I did my most honorable, poor cheapest best, but not even I could change the fate of a good cowboy, though lousy friend, who was at this moment face-up dead, and still in his chaps, too, on his own front porch. And there was no overlooking the obviously deliberate placement of the unique cowboy clock next to the victim, which the new widow said had been hanging in the kitchen last night normal as you please, that now had the minute hand, the arm of a bronc rider, stopped stone cold still pointing directly at the body of its stone cold dead owner.
I wanted to scratch my head in a Barney Fife, but I also wanted to look more professional than that so I shoved my thumbs into my armpits and tried to look severe. My own blue lights were reflected in the front window of the victim’s home just beyond the yellow tape, reminding me that I was in charge of this scene, and no matter how much I wanted to, I couldn’t hand this over to my deputy, Mary Ellen, no matter how competent she was or how inept I felt.
You see, this was my first dead body since I’d become sheriff and I was a little creeped out. Counties like Nolan County didn’t get a lot of activity in the area around suspicious deaths. I took a deep breath as I reminded myself that all I had to do was follow standard protocol and everything would work itself out. That’s why they invented protocol.
But honestly, I didn’t think there was anything in the handbook about being called out in the early morning hours to the home of your childhood best friend and finding him toe up on the porch. And even if there was, I didn’t think the protocol was as specific as to how one might handle things if the things had stolen your best girl and married her pert’ near under your nose. How about if your best girl was standing just inside the screen door wringing her widowed hands and being questioned at length about the dead body on the porch and how perchance it got there? Nope, I didn’t think there was. And I especially didn’t think there was protocol for dealing with the death, or possible murder, of a man I myself had threatened to murder on at least one occasion, which happened to be public and nuptial in nature. Probably there wasn’t; it seemed like a conflict of interest.
That’s why Mary Ellen was questioning Juliet. Isn’t Juliet the prettiest name you ever heard? And she’s real pretty, too. Eyes like shiny jewels and lips like little rose buds and hair like soft leather, in a good way. There, you see? I can’t keep my head when Juliet is involved, and she’s the prime suspect here. And all I can do is stand here with my thumbs in my armpits and wonder how long until I can ask her out.
I think I’ll just meet her for lunch for starters. Don’t want to be overbearing. Thing is, though, she’s got a kid, a real little one. Andy, the dead guy on the porch, got her pregnant and they had to get married on account of that. So if I seem callous toward the body there, you can understand why. It’s not like our childhood friendship won out and I forgave him. For the past eighteen months, I’ve been hating Andy Dyer with the red fire passion of youth and the silent indignation of my age.
Sure, sheriffs can hate people. It’s probably what they do best. Cops, you see, have an overdeveloped sense of right and wrong, and when Andy took after my girl, he was in the wrong. It’s a cut and dry case the way I see it.
What’s not so cut and dry is how Andy ended up dead on his front porch with the arm, stopped dead cold by the removal of its battery, of one of two identical clocks my folks gave us for high school graduation pointing directly at him.
Now, I promise you, cross my heart, that I did not do him in, so I had to turn my mind to figuring out just who had. That would go a long way in clearing my own name seeing as how I didn’t exactly have what we law enforcers like to call an alibi. And it would do a world of good for clearing Juliet’s, seeing as how she was apparently inside the house all night with no witness to it or otherwise.
Dawn would be on us before long. Already the early hues of morning were stretching across the east sky like a warning in soft silver. A shame the most peaceful time of the day was tarnished by this heap o’ mess caused by that lyin’, thievin’ Andy Dyer, rest his soul I guess, the rotten son of a biscuit maker.
Two biscuit makers actually. Andy’s folks own Dyer’s Breads in town, something Andy never aspired to take up, and they make the greatest biscuits you ever ate. Most people, however, get their biscuits at the diner, the only acceptable place to purchase biscuits I guess. What few people know is that the diner buys the biscuits directly from the Dyers and they could save a dollar a dozen, if they wanted to buy a dozen, by buying them directly from the buyers. Er, from the Dyers.
It was just about this time that I was thinking of getting some of those biscuits stuffed with sausage and cheese, not real cheese, but fake cheese made from hydrogenated oils and other carcinogens, and despite these myths that may or may not be proved true by dairy farmer funded medical scientists, when melted over sausage tastes like a divine sin you would sell your immortal soul to hold in your mouth.
“Stuart!” I barked in an effort to procure the biscuits which also happened to reinforce my complete control over this situation, notwithstanding my complete lack of control over my own emotions.
