A Step Ahead of Death by Scott McPherson
Jack Sharp is just an ordinary family physician living in Nebraska. As a former missionary and military physician, his background is anything but ordinary, but he finds quiet satisfaction in the normal routine of a simple life. However, his uncomplicated life is thrown into chaos when he discovers the body of a murdered young woman dumped beside a bike path.
Jack finds himself juggling the drama of the murder investigation with the concerns of his patients and his medical practice. His medical expertise seems to be an asset in the case, but a dear friend, Kathy, needs his help when she receives dramatic news of her own.
Alicia Winters is running for her life and is doing her best to stay hidden. The compassion and generosity of an old farmer and his daughter initially arouse her suspicions, but soon lead her to examine her own motives. As her pursuers close in, she finds herself running out of options and must choose between saving her life and risking it for these people who have come to mean everything to her.
Meanwhile, detectives Rebecca Sweate and Justin Samuelson are piecing together the details of the murder, but what they’re discovering is leading them to the last person anyone would suspect. When another girl goes missing, the detectives uncover startling facts from Jack’s past that link him not only to the murdered girl but to a broader international conspiracy whose head doesn’t mind running over anyone who gets in the way.
Targeted Age Group:: 15 and up
Heat/Violence Level: Heat Level 2 – PG
What Inspired You to Write Your Book?
I love to walk and I walk regularly on a bike path nearby. When I walk, I don’t listen but to the world around me. I let my mind wander. Once, on a walk, I thought, “What if I found something important along the path, in the ditch?” I had begun writing and decided to have my character, Jack Sharp, MD, do just that. One day on a walk he found a dead body in the ditch and his life was never the same. Putting myself in his shoes I wrote about the journey he had to take, first as a suspect, then as an amateur sleuth. The novel took off. The first day I wrote a whole chapter. Now I love writing as much as walking. Take a walk with Jack, in A Step Ahead of Death.
How Did You Come up With Your Characters?
I am a physician and have met thousands of different people throughout my career. Along with friends and colleagues I care for many patients. Every person is unique and I was able to use things I know about them to help me develop the different characters I have in my books. My main character, Jack Sharp, MD, isn’t too different from me. That makes writing about him pretty easy but the evil that appears in the hearts of some of my characters is harder for me. I am a good guy so it’s not easy to put myself in their shoes.
A Thursday in October 2008
Out for his daily exercise, Jack walked briskly along the crushed gravel path. He had no way to know what a mystery the path would lead to today. In every other way, the path and the day seemed normal. The fine white rock of the bike path had replaced a busy rail line through the heart of Lincoln. He liked coming here. Leaving the office for the pleasure of a walk on the path was not just exercise but relaxation. It was a place to unwind and erase from his mind whatever was happening in his day. On this beautiful fall day the leaves, like huge golden rain drops, were beginning to cascade down from the surrounding cottonwood trees.
Removing his attention from his work today was necessary because he was thinking of a family whose mother, he believed, might have a condition like Alzheimer’s disease. She had been full of disbelief, almost indignant when he had broached the subject with her the previous week. This patient had been resistant to him talking about her with the rest of her family, and he knew it would be a violation of her privacy to go against her wishes. Nevertheless, she was having significant problems with forgetfulness. In addition, she had gotten lost twice in the past month, when driving to the store from her acreage, just a few miles outside of town. She had called him personally, to help her, which made the situation even harder. This patient, Kathy, had known Jack for many years, and at one time he had thought that he was in love with her. Now their friendship made his choices even more difficult. At fifty, Kathy was still very attractive. A widow for about five years, most of her seven children, some married with children of their own, had stayed in the area. They were a close family, but she had not mentioned any of her memory problems to them. Jack was also concerned for her eleven-year-old daughter, Esther, who was still living at home.
Pointing out that her memory issues could affect Esther, Jack had gotten Kathy’s permission to schedule a consultation with the whole family for later this afternoon. She had been reluctant, so he still wasn’t certain she would let him discuss her condition openly with her children. His plan was to meet with her first. Jack hoped to convince Kathy that she needed her children’s support and that they needed to know her condition. He knew, though, that he would have to tread with care. It was his desire to maintain his friendship with Kathy, yet he must remain objective.
