Bitter Pill


Bitter Pill

The truth is a bitter pill…

Rennie Harlow is having a bad year. She had a handsome husband, a good job, and a renovated condo in Chicago. Now, thanks to one “exotically beautiful” paralegal, she’s divorced, faking her way through a writing career, and living above her hypochondriac mother’s garage. And she’s back in Morrisville, the small town she couldn’t leave fast enough at eighteen. On top of all of that, she just found Doc Hallacy, the local pharmacist, dead behind his counter. The worst part is, he’s the third body she’s stumbled across this year.

Jake Bristol has lived in Morrisville his whole life. A former bad boy turned sheriff, he doesn’t believe Rennie just has bad luck or bad timing. He thinks she’s too nosy for her own good. The last thing he needs is her messing around with his murder investigation so that she can freelance for the Morrisville Gazette. But as they both delve deeper into Doc’s death, they find things don’t add up. This isn’t a robbery gone wrong or the work of a desperate junkie. Someone has a secret they’re killing to keep. The only question is—who’s next?

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

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.

I sighed.

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.”

Bristol sighed.

“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, Bristol.”

“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.

Chapter Two

I notice things other people don’t. That’s really all it boils down to. That, and I’m cursed with an overactive and overly accurate imagination. No one, especially the police, ever wants to believe that, even though it’s the truth. When I lived in my first apartment in Chicago, I was the only one who noticed the mail spilling out of the mailbox for 3E and thought anything of it. Everyone else assumed the horrible smell emanating from the third floor was another poor squirrel that had found its way into the heating vents and couldn’t find the way back out, just like the summer before. They weren’t far from wrong. It did smell about the same, only it lasted a lot longer, much the way you’d expect if the squirrel was 5’11 and 190 lbs.

In high school, I could always tell who’d hooked up the weekend before; their body language screamed it even if they said nothing at all to each other. That meant I was also usually the first to know who was pregnant.

In grade school, I busted John Walsh as the culprit stealing from the Sunday School offering when he gave Shannon Moyer five dollars all in quarters to lift up her skirt.

I see something that seems strange or off in some way and then the connections start firing, coming up with all kinds of possibilities. Most of the time, it’s stupid stuff, and it doesn’t matter if I’m right or wrong. I mean, who cares if young Widow Pearson is having an affair with the bag boy at the IGA? It’s so very clearly mutual, and judging by the sad attempt at a mustache and the pack of cigarettes in his shirt pocket, the kid is old enough to consent.

Then there are the other times, like when I found Coach Swenson dead in the pool on my first day of substitute teaching at Morrisville High, or when Esther Harris, Chief Librarian, directed me to the attic storage area of the library for some research materials and I found the assistant librarian, Janice Parsmouth, hanging from a rope she’d flung over a rafter, her granny panties down around her knees. Those are the times when my being right or wrong matters a whole bunch because finding out what really happened is usually the only way to get my name off the suspect list.

My discovery of Doc Hallacy’s death—no, murder—was more than enough to put me at the top of yet another of those lists. My only consolation was that I now had a legitimate reason for wanting to talk to the sheriff at every opportunity.

About three minutes after I hung up with Bristol, a squad car pulled up next to the curb about a half block away from me and the pharmacy, obviously trying not to scare away the murderer, if he/she had stuck around.

A sudden tap on my side window nearly sent me through the sun roof. I turned to see Bristol’s face inches from mine, his mouth tight and turned down. He was one of those rare men who improved with age. He still had a full head of dark hair, now mixed with a little silver at the temples. His lean form from high school had filled in at the shoulders but not at the belly. I loved the little lines at the corners of his eyes, just slivers of white skin in his tanned face. He got that tan from spending every spare moment pushing wood at his father’s lumberyard.

He pointed to me and then held his hand up, palm facing me. Stay here.

Heart still palpitating, I nodded.

He approached the pharmacy, pressing his back against the wall of the neighboring shoe store, Sole Mate. He shoved open the pharmacy’s door with one hand, his gun out in the other, and disappeared into the darkness of the store.

