In a little town like Cutler, Colorado, there’s always time to stop and chat with a neighbor…to enjoy a glass of lemonade on the front porch…or to watch the sunset over Spirit Lake. But that doesn’t mean there’s no such thing as murder…
Fred Vickery’s getting to that age. Doc Huggins says he’s supposed to avoid cholesterol, salt, and excitement. He’s doing his best to cooperate–if only to placate his overly concerned daughter.But cutting down on salt is easier than avoiding excitement–especially when Fred finds a dead body on his morning walk.
The victim was a newcomer (she’d only been in town ten years), but Fred’s been here forever. He knows everyone–and knows just what questions to ask. And he intends to find the culprit–doctor’s orders be damned…
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Fred Vickery took his morning constitutional at daybreak, just as he had every morning for the past twenty years. He walked slowly, admiring the hillsides under their amber canopy of autumn leaves. Fred loved mornings, especially ones like this, when he couldn’t see another living soul anywhere and the lake appeared even more placid than usual.
It seemed funny to him that the lake should be so quiet after the goings-on at the Cavanaugh place last night. Though it was true that Cutler’s population increased every year, lavish cocktail and dinner parties still weren’t everyday occurrences. He thought there should have been some indication that one had taken place. The day shouldn’t look so ordinary.
He watched his shadow waver across the ground as he passed in and out of the shade, and he tried to ignore the pain in his legs. They hurt most of the time these days, but the pain was always worse in the cold. From now until late March, Fred was in for some misery.
Not long ago he’d walked easily, his shadow straight and proud. Now he had the silhouette of an old man. Last month Doc Huggins had told him he needed to slow down. Heart trouble, Doc had said. He’d told Fred to avoid excitement, to eat right, and to cut down on cholesterol and salt. Worst of all, he’d ordered Fred to give up caffeine. As if Fred would even consider such a thing. Fred refused to listen to Doc. He hated to admit that age had the jump on him.
He breathed deeply of the brisk mountain air. None of Doc’s remedies would ever make him feel better than he did while watching the sun rise over the mountains. No change in his diet would be a better cure for what ailed him than was seeing the sun paint the sky while he stood on the shores of Spirit Lake.
He followed the same path he took every morning—around the south end of the lake to the Huggins’s place, then back home. Four miles round-trip. If anybody needed to find him, they knew where to look.
He slid his hands into his pockets, seeking warmth, and fingered the house key there. Until a month ago he’d never had to carry one. But the day after Doc gave him the grim news about his heart, his daughter, Margaret, had come over while he was out and raided his cupboards. She’d thrown out everything, even his half-gallon of almond toffee crunch ice cream. Of course he’d bought another one at Lacey’s General Store the next morning. And, of course, that had made Margaret angry. She’d called him stubborn and claimed she had to do things behind his back because he wouldn’t follow Doc’s instructions.
She was right about that last part, but Fred didn’t like making Margaret angry. She’d been more than good to him in the two years since Phoebe died. His sons had all moved away year ago to follow their careers. Only Margaret had stayed in Cutler with her family. She’d never complained when she helped care for Phoebe during the final stages of her cancer. And if now she worried about Fred, it just proved what a good daughter she was.
Two or three times every week she came over to check on him. Usually she brought the kids with her. Having them around helped Fred ignore the real reason for her visits. She cooked a pot roast every Sunday and brought enough to give him leftovers until Wednesday. And he appreciated it. Really. Even though he hated pot roast.
But none of that mattered this morning. He rounded a bend in the trail and Spirit Lake spread itself out before him. It shimmered in the autumn sun, calm and empty. A gentle most rose from the water in the half-light of sunrise. The air felt cool and sassy, just the way he liked it. He’d seen the lake through every season many times and he liked them all, but he loved autumn best.
He turned his face toward the rising sun, savoring the feel in spite of the sun’s weakness. Not much heat burned through the pale sky this time of year, and the little that did lacked strength, a bit like Fred himself. Just a reminder of past days. It was hell to get old.
Stifling a sigh, he followed the path as it turned north again and hurried past the cabin where the crazy artist lady lived. She called herself Summer Dey, but Fred suspected that wasn’t her real name. She was odd, no doubt about that, and Fred did his best to avoid her.
He managed to escape without a Summer sighting and hurried to the end of the trail, just past the Huggins place. There he turned around and headed back, catching a glimpse of Doc in the kitchen window as he trudged toward home. Doc was fresh from sleep, his hair sticking up in soft spikes around his head. Fred gave him a grudging wave and, with a twinge of jealousy, watched Doc pour his morning coffee.
