DANGEROUS CONDITIONS #4

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PROTECTORS at HEART - Book 4

Deputy-sheriff unintentionally jeopardizes his former fiance, a research microbiologist, when the accidental death of her boss leads him to the conclusion that the death was no accident but a cover-up tied to her employer.


Excerpt from DANGEROUS CONDITIONS #4
Protectors at Heart

CHAPTER ONE

Constable Logan Lynch drew on the cowboy hat that had been given to him by his older brother Connor, a village supervisor, because he said it covered the scar on Logan’s forehead. Off-putting, Connor had said. “No need to frighten the kids and tourists.” Plus, the Stetson made him look more like a real lawman. The board had approved his position last September. He was a village constable with no law enforcement experience what-so-ever. He seemed to be the only one bothered by that. Still, he needed a job. Not much work in his hometown of 429 for a veteran with a TBR, Traumatic Brain Injury.

Most folks here catered to weekend tourists or worked for Rathburn-Bramley Pharmaceuticals.

“Morning, Constable,” Paige called from across the main street.

She was so pretty and so darn smart. A real scientist, just like she always wanted. Meanwhile, he couldn’t distinguish between a rooster crow and a truck backfiring. He wondered if she knew that her hair turned red in the early morning sunlight.

“Don’t you look spiffy. Where’s your star?”

“Under my coat,” he said. “It’s on a chain. Nobody asks to see it anymore but you.” Why had he added that?

Paige’s smile blinded him. He was a deer in the headlights.

“Big weekend coming up,” she said, still walking as he crossed the street. He couldn’t help it. These few minutes with Paige were the highlight of his entire day. She had been his brother's date at his senior prom during their sophomore year. He and Paige were the same age, twenty-eight, and had graduated from the town’s central school together. That was where their paths diverged. After that, he’d enlisted, and she’d gone on to be a biochemist with a doctorate now, paid for by her company. All that didn’t stop Logan from admiring her. She was Dr. Morris now, and a mom. As her neighbor, he knew that she was great with her daughter, Lori. His brother and Paige were now just friends, though not from Connor’s lack of trying. Logan might have to settle for that because asking her out and being turned down would kill him. As it was, he feared her concern was spawned by pity. Somehow, he’d become the community project.

“You all ready?” she asked, coming to a stop and allowing him to catch up with her. She was running late today so their conversation would be brief.

“Almost. We got those…” and the words left him. He pointed vaguely at the pile of orange cones and no parking signs that he’d be stringing up on Main Street. The event shut down traffic for the entire day on Saturday.

Harvest Festival was a village-wide extravaganza that had everything from soap-making to a turkey call competition.

“Signage?” She offered the words to him as she often did. She was quick as a whip. Had three degrees in microbiology that she’d earned while he was getting blown up in Iraq.

“Yeah.” He felt deflated. He might be able to pick her up with one hand, but that skill wasn’t useful in conversation. His drill Sargent said his size just made him a bigger target.

Saturday, he’d be waving his big foam finger like the village idiot while parking cars in the empty lot behind the gas station and she’d be working in her research lab probably finding the cure for cancer.

“I hung that sign for Rathburn-Bramley over the street.” He pointed at his accomplishment.

Her brow wrinkled as she shielded her eyes to gaze into the early morning sunlight at the vinyl sign strung above the street between two lamp poles with nylon cording. He had learned to speak and read again but he’d never lost the ability to read emotion. Paige’s expression told him that she was worried.

“Was that wise? Being in a bucket truck? I mean, your injuries.”

"Damage done, my doctor says."

"Still, another head injury..." Her words trailed off.

"Not good for anybody, I suppose." He grinned and then stopped fearing the dopy smile he always had when around her made him more damaged. He adjusted his hat further down his forehead.

They been in the same class most of primary school. He remembered that with the clarity of a clear summer sky. But he couldn’t remember much past junior year. He’d lost the time between his junior year and when he woke up stateside at Walter Reed about six years later along with the part of his brain that allowed him to hear and talk and read. Reading came back first. Speaking more slowly. The hearing was improved though the doctors said he still didn’t process sound correctly, might never process it as he had. He’d adjust, they said, he learn to speak more slowly to give him time to recall the words, but the memories were just gone.