I waited with my nerves on edge, prepared to jump at the sound of gunshots. After a few minutes, the lights in the pharmacy snapped on, and Bristol came back out the door. He paused when he saw me watching him and shook his head, his mouth pulled even tighter than before. Empty, I guess. No convenient murder suspect hanging around, other than me, of course.

In my rearview mirror, I watched Bristol head to a squad car parked on the opposite side of the street behind me. No wonder I hadn’t seen him arrive—he’d sent the deputy one way and he’d come around the other, an attempt to keep the murderer from escaping, probably. Obviously, they’d been a little too late for that plan. He opened the driver’s side door and let it hang open as he reached in for something.

Radioing dispatch to let them know not to hurry with the ambulance, probably. I grimaced. Flipping open the storage area under the armrest, I pulled out the jumbo-sized bottle of hand sanitizer my mother had insisted I carry with me at all times. For once, I was grateful. Even though I hadn’t really touched anything, just thinking about what happened in the pharmacy set off a powerful urge to clean my hands. God, I hoped that didn’t mean I was turning into her.

Just after I poured a huge blob of the solution into my palm, my cell phone rang, startling me. I’d tucked it under my leg to keep it in close reach, a habit from my Chicago commuting days. After extricating the phone, I clicked “Answer Call” gingerly and braced the phone between my ear and shoulder. “Hello?”

“Please, please tell me that is you, my favorite freelance reporter, in the center of that police frenzy down there,” Max Biddleman, editor of the Morrisville Gazette and my sometimes boss, greeted me. The Gazette office was just up the street, diagonal from the courthouse and Civil War memorial in the town square. Max could probably see everything from the front window.

I rubbed the cold, slippery sanitizer over my hands and watched Trent Sheffey, one of Bristol’s deputies, block off the entrance to the pharmacy with bright yellow crime scene tape. Only in Morrisville would this be considered a police frenzy. “Not now, Max,” I said. “Doc Hallacy’s dead, murdered, it looks like.”

“Oh, God,” Max said. He managed about three seconds of respectful silence before he continued. “Please tell me you’re the one who found him.”

Max loved me for the same reason Bristol had developed an intense, professional dislike for me—I always seemed to find myself in the thick of things. Max loved me because I sold papers. Rather, the trouble I always managed to find myself in sold papers.

“You’re a ghoul, you know that? A man is dead.”

“You did, didn’t you?”

I sighed. “Yeah.” Hands now clean and dry, I yanked at a loose thread in the leather steering wrap, winding it around my fingers as it unraveled.

“Yes!” He practically shouted with delight. I pictured him in my mind, a balding, middle-aged, gay man, his feet propped up on paper-covered desk. The gay part, I guess, was more speculation on my part than anything, but he always said “˜we’ when he talked about his weekends, and no one had ever seen him with anyone. Plus, why else does a liberal man move from San Francisco to a small town in southern Illinois but for love?

“All right, here’s the deal,” he said sharply, his tone changing from joy to business in a heartbeat. “I’ll pay you to write the story about finding him—those always play well. But I’ll cover the tribute article myself.”

Tribute articles were a big deal in Morrisville and a unique ritual as far as I knew. When someone died here, more often than not, they already had something written, rough form, for their own tribute, an extended obituary essentially. Six inches above the fold on the front page, right next to the headline, listing every major accomplishment in said life and glossing over the flaws in a highly complimentary manner. Heaven help us when two people died in Morrisville on the same day. It was a battle to win the place of the tribute article. Ultimately, Max made the decision, despite a surprising amount of lobbying done by some family members. Sometimes the celebrity of one corpse would win out over another. Other times, like today, the sheer violence of the death would win the day.

I steeled myself for another round of negotiations with Max. “I want both. The tribute article and the discovery story.”

“Rennie”“”

“I’m the one who found him, and you know if I write both, it’ll sell better.” I hated doing this, turning someone’s death into a commodity, but Max left me with no choice. To beat him at this game, I had to think like he did. I had to out-Max Max.

