BY: C. K. CRIGGER

Former soldier, Frankie McGill has returned home from Afghanistan minus half of her left foot and with a plate in her head. After some months in medical care, she’s ready to take on the new battle of finding and holding a job. But not just any job. Frankie is a combat-trained paramedic. When all she can find is a position in the small, mostly volunteer fire department of her old hometown, Frankie is immediately plunged into much more than dealing with her own trauma and holding down a job. She moves into a duplex that the previous tenant abruptly abandoned and quickly discovers someone has some dark secrets to hide—and they don’t care who they have to kill to keep them hidden. Will Frankie’s military training and experience be enough to save her life?

TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Hometown Homicide by C. K. Crigger, Frankie McGill is a wounded combat veteran, returning from the Middle East with a plate in her head and half of her left foot gone. Trained by the army as a paramedic, Frankie gets a job as an EMT in her old hometown. But finding a place to live is a problem as housing is scarce. She finally manages to rent one half of a duplex, where the previous tenant moved out suddenly, leaving most of her possessions. When weird things begin to happen at the duplex, Frankie starts to wonder if the previous tenant moved out of her own free will or if she was abducted. Then people start dying, and Frankie realizes that she must solve the mystery fast, or she might be next.

Crigger tells a good tale, blending mystery and suspense with a sweet romance to create a poignant story of a wounded hero trying to get her life back. A very worthy read.

REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Hometown Homicide by C. K. Crigger is the story of wounded warrior trying to readjust to civilian life. Frankie McGill has returned from Afghanistan, missing half of one foot and part of her skull. With a metal plate in her head and a prosthetic left foot, and suffering from PTSD, she takes a job as a paramedic in her hometown. But her troubles are not over. Even though she has a house in town, left to her by her grandmother, it is currently being rented by Gabe Zantos, the local sheriff’s deputy. And there isn’t much else in the way of housing to be had in the area, since Frankie has a dog and few places allow them. Desperate, she agrees to rent a duplex apartment where the previous tenant left in a hurry, leaving most of her stuff in the apartment. Though the apartment gives both her and her dog Banner the willies, Frankie has little choice, and she and Banner move in. It isn’t long before bad things start happening. Her apartment is broken into, she finds an injured dog, that’s been shot, in the woods behind the apartment, and it begins to look as if the previous tenant met with foul play. And Frankie fears she may be next.

Hometown Homicide is very well written. Crigger’s character development is superb, creating a marvelous character in Frankie—tough and combat-trained, but still vulnerable and suffering. You just can’t help rooting for her. Added to the strong plot, intriguing mystery, fast-paced action, and a hint of romance, this makes it a book that you won’t easily put down or soon forget.

Chapter 1

Frankie McGill, sitting on a straight-backed chair in the Hawkesford Emergency Services building, studied the man and the woman perched next to her. As the last job candidate to be interviewed, she’d had plenty of time to conduct an evaluation of the two other finalists. The first was a big guy, bluff and hearty, the other a woman, mid-thirties, self-confident, already looking the station over as if choosing her locker.

Jesselyn Pettigrew, Frankie’s best friend since the first grade, had explained, when she called about the EMT opening, that there were several other applicants the captain wanted to talk to. But none, she said, with Frankie’s experience. And none of them had Frankie’s ties to the community. “You’re a shoo in,” Jesselyn said.

Watching the others now, Frankie wasn’t so certain. The guy had the personality to put the wounded–no, call them the injured–at ease. A little loud and overly friendly maybe, but everything depended on whether Fire Captain Karl Mager and the head paramedic, Lew Carpenter, liked his sort of bonhomie.

As for the woman, she looked like the kind who’d always be willing to stop after work and lift a few while talking over the day. Some men really went for women like that.

Frankie fluffed her short dark hair, making sure it covered the scar on her head, and tried to ignore the headache building behind her eyes. Not now. Please, please, hold off a while longer. Surreptitiously, she pressed a certain spot on her forehead, a treatment the therapist swore would forestall the pain and the flashes of light. Sometimes it helped. More often it didn’t.

