Authors: Chris Cavender
Tags: #Fiction, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Sleuths
To Harry James “Jim” Pickering, and Robert Dale “Slick” Hickman, the two best friends a kid could wish for growing up!
We live in an age when pizza gets to your home before the police.
11? I need to report a murder,” I said, clutching my cell phone in my left hand as I steadied the warm pizza box in my right. I should have put the pizza on the porch before I called the police. Instead, I was holding on to it as though it were the last life preserver on the
At least the heat radiating from the box felt good. We were two weeks past New Year’s, and though only dustings of snow had found their way to our part of the North Carolina mountains this winter so far, I knew it wouldn’t be long before it would make its first full-blown appearance.
My voice was calmer than I expected it to be as I spoke; I was startled to discover that I didn’t really know how I would react to finding a body until it happened to me.
From the threshold, I glanced back in through the house’s doorway and saw the long black handle of a kitchen knife sticking out of Richard Olsen’s chest. There was a pool of dark liquid spread out on the floor around him that I guessed had to be blood, though I was in no hurry to confirm my suspicions. From the instant I’d arrived, it had been pretty clear that there was no need to check for a pulse.
“Did you have anything to do with the homicide?” the voice from the police hotline asked. I immediately recognized it as Helen Murphy. That was one of the advantages of owning a pizzeria in a small town: there weren’t many folks in Timber Ridge, North Carolina, I didn’t know. I’d gone through school with Helen’s niece, Amy, and growing up, I’d had dinner with the extended family on more than one lazy Sunday afternoon cooking out by the Dunbar River.
“Helen, this is Eleanor Swift, though I suspect you already know that. What kind of question is that to be asking someone? I brought Richard Olsen the pizza he ordered, and when I got here, I found him dead.”
There was a slight pause, and then Helen said, “It’s my job to ask these questions, Eleanor. Is there anyone else there with you?”
I hadn’t even thought of that possibility. Could the murderer be hiding just behind the doorway, lurking in the shadows while he was waiting to make his escape? I looked intently from my vantage point on the front porch, but I couldn’t see anyone inside.
That didn’t mean no one was there, though.
“I don’t think anyone else is around.”
But thanks a lot for putting that thought into my head, Helen. I owe you one.
Again, there was a slight pause. Then Helen said, “Don’t touch anything, Eleanor, and don’t go anywhere until one of our officers gets to the scene. Do you understand?”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll be waiting right here.”
I thought about the dismal prospect of standing alone on the porch near the body, but it was dark, I was cold, and there wasn’t anything I could do for Richard, so I carried the pizza box back to my car and waited for the police.
I never should have been the one who found Richard Olsen’s body in the first place, but Greg Hatcher—A Slice of Delight’s number-one teenage delivery guy—had called in sick that night and left me shorthanded, though I suspected it had more to do with his girlfriend, Katy Johnson, than the flu he claimed to be experiencing. I’d thought about turning the late-night order down since I’d been hustling all evening trying to keep up with things at the restaurant, but my dearly departed husband, Joe, had taught me that every dollar counts, and I’d kept his credo strong long after he’d died and left me with a small business on my hands and a heart full of broken dreams. I probably shouldn’t complain. Having the restaurant to run after Joe’s car accident had kept me sane and focused when I had every right in the world to find the nearest hole and crawl into it.
I’d shoved the pizza—one of my specials decked out with pepperoni, sausage, ham, bacon, hamburger, and little bits of sliced sirloin—into one of the bright red boxes I use and headed for the address I’d been given on the phone. I hadn’t recognized the house number right away, but then again, I didn’t know where everyone in Timber Ridge lived, despite what my sister, Madeline, thought. Maddy helped me out at the restaurant, but she’d never made a delivery in her life. She claimed she was above schlepping pizzas all over our small town, but she wasn’t too good to run a rag over a table or carry a pie ten yards to a likely-looking bachelor. Maddy came to work with me after Joe’s death—coinciding with her most recent divorce—and despite a few relapses where we reenacted some of our childhood squabbles, it was good having her there with me.
A police siren brought me out of my reverie, and I looked up as it skidded to a stop less than a foot from my rear bumper. As I got out of my car to meet our chief of police, Kevin Hurley shot out of his cruiser like he was jet-propelled. Kevin and I had a history, one that wasn’t all roses and wine, but at the moment it was great seeing his familiar face. I hadn’t realized how tense I’d been while waiting for someone—anyone—to show up until he got there.
