Cutler, Colorado, may be a small town, but it certainly isn’t boring. Even for someone who’s lived there 73 years, like Fred Vickery. “Helping” with police business has become his favorite pastime. And as long as human nature stays the same, there will be enough foul play in Cutler to keep Fred happy for another lifetime…
Fred knows something is wrong when Doc doesn’t lecture him about his diet. Doc hasn’t been the same since his daughter took up with the town’s resident loser: a good-for-nothing musician who already has a wife. But the worst is yet to come.
When the guy dies of an insulin overdose, suspicion falls on Doc. Fair weather friends are saying that Doc made a fatal mistake and is too old to practice medicine. But Fred knows better–and starts nosing around. His only problem is discovering something that makes Doc look less guilty–not more…
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Fred Vickery shifted in his seat at the back of the high school auditorium and struggled to keep his eyes open in the oppressive artificial heat. He scanned the nearly empty room for some sign of the school’s custodian and battled irritation. True to form, Mort Lombard was nowhere to be found. Knowing Mort, he’d probably gone outside to enjoy the crisp winter air and early December snowfall while he left everyone inside suffering a man-made heatwave.
Pulling his checkbook from his pocket, Fred waved it in front of his face to create a breeze while his grandson, Benjamin, rehearsed a number for the upcoming Winter Extravaganza with his rock-and-roll band on the stage. The boys had already been practicing for half an hour, but they couldn’t seem to get the piece right. Carl Fadel, the school’s new music teacher, wouldn’t let them leave until they did.
On stage, Benjamin struck a chord and the boys started again—a piece so slow and heavy it sounded more like a funeral dirge than a celebration of the holidays. Fred didn’t mind coming to pick up Benjamin, but he hoped the boys got the piece right this time so they could all go home.
Since his youngest son Douglas had moved to Cheyenne a few weeks ago, chasing yet another rainbow and looking for a pot of gold, Fred had found himself at loose ends. He’d enjoyed the return of his privacy, but he’d also missed Douglas’s company and the faster pace of having another person around. Helping Margaret gave him something to do.
Besides, he’d been looking for an excuse to spend time alone with Benjamin. As the grandkids grew older and got caught up in their own lives, he had to manufacture excuses to spend time alone with each one.
Fred knew Margaret felt guilty about asking him to come out with the weather so unpredictable, but she’d been putting off Christmas shopping for weeks, and she’d been planning to drive into Denver for days. He didn’t see any reason for Carl Fadel’s last-minute practice to throw her off schedule.
Fred didn’t feel so charitable toward Margaret’s husband. Webb claimed he couldn’t pick up Benjamin because he had to work late, but Fred didn’t believe that excuse for a minute. He’d bet a month’s retirement check that if he walked into the Copper Penny Lounge right that minute, he’d find Webb there, drinking too much, as usual.
As always, thinking of his son-in-law soured Fred’s mood, so he tried to put Webb out of his mind and concentrate on his grandson. Benjamin had grown tall over the past couple of years, but at sixteen and in the middle of his junior year of high school, he was still just a stick of a boy with a sheaf of blond hair, an unquenchable spirit, and eyes that danced with the joy of life.
Fred fanned his checkbook a little faster and scanned the room one more time. If he’d still been Buildings and Grounds Supervisor for the school district, he could have done something about the discomfort. And if he had to sit here much longer, he wouldn’t let a little thing like retirement stop him from finding Mort and speaking his mind.
At that moment, Benjamin struck a loud chord on his guitar and shifted into a song so brash and fast Fred snapped his attention back to the stage. On the drums, Joshua Leishman quickly followed Benjamin’s lead, but it took the other two boys a few beats to catch up. This new song didn’t sound any more Christmas-y to Fred than the funeral dirge had, but at least this one would keep an audience awake.
Almost immediately, Carl Fadel burst out from behind the curtain, waving his hands for the boys to stop. His curly brown hair looked tousled, as if he’d repeatedly raked his fingers through it and his eyes flashed annoyance. “All right, you guys. Knock it off.”
