too hard. And dating a co-worker is a recipe for disaster. “I’ll bet they did,” Candace retorted. I couldn’t resist teasing her. “Especially Ruth Wills. She must’ve worked in an asylum once. She manhandled ol’ Beta.” “Hmmph. I hope her bedside manner’s better than that,” Candace muttered, then shot me a look to imply I best not know anything about Ruth Wills and beds. Candace plied me with questions as we opened up the library and went about our usual chores. She checked the after-hours drop for any returned books and I went to the back room to brew some coffee. We can’t drink beverages out on the library floor, so we keep a little fridge with Cokes and a Mr. Coffee in a back storage room. I usually manage to sneak a cup to my office and I’ve seen Candace sip a Diet Dr. Pepper, then hide the can in her file cabinet at the checkout counter. We’re fairly hardened criminals at the library. I walked in front of the checkout counter, past the children’s section, and past the stairs that went up to the public room that civic groups sometimes used for their meetings. I thought of my feeling of unease last night when I was alone in the stacks and decided I was being silly. My complacency lasted all of the four seconds it took to reach the storage room. My eyes registered muddy footprints on the carpet near the back door and I frowned, wondering what idiot had tracked in mud.

I opened the storage room door and saw Beta Harcher’s body lying across the tile floor. I wanted to yell, but my throat didn’t work and instead I just leaned soundlessly against the open door. I could hear Candace humming a favorite Garth Brooks tune of hers, and it sounded as small and as distant as a cricket’s hum in a summer night. I never associated baseball bats with evil. To me, they were just thick sticks of wood, lying in the grass of the backyard. You’d sling a bat over a shoulder and walk down to the weedy field at the elementary school, where for a while you and your friends could forget about schoolwork, parents, and bossy big sisters. Bats were tokens of boyhood and of a game that I never excelled at, but loved to play. They appeared from my closet early in the spring, usually around March when the rains abated, and retired after another season of service when I went back to school. To me, bats represented happiness, an innocence that I had before I left Mirabeau to venture beyond river and highway. The bat I’d found yesterday and left in my office was next to Beta Harcher’s body. I could see one huge bruise, about an inch above the imaginary line between left eye and left ear. From what I was told later, she probably didn’t suffer. Her left eye was swollen shut. Her heart must’ve kept pushing blood into her brain and the pressure of that blood inflated her tissues before she breathed her last susurration of air. I saw blood and hair, but not much of either, on the flared end of the bat. Specks of blood dotted the floor by her head. My voice asserted itself and I screamed, “Candace!” She came running like a jackrabbit on fire. I felt her arm close around mine and her harsh shudder of air. She pulled me away from the door. “My God!” Candace gasped. “Miss Harcher! How? What happened?” “She’s dead. I think.” I pulled away from Candace, stepped back into the room, and put my fingertips to Beta’s neck. Her throat was as cool and still as a winter day. I leaned back. How-and why-was Beta Harcher dead in my library? I stared at her again, as if expecting her to raise her battered head and provide an answer. The only other item to register in my mind was her clothing; she was wearing a black turtleneck, a black skirt, black pantyhose, and black shoes. She’d always dressed frumpy but now she looked like a New York Bohemian poet. Tar-black mud caked her shoes, and I saw tracks of mud on the floor. I turned and grabbed Candace’s arm. I pulled her away from the room and headed for the phone at the checkout counter. Dialing 911, I wondered how the hell Beta Harcher had gotten into the library. And that’s when I remembered my creepy sensation of being observed last night.

Mirabeau isn’t accustomed to murder. Our streets are eerily quiet of violent death. Last year, there’d only been one murder in all of Bonaparte County, and that’d been in the county seat of Bavary. A fight in a pool hall had suddenly turned into a stabbing and a man who didn’t speak much English coughed up his life on the smooth green felt of a billiard table. I couldn’t remember a murder in town at all until Sister reminded me of when Buell Godkin got stinking drunk and blasted his brother to kingdom come. That’d been years ago. Women don’t die from blows to the head in Mirabeau. They die of seditious disease, of bodies that have weathered years and are simply ready to rest, of the little death that lurks in too many beer bottles, of reckless driving, or maybe of just loneliness when they are left solitary after decades of marriage and their husband lies cold in the ground. Or in my mother’s case, they’ll die because their minds will eventually vanish and nothing will remain to motivate the breath and the heartbeat, not even life’s most secret, sacred memories. Our chief of police, Junebug Moncrief, arrived quickly with the coroner and an attitude of outrage that such an event had taken place in His Town. Candace was outside directing the ambulance (and moving her Mercedes out of the way) and I was guarding the body. I don’t know why, it just seemed the proper thing to do. I wished for a blanket to cover Beta; one stony blue eye was open and I hated the way it stared blankly at the ceiling, as though pleading with the powers above for kind judgment and resurrection. Junebug stormed in with one of his officers, nodded sternly at me, and glanced in at the body. “Jesus bitchin’ Christ,” he said, which I’m sure Miss Harcher would not have appreciated. The other officer, a youngster with cropped red hair, fidgeted sweatily as he loaded film. His eyes darted between the camera and Beta’s corpse while his fingers fumbled with the controls. I wanted to assure him she’d hold her pose, but I thought it’d be ungentlemanly. Junebug waved me off. “Go outside, Jordy, and just sit. Don’t let anyone else come in here ’cept the paramedics. I know it’s a burden, but don’t open your mouth either. Library’s closed for today, okay? You and I and Miss Tully’ll all talk in a minute.” I nodded wordlessly and went outside, grateful for the scents of wildflowers and fresh air. The air in the library had taken on a dense quality I didn’t like. Candace fretted as she watched the paramedics tumble a portable gurney from the ambulance. She opened the door for the two men and they rushed in.