He’d gone about halfway back when he saw something that made him stop walking. It was in the spot midway between Doc’s place and Summer Dey’s property, where the path narrowed and the ground fell away sharply, straight into the water. A pair of small feet lay on the water’s surface. Fred saw only the bare soles. If there was more, a chokecherry bush, its heavy branches brushing the lake, obscured the rest.
Alarmed, he moved closer to the edge of the path and looked again. Had the feet moved? No. No, it was just the motion of the water as it rocked the feet gently, giving the illusion of movement. But now he could see a skirt wrapped tightly around a set of female calves. Someone was in the lake, and Fred had a very bad feeling about it. It was too cold to go swimming, and anyway, nobody would dive into the lake wearing a long skirt.
Almost afraid to breathe, he moved a few feet along the path and slid down the bank to the water, easing himself into its icy grip. He took a moment to regain his balance then walked slowly through the thigh-deep water. His heart hammered dangerously in his chest, just the sort of thing Doc had been warning him about. But he had to see who it was and offer help if he could. He couldn’t just walk on by because he was old.
Stepping cautiously, he tested the rocky bottom with each foot before trusting his weight on it. It seemed to take forever to reach the woman who lay face down with a net of golden hair floating around her. Her arms rocked gently in the waves he created while moving toward her, and her skirt, long and black and made of a soft-looking material like Phoebe’s best dress, dragged at her legs and hips. Sheer and white, her blouse stuck to the skin on her back. He recognized her even without seeing her face—Joan Cavanaugh, still in her evening clothes from last night’s party.
Fred moved more quickly now, wondering if he could help her. He grasped her shoulders and turned her out of the water. A dark bruise discolored her neck and she stared with empty eyes at the sky, her face dark and contorted, her mouth open.
Horrified, Fred took a step backward, lost his footing, and plunged into the icy water. He fought his way back to the surface, gasping for breath and taking care not to look at her again.
Until that moment, death hadn’t seemed possible. Now, reality curled its fingers around his mind and terror clawed at his throat. He tried to cry out, but he couldn’t force any sound from his lips.
Shaking violently, Fred struggled back to shore and scrambled onto dry land where he collapsed for a moment. Chilled and gasping for breath, he tried to calm his breathing and pushed resolutely at the strange sensation in his left arm. What if he died here, cold and wet and only a few feet from . . . her? What if he didn’t last long enough to tell someone what he’d found?
With trembling fingers, he reached into his front short pocket for the small prescription bottle Margaret insisted that he carry. He fumbled with the cap but he couldn’t grasp it with his frozen fingers. He swore, counted to ten, and tried again. This time the cap budged and at last he pulled out a tablet and wedged it under his tongue.
He’d be all right. He just needed another minute or two, that’s all. He lay in the dirt until his breathing slowed and his heart stopped hammering in his chest. Feeling a bit stronger, he sat up then rolled to his knees and crawled into the bushes where he was violently sick. Sometime later, he pulled himself to his feet and stumbled down the path toward home.
The air, suddenly frigid, bit through his water-logged clothes. He needed to get home and change out of his wet things, get himself warm and dry before he caught pneumonia or something. Then he’d call Enos.
He got sick again on the way home, but didn’t let himself take much time to recuperate. If possible, the air seemed even colder the farther he walked. He thought of the Hendricks boy who’d died last year. Fell asleep in his sleeping bag in wet clothes and was dead by morning. A tragic thing. It could happen to him if he didn’t get inside before his strength gave out.
Once home he fumbled with the key for a full two minutes before his frozen fingers could force it into the lock. Pushing open the kitchen door, he nearly fell over his feet as he rushed toward the wood-burning stove and its lifesaving warmth. Even the rustic smell of the fire seemed to make him stronger.
He stripped off his wet clothes and dropped them to the floor. Reluctant to leave the heat even long enough to search for warm, dry clothing, he inched closer to the stove. At last, warmed slightly, he turned away and padded through the house to his bedroom where he found clean pants and a shirt. He stuffed his icy feet into thick socks and searched for his other pair of boots in the back of his closet.
Back in the kitchen he dialed the number for the sheriff’s office. After eight rings, Fred cursed and broke the connection. He couldn’t remember the last time Enos had been on the job before ten o’clock. Enos believed that since the population of Cutler hovered right around three thousand, and since there had never been a crime wave in the entire county, and since everyone in town knew where to find him any time of the day or night, he didn’t need to break his neck getting to work in the mornings. Nothing but an excuse for sleeping in if you asked Fred.
