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A Crane Christmas
The Morelville Mysteries – Book 6
To Caesar, Alaska and Hayes...RIP
Jug Run Press, USA
Copyright © 2015
All rights reserved: No part of this publication may be replicated, redistributed or given away in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems without prior written consent of the author or the publisher except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages for review.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are actual places used in an entirely fictitious manner and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, organizations, or persons, living or deceased, is entirely coincidental.
Chapter 1 – Newbie
Chapter 2 – The Ropes
Chapter 3 – Robbed!
Chapter 4 – ‘Napped!
Chapter 5 – Stop, Thief
Chapter 6 – Prized Pooch
Chapter 7 – Hoity-Toity
Chapter 8 - Disaster
Chapter 9 – Stakeout!
Chapter 10 – Family Time
Chapter 11 – Second Impressions
Chapter 12 – And Again...
Chapter 13 – What’s Up?
Chapter 14 – Boo to You
Chapter 15 – Done ‘Fer
Chapter 16 – Hannah in the House
Chapter 17 – Two and Two
Chapter 18 – Making a Case
Chapter 19 – Go Time
Chapter 20 – Boo?
Chapter 21 – Joy
Chapter 22 – Bar Bash
Chapter 23 – Re-Boo-t
Chapter 24 – Merry Christmas Epilogue
About the Author
Check Anne Out on her blog, on Facebook or on Twitter:
Friday, November 28th, 2014
Muskingum County Sheriff’s Department
“Zanesville is my hometown. I’d be real happy to get back here finally; if you hire me that is, Sheriff.”
I mentally shook my head. The cop sitting in front of me didn’t lack for credentials but her confidence seemed to be a little off kilter. “Why don’t you tell me a little about your career, Mason? Your record here only covers your time with your current department.”
“Well, there isn’t a whole lot beyond that to tell, is why,” she said a little shyly. “I’m actually only 30.”
I felt my eyebrows rise involuntarily but I thought I quashed the expression quickly and masked my feelings.
Obviously a well-trained investigator, Janet Mason caught my surprised look anyway and laughed. Her chuckle erased some of the nervousness from her face and she relaxed a little.
Sitting up just a bit straighter but pushing herself farther back in her chair at the same time, she told me, “I grew up in Zanesville. Right after high school, I went to Zane State and got an associates in criminal justice. I was only 20 by the time I finished that though and I couldn’t get a job in law enforcement in Ohio...I couldn’t even get into OPOTA, sponsored or not.”
I nodded. I knew how all of that worked from my own, firsthand experience.
“Basically, I did they only thing I could do at the time to get police work, I joined the Army. I did my four years as a Military Police Officer and got out.”
“How’d you end up in Indiana instead of back here?”
“A, uh...buddy I served with was from Indy and convinced me to apply to Hancock County; said they needed more women on the department. My mom and I weren’t on the best of terms then anyway. I wasn’t ready to move back home, right then, so I took the plunge to be completely on my own.”
“And now?” At her puzzled look, I rephrased the question, “You’re ready to come home now?”
“I’ll be honest; my mom is sick...cancer, among other things...she can’t work anymore. She’s getting where she can’t do much of anything but get out of bed some days. Other days...well, she’s almost normal. I want to be back here for as many of those ‘almost normal’ days as I can be.”
“This job isn’t a nine to five deal, you know?”
“Completely. I didn’t expect anything less and I don’t expect any special treatment. My mother’s older sister Leslie...my aunt Leslie Toth...cares for mom most of the time when she can’t do for herself. Her and her husband live right here in town too.”
“Alright then,” I shifted gears again, “let’s talk more about your career with Hancock County.”
“Right; I applied there and got picked up by them right away. They sent me straight to the academy.”
I glanced at her paperwork, “You went right out on the road after you graduated then, I take it?”
“Actually no, I did my year as a jailer just like everyone else does...but to the day. As soon as I had three-sixty-five in, they put me on the street. My Army buddy wasn’t kidding; they needed to bring more women on board because there was a lawsuit against them for unfair hiring practices towards women.”
Wincing, I shook my head. “Bet that was fun!”
She shrugged, “It was fine. The Sheriff that was there lost in the next election. The new guy turned the whole department around.”
