My newest Double Barrel mystery is hitting the cyber shelves December 1st! I just wanted to share my joyous news, along with an excerpt to get your mystery-loving brains engaged.
I started writing this over a year ago and set it aside, but when I seriously went back to the story this past August, the plot and characters morphed into something quite different than my initial thought process. Sometimes fictional people have a mind of their own and you just can’t make them conform to your plans.
If you’ve enjoyed Blake and Shelby’s stories in the Double Barrel mystery series so far, then I know you will love A Man Can Die but Once. As usual, I start off with the murder, so it will come as no surprise to you all if you read the first page that the mayor’s shenanigans are finally coming to an end.
I hope you enjoy this excerpt and be sure to go to your favorite ebook store and PreOrder A MAN CAN DIE BUT ONCE. You won’t be charged until December 1st when it automatically downloads onto your reader device. As simple as that. A fun mystery just in time for Christmas lockdowns! (Sorry, couldn’t help myself)
Leaning over the body of the mayor, he pressed two fingers to the man’s thick neck, searching for the carotid pulse. Faint but still detectable. Suddenly, he felt the man grip the ragged edge of his untucked shirt and tug him closer as though trying to say something. Eyes wide and staring, the mayor’s blue lips moved faintly, but only a mewling whimper sounded from the depths of his chest. Instinctively, he jerked away from the moist breath of vomit and death that accosted him, and the mayor’s white-knuckle grip was broken. The mayor fell back, pulling his arm in close to his body and appeared to curl around his pain, then he exhaled one last time and was gone.
Slowly, he straightened, standing tall over the mayor’s body, his stance relaxed. Purposefully at ease. Closing his eyes, he allowed his adrenaline-laced heartbeat to slow and his breathing return to normal. No matter how many times he’d watched men die, he still felt a weight of darkness envelope his soul. A feeling he had to fight with every breath in his body. Exactly sixty seconds later, he opened his eyes and stared down on the ashen-faced man crumpled at his feet.
Everyone talked about this man. Locals either hated him or despised him. Some thought he was a necessary evil. A nasty, pushy politician could get things done for the town that nice people could not. But he’d never run across anyone who loved and respected him.
The great Farley Jones. The man who would be king… or at least, mayor of Port Scuttlebutt. He used people. Connived. Pressured. Even blackmailed them into doing his dirty work or going along with him in some unsavory deal or another. He’d heard the tales, but until recently, he’d never had the opportunity to see the man at work in person.
He had no real stake in the welfare of Port Scuttlebutt. Didn’t care whether Farley Jones ran things like a Detroit gangster or was more of a Saint Francis of Assisi, communing with birds and saving pine trees.
Farley’s mistake today was purely subjective.
The Mayor of Port Scuttlebutt had made a choice. He chose poorly. He never should have tried to hurt a woman on a mission. Like PETA zealots who write meat is murder on a butcher’s shop, to save-the-trees groups who chain themselves to bulldozers, or nuts who release thousands of minks from farms to starve to death or be eaten by foxes, people on a mission were the scariest people in the world to deal with logically. To them, the end always justified the means. Even if it didn’t turn out quite the way they planned. Much like war.
Stepping back, he carefully looked over the scene, imprinting it on his memory for possible future posterity.
Blood seeped from a wound on the back of the mayor’s head, glistening wet and dark. The fancy overcoat and loose-legged suit pants did nothing to hide the effects of a man accustomed to overindulgence and lack of exercise; a thickened waistline, fleshy jowls and neck, and overall poor muscle tone. He rested on his side where he’d fallen, one arm beneath him, the other extended across the floor, pudgy sausage fingers splayed out like a fan as though trying to grasp the baseball bat that lay just out of his reach.
Bending, he picked up the bat, twirling it in his gloved hands. There was a splotch of blood on one side. He wiped it clean on the leg of his black sweatpants, admired the scrawled signature, and then carefully placed it back on display above the fireplace with the other baseball memorabilia.
A piece of paper peeked out the pocket of the dead man’s overcoat. He squatted beside him and slipped it out, pressing it open flat on the knotty pine floor. A to-do list. He smirked. Apparently, the man’s mama was every bit in charge of the world and everyone in it as the rumor mill suggested. Even her son, the mayor, had to submit to her authority.
