Secrets in Connors Grove (excerpt)

a novel by Linda Gilmore

PROLOGUE: Fear


Fear churned Pat’s stomach. This was no ordinary, everyday kind of fear, such as she would associate with going to the dentist, or even the fear she had experienced when a deer had run across the road just in front of her car. No, she felt a deep-in-the-gut, I-know-I’m-going-to-die fear. And she knew she could do nothing about it, she had no one she could turn to.

She was at the grocery store after work on a Thursday evening. While Pat tried to choose between regular or special dark roast coffee, she heard the voice that chilled her bones, that had been calling her – the voice of someone who said he knew her, who said she could never be free from him and he was coming for her. Her legs shook as fear rooted her to the floor. She expected him at any minute to come around the end of the aisle and find her.

She couldn’t believe her ears – he seemed to be talking to someone he knew, as if he lived right here in Connors Grove, Kansas. She got a grip on her fear, and her cart, and pushed it down the aisle, away from the voice, then turned to the next aisle so she could catch a look at him without being obvious. Her heart raced as she glanced down the aisle. He was gone. She thought she heard his laugh around the far end of the aisle. Should she try to see who it was? But her nerve left her and she headed for the check-out line without finishing her shopping.

Who was it? Or rather, who did people in Connors Grove think he was? Because she thought she knew who it must be – someone who was supposed to be out of her life forever. It seemed clear that no one here knew what he really was. What could she do? She checked out and went home, her mind and heart racing.

Her first instinct was to run. But she had learned over the years that running wasn’t a good solution. You tended to take your problems with you.

For some reason, all the time that he had been calling her, she hadn’t really pictured him in Connors Grove. He said he was closer than she thought, that he saw her and knew the men she was with. But the voice belonged to another place and time and she couldn’t bring herself to believe he was right here.

She wished she had a face to go with the voice. She was sure he had changed. He’d always been good at deception, and she knew she might have seen him and not recognized him. But she still scanned through faces in her mind, searching for a spark of recognition.

The sense of dread she had felt during the last couple of months grew. She had escaped him before, but she didn’t expect to again.

Maybe she should tell someone. But after years of keeping her secrets to herself, Pat wasn’t inclined to share them with anyone, even the men she was intimate with. And she didn’t know whom to trust.

No, Pat had always taken care of herself and that’s what she would do now. She would have to face her past and her fear alone.

The next time he called, and she was sure he would, she would confront him. But first, before he came for her, she would have a plan. She would be ready for him.

******************************

Saturday
He forced open the file drawer and hastily rifled through its contents, tension tightening his shoulders. He began pulling folders out, then tossing them aside in frustration when the contents proved useless to him.

He glanced across the room at the woman’s body on the floor. This had not turned out the way he’d planned. But Pat had always been a stubborn woman. She’d really left him no choice.
He felt his anger start to rise again, just at the thought of her, how she’d lived her life. She was his. How could she be with those other men? He fought to control his temper. He took several deep breaths and managed to calm himself. He needed to be in control now, to keep focused.

He’d already looked through the desk and found nothing of interest. There was nothing in the file cabinets except bookkeeping files. He kicked the growing mound of paper at his feet and glanced at his watch. He was taking too long at this. But he had only one small file cabinet left to search. He forced the lock and looked in the top drawer – it appeared to contain her personal tax files from the last few years, neatly organized and labeled. Pat was nothing, if not thorough. He opened the bottom drawer and found a small lock box, of the kind people often kept important papers in. This might be more promising. He lifted it out of the drawer and saw a ledger underneath it. He pulled that out too, and glanced through it first.

It seemed to be more business records, or at least that’s what he thought at first. Names and dates – they seemed to have nothing to do with him. But he knew Pat and it suddenly occurred to him what this could be. It might prove useful, so he set it aside to take with him.

He found the lock box ridiculously easy to force open. Why do people call these things ‘safes’? he thought with scorn. He looked through the papers: birth certificate, insurance policies for her house and her car, and at the bottom – at last his search bore fruit. He breathed a sigh of relief. He took what he had found and tucked it along with the ledger inside his jacket.