I just nodded, not letting on that I knew her boss and that we were on good terms. “So, that’s what, four...five years on the road?”
Nodding, she told me, “I sat for the detective exam early in my fourth year with the department. I passed and got pretty high on the list. I made detective sergeant a year later.”
“It’s a pretty big department Sheriff, with some turnover. I mean, Hancock’s population isn’t quite as high as Muskingum County’s but, being so close to Indy; it’s pretty busy, especially with patrol and all the crap we had to deal with just rolling through trying to get to the city. People get a couple years there under their belt there and then they apply to Indy’s police department or to State.”
“So, what did you think of this one?” Holly asked me.
I held my hand out and indicated the chair Mason had vacated a few minutes prior for my assistant. “She’s the best of the lot so far. She’s got the right background, so she’s not raw. I wouldn’t be starting from scratch with her like old Sheriff Carter had to start with Harding.”
“Shane’s a good investigator, Mel.”
“He is now but he wasn’t five years ago.”
“He’s going to burn out if we don’t get someone else hired soon. His caseload is too heavy.”
“I know, I know.” I held my hands up in mock surrender. “This would have been so much easier if Joe Treadway or one of our other senior deputies were more interested in the position or,” I cocked an eyebrow at her, “even...you.”
“Oh hell no boss woman! I’m best right where I am.”
I couldn’t help but grin. I didn’t know what I’d do without Holly acting as my right hand. She’d be a good detective but, she was right, she was her best doing all of the administrative stuff that kept me in line. Instead of needling her some more, I asked, “How about you get Warren McDonnell in Hancock County, Indiana on the phone for me and let me bend his ear about Janet Mason?”
“You got it.”
Boo, our little Boston terrier pup, greeted me at the door. She swirled my legs in excited playfulness as I bent at the waist and tried to impede her weaving around enough to give her a scratch behind the ears.
“What’s up little girl? That’s quite a greeting, there. It’s always nice to come home to someone who’s so happy to see me,” I cooed at her.
Dana limped into the kitchen from the sitting room area.
I could tell the leg she’d taken a bullet in on a previous mission when she was a special agent with customs, was giving her fits. Adopting a light tone on purpose, I asked her, “Did you go Black Friday shopping today? What did you get me?” I looked at her hopefully.
“No, I didn’t go and, even if I had, I wouldn’t tell you what you got.” She grinned at me and smacked my arm playfully.
“Well, if you weren’t out shopping, did you do anything else fun today?”
“Do you honestly think Black Friday shopping is fun?” She shot me a puzzled look but then continued, “Actually, my day was no fun at all. Mama, your mom, Helen and I all spent the day cleaning out the back room at the store where mom wants to put her little nail salon.”
“Oh. How’d that go?” I started removing my gun belt as she began to answer me.
Dana waggled one hand, “So-so. Mama is under the impression I’ll be helping with the store a lot. She seems to think my writing won’t lead to anything worth it in the long term.”
“You write if you want to write and don’t worry about what your mother thinks. It’s not like you need the money babe. Even after buying this house and letting her go on a furniture spending spree to decorate it, you still have almost 90% of your settlement in the bank...”
“We have it in the bank Mel; you and me. It’s our money.”
“You know what I meant.”
She nodded at me and then stooped to scoop Boo, who was now rubbing against her legs, up.
“Anyway, so the store isn’t open yet but she’s focusing on the back?”
“They finished cleaning up, up front yesterday. She’s got suppliers lined up to start the restock up there on Monday. She’ll open it as soon as she’s got enough inventory in and the Board of Health does their thing.”
“When’s that...with the Health Department, I mean?”
“Should be Wednesday afternoon.”
“Well, you mentioned that Helen is back on board over there. If your mom uses her more, that should take some of the stress off you.”
“A little but, until my dad gets here, she’s going to try to rope me in a lot. Maybe you haven’t noticed it but Helen’s slowed a few steps. Even with my gimpy leg, I can out maneuver her!”
I chuckled because I knew she was right. “For your sake, I hope your ‘in demand’ time is short.”
“Me too!” Dana put Boo back down and asked, “Are you hungry?”
She eyed me critically, “You’re not skin and bones, you know.”
I patted my belly, “this is bloat.”
“Are you saying I’m getting fat?” I quirked an eyebrow at her and tapped my foot like she does to me when I say something dumb.
