I’ve been getting a lot of gentle (and some not so gentle) nudging about when the fifth Mendenhall Mystery featuring Chief of Police Kate Williams will be coming out. I confess it was a little startling to realize the fourth one, The Untethered Woman came out in late fall 2014. It’s not like I’ve been lazy (not really). After all I’ve had two other novels (Ghosts of Morocco and Shelter) come out in the meantime, not to mention half a dozen short stories–and those are just the published ones–so, I’ve been busy.
But I am close to finishing the first draft of the latest installment of the Mendenhall stories. Kate and crew are dealing with persistent vandalism at a new construction site, which of course turns out to be something more serious, and with the theft of bull sperm from a local veterinarian. While the theft seems pretty straightforward (maybe even ludicrous) at first, it soon becomes clear that it may be connected to a murder.
Here’s the opening to Mendenhall 5 (I know, I know–I’m working on the title):
Mendenhall Mystery #5
There was absolutely nothing attractive about a sweaty, red-faced, middle-aged woman puffing on a treadmill.
Kate Williams, Mendenhall’s chief of police, watched herself bob up and down in the wall-length mirror and cursed the idiot who had thought setting mirrors in front of treadmills was a good idea.
Also reflected in the mirror were half a dozen men and women lifting weights, doing bicep curls and leg lifts, and running on treadmills just like hers. They all looked better at it than she did. In her defense, she preferred running outdoors. At least there she didn’t stay in one place long enough for people to notice how she looked.
No one spoke, but the small gym echoed with the whining of the treadmill engines and the clanging of weights as they were taken off the stand, or replaced. Beneath those noises were the regular grunts of effort from a few of the men.
It was early, barely past six in the morning, thank goodness, or there’d be many more people working out in Stan’s Gym. The more people, the smellier the gym.
Stan’s was one four gyms in Mendenhall, Manitoba, population 16,514. Apparently, the citizens of Mendenhall liked to stay fit. Stan’s wasn’t her regular gym. She usually went to Fit ‘n Fast on Hayes Rd. It was bigger, newer, and had more modern equipment. And it had a nice locker room and showers.
Her gaze strayed to the reflection next to hers. Rob McKell, her deputy chief, usually worked out at Fit ‘n Fast, too. She hadn’t asked him why he had switched, but she could imagine.
He didn’t want anyone from his regular gym to see him like this.
She’d had to switch for a week two months ago while Fit ‘n Fast underwent rewiring, and she’d bumped into Rob early one morning at Stan’s. She hadn’t planned to stay—Stan’s was an old-school gym, with barbells and rubber mats, not even a sit-up board. Besides, she could tell that her deputy chief was uncomfortable having her around. But within a few days, the gym owner, Stan Harvey, took her aside and told her that McKell worked harder when she was there.
So she stayed.
McKell wasn’t running. He was walking at a slow, steady pace, his face red and sweaty, and lined with exhaustion and determination. He was younger than her by a few years, but the accident and shooting last fall had aged him.
She watched his legs. They weren’t as strong as they had been before he took that bullet to the chest that almost paralyzed him, but they were getting stronger every day. Every time she saw him working out, a little part of her sent a heartfelt thanks out to the universe.
They had thought they’d lost him, at first. And then they had thought he would never walk again.
“It’s rude to stare,” said McKell matter-of-factly.
Kate’s gaze slid up his thin body to find his reflection looking back at her.
“Just admiring your technique,” she said. “Slow but effective.”
“Go to hell,” he replied mildly.
Kate grinned at him. His reflection refused to look at her, but there was a small smile on his face.
“Don’t you think it’s time you dropped by?” she asked. In the seven months since the shooting and car accident that had nearly taken his life, her deputy chief had stayed away from the station. She knew he didn’t want to appear weak in front of the constables, but if he was strong enough to work out, then he should start thinking about re-entering work life, even if only part-time.
Kate suspected the hurdle stopping him was more psychological than physical. She had encouraged Samantha Paterson, the acting deputy chief, to call him occasionally to seek his advice. Hopefully that would help keep him connected to police life. He would have to make it the rest of the way himself.
He shrugged. “Maybe I’ll swing by later this week.”
Kate stifled a sigh. He’d been saying that for a month. Well, she couldn’t force him. The doctors had said he was lucky to have regained the use of his legs, but that full recovery would take a long time. His body seemed to be recovering just fine, but his spirit wasn’t.
