Poisoned Pen Press
Hardcover, ISBN: 1-59058-309-4, $24.95 US, $34.95 CAN, 242pp
Large Print Trade pbk, ISBN 1-59058-310-8, $22.95 US, $29.95 CAN, 290pp
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Something smells rotten in the state of Oklahoma…
It’s the spring of 1913, and love is in bloom for Alice Tucker. Alice’s new beau, Walter Kelley, is handsome, popular, and wealthy. Everyone in Boynton, Oklahoma, likes him. Everyone, that is, but Alice’s mother, Alafair. She sees that Walter has a weakness for the ladies — and they for him. Moveover, Walter’s late wife Louise had been stabbed in the heart and her body disposed of in Cane Creek only a few months earlier. The murderer is still at large.
The sheriff has cleared Walter of the deed — he was in Kansas City at the time. But Alafair is not so sure that he wasn’t involved in some way. Something literally doesn’t smell right. Could it be Louise’s tormented spirit signalling clues from the other side, or is Alafair scenting a more direct link to the crime?
Even if he had nothing to do with his wife’s death, Alafair judges Walter to have been a bad husband and, with the help of her feisty mother-in-law, Sally McBride, Alafair sets out to prove to the headstrong Alice that Walter is not the paragon she thinks he is. You can bet that Alice has something to say about that.
As she searches for the truth behind the death of Louise Kelley, Alafair uncovers such a tangle of lies, misdirection, and deceit that she begins to think that the whole town has been downright hornswoggled!
Read an Excerpt
Something bad was bound to happen. It was just that kind of hot, humid, Oklahoma July day, with a gritty wind that blew everything awry. Fifteen-year-old George Washington Tucker, known as Gee Dub, hunkered on the grassy, overgrown banks of Cane Creek, grimly hanging on to his fishing pole, trying to ignore the sweltering heat and the clouds of gnats, mosquitos, and various other disgusting critters who were trying to fly up his nose and into his eyes and drink the salt off of his sweat-slick skin. The hot wind was maddening, the way it blew first out of the north, then out of the southwest, then died and dropped his damp, black curls into his eyes. At least when it picked up again, it blew the gnats away for a few seconds. And it wasn’t even quite noon, that was the sad thing.
Normally Gee Dub loved fishing, since he was a contemplative boy. He loved thinking about what his mother was going to do with the little perch or crappie, or occasional catfish, that he would catch. Oh, how good they would taste, rolled in cornmeal and fried quickly in bacon grease until the tender white flesh was encased in a golden crust. Having to eat the fish slowly, so slowly, and chew so carefully to avoid swallowing one of the hundreds of tiny bones only enhanced the dining experience.
But today, the joy of fishing was ruined not just by the worrisome weather, but by Gee Dub’s eleven-year-old brother, Charlie, and Charlie’s ever-present canine companion, Charlie-dog. Charlie-boy had insisted on going swimming. Gee Dub had sent him and his dog as far downstream as he could and still keep an eye on them, but it was no good. All his splashing and jumping and hollering had spooked the fish, and there would be no fried fish for dinner. Gee Dub was bereft.
He could hear Charlie yelling at him, “look at me, Gee, look at me!” But Gee Dub didn’t look. He didn’t want to encourage the boy. Charlie was climbing up into a young cottonwood, crawling out onto a wayward branch that hung over the creek, and dropping himself off into the middle of the water with a whoop. He must have done it ten times, with the dog running up and down, barking the whole time, and Gee Dub had just about had enough. The weather was getting hotter, the fishing was bad, and Charlie was driving him right ’round the bend. He pulled in his line.
Suddenly there was a crack of noise as loud as a rifle shot, and a splash, and Gee Dub leaped where he sat. He looked downstream, wide eyed. Charlie was nowhere to be seen. The yellow shepherd was leaping and barking frantically on the bank. Gee Dub jumped to his feet and scanned the creek bank anxiously. No skinny, naked little boy. Just a fairly large cottonwood branch floating away from him in the middle of the water. Gee Dub’s heart fell into his stomach, and he started running toward the broken tree, hollering for Charlie.
