Stay of Execution
Detective Cancini Mystery, #2
Kellie Larsen Murphy
Publisher: Kellie Larsen Murphy
Date of Publication: March 5, 2015
Number of pages: 311
Word Count: 82,280
Cover Artist: www.crittendenstudio.com
Little Springs was just a small college town, the kind of town where everyone knew everyone and violent crime was nonexistent—until a series of rapes and murders at the college. After an outbreak of fear and hysteria, only the arrest and conviction of Leo Spradlin, the "Co-Ed Killer," could end the terror.
Years later, Spradlin is suddenly cleared based on unshakable DNA evidence, and no one is more surprised than Detective Mike Cancini. As new questions surround the identity of the true "Co-Ed Killer," Cancini struggles to accept his role in the conviction of an innocent man. Suspicions mount when Spradlin’s release coincides with a fresh wave of rapes and murders at the college, eerily reminiscent of the original crimes. Cancini is drawn back to Little Springs, caught in a race against time to uncover the identity of the latest "Co-Ed Killer" before the next girl dies…
A tension-filled psychological mystery, STAY OF EXECUTION is also a novel about loyalty, deceit, and the darker side of truth.
M&R: Today we are Meme-Jacked by Kellie Larsen Murphy. She gives us one of her favorite scenes from the second book in the Detective Cancini Mystery series, Stay of Execution.
KLM: Ah, I love this scene. I feel as though I know this bar so well. I've stepped inside and smelled the sour odor rising from the grimy floor. I've bellied up to the bar and raised one of those heavy mugs. The setting is one of my favorites and it features the lovable Ernie and Detective Cancini. Writing it, I felt like a fly on the wall! I also chose this scene because it conveys Cancini's sense of responsibility and reveals his self-doubt. Hope you enjoy!
Cancini stood outside the old bar, staring up at the faded sign. Ernie’s. Same name. Same place. The siding was peeling, and the torn screens on the second floor flapped in the light breeze. If it weren’t for the small “open” sign tacked to the front door, he’d swear the place was deserted, or worse, condemned. Inside, nearly all the stuff on the walls had been there for decades. It was junk mostly, with a few animal heads and rusted metal signs thrown in next to the faded movie posters. All of the memorabilia, even the moose antlers, were covered with a layer of dust, adding to the dingy ambience. Burned out bulbs dotted the ceiling, casting an uneven light across the bar. Despite the bad lighting, Cancini noticed the rug had worn through revealing a black, gummy vinyl underneath. The smell of old beer mixed with stale cigarette smoke rose from the mud-colored carpet. Cancini grinned. Ernie had never been politically correct. At least some things never changed.
Ernie’s specialized in locals only, a grizzled and loyal clientele. Because of its location in the oldest section of town, college students didn’t frequent the place. The stools were filled with solitary drinkers washing away their cares with house liquor or whatever Ernie had on tap. Grey Goose was not popular, and Cancini imagined Ernie had never made a cosmopolitan in his life. Food consisted of burgers and nachos, and if it was the special that night, a loaded chilidog. He wondered if Ernie even knew what a vegan was.
Cancini slid onto a wooden stool, his hazel eyes downcast. The place was mostly empty. A few folks sat at the end of the bar, and a handful more occupied a couple of tables along the far wall. It was early though. In a couple of hours, the regulars would crowd the bar and fill most of the seats. Cancini had always loved Ernie’s, a true watering hole where a man could be anonymous yet surrounded by people he knew. The drinks were cold and reliable and, best of all, the owner was a friend. When he’d moved to Little Springs, with only a suitcase and a few references, it was Ernie who’d rented him a place to live, leasing him one of the two apartments over the bar. Ernie lived in the second one.
Rumor had it Ernie opened the bar after his first wife ran off with a traveling salesman. Ernie loved to say, “If I’m gonna spend all my time drinking away my sorrows, I might as well own the place. Makes it a helluva lot cheaper.” Nice story, but Cancini knew better. Ernie never drank more than two beers in a day. The bar gave him purpose. Even more likely, owning the bar meant he always had friends, and he would never be alone.
