Copyright © 2008 by Mary Connealy
Carrie hates mice and loves the big city. So why is she living in a huge mouse infested house in her dinky hometown? The dead guy in her pantry closet is the most interesting thing that's happened since she came home. Of course the carpenter who's helping her trap her mice and solve the crime is pretty interesting, too.
Melnik, Nebraska—Pop. 972
Home of Maxie—The World’s Largest Field Mouse
Being named in Great-grandma’s will was like hitting bankrupt on Wheel of Fortune. The whole family held their breath while the wheel ticked around and around, or rather while the lawyer opened the envelope. Then they all heaved a sigh of relief when the wheel stopped on Carrie’s name.
Carrie the heiress. Great.
Clean up the house.
Clean up the yard.
Clean up Great-grandma’s rap sheet.
“I don’t know why it has to be me,” Carrie grumbled.
The empty kitchen—empty except for the garbage Great-grandma Bea had been amassing all her one hundred and three years—mocked her with its silence.
Silence except for the hammering on the porch which stopped when Carrie started talking to herself.
Carrie froze, hoping the carpenter hadn’t heard her. Spooky old house, spooky new resident.
The banging resumed. Now that her great-grandma wasn’t around to drive off hired help, the work would finally get done—except, of course, Carrie had no money. She’d have to break that to the carpenter pretty soon.
And while he pounded away, Carrie could break her back cleaning up this old wreck. What a waste of a beautiful, brisk fall afternoon. She had to figure out how to get out of Melnik before she went nuts. But first she would—
A mouse dashed out of the kitchen closet twenty feet away.
“EEEEE!” Carrie shrieked.
The mouse skittered toward her. Carrie ran and collided with the carpenter, who was dashing through the door, clutching his hammer.
The mouse skidded to a halt under the table and squeaked.
Carrie squeaked even louder and jumped toward the carpenter. He caught her to his chest, hooking one arm under her legs and the other behind her back.
It was nice of a stranger to come to the rescue. He was the kind of man who could do the whole white knight thing, with his lovely height and broad shoulders. The hammer he held—in the hand now under her knees—would make a fair lance, too.
“Forgive me.” Carrie barely moved her lips.
“For what?” The carpenter’s whisper pulled her attention away from the mouse.
Carrie noted the tidy logo of his company on the pocket of his shirt where a little polo player ought to be. OC with the word O’Connor arced above and Construction in a half circle below. Both of the placket buttons were neatly closed, and his hair was combed and gelled as if he were afraid it would break out and go its own way. His eyes glowed with humor and kindness, though.
“Oh, you weren’t supposed to hear that. I was praying for forgiveness.”
Their eyes locked. His were dark blue, a rich color that begged for a closer look. Hers were blue, too, but washed out like her white blonde hair, the wimpy coloring of a pure Swede, not strong and clear like his.
After way too long, he smiled and whispered again, “For what?”
“Huh?” Her brain functioned slowly, somewhat like Jello.
“What do you want God to forgive you for? Jumping into my arms?” His smile faded as if that hurt his feelings.
The smile returned. “Good.”
“It’s something I do when a mouse scares me.”
“Because it’s a sin to be afraid of a mouse.”
A dimple appeared in each cheek as he smiled wider. “Is not. Where in the Bible does it say, ‘thou shalt not run and scream when you see a rodent’?”
Carrie switched from studying his eyes to his dimples. Really, a woman could keep busy forever watching him. “It should be. It’s a sin to be this stupid about a tiny little creature obviously put on the earth by God to feed cats. Cats need to eat.”
“Oh, well then, because cats need to eat, you’ve sinned for sure. And what does that have to do with you jumping into my arms?”
“There’s a mouse.” She glanced back at the floor.
The knight eased her back on her feet. “Mouse, huh?” He gave her an I’m-not-rolling-my-eyeballs-through-sheer-willpower look that tarnished his shining armor. “It’s more afraid of you than. . .”
“. . .than I am of it. I know.” And hadn’t Carrie heard that a hundred thousand times before in her life? Hadn’t helped then, didn’t help now. Carrie saw the mouse turn and streak back under the closed pantry door. She grabbed a handful of the carpenter’s shirt front. He steadied her with a strong arm.
“Yeah, right, it’s more afraid of me. Not even. Does that mouse lay awake nights fretting over, ‘What if a woman runs up my leg?’ I don’t think so.”
