Marilyn Meredith and F.M. Meredith author of mysteries and Christian thrillers

Bad Tidings

Chapter 1

      Tuesday, 11:30 P.M.

      Pillowy, sweet-scented flesh enveloped him. Tender, familiar lips moved against his and passion overwhelmed him. Tom Gilbreath's adoration for his wife nearly burst his heart. But the shrill ring of the telephone shattered the fervor of the moment.

      "Don't answer it," Marlene pleaded, clinging to him fiercely.

      Sighing, Tom picked up the receiver. "Lt. Gilbreath here."

      "There's been a fatal accident out on Pipkin's Road."

      The voice belonged to Doug Milligan, a young police officer whom Tom knew to be conscientious and observant. Milligan wouldn't call Gilbreath, a homicide detective, about an ordinary death due to a car accident. "And?" Tom prompted.

      Milligan sounded apologetic but anxious. "Could you come out here, Lieutenant? There's something peculiar about the victim's body."

      "Sure. I'll be there in a few minutes."

      "You've got to be kidding." Marlene groaned and rolled her considerable bulk onto her side of the bed.

      Tom leaned over and kissed his wife's pouting lips. "Sorry, but you know how it is."

      "Certainly happens often enough." She pulled the covers over her head.

      Tom grinned. She'd be fast asleep before he even left the house.

      Though he grumbled to himself about the interrupted lovemaking, it didn't prevent him from dressing quickly and rushing to the location of the smoldering wreckage of a late model Lincoln Continental. As he climbed from his car, Tom surveyed the scene.

      A wet ocean fog swirled and mingled with the gray-black smoke as the yellow-coated fireman sprayed the last of their chemicals on the blackened vehicle. The whirling red lights of the fire engine, the blue and red lights atop the two Rocky Bluff police units, and the flashing amber light of a waiting ambulance illuminated the area with an eerie, albeit colorful, glow. The crumpled front end of the Lincoln butted against the shaggy trunk of one of many eucalyptus trees lining the old ranch road.

      As Tom neared the wreck, he could see the personalized license plates on the rear of the car. Undamaged by the flames that had charred the front three quarters of the vehicle, the letters and numbers could be easily read. "GRAN 4." Speculating on the significance, Tom wondered if it might stand for grandparent of four, or maybe it had an entirely different meaning such as an abbreviation for grand or grandiose.

      Officer Milligan, tall, dark-haired and mustached, rushed over to him and shook his hand. "Lt. Gilbreath, glad you came. I wouldn't let them remove the body until you had a chance to see it. Maybe I'm wrong but take a look for yourself."

      The driver's door had been pried open. Without touching anything, Tom bent over and peered inside the dark interior. He sniffed, expecting the odor of burned upholstery, foam rubber, and roasted flesh. But he was surprised by an underlying chemical smell. The charred corpse, its skull caved in, slumped over the steering wheel. A gold wedding ring banded a blackened finger, a digital watch circled the left wrist. Tom, using his handkerchief, removed the jewelry, wrapped it carefully, and dropped the small bundle into the pocket of his old sweater.

      "Okay, guys." Tom motioned to the waiting ambulance attendants. "You can take the body now, but how about delivering it to the coroner's office in Ventura?" There wasn't anyone authorized to do an autopsy in the small southern California beach community of Rocky Bluff.

      "Sure thing, Lieutenant," one of the gray garbed men answered as he approached the vehicle with a gurney and a plastic body sack.

      "I want the car gone over inch-by-inch," Tom added.

      Milligan grinned broadly, emphasizing the dimples in his tanned cheeks. "Yes, sir."

      Tom fumbled in the other pocket of his sweater for his pipe and tobacco pouch. After completing the ritual of filling and lighting the pipe, he puffed on it absently while walking to the edge of the field. Poking at the heavy growth of weeds with the toe of his shoe, he said to

     Milligan who hovered near his elbow, "Almost anything could be hidden along here. Make a search, you just might get lucky and find something interesting."

      Milligan seemed so young and wide awake, contrasting with Tom's own fifty plus years and sleepiness. "You're thinking what I am, I'm sure, possibly a staged accident."

      Grinning again, Milligan's dark brown mustache contrasted with his white teeth. "What about the driver?"

      "I suspect the victim was dead long before the car ever crashed into the tree. After we get the results of the autopsy...along with anything interesting you come up with...maybe we'll be on our way to finding out some of the answers."

      "We'll make a careful search of the area and I'll have a full report on your desk in the morning." Milligan hurried away to pass along instructions to the other police officer.

      There was no need to hang around any longer; Tom knew Milligan would do a good job. And the men could openly grumble about the extra work once he was gone. Tom was well aware that behind his back, most of the men on the department called him "The Old Hound Dog, " a nickname he prized. He'd come by it partly because of the way he looked--his wrinkled brown face with the saggy bags under sad eyes did resemble a hound dog. He hoped the name also reflected his bloodhound tenacity when he worked on a case.

