Everyone is anxious to connect with actor Ryan Malloy when he returns to town for his 15-year high school reunion. Everyone except crime writer Leah Nash. She doesn’t have many fond memories of Himmel High’s golden boy. But it turns out she’s not the only one who isn’t a fan. Before the weekend is over, Ryan Malloy is murdered.
The hard-headed but soft-hearted Leah is unwillingly drawn into investigating his death by the pleading of Ryan’s terminally ill mother. She soon discovers that Ryan’s self-absorbed journey through life trampled on the dreams of a number of people. His old girlfriend, his best friend, his own brother, a local businessman—there’s no shortage of suspects—or secrets. But the solution eludes Leah, until the past and the present collide in a dangerous confrontation that threatens one life and ends another.
I parked my bike just inside the cemetery gates. It took only a few steps down the tree-lined path for the heat and humidity of a mid-summer Wisconsin day to slide away into the cool dark shade. Overhead, the soft murmur of thousands of leaves stirring in the light breeze accompanied me as I walked slowly toward my sister’s grave. Both of my sisters are buried in the cemetery just a few miles outside of Himmel, Wisconsin. My father is as well. But today it was Annie I’d come to visit.
My heart beat a little faster as I neared the gravesite. I’m not afraid of the dead. It’s the memories they leave behind that haunt me. Quiet Annie with her soft voice and big blue eyes, too shy to join the other laughing, shouting kindergarteners at recess—but the first to run over to comfort a little boy struggling not to cry on the first day. Imaginative Annie, commandeering our wide front porch as a sailing ship for her and her cat, Mr. Peoples, to travel around the world. Kind-hearted Annie, sharing her Halloween candy with me when I’m forced to surrender my own treats as penalty for talking back. Sweet, brave, compassionate, eight-year-old Annie, who ran into a burning house to save Mr. Peoples twenty-two years ago, and never came back.
Over all the years since, people—my mother, my aunt, my therapist (yes, I went that route once), my best friend—have reassured me that her death wasn’t my fault, that I was just a child. But, I was older. I should have been watching over her. I should have seen her slipping back to the house after we’d all escaped. In my deep heart’s core, I can’t ever forget that.
Now and then, and always on her birthday, I go to the cemetery to see her. I know that she isn’t really there. But her grave is an anchoring spot for me. I catch her up on the good, the bad, and the ugly happenings in my life. She knows what hurts me, and she knows what frightens me—secrets I don’t share with anyone else. I tell her what our mother is up to, and how others she knew in life are doing. I say all the things to her that I would if she were still here. I try to make up for the fact that I’m alive, and she isn’t. But, of course, I never can.
When I’m talking to her at the cemetery, it feels as though she can really hear me. And I know that she answers. Not right there, at the grave, but later, in unexpected ways. Sometimes, I hear Annie speak to me through a chance remark a stranger makes, or a phrase that leaps out at me from a book, or a sudden flash of insight on a problem I’m wrestling with. I don’t share that belief with very many people. If I did, I might be forced to resign my membership in the Doubting Thomas Society, to which all good journalists should belong. But I can’t accept that those occurrences are just coincidental. I really can’t.
So, on the anniversary of her birth, once again I sat down on the bench in front of her grave and told her how sorry I was that she had died. That I hadn’t saved her. That I still missed her. And then I told her what was really going on in the seemingly successful life of Leah Nash, former small-town reporter, current true crime author, and soon-to-be business failure.
When I say I talk to Annie, I mean that literally. I have a one-sided, out-loud conversation with her, though only when I’m sure I’m alone. Some people already think I’m crazy. No need to give them additional proof. On this particular day, I had a serious problem weighing on my mind.
Not long before, I had made what seemed, at the time, like a brilliant decision. The Himmel Times Weekly, the paper where I’d started out in journalism, and where I’d found a home again after a self-inflicted career injury, was closing. I decided to buy it. I asked a wealthy, community-minded, local attorney, Miller Caldwell, to invest with me. And then I asked a lot of other people—reporters, an editor, stringers, office and sales staff—to work very hard, for very little money, in the hope that together we could keep the Himmel Times alive.