“Uh, have you got a trap?”
Carrie turned back to the white knight. “My hero.” The words sounded reverent. “In that sack on the table. Thanks.” She was just inches from him, and, since she was there anyway, she let herself get lost in his eyes again. This close she could smell his warm, clean scent.
“I’ll see what I can do.” He seemed even closer. “By the way, I’m Nick O’Connor. My hired man and I are repairing your porch.”
Carrie gasped and backed off. “You hired Wilkie Melnik?”
The corners of Nick’s mouth turned down and the smile wrinkles on the corners of his eyes disappeared along with his dimples. Carrie regretted seeing them go, but it helped her mind work.
Nick smoothed the little fist wrinkles she’d made in his shirt. “Yeah, he’s not working out too well. He didn’t even show up yesterday and he hasn’t come today either.”
“That sounds like Wilkie. I’m Carrie Evans and my great-grandma Bea died and left me this house. Thanks for the help. I heard Grandpa tried to get you in earlier to fix things up for Great-grandma Bea.”
Nick rubbed his forehead absently. “Bea wasn’t interested. So, I’m doing it now.”
A soft rustle of paper in the closet made Carrie step closer to Nick.
“You know clutter like this is mouse heaven. This house is probably infested.”
“What you really need is a cat.”
A loud ‘meow’ turned Carrie’s head toward the porch. The ugliest animal Carrie had ever seen crouched outside the back door.
“That isn’t a cat.” Carrie kept Nick between her and the grisly beast.
Nick turned and tilted his head. “Um. . .I think it is.”
Carrie saw his hand tighten on the hammer.
With a couple of ruthless slashes, the cat shredded the already tattered screen and slipped onto the porch.
Nick and Carrie stepped back, their motions in such perfect harmony they could have been a pair of synchronized swimmers. The cat slunk across the porch on its belly, emitting a deep, humming yowl that sent a chill up Carrie’s spine. It slithered into the kitchen, slipping under the table. He was mottled yellow, his fur matted to his body as if he’d been sleeping on it wrong for seventy-five years. He had one eye. The other was closed by a nasty scar. One ear stood up straight, its mate was slit and hung in tatters.
Clumps of fur hung from under his belly. His tail had a nice upright S shape until the tip, where it took an alarming ninety degree turn.
He was alley-cat thin and from the look and sound of him, cougar-mean. It went against every instinct in Carrie’s body to let him in the house. If she had a brain in her head she’d be a thousand times more afraid of this cat than she was of a tiny mouse. And yet, there was no eek-ing and jumping.
A loud rustling noise came from the pantry. Carrie jumped sideways and shouldered Nick forward a step. Since she was hiding behind him, that shoved him closer to the cat. The cat jerked its head up and focused its eye on the pantry, the intact ear pointed forward. A low growl vibrated out of its throat. A real hero had arrived.
“I could, uh. . .catch the cat. . .and put him out.” Nick glanced at Carrie as if terrified she’d say yes.
“Give him a minute. Maybe he’ll eat the mouse.”
“He looks like he’d eat you.”
“If I close my bedroom door at night, the cat couldn’t get me.”
Nick shuddered. “You’re thinking of keeping it?”
Carrie was seriously sure that, unless the cat cooperated, she couldn’t get rid of it. “Sure. If it is a cat. It looks more like one of those moth-eaten animals in the Dead Zone.”
Nick jerked his head up. “The Dead Zone?”
Carrie nodded. “Great-grandpa came from a long line of big game hunters. He personally assisted in placing over a dozen species on the endangered list. There are dozens of moldering murdered mammals upstairs.”
Nick’s eyes widened. “Cool.”
“You can look as soon as you’ve taken care of the mouse.” Bribery. Carrie wasn’t above it.
Nick grinned and Carrie filled the silence by studying his dimples until he said, “Got it. Priorities.”
“Speaking of priorities, where’s your hired man again?”
Nick’s smile faded. “Uh. . .I may have made a bad hire.”
“Everybody knows Wilkie Melnik is a bum, Nick.”
“He didn’t seem like a real go-getter, but his name is the same as the town. I figured he was special.”
