Winner, IPPY Award for Gay/Lesbian
“There’s a man,” said the fresh-faced young woman seated opposite her in the diner booth. “He’s causing me problems.”
Mackenzie Cross nodded and remained silent while the waitress delivered cups of coffee accompanied by slices of the best damn pecan pie in the state of Georgia, bar none. Outside the diner, a steady stream of rain pattered against the window, spreading a wet, misty haze over her view of the parking lot.
“Okay, you have a problem with a man. What of it?” Mackenzie asked when they were alone again. She put a dollop of half-and-half in her coffee, took a sip and added two packets of sugar. She tried another taste and grimaced. The sweetener hadn’t helped.
The young woman tossed her head of long, glossy blond hair. Her mouth formed a pout. “You owe my daddy big time, so I want you to help me out.”
“At the risk of sounding clichéd, who’s your daddy?”
“I’m Kelly Collier.” The young woman pushed away the plate of pie untouched. She clearly expected to be recognized, and frowned when Mackenzie made no comment. The frown changed to a smirk. “Paul Collier’s daughter. You know, he’s the pastor of the First Baptist Church of Jesus Christ Our Savior and King, and if I’m not mistaken, Ms. Cross, he’s also your landlord.” The smirk turned into a self-satisfied smile.
“True. I rent office space from Mr. Collier.”
“And I’m engaged to Tucker Dearborn,” Kelly went on with an air of triumph. She held up a hand, pretending to look for flaws in her French manicured nails, the better to flash the engagement ring on her third finger. “I’m sure you’ve heard of him. We’re getting married after graduation, and he’s taking me to the Bahamas for our honeymoon.”
While Kelly spoke, Mackenzie lifted her fork and savored a bite of pie: sweetened with local honey instead of corn syrup, bursting with fresh pecans, and with a crust so flaky it must have been made with lard. Her arteries would never forgive her, but her taste buds sang a glorious hallelujah, reminding her why she tolerated the diner’s lousy coffee.
“Tucker Dearborn is the Burton Lemoyne High School football team’s star quarterback. His father, Jacob Dearborn, owns half of Antioch,” Mackenzie murmured after eating half the pie. “Mr. Dearborn is the pastor at the United Methodist Church on Apple Street, right across from your father’s church,” she continued. “You and Tucker getting together isn’t likely to spark a Baptists vs. Methodists feud, is it?”
Kelly shrugged. “Me and Tucker aren’t Romeo and Juliet, if that’s what you mean. Daddy and Mr. Dearborn get along okay. Daddy says we all worship the same God and live by the same book. Everything else is unimportant.”
“Your father is a wise man.” Mackenzie finished her slice of pie, hesitated, and finally pulled over Kelly’s abandoned plate. Waste not, want not. “Why’d you call me?”
“Because you fix things, right?”
“My business is finding unusual, rare and obscure items for clients on commission. I do antiques valuations, too. Neither of these things usually requires ‘fixing’ people’s problems, so why come to me with your man trouble?”
“Daddy wouldn’t ask you to do anything to repay him, but he’s spending all that money on your office. The least you can do is a simple little favor for me.”
Mackenzie weighed the merits of the argument.
Mr. Collier owned the building that housed her office. Last month, after a violent storm, he had arranged for repairs to be done when gale force winds and an aging roof hadn’t proven the best combination. A fundamentally decent man, he wasn’t raising her rent, he hadn’t delayed the work, and he’d offered to reimburse her for any expenses incurred because of the construction. He hadn’t even so much as hinted at favors owed.
She figured whatever his daughter wanted regarding this mysterious man, she might do it provided the request wasn’t illegal, immoral, or too inconvenient.
“Look, this is just a stupid misunderstanding,” Kelly burst out, startling a couple at a nearby table. She glanced around and lowered her voice to an insistent whine. “I didn’t do anything wrong, and I don’t see why I’m supposed to let him get away with it—”
“Just stop right there,” Mackenzie interrupted. “You told me over the phone that this is an emergency, right? So I need you to stay calm, begin at the beginning, and tell me exactly what happened. Can you do that?”
Kelly took a deep breath. “I was in the park today,” she began hesitantly.
