A yearly tradition turns tragic when John Richardson is in the hospital battling a terminal illness. When his grandson, Sean, takes his place, no one can believe it will be the last act of his life. Killed in a drive by shooting, Rhonda Pohs has the job of trying to find out who had motive and was the victim supposed to be John or Sean. Dressed as a scarecrow with a fiberglass jack-o-lantern on his head, he makes the perfect target for someone driving a stolen van. But who? With the entire football team and the cheerleading squad as suspects, it soon becomes apparent it was possibly Sean who was the intended target. As the captain of the football team, the handsome running back was not only the captain of the football team but also the Homecoming King only one week earlier. Rhonda gets unexpected help from Sean’s maternal great grandfather, a full-blooded Sioux shaman as he predicts things that lead to secrets being uncovered leading to the name of those behind the horrendous crime.
“I picked up the costumes for tonight’s party,” Mark Pohs greeted his wife as soon as she walked through the door after work.
The last thing Rhonda wanted to do was go to a Halloween party, but it was a tradition. Every year they went to the home of one of Mark’s co-workers at the high school and spent the Saturday of Halloween weekend with their friends. As usual, she let Mark pick out their costumes.
In the past they’d gone as a saloon girl and cowboy, a pirate and his lady, and a sheik and his harem girl. She wondered what Mark had chosen for their costumes for tonight’s party.
“This year we’re bound to win the prize for best costume,” he declared, waving toward the bag containing the costumes on the couch.
“I’m almost afraid to look in that bag,” Rhonda teased. “What will we be wearing this year?”
“Would you be shocked if I told you we were going to be Homer and Marge Simpson?”
Rhonda hoped her horrified reaction didn’t show on her face. “Well...if that’s what you want...”
“It’s not. I was just teasing. We’re going as Bonnie and Clyde. Isn’t that a kick? When I saw these costumes, I knew my favorite lady cop would make a great Bonnie Parker.”
Rhonda giggled as she opened the bag and produced the 1930’s style dress complete with authentic looking guns, hat and a plastic cigar. Mark’s costume was complete with a hat, suit, white shirt and tie of the same period.
“This is a hoot,” Rhonda said as she held up the dress. “If the guys at work see me in this, it’s possible they won’t ever let me investigate another murder.”
“I doubt that will happen. After the Adkins case this past spring, they’re all singing your praises. Changing the subject, what are you taking to add to the buffet table tonight?”
“Don’t you ever think of anything other than what you’re going to eat?” she teased. “If you must know, I’m making my green bean salad. That always makes a hit at these parties.”
Cars lined both sides of the street, indicating the party was in full swing. Because of the crowd already gathered, Mark needed to park a block and a half from the house.
“Did you see old man Richardson sitting on his porch?” Mark asked once they were parked.
“How could I miss him? He’s dressed up like a scarecrow with a jack-o-lantern on his head ever since I was a kid. When I was little, you can believe me when I say I never went to his house trick or treating. Of course, once I got older, I found out he was doing it for fun. They also had the best goodies of any house in town.”
“You weren’t alone. I think every kid in town was scared of that old man at one time or another. Like you say, the older I got, the more I appreciated him. Once I started coaching at the high school, I found out he was a very generous man. When the team needed new uniforms, he was one of the largest contributors.”
Before Rhonda could comment, she heard several shots and saw a black SUV speed past her. She caught the first three letters of the license plate but nothing more. Handing Mark the bowl containing her salad and the bag with the accessories for their costumes, she ran in the direction from where the shots seemed to come.
By the time she got to the Richardson house, she heard Mrs. Richardson screaming for help. On the porch, John Richardson sat in his lawn chair, slumped over.
Even dressed as Bonnie Parker, Rhonda carried her cell phone in the garter holding up her old fashioned stockings. “Officer needs assistance. Shots fired!” she ordered into the phone once the operator at the 911 center answered. “This is Detective Pohs. I need backup and an ambulance.” She took a deep breath before giving the dispatcher the address of the Richardson home.
Without waiting for help to arrive, Rhonda ran up onto the porch. “You have to help my grandson,” Beverly Richardson pleaded.
