I met T.J. Reynolds for lunch at the Eat It or Starve Café. While we hadn’t officially said we were an exclusive item, everyone in town knew how many dates we had been on. After our tenth one, the gossip queens declared us a couple. Even my mother seemed to agree with this assessment. I had a feeling she was hoarding a pile of bridal magazines in a closet at home.
“What are you thinking so hard?” T.J. said.
I felt my face turn red. There was no way I was going to tell him about the gossip or my fears that my mother was picking out wedding gowns with big butt bows. “I had a weird run in with Dale Gordon.”
He looked at me for a moment, one eyebrow slightly arched. “Uh huh,” he replied. I had a feeling he knew exactly what I had been thinking about, but it was evident he was going to let it go for now. “Tell me about it.”
I told him what I had seen and heard. “I think there was more going on than either one of them are going to admit.”
“Did you actually tackle the guy?” I nodded. “Where did you learn to do that?”
“I was a tomboy growing up. I played a lot of football, and the guys I played with didn’t like flag football.
“She’s right,” Sheriff Owen Moore said as he sat down at our table. “I don’t remember hearing her complain about all the tackles the boys made on her.”
T.J. held up his hand. “I get the picture.”
“From what I have heard in the last hour, you still like to tackle first and ask questions later,” Owen laughed.
I looked startled. “Has Mr. Coogan filed charges?”
“No, he hasn’t. I have received calls from half the owners in the town square, mostly about your mostly unladylike behavior.”
I groaned. “Which means they have already called my mother and told her.”
“You said it was a weird run-in, Lizzie. What makes you say that?” T.J. asked.
Taking a bite of my cheeseburger, I thought about it. “I’m not sure. Maybe the guy is a source.”
“Has Dale been working on a story?” Owen said, snatching a fry from my plate.
“Not that I’m aware of, but it’s possible. Since I’ve been there, all I’ve ever seen him do is boss everyone around. He has a computer in his office, but I get the impression he doesn’t know how to use it, because he is always asking the rest of us to look things up for him.”
“I know for a fact that Dale had breakfast with that guy this morning,” Maddie, the owner of the café, said as she brought Owen his own burger and fries. “Back there in the corner booth. Upset poor old Homer Green because they were sitting in his regular booth.”
“Did you hear what they were talking about?” T.J. said.
She shook her head. “Every time I got close, they shut up. But I did notice Dale was taking a lot of notes in one of those pads he always carries around.”
“So the guy is a source. Makes me wonder what he’s working on.”
“Why don’t you just go into his office and ask him?” Owen replied, squirting ketchup all over his fries.
“Because he already told me that what he was doing was none of my business.”
“I don’t know if he is working on a story or not,” Maddie said, “but they were having one very intense conversation.”
“I think this new job of yours has sent your imagination into overdrive,” T.J. said. “Why don’t you just let it go? Dale already told you to butt out.”
“Why don’t you go ask him some questions?” I countered. “The guy did assault Dale.”
“Dale didn’t press charges,” Owen said, “and you assaulted Mr. Coogan. You’re lucky he didn’t file charges against you.”
“But I was defending Dale!”
“It doesn’t matter. The guy attacked Dale, not you. Unless he wants to press charges against Mr. Coogan, if that is his real name, there is nothing I can do.”
“You could run a background check on him.”
“To make sure Dale isn’t hooked up with some shady character.”
T.J. shook his head. “You’ve been watching ‘The Sopranos’ again, haven’t you?”
“I have not!” I said, a little too loudly. People turned and stared at us. “Just check him out, please.”
“Not my call. You’ll have to talk to the boss,” T.J. replied. He picked up the check and stood up. “I suggest you leave Dale alone for the rest of the day. Knowing him, he’s probably not too happy that you interrupted his meeting.” Leaning over, he gave me a kiss. “You’re still coming over tonight, right?”
“I’ll be there around six,” I assured him.
“Bring dessert,” he said as he left.
“I think it’s just shameful the way young people carry on in public these days,” Gladys said from the center table. “Obviously, there is something lacking in their upbringing.”
I rolled my eyes as Maddie brought Owen’s check. “You’re just jealous, Gladys, because Lizzie is getting more action in public than you are in private,” she said.
Gladys sputtered as everyone in the café laughed. “There are certain things a lady never discusses in public,” she replied.
“I don’t see why not, Gladys,” her husband replied, “you talk about everything else in public.”
“That is quite enough,” she said, cutting him off. “I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t carry on in front of me, Lizzie.”
“Fine,” I said. “Turn around next time.”
Gladys’ eyes widened. Grabbing her purse, she stomped out of the café to the sounds of more laughter. Her husband trailed behind, laughing and shaking his head. “Stuck up old cow,” I muttered as she left.
“So, did Dale at least say thank you after you used Coogan as a tackling dummy?” Owen asked.
“I didn’t use him as a tackling dummy, and this is Dale we’re talking about here. What do you think he said?”
Owen laughed. “Forget I asked.” He took a bite of his burger. “Have you heard from your aunt?”
“Why on earth do you keep asking me about her? She’s dead.”
“No official proof yet. I was just curious.”
I gathered my things and stood up. “Is there anything else you want to talk about? I’ve got some work to do, and a dog to take for a walk.”
“A bit touchy, aren’t you?”
“She tried to kill me, remember? I hardly think she’s going to give me fair warning if she was planning to try again. But this is all a moot point, isn’t it?”
“We’re not sure if we have her body or not,” Owen reminded me.”
“It’s been three months. No one could have survived that crash.”
Owen shrugged. “Perhaps you’re right. One more question: since when do you care so much about Dale Gordon?”
“Since he started signing my paychecks three months ago. That’s my only source of income at the moment, since Amos’ estate is tied up in probate.”
“I’ll check out Coogan, but I think it’s a waste of time.”
As I left, I hoped Owen was right. But I couldn’t ignore that nagging feeling that Dale was in serious trouble.
I spent the afternoon working on two new stories for next week’s edition, and then wrote two chapters on my novel. Looking up from the computer, I realized it was almost five p.m. I saved my work, shut off the computer, and grabbed Babe’s leash. For some reason, the old bloodhound preferred to walk around her old neighborhood, even though Amos was dead, and Earline was in jail.
Pulling up in front of the burnt out house, I let babe out, and she ran off toward the woods before I could clip on her leash. I decided there was no harm in letting her run, so I pulled out the little notebook I always carried and started plotting the next chapter of my novel.
I was so engrossed in my writing, I nearly slid off the hood of my car when Babe started baying. She came running back and sat down in front of me. It was what she had in her mouth that made my eyes widen in surprise. When I tried to take the blue ball cap from her mouth, Babe ran off toward the woods again, with me in hot pursuit.
I found her sitting in front of a large oak tree, the cap still in her mouth. Chills ran up and down my spine when I looked down at the base of the tree.
It was Oliver Coogan, lying on his stomach, a knife sticking out of his back. I bent over and checked for a pulse. Nothing.