“Special—fair description. In fact, I think that was stamped in red ink all over his permanent record at school.” Carrie shook her head. “He’s got a nasty temper and a complete lack of respect for the law.” She suspected she’d just described her cat. “How long has he been working for you?”
“A week. And I need the help. There’s a lot of work to do here. Your grandpa already paid me for it.”
“Why’d he pay you before you did the work?” Carrie asked.
“Well, that’s a funny story.” Nick rubbed his forehead again and flinched. “I’ve been in Melnik six months. The first week I was in town, your grandpa called me and. . .”
Someone knocked at the back porch door.
Dora Clemson. Carrie would recognize that voice anywhere. Dora was a living breathing crow bar come to pry loose all her secrets. And Carrie had a big one.
The screen porch door squeaked mouse-like on its hinges. Nick obviously knew Dora because his smile shrunk like generic plastic wrap in an overheated microwave. “Hi, Dora.” Nick greeted Dora, slipped past her rotund figure, returned to the porch, and resumed hammering.
Some hero. Sure he might fight a mouse, but where was he when there was real trouble?
“Come in,” Carrie called—like saying ‘stay out’ would even slow the old bat down.
Dora said hi to Nick but didn’t pause to talk. Carrie was sorely afraid she was Dora’s prime goal. Dora and all her extra chins came through the kitchen door. “You’re here, Cindy Lo-o-o-u.” Dora dragged the name out, just in case Carrie didn’t get the joke. Play a Who from Whoville in the elementary school Christmas play fifteen years ago, and live with it forever. That was the nightmare of a small town.
Dora laughed until her chins, ample breasts, and more than ample stomach bounced off each other. Wearing an age-old beige coat, the woman bore an unfortunate resemblance to a really grimy three-tiered wedding cake with a gray dust mop where the bride and groom were supposed to stand.
Through the porch screens, Carrie saw a police car pull up. Tires scrunched the leaves, newly fallen in the early November weather and blown onto the cracked driveway.
Great, another casserole. Funeral food had been pouring in since Great-grandma was found dead Wednesday morning, she must have fallen Tuesday night.
Dora heard the car, turned, and peered out the porch door, afraid she’d miss something good. “Wonder what Junior wants?”
Junior and Cindy Lou. He probably wants a new name. “He probably has another casserole,” Carrie said.
Junior Hammerstad. Fifty-five, a one-eye-browed, blow-hard red-neck, born to hassle kids, give out-of-towners speeding tickets, and hold dogs caught running loose for ransom. He’d been employed for thirty years at the exciting Melnik, Nebraska police department—part time. Still, that was better than Carrie was doing.
The Crown Vic’s door opened. Junior emerged clutching a cream-colored file folder, five inches thick. He defied the chilly fall wind and only wore his gray police uniform. But he had a substantial insulating layer of fat to get him through the tough times. A puff of white came through his lips and the breeze blew his comb-over off his head. The thin hairs kept their curved shape and hung like an open lid over Junior’s left ear, revealing to all the world that Junior was bald. What a shock.
“I heard Junior was coming over with all Bea’s police paperwork,” Dora said.
Carrie didn’t ask how Dora found that out. It would only have been worth mentioning if something went on in Melnik that Dora didn’t know about. “Grandpa said the police had a talk with him every few months about Great-grandma Bea and all the crimes she reported.”
“I can’t believe she’s dead. And from a fall.” Dora patted Carrie on the back.
“Grandpa said she hadn’t gone upstairs in years.” A shot of electricity jagged through Carrie that reminded her of The World-Herald reporting job she’d started right after she graduated from college in August. She’d felt like this every time she’d latched onto a big story. Her instincts told her there was something more here than a tragic accident. Of course her instincts were garbage.
But in spite of that one tiny misstep at Omaha, Nebraska’s biggest newspaper—a mistake that ruined her whole life forever—she decided to ignore her garbage instincts and trust herself. Why had Great-grandma Bea gone upstairs after refusing to for years? If she hadn’t been one hundred and three someone might ask questions, even investigate.
The screen door screeched, and Junior came in. “Hey, Nick.”
The hammering paused. “Hi, Junior.”
Carrie circled Dora—no small journey—and met Junior at the kitchen door. “Hi, come on in. Grandpa Leonard said someone needed to deal with all Great-grandma’s complaints.”
