by Gary Hoffman
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
One of Tani’s first decisions in her new job was deciding whether her predecessor’s desk needed to be thrown in the trash or if it was a mini land-fill in its own right. She stood with her hands on her hips, surveyed the disaster area and wondered how Bobby Gene ever got anything done. She had seen the desk many times before, but never really paid close attention to it, but now it was hers. Since today was January 11 and January 11 is National Clean off Your Desk Day, there was no avoiding this disaster area.
His computer was still there, but the rest of the desk top was covered with hundreds of pieces of various sizes and colors of paper and a few books. Empty and half empty foam coffee cups added to the mix, including one half-filled, with green fuzzy stuff growing over it. She dumped Bobby Gene’s overflowing trash can into the dumpster behind the building, pulled out the desk chair and sat to organize what appeared to be an impossible task.
Bobby Gene Tyler had worked for the Livingston Sentinel for three years before he was killed in a car crash. He laughingly referred to his job as a “reporter,” for there was really little news in Livingston, a snail-paced village in south Florida. He always said he had the title, but just because the president of the Future Farmers of America had a title didn’t make him the governor of the state. Most of his reporting involved stories about church meetings, women’s clubs, school activities and events at the local Moose lodge.
Tani had worked at the Sentinel for four months before Bobby Gene’s accident. Apart from running the front desk, she did the accounting, sold classified and display ads, managed subscriptions and operated as the “Girl Friday.” Now the owner and editor, George C. Surrey, had asked her to take over the reporter’s duties and her old job had gone to the owner’s niece. Three trips to the dumpster later, she was making progress with much of the desktop visible. Her biggest find was a daily calendar, most of it was blank but the most interesting thing she found was the name Ellie Von Harrington, circled on one page as an appointment for two o’clock that afternoon.
She knew of the Von Harringtons, a wealthy ranching family who owned several thousand acres north of town, but Tani couldn’t remember one of them named Ellie.
She called the ranch and was immediately assaulted by a menu of options for various cell phones or buildings. Number four got her through to the main house where a maid answered, but she was advised Ellie was not currently available, but if she would leave her number, the information would be passed on. Tani checked her watch – ten o’clock. Most people in this area were up and moving by this time of day, and surely Ellie had a cell phone. The Von Harrington’s probably had enough money to own a private cell phone company.
A few minutes before twelve, Tani headed across the street to Dottie’s Diner for lunch, but halfway through Dottie’s special for the day, Ellie Von Harrington called, confirming that Bobby Gene was supposed to interview her at two. She gladly agreed to meet with Tani instead, gave instructions on how to enter the ranch but hung up before Tani could ask about the purpose of the meeting.
Two miles north of town, Tani turned into Von Harrington Road, passed several entrances that were labeled with signs saying, “South Pens,” before another half mile brought her to the main entrance to the ranch. Stone pillars arched over the roadway; a large H with a V set into the top decorated the arch with smaller stone pillars either side.
The house resembled a country hotel or perhaps a country spa where the rich came to bask. A building in the final stage of construction was off to the left past the immaculate flower beds and manicured lawn. She parked by the fountain in the middle of the circular driveway in front of the house. A set of chimes played a song she couldn’t identify when she pressed the doorbell button. A maid opened the door. “I’m Tani Roland. I have an appointment with Ellie Von Harrington.”
The maid nodded and stepped back to allow her to enter the massive foyer and then led the way to a huge, screen-in area furnished with wicker furniture. A slim woman rose from one of the chairs next to an easel, on which stood a cloth-covered painting.
“I’m Ellie, and you must be Tani?”
“Yes. Beautiful house.”
“Thank you. Please sit down. May I offer you some tea?”
“Yes, please.” Ellie nodded toward the maid and they indulged in small talk before she returned.
“You have me at somewhat of a disadvantage. I know Bobby Gene had an appointment with you, but I have no idea why.”
“Yes, that’s the new building being constructed just to the south.”
