Read Small Town Spin Online

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

Small Town Spin

Praise for the Headlines in High Heels Mysteries

SMALL TOWN SPIN (#3)

“A riveting mystery with big ideas and wonderful characters.
Small Town Spin
is a treat not to be missed, a fantastic addition to the Headlines in High Heels series.”

—Duffy Brown,

Agatha-Nominated Author of the Consignment Shop Mysteries

“Nichelle Clarke jumps headlong into any situation with courage and tenacity, not giving up until she gets the answers she wants.”

—Maggie Barbieri,

Author of
Once Upon a Lie
and the Murder 101 Mystery Series

“Stop the presses!
Small Town Spin
makes headlines with a smart, stylish reporter who has a knack for solving mysteries—and winning over readers.”

— Elizabeth Craig,

Author of the Southern Quilting Mysteries

BURIED LEADS (#2)

“Mafia hotties, corrupt politicians, old flames and murder… all this in her incisive exposés and her aubergine Manolo Blahniks. A smart and sassy heroine.”

—Patricia Smiley,

Bestselling Author of
Cool Cache

“Intrepid reporter Nichelle Clarke is back again, tracking down a killer, sniffing out political corruption, and juggling studmuffin boyfriends—all in impossibly high heels. Very smartly written and cleverly plotted, with a nifty surprise ending!”

—Laura Levine,

Author of the Jaine Austen Mystery Series

“It’s Walker’s real life experience as a working journalist that makes this enjoyable mystery stand out. The details of newsroom machinations are every bit as complicated as the tangled puzzle that her sleuth must solve.”

— Lisa Brackmann,

New York Times
Bestselling Author

“This book has a great mystery, a ton of humor (I know I’ve already said that, but it was worth repeating) and really wonderful characters...I really hope there are more books in this series.”

– Kerry Hammond,

CriminalElement.com

FRONT PAGE FATALITY (#1)

“Nicey’s adventure kept me guessing. Goes down as smooth as hot chocolate with whipped cream.”

– Alice Loweecey,

Author of the Falcone and Driscoll Investigations


Front Page Fatality
is delightful, with engaging characters, a crackling good mystery, and of course, high, high heels. LynDee Walker writes with wit and intelligence and the confidence of a newsroom insider. What fun!”

– Harley Jane Kozak,

Agatha, Anthony, and Macavity-Award Winning

“This is a joy to read…[it] can be read in one sitting thanks to the easy and casual language the author has employed in writing the book. Highly recommended to the fans of cozy mysteries!”


Mystery Tribune

“Fast, funny, [and] action-packed.”

— The
Virginian-Pilot

Books in the Headlines in High Heels Mystery Series

by LynDee Walker

Novels

FRONT PAGE FATALITY (#1)

BURIED LEADS (#2)

SMALL TOWN SPIN (#3)

DEVIL IN THE DEADLINE (#4)

(
January 2015
)

Novellas

DATELINE MEMPHIS

(in HEARTACHE MOTEL)

SMALL TOWN SPIN

A Headlines in High Heels Mystery

Part of the Henery Press Mystery Collection

First Edition

Kindle edition | April 2014

Henery Press

www.henerypress.com

All rights reserved.  No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including internet usage, without written permission from Henery Press, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. 

Copyright © 2013 by LynDee Walker

Cover design by Fayette Terlouw

Author photograph by Sarah Dabney-Reardon

This is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

ISBN-13: 978-1-940976-05-1

Printed in the United States of America

For Julie,

whose heart and soul will always be in Mathews County.

Thank you for sharing it with me, putting up with years of my writing/publishing neuroses, and teaching me to walk in heels (among many other things).

I couldn’t have written myself a better BFF.

In memory of Austin J. Hemmer, with special hugs to Sloane, Joe, and Cameron, who will love him forever.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

So many people had a hand in putting the book you hold in your hands together, and each has my eternal gratitude. No matter how many times I do this, my biggest fear is always that I’ll forget someone, so if it’s you, please know it was unintentional and accept my thanks.

This story required research on so many different things, and I’d be lost without Google, as always, but I ran into things here that even Google couldn’t help me with.