The rain shower ended while she spoke. A break in the clouds sent a ray of sunshine beaming through the window. Radiant light poured over Kelly, turning her hair to spun gold, her skin to porcelain smoothness, and her cornflower-blue eyes luminous. Beautiful as an angel, Mackenzie thought, but she had better sense than to be dazzled by appearance.
She motioned with her fork for Kelly to continue. Across the room, she caught the waitress holding the coffeepot aloft in a mimed inquiry. She shook her head.
“I was in the park with Mr. Dearborn. He’s a widower, and Tucker’s all the family he has left, and he wanted to talk to me about the wedding,” Kelly got out in a rush. “And there’s nothing wrong with that at all.”
“Well, we met Reverend Wyland in the park. You know him?”
“He runs the Covenant Rock Church of God with Signs Following.”
Kelly’s upper lip curled in scorn. The expression didn’t suit her pretty face. “A bunch of Pentecostal snake handlers up on Sweetwater Hill. It’s not even a real church, just an old shack in the middle of the woods. Anyway, Rev. Wyland saw us together. Now he says…”
Mackenzie ate the last bite of pie, considered washing it down with a swig of coffee, and decided the poor pie had never done anything to her so terrible to warrant such brutal treatment. “What does Rev. Wyland say?” she prodded.
“He says he wants Mr. Dearborn to resign from the church.”
“Because he says we’re sinners, but that’s not true!” Kelly slapped the tabletop with the flat of her hand. The diamond ring winked. “And you have to make him stop.”
At last we come to the point. “Let me make sure I understand the situation,” Mackenzie said. “You and your future father-in-law were in the park—I assume you mean Stubbs Park—when you were accosted by Rev. Wyland, who now insists that Mr. Dearborn resign from the United Methodist Church.”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And you and Mr. Dearborn were discussing your upcoming nuptials with his son.”
“Has Wyland told you what he’ll do if his demand isn’t met?”
Kelly opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again after a moment to say tightly, “I don’t know what that crazy man wants. Maybe he’s been bit by snakes once too often.”
“Why did Wyland call you sinners? You said it was a misunderstanding.”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Kelly said abruptly. She rose and sidled out of the booth. “You don’t need to know. It doesn’t matter. Can you help me or not?”
“You want Wyland to…what? Stop threatening you?” Mackenzie dropped her fork beside the empty second plate. “Be very specific, Ms. Collier,” she warned. “I don’t want there to be any more misunderstandings.”
“Just…just make him leave us alone. That’s what I want.”
“Why can’t you ask your father to take care of it? Or Tucker, for that matter.”
“I don’t want to bother them.”
“Let me be clear: I’ll talk to Wyland. That’s all. And if that’s not good enough—”
“Just make him stop!” Kelly’s voice rose to a shrill shriek.
The diner fell silent.
Aware of a dozen pair of eyes on them, Mackenzie listened to the sizzling of hamburgers and bacon on the grill in the kitchen and pretended not to notice the sudden, fascinated interest. For a moment, Kelly’s angel’s façade cracked, showing a glimpse of darkness beneath, something petty and mean.
Before Mackenzie could decide what to make of the slip, Kelly went on in a more normal tone of voice, “I’ll tell Daddy you’re helping me out. I’m sure he’ll be happy.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and stared down at Mackenzie as if defying her to refuse.
The other diner patrons resumed their buzz of conversation and clattering silverware.
“All right,” Mackenzie said. “I’ll call you when I know something.” She wiped her mouth on a napkin, crumpled it up, tossed it on a plate and signaled the waitress, who came bustling over.
“You do that,” Kelly said.
She glided her slender, athletic form down the aisle with the self-confidence of a young woman who knows she’s prettier than everyone else in the room and expects to be treated accordingly. Mackenzie watched through the window as the young woman climbed into a brand-new, white Corvette Stingray convertible and screeched out of the parking lot.
“Check, please,” Mackenzie said to the hovering waitress, taking out her wallet to leave a generous tip.
Pie that good deserved a reward, she decided, though if she’d had her druthers, she wouldn’t have given one thin dime for the cup of swill masquerading as coffee, nor would she have paid a plugged nickel for the unwanted company.
The downtown area of Antioch, Georgia—population 5,424—seemed to breathe more deeply after a rainstorm, Mackenzie thought on her way to the office.
Main Street, so broad it boasted a parking strip in the center, gleamed as blackly as if the asphalt had been shellacked. The late-nineteenth century brick buildings looked refreshed, as did the young hickory trees planted in rows along the pavements on both sides of the street as part of the city’s downtown renewal project.
