by Jan Christensen
Enjoy this never before published 4th of July mystery short story.
Charlie sped toward the murder scene. The chief had told him no lights, no siren. This was a shame because Charlie was driving his brand new white SUV police vehicle. Happy Fourth of July, he thought, not totally unhappy to be working the holiday. Sometimes interesting things happened, especially on Independence Day.
In front of him, a guy was going just under the speed limit, so Charlie had to slow down. The pick-up was weaving a bit, which nowadays could mean many things. The driver was on this cell, he was lighting a cigarette, and he was tuning the radio, combing his hair. He could be messing with the air conditioning, reading the newspaper or the Bible; yes, Charlie had seen that one. Or he was high.
Charlie automatically checked the license plate and gave a start. That was his license plate–the one from his old vehicle. Had the idiot stolen a police car’s license plate? Well, Charlie asked himself, what other explanation was there? Perhaps he hadn’t noticed it was a police vehicle since the light bar had been removed.
Charlie hit the siren. He hit the lights. The guy didn’t pull over; he sped up. Charlie swore under his breath.
Suddenly, the car made a U-turn during a break in the traffic on the two-lane road, and Charlie cursed again, slowed, and turned himself. They were headed back to town, and the chief was going to be furious when Charlie didn’t show up. But what could he do? The guy had stolen his license plate, damn it. That was unacceptable.
The guy didn’t slow down as they entered HighLow, Texas, population 871. Charlie gripped the steering wheel harder, making his knuckles ache. They roared through the first of only two traffic lights in town, Charlie praying now. At the main light, a delivery truck had the right of way, and the guy Charlie was chasing caromed off of it and into the front of the police station. The noise was deafening, and Charlie had to force himself to keep his eyes open and bring his vehicle to a safe stop.
Chief Piggsmithe was gonna be mad.
The guy was high. Not even hurt. The driver of the delivery truck had a broken arm and used some words Charlie had never heard before. Lucille, the dispatcher, just missed being hit as she sat at her desk in the front of the building, and she was a bit shook up, although still able to function. She was Piggsmithe’s sister, but Charlie liked her better than he did the Chief. A crowd gathered rapidly. Charlie got the driver cuffed and sat him on the curb and called for an ambulance. He explained to Lucille why he’d been chasing the guy and alternately yelled at the crowd to stay back.
Chief Piggsmithe was gonna be not just mad, but furious.
Charlie gave him a shout on the radio.
“Uh, chief, we’ve had an incident here in town.”
“What are you doing still in town? I told you to get out here ASAP.”
“Well, I was on my way . . .”
“So why aren’t you here? This is top priority, Charlie.”
“I know, chief. The thing is I came up on a guy who’d stolen my license plate. From my old car.”
“Huh,” the chief said.
“And he was weaving a bit, so I figured I’d better check on him.”
“On the way to a murder scene?” the chief roared.
“But he stole my license plate, chief.” Charlie didn’t like the whine in his voice.
“Gosh darn it, Charlie. Murder trumps stealing. Every time. Now get your behind out here.”
“Well, you see, he made a U-turn and we’re back in town. He kind of ran into the police station.”
“He hit a delivery truck and ran into the station. Lucille’s okay. A bit upset.”
“Lucille’s upset? You don’t think I’m upset? Anyone hurt?”
“The truck driver has a broken arm, at least.”
“You know he’s gonna sue us, don’t you?”
Charlie hadn’t given that a thought. His shoulders sagged. “The guy stole my license plate,” he murmured.
“What’d you say?” shouted the chief. “Gosh darn it, I guess I have to come into town and straighten this all out. Right, Charlie?”
“I guess so. I’m sorry, chief.”
“Not as sorry as you’re gonna be when I get there.”
Charlie had no doubt.
The license-plate thief still sat on the curb, handcuffed. Charlie had warned him not to move, and he didn’t, just stared at some ants carrying a crumb to their anthill. He didn’t seem to be very shaken, or maybe he was still high on whatever he’d ingested, inhaled or otherwise put into his body. Charlie couldn’t get a word out of him except “lawyer.” Yeah, everyone knew about that now, with television.
Lucille was talking to Charlie’s Aunt Sally, and the crowd, being small town, was behaving. The fire truck had arrived from a block away. The volunteer paramedics followed, and had looked over the truck driver. Charlie stood, a bit stunned, he realized, and didn’t know what to do next. He’d only been on the force four months, was still on job probation, and he had a constant stomach ache from worry about losing his job, which he’d dreamed about since he was knee-high to a grasshopper.
Chief Piggsmithe came sailing up in his big, black Cadillac. After he stepped out, he grabbed his Stetson and clamped it on his head. He’d been lean when younger, but now a small potbelly preceded him, and gibes about his name were even more cutting. If he hadn’t always been so pompous, even when young, perhaps he would have gained more respect.
Charlie cringed as he watched him approach. The chief took in the scene and roared at the crowd. “Y’all go back to your business. Show’s over. Go on. Go on.” He shooed at them with his hands. Then he stood looking at the police station, shaking his head. Next he had the decency to ask Lucille if she was sure she was okay, and then he checked on the prisoner who glared at him from the curb and said, “Get me a lawyer.”
