by Charles West
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
There was a dead body in the tractor shed. It had to wait, however, until the Friant Police Department and the Friant County Sheriff’s Department figured out who it belonged to. The tractor shed was at the center of a small fig orchard. No one was sure if the property, and therefore, jurisdiction belonged to the city or the county. Unlike television and movie law enforcement officers, actual police do not engage in turf battles over dead bodies. No one wants another potentially unsolved murder case damaging their statistics.
It should seem obvious that the fig orchard should be county and that the strip mall across the road should belong to the city. However, recent leapfrog urban sprawl has created a world where agricultural lands are annexed by cities and where orchards and vineyards disappear into the city limits and are replaced with tract homes, large mega churches, and chain restaurants.
Calls to the County Records and City Hall determined that the figs, and the dead body, were indeed the jurisdiction of the County and its Sheriff Department. The Sheriff’s Department detectives that caught the case were Detectives Ferguson and Massey of the Agriculture Crime Unit. They really didn’t want the case, for a variety of reasons. It wasn’t yet known whether the body in the tractor shed was dead as the result of a crime. For now, however, it was still considered a suspicious death.
“Who called this in, anyway?”
A uniformed deputy pointed to a young man leaning against one of the sheriff’s vehicles. He was an average looking teenage boy, currently focused on his cell phone. He had on a Future Farmers of America jacket, a light blue corduroy. Both Massey and Ferguson had jackets just like it when they were in high school. Massey approached the familiar looking young man. “Do I know you?”
“I’m in the band.” Massey’s wife was the high school band director, and Massey knew most of the band by sight and instrument, if not by name.
“Baritone horn,” Massey said.
“That’s right.” The boy smiled at this small bit of recognition.
“Why were you here?”
“I was going to meet with Mr. Baladjanian, to interview him about his life, about being a farmer, about fig growing. It’s for an FFA project.”
“So, he was expecting you?”
“If you were going to interview him, where’s your notebook?”
The young man looked momentarily perplexed. “Oh no, notebook, I was going to record the interview on my phone. The project was going to be a video documentary.”
“I see,” Massey said, noting yet another piece of technology that was passing him by. “Can you hang around a while longer, so we can get a statement?”
By this time an assistant coroner had shown up and Massey and Ferguson waited somberly as he examined the body. After a preliminary inspection, the doctor announced that the cause of death was most likely a heart attack.
The coroner held up a wallet. “The deceased’s name is . . .”
Massey interrupted. “We know who he is,” he said abruptly.
The man’s name was Sarkis Baladjanian. Both Massey and Ferguson had known Baladjanian most of their lives. One of their first jobs was picking figs in the surrounding orchard for Mr. Baladjanian when they were in junior high school. Mr. Baladjanian had told them how his father had to use small charges of dynamite to break up the sun baked hard pan so they could plant these fig trees. In those days, the city limit that was now across the road was then still miles away.
“His watch is missing,” the coroner said.
“His wrist watch is missing,” the coroner repeated, as he pointed at a pale band of skin surrounded by the otherwise bronzed arm of a farmer.
The coroner found an antique pocket watch in a seldom used part of most other blue jeans—the watch pocket. “If he didn’t have a wrist watch, then what is missing from his wrist?”
“He had a bracelet, one of those medical bracelets,” Ferguson recalled.
“A medical alert bracelet? People get them for diabetes, hemophilia, drug allergies, etc. What was wrong with him?”
“I don’t know, he had it as long as I can remember,” Ferguson said. “Isn’t there some way to find out?”
“Sure, as soon as we check his records,” the coroner said. “But you know those things are put on for good reason. If it’s not on him now, then where is it?”
“Nothing looks disturbed,” Massey observed. “Maybe he just died of natural causes,” he said as he walked around the shed.
“Right,” Ferguson scoffed. “And his medical alert bracelet just disappeared from natural causes.”
“Don’t get all huffy,” Massey said, immediately regretting the use of the word “huffy.” “It’s just that I can’t figure out why anyone would kill Mr. Baladjanian.”
“Why would any body kill anybody for that matter?”
The argument and/or philosophical discussion was interrupted by some shouting outside the shed. A uniformed deputy came in and informed Massey and Ferguson that there was a man outside demanding to see Mr. Baladjanian, as well as whoever was in charge.
In their present moods, Massey and Ferguson were in no mood to accede to anyone’s “demands.”
“Tell him this is a crime scene,” Massey said, “and that we will get to him as soon as we can.” Massey was walking back across the shed, when he stepped in something sticky. He looked down, then kneeled down to see what it was. He called Ferguson over to give it a look as well. “Is this what I think it is?”
