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About Delta Dead

Women are dying in the Arkansas delta.

So far three are dead...two left naked by the side of the highway and a third, with a screwdriver jammed down her throat, by the banks of the Mississippi River. Small town police are incompetent, causing a desperate mayor to challenge members of the press to catch the killer. None of them -- not the mayor, not his police force, and certainly not the young reporters on a reckless hunt -- realize the killer has turned a deadly eye toward the hunters themselves.

Valerie Costello and Grace Welch are childhood friends who meet again as reporters in a small Arkansas town. Their first meeting, and their second, are destined. Valerie is haunted by a troubled past in the north and Grace, a hardboiled southern girl, is her redeemer. When both become targets, one must save the other as a frantic clock ticks.

The killing of the three is only the beginning of a blood trail that stretches long, from northeast Arkansas to upstate New York. The toolbox killer, who quiets for a time, emerges again with deadly rage, and with a hiding place in plain sight.

Installment One


      Mama’s at the door again. It’s another dark night, inky purple. The edges of objects are tinged violet, like bloody outlines, and there’s a sour smell in the air. Mama’s doorway shadow is backlit by the blue-shaded hall lamp. It’s raining. Sky water tinkles against the window, ice tinkles in a glass.
     “Baaaby…” Mama says. Eyes snap shut. Maybe she’ll think I’m asleep and go away.
     Mama comes closer. Her hair is flyaway cotton candy, bright blonde with violet frosting; her teeth shiny white, her eyes dark holes. She swirls the tinkling ice, a cheerful horrible sound in the shadows. Squeeze eyes shut, pretend to sleep. Maybe this time pretending will work.

     She’s been coming forever. Once her touch felt like love and closeness…but the mind develops, the baby looks at TV, goes to the market, to the park, watches a world outside this pale room. The midnight visits Mama calls babytime turn to gloomtime as Mama’s love begins to feel off-center. Other mamas, park mamas, laugh and clap and hug. Park mamas kiss on the cheek, not on the mouth.
     And there is never tongue.

     Three thousand miles away two girls stand at the end of a long dock, one with red hair, the other with chocolate eyes. They wear swimsuits and pigtails. When the brown-eyed girl yells “Ready, set, GO!” they rush down the dock and cannonball into the lake, plunging deep before rising. They surface and call to each other, laughing, then swim to the dock and pull themselves up, flopping onto worn boards, bellies up, inviting the Maine sun. “Did I ever tell you,” the redhead says, “about Diablo Rosa?” “Later,” says the other, breathing hard. “Go again.” They scramble to the dock’s end, the lake dazzling, splendid life ahead, and sprint to the water, skinny legs pumping, their shadows flashing alongside like guardian angels.

     More than a decade later, in northeast Arkansas, destiny comes home.

Book I Valerie

Chapter One

     The date was August 8, 1979, a Wednesday, and the Blue Moon was packed. The club sat just off Highway 64 in Braddock, Arkansas: a huge, artless, windowless aluminum and wood pole barn with a long bar and cement dance floor. At the north end was a raised platform and this night a western band was on board, blasting country songs with a rock beat.
     Susan Green sat at a small table close to the stage. Her friends were lost in the crowd, nuzzling up to cowboys and truckers twice their age. Circling her at the other tables were the bar men, and there was nowhere she could look without catching an uninvited eye. In fact, the last thing she wanted was to make eye contact with leering strangers. For all she knew one of them had killed those girls.
     She stretched her neck, searching, and caught the attention of a tall, dark-haired waitress. She waved her hand to order another drink but the waitress shook her head and pointed to the bar.
     “Hey little girly, can I buy ya one?” one of the gawking monkeys yelled, and a few unshaved others laughed. She glanced away, embarrassed, and looked for familiar faces. Near the band there were kids she thought she recognized, in college now. At the bar was a good-looking man with a blonde beard…and yes...there was somebody she knew. He owned a company in town, couldn’t think of his name…Mr. West maybe?...leaning down talking to a bosomy girl with crooked teeth. There were others, but none she felt comfortable enough to approach. So she stayed where she was, toying with a straw.
     Minutes later a brawl broke out to her left. She got up, friends forgotten, and moved through the crowd, maneuvering jeans and boots and short skirts out of her way. There were loud voices and chairs breaking behind her as she went. At the front door she gripped the handle, pulled, and stepped outside. It was late, the sky deep and star-speckled. She walked toward the parking lot and breathed in, glad to be out of the smoke. The night was quiet, blissful compared to in there, although once she thought she heard a baby cry. She took a few more steps toward the lot and peered out. Surely no one had left a baby in their car…

     When a hand fell on her shoulder she jumped and turned around.
     “Oh!” she said, startled. Then she relaxed.
     Susan was a pretty girl, slim and ivory-skinned. Her black hair was long and her walk girlish, with swinging hips. They strolled unnoticed across the parking lot, past silent cars and the forgotten baby's cry. The friends were gone and she needed to get home. Her father would ground her for sure if he found out she was wasting nights at the Blue Moon.
     By the time a cowboy stepped outside for a cigarette, they were gone.

      Twenty-four hours later, across town, Valerie Costello poured herself another drink she didn’t need, half of which she spilled on her bare leg when she sat back down on the sofa. She wiped the leg and licked her hand.
      “What were we talking about?”
      “Camp,” Grace said. She took her glasses off and cleaned them with the hem of her shirt. “You remember that loudmouth bunkmate of mine?”
      “Sure you do. Shelly…something.”
      “Oh. Maybe.”
      “She’s an actress now. Was in a movie with…Sylvester Stallone I think. Anyway, I saw her on the screen and about spit my popcorn out.”
      “What was her name?”
      Shelly Something,” Grace said again. “She was only my bunkmate for a week but I recognized her right off in the movie, and I saw her in the credits. You remember: brown hair about the same color as mine, skinny and short. She was always yakking about being an actress someday, never…shut…up. Shelly…oh I can’t believe I don’t remember. Anyway, there you have it. Another Camp Passamaquoddy success story.” She grinned. “Shelly the Actress. And you and me.”
      “Yeah,” Valerie said. “Woodward and Bernstein in Bumfuck, Arkansas.” She stirred her drink with a finger. “Did I ever tell you that my great-grandmother was an Indian?”
      Grace was sitting with her feet up on the coffee table. She leaned forward to set down the empty beer bottle. “I guess that’s where the red hair comes from.”
      “Ha ha. Irishman in the woodpile my dad used to say. But check out these cheekbones, baby.” Valerie pushed her hair aside and pointed. She was long and lean and drunk, slurring her words and lighting a cigarette.
      Grace waved her hands around at the smoke and made exaggerated gasping noises.
      “My mother’s mother’s mother. Indian.”
      “Like Gandhi?”
      “No, no, not like Gandhi, like…Hiawatha. Like Passamaquoddy.
      “Ah.” Grace said, and then: “That’s pretty interesting, actually. The Welches were British, bad cooking and all. Of course, being an adoptee my distinctly low cheekbones take after The Unknown.”
      Valerie wasn’t paying attention. “My great-grandfather was a trapper. He decided he needed a wife when he was forty-five and set off for the nearest reservation…”
      “Which would have been inhabited by whom?”
      “Indians, Grace, aren’t you listening?”
      Grace cleared her throat. “What tribe of Indians, Valerie?”
      “Oh…Mohawk. They were all over upstate New York, Granny says. Anyway, so he got in his wagon and went to a reservation and got himself a squaw. Paid for her in beaver pelts, took her home.”
      Valerie drained her glass and raised one eyebrow. “She was fifteen.”
      Grace sputtered. “And he was forty-five?”
      “A real love story. Squaw hated him, my grandmother says. He’d come home drunk and she’d stab him, never fatally of course but enough to draw blood. He drowned trying to carry a dead moose across the river in a canoe, left his Indian wife alone with three little kids: my grandmother, Aunt Babe, and Clifford.”
      “A moose in a canoe? No offense but your great-grandfather sounds like an idiot.”
      “A pedophile and an idiot.”
      The clock on Grace’s bookshelf chimed once.
      “Dang, look at the time,” she said.
      Valerie shrugged and got up to make another drink.
      “Of course you don’t care. He’s got me on the early shift.”
      Valerie turned away from the make-shift bar and looked at the messy apartment, and then at Grace, whose hair was sticking out in corkscrew patches. She wondered how a person so together could be such a slob. Not for the first time, she said: “Can you actually believe we both ended up working here?”
      Grace smiled.
      “No, I can’t. It’s…uncanny, really. Or maybe…” Grace pondered. “Maybe providence is the word.”
      “Hmmm,” Valerie said. She finished pouring the drink and sat.
      “So what’s with all the boozing lately?” Grace said.
      “Well, yeah. I mean, we always drink, but you’re runnin’ hard to the hoop these days.”
      Valerie held up her glass and peered at Grace through it. Her blue eye looked big and distorted.
      “Am I being psychoanalyzed here?”
      A wrinkle creased Grace’s forehead. “Just concerned.”
      “Hell,” Valerie said mildly. The last person she expected to pass judgment on drinking was Grace Welch. She set the glass on a stack of magazines.
      “It’s this job…” she said. “This stupid small-town newspaper job is making me crazy.”
      “Oh bullshit, Val.”
      Grace hurried on when she saw a flash of anger.
      “Don’t misunderstand, I get what you’re saying. I’m the one who had to take a picture of a poodle nursing kittens Tuesday. This may not be big time journalism but it beats bagging groceries. We’re reporters, Val. And at least you’re on news. You’ve got two murders I’d love to dig into…”
      “Dates gone bad, the cops say.”
      “…and what do I do? Take obits and marvel over the prize tomato of the month.
      Laughing, Valerie said, “That tomato was pretty big.”
      “Seriously, the job’s not that bad. So why are you so unhappy?”
      Valerie gathered her hair into a knot on top of her head. She let go and closed her eyes, enjoying the sensation of hair tumbling down her back. Guys…lots of guys…carried on about her beautiful hair, which was thick copper and offset the angles of her face, drew the eye away from her too-prominent chin and sharp widow’s peak. She opened her eyes and said:
      “Have you ever noticed my hands?”
      Grace sighed.
      “The left one’s pretty, see? Like a model.” She laid her hands flat on a People magazine. “But the right one…fat fingers, short nails, ruddy and rough. It’s like I have a girl’s hand on the left and a boy’s on the right.”
      “Yin-Yang, Grace, that’s all I’m saying. Yin-Yang. Pretty-ugly. Up-down. Opposites. Conflict. That’s me.”
      Grace sat back and listened.
      “I like Arkansas, although God knows I never thought I’d end up here. Followed a guy…typical. I’m not exactly unhappy, but I’m not happy either. I’m sick of the heat and the flat land and the newspaper and the…the cotton… All of it makes me want to go home. But if I go home, I’m faced with...”
      She rubbed her eyes.
      “I miss the north, I guess. I miss my grandmother and aunt, I miss Roxanne…” Her expression turned dreamy. “Most of all I miss the weather. It’s beautiful there, even in the winter. Have you ever been snowed in?”
      Grace shook her head, her expression gentle now. “Memphis doesn’t get much snow.”
      “Being snowed in is wonderful. You curl by the fire and feel like you’re tucked inside a big feather pillow, with everything sort of muffled. Then you go to the woodpile outdoors and when you dash back in the contrast is breathtaking, literally, with the snow blowing around outside and the warm chair by the hearth.” She put her hands over her face. “I’ve been daydreaming about fields of Queen Anne’s Lace…Queen Anne’s Lace was my mother’s favorite, even though Dad used to tease that it was just a weed.” Her voice got low and when she took her hands down, Grace saw tears. “In the fall you can hear neighbors raking leaves, big gold maple leaves that see-saw out of the sky. If my eyes were gone I’d know I was home from the sounds outside: the scratch of a rake, a snowplow…a chickadee.” She shrugged. “Richard’s noticed my work isn’t good. He keeps scowling at me and I try, but I’m burned out. Spent at twenty-five. I wasted my time in journalism school. I should have been a…concubine or something.”
      A tear rolled down her cheek.
      “I know I’ve been drinking too much. I’m sad and unsettled. I don’t have any idea about my future, guys are tiresome…”
      “If you’re talking about Martin Ford, I think asshole is a better word…”
      That got a grin, though not a big one. “I’m pining, that’s all, Gracie. I guess I want to go home.”
      Grace reached over and hugged her.
      “I’m sorry, but I have to say I sure don’t want you to leave. I just got here!”
      Valerie brightened. “Maybe you could move to Walden? It’s a great place…”
      Grace laughed out loud.
      “Okay that’s a lie. But we could have fun, run the newspaper, get elected mayor. That wouldn’t be hard, not with eleven hundred people and half of ’em with an IQ under 90. You could even get snowed in!”
      “I’m a southern girl, honey. Snow’s nice, but that muffled business is unnerving. Besides, my mother couldn’t stand my being so far away, bless her heart.”
      Valerie withdrew at the mention of Grace’s mother. “Dumb idea. I’m selfish. Sorry.” She picked at a piece of frayed thread on her shorts and rocked back and forth, dizzy from gin. “We were friends instantly, remember? Like we’d known each other all our lives. That’s the only year I ever went to camp, the year my parents died. Granny thought camp would do me good. What’s the chance that I’d find a…soul mate, at twelve? You got me through that summer, Grace. And then to find you again…here.
      Grace patted Valerie’s leg and they sat there, thinking about life and friendship.
      At last Valerie took a big breath. “Not to worry, pal,” she said, clinking her glass against Grace’s bottle. “I’ll be okay.”