He was glad the hat covered the worst of the scar. It kept Paige from staring at his forehead. Now she stared at his hat, instead.

“You...ah...you be there on Saturday?" he asked.

Paige always made him more tongue tied than usual.

"Planning on it," she said.

“They’re bringing in a bouncy hut this year,” he said.

She turned from the street and faced him. “You looking forward to that?”

“No. Not me. The kids. I hope.” He sounded more like a guy without a brain than one with a brain injury. “Your girl might like it.”

Paige looked away. “Lori is too old for that, I’m afraid.”

Why would a woman with an eight-year-old daughter care about a bouncy hut? Lori was already on the youth soccer team and he noticed she was fixing her hair now instead of leaving it in a wild braid with strands flying everywhere. Unlike Paige's hair, Lori's was light brown and her eyes were amber. Like her father's he supposed. That thought brought a frown. He'd asked Paige once about the girl's father and it had made her cry. He wasn't doing that again.

He stared at those sympathetic blue eyes. Paige had skin that was rosy and perfect. She was taller than most women with a frame as willowy as a dancer’s. She’d been five feet eleven inches in eighth grade and gotten no taller. She’d even been taller than he’d been for a time. Until sophomore year when he’d shot up to six feet and one inch. Back then her red-blonde hair had been to her waist. Now she wore it at chin length, letting the riot of curls just danced all around her pretty face.

He tried to ignore the smell of her skin and the urge to feel the soft texture of her spiraling curls. She stared at him with those bewitching blue eyes. He went still as his body galloped to life. He wanted to break their friendship by kissing her, really kissing her, and take this relationship to the next level. But he was equally terrified that she’d laugh.

Paige was a scientist. Educated. Pretty and a mother. While he was a brain-damaged vet who had gotten his head knocked in “engaging insurgents while simultaneously evacuating three wounded Marines under fire.” That sounded cool and he surely wished he could remember doing that. But it wasn’t as cool as the fantasy of being Paige’s one and only.

“Well, good luck setting up that bouncy hut,” she said.

He tipped his hat and she smiled, letting her go yet again.

And she was off, walking down Main Street from the home that she shared with her parents from the time they went to school together. Only now her dad was gone, she had a daughter and a job at the pharmaceutical company, just down Market Street across the river. Paige was a scientist and yesterday he’d mistaken the church bells for the fire engine.

But he and Paige had always been close, he had looked out for her and now she looked out for him. She’d even helped his brother get the village council to approve his position, with some help from her new employer. She’d helped him get the necessary certificates and training to be a constable, too. He missed her helping him study. He wondered sometimes why he’d never tried to kiss her. Then he imagined making an unwelcome advance and decided it would be a great way to end their friendship permanently. She didn’t want a man like him. Who would?

“Have a great day, Dr. Morris,” he called.

She paused, half turned, glancing back over her shoulder at him. “And you have a great day, as well, Constable Lynch.”

*

Paige Morris hurried down the street wishing she could go back in time and change things, knowing she could not. Each misstep along the way, each decision that seemed like the only option at time rose up to haunt her now.

For the best, her mother said. But was it really?

The stone in her heart ached as she reached the entrance to the manufacturing facility, waving at Lou Reber, who was the head of security. She registered her identification badge on the scanner as Lou watched the monitor for the green light.

Lou had the lined face and gravel voice of a former smoker, a muscly build and the gray hairs to prove he’d been on the job for twenty-some years before he earned his gold shield and took his early retirement from the force in Poughkeepsie, NY. Somewhere along the way his grown kids had stopped bringing the grandkids to visit each summer, but he had been married to the same woman for 34 years, so he was doing something right.

"How is Myriam?" His wife had suffered a fall on a ski slope a few years back and had injured her back. Two surgeries later, she still couldn't do any of the activities she once enjoyed like gardening, golf and skiing. As if that were not enough, she had been recently diagnosed with kidney failure and required bi-weekly dialysis down in Glens Falls.

Lou's smile slipped. "Oh, about the same. Good days and bad days. She’s on the list for a new kidney now." He exhaled, his expression glum but then he rallied. “You hear about the hunters up on the cutoff from Turax Hollow Road?”

“They shoot each other?” she guessed.