He started to rise, but the last item on the list caught his eye. He read the words and expelled the breath of a laugh. Not surprising, all the errands had been crossed off except this one. A smile stretched across his face and he rifled through the man’s pockets for a pen. Finding one, he leaned over the paper. There. Farley’s last day was complete.
One week earlier:
Fanny Arnold kept to the most well-worn deer tracks. She knew the woods in this area like the age spots on the back of her hand, but an early spring snow had crusted the ground again and made for slippery trail walking. She moved slower than usual, planting her stick with each step. The temperature was slightly above freezing this morning and a pleasant change from the sub-zero winter they’d recently endured. She’d felt the cold settle deep in her bones this year and didn’t know how many more winters she could survive. Being outdoors with nature and the animals she loved was what kept her going. Without that ability she would dry up and wither away. Pressing her chin deep into the collar of her coat like a turtle hiding from the world, she moved along, slow and sure.
A twig snapped to her left and she glanced up, eyes narrowing beneath the brim of her knit hat. Expecting to see the small herd of deer that often congregated in this quiet, shielded nook of the woods, she was surprised there were only two. A doe and her spotted fawn. She glanced around. Where were the others?
A rifle shot rang out startling Fanny and the deer. The doe bolted and the fawn quickly followed, disappearing into the thick of the woods. Fanny watched them go, dread settling in her gut. Poachers.
She’d had run-ins with their like before. No-good creatures, intent on destroying wildlife just to impress their buddies. They always ran in packs, like rats, and often were so drunk they couldn’t shoot straight. They ended up maiming rather than killing, which was so much worse. The poor deer would wander off and die alone in agony. Someone had to do something about it! If the DNR weren’t up to the task, then she would handle them her way. Her grip tightened on her walking stick.
She turned up the hill and climbed to the top. Pulling a pair of compact binoculars from her pocket, she scanned the little valley and wooded area beyond. There! On the edge of the woods two figures crouched beside a carcass. One of them was already busy field dressing the poor thing. By the time she hiked to the spot, they’d be done and making their getaway. She’d better get a move on.
Out of breath and panting by the time she reached the patch of blood-soaked ground, Fanny set her lips firmly together and tried not to cry. At least it hadn’t suffered. If they’d taken it with them to butcher, then they weren’t just out for sport. There was some comfort in that.
The trail they’d left behind was easy to follow, and she started after them. It was illegal to shoot a deer out of season. She would get their names or license plate and report them to the authorities as soon as possible. But first, she had to catch up to them. She soon spotted white puffs of chimney smoke wafting above the treetops and suddenly realized where the hunters were heading. Martha Reynold’s place.
The old cabin sat deep in the woods with only rough, dirt-track access from the main road. Martha often went weeks without venturing out to town. When she did, she and her son Lanky would bundle up and take their ancient Honda ATV. Lanky had been born with down-syndrome and he was the sweetest young man. It wasn’t her place to say, but Fanny thought he was capable of far more than his circumstances allowed. Sadly, Martha kept him secluded from the world out of fear that folks would treat him poorly. Fanny had made a point to stop in now and then, checking up on the two of them, and Martha was always friendly enough in her own way. The woman wasn’t accustomed to visitors, but she always offered a hot cup of coffee and a sit-down out on the front porch. Other than herself, she supposed few people even knew where Martha lived.
Fanny wouldn’t be surprised if Martha was desperate enough to shoot squirrels or rabbits so that her son could have fresh meat during the long winter, but to poach a deer out of season? That didn’t sit right with what she knew about the woman. Martha was a law-abiding citizen who just wanted to be left alone to live her life in peace. Poaching would bring trouble down on her head and that would be the last thing she’d want. Her son’s welfare was her biggest concern. She’d told Fanny as much last year when the boy had a rough bout of pneumonia. Her husband had died four years earlier, leaving them to survive on social security and the little bit of income she made making and selling crafts locally.
Voices filtered through the trees. One loud and brash, the other a soft mumble. She pushed aside a branch and peered into the clearing. The deer carcass was wrapped in a tarp and draped across a rickety picnic table in the middle of the yard. A fire crackled and flamed from a rock-rimmed pit nearby. Lanky poked at the fire with a stick, stirring the embers to a blaze.