“Grandson?” Rhonda questioned as she knelt beside the unmoving man in the chair. Not feeling a pulse, she began to panic. Pulling off the fiberglass jack-o-lantern head, Rhonda forced herself not to panic. A bullet had penetrated through the eye cut out and gone into the young man’s brain. From the blood staining the shirt, she could tell it wasn’t the only injury he’d sustained.
“John’s been in the hospital for the last month and our grandson wanted to help me keep the tradition going. He’s only seventeen. Will he be all right?”
Two paramedics rushed onto the porch, taking the burden of pronouncing the teenager dead from Rhonda’s shoulders.
Phil Mason, Rhonda’s partner, seemed to appear out of nowhere. “What happened here, Rhonda?”
Rhonda didn’t want to be like the hysterical witnesses she often interviewed, but it took every ounce of strength she possessed to calmly relate the details surrounding the evening. “We were on our way to a party when we heard shots fired. I thought they came from the Richardson house.”
“Why this house?”
Rhonda took a deep breath. “For as long as I can remember, John Richardson has dressed up like a scarecrow and sat on his porch during the Halloween weekend. I think every kid in town was scared to death of him at one time or another. As an adult, I’ve watched for him. It fascinates me that a man of his age would carry on such a tradition.”
“The victim didn’t look old enough to be doing this for so many years. At least, what’s left of his face looks more like a boy than an old man.”
“Beverly Richardson told me her husband is in the hospital and her grandson wanted to carry on the tradition. Someone wanted John Richardson dead and killed Sean instead. I’ve heard Mark talk about the boy several times. He’s one of the star players on the football team and because of a silly tradition, he’s lost his life.” Rhonda could feel her forced control begin to drain from her body as she started to shake.
“I think you should sit down,” Phil suggested, helping her to a seat in the squad car. “You’re shaking like a leaf.”
“I don’t know why. I’m a detective. I investigate murders. I don’t get emotionally involved.”
“Since when?” Phil teased. “It seems to me you and Margie Adkins got very involved during that investigation, to say nothing of the way you and Kitty Reedman bonded when her husband was murdered. Let’s go over to that party you were going to tonight. Maybe someone there saw something to help us in this investigation.”
“I just thought of something,” Rhonda said, putting her hand on Phil’s arm to stop him. “When I heard the shots fired, I saw a black SUV peel out like a bat out of hell. I got the first three letters of the license plate. They were JRK.”
Phil quickly wrote down the letters Rhonda remembered. “You go on into the party. I’ll be there as soon as I call this in to headquarters.”
Obediently, Rhonda walked across the street and into the brightly lit house of their friends. As she did, she thought about this neighborhood thirty years ago. Back then, there had only been a couple of houses on the road and it was out in the country. John Richardson owned both farms and rented one of them out. In the early nineties, John’s son, Hank, decided he didn’t want to run the farm anymore and suggested subdividing both properties. Now it was one of the most comfortable neighborhoods in the county. Unfortunately, Hank Richardson had died of cancer three years earlier and his wife decided it best if she left their country home to move into town to be closer to her job and Sean’s school. The only Richardson family living in the area was John and Beverly and from the way it sounded, John may never return home.
“Are you all right, honey?” Mark asked as soon as Rhonda entered the house.
“What about John?” Trisha Nelson, the hostess for the party, asked. “I was surprised to see him out on the porch. I heard he was in the hospital.”
“He is in the hospital. His grandson, Sean, decided to carry on the tradition. I’m afraid it was a fatal decision.”
“Oh dear, this will just kill Nancy. First to lose Hank and now Sean, it just isn’t right.”
Before Rhonda could reply, Phil entered the house. “Can I talk to you, Rhonda?”
Leaving the comfort of not only the house but the companionship of her friends, Rhonda motioned for Phil to follow her out to the back deck so they could have more privacy. “What have you learned?”
“The SUV you saw was stolen from a bar in Clinton tonight. It belongs to Ted Jacobs. I don’t think he had anything to do with this, but I do want to question him. Do you want to go with me?”