Jody Hynds, my favorite scientist, thank you for spending a whole Saturday morning looking up medical and biological scenarios (in actual textbooks) and being my brainstorming buddy as I constructed this mystery. One of the wonders of the Internet is that I can find my brilliant friends for help when I need them. 

Special thanks to Richard Helms for sharing his expertise in forensic and criminal psychology—and what’s different about teenagers.

My Hen House sisters: Larissa Reinhart, Terri L. Austin, and Gretchen Archer—I wouldn’t know what to do without you girls. Thank you for propping me up, cheering me on, and loving me enough to tell me when something is wrong with a book. Hugs.

My resident expert on Mathews County and always-first reader, Julie Hallberg: thanks for...everything. Never has there been a more fun research trip. I say we take Nichelle to the Bahamas next.

For sharing the unwritten history of Mathews, my thanks go to RC and Joyce Hernandez. Gwynn’s Island is such a beautiful place, and I hope I’ve done it justice.

More thanks to my wonderful, sharp-eyed editor, Kendel Flaum—you have no idea how much I appreciate all you do to make my books better, and to make me a better writer. Thank you simply isn’t enough, but will have to do.

Our Henery Press marketing whiz, Art Molinares—thank you for helping readers find my books, and not being afraid to try new things.

My brilliant cover artist, Fayette Terlouw—this was the best one yet! Thank you, again, for putting such a lovely face on my books.

Thanks to Nadia, Kait, and Erin, for sending me early words of encouragement on this story. It’s always nice to have early feedback from folks whose opinions you respect.

The past year has been more than a dream come true, and I’d like to offer a special thank you to Katarina Spears, Laura Curzi, and the staff at the Library of Virginia for inviting Nichelle and me to be part of the 2013 Virginia Literary Festival. It was a fantastic launch night, and I’ll never forget it.

Big, big thanks to the book bloggers and journalists who love Nichelle, and to the Mystery Minions, for helping spread the word about my stories.

This book deals with some serious issues that can affect people of any age, and I found some scary statistics in my research, but the one that sticks with me is this: the majority of people who survive suicide attempts tell stories of feeling so hopeless—the kind of hopeless that having one person to talk to can make a difference in. If you or someone you love struggles with suicidal thoughts, please, please pass on the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-8255.

I have a good friend who lost her son to suicide last year, but in true Sloane fashion, she flipped her tragedy into a miracle for other families by donating her son’s organs. To learn more about donation, please visit www.donatelife.net.

Thanks so much to all the readers who have connected with Nichelle, and especially those of you who have taken the time to let me know that. Those messages truly make my days brighter.

Last but never, ever least: eternal gratitude to Justin and my monkeys, who make time for me to spend with Nichelle and her friends. Thanks for being as proud of me as I always am of you. I love you.

1.

No rest for the weary

The news doesn’t take sick days.

Generally, the number of blocks on a calendar that I don’t work are rarer than comfortable shoes at a runway show. But four hours into a double shot of Claritin and DayQuil on a sunny April afternoon, I still felt like I’d been hit by a truck, and had only managed to finish one story.

“I think pollen season has won the afternoon, kiddo,” my editor said, eyeballing me from the doorway of my cubicle. I tried to lift my head to reply, but dropped it back to my desk with a dull
thunk
.

“I’m fine,” I said into the blotter.

“Go home, Nichelle.” Bob patted my shoulder.

Happy to oblige.

Settled on my overstuffed navy sofa with my toy Pomeranian snuggled in my lap and the TV remote in hand, I managed three sips of my honey-lemon tea before my Blackberry erupted into “Second Star to the Right.” The dog sat up and growled. I patted her and dropped the remote, reaching for the phone. Parker.

“I really am sick,” I said by way of hello when I picked up. Just in case he couldn’t tell—a shoebox of clothespins clamped on my nose wouldn’t have lent my voice any more of a ridiculous twang.

“You’ll thank me in a minute,” he said. “I have a story for you. An exclusive, if you can drag yourself back out of bed.”