“We’ll let you have a phone call in a minute.” He turned to Charlie. “Don’t know what to do with you, boy. What were you thinking?”
Charlie hung his head.
“Lucille,” Chief Piggsmithe said, “Can you hold down the fort while we go see about the murder at the Emporium? Charlie here will put the prisoner in the jail–looks as if it’s still intact.”
“Sure, chief,” Lucille said.
“Get the guy inside, Charlie, let him have his phone call, get his fingerprints, then stick him in a cell. I’m going back to Maybelle’s place. Think you can do all that without messing it up?”
“Yes, chief,” Charlie said, his stomach turning as he walked over to the prisoner and hauled him up by an elbow.
Charlie was on his way to the murder scene again within fifteen minutes. Traffic now came from the other direction, and he couldn’t pass the guy in front of him who was lugging all his personal goods in the back of his pickup truck and was another one going below the speed limit. Charlie just hoped all the stuff was tied down tight because he’d seen enough stray mattresses, chairs, and other furniture along the side of the road over the years to furnish a large house.
The load looked secure, although Charlie was getting impatient with the slow pace, when the guy flipped a lit cigarette butt out the window. Charlie didn’t see it land, and he had a sinking feeling in his gut. Sure enough, in a bit, the mattress caught fire.
Charlie hit his siren and lights and saw the guy’s shocked expression when he looked in his rearview mirror and realized what had happened to his load. He swerved off the highway onto the shoulder and jumped out of his truck, and a woman spilled from the passenger seat.
Charlie screeched to a stop behind them, exited his SUV cruiser and ran to the back to pull out the fire extinguisher, all the while talking to Lucille on the radio clipped to his shoulder. “Get a fire truck out here–mile marker 56. Some guy set his mattress on fire.”
“What?” Lucille said. “Set his mattress on fire?”
“Yes. He was hauling it and threw a lit cigarette out his window.”
Lucille muttered something he couldn’t catch, then said, “Fire truck’s on its way.”
By the time they’d arrived, Charlie had the fire out. The woman with the pyromaniac was screaming at the guy and began thumping him on the chest with her fists. “All our stuff,” she kept saying. “All our stuff. I told you not to bring those stupid gas cans. We coulda bought new ones. But no, you had to save ten bucks and now we have nothing. Nothing!”
She wore herself out, eventually, and sank to the grass next to the shoulder in tears. One of the fireman said to Charlie, “You get all the interesting ones, don’t you?” He grinned. Charlie frowned.
“Chief’s gonna be furious,” he said, just as his radio squawked.
“Where the heck are you, boy?” the chief shouted.
Charlie explained. There was a silence on the other end. “I can’t believe–”
Charlie cut him off. “How do I write this up, chief? Reckless endangerment? Someone could have got hurt, bad.”
Although he couldn’t hear the chief sigh, Charlie knew he had. It was a frequent occurrence when they talked. “Yeah, Charlie. And do it quick, will you? I need you out here. Now!”
“Yes, chief. I’m almost on my way.” He quickly wrote up a ticket, and now the woman was furious with him. “Look,” he said to her in his calmest voice. “Someone needs to help pay for getting the fire truck out here. It’s not cheap anymore with the price of fuel. The guys are volunteers, but the equipment costs a lot. As a matter of fact, you should also make a donation to the Fireman’s Fund.”
“Are you crazy?” she screamed. “All our stuff was in that truck. We don’t have any money to donate to anyone.”
“Oh, sorry.” Perhaps the events of the morning were rattling him more than he knew. He thrust the ticket at the guy who still looked stunned. Charlie got back into his new police vehicle. Somehow the pleasure in having it was wearing off.
When he finally arrived at Maybelle’s and Harry’s Antique Emporium and Tea Shoppe, located on the outskirts of town, it was lunchtime, and he was hungry. And not for those little triangular sandwiches Maybelle was so proud of. He needed some barbeque and slaw. Or a big hamburger, juicy and covered with all the trimmings.
The Emporium stood by itself on a few acres next to the graveyard, which was enclosed by a low, wrought iron fence, gates always open. The building was white clapboard, paint peeling slightly, with a small white house in the back. The Emporium had a new, metal roof and two ostentatious white columns next to the door. Charlie thought it had once been a home, but the Crenshaws had owned it ever since he could remember, and they had run the antique shop for generations. Harry did the caretaking of the graveyard, as well.
Chief Piggsmithe stood just inside the doorway, watching some crime scene guys from the county lab going over the huge area where all the antiques were displayed. It would take a long time to check it all out, Charlie realized. There was just too much stuff.
The body had been removed. Charlie had taken too long to get to the scene to see it.
“Do we know who the victim was?” he asked the chief.
Charlie shrugged. “Nope. Was there a robbery involved?”
“That we don’t know, either. Can’t let the Crenshaws in to see until this crew is finished.” He looked at the people working the room with disgust. Charlie knew the chief thought all this lifting of fingerprints and sifting through dust for fibers was ridiculous. He often asked, “What happened to old-fashioned detection?” Although Charlie rarely agreed with the chief, he had wondered about that himself, even though he read enough detective novels to think there must be something to it. But most cases he’d actually been on were solved because the idiot who did the crime was an idiot.
