Excerpt for The Mapleton Mystery Novellas by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

The Mapleton Mystery Novellas

Deadly Places

Deadly Engagement

Deadly Assumptions

Terry Odell

Copyright © 2019 by Terry Odell

Deadly Places, Copyright © 2015 by Terry Odell

Deadly Engagement, Copyright © 2018 by Terry Odell

Deadly Assumptions, Copyright © 2018 by Terry Odell

All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise) without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, and incidents are either the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in this work of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners.


A Mapleton Novella

Terry Odell

Chapter 1

Ed Solomon swung his department SUV into the lot behind the Mapleton, Colorado police station. As he’d done every morning for the past ten days, he paused, stared at the sign reserving the slot for the Chief of Police, then pulled into the vacant space to the right.

As far as Ed was concerned, Gordon Hepler was still the Chief, and that spot would be waiting for him until he returned.

And he’d damn well better return. Dealing with Chief Stuff was a pain in the ass.

Ed stepped out of the SUV, shivered as the early-morning air grabbed him through his uniform shirt, and gazed at the gray clouds rolling in over the mountains. He made a mental note to bring his winter boots to the office tomorrow, and hoped the snow would hold off until after Halloween.

After Ed’s first week as Mapleton’s reluctant Acting Chief of Police, he’d stopped walking the length of the building to the staff entrance and begun using the door to Gordon’s private office. He refused to think of it as his own office, but his cubicle in the workroom had become buried in paperwork by his third day in his new position. Temporary position. Plus, it seemed silly to make Laurie, Gordon’s admin, come hunting for him.

In Gordon’s office, phone conversations were private, Ed had convenient access to the filing cabinets, and there were fewer distractions. About the only change Ed had made was to brew full-strength coffee instead of the Chief’s decaf in Gordon’s personal coffeepot.

Smiling at the cardboard skeleton enhanced with a police cap and badge decorating the Chief’s door, Ed let himself in. Laurie appeared in the inner doorway between his office and her workspace just beyond. She held a manila file folder, which he knew contained the night reports in one hand, and a red file folder in the other.

Ed’s heart rate jacked up a bit. Red folders meant something requiring immediate attention. Of course, that included reports the mayor needed—or thought he needed—ASAP. Most of those were routine and merely played into the mayor’s ego trips. Ed followed the if you do it right away, they’ll know how long it really takes rule, so he never turned those around too quickly.

“Good morning, Acting Chief,” Laurie said.

As he’d done every day since Gordon had left, Ed tapped his uniform nametag—which did not say Chief—and returned her greeting with, “Just plain Officer Solomon,” and reached for the red folder.

She rolled her eyes, as she always did at his response, and handed it over.

“What is it?” he asked.

“No idea. It was on my desk. Anything in red comes straight to you.”

Can’t be too important if Dispatch didn’t call me.” Ed tried to keep the disappointment out of his voice. Quiet was good for Mapleton. But it also meant his officers could handle everything, leaving Ed with the mounds of paperwork that came with the position. Temporary position.

Have you heard anything from the Chief?” Ed asked. Mayor McKenna had put Gordon on a sixty-day probation after claiming the Chief had violated some imagined mayoral directive. Even when the mayor had been proven wrong and had offered to rescind the probationary period, Gordon had walked. Where to Ed wasn’t sure.

But he’d be back, even if Ed had to track him down and drag him by the scruff of his neck.

Laurie shook her head. “Nothing. You know I’d let you know if I had.”

Unless Gordon had sworn her to secrecy. Laurie worked for the office, not the man, but Ed knew she wouldn’t betray a trust. She went on to tell him his morning was clear, reminded him he had a meeting with a reporter from the Mapleton Weekly at two, and left him to his Chief Stuff.

Ed stared at the red folder. Priority, or save it until after going through the night reports?

Curiosity won out, and he lowered a hip to his desk and opened the folder.

Inside, was a sealed envelope with Ed’s name on it. Computer generated. An attached yellow sticky note written in Officer Lloyd Titchener’s neat hand said, Found this on my desk at 0417.

Ed pondered that for a moment. If it had come through normal channels, it would have been dropped at the front desk, and the night receptionist would have fielded it to Laurie. No civilians should be able to get into the rear offices. Ergo, it probably came from someone on the inside. But why leave it on Titch’s desk? Anyone on the inside knew where Ed’s desk was now.

Or had Titch taken over Ed’s vacated desk? No, not Titch. The man wrote the book on by the book.

He picked up the red folder and strolled to Laurie’s desk.

“You need something, sir?”

Ed waved the folder. “You said this was on your desk this morning.”

That’s right.” She tapped her inbox. “Right here. I assumed the night duty officer left it with his night reports. It’s standard.” She flushed almost the same color as the file folder he held. “But you know that. I didn’t mean to imply—”

I got it, Laurie. I may be the longest-serving officer in the department, but I’m not the Chief. It’s easy enough to assume I’m the new kid—which I am, when it comes to some of this damn Chief Stuff.”

“So, what was in it?” she asked. “Anything I can do to help? And it’s not because I don’t think you know what you’re doing. It’s—”

Ed raised his palms. “We both know you keep everything running in this office. Never apologize for trying to do your job. Or offering suggestions.” He took the envelope out of the folder, and dropped it in front of Laurie. “I’m trying to figure out how this got onto Titch’s desk at four in the morning.” He led her through his thought process.

Laurie opened the file drawer in her desk and pulled out her copy of the duty roster. “Irv was on reception last night. He shouldn’t have let anyone through, but if it was someone he knew—”

Irv, a retired cop, now a civilian volunteer, needed to feel useful, and Ed didn’t want to be the one to take away a job that gave a semblance of meaning to the man’s life. But, unfortunately, Ed could see Irv letting himself be schmoozed into opening the door.

You know,” Laurie said, “it’s possible Irv put it on Titch’s desk without telling him.”

Of course. That makes perfect sense. I’ll talk to them when they get here.”