“They don’t have to be in a hurry,” I said, and then thought what a rotten comment that was. “How, Jordy? How did she get in here? Who killed her? Why?” Candace hissed in a whisper, shaking her head in disbelief. I took Candace’s hand and sat down with her on the front step. I told her Junebug said for us to wait outside and he’d come talk to us. She nodded, her normally permanent perkiness blanched away. The wait was awful. I guess they have to take pictures and examine the body some before they move it and secure the area, whatever that means. I held Candace’s hand and thought about all the energy that had been in Beta Harcher, energy enough to make scenes in libraries, whack grown men, and be so sure of her own lightness. All of that life vanished with one solid blow. I felt my breakfast shift uncertainly in my belly. I stuck my face into the next breeze that blew and felt better. It was sad that, meteorologically, this was shaping up to be a fine day. Folks wandered over to the ambulance, some from homes and some from the small businesses near Blue-bonnet.

In a town that is populated mostly by senior citizens, you get used to seeing ambulances idling in the road. Losing an elder is of course mourned but not unexpected. However, the library isn’t usually where people expire, so there was curiosity. Old Man Renfro, our most loyal patron, arrived, walking with his cane and dressed as always in a threadbare gray suit. His wrinkled, coffee-colored face frowned as he looked at Candace and me on the steps. We obviously didn’t belong there during library hours. He and others inquired, and I replied that there’d been an accident and the library was closed for the day. I didn’t know what else to say. This revelation didn’t get anyone to turn on their heels and seek other entertainment. The crowd, about fifteen strong, stood by the ambulance, waiting grimly. A little Japanese sedan spewed gravel as it screeched to a stop next to Candace’s Mercedes. Her hand tightened on mine at the thought of all those little meteors denting her finish. A dapper, short little fellow I knew to be an utter fool jumped from the car and practically skipped to the library. He obviously couldn’t wait to see the body. His dark eyes glanced at Candace and me. I didn’t raise a hand to stop him.

Billy Ray Bummel, the assistant D.A., wouldn’t have stopped anyhow. He dashed into the library. Some indeterminate time later, Junebug, the coroner, and Billy Ray Bummel emerged. The paramedics followed, trundling a blanketed form. Gasps and other expressions of surprise and curiosity arose from the crowd. They sounded like a freakshow audience ogling a particularly ugly mutant. Junebug fixed the group with a stern eye. “Y’all get! Get going about your business and let us do ours.” A few spectators moved away, but most acted like their feet were mired in mud. “Who is it?” a voice croaked from the crowd.

Junebug leveled his eyes at the offender. “You can read about it in the paper. Now get moving along.” He’d put on his reflective sunglasses for the proper authority image and stuck a Stetson back on his brown crewcut. He was bigger and taller than me, with a solidly broad face. I’m sure he’d already thought it’d look good next year on a sheriff’s poster. He looked much the same as in high school, except for the slightest of beer guts and a few worry lines creasing his brow. A second warning sufficed and the crowd ambled apart as the ambulance was loaded and roared off toward the hospital. The lights didn’t flare and the siren stayed silent. I felt sick and sad; Beta might’ve been crazy, but she didn’t deserve this. Junebug took me by the arm. “C’mon, Jordy.” His deep voice was raspy from tobacco. “Let’s talk inside.” Let me explain about me and Junebug. We’d known each other since first grade. In a small town, when you spend twelve years of school and summers with the same kids, you develop what those TV shrinks call love/hate relationships. It’s inevitable. You play with these kids day after day and you can’t imagine life

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