He did a hurried search through the rest of the house, but found nothing else. He didn’t expect to, but he wanted the general disorder he left behind to confuse the police who would eventually search the house. He wasn’t concerned about fingerprints – he hadn’t even taken his coat and gloves off after Pat let him in.

He left the house in darkness, stopping and listening carefully before he stepped out the back door. He heard nothing and saw nothing; it was a dark and overcast night. He carefully pulled the back door closed behind him, hearing the deadbolt click, then slipped around the side of the house and into the darkness. He was home free. Nothing could touch him.

CHAPTER 1: An ordinary rainy day

Mondays should be outlawed, especially Mondays after spring break.

I juggled my coffee and roll while trying to open the door to the Connors Grove Gazette in the rain. None of my kids were really ready to go back to school, so the usual morning chaos was worse, and the rain didn’t help anything. So I went to the bakery first, even though I was late. I definitely needed caffeine and carbohydrates today.

I managed to get inside without dropping anything, only to be greeted by my rather irritated assistant, Max.

“I was afraid I was going to have to call Mark to go pull you out of a ditch! What happened?” she said.

“Good grief. There’s no need to call out the police just because I’m late. You should try getting five kids off to school by yourself sometime,” I said, as I hung up my dripping coat.

“Rough morning, huh?”

Max’s look of chagrin irritated my conscience.

“I’m sorry I snapped at you, Max. It’s just one of those crazy mornings.”

The ringing phone interrupted us and Max answered it.

I wrapped my hands around my cup, sipped my coffee and looked out the front window while I collected my thoughts.

Two significant features distinguished Connors Grove – the Coronado County Courthouse and the Kansas Flint Hills. Neither was at its best in a cold March rain. The courthouse, in the town square and across from the Gazette office, was an attractive turn-of-the-20th Century building, but in the rain it just loomed cold and gray across the street. I became aware of rain still dripping off my hair onto my shoulders and really hoped the rain would stop before I had to go out again.

As for the Flint Hills – the calendar might say spring, but the grassland was still brown and I had noticed muddy rills trickling down the hills as I drove into town.

It being Monday morning, the phone began ringing at a steady rate, but most of it was stuff Max could handle – classified ads, wedding and engagement announcements and the day-to-day details of small town life. So I took my cinnamon roll and coffee into my office and began shifting mental gears to focus on my job: publisher, editor and chief reporter of the Gazette, the weekly newspaper that has belonged to my family for four generations. This is my dream job, what I’ve wanted since I was 9. And I love my hometown – it’s a good place, and this is where God wants me to be.

I sketched out a plan for that week’s paper, then figured out what I needed to do first. Usually I’ve done this before Monday morning, but with my college kids at home along with all the others it had been a crazy week. Have I mentioned that I have seven kids? Two are in college, the rest are at home — a lot of hungry mouths to feed so I turned my attention back to my job.
I needed to do something about photos for the front page, so I called Birch Harris, the freelance photographer who takes most of the Gazette’s photos.

He keeps to himself and I know very little about his life before he moved to Connors Grove three years ago. But he’s very talented, so I buy his pictures and respect his privacy.

The phone rang several times before Birch picked it up. It sounded like he dropped the receiver before he got it to his ear.

What?”

“Hi, it’s Leah. I wondered if you had any pictures for me this week?”

“Good lord, why do you have to call so early? I was going to bring you some pictures this morning.”

“Did I wake you up? It’s not very early, just a little after nine.”

“Oh. Well it’s dark,” he said. “Is it raining out?”

“Yeah, lovely weather we’re having today.”

“Great. I got some pictures over the weekend of a guy burning off a pasture. They turned out pretty good, so I’ll try to be over there in about an hour, OK? I need to get some breakfast first.”

“That’s fine. Are you OK? You don’t sound very well.”

“I’m fine; nothing some breakfast won’t fix,” Birch said.

I hung up the phone, wondering why the conversation left me uneasy.

I stepped out into the main office.

“Max, have you noticed anything unusual about Birch lately?”

“If you ask me, he’s always a little unusual,” Max said. “Why? What did he say?”

“It’s not what he said, just how he sounded.”

I shrugged off my apprehension.

“Oh well. He said he’s got some pictures, so that’s all that matters, right?”