His reverie was broken by a rustling sound as a squirrel leaped from the fallen leaves to the trunk of a hackberry tree. It disappeared almost instantly as it expertly hid on the opposite side of the trunk. The momentary distraction helped him to return to the world around him. He put Kathy and her troubles at the back of his thoughts and began to enjoy his walk.
Jack never wore earphones or listened to music or radio when he walked. He noticed that most other people on the trail had mp3 players or radios on their ears tuning out the world that he was there to enjoy. Jack wanted only the sights and sounds of the natural environment in his head. Now all he heard was the crunching sound of his feet on the gravel and the little breeze as it whistled through the branches. He glanced down at his watch unhappily. Soon he would have to turn around and return to the world of work and the difficult decisions that lay ahead. This respite was a welcome relief for him, even though it always had to come to an end.
Jack loved being a doctor but knew there was other work he could do that could add meaning to his life. As a Christian, he had a strong interest in missions, and he had been in the mission field earlier in his life. Since then, he had taken advantage of short trips sponsored by the Christian Doctors Association. These lasted one or two weeks and were usually to needy areas of the world. The trips had kept medical missions alive in his mind. On the short trips, the team could see many patients, but, unfortunately, no on-going management was possible. To fit in and learn about a culture took time, usually years. He had not become a career missionary and this bothered his conscience from time to time, intruding upon him with feelings of guilt. His life was comfortable now, but there were people in many nations without even basic comforts.
Being single, Jack also sometimes felt “hollow.” Why he had never settled down had been a constant mystery to his parents and friends, but Jack knew why he had never gotten married. It was because he never quite got over his relationship with a young woman he had met in Africa. He was aware, too, that he must have passed up some other wonderful relationships in his life. Singleness, wasn’t all bad, though. He liked his independence but realized that now, he might be too set in his ways for any woman to be able to cope in a relationship with him.
Jack looked at the surrounding fields. The local farmers planted right up to the city limits until developers bought them out for new construction. Here there were tall dried corn stalks ready for harvest, and a gully crossed the path at this point. It was his usual turn-around point, though if he walked more quickly he could go a little farther.
Jack was about to reverse direction on the path when a flash of color caught his eye. He stopped and looked back in the direction from which he had come. As he looked back he could see nothing out of the ordinary. Yet, he was there had been a flicker of bright blue at the bottom of the gully just north of the path. Perhaps it was a blue bird or a blue plastic bottle. He often picked up trash along the trail, although today, he had forgotten to bring a trash bag.
The wild plum thickets still had most of their leaves and some over-ripe fruit hanging on their branches. He backed up a little and, leaning down, peered through the undergrowth. The tangled branches and leaves were dense, so he had to strain to see anything. The blue color was clear in his memory. He knew that there should not be anything but earth-tone colors out here. Nevertheless, curiosity overrode his good sense as he left the trail, and without another thought, he began descending into the gully.
Jack realized his error almost at once since he still wore his business slacks and sweater. Thistles and burrs pulled at his clothing. Half-way down the embankment, he nearly turned back. He could see that this would lead to a mess that he would have to clean up before starting his afternoon clinic. He realized that his time was short enough without having to clean up his clothing.
Jack, you’re being stupid. What do you think you are going to find? Then he said aloud to no one in particular, “It’s probably some antifreeze jug or surveyor’s flag.”
Jack hesitated, but now he saw that he was committed. The more he thought about it, the more he realized how ridiculous the enterprise was, but once at the bottom of the slope, there was no advantage to retreat.
The weeds ahead of him were deeper than he had anticipated. His ankles chafed and he could feel the cockle burrs poking through his socks. His sweater would need repair as several threads of yarn had caught on overhanging locust thorns. He was getting dusty and with less wind, he noticed that he had begun to perspire. The flickering sunlight down here was less intense, and even the colors less pronounced. Reaching forward to move a plum branch out of the way, he pulled away in pain as he encountered a wild rose bush.
