January proved to be a nice, slow month—more snow than usual, so less tourists on weekends. Shop owners were used to it. They spent their days in hibernation, making more inventory for their shelves, putting fresh paint on walls—readying for the heavy business days of warm weather.
Guthrie drove past Tana’s Sweet Shoppe on one of his daily security treks through town. For the first time, Tana had locked her doors the weekend after Christmas and left Emerald Hills. She was spending January and February in Brazil with Nate. They wouldn’t return until March—plenty of time for Tana to ready her shop and for Nate to write and edit before he started teaching photojournalism classes at the college.
Guthrie looked in Gino’s shoe shop as he passed it. A fair amount of customers browsed inside, probably attracted by the boot sale now in progress. On Friday and Saturday, while Gino sold Italian-made shoes, Evelyn took their Bridey to her dance studio in the city, returning on Sunday. Guthrie slowed when he saw Sheri, Emerald Hills’ high school music teacher, leaving Rachel and Isak’s bakery. Morgan was parked at the curb, waiting for her. A nice couple. Music was their life. Guthrie returned to the station and settled into his routine. Life was on track in Emerald Hills.
He worked night shift on Valentine’s Day, so that Mike could celebrate it with his wife. Rotten weather for Cupid’s frolics—snow and sleet, plenty of fender benders and a semi overturned on the highway, but no casualties. He felt relief when the sun shone on Monday morning, his day off. When he blinked awake, Cheese Nip stretched and yawned beside him. The cat had begun sleeping a few nights with Jeannie at her place, then scratching at Guthrie’s door to stay with him a while. Guthrie had been dubious about shared custody of the cat, but it seemed to be working for everyone, especially Cheese Nip.
This morning, Guthrie took his time over coffee and the newspaper before he got ready to run errands that he’d gotten behind on. He opened his cupboards to grab a quick bowl of cereal before he left the apartment, but every box was nearly empty. He ended up pouring the remains of mini-wheats, peanut butter-flavored somethings, and rice puffs together in a bowl. He had a sparse inch of milk to cover them. Time for the grocery store.
When he was ready to go, he picked up Cheese Nip and carted him to Jeannie’s door. A gray sedan was parked next to Jeannie’s SUV. A young man opened her door. When he saw Guthrie, he jammed his hands deep into his jeans pockets, turned, and raced up the stairs. Guthrie followed at a slower pace.
Jeannie greeted him at her apartment. The fine lines etched in her forehead looked deeper. Her step was less bouncy than usual.
Guthrie bent to put the cat down, then turned to the young man. A nice looking kid. Longish dark hair, brown eyes. He hunched his shoulders and watched Guthrie nervously.
Guthrie tried a smile to put him at ease. “You must be Jess. I’ve heard a lot about you.”
Jess winced. He held his ground, but it took effort, Guthrie could tell.
Jeannie motioned Guthrie to the kitchen table and plopped down opposite him. “Jess got here last night. He’s in trouble. He thinks you’re here to arrest him.”
“Jeannie!” Jess looked like he might bolt.
“Guthrie’s a friend,” Jeannie told him.
Guthrie frowned. “I’m in civilian clothes. How does he know I’m a sheriff?”
Jeannie raised an eyebrow. “Your car’s parked by your door.”
Oh, that. “Your step-mom and I have shared many a meal.” Guthrie didn’t know what was going on, but he might as well ease into it. He sure as hell didn’t want to cuff Jeannie’s stepson.
“Guthrie’s helped me paint and spruce up the shop,” Jeannie added. “Like I said, he’s a friend. He might have some ideas.”
The boy looked panic-stricken. “Never mind. I shouldn’t have come here. This isn’t your problem.”
“Yes, it is.” Her voice surprised both of them. Guthrie had never heard that edge of steel before. “What are you going to do? Run? How far do you think you’ll get?”
She placed both hands on the table top and locked her fingers together. “Jess went to a party on Saturday night. He drank too much and fell asleep on his friend’s couch.”
“We’d planned it that way.” Jess looked at the door, obviously tempted. “I never drink and drive.”
Jeannie continued her story. “Police pounded on the door and woke him up. His car was seen at a hit-and-run. The woman will survive, but she’s in the hospital with multiple injuries.”
Guthrie inhaled a slow breath. Not a good start for a story. “Did his friend provide an alibi, so that the cops can rule out Jess?”
Jeannie grimaced. “The friend was upstairs with his girlfriend, both of them out to the world. Neither of them would have heard someone leave the house or return.”
“What about Jess’ car? Where did the cops find it?”
“In the friend’s driveway where Jess had parked it.”
“So it was a car that looked like his?” Guthrie asked.
