A Jaye Jordan Vermont Radio Mystery By Nikki Knight

Nikki Knight is a 2022 Derringer Award finalist (for “The Thanksgiving Ragamuffin”) and her short stories appear in several anthologies. Her first Jaye Jordan mystery novel, Live, Local, and Deadwas published in February 2022 by Crooked Lane.

*****

I play “You’re the Inspiration” once a night. No more.

Except for the night of the murder.

Not that I knew about the murder then.

All I knew at the time was that one of my regulars really needed a song.

When you run a tiny radio station in a small Vermont town, you try to give listeners what they need. It’s the whole reason we’re here.

A lot of small towns don’t have their own radio stations any more, because of consolidation in the industry and the simple fact that it’s incredibly hard work. WSV had given up and turned over to angry syndicated talk until I showed up and took it local again.

Not that it was my big life plan. I’d figured I’d seen the last of the place when I left Simpson for my first major-market job almost twenty years ago. Until my big New York City career hit a wall when the station went all-sports and replaced “Jaye Jordan’s Light Rock at Work” with “The Bully Ballers Show.”

Right about the same time, my husband decided he wanted different things after surviving cancer. Blonde things, mostly.

So I took my severance, bought what was left of WSV, and moved in over the store with my twin daughter. We’re managing.

The listeners keep me going.

They start calling in for my all-request show an hour or so before air and keep right on going until I wrap up after midnight. Sometimes they call during the recorded morning show, and the satellite music that bridges the rest of the day, too.

Mostly, they just ask for a song they like or that means something to them. I get a lot of milestone anniversaries, birthday favorites, and breakup ballads. Sometimes a little appreciation. Listeners see me – well, hear me – as a friend.

They’re the main reason we do this. We sure don’t do it for the money. My first boss told me that, back when I was a big fat kid with a bigger, fatter voice. I’m stress-skinny now, but my voice, and my love for the work haven’t changed. I do it because I’m giving people what they need.

What a woman with a trace of Boston and more than a few tears in her voice needed just before midnight that Monday night was “You’re the Inspiration.”

They’re the main reason we do this. We sure don’t do it for the money. My first boss told me that, back when I was a big fat kid with a bigger, fatter voice.

I’d already played the Chicago classic for a wedding anniversary couple in the first hour of the show, and I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t keep to my rule, I’ll end up playing it every damn hour . Maybe more.

But there was something in her voice. It hadn’t been there the other times she called, asking for get-up-and-go Kelly Clarkson or Katy Perry girl-power stuff.

Something was different tonight. None of my business what.

It was the last hour of the show.

“I don’t usually play it more than once a night,” I said. “But for you I will.”

“Thanks, Jaye.”

As she said my name, I heard it: the little note of appreciation and relief that makes it all worthwhile.

One more satisfied listener.

I thought that was the end of it.

*****

“Being a local business owner means going out in the community, Jaye.” Sadie Blacklaw, Town Clerk, yoga buddy, and generally wonderful human, glared at me over her rhinestoned reading glasses.

It was midday on Thursday, three busy days after I’d broken my rule on “You’re the Inspiration,” and I was trying to get the commercial affidavits for the previous day finished and filed in time to tape some narration for my voice -work side hustle before school pickup. Sadie, as several of my friends often do, had stopped by for a cup of the very good coffee that is my one luxury.

“Going out to what?” I asked.

Sadie, who was perfectly turned-out in a red boiled-wool jacket and long black skirt, her short blonde hair perfect despite the winter wind outside, sighed. “A wake up. Everyone will be there.”

“A wake?”

“I hate them and I’m not going alone.” She gave me a definitive node. “We’ll go after school pickup and before the show, and Ryan can do her homework with Xavi next door at Rob and Tim’s.”

Typical Sadie.

When she wants something, she sets it up so her mark can’t escape. I was sure she’d already called my neighbor, her nephew, to set up the homework date with my daughter and his son.

I know when I’m trapped.

I took a sip of my own coffee. “All right.”

“And Jaye, honey?” She held my gaze. “Put on a blazer and lipstick, will you? A little dignity and style…and you never know who might be there.”

Well, that much turned out to be true, anyhow.

*****

Slater’s Funeral Home was an old Victorian house at the far end of Main Street, where it had been since sometime in the late 1800s when the first Slaters started laying out their neighbors. It took Sadie and me maybe five minutes to walk there from the station, actually a nice break on a March day without much wind.

Not so nice when we got inside. A suitably grim male Slater took our sensible down stadium coats and motioned us to a “repose room.”

I tensed a little. I grew up in rural Western Pennsylvania, where a wake is called – and literally is – a viewing. Took me years to get that last sight of my grandfather out of my mind.

Sadie elbowed me. Relax. It’s closed casket.”

“Oh. Okay.”

A fine smile. “We’re not that old fashioned.”

Whew.

As we walked in, I realized I’d forgotten a very important question.

“Um, Sadie, who are we here for?”

“Bran Foster”. Owned the little appliance shop in the plaza.”

“Really? That’s too bad.” I look my head. “I bought the washer/dryer there. He didn’t let me buy the fancy one that was recalled a few weeks later.”

I remembered Bran Foster’s careful explanation that I could get the spiffy new model for our little apartment above the station, but he wasn’t sure if the bugs had been working out, and he’d hate to see me stuck with a lemon. The kind of thing businesspeople do in a small town because they care about the long-term relationship, not today’s sale.

