Reclaimed Haven - B A Erickson - ebook
Opis

Ashley Stone’s life turned upside down when she accepted a job at a small town newspaper. Harboring a deadly secret, she’s unexpectedly plunged into a vortex of international intrigue, murder, and foul happenings. To make matters worse, Ashley’s wrestling her own demons and as her life unravels, who can she turn to when all hell breaks loose?Intrepid photographer, Ned Stevens, escaped to small town Minnesota hoping to get away from big city drama. But he leaped from the frying pan directly into the fire. Little did he realize Crossroads was the hub of a global terrorist network… and he unwittingly holds the key to unleashing unparalleled terror.When a dark stranger rolls into town, quiet small town life turns on its ear. Friends become enemies. Safe havens turn brutal when a local is murdered in a most unimaginable way. With friends, lovers, and coworkers at risk, will Ashley and Ned be able to reclaim their haven? 

Ebooka przeczytasz w aplikacjach Legimi lub dowolnej aplikacji obsługującej format:

EPUB

Liczba stron: 348


Murder on First

B A Erickson

Reclaimed Haven

Murder on First

B.A. Erickson

http://BAEricksonBooks.com

Claim an entire Starter Library, get in on contests, fun stuff, and freebies when you become a VIP reader.

http://bethannerickson.com/vip/

Copyright 2017 Beth Ann Erickson

Published by Filbert Publishing

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Ebook Edition License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you enjoy the story, please head to BAEricksonBooks.com and become a VIP reader. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Contents

Book 1

Preface

1. Incisions, Newspapers, and Ned

2. Bloody Labs, A Murder, Mallard

3. Crossroads Superstar

4. An Annoying Infection

5. Supreme Surprises

6. Mallard's Shame

7. Blossoms

Book 2

8. Ooh La La!

9. Maisy

10. Superstar Revelation

11. Farmhouse Love

12. Mystery of the Key

13. Poor Tonn

14. Eye Witness

15. Death Wins

Book 3

16. Boo Hoo

17. Mystery Deepens

18. Artifact

19. Conversating

20. Dangerous Conversations

21. Dog Food

22. Espionage

23. Poo

24. Librarian Warriors

25. Dog Dung

26. Ned

27. Notes from Minnesota

About the Author

Books by B.A. Erickson

Book 1

Preface

It was unlike any nightmare he could have imagined.

He groaned, the wadded bandanna muffling guttural sounds escaping his lips. Tears dampened the blue cloth twisting into his cheeks. His hands felt clamped behind him, duct tape digging into his wrists. He was fairly certain they’d disjointed his shoulders.

But that was the least of his worries.

With cold precision, they grasped the food processor lid, chopped at the chute, shortening it by half. They flicked the switch and it whirred to life.

His cries erupted anew as they inserted his fingers. Groans escalated to squeals as bloody flesh splashed into the container. He fainted. They smiled.

While humming a snappy melody, they grasped his other hand and inserted each digit. The food processor groaned as it sliced through living bone. Seeing the container full, they unlatched it from the base and flung the contents against the wall before reconstructing the device and resuming. They then worked on his toes, his nose, and finally his flaccid, quivering penis. They stood over the sanguineous mass that was once his body and watched for signs of life. Then, final twitches erupted through what was left of his limbs. With one clean swipe, they sliced each side of his neck. Blood oozed from the new wounds.

With their work finished, they silently exited the house. Blood dripped from their hazmat suits as they slid into the inky night of small town Minnesota. One streetlight buzzed in the quiet alley; a lame attempt to expunge darkness. One of them proceeded to the van and slid open the door. Plastic lined the interior. He stepped inside and removed the white, crinkly suit as another man exited the vehicle with two large labradors. Another man stood at the door watching the huge dogs lunge forward.

“Suppose he's dead yet?” he said as they approached.

“Dunno,” the other one answered, holding the door wide. “You sure they’re hungry enough?”

“These bastards will eat anything,” he replied. The man unlatched the hounds and they leaped inside.

“Finish ‘um off,” he whispered.

Chapter One

Incisions, Newspapers, and Ned

She gazed at her broken body in the mirror. A large incision swept across her torso, butterfly tapes curled at the edges making a grisly sight even more gruesome.

“How did it come to this?” she mumbled.

She held a bandage against the incision and gingerly pressed tape over it. She winced. Then she placed the next piece of tape over another stretch of gauze. Then another, and another, and another. Within a few minutes, she managed to cover the entire wound. She dabbed at pink goo drying on her waist and slid her shirt over the mess.

“Nobody'll ever know… I hope.”