“Yessir,” Stuart said eagerly as he sidled up to my side.
I lowered my voice substantially and dispatched him to fetch the biscuits.
Gravely, I turned back to the crime scene with a great sigh that might have sounded like fatigue or resignation to the few professional bystanders. Ahem, meaning they were crime-fighting and medical professionals and they were also, currently, bystanding. So, with my sigh that was borne neither from fatigue nor from resignation but from pure frustration at having to wait to see Juliet, socially I mean since I could clearly see her now through the screen door, I faced the scene and the grim facts.
At 4:02 this a.m. a call came in from Mrs, kill me now, Juliet Dyer, who frantically described finding her, just do it, kill me now, husband lying on their front porch and who was at that time to the best of her knowledge merely unresponsive to her attempts to bring him around. At 4:03, a moment before a hoard of police vehicles were dispatched, an ambulance was dispatched to the home. At 4:05 vehicles began to arrive. Patient was dead on arrival, resuscitation was determined to be unproductive, and a lot of milling about ensued.
I turned, barely; I still had my eyes on Juliet. “Yeaht.”
“Sasha Sullivan. The Paper. What information can you give us for this afternoon’s edition?”
The newspaper that circulated in our town and several other small towns in the county was simply called The Paper. Webster, don’t know if that were his first name or his last, came out here in 1952 for the sole purpose of starting a newspaper. Tired of working for his father-in-law, I think. So out he came with nothing but some small experience and a handful of small business credit and started writing, reporting, editing and publishing, not to mention selling advertising and distributing his baby, The Globe. The Globe, if you can imagine, in this part of the dusty west Texas desert. But, folk out here are good folk and instead of laughing him out of Texas, they just renamed the paper The Paper. Webster still calls it The Globe. Even prints it right on the front page of every edition.
I dragged my eyes away from Juliet and gave Sasha the once over. I took my thumbs out of my armpits. “You stay up all night listening to the bands?”
Sasha Sullivan held my gaze. Nah, that’s not right. I was gazing at Juliet. I was looking, unwillingly but with professional insolence, at this Sasha person. She was wearing running shoes and jogging pants with a reflective stripe down the side. Her brown hair was in a pony tail that hung halfway down her back. She had a pen tucked behind her ear.
“I couldn’t sleep.” She looked away. Then she looked back and held my gaze again. I mean my look.
“Lucky you.” I gave her the grim facts I’d just reviewed in my head. She whipped the pen out from above her ear and wrote down what I told her in a notebook she had pulled out of heaven knew where.
“What do you think was the cause of death?” she asked.
“No, I, uh, mean we’re waiting on the M. E.’s report.”
“Typical.” She wrote down something else.
“Look, Miss, you know I can’t lay down any part of our investigation, especially to the press.”
She flipped the pen behind her ear for safe keeping. “Sa-sha Sul-li-van.”
“You called me Miss. My name’s Sasha Sullivan. And it’s Mrs.”
At this point I became annoyed.
“Look, Sullivan, I’ve got criminal business to attend to.”
She looked at me with the corner of an annoying smile on her lips.
“The business of other criminals. I’ve got to catch them.”
“Other criminals? Is that an admission of guilt? Is it true that you threatened to kill the suspect?” She paused and looked up at me with a teasing glint in her eye. I didn’t dignify her words with a response, just a glare. She continued. “So you think the perpetrator was a man, more than one?” Out came the pen again.
Steam came out of my ears. Through my clenched teeth I said, “If there’s nothing else…”
The pen went back. “I think this is your business right now,” she said while glancing over my shoulder. She was tall, I noticed now. “See ya around, Sheriff.” She rolled her shoulders, hopped a few times on the balls of her feet, and then took off at a jog down the street toward the center of town.
“Sir,” came Stuart’s voice. Ah, the biscuits. My business. What did that Sullivan woman know? Nosy reporting Sullivan woman.
I took care of my biscuits and ordered Stuart to distribute the rest to the various other professionals present. Mmmm, heaven.
The M. E. was taking Andy’s body away in his van, and so I sauntered up the steps and stepped through the door of the house.
“And you were in the house all night, darlin’?” asked Mary Ellen.
“Yes, I put the baby down around nine and then I did the dishes and watched some T. V. I went to bed around eleven.”
“What time did you expect your husband home?”
“It was Friday night.” Juliet spread her hands palms up and gave a slight shrug. “I didn’t expect him home. At least, not until morning.”
“Uh-huh. And how did ya’all come to know he was on the front porch?”
