The Sand Bluff Murders
C. M. Albrecht
©2012 by C. M. Albrecht
"Human nature is much the same in a village as anywhere else, only one has opportunities and leisure for seeing it at closer quarters."
- Jane Marple
The Body in the Alley
My name is Jonas McCleary. I'm just thirty so I may have a future - I hope.
A few years back I saw an opportunity to become a police officer in a small northern California town.
I get a kick out of the tests all these officious agencies give out. A written test has next to nothing to do with the real-life job you're seeking. Worse, some people who are possibly well suited to the job lose out because they're simply terrible at taking written tests.
Luckily for me, written tests come pretty easy and I breeze through them without much difficulty at all.
Out of about fifty applicants, I came in second and the guy who came in first was over forty. Someone there told me a man his age didn't have much of a chance because within a year he'd be out on workman's comp or going on disability.
Next came the physical. I've always been on the lean side - well, make that practically skinny - and I was just short of making the weight. The doctor, kindly soul that he was, told me to go out and drink all the water I could hold and then come back. I did, and just made the weight. Then I went to the restroom and peed for five minutes straight. After that came the police academy where I learned why police officers never hit what they're aiming at.
Being a cop isn't bad. Most people give you respect, at least to your face. You often get free coffee and occasional other perks that can be considered legitimate. Women seem to admire a man in a uniform.
Mostly my work was small stuff; arresting drunks, breaking up domestic fights, an occasional small drug bust. During my five years in the department no one ever hit me, I never hit anyone and God forbid I should ever draw my duty weapon. Bad as most of the other cops were, I was still the laughing stock of the range.
When the opportunity to apply for a detective job in Sand Bluff came along, I decided to go for it. The thought of wearing plainclothes and playing detective sounded pretty good to me, and the pay would be a little better. I figured what could be so tough about working in a one-horse town like Sand Bluff? I even ordered a snappy dark gray fedora on line and a shoulder holster so I'd look like a real detective.
As usual, I flew through the written test and came out on top of some seven or eight applicants. Also as usual, I only guessed at most of the answers, but when you have three to choose from, and one is patently ridiculous, you end up with a fifty-fifty chance of guessing right. Add to that a bit of judicious thought and it isn't so difficult.
That's how I ended up being the Chief Detective (okay…the only detective) in Sand Bluff, California.
My third day on the job I got hit with the big one. Murder.
My boss, Chief Raymond Castillo, a short dark overweight man with the look of an eighth month pregnancy about him, called me into his little office. His thick black hair and mustache, both threaded with white impressed me. He had the look of a man who knew where he was going and what to do when he got there. He favored a silver belly western hat and big bone-handled forty-five Colt 1911 automatic, which I thought was pretty flashy and impressive too.
"Yes Chief," I said. "You wanted to see me?"
"We got a serious problem here, son," he told me. He sat behind his old oak desk with the window behind him. Chiefs like that because it puts their faces more in the shadow. I think it gives them a feeling of being more in control or something, like wearing mirrored glasses.
So we had a serious problem. In sleepy Sand Bluff? Okay, have a joke on the new guy. Story of my life.
I sat down on one of the oak straight chairs before his desk, prepared to listen to a windy account of some sort of misdemeanor. By this, my third day on the job, I was already used to Chief Castillo's rambling fashion of talking.
"Early this morning," he said, "while you were still sleeping I'm sure, Officer Ackers, on night patrol, came across a corpse in the alley back of the Blu Lite Bar."
"A corpse?" I smiled. Like a dead body? Oh yeah! I was supposed to take this shit seriously? Only thing people killed around Sand Bluff was lots of bottles of beer and the occasional careless cat that got in the way of a speeding Ford pickup. I'd checked out the town's reputation before I ever applied for the job. This was supposed to be a cool job with a badge, easy money and little authority in a small town where nothing ever happens - that's what I signed on for. Okay, let him have his little joke. Maybe this was a sort of initiation or something.
While I sat and half-listened politely to the chief's lengthy and involved story, a part of me considered what I knew of Officer Harold Ackers.
Harold Ackers was about twenty-five I think. Decent fellow who hadn't been on the force more than a month before I came on. That's why he was working the night shift. That's where all the fresh meat starts in Sand Bluff - and in most other places I suspect. Being the town's one and only detective, naturally I had what we nominally called a day watch, but in actuality, I'd be expected to work night and day if anything serious ever came up. At the time of my initial get-acquainted talk, I was thinking, 'like that's ever going to happen'.
I swallowed, pretty well taken by surprise. As Chief Castillo talked I began to feel maybe he wasn't joking after all. Okay, I'd go along with a body, but anybody can drop dead anyplace at just about any time. Maybe the decedent had a bad heart or something. So what? But I couched my remarks more professionally: "Does Ackers know what happened?"
Chief Castillo stroked his mustache and smiled grimly. "Ackers didn't even know the guy was dead. Officer Ackers thought the stiff was just drunk. He dragged the body to his patrol car and brought him in to sober up." He splayed both dark hands on the desk. "In doing so of course he totally fucked up the scene and manhandled the body, so I'd say you've got your work cut out for you."
"My work? Are you saying this is a homicide?"
"By God, you are sharp. I can see you're going to make a good detective, son. Yes, when we get a body with two bullet holes in the back of his head, even here in Sand Bluff, we know it's a homicide. The blood was pretty matted, so poor Ackers didn't realize he had blood all over him till he got back here to the station."
I groaned. So this wasn't a joke after all. What a way to start a new job. A murder case on my third day! And the crime scene essentially destroyed before I could even look at it. My very first murder case and I didn't have a clue. Working a murder was way out of my scope. I didn't have a clue about what to do. I didn't even know my way around yet, although considering the size of Sand Bluff, that part wouldn't take long. But still…I almost told Chief Castillo not to be so hasty in his decision to call me a good detective. I mean passing a written test is one thing. This was going to be real.