You’re hearing hoofbeats and hoping for zebras again, aren’t you?” Laurie asked. “I know you love your puzzles, but around here, Shetland ponies are more like it.” She stared at her keyboard, then met his gaze, a slight twinkle in her eyes. A welcome peek at the pre-Acting Chief Laurie, the one who’d been comfortable teasing him. “But that’s something else you already know. If I might make a suggestion, why don’t you open the envelope?”

Now why didn’t I think of that? That’s why you get the big bucks. Next on my list.” Ed ambled to his office and slit the envelope open. Dusting it for prints would have been going a little too far into zebra land.

Inside was a single sheet of paper. Zebra land or not, Ed grabbed a pair of gloves from the box in the credenza and snapped them on before extracting the page.

Centered on the page, printed by computer, was a lone URL. Ed turned the page over. Blank. Flipped to the first side again, as if something more might have appeared. Nope. What the—?

Chapter 2

Ed took the sheet of paper and made a copy, then put the original back into the envelope, then placed the envelope into the red folder, all the while wondering who sent it, why, and how it got into the station. Some kind of joke? There’d been a few immediately after Gordon had left, all good-natured, but nothing recent. Ed had done—was still doing—his best to keep everything running the way it had under Gordon, down to taking over the Chief’s favorite task of covering the elementary school crosswalk every morning. He glanced at his watch. Time either to check out the website or review the night reports before he’d have to leave. The URL had been shortened, so there was no way to guess where it went.

Deciding to get the Chief Stuff out of the way, Ed set his copy of the mystery sheet aside and opened the night reports folder. Drumming his fingers on the desk, he flipped through them quickly, scanning for anything requiring special attention.

The usual barking dogs, a few overly rowdy patrons at Finnegan’s. He paused at a complaint about a missing downspout. Per the report, the complainant had been vociferous and antagonistic. No suspects, but Officer Gaubatz had promised to keep an eye out to appease the woman.

The only other issue was a loud party when a group of teens took advantage of a friend’s parents being out of town. Officer Jost reported beer cans on the premises and had informed the kids he’d be talking to all their parents, which ended the party in a hurry. He’d suggested they might want to volunteer to pick up trash on the high school campus. Nothing like setting an example. Mapleton philosophy, established under Chief Dixon, Gordon’s predecessor, was that training ’em while they were young saved a lot of trouble down the line.

The party and downspout reports had come in two hours apart. Ed wondered whether Gaubatz and Jost had made a connection between mildly inebriated teens and the missing downspout. Then again, the homes were in totally different neighborhoods, and stealing downspouts didn’t seem to be a typical teenage prank. Maybe on Halloween night, but that was several weeks away. Apparently Dispatch hadn’t made a connection, because neither officer had been notified about the other’s calls. Ed made a note to follow up with both officers as well as Dispatch.

The long-awaited vehicle computer system might help coordinate calls like these. Ordering them with the grant monies Gordon had applied for and received was one task Ed had been happy to take over. And if they arrived before Halloween, that would be a boon, given the holiday was historically one of the biggest nights for nuisance calls in Mapleton.

The sheet with the mysterious URL tempted him like the anticipation of cake and ice cream at a birthday party. However, dessert came last. Ed headed to the elementary school.

The city workforce was busy embellishing the town square with straw bales, scarecrows, pumpkins, and gravestones.

As he chatted with the kids and moms, he hoped a friendly cop presence might divert some of them from the party when the cat’s away path. Or stealing downspouts, although he still had his doubts about that one. Today’s main topic had been Halloween costumes. He reminded everyone there were safety kits at the station, and mentioned the police department would be participating in the Mapleton Main Street Trick or Treat Parade.

Be sure to stop by and show me your costumes,” he said. Three kids, one a pixie-faced little girl, said they were going as police officers, filling Ed with a sense of pride that he—or Gordon—might have played some part in their decisions.

His duty done, Ed returned to his desk with an inner glow. Deciding to become a cop hadn’t been a waste of time. That glow ignited into a hot flame when he plugged the URL into his computer.

An obituary page from a Cleveland area paper popped up. Ed scanned the names, wondering why someone would have gone to all the trouble of sneaking the link into the department. When a familiar name caught his eye, he exited the site, then switched to his laptop and logged into the account he’d established in conjunction with his Deadbeat Dad Killer investigation.

Al Cardona was a name he’d been watching, a man who’d been picked up numerous times for neglecting to pay his court-ordered child support. Ed pulled up his file, and although he wouldn’t have expected two men on his list to have died in the Cleveland area in the same week, he compared his names to those on the website. No, Cardona’s was the only match.

Ed clicked open the obituary.

Not much there. Died unexpectedly at the age of forty-seven, left behind a wife and two children. Ed checked his notes. The wife and two kids weren’t the ones on his list. New wife, new kids to support, kiss off the first one—no, two? No mention of previous marriages. Or whether the new kids were his, or if they’d come with the new wife.

Did wives one and two have anything to do with the untimely demise of Al Cardona? Ed checked the date. Funeral was three days ago.

Ever since Gordon had vacationed at a Colorado B and B last winter and met Paula Brassington, Ed had been following her travel blog, Paula’s Places. Ed’s theory, that there was someone—or a group of someones—killing deadbeat dads, was tied to Paula. While she and Gordon were at the B and B, there’d been a highway incident where a pickup truck driver had been shot. To date, there had been no progress made on finding the killer.

What Ed had discovered was a number of these deaths happened to deadbeat dads in places Paula’s blog had featured. Coincidence? Ed hated coincidences.

On a whim, Ed called Tyler Colfax, a homicide detective with the county.

Need my help, Solomon?” Colfax answered.

Ed bit back a retort. You’d think he’d be used to the man’s constant ribbing by now. “As a matter of fact, yes. What do you know about Al Cardona?” He would have preferred to be sitting across the desk from the detective, but had to settle for listening for any tells in the man’s voice.

Nothing. Should I?” Colfax’s response was immediate and contained no hint he’d been the one to drop into the station last night. Nobody would have questioned his presence.

Might be related to the Deadbeat Dad Killer case,” Ed said.

“You still have that stick up your ass? I thought we’d written off the guy Gordon took out. How is the Chief, anyway? Still tucked away with his cute blonde?”

