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Denise Swanson

Murder of a Sweet Old Lady

The second book in the Scumble River series, 2001

To my grandparents,

who all died perfectly natural deaths.

Kathryn Votta 1906-1960

Albert Votta, Sr. 1902-1973

Laura Swanson 1902-1997

William Swanson 1900-1977

and

To Purrcie the Cat,

who inspired the character of Bingo.

1979 -1999

Scumble River is not a real town. The characters and events portrayed in these pages are entirely fictional and any resemblance to living persons is pure coincidence.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I would like to thank the following people: Joyce Fla herty for her continuing belief in my talent; Ellen Ed wards for extraordinary editorial expertise; my fellow Deadly Divas Susan McBride, Letha Albright, and Sherri Board for their efforts as promo group extraordinaire; Jane Isenberg, Aileen Schumacher, Laura Renken, and Mary Jane Meier, fellow writers who shared the ups and downs; Cindi Baker, Andrea Pantaleone, and Valerie Mc-Caffrey, friends who let me talk endlessly about my ideas and aspirations; the Windy City Chapter of RWA who are always supportive; Marie Swanson and the late Ernie Swanson, who understood my need for time to write; and, finally, my husband, Dave Stybr, who supports me through this new adventure.

CHAPTER 1

Hey, Diddle, Diddle, the Cat and the Riddle

Skye Denison warily studied the hostile faces of Gus Yoder’s parents. As a school psychologist, she often attended uncomfortable meetings, but this one was murder.

Scumble River High School principal Homer Knapik was seated to her right, and every time she glanced his way, her attention was drawn to the hair growing out of his ears. The long, wiry strands quivered like the curb feelers on a car’s wheels. Skye had heard the students call him Mr. Knitpick behind his back, and she was beginning to understand why. The man could not make a decision to save his life… or hers.

Across the table Leroy Yoder raged, threatening the school with everything from a lawsuit to an atomic bomb. He and his wife, Charlene, had come in demanding that their son be allowed to graduate with his class, and nothing either the principal or Skye said seemed to penetrate their anger.

Homer and the parents had been posturing and snarling for more than an hour, with no sign that they would stop anytime soon.

Skye watched in hypnotized fascination as a drop of sweat danced on the tip of Leroy’s off-center nose. In Illinois, even the first day of June could have temperatures reaching into the nineties. The underarms of her own blouse were soaked and she squirmed uncomfortably in the plastic chair’s too-small seat. She thought longingly of her morning swim, the last time she’d been truly cool.

Tucking a loose chestnut-colored curl behind her ear, she narrowed her green eyes and tried once more to intervene, rephrasing what she had been saying over and over again since they had first sat down. “Mr. Yoder, Mr. Knapik and I have told you that whether or not your son graduates is not up to us. It is a matter you must bring up to the school board. Since we have only a week of school left, you need to request a special hearing so you have a decision before graduation night.”

Homer glared in Skye’s direction and Charlene Yoder hunched farther down in her chair, looking as if she would like to cover her head with her arms.

Leroy Yoder swung his massive head toward Skye and pinned her with his frenetic stare. “I want my son to graduate. Gus passed all his courses. You got no right to keep him from getting his diploma with everyone else.”

She felt sorry for these parents. Like many others, they couldn’t let themselves believe that their child could do the awful things of which he was accused. “As Mr. Knapik and I have explained, our handbook states that a student who is in the process of an expulsion is not eligible to participate in any school activities, including graduation. This is a school board policy. We have no choice in the matter.”

“You people should never’ve started this whole thing. Gus didn’t do nothing wrong,” Leroy shouted.

“He tried to rape a girl at knifepoint, and was found with drugs in his possession,” Skye stated calmly.

Charlene Yoder started to speak but was interrupted by her husband, who sprang out of his chair and lunged across the table, bringing his face to within inches of Skye’s. His breath was like a furnace belching rotting eggs, and she unconsciously moved back.

He grabbed her upper arms and dragged her halfway across the conference table. “My son didn’t touch that girl.” Yoder gave Skye a shake as if to emphasize his point. “The boy didn’t have no weapon.” He shook her again. “And Gus don’t use no drugs.”

Skye tried desperately to free herself from his grasp. Her breath was coming in shallow gasps and she felt light-headed. She couldn’t get her voice to work.

Homer seemed paralyzed. Nothing moved, including his eyes.

After a final shake, she was abruptly dropped back into her chair as Leroy Yoder continued, “The whole business will be thrown out as soon as we get ourselves a hearing.” Ignoring his wife, he stomped out of the room, his words trailing behind him: “Let me make myself clear. Either Gus graduates with the rest of his class or you two don’t see another school year.”

It was a relief for Skye to return to her office at Scumble River Junior High. She slid down in the chair until she could rest her head on its back. From this angle, all she could see was the stained white ceiling. The odor of ammonia was strong today, brought out by the humidity, but at least she was spared the sight of the battered, mismatched furniture in the claustrophobic six-by-six foot room.

Skye didn’t dare complain about the conditions. It had taken a minor miracle to get what she had. In the elementary and high schools, she had to scrounge for any open space each time she needed to work with a student. That meant she had to lug any equipment she needed from school to school like a door-to-door salesman. Still, she counted her blessings. She knew of many psychologists who had it worse.

It was nearly one, but she didn’t want lunch. She was still too upset from the morning’s events at the high school to consider eating. Skye was accustomed to parents whose walls of denial went up like the force field on the Star-ship Enterprise, but the Yoders had no clue that their son was hooked on something, and it wasn’t phonics.

Even though she’d been gone from Scumble River for many years before her recent return, Skye remembered that the townspeople liked to handle their problems by themselves. Still, she was upset that Homer had refused to call the police on Mr. Yoder, and had forbidden Skye from contacting them. She rubbed her bruised upper arms and shivered. Yoder had clearly assaulted her and threatened them both.

After brooding for a bit, Skye remembered the emergency chocolate bar she had stashed away for just such an occasion. In one smooth motion she snatched her key ring, turned toward the file cabinet, and retrieved the candy.

She was just peeling back the silver wrapper of a Kit Kat when the PA blared. “Ms. Denison, please report to the office. Ms. Denison, please report to the office.”

Skye reluctantly rewrapped the bar and tucked it into her skirt pocket. Why did everything always have to happen on a Monday?

The junior high’s new principal, Neva Llewellyn, paced outside her door. She had held the job only since September, having been promoted from high school guidance counselor when the previous principal was forced to leave unexpectedly. For some reason, the Scumble River School District had great difficulty holding on to its employees.

“What’s up?” Skye asked as she stopped in front of Neva.

“It’s Cletus Doozier.”

     

 

2011 - 2018