“Drugs or gambling?” I asked, tilting my head to hold the phone against my shoulder while I reached for a notebook and pen. Parker was the star sports columnist at the
Richmond Telegraph
, and I figured if he was tipping the crime reporter (that’d be me) to a story, it meant an athlete had been busted for one of those things.

“Suicide,” he said.

“Aw, hell.” I blew out a short breath and dissolved into a coughing fit. “Sorry. Stupid pollen. I hate writing about suicides. Of all the depressing stories I do, those get to me the most.”

“I need you to do this,” he said. “Personal favor. It—” His voice broke, and he paused. “It won’t stay quiet forever.”

His pleading note left no room for excuses—or allergies. Parker was a good friend. I could suck it up to help him out. Plus, sad subject aside, I couldn’t hang up without getting the scoop. Story of my life.

I sighed, pen poised. “Spill it.”

“Tony Okerson,” he said.

“The football player?” Holy Manolos. “How do you figure that’s going to stay quiet for three seconds? That guy is a living legend.”

“Tony Okerson, Junior,” Parker said, and I pinched my eyes shut. A kid. Crap, crap, crap. I noted the name and listened as he went on.

“So far, they’ve kept a lid on it, but it’s only been a few hours,” he continued. “The local paper will run a spread tomorrow and it’ll be open season. Tony is one of my best friends, Clarke. They’re devastated.”

“I can’t imagine,” I said, my heart dropping into my stomach at the depth of pain in his voice. “I’m sorry, Parker. But what is it you want me to do with this?”

“Tony’s convinced he can control the media spin. I told him he has a better shot if he talks to you and lets us break the story. You know cops and crime better than anyone. Can you be in Tidewater by four o’clock?”

“Tidewater? Not D. C.?”

“When Tony retired last year, they moved into their beach house. It’s on a little island out there. Tony wanted his kids to have normal childhoods. Thought moving to a real-life Mayberry was the best way to keep them grounded and safe.” Anger bubbled just under the sorrow in Parker’s voice. “He said he’d talk to you tonight. I told him he could trust you. But this whole thing is making me antsy. I’m just waiting for someone to tweet him a well-meaning ‘My condolences.’ It’ll be all over the Internet in an hour as soon as that happens.”

“Jesus. What a mess.”

“Yeah. I just...I’m not asking you to print anything that’s not true, but I figure if you soften it, maybe the TV folks won’t smell blood in the water, you know?”

I shook my head, staying quiet. The suicide of a three-time Super Bowl champion quarterback’s son wouldn’t go unnoticed for long. The size of the town where it happened was likely the only reason it wasn’t already all over ESPN. And the sleepy little burg was in for a rude awakening when the cameras descended.

“What happened?” I asked finally.

“I don’t know,” he said. “They found him out by the shore early this morning.”

“Cause of death?”

“I didn’t ask. Tony sounded—” He paused. “Broken.”

I knew the tone. Too well. But I didn’t want to think about that, so I shoved the memory to the back of my mind and locked it away. Parker. His friend. Big story, handle with care. Focus, Nichelle.

“No note?” I asked.

“No.”

“History of problems?”

“Not that I know of.” The words choked off and I heard a couple of deep breaths before he cleared his throat. “I’m not really clear on the details. But they’ll fill you in. Take care of this for me, huh, Clarke? I taught that kid to throw a baseball. Bounced him on my knee. Cheered at his games. He was a good boy. Smart. Talented. If we can keep it from turning into a media circus, let’s do it.”

“I’m on it,” I said, ignoring Darcy’s yip of protest when I moved her into the floor and sat up. “I’ll be there as soon as I can. Text me the address?”

“I’ll send it right after I hang up. And thanks.”

“Parker?”

“Yeah?”

“I really am sorry.” The words felt lame, but I knew from too much experience they were the only ones that fit.

“Me, too, Clarke.” He sighed. “Me, too.”

Antihistamines and vitamin D on board, I changed back into a soft cotton pencil skirt and a powder blue cashmere sweater, sliding my feet into copper Jimmy Choo slingbacks I’d picked up at a thrift store the week before. Spring always puts me in the mood for new shoes. To be fair, so do summer, fall, and Wednesday.

I poured the rest of my tea into a travel mug decorated with colorful cartoon heels and scratched Darcy’s ears before I climbed back into my little red SUV.