The old bartender worked from one end of the bar to the other. Cancini watched and waited. In spite of his age and a slight stoop, Ernie was still agile, drawing pitchers and wiping tables like a much younger man. His face was that of a man who rarely got outside, pale and heavily lined, the face of a man who spent most of his days and nights holed up in a dark bar.
Ernie ambled over, a half smoked cigarette bobbing between his lips, and wiped his big hands on a rag hanging from his waist. “What can I getcha?” he said, his voice low and hoarse. The man’s faded eyes wandered to a baseball game on an old TV set hanging from the ceiling.
Cancini repressed a tiny smile. “Ernie?”
The old man huffed but looked back briefly. “Who wants to know?”
Cancini chuckled. “You don’t recognize me?”
“Oh, for the love of Pete,” the old man said under his breath. He reached behind him for a pair of glasses. “Do I look like I have time to…” He stopped mid-sentence, breaking into a grin. “Well, I’ll be.” He shook his head. “Jesus, I can’t believe it. Mike Cancini.” Reaching across the bar, they pumped hands, smiling at each other. “Goddamn. How long has it been anyway?”
“A long time, Ernie. Too long.” Cancini paused. “Since the trial, I guess. I’m sorry about that.”
Ernie nodded, his smile gone. “Yeah.” He shrugged. “You had your reasons though. No one blamed you for not coming back.” Cancini was quiet, lost in memories he’d tried once to forget. “Can I get you a beer?”
“I thought you’d never ask. Whatever’s on tap.” He sat waiting, watching Ernie draw the beer into a heavy mug with a thick handle, an old style bar glass cloudy with use. Cancini drank slowly until it was half gone, wiping the foam from his lips with the back of his hand. A bowl of pretzels appeared before him.
“How are you, Ernie?”
“Never better.” Cancini nodded. Ernie had been saying the same thing for years. After a few minutes of silence, the old bartender spoke again. Although his tone was conversational, his words betrayed his outward indifference. “Shit, Mike, I don’t know what they expect us to do. Sit around and wait for the other shoe to drop? You and me, old friend, know the truth, and I don’t give a rat’s ass who rigged the evidence. Spradlin’s guilty. He can’t goddamned stay in this town.”
Nothing Ernie said surprised Cancini. He understood the town’s reaction and would not judge its people. They were not cold-hearted or ignorant as so many reporters were already implying. They were just protecting their own. “The law says he can, Ernie. You know that.”
Bloodshot eyes looked back at him. The bartender nodded. He pulled out another glass, filling it to the rim before taking a sip himself. “What do you want from me, Mike?”
“Nothing, Ernie.” Cancini looked down the bar. The stools were half-full. He raised his eyes, meeting the old man’s gaze. “I don’t know. I’m not sure.”
Ernie took another swig, wiping the foam from his lips. “Are you on the case?”
Cancini almost smiled. He liked the direct approach. In fact, it was the approach he used himself when conducting interrogations. He didn’t like games. “There is no case for me, Ernie. Spradlin is a free man. The FBI is investigating now.”
“So, why are you here?”
Cancini pushed away the empty mug. “Baldwin called me. Said he was scared.”
Ernie snorted. “Of what? His election returns? Probably worried he’ll lose his big seat as mayor when everyone remembers how he stuck up for Spradlin at the trial.”
Ernie’s assessment wasn’t entirely accurate, but it was true enough. Baldwin had provided a shaky alibi for one of the murders, but he’d been vague about what time he might have seen Spradlin, discounting his testimony. In contrast, Spradlin offered no alibi. Still, any ill will Baldwin had earned, he’d erased with solid accomplishments since then. He held an important position in town, one he wouldn’t give up easily. “Who knows what’s going on in his head?”
Ernie’s brows furrowed, and he clucked his tongue. “So, then, what’re you s’posed to do for him so he won’t be such a scaredy cat?”
Cancini shrugged. “Nothing as far as I know. At least I’m not planning on doing anything.”