“The baby woke up about 3:30. I fed him and changed him and rocked him back to sleep. Then, I don’t know why, I always do this when I’m up with the baby, I peeked out the blinds.”
To see the moon.
“I almost didn’t notice him,” her voice caught, “there, on the porch like that. He was almost out of sight. Besides, I wasn’t looking at the porch. I was looking for the moon.”
“I see. Alright. I know this is all very frightening and stressful for ya’all.” Mary Ellen reached out and touched Juliet’s clenched hands. “I have to tell you not to leave town. You’re not a suspect at this time, but we may have more questions. Do you have someone who could come out and stay with ya’all?”
“Sure. My mama could come. I’ve got friends.”
“Good. And, in case there has been foul play of some kind, and until we get the medical examiner’s report, Sheriff’ll send out extra patrols in this area, just to keep an eye on things.”
Juliet’s eyes flicked to mine. She turned pink and looked away.
“Thanks, Mary Ellen.”
“Yet bet, darlin’. We’re about wrapped up here. Sheriff?” she turned and spoke then to me. “Ya’all wrapped up out there?”
I pulled my eyes away from Juliet and looked at Mary Ellen. “Yeaht.”
“A man of many words. You love on that baby for me, you hear? Come on boss, you can take me out for coffee.”
I tipped my hat to Juliet and followed my deputy out the door.
The light in the east was intensifying. Mary Ellen stretched and yawned. “What a day,” she said with her normal mild exasperation.
I turned and gave one last look at the house where my best girl was single again. What a day! I got into my truck and followed Mary Ellen’s squad car down the quiet street, diner bound.
The streets of Sweetwater looked remarkably unlike you’d think the streets of a town called Sweetwater would. In the middle of summer they looked, in a word, dry. Completely waterless. Many of the homeowners have long since foregone lawns in their yards and landscaped with rock and sage. Those who’ve held out with the lawn have a brittle and brownish lawn this time of year. But there are desert blooms everywhere, birdhouses, trees, and furnished front porches where the citizens can sit in the evening when the temperature drops. This is when they come out and water their brown lawns and talk to their neighbors. This is when they sit on their outdoor furniture and fan themselves with Tupperware lids. They call to their kids, they run their lawnmowers, they haul in groceries from the beds of pickup trucks. In the middle of the day, the town looks like a ghost town where not even the buzz of a bee disturbs the silence of the heat. But the evening hums.
The mornings are similar to the evenings except there are fewer people out. Just those that have to get to work come out. And those that have to work stop first at the diner.
When I pulled into the lot at the diner that morning I could already hear the low hum of the day beginning. People were already talking about Andy Dyer dying on the front porch. I wasn’t convinced, though, that he had died there. But I wasn’t saying that to the likes of these.
Bill Gonzales, a long time friend and a better one than Andy, clapped me on the shoulder when I sat down at the counter. “Howdy, Sheriff. Bad business this morning.”
“Yeaht.” I turned my cup up for the coffee Debbie Jean was hustling over.
“Howdy, Sheriff. Terrible what happened. You want cream?”
Mary Ellen sat down beside me. I held up my index finger to indicate I was paying for Mary Ellen’s coffee.
“To go,” she said to Debbie Jean.
I pulled the brim of my hat low over my eyes and regarded my cup of coffee. People came and went. One topic of conversation. Biggest thing that happened in this town since ever, Andy Dyer dying on his front porch. Last known location: Large Marge’s bar. Survived by folks, gorgeous young wife, six month old baby boy. Tragic, tragic, they said as they shook their heads.
I heard the talk, the speculations, even condolences from those who remembered we used to be friends. It even sounded like they thought we still were friends. Or had been until Andy’s untimely death anyway; can’t be friends with a dead man. But the thing was, the only untimely thing about it was that it happened after he stole my girl.
Bill fielded questions for me while I sat under my hat and thought about how long propriety dictated I’d have to wait before I could ask Juliet on a date. She wouldn’t want to wait, of course, but I didn’t want to seem like I was poaching. I wouldn’t stoop so low as to steal another man’s woman, but I just wanted back what was already mine. And I didn’t want to misstep professionally; it could be a delicate matter what with the investigation and all. I could always invoke the fact that the baby needed a father. That was fact, and I’d pull it out if I needed to. Then again, if I let my personal feelings interfere with the investigation, I might lose my job and then I wouldn’t have anything to offer to Juliet and the baby.
Mary Ellen, deputy extraordinaire, meaning she had no family to go home to except her dogs, was off to question the owner of Large Marge’s, Large Marge himself, who happened to be named Blade Hansen.
