Book 2 in the Donna Leigh Mysteries series:
I Didn’t Kill Her But That May Have Been Short Sighted

It was Wednesday and I was running a bit late. I ran across the south parking lot with purse and tote bag in one hand and 12-pack of Diet Orange Sunkist in the other. Burdened with an unwieldy load, I moved precariously through both the front door and the outer lobby entrance. Once inside I wound my way around the tall wooden, teepee-like structures that served both as organic art installations and intimate meeting pods and veered past rows of sleek wood and black laminate desk units carefully balancing my parcels. Upon reaching my desk, I dumped the load and logged on to my computer. The meeting reminder popped up with a ‘bing’ to confirm a 10:00 A.M. conference call, reminding me to reread the project file before jumping on the call.

I noticed my message light blinking and hoped it would be something quick. I’d have to hustle if I was going to review that file. The message was from Ken Farley. It had been years since I’d given Ken a thought. He and I had worked together at an ad agency in southern Connecticut for a number of years, which now seemed like a lifetime ago. The message was oddly cryptic.

“Wow Donna, that must have been some shock for you, huh? All things considered, you must be really torn about how to feel. I’d sure love to know what you’re thinking.”

I couldn’t imagine what on earth he could be talking about.

Oh well, no point in taxing my brain. I might as well just call him. Logic would dictate that I wait until AFTER the conference call to indulge my curiosity, but I’d never been a slave to logic.

Once on the phone, Ken was no less cryptic. I put up with about two minutes of his nonstop gibberish before I started to lose my temper.

“Hey Ken, what the hell are you talking about?!”

My impatience seemed to help him focus.

“You mean you haven’t heard?” he asked.

“Guess not.” I tried to hide my annoyance. “Why don’t you fill me in?”

“Your old buddy Betty Jean bought the farm!”


“That’s what I’m saying,” Ken pressed, “you didn’t hear about it?”

“How would I have heard about it all the way out here in Omaha?” He really could be thick sometimes.

“Man, Donna, You’re not saying you didn’t know she moved to Omaha three months ago?”

The man was talking pure nonsense now. Betty Jean and I had worked together for several years when I was in Connecticut. After my move to Omaha ten years earlier I had seen neither hide nor hair of BJ. In fact, it had probably been another two years prior to that. Not seeing BJ was definitely how I liked it. The thought of her moving to the Heartland? I would never buy that! She fancied herself a big city “player” and a fashionista. There was no way she was moving to Omaha, Nebraska.

I harbor no such fancies. Having lived my whole life as an Easterner, I virtually leapt at the opportunity to join the prestigious advertising firm, Marcel, when the call came from an overzealous recruiter. Once I knew it was Marcel there was no looking back. If that meant a move to Omaha – so be it! At the time, I had no way of knowing that public holding company shell games would result in my opportunity to buy the very advertising brand I had respected from afar for so many years. Now, my partners and I were charged with the sacred task of taking this revered icon of communication into the next phase of marketing.

BJ’s self-delusion did not stop at her perceived importance in the world of business. She also considered herself to be fashion-forward in the extreme. She was right about extreme. On the fashion side of the equation, she and I could not have been more different. Tailored black business was my wardrobe staple. Admittedly it wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, but at least I’d never arrived at a business dinner attired in a white linen jumpsuit, festooned from neck to toe with twelve-inch tall basketball players as had my former nemesis, Betty Jean. In my humble opinion, she could not have looked more ridiculous if she’d been wearing the 50-gallon garbage drum parked by the side door. Yet she faced a sea of Brooks Brothers clad marketers with a smug, almost arrogant, smile on her self-satisfied face. She perused the room to ensure that everyone had taken notice of her latest fashion statement. A lingering glance must have sated her obsessive desire for attention; there was no denying that every eye in the room rested on her. That was one amazing thing about BJ. She lacked the ability to discern a difference between genuine admiration, as rarely as that occurred, from a thinly veiled attempt to keep from laughing in her face. It was that blissful ignorance which enabled her to bask in delusions of imagined grandeur as she stood there in her outrageous garb and preened. I almost envied her that.

Now Ken was saying BJ is dead? It just wasn’t sinking in. This had to be some kind of a lame joke. It was hard enough to accept that she was dead much less that she had died in, of all places, Omaha, Nebraska, my home.

“Ken, I’m sure you’re mistaken. You of all people should know that Betty Jean would no sooner move to Omaha than I would move to Appalachia….”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Donna,” Ken persisted, “She did move to Omaha, and now she’s dead.”