Carrie leaned forward to see Nick, on his hands and knees, next to a pile of lumber stacked perfectly near his right side. He lifted a board and deftly slipped it over the gaping hole in the porch, running his hands over the smooth wood as if he enjoyed touching it. Nick snapped a nail into place, hammered it home with three quick blows of his hammer/lance and reached for another board. Carrie could have set it to music.
She wondered what neat, orderly Nick thought of this messy old mansion.
Junior, cheeks as close to maroon as the human body could muster, belt cinched low to give his belly plenty of room to overlap it, looked back past his bulky shoulder. “You might as well come in, Nick. Beatrice accused you of stealing her lawnmower.”
Nick sat back on his knees, a furrow on his brow. “Uh, when was that?”
“Just last week. I hadn’t gotten around to arresting you yet. Sorry to be so slow.”
“No problem. For the record, I mowed her lawn all summer, with my own mower.”
“Yeah, everybody knows that.” Junior’s no-nonsense voice raised Carrie’s regard for Melnik’s hiring practices.
Dora, eyes gleaming, headed for the kitchen table, the only clear surface in the kitchen—possibly in the whole house.
“I also know she doesn’t have a lawnmower. Still, she insisted on filing a complaint.” Junior hefted the file.
“Set it right there.” Carrie waved him toward Great-grandma’s cherry table as Dora pulled up a chair and sat down.
The chair creaked alarmingly. Bless Great-grandma’s heart, she’d always had a knack for buying furniture that, as the years passed, dwindled into junk instead of becoming valuable antiques.
Nick appeared in the doorway, his hammer hanging dejectedly at his side as his gaze slid between the file and Dora.
Carrie lifted stacks of magazines off chairs and dragged them from various corners of the kitchen up to the table. Then she stationed her seat as far from the mouse-y pantry as possible, hooking her Nikes on the rungs so the mouse couldn’t reach her.
Junior sank into a creaky wooden chair and flipped open the file. Nick rounded the table, dragging his heels, practically a perp walk, and sat beside Dora, straight across from Carrie.
“I’ve got some old clippers of Nils’ that I’ll give you to take care of that nose hair, Nick.” Dora scooted her chair closer to Nick, the legs screeching in pain over her weight. She folded her arms on the table and turned to, apparently, stare straight up Nick’s nose.
Nick flinched but stayed put. He did lay the hammer on the table, as if he thought Dora might back off, knowing he was armed.
In his dreams.
Carrie checked but saw no nose hair. Nick glanced up and caught her staring and narrowed his eyes. She looked away.
“I need a signature on these forms to officially close these cases. For example, when Nick here stole Bea’s lawnmower. . .”
Nick clenched his hands on the table and leaned forward. “I did not steal. . .”
“Okay, fine.” Nick rolled his eyes. “Is there a paper to sign for me to officially deny it?”
“Nope. Not necessary if Carrie drops the charges.” Junior waved a sheet under Nick’s
nose, then slid it in front of Carrie. “Your grandpa told me you’re Bea’s sole heir and executor of her estate.”
That sounded like a big deal. If only Great-grandma Bea had owned anything but this wreck.
“You’ve also got power of attorney, so you can clear up all these cases.”
This was the first Carrie’d heard of any power of attorney. She wasn’t even sure what that was, but she was pretty sure she had to agree to it and sign some legal document. But this was Melnik. They’d probably just ignored the finer, and more inconvenient points of law. “Show me where to sign. I’m dropping all the complaints.”
Junior shook his head at Nick. “Got away with it again, you scoff-law.”
Nick grinned. Carrie took a second to enjoy his dimples, and he caught her staring again.
He probably thought she was checking for nose hair. She decided to let him think that since the truth wasn’t something she could admit—that he was go gorgeous she could hardly take her eyes off him.
“I’m just going to need your signature on each one of these one hundred and sixty-two complaints, Carrie.” Junior shoved the stack in front of her with a twinkle in his eye.
“I’ve got to sign my name one hundred and sixty-two times?” Carrie flexed her fingers, feeling writer’s cramp already.
Dora’s lips thinned. Honestly, when she made this face, the woman needed a bookmark to find her mouth. “It won’t be the first time.”
Carrie cringed. No, not the story about ninth grade, not in front of. . .
“When Carrie was in ninth grade she had to write ‘I will not disrupt class’ on the blackboard five hundred times.” Dora crossed her arms on the table again and settled into the tale. “The girl in front of her. . .”
