Choir Loft Murder Frankie Shep Suspense Novellas Book 3
by Karen Randau Genre: Mystery, Suspense
Her fiancé a murderer? As she digs for the truth, she must fight to survive a plot to frame the man she loves.
Frankie Shep has endured too many tragedies in her life. When she finally dares to love again, a revengeful plot threatens to cancel her wedding plans and send her fiancé to death row. But this feisty modern-day rancher won't stand for it.
A member of the church choir dies from a blowgun dart to a vital artery, and the murder weapon implicates Quint. Frankie is shocked to discover Quint was a champion blowgun competitor but quit the sport after a family disaster. And now he’s refusing to talk about his fate.
So she takes it on herself to track down the killer before Quint accepts a life-altering plea deal. She's devastated when she unearths his motive for the crime. But someone else lurks in the shadows, and that's who she's determined to find. Little does she know the killer follows her every move, ready to strike her down when she gets too close.
Can she unravel the vindictive plot before she becomes a crazed killer's next victim?
Choir Loft Murder is the riveting third book in the Frankie Shep Suspense Novellas series. If you like engaging heroines, twisty plots, and eerie settings, then you’ll love Karen Randau’s pulse-pounding thriller.
Buy Choir Loft Murder to expose a ruthless murderer today!
Walking hand-in-hand toward the sanctuary with her fiancé, Frankie silently practiced the alto part for the July 4th production their Rawlins, Wyoming church was putting on. Quint’s jaw-length, sandy hair fluttered the way Frankie liked when he quick-stepped ahead of her to grab the handle. The sight caused her to forget all about harmonies.
With a sweeping gesture, he swung the door open and allowed his lips to graze her cheek. “My lady.” He laughed as he placed a hand on her lower back and nudged her inside.
Her heart was so full she thought it might burst when she kissed the sexy stubble on his chin. As she slid past him, she glanced toward the opposite end of the sanctuary and stopped in her tracks. “Whoa.” She stepped aside so Quint could come up beside her.
One of the first sopranos stood in the far corner of the choir loft, on the stage behind the pulpit. Facing the wall, she held a cell phone to her ear, her free arm swinging wildly. “I’m telling you for the last time to leave me alone! If you ever bother me again—” She turned around when she heard them, and her dark hair spilled across her face. She angrily gestured for them to leave.
Frankie felt sorry for whoever was getting a piece of Sarah’s mind; it wasn’t a pretty sight. The robust thirty-five-year-old woman’s face was so red it made the scar on her cheek prominent despite layers of makeup. Frankie wasn’t sure Sarah’s cell phone would stand up to the woman’s white-knuckle grip or that her teeth wouldn’t shatter under the grinding she was subjecting them to.
Sarah pointed at the door with such fury that Quint took Frankie’s hand and backed out of the building.
“That is one hot-tempered woman.” Quint shook his head and gave a harrumph.
As always, his Texas drawl triggered a warm feeling in Frankie. Given what they’d just witnessed, she tried not to smile as she basked in the pleasure of his deep voice.
As Frankie fiddled with the hem of the camp shirt she wore over her tank top, Quint whispered, “I’m not surprised her husband left her.” He looked both ways and behind him before leaning down to give Frankie a proper good-bye kiss.
She smiled up at him while brushing a lock of hair off his forehead. “Everyone knows we’re engaged. Even pastors are allowed to kiss the people they’re about to marry.”
“Habit, I guess. My mom frowned on public displays of affection. Texas thing. Anyway, my red-headed, blue-eyed beauty, I’ll be in my office when you’re done.” He looked back at the door. “Good luck in there.” He waved and headed toward the side entrance.
“I’ll just stand here until reinforcements arrive.” She cupped her hands around her mouth and whispered loudly, “I love you.”
He blew her a kiss before disappearing around the corner.
“You two are so cute.” Frankie was startled as Mrs. Williams approached behind her. “I’m so glad I introduced you at the harvest dance last fall.”