My head was starting to hurt with a building pressure; in my estimation it had already reached skull-cracking capacity. It’s probably important to note that I’m not at all prone to exaggeration. I heard what Ken was saying, it still wasn’t sinking in. In the past, Ken had always been a good source of information. A career PR guy, he took pride in knowing not only what was going on, but why. Maybe it was time to shut up and let him fill in the blanks. Shutting up was not my best thing!

“I honestly can’t believe you didn’t know BJ was in Omaha,” Ken continued, “she’d been telling everyone she was moving there so the two of you could go into business together. In fact, an article ran in the Times Courier just as she was preparing to move.”

Ken took a slight break here. Good thing because I was pretty sure I felt something pop in my head. If there was bleeding in the brain I’d want to clear the line and dial 911. My life must have flashed before my eyes because I started seeing images of the past. I had worked with Betty Jean at my first advertising agency, the one I joined after making the move from teaching English. She was my immediate supervisor. And she hated my guts. Her supervisory skills consisted of emotional abuse and abject criticism. I even learned that at times she’d fabricated work order memos addressed to me but never delivered, so she could complain about my incompetence. She was often heard announcing to anyone within earshot that I’d “lost yet another memo.” I would never have had proof of this duplicity had it not been for her sloppy work habits. Inadvertently leaving evidence of betrayal in various unfinished stages around the agency, my fair-minded colleagues found several of these gems and ultimately pieced together a clear picture of her draconian master plan. I shuddered as I recalled that disconcerting time in my early career. It was a hard lesson learned: talent and brains are not always enough; there are people who will expend energy to deliberately hurt others. Although I was to see additional proof of this occasionally over the years, the motivation behind such cowardly behavior continues to baffle me.

Even with conclusive proof in hand, my vindication was subdued at best. When you’re as slippery as BJ it isn’t tough to weasel out of even the tightest of jams. It didn’t hurt that she was handling all the media for our largest aerospace account, and the boss needed her more than she did me. This was the lesson in office politics, which formed that little bit of paranoid edge that would serve me well as I climbed the advertising ladder. We damn sure never learned about the mean streets in my naively innocent days of teaching high school.

Remarkably, I let this torture continue for about three and a half years. To the uninitiated I would appear to have been an idiot not to have gotten the hell out of there ASAP; but in the dog-eat-dog world of the ad business, I was industriously building my resume and skill set by learning as much as humanly possible at one of the two most acclaimed ad agencies in Connecticut. I was loathe to jeopardize this rare opportunity; to do so would have been career suicide. At any rate, over time even BJ had to acknowledge that I was a reliable and talented employee, a fact that only served to make it easy for her to dump all her work on me, so she did.

No, going into business with Betty Jean would never be a consideration for me, although she did approach me, indirectly, about starting a business together while I was still working in the New Haven market. My answer back then had been a re-sounding “no,” and the years had done nothing to change how I felt on that issue. Besides, my partners and I already owned Marcel. Even if BJ and I hadn’t had a history of hostility, I would never have convinced them to allow her to waltz in as a fourth owner.

“Ken, you’re sure this isn’t some lame practical joke?” I asked, grabbing my iPad and heading into the nearest conference room. I gently latched the door behind me, adjusted my earpiece, and waited for Ken’s response.

My hasty dash for privacy may have been a bit late, but our thin-walled conference rooms generally failed to provide an ideal sound barrier anyway. Folks seated near them were constantly reminding us nothing uttered within their walls was ever truly private – unless you whispered and blasted the fan simultaneously. We were often reduced to improvised sign language and cryptic notes in order to contain the content of our meeting within the walls of those conference rooms. Nevertheless, I felt compelled to give it my best shot.

Several months earlier, Marcel had moved corporate headquarters from comfortable, new construction suburbia into a classic, historic, downtown loft, replete with high ceilings, crumbling exposed brick and ancient pipes, the latter occasionally causing unwelcome, not to mention malodorously unpleasant, surprises. These same pipes periodically released a toxic drip, wreaking havoc on both technology and paperwork; it was the Chinese water torture `a la Omaha.

We had ditched our old fashioned, isolated executive offices and opted for a more collaborative and integrated environment, which worked great to energize the creative atmosphere. The lack of private spaces and soundproofing, however, posed its share of challenges.

“I’m dead serious, Donna… oh, Jeez, that was tacky,” Ken offered.

So typically Ken. Even in a crisis he couldn’t stop with the dorky jokes.

“Wow, it’s hard to believe BJ is really dead,” I hesitated. “Where did she die?”

“From what I heard, it was in the NoDo office she was renting to house your new joint venture – I assume that’s the northern end of your downtown district. But Donna,” Ken continued, “they’re saying she was murdered.”

It had seemed so real, but that last bombshell convinced me that Ken’s call had to be nothing more than a bizarre dream, meaning I must still be home in bed all safe and sound. I was feeling relief that the whole Ken ‘blast from the past’ would invariably boil down to a food induced nightmare – no more late night gherkin pickles for me.