He’s not required to check in with me.” Ed didn’t hide his irritation. “And if he and Angie are tucked away, more power to him. He deserves some R and R.”

“No offense meant. I only hope he’s not going all macho and refusing to talk about what happened.”

I’m sure Angie’s taking care of him. But I called about a possible Deadbeat Dad killing.” Ed explained the mysterious message, and the obituary.

“You’re saying someone knows what you’re doing?” Colfax said.

It’s not a secret around here, although I’m not broadcasting it. People are aware of my theory, although I haven’t mentioned my attempts to slither into the good graces of Paula’s Places to anyone but you and Gordon.”

Colfax chuckled. “Good graces of Paula’s Places. Who knew you were a poet?”

Ed clenched his teeth. Colfax, despite his irritating habit of playing the Mapleton’s a hick town card, was a top-notch detective, and Ed knew the digs were all superficial. Didn’t mean it didn’t bug the hell out of him, though. And as Acting Chief, Ed didn’t feel comfortable throwing digs back at him.

Did your geeks get anything on a code phrase for Paula Brassington’s blog?” Ed asked.

“You still think there’s a secret password that will let you into a theoretical assassination ring?”

Yes, I still do.” When Ed had used a fake name to subscribe to Paula’s newsletter, and requested that Paula’s Places visit Manitou Springs, he’d received an email with a standard form to fill out. However, one field asked who had told him about the newsletter. Ed was convinced a specific name or phrase would separate the run of the mill newsletter subscriber from the few people who wanted a deadbeat dad taken out. At the time, Colfax had believed there might be a hint of substance to Ed’s theory and set some of his computer techs to the task.

Because they hadn’t been able to crack the system, Ed had abandoned his initial attempt, but had worked with the County geeks to set up a new identity, and had started over using the same phrasing, but with a request the blog do an article on Leadville.

It takes creative cyber hacking,” Colfax said. “If your theory holds, then these people are all using public computers or spoofed addresses, or countless other workarounds. If Paula Brassington is an assassin, she’s been smart enough to cover her ass. Otherwise, the geeks would have found cyber footprints. Or, and this is where my personal feelings lean, you’re looking for ghosts.”

“Zebras,” Ed muttered.

“I didn’t catch that.”

Nothing,” Ed said. “Will you have the geeks let me know as soon as they find something?”

If would be a better word choice. But yes, as long as there’s a connection—and it’s a thin one, believe me—to the death of Franklin Fitzgerald, yeah, I can justify some computer time for you.”

Franklin Fitzgerald had been found in his car in the parking lot at the Red Rocks Amphitheater. At first it appeared to be a suicide, but it had turned out to be a homicide, and since Fitzgerald had three ex-wives and five kids between them, and hadn’t paid a penny in child support in years, he fit Ed’s pattern. And, since the amphitheater was inside the county line, it fell under Colfax’s jurisdiction.

“Appreciate it.” Ed paused, then continued with his own style of baiting Colfax. “Now, for the record, were you in Mapleton in the wee hours of the morning. Around oh four hundred?”

What? Oh, your mysterious envelope. You accusing me of playing games, Solomon?”

“I don’t know, Detective. You have an alibi?”

A pause. Then a snort. “You’re getting good. Almost had me going. What do you need from County on that one? Your Cardona guy’s from Cleveland.”

Grafton, technically. And if my theory is right, there should be a Paula’s Places blog about the town, or one nearby, in about three weeks, if this is a deadbeat dad killing. Has the earmarks. But with your vast experience and much farther-reaching contacts than a mere small town police force can muster, I thought you might put out some feelers. Find out the cause of death, see if it matches any of the other Deadbeat Dads.”

No need to butter me up,” Colfax said. “Al Cardona of Grafton, Ohio. I know a couple guys in Shaker Heights. Not exactly next door to Grafton, but I’ll see what I can do.”


“One last thing. My guys aren’t sleeping on the job, are they?”

In addition to his Chief Stuff, Ed felt obligated to be on the streets, but a few hours a shift was all he had time for. The mayor hadn’t wanted to add new hires, so the county had provided deputies to take up the slack. “They’re doing fine. I won’t be surprised if they apply for jobs here.”

Colfax snorted. “I hope they haven’t forgotten their real cop skills when they come back.

Ed disconnected and wondered why Colfax had to play his little games. Why not cut to the chase from the get go? He sighed. That was the man’s MO, and Ed was learning to deal with it.

He started a pot of the pumpkin spice coffee his wife had given him. The aromas of pumpkin, cinnamon, and whatever else went into the blend filled the office. “You can get the sludge in the break room anytime you want it,” she’d said. “As long as you have a private pot, why not enjoy something different?”

The guys will think I’m a wimp,” he’d protested. But he liked the seasonal flavors, and none of the officers would dare tease him. Not to his face, anyway.

See, there is a perk to all this Chief Stuff.

He sipped that first, fresh-out-of-the-pot cup of coffee. Finnegan’s would have its seasonal pumpkin spice ale by now, and Ed thought about brainstorming his case there with a couple of the crew after end of shift. However, aside from those initial jokes when Ed had been thrust into Gordon’s position, there’d been a subtle but noticeable difference in attitude. Nobody called him Ed, or Solomon now. It was always Chief, or Sir. The breakroom grew quiet when he entered, and backs straightened when he walked into the workroom. It was him and us, and although Ed understood the need for the hierarchy, there was still a niggling discomfort he might never fit in the same way again, once the real Chief came back and Ed could resume being a regular cop.

Suck it up and get to work.

Chapter 3

Laurie’s buzz reminding Ed of his appointment with the Mapleton Weekly reporter provided a welcome break. She escorted Charlotte Strickland, a reed-thin woman with a pointy chin who reminded Ed of a witch—or was that because he had Halloween on his mind?—to his office. He motioned her to a visitor chair across from his desk. “What can I do for you, Miss Strickland?”

She removed her large black-framed glasses and gave them a quick polish before settling them back onto her nose. After tugging at her skirt and wriggling her bony hips onto the chair, she pulled a notepad and pen from a large black canvas tote bearing the newspaper’s logo. “I’m writing an article about Halloween in Mapleton, and want to include safety tips. They’ll mean a lot more if they’re coming from the new Chief of Police.”

