NOTE: You can read the previous chapters here.
“Stage one complete. It took less than 80 hours from completion to discovery.”
“Seems rather long.”
“Not really. Small town. Not much action.”
“I would have thought discovery would have taken place earlier in a small community.”
“Not necessarily. Long weekend. Columbus Day.”
“That’s still a holiday?”
“How politically incorrect.” Pause. “Are you monitoring the situation?”
“I am. Very closely.”
“You’ll send regular reports?”
“Wonderful. Carry on.”
* * *
With the crowd dispersed, with the first draft of her article written, Ashley leaned back on her couch in supreme comfort. She ate a bowl of cheesy rice with vegetables and had (most importantly) consumed two Tylenol. Not the regular kind, the good stuff. The kind with a hit of Codeine. Her oncologist told her she wouldn’t need it long, in fact she’d stretched out her prescription far longer than she expected, saving the “good stuff” for very important events, like starting a new job, discovering her new home town was the site of Minnesota’s latest murder, needing to work late, and meeting (likely) the most gorgeous man she’d ever laid eyes on.
But they were co-workers. Nothing could come of it. But she could dream.
She sat back and allowed the numb happiness of prescription laced joy wash over her. She rested her hand on the enormous incision.
Its pain seemed to have settled down for now, almost becoming an invisible companion. “Today you misbehaved, my love. How dare you throb like that. It was hard to work.”
She chuckled at her absurd situation and took another long swig of hard lemonade. She knew she probably shouldn’t mix narcotics with alcohol but today had been a particularly challenging day.
She closed her eyes, trying to erase the memory of the awkward moment. It happened after they returned to the office.
At that point in the day, Ashley felt exhausted, grimy, and exceedingly hungry. She’d marched to her desk and lowered herself to her seat. Her incision screamed as she dug through her purse searching for a “good” Tylenol.
Ned approached her desk with an SD card in his hand. “Want me to dig through these shots and give you what I think will work? Or, do you want to review all of them?”
Ash cringed as she paused, gazing at the card. “I trust you. Give me your best.”
“Sounds great,” he answered. Then he said, “Have you eaten today?”
“Nah. No time.”
“Me either. Wanna get something?”
She paused as a lump formed in her throat. “After what I’ve seen today, I don’t think I’ll ever eat again. I can’t get that stink out of my nose.”
Ned chuckled. “I know what you mean. I’ve never seen so much blood.” Much to Ashley’s chagrin, Ned pulled a chair next to her desk and sat. She’d have to find her pill later. He continued, “I don’t believe I’ve ever seen so much blood before… and I’ve taken pictures inside a slaughter house.”
Ash groaned. “When did you do that?”
“I’m a man of many mysteries,” he said, leaning back in his chair. He flashed a perfect smile.
“Definitely,” Ash mumbled. Another stab of pain made her throw caution to the wind. She grabbed her purse and started digging. She pulled out the bottle and shook two pills into her palm. She popped them in her mouth and swallowed.
“Don’t you need water for that?”
Ned studied her face for a moment before he said, “What were those?”
“In that bottle?”
“Headache,” she answered.
“They’re prescription,” he said, “they must be pretty bad ass.”
“Really bad headache.”
Ned placed the SD card on the desk, seemingly satisfied with her explanation. He shook his head as he said, “I still can’t believe what I saw today.”
“I know,” Ash whispered.
“As god is my witness, I never believed a human body could… could… do that.”
“I know,” Ash repeated.
“I mean really? A shovel? They used a snow shovel to scoop him up.”
“How do they know what — or who — that was?”
“Well, Kaufman lived there. He hasn’t been seen since last week. It really isn’t a stretch.”
“Yeah. But how will they identify him?”
“DNA, I suppose. There wasn’t much of him left. Those dogs must have been really hungry.”
Ashley’s stomach performed a flip. “I suppose.”
Ned closed his eyes. “I’m still amazed.”
Just then Bart entered the room. “I hear we’ve got a gory one.”
“That’s an understatement,” Ned said.
Bart held a piece of paper out to Ashley. She stood, extended her right hand and grasped it. As she did so, her jacket shifted, giving Ned a view of the entire right side of her shirt. She sat and gazed at the paper.
Bart said, “It’s the press release from the Crossfield PD. You can use some of the information for your story.” His face glowed crimson with excitement. He rolled up his sleeves and continued, “We can’t go to press with this until Monday, but we can get it on the website. Write fast, before the Gazette scoops us.” Then he added, “I need spectacular pics for this, Ned. Watermark them all so that fucking Gazette can’t swipe ‘em.” He took a moment to catch his breath. “The Gazette will get the story out first. We can’t help that. But where they’ll go wide, we’ll go deep. Ashley, I need spectacular reporting on this. We’ll beat ‘em with quality, not quantity.” Then he added,
“That goes for both of you. Show me some excellence.” Ned nodded as he watched Bart saunter away, enter his office, and slam the door. He turned to Ashley.