The male applicant finished his interview and left, his expression unreadable, at least to her. The woman went into the office, her voice a bit overloud as she greeted Karl and Lew. Through the Plexiglas window dividing the office from the rest of the room, Frankie could see the woman talking, her hands waving.

Ten minutes later, she came out again, face flushed, and, at last, it was Frankie’s turn. At Karl’s summons, she rose from the low bench, fighting sudden vertigo. Not now! Her limp almost imperceptible, she greeted the men with a firm handshake.

“Captain Mager,” she said, “Mr. Carpenter.”

Mager grinned at her. “Since when do you call me captain? You used to call me Karl way back when you were in high school and slinging hash at the café.”

“That’s before the army taught me to respect my superiors,” she said. “I wasn’t looking for a job, then, either.”

Carpenter snickered into his fist. “That’s a good answer, Karl. I like it.”

“I do too.” Mager’s grin faded. “I guess I’ve only got two questions for you, Frankie. How’re you feeling, and are you well enough to undertake a job like this?”

“I’m fine, sir,” she assured him. Aside from the foot, the headaches, and not being able to sleep, most nights. Oh, yeah. Include a few memory problems in the roster. “The VA gave me my medical release and I’m good to go. Looking forward to putting all that training I got in Afghanistan to work. My credentials are first-rate and my commanders gave me excellent recommendations.”

Mager’s thick forefinger tapped a letter lying on his cluttered desk. “I know. Couldn’t be better on all counts.” He raised an eyebrow at the head paramedic. “How about you, Lew? Anything you want to ask Frankie?”

Carpenter’s jaw jutted. “Yeah. I do. I wanta know if you think what happened to you in the war earned you a free pass? Because there isn’t anybody here able to take up the slack if you can’t or won’t do your job. You’ll have to prove yourself. We get a head-on out on the highway, bodies dropping left and right, we need somebody ready and willing to carry the load without falling apart. Screw up, and I’ll get rid of you.”

“No free passes, sir. There never are, in my experience. And I wouldn’t have applied if I couldn’t handle the pressure.” She sat straight, mentally crossing her fingers and meeting his eyes without wavering.

The two men looked at each other and some invisible signal passed between them. “You want to go back out and sit down for a minute, Frankie?” Mager winked at her. “Lew and I gotta talk this over. We’ll be right with you.”

Frankie got up. “Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.”

Her back as straight as though she were on parade, she left the office, resuming her seat on the hard chair. That had been about the shortest interview on record. She had to answer more–and tougher–questions than that every time she went to the doctor.

The interview seemed to have gone well, though, unless it’d been so bad Karl and Lew hadn’t wanted to waste more time on her. But, she thought, fingers crossing again, they hadn’t asked either of the other two applicants to wait. That must be a good sign.

The old brick building, used for emergency services in this part of Kootenai County, was a laid-back place. Her grandmother, who’d been quite the historian in her day, told Frankie once the place had been a blacksmith’s shop. Now a series of computer screens occupied the wide dispatch desk where Maggie Owens was on duty, ready to call out cops, fire trucks, or paramedics. People came in, did their business, visited a minute, and left.

As Frankie waited, a farmer trailing dust from his work boots hurried in to ask for a burn permit, and a kid wanted a driver’s manual. Maggie efficiently supplied both requests.

A SUV bearing sheriff’s department markings pulled into the parking lot and a man got out. Frankie guessed his age at thirty or so. He had brown hair and hazel eyes, which she saw when he took off his sunglasses as he asked Maggie a question. His gaze settled on Frankie, too, a quick, interested evaluation, and he nodded an acknowledgement.

Frankie flicked him a small smile before glancing away.

She forced herself to relax. From here, she could see through the window to where her pickup sat parked under a scrawny elm tree. Banner, her dog, was lying on a patch of grass beside the truck, his pink tongue lolling as he waited for her. A skinny girl who’d emerged from the post office next door and who bore an eerie resemblance to Charlene Lindstrom, Frankie’s old boss at the café Karl had spoken of, stopped to talk to the big Samoyed and scratch behind his pricked ears.