Acting Chief of Police, Miss Strickland. Whatever I can tell you won’t be any different from what Chief Hepler would have told you for previous years.”

She tutted. “I’d still appreciate your take. What should parents be doing, and what kinds of things should they watch for? Will there be an increased police presence? How will you deal with pranksters?”

Ed kept a supportive smile on his face as he ran through the usual and obvious precautions. Trick-or-treat in groups, make sure there’s an adult present, reflective materials on costumes, eat only wrapped candy. “The clinic will be available, as always, to X-ray anything a parent finds questionable, but we’ve never found any razor blades hidden in apples or other unwelcome surprises.”

With recreational marijuana legalized, what should parents look for in baked goods?” Charlotte Strickland smiled, but her faded blue eyes said she was hoping to turn this into more than a simple safety article. Ed envisioned a headline reading Beware of Drugged Halloween Treats. He took a moment to organize his thoughts.

While I don’t believe we have a marijuana problem in Mapleton, again, I’d remind your readers that any non-commercial baked goods should come from trusted friends and neighbors. If a citizen feels there are suspicious treats being handed out, they should call the police department.” He gave the non-emergency number, and stressed 911 should be used only for serious emergencies.

Of course, if a child is exhibiting symptoms of ingesting marijuana, they should go to the ER immediately. If you need more information, check with the clinic.” He sat straighter, broadening his smile. “You understand, as a conscientious reporter, these events are highly unlikely in Mapleton, where we don’t even have marijuana sales outlets.” He leaned across the desk, his smile gone. “Miss Strickland, I’m answering your questions from an extremist scenario standpoint. The last thing anyone wants is to put ideas into the heads of citizens who would never have thought to step over the lines of both the law and common sense. If you do feel a compulsion to report on this angle, I want you to understand giving drugged edibles to minors is a felony, and we will not hesitate to arrest anyone who does.

I trust your article will stress Halloween should be a fun time for all, and the best and safest place to be is the Mapleton Main Street Trick or Treat Parade. Merchants, including this department, will be handing out treats, and they’ll all be completely safe. Participants will be displaying special window cards, and all have agreed to follow city guidelines for the event. But I’m sure you’ve seen them, and I assume the paper will be participating as well.”

From her expression, she was unaware whether the Weekly was involved, but Ed felt confident if the paper hadn’t signed up, it would be added to the list of merchants very soon. He was tempted to ask if she was aware of any reports of missing downspouts, but decided that was an avenue he didn’t want to explore with the press.

He stood and extended his hand across the desk. “I’m sure you’ll present an informative, interesting, and unbiased article, Miss Strickland. I look forward to reading it.” He walked her as far as Laurie’s desk and let his admin take care of making sure Miss Strickland left the building.

PR. A part of the Chief Stuff he wouldn’t miss. Too bad there was no room in the budget for a Public Information Officer to deal with all this nonsense.

Ed ambled to the break room. He’d been rotating his schedule to make sure he was up to speed on what was going on with all shifts. He’d assigned Vicky McDermott to mid shift leader for two weeks, and he caught her before she was officially on duty.

Afternoon, Chief.” She gestured to the newly decorated walls and table centerpieces. “Looks like the Halloween elves have been busy.”

“I think they’d be goblins, not elves, but yeah, the civilian patrol wanted to get into the spirit of things.”

“I like it,” Vicky said. “Especially since the stores are already putting out Christmas stuff. Nice to slow things down.”

Speaking of Halloween, I’d like to address the troops at roll call.”

“Not a problem. Anything else I should be aware of—beyond the notes from the first shift duty officer?”

“Not much. It’s been quiet,” he said.

The calm before the storm.” She dumped the last inch of scorched coffee from the pot, then proceeded to prepare a fresh one.

“True,” he said. “Gives me a chance to catch up on paperwork, although I can’t say I enjoy that part of the job.”

Does anyone? And speaking of not liking paperwork, any word on the new computers?”

Laurie’s got that covered.”

“Bet you used some downtime to work on your Deadbeat Dads, right?” She grinned.

Let me think.” He held both hands out in front of him, then lifted his left. “Budget reports?” He lowered the left and raised the right, mimicking a balance scale. “Police work? No brainer.”

“Can I ask a question?” she said.

He nodded.

“All this Deadbeat Dad stuff. It’s not a Mapleton case, and technically, you’re out of your jurisdiction. Why the compulsion?”

Ed thought a moment before answering. “It’s a conscience thing, I suppose. Something inside won’t let me ignore such blatant lawbreaking.”

Vicky gave a solemn nod. “I get it. Any progress?”

Not sure.” He chinned toward the door. “Come into my office a minute. Coffee’s on me. Good coffee.”

“You don’t need to bribe me, Chief.”

“Not a bribe, merely an invitation to share some pumpkin spice coffee my wife gave me.”

Her grin widened. “No need to twist my arm, either.”

Laurie stopped them as they passed her desk. “Good news. The computers have been shipped. I have a tracking number and I’ll be able to follow the progress tomorrow.”

Fantastic,” Vicky said, almost simultaneously with Ed’s, “Splendiferous.”

“I see you’re still getting those word of the day emails,” Vicky said.

Ed shrugged. After serving Vicky a cup of coffee and refilling his own mug, he settled behind his desk with Vicky sitting across from him. It still felt strange to be on the opposite side of these informal briefings.

He opened with the missing downspout. “We’ve got a complaint of rowdy teens, and it’s possible they took the downspout, but it feels off to me. Papering the house would be more their speed. I talked to Dispatch, and they haven’t fielded any other pranks. However, I’d like your shift to keep an eye out for anything that fits the pattern.”

“Bears,” she said.

Ed’s eyebrows lifted. “What?”

She sipped at her coffee. “I saw it on the Internet—can’t remember exactly where, but there was a video of a bear whacking away at a downspout. Seems a chipmunk had taken cover by running inside the spout, and the bear yanked the whole thing down. Chipmunk got away, though. I’ll alert the shift to keep an eye out for the missing downspout.”

