by Guy Belleranti
No One the Wiser was first published in January 2003 by Orchard Press Mysteries. While not set on Valentine’s Day, this does involve a couple in love so it seemed perfect for Valentine’s Day.
Vicki Brockton sucked in a quick breath when she opened the front door and saw Sheriff Clay standing on the doorstep.
“Sorry to disturb you, ma’am, but….” Clay mopped beads of perspiration off his high forehead with a handkerchief and then craned his head around to look at the neighboring rundown homes, “Do you suppose we could talk inside, Ms. Brockton?”
“Well….” Vicki tossed a blonde lock of hair back from her eyes and indicated the paint spatters on her hands. “I was just finishing my latest oil painting and I’m due to start my shift at the diner at eleven-thirty.”
“It’s about your husband, ma’am.”
“About Joe?” Vicki felt a sudden stab of fear, and swung the door wide so the sheriff could come in. “He hasn’t been in an accident, or–”
“Oh no. Nothing like that. In fact, as far as I know he’s fine. But there is something, a problem.”
“Yeah.” The big man mopped his face again, shuffled his feet. “Think I could have a glass of water, ma’am?”
“Oh, of course. Dear me, where are my manners. It is a hot morning, isn’t it? Please, have a seat. That armchair’s shabby looking, but it’s comfortable.” Vicki scurried into the tiny kitchen, filled two glasses with ice and water, and then returned to the living room.
Clay pointed a thick finger at a painting hanging on the opposite wall. “Peaceful looking scene, ma’am, that sunset on the lake. Mighty fine oil painting. One of yours?”
“Yes. And thank you.” Vicki handed one of the glasses to Clay, and then sank onto the sagging couch with the other. “You said something about Joe and a problem. What problem, Sheriff?”
Clay took a deep drink, sighed, and then regarded her closely, his gray eyes digging into hers. “Has he acted at all unusual lately?”
“Yes. Like staying out extra late at night, acting jumpy the next morning? Maybe last night and this morning, for instance?”
Vicki ran a paint-stained finger along the damp outer surface of her glass. “This is really most confusing. Joe’s out of town, left yesterday morning on a business trip. He’s in sales now, you know, and…he had a very important meeting with some clients.”
“That so?” Clay’s eyes narrowed. “Was he out of town last Tuesday as well? And the Tuesday before that?”
Vicki frowned. “Just what are you trying to say? What are you accusing Joe of?”
“I’m not accusing him of anything,” the sheriff said. “Just doing my job. Investigating. There’s been a rash of Tuesday night burglaries in the county recently, and given Joe’s record….” He shrugged.
“No way!” Vicki shook her head. “Joe’s straight as an arrow now.”
Sheriff Clay sipped from his glass. “I’d really like to think so, but….” Clay shrugged.
“Each burglary’s been super slick. Small, easy carry items like jewelry and cash the only things taken with no fingerprints or incriminating evidence left at the scene. Exactly the way your husband operated…until that night when a homeowner returned home unexpectedly and held him at gunpoint ‘til Deputy Ross and I arrived.”
“That’s all in the past,” Vicki said. “I repeat, Joe’s clean now. Prison made him a changed man.”
“There was another house burgled last night, Ms. Brockton.”
“Well then it couldn’t have been Joe. Like I said, he’s out of town.”
“Can you prove that?”
“As a matter of fact, yes.” Vicki rose and crossed the room, took her purse off the top of a battered-looking desk, and fumbled inside. “Ah, yes, here it is.” She drew out a small card, reached in her purse again for a pencil and pad of paper, looked at the card, scribbled on the top sheet of paper, and then handed what she’d written to the sheriff. “That’s where he is, Sheriff. Two hundred miles away. That’s where he was two weeks ago, as well. You can reach him at that number, talk to some of the people he’s doing business with if need be. I’m sure they’ll tell you Joe was there all of yesterday evening.”
Clay stared at the paper, nodded, drank the rest of his water, rattled the remaining ice, and then stood. “Hope you’re right, ma’am. Sure do hope you’re right. I’ve always liked Joe and sure would like to see him make good. Especially after the way you waited for him while he was serving time.”
“I love him, Sheriff.”
“And a lucky man he is.”
Vicki walked Clay to the door and watched as he drove off, her heartbeat slowly returning to normal. The nerve of the man, suspecting her Joe! Still, Vicki thought, she supposed she couldn’t blame him. Sandy Hollow County wasn’t the most populous place. Few crimes hereabouts were ever done with any sort of the skill Joe had exhibited. Good thing he was a three hour drive away with a solid alibi.
Vicki carried the two water glasses out to the kitchen, a thought nagging at her. Joe would have an alibi, wouldn’t he? He would have spent a good part of last evening with his clients?
“Maybe I better call him,” she muttered to herself. “Let him know about Sheriff Clay’s visit, put my mind at rest.”
A couple of minutes later she had Joe on the phone and gushed out everything about the morning’s happenings, about Clay’s suspicions.
“Relax, Vicki,” Joe said when she gave him a chance to respond. “Clay’s just doing his job. When he calls to talk to me or anyone else here he’ll see how wrong he’s been.”
“Then you can account for your time? And others can, too?”
“Of course. Don’t tell me you doubted my word, my promise that I’d never pull another job?”
“Oh no, Joe. I knew you wouldn’t lie to me. But the Sheriff–he threw a scare into me. I don’t want prison bars separating us ever again.”
“And they won’t. I had a very successful dinner meeting in the hotel. We started at five yesterday afternoon and didn’t break up until after ten. And this morning, less than thirty minutes ago, we polished up a few rough spots and I landed the account. Do you know what that means, Vicki? A big raise for me. We won’t have to scrimp any more. And you can cut back on your waitress hours and spend more time painting. Maybe we’ll even be able to afford a nicer place, one where you can have your own room to paint in, and your own art studio.”
“Really, Joe? Really?”
Vicki’s spirits soared as she cleaned her paint brushes, as she scrubbed the paint off her nails and put on her waitress outfit. Not only would Joe soon be bringing home more money, he was safe and could never be linked to last night’s burglary.
She headed to the diner smiling broadly. No more risky night work for her. From now on she’d follow Joe’s example. She’d stop her burglaries at three and stay clean, with no one the wiser.
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A gals got to do what a gals got to do!! This is on creative character!!
Loved it! Perfect for Valentine’s Day.
Gail an Margaret, I’m happy you liked the story.