Frankie tamped down the temptation to remind Mrs. Williams that she met Quint when he bought the ranch next to hers thirty miles outside of town. She’d already done it twice. She was about to thank Mrs. Williams for calling them a cute couple when the sanctuary door crashed open.
Sarah ran out with her fists tight. “Where is he?”
“Who, dear?” Mrs. Williams held one hand to her chest and fanned her face with the other. Frankie knew Mrs. Williams considered Sarah competition for the role she’d previously held—the only choir member able to hit the high notes. She had owned that spot for decades and didn’t hesitate to show how much Sarah annoyed her.
“Quint!” Sarah glared at Frankie, then turned to search the parking lot.
“It’s Pastor Quint, dear.” Sarcasm dripped from Mrs. Williams’s voice, making her sound every one of her sixty-five years. Her eyes sparkled as she curled her lips into a smile.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Where is he?” Sarah faced Frankie, standing too close for comfort.
“He’ll be around after practice.” Frankie hoped the woman would calm down after showing off her operatic voice for the next hour. She sensed people were beginning to gather behind her and wished someone would come to her rescue.
Sarah stepped toward Quint’s shiny new blue pickup, but the choir director stopped her when he pushed to the front of the crowd, his black-rimmed glasses sliding down his sweaty nose. “Why are we standing in the summer sun?” He nudged the glasses back, ran a hand through what hair he had left, and pushed a breath through his teeth. “Anyone not in their chair in the next two minutes will not be in the July 4th production. We only have two weeks left to prepare.”
Sarah huffed out her frustration at not finding Quint, but she followed the other singers inside.
The group went through a few exercises to warm up their vocal cords before practicing two hymns for the Sunday service.
When they got to the Star-Spangled Banner, the director said, “This song is written in the key of C, but a lot of people sing it in B flat to lower the highest note.” He smiled at Sarah, who nodded politely. “With Sarah here, I believe we can do it in C. Sarah, you take the high G, and Mrs. Williams, you slide on down to second soprano at that point.”
Mrs. Williams tsked. “Fine.” She turned a tight-lipped smile toward Sarah.
Someone cracked open the side door usually used by the choir. Frankie caught a brief glimpse of something shiny, but she was too preoccupied to pay attention. Instead, she watched Sarah with awe while the music reached a crescendo. Sarah flawlessly executed the high note. Her voice was beautiful, her eyes closed, and her face so relaxed it revealed a woman in her happy place.
Then her voice went flat before stopping altogether, blood gushing around a dart in her neck and spraying Mrs. Williams. Sarah landed with a thud at Mrs. Williams’s feet, gasping for breath, staring at the ceiling.
Survival Instinct Frankie Shep Suspense Novellas Book 2
When rescuers don't come, she must fight to save herself, a toddler, and a dog from unthinkable odds, but a mass murder wants to make them his next victims.
Frankie Shep’s secret has haunted her since the deaths of her husband and young son. Just when she thinks her life is back on track, tragedy strikes again. Her flight crashes on a lofty peak in Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park. She has no food, water, or shelter in arctic conditions. She awaits certain death.
Instinct kicks in when she finds the only other survivors, a toddler and a small dog. She taps into skills she learned as a child to overcome unspeakable odds. But the guy who crashed the airplane will do anything to guarantee that all witnesses perish.
Can Frankie save her troupe and find redemption she seeks? Or will her secret die with her when they become the killer’s next victims?
Frankie stopped beside the security checkpoint entrance at the Rawlins airport, thirty miles south of where her ranch was nestled beneath Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains. She leaned her bag against her jeans-attired leg, and pulled at the scratchy wool turtleneck her best friend had insisted she wear.
As always, the sincere love in her new fiancé’s ocean-blue eyes melted her insides.
Quint lifted her left hand to fiddle with the diamond ring he had placed there two days earlier. “It’s only a day-long conference.” He directed the words at her, but she wondered if maybe he needed to remind himself. “You’re sure you’re in the back row, right? I’ve heard it’s safer back there.”
