Excerpt from BITTER PILL
BITTER PILL, my adult novel, is officially available a week from today (October 28)! In celebration, I’m posting a brief excerpt…
Don’t misunderstand, it’s not like I enjoyed having this happen to me. I guess it’s just some kind of bizarre twist of fate, or maybe a sixth sense that only kicks in when the grim reaper is afoot. It’s not like I’d wanted to find the high school swim coach floating face down in the deep end, any more than I’d wanted to find the assistant librarian hanging from the rafters in the library attic with a stack of true crime books kicked over beneath her.
It’s just that whenever bodies started floating, swinging or, in this case, dropping, I happened to be there. Bad luck, maybe. Still, worse luck for them than for me. This time, it was some very poor fortune for Doc Hallacy, the pharmacist.
Doc’s shop, a squat brick building with a striking orange and blue RX sign above the front door, sat on the corner of Main and First. On a Friday morning, at five minutes to eight, the main thoroughfare of Morrisville was deserted. Most of the stores didn’t open until nine. So unless you needed Doc Hallacy, who opened promptly at eight as he had for more than forty years, you had no business on Main at that time of day.
I parked my silver BMW in one of the diagonal spots in front of the pharmacy. The sporty little coupe was one of the toys my ex-husband had purchased before deciding he was too young to settle down, four years into our marriage. I’d fought for and won the car in my settlement and took great pride in abusing it in his stead.
As I climbed out and slammed the door shut, Starbucks Breakfast Blend slopped over the edge of my travel mug and splattered on the side window, burning my fingers in the process. The pain was worth it. I grinned, imagining Jeff’s expression of horror, as I watched the coffee trickle down the car door, creating clean streaks. I hadn’t washed the car in more than a year, not since I’d moved home to Morrisville from Chicago. Nothing like being a scorned and divorced woman before the age of thirty to make you a little bitter.
With a deep sigh of satisfaction, I stepped over the curb and headed to Doc Hallacy’s door to wait for him to flip the sign to OPEN and welcome me in.
I’ll admit to being lost in my first cup of coffee of the day–Starbucks was a luxury that I hadn’t quite been able to give up in my relocation–so I didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary at first. As I stood there, enjoying the early May sunshine on my face and perusing the store window–hell of a deal on a walker/bath seat (Doc also sold medical supplies)–it gradually occurred to me that something wasn’t right.
I pushed back my sleeve and checked my watch. Three minutes after eight. Suddenly that little voice in the back of my head, the one my mother encouraged me to ignore, piped up, offering all kinds of theories.
He could just be a little late, but in all these months of early morning pharmacy trips, he’d never been before. Maybe he was sick or hurt. Doc Hallacy was no fresh-faced pharmacology student anymore. He had to be pushing eighty, at least.
With the image of Doc unconscious and bleeding stuck in my head, I stepped up to the door and peered in through the glass panel. The door slipped open under the pressure of my hand cupped against the glass to block the light. I stepped back in shock. By now my little voice was screaming.
Clutching my travel mug, I crossed the threshold cautiously, noticing the lights were still off. “Now would be the time to call the Sheriff’s Office,” my mom would say. “Let them earn their money.” But my relationship with the Sheriff’s Office, particularly the Sheriff himself, was a little complicated at the moment. I had to make sure calling would be the right thing to do, not just what I wanted to do.
The familiar and comforting smell of the pharmacy–old building, dust, and talcum powder–filled my nose as I walked in farther. I passed the cash register and the metal rack of paperback books on my way to the counter in the back. I gave the dusty book covers a fond smile as I rounded the corner. This had been the only bookstore in town when I was a kid. Doc Hallacy’s wife, Maybelle, had always tried to get something new in for me every week or so.
The store grew darker the deeper I headed in, and the familiar smell of the pharmacy started to mix with a new scent, one I’d recently come to know well.
Fresh blood and the stench of death.
Hoping I was wrong, I stepped up to the darkened counter. The metal security gate was up, retracted into the ceiling. A faint bit of light shone through the frosted glass window set high on the back wall.
“Doc? You here?”
No answer. The smell had grown stronger, coating my nose and mouth. I swallowed hard and leaned over the counter to look into the back. The freestanding shelves of carefully labeled medicines seemed undisturbed, but the side door, which opened into a tiny hallway, leading to the storeroom and a delivery door in back, stood open.
I set my mug down on a nearby shelf of vitamins and leaned farther over the long counter, letting my feet come off the floor.
“Doc?” I called again. I tried to inch forward, but my palm slipped on the slick counter. My feet flew up, tipping me farther forward. Only a quick grab kept me from falling into a heap on the other side. As it was, I ended up clinging to the counter’s edge with my head upside down, which brought me face to face with a very dead Doc Hallacy.