      In another house, in an upstairs bedroom, a dark-haired girl was sobbing. She was gagged and naked, bound at the ankles and wrists and lying on her back. Her orange silk blouse was wrapped in a noose around her neck. Beneath her was a plastic drop cloth. When she tried to close her eyes they were pried open, fingers digging into sockets and forcing her to see. Tears spilled down her cheeks and ran off her chin. Her back and chest and ivory forehead were bleeding, her shiny hair wet with the kidnapper’s urine, a finger broken to remind her of pain.
      The tape was ripped from her mouth. She was encouraged to speak (but softly now, sweetheart), the point of the blade caressing her breast as a warning. More murmuring, tiny foul-smelling air puffs in her face with instructions to watch. When they were both naked the fear took her and she choked and wheezed, struggling against the bonds, begging for mercy, pleading for her life until finally, giving in to despair, she cried out I want my mother!
      The shadow before her coiled, hideous and delighted, two hands folded together as though in prayer. But Susan Green saw the hands were not clasped to speak with God. She opened her mouth to scream.
      Then that breathy voice again.
     “Times up.”                           

      Valerie left Grace’s after two. She didn’t have far to go, only ten blocks, and she’d sobered up enough to drive but still Grace stood wringing her hands on the stoop as Valerie maneuvered the car out of the driveway and down the street. She called Grace eight minutes later with the all clear.   
      Valerie brushed her teeth, dropped a nightgown over her head, and slipped into the sheets. She thought about Grace, now a taller, plumper version of the girl she’d met thirteen years ago at Camp Passamaquoddy, a sleep-away camp in eastern Maine. And she thought of herself back then: tall, gangly, broken. But you couldn’t be sad around Grace Welch, Grace who was smart as hell and smiling and perfectly imperfect and who seemed to a young Valerie to be cloaked in some sort of charmed light. There was no time to mourn the dead in the company of Grace because every minute…every second…you were living. When Valerie left camp she returned to her grandmother’s arms recovered, as whole as she would ever be. Thanks to Grace.
      Her eyelids got heavy, here in her Arkansas bed fifteen hundred miles from Maine and a million miles from okay. A special summer, she lay thinking, the words foggy; and finally, before the last filmy threads of consciousness were gone, she put her hand on her heart and said a little thank you to whatever might be listening out there in the void. She said a little thank you…to providence.

      At 6:15 on Friday morning Grace reached out and slapped the clock to the bedroom floor. It shattered, sending plastic fragments and bits of glow-in-the-dark numbers skidding across the wood, then buzzed weakly for another minute, a damaged bumblebee.
      She peered out through one slit eye.
      Thanks, Val.
      Her hair was standing up, bent and angled, and she was sweating, twisted up in the month-old top sheet. She wondered if there was anything clean, reconsidered, and eyed the dirty clothes pile. A dusty fan turned slowly at the window, blowing the heat around. She put a pillow over her head to block out the fading blinks of her smashed clock.
      Five more minutes…
      Valerie was late. She parked her Impala in the newspaper lot at 7:45, banged through the office door, waved at the receptionist, and headed for the newsroom.
      “Richard’s lookin’ for you girl,” Georgia called after her, simultaneously picking up a ringing phone and chirping, “Braddock Record.”
      Valerie dropped her bag on the desk and pulled out the note tucked under the paper bar of her typewriter.

      She wadded up Richard’s note and threw it in the trashcan, then sat down and pulled open the top desk drawer, rifling around before finding the folder labeled CITY BUS. She scanned the folder’s contents. No way could she pull something together from this stuff, which included sketchy research on the driver, the riders, and the fact that the bus was usually late and at times didn’t stop at all. 
      “God dammit!
      “What’s up?” Grace said, yawning and stretching backward at her desk a few feet away.
      “He’s after me about the bus story again.”
       Grace pushed the papers in front of her into a messy pile.
       “Not to worry. Our editor has other things on his mind.” 
      “Your date-gone-bad theory…or the cops’ theory…has been sidelined. They found a body this morning out by the river, 17-year-old girl.”   
      “Aw hell. Was she at the Blue Moon?”
      “Yep.” Grace rubbed her eyes and yawned again. “Sat by herself at one of the tables Wednesday night according to a waitress, Toni somebody. Cops are trying to track down who she was there with. Parents reported her missing late yesterday when she didn’t come home from school, she was supposed to be spending Wednesday night with a friend. I guess I’ve got another obit to write, that is if the biggest watermelon at the county fair doesn’t come in today. And you have a hot story, Missy.”
      Valerie got up.
      “Where is he?”
      “Layout. By the way, thanks for last night. One of my eyes is still closed.”
      “Oops,” Valerie said. “Sorry.” She crossed the newsroom to the back, where she heard the editor barking orders.
      “Pull the bus story,” Richard was saying. “We’ll put the murder on P-1. Leave room for a photo.”
      “Richard?” Valerie said.
      He turned. “Did you hear?”
      “Yeah. Who was she?”
      “Susan Green, councilman’s daughter. The mayor’s making a statement this morning.”
      He looked at his watch.
      “Get going. And get pictures.”
      Her shoulders slumped. “Pictures?”
      “Yeah, pictures. You just start working here? And see if you can get to the police chief, unless his head's too far up the mayor's ass. Go!”

