A man is lucky to live his life in a place like Cutler, Colorado. At least that’s what Fred Vickery thinks–and he ought to know. A lifelong resident, Fred is seventy-three and still going strong. He plans to live in Cutler for the rest of his life–and the last thing he wants to see is change. But Fred’s about to discover once again that the more things change, the more they stay the same…
Fred’s not a betting man. Never was. But he would wager every penny he has that bringing gambling to Cutler is the biggest mistake the town could ever make. Fred doesn’t think the issue is worth killing over–but someone in town apparently does. Just hours after inciting a near riot at the Copper Penny, Lenore Irvine is found murdered. And it doesn’t take Fred long to get into the thick of the police investigation, especially since his son-in-law is the prime suspect. It just goes to show–in a town like Cutler, murder always strikes close to home.
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Fred Vickery stormed down Cutler, Colorado’s Main Street toward the Bluebird Café, muttering under his breath. He’d just spent half an hour on the telephone, arguing with his oldest son Joseph. Long distance. Now, Fred needed coffee. Lots of it.
He loved all four of his children. Really. But sometimes they put his sunny disposition to the test. Joseph had called, worried, because Fred’s last check-up showed his cholesterol level had taken a slight jump. He’d informed Fred that he’d found a senior center near his New Hampshire home where he thought Fred should live out the rest of his days.
Fred didn’t want or need to move, and if he did, it wouldn’t be into a retirement home. But he’d listened to Joseph’s nonsense as long as he could stand to. Then, he’d pointed out—quite reasonably, in fact—that Joseph’s idea was the biggest bunch of hogwash he’d ever heard.
Of course, Joseph had flown off the handle. Even as a child, he’d hated mild reproach. So, he’d argued louder until, in the end, Fred had done the only thing possible. He’d slammed down the receiver in Joseph’s ear, grabbed his keys, and walked out the door to avoid a repeat call.
There was only one way Joseph could have known about Fred’s checkup—Fred’s only daughter, Margaret, must have called her brother and given him a full report. Well, Fred would have a thing or two to say about that next time he saw her.
But right now, he needed to soothe his jangled nerves. And he intended to do so by treating himself to one of Lizzie Hatch’s country fried steak lunch specials at the Bluebird Café. Even the thought of Lizzie’s cooking made his mouth water and nearly brought a smile to his lips. He’d order mashed potatoes with extra gravy and a steaming pot of coffee. Real coffee. Positively no decaf.
A light breeze whispered across his cheek and ruffled the aspen leaves overhead. The rich scent of new pine needles filled the air. Somewhere nearby, a chipmunk chattered at an intruder and birds squawked down at Fred from the treetops. If Joseph hadn’t called, Fred would have enjoyed his walk through town on this sunny afternoon in May. But Joseph had called, and Fred wasn’t in the mood to enjoy anything. And that, he thought, was that.
He stepped off the boardwalk and started across Aspen Street, but someone gripped him by the shoulder and yanked him backward a step.
“What in the—” he snarled and pivoted on his heel to stare straight into the deputy sheriff’s badge pinned to Grady Hatch’s chest.
“Whoa, Fred. Watch out. You could have gotten yourself killed.”
Fred turned to look at Bessie Marshall piloting her 1968 Oldsmobile toward the intersection. She peered up over the steering wheel and kept her gaze firmly locked on the pavement.
“By Bessie?” Fred demanded. “She can’t drive fast enough to hurt a fly on the road.”
Grady released Fred’s shoulder and took a step away. “Sorry. Instinctive reaction, I guess.”
He looked so apologetic, Fred’s anger faded a bit. “That’s all right. No harm done. I may not have been paying close enough attention.” Checking for traffic, he started across the street again.
To his surprise, Grady fell into step beside him. “Are you going to the Café?”
Grady stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I’ll walk with you. I’m catching a late lunch, myself.”
Fred stole a glance at Grady’s profile. Did he have an ulterior motive for coming along? Had Doc Huggins flapped his big mouth to everyone in town about Fred’s cholesterol level? If so, Grady wouldn’t be the only one in town keeping an eye on Fred’s diet. Even Lizzie had been known to tinker with his orders from time to time. But she wouldn’t get away with it this time. Fred had had enough for one day.
Besides, she’d think twice about annoying Fred when he walked in with her son. She knew Fred had a soft spot in his heart for Grady, in spite of the boy’s occasional bouts of bull-headedness. Always had, though he didn’t show it often.
