Enjoy the second half of Chapter Two!
Reclaimed Haven: Murder on First — Chapter 2B:
Drake Mallard’s official title was Investigative Detective for the Crossfield Police Department. He’d held that position for the last ten years. It wasn’t particularly demanding, considering the number of homicides in the area generally ran in the single digits… per decade.
But he kept his skills sharp by attending copious continuing education seminars and chatting with fellow officers online. A part of him envied his peers who recited harrowing stories of death and mayhem. But, he figured raising his family in a peaceful part of the world was worth the boredom, assuming he ever had a family. Police work was his passion, his focus, his life… for now.
When he wasn’t busy with his particular area of expertise (which was basically never), he aided in investigating burglaries, patrolling traffic, and various other small town matters.
So, he wasn’t surprised when the call came in.
“Bloody lab reported at Third and Mud… Crossroads.”
“Seriously? Can’t they take care of stray dogs?”
“Evidently not bloody ones. Nobody wants to touch it.”
“Sweet Mary, mother of God. Damn thing probably got into it with a raccoon.” Silence. “What’s the address?”
“Bloody lab. Last seen near Third and Mud. Crossroads.”
“10-4. On my way.”
The dispatcher continued, “Take necessary precautions. Blood. Could be a biohazard.”
“Roger,” he laughed, “I’ll put on my hazmat.”
He conducted a fast u-turn and headed east.
“First on the agenda,” Bart said, “We have a new reporter.”
“I’m aware of that,” Ned said, “I was there when she arrived.”
Bart narrowed his eyes. “Just because Maisy couldn’t be here doesn’t mean we can’t conduct a proper meeting.”
“Well,” Ashley said, “it’s just the three of us. We’ve already met.”
“Doesn’t matter,” Bart said, “we’ll conduct a proper meeting nonetheless.” He tapped on a small stack of papers in front of him.
“You planning on using Robert’s Rules of Order?” asked Ned.
“If I have to.”
“Fine,” Ned said, “then I’ll happily accept my copy of today’s agenda.”
“You know we don’t have a printed agenda,” Bart said.
“Then it’s not exactly an official meeting, is it?”
“Nevertheless,” Ashley jumped in, “I’m sure everyone is busy. I’m sure we can move along.”
She squirmed, visualizing the small pill box in her purse holding her precious pain meds.
Both men turned to look at her. “I guess you have the floor,” Ned said, “tell us about yourself.”
“I don’t want the floor,” she replied, eyes widening.
“I want, and currently have the floor,” said Bart, rearranging the papers in front of him.
“Then hop to it,” Ned said, “we’ve all got work to do. What ‘cha got?”
“Fine,” said Bart, “First on my agenda: We have a new reporter.”
“I think we’ve established that.” Ned said.
Ashley nodded, cheeks reddening.
“Perhaps you’d like to introduce yourself,” Bart said.
“I just said that,” Ned interjected.
Bart threw him an angry glance. Then he turned to Ashley, pursed his lips, and nodded. “Go on,” he said.
“Oh,” Ashley said, “I suppose…”
Both men gazed at her, waiting for her to speak. “I… uh…” she said, “I don’t know what to say.”
“Introduce yourself,” Bart said.
“Fine,” said Ashley. “I’m Ashley Stone. I come from the Twin Cities. I’ve freelanced for the last fifteen years, been a stringer for a number of publications back home.” She stopped abruptly, then added, “You can call me Ash. Everyone does.”
“Well, Ash,” said Ned, “it’s a pleasure to meet you.”
“Likewise,” piped in Bart. “Now, let’s get on to business. First,” he tossed the first sheet of paper in front of Ash and Ned, “we’ve got to finish the Senior Living Special Issue. Ash, for this project you have to interview six senior citizens who have done, or are doing, something spectacular.”
Ned rolled his eyes. “I suppose you want me to make ‘em all look tall, thin, beautiful, and young.”
“No smart talk from you. Just get ‘er done. And make ‘em look good. This isn’t a tabloid you’re working for.” He continued, “Second, Ned will give you the schedules for the meetings we cover. Most are in the evening. All are at least two hours long. All need coverage. Manage your office time appropriately.”
Ned and Ash nodded.
“Third,” Bart said, “Dick is fucking up everything he touches. It’s up to you two to act as PR. Smooth over the big advertisers with a promise of a front page story spread.”