But then it started again.

“Donna, are you still there?” he whispered.

“Wouldn’t have expected to be dreaming about Betty Jean and Ken,” I mused.

“You’re not dreaming, Donna. It’s all real,” Ken assured me.

“Can’t be,” I countered. “I’ve gone all these years never knowing anyone who was murdered. And now, within a few month’s time, two of the women who have labored to make my working life a living hell have been murdered right here, practically in my back yard. Do you know the statistical probability of something like that?”

“Would it help if you went online and checked one of your local news sites? Go ahead, I’ll wait,” Ken urged.

I didn’t really know what I hoped to accomplish but I grabbed my iPad and typed the URL of one of our local news sources. Up jumped an article about a recently murdered transplant from Connecticut. Crap, that meant I had to start believing this insanity might actually be real. If what Ken was saying was true, I had once again unwittingly become a major player in a murder investigation. My head was definitely hurting.

If I was having trouble convincing my old pal Ken that I didn’t know what BJ had been up to, how was I going to convince Warren? Detective Warren was in charge of murder investigations in Omaha. I knew her from a recent murder investigation in which I’d unintentionally played a fairly major role. The “Vic” (as most cop show buffs know, that’s the term we use for “victim” in law enforcement) had also been a former co-worker, Claire Dockens. The rocky history she and I had had involved me in her murder investigation, in spades. In order to clear myself, my colleague Kyle (another Dockens dissenter) and I had gone about trying to help solve the crime. While in retrospect I believe my involvement only added to the chaos, most folks insist I singlehandedly solved the mystery. Now, mere months after life had settled down again, here was another murder for which I would almost certainly be the prime suspect. I wasn’t sure I was up to that 10 a.m. client call after all.

I hastily concluded my call with Ken, thanking him for getting me up to speed on an extremely disturbing situation, and promised to keep him apprised as the investigation unfolded.

As I pushed open the French door leading out of the com-pact conference room, I caught an odd swoosh of movement out of the corner of my eye. It was followed by a gut-wrenching clatter. My eye followed the swoosh to a strange pile of moving, jean-and-sweater clad human extremities struggling for an apparently unattainable goal.

“Did you get all that?” I asked as I casually strolled toward my desk. Clearly Babs and Peg, who had provided a good percentage of the brains and more than enough of the muscle in my journey through the last murder investigation, were already gearing up to jump into the fray once again. One glance told me that “my girls” had been leaning into a free-standing bookshelf in an attempt to get close enough to hear the scoop. My hasty exit must have upset their proverbial applecart. It’s not like it was the first time. Guess those walls weren’t thin enough for some people.

Had I any remaining doubts of the veracity of this assumption, they were erased by the roomful of hysterical laughter that accompanied me back to my workspace.

“Have a nice trip, ladies?” I heard from across the room. I just shook my head.

That’s when I spotted Kyle sauntering over to my desk as he fought to regain his composure. Unlike the majority of the staff who delighted in making Babs and Peg realize the full humiliation of their eavesdropping calamity, Kyle would never want to make them feel worse than they already did; he was a genuinely nice guy!

On top of his extreme niceness, Kyle always looked so put together. The day must have been filled with internal meetings as he was dressed in the ‘brunch on Fisherman’s Wharf’ elegant, business casual style that was his stock in trade. Beautiful clothing sized perfectly to frame his fit and toned physique. His pale yellow silk trousers and button down beach style short-sleeved shirt were the perfect compliments to his stylishly coifed blond tresses. I lost no time in filling him in on the whole Thornton problem.

“Unbelievable,” Kyle said. “How could something like this happen again so soon?” And as an afterthought, “Don’t worry, Donna, we’ll figure this one out together, just like last time!”

God bless Kyle. Kyle Thoroughgood was my crime-solving partner, as well as my colleague and friend. I could count on him for anything. Last time he and I had both expected to be suspects, since we’d both had rocky relationships with the murdered woman. Surprisingly, we didn’t get much heat from the cops. I slipped easily back into the sleuthing zone so the cop lingo just came naturally.

This time Kyle was willing to jump right in with both feet, even though he’d never heard of the “vic” until right at that moment. If I remembered correctly from our last adventure this would be an incredibly time consuming little hobby, and it had been grueling on Kyle to actively participate in the investigation without falling behind on his unrelenting work schedule. Kyle was our GM so he was actively involved with virtually all of our clients.

“You know, now that I think of it, I do remember hearing about that murder on the news. The details sounded very, very odd. Maybe you should call Warren before she has a chance to come after you.”

Probably good advice. But not something I looked forward to doing.