Years ago, the unexpected death of Lizzie’s husband left her with a teenaged son to raise and a load of bills to pay. The very minute the previous owners retired to Florida, she’d put part of her insurance settlement as a down-payment on the Bluebird Café and set to work putting her own stamp on the place.
She and Grady had done most of the work themselves, and Fred had soon recognized the wisdom in her decision. The physical labor had helped young Grady release his anger and frustrations, and work through his grief. Fred suspected it had done the same for Lizzie. Secretly, he thought Lizzie had done a fine job of raising her son alone under trying circumstances. Grady had turned into a fine young man.
They put another block behind them before Grady spoke again, and he made a valiant effort to sound casual. “So. . . Is something wrong?”
Fred started to shake his head, then changed his mind. He’d feel better if he could hear someone under the age of seventy tell him Joseph had behaved like an idiot. “I just had an argument with Joseph.”
Grady nodded slowly. He was a good twenty years younger than Joseph, but they knew each other slightly. Everyone with a connection to Cutler knew everyone else, at least by sight and reputation. “Doesn’t he live back east somewhere?”
Grady pursed his lips, as if Fred had said something he needed to remember. “How’s he doing?”
Grady nodded again and let a few more steps fall on the boardwalk. “You want to talk about it?”
Fred slowed his pace. “This isn’t a new argument—we’ve been over this before. And I feel the same way last time he brought it up. I don’t know what makes him think I’ll change my mind now.”
“A senior center.” Fred stopped in his tracks and glanced up at Grady as the young man ground to a halt beside him. “He thinks I need to move into a dad-blasted retirement home and live out my days near him.”
“So he can keep an eye on me during my waning years,” Fred growled. “That’s exactly what he said—my waning years.”
Grady bit his bottom lip and glanced away, probably to avoid saying something foolish.
Fred jabbed him in the chest with his index finger, anyway. “He thinks just because I have a touch of arthritis, and because my cholesterol level took a slight jump, that I’m too old to take care of myself. Now isn’t that the most ridiculous thing you’ve ever heard?”
“Well, you did have that heart attack a few years ago,” Grady said.
Fred glared at him. “It wasn’t a heart attack. It was a blip. And I’ll tell you the same thing I told Joseph. I’ve lived in Cutler for seventy-three years, and I’ll die right here in my own bed—not in some dad-blasted retirement home clear across the country.”
“What did Joseph say to that?”
Fred’s glare slipped into a deep scowl. “What do you think he said? I don’t know how I ever raised such a fool.”
Grady let out an uncomfortable laugh.
Pulling in a deep breath, Fred tried to calm himself. “Don’t misunderstand me—I love my son. But I know why he wants me to move. It’s because he doesn’t want like feeling guilty about never coming home to visit. Well, that’s not my problem. And I’m not leaving my home just so he can justify his decision to work sixty hours a week.”
He broke off and stared around him, studying the place he’d called home his entire life. Aspen trees and Englemann Spruce towered over the buildings. High mountain peaks shielded the valley. Dense pine forests scrambled up the hillsides, and Spirit Lake sparkled through the foliage in the afternoon sun.
Fred’s heart ached at the mere thought of moving away. He could never do it. Cutler held his childhood memories safe and preserved the memories of life with his late wife, Phoebe. His sister and most of his brothers lived nearby. So did all of Phoebe’s family. And he resented Joseph even suggesting that he leave it all.
Grady remained silent for a long time, and Fred could tell he chose his next words carefully. “What do the other kids think?”
“I haven’t talked to Jeffrey or Douglas, but Margaret has to be the one who called Joseph and started this whole mess.” Fred frowned, but he had to struggle to maintain his sour expression.
Margaret looked so much like her mother it hurt sometimes. When her brothers had raced away to pursue careers, she’d stayed in Cutler to raise her family, and she’d been invaluable in helping Fred nurse Phoebe through the last stages of her cancer. He tried to remember that when she grew overanxious about protecting him—like now.
“I’m sure she’s just worried about you,” Grady said.
“Well, she doesn’t need to be,” Fred snapped. He sighed heavily and reached up to clap Grady on the shoulder. “I think I’ll put Joseph out of my mind for the rest of the day. Let’s get lunch.”
Grady smiled. He looked relieved. “Sounds like a plan to me.”
They covered the remaining distance to the Bluebird in companionable silence. Grady stepped forward to open the door, and Fred sighed with pleasure as the comforting aromas of fresh coffee, roasting beef, and rich gravy rushed out to meet him.