With a nod, she wove her fingers through his collar-length sandy hair. “Very last seat by the back exit. I’ll be home before you have time to miss me.” Removing the pandemic-required mask, she stood up on her hiking-boot-clad toes and kissed his soft lips. She was ready to suggest she stay rather than fly out to discuss environmental conservation on a cattle ranch when a tiny pink bag landed across her foot.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” The rattled young brunette wore a bulging backpack and a parka draped across her muscled left arm. She grabbed her toddler’s hand. “Olivia, apologize for running over this lady.”
The child blushed and lowered her head in embarrassment. “Sawy.”
Frankie winked at the mother. “I forgive you. You’re wearing a beautiful snowsuit. Is that Elsa from Frozen?” She brushed her hand against the sparkly pink and blue fabric.
Olivia grabbed her mother’s leg as she peeked up at Frankie.
“I can’t get her out of it,” the mother said from behind the N90 mask that sported an Army emblem.
Olivia pointed a tiny index finger at Frankie’s shoulder-length hair. “Mommy, why she’s hair ounch?”
The mortified young mother gasped. “Olivia!”
Frankie knelt to the child’s level. “They call my hair color ginger.” She fluffed her waves. “Want to see what it feels like?”
Olivia nodded, then slid a hand across Frankie’s curls before retreating to her hiding spot behind her mother’s leg.
Quint helped Frankie stand. He laid his hand on her back and whispered in her ear, “We could have one of those.”
It was Frankie’s turn to blush; Quint’s words caused butterflies in her stomach.
Olivia and her mother moved on, allowing Frankie to say a final goodbye with a powerful hug and quick kiss, as Quint put her surgical mask back in place.
“They said they wouldn’t let you in the venue without that.” He kissed her forehead and turned her toward the security checkpoint entrance. “I’m praying for a safe trip.”
When Frankie arrived at her gate, little Olivia gave a shy wave from a row of three chairs near the jetway door. Frankie looked for a seat but found none that were unoccupied. Olivia’s mother removed her backpack from the armchair beside her and gestured for Frankie to sit.
“Headed to Denver?” the mother asked.
Frankie offered a fist bump, made popular because of the pandemic. “Yes, Denver. I’m Frankie. You?”
The woman followed her enthusiastic fist bump with another bump to the elbow, then giggled.
“Shannon. I got out of the Army when I got pregnant with Olivia. We’re meeting my husband in San Diego.” She gave an embarrassed smile. “You should have seen me convincing the airline to take our kayak. Anyway, my husband is still serving and just got back from Afghanistan. It’s his twenty-sixth birthday.”
Her excitement showed in the way she pumped her arm. “He has the month off. My mom is going to watch Olivia while we take a weekend to ourselves for a kayak camping trip.”
“Thank you for your service. And I hope you have a wonderful weekend.” Frankie looked up to see two pilots and two flight attendants approach the door beside her.
The younger flight attendant, a blond and blue-eyed beauty in her twenties, touched her pointy-toe pump to the shorter pilot’s three overstuffed bags. “Going on vacation?”
“After all this time with barely enough hours to pay my rent, sumbitches furloughed me. Had to clean out my apartment and my locker.” He glanced at the other pilot and clutched his leather satchel even closer.
Frankie touched her gurgling stomach and tried to smile at Shannon. “Should have eaten breakfast.”
Olivia shoved a package of fruit snacks toward her. Frankie graciously accepted the gift as they called for pre-boarding; the mother and daughter disappeared into the boarding bridge. While stuffing the snack into her pocket, her mind wandered to how nervous she was about this trip. That, combined with the way those two pilots looked at each other, gave her an uneasy edge.