      Grace scowled when she saw Martin Ford saunter into the newsroom ten minutes after Valerie left. The spring in his step enraged her, as did the sunglasses, perched in a nest of strawberry-blonde hair.
      He dropped his bag on his desk. “What’s happenin’, baby?”
       She didn’t answer.
      “Oh, nothing much,” she said. “Just another murder. Councilman’s daughter. Found out at Hawkins Mill Landing.”
      “No shit?!?” he said.
      Grace turned away.
      “When did they find her?”
      “Today. Valerie’s at City Hall now.”
      She started typing, cutting the conversation off.
      “Daaamn!” he muttered and wandered off to the break room.
      Grace’s limp hair was hanging down over her typewriter. Concentrating, she didn’t hear footsteps approach the desk.
      “Good morning.”
      Grace jumped. “Oh, hey Lucy Lee.”
      Lucy Lee Hooks handed her a piece of paper with the headline, “Braddock Junior Singers to Perform in Sunset Park,” with copy below.
      “My kids need an audience, can you run this next Thursday?” she said, and without waiting for an answer sat down in Grace’s guest chair. “What’s in the news?”
      Grace looked at Lucy’s curvy figure, bone-straight hair, and flawless white suit, then glanced down at her own wrinkled jeans and a stained golf shirt. Trying not to care, she said:
      “Did you hear?”
      “Hear what? Has Martin found a new girlfriend? Oh wait, that’s right!” Lucy said, feigning foolishness by bumping the heel of her hand to her forehead. “Today’s Friday. Martin’s day to find a new girlfriend is Saturday.”
      “No…no news about that insect. Susan Green was killed, she was at the Blue Moon Wednesday night. They found her out at the river this morning.”
      Lucy’s eyes widened. “Bill Green’s daughter?”
      “Yep. They think it’s the same guy?”
      Lucy Lee put hands over her face, then looked up. “His poor wife. Susan was their only child, you know. What in God’s name is going on around here?” 
      There was a bang off to the left as Martin swung through the break room door. He caught sight of Lucy Lee and slowly lowered his soda can, wiping bubbles off his beard. He gave her a cold look.
      She glared back.
      Grace smirked. Martin Ford sure has been busy.
      “Well,” Lucy Lee said, standing. “I guess I’ll be going. Don’t forget to run that release for me, okay? It’s my last event before regular school starts.”
      Martin sat down at his desk and swiveled his chair, putting his back to both of them. Lucy Lee stuck out her tongue and fluffed her hair. “See you later, Grace. Riviera?”
      Grace nodded and aimed a finger gun at Martin, pulling the trigger.
      The mayor’s office was on the northwest corner of City Hall, a fact that pleased Tom Mosby. The office had no direct sunlight in the morning, when he usually held court with the press. The bags under the mayor’s eyes didn’t look good in direct sunlight and, murders aside, Mosby liked to look good on television. Tom Mosby was a media mayor.
      As the press gathered outside, Tommy sat at his desk with his head in his hands, looking at the police photographs of the three dead girls.
      The first girl, Celeste Ledbetter, had been killed on her eighteenth birthday, June 21st. According to the police report, she and two friends were celebrating by doing a little bar hopping around town. Celeste’s friends said they started out at the Ramada Inn, moved on to another bar to shoot pool, and ended up around 11:00 at the Blue Moon. Around 12:30, Celeste’s friends noticed she was gone.
      Celeste’s body was found the next morning by a motorist. The man’s front right tire had blown on the interstate a few miles north of Braddock, and as he was crouching to jack up the truck something on the shoulder of the road caught his eye. What he saw was what Tommy was looking at now.
      Lying on her back with arms and legs starfish spread, the birthday girl looked like she’d fallen backward into the dust to make a snow angel. Her eyes were wide and staring. She was slim, and naked but for one high-heeled shoe and a St. Christopher medal around her neck. The silver medal was lying in a crevice of tissue more than an inch wide, where gouts of blood had boiled out and spread down her breasts and abdomen. Dust had settled on her teeth and even on her eyeballs. Her dark pubic hair was puffed and dust covered, making it gray, like an old woman’s.
      In the second photo, the girl was also naked but for what had once been a white bra, now covered in red clay and blood. She was found at the edge of a cotton field yards off Highway 64 less than a mile from the club. Her legs were closed, pulled straight out and touching knee to knee, and her arms were stretched perpendicular to her body so that the fingers on one hand pointed east, the others west. She was face down. Honey-colored hair was in a wave around her head, her feet were bare, and her throat had been cut so completely that, had the killer pressed harder with the blade, she would have been decapitated. The blood pool was enormous, and was mixed with the mud to make an auburn shroud around her. Her name was Jackie Koopris. She was twenty, a waitress at the Blue Moon and was working the seven p.m.-to-two a.m. shift on Saturday, July 28th. As far as anyone knew, she’d left the club alone. Pushing the first two photos aside, Tommy placed on the blotter in front of him five freshly-developed pictures of his friend Billy Green’s only child.
      A local fisherman found Susan’s body out at Hawkins Mill Landing this morning around dawn. Surrounded by river brush, Wilbur Boston had cast his line out into the fast-moving Mississippi. When the wind sent his baited hook whickering back to shore off to Wilbur’s left, the line tangled, and stuck. Wilbur went to investigate and found his hook deeply embedded in the right breast of Susan Green. According to the coroner Susan had been dead less than two hours.
      It tore at Tommy’s heart to look at these photographs. The first was a top view of Susan. She was lying in the fetal position, legs pulled up to her chest, dark hair spread behind her and covered in a thick coat of mud. She was naked but for some kind of material…a silk blouse, it turned out…over her head. In the second photo the blouse had been removed and, from this view her eyes looked closed. The slash around her neck was jagged and clear. Unlike the wounds of the other two victims, which were clean, slicing cuts, these wounds had been made by a blunt, pointed instrument. The line of Susan’s neck from her chin to her collarbone had been mangled; perhaps punctured, and then ripped.
      The third shot took in the muddy edge of the river, the brush surrounding the body, and the distance from the body to the water. This picture suggested that the murderer hadn’t intended for the body to be submerged, indicating, at least to the police, that the killer wanted Susan to be found. That fossil-like impression was obvious in a fourth photo, taken after the body was removed.
      It was the fifth and final picture that caused Tommy Mosby to take a bottle of scotch out of his desk drawer and pour himself a shot. The photo had been taken at ground level, looking straight into Susan’s face. From this angle you could see that Susan’s eyes were half open, slits of jade with dark lashes. On her right breast, slightly north of a nipple horribly erect, was the fishing hook and a dangling night crawler. The worm was looped around the nipple. Wilbur’s attempts to tug his line free had ripped open a triangular piece of skin, which was hanging down and partially covered by the catfish bait’s brown, segmented body.
      Tommy shoved the photo away. As bad as that was, there was more.
      Before the second killing, the police thought they were dealing with an isolated incident, a drifter or a bar pick-up gone sour. When Jackie Koopris was found, Tommy’s cops scrambled – still sticking to their bad-date story where the public was concerned – and in two weeks had accomplished less than nothing. They were out of their league, bubbas with badges knocking around in the dark and lying to the press.
      Susan’s councilman father had already called four times this morning, calls Tommy hadn’t yet returned. The time for lying was done. Now was the time to make something happen, and Mosby would do whatever was necessary to bring the situation to a quick end. To protect himself, and his career, he had to protect his cops. He could clean house later. Right now he needed eyes.
      He buzzed his secretary on the intercom.
      “Right here, Mayor.”
      “Send ’em on in,” he said.

      Valerie, notebook and pen at hand, sat at the end of the small bench in the mayor’s outer office jiggling her foot and watching Fred Slater out of the corner of one eye, Fred who had arrived fully loaded, prepared to capture every detail for tonight’s news: camera, tapes, and battery packs. Fred worked for the Jonesboro TV station forty miles away. He was thirty-two, with longish hair and velvety eyes that drooped at the corners like Paul McCartney’s, a good guy, in Valerie’s view, though a little fanatical about small town news. Freddy was a man who clearly was interested in getting ahead, something he made no attempt to hide.
      There were two more reporters in the room: one out of Memphis; and the other, Bruce Hamilton…fat, lecherous, a staff writer for Braddock’s weekly paper. Bruce sat on the bench next to Valerie, crunching pretzels.
      She broke the silence, addressing no one in particular.
      “So what have you heard?”
      “I heard they found her after some old geezer hooked her in the tit with his fishing line,” Bruce Hamilton said.
      Valerie ignored him and turned to Freddy.            
      “I heard the same, that a fisherman found her down at Hawkin’s Mill. She was sunk in the mud pretty good with her throat cut. Like the others.”
      “Was she raped?”
      “I don’t know. I’m guessing not, since the others weren’t.” Freddy looked at Bruce. “You hear anything like that?”        
      “Nope.” Bruce picked something microscopic out of his oily hair. “Just the tit thing.”
      “Jesus,” Valerie said and got up. She went to the window and stood with arms crossed looking out at the hell-hot morning. Get pictures, Richard had said. Yes sir, wouldn’t want to run this story without pictures of another dead girl so we can put it right there on page one with the Girl Scout cookie salesman of the month. Too bad I wasn’t at the murder scene, huh Richard? Then I could have snapped a shot of the corpse and we could run it right up front, above the fold. That would sell some papers. She watched a pigeon swoop down from a roof across the street and wondered what was running through Susan Green’s head in the seconds before she died. Did she look into her killer’s eyes and beg for her life? And if so, what…and whom…did she see?
      The mayor’s secretary opened the door, interrupting dark thoughts.          
      “Okay folks. He’s ready.”

      When the press walked into Tom Mosby’s office, the mayor was seated, composed, a yellow legal pad in front of him, the scotch bottle absent. He was puffy and short, a sullen toad in a light blue suit squatting behind the desk. The chief of police, Horace Tucker, stood stiffly at the window. He was Mosby’s physical opposite: tanned, strong, angular.
      The reporters arranged themselves in the chairs in front of the mayor. When he cleared his throat, Valerie flipped open her notebook. Freddy positioned his camera on his shoulder and focused.
      The mayor held up his hand.
      “Just one minute. I want to say something to you off the record. Valerie, put your pen down. Freddy, turn that thing off. The rest of you, too.”
      The reporters looked at him, their expressions blank.
      “I mean it now, put ’em down and shut ’em off or this press conference ends right here.”
      Freddy lifted the camera off his shoulder.
      “Tommy, come on. You can’t do this. We...”
      “You’re wrong, Mister Slater, I sure can do it. Unless you want people sittin’ at the supper table tonight wonderin’ where the hell the story about Susan Green is, you keep the lens on that thing closed until I say so. Understood?”
      The only sound in the room was the tick of Mosby’s desk clock. Valerie looked over at the police chief, who stood rigid, appearing to study a spot on the far wall. Bruce was scowling, picking at his chin. Valerie and Freddy exchanged a glance and shrugged.
      “Okay, Mayor,” Freddy said finally, laying the camera at his feet. Valerie closed her notebook and, for effect, laid her pen on Mosby’s desk.
      “All right, then,” Tommy said, satisfied. “As all of you know, there’s been another killing, and what we’re thinking now is that these aren’t dates turned ugly, but that there’s a fella out there targeting and then murdering these girls. What I’m going to do is give you folks some details. I am not going to give you any opinions, other than a wrap-up statement at the end.
      “What I don’t want to get into; no, let me clarify that: what I will not get into is discussion about the police and what they’re doing to find this killer. Obviously, they’re doing what they can. I will not entertain any questions regarding their competence, and there will be no blame cast…” He and Tucker exchanged a look, and Mosby went on.
      “Now I know some of you would like nothing better than to leave here and go back to your typewriters and come up with some prize-winning story about three murders in a small town. I know that you all see the opportunity to earn career points and I got no problem with that. You do what you have to for your bosses, and that’s just fine. But what you’re not going to do, at least not today, is go after the Braddock police department.”
      “Mayor…” Valerie said. Mosby glared her to silence and continued.
      “I understand you don’t have to go along with what I say, I know that, I know all about freedom of the press and bad politicians and that you all think if you can’t print every damn thing we’ll be communists next week. I understand the press maybe better than any of you. But the one thing I want y’all to understand is that if you go back to your offices and start sayin’ that Tommy Mosby and the police can’t nail this guy because they’re incompetent and that we need to pull the feds in here, I’ll shut down. You won’t get another piece of information on this case, or on any other, not one more piece. And what that means is yeah, you can run around and write editorials about City Hall and the cops not cooperating, but you won’t have anything to say about the situation we’ve got right here and now.”
      More ticking from the clock. Tucker, like the old building’s architecture, was stone, his hands folded in front of his stomach, his gray eyes expressionless.
      It was no secret, at least within this news circle, that Valerie didn’t like her job. With less than two years’ experience in the field she was a junior member of the press corps in Braddock. Still, she’d learned a few things at The Record. Her boss, Richard Clark, was 60 years old and a political powerhouse in Northeast Arkansas, not to mention a man who understood and executed without exception the rights and wrongs of the news business. Paying no attention to the others in the room and feeling for the first time ever the story-spark she’d heard other reporters talk about, she looked directly at Freddy, waiting for him to react. Richard Clark had told her once that Slater was one of the best reporters he’d seen come through Braddock, and he’d seen plenty.
      To her surprise, Freddy said nothing.
      What the hell was going on?
      She tried to catch the police chief’s eye, but Tucker wouldn’t let it get caught. All the reporters were watching Freddy Slater, waiting for his lead. Valerie wondered what Freddy was thinking, maybe that he was going to have to swallow everything he’d learned as a reporter, everything he’d lived by for the past ten years. Maybe he was asking himself the same question she was: can I really tell a city official that I won’t go after something that ought to be gone after, which was a police department that didn’t have a single clue on three vicious murders in as many months? And what if they didn’t agree to back off from the cops? Would the whole police force really go mute…on this, and on who knew what else down the road?
      No, she thought. Freddy Slater won’t let this go.
      Finally, Slater spoke:
      “Okay, Tom. You won’t get a witch hunt from me.”
      Valerie was appalled.
      The mayor raised his eyes and looked around the room.
      “Do we agree, people?”
      The Memphis reporter nodded, but wouldn’t look at Mosby. Bruce Hamilton growled fine.
      When Valerie didn’t say anything, Mosby looked at her.
      “I know what you’re thinking, Valerie.”
      “Do you?” she said, surprised at the confidence in her own voice.
      “I’ve known Richard Clark thirty years, longer than you’ve been on this earth. He’s owned your paper a long time, and I consider him a friend even if we do cross paths sometimes. I’ve gotta tell you, I don’t think he’ll disagree with me on this. The most important thing right now is to catch this bastard. Richard himself will probably tell you the press coming after the police isn’t going to help us do that.”
      He addressed the rest of them, “Do what you want after that, after he’s caught. Maybe you’d be right. I’m sorry Horace.”
      The police chief stared at the wall spot, silent.
      “I will tell you one thing I think,” Tommy said, “and this is off the record too. I don’t believe he’s going to stop. I want to nail him because I’m afraid he’s going to keep going. He’s cutting them up, humiliating them, and leaving their bodies around for us to find. This is my town and it’s my job to see that he gets caught, and gets caught fast.”
      Tommy studied each of the reporters again, looked into their faces, and finally rested his gaze on Valerie.
      “And I want to nail him because I don’t want to have Horace Tucker here call me some morning and tell me they found his 16-year-old daughter naked up at Hawkin’s Mill with her throat cut.”
      Valerie stared back at him. The others looked down at their hands. Freddy more than the rest seemed ashamed of himself. He squinted his eyes at her, as though saying Come on, Val, have some balls. Tell him to stick it.
      But this last thing had gotten to her.
      “Okay,” she said finally. “No cop talk until after we get him. And I won’t talk to Richard about this.” She gave him a cold look, adding, “Yet.”
      Mosby spoke.
      “Good girl. Now, let’s get started.”
      He smiled at them then, the elastic grin of a media mayor. “And who knows? Maybe one of you folks will solve this thing and win yourselves a prize for investigative reporting!”
      Horace Tucker cut a hard glance at Mosby, and the tapes rolled.

