by Sunny Frazier
Sunny won third place in the Writer’s Digest contest in 2001 with this story; 3rd out of 19,000 entries that year. This mystery short story is one of many by Sunny & other Valley mystery writers published in a book called Valley Fever. Details below on how to win a copy of this book!
The victim, sixteen year old Guadalupe Herrera, was found on May 10. She was strangled and her body was dumped in an alley in Parlier. The picture her family gave the deputies showed her with long, black hair. When her body was found, her hair was hacked off close to the scalp.
That was the first one. Homicide Detective Harvey Wilkerson looked at the spread of files on the desk in front of him. Four murders in the year since the first, all with the same MO: teenage Mexican girls, different towns, waist-length hair missing. “I’m telling you, Lieutenant, we’ve got the makings of a multiple murderer in the county.”
“Fine, Harv,” Lieutenant Jacobs snorted. “I’ll just march right upstairs to Sheriff Overholt and fill him in on the news.”
“I could be right,” Wilkerson stubbornly insisted as he thumbed through a folder.
“And you could be wrong,” Jacobs countered as he reached in his lower desk drawer and took out a bottle of Jim Beam and two shot glasses. “It could be one man but more likely it’s five different men. It’s against the laws of nature for one man to kill over and over.”
“You never heard of Jack the Ripper?”
“That was a long time ago. This is 1950.” The lieutenant tipped the glass back and downed a jigger. “Things like that happen over in those foreign countries–not here in California.”
Wilkerson sipped the whisky. “What about Joseph Mumfree, the ax murderer back in the 1920’s? And Earle Nelson, the bible-thumper who strangled twenty-two women in ’26? Those men killed a slew of women in California.”
“Son, those killings occurred in Los Angeles County, and everybody knows people are strange down there. I’m telling you, we don’t have a maniac in Fresno County doing this.” Lieutenant Jacobs took out a pack of Lucky Strikes and flipped open his lighter. “These Mexican girls were probably done in by their boyfriends. Happens all the time.”
“Every one of those young girls was strangled and her hair cut off.”
“Probably cultural. We don’t know the ways of the Mexicans.”
Wilkerson wasn’t satisfied with the answer. His gut told him that the hair was tied into the killings somehow.
“I’d like a chance to try to find the killer, sir. I’ve submitted a request for five deputies and a room to work in.”
Lieutenant Jacobs snubbed out the cigarette. “Tell you what. I’ll give you two deputies. You can use the storage room at the far end of the hall. You’ve got two weeks to solve the case. But I don’t want any talk of multiple murders leaking out to the S heriff or to the press. No sense in panicking the whole county for nothing.”
Wilkerson and his crew of two, Deputy Saunders and Deputy McMaury, cleaned out the storage room. They set up card tables and smuggled a typewriter out of Records Division. Rollilng up their sleeves, they got to work.
Wilkerson discovered that few people had been interviewed at the time of the killings. They were migrant workers, for the most part, and it was noted in the report that they spoke little English. No attempt was made to bring in an interpreter and none of the investigators in the initial contact spoke a word of Spanish.
“The leads are ice cold,” snapped Deputy Saunders. He and McMaury had spent the afternoon going from farm town to farm town following up clues that didn’t exist. “I didn’t get much co-operation from the people in the barrio. Most of them don’t speak English.”
“And the ones that do take one look at the uniform and clam up,” added McMaury.
“I know the interviews are a long shot,” Wilkerson told the reluctant deputies, “but we have to start somewhere.”
In his own mind, Wilkerson questioned why the Sheriff was still so resistant to deputizing Mexicans. With the ever-growing Mexican population in the county, the department sorely needed men who could speak Spanish. The city police had already recruited a handful of Mexicans and put them in blue uniforms. But Wilkerson kept his views to himself. He knew the idea was unpopular at headquarters.
The two week deadline weighed heavily on the trio. They were authorized to put in twelve-hour shifts, which didn’t make any of their wives happy.
“Honey, the money will come in handy,” Wilkerson sweet-talked his wife, Debbie, when she complained about keeping his supper hot.
“Will you buy me that television set you promised me six months ago?” she asked.
Television was a fad, but that was another opinion Wilkerson kept to himself. Debbie had her heart set on owning one of the ugly boxes. She said it would keep her company as she stayed at home and raised the baby and during the long nights when he worked late. He had his eye on the latest model Mercury coming off the line now that post-war production was making cars affordable. In the meantime, they’d both make due with the radio and the bus lines.
As the first week passed, bits and pieces of information began to pile up. It seemed logical to Wilkerson to lay it out in some manner so all of the information could be read at a glance. One morning Deputies Saunders and McMaury walked into the storeroom and found the wall papered with a photo of each girl as she looked before the murder. Beneath the black and white images was the name of the victim, the date of her murder, and the city where the homicide took place. If there was any family information, it was neatly typed and posted on index cards.
Despite the detailed work and his attempt to track the murderer’s motives, Wilkerson was nearly out of time. The arbitrary two-week deadline winnowed down to the last twenty-four hours. The other two deputies had long since lost interest in what they considered a hopeless cause. Instead of investigating, they sat at the table and twirled pencils between their fingers, drank coffee and smoked pack after pack of cigarettes.