Well, I thought, on the other hand I'm probably as good at this as anyone else in town. Maybe I'm the best they've got.
"Okay," I said. "Maybe first I should go talk to Ackers. Did he go home?"
Chief Castillo nodded. "Either that, or more likely, he's down at Mattie's eating baked doughnuts Yeah, go talk to Ackers."
I stood up to go.
"I like your hat," Chief Castillo mentioned.
"Thanks," I said. He probably thought his was better, but I wasn't as cowboy as Chief Castillo. My hat was dark gray with a two-inch snap-brim. I tried to wear it cocked slightly to one side, but it didn't always stay that way.
I got Ackers' address from Regina Montes, our receptionist. Regina is a very attractive, if slightly frumpy, brunette. She looked about twenty-five, but I had an idea she was older than that. Three kids and no husband. My understanding was that she lived with her mother who babysat the kids all day. I knew she was born in Sand Bluff but she still carried that faint trace of Old México in her manner of talking. I thought it was very nice, actually. I also thought she liked my looks, but maybe she was just looking for a husband. The thought of marrying into three kids kind of jarred against the thought of Miss Right. But I'll get to Miss Right in a jiffy.
"Thanks Reggie," I said. She had already told me she didn't like that name, but when I think I'm being clever I can be agonizingly perverse.
I could have used a city vehicle, but I liked my old seventy-two Chevy half ton with her four-speed tranny. She was old when I bought her, but that thing was a tank. She could handle just about anything. And the six-cylinder engine wasn't too bad on gas either. I liked the old-fashioned bench seat. Very comfy when you get a girl in there.
Mattie's Café was closer than Ackers' apartment, so I stopped there first.
Against my better judgment I'd already tried Mattie's baked doughnuts, but to each his own. She had some kind of handy tabletop machine, something like a waffle iron for doughnuts - made me think of an 'As seen on TV' product. Mattie's place smelled strongly of frying onions. Didn't matter whether you came in early or late, it always smelled of onions. The onion smell was a lot better than the baked doughnuts.
Sure enough, there sat Ackers alongside Sand Bluff's other cop, Albert Mohr. Mohr was a stocky dude with crew-cut blond hair and pale blue eyes. I don't normally take a dislike to people until I give them a chance to mess up, but with Mohr I made an exception. There was just something about his attitude, the way he always stood in that 'cop stance, his 'I'm in charge' attitude and his belligerent way of getting a lot of insinuation into everything he said or did.
The cops sat there with their elbows on the pink Formica counter deep in conversation with a fair-skinned black woman named Subira. Subira looked to be twenty and I already had noticed there were always men sitting at the counter trying to look suave or whatever it is guys do when they want to impress a chick. Ackers and Mohr were no exception, but I couldn't really blame them. Everything about Subira was hot except that she was only too aware of it, and came with attitude. Lots of attitude.
Of course, Mohr tried to get in a snappy remark at every opportunity, but Subira wasn't buying it either and let her attitude show every time he spoke to her. At least Subira had that in her favor.
A half-finished baked doughnut lay on a plate before Ackers alongside an empty coffee mug.
"Hi Subira," I greeted. "How about a cup of coffee and I'll buy refills for Sand Bluff's finest too." That was just talk. I already knew that Mattie, surgically attached to the register up front, never charged us for coffee.
Smiling and popping her gum, Subira moved indolently over to the coffee station and picked up a coffee pot and a mug.
I looked at Ackers as I got up onto the stool next to him. "So I hear you've been out picking up dead meat, Harold."
"Yah," Mohr said. "He goes around scraping stiffs off the street. Nice work, Ackers."
Harold laughed but without mirth. "It's not really funny. Geeze, I didn't even know the guy was dead till - hell, I never saw a dead man before. I've never even been to a funeral."
Mohr looked at me like I was his conspirator in a make fun of Ackers routine. "Where'd this guy get his badge, in a Cracker Jack box?"
We both ignored Mohr.
"Well, don't feel bad," I told Harold. "I've never stumbled across any dead guys either...and I've done a lot of stumbling, especially in alleys after the bars close."
Mohr snorted but Harold didn't laugh. Instead he muttered, "I don't drink."
Subira poured us three coffees.
"Doughnut?" she asked, looking at me.
"Thanks," I told her. "I'm on a new diet plan."
She gave me a supercilious glance and moved off.
"So what's the deal on this body you found in the alley, Harold? Tell me everything you know."
He looked at me for a minute, then remembering that I was, after all, the town's chief homicide detective, he nodded. "Yeah. Well, the bar closed at two like always. I was passing by in front just a little before two. A couple of customers were coming out the street door. Everything looked okay. Everything right on track, you know?" He fingered his half-baked doughnut but wisely decided against another bite. "Well, I drove on down to the end of Broadway, past the Quick Stop. 'Course the lights were on at the Quick Stop but there was no action. I kind of keep an eye on the place because if somebody was going to come through town at night looking for easy money, the Quick Stop would be their target, it being the only place in town that never closes."
"And that redhead isn't hard to look at either," I said. He saw the twinkle in my eye and grinned.
Mohr sipped coffee and gave us a superior look as if he was way ahead of anything we might say or do.
"Well, yeah. Okay, I stopped and we talked for a few minutes. Nobody came in. Anyways, then I got back in my cruiser and I could see all the way down Broadway. I did notice the time. It was just two sharp. The lights were out at the bar. There wasn't even a stray cat wandering around, so I cut in back to take a look at the Blu Lite parking lot. I was driving down the alley and that's when I found him."