The sense of freshness wouldn’t last long, Mackenzie knew. Just until the heat cranked up and the humidity turned the air oppressive. At that point everyone would curse the goddamn storm front that dumped so much water in the air, leaving them to stew.
She managed to wedge her car between two other vehicles in the central parking zone and climbed out, making sure to display her parking permit on the dashboard. She frowned at the police cruiser parked in front of her business, housed in a single-story building much longer than it was deep. She rented one of the three available spaces.
What was a cop doing parked here? she wondered. The Antioch police station had its own lot two streets over close to the courthouse, city hall, other government buildings, the Mitford County sheriff’s office and the downtown parking garage.
Mackenzie inhaled deeply, detecting the delicious aromas of sugar and yeast. Today was Thursday. The bakery next to her office made Hawaiian sweet rolls on Thursday. Hawaiian sweet rolls were Sheriff Newberry’s most favorite thing in the world excepting his teenage son and daughter and the University of Georgia football team.
The explanation eased the tension in her shoulders. Just a deputy dispatched to pick up a batch of rolls for the sheriff, she thought, a theory which lasted up to the moment her door opened and a man in a Brooks Brothers suit walked outside.
Alarmed, she hailed him and hurried across the street. “Jimmy, what the hell are you doing?” she asked. “Do you have a search warrant?”
“No—” he began, but she interrupted.
“The next words out of your mouth had better be why you have cause to search my place of business without a warrant,” she declared, “or I swear, Detective James Austin Maynard, I will kick your ass so hard, you’ll taste shoe leather for a solid seven days.”
“Good afternoon to you, too, Kenzie,” Maynard replied calmly. He didn’t quite smile, but the wrinkles at the corners of his eyes deepened. Her cousin was only a couple of years older than her and took after the worst traits of his mother’s side of the family—dark, dour, rangy, and about as much fun as listening to a golf game on the radio. “I’m doing fine, thanks for asking. My ulcer is much better and it’s been a week since I quit smoking.”
Mackenzie flushed, half in annoyance, half in chagrin at having her rudeness pointed out by the person who used to dump frogs down the back of her dress in grade school. Now that they were adults, she always suspected he was secretly laughing at her. She’d rather have dealt with the frogs. “Do I need to ask a lawyer to come over here, Jimmy?” she asked.
“Not unless you want to tell me about the dead woman in your wall,” he said.
She went cold. “What?”
Maynard told her that the construction crew hired by Collier had been removing water-damaged drywall in her office and discovered a woman’s corpse hidden between the wall studs. “Still waiting for the medical examiner, who’s at lunch,” he concluded, “but judging from the condition of the body, our victim’s been here a good long while.”
“How long?” Mackenzie’s voice cracked. She cleared her throat. “I mean, when was she killed?” What she really meant was, How long have I been sitting behind my desk with a dead lady’s eyes staring at me? but she managed to conceal her creeping horror.
“No idea. That’s for Dr. Hightower to decide. But at a guess, I’d say the victim’s been there a few decades at least.” His cell phone rang. Holding up a finger, he answered the call, walking away a few steps for privacy.
Seizing the opportunity to satisfy her morbid curiosity and view the damage herself, Mackenzie slipped past his turned back and went inside where she spotted her friend, Deputy Veronica Birdwell, speaking to members of the construction crew huddled together by the water cooler. The men looked spooked. Veronica looked…well, like herself, as usual.
She considered Veronica a very good person: kind, thoughtful, polite to a fault, compassionate, not to mention pretty and brunette with a complexion like milk and roses—just the type of woman who made her southern charms tingle. Unfortunately, Veronica was also as straight as a carpenter’s rule and oblivious to boot.
Mackenzie sighed. She hadn’t a prayer in hell of starting anything with Veronica and she’d known the sad fact for years. Just as well, she said to herself. Why rock the boat when she and Veronica had a perfectly decent friendship already? Nevertheless, gazing at the lush curves packed into that unflattering brown deputy’s uniform only depressed her further.
So close, and yet so far.
“Hi, Ronnie,” she said to attract Veronica’s attention.
“Hey, Mac, what are you doing here? Did you hear what happened?” Veronica asked, turning around to focus huge, bright green eyes on her.
