To help celebrate the spirit of this spooky season, I'm presenting below the first chapter in my Halloween mystery, THE SCARECROW MURDERS, preceded by the informational blurb from the book. Hope you enjoy it!
It's a battle of the sexes in little Rhineburg, Illinois when Bruck University's fledgling football team butts heads with female rodeo riders during Halloween Homecoming Days.
The Big Bad Bruins can’t believe it when Bruck President Garrison Hurst hires the Moore Sisters' Rodeo to perform in the school's new stadium the night before the homecoming game. The 3Bs—AKA “The Freebies” because of their losing style—may be lousy at football, but as country boys, they know what a herd of angry Brahma bulls can do to a grass field. Accompanied by every able-bodied man in town, they form a picket line outside Hurst’s office and raise their voices in protest.
Will the president meet the team’s demands to cancel the rodeo? Not if Donna Moore can help it. Backed by an iron-clad contract and a smart lawyer, Donna rallies the women of Rhineburg in support of their cowgirl sisters. Marching with signs in hand, the women out shout and out maneuver their male counterparts, taking over the college security office and generally causing havoc on Bruck’s campus.
Caroline Rhodes’ son and daughter-in-law take opposite sides in the argument—until a football player is found murdered in a rodeo bullpen and Martin Rhodes is named the prime suspect. Caroline looks to Professor Carl Atwater, Maddy “Mad” Moeller, and the ladies of the Rhineburg Boarding House and Home for Gentle Women for help in catching a clever killer.
THE SCARECROW MURDERS
(copyright 2004, 2012 by Mary V. Welk)
"Run, Martin! Run!"
Nikki Rhodes megaphoned her plea through cupped hands tinged blue by a cold October wind. The practical side of her brain ridiculed her efforts even as she shouted. The day had dawned gray, with a battery of storm clouds stacked like black casino chips on the far horizon. The clouds had edged ever closer to Rhineburg until, as if pushed by some invisible croupier's hand, they'd spilled into the skies above Bruck University, announcing their arrival with a smattering of thin raindrops. The dribble had quickly turned into a torrent that pummeled the school's auditorium and matted the yellow grass behind it.
Now, with the temperature dipping towards the freezing point, the rain had become a crystal curtain of sleet. It battered Nikki's cries into icy little whispers that spiraled out of control in the gusting wind. Common sense told her Martin could neither see nor hear her.
Despite what her head knew to be true, Nikki's heart rebelled at the thought of defeat. The man she loved was fighting for his life only sixty yards away. Somehow she had to let him know she was there for him.
She called out again, this time expending every inch of breath available in her hundred-and-twenty pound frame.
"Please, Martin! Ru-unn!"
This second appeal was barely born before a slap shot of arctic air splintered her words into shards of sound that boomeranged back into Nikki's face. Fragmented syllables ricocheted inside the hood of her yellow vinyl slicker and echoed in her ears like the muffled chant of a ghost choir. She shivered, spooked by the eerie mimicry of the wind.
"Run, Mar-tinnnn! You can make it, boy!"
Nikki darted a look at the grandfather-like figure roaring encouragement over her left shoulder. Sleet bounced off the bill of Carl Atwater’s Bruck U. baseball cap and trickled down his drooping mustache and Santa Claus beard. Seeking further purchase, the ice crystals burrowed into the red and black checkerboard of his size 54 jacket, pinged off the fat metal buttons marching soldier-like down his stomach, and splashed to the ground in ever-growing puddles around his scuffed boots.
The veteran professor of history seemed oblivious to the sudden downpour that had turned a merely gray day into a cold and miserable one. The brutal wind reddened his face beyond its usual weathered look, but his eyes never wavered from the trio of mud-spattered bodies dashing across the field behind Hildegard Hall. He exhorted the lead runner with a series of deafening war whoops, emphasizing his demands for speed with a clenched fist raised high to punch tight little circles at the charcoal sky.
Watching him bob up and down on the balls of his feet, frozen raindrops sprinkling the air with each thrust of his arm, a picture came to Nikki's mind of a fat old sheep dog shaking off the residue of a Saturday night bath. It was a comforting image, if not a lasting one.
"Aw, come on, Martin! Wake up and move your feet!"
Nikki's dark eyes narrowed. Her mellow sheep dog had vanished, melted in the rain like the Wicked Witch of the West. In its place stood an oversized pit bull complete with bared fangs and a bad dude attitude.
"Stop it, Professor!" Nikki waggled a frostbitten finger under Atwater's nose. "One more word of criticism out of you, and I swear I'll…I'll…"
Biting back words that would have shocked her mother, Nikki drew in her breath and finished the sentence with a frustrated shake of her head. The professor responded in typical male fashion. His eyebrows rose in stunned surprise, then fused into a frown mirroring his inner confusion. He seemed baffled as to the reason for Nikki's anger. He also appeared hurt by the vehemence in her voice.
Nikki chose to ignore the look of mystified pain on the professor's face. Atwater deserved to be told off, she thought, and not only because he'd criticized Martin. This entire mess was his fault. If he hadn’t egged him on, her husband would be safe at home today instead of running for his life from a pack of thugs. But his mentor's devious plot had appealed to the macho side of Martin's character. Testosterone had triumphed over common sense, and her own dire warnings had been in vain. Now Martin was about to die, and for no good reason at all.
Nikki's Greek blood boiled, her fear for Martin's safety now preempted by an overwhelming desire to throttle the chairman of the history department.
The professor seemed to read at least a part of her thoughts. He leaned forward, his damp beard brushing the hood of her slicker. "Don't you worry. Martin's going to come out of this in one piece."
The burning sensation in the pit of her stomach spread upward to her throat as Nikki stared out over the field. The sleet and driving rain distorted her view, but she could see the gap steadily closing between her husband and the two men chasing him. The taller of Martin's pursuers appeared to be less than a yard behind him and slightly to his right. A shorter, huskier fellow was closing from the left, a step ahead of his partner and at a better angle to intercept his prey. It was like watching a pyramid collapse, the tip slowly crumbling to be buried by the rubble at the bottom.
Without warning, the shorter man launched himself into the air. His momentum propelled him several feet forward directly into Martin's path. He fell to the earth with a bone-jarring thud, then twisted to the right, arms outstretched, and grabbed his victim by the ankle.
Nikki reached out blindly and clutched the arm of her mother-in-law. Her fingernails dug a trench in the other woman's wrist as she watched her husband struggle to escape. Martin was still on his feet, stumbling forward and dragging his attacker with him across the slick grass. Covered in mud, the man held on until the second pursuer caught up with them. This fellow slammed into Martin's back, seized him by the shoulders, and unceremoniously hauled him backwards.
"Uh, oh," groaned the professor. "I think he's a goner."
Nikki's lips trembled. She squeezed her eyes shut, unable to watch her husband's premature demise at the hands of the two thugs.
"It's over," she whimpered. "They've made me a widow."
Caroline Rhodes smothered a yelp as her daughter-in-law's nails triggered yet another spasm of pain in her wrist.
"Look on the bright side," she muttered through clenched teeth. "Martin may be dead meat, but you'll look smashing dressed in black."
You can find this book at: www.amazon.com/author/marywelk