Jess sagged onto a chair, too. The glance he threw at Guthrie was a plea for help. “The front bumper was caved in, and blood was splattered on the grille. They found more blood when they looked.”
“Was the victim conscious enough to describe your car?” Hit-and-runs were bad enough, but the less serious the injuries, the better.
Jess shook his head. “An anonymous caller reported the incident and gave the cops my license plate.”
Guthrie automatically reached for his shirt pocket where he usually kept his pad and pen. Not there. He was off-duty. “Do you remember anything about that night?”
Jess ran his hand through his dark hair. “I didn’t drink that much, but I was really tired. I must have gotten up sometime and stumbled into the kitchen to take some aspirin. The cops found them spilled on the countertop and a half-empty glass of water on the floor by the couch.”
“Anything else?” Guthrie asked.
Jess pressed his lips together and shook his head. He rubbed his forehead. “Could I have gotten up in the middle of the night and driven around town and not remember any of it?”
“It’s happened.” Too much liquor, and brains could go blank, but Guthrie doubted Jess could drive if he was in that bad of shape. It didn’t even sound like the boy had drunk enough to black-out. He glanced at Jeannie’s pale complexion and bleak eyes and pressed on. “How many people were at this party? And when did you hit the couch? Was the party still going strong?”
Jess nodded. “I’d worked all day. I made it to midnight okay. By two, I was struggling to stay awake. They were all in the kitchen, playing beer pong. I went out to sit on the sofa a minute, and I must have fallen asleep.”
“Where were your car keys?”
“I left them on the kitchen counter.”
Guthrie let out a breath. Now they were getting somewhere. “Anyone could have taken your keys and gone on a joy ride for a while.”
Jeannie’s gaze met his. “The cops seem hell-bent on proving Jess did it.”
Guthrie shrugged. “That’s part of the job. When you interrogate a person, you try to break him. Not many peoples’ consciences make them confess.”
Jeannie went to the countertop to pour herself another cup of coffee. Cheese Nip stayed close on her heels, sensing her turmoil. She poured Guthrie a cup, too, out of habit and carried it to him. “Is there something we should do? Should we hire a lawyer? A private detective?”
Guthrie sipped his coffee, hesitating before he answered. If it were him in Jeannie’s place, what would he do? Finally, he said, “You have me. Let me make a few calls. The police are going over the car, right?”
Jess nodded. “I had to rent a car to drive here.”
That made Guthrie pause. “Were you allowed to leave town?”
Jess looked away, not meeting his gaze.
“Well?” Jeannie asked.
“It wasn’t an order. It sounded more like a suggestion.”
“Jess!” She hugged her arms across her chest.
“I went to Dad,” he said. “I told him what happened. Dad said I’m a man now. I should handle my own problems.”
Guthrie clenched his hands. “Anyone needs help in a time like this, old or young.” It sounded like the dad didn’t want to be bothered.
Jess glanced at Jeannie, she gave a small nod, and he said, “Dad has a new girlfriend, half his age. She’s all he thinks about.”
Guthrie shook his head. How had Jeannie ended up with a guy like Roy? “Let me call the detective in charge of the case. I’ll see what I can find out.” Maybe they’d get lucky and find fingerprints, but Guthrie doubted it. Fear was a pretty primal emotion, and it could make a person’s survival instincts kick into gear. Even if the perp was drunk, if he could “borrow” a car and drive, he’d think clearly enough to wipe down the steering wheel and car handles to keep himself out of trouble.
“If you call, they’ll know I’m here.” Jess shifted in his chair, ready to make a break for the door.
“Not necessarily.” Guthrie glanced at Jeannie. “Any kid would call his mom when he’s in trouble. We’re neighbors, friends. She got your call, was worried sick, and came to me for ideas.”
“Thank you.” Jeannie reached across the table and took his hand.
Guthrie swallowed a knot in his throat. “Give me all the information you have, and I’ll go to my place to make the call. I’ll come back when I know something.”
Jess looked nervous. “Why your place? Why not here? You’re going to turn me in, aren’t you?”
Guthrie sighed. “If I wanted you in custody, I’d arrest you myself. But I need to concentrate, with no distractions, and I do that better when I’m alone.”
The air went out of Jess. “I get it. I’m sorry.”
“No problem.” The kid had to be a nervous wreck by now. “Hang in there. I’ll be back as soon as I finish my calls.”
The cat started to follow him, but Guthrie frowned. “Jeannie and the kid need you more.”
Cheese Nip turned and padded back to Jess. He let Jess pick him up and hold him close.
Guthrie made a mental note to buy something special for the fur ball, maybe a can of salmon instead of tuna. That cat was a keeper. When he settled in his apartment, he called the detective’s number on the business card Jess gave him.