Parker had sent me the address, and my maps app told me it would take ninety minutes to get there, which meant I needed to hurry if I wanted to make it by four. I pointed the car toward I-64 and cranked up the Elvis radio station, thinking about teenage angst and what might have caused this nightmare I was about to walk into.

Once outside the city, I set the cruise and sang along with Elvis, admiring the bits of green peeping from the tips of the tree branches. In a week, those baby leaves would shade the entire freeway. There aren’t many trees in the part of Texas where I grew up, and the ones there don’t get as mammoth as Virginia trees. Though I’m not a fan of Mid-Atlantic winters, I loved that it wasn’t already a hundred degrees outside in early April. Save for the pollen, I’d have driven to Mathews County with my windows down. But I was miserable enough already.

I pulled off the interstate at West Point and scrunched my nose at the stench from the paper mill while crossing the bridge. I bet that’s horrible when a person can actually breathe.

The wide road narrowed to two lanes through rolling acres of farmland, corn and hay just sprouting in the fields lining the street. Houses, farms, and churches—in almost equal numbers—were the only things I passed for miles. I turned again by a 7-Eleven and slowed through a green stoplight before I crossed a short drawbridge and pulled onto the island where Tony Okerson had moved to protect his children.

Parker was right: Gwynn’s Island was tiny, with a small handful of stop signs and only a few more streets. I passed a long-closed gas station and a vacant building that might have once been a supermarket. If it hadn’t been for the manicured lawns and the children darting across roads that looked more like gravel driveways, I’d have wondered if Parker’d sent me to a ghost town.

My map led me to a small iron gate at the head of what appeared to be a private drive. There was no name, only the house number on small blocks the colors of the sand and sky, set into the stone of one post. Perfect for a celebrity looking for a hideaway.

I buzzed and gave my name to the man who answered. His deep voice sounded spent: exhausted and raw. I steeled myself for what was sure to be a tearjerker of an appointment.

I try to hold myself together in front of the families, but it’s not always easy. My gut said this one would be harder than most.

The gate swung inward, and I idled up the drive.

Waves crashed nearby, though I couldn’t see the ocean yet. Scanning the property line, I caught a glimpse of water just as a surprisingly modest stone and clapboard beach cottage loomed around the last curve.

I climbed the steps of the wide front porch. It wrapped down both sides of the house, bedecked with Adirondack chairs, palm-blade fans, and three different swings. A red plastic bucket in the corner brimmed with toys. Damn. It hadn’t occurred to me to ask Parker how old the kid was. What was I getting into, here?

The front door stood open behind a wood-framed screen, and soft chimes rang through the house when I pushed the doorbell.

A petite woman whose honey-gold skin and sun-streaked hair said she spent a good deal of time outside appeared in the entry. She tried to smile, but it didn’t come off.

“Nichelle Clarke, from the
Richmond Telegraph
?” My words sounded more like a question than an introduction because her face portrayed a level of pain I wasn’t sure I wanted to tackle, no matter how big the story was. I didn’t want to let Parker down, though. “Grant Parker sent me.”

She nodded, snagging a friendly-faced Golden Retriever by his thick red collar as she pushed the door open. “I’m Ashton Okerson. Please, come in.”

I stepped into a perfect oasis, my heels clicking on travertine just the right shade of blue-gray to match the panoramic views of the Atlantic I could see through each of three doorways.

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” I said, shaking her hand. She didn’t look much older than me.

“Thank you for coming to help us. Tony says Grant swears this interview will make it easier. I don’t see how anything could.” She closed her eyes for a long blink. They shone bright with tears when she opened them. “But thank you. Make yourself at home in the living room.” She pointed to the doorway straight ahead. “I’ll get my husband.”

The wall to the right of the dining room held an artful collage that showed off a gorgeous family. I studied the center photo. Tony Okerson’s blond, all-American good looks were framed by a flawless sky, his arm slung around Ashton, the surf in the background. An equally-handsome teenager knelt in the sand in front of them, a football tucked under one flowy-white-beach-shirted arm. Twin little girls with pigtails the color of sunshine leaned from behind Ashton and Tony, grinning.