One by one, the other boys stopped playing but Benjamin finished his riff first, then grinned at his teacher. “So, what did you think? Great, huh?”
“No, not great. I want you to stick to what the committee’s approved, Ben. Don’t get any wild ideas.”
Benjamin’s smile faded. “Oh come on, Mr. Fadel. This thing you want us to play sounds like somebody died.”
“No shit,” a man’s voice called from one side of the auditorium. “Why don’t you make the school orchestra play that piece of crap and let these guys play something decent? Hell, you’re putting me to sleep.”
While Carl moved closer to the edge of the stage and shielded his eyes against the spotlights, Fred again searched the darkened room, but he couldn’t see anyone.
“Excuse me?” Carl shouted. “Who’s out there?”
A figure moved out of the shadows at the back of the auditorium and down the aisle until it neared the front rows where the light finally revealed Eddie Leishman, the drummer’s father. Wearing worn jeans, a dirty T-shirt, and heavy black boots, he made quite a contrast to Carl’s more conservative Dockers, loafers and turtle-neck sweater.
Wire-thin, with a headful of longish blond hair and a chin full of brown whiskers, Eddie grinned at the boys and leapt onto the stage without apparent effort. Fred didn’t know Eddie well, but he certainly knew of him. Everyone did.
As far as Fred knew, Eddie had never held down a steady daytime job, but with his band he’d played the bars and taverns around the area for several years. Joshua had obviously inherited Eddie’s musical talent, but if the talk about Eddie was accurate, Fred hoped the boy hadn’t inherited some of his other traits.
Carl took a step backward, then braced himself to stand up to Eddie. “I’m sorry, Mr. Leishman, but our rehearsal time is limited. I’m going to have to ask you to wait outside for Josh to finish.”
Eddie laughed, but his laugh held no humor. He patted Carl’s slightly rounded stomach and shot an amused glance around. “I didn’t come to see Josh—it’s you I want to talk to. Got a minute?”
“No, I don’t,” Carl said curtly. “We’re in the middle of rehearsal.”
Eddie ran a hand over the hair on his chin and leaned a little closer. “It’ll just take a minute. Besides, if you’d let these guys play some decent shit, you’d save yourself a hell of a lot of time.”
Carl crossed his arms on his chest and shook his head, but Fred sensed some hesitation in his actions. “I’ll have to ask you to watch your language in front of the boys.”
“Oh, yeah. Sure. Wouldn’t want to corrupt them.” Eddie laughed again and looked at the boys as if he expected them to join in. Benjamin smiled, Nathan rolled his eyes, and Tyler sent an uneasy glance in Carl’s direction.
Working up a little more courage, Carl planted his fists on his hips. “If this concerns Josh, why don’t you make an appointment to meet with me during regular hours?”
Eddie’s laughter faded. “Well, see, I need to talk. Right now.” He threw an arm around Carl’s shoulders and said something else too softly for Fred to hear.
Whatever it was, it made Carl’s attitude change immediately. He unfolded his arms and pulled away from Eddie stiffly. “All right,” he snapped. “Fine. Come into my office.” Eddie laughed again and tossed what looked like a pack of cigarettes to
Joshua, then followed Carl across the stage. When they reached the curtains, Carl looked back at the boys. “I guess that’s enough for today. We’ll practice again tomorrow right after seventh period. Don’t be late.” Without waiting for a response, he led Eddie off stage.
As soon as they disappeared, Fred pushed out of his chair and started toward the stage, almost grateful for the interruption so he wouldn’t have to sit in this overheated room any longer, and relieved that he could drive home before the roads froze over again.
On stage, Benjamin unplugged his guitar from the amplifier and wound the cord around his hand. “I don’t get it. What does the committee have against us playing our music for the program?”
Carrying his bass guitar to the back of the stage, Nathan Grimes spoke over his shoulder. “Who is the committee, anyway?”
Tyler O’Neal grunted. “I wish your dad was on the committee, Josh. He’d let us play what we want.”
That was probably true, but Fred didn’t like seeing the boys hold up someone like Eddie as a role model.
“Do you think that’s why he’s here?” Nathan asked.