It was exhilarating at first. But it had become an increasing source of anxiety for me. Just as we were getting off the ground, Grantland County Online, a digital-only news site (and I use the term “news” loosely), had gotten a major infusion of capital and a new publisher. Now GO News, as it’s more commonly known, was kicking our butt.
“The scariest thing, Annie,” I said, “is that we’re barely keeping our heads above water, while GO News keeps getting bigger. They don’t have the expenses we do—no print edition, no delivery costs, and they don’t spend a lot of staff time fact-checking. Plus, they started Tea to GO. Did you know that the cool kids say, ‘spill the tea,’ when they mean ‘what’s the gossip?’
“Tea to GO is full of ‘What married school official was seen in Milwaukee with a very attractive staff member last Thursday night? Did we say late, last Thursday night?’ That kind of garbage. It’s almost all blind items—the better to avoid lawsuits, my dear. But people are eating it up. Every time you go into the Elite Café, someone is trying to figure out who the latest gossip is about.”
I paused for a bit of a wallow in self-pity. It wasn’t as if I hadn’t tried to shake things up at the Times, to get us moving ahead, but so far nothing I’d done had made much difference.
“We have a good team. Miguel is much happier since he gave up the managing editor job. He really didn’t like bossing people. And Maggie McConnell is doing great in that spot. She’s got the instincts, the skills, and forty-five years in the news business behind her. If she could only spin straw out of gold, she’d be perfect. But since she can’t, we’re making do with a budget so lean it might as well be made out of turkey burger.
“I gave Allie Ross—you remember, I told you about her. She’s the high school kid we’ve been using as a stringer. Anyway, I gave her a part-time job for the summer in the office. She’s doing the routine stuff, obits and inside pages copy—weddings, anniversaries, club news. She’s got promise, but she’s only fifteen. Troy, the other reporter besides Miguel, is a little bit of a suck-up—and his news judgment isn’t quite there yet. Still, he’s a hard worker. The stringers are a pretty mixed bag.
“Now, here’s a twist I bet you didn’t see coming. I hired Mom to take April Nelson’s place as office manager. I know, I know, it’s a dicey move. But she’s smart, and efficient, and she gets the job done. Plus, she comes cheap. It’s been a little challenging, I admit. Remember when I used to get mad at her and say, ‘You’re not the boss of me!’ and she’d send me to my room?
“Well, now I’m the boss of her, only I don’t get to send her to her room. Yes, OK, I’m not supposed to be doing the day-to-day. That’s Maggie’s job. I understand that. But I can’t just hide away in my office and write my next book if the paper is falling apart two floors below me, can I?
“Everybody took a leap of faith when we reopened the Times, and everyone is putting everything they have into it. I can’t let them down. I have to find a way to keep us afloat. I just didn’t know it would be so hard, Annie.”
I paused for a breath before I wrapped things up.
“And then there’s Gabe. I don’t know. I like him as well—no, probably better than—anyone I’ve gone out with in a long time. He makes me laugh, and he’s really smart. And he likes strong women who speak their minds. In my experience, a lot of men don’t. So what’s the problem, right? Well, it’s not exactly a problem. It’s more that I’m afraid a problem might be coming. Lately, it feels like he’s pushing me a little, like for a commitment or something. Can’t we just enjoy each other? Can’t we just be without getting all serious, and defining things, and making plans? I don’t want to change things. That’s when things go bad, when you try to change them.”
I slumped back against the bench with a sigh. Usually, when I lay everything out to Annie, it makes the issues seem a little more manageable. This time it all still felt overwhelming.
Then, a voice spoke.
Fortunately for my mental health, it wasn’t Annie’s. I turned and looked behind me.
“Coop! How long have you been standing there?” I asked, trying to remember exactly what I’d said out loud. It’s not that Coop and I have major secrets. He’s my best friend, after all. Still, I don’t tell him everything I tell Annie.
“Long enough,” he said with a grin that didn’t offer me much comfort. I tried to move the conversation away from my chat with Annie, particularly the Gabe part.
“What are you doing here?”
“Your mom said you were here. I called your cell, but it didn’t go through.”
“Yeah. It’s a dead zone—pun totally intended—in the cemetery, except for the hill. What did you want?”
“Nothing. I brought something for Annie.”