“Get over here and help me with this!” the taller man yelled, unwrapping the deer in preparation to skin and butcher it. He picked up a long knife from the table and turned around enough that Fanny caught a good look at his profile. Late twenties or early thirties, tall, scraggly brown hair beneath a dark cap. A bushy beard grew thick and red below a Romanesque nose. She didn’t recognize him from Port Scuttlebutt. He glanced her way and she quickly drew back.
“Lanky! I said get over here,” the man bellowed again.
Fanny cringed, fearful for the young man she knew as a sweet soul. Who was this fellow yelling orders and where was Martha? She pressed her back to the trunk of the fir and slowly slid down to sit on the hard needle-covered ground. A shiver ran through her and she wrapped her arms around her middle for warmth. What now? She’d never desired the encumbrance of a cell phone out in nature, but at this moment she wished she’d actually opened Blake’s gift and brought it along.
“Miss Fanny,” a quiet voice whispered through the low-hanging limbs near her ear. “Are you playing hide and seek?”
Fanny looked up into guileless hazel eyes and realized she’d been quietly counting aloud. It was something she did whenever she needed to make a difficult decision. Usually it helped her think through a problem and come up with a clear solution. This time it had obviously made the problem much worse.
A rifle barrel poked through the branch above Lanky’s left shoulder and an angry voice demanded, “Get out here where I can see who I’m shooting!”
Lanky helped Fanny stand and took her hand to lead her into the clearing. “Miss Fanny is my friend, Sam,” he said firmly. “She comes to visit me and Mama sometimes.”
The man lowered the gun, brown eyes still narrow with suspicion. “Since when do you two have friends?”
“Since Miss Fanny started coming,” he said with all seriousness.
“Huh. Too bad she don’t have a friend with a car who could take her to the doctor instead of a nosey old biddy with a stick.”
Fanny felt the man’s dark gaze sweep over her dismissively. When he crouched down to pet Jet, Lanky’s old hound dog, she looked him over quickly. He was very tall, but not thin. Solidly built. His khaki jacket hung open revealing a black t-shirt stretched over a broad, muscular chest. On the right side of the shirt was a gold emblem. An eagle perched on a globe of the world with an anchor struck through it. She recognized that emblem. It was a symbol of the United States Marines.
“Mama don’t like doctors,” Lanky said. He scratched at a knee sticking through worn jeans. “She used up all the medicine she made last year, and the flowers don’t grow back until summer.”
“She’s still using her herb brews instead of seeing a real doctor?” The man kicked at a rock sticking up out of the ground with the toe of a black combat boot, his mouth stretched so tight it nearly disappeared in the growth of beard. He looked up, sudden recognition in his eyes and pointed a finger in Fanny’s direction. “Wait a minute. You’re that healer woman, aren’t you? I remember you from when I was a boy. You used to take care of hurt animals, right? Arnold. That’s it,” he said as though he’d just given her the name. “You’re Fanny Arnold.
Fanny nodded, shooting a worried glance toward the house. Where was Martha? And why was he talking about her as though she was his… “Sam? Sammy Reynolds? Martha told me you joined the Marines and never looked back. She sure missed you. I bet she’s mighty glad to have you home.”
He scoffed. “Home? This was never a home. This was just the hole where my old man decided to dump us when he went on his sales trips.”
“Where is Martha?” Fanny asked, glancing again at the quiet façade of the cabin.
“She’s sick in bed.” He shifted the rifle to his shoulder. “Hey, could you take a look at her? She’s been running a fever and says her belly hurts.”
“I’m not a people doctor,” she said, nervously. She was already getting guff from Farley Jones for taking in strays and wildlife that needed her. He’d sent her legal looking letters with his official stamp from the office of the mayor, accusing her of running a pet hospital without a license or credentials. They were long and wordy, but the gist was that she should shut down now or face prosecution. The last one insinuated that her activities could be defined as mental illness.
Lanky moved to take her hand, tugging her toward the front porch. “Come on, Miss Fanny. You can make Mama better. I know you can.”
She went along, feeling like she didn’t really have a choice. Besides, she was worried about her friend. She glanced back at the big man and saw his grim expression relax with relief. He moved to the deer carcass and resumed his work. ~~
*Please leave a comment and tell me what you think about the excerpt or about your complete and utter surprise that I have finally finished a new novel, or which part of the turkey you enjoy at Thanksgiving, or how much you hate lockdowns. I don’t care. I just love getting comments.