I think it’d be better to have them looking out for a bear. We don’t need one wandering the streets.”

“Yeah. That, too. I’ll have them watch for trash cans left out, or scattered garbage.”

“Give Animal Control a heads up.”

Vicky set her mug aside and jotted in her notebook. “And do you want to open the briefing? I assume you have something else to cover.”

“I do. Right after roll call. I’ll keep it short.”

Vicky left, taking her coffee, and Ed wrote down the points he wanted to cover. Charlotte Strickland had brought up a new wrinkle, one that hadn’t occurred to him, and Ed was determined to make this the safest Halloween in Mapleton history.

Ten minutes later, he brought the stack of references he’d printed out to the briefing room. He entered as unobtrusively as possible, leaning against the back wall as Vicky McDermott finished roll call. When she caught his eye and he nodded, she introduced him. Everyone stiffened to attention. He strode to the front of the room, took his place behind the lectern, and smiled.

Good afternoon. First, let me thank each of you for making this transition as smooth as it’s been, and for all your support. I know Chief Hepler will be proud and pleased that Mapleton is still the best little city in Colorado, but I know you’re all waiting for him to return. I have a couple of things before you hit the streets.”

He glanced at his notes. As duty officer, he’d never felt awkward addressing the shift. Doing it as Acting Chief had him weighing each word. “First, we’re taking one more step toward joining the ranks of the big-time police forces. Laurie informs me the computers are on their way.”

He grinned, waiting for the whistles and applause to die down. “I hope they’ll be here in time for Halloween, which brings me to the reason I’m interrupting your briefing. I had an interesting visit from a reporter with the Mapleton Weekly, and she made an important point regarding Halloween.” He summarized the challenges of making sure nobody had been creative with edibles. “It shouldn’t be an issue, but here’s a handout with the symptoms of ingesting marijuana. This is all precautionary and proactive, but I have a feeling the article that will run in the Weekly might be … unnecessarily alarming.”

A ripple of laughter, obviously from readers of Charlotte Strickland’s columns, floated through the room. Ed smiled knowingly, then went on.

Our biggest challenge, as always, is the too old to trick or treat so let’s find something else to do crowd. The civilian patrol will be out in full force Halloween night. It’s all about visibility. Let the kids have their fun, but maintain a firm line between harmless and malicious mischief.

And, speaking of visibility, I’m authorizing overtime—not to exceed one hour per officer—for anyone not on the streets who’d like to hand out candy during the festivities. We’ll have a patrol car parked at the curb, and feel free to let the kids peek inside. Sign up with your duty officer, and I’ll post a schedule. Questions?”

When there were none, Ed added his final point. “Last shift, someone left a message for me on Officer Titchener’s desk. Since this isn’t the normal flow of information, I’m curious about whether unauthorized personnel might be getting into the station, and if so, how. If you see anyone who doesn’t belong, don’t assume someone else authorized it. We’re a small station, and I don’t want to get into the whole Visitor Badge thing, but keep your eyes open.”

He cast his eyes around the room, and as his gaze landed on the county deputy assigned to this shift, he wondered whether he’d overlooked the obvious.

Chapter 4

Ed marched to his desk and checked last night’s duty roster. He’d totally forgotten the county deputies were new to the way the department ran. They might not remember the way to leave him a personal message was via Laurie’s inbox if he wasn’t in his office.

But right now, the who and the how weren’t as compelling as the what, which was a link to his Deadbeat Dad Killer.

His laptop chimed the tone signaling an incoming email to his deadbeat dad account. Ed swiveled his chair, grabbed the laptop from the credenza, and clicked into that email system. Another invitation to join special edition newsletters from Paula’s Places.

Yes! They’d taken the bait.

For now, there was a simple opt in click, saying once he’d joined the list, he’d be added to an elite list of people who helped decide future sites for Paula to visit. His heart thumped as he clicked the join button.

He called Colfax. “I got the special newsletter email, but we still don’t have any idea about the secret phrasing.”

Forward it to me, and I’ll see to it the geeks get it,” the detective said.

“Can you put a rush on it? And make sure there’s no way to trace anything to who I am.”

“The cover they created for you should be solid. Of course that means you have to remember your alternate persona,” Colfax said.

Always with the dig. “I know who I am. And if I forget, I can always refer to the file they sent me.”

Colfax went on. “Let’s hope this email gives them a faster and better way to find those code phrases you wanted.”

Agreed. Anything on Al Cardona?” Ed asked, not that he’d expected anything this soon.

I’ve kind of got a few homicides of my own on my plate.” There was none of Colfax’s normal banter tone in his response, and Ed reminded himself that working in homicide for the county meant the pressure level was usually near blowing the top off the cooker.

Ed tapped a pen against the keyboard drawer. “I know you’re busy. If you hook me up with one of your contacts, you won’t have to play middleman. You could do the same with your geek squad. Think of it as a way of getting me off your back.”

“And, since nothing ever happens in Mapleton, you’ll have all the time in the world to play with your pet theories.” The banter was back.

“Well, Frank Fitzgerald might tie in, so I’d be helping you out. Seeing how his case is still open.”

I’ll email my contact and cc you. And you’ll stop bugging me, right?”

“Of course.” Anything to get the information Ed needed. “And if you find any homicides where the victim is a deadbeat dad, let me know, and maybe I can repay the favor.”

Colfax snorted. “Yeah, right. Don’t hold your breath. I’m up to my eyeballs right now.”

Ed forwarded the newsletter. Justifying resource time on Ed’s tenuous theory that Frank Fitzgerald had been killed by the Deadbeat Dad Killer—a killer who existed almost exclusively in Ed’s mind—was an iffy call. Still, Ed hoped one of the geeks was interested enough in the puzzle to spend some extra time on it.

But waiting was unproductive. He grabbed his jacket and let Dispatch and Laurie know he would be on the streets for the next hour or so. Although he defended the time he spent on patrol as part of Mapleton’s manpower needs, getting out of the office for a short time every day or so was a definite mental health priority. He understood now why the Chief appreciated his breaks at Daily Bread—Angie’s presence notwithstanding, of course.