Yelling, “ouch!” and sucking at his hand, he tried to see the nearly invisible thorns stuck to the side of his palm. Peering over the rim of his glasses as he looked down at his hand, Jack had another shock.
Only a few inches from his own shoes was a white stocking-covered foot. It was clearly human and unmoving. Following the contours of the protruding leg, he saw the item which must have caught his attention earlier. Nearly covered by leaves was the body of a young woman. Jack caught his breath. He had seen death before, but it was usually in the context of a hospital emergency room or ICU bed.
This woman still wore a blue skirt, with what appeared to have been a cream colored blouse. Part of the skirt had torn off and was stuck higher on a branch of the rose bush. It was wafting lazily in what little breeze there was, and must have become visible just at the moment his eye had surveyed the area. He looked up, barely able to see the edge of the path from where he stood. He marveled that he had been able to see this little piece of fabric. The light must have been just right for him to spot it.
The sight of the stricken body made him want to get away, even more than the thorns and burrs. However, reacting quickly, he knew from his experience what he must do. He knew enough not to touch the body, but Jack’s eyes took in the entire scene so he could report everything to the authorities.
The woman’s features were still quite apparent though her skin wore the pallor and waxy consistency of death. There did not appear to be significant decomposition to her body and her clothes, while soiled and bloodied, were not faded. Though he knew little of forensic science he could tell that she had not lain here long. There were flies buzzing around, but he could see no signs of deterioration of her skin. The young woman’s milky eyes were open in a fixed stare. Her expression was one of surprise, but not horror. He hadn’t realized that one could actually see the expression on a deceased person’s face. Usually, he had seen death after multiple attempts at resuscitation. These bodies had a more clinical appearance. Death by violence clearly created a different picture.
Since he was not on call today, Jack had chosen not to carry his cell phone. He liked having some time when he was not available. Anything urgent would go to his partner, Don Miller, who was taking call that day. Jack would have to go all the way back to his office to get help and report finding this body. Now, too, came the realization that his afternoon was going to be much different than he had planned. His patients and his office staff would not be pleased. All of those people would probably have to be rescheduled while he dealt with this new crisis. For a fleeting moment he entertained the idea of acting ignorant, and letting someone else find the body, but immediately dismissed this as unprofessional, and downright cowardly. It was necessary to drop everything and take care of this situation first. Oh, but what about Kathy? This will not help.
Jack had no police training but wanted to ascertain any clues that might be found. He mentally cataloged the scene. The body lay flat, parallel to the path as if it had been placed rather than dumped. Had someone pushed or thrown her from the path, she would not have made it all the way to the bottom, and most likely would have been in a more crumpled up position.
Though the skirt was torn and the body dirty, she was not terribly unkempt, and there did not appear to be blood on the ground or surrounding vegetation. The blood stains were centered in the chest, and he saw several small vertical tears in the blouse. He guessed that these were knife wounds. She had a watch on her right wrist, a bracelet around the left wrist, a necklace, and an ankle bracelet. The necklace had a round pendant, but he could not tell if it was a locket or solid metal. She wore an antique ring on her middle finger and her nails were perfect. She appeared to have had a recent manicure. He saw no purse or wallet, but he desperately wanted to see whether she had any identification. He knew that it would be considered tampering with the crime scene and that he would leave fingerprints if he touched anything. The last thing he wanted was to invite suspicion. Her blouse was partially unbuttoned revealing the round side of a tattoo on the inside of her left breast. It was not faded, but he could not tell what it represented. This took only moments, as he turned 360 degrees to memorize the surroundings.
Jack gingerly retraced his steps away from the body to find a less arduous way up the slope. As he was about to ascend, he froze. He saw a very clear footprint in a small open area of dirt just ahead of him. He didn’t want to disturb this, so he began to look for yet another path. Suddenly, he heard the familiar crunching sound of a jogger coming back down the trail from the east. Should he show himself and get the jogger to help, or hide himself to avoid suspicion? He decided that if he hid and was still seen, it would look even more incriminating so he skirted the footprint, and began waving his hands in hopes of attracting attention.
