tan twill uniform creaking and rattling as he walked. He was fifty or so, a little taller than my five-eight, had coarse brown hair, and was in great shape. He worked out, one area in which he was wiser than I. Bulges in my size fourteen clothes attested to that. My principal exercise was collecting news.
I observed his anger, sighed, and adjusted my attitude. You learn to do that in my line of work or people don't give you stories. I held up one hand. "I apologize. I know you're not stupid. You're smart. And - since you're smart - you know I didn't kill Neal."
He didn't forgive me right away. "You touched anything?" It was a growl.
"Why'd you come?" He moved closer to the desk and looked at the phone in Neal's lap. "He call you?"
For the first time since I'd arrived I looked down at the paper crunched in my left hand. It was the mayor's weekly column, which I'd found in The Banner's mail slot this morning. It had both alarmed and puzzled me. When Neal mentioned Burrywood receiving an amount four times it's annual budget for selling half of Mt. Grizzly to Judd Bishop's logging company, did he mean it had already been done or was he saying it was possible to do it? Selling a whole forest behind everyone's back was just the kind of trick he loved to pull. He'd been a slick operator and an expert at doublespeak. He'd sneaked things like that through the council before. But now wasn't the time to bring it up. I stuffed the paper in my pocket. "I wanted to talk to him about his column."
Lester lost interest in me. He walked around the office, peering at things. When he reached the door that led to Neal's apartment, he leaned over to look. "Bolted. Looks like Charlotte was locked out." After a moment of musing, he glanced at his watch. "Ten-fifty." He stared again at poor, bloody Neal. "I wonder when " I saw him shudder. Being police chief doesn't insulate you from feelings.
I thought he had an awful job here. I wished I could ease it a little. "Can I help you, Lester?" He couldn't use this phone to call anyone and he couldn't leave the scene of the crime unguarded. "Shall I go get Ginger?" Ginger Hall was the shapely thirty-plus redhead he'd hired to be his deputy. He'd almost certainly hired her for looks but - serendipity - she had brains too.
His shoulders relaxed. "I'd appreciate it." Now he reached into a pocket for his notebook and pen. "Tell her to get up here and relieve me. I need to make calls." He started around the room again, this time marking things down.
I turned, started out the door, and stopped. "Lord, Lester " I'd had a thought that made my throat feel thick. " who's going to tell Charlotte?" Even if they hadn't gotten along - and maybe they had, for all I really knew, in the privacy of their own home - but even if they hadn't, it surely would be a shock to learn a husband of fifteen or more years had been murdered.
We stared at each other and the silence stretched. In my head I was running through names of possible people to break the news. I knew he was doing the same. And we were coming up empty. Charlotte was an abrasive, bitter woman. She didn't have friends, only acquaintances. She wasn't a churchgoer so she didn't have a pastor. "Well," Lester started, looking at me with narrowed eyes. My heart sank. I knew what he was going to say. "You'd be as good as anybody, Diana. At least she respects you."
Copyright © Lana Waite. All rights reserved.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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