When I’d first come to town a year ago, he’d refused to hire me as a reporter for the Gazette. I couldn’t exactly blame him. My last journalism experience had been a course in my freshman year at UW-Madison. But when I’d become one of the prime suspects in Coach Swenson’s murder and offered to write about it for the Gazette, Max had suddenly become very open to the idea of a freelance reporter. I’d been cleared of any wrong-doing, obviously, and my story had contributed to the best sales in Gazette history, but Max still wouldn’t hire me full-time. Now it was just because he was cheap, rather than there being any doubt of my talent.

I’d found a few other clients who needed my writing and marketing background, and I managed to scrape by every month. Max gave me pretty regular, if boring, assignments, which helped my money situation, but I needed more if I was ever going to make a real life here. Yeah, I’d wrung a healthy alimony from Jeff, taking advantage of his eagerness to be free of me and my demanding monogamy, but I was saving it all. One day I’d have a glorious bonfire with it in front of him. Or maybe I’d donate it to a charity he hated and direct them to send the receipt to him. Either way, I couldn’t bring myself to spend it. Not yet. It was tainted. Spending it would mean what he’d done was okay, that you could treat someone like he’d treated me and throw money at it to make it all go away.

“I’m not hiring you full time,” Max said.

“I didn’t ask you to.” Though, that was always the subtext of this conversation. “I’m just talking about these two stories.” I waited for a second and then wearily added the words that I knew would push him over the edge. “Unless you want me to write them for Litchfield.” The Litchfield Courier was Max’s nearest, and pretty much only, competition.

“Just get in here as soon as you can,” he said sharply. He sounded grumpy, but I knew him well enough by now to know that for some reason, he actually enjoyed this repetitive back and forth between us.

“Won’t be till this afternoon now.” I watched Bristol close up his car and head back this way. “I’ll have to make a statement, and then you know I have to interview Mrs. Mayor yet this morning.”

“Ah, yes, the 75th Annual Ladies of Morrisville Garden Club Show. Scintillating business,” he said.

“You assigned me to it,” I reminded him.

“Well, what there is of it, cover well.” He paused, then said, “See what dirt you can dig up on Hallacy while you’re there.”

I grimaced. “Not everyone has skeletons, Max.”

“Yes, they do, and you know it. Did it look like a robbery in there?”

I thought about it. “No,” I admitted. “Everything looked pretty much in place and the cash register wasn’t messed with.”

“Skeletons. I’m telling you.”

I started to argue. “Just because that would make for a better story—”

Bristol knocked on my window again.

“I’ve got to go, Max.” I ended the call and pushed the button to lower the window.

Bristol handed in a thermos lid of coffee to me.

“Thanks.” I wrapped my hands around it gratefully. I’d lost my beloved travel mug of Starbucks in the store somewhere. Knowing the Sheriff’s Office, this wasn’t Starbucks, but in an emergency, it was close enough.

“You all right?” He bent over and rested his arm on my door.

“Yeah, I guess. Just shook up a bit.” I took a sip of coffee, watching him out of the corner of my eye.

Despite the circumstances, a warm little flutter spread through my chest, just being this close to him. He and I’d spent way too much time together in the last six months. Granted, he’d been the law and I the suspected criminal, but he’d been honest and fair, not to mention more than a touch compassionate, during that whole terrible episode. I’d lusted after him in high school, intrigued by the hint of danger that always seemed to surround him, just like every other girl above the age of thirteen. Now, I yearned to be around him, to see him smile, or tell me about his day. He’d done some of that even when I hadn’t quite been cleared yet. Crazy as it sounds, when I was cleared, I’d been more than a little sorry. It meant my daily conversations and interactions with one Jake Bristol, the best man I knew, were over.

“You want to tell me what happened?” he asked.

