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Authors: Bill Crider

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BOOK: A Mammoth Murder
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“Why are we stopping here, anyway?” Jennifer asked. “It's not just because you want a Dr Pepper, is it?”
“No,” Rhodes admitted, getting out of the car. “The Dr Pepper was just an excuse. I want to ask Louetta a couple of questions.”
Jennifer got out on her side. “Then I'm coming in. It's always enlightening to hear an experienced sleuth do an interrogation.”
“Sleuth?” Rhodes said.
Jennifer laughed. “It's a word we professional reporters like to use.”
“Louetta must be busy inside today,” Rhodes said when he stepped up on the porch.
Jennifer stayed back, as if wondering whether the ice machine was going to slide off and crush her.
“She's usually sitting out here in her chair,” Rhodes said, opening the screen door.
As soon as he looked inside the store, however, he knew that Louetta wasn't busy. She wasn't ever going to be busy again.
She lay on the floor in front of the counter, her gray hair falling over her face. Her head was twisted at an odd angle, leaving no doubt in Rhodes's mind that she was dead.
SEEING A DEAD BODY ALWAYS MADE RHODES FEEL A LITTLE empty, as if his stomach had suddenly been hollowed out. Sometimes the feeling was stronger than at others. He hadn't felt it so much when he'd seen Larry Colley lying in the woods. He felt it more this time.
He turned away from the door and told Jennifer to stay outside because the store was now a crime scene. She wanted to know what was going on, but he didn't tell her until after he'd radioed Hack. Then he filled her in on what he knew and told her to stay out of the way.
“Don't worry,” she said. She had the professional's calm demeanor in the face of unexpected events. “I know how to behave at a crime scene. But I would like to have a look, if you don't mind.”
“Louetta's dead,” Rhodes reminded her.
“And I'm a reporter,” Jennifer said. “I have a job to do.”
Rhodes nodded. “Go ahead, then. You can look through the door, but don't go inside.”
Jennifer went up on the porch and peered in through the screen. Rhodes knew she was taking in every detail and would provide her readers with an accurate description even though she didn't have her camera.
“Why would anyone want to kill her?” Jennifer said after they'd gone back to stand beside the county car. Her eyes were a little damp, which didn't really surprise Rhodes. “She was an old woman. She couldn't hurt anybody. It doesn't make sense.”
Rhodes thought that killing never did. It was a way of avoiding something, or a way of getting something, but it was never fair and it never made sense, except maybe to the person who'd done it. He wasn't good at saying things like that, however, so he offered a motive.
“Robbery?” he said.
Jennifer gave him a look. “There couldn't have been much money in the cash register, not in a place like this.”
“Probably not,” he said.
“Why, then?”
“I don't know. I'll try to find out, though.”
“I hope you do,” Jennifer said.
Rhodes waited with her beside the car until the justice of the peace got there, and then he had to go back into the store.
The JP agreed with what Rhodes had already decided: that Louetta Kennedy had been killed by person or persons unknown. She had been a small woman, and it seemed to Rhodes that someone much bigger than she was had argued with her and then hit her. Hard. So hard that her neck had snapped.
The JP left and the ambulance arrived. Rhodes had a good look
at the body before he let it be taken away. Aside from the mark on the side of her face where she'd been hit, there was nothing to indicate any kind of a scuffle. The cash register hadn't even been opened.
Rhodes looked at everything in the store. It seemed to him that something was missing, but he didn't quite know what it was. He shifted his feet, and the old wooden floor creaked. If only he could interpret what it was saying, he thought, maybe he'd have his answer.
Or maybe not.
 
 
Jennifer rode back to town in the ambulance, which pulled away just as Ruth Grady arrived to go over the crime scene with Rhodes. Not that he expected to find anything.
“Do you think this has something to do with Larry Colley?” Ruth asked as she snapped on her rubber gloves.
Rhodes looked at the items on the sparsely stocked shelves. Dust on some of the cans showed they'd probably been there a while. He wondered much how longer Louetta would have been able to keep the store open if she'd lived.
“I wouldn't be surprised,” he said, and he went on to explain why he'd stopped there.
Ruth nodded. “So you think that whoever killed Colley thought he might have been seen yesterday. He came back to make sure she didn't tell, and they got into an argument.”
“That's what I think,” Rhodes said. “Something like that, anyway. I wish I'd come by a little earlier.”
But he knew that it wouldn't have done any good. He knew that Louetta had been dead for a good while. Hours, probably. She had
so few customers these days that it wasn't surprising no one had come in and found her.
While they were working the scene, Rhodes asked Ruth if she'd found out anything that morning. He'd asked her to check into Colley's whereabouts on the day he was killed, and he was hoping that she might have learned something.
She hadn't.
“Nobody saw him around,” she said. “At least not in any of the usual places he'd go.”
“What places are those?”
“The Pool Hall,” Ruth said. “And the Dairy Queen. He hung out at both places.”
The Pool Hall was an imaginatively named establishment that had set up shop in one of the formerly vacant buildings in downtown Clearview. It had quickly become a favorite spot for people like Colley who lived with hardly any visible means of support but who could somehow afford to pass the time in games of chance and skill. Not that there was any gambling going on there. Rhodes would have been shocked to learn that was the case.
Colley hadn't been there, though, and Rhodes wondered again what business might have kept him from going to hunt for Bigfoot tracks with Bud Turley.
“What about his house?” Rhodes said. “Did you have time to get a look at it?”
“It's not a house,” Ruth said. “It's a trailer.” She told Rhodes where it was. “And I didn't get by there. There was a little car wreck out on the highway, and I helped clear it.”
“I'll go by there later today, then,” Rhodes said.
They searched the store diligently for clues, but there were none. The killer had not thoughtfully left a Dr Pepper bottle with
his fingerprints on it sitting on the counter, nor had he left any other sign that he'd ever been there.
“I wish I'd thought about talking to Louetta yesterday,” Rhodes said. “She might still be alive if I had.”
“Or she might not,” Ruth said. “She might not have remembered a thing, but the killer would have paid her a visit anyway. Besides, this might not even be connected to Colley's murder.”
“You don't really believe that, do you?”
“No,” she said. “I don't think I do.”
 