Nerves stretched tight, the scar on the back of Frankie’s head began itching. She really needed this job. The Spokane or Coeur d’Alene fire departments would never accept her if she couldn’t pass the physical. Which she probably couldn’t. A small, rural outfit like Hawkesford, population 567 according to the sign outside town, was about the only hope she had. Oh, it wasn’t a lack of qualifications holding her back. Those were good. Great, in fact. An army veteran with battlefield experience? Most places would be clamoring for her services–until they found out she had a plate in her head, shrapnel in her back, and was missing part of her right foot.

A commotion outside claimed her attention. The guys had left the door wide open to catch what was left of the morning’s cool breeze, and she could see an old John Deere tractor creeping down Hawkesford’s main drag, pulling a derelict Toyota Camry toward Cunningham’s Auto Repair. The tractor’s driver seemed oblivious to the line-up of cars following him along Highway 27. Repeated honks warned him to move over so they could pass. He ignored them.

She recognized the man at the wheel as Big Mike Pettigrew, Jesselyn’s dad. Ornery old fart. Frankie smiled. He was being deliberately obstructionist, as usual. Jesselyn said her brother Russ grew more like his dad every day as he got older, his actions a bone of contention between the siblings. Meanwhile, Jesse did her best to overcome her male family member’s obnoxious reputation in the community. That included helping Frankie get a job and the Hawkesford Fire Department acquire a good paramedic.

A silence in the room behind her indicated the discussion had ended. Karl tapped on the dividing window and gestured. “Come on in,” he called.

Frankie hastened to obey, managing to keep her hands loose at her sides as she awaited the verdict.

“Lew has one more question for you, Frankie,” Karl said, his face sober.

Her heart sank. She should’ve known the interview wouldn’t pan out. Live in her hometown, surrounded by old friends, and land a decent job at the same time? It was too good to be true.

Carpenter scowled at the captain, then at her. “Yeah. When can you start? I’m so shorthanded the whole damn crew is about to revolt and call in sick.”

What had he said? For a moment, it didn’t sink in. “You mean I’m hired?” she asked dumbly.

“That’s the point of this rigmarole.”

“I can start right now, tonight, if you need me,” she burbled, momentarily forgetting about the need to find a place to live that included a place for her dog. And a change of clothes wouldn’t hurt either.

“Well, hallelujah. A regular eager beaver.” Lew Carpenter finally showed a grin. “You can fill out the paperwork immediately, but tomorrow is soon enough to report to work. You’ll be on night shift with me for your probationary period. Twelve hours on, twelve off, work four days and have three off. Suit you?”

Frankie would’ve joined forces with the devil just to have the job, not that she thought Carpenter was the devil, even if he did have a sour enough attitude. “Sounds good,” she said. “Thanks. I’m looking forward to working with you.”

His scowl, which she judged customary to him considering the formation of lines on his dark, leathered face, settled back in place. “We’ll see how long that lasts.”

“Welcome aboard,” Karl Mager said. “Hope you won’t get too bored in a little place like Hawkesford.”

***

The cop was gone when Frankie went into the outer office to fill in the paperwork. She’d just handed her completed forms to Karl when Jesselyn Pettigrew drove into the parking lot. Her Jeep Liberty skidded to a halt in front of the fire station/emergency services building. She entered the station in a rush, bearing a box of Rosauer’s doughnuts. The greasy good aroma reminded Frankie she’d been too nervous to eat any breakfast, and it was now mid-morning.

Maggie looked up from her computer screen, nose twitching as Jesselyn walked past. “You spreading those around to all of us, Jesselyn, or are you trying to bribe Karl and Lew into hiring Frankie?”

“Am I too late?” A mock look of dismay spread across Jesselyn’s pretty face. Short, a bit plump, pale-skinned to go with her strawberry blonde hair, her ready smile had the knack of drawing people to her.

“Afraid so.” Karl’s mouth drooped sadly as he lifted the lid to the doughnut box the moment she set it down. He selected a maple bar and stuffed half of it into his mouth.

“What do you mean?” Jesselyn snatched the doughnuts out of his reach and whirled to face her friend. “Frankie? You got the job, didn’t you?”

Holding back a laugh, Frankie nodded. “I start tomorrow.”