“I think so, but that would make no sense,” Ferguson said.
The two detectives spent about ten more minutes looking around the tractor shed; the time serving to calm them down and to further annoy the demanding citizen. Finally they went outside the shed and encountered a well-dressed man speaking into a cell phone. When he saw the detectives emerge from the tractor shed, he lowered the phone and slipped it in his pocket.
“It’s about time,” he said. “I was just on the phone to City Hall. You know, the mayor is a friend of mine, and he’s going to hear about this.” He put his hands on his hips, stuck out his chest and asked, “What do you have to say to that?”
Massey and Ferguson looked at each other, exchanging a glance that held some private communication. “I think I can speak for both of us,” Ferguson said, “when I say that we really don’t give a shit about what the Mayor thinks or says.” Ferguson smiled.
“We are county deputies,” Ferguson explained. “We are not city police officers, not city employees, and have nothing to do with the Mayor or City Hall. We answer to the County Sheriff. Does he happen to be a friend of yours as well?”
The man was momentarily struck speechless. He began scratching his left wrist, then switched hands, scratching the right. His bluster soon reemerged, however, saying, “I demand to know what’s going on here?”
It was Massey’s turn now. Stepping forward, he said, “I think you have misinterpreted the relationship here. We are law enforcement officers investigating a crime and as long as this is a crime scene, we will be the one asking the questions. Now, who are you?”
The man’s chest deflated somewhat. “I am Peter Haron,” he said, humbled.
“And what is your business here?” Massey asked.
“Sarkis Baladjanian is my uncle,” Haron said.
“You’re Nona’s son, then,” Ferguson said.
“Yes,” Haron answered. “How did you know that?”
“We’re detectives,” Ferguson said, straight faced.
Massey rolled his eyes. “We grew up around here. We knew your uncle and your mother. We used to pick figs for your uncle.”
“What’s happened to my uncle?”
“Your uncle is dead,” Ferguson said abruptly. He was not one for sugar coating the painful truth.
“Was there a robbery? Was he murdered?”
“Why would you think that?” Massey asked.
“You know, all those meth addicts stealing for farmers—tractors, tools, copper wire.”
“It doesn’t look to us like anything is missing, but we can’t be sure. Right now it looks like it may have been natural causes.”
“I suppose that’s something, then.”
“There was one thing, though,” Massey said.
“His medical alert bracelet is missing.”
“Medical alert bracelet?”
“He wore a medical alert bracelet. Surely as his nephew, you’d know that.”
“Of course,” he stammered. “It’s just that all this is such a shock.”
“Would you know what happened to the bracelet?”
“Oh, yeah, I think he ordered a new one.”
“Do you know what happened to the old one?”
“I don’t really know,” Haron said.
“And why are you here?” Ferguson asked.
“What do you mean? Can’t a man come and see his own uncle?”
“Calm down, we’re just trying to connect the dots, find out why he was here in the first place.”
“I was going to meet him here. We had some business to talk about.”
“What kind of business?”
“I don’t really think that is any of your business.”
“With all due respect,” Ferguson said, insincerely, “your uncle is lying dead in the tractor shed, so for right now everything about him is our business.”
“Do you want us to call Nona? Your mother?” Massey asked.
“No,” Haron said, somewhat meekly. “I was going to talk to my uncle about selling the fig orchard.”
Massey and Ferguson were both surprised, but neither showed it. “What do you mean ‘sell the fig orchard,’” Massey asked, “to who?”
“Developers,” Haron said. “I have some people interested in opening a liquor store,” he said, proudly.
“A liquor store?” Ferguson said, incredulously. “Why do we need a liquor store here? Is the other liquor store across the street lonely?” he asked, pointing across the road at the liquor store on the other corner.
Haron hesitated. “Well, that’s one of the things we were going to talk about. We could make as much by selling as we could in twenty years of fig growing. Besides, David could still play farmer with the grapes and olives.”
Massey noted a slightly derisive tone when Haron was talking about his cousin David and equating farming with “playing.” Ferguson’s mind was elsewhere.
“Did you know that ninety percent of the figs grown in this country are produced within a hundred mile radius of where we are standing? And Fig Newtons are made in Mexico! Don’t get me started!” Unfortunately, Ferguson was already starting on a rant about urban sprawl, disappearing crops, lost farmland, and related topics.