“No pressure, though,” he said laughing.
“Welcome to the Crossroads Herald.” They paused a moment, smiling at the absurdity of the situation. Finally Ned spoke. “I can’t help but notice you’re still stiff. That must have been one heck of an exercise session last night.”
“Yup,” Ash answered.
“Also, your pain pills. Seemed a bit much to take a prescription for a headache.”
“Not really,” she answered. “I reuse bottles.”
“Sounds reasonable,” he said, leaning closer. “But I have one more question.”
“What would that be?”
“What’s that big spot on your shirt?”
Ash gently grasped her torso as an embarrassed flush flooded her cheeks. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Yeah. I think you do.” He rested his head on his hand. “Something’s going on. We’ve got a big story to cover. I’m just wondering what I’m dealing with.”
She gingerly opened her jacket and peered downward. “Well I’ll be darned,” she said, “I guess I spilled.”
“Yeah,” Ned said, “IV punctures, pain pills, obvious bandaging, now drainage. It’s clearly nothing.”
Ashley didn’t reply.
“I don’t know what the big secret is, but it doesn’t seem to inhibit your ability to do your job… so far. We’ve got big stuff going on. You’re taking pain pills. I hope you’re not in over your head.”
“I’m fine,” she said.
“Probably true,” he answered. But sometimes things like this are easier to handle if you’ve got a friend.”
“And are you applying for that position?”
Ned paused. “Dunno,” he said, “I seem to have peeved you.” He added, “We’re going to work together. We’re about to spend a lot of time together. I just want to make sure you’re OK so we can get everything done on time.”
Ash breathed deep, then said, “I’m not peeved. I’m just hungry, stinky, exhausted, and have a lot to write before I get to go home. I’m not sure I can swallow anything after everything I’ve seen. It’s my first day here and it’s turning into a really bad day.”
Ned said, “It’ll get better. Promise. Bart’s a blow hard.” He paused, looking pensive. Then he extended his hand. “I’ve got an idea. Come here.”
Ash stared at it a moment. “You want to hold my hand?”
He laughed. “No. I want you to follow me.”
“But you’re sitting.”
He stood. “Follow me.” He marched to Bart’s door and opened it a sliver. “We’ll be back in a flash.”
“Where you going?” Bart’s voice bellowed.
“Doesn’t matter. We’ll be right back.” Ned nodded to Ashley. “C’mon. Bring your stuff.” He exited the building and strode directly to his pickup.
“Where we going?” Ashley asked, scrambling behind him. The medicine had evidently worked its magic on her throbbing incision. The pain felt quite tolerable at this moment.
“You’ll see,” he said.
Ashley climbed into the behemoth and sat back, enjoying the sensation of Codeine flowing through her veins. Ned joined her, fired the engine, and threw the truck into gear. Neither said a word as he sped down the road.
* * *
Ashley swallowed another large swig of the ice cold hard lemonade. It felt wonderful to be home, bathed, fed, and relaxed. She lifted the bottle to her lips again.
She recalled watching Ned drive as they proceeded towards their mystery destination. He rolled past the Kaufman house and she watched the yellow hazard tape flutter in the breeze.
“Weird day,” Ashley whispered.
“Yup,” Ned answered.
They drove in silence as they left town and headed towards Crossfield.
“Did you bring your laptop,” Ned asked.
“Always,” she answered.
“Good,” he said, “Pop it open.”
She leaned forward, grasped her laptop bag, opened it, and pulled out Betsy.
“I’m taking you to Crossfield,” he said. “We need to eat.” He added, “On our way, we’ve got twenty minutes to kill. Let’s pound out that story.”
“In the truck?”
“Yup. It’s a great place to write. No interruptions. No phones. No Bart.” Then he said, “Bet you can’t do anything like this in your little rattle trap.”
Ash actually laughed. “Yeah, I admit it. My Smart’s cab isn’t the size of a small office. I’m not sure Betsy would comfortably sit on my lap in there.”
“We can try it sometime,” Ned conceded, “you’ll never know until you try.”
They cruised down the highway, bouncing ideas off each other, comparing notes, discussing accompanying photographs. By the time they got to Crossfield, Ned and Ash had already hammered out the majority of her story. “I’m always amazed at how much I can get done when I’m out of that crappy office,” Ned said as they rolled into the parking lot of a small cafe. “It’s almost magical.” He paused, a satisfied smile on his face, then added, “We can grab a bite, then polish what we’ve got on our way home. It’ll be done before we hit the office. Works every time.”
Ash breathed deep. “Thanks,” she said, “I really owe you one.”
“No problem,” Ned answered, “glad to help.
(Editor Note: Pssst! Nab your copy of the whole series publisher direct for less than the price of a mocha! Details here.) 😛