“Cousin Maynard gave me the scoop on the body, said it was okay for me to grab some files from the office,” Mackenzie answered with a pang of guilt. She hated putting Veronica on the spot by lying, but Maynard would never let her into “his” crime scene and she wanted to see the no doubt grisly discovery the workers had made.
“Oh, sure,” Veronica replied. She glanced out the plate glass window at Maynard, still talking on his phone.
“Tell you what, I’ll run back there real quick for the files. Won’t be a minute.”
“Just don’t touch anything, okay?”
“Sure thing, Ronnie. Thanks.” Mackenzie stepped around a pallet of materials, hopped over abandoned tools and made her way to the back of the room.
The front half of the space she rented from Pastor Collier acted as the public face of her company, Finders & Keepers, Inc. Although most of her business was conducted by phone or over the Internet, she’d still decorated the waiting area with colorful abstract prints on the walls, comfortable chairs, potted Swiss cheese plants, a receptionist’s desk and an impressive, custom- made, copper monstrosity of an espresso machine.
Never mind that she hadn’t needed to hire a receptionist, and only fired up the espresso machine once a year for the volunteer fire department’s charity spaghetti supper, bake sale and sock hop. In the business world, appearances counted for a lot.
Mac, my girl, don’t you ever forget to shine your shoes, put a ribbon in your hair and wear your best dress, no matter if you ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to throw it out of, her daddy had said when she was fourteen years old, returning home in tears after failing to sell any band candy. If you look successful, people will treat you like you’re about to hand out hundred-dollar bills. If you look like a bum, they’ll spit on you. That’s the way it goes.
She dismissed thoughts of her father to concentrate on her company.
The worst damage had occurred in the waiting area when the big front window shattered under the onslaught of wind and rain and took out a Swiss cheese plant. She hadn’t been here, staying holed up for the storm’s duration in her apartment with a six-pack of beer, a meatball sub and a new copy of the Shooter’s Bible.
The second room she used as a private office had also suffered a few minor problems like a ceiling leak and water- damaged drywall. Fortunately, her computer equipment and prized sixties Rock-Ola jukebox escaped unscathed.
She opened the door to her private office. Stale air rushed out at her like an exhaled breath, carrying a dry, musty smell that reminded her of a months-old dead mouse moldering behind the wainscoting. A glance at the wall showed she wasn’t far off.
A piece of drywall had been removed and discarded in pieces on the floor. As Maynard had told her, a desiccated human corpse was crammed upright between the wooden wall studs, looking like a prop in a Hollywood horror film.
Mackenzie took in the dry skin, gray with dust and warped to the bones so tightly it had split in places. The lower jawbone hung open in a parody of a yawn. Long hairs clinging to the top of the skull appeared to confirm the victim’s sex.
She had been renting the office for three years, ever since she started the business. The victim had to have died and been hidden here before she took possession. Who was this unknown woman? How had she died? Why had her killer stuffed her in this particular wall?
Taking her cell phone out of her pocket, Mackenzie began snapping pictures of the body from every angle. She zoomed in the camera to take more detailed shots. The sound of voices outside the door made her hurry.
When Maynard burst inside the room, she’d already returned the phone to her pocket and stood in front of the jukebox nonchalantly brushing drywall dust off the glass front.
A muscle twitched in his cheek. She could tell he wasn’t amused this time. “What do you think you’re doing?” he asked, the words rumbling deep in his chest. “Goddamn it, Kenzie, this is my crime scene.”
Mackenzie pointed out, “You won’t find any evidence here, Jimmy. I had the wallpaper stripped, the walls painted, and the floor redone before I moved in. If there is anything, it’s in the wall with your victim, which I didn’t lay a finger on.”
“Damn it to hell and gone,” Maynard said, but she saw him deflate slightly. He flapped a hand at her. “Go away, Kenzie. Go home. Go do whatever. Just go.”
Mackenzie hurried away, eager to study the pictures she’d taken. Veronica gave her a sad, hurt look as she walked past on her way to the front door. Shit.
She paused on the threshold. “Sorry, Ronnie. I didn’t mean to get you in trouble.”
Veronica nodded and smiled. “It’s okay, Mac. Detective Maynard doesn’t stay mad long and I really don’t mind when he yells.”
Feeling like the world’s worst asshole, Mackenzie left.
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