      The police chief left the building after the press conference and sat in his cruiser. He stared through the windshield, watching Valerie Costello and Fred Slater smoke and talk over by Slater’s car, and wondered how in hell the situation had come to this.    
      When Tucker was a young cop he'd worked for a man who used to tell him the most important part of police work was taking care of a case clean and fast. The people you're working for, his boss would say, the taxpayers, don't give a shit about how tough a case is or what you have to do to crack it. They just want the case solved. Solved clean. Solved fast. This unspeakable thing happening in Braddock had not been taken care of clean and fast, but had been royally botched. Tucker had listened as the mayor gave the reporters sketchy details about Susan Green’s murder. He told them she was found at Hawkin’s Mill by a fisherman, told them her throat was cut, and that like the other two, she hadn’t been sexually assaulted.What he didn’t tell them was that Susan was killed someplace else and dumped at the river’s edge, and that when she was found there was a 10-inch-long, black-handled screwdriver rammed down her throat, pushed so far back and so forcefully in that its Phillips head had popped out through her skull, or that the coroner said the killer put the tool there when she was still alive and aware. Tommy was saying the reason he didn’t tell the press was because a screwdriver hadn’t been used in the first two killings and because Mosby and Tucker decided to hold that piece of information back, in case they had a suspect who slipped up and mentioned it.
     The fact was, however, that the reason Mosby didn’t tell the press about the screwdriver was because a patrolman had fouled up. When the fisherman radioed the police from his truck and told them he’d found a dead girl out by the river, the police dispatcher sent maybe the stupidest patrolman ever to wear a badge out to answer the call.
      Pierre Warburton and his partner Daniel Rainey hauled ass out to Hawkin’s Mill and met the fisherman at the scene. Poor old Wilbur Boston was clutching his chest and breathing hard, telling them she was already dead when he found her and holy God lookit that hook and crossing himself even though he’d never set foot in a church in his life. While his partner questioned Wilbur, Pierre Warburton walked over to the body and stood staring, mouth hanging open in an idiot’s gaze. That was his first reaction. His second was to reach down, pull the blouse off her face and, with his ungloved hand, grasp the handle of the murder weapon and yank it out of the body with a ghastly thock sound.
       Showing his partner, Warburton said, “Jesus Christ, Danny. The goddamn guy stuck a screwdriver in her mouth.”
       Daniel Rainey told him to keep his voice down and did he think maybe he ought not have pulled the tool out of the body? Some dim light bulb tripped on inside Pierre’s skull, and he muttered a tiny “oh.” Before Daniel could stop him, Warburton leaned down and put the screwdriver back in place, pushing it all the way in and polishing the handle clean of any fingerprints that might have been there. Except, of course, his own.
       Pierre admitted his mistake after the coroner, Chief Tucker, and the police photographer arrived. The coroner purely freaked out, waving his hands at Horace Tucker’s advice to stay calm. Then he got in his car and blasted out of there, straight to Tom Mosby’s office with Tucker not far behind. He railed all over the mayor, telling him he was calling the feds in. This wasn’t the first time the Braddock PD has screwed up, the coroner shouted, demanding explanations and delivering threats. Holding back details of the crime was the ticket, Mosby told the coroner, his voice calm. We’ll trip him up when he lets the type of weapon slip. For all we know the killer had worn a glove, the chief added, protecting his patrolman. It’s an unusual weapon, not a knife but a screwdriver. We might catch a break. The coroner settled down some, but Mosby’s perspiring face let Horace know they weren’t yet in the clear.
       “We’ll keep our fingers crossed, Horace,” the mayor said after the coroner left. “Meantime, get your men moving on this. And I’ll set the press loose.”
       Tucker flashed back to the scene at the river this morning. He agreed with the mayor that this killer wasn’t done. There was something about the art of the corpses he didn’t like, the way the bodies seemed arranged in death: the first spread like a holy star, the second like a cross, and the last, as though curled in the womb. As far as “setting loose the press”… well, he knew some of these reporters were good – Fred Slater in particular – but he didn’t think any of them were good enough to do a decent cop’s job. Tucker was relieved that Mosby was protecting him and his cops, but he knew down deep the right thing to do would be to call the FBI and the state police and anybody else with a brain and a gun and get them in here yesterday. And he sure as hell knew the wrong thing to do was send a bunch of kids with cameras and pencils chasing after a madman.
       After the press conference, Tucker had stayed in Mosby’s office.
        “What do you think?” the mayor asked.
        The chief shrugged, said nothing.
        “Well they’re hungry, and curious. Now we give them their heads and see where they go.”
        Tucker fiddled with a button on his uniform. “You think this’ll work?”
        “Hope so. If not, Richard Clark’ll be on me like a tick on a bulldog.”
        Three girls dead and all Mosby cared about was how he was going to look in the newspaper. Tucker stared out his windshield for a few more minutes, thinking about his own daughter and that screwdriver shoved down Susan Green’s throat, and how her hands were curled up into little fists as she lay there in the delta mud.
        He started the car and pulled out.


