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Read an excerpt fromValentine's Victim

Chapter One

Of all the gods, Death only craves not gifts:

Nor sacrifice, nor yet drink-offering poured

Avails; no altars hath he, nor is soothed

By hymns of praise. From him alone of all

The powers of heaven Persuasion holds aloof. Aeschylus

"Hold the flashlight still," Daniel ordered. Hold the flashlight still? I was hoping I'd be able to hold the lunch I'd had too many hours ago down. I clenched my eyes shut and turned my head away from the gruesome sight. The image had burned itself into my mind, though. Even without looking, I could still see the dangling eyeballs, the charred flesh and the wisps of black smoke that curled sensuously up from the body.

"I think he's dead."

"Great deduction, Sherlock. What was your first clue? The Twit's inability to bitch at you? I'm surprised though that it took frying to shut him up." Sarcasm has always been my first line of defense when dealing with anything I found distasteful. And this was about as distasteful as it came.

"Don't touch anything, Daniel. Not a thing." The smell of roast pork-how ironically appropriate that the swine of all men should end up smelling that way-became even more nauseating than the sight of the Twit's body. "Let's get out of here."

"Here" was the transmitter site that was Daniel's personal domain. He was in charge of keeping it on the air so all the area residents could enjoy public broadcasting radio and television. Located high on a bluff above the Missouri River and the state capitol, Pierre, normally the Snake Butte site was one of my favorite places. The air was clean, the view spectacular and the quiet thundering. It was not, however, my idea of a terrific place for Valentine's Day date-especially not when Ted Twitten had selected it as the site of his demise.

I stumbled back out of the open doorway, dropping the flashlight as I fell to my knees in the packed snow. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that was violating the sanctity of what the cops would consider a crime scene, but the more primal urge of puking my guts out overrode my sense of civic duty. I felt Daniel's hands on my shoulders as I spewed the last out, falling back against him to gulp in as much frigid, clean air as I could into my lungs.

The thought occurred that I would never again be able to look a pork chop in the face again.

"You going to be okay, Annie?" Daniel asked softly, massaging my shoulders. "I better call the ambulance."

"I think the Twit's more in need of the coroner, honey." Was that me? It didn't sound at all like my normally strong, confident voice. It was too shaky, timid. What was wrong with me? I'd seen equally gruesome sights before. Perhaps it was the fact that I'd known the corpse when it was alive-if one could call a pretty meaningless existence life, that is. "You better call the cops."

While Daniel went to the pickup to use his cellular to call the authorities, I looked out over the river at the twinkling lights of the twin towns, Pierre and Fort Pierre. Dusted with a recent snow, it resembled a picturesque Christmas card-a much better image for my troubled mind than the scene we'd left inside that tiny steel building. This was the home to which I'd returned after nearly fifteen years covering the underbelly of politics and crime in some of the larger cities in the country. I'd come home to bury my parents and my past and succeeded in accomplishing both sad tasks. But, the scene I'd just observed brought back memories of my previous life, the one I'd chosen to leave behind. The Twit's wasn't the first gruesome corpse I'd seen, but I prayed that it would be the last.

I felt ashamed by my display of emotion. Imagine, a stalwart Plainswoman puking her guts out in the snow just at the site of a dead body, albeit one that now resembled a recently extinguished bonfire. Mom and Dad were probably spinning 180s at the Greenlawn Cemetery right along with all my great-great ancestors. The men and women of Dakota usually do not put on a show of emotions for all the world to see, even if at the moment the world is limited to one's legally wedded spouse. That is, of course, unless they are safely ensconced within the bosom and privacy of their home-or the back seat of their loved one's dual cab pickup. And even those passions are somewhat tempered by those glancing up to see assorted rifles hung like trophies from a rack.

It was obvious that some of my stoicism had evaporated during my years away from Dakota. In the words of my mother, I'd best buck up.

"They're on their way," Daniel reported, bending over and grabbing me by the elbows to pull me to my feet. "Upsy-daisy. You'll catch your death sitting in that snow."

"There's going to be a lot of questions, Daniel." I brushed the snow from my knees. "Not even the Twit is stupid enough to step into the cabinet of a transmitter without shutting off the electricity."

"You think somebody did that on purpose?" Innocent Daniel, always shocked to discover that people were capable of acts of extreme violence. "Damn."

Damn, indeed. "Hand me your cell phone, honey. You called the cops." I could already hear their sirens in the distance. "Now, I'll alert the media."

