Kathleen Delaney
Author of the Mary McGill and the Ellen McKenzie cozy mystery series

      

Events:

More Coming Soon

My story in the April issue of
Mystery Weekly Magazine

 

Give First Place to Murder

No Longer Available in Print
Ebook only
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Amazon reader:  5 stars
the twist and turns kept me interested and wanting to read what happens next. Loved the characters and horses trivia mixed in for flavor.”

Chapter One

     His head was slumped to one side, his mouth slightly open, his brown eyes unseeing. Small streams of blood cascaded down from the prongs of the pitchfork protruding from his chest to pool over the front of his jeans. His body slumped against a bale of hay, wedged between it and an open trunk of some kind.

     The door of the feed room had closed behind me, and the room was dim. Almost against my will I took a step closer, not believing what my eyes told me.

     I clutched the red plaid horse blanket to my mouth to keep from screaming, letting the overpowering smell of horse blot out other smells I didn’t want to identify. My stomach was doing back flips, and I wasn’t going anywhere until some feeling returned to my legs. There was no sound in the room. Gradually, I became conscious of a buzzing noise. A fly landed on the pitchfork, boldly walked up the still shirtfront, made a short hop, and perched on the boy’s nose. I gagged, and backed as far as the door. I was counting on it to hold me up. I wasn’t certain my legs could. 

     Some semblance of rational thought started to edge out shock and horror. Murder. Someone had been murdered! Brutally, horribly murdered, in a feed room, at an Arabian horse show at our county fair. Impossible. Only I was looking at the victim. Another thought, even more unwelcome, pushed its way in.  Where there was a murder, there was a murderer.      

     “Mom!”  The voice broke through my paralysis.  “Mom, what are you doing in there?”

     Susanah. Coming this way. She would open the door, and she would see . . . she might be in danger, the murderer might . . .  not if I could help it. Willing my legs to do their job, I stumbled out the door, slammed it quickly behind me, and rammed home the bolt.

     Susanah grabbed the horse blanket I’d been asked to get with a muttered, “What took you so long?”  She flung it over the back of a magnificent horse that danced at the end of a lead rope held by a morose looking man with a Pancho Villa mustache.

     I stood, numb, watching her fumble with the straps. What should I do? A casual “by the way, there’s a dead body in the feed room,” wasn’t going to cut it. On the other hand, if I started screaming, which is what I felt like doing, I’d cause an instant riot. There were people milling around all over the place. Someone would open that damn door and destroy whatever evidence - - -what was the matter with me! Police. I had to get the police. And fast. But how did I do that without letting everyone at the horse show, especially my nineteen year old daughter, Susanah, know there’d been a murder? There was no doubt in my mind that if I blurted out the horrible news she’d be the first one in the door. That was one sight I’d just as soon spare her. Right now, the only thing separating her from that gruesome sight was a flimsy door and a mother thinking about having hysterics. Stay calm, I cautioned myself, just stay calm.

     “Are you all right?” Susanah asked. “You look kind of funny.”

     “I’m fine. Just fine,” I told her, swallowing hard. I needed to tell somebody, get some help. My friend, Pat. I needed her. She’d been standing in the barn aisle when I went into that feed room, but now she was nowhere in sight. I gritted my teeth.  

     “Where’s Rusty?”  Susanah asked. She straightened up and looked around. “He’s supposed to be doing this. Why Bryce hired a low life like him . . . ”

     “Rusty’ll turn up. The important thing is, we won.”  Irma Long, owner of the horse Susanah was struggling to blanket, appeared. A blue ribbon fluttered in her bony hand. The horse snorted and backed away, evidently not impressed he’d won it. Irma laughed. 

     “Congratulations,” I found myself saying. “He’s beautiful.”  Inside, a scream was forming again and I was having a hard time keeping it contained. Where was Pat?  More to the point, where was the person who had pushed the pitchfork through that boy?

     “I’m still walking on clouds,” Irma said, gazing reverently at her blue ribbon.  “You’d think I’d never owned a horse who’d won before, but I’ve never bred one like this. Last Challenge. A great name for a great horse.”

     She grinned at the horse and the walnut brown man who held him, then turned to me. “I’m so glad you came, Ellen.”  She crossed her arms over her skinny chest and hugged herself.  “I’m so happy, so excited, I could take off and fly.  It’s been a wonderful morning.”

     I smiled weakly.

     “First horse show and he wins. Pretty good. There. I got it.” Susanah finished buckling the blanket around the horse’s chest and stood back to admire him. “I’ll bet he wins the championship too.”

     Irma beamed some more. “Ellen,” she said,  “have you met my ranch manager, Chovalo Gutierrez? Chovalo, this is Susanah’s mother, Ellen McKenzie. She’s also my real estate agent.”

     I nodded, so did Chovalo. He looked at me from under the brim of a large black sombrero, reminding me of all the Grade B westerns I’d watched so enthusiastically while growing up. The bad guys always wore big black hats.

     Irma looked like she was all set to chat on. I dug my fingernails into my hands, not hearing her words. If I could just get away, I could call the police on my cell phone.

A couple came down the barn aisle, shouting congratulations. I backed a few steps and immediately dug into my purse. No phone. Where was it? I’d left it in the car. Damn! Where was Pat? I had to find Pat. She had one. We’d use hers to phone.

     “Did you know Irma’s horse is going to be shown again in some kind of championship?”  Pat Bennington said from behind me. 

     I jumped at least a mile. “Where did you come from?’ I almost snapped. “I’ve been looking for you.”

