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

The Choice

Chapter 1

      The smell of freshly turned, damp earth caused Jessica McGuire to pause. Because she jogged every morning, she had grown accustomed to the brilliance of the awakening day and all that accompanied it: sights, sounds and odors. And her occupation, that of deputy sheriff, had served to intensify her senses, to make her even more aware of her surroundings.

      It was early March, too soon for the locals to be starting spring gardens. At an elevation of two thousand feet, where the foothills turned into the Sierra, the small community of Lawrenceville could expect more frost, perhaps even snow, before winter really ended.

      After leaving her home at the far end of town, she had run down the main road until turning on Cemetery Street. She'd noticed the scent of fresh dirt when she approached the old graveyard where many of her deceased husband's ancestors were buried. Though she passed it nearly every day, she'd only visited it once right after she'd married. Her late husband, Ryan, had brought her to Lawrenceville and taken her on a tour of all the historical sites.

      Perhaps a new grave had been dug, but she didn't remember hearing about anyone dying recently. Ignoring the nettles and burrs that snatched at her gray sweat pants, Jessica sprinted through the weeds toward the chain link fence bordering the cemetery. She entered through the gate, coming upon the ornate granite tombstones of the founding patriarchs of the old gold-mining town located on the Mother Lode, many of them had come to California searching for gold and lingered on in the town of Lawrenceville.

      Unreasonably, tears stung her eyes as she made her way to the graves. Of course she'd never known them but she'd heard many stories of the hardship these early pioneers suffered on their trek across the country.

      Jessica was about to resume her run when she noticed the earth seemed to be disturbed in one of the oldest family plots. Could have been done by an animal, she supposed, but as long as she was there she ought to check. As she rounded the large square stone with the family name of McGuire, she noticed a small grave had been opened. The earth had been removed and nothing remained but a gaping hole.

      "My heavens," she exclaimed. "What happened here?" The name of the deceased along with dates of birth and death were carved into a flat stone. The grave had once contained the remains of an infant.

      Why would anyone want to steal a baby's skeleton? For that's all that would be left after all these years. She'd heard of jewel thieves desecrating graves, but they would have picked an adult grave. It didn't make any sense.

      Her run would have to be terminated so she could call in her discovery to the Sheriff's Department in the town of Lupine, the county seat. It would be interesting to hear what the Captain made of it.

     * * *

      "Yes, that's what I said, Captain Boone, the baby's skeleton is missing!" While Jessica spoke to her superior she stretched the telephone cord so she could open the refrigerator, bringing out a package of bacon and a carton of eggs.

      "It isn't exactly a life threatening situation, now is it, McGuire?" The Captain sounded condescending, as usual.

      "No, of course not. But there is a law against desecrating graves and stealing human remains."

      "Of course, but you didn't spot anyone tampering with the graves, did you?"

      "If I had, I would have made an arrest." Jessica fought her irritation by slamming the frying pan onto the burner of the stove.

      "Write your report and bring it in. No big rush."

      "You aren't going to send a detective up here?"

      "No reason to. Why don't you make a thorough search of the area, and if you find anything interesting, be sure to let me know." He hung up.

      "Insufferable fool!"

      "What's going on?" Jonathan, Jessica's fourteen-year-old son, entered the kitchen and slouched into one of the chairs.

      "Oh, it's that frustrating Captain Boone. Nothing that happens here in Lawrenceville is of any importance to him."

      "'Cept when old man Crighton got murdered," Jonathan said.

      "Oh, yes, he high-tailed it over here in a big hurry then. Got his name and picture in all the papers from Merced to Stockton."

      For a moment, with his lopsided grin, Jonathan certainly resembled his father. Jessica's heart ached for Jonathan, growing up without knowing Ryan. When the boy's skinny frame filled out, he would look just like his dad had when Jessica first met him at Columbia College. Jonathan's hair was the same chestnut shade of brown, though Ryan had worn his long in college while Jonathan kept his cut short, emphasizing his slightly protruding ears.