“See?” Jesselyn crowed. “I told you so. You’re the cream of the crop.”

“Watch it.” Lew eyed the pastries before taking a plain glazed one. He pointed it toward Frankie. “I’m top dog around here and I decide if you’re cream or cottage cheese. And don’t you forget it.”

“Yes, sir,” she said.

He sounded remarkably similar to a sergeant she’d had back in Kandahar. Which didn’t do anything to make her more comfortable. Sergeant Pelker had died in the same explosion that killed most of their platoon and wounded Frankie.

Jesselyn grabbed Frankie’s arm. “If you guys are done with your interrogation, we’re going to find her a place to live. Can’t have our new paramedic pitching a tent out in the boonies.”

“That’s interview, not interrogation, missy.” Mager cast Frankie a puzzled look. “Aren’t you going to live in your grandma’s house? That was a point in your favor, not having to worry about housing. It’s kind of hard to come-by here.”

“Gabe Zantos lives in the McGill house,” murmured Maggie, who’d wandered over and snagged a cinnamon twist.

“Oh, yeah. That’s right. Can’t kick him out, I suppose.”

Frankie took the comment seriously. “He’s got a year’s lease, captain. Don’t worry. I’ll find a place.” She grinned. “I’ll pile in with Jesselyn if I have to.” Upon noticing the expression on her friend’s face, she hurried to add, “Or I can always rent an apartment in Coeur d’Alene or Spokane and commute.”

“Better find something close by,” Carpenter said. “We can’t wait for you if you’re late.”

She stiffened. “I’m never late,” she said. “Sir.”

***

“Our first step,” Jesselyn told Frankie, steering her out of the station and over to the parked cars, “is to talk with my sister Victoria.”

“Victoria?” Frankie remembered Jesselyn’s older sister as the consummate high school fashion plate and drama queen. “Why?”

“Because she’s a real estate agent now. She made beaucoup bucks until the big recession hit and property values went to pot, but she’s still doing all right. If anybody knows what’s for rent around here it’s her.” Jesselyn had her cell phone out. Her sister must’ve been on speed dial as she started talking almost immediately. “Hey,” she said, “it’s me. Have you heard for sure if that duplex is empty? You did? Can Frankie and I take a look?” There was a pause and her stub nose wrinkled. “Oh, well. I can help clean it up if necessary. Where’s the key? Okay. I’ll ask him.”

Pressing the phone’s off key, she hopped into her Liberty. “Follow me,” she said. “I’ve got a hot lead.”

Taking off like a bat out of hell, gravel spewed from beneath Jesselyn’s tires almost before Frankie could open her Ranger’s door and get Banner inside. “Jeez,” she told the dog, “I forgot she was like this, so frenetic.” In fact, thinking it over as she followed her friend across the highway to the south side of town, she couldn’t remember such behavior at all. Jesselyn had been the laid-back one of the duo, Frankie the impatient one with lots of get up and go.

A couple minutes later, she pulled in behind the Liberty parked in the driveway of an older duplex in need of a fresh coat of paint. Built rancher-style, the units were side by side. A patch of weedy lawn awaited mowing–and a good watering. All in all, it wasn’t what anyone would call a prepossessing place, but it was better than Frankie’s current apartment in Spokane.

Jesselyn was already out of her car and pounding on one of the two front doors. As Frankie and Banner hastened to join her, the door opened a crack.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever you’re sellin’, I’m not buyin’,” a voice growled.

“Oh, open up, Howie.” Jesselyn pushed until the crack widened. “Victoria wants you to give me the key to the other apartment so I can show it to Frankie. She’s thinking about renting the empty unit.”

“Why didn’t you say so?” Howie St. James, whom Frankie remembered as being a basketball star a couple years ahead of her in high school, swung the door wider. His left arm was in a dirty cast that stretched from wrist to shoulder. “Hi, Frankie,” he said. “Back from the wars, huh? Heard you were wounded.”

“True on both counts.” She forced a smile. “But I’m ready to take up life in the real world now.”

“You call this the real world?” He shook his head. “Man, if it’d been me and I’d gotten out of this po-dunk town, I’d never have come back.”