“Ellie, are you all right?” he asked, and I could see the concern clearly in his face as we stood under the street lamp. Kevin was still tall and lean, a kid who’d been one class behind me all through school, and was now a nice-looking man. A year didn’t seem like all that much these days, but it seemed like a lot when I’d been eighteen and he’d just turned seventeen. Kevin had pursued me all one summer, and I’d finally let him catch me, but then one night by Miller’s pond I’d caught him parking with Marybeth Matheeny, and that had been the end of that.
I gestured to the house and said, “I’m not the one you should be asking about. Somebody put a knife in Richard Olsen’s heart.” It sounded callous, the way I’d blurted it out, but there was no other way to phrase it, at least not while my shaky nerves were starting to kick in.
“Stay right here,” Kevin said.
“Don’t worry. You don’t have to tell me twice.”
I leaned against my car and watched him enter the house as he drew his firearm. That long-ago summer Kevin had begged for my forgiveness, but I’d been young and hurt, and I hadn’t been willing to listen to him. Two months after I’d left for college, he’d married Marybeth in a hastily arranged wedding, and seven months after that his son had been born. Josh was seventeen now, and he worked for me at the pizzeria three nights a week after school. Though Kevin and Marybeth had separated off and on at least three times in the past dozen years, she still bought her pizzas in Edgeview, even though it was fifteen miles from Timber Ridge. I didn’t mind. I’d never been all that big a fan of Marybeth’s in the first place.
An ambulance arrived a scant thirty seconds after Kevin disappeared into the house, and I nodded to the attendants, two of my regular customers. They rushed inside; then after spending two minutes there, they calmly walked back out.
“He’s gone,” Hannah Grail said as she approached. “There was nothing we could do for him.”
Her partner, Dave Thornton, shrugged. “And now we wait.” He added with a grumble, “We’re not going to eat until morning.” I suddenly remembered the pizza box sitting on the passenger seat of my car.
“I’ve got an all-meat special that’s going to waste, and it should still be warm. You’re welcome to it, on the house.”
Dave looked like he wanted to kiss me, but Hannah said, “Thanks for the offer, Eleanor, but we can’t interfere with evidence.”
“Of what, the fact that I was delivering a pizza to Richard’s house? It’s not like it was a murder weapon or anything. Nobody poisoned him, least of all me. Go on.”
Dave said to his partner, “She’s right. You don’t want her to have to throw it away, do you?”
Hannah shrugged. “I guess not.”
I grabbed the box and handed it to them, and after thanking me, they went into the back of their ambulance to eat.
Kevin came out a minute later and looked around for the AWOL EMS techs. “Where’d they run off to?”
“They’re eating. You know how I hate for anything to go to waste, so I gave them the pizza I was delivering to Richard.”
The chief of police frowned in their direction and said, “They shouldn’t be doing that.”
“Come on, Kevin. That pizza never made it into the house. It’s got nothing to do with what happened to Richard, and neither do I. Now, can I go home? It’s late, I’m freezing, and my feet are killing me.”
He shook his head curtly. “I know what time it is, but I need to ask you a few questions first.”
“How long is it going to take?”
Kevin smiled at me, and for a second I forgot he was our chief of police and thought of him as that teenage boy with a grin that could melt my heart back when I’d been pretty innocent myself. “Less time if you quit complaining about it, I can promise you that.”
He flipped open a small notebook, then commanded, “Tell me what happened tonight.”
“Richard called in his order. I made it and delivered it. That’s when I found him like that.”
He shook his head. “Come on, Ellie, I need more than that.”
“Sorry, it’s all I’ve got. And it’s Eleanor, remember?”
He shook his head as he said, “You never used to mind when I called you Ellie.”
“That was a lifetime ago, Kevin, and you know it.”
His only answer was a shrug. Then he asked, “Isn’t it a little unusual for the owner to deliver pizzas herself? I thought that was Greg Hatcher’s job.”
“Greg came down with a bad case of the lovesick blues. He said he was sick, but I suspect he was out with Katy tonight. It wasn’t a big deal. I cover for all of my employees now and then.”