Nick wondered if Dora was right and he really had disgusting nose hair. He’d never noticed before, but he was such a loser, it’d be about right.
Carrie looked across the table at him and distracted him even further from Dora’s story by whispering, “It’s the only bad thing I ever did. I promise.” She held up one hand, flat, like she was being sworn in to testify in court, then turned back to her legal work.
She shoved a paper off the stack on her left, signed it, and slid it sideways to the right. As she worked, Nick picked up her growing stack of signed papers and tapped them on the tabletop, keeping the pile neat. He should whisper back. Try and convince her he was cool. Think of something to say, idiot.
He’d given up sitting in an office pushing a pencil through complicated blue prints and math formulas for a reason, to try and make a human connection. Now, if he could just speak to the prettiest woman he’d ever seen. A woman who needed a hero. And here he was, completely unafraid of mice. Look out, Lancelot!
“It’s true,” Dora said. “She was so well-behaved we worried about her.”
“The whole town blew a gasket over the shocking event.” Carrie clenched her fingers on the pen.
Junior snickered. Dora kept chattering. Carrie sighed.
Nick glanced from Junior to Dora, then at Carrie. “Event?” He’d tuned out Dora’s story.
He might be new in town, but even he had heard about Carrie, the small-town girl with the big-city ambition. She’d been hired at the Omaha World-Herald, with her eye on being an investigative reporter. She dreamed of bringing down presidents—but only if they were bad. And, more shocking yet, exposing the seamy underbelly of Cornhusker Football—in the event she found a seamy underbelly, which was unlikely, the Huskers being above reproach and far too nearly worshipped.
Nick was going through his first Husker football season right now. He’d never seen so many red and white flags flying. He’d better get one.
“I pulled the chair out from under Amy Clark in English Class,” Carrie confessed.
Nick arched a brow.
“And then I said to Bea, my best friend even then,” Dora reclaimed possession of the story. “‘Carrie’ll pull out of it.’ And Bea said, ‘Don’t say the word ‘pull’ around me, Dora.’ And I repeated that at the Community Club Spaghetti Dinner, and before you know it everyone in town was talking about Carrie ‘pulling’ a stunt. It even made The Bugle.”
“Famous sayings in Melnik history. Not exactly ‘Give me liberty or give me death,’” Carrie muttered into the police reports. She looked up at Junior. “You know, Junior, I can’t find Grandma’s skillet.”
Junior intertwined his fingers like a man preparing to beg. “Please tell me you’re not going to accuse Nick of stealing that.”
Being accused of something by Bea Evans was practically a badge of honor. But Nick didn’t want Carrie accusing him of anything, not when he was trying to work up the nerve to ask her to be the mother of his children.
Carrie tapped the complaint with the clicking end of her pen.
Nick read it upside down. “Hey, she accused Leonard of that.” Leonard, Carrie’s grandfather and Bea’s son, a retired carpenter whom Nick suspected didn’t have a single black mark on his record, not even for ninth-grade hijinks.
Nick remembered the infestation and turned toward the pantry. “I forgot about setting your mouse traps.”
Carrie shuddered. “This town grows really big mice.”
Nick thought of Maxie, stuffed, his black beady eyes fierce, posed by a local taxidermist and preserved forever in a glass case at City Hall. With a shake of his head to dislodge the memory of that gigantic mouse, “The World’s Largest Field Mouse” and Melnik’s greatest claim to fame, Nick strode toward the pantry, a little spooked by what might jump out at him. Carrie’s phobia was rubbing off on him. Prepared to stay and fight no matter how big the mouse, he grasped the handle and yanked the door open.
Wilkie Melnik came tipping out of the closet straight at him Bea Evan’s skillet like a cast-iron baseball cap.
Mary Connealy is the author of Petticoat Ranch, Calico Canyon, Alaska Brides, a three book series including Of Mice and Murder from Heartsong Presents Mysteries, and the South Dakota Brides series from Heartsong Presents. She has recently signed an exclusive contract with Barbour Publishing.
Visit Mary’s website at http://www.maryconnealy.com
This book is available through the Heartsong Presents Mysteries book club. For more information, click here.
Of Mice… And Murder will be included in the Nosy in Nebraska anthology in November. You can pre-order this book now here.