CROSS TALK: Sneak Peek
Caught Dead in Wyoming, Book 11
DAY ONE — MONDAY
The Ten was done.
At least as good as the Five, maybe better for having been tightened and polished.
The viewers wouldn’t know what hit them, since it was a newscast packed with something they only received sporadically from KWMT — news.
A minute ago, Leona had passed me on her way outside for a well-deserved night of rest.
Everyone — even the usually wordless types from the control room — had said what a great job she did.
She’d known it, too. She’d been pleased with herself, but also exhausted. Hating to do a job didn’t mean not having the self-respect — and respect for co-workers and viewers — to do it well.
There were some people — like me — on whom breaking news and/or newsroom disasters had the same impact as mainlining adrenaline. It was the high of all highs. Hard to come down from, and when it was past leaving a faint wistfulness to get back to it, along with a jazzed recognition that eventually you’d be tired.
Others — like Leona — marshalled their resources to do the job, but it sucked the energy out of them.
She’d definitely been dragging when she muttered good night on her way past.
I barely clamped my teeth on my bottom lip to stop from hitting her with a litany of ideas about tomorrow. What we’d do differently, what we’d expand, what we’d trim. All that swirled through my brain in anticipation of a conversation with Audrey as soon as she returned from a trip home to feed her cat, which she had not taken the time to do before the Ten.
Poor cat. More deadline collateral damage.
Turning away from the deeply disappointing offerings of the break room, I started toward my desk, which I knew held a package of Pepperidge Farm Double Dark Chocolate Milano Cookies. Actually, multiple packages.
It was important to have reliable go-tos in times of need.
But I forgot about the cookies when I looked down the hallway to where it ended in two sets of glass doors separating KWMT’s block structure from the great outdoors.
Or the not-so-great outdoors, since the doors opened onto the parking lot, lit harshly, but not well, at this hour of the night.
Possibly once paved, either the pavement broke up or someone gave in to the inevitable and dumped gravel on it. Either way, it produced a steady supply of dust, which Wyoming’s surfeit of wind deposited both on parked vehicles and the building, including a coating on the outside of the outer doors and not much less on the outside of the inner doors.
With that through-a-glass-dustily effect, I couldn’t see detail, but what I did see had me sprinting toward the doors.
Someone in the parking lot appeared to be yelling at and towering over a second someone. And that second someone wore the raspberry-colored blazer over jeans that Leona D’Amato had on when she passed me on her way outside a minute ago.
“Hey!” I shouted as I pushed out the outer doors.
Leona D’Amato is a redoubtable woman, but she was dwarfed by a young Amazon with a poor sense of personal space and a definite mad on.
The young woman with mousy brown hair down to an impressive pair of shoulders nearly bumped Leona — who did not back away.
For all her stalwartness, Leona couldn’t do much about being significantly shorter and four-plus decades older than the Amazon looming over her. Not to mention Leona’s exhaustion.
“—and you can’t do that. Nobody can. We won’t allow it. No matter—” The younger woman was screaming.
“Hey,” I shouted again, charging up to them.
Facing the other woman, I wedged my shoulder between her and Leona, followed up with my hip, then moved forward.
My maneuver displaced the Amazon about as much as it would have a tank.
Fortunately, she was more distractable than a tank.
Or maybe not fortunately, I decided when she swung toward me from about six inches away.
The young woman was outraged. Yet there was also real sorrow in her starting, reddened eyes.
That didn’t have time to stir sympathy in me — if it would have succeeded at that with all the time in the world, considering how she was acting — because in the next breath she directed the roar at me.
“I know who you are, too. And what you’re up to.”
“I’m Elizabeth Margaret Danniher and I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“And I know all about you and how you’ve been after his job ever since you came here.”
My position between the other two began to erode. Not because of the Amazon, who hadn’t budged, but because of Leona wrapping her hands around my left arm and yanking back, trying to get me out of her way.
“Make up your mind.” Leona’s order came out with plenty of snap, but might have been more impressive if she’d delivered the words without anything or anyone between her and her confronter. With our height differential and my determination to not let her push me out of the way, she said it while looking around my shoulder. “I thought I was the one after somebody’s job, though whose—”
“You both are. You’re horrible. You’re evil. You’re … you’re harpies. That’s what she said and she told me what it means and she was right. Old and pathetic and—”
“If we were pathetic,” I said, “you wouldn’t be worrying about us doing whatever it is you’re worried about us doing.”
Have you ever noticed logic can enflame some people? Particularly those not inclined to use it themselves.
The Amazon’s face turned dark red.