"So he was just lying in the alley? Right in the middle, off to one side, what?"
Harold scratched his head. He had unruly black hair, but kept it so short it didn't seem to cause a problem. "Okay, I think - no, I'm sure. It was lying just to the side, about a foot from the dumpster back of the Blu Lite."
"You have any impression of whether it was placed there, knocked there, just fell there or anything at all?"
Ackers thought and swallowed more coffee. "No. No, I couldn't say. He was just there. I told you, I didn't know he was dead. I just thought he had too much to drink. I didn't even notice any blood until, you know - later."
'What about the parking lot? Any cars?"
Harold stared at me. "The parking lot? Well, I guess I didn't really pay any attention. I mean, with that guy on the ground there…I was just looking at him."
"Yeah. Listen, after we finish our coffee could you take me over and show me exactly where you found it?"
"Sure, of course," Harold said. He seemed to have one oar half out of the water, but the more I talked to him, the more I thought we could get along. On the other hand, as we left Mohr still trying to impress Subira, I had a distinct feeling that sooner or later he and I would have a run-in.
On the way out Mattie smiled. "I like your hat," she said. In the background Mohr snorted again.
Harold drove an official Crown Vic. He followed my pickup down the alley to the Blu Light. Only a small sign above the rear door admitted this was the Blu Lite, but since this area offered the best parking, the back door was actually the main entrance. A few steps away from the door stood an open green dumpster just like others that lined the east side of the alley.
The Scene of the Crime
The alley was narrow with a shallow trough running down the center for drainage. A good-sized square of asphalt on the west side formed the Blu Lite parking lot. I counted about a dozen cars parked there. There wasn't much of anything else on that side of town. A few ramshackle buildings; an old storage facility. Beyond lay open fields that drifted off toward a distant mobile home park. A few sheep stood about in the distance, nibbling away at the grass. An apricot orchard spread out west and north all the way to Highway 5. A lone egret stood on one leg just beyond the edge of the parking lot, apparently waiting. I'm not sure what it was waiting for.
The east side of the alley was where half the town's businesses lined up along Broadway. Most didn't have a parking lot in the rear.
I stopped in the alley and so did Harold. It wasn't like we had a lot of traffic to worry about. We got out and stood looking at the scene. A typical dingy small-town alley lined with a few dumpsters.
Harold moved over to the dumpster by the Blu Lite. He stopped and pointed at the asphalt. I noted a dark stain, but I couldn't swear it was blood.
"He was right here," he told me.
As I came closer I turned my head to avoid getting the full effect of the odor that rose like a dark cloud from the dumpster.
"No tape? You didn't cordon off the scene with yellow tape?"
He stared at me. "Tape? You mean like on TV?
"Yeah, like you always cordon off the crime scene with yellow tape." I smiled and added, "At least on TV."
He looked blankly at me for a minute, wondering no doubt if I was being a smart-ass. Finally he found words. "I don't have any tape, Jonas. Besides, I didn't even know it was a crime scene." He bent down. "See, I think that's even a bit of dried blood. But you know, it was dark this morning when I found him."
I could see this boy was going to go far in the crime fighting business. But that wasn't my problem. "There is that little light," I said, pointing to the single bulb beneath a green enamel shade that protruded above the rear door. "And looks like the parking lot has a couple of lights."
"Trust me, I could get more light from a match."
"Okay," I said. "I'm just going to look around." That's what I did. I was looking for a quick solution, like shell casings maybe, but no luck. I pulled an old newspaper from the dumpster and got down on my knees and peered under the dumpster, but there was nothing there in the way or shell casings or anything else in the way of a clue.
I got back up and looked around. The dirty asphalt held no promise of finding any sort of footprints. Besides, almost before I even saw the crime scene, I had an idea the decedent had probably been shot somewhere else and dumped here, but…I stood up and dusted my hands. While I did that, Harold kept going on about his discovery.
"Mohr can laugh," he said, "but it's not funny. I never saw a dead person before and this - I mean I was never expecting to run into anything like this. It's, it's - it's just not funny."
I stood up and dusted my pants. "I know, Harold. You're right. It's not funny and it's enough to sicken anyone with brains. I think that lets Mohr out. I'd have felt the same way." I didn't add that I probably would've have enough sense to wake up and realize the guy was dead, but I didn't want to make Harold feel worse than he already did.
He looked at me. "What're you going to do now, talk to Sam?"
"Later," I said. "First I'm going to go talk to the coroner and see what we know about the victim. You don't need to hang around if you don't want to."
"Yeah, okay" he agreed. "I've been up all night."
Sand Bluff is one of those old-fashioned towns where you angle into the curb rather than parallel park. I nosed the pickup into one of the several slots in front of the Weaver Funeral Home. Archibald Weaver, Archie after you get to know him, is the town's one and only funeral director. I found him in his headquarters, He lived upstairs, did his work in the basement, and since Sand Bluff is just a tiny town, Doctor Weaver also had the town's coroner job.
Not being well enough acquainted to call him Archie at this time, I said, "Good Morning, Doctor. I'm Detective McCleary. I'm here about the body that was brought in early this morning."
Doctor Weaver made a fitting undertaker. His thick glasses magnified his dark eyes and he was even more gaunt than I am, but much taller. He wore a shiny black double-breasted suit and black string tie. Think Doc Holliday without a forty-five in one hand and a bottle of bourbon in the other. He wore a big black plastic apron over the suit and that gave him a somewhat sinister appearance. If he'd been wearing long black rubber gloves, I'd have left town for good. He had an Adam's apple nearly as big and bony as his nose.