     “I went to the ladies room,” she said, a little defensively.  “What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

     “You’re close,” I said, then clutched her arm. “Oh, dear God. Where is he going with that horse?”

     “Who?” Pat asked. “What horse?”

     “Him,” I said. “Where’s he taking Irma’s horse?”

     Chovalo led Last Challenge down the row of stalls, toward the closed feed room door. Surely he wouldn’t open the door. Would he? I took a step toward them.

     “He’s putting him in that open stall. Isn’t that where the horse is supposed to go?” Pat asked.

     “Yes.” I sighed with relief as Chovalo and the horse disappeared into a stall a few doors away from the feed room. “Pat, something awful has happened. I need you . . .”

     “I know we said we’d leave right after Irma’s horse was shown,” Pat said, not listening to me, “but I’d like to stay, wouldn’t you?”

     I didn’t think we had much choice.  “Pat. . .” I grabbed her arm, pulling her out of earshot of the people still gathered around Irma, and her trainer, Bryce Ellis.

     “Ellen McKenzie, what are you doing?” she protested.

     I ignored it, and tightened my grip on her arm. “Give me your cell phone. Quick.”

     “My - - - why?”

     “There’s a dead body in that feed room. I need to phone the police.”

     “A dead . . .what?”  She was paying attention to me now.

     “Someone’s been murdered, Pat. I saw the body when I went to get that horse blanket.” 

     It was the quiver in my voice that convinced her. I watched all the color drain out of her face, then rush back again.  Finally she said, “Ellen, is this some kind of joke?”

     “I wish it was. I think it’s Rusty, that groom Susanah’s been looking for. He’s in the feed room with a pitchfork stuck through his middle. Give me the phone. I need to call Dan. Now.”

     “I didn’t bring it,” she said. “My God. A pitchfork?”

     “You didn’t bring it?” I exclaimed. “Why not?  You should always have your cell - - -“

     “I didn’t know there was going to be a murder,” she said defensively. “Where’s yours?”

     “In the car,” I admitted. She didn’t say anything. She didn’t have to. The look she gave me was enough.

     “Sorry,” I said. “I’m a little up tight.”

     “Yeah,” she said. “Now what do we do.”

     “You go phone. There’s a bank of pay phones by the fair entrance. Get Dan. Tell him to come quietly. No sirens or screeching tires.”

     “I’m supposed to tell the Chief of Police to come quietly to a murder. Are you serious?”

     “Try,” I urged. “And for God’s sake, hurry.”

     “What are you going to do?” she asked.

     “I’m going to keep everyone, especially Susanah, out of that room, and say a few prayers whoever impaled that kid doesn’t decide to come back.”

     Pat took a long look at the closed feed room door, a shorter one at me, and left. I started down the row of stalls. Chovalo came out of Challenge’s stall, carrying something. He closed the bottom, then the top door behind him, and walked away from me.

     I almost called out to him. Standing guard in front of that door was not something I wanted to do. What if the murderer came back? What would I do? Chovalo looked pretty intimidating. Not too many people would try to push past him, and surely any prudent murderer would think twice before - - -but what if Chovalo was the murderer? No! He couldn’t be. Oh? How did I know that? I didn’t know him, or the dead kid. I’d better keep my mouth and the door shut until Dan and his troops arrived.

     What would I do if he went toward the feed room?  He was almost there, he was . . . no, he went into the open door of the room next to it. I froze, waiting. Almost immediately he returned, empty handed, and came toward me, nodding politely as he passed. He paused when he got to Irma and Susanah.

     “We have a little time,” he said, looking around. “Bryce has gone to show Senor Manning’s filly. Perhaps we should watch the class?”

     “Let’s,” said Irma, picking up her program. “Come on, Susanah. Ellen, are you coming?”

     “No, no,” I said hurriedly. “You go along. I’ll stay here and, ah, enjoy the sun.”

     “Where’s Pat?” asked Susanah. “I’ve hardly seen her. Isn’t she enjoying the show?”

     “Of course,” I exclaimed. “She’s, ah, I’m waiting for her. We’ll be along.”  I sank down on a deck chair and tried to look casual.

     Susanah seemed doubtful, but followed Irma and Chovalo toward the show ring. Shouts, whistles, and cheers filled the air, and Susanah walked a little faster. I got up, took a deep breath, and wondered if Pat had found Dan.

     My old playmate, Dan Dunham. He’d been better than a brother, he’d been my best friend the entire time we were growing up next door to each other. Although more than twenty years had passed since we both had left Santa Louisa, we were back, both once more single, me a recent divorcee, Dan a not so recent widower. We had spent the last six months renewing our old friendship, and edging our way toward a new one. Actually, a little more than edging. Dan had once again established a presence in my life, a reliable, solid as a rock presence. There were times that made me a little nervous, but not now. Right now, a rock was exactly what I needed. 

     I couldn’t see Pat anywhere. The Arabian horse show we had been watching was only one part of the county fair, and the phones were by the main gate. It might take her awhile. In the meantime, there were people and horses everywhere.  People leading horses, people riding horses, groups of people standing around talking about them.  A small girl passed me, leading a large white horse hung with leather straps and ropes. It followed her patiently, not seeming to heed her urging.  Most of this activity headed toward or away from the show ring, and Irma’s barn aisle was quiet. No telling how long that would last. Someone was certain to want to go into that feed room, soon. I’d better get down there and stand guard, I thought, and I’m not letting anyone in until Dan and the cops get here. Fervently hoping no one would try, I turned abruptly. That’s when I ran into him.

 

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