Dana hadn’t felt up to cooking anything after the day she’d had. After assuring me that I wasn’t putting on weight, she convinced me that we should order pizza and salads from the pizza shop just up the street.
“Where’s your mom tonight?”
“Hanging out with yours. They weren’t tired...so they said. They’re going to go to Zanesville and see what’s left to buy after all the Black Friday bedlam.”
“So, we have the house to ourselves?” I gave her my best suggestive look.
“Baby, I’m sorry but I’m really beat, no lie.”
I switched to my lost puppy look and bounced my leg but it only got me a laugh from my wife. Even with our bantering and the commotion, Boo never looked up from watching the floor for fallen scraps.
Resigned to an evening of just relaxing at home, I steered the conversation in a different direction. “I think I finally found another detective.”
“Really? Have you offered him the position?”
“Her, and no, not yet. I got an application packet from her a couple of weeks ago but she wasn’t in town until the holiday. She’s with a department in Indiana now but she’s from Zanesville. I just interviewed her today.”
“Everything checks out?”
I nodded. “I actually know her boss; we met at a forensics conference a couple of years ago. I talked to him today. He says she’s planning to leave there whether she gets on somewhere right away or not – her mother’s sick – he’s sorry to lose her and he’d have her back in a heartbeat.”
“What’s your hesitation? I’m sensing a little...I don’t know...”
“There’s nothing wrong with her, per se. Warren, her boss now, told me she picks up investigation techniques quickly and that she was becoming an excellent investigator with a good feel for how the criminal mind works. All of her other credentials checked out too.”
I leaned back in my chair a little and set my fork down. “But...she’s young and, interview jitters aside, she seems to lack confidence in her abilities despite all of that. Maybe there’s more going on with her than what she’s telling me.”
“Babe, I’m not going to tell you what to do but I will say that everyone’s different when they’re sitting down in front of someone who could make or break them. Jitters in an interview don’t translate into jitters on the street. And, as far as confidence, maybe she’s more introverted than you think or maybe she was just trying to be modest. Everyone’s not you.” She dropped her head back to her plate but not before I caught the mirth in her tone or her eyes.
I gave what Dana said some thought and then I told her, “I need another investigator and, I admit, she is, training and background wise, the best candidate to come along so far.”
“Better than Shane?”
“No,” I shook my head, “but nearly his equal.” I grinned.
“What’s so funny?”
“Nothing. It’s just that Holly and I had pretty much the same conversation earlier.”
“Mel, her boss told you she’s good. You need help. If she picks up as quickly as he said she does, she’ll come around in no time. If you feel comfortable with that, I think you should just go ahead and hire her before someone else snatches her up.”
“Sheriff Crane. I apologize for calling you so late.”
“It’s no problem at all Sheriff; how can I help you?
“By coming to work for me. I’d like to go ahead and extend you an offer.”
“Well, that was easy.” I chuckled a little uneasily. “When do you think you can start?”
“Whenever you need me. I had a lot of vacation saved up with Hancock so I was planning to be here into the New Year no matter what. I’ll just tender my resignation and cash my days in so we can get started soon.”
“I’m at home right now. I’ll have HR work up a packet for you Monday morning and I’ll have it dropped off Monday afternoon. There are several formalities and an orientation but you should be ready to be ‘boots on the ground’, so to speak, by say, Monday the 8th.”
Monday, December 8th, 2014
Muskingum County Sheriff’s Department
“This is Sergeant Holly Burke, my assistant and my right hand.”
Mason extended her hand to Holly, “We met briefly before but it’s a pleasure.”
“I’m taking her downstairs to sit with Harding,” I said to Holly.
“Don’t forget, you and I have that 9:00 meeting with the Mayor,” she reminded me.
It was all I could do not to roll my eyes in front of the new help.
Shane shook Janet’s hand heartily. “I’m happy for the help,” he told her. Glancing at me, he continued, “The Sheriff here keeps getting pulled into stuff she shouldn’t have to handle because we’ve been a little short staffed. Now she can get back to doing...Sheriff stuff.”
This time, I did roll my eyes, “Sheriff stuff, huh? How about you go meet with the Mayor about his holiday lights campaign that he thinks the whole county should be involved in and I brief up Mason here on all the open cases?”