"You're not going to call Steve, are you?" Steve Hutchins was the editor of the local daily rag, my former boss and, now, a friend.

"I certainly am. Remember, I know the cops. I want a reporter and photographer here before they pull out the rubber hoses to question us. It's called protection, Daniel. And we're going to need all the protection we can get." Daniel and I could both be counted among the masses who wouldn't mourn the Twit's death. In fact, I'd bet good money that the sheriff would immediately take the easy route and make Daniel his number one suspect. Some Valentine's Day this was turning out to be.

Flowers would have been gratefully accepted. Candy-divine. A card might have been nice. I knew better than to hope for diamonds, emeralds or rubies, but even cubic zirconia would have probably merited Daniel the time of his life once we were alone behind the locked door of our bedroom. The discovery of his supervisor's charred remains ranked pretty low on my list of potential Valentines, though I was already mentally ticking off the people I knew who'd find the Twit's death a blessing. Still, it wasn't what I expected. Then again, I really hadn't expected Daniel to even remember it was Valentine's Day.

Alas, ten years with Daniel-eight of them in wedded bliss-was experience enough to tell me that this Valentine's Day wasn't going to be much different from any of the others we'd shared. Not that I'm complaining, far from it. I remember all too well the years when Valentine's Day was no more than a painful reminder that I was nobody's favorite sweetheart. Now, even without flowers, candy or a card, Daniel's kindness and love made every day a Valentine's Day.

That's what shocked me about his surprise. It was the kind of surprise that took actual planning. Daniel, love of my life, father of our beloved seven-year-old terror, my knight in shining armor, is not a planner. He's a seat-of-his-pants kind of guy. Daniel is the kind of guy who doesn't shop for Christmas until Christmas Eve, preferably as close to closing time as possible. I've long become accustomed to gifts brightly wrapped in Radio Shack or Wal-Mart plastic bags. It is the thought that counts. So, when he came home from work and told me that I didn't have to trudge out to the kitchen and pull something from the refrigerator to prepare for supper, I was shocked.

"Is this a national day of fasting and no one told me?" I asked. "Because if it is, I blew it already unless the leftover pizza I had for lunch doesn't count."

"It's Valentine's Day!" he'd proclaimed loudly, a smile breaking across his ruggedly handsome face. Fortunately, we were safely behind the closed door of our home when Daniel made his loud outburst about the holiday. Had he been outside, I'm sure three neighbors would have immediately informed their friends that a mad man was assaulting the Flannigan house.

"I know. But who told you?"

"Maybe nobody had to tell me. I can read a calendar, can't I?"

"I repeat…who told you?" Someone had to. The only days of note that Daniel remembers is the day the flag drops for the Daytona 500 heralding the beginning of months of auto racing and his own birthday.

At least he had the sense to look a bit sheepish at being found out. "Moanin' Mona," he admitted.

"Moanin'" Mona was the receptionist for the public broadcasting station where Daniel worked as a broadcast engineer. Okay, so she calls herself an "office manager," but the only thing I could figure out that she managed was to wiggle her way into a tight, micro mini when she had her interview for the job. Rick, the station manager, had an eye for legs, and Moanin' Mona's started at the ground and ended somewhere near her personal twin temples to silicon. Mona is not what one would call a "people person." No, women-other than assorted beauticians, masseuses and cosmetologists-don't exist to Mona. Mona is a man's sort of woman. Doesn't much matter what man, or whether he might already be past his shelf life or other wise entangled, she goes for them all. My husband would be no exception to her wily ways.

Instead of launching into my memorized lecture on the stupidity of Daniel spending too much time chatting up Moanin' Mona at work, I simply ground what remained of my teeth and smiled. It wasn't that I ever feared that Daniel would stray from our marital bed. He knew the consequences of something like that-and I'd look lousy living the rest of my life in one of those orange, prison jumpsuits. No, it's just that Daniel is male, with the brain of a mature, fifty-year-old and the hormones of a fifteen-year-old virgin with his first Playboy. To make matters worse, the man was born to flirt. It's an art he perfected for forty years until he tripped and ended up at the altar with me. I had hoped that plain, gold band he wore would have short-circuited his ability to charm anyone but me, but his harmless flirting is as natural to him as breathing. I truly don't think he even realizes the effect he can have.

I've observed the little flirting ritual between Daniel and Mona-so thick I could cut it with a knife, but I don't allow myself possession of sharp objects when I know I'm going to be around her. Just too tempting to trip and see if one of the twin temples would leak when punctured. Instead, I practice patience and virtue…and haul him away as quickly as possible.