“How are we supposed to do that?” Ned asked.
Ash interrupted, “Who’s Dick?”
“Salesman. Bad salesman.” Ned answered, “Don’t ask.”
“I don’t know how you’re going to fix the advertising situation. I don’t care. Just get ‘er done. Write complementary features on ‘em. We need cash flow.” He looked directly at Ash. “Finally, as you’ve probably already figured out, Ned is our photographer. He goes with you on every story. Period. Our readers aren’t used to a large amount of editorial content. Pics sell papers. Don’t get in his way.”
Ash nodded. She was about to say something when Bart’s phone rang. He raised his finger to interrupt her. He stood and exited the room.
Ned and Ash sat in silence a few moments before he said, “I think he likes you.”
“Why would you say that?”
“He hasn’t yelled yet.”
Silence hung heavy for a few moments before Ashley said, “What’s up with that Dick guy? If he can’t sell, why is he still employed?”
Ned said, “Dick is Bart’s brother-in-law. If he fired the lazy lout, his sister would kill him.”
Silence descended on them again, then Ned said, “You haven’t met Maisy. She’s the receptionist, graphic designer, gofer, you name it. You’ll like her. She’s nice. Part time, though.”
Ned sat without saying a word for a while longer. His gaze caught in her general direction. He seemed to be studying something about her. Finally he spoke. “Your hand. Looks like a pretty nasty IV scar.”
Ashley glanced downward. A poke hole directly above a large vein glowed red. She brushed it lightly. “Cat. She can get rough sometimes.”
“Doesn’t look like something a cat would do.”
“Well, I guess you’re the expert,” she answered.
Ned smiled as another moment of silence passed. “So, how did the cat do that?”
“Playing,” Ashley said, “playing rough.”
“That’s one hella cat,” Ned said. Then he added, “If you plan on using that lie again, you may want to remove some of the tape residue.” Ashley winced.
Their conversation was mercifully cut short when Bart entered the room. He tossed a piece of paper on the table. “Bloody lab,” he said. “Go cover it. Write a brilliant story. Sell newspapers.”
“Bloody lab?” Ashley repeated, “as in a dog?”
“All the details I have are on the paper. Now hop to it.”
Bart exited the room, leaving Ashley and Ned alone. Ned grasped the paper and read it. “Should be interesting,” he said. “Looks like a lab got into it with a ‘coon.”
“I knew that.”
“Then what was your point?” Ned’s eyes sparkled.
“Let’s get moving.” He passed the paper to Ash. She read the information and began to mentally write her lead. She followed Ned out of the conference area and paused by her desk.
She grabbed her notepad, flip camera, leather portfolio, and Betsy. They headed out the door.
Officer Drake Mallard pulled into the Crossroads Area Post Office parking lot. Groups of residents stood in small knots outside the door. Mallard counted four, approximately three to five people per. He strode to the closest one.
“Anyone here call in an emergency?”
A few group members mumbled in response. Mallard moved on. “Anyone here call in an emergency?”
A pudgy women to his right said,”That was me. I saw a stray lab near here. Golden lab. It was bloody.”
“How did you know it was blood?”
“It was red.”
“Could the red substance have been something else?”
“Where was the animal last located?”
“Right over there.” She pointed to an empty space of gravel around ten yards from the tip of her finger.
“Well, it’s gone now.”
“Yup. Labs have a way of doing that.”
Mallard scowled. “What way did it go?”
The woman pointed to her right.
Mallard walked back to his car and slipped inside. “God, I hate this town,” he mumbled. He fired the ignition and threw the car in gear.
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In the parking lot of the Crossroad’s Herald, Ned stopped short as Ashley proceeded towards her tomato red Smart. “I’m not getting into that thing.”
“Why not,” Ash asked.
“Seriously? I have a reputation to maintain. Anyone sees me in this thing and I may as well volunteer my nuts for their rear view mirror.”
Ash stopped short. “Seriously? Your masculinity is dependent upon the vehicle you’re in?”
Ned said, “No. But it sure affects other’s perception thereof.”
Ash laughed. “You said ‘thereof. Kudos!” Then she added, ”I love my Smart. Great gas mileage.
Perfect size for one. Plus, I can park anywhere.”