Ed breathed in the familiar, if not overly pleasant, aroma of his vehicle. He’d transported far fewer persons of the odiferous kind since his patrol hours had been cut to almost nothing. But there was the cop car smell, a blend of sweat, greasy fast food, disinfectant, and the pine air freshener dangling from the rearview mirror. He checked the address of the missing downspout complainant and steered in that general direction. If McDermott was right, and a bear had taken the pipe, odds were the animal wouldn’t have dragged it too far once it either caught the critter, or abandoned it as a failed attempt.

Deciding a positive police presence did more for Mapleton’s citizens than filing reports, Ed parked on the street near the complainant’s house, Miss Adele Menard, a newcomer to town. No Halloween decorations in her yard, unless you counted the yellow and gold aspen leaves carpeting the sparse lawn. He let Dispatch know where he was, then strode along the driveway and across the pavers to the front porch.

From the way a woman answered his knock almost before he had his knuckles on the door, Ed assumed she must have been watching his approach. “Good afternoon. I’m Acting Chief of Police Ed Solomon. I’m looking for Adele Menard.”

Her light brown eyes widened. “I’m she. What is this about? Did you catch those rapscallion teenagers who stole my downspout?”

Tall and solidly built, with an ample bosom, Adele Menard wore her steel gray hair pulled in a tight knot atop her head. Light brown eyes were enlarged by frameless glasses. Deep creases at either side of her mouth made it appear as if anything she said was set off in parentheses. Retired third-grade teacher came to mind. No, a physical education teacher. The stern gaze she fixed him with hinted at librarian, although Ed chided himself for jumping to conclusions based on stereotypical appearances. He tried not to stare at the mole on her chin, with four long protruding hairs, but he couldn’t help himself. His first thought was to grab a pair of tweezers. His next was to wonder why she hadn’t.

He stopped speculating and responded to her question. “No, ma’am, we haven’t. I thought you might be able to give me some additional information to help us find whoever—or whatever—made away with your downspout. Officer Gaubatz took your initial report. You told him you’d been reading and you heard a rustling in your yard. Is that correct?”

“It is.”

“But you didn’t see anything.”

“That’s also correct.”

Have you heard similar rustlings, or had reason to believe there were prowlers in your yard prior to last night? Have your neighbors mentioned any trouble?”

Her eyes went round behind her glasses. “Are you telling me there are prowlers in this neighborhood? My Realtor assured me this was a very safe place to live. I live alone, I always have. I left New Haven after I retired. I wanted a change from big-city life, somewhere less crowded, more peaceful.”

Mapleton is an extremely safe city, Miss Menard. And part of the reason is that we like to stay one step ahead of trouble. Now that it’s daylight, would you mind if I looked around your yard?”

She shrugged. “Be my guest. The downspout is—was—on the east corner of the house.” She closed the door. Ed shook his head and strolled around the house.

If Vicky McDermott’s hunch that it might have been a bear proved correct, Ed counted on the animal not coming around in broad daylight. Carrying a shotgun might alarm the neighborhood. A pistol shot ought to scare the critter off—if a bear was hanging around.

But the scattered leaves didn’t reveal anything resembling footprints, bear or human. Or coyote, dog, or mountain lion, for that matter. He wandered around the house, still finding no evidence worth collecting, although he shot a few pictures with his phone in case Adele Menard was watching him.

The missing section of the downspout, assuming it reached the ground, would be about three feet long judging from the gap where it had separated from the piece extending from the gutter. Humans would have carried it off, but an animal would have dragged it. However, lightweight as an aluminum pipe would be, and given the aspen leaf substrate was easily disturbed by a breeze, the gaps in the leaves weren’t conclusive.

He started at the sound of scuffling leaves behind him. One hand on his pistol grip, Ed turned to see Adele Menard coming his way. “Did those scoundrels leave footprints?” she asked.

No, ma’am, not that I can find here. But I’m going to check those shrubs.” He pointed to the thick stand of junipers along the split-rail fence bordering her property.

You think there might be some torn clothing, or some blood on a branch? Those are prickly. I’ve scratched myself trying to trim them. Why don’t you call your evidence people? Can’t they find DNA or something?”

Ed bit back a sigh. Another television watcher. “No, ma’am, it doesn’t work that way. And even if it did, we don’t have the budget to call out the Crime Scene Response Team—which has to come from the county. They’re backlogged solving homicides and other major felonies. I’m afraid a missing downspout would be at the end of a long line of cases.”

She exhaled a deep, long breath, but seemed to accept his explanation.

“Wait here, please,” he said, then jogged to his vehicle for his flashlight.

Miss Menard waited, arms folded across her chest.

Ed played the light into the shrubbery. The downspout was dark green, about the same shade as the surrounding foliage.

Shouldn’t you be wearing gloves?” Miss Menard asked. “So you won’t leave your fingerprints all over it and destroy evidence. You do fingerprint people here, don’t you?”

Yes, ma’am, and mine are on file, so they’ll be easy to eliminate.” Ed wished he’d put on a pair of heavy work gloves. Miss Menard was spot on with the way the juniper needles scratched.

His light caught a glint of metal jammed between two clumps of juniper.

He pulled out the length of pipe and showed it to Miss Menard. Score one for Vicky McDermott. “I think your scoundrel was a bear.” He pointed out the deep scratches and the punctures. “These are tooth marks, and they’re too far apart for a dog.”

“A bear?” She stepped closer, extended an index finger and gingerly traced the gouges. “Tooth marks. Claw marks. My, I do hope he doesn’t come back.”

Her tone belied her words, however. Another resident who thought bears were cute. “Make sure you don’t leave your trash cans on the street any longer than necessary, and make sure you’ve got a tight lid. We’ve notified Animal Control, and if you see him, please call them. My officers will be watching out as well.”

She took the length of pipe from him and studied the ends. “I think I can still use this. My goodness, I’m going to have to take pictures. My friends won’t believe it. A bear. At my house.”

Pleased that he’d solved her problem and deflected her initial animosity, Ed volunteered to reattach the pipe for her. As he shoved it into place, to satisfy his curiosity, he asked her what she’d done in Boston.