He was already barefoot, so he didn’t have to worry about taking off his shoes when he dove headlong into the murky water near the last place he had seen his brother. The water wasn’t very deep, but it was impossible to see anything, so he groped along the slimy bottom with his hands, until he couldn’t stay under anymore and exploded to the surface with a gasp. He flung his dark hair out of his eyes with a toss of his head and scanned the bank again. No boy, but the dog had joined him in the water and was dog paddling around in a circle close to a tangle of cottonwood roods. Gee Dub struck out toward the dog.
“Charlie!” He yelled.
Out from under the cottonwood roots, next to the bank, a boy’s voice responded, “Here, Gee Dub.”
Gee Dub’s arm paused in mid-stroke, and he grew faint with relief right there in the water. Just as he reached the undercut bank, Charlie’s blond head popped up from under the root tangle, practically in Gee Dub’s face. Gee Dub was so glad that the child was alive that, for a second, he forgot to be angry and reached out to hug him. When his hands touched Charlie’s bare shoulders, he shook him instead.
“What in the turkey feet do yo think you’re doing…”
“Gee Dub,” Charlie gasped, “there’s somebody dead down there.”
“You’re lucky it ain’t you, you punkin-head,” Gee Dub spat, too angry to listen. He climbed onto the bank and tried to heave the boy up after him, but Charlie resisted.
“No, no,” Charlie sputtered, as he crawled out of the water on his own. “Listen to me. I’m telling you there’s a drowneded woman stuck up there under them branches. I was on the tree and the limb broke and I fell down there and I felt her long hair and her face!”
Gee Dub hesitated. By this time Charlie was out of the creek and dancing with excitement on the grass. Gee Dub, sitting on the ground with his feet still in the water, wiped his hair out of his face. “You’re just imagining things.”
“I ain’t, I ain’t, I ain’t,” Charlie exclaimed hysterically. “Go down and see! I swear it’s true. Go down and see for yourself, Gee.”
Charlie’s manic certainty gave Gee Dub pause, and he grabbed the boy’s arm to settle him down. “All right,” he soothed. “I’ll dive under there just to hush you up, even though it’s probably just a old dead goat and I’ll get the pox or something and it’ll be all your fault.”
“Gee Dub!” Charlie wailed.
“All right! Mercy! You stay right here and don’t twitch a toe. I mean it, now.” He looked back over his shoulder at the shepherd. “Dog,” he ordered imperiously, “you watch this here boy.”
Gee Dub slipped back into the water, took a deep breath, and ducked under the roof of cottonwood roots. He could see nothing, of course. The water was a gray-green swirl of dappled light and shade, cooler under the branches. The slimy mud squished between his bare toes. It was just the kind of sheltered place in which a big old catfish would love to lurk, or a nest of water moccasins, and Gee Dub shuddered in spite of himself. He swung his arms tentatively through the water a couple of times, hitting a branch or two and the muddy bank. Then his fingers passed through what he at first thought was floating vegetation. Fine floating weeds. He swung his hand back, and his fingers tangled. Hair. He resisted an urge to gasp, just releasing a couple of bubbles. He brought his fingers to his face, close enough to confirm that they were entangled in what looked like long, dark hair. Please, Jesus, let it be some old mule tail, he prayed, even thought he knew it wasn’t. Nervously, he let his hand follow the hair through the dark water, until it lighted on a smooth, cool dome. His heart was thumping so hard that it hurt. He felt a forehead, eyebrows, ears, a nose.
Gee Dub back himself out from under the roots as fast as he could move and flung himself up to the surface. He took a couple of gulps of air to calm himself. “Charlie,” he said evenly, “run home as fast as you can and get Daddy.”
“I was right,” Charlie declared. He was dancing with excitement.
“I think so,” Gee Dub admitted. “Now, run! Run!”
But Charlie was already ten yards across the field, with the dog at his heels.