      Valerie picked up breakfast and went back to the office. She ate, visited with Grace, carefully avoided any details about Mosby holding back when she talked to Richard, and dawdled over her typewriter, distracted by a whispered telephone conversation Martin was having with a woman. She barely made deadline and then only with a paragraph, promising Richard she’d have more on the murder tomorrow when she’d had a chance to interview staff at the Blue Moon. With Grace’s help she tracked down the name of the waitress…Toni Buckman…and found an address. By lunchtime she was guiding her Impala out of town.
      Buckman lived on Old Country Road, a dirt lane lined with tired houses once the focal point of large cotton farms. Farmhouses had since turned into hired hand rentals, and finally, even too dilapidated for them, had become rural slums. She rounded a curve and spotted the house. Most of the paint was gone, leaving behind gray boards, weather-worn and splintering. The fence was sagging and clapboards from a sleeping porch dangled precariously from the second story.
      Valerie pulled into the driveway, got out, went up chipped stone steps to the screen door, and peered in. The inside door was standing open.    
       “Yoo hoo, anybody home?” Music drifted from the back of the house.
       “Helloooo?” No response.
       She stood for a minute, glancing around at the lifeless yard, then pulled open the screen door and stepped into the entry hall.
       “Is anybody ho…”
       She grabbed at her chest, heart banging. Standing to the left of the door in a black baby doll nightgown was Toni Buckman, arms crossed, a thin, unlit cigarette sticking out of her mouth.
       Ohmygod, excuse me,” Valerie said. “I didn’t know if you could hear me, I mean, I would never just…you know, walk in. It was, well, I didn’t mean to intrude, I’m sorry.”
       Toni laughed, a boozy, late-night, smoke-filled sound.
       “C’mon in,” she said, a command more than an invitation, and without waiting she disappeared inside. Valerie stood still until she heard a muffled “Well C’MON! You gonna stand out there on the veranda all day?”
       The hall was wide and opened into a living room on the left and a parlor on the right, both sparsely decorated. Valerie walked down the hall to the kitchen where Toni was moving about, setting the coffee pot on the stove and turning on the flame, placing milk and sugar on the table, reaching for cups and saucers in the cupboard over the sink, all done with the ease of a person who serves other people for a living.
       “Coffee’ll be done in a minute.”
       Toni Buckman’s looks were hard. She was big leaning toward chubby and long-legged, with a thick waist and full hips, a figure a kinder eye would deem baroque. Her jet black hair was worn shoulder length and side-parted, with split ends pointing down at her bulging bustline. She was not pretty. Her face was a roadmap of teenage acne and too many nights in a dark place: pock-marked and ashen.
       Toni sat down and stared at Valerie with eyes as dark and lifeless as her hair. She lit a cigarette and dropped the lighter on the table.
       “Toni,” Valerie began. “I’m Val...”
       “I know who you are,” Toni said, not unkindly. “Valerie Costello. You work at the newspaper, live over on Magnolia, and for awhile you took up with that Ford guy until he dumped you and moved on. You hang around with the music teacher – another of Ford’s ex-girls – and the other newspaper reporter, funny kid, Grace…”
       She tapped a long, blood-red nail against a crooked front tooth, thinking.
       “Welch,” she said, then paused. “And you’re from New York.”
       Valerie’s mouth dropped open.
       Toni smiled, making that scary face look surprisingly sweet.
       “It’s a small town, honey. And you’re sort of a celebrity, you know? Being a reporter and all.”
       She took a drag from her cigarette, then got up to pour the coffee.
       “I also know why you’re here.”
       She filled Valerie’s cup and sat back down.
       “I haven’t been this popular since I had my tubes tied. Fred Slater’s come and gone and so has that Hamilton guy, one right after the other. A bunch of cops have been here, too, and I’ve gotta tell ya, if it’s up to them this guy’s gonna kill more chicks than Colonel Sanders.”
       She leaned back in the chair and gestured with the cigarette hand.
       “Ask away.”
       Christ Almighty, Valerie thought, glancing at her watch. The others had already been here?
“Uh, I have a tape recorder,” she said. “Is that okay?”
       “I’ll probably ask a lot of the same questions so I hope you’ll...” she stopped, not really knowing what she hoped. “I hope you’ll help me,” she finished, feeling bungling and stupid.
       Toni looked her up and down. “Have you ever been to the Blue Moon?”
       “Yes,” Valerie said, picturing the club. A dance floor bigger than her whole house, a long, sloping bar, burly guys on stools, lonely women with too much make-up leaning against men they didn’t know.
       “Not too pretty, is it? Not the Plaza Hotel on a Saturday night for sure. That’s in New York, isn’t it, the Plaza? Where you’re from?”
       “I’m not from New York City. I’m from about a hundred and fifty miles north of there, a town called Walden.”
       “Ah, my grapevine has a broken branch. I heard you were from The City.”
       “I don’t always clarify. When I say New York people just assume New York City and I’ve gotten tired of correcting them, so I let it go.”
       Toni smiled. “I’m not from here, either. People don’t seem to listen much, do they? They listen a little make up the rest.”
       “Where’re you from?”
       “California,” Toni said, amused at Valerie’s obvious surprise. “What did you expect me to say, a Mississippi dirt farm?”
       Valerie shrugged, embarrassed. “What part?”
       “North of San Francisco, a place called San Rafael.”
       Toni looked away, her eyes softening.
       “Isn’t that a pretty name, San Rafael, like where soap opera people might live. It’s just over the Golden Gate, past Sausalito, along the west side of the San Francisco Bay. Beautiful. Houses built on the hillside all along the water. Boats everywhere, and the smell...Oh man.”
       She took a deep breath, like she was on a shoreline instead of in a sad country kitchen.
       “What...brought you to Arkansas?”
       “Three guesses, and the first two don’t count.”
       “A guy.”
       “Yes ma’am.”
       “Same here,” Valerie said. “A pilot out at the air base. I had nothing going on in New York so I followed him here. Didn’t work out, he left and I stayed.”
       “Ah, the Air Force boys,” she said. “Mine was too. Motherfuckers.” She stubbed out the cigarette.
       Valerie toyed uncomfortably with her coffee cup.
       “Sorry,” Toni said. “Life ain’t so bad, Air Force bastards aside. And my job’s okay, and hey, isn’t that what you came to talk about anyway?”
       “Yes,” Valerie said, glad for the change of subject. “Actually, I wanted to talk about Susan Green, the last girl. Did you know her?”
       “I knew who she was, sure, that pretty kid belonged to the city council guy. Dark hair, chilly personality. I saw her around, yeah.”
       “Do you remember seeing her that night?”
       “Like I told your buddies this morning, I do remember seeing her but I didn’t pay that much attention because I was crazy busy. The only reason I noticed her was because I’d never seen her in there before, and because she stuck out like a blackhead on a white elephant’s butt. All dressed up, sittin’ at a table in the corner like a little princess, snubbing everybody. The men were all over her, asking her to dance, if she wanted a drink, did she come here often. She was a class chick, not the kind they’re used to. Not a dyed hair on her head, pretty hair like yours, the kind of long, shiny hair that ends up getting you lots of attention in a place like the Blue Moon. Not much make-up, expensive clothes, uppity attitude…Air Force type. Makes you wonder what the dopey bastards are doin’ there in the first place, if what they’re looking for is the town socialite.”
       “Did you see anybody in particular talking to her, or paying a lot of attention to her?”
       “Where were her friends?” Valerie looked at her notes. “I understand she went there with some other girls.”
       “Beats me. I didn’t see her when she came in, and I never saw her sitting with anybody. Just there by herself, brushing off the man flies.”
       “Did you see her leave?”
       Toni shook her head.
       “Can you give me any names of the people who were there? Any of the guys who were coming onto her?”
       “Well,” Toni said, thinking for a minute. “I can probably come up with a few. But why don’t you ask your friend Marty, he was there that night.”
       Valerie tried to keep expression from her face. “Martin Ford was there?”
       “Sure, sittin’ there singin’ away at the bar, talkin’ to some skank. Best looking guy in the place as a matter of fact. Looked like Mr. Universe next to that bunch.”
       “Are you sure it was him, Toni?”
       “’Course I’m sure. I’d know Marty in a blackout. Cute little butt, pretty blue eyes.” She winked. “Crooked little pecker.”
       Blushing, Valerie changed the subject. “What about the other two, Celeste Ledbetter, and the waitress...” she checked her notes “...Jackie Koopris, did you know them?”
       “Not Celeste. But Jackie was a friend of mine. Nice girl, no nonsense. Kept to herself after her husband walked out on her. Came to work, did her job, went home. Worked like a dog, too, after the husband took everything, the money, the car, even her little boy. He got custody and she couldn’t fight back. Luckiest day in his life when poor old Jackie turned up dead. He’ll never have a problem with her again.”
       Valerie jotted a note to herself to check out the husband. It wouldn’t be the first time somebody killed a few people to cover up the one they really wanted dead, although she had to admit that was pretty much paperback stuff.
       “Do you remember the night she died? Jackie, I mean.”
       “Sure. There was a big crowd that night, too. Jackie wasn’t feeling good, and slinging beers all night wasn’t helping. Had a cold, she said. We were working the seven-to-two shift, and around midnight she asked Donner if she could leave, Jerry Donner, you know him? The owner?”
       Valerie shook her head.
       “Well anyway, the crowd had settled down and most of the boys were at the bar, so we were cleaning off tables, doing side work, that kind of stuff. When she asked to leave, Jerry said no problem, and we never saw her again. As God as my witness, that cold killed her.”
       They talked for another half hour, Valerie asking questions and taking notes. She asked if Toni noticed Martin Ford talking to Susan, and Toni said no. As she was leaving, Valerie shook Toni’s hand with real feeling.
       “You’re okay,” Toni said as Valerie went down the steps. “Even if you are from New Yo-ark.”
       Valerie walked down the steps and to the path, stopped, and turned back. Toni raised an eyebrow. She was standing at the door in her baby doll pajamas, cigarette in one hand.
       Something Toni had said was bothering her. Valerie stood at the bottom of the steps trying to nudge whatever it was the front of her mind. When the thought wouldn’t surface, she said:
        “Toni, this guy’s picking girls from the place where you work, in fact killed one of the waitresses. How does all this make you feel?”
       Toni gave her a faraway smile, one that Valerie couldn’t read, and tossed her cigarette out toward a bed of weeds.
       “Now there’s a question your news boyfriends didn’t ask.”
       She ran a hand through her hair, a sexy gesture beautiful women make in front of men who infatuate them, and for a moment Valerie didn’t see the hardened face of a barmaid, but the innocent one of a smiling child from California, a kid whose plans…whatever they were…probably didn’t include working nights in a town where girls were dying.
       “Miss New York,” she said at last, “I’ll tell you the truth, and this one is for the record. I’m scared half to death.”

       Grace Welch was sitting in a corner booth at the Riviera Lounge, drumming her foot to “Brown Sugar” and working on her second beer.
       In the way people know someone is watching them, Grace knew. She cast her eyes along the bar: a fat woman in a yellow dress; a businessman flirting with the bartender; another man, this one wearing a Yankee baseball cap and fidgeting with an umbrella; a couple of skinny farmers, and…

      …oh no…
       Her eyes swiveled back to her drink, hoping he hadn’t caught her noticing him but knowing he had. Wayne Westin was propped against the bar at the far end, leering.
       Wayne owned Westin Lumber. Valerie once said if you stripped off Martin Ford’s charm and sophistication and sensitivity the only thing left would be Wayne Westin, a 200-pound pile of smirking testosterone.
        “Like going to bed with a crocodile,” Sally the bartender recently told Grace. “All teeth and big tail.” 
        Grace sensed more than saw him head her way. He was wearing tight black jeans and a white cotton dress shirt, and she could hear his lizard boots marking time along the wood floor. He slid into the booth seat across from her and crooked his finger to Sally, pointing to Grace. Sally reached for the tap.
       “Grace Welch” he said in his best come-hither voice.
       “Wayne Westin” she said coldly, realizing as she said his name aloud that it sounded absurdly like something Elmer Fudd might say. 
       Wayne Westin, I’ll get you, you wascally wabbit.
       She choked back a laugh as Sally walked over and set a glass down hard in front of her.
       “Watch yourself,” she said to Grace and sauntered away.
       Wayne stared at Sally's jiggling and retreating buttocks, then turned back to Grace. He looked her up and down, settling on her face and seeming almost to swallow her whole with his wide, cruel eyes.
       Grace Welch had been raised with money, though she masked her background well. Her clothes came from discount bins, she lived below her means, and she never mentioned – even to friends – that her parents spent half their time buying fine art and the other half running in the Memphis country club scene. Her intellect, her stocky frame, her dark hair, and her good teeth came from the mysterious bio-parents. The rest…her compassion, wit, and distain for the arrogant wealthy…well, nobody really knew those origins, although if asked she would probably say with casual simplicity “camp.” The camp in Maine had been her escape, offering an opportunity to get away from a kind- though-distant upwardly-mobile family to socialize with children her own age, kids whose parents didn’t think the most important headline was the BMW in the next driveway. Her parents were good people who taught manners and appropriateness, who put her through school and paid for piano lessons, but who were emotionally absent, making Grace closed off, even hard. Outwardly, she was the carefree life of the party, a girl whose car frequently ran out of gas and whose top desk drawer was sticky with spilled coffee. Inside she was watchful, making it no easy task to startle or embarrass her.
       Wayne Westin, however, was a master.
       “Here’s the thing,” he said, his voice low. “I was standing over there, drinking my drink, and thinking about how much I’d love to eat you out.”
       She was on the verge of swallowing when he spoke and the beer went down the wrong pipe. She coughed, and hacked, and her face reddened. The whole bar was watching.  
       “You okay there sweetheart?” he asked, his lips snaking upward. “I guess old Wayne kinda shook you up. I sure didn’t mean to… at least not ’til later.”
       The door opened then and Lucy Lee Hooks walked in. Westin didn’t see her coming.
       “Wayne,” Lucy Lee said in a musical voice as she approached the booth.
       Wayne looked up. “Oh hell.”
       “Take a hike,” she said, still melodic and smiling.
       He got up, picked up his whiskey, and left.
       “Jeez,” Grace said, her voice froggy. “How do you do that?”
        “Practice, honey. What’s wrong with your throat?”
       “It’s a short, ridiculous story involving Wayne Westin and foul suggestions.”
       Lucy sat down just as Valerie came in and dropped into the seat next to Grace, waving to the bartender for a drink. Sally brought over two glasses of wine and set them on the table. “Hey girls.”
       When Sally was gone Valerie told them about the press conference.
       “So what do you think?”
       Lucy Lee slowly twirled her wine glass.
       “I’m a teacher, Val, not a journalist, but it doesn’t seem right to me. Can he do that? Tell you not to report something?”
       When Valerie lit a cigarette, Grace fanned at the smoke. “Supposedly not but who knows? We’re not exactly The New York Times. I guess he can do what he wants, and that’s to hold back later if we go after the police department now. I talked to Freddy afterwards and he was steaming mad.”
       “Did you tell Richard?”
       “No, I said I wouldn’t. Besides, I want to see what I can find out. I know Richard’ll be pissed, he wants me to go after the cops, and he’ll want the story, of course, but he isn’t going to want me to dig too deep. I’m thinking – and so is Freddy…”
       She looked around the bar, at the umbrella man, the fat woman, Wayne Westin, and the fellow flirting with Sally, and lowered her voice.
       “We’re thinking that the killer’s a local, and I’d like to poke around a little first, you know, before Richard gets involved.”
       “Poke around?” Lucy frowned. “I don’t like the sound of that.”
       Grace was staring at Valerie over her glasses. She didn’t speak.
       What?” Valerie said finally, puffing smoke in her direction.
       “First, I’m jealous. I wish this was my story. And second, is this the same person who only last night said she didn’t like her job?”
       “Things have changed, Grace. This is something I can sink my teeth into.”
       “Or get its teeth sunk into you,” Lucy said.
       They ordered another round and sat for awhile, talking about murder. When Valerie told them that Toni Buckman had seen Martin at the club the night Susan Green disappeared, Lucy made a face and shrugged.
       “He spends half his life there,” was all she said. “I’m more interested in our mayor and what he’s hiding. The only thing Martin Ford has to hide is his forked tongue.”
       “So what are you gonna do?” Grace asked.
       “I’ll snoop around and see what I can find out. Tomorrow I’ll ask Richard if I can work on this full time and see what I can come up with.”
       Grace went rigid and squinted her eyes.
       “But you know what that means, don’t you? I mean, do you know what the hell you’re saying here?”
       Valerie squinted back. “No…”
       “That means that I’ll have to do the goddamned bus story!”
       They all laughed and Valerie waved for the check.