“Parking may be an issue in the big city, but really… I doubt you’ll have trouble finding a spot here.” His arm swept the vast expanse of the main street. Empty parking spots outnumbered cars by ten to one. “Hell, you don’t even have to know how to parallel park in these parts. Just drive on in and you’re good to go.” He paused, then added, “We’re taking my truck.”
“Fine,” said Ashley, “but next time, I drive. You need to experience the glories of my car. Plus, I wouldn’t mind seeing your… er… nuts hanging from someone’s rear view.”
“Yeah,” said Ned, “Sure. Hold your breath waiting.”
He strode towards a half ton pickup and clicked the fob. The vehicle chirped to life. He opened the door and hopped inside. Ashley pulled the gargantuan door open and stood a moment. It would take quite a heave-ho to get inside that thing.
“What ‘cha waiting for?” Ned chirped, “You’re about to find out what it’s like to ride in a real vehicle.” He patted the seat beside him. “This baby’ll take you anywhere you want to go. In style. In comfort.”
“And my car can’t do all that?” Ashley said. Then she added, “Got a hoist?” She paused gazing at the mile-high seat in front of her. “I’ll probably need one to get in this thing. Either that or a step stool.”
Ned revved the engine. “What did you say?”
Ashley strategically placed her right foot on the running board and grasped the door frame with her left hand. She gingerly pulled herself towards the seat, but a stab of pain pierced her incision. She grimaced.
“You need help getting in?” Ned glanced in her direction.
“Nope. Doing fine.”
She gave the maneuver another go, and this time hooked her left hand through the hand-grasp above her head and used it to pull herself upward. Meanwhile her right hand pushed against the door. Her abdomen screamed as she heaved forward, but she managed to wrench a portion of one buttock on the seat. She paused, breathing deep. Then she gingerly wiggled the rest of her bottom into the truck. Her hands shook and a tiny river of perspiration trailed down her temple.
“Jeeze,” Ned said, glancing in her direction, “You OK?”
“Yeah,” she answered nonchalantly, “I’m just sore. Tried working out last night. Just about did me in. I’m super stiff today.”
“Sure,” Ned answered.
Ashley gazed at the note Bart gave her. “Ned,” she said, “what kind of story do you suppose
Bart’s looking for? I’ve run a dozen leads through my mind and I just can’t get a handle on how to start this thing.”
“Don’t work too hard,” he answered, “He’s just testing your chops. If you can make this story work into something newsworthy, he’ll figure you can write anything.” He engaged the pickup and exited the parking lot. He continued, “Just write the story. Nothing fancy. It’s not exactly hard news, but it could still hit the front page depending on what else comes in this week.”
They drove in silence until they approached the post office. Cars lined the streets and the crowd had expanded. Officer Mallard’s police cruiser had returned and was parked directly across from the flag pole. Ashley gave Ned her best side eye. “Hmmm… no open parking spaces. I told you we should have driven my car.”
“Nah,” Ned said, “we’ll just go over there. You mentioned you like to exercise. Guess you’ll get some.” Then he broke into one of his gorgeous smiles. “I don’t like to park in the thick of things anyway.”
“I suppose I could use a work out,” Ashley said, “but I’d rather it be voluntary rather than forced.”
Ned laughed as they rolled to the end of the street. He swung a left and kept going until he reached the end of the parking snag. He pulled the vehicle in place and threw the shift in “park.”
“I suppose we’ll both get a nice walk this morning,” Ashley said.
“This hardly constitutes a nice walk,” said Ned. “I like to count my walks in miles, not half blocks.”
“No comment,” Ashley said.
* * *
Officer Mallard watched the crowd grow. “Damn people. Small town folks’ll get excited over nothing,” he grumbled. He sat back in his cruiser. “I’ll never find that mongrel.”
He flipped on his radio and spoke into the mic. “Mallard to dispatch,” he said, “No sign of said canine in Crossroads.”
The radio hissed a few moments before it sprang to life. “Dispatch to Mallard. Monitor the situation.”
He dropped his head against the seat. Damn. He threw the car in gear and maneuvered away from the scene.
He passed Ned Stevens as he exited the area. He walked next to a woman who carried what appeared to be reporter equipment. “Damn. The Herald’s here. Just what I need, bad reporting on a non-story,” he groaned.