They worked for a few more minutes until Kate judged he’d had enough, then she slowed the treadmill to a walk and then to a stop. He never stopped before she did.
She stepped off the machine, bracing herself with the handle against the momentary disorientation, and grabbed the towel hanging there.
“Right, well, I’ll be at the station if you need anything,” she said, wiping her face with the towel.
Rob nodded, then wiped his own face.
She suddenly realized that he was studying her reflection.
“What?” she said.
“You’re looking a little thin, chief.”
Kate’s eyebrows rose and her heart skipped a beat. This was the first time Rob had noticed anything or anyone beyond himself since the shooting.
She smiled at him in the mirror. “I had it to lose.”
“No, you didn’t,” he said flatly.
Kate focused on her red-cheeked reflection in the mirror. Maybe he was right: she was looking a little gaunt. At almost fifty-five, losing weight quickly just deepened her lines. She looked severe.
“See you tomorrow.”
* * *
Most of the snow was gone, and the early April sun definitely had some heat to it, but the wind was still bloody cold. Kate shivered as she hurried to the Edge. She had bought it last September after McKell’s accident destroyed her Ford Explorer, which she still mourned. What had decided it for her was the fact that the Edge was a standard, which had charmed her. She’d learned on a standard forty years ago and she still preferred it to an automatic transmission.
She clicked her key fob to unlock the door and slid into the driver’s seat with a massive shiver. She hated walking out of the gym all sweaty, but she hated showering in that tiny metal coffin even more. Stan hadn’t renovated that gym in twenty years. She’d taken to showering at the station.
Stan’s Gym was on Archer Drive, in the industrial area of Mendenhall. It wasn’t even seven o’clock, but trucks were already out and about and workers were already making their way to work for the early shift. Kate stopped at the entrance to the gym’s parking lot to let a delivery van with panes of glass strapped to its sides drive in, then pulled out into traffic.
Aside from the glass factory, the industrial section of Mendenhall consisted of a recreational vehicle rental business, with behemoths locked inside a chain link fence behind the storefront, a car wash, a micro-brewery that was starting to make a name for itself in the province, and a couple of garages, one of which specialized in tires. It didn’t take long to drive through to the Wal-Mart and the Mendenhall Shopping Mall, beyond which was the downtown core.
The dashboard clock read 6:53. She had time to pick up coffee at the Tim Hortons on Main Street, then she’d be at the station just after shift change. A quick shower, then she’d read the log book while drinking her coffee.
She glanced at the rearview mirror, automatically checking what was coming up behind her, then found herself staring at herself in the mirror. Her eyes were clear and untroubled, and she realized that she was smiling. After a moment, she dragged her attention back to the road.
It had been a while since she’d felt like smiling. Between Rob McKell’s brush with death, the disruption to her detachment, and her break-up with Bert, she hadn’t had much to smile about. She looked around as traffic slowly moved past the industrial section and into the more commercial part of Mendenhall. The grass was turning green around the edges of buildings and the trees, mostly maple trees on this street, were in bud. Despite the wind, the thermometer in the Edge read ten degrees Celsius.
She had started to think spring would never come.
“Look at that, Kate,” she told her reflection in the rearview mirror. “You survived another one.” Her second winter in Mendenhall hadn’t been nearly as cold as last winter, or as long. It had only felt longer.
Twenty minutes later, feeling a little self-conscious about her bedraggled appearance, she parked in her allotted spot in front of the detachment. Two of the squad cars were out of their parking spots, which meant that the four constables on duty were out patrolling. A white truck, a Chevy Silverado with mud splatters all along the bottom and dents in the front bumper, was parked in the visitor parking stall.
She walked into the low-slung, wood-sided, post-World War II building, her tote back slung over her shoulder and balancing a cardboard tray securing coffee for herself, Nick Martins, who was on the duty desk today, and Charlotte Hrebien, the detachment’s only admin support.
As always, the smell of boot polish, burned coffee and damp wood greeted her. She let the storm door catch her on the butt so as not to let it slam, then reached back with the hand holding the tote bag to latch it. She wiped her running shoes on the horsehair mat then looked up at the sound of low male voices.
She recognized Martins’ voice, but the second one, while vaguely familiar, remained elusive. She started to move toward the entrance to the duty room, then hesitated, remembering that she didn’t look her best. Then she shrugged. What the hell.
She strode past the opening to the duty desk, where the duty officer usually sat on the elevated platform, and through the doorway on its right, into the duty room proper.