That which can't be changed must merely be tolerated. And of course, it was impossible that Daniel and Mona wouldn't occasionally converse during the course of the day. They worked at the same place, after all. Still, better safe than sorry. Mentally, I scheduled an impromptu visit to the office to casually remind Moanin' Mona she had no chance in hell sinking her perfectly manicured talons in my husband.

"Okay, it's Valentine's Day and I don't have to cook. Does that mean you're going to be nuking the Dinty Moores?"

Daniel chuckled-a warm, rich, lusty laugh that never fails to hit me smack in the back of the knees, reminding me all over again just how little this man has to do to get my juices running. I figure that's the sign of a good marriage.

He opened his mouth, but whatever he was going to say was interrupted by the sound of the doorbell. I held up my hand to signal him to wait and hurdled the ottoman in the living room in my dead rush to beat our son to the door. This was a regular race. Mikey could be eight houses away and locked in the basement, but if he heard our doorbell, he'd beat me to it every time. This was no exception. He pulled open the door, glanced up to see my sister Becky, shrugged and disappeared, probably back to his room to resume the destruction of his latest Lego creation.

"You owe me," she announced, pulling off her coat and kicking off her snow boots.

"So, you tell me each and every time we meet. What else is new?" I collected her coat and hung it up on the coat tree, before moving her slushy boots to the mat.

"Well, this time you owe me more than you've ever owed me before."

I headed back to my computer desk, the hub of the living room as it's become over the years, and nodded her toward a chair. "And to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit? Not just to remind me again that I owe you. You could have done that on the phone this morning."

"I haven't told her yet, Becky." Daniel carefully slid into the chair at his computer before Becky had a chance to claim it. Yes, we each have our own computers. I've decided that, too, is the key to a successful and long-lasting marriage.

Becky grimaced at the straight chair, but eased herself down onto it as she popped the top on a can of soda pop. An ever-present can of soda pop had nearly become a fashion accessory for her. She was never without it, or so it seemed to me.

As she nearly drained the contents of the can, it hit me again just how different we are-or at least that's what I always thought. Becky is a good twelve years older than I am, me being considered very much of an unexpected afterthought in my parents' marriage. Her advanced age is something I've never let her quite forget. I consider this one of the loving little things that sisters do for one another. In fact, if I didn't continually remind her of it, she'd be younger than I am already and fast headed back toward thirty-nine. Believe me, it would be stretching all credulity for Becky to ever pass herself off as thirty-nine again, not that she wouldn't have the gumption to try.

Once upon a time, Becky was tall, thin and gorgeous with flowing blonde hair. I, quite the contrary, have always been short, plump, dark haired and nothing to write home to mother about. Yet, as the years have passed, there's been a subtle blurring of the differences before us. Where once I might have accused my mother of more than a passing flirtation with the mailman, now I see more resemblance between us than differences. This, according to Becky, is because the years have not been kind to her, a subtle suggestion that it was nature, not age, that created my looks. She ignores my suggestion that she's simply let herself go since the demise of her latest husband.

Finally, she slammed her can down on the table and stared at Daniel. "Either you tell her or I will." There was more than a note of hostility in her voice. Obviously, whatever plan Daniel concocted didn't please my sister very much. Odd, I thought, considering that Becky and Daniel were normally as chummy as two peas in a pod.

"Well, it's like this. It's Valentine's Day!" Daniel repeated.

"We've established that fact, honey. What about it?" I asked patiently.

"I can't take the entire credit for this," he admitted. "Mona reminded me about it being Valentine's Day. So, I figured I'd pick up a card for you after work, but Mona said I ought to 'give the old girl' a real thrill."

"Old girl?" I added a postscript to my mental note. Sympathize with dear, old Mona about those crow's feet developing around her eyes. Maybe suggest that silicon shrinks over time and wasn't she due for a 50,000 mile overhaul. Yes, she'd love that.

"You know what she meant-you. Anyway, I called Becky and asked her to watch Mikey tonight so I could take my sweetheart out to dinner." Daniel was so tickled with himself that he was actually fidgeting in his chair like a kindergarten kid who's trying to get teacher's attention. No way was I going to spoil his big surprise. I would not mention the fact that, because it was Valentine's Day, I'd spent the afternoon in the kitchen preparing the luscious feast I'd seen Emeril make on his television show, having carefully copied and printed out the recipes from his web site. The red snapper with julienned vegetables on the side followed by macadamia rum mousse pie would just have to wait in the refrigerator for the day after Valentine's Day. The chilled bottle of champagne, on the other hand, I could use later for a private celebration once we were back home and alone-a little positive reinforcement for Daniel's surprise.