 
Rhodes had missed lunch again, so he stopped by the Dairy Queen when he got back to town. He figured that a Blizzard wouldn't hurt him, not as long as nobody, and by nobody he meant Ivy, found out about it. He had one with crushed Heath Bar mixed in. If that wasn't nutrition, he didn't know what was.
He talked to the counter workers about Larry Colley, but they didn't know much about him other than that he was a regular customer and preferred his burgers without onions and his Blizzards with crumbled Butterfinger. None of the patrons in the place knew Colley at all. Or so they all said.
After he finished his Blizzard, Rhodes went by the jail. It was getting close to four o'clock, and he still wanted to see Bolton and Colley's other ex-wife. He also wanted to go and have a look at Colley's place of residence, that trailer on a lot just outside of town.
When Rhodes went inside the jail, Hack and Lawton were waiting for him. He knew they wanted all the details about Louetta Kennedy's death, and he also knew that he didn't have time to
make them drag the details out of him the way they would have done if they'd known something he didn't know.
So he just told them everything as quickly as he could and then asked if anything had happened in his absence, hoping that they'd do him the favor of responding as concisely as he had.
He should have known better.
“We got a couple of calls,” Hack said, looking over at Lawton, who looked down at the floor.
Rhodes waited, but of course Hack didn't say what the calls were about. Rhodes knew that if he waited forever, Hack wouldn't tell him outright. He'd have to ask. So he did.
“Important calls?” he said.
“You could say that.”
“Do you want to tell me about them?”
“One of them was from somebody callin' about Vernell's goats.”
Vernell Lindsey wrote romance novels and was doing fairly well for herself by all accounts. Her sales had soared after she'd held a writers' workshop on the old college campus near Obert. The sales hadn't been a result of her improved writing abilities, however. They'd come about because a famous cover model had been murdered in the course of the event. It was the kind of publicity that money couldn't buy. Vernell got an interview in
Romantic
Times, and sales skyrocketed.
Vernell was considered by nearly everyone in Clearview to be a little eccentric, though not excessively so for a writer, and she owned three goats named Shirley, Goodness, and Mercy. They didn't stay penned and were always getting off her property to bother the neighbors.
“Tell Buddy to take care of them,” Rhodes said, naming the other deputy on duty.
“I already did,” Hack said.
“Good. Now tell me about the other call.”
Rhodes knew the other call would be the important one. Hack always liked to hold the good stuff back as long as he could.
“It was from a couple of friends of yours,” Hack said.
Rhodes waited.
So did Hack.
After several seconds had passed, Rhodes said, “What friends?”
“It's nice to know you have so many that you can't figure it out,” Lawton said, speaking up at last. “It's not ever' sheriff that can say that about himself.”
“Especially if it's women friends,” Hack said. “I wonder if Ivy knows about this.”
“About what?” Rhodes said.
He was pretty sure Hack wasn't referring to the Blizzard, but with Hack you never knew. He had sources everywhere.
It wasn't about the Blizzard. Hack said, “About your women friends.”
“What women friends?”
“See?” Lawton said. “What did I tell you? He's got so many of ‘em, he can't even figure out which ones you're talkin' about.”
“They're writers,” Hack said. “Or at least that's what they told me. Like Vernell.”
“Nobody's like Vernell,” Lawton said. “I bet they don't have goats, for one thing.”
“I don't know about goats,” Hack said, glaring at Lawton. He
didn't like to be one-upped when he was dragging out a story. “All I know is what they told me.”
“And what was that?” Rhodes said, hoping to get things back on track.
“That they were coming down here from Dallas to write about the murder.”
“What murder?”
“The only one they knew about. I didn't tell 'em about Louetta. Did you want me to?”
“Probably not,” Rhodes said. “But then I don't even know who you're talking about.”
“Those two women friends of yours,” Hack said. “I thought I told you that.”
Rhodes was dangerously close to losing his temper, but he controlled himself because Hack and Lawton would have enjoyed seeing him lose it entirely too much. He counted to ten silently and slowly and said, “Tell me their names.”
“Claudia and Jan. 'Course, they didn't both talk at the same time. First one of them did, and then the other one.”
“And they're coming here to write about the murder.”
“I know I told you that.”
“You sure did,” Lawton said. “I heard you.”
Rhodes counted to ten again. “I thought they had jobs,” he said when the counting was done. “Claudia is a social worker, and Jan's a college dean.”
“It's summer,” Hack said. “The dean is about to have a week or so off from the college, and Claudia's taking vacation. Claudia's the one I talked to, mostly. She says they have a contract with some Sunday supplement to write an article about small-town
murders. They got it because they were at that writers' deal in Obert where Terry Don Coslin got killed.”
Rhodes remembered Claudia and Jan well. Claudia was a blonde with startlingly blue eyes. Jan had dark hair and dimples that Shirley Temple would have envied. The last Rhodes had heard, the two women had planned to collaborate on a mystery novel. Now all of a sudden it seemed that they were true-crime writers.
“She mentioned how much help they were to you in Obert,” Hack said. “She said they'd be glad to help out again.”
“Great,” Rhodes said. He remembered, all right. “How did they find out about Larry Colley in the first place?”
“Heard about it on a Dallas radio station and called up the editor of that magazine right then.”
BOOK: A Mammoth Murder
12.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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