I put my coat back on – it was still damp – so I could go get the police reports from the law enforcement center, which is on the other side of the courthouse. Not a long walk, but it promised to be a wet one. I figured I’d look in at the county commission meeting, too; that way I could come back through the courthouse. Hey, I grew up in Kansas, not Seattle – I’m a dry-weather creature.

Neither of those tasks took me very long. Conners Grove is a quiet little town of less than 4,000 people and nothing much happens here. But crime had been even lighter than usual over the weekend. I wasn’t in the mood to hunt down some of the cops and find out what happened that they hadn’t filled out a report on yet, so I headed for the county commission room next. That was even quieter than the Law Enforcement Center – the commissioners were hearing reports from the various department heads, and there was nothing interesting on the agenda so I didn’t stay long. I’ve been doing this job long enough to know that sometimes the best news comes out of routine agenda items, but I didn’t have time to listen to reports about how much gas the county vehicles had used in the last week or how many visits the county nurses had made.

I needed to call some of our regular advertisers and try to sell some ads before lunch time. First on my list was Dan Reilly, owner of Reilly Construction. But I have to confess an ulterior motive.

I hesitate to refer to a 43-year-old man as my boyfriend, but I don’t know how else to categorize him. Whatever you call it, our relationship has the town buzzing. Is it the romance of it? The hometown girl and the charming immigrant, both of whom are widowed? (Dan came to Connors Grove from Dublin, Ireland.) But then you have to consider the reality of the dozen kids between us. Romantic moments are few and far between.

But the phone rang before I called Dan and I didn’t have time for romantic daydreaming for a long time.

CHAPTER 2: Joy disrupted


Dan Reilly brought his attention back to the estimate sheet in front of him. It was raining outside – a perfect day for catching up with paperwork. But to do that, he had to focus on the task at hand, not on Leah. And thinking about Leah was precisely what he couldn’t stop doing. Her smile, her laugh, her hazel eyes that changed with her mood, the way she’d leaned close when he’d kissed her goodnight Saturday – the joy of knowing Leah just seemed to well up inside him today.

“Dan.” The voice interrupted his reverie.

Dan looked up to see his secretary, Ruth Lindstrom, standing in his doorway.

“Pat hasn’t come in yet,” Ruth said.

Dan glanced at the clock on his desk. It was almost 9:30. This was unusual – his bookkeeper was usually at work by 8:30.

“Have you called her?”

“I just did, but there was no answer. And I asked George if he knew why she was late, and he said he hadn’t seen her since Saturday,” Ruth said. “I think maybe they had a fight. He kind of has that look.”

Dan sighed. Pat’s relationship with George Carter had been an on-again, off-again thing for years. Lately it had been more on, but it had always been subject to abrupt changes of status. Those were not usually peaceful times for the employees of Reilly Construction.

Dan picked up the phone and called Pat’s number. He let it ring eight or nine times before hanging up. It seemed a little odd that her answering machine hadn’t kicked in. Maybe she was home and unable to get to the phone.

Dan got up and went out the shop attached to the office part of the building. He saw his foreman, Luke Nelson, talking to Connie Jones over by the coffee maker in the corner. Connie was a heavy equipment operator, but she was also an EMT, a very handy combination of skills to have on a construction crew.

“Luke, Connie, I think you should go over to Pat’s and see if she’s sick or something. She’s not answering the phone.”

Luke asked George if he wanted to come along and George declined brusquely. Dan wondered about that a little, but he knew to leave George alone when he was in this sort of mood. He went back to his desk, but was unable to concentrate.

Connie called a few minutes later.

“Dan, I called 911. We can’t get into Pat’s house, but we’ve knocked on all the doors and there’s no answer. We can see through the front window into the living room and it’s all torn up, like maybe there was a fight. Luke thought we should break in, but I said we should wait for the police.”

“That’s good. Tell Luke not to be an idiot. Can you see Pat inside?”

“All we can see is some of the living room. We’ll come back after the cops get here.”

Dan considered asking George what had happened over the weekend, but thought better of it. If George wanted to talk about it, he would. Dan could not imagine the possibility that George would hurt Pat and leave her.