“It’s jealousy. All jealousy. It would be laughable if it weren’t so evil. And if it weren’t aimed at such a wonderful person.”
As angry as she was, there was a hesitation in her words, like an actor repeating a script not quite memorized.
“She told him and told him he shouldn’t be so tolerant of your schemes, but she said he’s such a magneti— No, no. That’s wrong. Magnanimous.” She pronounced it with care. “She said magnanimous. And that’s why he hasn’t swatted you like insects.”
“You’re talking about somebody who works here?” Leona demanded.
“Works here? If it weren’t for him, this whole place would fall apart. There wouldn’t be a TV station. It’s only because of Thurston Fine. He’s—”
“Thurston?” Leona and I chorused, our harmony ragged, but the dumbfounded sentiment heartfelt.
The young woman couldn’t have recognized our astonishment or she wouldn’t have said, “Oh, now you know who I’m talking about. As if you haven’t been stabbing him in the back and trying to push his body aside to climb over him to the top for ages. That’s —”
“You think I want Thurston’s job? You are—.”
“ —what she always said would happen and now it has. And to do it—”
“Who said?” I asked.
She might not have heard me because Leona hadn’t stopped talking. “ —out of your head. Completely—”
More likely the young woman didn’t hear my question because she wasn’t listening.
“ —you had to climb over her body first. Her dead body. Oh, my God. Dead! She’s dead. How can she be dead? I can’t believe—”
“—and totally out of your head,” Leona declared.
“ —you’ve done this. It’s so evil. So wicked and—”
I got as much into her face as I could and repeated loudly, “Whose body?”
“Melissa’s. I should have protected her. I let her down, but I won’t let you—”
“Melissa who?” I roared. I was not going to put words in her mouth that she could try to deny later.
She blinked. “Melissa Oxley.”
“You’re saying Melissa Oxley said someone was after Thurston? When? Who?”
“As if you didn’t know. You—” She jabbed a forefinger the size of a tree limb into my chest, then a second jab over my shoulder toward Leona. “ —both of you or one of you, but even if it was just one of you, you’re both guilty—”
Preoccupied with trying to unravel the implications of her inventive viewpoint on what had happened, I almost missed the vehicle coming at us from the entrance to the parking lot.
It might not have hit us. But I took no chances on might. I used my left arm to keep Leona behind me and sort of hooked it around her, while grasping the Amazon’s jacket front and tugging her toward the station doors, hoping it put all of us out of the vehicle’s path.
That pulled her off balance, which actually brought her closer to the right bumper of the vehicle than she might otherwise have been.
The driver — Audrey, I saw — rammed the heel of her hand into the horn.
The Amazon tugged her jacket from my hold without much effort, then clapped both hands over her ears as she lumbered toward a pickup that might have been blue before the rust took over.
“Wait.” I started after her. “What’s your name? You knew Melissa Oxley? I’d like to talk to—”
Audrey clasped her arms around me, impeding my progress. I still called after the Amazon, but she’d shown no inclination to heed my words when I’d been just behind her. She sure didn’t now, with the gap between us expanding.
“Ma’am? Ma’am?” came a disembodied voice.
“Dammit, Audrey—” came from my body, still restrained by her.
The pickup backed up, tried for a three-point turn, but needed several extra points to get headed in the right direction to rumble away.
Audrey released me, apparently satisfied I wouldn’t run after the vehicle like a barking dog … though my SUV was right there in the lot…
Unfortunately, my keys were in my purse in my desk.
“Leona, are you okay?” Audrey grasped her shoulder, turning her toward the light.
Leona jerked away. “Of course I’m okay. I was handling it just fine before you and Elizabeth butted in.”
Audrey snapped back. “Let’s get inside before you both take me apart for ruining your fun.”
“She was a foot and a half taller than you and—”
The disembodied voice interrupted my assessment. “Ma’am? Ma’am? Is anyone hurt?”
Audrey looked around for a second before focusing on the phone she still clutched in one hand, explaining the disembodied voice.
“Oh. Hi. Sorry. I’m here,” Audrey said into the phone. “No, no one’s hurt, but it was still an attack, no matter what some people— Anyway, the assailant has left, but please get someone here right away.”
“Sheriff’s department is here.” I tipped my head toward an approaching vehicle topped by strobing lights. It came at a significantly more sedate pace than Audrey had. “Hang up.”
She wasn’t fast enough for me, taking time to thank the dispatcher and probably invite her to Sunday brunch.
“Hang up now.”
She did with a bit of a huff. There was no time for that, either.
“Do either of you know who that woman was?”
“No.” Audrey gained points for brevity, even if it was the result of being peeved at me.
