As she walked, Hannah began to feel uneasy. Everyone else had left, and the only noise was the sound of her own footfalls. The thump of her rubber soles hitting the dirt was deafening in the surrounding silence, and she resisted the urge to tiptoe. There was something very unnerving about being along on the midway at night.
She was just passing the Family Farms booth when everything went black. Hannah came to a standstill and reached out to steady herself against the mechanical bull. Rather than just a saddle and a mechanism that bucked and swiveled, this bull looked like a real Brahma bull and cost five dollars to ride.
For a moment Hannah just stood there gripping the bull’s ear, feeling ever more apprehensive and wondering how she was ever going to find her way to the gate in the darkness. There were occasional flashes of heat lightning way off in the distance, but that provided no real illumination. She could hear a low rumbling, barely audible. Thunder? Whatever it was, it added to Hannah’s growing apprehension.
She told herself not to panic. She’d just wait for her eyes to adjust and pick her way to Mike, lifting her feet high so she wouldn’t trip over any ropes or cables. She was about to set out when there was a hollow clunk, as if someone had thrown the lever on a transformer, and a long string of dim lights went on overhead.
If Hannah hadn’t been so nervous, she might have chided herself for borrowing trouble. Of course they had nightlights on the midway. It was a safety precaution, and it probably served to discourage kids from climbing the fence and sneaking in after hours.
Although the lighting was by no means bright, she could make out the rectangles of the shuttered booths and the looming, almost menacing shapes of the carnival rides. Hannah shivered even though the night was hot, and her skin felt slick with moisture. It wasn’t good being here alone. It wasn’t good at all.
As she made her halting was forward, Hannah kept to the center of the path, her eyes scanning the shadows for movement. Every bad horror movie she’d ever seen flashed through her mind, and she thought about what she might use for a weapon if someone, or something, emerged from the darkness. There was her shoulder bag. It was heavy enough to knock someone off balance, especially if she swung it in an arc. The Ley Lime pie she was carrying could be used to render someone temporarily blind. It was a terrible waste of a first-place-winning dessert, but if push came to shove, she wouldn’t hesitate to use it. If she took it out of the box and shoved the sticky meringue directly into an assailant’s face, it would take him a minute or so to wipe it from his eyes. By that time, she’d be well on her way to the gate to alert Mike.
Hannah walked on, but her mind was in turmoil. The old adage against borrowing trouble was warring with the advice to be prepared. The Boy Scout motto won, hands down. She stopped at the next trash can she passed and removed the pie, tossing the bakery box on top of the refuse the evening’s fairgoers had left behind.
Now she had a purse and pie to use in her defense. Hannah gave a little sigh. Somehow that didn’t seem like much. For the first time in her life, she wished that she were wearing a pair of Andrea’s stiletto-heeled shoes. Then she could slip one off and do real damage to anyone or anything that threatened her. Of course that was silly. If she’d been wearing a pair of her sister’s stilettos, she wouldn’t be in this position in the first place. There was no way she could walk in heels that high, much less fit into shoes that were four sizes too small for her.
She’d just passed the Tri-County Volunteer Fire Department’s Red Hot Ringtoss booth when she heard a noise that couldn’t be explained by the nonexistent wind or any small furry creature that made the fairgrounds its home. It was the sound of something heavy striking something composed of flesh and bone. Hannah wasn’t sure how she knew that, but she did. And her blood ran cold.
“Is someone there?” she called out before she’d had time to consider the wisdom of speaking. And then she did, and she wished she could call back her words. Now the person who’d struck the blow knew that he wasn’t alone on the midway. And he also knew approximately how far away and in which direction she was.
Open mouth, insert foot, Hannah thought, but she didn’t stand still to think about it. She knew she had to get away fast, and that’s exactly what she proceeded to do. But as she scurried away, her brain wasn’t idle. She was almost certain the sound she’d heard had come from a booth across the path and around the corner, no more than three booths from where she’d been standing. If she remembered the layout of the midway correctly, that was where the shooting gallery was located.
But it hadn’t been a gunshot. Hannah was sure of that. She tried to forget about the heavy object striking flesh and bone and considered what other things might produce a sound like it. It could have been someone kicking a hollow rubber ball with considerable force. Or someone striking a ripe melon with a baseball bat. Or a sledge hammer hitting…Hannah gave a little shiver. She didn’t want to think about this now. Whatever it was, it was ominous. Right now she had to get as far away from the shooting gallery as possible!