      Tom returned to his bed which had been kept cozily warm by his wife.

     * * *

      Wednesday, 6:45 A.M.

      In the morning, Marlene, with her hands planted firmly on wide, plump hips, asked, "So what was vital enough to drag you out in the middle of the night?" The sparkle of curiosity in her large, brown eyes belied the hint of irritation in her voice.

      "If you give me my breakfast, I'll tell you." Tom winked and ran his hand over her solid, round rump.

      She giggled. "You're a dirty old man, Tom Gilbreath."

      "And you love me because of it." He kissed her soundly. "Now, food, please."

      While Marlene brought their filled plates to the kitchen table and poured coffee, Tom admired his wife of twenty-six years--as was his habit every morning. Most men probably considered Marlene fat. But he knew that the billowy blouses and skirts and the tunic tops she usually wore hid a well-proportioned, surprisingly firm, and curvaceous body. Her pretty, round face was wrinkle-free except for tiny laugh lines at the corners of her eyes. Two wings of silver grew from her widow's peak, evidence of her forty-six years, accenting the warm brown waves of her shoulder length hair.

      The aroma from the cheese omelet and the freshly baked cinnamon buns claimed his attention. While he buttered his second sticky roll, Marlene said, "Do you suppose you could stop stuffing your face long enough to tell me about last night?"

      Tom chuckled. "Even if I didn't, you'd find out from one of your friends. You wives know more about what's going on in Rocky Bluff than most of the officers."

      "Okay, Gilbreath, just let me in on the facts so I can set the record straight."

      They both knew the police wives' gossip was no more accurate than any other; the tidbits grossly exaggerated and even changed after frequent repetition.

      Swallowing a sip of coffee to wash down the last of his breakfast, and wiping his mouth with a napkin, Tom knew further stalling would only annoy Marlene. "There's not much to tell yet. It was a one car accident out on Pipkin's Road." He fished his pipe from his pocket.

      "You're not getting away with that, Gilbreath," Marlene said. "Whoever called you would have never gotten you out of bed for an ordinary accident."

      "It was Doug Milligan. He's a sharp young fellow. Pity he and his wife never got back together."

      Marlene held her head with her dimpled hands and wailed. "Thomas Gilbreath, will you please tell me why Milligan thought it necessary for you to go out there?"

      He'd teased her enough. "Like I said, there really isn't much to pass on to you, or anyone...yet. But the body of the accident victim didn't appear quite right to Milligan or me. I had it delivered to the coroner's office. We'll know more later today. There weren't any skid marks. Maybe the driver fell asleep, that would account for it, of course, but...."

      "You don't think that what's happened," Marlene finished for him.

      "Nope. But right now I don't have anything concrete to base it on, so please don't share that part with your friends."

      "I know better." Marlene leaned forward, her floral print gown gaped at the neck exposing mounds of creamy flesh. "You think it's murder, don't you?"

      "Too soon for me to even speculate, my love. Now may I load my pipe and be on my way?"

      Marlene glanced at the kitchen clock. "I have to hurry." She leaped to her feet. "I'm meeting Gwen for coffee before our belly dancing class."

      Gwen Marshall was Tom's partner's wife, and Marlene's best friend. Though ten years younger, Gwen claimed it was an effort keeping up with Marlene. The two women did everything together: shopping expeditions to Santa Barbara and Ventura, planning and putting on extravagant dinner parties, and taking unusual classes, from scuba diving to karate, offered by the leisure services department of the city.

      And now belly dancing. Tom chuckled as he drove the short distance to the station.

     * * *

      7:30 A.M.

      The sounds his wife, Connie, made as she readied their son, Jason, for school filtered into Joe Guzzo's subconscious. He awakened enough to squint one eye at the alarm lock on the night stand beside his bed. Hell. He'd only been asleep four-and-a-half hours. Rolling over, he pulled the pillow over his head to block out Connie's voice as she insisted Jason change into clean jeans.

      Joe drifted back to sleep. In his dream, a tall, voluptuous woman, clad only in a filmy negligee, opened her arms. to him as she breathed his name through full, moist lips.

     * * *

     8:20 A.M.

      Ted Hadovsky, more usually called Ski, the juvenile officer for the Rocky Bluff Police Department, sorted through the reports from the evening and night shift officers. Four teenaged girls, noisily roaming the streets after ten, had been turned over to their parents. Two thirteen-year-old boys had been caught stealing gas from a vehicle in an equipment rental yard. Another male juvenile, fifteen, had been arrested for breaking the windows of a school bus.