She tossed extra bandages and tape into her purse and slid it over her shoulder, pausing to steady herself as a stab of pain pierced her abdomen. “Gotta be careful.” She grabbed her leather-bound folder, recorder, reporter notepads, and proceeded to her car. Nausea washed over her. She paused.

“Perhaps I should have waited.”

However, with insurance running out, medical bills raising, and finances draining she knew she had to get to work. She hated what this had done to her body. How this situation impacted her career was certainly unsettling. Plus, she disliked starting a new job when she didn’t feel 100 percent.

But she was a consummate professional. She’d figure out how to do this. After all, the Crossroads Herald covered a quiet swath of Minnesota. The chances of a big story breaking, one requiring a lot of time and effort, were slim to none, especially on quiet fall mornings.

Nope, all she had to look forward to in this town was a long parade of city council stories, school board reports, and an occasional feel-good piece. Should be easy. She twisted the door knob and winced.

“It's gonna be a long day,” she mumbled.

The award-winning weekly, Crossroads Herald,served central Minnesota’s small section of land that housed more farm animals than humans. Hailing itself the “Turkey Capital of the World,” it was difficult to travel from town to town without noting copious silver barns dotting the terrain. Thick, white feathers lining the highways would also tip off the smarter than average visitor… not that this section of Minnesota received many of those. With an agricultural bliss vibe permeating the area, you’d think a small town newspaper would provide a reduced stress zone compared to its big city cousins. But you’d be wrong.

Newspaper publisher Bart Lundquist struggled with every aspect of his biz. Reporters came and went like a cool summer breeze. Photographers were harder to keep than outdoor flowers in January. His only graphic artist threatened to quit to become a full time mother. That would be odd considering she didn’t have any children. Finances always balanced on a knife blade.

His sales staff sucked. Finding a good sales person that didn’t emit a creepy vibe was one of Bart’s greatest challenges. If he found someone the locals tolerated, the person couldn’t sell worth crap. If he found a salesperson who had mastered the craft, the locals viewed him with suspicion. Today’s sales staff consisted of himself and Dick.

Dick was his brother-in-law and likely the most incompetent salesman he’d ever met. Doughy and chatty, Dick talked more than he sold.

“Good God,” Bart would say, “the business owners know why you’re there. Just cut to the chase, sell the ad, and move on.”

Instead, Dick would meander through his conversations, getting off track, forgetting to sell the spot. If he did sell, he often got details wrong. Hell, he routinely messed up the offer, the text, the phone number, the price… you name it.

“Dude’s a walking mistake,’ Bart often said. “But he’s my mistake.”

Hence, more money problems.

Advertisers complained when their spots ran with incorrect information. Over half the ads running today were freebies to make up for massive cock-ups on previous runs.

To make matters worse, the city council threatened to ban his staff from meetings after a recent unflattering article on last week’s cow dung incident triggered a brouhaha at the local cafe. Even the city clerk seemed to withhold her support of the local paper, emailing her most recent council minutes in a skeleton form, without comment, presumably hoping the paper would quit running them. This was a particularly large problem considering council meetings provided the bulk of story ideas for his paper. One meeting often ballooned into at least a few interviews resulting in many column inches of newsy news.

If it wasn’t one person offended, it was another. Depending on the week, Bart had at least one prominent Crossroads citizen ticked at him for one reason or another.

Nevertheless, he labored forward… all with an overworked crew. Poor wages plus dismal public support equaled a less than favorable working environment. But, true publisher that he was, when things got terribly difficult, he retreated to the quiet, prosperous world of his mind… a place where readers revered his work and his employees loved their job. A place where one well crafted story would put his little newspaper on the map… a story so glorious, so huge, so noteworthy, that forevermore, Minnesota students would gasp in wonder as they read his detailed, accurate account.

But alas, the chances of that happening in this tiny community were nil.

But a man could hope.

A cold burst of air brushed against his unshaven cheek. He glanced up from his desk and watched Ned enter the building. “Damn,” the younger man breathed, “chilly out today, eh?”

“You ain’t seen nothing,” replied Bart, “I took a gander at the long range forecast.”

“Hope you’re wrong.”

“I’m not. If you think it’s cold now, just wait,” he said. He scribbled a few story ideas on the pad in front of him. He sighed. Minnesota winters are not for the faint of heart. Temps often don’t creep above zero for weeks on end. “When winter hits,” he said, “wear layers, don’t forget your boots, and cover all exposed skin within a few minutes if you’re going outside for any length of time.”

Ned stamped his feet on the floor. Frost shards flaked to the floor. “You sound like a public service announcement.” He tromped his feet a few more times before he added, “When’s the new reporter coming?”

“Today.”

“What’s he like?”

“She.”

“Female?”