“I’ll pass Sheriff...with all due respect.”
“I thought so.”
Turning back to Janet, I pointed out the desk across from Shane’s, “That’s yours. Your computer login info is in that packet there. You’re stocked up too. Everything aside from that, Shane will go over with you. This first week or so...we’ll see how it goes...I’m going to have you two work the same hours so you can work together.”
“These are most of the open case files that I’m actively working right now.” Shane handed Janet a 6 inch high stack of files.
She leafed through them glancing at the titles and the latest filings.
“We’ll talk about some of them but, as you can see, it’s a lot of drug stuff, moonshining, etc. Typical stuff you see everywhere, huh?” he asked her.
“Yeah...well, except for the moonshining. We didn’t have much of that in central Indiana.”
She continued to look through the files. Holding up a file titled, ‘Yuletide Ewe’, she asked, “What’s this all about?”
Shane leaned across his desk, “Just between you and me, that’s some pretty funny stuff, harmless pranks mostly. Some kids, I suspect, have gone around to a couple of the big sheep farms around here and put red and green dye on a couple of the sheep they could corner long enough to do it. It’s got the dander up of the livestock farmers but, unless we catch them in the act, there isn’t much we can do.”
“That little problem will probably go away after Christmas anyway,” she responded.
“True.” Shane picked up another file. “On a more serious note, we have an open murder case that we’ve been attempting to work since it happened back in August.” He slid a thin file across the desks to her.
Janet picked it up and looked through it for a couple of minutes. “This is it? There isn’t much here.”
“Frankly, it’s probably unsolvable but we keep pulling at strings trying to find something, anything.”
“What’s the story?”
“A twenty-eight year old female reported dead in her condo via the phone in her condo. When we got to the scene we found the front door ajar and no one in the place but her. She was fully dressed except for her shoes, laid out on her bed. The coroner determined she’d been choked by an article we didn’t find at the scene. On top of that, a maid we’ve never been able to trace had finished cleaning the place, apparently just before the vic arrived at home. The place was spotless.”
“So the killer took the murder weapon?”
“We think so. Nothing in the place appeared disturbed.”
“Why can’t you find the maid?”
“She was probably an illegal. A neighbor copped to seeing a woman come in, in the morning before she left for work but she didn’t know anything else.”
“Any other witnesses?”
“Yes and no.”
Janet tipped her head and looked at Shane, a question in her eyes.
“There’s a lot to this...It’s a convoluted mess.” Shane drew in a breath and let it out slow. “Anyway, we dusted the place for prints wherever we thought we could see something. Since it was cleaned, not much there...We found two that weren’t Olivia’s. They were on the phone we were called from and they belonged to an 18-year-old kid, Nevil Harper Jr. The Sheriff, who is familiar with the boy, also recognized his voice on the 911 tapes.”
“Where does he fit?”
“Supposedly he was dating her and the father of a child she was carrying...only she wasn’t pregnant.”
Mason shook her head, “Come again?”
“Stiers accused two different men of fathering a child. One, J. D. Roberts, died before her in unrelated circumstances and Harper is the other one. She wasn’t pregnant at all.” Shane took a sip from a coffee cup and grimaced, “That’s cold!”
“Anyway,” he continued, “after Harper called it in, he disappeared. We figured he was good for it and we tried to find him. When we did, he told us he arrived the day Olivia died with her car – he’s a mechanic – and he saw his father Nevil Sr.’s truck in front of her place. His story is that he waited a few minutes until he saw his father leave and he went in using the front door that his father had left ajar. He found Stiers in the bedroom, he says and, when he couldn’t revive her, he called 911 then bolted out the same door.”
“So he’s fingering his father?”
“Rape? Any DNA?”
“No rape. She had trace DNA under her nails. She didn’t put up much of a fight. We just got those results back from the Columbus Crime Lab late last week...finally, but, they’re inconclusive. There are markers that would seem to point to a Harper male but they can’t be nailed to Nevil Jr. and even less to Nevil Sr.”
“Someone else in the family then?”
Shane shrugged. “Possibly, but we have no justification to go digging around their family tree and zero other evidence or any witnesses.”
“So, if she didn’t put up much of a fight, she probably knew her attacker? That leaves us back with the boyfriend...or with the maid.”
