Thursday, November 13, 2008

Cold Turkey - Janice Bennett

A Writers Vineyard Holiday Treat



The authorities. I had to call the sheriff. But I couldn’t bring myself to reach over the body for the phone. Instead, I sidled around to the other side of the desk. This gave me the added disadvantage of a clear view of the man’s face, with the open, staring eyes that no longer saw anything. His gray-flecked brown hair, I noted through a daze, remained impeccably styled. Clifford Brody, C.P.A., wouldn’t even be caught dead other than perfectly groomed.

Movement near the hardwood floor made me yelp. One of the cats, the calico Birgit, emboldened by my presence, slunk into the room. I shooed her out, then succumbed to a craven impulse and followed, closing the door firmly behind me. I’d call from another phone. Preferably one at the other end of the house.

I made it down the hall, through the living room, past the dining room door, and into the country kitchen redolent of herbs. Only a few steps from the royal blue wall phone my knees collapsed, dumping me onto one of the brightly painted wooden chairs set around the ancient pine table. I could use a stiff drink. Aunt Gerda would recommend strong tea, with something for nerves, like oat straw, in it. Call first, I ordered myself. Then I’d search out my aunt’s chocolate stash.

I hauled myself to the phone and punched in from memory the number for the Merit County sheriff’s office, then clutched the receiver, trying to order my mind. I couldn’t stammer out the incoherent gibberish that currently filled my head. Not if I wanted anyone to understand me. Dagmar, the gray and white tabby, wound herself around my ankles, and as the phone rang, I scooped the cat into my arm and cradled her there for comfort. Mine, not hers. She squirmed at the tightness of my hold, and I settled her more contentedly against my shoulder.

A bright, familiar woman’s voice answered with an encouraging, “Sheriff’s office.”

Deep breath. “This is Annike McKinley, at—”

“Annike? Hi, it’s Jennifer. Been a long time. You home for Thanksgiving?”

“Jennifer,” I repeated. The woman had been answering the phone twelve years ago, when I first met Tom McKinley, who already had been the county sheriff for five years. Who probably still would be if he hadn’t gotten in the way of that bullet during a drug bust seven years ago. Jennifer, who’d been at our wedding, and who’d accompanied the deputy sheriff when he’d come to break the news to me of Tom’s death.

“Are you going to stop by for a visit?” Jennifer’s voice sounded cheerfully over the line. “We’ve got a new guy here, just took over when Sheriff Guzman retired last month. Love to hear your opinion of him. He’s—”

“Jennifer,” I managed to break in. “We’ve got someone—I mean, we’ve got a body—”

“Don’t tell me, there’s a carcass in your kitchen. Someone murdered a turkey, right?”

“No, an accountant.” Except in the case of Clifford Brody, the point could be argued that he was both.

“An…” Jennifer broke off. “No, don’t tell me. Now, why,” she muttered, “would a turkey be called an accountant? No, don’t spoil it, let me guess the joke.”

“No joke. Listen, I’m serious. It’s Clifford Brody. He’s dead. And he’s here, in my aunt’s house.”

“Brody? God, Annike, are you serious? He’s dead? Really?” She exhaled in a ragged breath. “Who am I going to get to do my taxes this year?”

I let that pass. “Will you get someone out here? An ambulance, and the new guy, and we’ll need a forensic team.”

“Any chance he’s still alive? I mean, did you check for a pulse? Do CPR?”

“No need.” The vision of Brody’s face rose in my mind, all too clear, and I shuddered. More distressing, though, had been that lack of warmth, of any sense of a vital life force… “Just get them out here.”

I hung up, my knees buckled, and I groped my way back to the chair, still hugging the purring Dagmar. Clumsy, the black tom, joined us, scrambling up my leg and onto my lap. The tiger-striped manx Hefty settled on my feet. I closed my eyes, hugged the cats and tried not to think about Clifford Brody.

An engine sounded in the driveway, and I tensed, to the annoyance of the beasties. Had the sheriff been out on patrol nearby? I waited, listening, and the rumble of the garage door reached me. Aunt Gerda. Thank God, she was back. I rose, dislodging Dagmar and Clumsy, and ran for the front door.

The rain had slowed to a drizzle. Noises drifted up, of the garage closing, of a car door slamming, then the safety stair light switched on, revealing Gerda’s tall figure, wrapped in a purple wool cape. She started up the steps.

“Aunt Gerda—” My relief at seeing her faded beneath my need to warn her, not to let her walk in on the horror that waited.

Gerda waved. “You’re home early, dear. What a delight to find Freya in the garage. How did you get away so soon?” She reached the landing and spun about, swirling the damp wool of her cape. “What do you think? I cut it off the loom only three days ago.”

“Great. Get inside, it’s starting to rain harder, again. There’s…there’s a bit of a problem.”

Aunt Gerda stopped one stair below me. Feathers of faded blonde hair emerged from beneath a knitted tam of hand-spun purple wool. Her blue eyes sparkled as she fixed me with an accusing gaze. “You’ve lost your job.”

“No. That is, yes, I quit. But that’s not what I’m talking about. It’s—”

“You quit? You mean you have another job all lined up? You didn’t just walk out, did you?”

“Yes, I just walked out. I tried to hold on, but—”

Aunt Gerda sniffed. “You always act before you think, that’s your problem. Honestly, a widow of thirty-nine should be beyond throwing temper tantrums. What were you planning on doing with yourself? How will you keep Vilhelm in seed treats and cuttle bones? Well, you’ll just have to move back here, won’t you?” She mounted the last step and enveloped me in a welcoming hug.

I returned it with fervor. “Aunt Gerda,” I tried once more, only to break off. How did you tell your beloved aunt there was a dead body in her study? One complete with her letter opener rammed through its chest, at that? It wasn’t something you just blurted out.

Gerda pulled back, a gleam lighting her eyes. She lowered her voice. “Maybe it’s all for the best. Why don’t you set up as a rival to Brody? You’re a C.P.A. every bit as much as he is.” She led the way into the house. “We’ll all be glad to have someone honest and trustworthy for a change. Take a stab at him!”

I blanched. My throat got a stranglehold on my voice and refused to let it out. Numbly, I accepted the canvas shopping bag Aunt Gerda thrust at me. I checked inside automatically and headed for the kitchen to put away the giant bottle of vanilla, its sole contents. “Funny…funny you should put it that way,” I managed at last.

© Janice Bennett 2006


This has been an excerpt from Cold Turkey
Janice Bennett is an award winning romance writer who now writes a series of lighthearted murder mysteries. She lives on the outskirts of a tiny rural town with her husband, computer, far too many cats and dogs and a variety of other animals currently in need of a home.
Please visit her website at:
http://www.jebennett.com

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