“It’s like I told you. When Doc didn’t open the pharmacy in time, I went in to make sure he was okay.” I shifted in my seat uncomfortably. “I thought maybe he’d fallen and hit his head or broken his hip or something. He’s not exactly a young guy, you know? I mean…he wasn’t a young guy.”

Bristol rubbed his face wearily, then stared at me, his warm brown eyes too intense. “How do you get yourself into this? The first person found on the scene is usually a viable suspect for the murder. But not in this town, not with you.”

“I can’t help it, it just happens.” I tried not to sound too plaintive.

“No, Rennie, lightning strikes just happen.” He shook his head with a tight smile. “You are a walking disaster.”

Stung, I shoved the thermos lid back at him, sloshing coffee onto the leather interior, and jabbed my car keys into the ignition. “Screw you, Bristol.”

He sighed. “Rennie…”

“What?” I jerked the gearshift into reverse.

He started to say something then shook his head. “I’m going to need you to come in to make an official statement.”

“Not till this afternoon.” I lifted my chin defiantly, daring him to challenge me. “I have to get home to explain to my mother that she’ll have to wait for her prescription and then I’ve got an interview with Gloria Lottich.”

“Fine. We’ve already got your prints on file, so we can rule out anything you touched.” His mouth tightened and he hesitated for the slightest of seconds. “We’re going to need your shirt.”

“What? Why?” I looked down at myself and saw, for the first time, a splotch of blood shaped like a tear drop on the stomach of my pale blue t-shirt.

“Crime lab will want to make sure that’s Doc’s blood and not the killer’s.”

I swallowed hard, struggling against the urge to pluck the fabric away from my skin. “So, I’m just supposed to drive home topless? This is Morrisville. There are laws about how long Christmas decorations can stay up. You’re telling me there are no ordinances about half-naked driving?” I asked, discomfort setting my tone a little too close to rude.

He walked back to his squad car, tossing out the remains of the coffee in the thermos lid on the way. He returned with a paper bag and a bright blue bundle of fabric. The fabric, a t-shirt, he handed to me, while he held onto the bag.

I put the car back into park and unfolded the t-shirt. The front had a small patch of writing over the left side in the shape of star. Morrisville Sheriff’s Office, it read. Interdepartmental Softball League. I flipped it over to look at the back. Bristol 17.

“Your softball shirt?” I asked. God help me, despite the circumstances, I loved the idea of his name on my back, his shirt against my skin. Bad, Rennie. Bad, bad.

He shrugged. “Unless you have a better idea.”

I shook my head. He stood and turned his back toward the window, blocking the view from the side of the car. That helped, but it didn’t keep anyone from looking through the windshield. I sighed. Oh, well, what little I had, they were welcome to see. Besides, Deputy Sheffey appeared to be occupied with taking notes anyway, and the first curiosity-seekers on the scene had their attention focused on the pharmacy door, now blocked off with crime tape.

I yanked the bloodied shirt off over my head, silently thanking whatever voice of caution in my brain had urged me to wear proper undergarments this morning. Much to my chagrin, bras were more wishful thinking on my part than a strict necessity. However, it would have been nice if the voice of caution had also recommended a little more time on my hair this morning—I could feel it standing up in messy spikes, like a blonde tumbleweed on top of my head. Very attractive.

I thrust my arms through Bristol’s t-shirt. The familiar smell of him, the clean scent of his clothing, surrounded me. I tugged the rest of the shirt down into place, loving the feel of it against my skin even as I knew it was wrong. After all, Bristol’s shirt smelled good, like him, because it had been recently laundered…by his wife, Margene.

Without thinking, I bumped his arm with the back of my hand to let him know I’d completed my wardrobe change. As usual, he’d rolled his shirt sleeves up, revealing tanned and strong forearms. I jolted slightly at the warmth of his skin against mine, and my heart flipped up and twisted in my chest, like a paper cutout on a string in the breeze.

Bristol turned around and opened the paper bag. I dropped my bloodied shirt inside.

“So, how’s Margene?” I asked Bristol, as I always did when I started having trouble remembering he was married.

