The Nick of Time is the second compilation in the Capital City Murders series; this one includes Books 6-10. This compilation includes the novellas from Helena, Montana; Bismarck, North Dakota; Pierre, South Dakota; Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Denver, Colorado.
In each story, Nick O’Flannigan is on a one-year assignment to visit each state capital and submit photographs of the capitol building and surrounding areas to a major magazine. There’s been a murder, and Nick’s keen eye for details pulls him onto the case.
Will this involvement impact his assignment or his relationships? Especially his new relationship with Sandra?
Targeted Age Group:: 25-65
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
After reading some of Sue Grafton's "Alphabet" mysteries, I wondered if I could craft a series of books set in the U.S. state capitals. Knowing what it takes to write full-length novels, I settled on writing novellas. With my co-author Troy Lambert we are underway on the fifty stories, starting in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington, working our way east, then finishing in Alaska and Hawai'i.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
Nick O'Flannigan is the key character in the series who's on assignment to visit each state capital to photograph the capitol building and other areas for a major magazine. We wanted someone who would stand out from the crowd (he's six-foot-six with bushy reddish-orange hair) so he's recognized by some people as he moves to a new capital city each week.
Other characters were created to fit in with Nick, the story line, and the long-term goal for the 50-book series. He met Sandra in book 2; she helped him in book 3, and they get together for a wonderful week together in book 10. Will the relationship last for a whole year?
Book 6 Prologue
One cried 'God bless us!' and 'Amen' the other;
As they had seen me with these hangman's hands.
Listening their fear, I could not say 'Amen,'
When they did say 'God bless us!'
He used the name Harry Hickman, although it was not his.
The hammer felt good in his rope-calloused hands. He performed the task the same way he always had, the way his father had, and his father before that.
Measure twice, cut once.
Create the joint on one end of the board, then the other.
The custom-made stool stood below the strongest limb of a tall oak tree at the edge of a meadow. It was just the right height, and a nearly finished set of steps led up one side. The back of it had a handle, the right size of Harry’s large hands.
This was not the Hanging Tree, the one of Helena legend. That one had been cut down long ago, and the legends about it were far from true.
Of course, there were other legends and facts around hangings in Helena, Montana, and they made Harry happy to be here. The true Hanging Tree in Helena had been cut down by Methodist ministers in 1875. Most of the time, using a tree limb to execute someone this way ended cruelly, with the victim suffering for long minutes before they died. There were legends of another hanging tree south of town, but he knew them for the lies they were. His great, great grandfather had overseen hangings at the Jefferson County Courthouse in Boulder, albeit for a brief time. Those hangings were legal, but such methods of execution were frowned upon now.
Harry didn’t know why. The death he wrought was instant and merciful. An eye for an eye, a crime for a crime, but the Lord never intended for those who violated his laws to suffer on earth. Their suffering would come after death, at the hands of one much crueler than he.
He merely provided a service. Everyone knew the American justice system did not always work. When it failed, certain key people often hired him to make things right.
He balanced the stool carefully. He would burn it after this, for it was the worst of luck to carry around anything used in such work. Once, he’d reused a stool and it had broken under the weight of the criminal before Harry had been able to get the rope just right. He’d been forced to shoot that man to put him out of his misery, something he despised doing.
Guns were for hunting, and hunting people was also cruel. He fingered the sign, the sign that would hang around his charge’s neck, written on white cardboard. It, too, would burn.
A life for a life.
He finished setting the set of steps next to the tall and overly large stool. Grabbing a coil of rope, his swift and practiced hands laid it out on the surface in first a “C” shape and then that of an “S”. Pinching it together, he began to wrap, then completed the knot and pulled it tight, studying the eight coils. Perfect. The rope slid through the knot, but not too easily, making the loop easy to adjust while not leaving it loose.
A practiced toss put it in place over the limb. Harry was just over six feet tall, his muscles hard, his aim true, and he had practiced this act dozens of times, not counting the number of times he had assisted his father.