“I can guess she’s connected to the woman found dead—”
I cut off Leona. “No guesses. Understand? We tell them only what we know for a fact about what happened just now. That’s all. Got it?”
“Got it,” Leona said.
The driver’s door of the sheriff’s department vehicle opened. One short leg emerged.
Sergeant Wayne Shelton.
“We do not include our visitor mentioning the name Melissa Oxley,” I added.
Audrey’s eyes went wide, but Leona nodded crisply.
~ * ~
“Really? You have nothing better to do a few hours after the body of a young woman who lives in your county was found than to come check out an altercation in a parking lot? Not even at a bar? Just a mundane TV station?”
Shelton did not rise to my bait.
“The dead woman’s not in our county and—”
“She was a resident here.”
“ —not our case. When I hear about an altercation at the TV station, I’m not going to miss that.”
“You did miss it, Sergeant. It’s all over.”
“How did whatever’s over start?”
“You’d have to ask Leona. I—”
“I will. I’m asking you now.”
“—saw something going on out in the parking lot through the doors.”
“What was going on?”
“I couldn’t see clearly.” I gestured toward the doors. “Very dusty.”
“Saw well enough to make you go outside.”
“I recognized the color of Leona’s jacket. That was enough. I was concerned.”
“What did you see when you came out?”
“A tall young woman I didn’t know looming over Leona and yelling at her.”
“Really, Sergeant, she was incoherent. I couldn’t make sense of what she said, much less remember it.”
He didn’t believe me.
I didn’t believe me.
I was usually better at dissembling. And why was I bothering?
It had been pure instinct to tell the others to limit ourselves to what we knew for a fact. But why, when we were leaving the investigating to law enforcement?
On the other hand, I’d given the order. I couldn’t very well leave Leona and Audrey high and dry now by going beyond the few hard facts we had. That wouldn’t be right.
“Did she touch Leona?” he asked.
“Not that I saw. I got between them. She poked me.”
“With her finger.”
“Uh-huh. Hurt?” He sounded hopeful.
“Break the skin?”
“No.” I hadn’t checked. But right now it could be gushing blood and I wouldn’t have told him.
“Quite tall — maybe a little over six-foot. Medium brown hair. Broad shoulders.”
He snorted dismissal of my descriptive powers.
I added, “I don’t think she came to the station intending to hurt Leona, me, or anybody else.”
“How’d you come to that conclusion? Mind-reading?”
I gave Shelton a cool, level stare. “She would not have pulled into a parking spot with a pickup that steered like a tank. It took her five or six painful wheel cranks to get headed in the direction of her getaway. Anyone with an iota of sense and planning to do harm would have backed into the parking spot.”
He stared at me for another beat. “Get the tag number?”
That was small-minded. Instead of lauding my reasoning skills, he tried to undermine my observational abilities.
“Wyoming,” I shot back. “Last two digits were 47.”
He grunted. “Don’t go anywhere.”
He strode off to where a young deputy I’d only seen a couple times stood with Leona and Audrey, apparently prepared to tackle them if they talked to each other.
That deputy also had barked “Stay inside,” when Dale, the news aide, started to exit. Poor guy, stuck at the station despite his shift having ended.
I, on the other hand, was feeling significantly more cheerful, since I’d memorized all of the vehicle tag on the Amazon’s truck.
It was reflex. So was not sharing completely with Shelton.
I hadn’t lied. I’d just given him the less helpful portion of what I knew.
Maybe I would call him in the morning and give him the whole license plate.
Since we were leaving this to law enforcement.
Leona stood at the doors, watching outside, while Audrey and I slumped in chairs by her computer.
Headlights of a turning vehicle flashed across the glass.
Leona exhaled with satisfaction. “Finally, they’re gone.” She started toward us.
As invested in the establishment of Cottonwood County as Leona D’Amato was, she had a streak of distrust of law enforcement that made me wonder if she had an interesting past.
“You’d think it was the crime of the century,” she grumbled.
“Oh, Leona, when I came into the parking lot and saw you and Elizabeth being attacked—” Audrey choked with tears.
She jumped out of her chair and wrapped the older woman in a hug.
Leona looked at me with comical dismay.
To cover any potential reaction of my own — toss-up if I’d cry with Audrey or laugh with Leona — I got up and turned it into a group hug.
A voice beyond us coughed, and we all turned to Dale, who’d been in a nearby chair all along.
“Dale, what are you doing here? You should have gone home ages ago,” Audrey said, as we three huggers each took a chair.
“Deputy said to stay until he said I could go.”
Then forgot he was waiting. Poor kid.