      "Yeah, and it still makes you mad that even though you solved the case, Boone and the detectives took all the credit." Jonathan had heard her complain about it so many times he used exactly the same words she would have.

      She grinned at him. "Know your mother pretty well, don't you, son? How about bacon and eggs for breakfast?'

      "No time, Mom, don't want to miss the bus."

      "You have to eat something."

      "I will." He reached into the cupboard and brought out a box of cereal.

      She sighed. "Got enough money for lunch?"

      "Is food all you think about?" He spoke around a mouthful of sugared flakes.

      The two slices of bacon in the frying pan began to sizzle and she poked at them with a fork. "No certainly not!" She spoke sharper than she'd intended and glanced at Jonathan, but he didn't seem to notice. Even with her active life, extra pounds showed up quickly on her small frame. Food did occupy her thoughts more than she wished. She should have foregone the bacon and just fixed a couple of poached eggs, but it was too late now.

      "So how's school?"

      With his mouth full, Jonathan mumbled, "You ask me that every day, and it's just like it always is ... boring."

      "You didn't used to think it was boring. Are you having trouble in any of your subjects? Anything I could help you with?'

      "No, Mom." He didn't look at her and dumped has his cereal into the sink. After shrugging into his quilted jacket, which had become a bit short in the sleeves even though it fit perfectly when he received it for Christmas, Jonathan scooped his day pack off the washing machine and disappeared out the back door.

      "Don't say goodbye," she shouted after him. Jessica wished she knew more about adolescent boys, and for the second time that morning thought how much easier life would be if Ryan were still alive. Jonathan had been only six when his father died of brain cancer.

      Though short, Jessica's marriage to Ryan McGuire had been a good one. Unfortunately he didn't have any insurance. A police dispatcher before her husband's death, Jessica decided to go into law enforcement in order to make enough money to support herself and her son. After taking classes at the college, Jessica applied for and was accepted into the police academy.

      She served for a few years as a deputy sheriff in Modesto and when the opportunity arose, she transferred to Lupine County and became resident deputy of Lawrenceville. Living in Ryan's hometown seemed a fitting way to keep his memory alive for Jonathan. Her patrol area covered a large expanse surrounding Lawrenceville and on into the mountains. But the population was sparse, and outside of a burglary now and then and the one murder, Jessica sent most of her time arresting drunk driver, handing out speeding tickets, working accidents, and answering tourist's questions.

      Knowing that even if there were any clues in the Lawrenceville Cemetery--which she doubted--it wasn't likely anyone would disturb them before she returned to the scene. She decided to do a load of laundry, clean the kitchen, and generally pick up the small house before she changed into her uniform and went to work. After eating breakfast, she added her dishes to those from yesterday in the dishwasher and started it.

      She gathered up the dirty clothes from the bathroom hamper and entered Jonathan's room in search of more laundry. Amazingly tidy for a teenager, Jonathan had made his bed, his discarded clothes tossed into one corner of his closet. Jessica didn't care much for her son's taste in decorating, the posters of heavy metal rock stars dressed in their weird costumes and ugly hairdos crowded the paneled walls. She wondered how he could sleep with such ferocious faces peering down at him from all sides. Merely a phase, he'd be into something else in a few months.

      He'd gone from collecting dinosaurs: posters and models, to the world of fantasy: armored knights, dragons, beautiful maidens in gossamer gowns living in castles; spending hours playing complicated board games with his friends.

      "This too shall pass," she murmured while gathering his soiled clothing.

      The phone rang just as she turned on the washing machine. Maybe Captain Boone had changed his mind, and a detective was coming after all. "Deputy McGuire here."

      But it wasn't the Captain. "Hi, Deputy, I've get a problem."

      Jessica recognized the voice immediately. It was Pastor David Tanner from the community church. Though she didn't attend church, she had many dealings with the minister. He and his congregation took care of many welfare problems that cropped up in the community. "Yes, Pastor, how can I help you?"