I looked down at his right hand and saw that he carried a small pot of pink flowers. Pink was Annie’s favorite color. Tears sprang to my eyes. I quickly blinked them away.
“That’s so nice. Why?”
He shrugged. “I know what today is.”
I’m all about keeping my tough outer shell polished, but I was so touched, I couldn’t keep up the facade. “You’re a pretty great friend, you know that?”
He smiled, but he looked embarrassed, and tried to cover it by moving to put the flowers next to Annie’s headstone.
“Did you really come just to put flowers on Annie’s grave?”
“No, not just for Annie. I took some to Rebecca, too.” He was kneeling, positioning the flowers, with his back to me. I couldn’t see his expression.
Rebecca had been Coop’s wife and my nemesis until she was killed last year. I wasn’t happy that Coop had lost someone he loved, but I couldn’t pretend I was sorry she was gone. She’d done everything she could to break up our twenty-year friendship and came close to succeeding. I couldn’t think of anything nice to say about her. So, I employed the Thumper rule, and didn’t say anything.
Coop apparently didn’t want to get into the subject of Rebecca either, because as he stood and turned to me, he said, “I’ll walk out with you. I’ve got my truck. We can throw your bike in the back and you can ride home with me.”
“Yes, please. I didn’t realize it was so hot. I just about sweated to death pedaling out here.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” he said, taking in my damp, bedraggled hair, slipping from its hair clip, and the beads of moisture coalescing into a river of sweat running down the side of my forehead. “You kind of look like you just took a shower.” He sniffed the air, “Except you don’t have that shower-fresh scent.”
“Shut up,” I said. “I’m a head-sweater from way back. Deal with it.” I smiled though, because there’s something very nice and very easy being with a person who really doesn’t care how you look—or in the present situation—smell.
We walked together in companionable silence, until I’d decided he hadn’t heard any of my one-sided conversation with Annie. That dream died in the next minute.
“So, what’s going on with you and Gabe? He’s a nice guy, Leah. You’re not getting ready to toss him overboard, too, are you?”
“No. Why would you say that? And what do you mean by ‘too’?”
“You really want to go there?” He cocked an eyebrow. It’s a not very funny running joke between Coop and my mother that I always find a reason to cut my romances short.
“No, I don’t. I thought you didn’t believe in illegal surveillance, and what do you call lurking around cemeteries where people are having a private conversation? It’s nothing. Really.”
He looked at me for a second, but all he said was, “OK.”
Our conversation was cut off as a tall woman in her fifties, her hair pulled back and hanging in a long, gray braid down her back, appeared and abruptly crossed the path in front of us.
“Hello, Marcy,” I said.
She looked up as though surprised we were there.
“Leah. Coop.” She nodded but didn’t stop to talk. We knew where she was going. To the top of the hill on which sat a small granite building that resembled an ancient Greek temple. The family mausoleum held Marcy’s grandparents, her own mother, and Marcy’s baby daughter, Robin. One day, it would hold Marcy, too.
We watched in silence as she reached the building, pulled a key out of her pocket, unlocked the door, and slipped inside, like a ghost gliding through a wall. It had been sixteen years since Marcy White’s baby had died, and she still came every week. People said she brought a different book each time and read it to Robin. They said it like it was something weird, or even crazy. Not me, though. I understood why she did it.
“You know what, Coop?” I asked, as we continued on down the path.
“I’m calling bullshit on death.”
Excerpt from Dangerous Ground by Susan Hunter. Copyright 2019 by Susan Hunter. Reproduced with permission from Susan Hunter. All rights reserved.
Susan Hunter is a charter member of Introverts International (which meets the 12th of Never at an undisclosed location). She has worked as a reporter and managing editor, during which time she received a first place UPI award for investigative reporting and a Michigan Press Association first place award for enterprise/feature reporting.
Susan has also taught composition at the college level, written advertising copy, newsletters, press releases, speeches, web copy, academic papers, and memos. Lots and lots of memos. She lives in rural Michigan with her husband Gary, who is a man of action, not words.
During certain times of the day, she can be found wandering the mean streets of small-town Himmel, Wisconsin, looking for clues, stopping for a meal at the Elite Cafe, dropping off a story lead at the Himmel Times Weekly, or meeting friends for a drink at McClain’s Bar and Grill.