As Ferguson was educating young Haron on the dangers to California’s agricultural economy, Massey was taking a glance at Haron’s pick-up truck. In an otherwise spotless truck bed, there was a suspicious square stain. “Nice truck,” Massey said.
“Thank you,” Haron said, relieved to be rescued form Ferguson’s little tirade.
“You do much hauling with it, or is it just for city driving?”
“I helped my uncle sometimes.”
“Did you ever transport any bees?” Massey asked.
“Yeah, bees. Beehives. Big boxes full of bees and honey.”
“No,” Haron said.
“Are you sure?” Massey asked. “Because it seems you have a considerable amount of bee feces in the back of your truck. And it looks like you have some bee stings on your wrists.” Ferguson perked up at this news.
“Bee feces?” Haron seemed confused.
“You know, bee poop. A beehive has lots of bees, and they all poop. And when they do, it looks like the back of your truck. And it also looks like the floor of your uncle’s tractor shed.”
Ferguson confronted Haron, and asked, “Is that a coincidence or do you have something to tell us?”
“Oh, yeah, that’s right. I hauled some beehives for my uncle.”
“Beehives? For your uncle?”
“Yeah, the bees pollinate the fig trees. I’m sure you’ve seen those beehives in orchards around here.”
“Of course we have,” Ferguson said. “But you know, it’s highly unusual for beekeepers to lend out their hives like that. They usually haul the bees themselves.”
“To tell you the truth,” Haron said, “I just sort of borrowed them without the owner knowing. I was just trying to help my uncle save a few bucks, and the bee owner still gets to keep and sell the honey. So, no harm done. Am I right?”
“Really,” Ferguson said, his hand resting on the butt of his pistol. He paused for a moment, then reached around his belt for his handcuffs. “Put your hands behind your back,” he commanded.
“What are you talking about?” Haron asked, somewhat stunned.
“I am arresting you for stealing beehives.”
“I didn’t steal them,” he insisted.
“Taking something that doesn’t belong to you, putting it in the back of a truck, and driving away is pretty much a classic definition of stealing, actually,” Ferguson said as he began to pat down his suspect.
“What are you doing? You can’t search me!”
“Wrong again,” Ferguson said, just as he pulled something out of Haron’s pants pocket. “What’s this, a medical alert bracelet?” Ferguson read the inscription aloud: “Sarkis Baladjanian, Bee Sting Allergy. You killed your own uncle! What? So there could be a liquor store here?”
“He didn’t die from a bee sting,” Haron said, excitedly. “He had a heart attack. I didn’t kill him!”
Ferguson tightened the cuffs on Haron’s bee stung swollen wrists and spoke softly, but with his teeth gritted together. “You locked an old man with a deadly allergic reaction to bee stings in a shed with a hive full of bees. What did you think was going to happen?” Ferguson shoved the handcuffed Haron towards Massey and walked away, toward the Baritone Horn playing Future Farmer, who was looking on with great interest.
“You saw that,” Haron stammered. “That’s police brutality!”
“Shut up. Right now, you are about one wrong word away from seeing what real police brutality looks like.”
“The mayor is going to hear about this. I have a lot of important friends.”
“Weren’t you paying attention when we explained about the difference between the city and county and our relationship with the Mayor. And whoever your important friends are, what are the chances they’re still going to be your friends when they found out you killed your own uncle, leaving him to die alone in a tractor shed,” Massey said, his voice cracking slightly at the end.
Haron still looked a little too sure of himself and defiant for Massey’s sake. “What’s your mother going to say?” Massey asked. That did the trick. Haron’s face changed, at least for a while.
“This will never hold up in court. You can’t prove anything,” Haron sputtered.
“You’ve already admitted to stealing the beehives,” Massey reminded him. “That’s a felony right there.”
“I told you I did that for my uncle. He asked me to.”
“Your uncle, who’s allergic to bees, asked you to steal a beehive for him? Is that what you’re saying?”
“That’s right, he wanted the bees to pollinate his stupid fig trees.”
“Yeah, that’s right.”
“I’ve got some news for you there, genius. Bees are useless in a fig orchard. Bees don’t pollinate fig trees. Most fig varieties are self-pollinating, the others are pollinated by wasps. Tell me again why your uncle wanted those bees again?”
Ferguson walked back over to Haron and Massey, this time with the FFA blue jacketed horn player in tow. “I wonder how your mother is going to react when they play this in court? The young man tapped the screen of his phone and the last few minutes repeated itself on the small screen and speaker. Haron wilted somewhat as he processed completely what was happening.
“Now, are you going to be the one to call your mother, or am I?”
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