“Seriously?” Bart shook his head. “The pronoun ‘she’ is generally applied to a female. Geez. Sexist much?”

“Not really. It’s just that the last two have been male.”

“Well, this one’s female.”

“Well, that’s a switch,” Ned said, “what’s she like?”

“Good writer.”

“Clips were sound?”

“Yup.”

“Interview?”

“Via phone. Sounded competent.”

“Good.” Ned peeled his parka from his torso and hung it on the coat tree. He lumbered to his desk, heavy boots clunking all the way, and plopped into his office chair. “Very good. Hope this one stays a while.”

Ned Stevens arrived in Crossroads five years ago and was the exception that proved Bart’s assertion that “keeping photographers was harder than keeping flowers blooming in January.” Originally, he didn’t know if he’d like small town life but figured he’d give it a shot after he lost his job at a big-city, first class, glossy magazine. He missed his expense account. He also missed slick night life and refined women. But five years in Crossroads helped him appreciate down home cooking and the peanut shell littered floors of the local bar. Through the years, he learned to relax into a quiet life, snapping pics of wildlife, combines, and local festivals. The slower pace and lower cost of living didn’t hurt either.

Truth was, he enjoyed his work. The quiet, lazy town of Crossroads offered a near perfect environment for a professional photographer. He had plenty of time to do his own thing while getting paid to meet interesting people. The picturesque palette of seasons were always a delight to capture on film. He felt like an important member of a team, working closely with the reporter and enjoying how his pictures enhanced each story. Bart always said, “There’s nothing like seeing a picture of someone you know in the local paper… that’s what sells copies.”

To a large extent, that seemed true. Bart peppered his pages with Ned’s photos, and papers sold. Put a kid in the paper and every family member bought a copy for posterity. It was win-win.

He leaned back in his chair and carefully polished the lens of his latest acquisition. Sure, the Herald would have supplied him with an adequate camera, but he preferred to use his own. As he wiped away dust flakes and stray fingerprints, he wondered what this new reporter would bring to the table. The last one clearly felt far too talented for the likes of Crossroads. He and Bart spent more than one evening betting how long he’d stay. His designer boots got soiled with cow dung on one assignment. On another, a horse sneezed on his $300 briefcase. “I swear to god, I didn’t know horses could expel that much snot,” Ned said. The reporter wasn’t amused.

It wasn’t a secret that The Crossroads Herald had a bit of trouble with employee retention. Ned didn’t know if it was the low pay, long hours, or lack of community respect that kept the position of “full time reporter” a revolving door of applicants. With so many writers coming and going, editorial quality sometimes suffered. Typos, inaccuracies, and sloppy layout seemed to be the rule these days. The only thing keeping the paper alive was Bart’s tenacious spirit followed by Ned’s incredible photographs. Everyone loved Ned. While everyone else received regular complaints for one reason or another, Ned only received complements. Everyone loved their picture in the paper. Bart was smart enough to capitalize on that.

“If we could just find someone who stuck around,” Ned lamented, “we could really make a difference…”

But, small town living in a remote part of Minnesota isn’t for the weak willed. Winters are long. Nights drag on forever. Brutal weather apparently kept “riff raff” at bay… scorching summers, frigid winters… locals said Crossroads weather was downright perfect around four days out of the year.

Also, while the concept of Minnesota Nice is a true reality, it comes with a sharp veneer of outsider suspicion. Even after five years of faithful service to the newspaper, Ned was still viewed as an interloper.

Every election resulted in one of the long times locals easily capturing the win. Sure, newcomers were encouraged to join the election process, but their chances of victory were similar to the local department store hosting a successful Christmas bikini sale. Ned figured if he were to hang in there and manage to remain an active member of society, it could be possible that his grand children would have a chance at being accepted as a full member of the community. Until then, Ned viewed the town as a place to live, a safe place for his future family, a nice place to make a living, and plenty of local drama to document.

However, if this reporter couldn’t clean up the editorial mess in the newspaper, Ned feared Bart would have to shutter the shop. Already, a few major advertisers threatened to withdraw ads if they couldn’t maintain circulation. “Take more pictures,” Bart ordered. Even then, Ned knew they needed quality editorial… and he wasn’t about to become a writer.

He sighed. “Perhaps this one will work out.”

Crossroads, Minnesota celebrated its centennial anniversary in 1969. It was evidently the best thing to have happened in the small town since… ever. Large photographs of the event still hung prominently in the town civic center.

Struggling for relevance in an ever changing world, the mayor, along with the tiny city council, often brainstormed ideas on how to put Crossroads on the map. They promoted the annual town festival in the county brochure. They paid for advertising in big city newspapers. They attempted to attract new business to the community to no avail. One look at the dilapidated elevator leaning precariously over the rail road tracks and most business people eschewed Crossroads for the next town over.