“Well, that’s a silly question. Of course I want to be in on this.”
“Ah, I think you should think about stopping at your place and changing your clothes. I mean, you look really cute but hardly professional.”
“What’s wrong...” Rhonda looked down at the forgotten costume. She knew it would look strange for a detective pretending to be the notorious Bonnie Parker to investigate a murder. “I guess you’re right. I’ll just let Mark know where we’re going. Hopefully, you can take me to my place so I can change. That way Mark can have our vehicle to get home.”
Mark met her as soon as she came back into the house. “You’re going out on this, aren’t you?” he asked.
“We’ve got a lead on that SUV we saw speeding away. Enjoy the party, but I’ve got to do my job.”
“Before you go,” Trish said, coming up to where they were engaged in conversation. “Let me take a picture of the two of you for the contest. I’m sure you’ll win first prize this year.”
Rhonda patiently waited while Trish took at least three pictures of her and Mark posing as Bonnie and Clyde. Earlier in the evening she’d been excited by this party, but the events of the evening told her she had a duty to perform and it didn’t include going to a party. The thought of the party going on while across the street the paramedics were preparing Sean Richardson to be taken to the morgue made her sick to her stomach. It didn’t seem right, but in the twenty-first century people were too self-centered to be overly concerned about their neighbors. It was the nature of the beast.
“I’m sorry, Trish, I have to go. Duty calls.”
“I agree with Rhonda,” Mark said. “I’ll be leaving too.”
Rhonda headed toward the door when Mark stopped her. “I mean it. I don’t want to stay here without you.”
“Look, Mark, I’ll be working. Besides, I need you here. You can listen to the talk going on at the party or even out in the neighborhood. People will talk to you without even thinking. You’re Sean’s coach, for God’s sake.”
“Yes, I am, and I’m taking this hard. I can’t imagine staying at this party. I know Trish said she was shocked, but you know how she is, the party must go on.”
“And you have to eat. Let’s face it, if you go home, you’re stuck with green bean salad. I don’t have anything else thawed out. Besides, like I said before, I need you to listen to what’s going on here.”
Mark gave her a kiss and turned to go back into the house. She knew her decision to leave him here was a good one. The topic of the murder would be a hot one at tonight’s party.
Phil waited for her next to his car. “Before we head out, I’d like to talk to Beverly Richardson.
Rhonda started to cross the street when Phil stopped her. “This has to be the craziest thing I’ve ever seen. Who in the hell would shoot at a scarecrow?”
Rhonda turned and looked at her partner. “I can tell you’re not from the area. Everyone in town knows John Richardson sits on his porch in that getup for the entire weekend of Halloween.”
“Considering the vehicle they used was stolen, do you think it could be gang related?”
Phil’s comment took Rhonda completely by surprise. “I’ll bet my badge it was planned. If we dig deep enough, we’ll find someone who has it in for John.”
“That could be, but what you seem to forget is that John wasn’t the one to get killed. You were an eyewitness. Can you remember anything else to help us out here?”
“Come on, Phil. You know as well as I do how unreliable eyewitness testimony can be. I told you everything I remembered, especially considering how dark it was.”
“In other words, we have zilch in the suspect pool.”
Rhonda nodded. “That is, if you don’t count every kid John scared over the years. I know the first time I went up on his porch and the scarecrow talked to me, I peed my pants and ran back to where my friend’s mother was parked like the hounds of hell were after me. It was the first time I went trick or treating without my mother. She wouldn’t let me go this far out of town.”
Phil looked around the heavily populated subdivision. “What do you mean so far out of town? I realize this is still tentative in the county, but...”
“But nothing. What you forget is that was thirty years ago. There were only two houses out here, but everyone in school knew the Richardsons had the best candy in the area. My friend’s mother was only too accommodating to bring us out here. I’m sure she wanted us to be scared out of our wits when John spoke to us.”
If the situation hadn’t been so serious, Rhonda knew Phil would have laughed at her for being a scaredy cat little girl. She also remembered every adult she ever talked to about John admitted to being just as scared when they were kids. The subject came up every year at the Halloween party.