"Yes, Detective McCleary," he said in a dry hollow voice. When he talked the Adam's apple bounced up and down like a jaundiced ping-pong ball. "Yes. Well come along then."
I followed him through a door that led us downstairs into a basement that turned out to be the morgue and examining room where the doc did autopsies, prepared bodies for burial and whatever else these guys do with dead people.
I followed him past a body on a steel table. A white plastic sheet had been turned back to reveal the ashen face of an elderly woman. He casually covered her face as we moved past and led me to another table. A body lay on the table covered by a large sheet.
"This is our victim," Doctor Weaver said, patting the sheet at about the tummy area. "I removed two twenty-two caliber slugs from his head. He almost certainly died instantly. There wasn't even time for a lot of bleeding." He looked at me. "Circulation stops you know, when the heart stops."
"Yes, I learned that on TV."
If he got my sarcasm he managed to conceal the fact. He pulled back the sheet to expose a bluish corpse with a huge blackish V cut into his chest. It had been very roughly stitched back together. Not a pretty sight. The top of the scalp had been removed and at the moment, there was no brain to see. The body had a pretty good mat of black curly hair on its chest and arms. The corpse's big square chin needed a shave, and I had a feeling it always needed a shave. Beneath the bluish cast of his skin, I felt he'd been on the swarthy side.
"I've sent other tissues to be examined, just to be thorough. We want to know if this had anything to do with drugs. That's a big problem these days."
"Yes," I said. "So I've heard. What I was particularly interested in, Doctor, is do you think he was dumped in the alley, or died there? I mean, did you find any bruising to indicate his body might have been dumped out of a car?"
Doctor Weaver's eyes lit up behind the thick glasses, indicating a little more respect.
"Yes," he said. "That's exactly my opinion. There are post mortem bruises on one shoulder and along one side of his head. My first thought was that he had been pushed out of a car or something. Very good detective work."
"That's what I was trained to do," I replied as nonchalantly as I could. "How did the slugs look?"
"I sent them to the county lab too, but they were pretty mashed up. I don't think there's going to be any rifling or anything useful. "
"And no ID I take it."
"No." He looked at me through the little round gold-rimmed glasses. "But I made some nice photos, Detective McCleary. I wasn't really ready to do cosmetic work so soon, but I did what I could to make the remains look presentable." He opened a folder that lay on a long dark table flanked on either end by urns. I glanced at the nearest one. It looked like marble or something. Very nice. I noted the tiny sticker near the bottom: $1,495.00. I whistled.
"Fourteen-ninety-five," I said.
"Shocked?" He bared yellow teeth. "Such urns are very expensive." He placed one bony hand almost proudly atop the urn. "This urn will withstand time and the elements. Anything but a nuclear blast. Recently an urn something like this washed up on an ocean beach. Somebody had thrown it into the sea many many years ago and it was still intact." He wrinkled his brow. "I don't think they ever found the original family." His thin lips barely hinted at a smile as he glanced around. "We have many others, of course, something for every budget. And caskets...." He eyed me speculatively through his thick little glasses. "Many prudent families come to me for insurance you know. They're covered over a period of five to ten years while they pay small premiums and they remain covered for the rest of their lives. Flowers, showing, casket, burial, cremation, urn or casket; everything. It all depends upon your choices and budget. Insurance." He stared at me as if to impress his intent upon me. "Something for everyone to think about."
"I'll keep that in mind," I told him. I knew he had a point but I wasn't ready to turn my future remains over to a man I'd barely met and I sure didn't want to think about caskets and showings at the moment. I turned my attention to the photos he spread on the table.
In the past I'd heard about people looking like 'death warmed over'. Well, now I know what death warmed over looks like. Doctor Weaver had replaced the top of the victim's head and combed his thick hair and applied makeup to cover the bluish tint of his skin. His eyes were closed and presumably a bit of lipstick brought a bit of color to his lips and cheeks. Pretty ghastly, but I imagined someone who knew the victim might recognize him.
"Thanks, Doctor, I think this will help."
"Whenever you get ready to talk about insurance, drop by," he told me in what I think he probably thought was a cheery voice.
"Yeah," I told him. "I'll give it some thought. Maybe the guy's fingerprints will turn up something. Thanks for the photos."
"That's a nice hat," he remarked. "Beaver?"
"I don't know."
"If it cost less than five hundred dollars, it's probably rabbit fur. Man used to be able to buy a real beaver felt hat for less than ten dollars." He raised one hand nonchalantly. "Of course that was long ago."
"I guess beaver's the best," I said.
"Most people think so."
I wandered over the Mattie's. Luckily Mohr was not in sight. Mattie was sitting on her high chair by the cash register where she held court from six in the morning to nine at night. A heavy woman who liked lots of floury makeup and dark red lipstick. I took a liking to her right away. Mattie had a way that was hearty and made her easy to talk to.
She studied the photos, grimaced and told me the man did look slightly familiar, but wasn't anybody she could call a customer.
Subira, on the other hand, studied the photos making a terrible face. Something told me I'd struck pay dirt.
After a moment, she nodded. "He been up in here two or three times." She glanced up to where Mattie was talking to a customer, and then lowered her voice. "Drinks tea with lots of sugar. He try to hit on me, but I ain't studying to be a plaything for some middle-age white man with dishonorable intentions."
I was thinking the man only looked about forty to me. Of course ten years ago I thought forty was one foot in the grave
I went by The Sand Bluff Banner. I didn't expect much information but I had two reasons for stopping by. The Banner was published by an elderly gentleman called "Pop" Jenkins. Wilfred Renfrew Jenkins to be precise. No wonder he preferred Pop. I wasn't too interested in Pop, but he happened to have just about the best looking daughter I've seen in many a moon. I'd only had a chance to say a couple of hellos before but that was about to change - I hoped.