Joshua focused on stuffing his drum sticks into a pouch. “Who knows?”
“Maybe he’s going to take over the program,” Nathan said. “That’d be cool. Is that what he’s doing?”
Joshua’s mouth tightened and he glared at his friend. “How should I know what he wants? This is the first time I’ve even seen him in a month.” The boy picked up the cigarettes from his drum set and lobbed them into the auditorium.
Benjamin snapped his guitar case closed and rocked back on his haunches. “Hey, Josh. It’s no big deal. Nobody’s trying to piss you off.”
“Yeah. Sure.” Joshua snapped shut his pouch and slung it over his shoulder. Wearing that sullen expression, he looked more like Eddie than usual.
Fred’s heart went out to the boy. He knew—as did everyone for miles around—about the odd relationship between Eddie and his wife, Ricki. Eddie had never been an exemplary husband or father, but he’d stepped over the line of acceptable behavior by leaving home a few months ago and moving in with Sharon Bollinger after her divorce. That Eddie apparently had no plans to divorce his wife did little to endear him to Cutler’s residents. That Ricki hadn’t sought divorce herself had set tongues to wagging. But that Sharon was the daughter of Doc and Velma Huggins, both pillars of the community, made the talk much worse—and that made life rougher for Joshua.
As if he knew he’d over-reacted, Joshua made a visible effort to pull himself together. “Look, I’m gonna head— I’ll just see you guys tomorrow.”
Stepping into the light, Fred spoke up for the first time. “If you want a ride home, Joshua, we’re heading your way.”
“No thanks, Mr. V. My mom’s supposed to pick me up.”
Fred tried to look as if that reassured him, but he knew how distracted and forgetful people could get when they were going through emotional times. “Well that’s good. But if she’s not there, we’ll be glad drive you. It was snowing again when I came in.”
When Joshua smiled, his resemblance to Eddie all but disappeared. “Thanks, but you don’t have to do that. I’ve walked home before. I’ll be okay, I promise.” Without waiting for a response, he slipped out of sight between the curtains.
The other boys worked in relative silence for another minute or two until Nathan pronounced himself finished and pulled a set of keys from his pocket. “Anybody else need a ride?”
Tyler dropped a cloth over his electronic keyboard. “I do. Hold on a second, let me grab my books.”
Benjamin stared wistfully at Nathan’s keys, but he carried his guitar case to the edge of the stage near Fred. “Not me.
I’m going with Grandpa.”
“If you want to go with your friends—” Fred began half-heartedly.
Benjamin shook his head and smiled. “No, it’s okay. I need to talk to you, anyway.”
Relieved that Benjamin didn’t want to head into bad weather with an inexperienced driver, Fred waved to the other boys.
“Drive carefully, the roads are slick.”
Nathan looked faintly irritated by the advice. He had the good sense not to argue but he didn’t wait around for more, either. The instant Tyler picked up his books, Nathan ducked between the curtains with Tyler hot on his heels.
Benjamin jumped from the stage and pulled his guitar case and coat after him. “Are you ready, Grandpa?”
Fred nodded. “If you are.”
“How long have you been waiting?”
“Not long,” Fred lied.
Benjamin started up the aisle toward the auditorium’s doors. “You didn’t need to waste all this time. I could have gone with Ty and Nate.”
“I don’t mind. It gave me a chance to catch a sneak preview of your performance. What did you want to talk to me about?”
Benjamin studied him for a second. “If I told you a secret, would you promise not to tell?”
“Of course I would. Christmas is a time for secrets.”
Benjamin stopped walking and faced him. His blue eyes glittered and his face radiated excitement. “I heard today that Joshua’s mom has this truck for sale—it’s old, but it runs good.” He squared his shoulders and added, “I’m going to buy it.”
Fred could only stare at him. After Webb’s younger brother died in an automobile accident shortly after Webb’s marriage to Margaret, he’d harbored strong views about teenagers with cars. He’d used every argument against Benjamin’s older sister,
Sarah, driving when she got her driver’s license two years ago. Fred couldn’t imagine that he’d changed his mind since then. “Does your dad know about this?”