The area had a fair number of hunters from urban areas that did not quite seem to know the difference between Jersey cows and deer. They also sometimes shot at motion that could be a deer or their hunting partner.

“No, they ran into a bull moose.”

“With their car?” Paige knew that at 1300 pounds, a bull moose stood six feet high on stilt-like legs and was the perfect height to sail over the hood of a car or truck before crashing through the windshield and crushing the driver. Everyone up in the Adirondacks had a healthy respect for moose.

“No,” said Lou. “They were chasing it down the road. Animal got tired and turned to fight. Guess they figured out how fast that truck could go backwards!” He laughed. “The thing put his antlers through their windshield.”

“They’re big animals.”

“And meaner than all get-out in mating season, which it is.” Lou pulled out his phone. “State police asked me to tell everyone to be extra vigilant while driving. They also sent me photos. Want to see?”

She nodded and Lou went to his texts. Up came an image of a blue pickup truck missing its passenger’s side mirror, with deep gouges in the side panel. The windshield was caved in like an empty soda can and crazed like old pottery.

“Wow.”

Lou beamed, delighted at the damage. “Village supervisor voted to close that cut off to traffic, so folks avoid that moose’s territory.”

She approved of that solution. Calling animal control would mean that moose would be put down. The hunters had been in his territory. The long-time village supervisor and Logan’s older brother, Connor Lynch, was competent and respected, handling squabbles and avoiding small-town politics with the mastery of an experienced politician.

Paige wished Lou a good day and headed for the elevator. Once inside the compartment, she unbuttoned her wool coat. Today was one of those in-between days. Too hot for winter gear and too cool for a light jacket.

Leaving the elevator, she crossed the spotless hallway and tapped her card to the contact-free entry system that allowed her access to her department. Two more such barriers and she was in the peace and quiet of her lab and hanging her coat beside her coworker’s. Jeremy Chen generally beat her in since he did not have a daughter to see off to school. Getting Lori out of bed was becoming a challenge that she suspected would get worse as middle school loomed.

“Where’s Ken?” she asked Jeremy, referring to Dr. Edward Sullivan. Her boss, and the head of product quality assurance, was generally here at six in the morning because he said that was the only time, he could get anything done. Then he left at three so he could coach his son’s travel basketball team over in Mill Creek.

     Jeremy glanced up from his computer. He was her height, ten pounds lighter and of Chinese descent. He wore his straight black hair short on the sides and long on the top. He had a habit of pushing his bangs back off his forehead when thinking only to have them fall back in place the instant he removed his hand. Only his protective glasses ever managed to keep his hair back from his face.

Jeremy glanced at the clock on his computer screen. “Wow, he’s really late. I’m not sure where he is.”

"You got that report done?" she asked. The monthly quality control statistic compilation was Jeremy's job.

"I need Ed's results from the last round," he said.

"Want me to get it?" They all knew each other's login information as the company had yet to adopt a file sharing system that worked. The bugs in the current one caused it to take forever to transfer data and, as flash drives were not allowed by company policy, they had resorted to this workaround.

"No. It can wait."

Her department did all the quality assurance testing for all pharmaceuticals produced on site including liquids, gasses and solid tablets.

Paige stowed her lunch in the mini fridge and her purse beneath her desk. It wasn’t like Ken to just not show up.

“Maybe I’ll call Lou.” She already had the handset to her ear. Lou confirmed that Ed had logged in at 5:37 AM and left at 6 AM to do his run. But he had not checked back in before Lou arrived at eight and Lou had not seen him since arriving. She lowered the phone. “That’s odd.”

Paige relayed Lou’s information.

“Call Ursula?” Jeremy suggested, referring to Ed’s wife.

“Maybe.” Paige retrieved her mobile phone and considered her options. She didn't want to worry Ursula unnecessarily. “I’ll try his cell.” She did and got his voice mail. “It’s Paige. Call me back when you have a chance.”

Something didn’t sit right. It was dark out when Ed ran and there was no shoulder on most of the county roads. He could be lying in a ditch right now. Then she thought of what Lou had told her just this morning and sucked in a breath.

“Does he run on the cut-off on Turax Hollow Road?”

Excerpt DANGEROUS CONDITIONS ©2019 – Jenna Kernan