Roxie Jenkins was, I think, about twenty-five or six, but looked and acted about eighteen. I not only liked her good looks but her slender, active body. A really upbeat person. Miraculously single, considering her reddish blonde hair, bright blue eyes and luscious red lips. I'd already heard Roxie was a widow. Her husband had been killed in the Middle East and she had a nine-year-old boy whom I hadn't seen. Evidently she never wore more than a hint of makeup, dressed kind of boyish in jeans and T shirts, and always maintained an easy-going, if slightly bossy mood. This would be my first real chance to get to know her and I meant to make the most of what looked to be a promising situation. I figured I could hack the kid unless he was a real terror. All things considered, Roxie was the closest thing to Miss Right I'd seen in many a moon.
Luckily, she was sitting at her desk behind the long counter that ran across the front of the shop. She looked up and gave me a heartwarming smile. I wanted to think she was glad to see me. A good sign.
"Hi," I said. "How're things going?"
"Oh, same-ol'-same-ol'," she said, rising from her chair. She came over to the counter and looked me over. "I like your hat. Makes you look like a hard-boiled detective."
I smiled, wondering if that was sarcasm or what.
"Heard you got a body on your hands. First big case?"
"Being the town's only ace reporter I was going to run over to headquarters and get all the dirt, but I'm all alone right now. Pop had to run up to Redding to the Veterans Hospital for some blood work."
"Hey, I'm a trained professional. Bodies are my business. I'll have this case wrapped up by dinnertime and give you a full report, if you're free for dinner?"
"Dinner?" Listen, if you're getting funny ideas, you're off base. I don't think you'd like me."
"And why is that?"
"Because I get cranky and bossy and hard to please. That's why my husband ran off and joined the army. Just to get away."
"Hey, I didn't propose marriage," I told her. I just asked you out to dinner. No long term commitments, okay?"
"Really? You're willing to take a chance after what I just told you?" She considered that for a moment. "Where? You're not going to treat me to Mattie's famous baked doughnuts I hope."
I made a face. "Heaven forbid," I said. "That's what I feed suspects to make them talk. Better than a rubber hose."
That got a laugh out of her.
"I heard about a great little place in Redding. They're supposed to turn out some fine steaks grilled over a wood fire. You like steak?"
Her smile broadened. "Do cats like fish?"
I liked this girl more all the time. I felt very comfortable around her. She could be more than a love object; she could be a real friend, even a buddy maybe. I felt this might just be going someplace, and it was about time. I didn't want to end up a middle-aged (40) man with no wife and no future.
"Okay," she said. "And while we're having dinner you can tell me all the gory details."
"Deal," I said. Then, "I don't want to upset you Roxie, but I want to show you a couple of photos." I pulled them out of my side pocket.
"The dead guy?"
"I'm afraid so,"
She took a breath. "Okay, let's see them."
I flattened them on the Formica and she studied them closely, being careful not to express her emotions. After a moment, she looked coolly up at me.
"Never saw him before in my life." She glanced at them again, then back to me. "Thank God."
"Amen to that," I said. "Not a pretty sight, and the bullet holes don't even show from the front. Of course when he was alive I imagine he looked a little better."
She made a face. "Ugh! Not my type."
"Meaning maybe I could be?"
She smiled as if she had a secret. "We'll see," she murmured. She picked up the photo of the profile. "Do you want me to run these in the paper, see if anybody knows something?"
"I'd appreciate it," I said.
"Of course the paper won't come out for a couple of days. By then you'll have the case wrapped up tight, I'm sure."
"Wow, I like a girl with positive thinking," I told her. "Here, make copies of these and then I'll be off. I'll come back about six, is that all right?:
"Perfect," Roxie said. She took the photos to make copies.
She brought back the copies and I said, "I had another question: You guys do regular printing too, like business cards? I mean the sign says something about printing."
"Of course we do. The newspaper part is more of a public service than a thriving business venture."
"Well, I was thinking about some business cards. Something kind of official with my name on it and stuff."
"Sure. You'll want the address at headquarters, phones, maybe your private cell phone and oh! how about your title?"
"Chief Homicide Detective Jonas McCleary," I told her. I laughed at her look and went on, "Okay, just make it Detective Jonas McCleary. But since I'm the only detective I can be chief homicide detective if I want to, can't It?"
"I'll just put Detective Jonas McCleary on it for now. After you solve your case and make the national news I'll make up a new card at no charge." she held up her hands creating a frame. "I'll put Sand Bluff's very own popular Chief Homicide Detective, Jonas McCleary, available for supermarket openings, special events and signed photos."
I smiled and nodded a hearty agreement to that and gave her my cell phone number as well. "You can call me at that number any time."
"I'll set up a couple of things and see what you think."
I paused. "Eh, I understand you have a boy too, Roxie. If you want, he can come along too. It's okay with me."
She liked that. "I appreciate that…Jonas, but maybe next time…if we're still talking after tonight. Let's get acquainted first without any interruptions."
"Yeah, that works for me."
Five minutes later I found myself back on the sidewalk with no idea at all where I was going or what to do next.
I couldn't think of anything else to do so I went back to headquarters to write up my first report.
Chief Castillo walked past my desk and I looked up.
"Chief, don't we have any crime scene tape? I mean like to mark off the scene of the crime in the alley behind the Blu Lite?"
Chief Castillo stared at me as if I'd told him I just busted a Martian for peeing on Broadway.