Lizzie’s most recent piece of Elvis memorabilia, an Elvis painted on black velvet, gazed down on Fred as he stepped inside, and last notes of “In The Ghetto” died away on the jukebox.
Grandpa Jones and Arnold Van Dyke sat at the counter, but the rest of the stools were empty. Perfect. Fred could eat in peace and take plenty of time to pull himself together.
Grandpa looked up from his plate and wagged a French fry to say hello. Arnold stopped stuffing his sandwich into his mouth long enough to nod. Lizzie checked the new arrivals and smiled when she saw Grady. She reached for the coffeepot on the warmer, and Grady took a step away as if he intended to sit in his usual spot near the kitchen.
“Aren’t you going to join me?” Fred asked.
Grady glanced back over his shoulder. For some reason, he looked astonished. “Well, I. . .” He shrugged and turned around. “Sure.”
Fred led the way to his favorite corner booth beneath the “Kissin’ Cousins” poster pleased to see a customer at only one other table in the dining room.
Hannah Irvine sat with her red head bent over a book, so engrossed she didn’t even look up when Fred and Grady entered. He’d never known Hannah well. She was young—no more than seventeen. Just about the same age as his grandson, Benjamin. She was a quiet girl. Shy. Fred didn’t often see her with kids from school, and he suspected her stepmother had a lot to do with that.
Lenore Irvine was an unpleasant woman, at best. She’d grown up in Cutler and remained single until about six years earlier, when she’d met and married Kent Irvine and taken in Hannah, Kent’s youngest daughter for an instant family. Fred knew Kent had another daughter, older than Hannah, but he couldn’t remember ever seeing her.
One way or another, Lenore had managed to offend almost everyone in town, and he often wondered whether Hannah paid the price for her stepmother’s attitude. As a matter of fact, Fred could think of only one person who truly liked Lenore—Janice Lacey. In Fred’s opinion, having Janice as a friend was worse than having no friends at all, but he never said so aloud.
Slipping into the booth, he turned over his coffee cup while Grady worked his long legs under the table. But before Fred could even enjoy a moment’s peace, the bell over the door tinkled again and George Newman stepped inside.
Fred tried not to groan aloud. Of all people to come in when Fred needed peace and quiet— George could rattle on for hours and still say absolutely nothing. Fred wasn’t in any mood to listen. Not today.
He started to look away, but a younger version of George stepped inside and held his attention. This time, Fred didn’t even try to hold back his groan or hide his dismay.
George’s son, David, had moved away years ago. He hadn’t been back to Cutler in so long, Fred thought he’d forgotten how to get here. But today, of all days, he’d come home.
Both men stood nearly six feet tall, both let their shoulders stoop forward slightly, both had prominent roman noses and narrow-set eyes. George had more wrinkles on his face and a lot more gray in his hair, but within a few years, David would be his father’s double.
Fred had never cared for David, even as a boy. But that didn’t stop George from telling Fred about David’s every boring achievement—real or imagined. Fred had never been able to stop George from raving about David’s law practice somewhere on the eastern slope of the Rockies—Boulder, if Fred remembered right—and he’d probably expect Fred to admire the boy in person.
Grady followed Fred’s gaze and looked back quickly. “Is that George’s son?”
“He’s an attorney, isn’t he? Like Joe?” The second Joseph’s name left his lips, Grady caught himself and sent Fred a guilty smile.
Fred nodded, and refrained from pointing out that no one could consider Joseph and David in the same league.
He watched as David took a few seconds to renew acquaintances with Grandpa and Arnold, and dreaded the moment George would spot him. He wondered whether country-fried steak and mashed potatoes were worth spending even five minutes with the George and David.
Before he could reach a decision, Lizzie reached in front of him to fill his cup. Without looking away from her task, she jerked her chin toward the counter. “Home for a visit.”
“So I see.”
She placed a hand on Grady’s shoulder while she filled his cup. “Brought his wife with him.”
Fred had heard talk about David’s wife over the years. He couldn’t remember details, but he couldn’t imagine anyone very impressive taking up with a man like David. “Have you met her?”
“Once,” Lizzie said.
“What is she like?”
“Once was enough.” Lizzie lowered the coffeepot to the table. She must have said all she intended. “Ready to order?”
“I’ll have a cheeseburger and fries,” Grady said. “And a large Coke.”
“Bring the special for me,” Fred said. “With mashed potatoes and extra gravy.”