“You’re going to investigate all about this death, Elizabeth?” Was Dale interested, excited, or worried?
The last would be about Jennifer.
His adoration of her was such that he did anything she asked. Mostly picking up shifts and tasks, which allowed her to participate in our inquiries. At the same time, he appeared to worry about her.
“No,” I reassured him. “Not this time.”
I became aware of scrutiny from the two women and returned it with a pointed, “What?”
“Nothing.” Audrey looked away.
Leona didn’t. “After you said not to give Shelton anything beyond name, rank, and serial number?”
“Knee-jerk reaction that it’s better to tell him too little than too much.”
“She knew the dead woman’s Melissa Oxley,” Leona pointed out.
“This is a small town. Word could have gotten out.”
“You’re not curious?”
“There’s more than enough to do right now with keeping the news on-air at KWMT.”
“That’s the truth.”
Leona ignored Audrey’s endorsement of my position. “At the very least you must want to know about this person who attacked us,” she insisted.
“You know her?”
I expected her to say no.
“I don’t know her. But I know her name is Fawn Raglettley. She played basketball for the high school. Mike will know more.”
“I’m sure we don’t need to bother Mike,” I said easily.
“Fawn coming here was clearly connected to Melissa Oxley’s death. You heard what she said.”
“Sergeant Shelton will assess whether or not her coming here fits into their — or Horse Creek County’s — investigation.”
“Not after we didn’t tell him anything.” Leona narrowed her eyes at me. “You’re not going to look into a young woman being found dead and Thurston being questioned?”
I loved that Leona considered thirty-seven a young woman, but stuck to the point. “It could be seen as a conflict of interest if KWMT staffers poke around.”
She scoffed with an emphatic expulsion of breath. “Wouldn’t stop you if you wanted to poke around.”
Before I could fall into the trap of saying anything along the lines of Maybe I don’t want to, I foresaw her follow up.
Instead, I said, “Once they announce the identification, it will likely be — sadly — a routine matter of a woman who took her own life.”
“Law enforcement is in the best position to determine what, if any, role Thurston played.”
“If I had my eyes closed I wouldn’t believe that was E.M. Danniher saying those words.” She pressed her hands to her thighs as she stood. “I’m going home. I’m tired. And there’s more of this nightmare tomorrow.”
We had Dale follow Leona home.
“Make sure no one else is following her and go with her to the door,” I added.
“That’s ridiculous,” she protested. “This isn’t a crime-ridden city—”
“Go with her to the door and don’t leave until she’s checked all over the house,” I elaborated. “And if she won’t check, then you do it. Closets, too.”
“Good grief. Fine, fine. I give up — before you make the kid stay until a SWAT squad clears the place.”
He messaged us that Leona was safely in her house with no sign of any disturbance or of anyone following her.
Fueled by satisfaction at that state of affairs, along with my stash of cookies, Audrey and I got down to sketching out a framework for the next several days.
~ * ~
There were too many unknown variables to map out much detail, but the time was well spent because Audrey’s confidence rose as we worked.
Neither of us said it, but it seemed she was going to be the de facto person in charge. At least for now. Others — like Les and Thurston’s pet producer — had the titles, but no inclination to lead. In the vacuum left, Audrey had already stepped up impressively.
I’d seen this before in newsrooms.
As in many workplaces, those who talked a good game, especially about themselves, got the attention and the titles. But failed to rise to the occasion of an emergency, while the untitled pulled irons out of the fire, getting little recognition except from other people actually doing the work.
I’d known one guy who turned every event into drama and trauma. In retrospect I saw it was so he could claim credit for handling the D-and-T. When real crises hit, he was out of his depth.
Unfortunately, by the time I recognized this, I’d been married to him long enough that I felt I owed him loyalty despite flaws of character and crisis management.
On that cheery note, I turned into my street, looking forward to the consoling company of my dog, Shadow.
Several houses away from my driveway, I recognized, from the presence of a familiar pickup truck, that I had other company. Whether it would prove to be consoling was unlikely.
Thomas David Burrell more often riled me — in more ways than one — than soothed me.
Sneak Peek End
Pre-order Cross Talk now and you’ll get the full story on its release date in May.
Read on as the stage is set for a resolution to Elizabeth’s romantic relationship(s), and Patricia expands upon the stories of both Mike and Tom. Cross Talk gets Elizabeth, Mike and Tom to a point that there could be a happy beginning.
And in Air Ready, Book 12 of Caught Dead in Wyoming, the Tom or Mike question will be resolved.
Along with another murder mystery! Air Ready also is available for pre-order, for a 2023 release.