Heart pounding hard and her senses on full alert, Hannah scuttled down the line of booths, keeping to the shadows and doing her best to move quickly, carefully, and silently. One misstep and he’s know where she was. She’d just reached the end of the row of booths when she heard a second thunk. Whoever it was hadn’t moved, and that meant he hadn’t heard her. Hannah took advantage of the moment to dart around the corner, putting even more distance between them. She was at the side of the Strong Man booth, where fairgoers could win a Strong Man badge if they pounded a mallet onto a metal bed with enough force to make the ball scoot all the way up the vertical shaft to ring a bell at the top. Hannah took refuge behind several bales of hay placed there as a makeshift barrier.
All was silent, perfectly silent. Hannah resisted the urge to slap as a mosquito that landed on her cheek and remained motionless. She crouched there for long minutes that seemed like hours, wondering if whatever or whoever she’d heard could hear her breathing or the rapid beating of her heart.
Was it safe to move yet? Hannah wasn’t sure, so she didn’t. Instead she swiveled her head slowly, examining her surroundings and committing every shape and shadow to memory. Mike had taught her that trick not long after they’d first met. He said cops on a stakeout got tired after a while and thought they saw things that weren’t there. He examined everything at the start so that his mind would sound an alarm if anything in his visual pattern changed.
As Hannah huddled there, trying to make as small a configuration as possible, her mind spun through the possibilities. Someone was here on the deserted midway with her. The noise she’d heard proved that. She didn’t think it was another late fairgoer rushing toward the exit and tripping over a rope or a stake. If that had happened she would have heard groaning or cries for help. She supposed it could have been a carnival worker locking up a little late or coming back to secure something or other he’d forgotten. But if it had been a carnival worker, he would have answered her when she called out. This person was up to no good. His silence proved that.
Hannah drew her breath in sharply, The Strong Man mallet was gone. When she’d walked past the booth earlier in the day, it had been on a chain next to the vertical shaft. The chain was still there. She could see it on the ground, glistening slightly in the dim glow from the string of lights. Had they locked the mallet in the booth for the night? Or had someone taken it, used it to hit someone else, and begun the process of bringing it back so that no one would know…
And he was here! And it was too late to run! Hannah did what any strong, courageous, modern Minnesota-born woman might have done in the same circumstances. She shut her eyes and attempted to become one with the hay.
Of course it didn’t work. There was no way she was going to huddle here waiting for him to find her and whack her with the mallet, too. Not only that, if she did escape his notice, she wanted to be able to give the authorities a good description.
Hannah opened her eyes, inched toward the side of the hay bale, and risked a peek. But the light was too dim. All she saw was a shadowy figure bending over the chain to reattach the mallet. She pulled her head back and listened for the sound of footfalls coming her way. She was almost positive that he hadn’t spotted her, not unless he was a sideshow attraction and he had eyes in the back of his head. Still, it was better to be safe than sorry, and she readied the pie for action.
Long moments passed as she listened intently, alert for the slightest sound. She imagined that her ears swiveled independently like little satellite dishes, the way her cat’s ears did when he heard a mouse in the walls. The hair at the base of her neck prickled in apprehension, and she made her breathing shallow and almost inaudible. Except for the far-off sound of a dog barking in a neighboring farmyard, the muted swoosh of cars on the highway, and the faint rumble of thunder in the distance, all was deathly quiet.
And then she heard it. He was moving again. She held the Key Lime pie in a death grip, ready to hurl it at the slightest provocation, but the sound grew fainter with each passing heartbeat. He was moving away from her, running away from her hiding place. He hadn’t seen her! She was safe!
But where had he gone? The moment Hannah thought of it, she stood up and moved to the front of the booth. Her eyes scanned the midway for movement and found none. Had she been too slow? But then she spotted him disappearing around the side of the carousel.
It was safe for her to go now, and Hannah knew what she should do. She should head straight for the gate where Mike was waiting for her. She should tell him what had happened, and he could take over from here on out. He’d hammered that point home often enough. He was the detective, and she was not. The detective was an expert with credentials, and the nondetective should defer to the detective. If she thought something was wrong, she should tell Mike and he would take care of it. Here caution should win out over her curiosity.