Harry looked at his watch. Just in time. His arms ached, but in a good way, from the work of getting things ready. It had been worth it. The man’s last view would at least be a beautiful one.
In the distance, he saw three men making their way up the rocky trail toward the cliffs.
Harry inhaled the scent of wildflowers and pine. He looked around at the soothing landscape, felt the brisk wind on his skin drying the sweat formed by his hard work. The sun was about to set, and no clouds were present in the big blue sky this state was famous for. Maybe when he was done, he could stick around Helena for a few days. It had been a while since he was here, in what had been his home for a brief time, and no one would recognize him anymore. Certainly no one would know who he was or what he did now.
“Jesus,” the man in the middle exclaimed when he saw the noose hanging over the limb of the tree.
“I am not Jesus, nor can I absolve you of your sins,” Harry answered.
“What is your name?”
“I’m Albert. Albert Paulson.”
“Welcome, all of you. He is the one?” he asked the man on the right.
The man he’d indicated nodded and grabbed Albert by the elbow.
Harry could see the fear in all of their eyes, and that saddened him. He would not kill anyone not deserving of it, not unless he had to. He certainly would not hang them.
“His height is correct,” he said. “He is a little heavier than you stated.”
“Is that a problem?” The man on the left said. Harry recognized his voice.
“You are Lane, the one who called me. No, it will not be a problem. My calculations allow for a margin of error.”
“A problem for what?” Albert asked. “What is that?”
“Do you have the charges?” Harry ignored him. His questions did not matter, not now. He wanted to finish before the sun set and before he had to climb down from this place in the dark, a flaming tree, rope, and man lighting up the sky behind him.
“I do,” Lane said. He brought out a folded document, a copy of the form Harry had asked him to fill out.
Harry looked it over, then cleared his throat. “Will you read them?”
The man on the right interrupted. “I will.”
“Fine. Lane, if you would, bind his hands, please.”
“O-o-okay,” Lane stammered, and from the anxiousness in his voice, Harry was glad he would not be reading the charges. That might take forever.
Albert struggled. “What are you doing to me? What is this about?”
Once the prisoner was bound, Harry led him toward the stool and the tree. “Wait a minute,” Albert said. “Is this some kind of joke?”
“Not at all,” Harry said. “I do not joke.”
“You’re going to—what did I do?”
“The charges,” he stated flatly.
“You, Albert Paulson, are charged with the crime of murder. You did, on the night of August 12th of the year of our Lord 2016, beat one Carolyn Paulson, with your fists until she was dead. You did, through trickery and treasonous acts, escape the courts with a minor charge of manslaughter.”
“I didn’t do it. You got it wrong. I’m not your guy. I just plead so that —” Albert struggled, but Harry held him. He was used to men like this, men who did not want to face the things they had done.
“You, therefore, are sentenced to die on this day by hanging from the neck until you are dead—”
“No! No! I’m innocent!”
They all were, according to them. He’d studied the file before he took the job. Albert was guilty, and this had not been the first time he’d abused poor Carolyn.
Harry forced him up onto the short set of steps on the side of the stool. Men tried to resist, but he had done this many times before. He could make their feet move, make them follow his directions.
“…hanging from the neck until you are dead. May God rest your soul.” The man finished. He looked up.
Albert thrashed, but Harry still managed to get first the sign and then the noose over his head and around his neck.
Grabbing the other end of the rope and used it to steady Albert on the broad surface of the stool.
“Stay still,” he commanded. “This will go better if you do. Do you have any last words?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for the things I did, but I didn’t do this. Have mercy. Spare me, please.”
They were the words of a guilty man, not truly sorry, just trying to prolong his miserable life.
“May God have mercy on your soul,” Harry said. He reached up and in one swift motion pushed Albert off the stool and pulled it backwards out of the way.
The drop was perfect. The noose was perfect. He heard a loud snap just as Albert reached the end of his rope.
He twitched, but only twice, and then stilled, swaying in the breeze.
Harry made the sign of the cross, something that had lost any meaning for him years ago, but another thing that was part of The Way.
He then pushed the stool closer, directly beside Albert’s swaying feet.