“Not yet,” Benjamin admitted. “That’s what I need your help with.”
“Telling your dad?” Fred laughed a little. If Benjamin wanted an ally in an argument with Webb, he ought to choose someone else. Fred’s opinion carried little weight with Webb. Never had. But Fred didn’t believe in talking bad about the kids’ dad in front of them so he merely shrugged. “Sounds like a pretty sure way to cause trouble, if you ask me.”
“I’m not telling my dad. At least, not until I talk Mom into it. That’s where you come in.”
Fred’s smile faded. “Telling your mother?”
“Sure. You always get your own way with her.”
“I lose every argument I have with your mother, and you know it.”
Benjamin grinned from ear to ear. “No, you don’t.”
“If I got my own way,” Fred pointed out, “she’d stop babysitting me.”
“She has stopped.”
Fred shook his head and scowled. “You must be thinking of someone else.”
“She’s stopped making you pot roast on Sundays.”
“But she’s started making casseroles out of who knows what. And she still raids my cupboards.” Fred held open the door for Benjamin to step out into the corridor. “I have to watch her like a hawk to keep her from tossing out everything I buy.”
Benjamin rolled his eyes. “She only gets rid of the stuff Doc told you not to eat.”
Fred had suffered a tiny bit of heart trouble a year or so back, after which Doc had ordered him to cut caffeine, cholesterol and sodium from his diet. The old coot had enlisted Margaret’s help to keep Fred on the straight and narrow, and together they’d pulled the rest of the town into the conspiracy. To tell the truth, Fred had been a little unhappy with Doc ever since.
“That’s everything I like,” he groused and shook his head again. “No, you’re asking the wrong person. I’m not going to sneak around behind your mother’s back or try to convince her to let you do this.”
“Oh, come on, Grandpa. I’ve got enough in my savings for the down-payment, and with what I make at the Good Sport I can make payments—”
“I thought you were saving for your education.”
Benjamin made a face. “They want me to go to college, but I don’t want to go—you know that.”
“Then go to a trade school.” Fred stopped just inside the school’s front doors and held out his hand for Benjamin’s guitar case. “Put your coat on, it’s cold out.”
“Trade school?” Benjamin handed over the guitar, curling his nose at Fred’s trade school suggestion. “That’s not what I want, either. I want to play music, Grandpa. And some day, I’m going to make it big. Recording contracts, concert tours. . . Josh’s dad says we’re good enough to make it.”
Benjamin had talent, no doubt about it. And the boys sounded good together. They probably did have enough talent combined to become at least a moderate success like Eddie. But the idea of Benjamin following the same path as a man like Eddie Leishman soured Fred’s stomach. And knowing how Webb would react to the idea left Fred cold. “Put on your coat,” he repeated, and pushed open the door.
Though not yet six o’clock, the sun had long since disappeared behind the western mountain peaks. Thick white flakes fell through the night sky, softening the darkness and muffling the sounds of civilization under a blanket of sparkling powder.
Benjamin tugged on his coat and followed Fred outside. “So, are you saying you’re not going to help me?”
“I’m saying I can’t.” Fred didn’t elaborate on his reasons. No matter how great the provocation, he wouldn’t speak ill of Webb in front of his children.
Benjamin’s expression drooped. “I thought I could count on you.”
Fred hated letting the boy down, but he didn’t respond.
Benjamin pouted for a moment or two, but it didn’t take him long to brighten again. “If you could see this truck you’d change your mind, I know you would.”
“There’ll be other trucks for you to buy when you’re older.”
“Not like this one. It’s in great shape, and I’m never gonna find such a good deal again. Next time I find something I can afford, it’ll probably be run down—even dangerous.”
Nice try, but that argument didn’t sway Fred. It would never convince Webb to say yes. He handed the guitar case back to Benjamin and pulled on his gloves as they walked. “Listen, son, I don’t think this is a good idea for a number of reasons.
I know you’re disappointed, but believe me, you’ve got plenty of time to do everything.”