Ferguson listened to Guthrie’s story and said, “I know Jeannie and Jess, like them both. That boy’s always struck me as a good kid. This is a weird case. Something feels off about it, you know?”
“Jess told Jeannie that an anonymous caller reported the accident.”
Ferguson hesitated before answering. “We live in a small town. We don’t get anonymous calls…until now.”
“Male or female?”
“A woman, sounded younger.”
Guthrie fell into police-speak. “Jess told Jeannie that he fell asleep at two in the morning while the party was still going strong. It’s possible he woke up and took off in his car, but he didn’t pass out on the couch. He was coherent when he fell asleep.”
“Same thing I thought.” Ferguson was quiet a minute. “If Jess should call Jeannie again or get in touch with her, ask him if anyone else had a key to his car. And if he happens to show up on Jeannie’s doorstep, tell him to stay put and give me some time to follow up on some leads here.”
There was something in the tone of Ferguson’s voice. He suspected that Jess was in Jeannie’s apartment right now. Guthrie was beginning to like this guy. “I’ll pass the information on to Jeannie.”
“And tell her hi from me and the missus.”
Before Guthrie could hang up, Ferguson added, “The minute you find out about the keys, give me a call.” He added, “Have Jeannie call Jess to find out.”
Okay, Ferguson didn’t suspect. He was almost positive. He added that last line so that Guthrie wouldn’t have to stall or explain how he got the information so quickly. “I’ll get back to you as fast as I can.”
“Good, and be sure to tell Jess to stay put. I’m not looking for him right now. I’m just working the case.”
“And if you hit all dead-ends?”
“I’ll call you, but Jess won’t do himself any favors by running.”
Guthrie climbed the stairs to Jeannie’s apartment again and reported on his conversation with Ferguson.
Jess frowned. “The only person I gave a spare key to was Dad. That way, if I locked my keys in the car somehow, he could help me.”
“Where does your dad keep the spare?”
“In the tea canister in his kitchen.”
Guthrie nodded. Not too many people would look there. But still…he’d always believed in ruling out everything he could. When he called Ferguson back, he told him about the spare.
Jeannie looked wiped out. Guthrie doubted she’d gotten much sleep last night. “You both look like you could use a long nap. Why don’t you grab some shut eye and then come to my place for supper tonight? I have to go to the store anyway. I’m out of everything. What if I throw three steaks in cast-iron skillets, buy a bag of salad, and call it a meal?”
“Are you sure?” He’d never invited Jeannie for supper before, Guthrie realized. But then, he never invited anyone.
“My apartment’s a place where furniture goes to die,” he warned, “but I know how to make a mean steak. Six o’clock?”
She nodded. “We’ll be there.”
Jess looked ready to drop. He sighed. “I don’t have any place else to go, and I can’t afford to stay in hotels. I’ll be there.”
“Good enough. I’ll take off and let you sleep, and I’ll see you at six tonight.”
Guthrie didn’t bother returning to his apartment, but went straight to his squad car and headed to the grocery store. It had a butcher’s counter, and he bought three, thick ribeyes.
Then he wandered up and down aisles, stopping so often to talk to residents, that it took him an hour and a half before he left the store. Time well spent. He’d learned that Lucy Farmer had moved her mom into the nursing center at Emerald Hills and sold her mom’s house in Kentucky. Lindsay, who owned the winery on the far side of town, was expanding her vineyard and was looking for help, with no luck. And Edna Stiltsen was planning on retiring from her job as postmistress this spring. She was training her granddaughter, Maddie, to take her place.
Guthrie liked keeping tabs on the pulse of Emerald Hills. He made two more stops on his way home. The church women hadn’t seen him for a while. He got nabbed at the hardware store and at Rachel and Isak’s bakery. By the time he got back to his apartment and started carrying groceries inside, Cheese Nip sauntered across the parking lot to help him.
Guthrie used his sternest voice. “I thought you were staying with Jeannie and Jess.”
The cat meowed. It glanced at the dark windows of Jeannie’s apartment.
Guthrie nodded. “They fell asleep on you during the day, didn’t they? Well, come on then. I got you something special.” He and the cat padded up and down the steps until his trunk was empty. Then Guthrie opened the can of salmon and gave Cheese Nip two large scoops.
Purrs filled the kitchen. The cat ate while Guthrie seasoned his steaks and drizzled them with olive oil. Lucy Farmer had gotten him hooked on olive oil, explaining that her Bill’s family had a history of heart disease, and olive oil was healthier than bacon grease or lard. She had a habit of quoting celebrity chefs from the food networks on TV. Guthrie always nodded and listened, because Lucy made the best casseroles in the entire town.