"You mean like yellow tape? Son, this is the first serious crime we've had in the ten years I've been chief here, and my understanding is that the last murder 'round here occurred about twenty years ago. A feller killed his wife. He didn't deny it. He thought - rightly or wrongly - she was fooling around with a drifter who was staying in the trailer court in town here. No jury, no trial, no nothing. Judge sentenced him to maybe ten years and that was it." He paused for a breath, then: "Larry Peters, he's the insurance salesman with that office at the north end of Broadway, he thinks he may have seen the car that brought the body to the Blu Lite. You could go talk to him." He rubbed his chin. "By the way, when you meet Peters' wife, look out. She's a handful."
"That sounds interesting," I said. "Handful how? Like difficult, a man eater, a gigantic pain?"
"All of the above," Castillo said. "She thinks she's the hottest thing since JLo and walks on her husband like he was a cheap rug." He made a face. "But she's just talk."
I wondered if that meant he'd made a pass at her and got rebuffed. "Sounds wonderful," I said. "I hope she won't turn me completely against marriage."
He looked at me with penetrating eyes. "Why? You have somebody in mind?"
I laughed. "Oh, it's a little early to be talking about that kind of thing. Maybe after I get my raise and promotion."
"Raise and promotion to what? The next step up is my job and I'm digging my heels in here till I retire which is about fifteen years or so off."
"Well," I said, "that gives me plenty of time to consider marriage before I do something foolish."
He let out a hearty good-natured laugh.
Back in my pickup on the street I tossed the folder onto the seat beside me. I sat and thought about having Doc Weaver burn my remains and pour them into a jug. That didn't cheer me up. I tried to think over what I knew about my stiff and decided I still didn't know anything at all. I started the engine.
Broadway was originally a section of Highway 99 and later just a bypass that cut out from Interstate 5 below one end of town and eased back into it again just north of Peters Insurance. Beyond that, along the asphalt road, there was little beyond an occasional small house or a fruit and vegetable stand. I remembered seeing an old abandoned Richfield gas station farther along with faded paint and the windows broken out, all overgrown with weeds.
Most travelers stayed on the freeway. I don't think too many took the time to meander through town. I don't think Mattie's famous baked doughnuts were high on anyone's list. The only business that appeared to be doing quite well was the Blu Lite. Nothing like a cold beer to wet your whistle. I'll drink to that.
Formerly a private home, the downstairs part of the Peters house/office had been converted into the Peters Insurance office while lace curtains in the upper windows indicated that the upstairs was used as a dwelling. I eventually learned that most of the businesses along Broadway were like that: Commerce downstairs, living quarters upstairs, or in the rear.
Larry Peters turned out to be a slight man of about forty-five. When I say slight, I mean slight even compared to me, and that means slight. A very snappy dresser favoring snug-fitting suits, French cuffs and huge floral bow ties, he carried a cane and limped slightly. His hair was thin and going fast. One day, later on, I learned that he'd been injured in a car accident many years ago, and his struggles over insurance ended up by getting him into the business. I figured now he could give others the business. Maybe I'm just prejudiced.
Inside the house, the office was cool and pleasant. I came in through a small entry featuring a staircase that ran upstairs on the left. An open double door on the right gave to an office with three desks and some filing cabinets. Peters was the only being in evidence. Another double opening to the side of his office led back into what looked another office, originally probably the dining room. It was empty.
Larry looked up and appeared to be glad to see me.
"Well howdy neighbor," he began. "Haven't I seen you around town here?"
"Yes," I admitted. "I'm new in town. Actually, I'm Detective McCleary. I'm here about the body that was found behind the Blu Lite Bar last night. Well, early this morning actually. I understand you may have some relevant information." I hardly ever use big words like relevant, but I wanted to create a good impression. For all that, I'm always slow to say relevant because for years I said revelant, and it's a killer to try to break that habit.
Peters got up and limped around the desk. He held out his hand. "I'm Larry Peters," he said. "Larry. Any time you need insurance I can find just the right policy for you. I don't work for just one company, you know. I shop around to get you the very best deal available. I do the shopping and you save money."
I had nothing to say to that. I accepted his hearty handshake.
His eyes looked slightly deflated by my obvious lack of interest in insurance. But he recovered quickly and brightened up.
"Sure," he said. "Here's what happened. I worked late last night. We live upstairs here above the office. Well, I suddenly got to feeling edgy so instead of going up to bed, I thought I'd run down to the Blu Lite and have a nightcap before turning in. It isn't all that far and, like I say, I was feeling edgy, so I just walked down. I need the exercise anyway. Doctor says the more I walk the stronger my leg will get. Well, it was a fine night and the fresh air did me good, I think." He stopped to gather his thoughts and I thought it best to keep my mouth shut and wait.
He moved back around his desk and sat down as if he was tired out already. I sat down on one of the chairs near his desk. After a breath, he began again. "Well, just before I got to the last corner before the Blu Lite, a car came down Broadway and passed the Blu Lite. I couldn't help notice that it just went as far as the corner past the Blu Lite and turned. There's no place really to go there except to park or drive up through the alley. There's a parking lot back there, so I just thought the driver was going to park behind the Blu Lite. I remember thinking he didn't have much time before closing.
"Well, by the time I got on down to the corner just before the Blu Lite, the same car pulled out of the near end of the alleyway and turned back to Broadway. It turned left at Broadway right in front of me and took off toward I-5 South. I thought it was funny that the car should make a detour around behind the Blu Lite like that, but then I - well, I didn't have a lot of time before closing so I went on to the Blu Lite. I suppose I just figured the driver decided not to stop after all. Oh, and then a minute later another car came out and it headed south too."
"Can you describe that one?"
He frowned. "These days they all look alike. I don't know. Just a car. A compact, I think."
"Did you talk to anybody about what you saw?" I asked.
