Authors: LynDee Walker
Tags: #Mystery, #high heels mysteries, #Humor, #Cozy, #british mysteries, #amateur sleuth, #Cozy Mystery, #murder mystery books, #english mysteries, #traditional mystery, #women sleuths, #chick lit, #humorous mystery, #female sleuths, #mystery books, #mystery series
My head was no less stuffy the next morning, but I had work to do. I trudged into the newsroom at seven-thirty to write my story on TJ before the budget meeting, while texting Parker so he would check the article before I turned it in. I was paranoid that my allergy meds had made my head so foggy I’d get something wrong.
TJ Okerson’s favorite color was green. He loved football, the beach, and his twin little sisters. As a junior, he led the Mathews Eagles to a state championship last season, appearing set to follow in the footsteps of his famous father, retired Super Bowl champion quarterback Tony Okerson.
“He had the best smile,” his mother, Ashton Okerson, said. “I know the saying is that someone’s smile lights up a room, but TJ’s smile lit up the world. My world, anyway. He made it a better place.”
Ashton and Tony talked to the
exclusively about their son Thursday evening, after Tony found TJ’s body on the beach near their home on Gwynn’s Island that morning. Local law enforcement officials said the death appeared to be a
I paused, staring at the blinking cursor. I didn’t want to type the word “suicide,” because my gut said there was something else there. On the other hand, the Okersons believed Sheriff Zeke. I didn’t want to upset grieving parents and friends, either.
I blew out a short breath and sipped my coffee, scrunching my nose when my beloved white mocha syrup tasted more like tomato sauce thanks to my stuffy head.
“How’s it coming?” Parker asked from behind my left shoulder. I smiled and turned to face him, waving a hello to his girlfriend as she dropped her bag to the floor in the cube next to mine.
“Slowly,” I said, studying his face. The dark craters under his emerald eyes were unusual, and told me I should probably keep my mouth shut about why it was coming slowly.
Parker loved this kid, and I didn’t want to make my friend sadder. “These stories are always hard. And his parents were so nice,” I finished simply.
He shook his head. “Of all the kids I’ve ever met, TJ was the least likely to do something like this.”
I laid a hand on his arm and caught Mel’s eye. She looked tired, too. She just shook her head, a pained look on her face.
“I’m so sorry,” I told Parker.
“What did the cops say?” he asked.
“That they’re looking into it, but they think it was a suicide.”
“Why?” He stepped back and shook his head.
“TJ loves his baby sisters. He loves his family. I just saw him two weeks ago. He was happy. Why would he do this?” Parker sat heavily on the edge of my desk and dropped his tousled blond head into his hands. Mel massaged his shoulder and offered me a helpless shrug.
I tried to pull in a deep breath, but the stuffy nose netted me a small gasp.
“His parents don’t know. The cops don’t know,” I said. “It doesn’t sound to me like a typical suicide, if there even is such a thing.”
Parker raised his head and leveled his green eyes at me.
“Are you saying what I think you’re saying?” he asked.
“I’m not sure what I’m saying,” I replied hurriedly. “My gut says there’s something off, Parker.” So much for keeping my mouth shut.
“Are the cops out there really looking into it, or are they placating Tony and Ashton?”
“I can’t tell. The sheriff seemed like a nice guy, but I don’t know him or anyone else in the department. I’m flying a little blind, here. He said he’s waiting for tox results, but they don’t have their own lab, so that could take a while.”
“How long a while?”
“A couple of weeks. Maybe three,” I said. “It’s not as complicated as a DNA analysis. Just testing his blood for hydrocodone levels and alcohol. It depends on what’s in the queue.”
“Painkillers?” Parker raised an eyebrow.
“There was an empty bottle in his pocket. His folks said he just got the prescription refilled.”
“And alcohol? TJ wasn’t stupid,” Parker said. “He knows better than to drink and take painkillers.”
“I think that’s their evidence that he did it on purpose,” I said gently. “It’s the why that doesn’t fit for me.”
