When teenager Heather Young disappeared from the small town of Himmel, Wisconsin everyone believed her boyfriend had killed her—though her body was never found. Twenty years later, his little sister Sammy returns to town. She begs her old friend, true crime writer Leah Nash, to prove her brother Eric isn’t a murderer.
But Sammy has no new evidence, and her brother doesn’t want Leah’s help. Leah says no—but she can’t help feeling guilty about it. That feeling gets much worse when Sammy is killed in a suspicious car accident. That’s when the independent, irreverent, unstoppable Leah takes up her cause. Her investigation takes her to some dark and dangerous places, and the truth she finds has an unexpected and shattering impact on her own life.
So, Leah, good to see you. I almost missed your book readin’ there. But what I heard, you did real good. I’m late because the stop ’n’ go light on Main is on the blink, caused a little fender-bender. But that’s OK, eh? Because we put the—”
“I know, Marty, you ‘put the sure in inSUREance.’ ”
Marty Angstrom beamed, thrilled at the evidence that his painstakingly-crafted slogan for the A-1 Independent Insurance Agency had achieved market penetration.
“Noreen was gonna come too, but she’s at her mother’s over to Waukesha tonight. But she bought your book anyway. Gonna give it to her sister for her birthday. I got it right here. Could you sign somethin’ personal? You know, make it special for her to give to Arlene?”
“Sure.” I took the book he handed to me and sat down to autograph it.
Unholy Alliances is the true story of the death of my younger sister Lacey at a residential school run by Catholic nuns. Years after the fact, I got a tip that her death wasn’t accidental as we’d all believed. The investigation I did for my small-town paper, The Himmel Times Weekly, brought the truth to light and also generated some national interest. I wound up with a book deal and a career switch from reporter to true crime writer.
My book reading at the annual Himmel Public Library Wine and Cheese Fundraiser was my first official “celebrity” appearance in town. Although I’d spent the past few months promoting my book across the country on every radio show, television interview program, and podcast that would have me, I’d been a little nervous no one would show up on my home turf. But there was a respectable crowd.
As I signed the book, Marty kept talking.
“So, you’re a big deal now, aren’t you? I saw you on the TV the other day, everybody at McClain’s was watchin’. Gettin’ real famous and all. Leah Nash, big-time author, eh? But I can still say I knew you when.” He smiled with the kind of hometown pride that was usually reserved for a Packers player. I was very touched. He really is a nice man.
“I don’t know about that. The book’s doing well, but that promotional tour stuff is pretty wearing. I’m glad to be home.”
“Speakin’ of home there, Leah, how you set for insurance on that new loft apartment you moved into? Renters need insurance too.”
“I hadn’t really thought about it, Marty. I’ll call your office and—” As I handed him the book, my response was cut off by a jolt to my arm from a woman carrying a full glass of burgundy. The slosh from it instantly made my pale-yellow blazer look as though I’d been a casualty in a shootout.
“Oh! I’m so sorry. I’m sorry.” She began dabbing ineffectively with her hand at the spreading deep red stain on the front of my blazer.
“It’s OK, don’t worry about it.” I stood and stepped away from the table, slipping out of my jacket. Fortunately, the wine hadn’t penetrated through to my shirt. I snagged a bottle of water and a napkin from a circulating waiter. As I liberally doused the front of my jacket, the woman apologized again, her voice high and tense.
“Hey, c’mon. It’s not a big deal,” I said. Several people began to glance our way. “I’ll just run to the bathroom and run some cold water on it.” I smiled to ease her embarrassment and hurried off to the restroom. I pushed through the door and narrowly missed slamming it into the bent head of a man who had just started to rise from kneeling under the sink. Startled, I took a half-step back to check the sign on the door. “Ladies.” Nope, I hadn’t barged into the men’s room by mistake.
As he stood I realized he was wearing workman’s clothes and held a wrench in his hand.
“Had a leaky pipe emergency. All done except the moppin’ up.” He indicated a puddle of water that nearly reached the two stalls on the opposite wall.
“Oh, well, sorry to bang in here. Is it OK if I just run some water on this stain so it doesn’t set?”
“Sure, sure. Workin’ fine now. I got to say, Leah, your daddy would sure be proud of you tonight.”
I stopped cold. Nothing brings me up short like mention of the father who abandoned us. “Excuse me?”