Larry frowned. "No, I don't think so. I didn't really think anything about it. It was only today when I heard…that I remembered about the -"
"Were you able to notice anything about the cars? Make, color, year, style…anything?"
Larry frowned again. "Wow, these days they all - I mean, I wasn't really paying much attention." He glanced down for a minute, then looked back up. "I wish I'd had the forethought to notice the license numbers or something, but - you know, who would expect something like that? I thought it was just another lost driver or the guy had changed his mind; figured it was too close to closing time. It didn't occur to me that the second car could have anything to do with the first one. Probably didn't. At that time of night, people start heading home."
I nodded. "You didn't get the color or see who was in either vehicle?"
He frowned. "I think maybe the first one was a dark green, but - well, I'm pretty sure there was only one person, but I couldn't even say whether it was a man or a woman. The other car, I didn't get any kind of look at the driver because it came out of the other end of the block, to the south."
"Okay Larry. Nice to talk to you. Listen, if you think of anything, if you remember, anything you forgot to tell me…of if you see the car again, you'll let me know right away, won't you?"
"I sure will," he said. "Do you have a card?"
"I'm getting some printed up," I told him. I'll be sure to drop by with one."
"Great," he told me. He handed me one of his own cards. "And remember, if you have any insurance needs…"
At that moment a rustling behind me turned my head. A sexpot of about thirty was just hitting the foot of the stairs. At first all I saw were legs, long, muscular very tan legs that went on forever flexing suggestively at each step. Getting past that for a beat I was able to see that she had a soft figure cinched in a tight under-sized polka dot halter and shorts so tight I could practically see the outline of pubic hair in front. As she drew nearer I forced my eyes to her face. Pretty, but nothing too special. She had soft short dark hair, puffy lips (Botox?) and too much makeup. Chief Castillo's words came back to me. She was a born tease, no doubt about that. I'm sure every guy she came into contact with thought he could probably have her even if she had to drag him screaming to the bedroom.
I was so taken I didn't see what sort of expression Peters had on his worn face, but his voice was less than enthusiastic.
"This is my wife, Twyla. Twyla, say hello to Detective McCleary. He's new on the police force here in town."
She swayed past me giving me a cloying nose full of musky perfume and turned casually, striking a provocative pose just inside my comfort zone. She stuck out one slender hand.
"I'm glad to meet you Detective," she said. "I hope you won't be a stranger."
Her dark eyes had that teasing look in them as I took her outstretched hand. It felt warm and sensual, welcoming. I sensed rather than saw, a tightening of Larry's jaw.
Faintly embarrassed by Twyla's brassy attitude, I got my hand back and mumbled something stupid and promised Larry to bring by a card.
Back in the pickup I sat for a moment recovering and wondering how Larry had landed a hottie like Twyla, how he managed to keep her and then I spent more time wondering why. I mean, one look at Twyla and I saw nothing but trouble up ahead. Of course some women go through all that, but they're only teasing. Maybe, but teasing or not, very few men would appreciate that kind of behavior in their own wife. From Twyla's attitude and the baleful look in Larry's eye when I left, I wasn't so sure she was merely a tease after all. I made a promise to myself not to find out.
The sun seared through my shirt like a hot iron. It was just a cotton short sleeve shirt with an ample tail that covered my Python nicely. My neat shoulder holster rig hung in my closet. It called for a jacket and in Sand Bluff's climate a jacket would have been torture. Most of the year Sand Bluff is just too hot to go around concealing your weapon beneath a jacket. Nice light sport shirts untucked seemed the sensible way to go. Maybe I'm a little sway-backed anyway; my Python fits neatly into a concealed holster in the small of my back and scarcely makes a bulge at all.
Okay, I thought, let's go to the Quick Stop. I started the engine.
The owner, whom I hadn't met, turned out to be an overweight Pakistani (I think) named Khalid Mehsud. Very businesslike but not unfriendly. He studied the photos and shook his head. "No, I never see this man, but maybe my employees…."
The redhead just then came out of the back and it was obvious why Ackers had the hots for her. Thick red hair roiled about her head and despite, or perhaps because of the dark freckles that covered it, her face radiated a warm beauty that was almost breathtaking. She was no Twyla but I considered that a plus. Besides, actually she was prettier. Her figure was a tad fuller than what really turns me on, but if anybody could convince me to change, she could. I remembered I sort of had prior commitments, and after all, Ackers was a colleague.
"Hi," I told her, trying to act as if I was talking to just anybody. "I'm Detective McCleary -" I looked at her name tag: Gerrie. "Gerrie," I added. "I thought you worked nights."
"I do but once a week I work during the day. It means doubling back once a week, but...."
"Oh," I said. "Well, we just wondered if you'd seen this man." I held the photos out to her. "I'm sorry they're not very pretty, but that's all -"
Her face sobered and she stopped chewing gum for a beat as she looked at the photos. She took a breath and looked up at me. "He was in," she said in a rather sharp voice. "Maybe once or twice. I don't remember what he bought, but I remember him. Asked a lot of questions."
"Yeah? What kind of questions?"
She looked blank. "Oh…about the people that live around here, nothing big. Like do they come in often, stuff like that. Oh yeah, and he was asking about Oak Park. I thought he was just trying to, you know, find a way to keep talking."
"Oh that's the horse ranch about ten miles east of here. They raise horses and stuff. they have horseback riding too I think. I've never been out there."
Meanwhile other customers had wandered in and Mehsud had to take care of them. He started giving me a shifty eye. It was time for me to move on.
"You don't remember him talking to anyone else, or any interaction he may have had?"
She frowned very prettily. "No. He just bought gas I think, and maybe a soda or something.."
"You think he paid cash or used a credit card?"
Gerrie thought about that. "I don't - we get so many people through here. Some pay cash. Most pay with credit cards, you know?"