        Lucy and Grace both honked as they drove out of the parking lot. Valerie was putting her key in the ignition when she realized she’d left her camera bag in the lounge. She walked back. But for Sally cleaning up, the place was empty.
       “Quiet for a Friday night, isn’t it Sal?”
       Valerie picked up her bag. She was surprised to see Grace’s down there, too, and hefted the canvas satchel out from under the table.
       “Not really. Blue Moon has a band weekends and anybody hanging around here usually ends up there. In fact, that’s where I’m headed.”
       Valerie made a face. “Be careful.”
       “Oh, don’t you worry. I’m too tough for Mr. Blue Moon Killer, and too smart. Besides, I’m meeting my businessman. He’ll watch out for me.”
       Valerie leaned against the bar.
       “Seriously, Sally. Do you know this businessman guy? Ever seen him before?”
       “Yeah, he’s been in here a few times in the last year. Comes up from Little Rock and stops in every now and then. Got a wife and kid.”
       She patted powder on her face and gave her hair a tease with a rat-tailed comb. “I gotta have a life, too, right? If she can’t keep him in the corral, that’s her problem.”
       “Okay, well, just take it easy.”
       “Message received and appreciated.”
       Back in the lot, Valerie crossed to her car. Ten feet away, she stopped. The inside light was on. Did I not shut the door tight?
       She looked around. It was a black night, no stars, high cloud cover. The pole light lit up the front of the lot, but the back was in shadow.
       Something caught her eye and she whirled around. Something moving. She loped the last few feet to her car and jumped in, tossing both bags into the passenger seat and taking a quick look in the rear. She reached around and across, locking the doors in one fluid movement, then hunkered down.
       In a few minutes she saw the lights go off in the restaurant, and saw Sally go out to her car and get in. The car started, and then the engine coughed and stalled. Sally tried again. More coughing and stalling. Finally the engine turned over. She gunned it, then slammed into reverse and roared backward, shifted, and drove out fast, past Valerie’s car and to the right in the direction of the Blue Moon.
       No big murder scene, no stealthy killer easing out with a knife. Just Sally, getting in her car like a sane human being and driving off.
       Valerie let out a shaky sigh and was sliding her key into the ignition when she saw movement at the back of the lot again. She froze.
       What the hell am I doing?
Still she didn’t leave. A few minutes passed. When nothing happened she started the car, and as she did she saw a man emerge from the back of the parking lot. He had something in his hand. Valerie’s throat closed up. Then she saw the umbrella. And the Yankee baseball cap.
       The man from the bar, who was talking to the fat woman earlier.
       Breath rushed out of her pursed lips. She put a hand to her chest, sat for a second with eyes closed, then put the car into gear and backed out. In her rearview mirror she saw the man standing about twenty feet away. She held up a hand and waved. After a second’s hesitation he waved back, twirled the umbrella, and walked off down the street.



       Valerie got to the paper early on Saturday. The Record went with a short staff on Saturdays, the newsroom closing at noon and the presses stopping at 3:00. The staff worked every other weekend. Richard Clark let his reporters arrange their own schedules and didn’t care who was working when, as long as two of them were.    
       Martin Ford was at his desk, rummaging around in his backpack. He took out his camera, popped out a roll of film, and walked toward the darkroom, slapping Richard on the back as he passed. 
       “Got some great shots out at Dell’s Falls last night, Richard. Maybe P-1. You got anything for P-1?”
       Richard looked up. “Dell’s Falls? What of?”
       “Oh, nature shots, you know, the fields, cows, farm equipment at sunset. Artsy stuff.” He glanced at Valerie and lowered his voice. “Coupla pics of a good-lookin’ woman, too.”
       “Farm equipment at sunset? That’s gonna look a little lifeless in black and white, don’t you think?” 
       “No, man, they’re great. Wait’ll you see.”
       “I’ve got Valerie working on the Blue Moon killer for P-1. You know, that little murder story?” He raised his voice. “I do have Valerie working on that for today, don’t I?”
       “You got it, Richard,” she called. “No sweat. You’ll have it soon.” 
       She loaded the typewriter.
       “Got any shots of the killer in there, Martin? That I could use for page one. Farm equipment I don’t know about, unless you got a dead body under one.”
       Martin chuckled and continued on to the darkroom. “No, no dead bodies.”    
       Valerie tapped away. She’d promised Richard more, but still there wasn’t much. Now she had to figure out what she was going to say, and more importantly, what she wasn’t.

       No Suspects in Blue Moon Killings       
      Braddock Mayor Tom Mosby, in a press conference yesterday, said that while there are no suspects in the Blue Moon killings, police are following several leads based on the murder of Susan Green, daughter of Braddock City Councilman William “Billy” Green and wife Hannah. Susan Green’s body was found at Hawkin’s Mill Landing yesterday by a local fisherman. According to police, she died of massive wounds to the throat.
   “We’re moving forward, and this most recent killing has given us clues we didn’t have before,” Mosby said.
    The mayor went on to say he was not at liberty to discuss the investigation in detail, nor was he able to elaborate on clues found in the Green killing. He did say, however, that police are talking to several persons of interest.
    Staff at the club confirmed seeing Miss Green on Wednesday night, but none could recall seeing her leave.
    Susan Green is the third in what are now being called the Blue Moon Killings, so named because the three women are believed to have met their killer at the popular dance club on Highway 64.
    Blue Moon Club owner Jerry Donner...

       She reached into her desk drawer for the directory and dialed a number. A man answered.
       “Blue Moon Club, Jerry speaking.” 
       “Hi, Valerie Costello from The Record here, how are you this morning?” 
       “I’ve been a helluva sight better, I can tell you. I guess I know what you want. Every goddamn radio, newspaper, and TV station has called me in the last 24 hours. I was beginning to wonder where you people were.”
       Valerie rubbed her forehead.
       “Jerry, I’m working on the piece about Susan Green. Can you answer a couple of questions for me?”
       “You don’t even need to ask. No, I did not see Susan come in Wednesday night. The place was packed and even if it hadn’t been I didn’t know the girl so I still wouldn’t have noticed her.”
       Valerie opened her mouth to ask a question.
       “No, I did not see her leave with anybody since I didn’t see her come in and no, I did not see strange people lurking around unless you count the couple hundred shitkickers who came out from under rocks to see this band I hired, which, by the way, I will never do again because they tore the fuckin’ place apart in their last set. And no, I have no comment except to say I’m as sorry as I can be that Susan and the other two got killed, and no, I sure as hell do not appreciate this clown being called the Blue Moon Killer in spite of the publicity it’s given my place. Those bastards at City Hall told me I should close the club ‘til things cool down.’ Well fuck ’em!
       “Uh....” Valerie said.
       “...Bunch of cock-knockers, that’s what they are. Then there’s that slimy bastard from the other newspaper, what’s his name? Hamilton?”
       “Bruce Ham....”
       “Yeah, Bruce Hamilton. He says to me this morning, ‘Well, Mister Donner,’ in that faggoty voice of his, ‘Don’t you think perhaps these kinds of places promote this sort of thing?’ WHAT sort of thing? I asked him. You mean killing? Prick. Is it my fault some guy gets off murdering young girls? Is it my club’s fault?”
       “Well, of course, I couldn’t say, Jerry, but...”
       “You couldn’t say? Is that what you think too?”
       “I just meant, well, I wanted to know if you have any comments on the murders, being the owner and all. Any comments, that is, in addition to what you’ve already said?”
       She’d been writing furiously.
       “What I’ve already said? You didn’t even ask me any goddamned questions! That was off the record, lady. Print any of it and I’ll sue the paper, tell Richard Clark that.” And he hung up.

   Blue Moon Club owner Jerry Donner had no comment on the murder of Susan Green.
      She wrapped up the piece by recapping the other murders, and with Tommy’s caution for townspeople to keep their doors locked and young people at home until the case was solved. Dropping the copy on Richard’s desk, she said, “Hope this is okay. The mayor didn’t give us much. The usual it’s-under-control-so-don’t-worry-your-little-pea-pickin-heads stuff.”  
       Richard looked the story over, “That’s all we’ve got from an hour-long press conference? And no pictures?” 
       She shrugged. “Whatever they’ve got, they’re not telling us. I’ll dig around and see what else I can find out.” 
       “What about pictures?” 
       Valerie forced herself not to groan.
       “Sorry, I couldn’t get hold of the Greens,” she lied. “I’ll try again.”
       She walked away, then hesitated and turned.
       “You know Richard, I’d have more time to work on the story if you’d clear the board for me, I mean, give my feature pieces to somebody else. I’d like to do some in-depth stuff. Maybe Martin could take over the, uh, bus…investigation…and that would free me up...?”
      “Got a better idea. I’ll get Martin going on a backgrounder of the victims, and give the bus story to Grace. Leave her your notes.”
      “Sure thing.”
       Valerie walked away, guilty. She’d tried to pawn the bus story off on Martin, and now to what would surely be Grace’s dismay, the story had been pawned off on her.
       Before she left, she dropped the bus file on Grace’s desk, with a note:

     “Sorry, G. Richard decided to keep me on the killings, so as you feared you’re the unhappy heir to the non-story of the week. Wish I could help tho glad I don’t have to. Good luck!  V.”