She shrugged. Every place was much the same. It’s what you made of it that counted. But she never could tell people any different, including Jesselyn on more than one occasion. Everybody had to find out for him or herself. “Join the army, see the world.”

Jesselyn was still in a hurry. “So, can we get the key, Howie, please, sometime today?”

“Sure. Wait a minute. I’ll fetch it.” Leaving the door open, he ambled off toward the tiny kitchen, weaving around a threadbare recliner aimed toward an old big screen TV, and a coffee table piled high with pizza boxes and beer bottles. A big gray cat blinked at the visitors from the recliner’s arm.

“Here ya are,” he said, returning a minute later with a key strung on a length of pink yarn. “Sure is odd about Denise pulling out in the middle of the night, innit?”

Jesselyn arched an eyebrow. “Middle of the night?”

“Yeah. I’d gone to bed and figured she had too since I couldn’t hear her TV or anything. Been hard to sleep with this busted arm,” he explained. “Itches to beat hell. Anyhow, I’d just dropped off when her little mutt woke me up yipping. Then the dog quit barking and I heard her walking around, banging on stuff like she was moving furniture or something. Didn’t realize she was moving out.”

“I imagine that means she left the place a mess.” Jesselyn sounded resigned. “C’mon, Frankie, let’s take a gander. Thanks for the key, Howie.”

“Sure.” Although dismissed, he followed them to the other unit, scratching absently under his cast.

“A wire coat hanger will fit in there.” Frankie, holding back to walk beside him, nodded toward his casted arm. “Cut and straighten the wire, wrap the end with cloth or tape or something so you don’t break the skin, and rub away. That’ll help. How’d you break it, anyway?”

His mouth twisted. “I kinda got hit by a car.”

“What? Kinda got hit?”

“Yeah, walkin’ home from the bar one night. One minute I’m strolling along happy as a rabbit in a carrot patch, next I’m flyin’ through the air and landin’ in the ditch.”

“Wow. Sorry about that. Did they catch the driver?”

“Nope. Doubt if they looked very hard.”

“Hey.” Jesselyn tapped a sandaled foot, “You want to see this or not, Frankie?”

“You know I do. Lead the way.”

Howie stood back, smiling at her even as a faraway look crossed his dark face. “Sure is funny Denise didn’t tell me she was leaving when I talked to her yesterday. Or say where she was going.”

“Would she normally?” Frankie asked.

“Well, we were friends, kind of. Neighbors. I would’ve told her.”

Jesselyn, ignoring Howie, worked the key and flung open the door. A stale smell wafted out, composed of cooking odors, unmoving air, and something else. Something unpleasant. “Phew. Well, this is it. What do you think, Frankie?” She waved a hand. “Been nice if she’d cleaned house before she left.”

Frankie gawked around. Her friend might complain, but she herself had seen worse. A lot worse. Granted, the apartment, a twin of Howie’s, was small and a little cluttered, although not really dirty. There were a couple overripe bananas and a moldy orange in a basket on the kitchen counter to account for some of the smell–all the more potent because of the heat–but nothing a good airing and some deep cleaning wouldn’t cure.

She took a quick tour of the bedroom and bath, both of which, to her surprise, looked as though they were waiting for the owner to return at any minute. An inspection of the closet space showed empty hangers, but a couple articles of clothing on the floor. An open book lay on the bedside table beside a nearly full bottle of aspirin.

“You sure this Denise is actually gone?” she asked Jesselyn. “There’s an awful lot of personal stuff still here.”

Her friend looked puzzled too. “Abandoned it, I guess. She really did leave, though. Victoria got an email from her.”

Breathing in her ear, Howie stood tapping a bare foot. “Man, this don’t seem right. Lookit. She even left her mutt’s dog bed.”

“At least she took the dog.” Jesselyn palmed her phone, finger poised to punch in numbers. “Well, Frankie? What do you think? You going to take it?”

“Not much choice, is there?” Frankie shrugged and nodded. “Tell Vic yes.”

Already regretting the necessity, a little shiver went through her as Jesselyn handed over the key. The place definitely gave Frankie the collywobbles.

© 2017 by Carol Crigger