I was a flight instructor. Decided I’d had enough dealing with people who thought flying was going to be like Top Gun.” She smiled, which softened her features. “The small-town life might turn out to be more interesting than I thought.”

After reinforcing his prior warning that these were not cute Disney bears and to give them a wide berth, Ed handed her a card with Animal Control’s number on it. “I’m glad we straightened this out, Miss Menard. Enjoy the rest of your day.” He strolled toward his vehicle.

Flight instructor? Who’d have guessed? Well, he did get the teacher part right.

Chapter 5

Ed reported himself clear to Dispatch and told them to put out a lookout order for a bear. Just what he needed. A nuisance bear in Mapleton. He hoped this was a one-time occurrence, because the best-case scenario would be relocating the bear. If it came back, it would have to be put down, and the animal lovers would be all over the story.

He finished his route, went to the station and checked in with Laurie, who reported all was peaceful. He opened his email and found a form from Paula’s Places in his deadbeat dads account.

To be added to our list, we need your response within 72 hours, it said.

His department account had the message Colfax had sent to the geeks, but no reply yet. He left Colfax out of it, calling County and asking for Sam Fischer, the geek Colfax had singled out to help.

“IT. Fischer.”

A woman’s voice? “Sam Fischer?” Ed asked.

“Samantha,” she said. “What can I do for you?”

Ed introduced himself. “Touching base regarding the email from Detective Colfax. Have you had a chance to look into it?”

“Right. Ed Solomon. You’re the Deadbeat Dad cop. It’s on my list.”

“I’ve got a huge favor.” Ed explained his deadline. “Any chance you can squeeze me in before my time runs out?”

“Can’t say without reading the message. I’ll get back to you.”

Let me send you the new form.” Ed forwarded the message to her. “I’m worried about the section where it’s asking for notable citizens of the town. I have a hunch they don’t mean community VIPs.”

You think that’s where you supply the name of your intended victim.”

Gratified Sam seemed up to speed on the case, Ed agreed. “The bigger issue is what to put in the how did you find the blog field. I’m still betting that’s the code that gets you into the next circle.”

Got it. I’ll try to have something for you by tomorrow afternoon.”

He couldn’t ask for more—not with a clear conscience, anyway. Another email from Colfax, copying Ed on his query to a Detective Rosen in Shaker Heights. Since this was lower on Ed’s priority list, he simply sent off an email introducing himself to the detective and expanding on what Colfax had said.

A number of these deaths appear to be accidents, but upon further investigation, have been homicides. All I could access was the Cardona obituary in the paper, so any additional information about cause and manner of death you’re able to share would be appreciated.

After hitting Send, Ed let Laurie know he was leaving. “I’ll be back for change of shift to talk to the night crew. If anything hits the fan before you go home, call me.”

Will do, Acting Chief.”

Ed shot Laurie a look, then called his wife to say he’d fetch the kids and dinner. He headed toward the middle school field where his boys were at their Pop Warner football practice. On the way, he called Finnegan’s and ordered a pizza to go, then waited in the school parking lot until practice broke up. Twelve-year-old Jeremy broke into a wide grin when he spotted him, and raced to the car. His fourteen-year-old brother, Mitch, followed at a more sedate pace. Ed unlocked the back door and his sons tossed their practice bags onto the floor and clambered in behind them.

“The Chief car. Cool. Can you run code three?” Jeremy asked. “Lights and sirens?”

“In your dreams, kiddo. And buckle up.”

By the time they got to Finnegan’s, the pizza—with everything on it, plus double cheese—was waiting. When Mick Finnegan refused to take Ed’s money despite all the years of protesting that it wasn’t appropriate, Mick, as always, insisted the tab had been picked up by some of his patrons. Ed gave a general wave of thanks and, as always, left the price of the pizza in the tip jar.

At home, Buster, his German shepherd and part-time Mapleton K-9 greeted him with a look that said Are we going to work? Ed scratched the dog behind his ears. “Not tonight, fella.”

The boys raced upstairs to shower, both clamoring dibs on the first turn. Ed’s wife, Mary Ellen, was in the kitchen tossing a salad. “Oven’s preheated. Wine’s open.”

Later.” Ed shoved the pizza into the oven to keep it warm. “I’m going back to the station after dinner. I need to check in with third shift.”

“Something wrong?” Mary Ellen frowned. “I thought by now you’d have a handle on how everything runs. They don’t need you checking on them.”

It’s more of a followup to last night’s reports. I need to talk to a few of the guys, and face-to-face is better. I promise I won’t be late.”

She rolled her eyes. “I thought we were past that. You’ll try not to be late, but then something will come up and you won’t be able to let it go. You’ll end up in the middle of another mess. And the outcome might not be as good.” She fisted her hands at her hips. “Damn it, Ed, you might have been killed.”

Ed had put what had happened when he’d gone with Colfax to investigate a possible connection to the Deadbeat Dad Killer behind him. Mary Ellen clearly hadn’t. He reached for her hand. “That was a fluke, and it didn’t happen in Mapleton. It’s over.”

I thought that as Chief, even a temporary one, you’d be able to keep normal hours. Stay at the station, out of harm’s way. But I think I’ve seen less of you than when you were a regular cop. I don’t understand why you don’t tell the mayor to get someone else to cover for Gordon.”

We’ve been through this. Mayor McKenna made it clear that if I didn’t accept the position, I would no longer be a cop in Mapleton. Period. And I like my work. At least the way it was.”

“And what if Gordon doesn’t want to come back?” she asked, pushing the issue. “Have you considered that?”

He had, but refused to believe Gordon would abandon Mapleton. Footfalls on the stairs signaled the approach of one of the boys. Ed got the milk from the fridge and cocked his head toward the doorway.

Mary Ellen swapped her frown for a cheerful smile as Mitch entered the kitchen. “How was school?” she asked.

A shrug. “Okay. Got an A-minus on my math test.” Mitch poured himself a glass of milk.

“Way to go,” Ed said.

Jeremy, hair still dripping from his shower, whooshed into the kitchen and plonked himself into his chair. “I’m starved.”

