by Gary R. Hoffman
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
“We need to talk.” I’ve never heard much of anything good coming from those words. It was kind of like hearing, “You get to go first in Double Jeopardy!”
The good news is you really do get to go first. The bad news is you only get to go first because you’re losing, usually badly! And good ole Alex can usually say those words and make them sound exciting. But, according to Jack White, those were the last words he ever heard his wife, Emily, say. She called him and left a message on his voice recorder at work. “Jack, we need to talk,” and hung up.
When Jack got home, he found Emily horizontal to the kitchen floor. A lot of her blood was splattered around the kitchen, but gunshots tend to do things like that. Unfortunately for Jack, the message upset him, so he left work early and stopped at an unfamiliar palace of evil spirits for a few stabilizers before going home. The coroner estimated Emily’s time of death, around four in the afternoon, to be the same time Jack was in the bar. Another unfortunate circumstance was that no one remembered Jack being in the bar at the time. Moral—always go to bars where people know you, just in case. Cheers.
So the police arrested Jack, I mean he was the husband, right? Jack then called me to help him. My name is Justin Taylor Seegar, or JT, and I own a small, okay tiny, private investigation agency in Harrison, Arkansas. I moved there after my own marriage took a left turn towards Alimony Alley. I wanted to move out of a large city, Kansas City to be exact, and my ex wanted the “bright lights.” I also wanted to try writing, and I figured I wouldn’t have a lot of private eye type business in Harrison, so I moved there. Basically, I had been right. Private eyeing wasn’t the number one priority for the folks in Harrison, but it kept a few shekels coming my way.
The case against my client wasn’t air tight, but I wouldn’t have wanted to risk my life on it. There was blood on his clothing. He claims he got that when he knelt down trying to help Emily. Their marriage hadn’t been all beer and skittles lately. They had recently taken out life insurance policies on each other for a million apiece. Murder, of course, was viewed as accidental death, so the policy would pay double. Two million dollars is a whole bunch of motive for murder.
The plus side looked slimmer than Dolly Pardon’s waist. The police didn’t have a murder weapon, and Jack had an alibi, if I could prove it. I decided to start on the alibi. I got a picture of Jack from his house and headed for the place he claimed to have been while his wife was being taken out. I got there about the same time he claimed he did. If there were regulars, someone might remember him. It was a little dive called “Bernie’s Place.” Once inside, it was so dark I might not have recognized my own grandmother had she been in there. Well, actually, if granny had been in there, I’m sure I would have known it. She would have been bitchin’, loudly, that the beer wasn’t cold enough or the peanuts were too salty or about something else that was wrong. My granny does not normally rank in the top ten of a diplomat with people skills.
I ordered a diet Pepsi, but got Coke, and sat at the bar for a few minutes trying to encourage my pupils to open up some more so I could see better. I finally showed the picture to the bartender. “Ain’t that the same guy the cops were in here asking about?”
That didn’t sound good. He remembered Jack’s picture, but didn’t remember Jack being in the place. “Yeah, it could be. Guy’s in deep do-do now.”
“Yeah, I think the cop said he capped his wife.”
“He’s alleged to have capped his…. Never mind. You mind if I talk to some of the other people in here?”
“Knock yourself out.”
As it turned out, I might as well have. I got nowhere. When I left the place, I had to stand still for almost a full minute before my eyes got adjusted to the sunshine. Jack said he came out of the bar, turned to his right, and got in his car. I walked around to the rear of the corner bar. There was a back entrance. The building right behind the bar was a printing company with a tall chain link fence around their parking lot. I guessed they must have really had some security problems, because besides the huge fence, they also had security cameras. Too bad someone in front of the building didn’t have any.
I drove out to the area where Jack lived. One group of people I have grown to love is nosey old women neighbors. They can usually tell you everything going on in any neighborhood where they lived and a lot about neighborhoods five miles away. Mrs. Gracie Elliot proved to be just such a person. She invited me back to her kitchen where she was having a cup of tea. “Anything unusual happen on that afternoon,” I asked her.
“Not really. I thought it was very ironic that a police car was in the area about the same time though. Would you like some tea?”
“No, ma’am, thank you. What was a police car doing here?”
“Giving a ticket, I suppose. They stopped someone right down the block. I heard the siren and went to see what was happening. We don’t get many sirens around here, you know.”
“No, I don’t suppose so. Do you remember what time that was?”
What a shock. “My story had just come on at four, and it was a little after that when I heard the siren. I missed a major part of my story, too.” She took a drink of her tea. “But, of course, they said it again the next day.” And the next and the next.
“Well, thank you Mrs. Elliot. You’ve been very helpful.” I started to leave. “By the way, did the police come and talk with you?”
“Oh, no. But wouldn’t that have been exciting if they had? Almost as exciting as having you come and talk to me.” Exit, stage left.