"Terrific. I love the idea," I declared, jumping up from my chair and bending over to hug Daniel and kiss him soundly on the mouth. "How should I dress? Where did you get reservations?"

A look of incomprehension followed by clouds of bewilderment passed over Daniel's face. Then the smile faded from his face.

"You did make reservations some place, honey? I mean, you do realize this is the hottest date night of the year. The restaurants are going to be packed…"

Becky snorted into the top of her can of soda pop. It echoed. I shot her a "say one word and die" look before turning back to Daniel. "We'll make it an adventure, honey," I suggested. "We'll just drive around until we find a place to eat. It'll be fun."

Fun. Oh yes, an adventure in the making.

I shooed Daniel upstairs to say hello to his son, shower and dress. I knew it would take him far longer than it would take me. The vulgar jokes about women taking forever to get ready to go some place were a lie. At least in my house they were. It always takes Daniel twice as long as it does me-and there's less of him to prepare.

"And what do I get to feed the brat?" Becky asked, digging in the gigantic purse that was her closest companion.

"Just nuke him one of his kid's TV dinners. He'll think he's in seventh heaven."

"That's fine for him, but what about me?"

"There's a new container of cottage cheese and I just fixed a bowl of celery sticks. You'll find them in the frig." It was evil of me, I know. And I felt like the huge pot calling the kettle black. Truth be known, I was constantly fixing nice, healthy, low calorie treats-which eventually evolved into masses of slimy, moldy goo that had to be pitched in the garbage before they turned on us and attacked. At least my intentions toward dieting were in the right place.

Becky dived back into her purse, only to emerge triumphantly waving a coupon. "The brat and I will be dining on pizza tonight. You can take your celery and stuff it up your-"

"I get the picture," I interrupted, reaching for my billfold. I didn't need to carry a purse. Everything essential I managed to keep in a combination checkbook/wallet that Mikey gave me for Christmas. I pulled out a twenty and handed it to her. "At least I can pay for it."

"Damn straight you can." She gleefully plucked the bill from my fingers. She may have inherited her wealth from her late husbands, but she knew how to hold onto it once in her grasp. "I could have been down at the Moose playing bingo tonight. In fact, I think Mikey and I will mosey down that way after we have our pizza."

I sighed. Becky was a certifiable bingo addict. Oh well, she could have had far worse vices. Bingo at the Moose Lodge was about as tame as it gets around here and far better than slugging dollars into a video lottery machine or going down to the reservation and gambling at the Indian casinos. Best of all, Mikey loved going to the Moose Lodge. Whenever he'd get bored watching Becky lose at bingo, he'd go help the ladies in the baby-sitting room with the smaller children. An only child-and positively no threat of there ever being another offspring springing from these loins, it was good for Mikey to play nicely with younger children.

"It sounds like fun. I almost wish I was going with you."

"Better than driving around town looking for a place to eat. Bet you end up at Mickey D's."

"I'm sure we'll find someplace nicer than fast food. And if not, at least we'll be alone together. Time alone with Daniel doesn't happen nearly often enough."

The words slipped out of my mouth without my thinking of the consequences. I knew that Becky would launch on her favorite criticism.

"You could actually fork out some bucks and hire a baby-sitter once in a while. See a movie. Go out to eat. It's just not right. You're too overly protective of that child and he's the one who's going to suffer for it." I wasn't mistaken. Lecture #310. And she was picking up steam. "And why don't you go back to work? You're wasting your talent trying to work here. I'm sure the extra money would help, too. Why did Mom and Dad and I struggle to get you through college if you're going to waste all that education?"

I couldn't stop myself from laughing. Once again, Becky was rewriting history to suit her own purposes. Much as I love my sister, her notion of my getting an education was to enroll me in a secretarial school. No, my parents helped me as much as they could, but it was the scholarships I'd managed to snag and a part-time job as a waitress and barmaid that really saw me through college. But, I wasn't about to destroy Becky's illusions. She wouldn't listen any way.

"I'm not going to get into it, Beck. I'm going to go kiss my son and get ready." I headed for the stairs, stopping to glance back. "Thanks, though, Becky. I appreciate you watching Mikey tonight. I just wish it was a better Valentine's Day for you."