Mary Ellen portioned out the salad while Ed retrieved the pizza. Dinner conversation, per family convention, skirted Ed’s job and focused on the kids, although Ed did mention the bear at Miss Menard’s house.

“Cool,” Jeremy said. “You think it’ll come here?”

I hope not,” Mary Ellen said. “That’s why we bring the bird feeder in every night. Bears can do a lot of damage.”

“Still be cool to see one up close,” Jeremy muttered.

Maybe we’ll go to the zoo this weekend.” Mary Ellen glared at Ed.

Zoos are boring.” Mitch put his plate in the dishwasher and opened the fridge. “What’s for dessert?”

“Cobbler,” Mary Ellen said. “But not until everyone’s finished. You can feed Buster.”

“Hang on a sec,” Ed said. “You boys planning on the Trick or Treat Parade this year?”

Jeremy’s eyes sparkled. “I’ve got a cool idea for a costume.”

And how much is this cool idea going to cost me? And how much time will it take?” Mary Ellen asked, a twinkle in her eye. “I don’t seem to recall anyone asking whether or not it can be done.”

No problem, Mom. Kirk, Ramon, and me—I—we—are going to do it together. If my allowance doesn’t cover what we need, I’ll do extra chores. But it’s a surprise.”

“I’m too old for that stuff,” Mitch said, shooting his brother an arrogant sneer.

Yeah, but don’t expect me to share my candy,” Jeremy shot back.

Ed intervened before the discussion escalated. “You’re both old enough to make your own decisions. Mitch, while Jeremy’s collecting candy, how’d you like to help at the station stop on the parade route? I’ll have Buster, and you can give out candy.”

Although he was a working dog, Buster wasn’t trained to attack, and fit in well with the family. His nose, not his teeth, were the tools he used when on duty, and he understood the difference between working and socializing, which made him an asset for public relations. Everyone loved a dog.

“I suppose. Do I get to wear a badge?” Mitch asked.

Ed chortled. “No, but I’ll see what I can do about a cap. Now, go feed Buster.”

Mitch shuffled toward the garage for the dog food.

Once dinner was finished—Ed having made a point of doing all the cleanup—the boys went upstairs to deal with their homework.

Mary Ellen sat at the table sipping a glass of wine. “You going to tell me what that was about? Mitch helping at the station instead of trick-or-treating? Aren’t we supposed to make these decisions together?”

“I didn’t see an issue. He’ll be supervised, and it’ll give him something positive to do, since he says he’s too old for collecting candy.”

That’s not the point.” Mary Ellen spun away, taking her wine to the den. The volume level on the television advertised her displeasure.

Ed washed the salad bowl and set it in the draining rack. Without consciously thinking about it, he checked the level of wine in the bottle. Seemed like this wasn’t the bottle they’d opened the other night, which, as Ed recalled, was still half-full when he’d recorked it.

He rubbed the back of his neck. If he’d missed any signs Mary Ellen was more upset about his work than she’d let on, he’d better start paying attention now. Joining her on the couch, he said, “How about I make reservations at the Black Bear Chalet for Saturday night. I promise, unless all hell breaks loose, I’ll take the whole weekend off.”

She seemed to mellow a bit. Was it his offer or the wine? Damn, now he’d be second guessing everything she said or did. Not healthy.

Mary Ellen tilted her head. “Maybe. Define ‘all hell’.”

Terrorists. Drug cartels. Russian Mafia. Something along those lines,” he said. He took her wine glass and set it on the coffee table. Leaned in and nuzzled her neck. Whispered in her ear. “I’ll wear a tie.”

She burst out laughing. “Well, that clinches it. Make the reservation.”

The laugh unraveled the knot in his belly. He left her with a kiss, one that promised more. “I’ll be back by nine.”

The glimmer in her eye, a look Ed hadn’t seen in a while, made him resolve to keep his word.

Chapter 6

Ed caught Lloyd Titchener in the workroom. The steaming coffee mug on Titch’s desk indicated he’d been to the breakroom, but Ed couldn’t remember ever seeing the man there. Once Titch stepped into the station, he was a cop machine. Ed swore the man spit-shined his bare scalp. He held up a palm before Titch could spring to attention.

Half an hour before change of shift, the workroom was still empty, so Ed pulled a chair alongside Titch’s desk. “I’m touching base. From last night’s reports, it appears things have been quiet.”

“Yes, Chief.”

“I did have a question about the message you left on Laurie’s desk. The one in the red folder.”

Titch squared his shoulders. “Chief?”

Since your note was on the envelope, not the folder, am I correct in assuming you found the envelope, added the note, then put it in the red folder?”

“Yes, Chief.”

Someday, Ed would be able to carry on a conversation with Titch, but the taciturn ex-military officer had become even more formal since Ed had moved into his new position. At least before, Titch had called him Solomon.

“Did you see who put it on your desk?” Ed asked, although knowing Titch, the note would have said so.

No, Chief. Since it had your name on it, I put it in a red folder, in case it was important. Per protocol.”

“Did you notice anyone here who wasn’t on duty? Someone from another shift, or someone Irv might have buzzed through?”

No, Chief. At the time in question, I was out on a call, backing up Officer Gaubatz. If you have questions, the log will verify it. When I returned, the envelope was on my desk.”

Relax, Titch. I’m curious, that’s all. I know you’re doing your job, and I don’t expect you to be chained to this desk for your entire shift. Your presence on the streets is just as important.”

“Thank you, Chief.”

“What about Deputy Baker? He might not remember the policy.”

Titch thought about it for a moment. “No, I don’t think so. I was here before he returned from his rounds. Of course, it’s possible I’d stepped away briefly. I couldn’t have been gone more than a minute or two.”

Did Ed detect a faint reddening at Titch’s neck? “You know, you are allowed to get coffee. Use the men’s room. Stretch your legs.”

The flush spread to Titch’s face. He stared over Ed’s shoulder. “Yes, Chief. And I will be sure to reinforce departmental policy on messages for staff with Deputy Baker. Since you’re here, did you wish to address the troops at roll call?”

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