He’d bought a bag of Caesar salad to go with the steaks, and when he’d run into Midu at the ice cream aisle, she’d talked him into buying big, Idaho potatoes to bake. He preheated the oven, poked them, and tossed them inside, as she’d instructed. 425 degrees for an hour, she’d told him. At the bakery, Rachel had talked him into buying macarons instead of a cake. “A cake’s too heavy after steaks and potatoes.” He was going to have to be careful. If the women found out he was cooking for Jeannie and Jess, he’d practically have to beat them away, so that they wouldn’t come to his apartment to make sure he did it right.
Cheese Nip found a spot on the back of the old, plaid sofa where he could be out of the way and still keep tabs on what Guthrie was about. Guthrie found himself talking to the cat while he finished up in the kitchen.
By the time Jeannie and Jess knocked on his door, the cat had already nibbled at a few pieces of steak that Guthrie had cut from an end before he cooked it.
Jeannie looked prettier than usual. She’d dressed in a long, flowered skirt and a russet-colored sweater that set-off the color of her hair. She’d dabbed on some make-up, too. By the way Jess dug into the steak, Guthrie suspected that he hadn’t eaten much for the last few days. They’d finished their meal and Guthrie had poured more coffee when his cell phone buzzed.
Ferguson didn’t mince words. “If you see Jeannie, tell her to hang in there. Jess’s spare key wasn’t at Roy’s. Someone took it out of the tea canister.”
“Do you think Roy took it?”
“No, he seemed too upset, looked like he’d been sucker-punched.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. We’re checking into it.”
When he hung up, Guthrie told Jeannie and Jess what Ferguson had learned.
Jess ran his hand through his dark hair—his nervous habit. Most people had one. Guthrie looked for them, stored them away as cues to moods. The boy was clearly upset.
“What is it?” Jeannie prompted him. “Don’t hold anything back right now.”
Jess sighed. “One time, when I was at Dad’s, he went out to the garage to find a tool for me, and Heather came on to me.”
Jeannie stared. “Your dad’s new girlfriend? How did you handle it?”
“I just played it off. She’s like that, flirts with anybody. I thought maybe I’d read her wrong, but I don’t think so.”
Guthrie rubbed his chin, thinking. “Would she cheat on your dad?”
“She’d cheat on anybody.”
“Does she have a car?” Guthrie asked.
“A bright-red, mini-Cooper convertible.”
“Not the kind of car that’s discreet.” Guthrie poured a splash of milk in his coffee and added sugar. He drank it black at the station and in the morning, but after dinner, if he added sugar, it felt almost like a dessert.
“Do you think Heather drove Jess’s car?” Jeannie asked.
Guthrie shook his head. “That doesn’t make sense. If she drove it and took the time to wipe the car clean, she’d put the keys back in the canister. And how did she get to Jess’s friend’s house? You’d think someone would have noticed her Cooper.”
“I was only two blocks from Dad’s place,” Jess said. “Alex house-sits for his parents when they’re in Florida. We’ve been friends since pre-school.”
Guthrie and Jeannie locked gazes. She spoke first. “You don’t suppose Heather knew one of the boys at the party?”
Jess grimaced. “We’re not boys anymore, Jeannie. Alex and I are twenty-one. His friends from work are anywhere from twenty to thirty.”
Jeannie sighed. “Still too young for Heather.”
Jess raised an eyebrow. “It’s not the age, Mom, it’s the mileage. Heather’s been around, but some of the guys at the party were close to thirty. She’s not much older than that.”
Guthrie grew quiet, mulling things over. “How many people drove to the party?”
Jess blinked, caught off balance. “Not that many. People came in groups, so that we wouldn’t have to worry about parking.”
“I’d like you to make me a list of the people who didn’t drive,” Guthrie said. “The people who wouldn’t have cars.”
Jess studied him. “You think Heather brought my spare keys to someone at the party and went out to have fun with him.”
Guthrie nodded. “She wouldn’t want to be seen in her car. Everyone would recognize it, and if they knew your dad, they’d wonder. And if the guy didn’t drive….”
Jess nodded. “I’ll call Alex. Between us, we can make you a list.”
After Jeannie and Jess left, Guthrie called Ferguson. When he told him about Heather hitting on Jess, he wasn’t surprised.
“Heather likes to party, to have fun. Right now, Roy has enough money to buy her things and keep her entertained, but he isn’t wild enough to hold her for long. It’s only a matter of time before she moves on.”
“Unless she stays with him and sees guys on the side.” Guthrie wondered if Roy would be all right with that. If it meant keeping a hot, young girlfriend, maybe he’d compromise.
* * * *
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