The door bell rang again. “What is that tune, if I may ask?”
Ellie laughed. “My new father-in-law’s idea. I didn’t know what it was either when I first moved in here. Apparently, it’s the theme from an old television show called Rawhide.”
“So you’ve just recently married into the family?”
“You didn’t know?” Ellie asked.
“No, no idea.”
“Good. Anytime mine or Brad’s family does anything, it usually makes the news but we must have done a good job of keeping our secret for awhile. My maiden name is Ashley and my father is president of Ashley Oil Company. Brad’s father has been most gracious about helping me open a gallery here.”
Tani straightened. “The first question that comes to mind is, why build an art gallery out here? Do you expect to attract people this far into the country who can afford to buy art? Seems to me you’d do better on the coast.”
“Actually, all of our art work will be sold over the computer. Sort of like e-Bay. Some will be my works and others will be from other promising artists around the world. I have one of our first paintings just here. Would you like to see it?”
Ellie rose. “It was done by a friend of mine in France.” She removed the cloth from the picture.
Tani’s first impression took her back to a time in Atlanta when the museum there arranged to bring in the works of Van Gogh where the first picture in the exhibit was “Sunflowers.” The picture in front of her, more modernistic than suited her taste, seemed to have been done with a palate knife with large, thick globs of paint over most of the canvas, reminiscent of a giant mass of snakes, all wrapped in a ball. “So you’ll put up images of the pictures and people will bid on them?”
“Actually, no, there will be no bidding. We will have posted prices, but people will be allowed to make offers.” Ellie headed for a rear door. “Would you like to see the building?”
After a short ride in a golf cart, they entered a glass and chrome building, totally out of place in the middle of south Florida. “The dish on the roof is our satellite communication,” Ellie explained. “Our actual facilities will be minimal because all we need is a couple of television cameras and a place to store the paintings.”
Tani was shown the television studio and the place where the paintings would be stored. There was a small office with a bank of television screens, but that seemed to be the entire facility. When she asked about a door to another room, she was told it was just another place for storage should the need arise.
“As soon as we’re set up and running, I would like you to come back and do another story for us. Bobby Gene was coming out here today just to do an interest catching story and then had plans for a full-blown story when we were in full swing.”
“What’s the time-table on that?”
“Hopefully, within a month. Now, I have a great deal of work to do, but I would like to thank you for coming out,
Tani. I’ll have my secretary give you a sheet with pertinent information on it.”
Tani was suddenly hustled to the door and out to the golf cart where a woman handed her a sheet of paper of what appeared to be information.
“Sounds a little crazy to me,” George Surrey said, after Tani told him about her visit with Ellie.
“So you want me to do the story about it or not?”
George dropped his feet off his desk and leaned toward her. “Oh, good Lord, yes. We don’t want to antagonize the Von Harrington’s. They buy newspapers for everyone who works out there, I think, so we’d lose half our subscription base if they pulled out. Plus they do a lot of advertising for other businesses they own. Yes, you do a bang up story!”
Tani really couldn’t put her finger on why she felt that Ellie had – perhaps not lied – but hadn’t revealed the whole truth. Her professors at Florida State had always told their students to go after the whole truth, no matter what. She had graduated with the idea of taking a position at a much larger newspaper, but those plans got sidetracked when her dad got sick. Her mother having passed away several years before, Tani returned to the small town of Livingston to care for her dad, so her job at the Sentinel was a God-send.
She looked at the generic fact sheet which Ellie’s secretary had given her and then stared at the blank screen on her computer, wondering where to start. Finally, she opened some of Bobby Gene’s old files to see if there was anything interesting about the story he might have already discovered but strangely, the Von Harrington name appeared nowhere. There was, however, the beginning of a story about recreational drug use in the county with a note in parentheses to check on an accident where a driver, Jacob Williams, was killed a couple of weeks before Bobby Gene died. Williams had worked for the Von Harrington’s.
