Kate Ayers, Author
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A MURDER OF CROWS (Book 1, Mysteries With a Wine List)

 


Chapter One

The morning Lodge Johnson died, I was an angry dog looking for a hand to bite. It was 103 effing degrees outside – at ten a.m. – I had ants all over my kitchen at home, despite having doled out $450 to a “major pest control company,” and the humidity rivaled that of the Florida swamplands. I had just spent fifteen minutes on the telephone with XPest , negotiating their un-user-friendly automated customer service. And then the air conditioner wasn’t working when I got to the office. To top that off, crazy Dora Hughes came in, and she wanted to hire me.

 

I had hung out my “Blackstone Investigations” shingle a year before, in Carlton, a charming little wine burg several miles outside of Forest Grove, a sort-of Portland suburb. The office and license I had acquired just to please the feds – and my girlfriend. Mostly, I wanted an excuse to write off my new car and expensive furniture. Unfortunately, there were people who took my advertisement seriously, just like Dora here. Who would have thought there would be so much work for a private investigator out here in the countryside?

 

“So, Dora, what can I do for you?” I shuffled some papers around on my desk, hoping she would think I was busy. Dora ran Open Doors, a designer doorstop boutique in Carlton. Selling designer doorstops makes about as much sense as selling down jackets in Hawaii, although folks do tend to buy bizarre goods late in a day of hearty wine tasting. To her credit, Dora did a pretty brisk business.

 

“Well, Mr. Blackstone,” she began, digging into her alligator purse, “it’s about Mallory. She’s run off.”

 

Terrific. Dora’s granddaughter, Mallory, is not the sweet little doll that most folks like to brag about as their progeny’s progeny. Mallory could wilt rocks with her stunning personality. Frankly, she is a nasty little bitch, as evidenced by the dent in the hood of my Jeep.  I was doing a celebratory dance that she had abandoned our fine community. Not really, but I wanted to. Anyway, here was Dora wanting me to find her and bring her back. Some days you just can’t win.

 

“Okay. So when did you last see Mallory?” I groped around for a pen. It’s not the kind of thing I usually have at my disposal, although I suppose I should, just in case I need to take notes.

 

“She called me last night, but she only talked for a minute. And she seemed, well, off somehow.”

 

“Hold on, Dora. Last night?”

 

“Well, yes.” She plucked out a breath mint from her prim little handbag.

 

“Last night?”

 

“Yes, Mr. Blackstone, last night.” She sniffed.

 

No wonder Dora was at my door. The police wouldn’t even talk to her yet; that is, if someone were in the station this early on a steamy Monday. Less than 24 hours had passed since she’d spoken to Mallory. For a kid her age, that’s a party just getting started.

 

“Okay, you saw her last night.”

 

“No, I talked to her last night. Briefly.”

 

 “Okay. So what makes you think she’s gone missing?” I disguised a snicker with a weak cough. Rumor had it that, despite Mallory’s tender age of 14, she had spent more than one night away from her own bed. Her mom didn’t pay much attention to whether she obeyed the curfew. From what I’d heard, her mom didn’t pay much attention to anything about Mallory. That chore seemed to fall to Grandma Dora.

 

“She didn’t show up at work yesterday or this morning.” Mrs. Hughes had her nose in the air as if to suggest that I had no upbringing asking such a question.

 

“Aha!” I had scored a pen. Next, I’d need some paper. But Dora didn’t seem to notice that I wasn’t taking notes. She did seem to want me to ask some more questions, though, so I thought up some. “And where might that be?”

 

“Cade, you know perfectly well that Mallory works at the Winemaker’s Studio. It’s right across from my shop, so I keep a sharp eye on things.” I didn’t doubt that.

 

Anyway, back to Lodge Johnson. Right as I was getting the info on Mallory’s most current escapade, one of the town deputies, at an inopportune moment, blurted out – with the button on his radio depressed -- “Ohmigod, there’s a dead body out here!” Those of us who keep our police scanners on, like me, heard every word, even through the crackling static. Unfortunately, I had neglected to lower the volume since the previous day, when Deputy Rollie Hansen entertained his listeners as he wrestled with a highly inebriated Little Joe, who is nicknamed conversely to his physical dimensions.

 

Dora’s face drained of color. With the amount of rouge she had on, that took some doing. She started making whimpering sounds. All of a sudden, I couldn’t figure out where to put my hands. I tried hiding them in my jeans pockets, then tried tucking them into my armpits, and then scratching my head with them. In the end, I found them reaching out to Dora in a moment of awkward and uncharacteristic sensitivity.

