Authors: Terry Shames
Published 2013 by Seventh Street Booksâ¢, an imprint of Prometheus Books
A Killing at Cotton Hill
. Copyright Â© 2013 by Terry Shames. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, digital, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, or conveyed via the Internet or a website without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
A killing at Cotton Hill : a Samuel Craddock mystery / by Terry Shames.
ISBN 978-1-61614-799-0 (pbk.)
ISBN 978-1-61614-800-3 (ebook)
1. Ex-police officersâFiction. 2. WomenâCrimes againstâFiction. 3. TexasâFiction. I. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
I watch Loretta Singletary hurry up the steps to my house. She hasn't seen me on the porch in my beat-up old rocker where I often sit to catch any early morning breeze. Usually Loretta doesn't miss a thing, so I know she's on a mission. So as not to scare her, I start rocking and clear my throat. She jumps anyway, like a weasel has crossed her path.
“Samuel, you liked to've scared me to death,” she says.
“Well, I didn't mean to,” I say. “You've got something on your mind, otherwise you would have seen me.”
“I do, and it's terrible news. Let me get a drink of water and I'll tell you about it.” She opens my screen door. “You want anything?”
I tell her no. She steps lively down the hall, across the linoleum of the kitchen, opens the refrigerator door, and pours herself a glass of water.
I've got uncanny hearing for a man in his sixties, which is why I can hear every move she makes. Loretta doesn't hear as good as me, but she still has a brisk bounce in her walk. I've known Loretta so long I hardly pay attention to what she looks like anymore, but the bare facts are she's short and a little on the plump side, with gray hair that she keeps in tight curls like a halo around her face, and pale blue eyes. She always had nice legs, and they are still her pride, so she wears skirts and disapproves of women who wear pants. She's been a good friend to me since my wife died, though we're not as attached as she'd like to be.
Back out on the porch, she's so agitated that she jerks this way and that as she settles in. “You know Dora Lee Parjeter, lives out in Cotton Hill? She was found murdered this morning.”
I feel like somebody punched me in the gut. Dora Lee called me last night, way after I was in bedâI often get to bed before dark in the summer, because I'm up so early. She was just about hysterical and told me she thought somebody was spying on her. After her husband died ten years back, Dora Lee was nervous being out on the farm by herself, and she used to call me, imagining someone was lurking around. I spent a number of years as chief of police, and some people never got out of the habit of depending on me to sort out such things.
After her grandson, Greg, came to live with her, Dora Lee wasn't so afraid anymore, so I was surprised a couple of weeks ago when she called me with the idea that somebody was sitting on the road leading to her farm keeping an eye on the place. I told her the same thing I always used to tell her: “Dora Lee, if you're still worried tomorrow morning, you call me and I'll see what I can find out.”
That usually worked pretty well to settle her down in the past, but I'd had the devil of a time last night convincing her that she'd be okay. Turns out she was right and I was wrong.
“I suppose I better go on out there,” I say.
Loretta stares at me like I've grown a second head. “What do you want to go out there for?”
“Loretta, if somebody killed you, would you want Rodell to be the person trying to figure out what happened?” Rodell Skinner is the chief of police.
“I guess you're right, but what's that got to do with you?”
“I've got good sense.”
I head into the house for my hat and my cane and the keys to my truck. There's not a thing wrong with me but a bum knee. Several months ago one of my heifers knocked me down accidentally and it spooked her so bad that she stepped on my leg. This happened in the pasture behind my house, where I keep twenty head of white-faced Herefords. It took me two hours to drag myself back to the house, and those damned cows hovered over me every inch of the way.
When I get back outside, Loretta is in the truck. “What do you think you're doing?” I ask.
“You're not going out there without me.” I know better than to argue with Loretta when she gets that tone of voice.
Heading out of town I ask her how she came to find out the news that Dora Lee was dead.
“Ida Ruth called me. One of Rodell's men told his wife, and she called Ida Ruth.” Ida Ruth and Dora Lee are best friends. They get teased because they've both got double names.
“I suppose Ida Ruth will be out there at the house.”
“No, she was on her way to Waco for a church conference. She won't be back until tomorrow afternoon. She was awful upset, but she said there's no way she could get out of it.” The Baptist preacher may think he runs the church, but he just thinks so because Ida Ruth lets him.
Loretta keeps clearing her throat.