        On Sunday Valerie got up late, showered, and went to the kitchen wrapped in a short terry robe. She looked at the oven clock: 12:03.
       “Okay,” she said out loud, then reached for a martini glass, the olives, the Tanqueray. The first sip wasn't down her throat when she heard a rapid knock. She swallowed, set the glass down behind the coffee pot, then peered out through the living room to the front door glass.
        Martin Ford.
       Last summer Valerie had been in a Memphis bookstore when she noticed tall, handsome Martin Ford noticing her. He walked around a stack of books and looked into her face.
       Wouldn’t we have beautiful children, she thought.
       And that's where it started.
       Within a month, Martin had moved out of his Memphis apartment and, with Valerie’s help, found half a house in Braddock. He’d wanted to move in with her, but smitten as she was, she wasn’t ready.
       “We can’t, Martin,” she told him as he slid his hands across her hips and belly and breasts and through her hair, kissing the back of her neck. “I’m a reporter. Everybody knows me. And I’ve just broken up with someone. I can’t have you move in, at least not yet. Braddock’s a small town with a big mouth.”
       “But we love each other,” he said. “We should be together.”
       “We are together. Give me some time. I’ve only known you a month.”
       “Feels like I’ve always known you, baby,” licking her, holding her, “like I’ve been walking all these years toward right now.”
       Including the Air Force boyfriend, Valerie had never met anyone who made her feel like this. Her parents were dead and she was lonely, far from home and from the love of what family she had left. This was magic, or at least felt that way, and like all women who believe the story of finding the one and only mate out there, the mate who drifted aimlessly from one entanglement to another until you stumbled upon the lost and searching other half, Valerie thought she had.
       Martin conceded defeat. The house she’d found for him was a two-story, two-family owned by an elderly woman looking for a nice man to live upstairs so she could rest easy at night. Martin loaded two chairs, a single bed, dresser, and TV into his blue van the third Saturday he and Valerie knew each other and drove to Braddock, cruising up the interstate with the windows down singing Amazing Grace with Valerie harmonizing in the passenger seat, their blonde and red hair blowing around in the hot August breeze.
       Getting Martin a job had been absurdly easy. He was bright and chatty, traits that got both feet in the door at The Braddock Record. Valerie hadn’t actually considered how their working relationship might affect any other she assumed would blossom. Her happiness at seeing him all day, every day, was blinding. Hired a week after Labor Day, Martin cast Valerie aside by the first of October with no explanation and no remorse. One day he was there and the next he was gone. Literally.
       Now here he was again.
       “What's goin’ on?” he said as she opened the door.
          “Not much.” She let him pass. Outside was uncharacteristically cool and gloomy. She left the door open, hoping he’d notice and keep his visit brief.
      He flopped onto the couch. Faded jeans, green shirt, grinning at her through his beard. Looking great.
      “You just out of the shower?” he said.
      “Nah, went through the carwash with the top down.”
      He laughed. “You always were best fresh out of the tub, smellin’ like lilacs and...” He got up and came close, catching her off guard. “...gin?”
      She pushed him away. “What are you doing here?”
      “Hey, check the hostility. I was in the neighborhood, thought maybe you'd be pouring. Looks like I was right.”
       She stood there, hair tangled and wet, naked but for the robe. She wanted to tell him to get lost, she wanted to slap his face, she wanted to pull him into the bedroom. Instead she turned and led him into the kitchen and gestured at the bar cabinet. “Help yourself. You know where everything is.”
      When she took the martini out from behind the coffee pot, Martin hooted.
      “Good thing I wasn't the preacher's wife coming to call,” he said. When he saw her poisonous look he held up his hands. “Kidding! Come on, lighten up. You got any vermouth?”
        An hour later they were drunk and sprawled on sofa.
      “Why didn’t you mention you were at the club the night Susan Green disappeared?” she was saying.
      “I dunno. Didn’t seem important. I didn’t know her, didn’t see her come in, didn’t see her leave.”
      He was rubbing her thigh. She was letting him.
      “I’ve missed you,” she said, accepting his typically self-involved explanation.
      “I’m at work every day.”
      “You know what I mean. You bastard.”
      “Look, we had a good time, lots of laughs.” He winked and she thought about throwing the drink in his face. Then he leaned forward and put his hand at the back of her head, looked her in the eyes, kissed her. His touch was a hot icicle running through her from lips to crotch.
      “Shit,” she said and put her hands on his chest. “Stop torturing me.”
      He sat back. “What'd you think, we were gonna get married?”
      “I hate men.” She flipped her hair to the side and drained her glass. “You all say the same thing, like there’s nothing in between getting laid and getting married. No, I didn’t think we’d get married, but I thought maybe our relationship might last longer than seven weeks.”
      Martin shook his head. “Women think everything’s a relationship. We had fun, can't we leave it at that and be friends?”
      Before she could say no he got up, noticed her glass was empty, and handed over his. “Make me another one, too, will ya baby? I gotta hit the head.”
      She wobbled into the kitchen and set the glasses on the counter, wishing for strength to tell him to get out. But the truth was she didn’t want him to leave. He was sexy and charming and in spite of what she’d told Grace, good (well, great) in bed. She wanted him to stay, would have asked him to spend the night if she didn’t know he wouldn’t. Even when they were dating he rarely stayed all night. He’d be gone by midnight and she hated herself for knowing it, and for being so weak that she couldn’t do anything except stand here mixing him a drink and willing him to stay.
      Three things happened at once: Valerie went back into the living room with the martini glasses in her hands and Grace walked through the open door carrying a small yellow box. The third thing, Martin’s return to the living room, happened seconds after Grace said, “A little early in the day for that, isn't it?”
      Valerie imagined the scene through Grace’s eyes: martinis, Valerie drunk in a bathrobe, and Martin Ford smirking in the background.
      “I guess I’m interrupting,” Grace said.
      “Not at all,” Martin said, dropping an arm over Valerie’s shoulder. “Can we make you one, Gracie?”
      “Val, can I speak to you for a minute? In private?” Grace didn’t wait for an answer and walked into Valerie’s bedroom.
      “I'll be right back,” Valerie said and set the glasses down on the coffee table. Don’t leave, she mouthed.
      Not a chance, he mouthed back.
      Grace was standing with her hands on her hips.
      “So what's this?”
      Valerie closed the door and sat on the bed. Her robe fell open. She gathered the terry cloth and cinched it tighter.
      “What's what?”
      Grace held out her wrist and pointed at her watch. “It’s 1:15 on a Sunday afternoon and you’re half naked and drunk with Martin Ford. That’s what.”        
      Valerie’s eyes were heavy-lidded. When she tried to cross her legs she lost her balance and nearly tumbled, then steadied herself by gripping the edge of the bed.
      “I didn't realize I had to clear my Sunday afternoons with you.”
      “You certainly don't have to clear your Sunday afternoons with me. But I have to say that your judgment seems a little impaired these days. Are you and Martin seeing each other again or is this just another entry for your diary?”
      “Nothing is going on,” Valerie slurred. “He stopped by for a drink.”
      “A drink and...?”
      “A drink and…a drink. We’re talking. Why do you care?”
      “Forgive me, but aren’t you the little girl who a few months ago was crying in her beer about what a son-of-a-bitch he is? And that you can do better?” Grace spoke in a loud whisper. “What’s he saying, that he wants you back?”
      “No, he didn’t say he wants me back. We’re friends...”
      Friends?” Grace spat the word out as her voice rose. “This guy is not your friend, Valerie. He's a freakin’ snake. He’s here to get in your pants, and by the looks of things that shouldn't be too hard, considering you aren’t wearing any.”
      Valerie stood up, her face blushing with anger. “Look, Grace, if you don’t want to stay for cocktail maybe you should go. This ishent…isn’t getting us anywhere. Martin and I are talking, that’s all. Reminiscing about old times. We were close once, and he just stopped by. Okay?”
      Grace took a deep breath and glanced away. She saw her camera bag on a chair next to the closet, and said, “What’s this doing here?”
      “You left it at the Riviera. I was going to bring it over.”
      Pointing at the box, Valerie said, “What’s that?” which came out Whush at? The gin was really hitting now.
      "A belated birthday present,” Grace said. She picked up her bag, set the box down on Valerie’s bureau, and opened the bedroom door. “It’s nothing important. I’ll see you tomorrow."
      She left and shut the door hard. Valerie heard Martin call goodbye with no response. Then she heard the front door slam shut, and after a minute, Grace’s car roaring to life.
      The box wasn’t wrapped and Valerie opened it. Inside was another box, a small silver one with two raised hearts intertwined on top. When she lifted the hinged cover she saw something was engraved on the inside lid, above the red velvet.
      Dear V.: True friendship is fate. Love G. Braddock, Arkansas, 1979.
      She set the box on the bureau and slumped onto the bed.
      What are you doing?     
      Grace was right. Martin was no friend. What had she been thinking inviting him to stay, drinking and teasing? She hadn’t gotten dressed because she wanted him, and lied to herself that she’d turn him away when she knew she couldn’t. She got up and went to the door. I'll tell him to leave, then go find Grace and apologize, Grace who would be the first in line to say congratulations if only I could find the right guy. She opened the bedroom door and gasped. Martin’s big frame filled the doorway; then he pulled her close and put his mouth on hers. He caressed her face and neck, her back, her shoulders, and finally her breasts, which he cupped and kissed. When at last he slid his hands inside the bathrobe and pushed it off onto the floor, she started to cry…and let him.
      One of the many reasons Richard Clark liked Grace Welch was because she reminded him of himself when he was young. She liked reporting, was smart, and liked getting the facts straight. He’d kept her on obits and other soft local news since she’d started four months ago, having quit her job at a Memphis pizza pub after answering an ad for a staff writer at the Record. He’d been surprised and concerned that Grace and Valerie had a past, thinking their work might be affected by knowing each other too well, and in a different context. While Valerie’s work was suffering, Clark didn’t think the problem related to Grace, and now thought the time was right to get Grace out there into the community. He knew his reporters didn’t think much of the bus story. The fact was, though, that people were complaining, and Clark wanted to find out what was going on. In more ways than one, the mayor needed a wake-up call.
      Watching her work on Monday morning he knew he’d finally assigned the story to the right person. In the short time she was in the office he could hear her interviewing city workers on the phone, and was now slinging her camera bag over one shoulder and heading out the door.
      “Where’re you off to?” he said.
      “Taking a bus ride.”
      “Can I schedule the story tomorrow?”
      “No, we’re a little thin on interviews. I’ll talk to riders and to a few more people who complained – mostly angry old ladies so I hear. Give me ’til the end of the week, okay?”
      “You got it. Go get ’em, tiger.”
      After picking up a schedule and a route map at City Hall, Grace situated herself a block up from Lucy Lee’s house, at the kiosk on Highway 64 where two of the complainants said they were standing when the bus blasted right by. She checked the schedule, then her watch.
      About time Richard gave me something, she thought, even if my first real story is about the stupid bus. At least I’m out of the office. She didn’t understand Valerie’s complaints about the job. In her opinion, it was kind of cool being a reporter. Valerie should work in a pizza place for a year, then she’d really have something to bitch about.
       She settled on a bench and thought about yesterday’s confrontation at Valerie’s, her anger diminished, and wished her friend would show good sense more often. But she understood: Valerie was a broken toy.
       I’ll catch her in the office later and apologize, she thought. Poor kid can’t help herself.
       Valerie didn’t see Grace on Monday because she spent most of the day in bed, hung over. She crawled out long enough to throw up, call in sick, and turn off the telephone ringer. Martin had stayed late. They drank and had sex and ate Cool Whip out of the container until, at around ten, he said he needed to go. Valerie had fallen into bed not caring and awoke to the realization that she was a fool. 
       After sleeping all day she crept out of the bedroom to eat half a piece of toast, went back to sleep, and woke up again around 1:30 a.m. Tuesday with a thudding headache. She staggered into the living room and sank down on the couch, then noticed the answering machine light was blinking.
        There were five messages, one from Richard that she fast-forwarded through, one from her cousin Roxanne in New York, and the others from Grace. In all of them there was loud music in the background.
        At 10:01 p.m.: “Hey, I’m at the Blue Moon and I’ve got something for you on the killings.”
        At 10:36: “We need to talk. If you get this in the next half hour meet me over here.”
        And at 11:55: “Where ARE you? Okay, I’m leaving but don’t call me because I’m going straight to bed, I have a dozen things to do tomorrow for YOUR bus story. I’m stopping at the office in the morning, I’ll track you down and oh shit, look at the time...Hey, I’m sorry about yesterday. We HAVE to talk. Bye.”
        Valerie looked at the clock, still prickly about their encounter. Whatever Grace had could wait until morning.