He was lying on the floor, tucked underneath the countertop. Red marks smeared the floor where he’d been dragged. A metal cane, bloodied and bent, rested by his side. He’d been beaten to death. Blood pooled beneath his head…and his glasses, the little square spectacles he always wore on the tip of his nose, dangled from his face, the lenses shattered and the rims twisted. His eyes, already starting to cloud over, stared up at me.
I scrambled backward, knocking down cardboard drug displays. Once safely back on the customer side of the counter, I lifted a shaking hand to my mouth and swallowed the urge to throw up. Who could have done that to Doc? He’d run this place for more than forty years and he’d always had a kind word for everyone.
Tears swelled in my eyes. I couldn’t think of anyone who’d…
A soft rustling sound emerged from somewhere in the store. Cold washed over me. Someone else was here. Maybe the someone who’d killed Doc.
I bolted for the door, forgoing any plans to appear cool and calm in the face of panic. Just before I pushed open the door to run out into the warm sunshine, a second noise reached my ears–the distinctive squeak and then slam of the delivery door in the back of the pharmacy. I’d certainly sat in here waiting for prescriptions often enough to recognize it.
I hurried to my car, my hand trembling as I tried to dig car keys from my pocket. I got the door unlocked and slid in, hitting the lock button before the door even closed.
I pulled my cell phone from the center console and punched in the number for the Sheriff’s Office. Sad that I knew it so well.
“Morrisville Sheriff’s Office,” Sheryl Dupres, a deputy taking her shift as dispatcher and receptionist, answered. The official dispatcher/receptionist, the second one this year, had quit last month to move to Springfield. It was too boring here, she’d said. If only she’d waited a little while longer.
“Hey, Sheryl, it’s me, Rennie.” Sheryl had been my babysitter years ago. Once all these tight connections in a small town would have driven me crazy; now it offered a tiny measure of comfort.
“Hey, Rennie. Who’s dead now?” she asked, laughing.
Sheryl went quiet. “You’re kidding.”
“No.” I rubbed my forehead with my free hand. “It’s Doc Hallacy.”
Stunned silence followed, then a muffled curse. “I’ll put you right through,” she said, all joking gone from her tone.
I waited for Jake Bristol’s deep, resonating voice with more anticipation than was right, even though he was bound to lecture me again about looking for trouble. Like I went searching for dead bodies. Like he had room to criticize.
I’d gone to high school with Bristol. Believe me, back in those days, he’d landed in more than his share of hot water. He’d been a senior when I was a freshman, and he’d been the one all the mothers warned about, while still feeling a little flutter inside themselves and longing to be sixteen again. He drove a motorcycle he’d restored, showed up late for class or not at all, and had an aura of defiance that, more often than not, got him sent to the principal’s office when he hadn’t even said a word. Immediately after high school graduation, he joined the Army. It changed him, gave him direction, I suppose. As he once explained to me, it wasn’t that he’d hated authority before; just that he’d been given no reason to respect it. The Army had taken care of that real fast. He’d come back to Morrisville after completing his tour of duty, settling into small-town life again without a hitch.
Small-town married life, I reminded myself, feeling that painful tug in the general vicinity of my heart. We’d been nothing to each other before he left town, and we were nothing now…sort of. He was married to Margene Reynolds, a former homecoming queen, no less. However, that didn’t mean I couldn’t take some comfort or pleasure from hearing his voice, did it?
Sheryl got to him first.
“Dammit, Rennie,” he greeted me.
“It’s not my fault,” I said instantly. “I just came to pick up my mom’s prescription and I noticed the door was unlocked, but the lights were still off.”
“You should have called right then,” he said. I imagined him sitting in the cracked and worn leather chair behind his desk, running his hand over his close-cropped dark hair in frustration, something he did frequently around me.
“I didn’t know anything was wrong,” I protested.
“It’s you, Rennie. Of course, something’s wrong.”
I tried not to feel hurt by that. “Anyway, I found him behind the counter, kind of hidden back there.”
“I think somebody beat him to death.” I thought back on the scene for a second. “One of those metal canes he sells was back there, too.”
“All right, I’ll send someone over–“
“But Bristol, I heard the back door open and shut. I think whoever did it is still around here somewhere.” I looked out my car windows, but I was still the only one on the street. I wasn’t sure if that was comforting or not.
His tone sharpened. “I’m coming now.” I heard the distinctive clunking of him putting on his gun belt. “Stay out of the store and–“
“Don’t touch anything,” I finished for him. “I know. It’s not like I’ve never found a body before.”
“Believe me, I know.” He didn’t sound happy. Then he hung up.
I kept my phone in hand, double-checked my door locks, and waited for help to arrive. I didn’t have to wait long.