Daniel was belting out "My Funny Valentine" in the shower as I walked into the bedroom, immediately followed by Mikey. He jumped up on our bed, grabbed a pillow and tossed it at me. I whipped it right back.

"None of that, kiddo. Daddy and I are going out to dinner tonight. Aunt Becky's treating you to pizza and bingo at the Moose." I opened the doors of our closet and grimaced at the wide selection of "nice" clothes hanging there-all about ten years out of style. Working at home, I didn't need much more than my usual t-shirt and sweatpants, shorts in the summer.

"I wanna go with you guys."

"Dad's a guy; I'm a girl," I automatically corrected. "And you know you'll have a blast with Aunt Becky."

"I wanna go with you guy and girl," he retorted. I shook my head. That wasn't much better. We really needed to work on vocabulary.

"No, you really don't. This requires dressing up and you hate to dress up. Remember?" I picked through the closet, considering and rejecting everything until I came upon my little black dress. Thank heavens, those never seemed to go out of style. "Of course, if you really want to disappoint Aunt Becky, I can get out your suit and tie. Oh, and those wonderful black leather shoes you just adore." I pulled the dress from the closet, turned and tossed it on the bed. "Sure, you can come along. I'll just go dig your suit out now."

I hadn't taken one step toward his room before he stopped me, just as I figured he would. "I don't want to disappoint Aunt Becky. I'll go with her."

"I'm so glad." I clasped my hands to my chest. "What a kind, considerate nephew you are to her. And, you can be her Valentine's date."

"What's a date?"

"An escort. A gentleman who'll use all his manners, not beg for things like candy and soda pop. He opens the door and helps her sit down. All those nice mannerly things." I opened my jewelry box and frowned at the tangle of necklaces. Some day, when I had more time, I simply had to sort that thing out. Fortunately, one gold chain shook loose from the clump. I grabbed some gold hoop earrings to go with it and closed the box.

"Can't Aunt Becky sit down by herself?"

"It's good manners to hold the back of her chair as she sits."

"In case it breaks?"

"No, if I were worried about it breaking I'd insist you stood far out of the line of danger."

"I heard that!" Becky hollered up the stairs. Mikey and I both clasped our hands over our mouths so Becky wouldn't hear our giggles. "Mikey, get your keester down here and help me order pizza. Can't be late for bingo."

"Better go, honey. And stick close to Aunt Becky…especially after the pizza gets here. I don't want you starving so grab a piece quick," I suggested.

"I heard that, too!" Becky hollered. "I'll have you know-"

I shut the bedroom door, so I didn't hear the rest of what Becky would have me know, but I had a very good idea that she'd just expanded my son's vocabulary a bit more than I would appreciate. Sheesh. Becky never could take a joke.

Not surprisingly, I was dressed and sitting in the lovely bay window of our bedroom when Daniel arrived dripping and steamy from his shower, clad in one of my best guest towels that hang in the bathroom and are never used-even by guests because they realize the sanctity of a guest towel. In his excitement, he probably forgot to grab towels from the linen closet.

I turned back to my view out the window, the long sweep of our snow-covered lawn, to the street and across the street to the banks of the Missouri River. Across the river, the red beacon in the top of the Capitol building throbbed as steadily as a heartbeat. Of course, I rather thought of it the way Gatsby considered the green light at the end of Daisy's dock. It was a sign of security and consistency. The world could be going to hell in a handbasket with a first-class, one-way ticket, but as long as that red light blinked I knew that eventually everything would be right as rain.

"I love you, Daniel…and not just because you're being so nice to me."

"I love you, too, Annie. But, I don't think the neighborhood would appreciate a floor show. Want to close those drapes?"

Jumping up, I closed the drapes with a flourish before primly sitting on the edge of the bench looking expectantly at Daniel. "Well, I'm waiting. Let the floor show begin." Daniel complied.

If only he'd left that damned cell phone home. If only his sense of duty wasn't larger than his sense of uninterrupted privacy. If only…then we wouldn't have merrily cruised away from our home in Fort Pierre in search of a restaurant and instead found a well-done plate of the twit.

We'd no more than pulled onto the main highway that runs through both cities when that annoying buzz erupted from Daniel's cell phone. It was the control room for the statewide public broadcasting system calling to notify Daniel that his site was no longer transmitting either television or radio. They wondered if there'd been a power failure. Daniel said no, no power failure. Besides, if that had happened, then the emergency generator would have started up. God forbid the patrons of public broadcasting live one evening without old Lawrence Welk reruns.