“There’s one more thing; before she lay down, she took Melatonin.”
Mason flipped through the file. “Says here she was reported about 1:30 in the afternoon. Why would she even think to take a sleep aid at that time of day?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Her father, Oscar Stiers though says she took it often. She had trouble sleeping going back years according to him.”
“He live with her?”
“No; across town. He paid all of her bills.”
“The Stiers name rings a bell. I feel like I should know it.”
“Hmm, you probably should. He owns Stiers Asphalt Paving; one of the biggest road construction companies in the region.”
“Ah, that Stiers.”
“If she took Melatonin, that explains the lack of fight in her. Could it have been forced on her though?”
“Doubtful. No marks on her other than residual from the strangulation and she took the under the tongue ones to boot. It would have hit her fast. Oscar says she had an addictive personality disorder. We didn’t look into that any further when toxicology came back with nothing but the Melatonin and her usual prescribed anti-depressants.”
He paused and then continued, “Mason...”
“Call me Janet, please.”
“Okay, Janet, the crux of this seems to turn on her pregnancy or lack thereof. We’ve questioned both Harper men extensively. The boy is cooperating and we know where he lives and works. It’s in the file. He even took a polygraph and passed...even though it’s not admissible.”
“And the father?”
“He’s a tougher nut to crack. We brought him in and grilled him for hours. He refused a lawyer but it didn’t matter. He didn’t budge. Denied even being at the scene. We couldn’t hold him.”
“So no video in the complex?”
Shane shook his head no. “Not that was working that day, no.”
“No other witnesses besides junior to place senior at the scene,” Janet ticked of a finger. “It’s one man’s word against another’s and that one isn’t budging?” She ticked off a second finger.
“You got it,” Shane nodded. “Short of a full confession from Nevil Harper Sr., we have literally nothing to go on.”
“Have you thought about shaking the tree again now that the DNA is back?”
“On what grounds? We have nothing.”
Janet leaned into the desk, hand to her chin and seemed to be thinking hard.
Shane interrupted, “Oscar Steirs though about pursuing a civil case for wrongful death against Nevil Sr. in an attempt to force both men to the stand to testify. His lawyer advised him that without any evidence other than a witness with a grudge, Nevil Jr., he probably couldn’t even get the case in front of a civil jury. He says he wasn’t in it for money anyway. He wanted the murderer behind bars, not making him payments.”
“If he has the money to pursue that anyway, it’s probably the only way we’re going to get this solved,” Janet said as she slid the file back across their desks to Shane. “You don’t know until you try. He might feel compelled to defend himself. He’d at least have to appear or face charges for failure to do that.”
Tuesday Morning, December 9th, 2014
“Sheriff, Dispatch has a sensitive on line two; Shane’s in court this morning.”
“I’ll take it Holly. Where’s Mason?”
“In the squad room, I believe. She didn’t go with Shane.”
“Good, have her come up.”
I punched the line button on my phone, “Sheriff Crane; how can I help you?”
“Sheriff, this is Alexander Lepley out here in Falls Township.”
Alex Lepley is about 70 years old and as sweet and as charming as they come from the moneyed set. “Yes, Mr. Lepley; is there something wrong?”
“Well first of all, there’s no need for you to call me ‘Mr. Lepley’. Why, I’ve known you since you were in diapers.”
All the more reason for me to call you that... “My apologies.”
“Second, I believe we were robbed.”
I was taken aback. “Come again, sir?”
“We were out of state for a couple of weeks. We had Thanksgiving with our son and his family and then we spent a week in Arizona. We got in late last night and we went straight to bed. When we got up this morning, I noticed a few guns from my collection were missing.”
Tilda McGhee, the Lepley’s long time housekeeper, let us in and led us to the sitting room. There, both Alex and Laurie Lepley were sitting. Laurie was sipping from a fine china tea cup and looking more than a little anxious.
Without preamble, she started right in, “We just can’t have this. We just can’t have people traipsing in here and taking our things like they own them. It’s unnerving I tell you; for me and for poor Tilda. I can’t stay here if this is how it’s going to be...We should have never left the countryside...I’ve always said that.”
Alex Lepley caught his wife’s eye and raised a hand to stop her spew of nervous chatter. “Let’s let the Sheriff here figure this all out, shall we?”