“Yeah.” He shook his head again as he stood. “I should let you finish your story.”
“Bob wants it early. Thanks for the scoop. I hope I do it justice.”
“You will,” he said, turning for the hallway that led to his office. “Keep me in the loop, huh?”
“Absolutely. I’m not sure how far I can get a foot in the door down there. It is a small town. Like, one stoplight, the-7-Eleven-clerk-gave-me-the-stinkeye-because-I-don’t-belong small. But I’ll keep after it.”
I finished typing my story, alternately giggling at funny anecdotes the Okersons had shared and swallowing tears at the memory of the little girls who missed their brother. Reading through it, I hoped it was good enough to make Ashton Okerson’s day a teensy bit easier.
I copied Parker when I emailed the article to Bob, just in time to sprint to the staff meeting. Well, it felt like sprinting, but was probably more like dragging ass thanks to what I suspected was a full-blown sinus infection.
I stopped short when I rounded the corner into my editor’s office and found Shelby Taylor parked in my usual seat.
Standing just inside the door, I shot Bob a clear WTF look and got an apologetic shrug in reply.
“Good morning, Nichelle,” Shelby purred, folding her arms over her ample chest and grinning up at me. “You look as fresh as ever.”
I didn’t even have the energy to glare. Shelby was our copy chief, but made no bones about the fact that she wanted to be our crime reporter. And she’d tried everything from sleeping with the managing editor to ratting me out to the criminal underworld to get it, too.
I leaned toward her and coughed. She wrinkled her nose and shrank back into the orange velour of Bob’s Virginia Tech chic armchair.
“You should consider things like the freedom to take a sick day when you’re trying to steal someone’s beat,” I said.
“I don’t get sick,” she snapped. “Seems like you should take more vitamins.”
I turned to Bob. “What the hell is she doing in here, and can you make her leave?”
“Now, ladies,” he said. “Nichelle, Shelby’s filling in for Les for the next week.”
“She’s what? A whole week?” I tried to groan, but it sounded more like a snort. “Why? What happened to Les?”
Our managing editor had never been one of my favorite people. He was a brown-nosing weasel who wanted Bob’s job as badly as Shelby wanted mine, but given the choice between my rival and her boyfriend, I’d take Les twice over.
“He’s recovering from surgery,” Shelby chirped. “Andrews asked me himself if I’d step in.”
Right. Rick Andrews was the
’s publisher, and didn’t care about much of anything but the paper’s bottom line and image. Les was generally so far up Andrews’s backside the big boss didn’t have time to notice any of the rest of us. I had a hard time believing he knew Shelby existed.
“How is it that we work in a newsroom and I hadn’t heard Les was having surgery?” I asked. “Is he going to be okay?”
“It’s a minor procedure,” Shelby said, fiddling with the file folder in her lap.
“A minor procedure he needs a week to recover from?” I perched on a plastic office chair. “I’m practically dying, and here I sit.”
“Are y’all talking about Les’s hair plugs again?” Eunice Blakely, our features editor, asked as she ambled into the room and lowered herself slowly into the orange velour armchair opposite Shelby’s. Eunice’s war correspondent days had ended when a helicopter crash in Iraq earned her a half-dozen screws in her right hip. In the years since, she’d made our features section a consistent award-winner, and made herself our resident mistress of Southern cooking and wry observation.
I sucked in my cheeks to keep from smiling.
“I think it will look good when it’s healed,” Shelby argued.
“But isn’t the point for people to notice he looks different? Why hide? Also—why are you here?” I asked Shelby. “Les doesn’t usually come to the news meetings.”
“I want to know what I need to be on top of today,” Shelby said with a grin. “Just trying to learn as much as I can from this opportunity.”
Bob rolled his eyes, but she didn’t notice, and I coughed again to cover a laugh. He knew as well as I did Shelby was there because she wouldn’t miss an excuse to crash the meeting.
The rest of the section editors filed in and Bob flash-fired through the rundown, not turning to me until the end.