* * *
Soon after reaching cruising altitude, the younger flight attendant handed Frankie a bag of peanuts and placed a steaming cup of coffee on her tray table. Half-way through her pseudo breakfast, Frankie struggled to keep her eyes open. She set down her cup and leaned back in her seat. Next thing she knew, she was awakened by a bump to her head.
A yellow blur swung across her vision but lost her attention when an ear-splitting boom outside her window startled her. Olivia screamed in the seat in front of her; Shannon threw her body across Olivia’s.
As the commuter plane plunged toward a snowbank somewhere over Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park, Frankie’s first thought wasn’t a prayer for mercy or even guidance if she survived. Where’s my mask? Then she immediately regretted that in her confusion, she hadn’t thought of Quint first. Surely that counted: wondering if she should have thought of him instead of her surgical mask.
She turned her attention to the chaos around her. The older flight attendant, a forty-something woman with red-tipped fingernails, ran down the aisle, then barked instructions for the dozen passengers to brace themselves against the seat in front of them. “Shoes on, jackets zipped, feet flat on the floor,” she yelled over the intercom. “Fingers laced behind your head.”
Time slowed. Frankie squeezed her eyes shut, grimacing while she envisioned the embankment rushing toward her window. She hoped Quint was right about it being safer to sit in the back.
Her hair flew around her face. She fought to keep her arms and head against the seatback. A loud snap, then the seatbelt dug into her abdomen. Icy air stung her face. Something hit the back of her seat before she somersaulted through the air. Her arms, legs, and head flopped; warmth oozed around her thighs when her bladder emptied.
The seat bounced so hard it knocked the air out of her lungs; her arms and legs propelled up and out as it slid backward. She glimpsed blue sky as snow and ice pelted her face like thousands of needles.
Her life and the people she loved sprinted through her mind. The mother who had helped her through dyslexia and died too soon. The father who had taught her ranching and survival skills only to be murdered by a serial killer. Her dead husband and son. Her best friends Cole, Isabella, and their girls. Quint’s sweet proposal spiced by a Texas drawl.
A sudden stop snatched her breath again, and darkness overcame her.
Mystery Bones Murders
Frankie Shep Suspense Novellas Book 1
A stalker terrorizing her land. When dead bodies link to her past, can she survive a plot to destroy her future?
Frankie Shep holds a shameful secret close to her heart. Plagued by guilt over her husband and son’s deaths, the feisty modern-day rancher isolates herself with just her animals for companions. But she’s shocked when a human bone exposed during a storm reveals evidence of a brutal seventeen-year-old crime.
As her nightmares become a harsh reality when more gruesome remains surface, Frankie starts to track down a shadowy serial killer after discovering her father is missing. And she fears a looming threat is right at her back door, ready to strike her down.
Can she dig up the truth before she’s buried deep in a lonely grave?
Mystery Bones Murders is the gripping first book in the Frankie Shep Suspense Novellas series. If you like engaging heroines, twisty plots, and eerie settings, then you’ll love Karen Randau’s pulse-pounding thriller.
Buy Mystery Bones Murders to unearth skeletons today!
The howl of a wolf pierced into Frankie’s end-of-the-workday stillness. Alarmed, she lifted her feet from the table she kept on her wrap-around porch. By the time the animal howled a third time, Frankie’s skin prickled—with both concern for her animals and the eerie reminder of how alone life had left her.
She walked to the big oak door of her Wyoming ranch house. When she swung it open, the door’s hinges creaked. The tinny sound mingled with the darkness inside the house to taunt Frankie about her isolation.
But the moment’s mission didn’t leave time to dwell on self-pity, so she did what she always did… shoved her heartache into the wasteland her insides had become in the last five years.
She reached into the house and flipped up the light switch. Her four-year-old German Shepherd—Lexi Princess Warrior—rose from her bed near the fireplace on the far wall of the great room.
Lexi barely contained her excitement as she sat at Frankie’s feet with a smile on her lips and love in her dark eyes. She wagged her tail against the wood floor, and it swept an arc into the hair the dog had shed during the week.