Martins and Charlotte were standing in front of the four battered desks grouped in the middle of the room, listening to a man who had his back to Kate. Martins glanced over the man’s shoulder and nodded slightly at her but didn’t say anything. He had been expecting her, of course.
Charlotte was writing in a notepad. The girl’s hair now brushed her shoulders, having grown out from the short style she’d favored over the past eight months. She had taken to placing clips in the glossy brown curls to keep them out of the way and it opened up her face in a becoming way. As the only civilian employee of the Mendenhall Police Department, Charlotte wore whatever she liked to work. Today she had on a pair of plaid pants in tones of green and brown, and a button-up sweater in the same shade of green as the pants. It brought out the green of her eyes.
She looked up as Kate entered.
“Good morning, chief,” she said seriously.
The man who had been talking turned to look at Kate and she recognized him as one of the veterinarians in town. Macdonald? Jamieson? Some Scottish name.
He had a shock of graying, sandy hair in dire need of a trim and eyes somewhere between gray and green. Attractive, in an outdoorsy, weather-beaten kind of way.
“Chief Williams,” he said politely.
Damn it. The man knew her name—of course he knew her name; everyone in town knew her name—but she was no closer to remembering his. Charlotte, bless her, recognized Kate’s dilemma.
“Chief, have you met Dr. McCrae?”
“I think so,” said Kate, setting the tray of coffees on the end of the counter, next to the log book. “Veterinarian, right? What’s the problem?”
The vet was staring at her hair and she had to control an urge to smooth it back and explain that she’d just come from the gym. Besides, it was a little like the pot calling the kettle black. She couldn’t do a thing about the heat rising in her cheeks, however.
Nick Martins grinned at her unabashedly.
“Someone stole my straws,” said McCrae.
Kate stared at him, aware of the weight of her tote bag on her shoulder, the smell of Tim Hortons coffee wafting over from the counter, the less pleasant but hopefully fainter smell emanating from her body.
“Your straws,” she repeated blankly.
Behind the veterinarian’s back, Martins’ grin widened.
“It was actually the whole tank,” said Charlotte helpfully. Kate wasn’t sure, but she thought she saw a suspicious gleam in the girl’s eye.
Kate turned back to the vet. “Your tank.”
He nodded. “I got a flat tire,” he said. Seeing no understanding on her face, he continued. “On Highway 34. My spare died last month and I haven’t replaced it yet. I got a lift back to Mendenhall to get the flat fixed, but by the time I got back to the pick-up, someone had broken into the back and taken the tank.”
“A propane tank?” she asked.
It was the vet’s turn to look at her blankly. “Why would I have a propane tank in the back of my work truck?”
She was pretty sure they were both speaking English.
Martins finally stepped in. While he wasn’t a particularly tall man, his thin, wiry build made him look taller. He had crinkly auburn hair, light brown eyes and an overabundance of freckles that usually made her smile.
“Ma’am, the tank contains frozen straws of bull semen for artificial insemination.”
“Good grief,” Kate blurted out. “Why would someone want to steal that?”
One of Dr. McCrae’s eyebrows rose and a half-smile formed on his lips. Now she remembered where she’d met him. Charlotte’s beau was a veterinarian, too, and worked with McCrae on a freelance basis. Charlotte had hosted a summer barbecue last year and invited everyone from the detachment, as well as McCrae. He’d been dressed in brown Carhartt pants—the practically indestructible heavy cotton pants that seemed to be the uniform of the working man around here—and a checked shirt then, too. Today, however, in deference to the cool spring weather he was wearing a heavy black jacket over his shirt.
“Depending on the bull,” he said, “it can be worth a small fortune. Anywhere from thirty dollars to five thousand dollars. A straw. And there can be up to five hundred straws in a tank.”
Kate tried to calculate what five hundred straws at five thousand dollars a straw might come up to. Millions. She blinked at the veterinarian.
At that moment, the telephone at the duty desk rang and Martins excused himself to answer it.
“How many straws…?” she asked.
“A hundred doses,” said McCrae. “Worth almost fifty thousand dollars.”
“Mendenhall Police,” said Martins just as the main door opened and closed. They all looked at the opening in front of the duty desk. Samantha Paterson glanced in as she walked by and did a slight double-take at seeing so many people staring back at her. Martins nodded at her and she came around the wall and through the door into the duty room.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
Kate shook her head and grabbed her coffee from the tray. “Stolen bull semen. This is Doctor McCrae. He’ll tell you all about it.”
And then she beat a strategic retreat to the change room.