Assuring me that it would only take a moment for him to flip whatever switches needing switching, Daniel turned the pickup toward Snake Butte, about two miles outside of Pierre. We arrived within minutes and in a sense of couple togetherness I offered to hold the flashlight while Daniel flipped his switches.

And that's how we nearly stumbled over the cinders of the Twit.

A word about the undearly departed. Theodore "Ted" Twitten was such a pathetic loser of a human (though I think perhaps the subspecies might be closer to the swine family) that I doubted there'd be anyone-including his widowed mother-who'd much mourn his passing. The Twit's picture could be found cross-referenced in the encyclopedia under the subjects boor, micro-manager, know-it-all, nuisance and lecher. It had amazed all of us when Samantha Gimle, normally a well-balanced, intelligent elementary school teacher, married him five years ago. The arrival of little Ted six months later solved the mystery. It was no surprise at all when Samantha, regaining her common sense, divorced him less than a year later. I wanted to throw a party to celebrate her liberation, but Daniel didn't think it would be a politically sound idea considering the Twit was his supervisor at work. (And if it's one thing I learned long ago, politics permeates everything from the church circle to the parent-teacher group to any office. It's everywhere.)

Please don't misunderstand me. For the most part, I mostly find pleasure in the personalities of most everyone I meet. It isn't easy for me not to find at least one redeeming quality in anyone I meet. Some of the sweetest characters I've ever met were pimps, pushers and prostitutes, back in my old days outside Dakota. I may not have approved of their chosen professions, but there was something about each of them that reminded me they were simply people, all having been a child at one point in their life and most who'd live to a ripe, old age. I tend to take people as I meet them, only asking that they not judge me because I'm certainly not going to judge them.

There are two other groups, though, who stand out from the rest: my heroes and my villains. Neither group is very large. My heroes are people I respect and wish I were more like. The villains-well, they are my biggest trial. I constantly find myself searching for something-anything-to like about them.

The Twit occupied an esteemed place in my Villains Hall of Shame. And I freely admit that my initial dislike of the Twit was based not upon how he treated me, but rather, how he treated my husband. Daniel probably has forgotten more about broadcast engineering than the Twit ever knew. But, Daniel is the sort of man who just wants to do his job. He's not particularly enamored of climbing the corporate ladder, doesn't want to be anyone's supervisor except his own. He doesn't want to be particularly bothered by office politics or gossip. He's a friendly man, though, who often goes out of his way to help when needed.

Unfortunately, from the moment the Twit successfully maneuvered himself from toadie to supervisor, he targeted Daniel as the recipient of as much malice and sniping as he could muster. He was forever nagging at Daniel about working on this project or that, micro-managing to the point of issuing a directive on the proper procedure for inserting and securing a screw and generally attempting to belittle Daniel's work to whomever would listen. Well, Daniel's a Dakotan (albeit one of those who saw the light and migrated from Minnesota) and just bears all this stoically, never allowing anyone to see his feathers ruffled. For the most part, he doesn't even complain to me about this treatment (perhaps realizing that this protective hen would scratch the eyes out of anyone who threatened her rooster.)

But Daniel was not alone in the Twit's scrutiny. He was the sort who sucked up to those who might somehow benefit him and who trampled on those who got in his way. Even Moanin' Mona, normally attracted to anything extruding testosterone, fell under the Twit's attempts to remove her from her perch in the front office. This was probably because the Twit was jealous of her esteemed place in the station manager's affections. I'd heard of the vicious rumors he'd concocted and spread about her. If it were anywhere except Dakota, he'd have had the life sued out of him for defamation of character. But, in Dakota, we don't normally litigate to settle our grievances. Revenge is much more fun.

And it looked like revenge caught up with the Twit.

Sheriff Robert "Bobbo" Osborn himself led the parade of wailing vehicles, red and blue strobe lighting up the dark night sky. He pulled in and parked behind Daniel's pickup, unnecessarily drawing his side arm as he jumped from his patrol car. He rushed up to us.

"Where's the victim?" he demanded.

Daniel motioned toward the small steel building that held the transmitters.

"He's already dead, Bobbo. I doubt you're going to need the gun to put him out of our misery," I suggested. Bobbo always appreciated my well-intended suggestions when I was covering his department as a reporter for the Capitol Daily. "You might want a flashlight, though. I hate to have you trip over the Twit's size fourteens and wind up sizzled with him."

"No, honey," Daniel softly corrected me. "There's no electricity, so no chance of any more electrocutions."

I sighed. Leave it to Daniel not to recognize my best sarcasm.