Ernie walked away, tending to other customers. Cancini picked through the pretzels, emptying the bowl. In the last hour, the bar had nearly filled. A waitress wearing a denim dress two sizes too small came out of the kitchen. She glanced at Ernie and then at Cancini, eyes curious. He nodded at her, and she looked away.
A fresh mug suddenly appeared before him. “If you’re not here for Baldwin, then why’re you here, Mike?” Ernie asked. He leaned on the bar, his forearms pressed against the dark wood.
Cancini picked up the mug, hesitating. He wasn’t sure how to put his answer into words without creating rumors. “I’ve got some leave coming. I decided to take it.”
“Yeah, right, and I’m married to Pamela Anderson.” Ernie stood up as straight as his old back would allow. Sharp eyes searched Cancini’s face. “C’mon, Mike. You’re here for a reason, and you walked into my place for a reason.” He wore the expression of a man bracing for trouble. “What can I do?”
The detective sighed. He’d seen the press conference. Spradlin had lied and tensions in town were high. Still, he’d told Ernie the truth. The FBI would handle the case. There was nothing more to see, no real reason not to pack his bags and go home. He’d spent the last day and night wondering why he didn’t do just that.
A woman’s laughter rang out, bubbly and care-free. Cancini shifted on his stool, watching the woman as she joined a table of friends. Two decades earlier, she would have stayed home, afraid to leave the safety of her house. For weeks and months, a cloud of fear had hung over this town until Spradlin was arrested. But that was then. Now he was back in Little Springs, and the deaths of all those girls had been reclassified as unsolved. It burned in his gut.
Cancini’s bony fingers rubbed at the nicks and scars in the old wooden bar. He hesitated only a few seconds. He knew he would ask, knew he would start something he’d be obligated to finish. “I was wondering about Spradlin’s mother. Did you know her?”
The man nodded slowly. “A little. She didn’t come in the bar much, but I saw her at church once in a while. She kept to herself far as I know.”
“Uh huh. Do you know anything about her relationship with her son, maybe what her life was like after he went to jail? That kind of thing.”
The bartender shook his head. “Nah. I wouldn’t know ’bout that.” He rubbed his hand over the gray stubble on his face. “I know someone who might though. Want me to have her give you a call?”
“Yeah, sure. I’d appreciate that.”
Ernie wiped his hands on the rag again before he took Cancini’s card, placing it in the cash register. “Mike, thanks, you know, for doing this, for coming back. I’ll sleep better at night jus’ knowing you’re here.”
Cancini looked down at his beer. “I’m not doing anything, Ernie. Really. Don’t expect too much. Like I said, there’s no case. It’s just a follow up. That’s all.”
The man stared back. “But you know this is wrong, don’t you, Mike? It’s total bullshit. You know it is. You put Spradlin away. You thought Spradlin was guilty. You know he’s guilty just like we do, right?”
“I don’t know anymore, Ernie.” Cancini shook his head. “The DNA evidence is pretty conclusive.”
“Conclusive? Ha! It’s a crock. I don’t know how Spradlin rigged it, but he sure as shit did.” Cancini had heard that same sentiment more than once since his arrival in Little Springs. “Besides, you had other evidence. There was that sweatshirt or t-shirt or somethin’ and no alibi and I don’t know what else. He’s guilty. Why else would it have stopped?”
“I don’t know, Ernie.”
“But you believed he was guilty, didn’t you, Mike?”
“Yeah, I did.”
Cancini ran his fingers around the fat rim of the mug. The evidence said he’d made a mistake. Why couldn’t he just accept it? And why couldn’t he shake the feeling that something wasn’t right?
“I don’t know what I believe, Ernie,” he said finally, looking into the old man’s eyes. “I wish I did.”
Kellie Larsen Murphy is the author of A Guilty Mind and Stay of Execution, the first two books in the Detective Cancini Mystery series. She has written for several mid-Atlantic magazines and resides in Richmond, Virginia, with her husband, four children, and two very large, very hairy dogs.
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