Dan’s crew was much like an extended family. Many of them had worked for his Uncle Jamey and stayed on when Dan took over after his uncle retired. He didn’t know how he would have gotten through the first year after his wife died without them. They’d been through a lot together. But nothing like this. He had a very bad feeling about it.

Dan decided to call Leah – he wanted her near, whatever the news was.

CHAPTER 3: Big News in Connors Grove

I went over to Reilly Construction as soon as Dan called me and told me his bookkeeper, Pat Gerritson, hadn’t shown up and it looked like there was some kind of trouble.

Dan and Ruth had just filled me in on a few details, when the phone rang. Dan answered it.
“Yes. Oh, my goodness. What do you think happened? Did she get sick or something? … Oh no,” Dan said. As he spoke, his accent became more pronounced. His face lost its color and he sat down on the edge of the desk. “Are you sure? … Yeah, sure, we’ll be here. I’d better tell George. … Yeah, I’ll make sure he stays around.”

Dan hung up the phone.

“That was Mark. Pat’s dead. He thinks she was murdered. I guess it’s pretty bad. He’s coming over here in a few minutes to talk to us and he wants to talk to George,” Dan said. “I don’t know how I’m going to tell him this.”

“Do you want me to come with you?” I asked. Dan just looked at me, his reactions slow in the wake of the shock.

“No,” he said. “No, I’ll handle it. Probably be better if it’s just me.”

He went through the door to the shop to talk to George.

Ruth and I just stared at each other. I sat down in a chair by Ruth’s desk and tried to remember what I knew about Pat. I felt kind of numb. I had to admit I didn’t really know Pat very well. Pat had lived in Connors Grove since the mid-80s. She was older than me, single, lived in a house out on the far edge of town. I knew that Pat had the reputation around town of being something of a tramp. She was attractive, but I had always thought she looked kind of hard, and dressed rather provocatively. I’d never felt very comfortable around her or had much to say to her.

Pat’s house was just outside the city limits, so it would fall under the sheriff’s jurisdiction, which explained why Mark Watkins, the undersheriff, would answer the call. Of course, city and county law enforcement often work together. But Connors Grove hadn’t had a murder in years.

Mark arrived just then, along with Connie and Luke, the two who had gone to check on Pat. I thought they all looked pretty shaken. In the interests of full disclosure, I should mention that Mark is married to my assistant, Max, and he’s in and out of the office all the time.

“Hi, Leah, Ruth,” Mark said. “Is Dan around?”

“Yeah, I’m right here,” Dan said as he came in from the shop.

“Where’s George? I need to talk to him, too,” Mark said.

“He’s takin’ this pretty hard,” Dan said. “I left him alone for a few minutes. He’ll be out in the shop when you want to talk to him. So what do you think happened?”

Mark looked sober.

“It’s pretty bad. It looks to me like a crime of passion – like maybe there was a fight. She’s beaten up pretty badly and I think it looks like she was strangled, too, though I can’t say for sure,” Mark said. He paused a minute, then went on.

“Truth is, if I’d found her out somewhere, I’m not sure I’d know right off it was Pat. Anyway, we’re going to have to talk to everyone who knew her. When did you see her last, Dan?”

I pulled a notebook out of my purse and started taking notes while Mark talked to Dan and Ruth. They said they’d last seen Pat on Friday morning and she had taken that afternoon off. They didn’t know why and hadn’t seemed concerned about it.

There wasn’t much to tell about this morning either. Dan and Ruth both described the typical morning routine and about their concerns when Pat didn’t arrive. It seemed pretty straightforward, though my curiosity was pricked when Ruth described George’s reaction to Pat’s absence.

Mark moved to more general questions about Pat.

“How has Pat seemed lately?” Mark asked. “Do you know of anything she was concerned about, any conflicts?”

Dan shook his head. “I don’t think so, but then she didn’t really talk about her life much. I thought she and George were getting along pretty well.”

But Ruth looked thoughtful. She hesitated a minute, then spoke.

“There is something. I think someone had been making harassing phone calls to Pat lately,” she said. “I really don’t know for sure. It just seemed that way. A few times in the last few weeks, she answered the phone and then seemed upset and would hang up right away.”

“What did she say?” Mark asked.