Crossfield was everything Crossroads was not. It had a thriving daily newspaper. Businesses prospered due to the nearby community college. The Crossfield school system had succeeded in poaching nearly all of Crossroad’s high school students and was on the verge of absorbing the Crossroad Elementary school into its district. Already, Crossfield threatened to close the Crossroad post office and replace it with a bank of outdoor PO boxes.

Crossroad residents didn’t take kindly to Crossfield’s interference. To their benefit, the twenty miles expanse between them was the only thing keeping the marauding invaders at bay. Crossroad die hards loathed Crossfieldites. And the feeling was mutual.

So when the owner of the Crossfield Daily approached Ned in an attempt to lure him to the larger daily, Bart took it personally. While Ned turned him down, Bart harbored revenge.

“Mark my words,” he said, “someday I’ll scoop that asshole and twist his scrawny neck.”

“But nothing ever happens here,” Ned replied.

“Oh,” Bart said, “you never know.”

“It’ll be tough. You’ll have to find a big story, hope it happens right before we go to press, and pray the Gazette doesn’t find out about it.”

“Oh,” Bart repeated, “you never know.”

And so it went. Small town weekly versus larger town daily. Small, overworked staff versus larger, sharper staff. A tiny newspaper minus reporters versus a well-stocked editorial team.

This represented life in Crossroads the day before all hell broke loose.

Chapter Two

Bloody Labs, A Murder, Mallard

It began as many days begin: with a whimper.

Mrs. Geena Larson was walking to the post office when she saw what she thought was a bloody golden lab. “It was wandering all over town… like it owned the place,” she told the post mistress, “and it looked like it was limping, too.”

Ike Moe spotted the second lab. “Bloody as hell. Musta been in one heck of a fight,” he said.

With bloody dogs traipsing around town, Sheila Knight called the sheriff. He sent a cruiser to investigate the situation.

Ashley Stone noted a large number of cars rolling up and down Main Street as she turned into the Crossroads Herald offices. She didn’t think much of it as she parked her vehicle and eased herself out of the car. She had other things to think about. A stab of pain pierced her abdomen.

“It’s gonna be a good day. It’s gotta be a good day,” she repeated, mostly to quell her nerves. Her boots ca-thunked their way to the entrance and she paused. It felt like a damn cold morning and a very bad time to start something new. “What if I can’t do this? What if I fail?” she wondered.

She didn’t ponder long. The door swung open and a large man grinning from ear to ear greeted her. His powder blue dress shirt peppered damp with what was apparently perspiration. A broad smile widened, stretching across his pudgy, pasty face. “I bet I know who you are,” he gushed, “You’re the new reporter. Welcome!” Ashley stood before him, stunned. He added, “Or maybe not…”

“Yes,” she said, “I’m the new reporter. Ashley Stone.” She extended her hand, “You sound like Mr. Lundquist.”

“Bart,” he said, “call me Bart.” Ashley stepped through the door and Bart pointed to Ned. “That’s Ned Stevens. He’s our photographer. The graphic designer’s out today. Name’s Maisy. She’s our receptionist, too. You’ll meet her later.” He pointed to a coat tree near the door, “Hang your parka there. Your desk is next to Ned’s. Unload and meet me in the conference room in.. say… ten minutes. Ned will tell you where it is.” Bart huffed dramatically, turned on his heel, and trotted to what was evidently his office. He slammed the door shut, leaving Ashley and Ned alone in the middle room of the building.

Ashley undid her coat. She sneaked a peek in Ned’s direction as she placed it on the only bare hook on the considerably large coat tree. Dust clung to the wrinkles of a number of out-of-season jackets. She tucked her coat tight, hoping to keep her brand new winter ensemble fairly clean. She turned and stepped towards her desk, glancing at Ned in the process.

He looked reasonably nice. His longish, dark hair gave him a native American vibe. He sat at his desk, feet perched on top, newspaper resting on his lap. If she’d felt remotely well, she would have found him attractive, with his broad shoulders, deep brown eyes, sly grin. However today she felt old, hungry, and terribly sore. She realized in her haste, she forgot to eat breakfast. “Just make it through today…” she thought.

She noticed him eye her as she stepped towards her desk. He nodded toward a door to his right. “That’s the conference room,” he said. “Bathroom’s there.” He nodded towards a door directly across from his desk. “Bart’s office is there,” he nodded to the left, “you probably already figured that out. And you’ve already found the front door. That’s about it.”

Ashley nodded. “Not too complicated.” She sat and examined what was evidently her desk. She decided to check it out.