I was wondering what the baby’s name was and if I should explain to him when he was old enough that I was not actually his biological father when a vaguely familiar voice said, “Sheriff?”
I waited for Bill to divert the questioner. I took a swig of my coffee.
I glanced at Bill who was questioning me with a glance. He didn’t know Sasha Sullivan. I sighed and turned to face her. Sitting on the stool like I was, she was taller than me. I slowly took my hat off and set it brim up on the counter. I looked up at her.
“How long you been in town, Sullivan?”
“I’m honored you deign to speak to me. I notice you’re not taking questions.”
“Everyone knows I can’t tell ‘em nothin’. Besides, I got a right to my own privacy, too.”
“I’m not asking you anything.”
I gave her my most disgusted look, the cop look I reserve for the worst of the worst offenders, and finished off the dregs of my coffee. It was, with this fancy little non-Texan reporter staring at me, the perfect time for me to choke on my coffee. I started coughing. I tried to hide it but it made my eyes water. I grabbed up my hat and slammed it onto my head. This woman was so irritating. I’m not asking you anything. What a conniving conniver. I stood and knocked over my stool. I stared at it. Then I stared at her.
“And I hain’t sayin’ nothin’. Leastways not t’the likes of ya’all.”
She looked around. “Yuh all? There’s still only one of me, right?”
I heard some snickers. I said to the room in general, “Would all ya’all mind your own business and get on with…all ya’all’s own business?” And with that I made my grand exit.
What now? I was halfway to my truck. I put my hands on my hips, but I didn’t turn around. I studied my boots in an attempt to tamp down my irritation.
Sasha Sullivan appeared at my side. “I’m sorry, Sheriff. I’ve got a big mouth, I always have. I didn’t mean to get your goat.”
“Get my goat?”
“Yeah, that’s what all ya’all say out here, isn’t it?”
I eyed her. She looked completely serious. I doubted she was.
Cautiously, I said, “Yeaht.”
“Listen, I’m brand new in town—“
“No kidding,” I broke in.
She just smiled. “I know you’re wary of me. For the sheer fact that I’m new in town, I guess, even though I don’t see what that has to do with anything. I’m just a person like you, right? And I don’t know hardly anybody, so I figured when I saw you this morning out to the Dyer’s that we could be friends and we could put on our thinking caps and figure out who murdered Mr. Dyer.”
I couldn’t help it but the left side of my mouth turned up like it wanted to smile. There was so much in her statement that I didn’t want to touch, not the least of it that she assumed Andy deserved to be called Mr. anything.
“Our thinking caps?”
“Look, Sullivan. People don’t just see each other and say ‘Now that I’ve seen ya’all, we’ll be the best of friends’ and go skipping off to play dollies. You got business in town? Do it and get gone. You got no business here? Then beat it. I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but your kind of fancy pants don’t exactly fit in around here.”
“I’ve never been to a town that had such a nice welcoming committee as this one has.” She looked down at her pants, still the jogging pants with the reflective stripe down the side. “These are fancy for these parts?”
I was looking at her pants, too, but I finally dragged my eyes away. Curiously, as I dragged they scraped up across the rest of her body. At last, what was with me? At last they settled on her face. She had brown eyes and I was looking directly into them. I took a step away from her. “You know what I mean.”
“Unfortunately, I think I do.”
I heard her, heard what sounded like hurt in her voice, but my mouth kept moving and sound kept coming out. “Ladies here don’t go jogging at four in the morning gathering details along their way about none of their business for The Paper. Ladies here chase after their kids or push them in baby carriages to the park, or they walk their husband’s huntin’ dogs, Chuck and Norris, or vacuum their living room floors.”
Sasha Sullivan was silent for a moment and she looked away from me. In fact, for a few uncomfortable minutes, she looked at everything there was to see but me. I rocked back on my heals and waited like I had nothing else to do, which was entirely untrue because I had a lot of paperwork to do once I got into the office, not that she would care. She wanted to lollygag around and be best friends forever and paint each other’s toe nails.
Finally, she said, “So just because I don’t appear to have any kids to take to the park and my husband doesn’t have any hunting dogs because he’s too dead to take them hunting and I’m not carrying a Dyson around with me, I’m to be run out of town? What say I just wear a scarlet letter and you can toss me into a vat of boiling water to see if I float?”
Her irritation was really irritating me. And even though I knew it was borne of hurt from all my curt words, what fell out of my mouth like so much masticated food was, “Ladies here wouldn’t use a Dyson.”