Benjamin frowned and kicked at a chunk of ice. “This isn’t fair.”
Only by showing magnificent restraint did Fred keep from mentioning that he’d never known life to be fair.
Turning away, Benjamin started to slide down the sidewalk, then stopped short at the sight of two figures near the parking lot. One wore dirty jeans and heavy black boots, the other wore a thick fur coat and a matching hat. Obviously, Joshua’s mother had arrived, after all. Unfortunately, it looked as if Joshua had missed her; Fred couldn’t see the boy anywhere.
Benjamin hurried back to Fred’s side and nodded toward the couple. “That’s Josh’s mom over there. What if I ask her if we can come over tomorrow so you can see the truck?”
Looking at the Leishmans together, Fred thought only a fool would consider interrupting them now. Both Eddie and Ricki gestured with broad, jerky movements as they spoke. They leaned close to emphasize points, and the anger in their voices carried through the hush of snowfall across the sidewalk.
But Benjamin had apparently lost all common sense, and before Fred could even open his mouth to respond, the boy darted toward them. Fred hurried as quickly as he could across the slippery sidewalk, but Benjamin managed to reach the Leishmans before Fred could stop him.
Eddie must not have seen them at first. He leaned close to his wife and shouted, “I said, not tonight for hell’s sake. Now leave me alone. I have to work.”
“How long do you expect me to wait?” Ricki demanded.
“You don’t get it, do you? I don’t give a damn whether you wait or not.” Eddie shoved at the air between them. “Do whatever the hell you want.” He turned away from Ricki and seemed to notice Benjamin for the first time. His frown deepened and his eyes narrowed. “What do you want?”
Benjamin, in his naiveté, looked only slightly uncomfortable. “I just wondered whether my grandpa and I could come and look at the truck tomorrow.”
Beneath her layers of fur and in spite of her obvious anger, Ricki managed a thin smile. “I guess. . .”
But Eddie whipped back around to glare at her. “What truck? My truck? What the hell are you doing? Selling my truck?”
Fred had never liked being in the middle of family squabbles. Nothing good ever came of it. Under the circumstances he thought that leaving was the best thing he could do, taking Benjamin with him. He reached for Benjamin’s arm, trying not to call attention to either of them in the process.
Benjamin shook him off and moved a step closer. “It’s okay if we come over, isn’t it?”
Neither Eddie nor Ricki seemed to hear him. “You told me to sell it,” Ricki snarled at her husband.
Eddie recoiled, looking shocked. “When? When did I say that?”
“Before you left home. You said you wanted to sell the truck. Or was that another one of your lies? Are you going to claim you don’t remember that, either?”
“I said I was thinking about it,” Eddie roared. “Thinking. Do you even know what that word means?” He turned sharply, glaring at Fred as if he blamed Fred for the whole idea, and shoving at the air between him and Benjamin. “Get the hell out of here, man. Nobody’s buying nothing—got that?”
Fred certainly didn’t intend to argue. This time when he tugged Benjamin away, the boy didn’t fight him. Fred didn’t look back until he stepped off the curb. Luckily, Ricki and Eddie seemed to have forgotten them.
“Well,” he said without even trying to hide his relief. “I guess that’s that. Looks like you’ll have to forget about that truck, after all.”
Benjamin didn’t look concerned. “Why? Because of Eddie? Don’t worry. He’ll change his mind.”
“I don’t know if I’d count on that,” Fred warned with another glance at the arguing couple.
Ricki huddled into her coat and seemed to be crying. Eddie turned away from her and stomped around in a temper for a few seconds then stopped abruptly and closed the distance between them. Ricki threw herself into his arms and Eddie hugged her as if they’d never separated.
Fred didn’t know why the scene disturbed him. After all, they were married. They ought to be able to hug if they wanted.
But he wondered if maybe Benjamin was right about Eddie changing his mind.
He’d known one or two men in his lifetime like Eddie. Men whose very presence seemed to spell trouble. Fred had learned to avoid trouble-makers during his seventy-three years, and he didn’t want Benjamin involved with this one. He just didn’t know how to convince Benjamin to stay away.
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