Frankie knelt to caress her best friend’s jaw. “I have to go find Diesel,” she said.
Lexi’s ears perked up at the mention of the calf they had befriended.
“You can’t go this time, girl. The wolves are out tonight. I couldn’t bear to lose you, too.” She hugged Lexi and lingered for a just a beat against the dog’s warmth.
When Frankie stood, Lexi lumbered toward the fireplace and plopped onto her bed with a thud. She frowned at Frankie as she dropped her head onto her feet and gave a disappointed groan.
Frankie moved to the coat closet near the door. She slipped into a heavy jacket, gloves, and a warm hat. At the gun cabinet, she opted for the rifle instead of her Glock handgun. Just to be safe, she stuffed wolf repellent into her pocket before blowing Lexi a goodbye kiss. She stepped out onto the porch and stood at the top of her five slate steps to massage a painful knot in her back.
A distant violin ’s soulful tune turned her attention to the fading dusk. She looked past the silhouette of her pickup truck that was parked beside hay bales she and her ranch hand—Cole—had stacked earlier.
Was the music coming from the abandoned Collins ranch? It didn’t matter. There was no time to linger on the question.
Still, she lifted her arms and pretended her husband was still alive to waltz her down the steps to her enclosed front yard, where her pet cow Rosie stood six feet away.
Another wolf howl sent Rosie into an excited bellow. The ruddy brown animal’s white head faced the snow-tipped Rocky Mountains. Her tail swished faster than usual. She darted to the gate in the picket fence, then back to Frankie. The whites of her eyes bulged.
“Don’t worry, Rosie,” Frankie said as she squinted into the distance. “I’ll find your baby.”
She lifted the collar of her denim shirt to shield her neck from the October wind. The air smelled of rain. “Diesel?” Frankie turned her ear toward the corner of her acreage where she had last seen the calf. She heard nothing but the fiddle music.
The musician now played a haunting ballad that stabbed Frankie’s heart with memories of the love she had lost. Images from long ago floated through her brain. But they were too painful to face. Yet.
She tuned out the fiddler and yelled across the field. “Diesel, please don’t make me go looking for you.” She sent a stronger plea for mercy into the universe. It was not a night to roam the ranch. But it seemed she had no choice.
“Be right back with your boy, Rosie.” She patted the cow’s behind. “Come on. You should wait in the barn.”
Rosie followed Frankie toward her and Diesel’s stall.
As Frankie approached the barn, she noted the sliver of moon rising over the structure’s two-story profile. White oak. Covered paddocks on both the east and west sides. Cedar trees to block the south and north winds. All nestled beneath Wyoming’s Rocky Mountains.
She loved this place. And wouldn’t it be nice if Diesel ambled around the corner right about now? “Come on, Diesel. Let me get back to that almost-good orange chicken I left cooling beside the microwave seconds before I heard the wolf.”
When she entered the barn, earthy and leathery smells hugged her. Good smells.
She put Rosie away, turned toward the horse side of the structure, and approached her American Paint gelding. Concho was white with large brown spots. He greeted her with a pulsating nicker and an affectionate nuzzle on the shoulder.
She rubbed the kink in her lower back before stroking Concho’s silky nose. “I know we worked hard with the cattle today, but we have to find Diesel.”
Concho nodded, gave another whinny, and mouthed the bridle hanging on the wall beside him. Frankie took that as permission to slip the bit into his mouth. The horse relaxed, one back leg cocked in rest, while she threw a blanket and saddle across his back.
Outside the barn, Frankie heaved her five-seven aching body onto the saddle.
At the intersection of her half-mile-long driveway and the dirt road that circled her property, Concho carried her past the cement bench facing a dozen family gravesites. She watched the granite headstones of her husband and son, killed together in a freak car wreck on the way home from a soccer game. Then she glanced at her mom’s gravesite, where friends and family buried an empty casket after the search party stopped trying to find her.