Jack moved quickly along the plum thicket until he found a way to the bike path. By then the jogger had slowed, looking puzzled. He was tan and solid looking and wore a plain white t-shirt and shorts. The young man was definitely a bodybuilder with large biceps, and his t-shirt strained against his massive chest. He looked perturbed at having his run interrupted, but pulled the earphones from his head. He squinted and said, “Hey what’s up? You all right?”
“Yes,” Jack said a little out of breath himself from the adrenaline and from hurrying up from the gully. “I’m fine, but there’s a woman down there and she’s not. In fact, she’s dead. I just found her body.” Jack stood hands on hips getting his bearings and his breath. “Do you have a cell phone?”
“Wow! A dead body?” the runner said incredulously.
“I’m certain. I’m a doctor and there is no doubt.” Jack hung his head at this and shook it. “It looks like murder too.”
“Man! I don’t know!” the runner began to look scared. He took in Jack’s somewhat unkempt appearance and started to put his earphones back on, moving away from Jack.
“What? Can you help with a cell phone?” Jack asked.
“I don’t know if I want to get involved,” said the runner.
Jack tried to calm him. He got in front of him and put out his hands. As they came into contact with the young man’s shirt he noticed that he was hardly sweating. That seemed a little odd, but he chalked it up to the young man being in excellent shape. He didn’t want to anger him or get in any conflict here. He jerked his hands back and said, “All you need to do is call 911. You don’t have to go look or anything. You are hardly ‘involved’ Okay?”
“Well. Yeah, I guess.” The runner stopped moving. With a sigh, he said, “Look, my cell phone is back in my car.” He nodded up the path, the way Jack had come originally. “You want to come and make the call yourself?”
Jack thought a second. “No. I should wait here for the police. All right? My name is Jack Sharp. I’m a family doctor here in town. Even if you call, I’m the one they will want to talk to. I’ll just sit here by the path until they arrive.”
“Okay, Doc. I’m Greg Connolly,” he said, a little calmer. “I work at that company over there,” he said pointing to the large modern red brick building about a quarter of a mile away. “Sorry. I kind of freaked. Sure, I’ll make the call. I can wait in the parking lot for the cops. You going to be all right out here?”
Jack was aware that the building he pointed to was an insurance company. Why hadn’t he just said the name? Nevertheless, he answered, “Yes. There’s nothing to be afraid of now. She was the victim, not me.” He always carried a pen so he fished out a scrap piece of paper from his pocket and wrote his office number down. “Here’s my name and my office number. Could you call and let them know why I’m late?”
The jogger merely nodded, took the paper and, without another word, took off for the parking lot about a half-mile to the west. Jack was relieved to have found someone else to help out. He was a little curious about the jogger’s initial reaction but figured he, also, would have been reluctant if their roles had been reversed.
As Jack sat by the path no one else passed him by. This was not unusual on a weekday when most people tried to get their exercise done during the lunch hour or after work. It was now past one o’clock when his normal afternoon clinic hours were supposed to begin. His thoughts drifted to the murdered young woman. He wondered what the motive for murdering her had been. Who would have wanted her dead? She wasn’t bad looking, even in death. He didn’t think she had been sexually assaulted, but from his limited examination, he could not know for sure. He still marveled at her facial expression. With such a look of surprise, death must have been very sudden. The multiple wounds made him think it may have been personal. Why was her body here? This puzzled him as much or more than any other question. Did the killer think her body would go undiscovered? If so, then why not bury her? Jack would never have found the body, had it been even in a shallow grave. Then again, he realized that the body would not normally have been seen from the path until the leaves had all fallen to the earth in a few weeks. Had it not been for the scrap of blue fabric caught in the branches, he never would have seen her. In a few weeks, even the few clues available would be long gone.
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