I thanked her and nodded to Mehsud and got out of there.
The Good Night Motel was an obvious place to ask. I turned toward the run-down eighty-year old auto court across from the Quick Stop. It consisted of two rows of cabins separated by covered one-car parking stalls with a couple of palm trees in the center of the lot. Not one car in sight. A cat dozed in the window box by the office door, but got up and left as I approached. The office smelled heavily of cigar smoke and Derry Mitchell, the owner, turned out to be the cause. A short fat little guy, bald with tangled eyebrows and a big glowing cigar in his mouth. After I introduced myself he wiped his official welcome smile away and blew a puff of smoke up into the air. I imagine that kept the aphids away from the artificial plants that adorned his office.
He studied the pictures for a moment but shook his head. "Naw. I'd remember anybody this ugly."
There was a tire shop, a walk-up soft ice cream stand. Nada. The Yankee Ace Hardware. A young fellow there didn't have anything to tell me. Alford. He didn't look too sharp and I figured he was probably a relative of the owner. Later I learned he was the owner's son. I felt proud that my investigative insight was so accurate.
Ling's French Cleaners stood next door. Mr. Ling was a gentle soft-spoken little man who said the victim had been in, but he couldn't remember why. Not to get any cleaning done, that was for sure. Maybe he just asked for directions or something.
"You bring your cleaning here," he said with a big smile. "I do cleaning free for police and fireman." He beamed and added: "I clean American flag free too - for everybody."
"That's very kind of you, Mr. Ling. I'll be back. Tsai-jien."
His smiled broadened mightily at that. "Tsai-jien," he said and added some more in Chinese that I didn't understand at all and watched me step back into the street.
I stood under Mr. Ling's red awning and tried to think what to do next. Just then my cell phone rang.
Chief Castillo's soft voice came in loud and clear. "County just called with a make on our corpse's fingerprints. He was a private eye from San Francisco. Vincenzo Bondi. Forty-four, single and a fellow who worked - on the edge."
"A private eye," I remarked. "On the edge?"
"Yeah yeah. Obviously this not being a go-to vacation spot, he must've been working on something. Authorities in San Francisco are going through his files to see if they can dig up a connection. He didn't have a very good reputation with them in the Bay Area."
"If he drove up here where's his car?"
"That's what I was about to ask you. Maybe it's in the Blu Lite parking lot. Check around, son."
"Right Chief," I told him.
Check the parking lot. Well, that wouldn't take long. But I decided to hit the town's other motel first. Now that I had a name to go with my portrait, I might get someplace.
The Motel 6 occupied a larger better spot up near the north end of town. It wasn't new, but had been well-maintained and had a sparkling swimming pool with a couple of youngsters splashing around in it. Only a few of the parking spaces were occupied.
I met the owner, Mary Louis, a middle-aged woman who hadn't missed very many dinners. I liked her pleasant non-nonsense manner. She looked at the photos and frowned. "You know…maybe. I'll have Martin look at this. Martin's my husband." She got on her walkie-talkie and asked Martin to come up to the office. "Martin's doing a little maid work," she explained with a smile. "Things are slow around here. If it keeps up like this we won't be able to keep the light on for you." We both had a good laugh over that. "And," she added, "good help is hard to find in these parts. Make that any kind of help is hard to find." She looked me over. "So you're our town's new detective."
"Yeah," I admitted. "What happened to the last one?"
"There wasn't any last one. Far as I know you're the first real detective we've ever had and I've been here over twenty years. Last murder we had was nothing and didn't need any detectives."
"Looks like Sand Bluff's got a regular crime wave going," I said. "Two murders in twenty years. Good thing they brought me in to clean the town up."
She gave a sort of snorting laugh. "At least you're an obvious improvement over Mr. Personality Mohr," she said.
I nodded agreement without actually saying anything.
I watched out the window and a couple of minutes later a little man appeared pushing a cart with cleaning supplies and laundry on it.
Martin Louis opened the door to the office and stepped in. He was no taller than I am, and about as thin. He had a thin face and parted his straight brown hair real low on the right and combed it up over the top and down the other side. I wondered if he was trying to cover up a bare spot on top, but decided that probably wasn't important to the case I was working on.
Mary Louis introduced us and Martin gave me a limp handshake. He studied the photos carefully without expression. He look up from the photos. "Yeah, I think he was in," he said in a thin voice. "This isn't a great picture, but…maybe." He moved around to behind the counter and consulted the computer. After a short wait he nodded. "I think this's him. V. Bondi, San Francisco."
"That's our man all right," I told him. "Did he write down his license plate?"
"Yes." He jotted down something on a pad and handed me a slip of paper. "But you know, not everyone gives us their correct license number. We don't always have time to check that."
"Well, just jot down the dates he was here too, if you will."
I went away with the fact that Vincenzo Bondi had spent two nights at the Motel 6. And I had a license number. Now I had something to look for.
I drove to the Blu Lite parking lot, but no vehicle there had that license plate. The only side street to the west of Broadway was the alley. Only a very few vehicles along there to see and none of them had Vinnie's license number. There are ten cross streets between Peters Insurance and the Quick Stop. I cruised back and forth and no matches. To the east of Broadway a couple more streets ran parallel to the main drag, but they were mostly residential and I didn't see any vehicles that had a matching license plate.
"With a touch of humor and romance, The Sand Bluff Murders throws a likeable lead into a chaotic and intriguing mystery plot." - Café Reads
"I loved the story. Until the end I was wondering who has done it. The mystery was very well plotted. I loved the characters. So if love mysteries and whodunit stories, this is the right reading for you. My opinion: 5 / 5." - Marina Stevkoska