Sheriff Bobbo turned around to a couple of his deputies who'd finally pulled into the small parking area and thankfully silenced their sirens and turned off their strobes. Craig Kill Deer, a gentle Sioux who'd been a deputy for thirty years, was already pulling out the roll of bright yellow crime scene tape to cordon off the area. Hughes County's own Barney Fife-Deputy Sheriff Doug Mooney-was directing traffic, motioning the ambulance forward. I also noticed a couple of Dakota's own men in black-officials with the state Department of Criminal Investigation-pull themselves from their nondescript sedans. Hail, hail-the gang was all here. I sighed with relief when I saw Patrick Beltran, the reporter I'd one time mentored at the Capitol Daily, pull up and park. He and Carl Hilton, the photographer for the paper, jumped out of Patrick's car and headed toward us, only to be stopped by Craig Kill Deer's yellow tape.

While Daniel led Bobbo toward the transmitter building, I nonchalantly moved back away from the crowd of cops and EMTs and worked my way over to Patrick and Carl.

"What gives, Annie?" Patrick asked, zipping up his down-filled parka. It was the first I'd noticed that the wind was on the rise.

"Here's the basic facts," I began, quickly filling Patrick and Carl in on the little we ourselves knew. "Patrick, I want you to watch everyone and everything. You still carry that micro-cassette?" He nodded. "Good, turn it on and just let it record." I turned toward Carl. "They aren't going to let you any closer than this. You still have that tiny camera? The one they threw you out of the Simmons trial when you tried to get a picture of the accused?"

"Yeah, but it's not going to do much good from this distance," Carl groused, as he looked up at the sky. I followed his gaze. Clouds were chasing across the sky. Damn, I hadn't even checked the forecast, but I knew snow clouds when I saw them. The cops better hurry their investigation or a lot of evidence was going to be obliterated.

"Is it fully loaded?" Carl shook his head yes. "Then, palm it to me. Sort of make it look like your comforting me or something. Give me a hug."

"What are you going to do with it?" Patrick asked slowly. "Annie, don't get yourself into any more trouble than you're already in."

"Yeah, the paper won't print pictures of the corpse anyway. Steve thinks it might offend some of our readers," Carl added, leaning across the yellow tape and hugging me tightly. He pressed the tiny camera into my hand and I slipped it into my pocket.

"The only readers that wouldn't offend are psychos, Carl. Not high on the paper's demographics list anyway. These aren't for the paper. They're for me." I smiled at both of these young men. "Now, do your jobs, guys. And don't let the cops hassle you too much."

"Annie, I really don't think…" Patrick interrupted.

"Don't think, Patrick. Observe. Feel. Sense. Remember what I taught you when you were green. Ninety percent of the facts of this case are right in front of you. Just observe and note. And let me do what I can to protect my husband."

"Daniel? Surely, you don't think Daniel-"

"No, I know Daniel didn't do this. Unfortunately, I'll bet you your next paycheck that within a couple of hours Bobbo will be cuffing and stuffing Daniel into his cruiser. They're going to want to slam-dunk this case immediately with my husband as their basketball. Ain't going to happen, boys."

Less than two hours later, I watched Bobbo carefully guarding the top of Daniel's head as he placed him, handcuffed, into the back of his patrol car. Too bad Patrick was smart enough not to take me up on the bet. I could have used that money for bail.

I'd tried to deflect as much suspicious from Daniel as I could, volunteering when Bobbo questioned me that I certainly knew my way around a transmitter and what it was capable of just from living with Daniel as long as I had. Unfortunately, when Bobbo asked me how I'd disabled the stand-by generator, I took a wild guess and suggested that I'd simply turned off the valve that fed propane gas into it. Wrong. Whoever had done in the Twit had just switched the damn generator off. I went for complex; the real murderer went for simple.

It was when I practically confessed to the Twit's murder that Bobbo said enough and read Daniel his rights. The only thing I'd managed to accomplish was taking a full role of pictures of the murder scene through the open door to the transmitter. It was nearly comical. There I was snapping away left and right, not bringing the camera to my eye, of course, but simply sort of shooting from the hip, and not one cop even noticed. At first, I'd tried to cover the sound of the shutter clicking by coughing, but soon abandoned that when it became apparent that the cops were so busy observing the scene that they weren't paying any attention to me. I didn't know if any of the pictures would turn out, given the lack of light except for the portable lamps set up by the deputies, but maybe they'd shed some information that might come in handy. I smuggled the camera back to Carl, who promised to develop them as soon as he got back to the paper.