She grasped the center drawer, giving it a light tug. Nothing. She pulled a bit harder. Nothing. It appeared completely stuck. Finally, a firm yank jerked it open. Paper clips and thumb tacks leaped onto her lap. She glanced towards Ned. His eyes danced as he suppressed a grin. She nonchalantly gathered the contents and tossed them back where they belonged. Then she struggled to close it again. She could have sworn she heard Ned snort a small chuckle as she jiggled the wide drawer. She ignored it.

Next she pillaged through the other drawers. Paper, carbons, and clippings littered each. An ancient, shrunken apple sat in one corner, its dried ooze gluing more papers together. She tossed it in the trash. The rusty, sticky residue gummed her fingers. She vowed to sort through the mess that afternoon.

Ashley loved the ambiance of a small town newspaper office. The scent of crisp, dry toner filled the air. It felt dusty, old… newsy. A sticky film clung to everything, likely residue from melted bees wax that used to hold various newspaper components… ads, stories, announcements… on mock up boards. Today, all the layout was done electronically, but visceral memories of the old days clung to the interior of the office.

She leaned back in her chair, observing the mess that was her new desk. It looked ancient, a pale green cast covered the metallic finish. It must have weighed a ton. Cool to the touch, it felt solid, predictable, grimy. She’d have to give it a good cleaning before she allowed Betsy to sit on it.

Ah, Betsy.

Ashley had a Windows laptop for as long as she could remember. However, after the “Big Event” and her subsequent rough recovery, her not-so-faithful companion had suffered a terminal Windows cascading failure. Ashley recalled how, in horror, she watched one blue screen of death after another materialize on her screen.

“What am I going to do?” Ashley cried into the phone, hardly able to bear even one more bit of bad news.

Her mother listened in silence.

After Ashley accepted a writing position in this remote area of Minnesota, her mother presented her with a beautiful, new laptop. Betsy.

Unbeknownst to her mother, but known to Ashley, it was a Mac. “The geek told me this one won’t get that error,” her mother said.

“Nope,” Ashley replied, “It won’t get any Windows errors.

“That’s a good thing, right?”

“Absolutely.

Ashley hugged her mother, hopped into her tiny Smart car with every possession that meant anything, and drove away from her previous home with tears in her eyes.

Already, Betsy the little Mac, had become her faithful companion. The last few weeks, she managed to pour thousands of words into her interface… every one of them a flawless computing experience without errors, missed saves, or unexpected power-offs.

“Everything’ll be fine. Everything’ll be fine,” she breathed.

As she sat gazing at her grimy desk, Ashley realized her incision was in full complaint mode. She needed another pain killer. She leaned back in her chair and placed her hand over the wound. Her fingers trembled at the memories her gesture triggered. Breathing deep to control them she said, “Is there a place to get a glass of water in here?”

Ned didn’t say a word. Instead he nodded to his right.

“Conference room?” Ashley said.

“Yup.”

She gingerly stood in as discrete a manner as she was able, unfolding her painful body, and made her way to the next room. Just then, Bart exploded into the center office. “Meeting time.”

Drake Mallard’s official title was Investigative Detective for the Crossfield Police Department. He’d held that position for the last ten years. It wasn’t particularly demanding, considering the number of homicides in the area generally ran in the single digits… per decade.

But he kept his skills sharp by attending copious continuing education seminars and chatting with fellow officers online. A part of him envied his peers who recited harrowing stories of death and mayhem. But, he figured raising his family in a peaceful part of the world was worth the boredom, assuming he ever had a family. Police work was his passion, his focus, his life… for now.

When he wasn’t busy with his particular area of expertise (which was basically never), he aided in investigating burglaries, patrolling traffic, and various other small town matters.

So, he wasn’t surprised when the call came in.

“Bloody lab reported at Third and Mud… Crossroads.”

“Crossroads?”

“Yup.”

“Seriously? Can’t they take care of stray dogs?”

“Evidently not bloody ones. Nobody wants to touch it.”

“Sweet Mary, mother of God. Damn thing probably got into it with a raccoon.” Silence. “What’s the address?”

“Bloody lab. Last seen near Third and Mud. Crossroads.”

“10-4. On my way.”

The dispatcher continued, “Take necessary precautions. Blood. Could be a biohazard.”

“Roger,” he laughed, “I’ll put on my hazmat.”

He conducted a fast u-turn and headed east.

“First on the agenda,” Bart said, “We have a new reporter.”

“I’m aware of that,” Ned said, “I was there when she arrived.”

Bart narrowed his eyes. “Just because Maisy couldn’t be here doesn’t mean we can’t conduct a proper meeting.”

“Well,” Ashley said, “it’s just the three of us. We’ve already met.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Bart said, “we’ll conduct a proper meeting nonetheless.” He tapped on a small stack of papers in front of him.