“Now, don’t get all huffy, there. You ’member me, don’t ya? It’s Dorsey. Dorsey Cowdrey. I knowed your dad. Knowed you too. We both did a little work for Anthony Dunn, back when he wasn’t so hoity-toity and his name was Tony. Likes to be called Anthony now. Mr. Dunn is even better.” He started a laugh that ended in a smoker’s cough before he went on. “I’m still Tony’s go-to guy. What my daddy used to call a jack-of-all-trades. Little plumbin’, little carpentry, little electrical, little this ‘n’ that. Not much I can’t handle.”
I stared at him without recognition. He had a foxy face, long and sharp-featured with weathered skin. His build was lean, his hair ginger-colored and streaked with gray. Even his ears were fox-like, high and almost pointed. I guessed him to be in his late fifties or early sixties.
“I’m sorry, I don’t remember you, Mr. Cowdrey.” I had turned my back and was running water over the spot on my blazer.
“Oh now, darlin’, don’t say that. You can’t forget the man what used to give you them Baby Ruth candy bars you was so crazy about. I used to call you ‘little Ruthie’ ’cause you liked ’em so much.”
As I squeezed the excess water from my jacket, I closed my eyes and saw my five-year-old-self and a much younger version of this man leaning toward me. “Here you go, little Ruthie. You sit right there on your swing and chew on this. I’m goin’ in to talk to your daddy fer a minute.” I hadn’t liked him very well—he smelled like stale sweat and tobacco—but I had indeed been crazy about the Baby Ruths, and at five, I was easily won over. Actually, even now, the right candy bar can take you pretty far with me. I faced him and said, “Yes, you’re right. I do remember you, Mr. Cowdrey.”
He smiled, revealing small, sharp yellow teeth that made him look more vulpine than ever. “I heard your little presentation there. You did a real nice job. I’m not much of a reader myself. My boy Cole, though, seems like he read your whole book. I guess he likes bein’ famous, even if he don’t come out lookin’ too good.”
Again I was puzzled. “Cole Granger? He’s your son?”
Cole had been a low-level drug dealer involved with my youngest sister Lacey in her lost days. The last time I saw him, he was a pretty scared loser, on the run out of town from some criminals who were a lot more dangerous than he was.
“By marriage, yeah. He’s my stepson. We don’t get along too good. Still, kin is kin, right?”
The door swung inward then as two laughing women came through. They stopped at the unexpected duo who greeted them. I gave them that funny little half-smile you offer to strangers, and I stepped to their left.
“Excuse me, please. Bye, Mr. Cowdrey.” I didn’t say it was nice seeing him, because it really hadn’t been. Something about that guy gave me the willies. He was picking up his tools as I left.
I hurried back to the reception room, lest Dorsey Cowdrey decide to escort me, and found an empty chair to drape my damp blazer on. As I did so, someone tapped me on the shoulder. I turned and saw the woman who’d spilled my drink. My expression must have conveyed a not-very-friendly “Enough, all ready. Let it go,” because she started talking quickly.
“No, but wait, please. What an idiot I am. I’m just nervous, I guess. You know, you think something through in your head, and you imagine what you’ll say and how it will go, and then it doesn’t.” She was speaking so quickly that it was hard to follow her, and what I did catch I didn’t understand. Her obvious nervousness was all out of proportion to the slight accident she’d caused.
“I have to talk to you. I need you to—please.” She gulped, emitting a sound between a gasp and a hiccup. She continued a little desperately, “Leah, don’t you remember me?”
Two in one night. What were the odds? I had no idea who she was, and she saw the lack of recognition on my face.
“It’s me, Samantha. Sammy. You have to remember. You were my best friend!” Her voice was stronger now, but still pleading. And then I saw it, as I looked straight into her face. I flashed back to a big, sunny room, with two little girls sitting on a bed, repeating in unison: “We’re best friends. We’ll always be, ’cause I’m for you, and you’re for me.” Then high fives and waves of laughter.
“Sam? Sammy.” I repeated the name with growing certainty. The eyes had it. They were Samantha’s—big and wide set, a little wary now, as though the world were an unfriendly place, but still an amazing shade of aquamarine. Her fine flaxen hair was darker, and instead of hanging like a shining curtain down her back, was cut short and blunt-edged. But it was Sam.
Excerpt from Dangerous Places by Susan Hunter. Copyright © 2018 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, dropping off a story lead at the Himmel Times Weekly, or meeting friends for a drink at McClain’s Bar and Grill.