One person I had become very friendly with in Harrison was a guy named Joe Harper. Joe was a cop with the Harrison police. Some of the cops seemed to resent having a PI around, but Joe thought we could help each other. I contacted Joe about a ticket being given on Birch Street on the day in question. Turned out it was only a warning ticket, but the camera that recorded on a CD was running in the patrol car all the time. He got the CD for me. We ran it back to last Tuesday and saw a car pullout of Jack’s driveway a little after four.
After some fancy computer work, Joe enlarged things enough to pull a license plate number from the car. Another few clicks at a different computer he came up with a name, Samuel Mullins, and an address. Information in another section showed me his rap sheet. He had only been arrested once and that was for a drunk and disorderly charge. At the time he was arrested, he listed his employer as Wendell Food Processing, one of many chicken processing plants in the area. Jack also worked there.
Early the next morning, I was at the county jail. Jack denied knowing anyone named Samuel Mullins, but he was looking at the floor when he said it. He knew something he wasn’t telling me. I reminded him of our agreement to tell each other the truth. He didn’t change his story.
I got out to Wendell Processing before the day shift got off. I drove around the parking lot and located Sam’s car. It was parked behind the main building in an executive parking area. I went back out to the main road so I could follow him when he left. That proved to be a mistake. It was like the Oklahoma Land Rush when the horn sounded at shift time. There was bumper to bumper traffic all fighting to get out of the parking lot. I saw him leave, but there was no way I could get close enough to him to follow. I drove the route I thought he might follow to get to his house, and when I got there, his car was parked in the driveway. Strike one.
I decided to use the direct approach next. Just go up to his house and see if he would answer some questions. If he lied to me, I’d have better reasons to look into his activities. Sam and a huge dog, aptly named Tiny, answered the front door. I flashed my PI’s badge at him and let him draw his own conclusions as to what it meant. “Could I come in and talk to you?” I asked, not really sure if I wanted to or not after seeing Tiny.
“It’s ok, Tiny. It’s ok, big boy,” he said and pointed to the floor. Tiny sat down. “What’s this all about, Mr…ah?”
“Folks just call me JT,” I said with my best imitation of Columbo.
“Okay, what’s this all about JT?” he said without offering to unlock the screen door.
Looking at Tiny and then at the door, I figured he could care less if the door were locked. If I suddenly looked like supper to him, I was a goner. “Do you know a woman named Emily White?”
He answered with no hesitation. “Don’t believe I do. Is that all?”
“How about her husband, Jack White?”
“Oh, yes. I do remember Emily now. I met her at one of the company parties one time. I didn’t put the name together at first. Jack and I do work together at Wendell.”
“You ever been to Jack’s house?”
“Let’s see. I don’t believe so. What’s this all about, anyway?”
“Emily was killed, and we’re just trying to find out background information about her.”
“Oh, my, that’s terrible. Was it a car wreck or something?”
“No, she was murdered.”
“Oh, God. That’s horrible to be shot like that. As I remember, she was a very pretty woman.”
I pulled out a picture of her. “Yes, she was.” We both looked at the picture for a few seconds. “Well, thanks for your time, Mr. Mullins.” I turned to leave, hoping Tiny already had his din-din. Being attacked from the rear by this monster would have to be bad. Then another thought entered my little brain. Being mounted from the rear by this monster would really be a bummer.
My next question was why he lied to me. Of course, there was only one real answer. He was involved somehow. And why had Jack denied knowing him? Surely he would figure out I would discover they worked together.
I was back at the county jail early the next morning. I brought a couple of donuts to the guy acting as the jailer, so that made him happy. Jack came over to the edge of his cell. “Just dropped by to tell you I’m off the case.”
“You lied to me.”
“How? What did I lie about?”
“For starters, about knowing Samuel Mullins. You work with him for God’s sake. Didn’t you think I was smart enough to figure that out?”
“I just didn’t think he was involved in this. I didn’t want to bring him into it.”
He looked down again. “I just didn’t want to.”
“You know, Jack, one thing that’s pretty hard to do is BS a BSer. Now, if you’re innocent, you’ve got to tell me the truth.”
“I am telling you the truth. I didn’t want to get him involved in this.”
“So you’re willing to go to jail for this guy? That’s a story I usually get from husbands and wives or lovers.” I stopped and realized what I’d said. “You two are lovers, aren’t you? You’re gay and just didn’t want the truth to get out.” Then I remembered something Sam had said. He said something about Emily being shot. How did he know that? I never said she had been shot, and I couldn’t remember that fact being in the paper either. It was one little bits of information the police withheld. Did he kill her so he could be with her husband?
I went and found Joe Harper. I told him what I thought I knew. “Well, we’ll check into it. Let you know, buddy.”
I got the news the next day. The police had raided Sam’s house. They found the gun used to kill Emily and some love letters Jack had written to him. Sam was arrested and Jack was released, although he did face a charge of obstruction.
Me? I was in the middle of trying to get a new chapter of my Great American Novel written when the call came in. Somehow, I didn’t feel much like writin’ after that. I threw my fishin’ gear in the truck and headed for my favorite catfish hole. It didn’t earn me any shekels at all, but it sure was fun.
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