On Friday at three-thirty in the afternoon, there was a knock on the storeroom door. Saunders got up to answer it.
“The cleaning lady wants to run a mop over the floor,” he announced.
Up to now, Wilkerson’s policy had been no unauthorized personnel in the room. As a result, the small area was dusty and needed a good going-over. “Let her come in,” he sighed. She might as well get a head start. They wouldn’t be needing the storeroom anymore.
Mrs. Castillo muttered under her breath in Spanish as she looked at the overflowing ashtrays and coffee stains on the tables. She bustled around with polish and a rag. The men pretended to be busy and she pretended to be disinterested. But the sight of the information posted on the wall made her stop her cleaning. She looked around the room. Finally, she spoke up.
“Why you have the fiesta days on the wall?” she asked, puzzled.
“Excuse me?” Wilkerson lifted his head from the paper work in front of him.
“Fiestas.” Mrs. Castillo walked up to the first one and tapped a finger on the date of Guadalupe Herrera’s death. “Dia de la Madre.”
Madre. Mother’s Day. How had he failed to make the connection? He’d forgotten to buy Mother’s Day cards and caught hell for it at home. The date should have stuck in his head. Getting to his feet, he walked toward the next picture, that of Rosa Torres. He put his finger on the date. September 16.
“Dia de la Independencia. Like fourth of July, only for Mexico,” the cleaning lady informed him.
Around the room they went. There was no way to check the woman’s information, but she seemed sure of herself. Little Lucia Orosco had died ironically enough on Dia de los Muertos–November 2, the Day of the Dead. Consuelo Chavez’ body was discovered on the sixth day of January, Dia de los Reyes Magos, Three Kings Day. The last young woman, Carmen Padilla, was murdered on February 5, which Mrs. Castillo informed him was Dia de la Constitucion. Mexican Constitution Day.
“That’s the connection,” Wilkerson said to the deputies. “All of the girls were murdered on a holiday.”
“Hell, every day’s a fiesta to the Mexicans,” McMaury shot back.
“It’s still a lead.” Wilkerson stared at each photograph as he circled the room. “We’ve got a killer who follows the Mexican holidays, so he’s probably Mexican. Mrs. Castillo, when is the next holiday for your people?”
“Cinco de Mayo.”
“And what day is that?”
“May 5. Tomorrow.”
Wilkerson felt a chill go through his body. The deputies sat up and let the pencils drop from their fingers.
“He’s going to find another victim tomorrow. We’ve got to stop him,” Wilkerson said.
“How can we do that, Harvey?” Saunders got up and walked around the room, jabbing his finger at every listed location. “He never kills in the same city. Parlier, Orange Cove, Del Rey, Malaga, Kerman. We can’t be in every city at once.”
“I’ll talk to the sheriff. Maybe we can get some extra units.”
“Harv, this case is unsolvable.” McMaury also stood up and clapped his hands on the detective’s shoulder. “Give it a rest.”
But Mrs. Castillo was tugging at Wilkerson’s sleeve. “Señor. The Bolantine de Caballitos comes to town.”
“I don’t understand.” Wilkerson saw the fright in her face. “What are you saying?”
“Bolantine.” She pointed to the floor and made a circle with her finger. He still didn’t understand. She held formed hands into fists and held them in front of her. Bobbing up and down she said, “Caballitos.”
“Looks like she’s riding a horse,” McMaury commented.
“Si! Cabillitos.” Again, she made the downward circle in the air.
“Little horses?” Wilkerson said quietly. “Like a merry-go-round?”
Mrs. Castillo nodded with relief and pointed to each name of a town.
“I think she’s trying to tell us the carousel goes to a different town every fiesta.” Wilkerson turned to his deputies.
“So?” Saunders shrugged. “Why should we care where the merry-go-round shows up?”
“Because maybe the wetback who runs the ride has a thing for little girls,” McMaury shot back.
All heads turned to look at Mrs. Castillo. Her eyes flashed in anger. She stroked her face. “Gringo,” she repeated.
The carnie was white. He went from town to town with his prancing horses and death followed.
“Tomorrow is another fiesta. Mrs. Castillo, do you know where the. . .” Wilkerson struggled with the words, “the bolantine de caballitos will be?”
“Si, señor deputy. He is in my town. Mendota.” Her eyes teared up. “My daughter will go. She has long hair.”
On May 5, at first light, Detective Wilkerson, Deputies Saunders and McMaury, along with six patrol deputies, took up positions around the field where the food booths were being set up and a stage for the mariachis was being hastily built. They waited until Daniel Knowles had parked his semi and started to unload the carousel ponies.
“We’d like a word with you,” Wilkerson called out as he walked up to the man.
Knowles smirked at the deputies. “What’s the matter, officers? Am I parked illegally?”
“No sir,” replied McMaury. “But we’d like to ask you a few questions.”
Wilkerson let his men to do the interview. He walked around the unloaded crates and looked at the pastel ponies. Every one had a long, black tail. Bending down, the detective ran his fingers through the hair.
He stood up and pulled out his handcuffs.
“We got our man,” he quietly announced.
To enter for a chance to win a copy of Valley Fever, simply email KRL at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Valley”, or comment on this article. A winner will be chosen next Saturday, May 21.
Check out KRL’s interview with Sunny & a review of her latest novel.