He sprayed it down with gasoline, but it would not take much. The wood was dry and ready to burn. He was sure to spray some on Albert’s feet and legs, something he loathed doing. Burning the bodies helped him not get caught, but just once he would have loved to show the world his great and merciful skill.
He hoped the grass around the gallows was wet enough that the fire would not spread far, but it shouldn’t. Even if it did, small grass fires in this particular area usually burned out quickly by themselves, often barely singeing the trunks of the nearby trees.
He stepped back on to the trail, looking up to see Albert’s body swaying in the wind at the end of the rope. His neck was at an odd angle, but one he had seen many times. He pulled a small camera from his pocket and discretely snapped a photo.
He heard retching and turned to see Lane’s companion bent over double, puking into the grass.
“Who is he?” Harry asked.
“Carolyn’s brother. He’s from Colorado but wanted to come see this.”
Lane was also pale. Harry would bet neither of them had ever seen an execution, let alone a hanging. The sights, the smell, and the look of death could all get to a man if he let them.
“The remainder of my payment?”
“Here you go,” Lane said, and tossed him a small bag. Harry glanced inside, seeing the few stacks of hundreds there.
“Thank you,” he said. “For your business, and for righting this wrong.”
“A-a-anytime,” Lane said. “I better get him back to town.”
“Good idea,” Harry said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
“We’ll be headed out of town right away. T-t-t-hanks for your service, Mr. H-h-h-hickman.”
Hickman. It was as good a name as any. He used several. Just never his real one.
While George Maledon IV had a good ring to it, any student of history who glanced at his hands might guess what he did for a living.
A simple toss of a match set the blaze, and he headed back down the trail. The sunset had painted the sky orange in front of him, and the fire painted it yellow behind.
A day or two break, even a week, might be in order. All work and no play did, indeed, make George a dull boy.
Teaser from Book 10: Defenestration in Denver
“The window, the window,
They threw them out the window;
Wearied by a war of words,
They threw them out the window. “
Nick exited the freeway, took a right, and headed to the Sheraton where he had booked a room, close to the capitol and downtown. He knew from his research that parking in downtown Denver could be a nightmare, and that there were a lot of restaurants close by. With Sandra, Gerry, and Catherine coming too, he knew walking would be the best mode of transportation for all of them.
That was as soon as he got them from the airport, forty minutes from the hotel. At least the drive from Cheyenne had been a quick one, under two hours.
As he stopped at the hotel office and got out of the car, stretching every inch of his six-six frame, he cocked his head.
He heard something. Loud shouts, coming from not too far away. It sounded like a crowd.
Odd, he thought.
He shrugged, and went inside. The desk clerk looked up, and then up some more. He saw a dark-haired woman, brown eyes, and not too tall. She wore what he now clearly recognized as a pretty standard desk clerk attire: a white shirt covered by a dark blazer. Her name tag read, “Cheryl.”
“Can I help you?” She asked.
“Hi there,” he told her. “I have a reservation for tonight, and I am a bit early, but I have friends to pick up at the airport. Would it be okay if I checked in early?”
“Sure,” she said. “Let me check and see if your room is ready.”
She took a moment to type, and he glanced over her shoulder at a television tuned to the news. “Climate Change Protests in Denver” read the text under a photo of a crowd, armed with signs, walking in the streets.
“Is that close to here?” He asked.
“Yes,” she said. “It is actually only a few blocks away. We’ve even had some protesters staying here, and earlier there was a March right out front, heading to the capitol I assume.”
“Why would they have been coming by here?”
“I have no idea. I’m really not into that kind of thing.”
“Well, hopefully I won’t run into any trouble getting to the airport.”
“You shouldn’t. You’ll be going the opposite way of the capitol building.”
“Great. I’ve got to get some good photos of the building this week.”
“Oh, you’re that guy. The photographer traveling around the country.”
“You’ve heard of me?”
“I follow you on Instagram. But I have a sister in Pierre, and I saw an article about your visit there.”
“Awesome,” Nick said. Great. No anonymity even in a big city like Denver.