“You planning on using Robert’s Rules of Order?” asked Ned.

“If I have to.”

“Fine,” Ned said, “then I’ll happily accept my copy of today’s agenda.”

“You know we don’t have a printed agenda,” Bart said.

“Then it’s not exactly an official meeting, is it?”

“Nevertheless,” Ashley jumped in, “I’m sure everyone is busy. I’m sure we can move along.” She squirmed, visualizing the small pill box in her purse holding her precious pain meds.

Both men turned to look at her. “I guess you have the floor,” Ned said, “tell us about yourself.”

“I don’t want the floor,” she replied, eyes widening.

“I want, and currently have the floor,” said Bart, rearranging the papers in front of him.

“Then hop to it,” Ned said, “we’ve all got work to do. What ‘cha got?”

“Fine,” said Bart, “First on my agenda: We have a new reporter.”

“I think we’ve established that.” Ned said.

Ashley nodded, cheeks reddening.

“Perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself,” Bart said.

“I just said that,” Ned interjected.

Bart threw him an angry glance. Then he turned to Ashley, pursed his lips, and nodded. “Go on,” he said.

“Oh,” Ashley said, “I suppose…”

Both men gazed at her, waiting for her to speak. “I… uh…” she said, “I don’t know what to say.”

“Introduce yourself,” Bart said.

“Fine,” said Ashley. “I’m Ashley Stone. I come from the Twin Cities. I’ve freelanced for the last fifteen years, been a stringer for a number of publications back home.” She stopped abruptly, then added, “You can call me Ash. Everyone does.”

“Well, Ash,” said Ned, “it’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” piped in Bart. “Now, let’s get on to business. First,” he tossed the first sheet of paper in front of Ash and Ned, “we’ve got to finish the Senior Living Special Issue. Ash, for this project you have to interview six senior citizens who have done, or are doing, something spectacular.”

Ned rolled his eyes. “I suppose you want me to make ‘em all look tall, thin, beautiful, and young.”

“No smart talk from you. Just get ‘er done. And make ‘em look good. This isn’t a tabloid you’re working for.” He continued, “Second, Ned will give you the schedules for the meetings we cover. Most are in the evening. All are at least two hours long. All need coverage. Manage your office time appropriately.”

Ned and Ash nodded.

“Third,” Bart said, “Dick is fucking up everything he touches. It’s up to you two to act as PR. Smooth over the big advertisers with a promise of a front page story spread.”

“How are we supposed to do that?” Ned asked.

Ash interrupted, “Who’s Dick?”

“Salesman. Bad salesman.” Ned answered, “Don’t ask.”

“I don’t know how you’re going to fix the advertising situation. I don’t care. Just get ‘er done. Write complementary features on ‘em. We need cash flow.” He looked directly at Ash. “Finally, as you’ve probably already figured out, Ned is our photographer. He goes with you on every story. Period. Our readers aren’t used to a large amount of editorial content. Pics sell papers. Don’t get in his way.”

Ash nodded. She was about to say something when Bart’s phone rang. He raised his finger to interrupt her. He stood and exited the room.

Ned and Ash sat in silence a few moments before he said, “I think he likes you.”

“Why would you say that?”

“He hasn’t yelled yet.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.”

Silence hung heavy for a few moments before Ashley said, “What’s up with that Dick guy? If he can’t sell, why is he still employed?”

Ned said, “Dick is Bart’s brother-in-law. If he fired the lazy lout, his sister would kill him.”

“Oh my.”

Silence descended on them again, then Ned said, “You haven’t met Maisy. She’s the receptionist, graphic designer, gofer, you name it. You’ll like her. She’s nice. Part time, though.”

Ned sat without saying a word for a while longer. His gaze caught in her general direction. He seemed to be studying something about her. Finally he spoke. “Your hand. Looks like a pretty nasty IV scar.”

Ashley glanced downward. A poke hole directly above a large vein glowed red. She brushed it lightly. “Cat. She can get rough sometimes.”

“Doesn’t look like something a cat would do.”

“Well, I guess you’re the expert,” she answered.

Ned smiled as another moment of silence passed. “So, how did the cat do that?”

“Playing,” Ashley said, “playing rough.”

“That’s one hella cat,” Ned said. Then he added, “If you plan on using that lie again, you may want to remove some of the tape residue.” Ashley winced.

Their conversation was mercifully cut short when Bart entered the room. He tossed a piece of paper on the table. “Bloody lab,” he said. “Go cover it. Write a brilliant story. Sell newspapers.”

“Bloody lab?” Ashley repeated, “as in a dog?”