Bobbo came up to me then and told me that I should probably go home and call an attorney. They'd be busy with Daniel for the rest of the night interrogating him, but he'd need a lawyer in the morning for the initial appearance before the circuit judge first thing in the morning.

"You are absolutely out of your mind, Bobbo. You know damned well that Daniel doesn't have it in him to kill a fly let alone that Twit," I protested.

"I'm not going to discuss this with you, Annie. Just go home and do what you have to do." He made the mistake of turning and starting to walk away from me. I grabbed his sleeve and pulled him back around.

"Are you so hungry for a conviction that you don't mind railroading an innocent man? It's not even election year, Bobbo!"

"You know as well as I do that every year is election year. Besides, Daniel had the motive, the means and the opportunity."

"Means, sure. Opportunity? Heck, anyone that worked for the station has that. There's no motive, Bobbo. Daniel didn't have a reason to kill Ted Twitten. You don't just kill everyone you find annoying."

"I guess Daniel didn't tell you about what happened this afternoon, Annie."

I really felt sick to my stomach then. Daniel has learned from experience not to tell me certain things that I might perceive as threats to our security. Daniel takes things in stride as they happen. I tend to worry them-and myself-to death over things that usually don't amount to anything.

"Twitten placed him on supervised probation. If Daniel didn't 'improve' his work habits, Twitten was going to fire him in thirty days."

"That still wouldn't make Daniel go postal, Bobbo," I argued. "Not Daniel."

"Maybe it would if Twitten admitted that nothing Daniel could do would stop him from firing him anyway. That Twitten was just dotting the 'I's' and crossing the 'T's' to make it legit." Bobbo took a step back. "Go home, Annie. There's nothing you can do here."

I stepped closer, lowering my voice. "Except for one thing, Bobbo. You and your thugs harm one hair on his head and you'll all wish the hounds of hell were feasting on your guts by the time the O'Hara sisters get done with you. I've got the smarts and my sister has the money. I promise…no, I vow I'll make your life living hell."

Mustering all the dignity I possessed, I turned away from him-head held high-and walked to the pickup. I got in and started the engine. The wind chill outside was probably well below zero, but I hadn't felt a bit of the cold until I'd seen my Danny boy carted away in cuffs. My hand brushed the seat and encountered Daniel's cell phone. It was his work phone-bought and paid for by the state. I knew it was forbidden to use it for personal business, but I reckoned the state owed us more than one for ever hiring the Twit in the first place.

Having no idea of the time, I punched in our home telephone number. Please God, let Becky be there. She answered on the first ring.

"Are you okay?" No "hello" or anything. Sometimes my sister and I are connected almost telepathically.

"I'm okay. What have you heard?"

"Well, some idiot had the police scanner on at the Moose while we were waiting for bingo to start. I heard the call for the cops to go out to the tower and figured somehow you were involved up to your neck in it. When they called the coroner, I decided it was time for Mikey and I to come home." There was a pause. "It's not Daniel, is it?"

"No, Daniel's fine. Well, as fine as anyone who's in custody can be." It was my turn to pause. Asking favors of my sister never came easy. They always seemed to come back to haunt me one way or another. And the favor I was going to ask made all the others pale in comparison. "Becky, I'm going to need a lot of money. And I'm going to need you to get in touch with that shyster lawyer you hired when the Tate kids tried to overturn Jim's will and cut you out cold. He's just the kind of shark we're going to need."

"Why's Daniel in custody?" Leave it to my sister to want details when I'd just humbled myself to the ground in asking her a favor.

"The Twit is dead. Murdered probably. No. Murdered definitely. The cops have arrested Daniel. I need that shyster to represent him tomorrow at his initial appearance so we can get him out on bail."

The second ticked by…each an hour in length. "Becky…Becky, are you still there?"

"Yes, Annie. Where would I go? I know I have that lawyer's number here in my purse. I'll have it by the time you get home."

"Thanks, Becky. I'm headed home right now. I love you, sis."

"I love you, too, brat. And don't worry about the money. If the lawyer wants too much, I'll just marry him. He's been wanting a date ever since Jim's probate. We probably could do worse than having a lawyer in the family."

I switched off the phone and tossed it on the seat beside me. Then, I did what no self-respecting Dakotan ever did in public. I lowered my head to the steering wheel and bawled my eyes out. All that emotion, all those tears, all that fear just bubbled out of me in great gulping gasps.

Happy Valentine's Day. Damn.

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