I stared at the boy. He was the reason I was there, because he was the only male child in the picture. What could bring such tragedy to this peaceful place?

Looking around, I didn’t see or hear any sign of Ashton or Tony. Maybe he’d gone for a walk. I would. If I lived in that house, I wouldn’t even need shoes, and I could eat as much white chocolate and southern fried everything as I wanted, because I’d walk a million miles up and down that beach every day.

I strode to the open glass wall that ran the length of the living room, searching the shoreline before a soft sob pulled my attention from the water.

One of the little girls from the picture. Hugging a football and crying. I froze. I didn’t want to scare her, and I was a stranger. My throat closed and tears burned my eyes. Before I could get my mouth open—though I wasn’t sure if it was to speak to the child or call for her mother—I felt a hand on my shoulder.

I turned to find myself face-to-face with one of the most famous athletes in the Western Hemisphere. The anguish in his green eyes screamed that he’d give back every trophy and Super Bowl ring to have his son safe upstairs.

Oh, boy.

I closed my eyes and hauled in a deep breath, pasting on a smile and putting my hand out.

“I’m so sorry to have to meet you under these circumstances, Mr. Okerson,” I said, clearing my throat and brushing at my eyes. “My allergies are giving me the hardest time today.”

He nodded, offering a small half-smile. “I understand,” he said, and his gentle handshake told me he did. “Please, call me Tony. Come, have a seat.”

I gestured to the little girl.

He peeked around the corner, his broad shoulders slumping. “She won’t talk to anyone.”

I followed him to a sprawling azure sectional. Ashton came in from the hallway and bustled around the kitchen, disappearing out onto the deck with a plate of cookies.

I shot Tony a look and started to get back to my feet. “Can I help her with something? I feel like she should be, um, not doing housework.”

He shook his head. “She’s been like this since the sheriff left. Keeping herself busy with mundane things. Almost like she can fix it.” He watched his wife fill a pitcher with iced tea and put glasses on a tray, lowering his voice so only I could hear him. “Like part of her thinks if she goes about a normal Thursday, TJ will come home and this will be a bad dream. God, I wish she was right.”

I nodded, trying to smile when Ashton brought the tray in and set it on the coffee table. She filled the glasses and handed me one, then offered one to Tony, who waved it away. Ashton sank into the couch next to her husband, laying her left hand on his knee.

“I’m not sure...?” She let the question trail off, her turquoise eyes begging me for guidance.

“What to tell me? I understand that.” I leaned forward and put the glass on the table, studying them.

Sorrow seeped from every pore. Clearly, I shouldn’t vault into asking them about TJ’s death. “I want to write a story more about who your son was than how he died, though I’m afraid I need to know that, too,” I said. “What kind of music did he like? What was his favorite color, food, time of the year?”

Ashton opened her mouth and her face crumpled. One hand flew to her lips and a muffled sob escaped. “I can’t. I can’t talk about my beautiful boy in the past tense. My God, he’s really gone, isn’t he?” She buried her face in Tony’s orange polo. “How did this happen to us?”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, her anguished tone tugging at my heart. 

Tony nodded over the top of his wife’s head. “Thank you. I know you didn’t mean any harm. We asked you to come here. Grant said he dragged you out of a rare day off. This is just...surreal. We’re still trying to process it.”

“I’m sure that’s a difficult thing to do,” I said, my thoughts running back to the little girl on the deck. It would be especially hard for her to understand. I knew. 

They sat for a moment, him staring at nothing, smoothing her hair as she cried. I tried to blend into the sofa. Some days my job felt more voyeuristic than I’d like. When Ashton sat up, I turned my attention back to them.

“TJ’s a good kid,” Tony said. “Good grades, lots of friends. No trouble. He’s an old soul in a young man’s body. Didn’t ever seem like he wanted to be anything but grown up and responsible. He loves his little sisters, is really active in the church.”

I scribbled as he talked, my Benadryl-fogged brain trying to pick through that to a place where this boy had killed himself. Nothing about that said “suicide.”

“Girlfriend?” I asked.