“Here’s your key,” she said. “New locks. You don’t insert it. Just tap it on the panel outside the door. If you want, you can download our app, and open the door with Bluetooth and your phone.”
“Very cool. I’ll probably use the card for now, but set up my phone later.”
“Oh, yeah. Your friends at the airport.”
Nick nodded, and tapped the keycard on the counter. “Thanks. I’ll see you around.”
He headed up and put his things in his room, and then grabbed his camera bag. He was anxious to see Sandra especially.
If he was honest with himself, he wasn’t for sure why. She was a great gal, and he thought there was something there, but although they had been in touch, he’d hadn’t seen her for over a month now, There had been other interesting girls along the way too. Helen in Helena, he still giggled over that one, although he seemed to be hearing less from her, was probably chief among them.
This week would mean a lot. Perhaps they would figure out if they were in a relationship or not. More than anything else, Nick just craved in-person, real time conversation with people he knew and liked.
Traveling was great, but new cities all the time meant developing new, but short term friendships, and loneliness. That was the hardest part by far, even though he enjoyed being alone much of the time.
With camera bag in hand, he headed out past the desk, waving to Cheryl as he headed out the door.
Once in his car, he plotted in the drive to the airport, and saw that it would only take a little over half an hour to get there.
“I’ve got some time,” he said to himself. “Maybe I’ll just do a quick drive by of the capitol.” He put his camera bag on the passenger seat, and took the camera out, setting in next to the bag.
“Just in case I can snap some drive-by photos,” he said to no one.
He shifted into gear, and hit 15th Street, turning left and then taking a right on Cherokee. He then took a left on 14th Street, which jogged to the right and turned into Bannock.
He kept the navigation app open on the screen in his car, but didn’t hit the button for directions to the airport yet. He didn’t want the talking voice to confuse him with directions he didn’t want to follow.
Even though it was chilly, he rolled the window down, enjoying the crisp air in the Mile High City, and taking in the sounds. It sounded like Seattle, like home.
Then he heard the sound of the crowd again, and it sounded like someone was shouting through a bullhorn. He wanted to turn on Colfax, but the street was blocked by a police barrier.
He kept going, and ended up taking a left onto 14th Avenue. That would take him near the back of the capitol building as well as he could figure. Traffic was moving slowly, and he could see why walking would work better than driving. Pedestrians were making faster progress than he was.
He could hear the protestors chanting now, although the words were overlapping and not really clear. He saw the crowd on the sidewalk ahead, and knew they must be filling the area by the capitol building there.
There must be a lot of them. The building must be surrounded.
Nick moved into the left lane, knowing that if he got stopped at a light or in traffic, he might get a clear shot or two of the building, even if there were protesters in the way, which clearly there were.
It was a good idea. So far he’d looked for “pure” shots, with no people, focusing on macro and detail, but maybe a few human interest shots would work for Emily this time by shaking things up. If nothing else, they would boost his social media and his own website.
He checked the time. He still had about an hour to get to the airport, so as long as it didn’t take too long to get through this traffic, he’d make it.
Up ahead, he saw the light for Sherman Street. It was green, but they were moving slowly toward it. As he watched, it turned yellow, and then red. He was maybe three cars back, but still had a pretty cool angle shot of the capitol building.
He rolled his window down all the way, and framed a shot of the building over the crowd, construction paper signs of green and pink with messages of “Climate Action Now” and “Earth is Our Home” raised in the foreground.
He snapped several photos, taking a moment between each to keep an eye on the light.
Something caught his eye, and he turned to the right. On the sidewalk next to a building labeled the Colorado Department of Revenue, he saw some additional protestors. They filled the crosswalk on Sherman, stopping traffic. He looked ahead, and even though the light turned green, the street was filled with people crossing from the other side.
Traffic wasn’t moving.
He heard a crash from the right, and turned his head to look, camera still raised. Must be a car accident, he thought at first. Not surprising with this congestion.
Then he saw it. There was a body on the hood of the car directly across from him. The driver stared ahead, face white with shock.
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