        Grace Welch lay sprawled on the highway. She is spread-eagle, a star, lying on her back. Droplets of light rain patter on her staring eyes, making an unpleasant sound like rice falling on a tile floor. There are flies.
        Leaning closely, a policeman, or a newspaper reporter, might be able to hear the ticking sound the raindrops make as they land on the hardening pupils, the whites, the chocolate irises. One of Grace’s hands is in a fist, the other open, a second star. Her face shows the hint of a smile. And her throat is cut, her tongue pulled through the incision and down to her chest, something they call a Columbian Necktie in New York.
      She never saw it coming…

      There is a huge noise and Valerie jerks awake. She hears the noise again and realizes it’s the garbage men, those faceless fellows who are everywhere and who no one sees. Background threads in the town’s fabric, human threads no one pays any attention to. People not to be afraid of early in the morning unless you’re having a nightmare and they’re making a big noise outside your bedroom window. Her heart is racing. She’s had the dream before, the death dream, usually with a different leading lady: sometimes Grace, sometimes her mother, sometimes herself. Like before, it makes her feel small, like a little kid who has a nightmare and runs to her parents’ room.
      She wishes she could do that now, go and curl up in the warm bed pocket between her mother and father. With them, she was safe from the night. But they’re dead and gone, and all she can do is cover her head with the quilt, feeling that something out there in the dark is wrong, and knowing there’s nothing she can do about it.
      Shivering, she sleeps.



        At 6:00 a.m. on Tuesday Valerie was awake, heart pumping after a fitful night. Before even getting out of bed she reached for the phone and dialed Grace’s number. After four rings the machine picked up.
       “Hi it’s Grace. Leave me a message.” Beep.
       “Hey it’s Val. Are you gone already? Call me. What’s up?”
       There was no return call. Valerie brushed her teeth and listened to the news, wondering where Grace could be. Her telephone was on her night table. If she was in bed, she would have heard the phone ring. And she was always in bed at six a.m.
       Valerie tried to shrug off her unease. Maybe Grace was up and out early.
       At 7:20 a.m. police chief Horace Tucker slammed the phone down.
       His secretary jumped, spilling tea all over a freshly typed report.
       What?” she yelled into his office. She grabbed tissues and mopped up the mess. These cops were making her crazy.
       The chief came out and threw a pen across the room. He hit the wall with a closed fist.
       “He got another one! Goddamn it!”
       “Who got another one?” she said, but he was gone, out the front door.
       When Valerie got to the paper at 7:15 the lot was full. Martin’s van was there, as was Richard’s Mustang and a dozen or so M&M-colored pickup trucks. Grace’s car was nowhere in sight. She pushed through the glass doors to a newsroom uncharacteristically in full swing.
       “What’s going on?” she said as she tossed her purse into the bottom desk drawer. “This place is a beehive.”
       “Richard called us last night, didn’t you get a message?” Martin said. “Town’s in a frenzy over Susan Green’s murder. Everybody’s calling in tips. Don’t ask me why they’re not calling the cops with their detective work. Richard’s got me working on a backgrounder about the murders, recapping what happened, when, to whom.”
       He plucked paper out of the typewriter with a loud zipping sound and smoothed it flat on his desk.
       “He’s pulling Grace off the bus non-story and wants a sidebar about the other victims…where they went to school, were they good students, family stuff, that sort of thing. All stories in support of yours, on P-1, quoting our crack police force on where they are with the investigation.”
       He glanced up at her, starting at her chest, and grinned. “I suggest you get busy. A couple of paragraphs ain’t gonna cut it today. Especially since you were out sick yesterday.” His voice dropped. “I hope you don’t mind my saying, but you don’t handle the hooch as well as you used to, babe.”
       Valerie looked around, hopeful.
       “Grace is here?”
       “No, haven’t seen her. She told Richard yesterday she’d be in first thing and he’s in a fit.”
       Valerie walked to her boss’s desk.
       Clark looked up. He was in his standard outfit – black button-down  cowboy shirt and jeans – and looked frazzled.
       “Do you know where Grace is?”
       “I don’t. She was supposed to stop in before she finished up her interviews on the bus thing. We’ve got our hands full on the murders so I’m pulling her off the bus story. The coroner contacted the FBI because of whatever happened out at the river and the police department is pandemonium. Who knows why, you’d think they’d appreciate the help. You need to go downtown and see what you can find out.”
       “Richard, I’ve got a bad feeling.”
       “About what?”
       “Grace called me from the Blue Moon last night, late, said she needed to talk to me about the killings.”
       He put his pen down. “And?”
       “Actually, she called me three times but I was asleep and didn’t hear the phone. She wanted me to meet her at the club. By the time I woke up it was too late. I was going to call, but figured I could talk to her this morning…”
       Valerie swallowed hard.
       “She said she had something. In the last message she said she was going home to bed, that she was stopping at the office early and would track me down later. I called her first thing this morning but got the machine. I figured she was here.”
       “Richard?” the receptionist called from the front desk. “Line two.”
       He reached for the phone.
       “Don’t panic,” he said. “I’m sure she’s fine, maybe she was in the shower. But if it’ll make you feel better, run over there and check on her.”

      Grace’s yellow house was four minutes from the office. Valerie got there in two. She was panting as she drove.
       The house was tiny, somebody’s second home that they’d turned into a duplex. Grace’s big white car was in the driveway. Maybe she was in the shower, a little voice whispered. But she knew better. Grace would have called back. She parked in the driveway, got out and ran up the front steps.
       The door was painted bright red. Grace did the job herself, got busy the first Saturday after she moved in with paint can and brush to brighten up the new and shabby place she called home. Valerie had stopped by with wine and Grace had been glad for the interruption. They sat on the front steps and drank from Dixie cups, letting the friendship wash over them as it had years earlier in faraway Maine. Grace told Valerie about Memphis and college, and shrugging, about a boyfriend who’d run off to Jamaica and never returned. Valerie’s story was darker, with more details about her parents’ car accident, about Martin and the Air Force pilot, and about her seemingly aimless future now that she was in Arkansas for reasons other than men. “But now you’re here,” Val had said.
       Valerie touched the red door and knew her friend wasn’t in there. She banged flat-handed and pushed the doorbell a couple of times, then tried the knob. Locked. She banged on the door again, this time with her fist. The living room looked pale through the gauzy curtain.
      “Grace, you in there?”
      Nothing. A sick feeling rolled through her insides.
       She walked around back. The apartment was a shotgun, three rooms and a bath in a straight line. The living room at the front, kitchen in the middle and Grace’s small bedroom at the rear.
       At the kitchen window Valerie could see Fella. He was sitting against the screen, meowing at her. The window was halfway up.
“Fella, hey baby,” Valerie cooed. “Where’s your momma? Is she in there someplace?”
      The black and white cat yowled back, not the “Hello, how are you?” kind. Fella was hungry.
      “Grace!” Valerie called again.
      The window was about level with the top of her head, too high for her to hoist herself up and in. She looked around for something to stand on and saw a wooden bench, which she dragged to the window and stood on.          
       “Fella, move boy, come on, get out of the way.”
       She pushed lightly on the screen and was surprised when it popped out of the track and fell inside, taking a squalling Fella crashing down with it.
      She heaved herself up, going through the window head first before tipping forward and tumbling in. She landed hard, twisting at the last second. Her legs dragged behind and slammed against the stove, and for a minute she thought she’d broken her shinbone. She screamed and fell in a clattering heap onto Grace’s kitchen floor.
      She sat up clutching at her throbbing shin. After a minute of rubbing, the pain subsided and she stood up. The kitchen was typically messy, a sink full of dishes and coffee mugs, open snack bags on the counter. Newspapers were scattered across the table. The cat’s plate, on the floor next to the refrigerator, was empty, although the water bowl was half full. A bag of Friskies was on the shelf. Valerie dumped cat food onto the plate and filled the bowl with fresh water.
      She poked her head into the living room. Messy and empty. In Grace’s bedroom the unmade bed was flush against the back window. There was a bureau, on which were the pieces of a broken clock in a bowl. There was also a small nightstand, a chair, and several piles of dirty clothes; off to the left was the bathroom.
      Grace wasn’t here.
      The sick feeling bloomed and Valerie felt as she had on Monday morning, like she might have to rush into Grace’s bathroom and throw up. Why didn’t you answer the phone? her mind whimpered. If you’d answered the damn phone you’d have known what was happening. Another voice then, an accusatory one. You didn’t answer because you’re a filthy drunk who was too sick to get out of bed. She went into the bathroom and lifted the toilet seat, then gathered her hair at the base of her neck, crouched, and waited for breakfast to come up. After a few minutes, the feeling passed. She stood, closed the lid, and was about to go back into the bedroom when she noticed Grace’s toothbrush hanging in the holder. She ran her fingers along the bristles. Stiff and dry. She pulled back the shower curtain and saw the tub was also dry. Not only was Grace not here, she hadn’t been here. She returned to the bedroom and picked up the telephone to call Richard Clark. The answering machine light was blinking. She put the receiver down and pushed the play button. “You have five messages,” said the mechanical voice.
      “First message, received at 12:06 p.m.”
     “Hi honey, it’s mother. Tried you at work but you weren’t there. Just wanted to let you know Grandpa’s fine. The doctor said the stroke was mild. He’s home with us and as crabby as ever. Not to worry. Love you.” 
      “Next message, received at 4:38 p.m.”
      “Heeey girl, it’s Mikey. What’s up? Call me.”
      Mikey? Valerie thought.
      “Next message, received at 8:31 p.m.”
      The message from Richard, about getting to the office early.
      “Next message, received at 2:47 a.m.”
      “So where the hell are ya? Out gettin’ laid I hope. Call me.”
      The persistent Mikey.
      “Next message, received at 6:05 a.m.”
       “Hey it’s Val. Are you gone already? Call me. What’s up?”
        Something inside began to hurt. It was clear that Grace hadn’t been home since she left for work yesterday. Her mother had called to update her on her grandfather’s condition, so Grace must have known about his taking ill. If she’d come home she certainly would have listened to messages in case her mother called. People had tried to get hold of her throughout the day and evening, and Valerie herself had called this morning. Worst still, the last time she’d been heard from, as far as anybody knew, was around midnight. From the Blue Moon.
       She called the newspaper. When Valerie identified herself, the receptionist said in a strained voice: “You’d better get in here.”
 Delta Dead in its entirety is available on amazon.com.