      "Quiet night," Ski mused. Often the daylight hours were the busiest for the juvenile officer. He tossed the reports back on the watch commander's desk and headed for the office he shared with two others.

      A full-length mirror hung on the back of the door, left behind by an officer with a fondness for his own image. As was Ski's habit, and that of each of his fellow officers who passed through the door, he gave a quick glance to his reflection.

      The civilian clothes made Ski appear even younger than his uniform had. Though his pink-cheeked, cherub face had been one of the reasons he'd drawn the assignment as a juvenile officer, the youthfulness irritated him. Without thinking, Ski pulled a comb from the back pocket of his Levis and ran it through his thick, professionally styled, sandy blond hair. Standing straight as possible, he knew he was still one of the shortest men on the Rocky Bluff P.D.'s rolls.

      "Hey, Ski." A uniformed officer pushed through the door.

      Ski jumped out of the way to avoid being struck. "Yo, Navarro, what's going on?" Ski hoped his colleague wouldn't realize what he'd been doing.

      Even shorter than Ski and about the same age, Abel Navarro, black-haired and mustached, his fair skin and blue eyes inherited from an Irish ancestor, seemed more mature.

     "Just wanted to find out if you could do something about the kids playing hooky."

      "I'm just one person, Abel. You got any bright ideas how to go about it, lemme know," Ski grumbled.

      "This rash of day light burglaries we've had the past few know what's been stolen? TV's, stereos, VCR's, computers, video games, coin collections, piggy banks, portable radios, CD players and CD's. Who do you think the perpetrators might be?"

      "Teenaged hoods busy at work in our not so quiet beach community." Ski sat down at his desk. "And what does the burglary detail think?"

      "Same as us. But it's a pain to keep going out on these calls when I know the perps are snot-nosed kids skipping school."

      "What can I say? School district's got one truant officer. That's about as effective as one juvenile officer per shift."

      Abel lifted his thick, black brows and shrugged as he turned to leave.

      "Wait a second, Navarro, I'm not putting you off. I'm closing down a small marijuana operation in Holcomb Park this afternoon, but I promise I'll keep my eyes open for truants when I'm out on the streets. And I'll talk to the watch commander and ask him to alert the rest of the troops." Ski glanced at his watch. He had an appointment with two narcotics' officers to discuss the afternoon's operation.

      "Yeah...well, thanks, Ski. I suppose that's about all I could ask for." Abel sighed as he left.

      Ski understood his fellow officer's frustration. Unfortunately, the once small and relatively calm Rocky Bluff suffered growing pains like most of southern California, manifested by a rapid increase in all types of crimes.

     * * *

     8:33 A.M.

      "Use steel wool to scrape the old wax from the corners," Mildred Montaine directed from her wheelchair.

      "Yes, ma'am," the surly young woman muttered, and made an ugly face.

      Mildred chose to ignore her housekeeper's impertinence. It was far too difficult these days to find household help of any kind, and despite Becky's lack of respect, she was the hardest worker Mildred had been able to find and keep. Becky had come to her totally untrained--obviously she'd grown up in a slovenly household--and though it had been a slow process, Mildred had taught her to do the most menial chores in a proper manner.

      If only she'd been able to do it herself. Mildred watched the skinny girl slosh sudsy water around the linoleum with a string mop. The only proper way to scrub a floor was on one's hands and knees, an impossibility for Mildred since the accident that had left her an invalid and killed her beloved husband, Jeffrey.

      Fortunately, the insurance money took care of her needs. "Don't take all day with that floor, Becky. Remember you must bake lemon cookies and make the fruit compote, and polish the silver service before my guests arrive this afternoon."

      Becky's answer was another curt, "Yes, ma'am," and something mumbled which Mildred didn't understand. Becky always mumbled. But it didn't matter because Mildred knew her housekeeper would have everything done in time.

      Mildred maneuvered the electric chair through the doorway and down the hall to her bedroom. She just had time to apply her make-up before the hairdresser arrived. No one

     but Jeffrey and the hired help had ever seen her without her carefully applied make-up. The efforts camouflaged the sallowness of her skin and covered the old-age spots but didn't hide the wrinkles. When she'd finished she felt as though there might at least be an echo of her former beauty. She took pleasure in decorating herself with the expensive baubles and beads Jeffrey showered upon her during their forty year marriage.

     * * *

      8:35 A.M.

      "I hope we won't look too ridiculous," Gwen said, laughing nervously.

      "You say that every time we try something new," Marlene reminded her. "And I'm the only one who'll look ridiculous, and frankly, I don't care."

      Gwen started to say something else, but Marlene continued, "It doesn't matter what anyone thinks because Tom likes me just the way I am. I've always wanted to learn how to belly dance and I can hardly wait. It's going to be great fun."

      The younger woman grinned. "You're right, as usual. Finish your coffee and let's get going."

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