He punched the numbers harder when he dialed Enos’s home number, as if he could relay the urgency of his call by being determined. Thank God, Jessica answered on the second ring but she had to shout to make herself heard over the television.
“Jess, it’s Fred,” he shouted back. “Where’s Enos?”
“Fred? How are you?” She didn’t bother turning down the television.
“I’m fine,” he bellowed. “Where’s—”
She didn’t even let him get the question out. “You feeling all right these days?”
“I’m feeling fine,” he snapped. “Let me talk to Enos.”
“You’re taking it easy, aren’t you? Don’t want you making things harder on Maggie. She has her hands full enough, if you know what I mean.”
Fred knew, all right. Everyone in town knew what she meant. Margaret’s husband had been a bitter disappointment to Fred almost since the day she’d married him. She’d raised three kids practically on her own and nursed her mother. Now she had Fred to take care of. But Fred didn’t like discussing his family’s troubles, especially not his daughter’s marriage. “Jess, I called to talk to Enos,” he said.
“Oh. Sure. I don’t know if he’s still here . . . hold on, his truck’s in the driveway. Let me see if I can find him. When is Maggie going to Denver again, do you know? I want her to pick up—”
“I don’t know,” Fred said, cutting her off. “Will you please call Enos to the phone?”
Jessica sniffed. “You got a bee in your bonnet this morning, don’t you? Well, hold your horses. I’ll get him.” She dropped the telephone onto a hard surface somewhere near the television speaker.
After a very long time the receiver skittered across the surface again and Enos’s voice boomed over the wire. “You all right, Fred?”
“I’m fine.” Thanks to Doc, all his friends thought he was having a heart attack every time they spoke to him. Made it hard to get anything done. “You’ve got to come over here right away.”
“Should I bring Doc? What about Maggie?”
“Enos, stop talking and listen. It’s not me. Joan Cavanaugh’s been murdered.”
His voice must have dropped because Enos shouted, “What? What did you say? I can’t hear you. Dad-blasted TV anyway . . . Jess, turn that thing off a minute, will you? I can’t hear a . . . Criminy! Now what was it? What did you say?”
“Joan Cavanaugh’s been murdered!” Fred shouted just as the background noise finally ceased. The words hung between them, echoing in the abrupt silence.
Enos didn’t say anything for a moment then quietly demanded, “Are you sure?”
Now they were getting somewhere. “Sure as I can be.”
“Damn. Where is she?”
“In the lake.”
“What happened? Are you sure she’s dead?”
“I don’t know what happened. She was just there. And yes, I’m sure.”
“Then what makes you think she was murdered?”
Fred let out his growing impatience on a heavy sigh. “Are you going to sit there asking questions all day, or are you going to come over here and let me show you?”
“Don’t go getting all riled up. Take it easy and I’ll be right there. You sure you’re all right? You want me to call Maggie?”
Fred slammed the receiver down on its hook.
Though it seemed longer, it actually took Enos fewer than ten minutes to get there. But then he spent another minute or two digging around in his glove compartment for something before finally grabbing his old black cowboy hat and jamming it over his thinning hair.
Already tired of waiting, Fred walked outside and headed toward the path without a word. He knew Enos was following by the noises he made as he crashed through the brush. Fred felt better now. His stomach had calmed a little and his heartbeat had just about returned to normal.
He and Enos walked for a few minutes, the silence broken only by the sound of their boots on the path and their jackets rubbing against the foliage. The sun played off the aspen trees, making their leaves look like shiny gold pieces tied to the ends of the branches. The forest whispered in the still air, sharing secrets mankind would never know. When they rounded the turn in the path, Fred stopped cold.
“There,” he said, pointing with a shaky finger.
Enos looked at the lake and his jaw dropped. “Good billy hell,” he said softly. His eyes looked sad and worried, but he got right to work and studied the path for several feet in each direction. “Here’s where you went in?” he asked when he found Fred’s footprints in the dirt.
Fred nodded. “Seemed like the best place.”
Enos scrambled down the bank and inched into the water just as Fred had earlier. He studied Joan’s body and looked around a bit, finally rejoining Fred on the shore.
“She didn’t slip in here,” Enos said with a shake of his head. “She must have fallen in somewhere further up.”
“She didn’t fall in,” Fred said.