“That was Bran. Good man.” She sighed. “Jeanine’s a poll worker. Teaches at the High School. Son’s at college out of state.”

“What happened?”

“Apparently just dropped dead in the kitchen Monday night. You know how most men are. Don’t go to the doc unless their wife or something makes them. And then…”

I did know. The only reason Ryan still had a father was that David was deliberately and consciously determined to take care of himself, so he kept asking questions when he had a cold that wouldn’t go away. The first doc thought it was nothing. The second one found the lymphoma.

If David had been the usual guy…

Poor Jeanine Foster.

I heard a few soft voices as we walked in, but none I recognized, so I was reasonably sure no one else I knew was here. After a lifetime in radio, I’m very good with voices, and I only need a word or two.

The “repose room” probably hadn’t changed since the first Slater hosted a wake at the turn of the 20th century. Maybe they’d re-upholstered the dark velvet hobnail couches. I sure hoped they had. There was a big stained-glass window on one wall, which gave the room some warm light, amplified by a couple of porcelain lamps and what was probably a Tiffany knockoff.

Probably. The thing about Northern New England is that everyone is so low-key that you can never be sure who’s got what.

Every funeral scene I’ve ever read refers to the overpowering smell of flowers, but hothouse blooms don’t really have much scent. Instead, the room was pleasantly redolent of expensive candles. Probably an innovation from one of the current Slaters.

Jeanine Foster was sitting in a big deep-red velvet chair near the (thankfully) closed casket, in a dark-green matched skirt and sweater that gave her skin a sickly cast. She had that tight, resolute expression that people have before the big ugly cry.

A couple of people who looked vaguely familiar from school events surrounded her, and pulled back when they saw us.

Every funeral scene I’ve ever read refers to the overpowering smell of flowers, but hothouse blooms don’t really have much scent.

“Jeanine.”

Sadie. Thank you so much for coming.” Jeanine stood and took Sadie’s offered hands. New Englanders aren’t huggy. “And – I’m not sure we’ve met…”

I froze.

Even though it’s a small town, most people don’t know what I look like, especially not in a navy blouse and blazer from my New York work wardrobe instead of the moto jacket and snarky tees I usually wear.

But I knew her. By her voice. She was the extra “You’re the Inspiration” request. On Monday night.

“Hi,” I said, holding out both hands as Sadie had done. “I’m Jaye Jordan.”

Her eyes widened.

“Oh, dear God.”

She crumpled into the chair, exploding in tears.

First Sadie, and then everyone else in the room, stared at me.

They clearly wondered what horrible thing I’d done to the poor widow.

But I wasn’t the one who’d done something horrible.

Jeanine took a breath and looked up.

“I didn’t plan it, you know,” she said. “There was an opportunity and I took it.”

“Opportunity?” Sadie asked.

I’d caught Jeanine’s odd phrasing, too, but Sadie reacted first.

“He was going to sell the business out from under us and take off for Florida,” she said, her voice wobbling but not breaking. “Why should he take everything and leave after all the work I’d put in? I did the books and chose the models and backed him up – even though I was holding down a full-time job.”

“You sure did,” I said, keeping my tone soothing.

“Yeah, you should know about this, huh?” Jeanine asked. “I heard about your husband. You got him through cancer and the rat ran off to chase chicks.”

I shrugged. “Something like that.”

Not the time to point out that there was a lot more to it. There always is.

“See, I wasn’t going to make that mistake,” she continued. “Not when I got the chance to stop him.”

The room was suddenly terribly still.

“He came home Monday night talking about his arm and shoulder bothering him. Radiating pain into the neck, he said.” Jeanine’s face hardened.

“And…” Sadie.

“I told him it must have been from putting in a dishwasher that afternoon. No big deal.”

“Stop talking,” I said. “If you don’t-“

A decent lawyer could still help her. Extreme emotional distress, diminished capacity, something. Mercy, if she wanted it.

“I know what I did.” Jeanine shook her head. “I heard him collapse in the kitchen. And I waited. I knew what I’d do if I saw him. I’d remember when it was good and forget what he’d decided to do to me.”

The air, full of the soft, warm scent of expensive candles, was tense and quiet, as all eyes focused on Jeanine.

“I read a book and I waited. Listened to your show, Jaye.”

An endorsement I don’t need, for sure.

“And after midnight, when it was quiet, I went in and found him.”

“And called in a request,” I said.

“Once I was sure it was over. Then I could remember the good.”

I nodded. Sadie stepped away and pulled her phone out of her purse. Time to bring in the cops.

“And I played it for you.” It didn’t make me an accomplice, but…

She took my hands, then, looked into my eyes with a faint dreamy smile. “First dance at our wedding, back when we were together, and hopeful, and everything was ahead of us.”

My throat tightened. I remembered swaying to a different song, with flowers in my hair and a man who’d just promised to love me until death did us part, neither of us realizing that some things are harder than death.

I wasn’t capable of what she’d done. I hoped. But I understood why. I nodded.

Jeanine’s eyes overflowed. “It was our song.”

*****

If you’ve enjoyed It Was Our Song (A Jaye Jordan Vermont Radio Mystery), you can visit our free digital archive of flash fiction here. Additionally, premium short fiction published by Mystery Tribune on a quarterly basis is available digitally here.

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