“All the details I have are on the paper. Now hop to it.”

Bart exited the room, leaving Ashley and Ned alone. Ned grasped the paper and read it. “Should be interesting,” he said. “Looks like a lab got into it with a ‘coon.”

“Coon?”

“Raccoon.”

“I knew that.”

“Then what was your point?” Ned’s eyes sparkled.

“Dunno.”

“Let’s get moving.” He passed the paper to Ash. She read the information and began to mentally write her lead. She followed Ned out of the conference area and paused by her desk. She grabbed her notepad, flip camera, leather portfolio, and Betsy. They headed out the door.

Officer Drake Mallard pulled into the Crossroads Area Post Office parking lot. Groups of residents stood in small knots outside the door. Mallard counted four, approximately three to five people per. He strode to the closest one.

“Anyone here call in an emergency?”

A few group members mumbled in response. Mallard moved on. “Anyone here call in an emergency?”

A pudgy women to his right said,”That was me. I saw a stray lab near here. Golden lab. It was bloody.”

“How did you know it was blood?”

“It was red.”

“Could the red substance have been something else?”

“Maybe.”

“Where was the animal last located?”

“Right over there.” She pointed to an empty space of gravel around ten yards from the tip of her finger.

“Well, it’s gone now.”

“Yup. Labs have a way of doing that.”

Mallard scowled. “What way did it go?”

The woman pointed to her right.

Mallard walked back to his car and slipped inside. “God, I hate this town,” he mumbled. He fired the ignition and threw the car in gear.

In the parking lot of the Crossroad’s Herald, Ned stopped short as Ashley proceeded towards her tomato red Smart. “I’m not getting into that thing.”

“Why not,” Ash asked.

“Seriously? I have a reputation to maintain. Anyone sees me in this thing and I may as well volunteer my nuts for their rear view mirror.”

Ash stopped short. “Seriously? Your masculinity is dependent upon the vehicle you’re in?”

Ned said, “No. But it sure affects other’s perception thereof.”

Ash laughed. “You said ‘thereof. Kudos!” Then she added, ”I love my Smart. Great gas mileage. Perfect size for one. Plus, I can park anywhere.”

“Parking may be an issue in the big city, but really… I doubt you’ll have trouble finding a spot here.” His arm swept the vast expanse of the main street. Empty parking spots outnumbered cars by ten to one. “Hell, you don’t even have to know how to parallel park in these parts. Just drive on in and you’re good to go.” He paused, then added, “We’re taking my truck.”

“Fine,” said Ashley, “but next time, I drive. You need to experience the glories of my car. Plus, I wouldn’t mind seeing your… er… nuts hanging from someone’s rear view.”

“Yeah,” said Ned, “Sure. Hold your breath waiting.”

He strode towards a half ton pickup and clicked the fob. The vehicle chirped to life. He opened the door and hopped inside. Ashley pulled the gargantuan door open and stood a moment. It would take quite a heave-ho to get inside that thing.

“What ‘cha waiting for?” Ned chirped, “You’re about to find out what it’s like to ride in a real vehicle.” He patted the seat beside him. “This baby’ll take you anywhere you want to go. In style. In comfort.”

“And my car can’t do all that?” Ashley said. Then she added, “Got a hoist?” She paused gazing at the mile-high seat in front of her. “I’ll probably need one to get in this thing. Either that or a step stool.”

Ned revved the engine. “What did you say?”

“Nothing.”

Ashley strategically placed her right foot on the running board and grasped the door frame with her left hand. She gingerly pulled herself towards the seat, but a stab of pain pierced her incision. She grimaced.

“You need help getting in?” Ned glanced in her direction.

“Nope. Doing fine.”

She gave the maneuver another go, and this time hooked her left hand through the hand-grasp above her head and used it to pull herself upward. Meanwhile her right hand pushed against the door. Her abdomen screamed as she heaved forward, but she managed to wrench a portion of one buttock on the seat. She paused, breathing deep. Then she gingerly wiggled the rest of her bottom into the truck. Her hands shook and a tiny river of perspiration trailed down her temple.

“Jeeze,” Ned said, glancing in her direction, “You OK?”

“Yeah,” she answered nonchalantly, “I’m just sore. Tried working out last night. Just about did me in. I’m super stiff today.”

“Sure,” Ned answered.

Ashley gazed at the note Bart gave her. “Ned,” she said, “what kind of story do you suppose Bart’s looking for? I’ve run a dozen leads through my mind and I just can’t get a handle on how to start this thing.”

“Don’t work too hard,” he answered, “He’s just testing your chops. If you can make this story work into something newsworthy, he’ll figure you can write anything.” He engaged the pickup and exited the parking lot. He continued, “Just write the story. Nothing fancy. It’s not exactly hard news, but it could still hit the front page depending on what else comes in this week.”