“We have an exclusive on a sad story today,” he said, his gaze flicking to Spencer Jacobs, our sports editor. “We’re going live with it on the web as I speak, because the police report will be in the local paper in Mathews County this morning.”
He paused and sat back in the chair, eyes on me. Whispers flitted through the rest of the room.
“What’s Nichelle got?” Eunice finally asked Spence. “And what’s it got to do with you?”
“Tony Okerson’s teenage son is dead,” I said quietly when Bob nodded an okay.
“What?” Spence sat up straight, fumbling for a pen. “How? And why don’t I have this at the sports desk?”
“Parker asked me to handle it,” I said. “The Okersons are his friends. Your guys don’t have much experience working with cops.”
“It’s her story, Spence, and you get her whatever she needs to do a good job of it,” Bob said. “Listen up, folks. We have the only interview the Okersons are giving. When this breaks nationwide, it’s going to be huge, and this poor little town isn’t going to know what hit it. Everyone and their poodle will want into this story, and no one here is sharing anything. Not a word. Are we clear? If you get a call from a member of another media organization, you forward it to Nichelle or to me. Nothing goes out without approval.”
I nodded. Parker and Bob were close, and I could tell from the forceful note in Bob’s voice that Parker had given him the same speech I’d gotten on the phone the day before.
’s official statement?” Shelby asked.
I snuck a glance between her and Bob. He looked irritated, and she was too busy staring daggers at me to notice.
“Just send all inquiries to me,” Bob said, impressive control in his tone. “I don’t see reason for you to get any questions. But if you do, I’ll field them.”
“What if you’re not here?” Shelby asked. “If I’m putting in long hours and find myself needing to answer someone?”
“Take. A. Message,” Bob said through clenched teeth, and I snorted. I didn’t mean to. It just slipped out.
Shelby shot me another glare as she strode from the office.
I smiled, keeping my seat as the section editors ran for their computers, looking for my story. Curiosity is part of the gig when you work in a newsroom.
“Don’t be so quick to gloat,” Bob cautioned, leaning his elbows on his desk. “She’s going to be as far into everything as she can get until Les comes back to work, and you are going to be up to your neck in this Okerson thing. I’ll do what I can, but she has Andrews’s ear, and his memory is about as long as Les’s hair.”
“That’s so wrong.” I didn’t even try to suppress a giggle.
Bob grinned. “I think you sympathize with my ill will toward Les.”
“I do at that,” I said. “And I am going to nail this Okerson story. Something’s not right, chief. I have a bad feeling about this whole thing. That interview was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in the name of a story. And that’s counting getting shot. It just rips your heart right out to talk to these people. They’re so nice.”
“I got the feeling from the story that you were hedging the cause of death.” He sat back and laced his fingers behind his head. “What gives?”
“It doesn’t fit. He was cute. Popular. Family has money. He had a girl. A looming career playing ball, for chrissakes. Why?”
Bob chewed on that for a long minute before he answered with a question of his own. “What’d you make of the sheriff?”
“Eh. He seems nice. He’s not stupid. He’s also not excited about the media shitstorm. I think I can get on his good side. I just don’t know how far he’s going to dig.”
“Well, kiddo, your gut has a good track record. Poke around if you must. But I know I don’t have to remind you that you need to stay on top of your regular beat. And we cannot screw this thing with Okerson up.”
I nodded, fishing a Kleenex out of the pocket on my soft lavender cardigan and swiping at my nose.
“March yourself to Care First and get an antibiotic.” Bob drew his brows together in a parental glare, and I smiled.
“And then get some juice and get to work. Find out when the funeral is and if you can go.”
“To the funeral?” Aw, man. I didn’t think I could handle that.
“There will be cameras on every inch of lawn at that church,” Bob said. “I want you inside.”
“You got it, chief.” I grabbed my bag and turned for the door. The elevators seemed a Himalayan trek away, and the room seesawed a half dozen times when I stood up.
“Feel better,” Bob said, turning to his computer. I saw my story flash on the screen, a photo of TJ Okerson from the state championship football game under the header.
I did not have time to be sick.