The guilt of still being alive when her family had died carried more weight this time. Why couldn’t she picture her husband’s face anymore? She had no right to forget Jason, not after what she had done.
A drop of water landed on her nose.
“Diesel!” She pulled a rubber poncho from the saddlebag. As she dragged the hood over her hat, the wind blew cold sleet over her. She leaned forward and down to tuck as much of herself under the rain gear as possible.
Concho could use his senses to find the calf. Frankie needed to stay dry and sort of warm.
As the downpour eased, Frankie heard Diesel’s high-pitched bawl on the other side of a rise. The one she and her friends used to sled down as children.
When she found the calf, Rosie’s baby was struggling against a thorny gooseberry bush beside a birch tree. Concho seemed skittish as they approached.
“How did you get here, little guy?” Frankie dismounted and propped the reins over the saddle horn. Another wolf howl convinced her to slip the rifle from the scabbard attached to Concho’s saddle. She checked the repellent under her rain poncho and guided her horse behind a fallen log that was under a birch tree.
“Stay here, Concho.”
He snorted and pranced around something brownish white, nudging it with his nose.
Frankie set the rifle next to her knee and avoided thorns as she reached in to untangle Diesel. The calf was too panicked. He struggled against her, causing a bruise and a muscle cramp in her forearm. As she pulled back, barbs tore the skin on her wrist. She sucked on the deepest wound while returning to Concho to retrieve a rope and a utility knife from the saddlebag.
Back at Diesel, she wrestled with the calf to loop the rope around his neck. She cut the branches that pinned him to the bush and pulled on the rope. Diesel kicked and fell, then bawled and tried to run. When he realized he was freed from the bush, he stood still, panting and shivering.
Frankie wiped water from her eyes while inspecting a cut in the calf’s left hind leg. It wasn’t so serious to keep him from walking home before she doctored it. With a grunt, she pulled on the rope and led Diesel toward Concho.
As they approached, the horse pranced and snorted like crazy. Frankie caught Concho’s reins and rubbed his nose. “What’s wrong with you?” He stood still long enough for her to secure Diesel’s rope to the saddle horn, then returned to his dance.
His hoof clicked against the thing she had seen sticking up from the ground earlier.
“What did you find?” She knelt and dug dirt and mud away from a bone.
“Concho, did we find an ancient guy’s campsite? Is that what has you so spooked?”
As kids, Frankie and her friends had often daydreamed about finding a nomadic Native American tribe’s village on the ranch. But where they sledded every winter?
“Cool.” She moved more dirt until she could pull the bone from the ground and examine it.
The bone seemed small for a man. Her former friend, Harbin Williams, now a professor in the anthropology department at the University of Wyoming, could confirm her exciting suspicions. But…
She couldn’t force herself to attend his son’s funeral five years ago. Their kids died together in the accident her husband caused. She had isolated herself in her struggle to heal her grief, and she couldn’t face helping her best friends with their recovery.
A growl jolted her attention from the bone to the bared teeth of a gray wolf—ten feet from her.
The rifle lay six feet away, behind the fallen log.
She hopped over the log and took a fighting stance between her animals and the wolf, and then rushed to pull the repellent from under her rain poncho.
The predator stepped closer. Saliva dripped from its huge teeth.
Karen Randau authors fast-paced mystery, thriller, and suspense books, including the Frankie Shep Suspense Novella series, Rim Country Mysteries, and Deadly Reception (a stand-alone novella as one of seven of the Tawnee Mountain Mysteries box set written by best-selling and award-winning authors). Her Rim Country Mystery novel, Deadly Payload, was a finalist in the Book Excellent Awards and the Beverly Hills Book Awards.
She’s a lifelong writer, both for fun and as a professional in marketing communications. She retired in 2018 from the international relief and development organization Food for the Hungry, where she frequently blogged about topics related to social justice and poverty. She holds a degree in journalism/public relations. A native of the southwestern U.S., Karen lives with her husband in Arizona.