Title: A Hasty Grave
Author: Jessie McAlan
Genre: Amateur Sleuth/Cozy Mystery
Finding a large hole on one’s property is one thing; finding a body in it the following day is quite another.
Rona and her ex-husband, Johnny, also discover a sheet of paper at the gravesite, symbols looking like code or treasure hunting glyphs. What’s it mean? Does it have any bearing on the man’s death?
Add to this mix the old Finley-Tennet feud and an elderly Finley’s nebulous recollection of James/Younger outlaw days. Does she have the clue to the cache’s location?
When a second death pushes Rona and Johnny into a deadly game of hide-and-seek with the killer, she learns—nearly too late--just how deeply Johnny still loves her.
“Is this yours?” Rona Murray waved a sheet of paper at her ex-husband, eying him as he wiped his forehead. A whiff of wind curled over the headland and stirred the page so that it seemed to breathe and jump excitedly, anxious to tell what it knew.
“Is this my…what?” Johnny unwound slowly from his position over a pile of flagstone, shielding his eyes against the late-afternoon sun. It threw a shadow, long and grey, behind him and accented his height. His glance shifted from her face to the paper. “What is it?”
“A piece of paper.”
“What’s on it?” He blotted the sweat from the side of his head and stared at her, as though mutely asking if it was quitting time yet. Their trail through the dew-laden grass had evaporated hours ago, leaving broken, dry leaves as the only hint of their walk from her house to the top of the hill. He took a moment to catch his breath. “Looks like amateur hieroglyphics or doodling.”
“It’s odd doodling, if it is.” Rona glanced at the sheet again before handing it to him. “Could it be code?”
Johnny stared at the jumble of triangles, X’s, circles and lines, and flicked a clump of damp soil from a corner of the sheet. “If it is, I haven’t a clue what it means, assuming that’s your next question.”
She pressed her lips together, stifling that very question. Even after years of marriage to him, she was still astonished at the ease with which he could read her mind. Odd that she didn’t have that skill with him. She angled her head slightly to avoid the sun, and scrutinized him, realizing she’d never really known his desires and dreams and abilities. She’d let him down; she’d let herself down, settling for a superficial relationship. Maybe if they re-married, she could do better… She realized he was talking, and let the mental list of her shortcomings slide.
“Why do you think it’s code? That implies all sorts of things, Muffin.”
Her fingers curled around her silver pendant and slid it back and forth on the chain around her neck. She’d developed the habit during the last months leading to their divorce, unaware of her behavior until he brought it to her attention. Of course he expounded on her obsession, explaining that she subconsciously still wanted to hold on to him. And of course she denied it, stating she merely wanted to position the necklace clasp at the back of her neck. Now she did it whenever she was agitated. “Implies things like what?”
“Not to alarm you, Rona…”
“You have already…Honey.”
“Trespassers, smugglers, crooks. Secrets.”
“Trespassers are obvious, Johnny. It wouldn’t be here if someone hadn’t dropped it.”
“The wind could’ve blown it here.”
She nodded and turned to gaze at the eastern edge of the woods. From there the land plunged down a steep hill and appeared to crash into the shoreline of the river. Sand, rocks and mud replaced the trees there, stretching as far as anyone looked. Most days a breeze slipped up the bluff and through the woods, bringing the scents of wet sand and the river. The wind could easily push along bits of trash like sheets of paper. Perhaps that’s what had happened… She abandoned her speculation and shrugged, giving Johnny a questioning look. “What do you mean about secrets?”
“It has to be a secret or the writer wouldn’t use a code.” His right eyebrow rose as he watched her consider the possibility.
“I grant that it all makes sense, but what around here is so secret? And who’s involved in whatever this secret is?”
Johnny grinned and lowered his voice. “Ah, that’s a secret.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of.” She glanced at the bottom of the hill.
“No need to be nervous when you’ve got Drew and me around, Ronnie. Where is Drew, by the way? You’re not letting him out on a gorgeous September day?” He looked around as though expecting to see the German Shepherd racing through the woods.
“He’s at the vet’s.”
“Nothing serious, I hope.”
“Nothing to write home about. He was neutered.”
Johnny frowned and leaned on the shovel handle. “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“It’s just your imagination, Tiger. We’re divorced, remember?”
“Only too well. If I ever forget, I need merely to glance at my ringless finger and my bank statement. Now, tell me again where you found this thing.”
She pointed to a patch of sunlight in the otherwise shady woods. At the moment, the light spilled over a log, coating its top and halfway down the near side. It also illuminated a nearby mound of freshly dug earth.
Johnny shaded his eyes, looking into the sun. “A hundred yards or so from the path?”
“About that, yes. I couldn’t help but see the thing, it being so white in the light.”
“Over by that depression in the ground?”
“It’s more than a depression. It’s a hole.”
Johnny strode over to the area, the leaves peppering the air with the pungent aromas of dry earth and leaf mold as they scattered and crackled underfoot. He slowed his pace the last yard and stood staring at the ground. A hole roughly three feet long, two feet wide and one foot deep scarred the forest floor. The toe of Johnny’s boot prodded the mound of exposed soil alongside the hole, and he turned as Rona stopped beside him. “Did you do this?”
Johnny nodded, staring at the cavity. The soil along the bottom and sides of the hole was darker and damper than the immediate topsoil of the forest floor. He nudged the dirt around the edge with the toe of his boot. “This looks relatively fresh, maybe twelve hours’ or so exposure.” He watched a handful of soil trickle into the hole. “I wonder how it got here.”
“I wonder what it means.”
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Why is your featured book a must-read?
I’ve combined a bit of Missouri outlaw history and codes/cyphers with my amateur sleuth mystery. I think that’s fun in itself, but I’ve also added a bit of a treasure hunt for the characters. If you like any of these things in addition to a cozy mystery, I think you’ll like “A Hasty Grave,”
Enter to win an e-book bundle of all 42 books featured in the Cozy Mystery Bookish Event: https://www.rafflecopter.com/rafl/display/92db775081
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A family trip to the Big Spring area in the Missouri Ozarks introduced Jessie to the wonders of nature. Her summer stints as a camp counselor and canoeing instructor cemented her enthusiasm. This love of the natural world and the river flows through her Linn House mysteries.
In 2001 Jessie graduated from Webster University with a BA degree and departmental honors in English.
She lives in the St Louis, MO area, and spends as much time as she can writing mysteries and watching the barges on the river.