His face closed down, like he’d shut some internal door against me. “Fine.” He didn’t really sound surprised at the strange conversation twist I’d thrown him. “Getting ready for the Garden Show.” He closed up the top of the bag with precise, crisp folds in the paper.

“Right,” I said. Margene had been more than happy to settle into her role of Mrs. Sheriff, second only to Mrs. Mayor, Gloria Lottich. Margene and I’d also gone to school together, although she was a couple years younger than me. She’d moved to town in the seventh grade when her father took a job at the propane factory. By her junior year in high school, she’d worked her way up from trailer trash to co-captain of the varsity cheerleading team, second only to Laura Brown. Apparently, Margene’s ambition had limits. Word was, she’d caught wind of Jake’s upwardly mobile plans as soon as he’d returned to town from the Army and she’d trapped him with her reportedly magnificent thighs. Chelsea was born barely inside of wedlock, and then all Margene had to do was sit back and wait while Jake’s star kept rising.

“And Chelsea?” I asked.

“Finishing fifth grade in a couple weeks.” He frowned at me, highlighting those marvelous wrinkles near his eyes.

Time to change the subject again. “What about Max?” I asked.

“Max,” he repeated with a frown.

“Yeah. Editor of the Gazette, nosiest human being alive?” I waited for some flicker of recognition from Bristol and got a grim nod. “He’s going to want details for a story. Time of death, potential motives, the weapon…”

Bristol frowned. “I don’t want to share any of that information with the public just yet. Incidentally, I think you’re right about the cane being the murder weapon.” His eyes dropped to the phone in my lap. “I don’t want that part in the paper, got it?” He rubbed his face, the stubble on his chin making a rasping sound against his hand. “I’d rather not have anything in the paper just yet.”

I shook my head. “Max is sitting right over there.” I pointed at the Gazette office. “It’s not like he can’t see it for himself. You know him, he’ll print something. Better he get most of the facts from a reliable source.”

“You run all of it past me before anything hits the printer,” he said.

I made an exasperated sound. “We’ve been through this before. I get the lecture from you about responsible media. Then I turn around and get the freedom of the press speech from Max.” I glowered at him. “I should put the two of you in a room together and let you duke it out.”

Bristol’s mouth twitched upward in a smile. “Wouldn’t be fair.”

“Why not?”

“Max could convince a snake to go vegetarian. I just have a gun.”

I pretended to consider his words. “True enough. I guess my money’s still safe on Max.”

“Oh, ha, ha.”

I smiled at him reluctantly. “I’ll see you this afternoon.” I shifted the car into reverse and waited for him to step back.

“Wait. One more thing.” He reached into his pocket and handed something to me. A little orange-brown bottle of pills. The label read, “˜Irene Harlow, 643 Fairlane Rd, Take one a day for Narcolepsy, as needed. Dr. E. Murphy.’ I snapped the top off to find her normal anti-anxiety drugs inside. Thank goodness for Doc Hallacy conspiring with Dr. Murphy. She’d have been to a half a dozen physicians by now, if neither of them had listened to her as attentively as they did. Now, with Doc Hallacy gone, I didn’t know how I was going to handle my mom. A twinge of self-pity snapped me back to the reality of the situation. Doc Hallacy was dead. My problems were nothing compared to that.

“Thank you.” I clutched the bottle. “That was…kind of you.” And a bit unethical. Anything in the pharmacy was probably technically part of a crime scene.

“He’d already filled it and set it out for you on the back counter,” Bristol said. “I’ll make note of it in my report that I released it for urgent medical need. You should have the contents checked with the pharmacist at the hospital just to be sure.”

“It’s the right stuff. I recognize the numbers on the pill.” I started to touch his arm but stopped myself just in time. “Thank you again.”

He nodded. “She’s better now that you’re here.” With that he pulled up and walked away.

I watched him go, my chest tight with guilt and some kind of desperate hope. Why did everything have to be so complicated?

With no quick answers in sight, I pulled out and went home.