      "The church was broken into, not much taken, but our insurance company says if I want the cost of fixing the door and replacing the stolen object, then I must report it to the authorities. Guess you're all the authority we have around here."

      He laughed at his joke but Jessica didn't.

      "I've got another matter I must attend to first then I'll be over. I'll be at the church around two."

      Officially, Jessica wasn't required to go on duty until four. The CHP patrolled the main highways on a fairly regular basis, and most crimes were reported to the station in Lupine. A deputy would be sent out on an emergency during Jessica's off hours, otherwise the calls would be referred to her to take care of at her discretion.

      "Oh. All right. I thought you'd want to take a look around while the clues were fresh." The minister sounded disappointed.

      "Did the break-in just occur?" Jessica asked.

      "No. Actually, I don't know when it happened. I found the side door into the sanctuary standing open when I stopped by this morning to pick up some reference books for the sermon I'm working on ...."

      She interrupted. "Please don't touch any more than you already have."

      "I'm afraid I did touch quite a bit before it dawned on me I shouldn't."

      "Don't worry about it, everybody does." She repeated the time she'd be there and hung up. It was going to be a long day.

      The phone rang again while she was in the middle of her shower. Dripping, with a towel wrapped around her, she answered in her bedroom.

      "Jessica, dear, it's Letty Barnes." The eccentric old woman sounded on the verge of tears. Letty lived outside of Lawrenceville and kept a menagerie of animals on her acre of land. Besides chickens, pigs, and a couple of ponies, she raised goats and sold the milk.

      "Yes, Letty, what can I do for you."

      "Oh, Jessica, Beatrice is missing! I've looked everywhere, and she's nowhere to be found. You don't suppose someone's stolen my baby?"

      If it had been anyone but Letty, Jessica would have assumed a child had disappeared. But Letty's only babies were her animals. She always named them after movie stars from the thirties and forties. Jessica thought for a moment how best to form her question. Letty didn't consider her pets to be animals, and could become quite hostile if anyone referred to them as such.

      "Can you describe Beatrice for me, Letty?"

      "She's only two weeks old, that's why I know she wouldn't stray from her mother. She's got the most beautiful eyes and the silkiest black hair you've ever seen."

      Jessica still didn't know what kind of creature Beatrice was but she wasn't about to risk Letty's wrath by asking. "Tell you what, Letty, I'll stop by sometime this afternoon and you can fill me in on the details. In the meantime I'll be on the lookout for Beatrice."

      That seemed to satisfy the woman and Jessica returned to her shower. After donning her crisp, khaki uniform, she used the blow-dryer on her short, strawberry curls. Despite her fair coloring, her brows and lashes were dark brown. A touch of blush and lipstick brought out the green of her eyes.

      She buckled her utility belt around her waist before checking out her .38 caliber department issued handgun and slipping it into the holster. Though she wore the same tailored uniform as the men, she knew it looked much different covering her high bosom, tiny waist, and curving hips.

      After locking the house, Jessica climbed into the big white Bronco with the county seal on the doors. When she worked out of the city, she drove whatever unit was assigned to her each day. But the deputy assigned to Lawrenceville kept the official four-wheel drive unit at home, the only way to provide around the clock law-enforcement protection to the remotely scattered communities and ranches. In an emergency, it took too long for a unit to respond from Lupine. Her foul weather jacket and 12-gauge shotgun she kept inside the cab of the Bronco.

      Her first stop was the Lawrenceville cemetery. She took pictures with the Polaroid and searched the area for footprints. She didn't find any. The last rain was about a week ago and the top soil had dried. She also looked for anything else that might give her a clue as to the identity of the grave robbers. But the only items she found were a crumpled candy wrapper and a soda can, both probably left from last summer.

      She couldn't fathom why anyone would go to all the trouble to dig up a baby's grave and steal the skeleton. And there were no answers to be found at Letty Barnes' place either.

Return to The Choice Order page