Harper Connelly Mysteries Quartet Online - Charlaine Harris

one

THE sheriff didn’t want me there. That made me wonder who’d initiated the process of finding me and asking me to come to Sarne. It had to be one of the civilians standing awkwardly in his office—all of them well dressed and well fed, obviously people used to shedding authority all around them. I looked from one to the other. The sheriff, Harvey Branscom, had a lined, red face with a bisecting white mustache and close-cropped white hair. He was at least in his mid fifties, maybe older. Dressed in a tight khaki uniform, Branscom was sitting in the swivel chair behind the desk. He looked disgusted. The man standing to Branscom’s right was younger by at least ten years, and darker, and much thinner, and his narrow face was clean-shaven. His name was Paul Edwards, and he was a lawyer.

The woman with whom he was arguing, a woman somewhat younger with expensively dyed blonde hair, was Sybil Teague. She was a widow, and my brother’s research had shown that she had inherited a great deal of the town of Sarne. Beside her was another man, Terence Vale, who had a round face scantily topped with thin no-color hair, wire-rimmed glasses, and one of those stick-on nametags. He’d come from a City Council open house, he’d said when he bustled in. His stick-on tag read, “Hi! I’m TERRY, the MAYOR.”

Since Mayor Vale and Sheriff Branscom were so put out by my presence, I figured I’d been summoned by Edwards or Teague. I swiveled my gaze from one to the other. Teague, I decided. I crossed my legs and slumped down in the uncomfortable chair. I swung my free foot, watching the toe of my black leather loafer get closer and closer to the front of the sheriff’s desk. They were shooting accusations back and forth, like I wasn’t in the room. I wondered if Tolliver could hear them from the waiting room.

“You all want to hash this out while we go back to the hotel?” I asked, cutting through the arguments.

They all stopped and looked at me.

“I think we brought you here under the wrong impression,” Branscom said. His voice sounded as though he were trying to be courteous, but his face looked like he wanted me the hell away. His hands were clenched on the top of his desk.

“And that wrong impression was… ?” I rubbed my eyes. I’d come directly from another site, and I was tired.

“Terry here misled us somewhat as to your credentials.”

“Okay, you all decide, while I get me some sleep,” I said, abruptly giving up. I pulled myself to my feet, feeling as old as the hills, or at least far older than my actual age of twenty-four. “There’s another job waiting for me in Ashdown. I’d just as soon leave here early in the morning. You’ll owe us travel money, at the least. We drove here from Tulsa. Ask my brother how much that’ll be.”

Without waiting for anyone to speak, I left Harvey Branscom’s office and went down a corridor and through a door into the reception area. I ignored the dispatcher behind the desk, though she was looking at me curiously. No doubt she’d been aiming the same curiosity at Tolliver until I’d redirected her attention.

Tolliver tossed down the aged magazine he’d been riffling through. He pushed himself up from the fake-leather chair. Tolliver’s twenty-seven. His mustache has a reddish cast; otherwise, his hair is as black as mine.

“Ready?” he asked. He could tell I was exasperated. He looked down at me, his eyebrows raised questioningly. Tolliver’s at least four inches above my five foot seven. I shook my head, to tell him I’d fill him in later. He held open the glass door for me. We went out into the chilly night. I felt the cold in my bones. The seat on the Malibu was adjusted for my legs, since I’d driven last, so I slid back behind the wheel.

The police department was on one side of the town square, facing the courthouse, which stood in the center. The courthouse was a massive building erected during the twenties, the kind of edifice that would feature marble and high vaulted ceilings; impossible to heat or cool to modern standards, but impressive nonetheless. The grounds around the old building were beautifully kept, even now that all the foliage was dying back. There were still tourists parked in the premium town square parking spots. This time of year, Sarne’s visitors were middle-aged to old white