“She could have.” Enos fished in his shirt pocket for a piece of gum. Last Fred heard, it had been three weeks since Enos last had a cigarette. He claimed Jessica had made him choose between quitting and sleeping on the hide-a-bed in the family room. He’d been buying a lot of Wrigley’s ever since.
“She could have,” Fred agreed, “but she didn’t. You saw that bruise on her neck.”
“Could’a been made by anything.” Enos folded the gum into his mouth and spoke around it as he led Fred a few feet away from the lake. “I’m going to walk down to Doc’s and call the boys. Wait here for me to get back. We’re a lot closer to the road here than I thought we’d be, so I’ll bring the truck around and give you a lift back home.” As he spoke, he gripped Fred’s shoulder in a way that Fred found reassuring. Not surprising, though. Enos was a good man.
Fred watched Enos walk away, his shoulders slightly hunched, his head bowed beneath that raggedy black hat. At almost fifty, Enos still looked enough like the lovesick young man who’d hung around Margaret for three solid years to warm Fred’s heart. For a while there, Fred and Phoebe had thought the two of them would end up together. Fred still didn’t completely understand what had happened between them, but since they’d both been married to someone else for nearly thirty years, it probably didn’t matter anymore. Still, other than his own three boys, Fred had never met a man he liked more than Enos Asay.
Which is why Fred had trouble understanding Enos’s reaction to Joan Cavanaugh’s death. It was obvious, wasn’t it? This was no accident.
His eyes strayed to the lake where Joan’s body still floated on the surface. His stomach bucked, so he looked away again and studied the tops of the pine trees towering overhead. Maybe that would erase the picture of death from his mind. Bile rose in his throat but he gasped hungrily of the fresh air. He could turn his back on the scene, but he couldn’t turn his back on the tragedy.
Enos returned after a few minutes and a few minutes after that, Ivan Neeley and Grady Hatch, Enos’s deputies, showed up. Typical of both boys, they crashed through the brush like a couple of bull moose. Ivan was short and stocky, with short dark hair and a cocky attitude. Grady was long and lean, a friendly guy when he wasn’t at work.
Enos motioned them to a spot on the path that was too far away for Fred to hear what they said. They all put on solemn faces and glanced occasionally—uneasily—over their shoulders at the lake.
After a long time Enos left his deputies to carry out his instructions—whatever they were—and rejoined Fred. “You’re white as a sheet. Want me to call Maggie?”
Fred shook his head. “I’m fine. Just do what you have to do to get Joan out of the water.”
Enos looked unconvinced, but he went back to the lake and left Fred alone. That was okay with Fred. The shock of finding her body had thrown him, but he hadn’t really known Joan well. She had associated with a different type of people, a flashier social group. Fred had always believed that she would have been happier living a simpler life—his kind of life—but her husband had other ideas.
Brandon Cavanaugh hadn’t fit in since the day he and Joan arrived in Cutler ten years earlier. He didn’t like Cutler, and Cutler didn’t like him. He’d stayed only because Joan insisted. His only interests were in money, power, and social position, and Fred was sure he’d married Joan to get them.
Fred heard a footstep on the dirt behind him and turned to see Doc Huggins approaching, his old face grim.
“Poor woman,” Doc said.
“You’ve seen her then?” Fred asked. At Doc’s solemn nod, he asked, “How long do you think she’s been dead?”
“Can’t really say. It’s hard to tell in these conditions. The water is cold enough to lower the body temperature pretty fast. I’d say she’s been in there at least a couple of hours, maybe longer.”
Enos climbed the bank behind Doc and planted his fists on his hips. “Want to take a guess at the cause of death Doc?”
“Not yet. Bring her on over to the office and let me run a few tests. I’ll lay you odds we end up taking her to the county boys. I don’t have the equipment they do.”
Enos repositioned his hat and glanced once more at the lake. “She probably drowned.”
“What about that bruise?” Fred asked again.
With a covert glance at Fred, Doc pulled Enos a few steps away. It didn’t matter whether they spoke in front of him or not. Fred knew Joan hadn’t died by drowning.
Suddenly weary, he longed to find a warm place with a comfortable chair and a steaming cup of hot coffee. If only he could find a way to ease the bitter ache in his hands and legs, he’d feel better.
The image of Joan’s body drifted through his mind again and for what must surely have been the hundredth time that morning, he battled nausea. Finding Joan’s body had turned him to putty. Thinking about her kept him that way.
No matter what Enos said, his gut told him that Joan’s death was no accident. Something terrible had happened at Spirit Lake. He was sure of it.
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