The Answer Key
by Jane Carver
Shannon Waller lives a paycheck-to-paycheck existence in far north Montana. A missing husband. Not even a pet. Alone. Suddenly life hands her the kind of money she only dreams of—an amount that starts with a B. A move to Ithaca, New York and into a home she inherits plus new friends—what more can she asks for?
Private investigator Michael Silver is determined to find out who might want to kill Shannon. While his life seems safe, hers is one ‘accident’ after another, each hurting her worse.
When a bullet barely misses Shannon, she and Michael have to discover who, what and why she’s a target for murder. And do it fast before the next attempt succeeds!
Release Date: August 24, 2021
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Different Day, Same Ol' Stuff
Time stands still. Has no meaning. Keeps on ticking no matter what happens to those who float through it. At least that’s what Shannon Waller thought as she once again checked the thermometer outside the kitchen window. Beyond that stood the rusted 1905 Model T car and glass bulb gas pump that Waller Senior used back when this was a working farm.
Now the land was gone but for three acres and this hundred year old house that let in every Montana winter blast of frigid air. A dingy dull landscape lay hidden under a foot of snow. Even spring’s blooming flowers wouldn’t liven up the place that much.
Shannon’s sigh escaped into the heated room despite the single-pane yellowed window glass. She dropped the heavy curtain that at least blocked the frigid air that poured insidiously off the panes. Her home resembled a mausoleum often times with its heavy drapes. But the warmth and light inside lifted her spirits when the outside world threatened to stomp all over her.
Like right now. Her 2000 Ford Escort, bought from a rental company back in the day, needed yet another repair. She’d already resigned herself to having no heater in the car for the rest of the winter.
The heating fuel cost for the house seemed to get higher each month, not to mention the rest of her bills. The quilts she sold online only managed to pay for the fabric for the next one or two. Her passion didn’t exactly put her into another tax bracket. Quilting only kept her sane.
“Move over, Simon,” Shannon told the orange tabby cat that lay on the pile of bills spread out on her small desk. Simon seemed quite comfortable, his tail wrapped around his paws, his front feet tucked under his chest and his nose almost touching the latest electric bill as he snoozed. Shannon ran her hand softly over the elderly cat’s back, enjoying the rumbles that rose as her only companion allowed the caresses. His head lifted, and he let her scratch his chin.
“Sorry, old boy, but I’ve got to rob Peter to pay Paul,” she said as she picked him up carefully and laid him on the corner of her bed. He resumed the same hunched up, tucked in position, and within minutes, his head once more drooped so his nose lay just above the quilt top.
Someday that poor cat’s going to die, and I’ll really be alone then, she mused as she shuffled papers, trying to figure out where she could pay a bare minimum on one bill in order to pay a full bill somewhere else. Other than the wind occasionally whistling as it rounded the corner of her bedroom, the house lay in late Saturday morning winter silence.
Brrrring! The phone rang, and Shannon jumped, her heart going into a pounding beat.
“Jesus, that scared me.” She clutched her chest as she reached for the portable phone, once more wishing she could afford a cell phone. “Hello?”
“Mrs. Waller, the Washburn account is due first thing Monday morning. I don’t like to disturb anyone on Sundays so request you come in for several hours this afternoon to get the order ready.”
Mr. Leven, the owner of Waller lumber company, minced no words. He would pay a meager overtime for her coming in, but he had no compunction about finding another accountant if she didn’t. He was a crusty eighty-two year old who expected his employees to jump when he said so. She might have been married to his nephew once but having the same last name as the company or being a distant relative meant nothing to him. Being as she needed the job, no matter the paltry pay, she agreed. He seldom asked her to come in on weekends, but he expected her there when he did.
“I may need a little more time than two hours, sir.” Leven did not answer to anything but sir. Using his first name would probably get someone fired, so no one ever tried.
“I’ll pay for two hours, Mrs. Waller. I expect the work to be finished by then.”
“I understand, sir. I’ll be there at 2:00.”
Without a word of thanks, her boss hung up.
“Shit.” She wanted to cry but knew tears were useless. Her boss said come, and she would go, like it or not. Still a shuddering dry sob escaped, but she quickly shut down the emotion. “Sorry, Simon. Our movie date’s gonna have to wait a few hours. I’ll be home in time to feed you though.”
She turned and gave the cat a few caresses before heading to the closet to find warmer clothes.
Dressed in heavy outerwear and snow boots, she trudged past the old Model T parked not far from the house—that was where it ran out of gas decades ago—and tugged to crack the frost on the Escort’s door handle. Having to park outside in winter sucked. But the barn wasn’t in any shape to keep the car warm though it would keep it dry. Still walking a hundred feet back to it just for her car was stupid. So she parked it right beside the kitchen door and prayed the car would start each time she needed it.
* * *
At 4:00 Shannon shut down her computer, wrapped up in her cold weather gear, and locked the office. She’d called Mr. Leven first and told him the order was ready, and she was leaving.
“Very good, Mrs. Waller,” was all the old man said.
“You’re welcome,” Shannon said to the company cell phone after she hit the END button. “Ungrateful old bastard.”
One more time her car almost refused to start, but the engine finally turned over, and she made her way home through a light snowfall, financial and weather worries eating at her the whole way.
“This is pretty sad, isn’t it, Simon,” she said as she and the cat snuggled among the covers on her bed. “A cat as my date. Wish Jacob was here.” That was an old refrain. Fifteen years old. The past was past even if it was still a mystery. “Nothing we can do about it now, is there, old boy?” She pulled the cat up against her, gave him a tiny piece of bologna from her sandwich, and let him lick a little salt off her finger from her chips. With a click of the remote, the TV turned on, and the movie started playing. The cat probably didn’t remember her husband, but Shannon remembered how snuggling in bed with a handsome hunk of a man beat settling down in cold sheets with a tired old cat. “Where’s the love, huh, Simon?” To which the cat simply rumbled beneath her fingers.
* * *
“Emily, how’s it going?” Shannon whipped up pancakes to go with her scrambled eggs and the last bit of sausage. Her breakfast for lunch.
“I’m so tired of cold, but the sun off the snow from last night is gorgeous.” Emily Zimmer always provided a glimmer of sunshine on the dullest days.
Shannon heated oil for the pancakes with her portable phone tucked into the curve of her neck and head bent over to keep it still. “I’m looking forward to the flowers blooming in the garden. It always amazes me how they survive in these temperatures.” The sizzle of batter hitting oil was loud enough that Emily heard it.
“You and Todd come over and share some.” Shannon enjoyed the couple with their optimistic outlook on life.
“Wish I could. We haven’t visited since that last blizzard blew through, but Todd’s brother and his family are headed over. They’re coming from Emerson Junction.”
“We don’t live so far apart, so I’ll catch you when you’re free.” Shannon moved two pancakes to a plate. “But you’re going to miss some awesome pancakes and light as air scrambled eggs.” Emily loved to eat, and Shannon enjoyed teasing her.
“Aw, now that’s not fair, Shannon.” At Emily’s end of the line, a scuffling sounded. Her dogs. A doorbell rang. “Gotta go. Catch you later. Company’s here.”
“Enjoy!” Shannon waited for Emily to click off, then hung up the portable.
Simon wove in and out of Shannon’s legs, begging for some sausage.
“Only if you let me enjoy my breakfast...and the view.” She moved the plate and cup of coffee to the kitchen table but sat so she could see out the window. “Humm, as usual, Emily was right. It is a pretty day. Cold but pretty.” As the rest of Sunday passed, Shannon had a lighter heart.