She picked up the phone. “Sheriff, this is Tani Goldwin at the Sentinel. I was wondering if you could give me any information about the Jacob Williams accident. I might want to do a follow up story about it.”
There was a pause on the line. “Not much to tell. His blood alcohol level was pretty high, as I recall. Don’t have the report right in front of me.”
“Do you remember anything about drugs in his system?”
“Drugs? No can’t say that I do, but I doubt that was ever checked. Naturally, his family wanted everything over with as quickly as possible. Nothing like that was ever requested.”
If he was a user, they probably didn’t want it known, but how were those drugs suddenly finding their way in this seemingly backwoods town? Bobby Gene must have thought something was going on. “Where did they bury him?”
“Didn’t. Had him cremated. Far as I remember, they scattered his ashes over in the ocean by Marco Island.”
“What about Bobby Gene Tyler’s accident? What happened there?”
“Missed a curve over by Lake Okeechobee on Highway 78 and went in the canal. Probably going too fast from the length of the skid marks we found but nothing unusual.”
“Okay, sheriff. Thanks.”
She hung up and thought back to the day Bobby Gene had given her a ride; he’d driven as slowly as an old woman…but right now, she had a job to do, and that meant money coming in to help care for her dad. She straightened her back and started typing.
Two weeks later, the new “art gallery” was operational and Tani received an invitation for the grand opening. The website showed several pictures for sale, but they all looked pretty much like the first one she had seen, but in each picture, the “snakes” were going in different directions. She shook her head, wondering what kind of collector was going to buy these.
Most of the event was being televised, so actual guests were few in number and many from the Von Harrington family. Tani talked with most everyone there, got a few direct quotes, ate a couple of delicious cookies and headed back to the newspaper office to write her article. As of that time, no one would say whether any of the paintings had sold and when she tuned into the web site two days later, the same paintings were still on display. Strange…
Her routine jobs at the newspaper continued but then she went to cover a meeting of the Wednesday Afternoon
Livingston Ladies Tea featuring an author who had written a book on the history of Livingston. Afterwards, tea and cakes were served and Tani, an outsider, was invited to stay. There wasn’t much of interest discussed, but suddenly one conversation caught her ear! A woman was loudly complaining about getting stuck behind a dump truck coming out of the Von Harrington Ranch. “They didn’t even have that load of trash covered. Rubbish was flying everywhere! There were even some long things that looked like plastic snakes whipping all over the place.”
The word “snakes” caught Tani’s attention. Had the snakes crawled off the pictures? Then something occurred to her and she sidled over to the woman. “Excuse me, where did this happen?”
“Right out on Highway 441.”
“Right before the road to turn into the county landfill.”
“Thank you.” Tani smiled and excused herself to the hostess.
Tani parked her car about a quarter of a mile from the landfill turnoff and started walking the sides of the road. There was some litter there, no plastic snakes, and nowhere as much rubbish as the woman had suggested. She got to the road without finding what she was looking for and then started back down the other side. Halfway back to her car, she saw her snake – only one – but that was all she needed.
The sheriff complained about budget cuts when she asked him to send the snake to the state crime lab in Tallahassee, but she assured him – all the while crossing her fingers – that the newspaper would pay for it. She knew if George wouldn’t go along with her plan, the cost was going to take a major chunk of her paycheck.
The next three days felt like three months to Tani. The sheriff finally called. “Where’d you get this?”
Tani got the exclusive scoop on a story that was syndicated nationwide by most of the major newspapers and other media outlets, detailing how a group of rich people using and distributing drugs were smuggling them into the country under the guise of art work. Metal tubes had been attached to canvasses and then plastic tubes of drugs inserted into them. Paint of all colors was then sprayed over the canvasses in order to pass it off as art work! The paintings were destroyed when the drugs were removed, though a few drug-free paintings were done to make the business seem legitimate. Even though George worried about his subscription numbers, he gave Tani a raise – but it was nothing compared to the book deal she got!
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