 

“Hey, Dora, I’m sure it’s not Mallory.” I winced as soon as I said the words. They had the opposite effect of what I’d intended. By saying I was sure it wasn’t her granddaughter, I conveyed that I wasn’t sure at all. How could I be?

 

“How can you be?”

 

Good point. “Just sit tight while I call Sheriff Belanger.” I figured at least he could find out whether or not it was the body of a young girl. While I dialed, Dora chewed at an already decimated nail. If I didn’t hurry, she was likely to be nine-fingered Dora soon.

 

I kept my voice low, hoping Dora wouldn’t hear the somewhat coarse words I used to cajole the sheriff into parting with the info. I couldn’t tell from the look on her face whether I was successful or whether she was still pale from the initial shock.

 

Sheriff Tom Belanger had been Blackstone Investigations’ first customer. He hired me to shadow his wife whenever she left their house. I followed her to a seedy part of Hillsboro, a seedy town a dozen or so miles away. What I found out wasn’t pretty, and he had sworn me to secrecy, yet I could tell he remained skeptical of my ethics. I did not disabuse him of the notion that I may not adhere real strictly to the privilege between PI and client. So now, when I called him, he couldn’t withhold the gender of the victim without worrying whether I would keep quiet. Of course, I would have, but he didn’t need to know that.

 

When I hung up, Dora was looking anxiously at my face. “It’s not Mallory. They found the body of a large man.”

 

The tension visibly flowed from Dora’s body, along with a very loud exhalation of air.

 

Having located a pen and paper, and still embarrassed about hugging a client, especially when that client was crazy Dora Hughes, I got back to business. “So, I’ll need Mallory’s cell phone number. She has a cell phone, right? You talked to her on it last night?”

 

Dora nodded. “I’ve called it repeatedly all day.” From the look in her eye, she was back to disapproving of my methods.

 

I stood with pen poised over my newly-scored notepad, eyebrows raised. Dora took the hint and recited the number.

 

There, that wasn’t so hard, was it? I said, “And what about her mom? Got an address for her?”

 

Dora seemed to be getting into the rhythm of this detective stuff, and she rattled off the address for Phoebe Hughes, her daughter-in-law and Mallory’s mom, and even followed it up with a phone number to accompany the address, without me having to ask or arch my brows.

 

The morning heat had left a path of sweat across my upper lip, which showed only because of a recent close encounter with a sharp razor. My girlfriend, Lauren, had become disenchanted with my moustache and, when she had me in an unfairly compromising position, had extracted a promise that I would shave it off at the first opportunity. I still thought I looked silly with a naked upper lip but maybe I would get used to it in a couple months. I pulled out a handkerchief. Yes, I use linen handkerchiefs. It’s a throwback from my father, Capt. Harry Blackstone. He always carried one in his shirt pocket, despite merciless ribbing from the other guys at the precinct. I didn’t go so far as to flaunt it by hanging it from my pocket, especially when it’s 103 effing degrees and my shirt is as thin as possible, no extra layers comprising unnecessary compartments like pockets. But I like nice things, plus I’m a little old fashioned. Paper tissue just doesn’t feel the same.

 

So I wiped the sweat off quickly and stole a glance at Dora, who stood there in her silk blouse and twill slacks, looking as cool as though the a/c had been pumping out arctic air all along. I rounded up some manners and offered her a chair. The heat must have prevented me from acting like a gentleman earlier. Or maybe I finally realized Dora wasn’t going to go away with a pat on the head.

 

She lowered herself onto the seat, crossed her legs and propped her purse on her lap, hands folded atop her bag. I probably should have suggested she remove her hat, but I didn’t want her getting that comfortable. The sooner we concluded this interview, the sooner she could leave and I could hop into my Lamborghini and turn the air on high. Then I could drive around Carlton following leads and proving that I needed a $200,000 car for my business.

 

I scooted up to my special-order desk -- African ribbon mahogany -- and put on a serious expression, hoping to look professional, and hoping to distract Dora from the sweat marks forming under my arms. I’m a recent transplant from San Francisco, where the climate is coastal and most of the city population melts when the temperature rises above 75 degrees.

 

“So tell me about Mallory’s home life.”

 

Dora regarded me suspiciously. I almost thought she was reconsidering the wisdom of engaging my services.

 

“What specifically do you want to know?”

 

I hesitated, not wanting to tip my hand or offend my client. But I said, “Is it possible she ran away with a boy?”

 

“No.”