“Nothing, really. Pat didn’t confide in me,” Ruth said. “Usually I answer the phone anyway, but if I’m away from the desk or on the other line, she will. But the last couple of weeks, she wouldn’t answer the phone at all no matter what I was doing.”

“Did you say anything to her about that?” Dan asked. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Ruth looked a little apologetic.

“I might have if it had happened more often, but I just thought it seemed like her business and I didn’t want to make a fuss,” she said. “I thought maybe she’d tell me something eventually. There was one time, about a week ago, that I answered the phone and a male voice asked for Pat, but she wasn’t at her desk so he hung up.”

“Did you recognize the voice?” Mark asked.

“No. It sounded odd. Like someone was disguising his voice. I guess maybe I should have said something, but it didn’t seem like anything important, at the time,” Ruth said. “Besides, it’s not like men had never called here for Pat.”

George came into the office just then. He was noticeably upset, a rather unsettling sight. His eyes were red and puffy and he was still wiping his nose with a big white handkerchief. He was a grizzled, burly man in his early 50s who had worked for Dan, and before that for Uncle Jamey, for years. I would have characterized him as one of those guys who doesn’t show his emotions too much, but he was having a hard time hiding his grief.

“Luke said you wanted to talk to me,” George said to Mark.

“If you can talk now, that would be good,” Mark said. “I know this is hard, but I need to know when you last saw Pat, and what happened.”

“Nothing, really,” George said, but I noticed that he wasn’t looking Mark in the eye when he said it. “I saw her Saturday. She fixed dinner. I went home. I called her Sunday, but she didn’t answer and I just thought she’d gone out. I didn’t go over there.”

His voice cracked on a sob.

“Maybe if I had, she’d still be alive.”

“Well, I don’t know. I think Sunday might have been too late,” Mark said. “You said you went home after dinner Saturday. Was that usual? I don’t mean to pry, but I figured you usually stayed the night.”

“Well, Saturday night I went home,” George said. “I was tired. We worked hard last week.”
But George was looking everywhere except at Mark; I was sure Mark noticed. It seemed odd and I couldn’t help but think there was something he wasn’t telling. But Mark let it go.

“I’ll need to talk to you again,” he said to George, “but it can wait. Are Luke and Connie and the others in the shop?”

Dan nodded and Mark went back to the shop to talk to the others. Dan came over to me and put his arm around my shoulders. I looked up into his deep blue eyes. I could get lost looking into his eyes.

“Did you need anything else from me?” he said.

“I was going to see if you wanted to buy an ad this week,” I said. “But it can wait. I really better start trying to find out what I can on this, see about getting Birch over to take some pictures. I’ll see you later.”

“Yeah, I’ll call or I’ll come by,” he said, and gave me a little kiss on the forehead.

I saw Connie out front when I went out to my car. Connie was sitting on a bench under the awning, watching the rain. She was the only other woman who worked for Dan, and she worked on the crew, not in the office. I always thought being heavy equipment operator was a surprising job for such a petite woman, but Connie handles those big machines with ease.

I told her Mark wanted to talk to her and asked her if she had been able to see anything at Pat’s house.

“No, not really. Luke and I didn’t go inside and all we could see through the front window was the living room,” she said. “It looked like stuff was tossed around and broken. The TV was smashed, there was a lamp on the floor and other stuff like that.”

She paused a minute.

“You know, I didn’t really like Pat too well. She came on to the guys and I think it caused trouble sometimes,” she said. “But she sure didn’t deserve something like this. And she knew her job.”

“Did Dan ever say anything to her about coming on to the guys?” I asked.

“Yeah, I think he told her not to cause trouble,” Connie said. “You know, I make it a rule to never date co-workers. It’s just bad luck and it never works out. That’s how I met my ex-husband – I worked with him.”

“Who’s at the crime scene now?”

“Well, Mark got there and just about the same time one of the city cops got there. I think it was the new guy, I don’t remember his name,” she said. “But I think Pat’s house is out of the city limits, isn’t it? Anyway, Al Hanson came with Mark, so I know he and the other guy are there. The ambulance got there before we left and some other cops came, city and county.”

This didn’t really surprise me. This was the biggest thing to happen in Connors Grove in years. They’d all want in on it.

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