Kevin stared at me for a few seconds, then asked softly, “And there’s no other reason you were visiting Richard Olsen’s house alone at night?”
What was he trying to imply? Then it hit me. “You think I was making some kind of booty call? You’ve been a cop too long, Kevin. You’d suspect your own grandmother, wouldn’t you?”
“If she had the motive, means, and opportunity, I might,” he said, not rising to my bait. Nanna Hurley was a sweet old lady who thought a slice of apple pie would cure whatever ailed you. In other words, she was my kind of people.
The severity of Kevin’s tone finally struck home. “You can’t be serious. Do you honestly believe I had something to do with what happened in there?” I could barely bring myself to look at the house now. The shock of what I’d found was finally sinking in.
He put the pad away and started ticking off fingers. “Look at it from my point of view. You had the opportunity; you’re the one who found the body. The knife was from his kitchen; I saw the empty slot on the block of knives on his kitchen counter. That’s two parts of the murder triangle.”
“I had no reason to kill him,” I said.
He raised one eyebrow as he asked, “Are you forgetting the Harvest Festival?”
I couldn’t believe he was bringing that up. “Richard was drunk, and he wouldn’t take no for an answer. A good slap sobered him up long enough for him to realize what he’d tried to do, and after that, we were fine.” Richard Olsen had tried to kiss me by the beer tent, even after I’d protested that I wasn’t interested. I blamed Luke Winslow for not cutting him off sooner when he saw the man was clearly drunk, but to Luke’s credit, he’d been the one to step in after I’d landed an open, stinging slap on Richard’s cheek. My handprint had still been etched there ten minutes later, and I was pretty sure everyone in Timber Ridge had seen my brand on his cheek.
Kevin didn’t let up. “Are you sure it wasn’t some kind of lovers’ quarrel? Maybe tonight you two finished whatever you’d been arguing about at the festival.”
I wasn’t about to stand there and listen to his wild accusation. “Kevin, I’m going home.”
He put a hand on my car door, stopping me from getting in. “I’m just saying, you have to admit that this looks bad.”
“I’m serious—you’re going to have to lock me up, or let me go.”
He reluctantly moved his hand, and I got into my Subaru and drove home without a glance back.
I sat in my driveway ten minutes before I realized I didn’t want to be alone tonight. My sister, Maddy, had a spare room at her apartment, and I figured she owed me a couple dozen favors, so it was time to cash in on one of them.
If it had been me, I would have been sound asleep at nearly eleven
., but Maddy looked lively and alert when she answered her doorbell.
“Hey, what are you doing here?” Maddy was tall and thin, while I was quite a bit shorter and had more curves than a backwoods mountain road. Growing up, we’d both been brunettes, but sometime around her ninth-grade year, Maddy had decided that she was truly a blonde deep down inside, and she’d dyed her hair and never looked back. Though my sister was two years younger than me, most days she acted half my age.
“I need a place to stay tonight,” I said.
She moved aside. “Well, come on in, then. I was just about to make some popcorn. Would you like some?
is coming on in ten minutes.”
I walked into her apartment, a lively swirl of oranges, golds, and greens, and plopped down on her sofa. “Don’t you even want to know why I’m here?”
She shrugged. “We don’t need an excuse for a sleepover.”
“Richard Olsen is dead.”
Maddy didn’t even look all that upset as she shook her head. “That’s too bad. What happened? Was it a car wreck?”
“Why would you ask me that?” Even the sound of the two words linked together still gave me nightmares about losing my husband.
Maddy frowned. “I was on my way home tonight, and he nearly ran me off the road in that beefed-up truck of his. He looked like he was running from the devil himself.”
“You need to tell Kevin Hurley that,” I said as I grabbed my cell phone.
“Why on earth would I want to do that?”
“Because there must have been some reason Richard was racing around town, and frankly, at this point, anything that diverts suspicion away from me is pretty welcome.”
That got Maddy’s attention. “Why on earth would he think you had anything to do with Richard’s car wreck?”
“Because it wasn’t a wreck that killed him. Someone shoved a knife into his chest, and I found the body when I delivered his pizza.”
“That’s terrible.” Maddy frowned, then added, “Wait a second. I didn’t take any orders for Richard Olsen tonight.”