Lizzie stared at him with narrowed eyes. “I can’t bring you that.”
Fred ignored her. “And a roll—with two pats of butter.”
“Doc hasn’t been in yet,” she warned.
Fred waved away her concern with one hand and pretended not to understand. “Doc can order his own lunch.”
“With your cholesterol up, Doc will have something to say if I feed you like that.”
What little remained of Fred’s good humor evaporated. He folded his hands on the table and met her gaze with a harsh one of his own. “I refuse to eat salad or sprouts or that ridiculous diet plate you try to pawn off on me,” he warned. “I’m having country fried steak. If you won’t give it to me, I’ll drive down to Granby and get it there.”
Fred thought he saw a hint of a smile tug at the corners of her mouth, but she turned away too quickly for him to be certain.
He called his order after her for good measure, then looked back as George and David left the counter and started into the dining area.
Just as Fred feared, George made a bee-line toward his table. “You remember Fred Vickery, don’t you, son? And Grady?” George said over his shoulder as he clomped toward them.
David nodded at his father’s back, sent a half-hearted smile in Fred’s direction, and focused on Grady. “You’re Lizzie’s son?”
Grady half-stood, knocking the table and sending coffee sloshing over the rim of Fred’s cup. He offered his hand to David. “Grady Hatch.”
“I don’t believe it. You were a scrawny kid about ten feet tall last time I saw you.”
Grady’s smile faded. He’d been overly sensitive about his height as a boy, and Fred suspected thoughtless remarks could still affect him. Trust David to offer one right off the bat.
George dropped onto the bench beside Fred, groaning as if he were about to keel over. “David showed up last night out of the blue. He’s stayin’ around for a few weeks—isn’t that great?”
George beamed up at his son. “That fancy law office down in Aurora finally decided they could do without him for a bit, didn’t they?”
David sent his father a tired smile, then perched on the bench beside Grady. Pushing up his glasses, he rubbed the bridge of his nose as if strolling through town had worn him out.
“He was just commentin’ as to how things’ve changed.” George said. “Myself, I don’t see it. It being gradual, and all. But David— He can really tell.”
Fred took a bracing sip of coffee and made an effort to hide his irritation. “My boys always say the same thing.”
David lowered his glasses and focused on Fred slowly. “Hard to believe things change at all in this sleepy old place. The town looks better than I thought it would, considering everything Dad’s been telling me.”
Grady started to lift his cup, but he lowered it quickly and looked from George to David. “Like what?”
“Oh, you know,” George said, with a casual wave toward the window. “I mentioned those old clay water pipes that are crumblin’. And how the Civic Center needs to be refurbished. And the way the Historical Society’s raisin’ such a fuss about preservin’ those old buildings along Main Street. . .”
A fleshy ridge formed between David’s eyes. “You said something about the education system, too. You’d know about that, wouldn’t you, Fred? How’s the school district’s funding?”
“I was the buildings and grounds supervisor,” Fred said. “Not the accountant. Besides, I’m retired.”
David turned to Grady before Fred even finished speaking, as if he hadn’t really expected Fred to help. “How about you, Grady? Any idea how many computers the school district owns? How’s the funding for the sports program? I was a letterman, you know.”
Everybody knew. George didn’t let anyone forget about David’s less than illustrious career warming the bench in every sport for three years.
“I don’t know,” Grady said. “But I’m sure someone at the district offices could tell you.”
Fred leaned his elbows on the table. “Why the sudden interest in Cutler after all these years?”
David smiled slowly. “What would you say if I told you I knew how the city could pull itself out of this slump?”
“It’s not in a slump,” Grady insisted. He looked offended.
David flashed a half smile. “All right. Put it this way, then. I know how the city can get the money it needs to repair those water pipes, restore the historic buildings, and supplement the education budget.”
Grady lifted his eyebrows. “How?”
“Cutler isn’t the only small Colorado town to face money problems, you know. But it is one of the last to take action to fix the problem.” David gestured toward the window. “We can turn Cutler’s economy around in just a few months. We can bring in money and jobs, and our fair share of the tourist trade. And we can put money into the pockets of Cutler’s citizens.”
We? Fred stared at him and tried to fight down his mounting outrage. “What are you doing? Running for political office?”
David laughed, but he didn’t sound amused. “Political office? No.” He leaned back in his seat, hitched his thumbs into the waistband of his trousers, and smiled as if he knew the effect his next words would have. “I’m here to build support for a petition to bring legalized gambling to Cutler.”.
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