He nodded to Ned and kept moving. He proceeded to patrol each street, noiselessly gliding down each, slowly scanning the terrain for the so-called bloody lab.
“It’s gonna be a long day.”
* * *
“Ned, my man!” Ashley watched a lanky fellow ambled towards Ned, his hand outstretched.
“It’s been too long!”
Ned laughed and clasped his friend’s hand. “I know. How long has it been… a week? Two?”
“Ha,” replied Lanky, “you know it, Superstar. We gotta get together at beer-o-clock sharp!
We’ve got catching up to do.”
The men nearly doubled over as their peals of laughter melted into the surrounding din of conversation. Ashley stood silent, patiently waiting for sanity to prevail and the men to act with even a small semblance of professionalism.
Finally, Ned turned to Ashley. “Ash,” he said, “This is Ike. Ike… Ash.”
“Nice to meet you.” Lanky (a.k.a. Ike) reached a long bony hand towards her. Ashley obliged, grasping his knuckles.
Ned said, “Ash is our new reporter.”
This small sentence elicited peals of laughter from Ike. “Seriously? How long do you suppose this one’ll last?”
Ned shrugged. “Who knows?” Ashley threw Ned her icy stare. He continued, “Ash comes to us via the big city. Drives a Smart Car. Probably drinks froufrou coffee.”
Ashley interrupted. “Hello Ike. It’s nice to meet you.” She turned to Ned. “Any chance we can get to work?”
“Have at it,” he replied, nodding towards the crowd.
Ashley stepped away, leaving the men to chat amongst themselves. She spotted a small knot of women and decided to start there. “Hello,” she said, “I’m Ashley Stone, the new reporter at the Crossroads Herald. Any of you know anything about the lab?”
The women fell silent and gazed at her. “Dunno,” said one, “I’m just here to watch.” Another said, “Everyone’s here so… well… so am I.”
Ashley politely thanked them and moved on to the next knot of gawkers. “Hi,” she said, “I’m
Ashley Stone, Crossroads Herald’s reporter. Anyone here know anything about the lab?”
One of the men looked at her suspiciously. “Got a press pass?”
Ashley said, “I don’t believe I need one.”
“Just messing with you,” the man laughed. “Nah. Just here waiting for some action.”
“You could talk to Officer Mallard,” said another.
“Officer Mallard,” Ashley repeated.
“Yup. Mallard. Drrrrrake Mallard.” He spoke in low, dramatic tones.
“Yeah. And I believe you,” Ashley quipped.
“Seriously,” a younger man said, “That’s his name.”
Ashley thanked the men and proceeded to the next group.
Nothing. She paused and breathed deep, pondering her next move. Then she noticed Ned making his way towards her. “Hey,” he said, “Ike saw the dog. If all else fails, interview him.”
Ashley said, “Good idea. Thanks.”
“Not really,” he replied, “I already snapped my shots. I just need you to get the story.” He grinned.
“Has anyone ever told you that you’re annoying?”
“All the time.”
Then it happened. In a flash.
Ashley was interviewing Ike for his take on the big bloody lab story. Ned was floating in among the crowd taking candid shots, hoping to find something usable for another photo essay. His flash sparked like a small bolt of lightning every time he snapped a pic. The crowd members murmured between themselves, some exiting due to boredom. Then it happened.
It began with a shrieking howl, then crescendoed from there. Every pod of gawkers instantly fell silent and all heads turned towards the animalistic sounds.
Within moments of the eruption, Geena Larson gasped, “What’s Justin T. doing?”
Ashley followed Larson’s gaze and her eyes fell on a scrawny middle schooler carrying what looked like a large knapsack. He stumbled, screaming. As he neared, Ashley noticed tears running down his cheeks. A trail of mucus dangled from his nose. His denim covered knees appeared discolored. The palms of his hands glowed bright red.
“Sweet Mary, mother of God,” Larson whispered.
Ashley’s jaw dropped. At that moment, she felt a warm hand rest on her shoulder. She turned.
Ned stood next to her, eyes wide, horrified look on his face.
“Holy hell,” he whispered.
Editor note: Thanks for reading! I hope you enjoyed this excerpt. Watch for the next installment very soon. In the mean time, you’d make my day if you’d support this project by nabbing your copy right away. 🙂