“All the girls chased TJ,” Ashton said, sniffling. “But Sydney was the only one he ever wanted.”

Maybe unrequited teenage love?

“Did she want him, too?” I asked.

“Oh, yes. They’ve been dating seriously for over a year. Talking about growing up and getting married, like we did. They’re in love.” She glanced at her husband and he squeezed her hand. “We’re not stupid. We told them they had to wait until they were through with school. Do it in the right order. We had TJ when we were still in college. We managed, but it was hard.”

I nodded, jotting that down.

“Had the two of them had a fight?”

“No. She’s studying in Paris this semester. She wants to be an artist. They Facetimed and talked on the phone every day. She’s coming home next week, and he’s so excited to see her,” Ashton closed her eyes and tightened her grip on Tony’s hand. “I guess she’s coming home tonight, isn’t she?”

Maybe he missed the girl? I put a star by that.

“Forgive me, but I have to ask: is there any history of depression in your family? Had TJ ever shown signs of it?”

I bit my lip. Past stories had taught me that teen suicides almost always fall into one of two camps: kids who are outcasts or bullied, or kids who are struggling with the onset of mental illness.

“No,” Ashton said, her face serious. “I’ve been over every minute of the last three weeks in my head today, wondering if I missed something. I have a psych degree gathering dust in the attic. I know the signs. For TJ to spiral that far, that fast, we’d have noticed. I’m a full-time mom and Tony’s retired. We have nothing to do but helicopter our kids.”

Hmmm.

“How many sports does TJ play?” I asked. They were obviously more comfortable with the present tense.

“Football and baseball.” Tony tried to smile. “Quarterback and pitcher. Grant says he’s better at baseball. I disagree.”

I nodded, another lump forming in my throat at the thought of the hurt I’d heard in my friend’s voice on the phone. Parker had been a breath away from being a major league pitcher when a blown rotator cuff ended his baseball career.

“He said y’all were old friends?” I knew Tony Okerson was a UVA alum, like Parker. “From college?”

Tony nodded. “The summer before my senior year, they assigned me a freshman buddy from the athletic program. I had fun showing Grant around the campus. He was serious. Laser-focused. I knew he had the stuff to make it in professional sports five minutes after I met him. He’s a good friend.”

“That he is,” I said. Or, he had been since he’d forgiven me for suspecting him of murder. I’d played matchmaker as a peace offering, setting him up with our city hall reporter at the end of summer. They were getting serious. 

I looked out the window at the surf, then back at Tony and Ashton. They didn’t want to be there. Didn’t want me there. Didn’t want to deal with any of this. Their son’s death was a circus trainload of elephants in the room, but I couldn’t flat-out ask them to describe it. So I chose the roundabout road.

“Tell me about TJ,” I said, raising my pen.

And they did. They told stories and laughed and cried for an hour. I wrote down everything from Ashton going into labor at a UVA football game (Tony made it through the third quarter before the offensive line coach whisked him off to the hospital just in time to see his son come into the world) to TJ’s first day of kindergarten, to his belief that wearing the same socks and underwear for all of January helped his dad win the Super Bowl (ick, but an endearing sort of gross). When the story came around to that morning, Ashton dissolved into sobs again.

“He wasn’t in his room,” Tony said, clearing his throat. “I went to get him up because we always run in the mornings, and he wasn’t there. I thought maybe he was already outside. It’s spring break, but he’s been up early every day. He went to a party last night, though, and we told him he could stay out late.”

Party? My ears keened on the word. I stayed quiet.

Tony stared past me at the dark flatscreen TV on the wall over the fireplace.

“I ran, probably a mile and a half down the beach. The shore gets rockier the further you go around the island. I saw the remnants of a campfire, and I know the kids build them this time of year when they’re out on the water late. Then I saw TJ’s jacket. I picked my way down to the water. He was slumped on a rock. It looked like he was sleeping.”

I frowned. What about that screamed “suicide?” I hadn’t heard anything to make me think this kid had killed himself, yet his parents told Parker he had. How was I going to ask them that without making Ashton cry harder?

I tilted my head and caught Tony’s eye.

“I’m afraid I don’t follow...” I said.

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