 

I waited for more, but apparently that was a good enough answer. So I moved on. “Okay. Did she have a boyfriend?”

 

“She’s only 14.”

 

“Ah.”

 

“Mr. Blackstone, Mallory’s a good girl. She has had to grow up fast, because her parents never did. Phoebe, her mom, is a waitress at the Grapevine Inn. Works breakfast and lunch. To make ends meet, she also works three nights a week at the Plow and Scythe Pub.” Dora’s distaste for Phoebe sat as plain on her face as her little pug nose. “She doesn’t have much time for Mallory.”

 

I decided to leave the subject of Mallory’s puberty and possible attraction to the opposite sex. “What about her dad?”

 

“Vince has had some bad luck. Some guys got him in trouble, and Phoebe didn’t stick around to help out.” Dora looked as though she had really drawn the short stick when it came to her daughter-in-law.

 

“Can I ask what kind of bad luck Vince has run into?”

 

“Oh, just little things.”

 

“Like?”

 

“He was sitting in a car near a store that got robbed. The cops said he was in on it.”

 

“Ah. That all?”

 

“No, there were a couple other incidents. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He has nothing to do with Mallory being gone.”

 

Right. “Where is Vince now?”

 

Dora clenched her jaws and looked out the window. She appeared to be deep in thought but, since no thought was forthcoming, I decided I was wrong. I tried repeating the question, just in case she hadn’t heard it the first time around. She repeated her silence.

 

“Is there any possibility Mallory has gone to see her dad?”

 

She seemed to consider this question, but after a brief hesitation, she said, “No.” I couldn’t tell whether she was telling the truth or not. At the very least, she was trying to hide something, and doing a pretty fine job of it. That subject could be explored more deeply later.

 

“Okay. How about friends? Does she have a best friend? A group she runs with?”

 

This appeared to be a much more palatable topic, because Dora tipped her nose up and replied, “Mallory’s best friend is Tessa Davis. The Baptist minister’s daughter.” Her look came across as a “So there.” Well, I guess she told me! Except that I knew that Tessa had a reputation as being a little wild, cozying up to some pretty sleazy guys and enjoying a bout of boozing as much as a Skid Row bum.

 

Writing “Tessa Davis,” I continued, “Anyone else you can think of?” I had heard of Mallory’s sulky nature which prevented her from making many friends so it could be that she was lucky to have found a grand total of one. Even if it was Tessa Davis.

 

A look of hard thought came over Dora’s face. I hoped she was trying to conjure up more names, but in the end, she just shook her head.

 

“Well, I can check with this Tessa Davis. Any other ideas as to where she might have gotten off to? Was she having any trouble at work that you know of?”

 

“No.”

 

“Was she looking forward to getting back to school?” The school year was fast approaching, but it couldn’t come fast enough for me. I love it when the kiddies are occupied with higher education all day, leaving the lake and the surrounding roads mostly uncluttered by young hormones.

 

“As much as any kid.”

 

Whatever that meant.

 

I doodled a little while so it would look as though I had taken copious notes. I couldn’t think of anything more to ask, partly because I’m new to this whole sleuthing thing and partly because I wanted out of my stifling office, so I closed my notebook and put the pen beside it.

 

“Mrs. Hughes, I’ll do everything I can to find Mallory. I want to talk to her mom and this Tessa. In the meantime, if you think of anything, please call.”

 

As if the invitation had opened the door to further chit chat, Dora dug deep into her handbag and came out with a photograph. It showed a nonsmiling girl in her early teens, heavy eye makeup, black lipstick, black hoodie, and jet black hair – the kind of jet black that only Clairol can give you. Real cheery.

 

“This was taken just before Memorial Day. Mallory hasn’t changed much over the summer. I want it back when you’re done with it.”

 

Of course. “Of course.”

 

I gave Dora my card, which I was quite proud of, since it took me ten hours to design.

 

She didn’t stand right away, and I worried that I had forgotten to ask something crucial, although for the life of me I couldn’t think of what it might be. To my relief, she finally got out of her chair and positioned her handbag on her left arm, leaving her right arm free to dither with her hair. When her eyes met mine, I noted that her lips had nearly disappeared, they had grown so thin. This didn’t strike me as a look of confidence in my abilities. She gave me another suspicious look, then turned her back and left my office. Despite my lack of desire to have Mallory anywhere near Carlton, I made a vow to myself to find the little wretch and bring her back. No matter what.

 

To read the rest of A Murder of Crows, contact me (kateayersis@gmail.com) for a signed copy or buy it at this link: (COMING SOON)

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