“Well, out with it,” I say.
“Ida Ruth says Rodell's pretty sure he knows who did it. He said Dora Lee's grandson probably got it in his mind that he'd be better off with her money than with her.”
“And we all know how much Rodell's opinion is worth,” I say.
“That's not all. Ida Ruth said Dora Lee and the boy had an argument last week.”
“That doesn't mean he'd kill her.” I don't like all this jumping to conclusions.
“Who else would have done it?”
“We'll have to see about that.”
Cotton Hill, where Dora Lee's farm is located, is a tiny hamlet roughly halfway in between Jarrett Creek and the county seat, Bobtail. It's high summer and the drive out to Cotton Hill is pretty, the alfalfa thick on the ground, the post oak trees still green from the wet June we had. And the cotton is just a few weeks from ready to pick. It's a terrible crop for the land, sucking up all the nutrients and leaving it as depleted as if it had been strip-mined, but it makes a pretty sight as we cut down the county road to Dora Lee's farm.
I turn onto the gravel road that leads up to Dora Lee's little house, and Loretta crosses her arms tight against her chest. “You seem to be mighty familiar with the way out here.”
“Been out here to see Dora Lee a time or two,” I say.
Before she can pick at me anymore, we pull into the driveway to the side of the house and park behind three vehicles, including a Texas Highway Patrol car. Since homicides occur so seldom around here, every law enforcement body wants to get in on the action. All of a sudden, Dora Lee's murder looms up real to me, and I feel a flash of outrage toward whoever did such a terrible thing. When I climb out of my pickup, I wipe my sweaty hands on my pants.
There's a clump of people standing in the yard. Besides Rodell and one of his lieutenants, the Baptist preacher is there, standing with hands clasped over his belly and a sour look on his face. The two highway patrolmen are wearing their hats and sunglasses like they think a TV crew is going to come barreling up any second and they want to be sure they look the part.
Dora Lee's grandson, Greg, is standing off to one side scratching at a raw place on his chin. A scrawny youngster of about twenty, Greg came to stay with Dora Lee three years ago after his folks, Dora Lee's daughter Julie and her husband, died in a car accident. He and Dora Lee got on well, but I've always found him a little pleased with himself.
Everybody turns and watches Loretta and me walk over to join them, their expressions as wary as if they've been caught doing something wrong. The preacher's face is fire-red in the heat.
“Chief, how you doing?” Rodell says. I can smell whiskey on his breath, left over from last night. He still calls me Chief from when I had his job. That was in the days when it was an elected position. Now it's an appointment made by the county sheriff, Rodell's cousin.
Rodell's just under six feet, with rangy arms and legs and a big old beer gut that hangs over his belt. He's recently grown himself a little mustache that he's fond of stroking, and wears mirrored sunglasses so you see yourself reflected in them.
“I'm doing okay,” I say. “I was surprised as hell to hear about Dora Lee. I wanted to come out here and find out what happened.”
My eyes flick to the two patrolmen. One of them has a toothpick stuck in the side of his mouth. I can't see his eyes behind the sunglasses, but the way he's faced I can tell he's looking straight at me. I nod at him, and he turns away to confer with his partner, too busy or important to be polite.
“Dora Lee was stabbed, but that's about all we know,” Rodell says. “We're waitin' on Doc Taggart to get out here.”
I start to ask if I can go in and see her, which I bet he'll say no to, but about then another car drives up. It's the doc, and he hollers for someone to come help him get his gear out of the back. While they're all concentrating on that, I slip away and around the side of the house. Dora Lee's house is small, so I don't have far to go, but I'm hustling fast because I don't have much time to get a look at things before they shoo me out. As I walk, I scan the ground to see if I can make out any footprints, but with this drought we've had, the ground is hard-packed and not likely to yield information.
I step up off the back steps into the kitchen and wait while my eyes get adjusted from the bright light outside. I slip the clip-on shades off my glasses and put them in my shirt pocket. When she died, Dora Lee slid down the cabinet, coming to rest slumped against it, with one leg at a cockeyed angle. She's staring straight at me like she's mad I didn't come out here last night and stop this from happening. I take off my hat and hold it to my chest. Someone, most likely one of the highway patrolmen, has strung some yellow crime scene tape in a rough rectangle from kitchen counter to a chair, to another chair and back to the counter. I can't imagine Rodell having the foresight to bring the tape.