Hannah leaned against the booth to let her breathing return to normal and her heartbeats slow to a reasonable rate. The moment she told Mike, he’d turn on the bright lights and investigate. But what if the sounds she’d heard had been perfectly innocent? What if everything was normal and nothing at all was wrong? She’d look like a first class fool in front of a man she admired and could possibly even love.
There was only one thing to do. Perhaps it was the wrong thing, but that had never stopped her before. Hannah straightened up, stretched to relieve her cramped muscles, and headed toward the shooting gallery. She’d check it out first, before she raised the alarm. And if she was right and something was wrong, she’d head for the gate and tell Mike immediately.
The sounds seemed magnified as Hannah headed down the row of booths. A slight breeze picked up, and she almost jumped out of her skin as the plastic flags fluttered over the face painting booth. They sounded as loud as the flock of crows that used to land in her grandfather’s cornfield, the ones her grandma Ingrid refused to chase off because she was partial to crows. Hannah’s every instinct told her she was heading into trouble and she was likely to discover something she didn’t want to find. She knew she should turn tail and run for Mike, but instead she forged ahead, each footstep deliberate and even, drawing her inevitably closer to the shooting gallery. She was like Moishe, who still occasionally pushed the cold water lever in the shower, even though he’d gotten drenched several times in the past.
When she arrived at the shooting gallery, Hannah took a deep breath. She was convinced it would be either or. Either she’d find something horrible, or she’d find nothing at all. In the dim light from the single string of lights high overhead, the teddy bear prizes lined up in rows inside the glass front of the booth seemed to be staring at a point just around the corner. Hannah rounded the corner, stopped short, and felt herself assume the same glassy-eyed stare. Someone was sprawled out in the dirt. It was a woman. Hannah could tell because she was wearing a dress. And she was perfectly motionless.
Hannah’s mind spun. This was the time to go after Mike, but of course she couldn’t. What if this poor woman was injured and in need of immediate help? She knew CPR. She could even fashion a tourniquet if she absolutely had to.
Her need to help another human being in trouble drew her forward. The woman was facedown in the dirt, and Hannah was about to reach for her wrist to feel for a pulse when she saw the back of her head. This caused her to step back without taking her pulse or touching her. No aid she could give would make a particle of difference. This woman was quite dead, and Hannah hoped it had been quick. Blunt force trauma didn’t make for a kind demise.
The woman’s skirt was pulled up a bit in back, a result of the way she’d fallen, and Hannah reached out to tug it down. It wouldn’t make any difference to her now, but there should be dignity in death. And once she’d fixed the woman’s skirt and straightened up again, Hannah had an awful realization.
“No!” Hannah gulped. She took one halting step closer and the pie dropped from her nerveless fingers. She’d seen and admitted this dress before, no more than an hour ago!
Hannah stared down at the bits of meringue and Key Lime pie filling that were scattered on the ground. She couldn’t just stand here. She had to get moving and go after Mike. He need to know about this.
Mike’s voice rang out loud an clear, as if she had summoned him. It was a coincidence, a wonderful coincidence. And if she could only find her voice, she could answer him.
“Where are you, Hannah?”
“Here,” Hannah answered, finding her voice at last.
“Where’s here?” Mike asked, and his voice sounded closer.
Hannah had the insane urge to tell him he was getting warmer. It was almost as if they were playing her favorite childhood game, the one where someone leaves the room, the group hides something, the person comes back in, and the group directs them to the hidden object by telling them whether they’re warmer or colder.
But this is no game, Hannah’s mind told her. It’s all too real, and you have to answer him. She took a deep breath and did what her mind suggested. “I’m around the side of the shooting gallery,” she said.
“You sound weird. What’s the matter?”
Hannah opened her mouth to answer, but she was too busy wondering how he could run and ask questions at the same time. He didn’t even sound winded!
“Hannah? I asked you what was the matter?”
Hannah sighed. He’d be here any second and then he could see for himself. But he’d asked and his question deserved an answer. “Dead,” she said.
“Someone’s dead?” Mike asked, rounding the corner with the speed of an Olympic hopeful, “Who?”
“Willa Sunquist.” Hannah identified the victim for him before her legs gave way and she sank down to the ground to stare back at the glass-eyed teddy bears.
Excerpted from KEY LIME PIE MURDER © Copyright 2011 by Joanne Fluke. Reprinted with permission by Kensington. All rights reserved.