They drove in silence until they approached the post office. Cars lined the streets and the crowd had expanded. Officer Mallard’s police cruiser had returned and was parked directly across from the flag pole. Ashley gave Ned her best side eye. “Hmmm… no open parking spaces. I told you we should have driven my car.”

“Nah,” Ned said, “we’ll just go over there. You mentioned you like to exercise. Guess you’ll get some.” Then he broke into one of his gorgeous smiles. “I don’t like to park in the thick of things anyway.”

“I suppose I could use a work out,” Ashley said, “but I’d rather it be voluntary rather than forced.”

Ned laughed as they rolled to the end of the street. He swung a left and kept going until he reached the end of the parking snag. He pulled the vehicle in place and threw the shift in “park.”

“I suppose we’ll both get a nice walk this morning,” Ashley said.

“This hardly constitutes a nice walk,” said Ned. “I like to count my walks in miles, not half blocks.”

“No comment,” Ashley said.

Officer Mallard watched the crowd grow. “Damn people. Small town folks’ll get excited over nothing,” he grumbled. He sat back in his cruiser. “I’ll never find that mongrel.”

He flipped on his radio and spoke into the mic. “Mallard to dispatch,” he said, “No sign of said canine in Crossroads.”

The radio hissed a few moments before it sprang to life. “Dispatch to Mallard. Monitor the situation.”

“10-4.”

He dropped his head against the seat. Damn. He threw the car in gear and maneuvered away from the scene.

He passed Ned Stevens as he exited the area. He walked next to a woman who carried what appeared to be reporter equipment. “Damn. The Herald’s here. Just what I need, bad reporting on a non-story,” he groaned.

He nodded to Ned and kept moving. He proceeded to patrol each street, noiselessly gliding down each, slowly scanning the terrain for the so-called bloody lab.

“It’s gonna be a long day.”

“Ned, my man!” Ashley watched a lanky fellow ambled towards Ned, his hand outstretched. “It’s been too long!”

Ned laughed and clasped his friend’s hand. “I know. How long has it been… a week? Two?”

“Ha,” replied Lanky, “you know it, Superstar. We gotta get together at beer-o-clock sharp! We’ve got catching up to do.”

The men nearly doubled over as their peals of laughter melted into the surrounding din of conversation. Ashley stood silent, patiently waiting for sanity to prevail and the men to act with even a small semblance of professionalism.

Finally, Ned turned to Ashley. “Ash,” he said, “This is Ike. Ike… Ash.”

“Nice to meet you.” Lanky (a.k.a. Ike) reached a long bony hand towards her. Ashley obliged, grasping his knuckles.

Ned said, “Ash is our new reporter.”

This small sentence elicited peals of laughter from Ike. “Seriously? How long do you suppose this one’ll last?”

Ned shrugged. “Who knows?” Ashley threw Ned her icy stare. He continued, “Ash comes to us via the big city. Drives a Smart Car. Probably drinks froufrou coffee.”

Ashley interrupted. “Hello Ike. It’s nice to meet you.” She turned to Ned. “Any chance we can get to work?”

“Have at it,” he replied, nodding towards the crowd.

Ashley stepped away, leaving the men to chat amongst themselves. She spotted a small knot of women and decided to start there. “Hello,” she said, “I’m Ashley Stone, the new reporter at the Crossroads Herald. Any of you know anything about the lab?”

The women fell silent and gazed at her. “Dunno,” said one, “I’m just here to watch.” Another said, “Everyone’s here so… well… so am I.”

Ashley politely thanked them and moved on to the next knot of gawkers. “Hi,” she said, “I’m Ashley Stone, Crossroads Herald’s reporter. Anyone here know anything about the lab?”

One of the men looked at her suspiciously. “Got a press pass?”

“What?”

“Press pass.”

Ashley said, “I don’t believe I need one.”

“Just messing with you,” the man laughed. “Nah. Just here waiting for some action.”

“You could talk to Officer Mallard,” said another.

“Officer Mallard,” Ashley repeated.

“Yup. Mallard. Drrrrrake Mallard.” He spoke in low, dramatic tones.

“Yeah. And I believe you,” Ashley quipped.

“Seriously,” a younger man said, “That’s his name.”

Ashley thanked the men and proceeded to the next group.

Nothing. She paused and breathed deep, pondering her next move. Then she noticed Ned making his way towards her. “Hey,” he said, “Ike saw the dog. If all else fails, interview him.”

Ashley said, “Good idea. Thanks.”

“Not really,” he replied, “I already snapped my shots. I just need you to get the story.” He grinned.