“Why do you call them?” Charlie asked.
“The citizens of HighLow expect it. They watch those shows on TV. They think this is the only way crimes get solved nowadays.”
Charlie nodded. “What’d the victim look like?”
“Medium.” The chief took a cigarette-sized cigar out of his shirt pocket and stuck it into his mouth. It had one of those little plastic tips on it. He never lit one until after dinner, but he liked holding it between his teeth until then. “Everything medium. Height, weight. Hair and eye color brown. Regular features, although his nose may have been broken long ago. He wore Wranglers, a T-shirt from Harley-Davidson, and Reeboks. Gimme cap from Ace Hardware.”
We’re all walking billboards, Charlie thought. Those companies should pay us for advertising their stuff.
Maybelle walked up, shoulders slumped, a glum look on her face. No one knew how old she was, but the guess was between sixty and eighty. Her iron-gray hair was sprayed into place, and her wrinkled face looked like a road map to nowhere. She had sunken, faded blue eyes, a tiny nose, and thin lips, which she always colored in bright red. “When will you be done?” she asked. “We could be losing business here.”
“I’m sure business will increase after we’re outahere,” the Chief remarked, rather callously, Charlie thought.
Maybelle gave him a startled look, and nodded.
“Who discovered the body?” Charlie asked.
“I did,” Maybelle said. “Came in this morning, and there he was. It was so early; I called the chief at home. He came right out, didn’t you, chief?”
She looked at Piggsmithe with respect, Charlie realized. Older folks still respected law enforcement personnel.
“Then I got Harry up. Harry likes to sleep late and stay up late. He remembers seeing that man in here once before, you know.”
“He didn’t tell me that,” the chief said.
“Harry’s a man of few words,” Maybelle replied.
“I’ll go get him,” Maybelle said and shuffled off toward the house in back of the Emporium.
“Gosh darn it,” the chief said.
They stood awhile, watching the forensic people do their work. Charlie’s stomach rumbled, but both he and the Chief ignored it.
Harry, a wiry little guy of about seventy who wore huge glasses that made his eyes seem enormous, walked up to them and stood, not saying a word.
The chief cleared his throat. “I understand you’ve seen the victim before, Harry.”
The chief leaned against the doorframe, obviously trying to relax. “Want to tell me about it?”
“He came in, looked around. Then he came over to me and showed me an old Civil War medal. Wanted to sell it to me.”
“You buy it?”
“I did. Gave him a fair price.”
“He say where he got it?”
“Said it had been in the family. He needed the money.”
“He say anything else?”
And you didn’t either, Charlie thought. Too bad.
“You notice what he was driving? Anyone with him, or in his vehicle?” Charlie asked.
“He drove a white pickup. Had a dent on the front right fender. Another guy was in the passenger’s seat. Or might have been a woman.” Harry hadn’t noticed the license plate number, of course.
“Thank you, Harry,” the chief said, and began talking to Lucille on his radio, telling her to put out a bulletin with the truck’s description.
Harry nodded and walked away. “I guess he didn’t have anything more to say,” Charlie said.
The chief grunted. The forensics crew moved toward the door. “Time for lunch,” one of them said.
“When you gonna be finished up here?” the chief asked.
“Probably later today. It’s so dusty, we can tell pretty well what we can ignore.”
“Huh,” said the chief. “First time I’ve ever heard of dust being a good thing.”
“Right. Too bad the tea room is closed. Maybelle makes some good sandwiches.”
“If you like eating with a view of the graveyard,” the only female crew member said. The others laughed. One guy went to ruffle her hair, but she ducked.
“I want to ask Harry another question,” Charlie told the chief.
“Go ahead,” the chief said. “I’m gonna go in town for a burger at Rita’s.”
Charlie walked to the small house behind the Emporium and knocked on the door. Harry answered.
“I have one more question,” Charlie said.
Harry just looked at him.
“Anyone get back to you about that?”
“That’s two questions.”
“You’re keeping count? Okay, sorry, I should have said I had something to talk to you about. No one came to take a look?” There were two other officers on the force, both off for the holiday.
“Can you tell me about what you saw?”
“Well, it looked as if some of the headstones moved a bit, but it’s really hard to tell. Grass is sparse, weeds aren’t. You’re thinking that guy robbed a grave?”
Harry nodded again. “That all?”
“Well, not exactly. Perhaps you could show me which graves you think might have been disturbed.”
Harry frowned, and then sighed. “I suppose so.”
They headed over to the graveyard. The hot Texas sun beat down on them, and Charlie wished he was in his new, air conditioned police vehicle.
They walked along the path, and finally Harry stopped at one site. Charlie read the inscription. A woman’s name. Charlie looked at the site carefully and couldn’t see anything amiss. “What’d you see here, Harry?” he asked.
“Just the headstone’s shifted a bit. Could be from the ground moving around, but that doesn’t happen a lot here.”
“Okay. Who else?”
Just a few graves over, Harry stopped and pointed again. This one was inscribed with a man’s name, his rank, dates of birth and death, and “killed at the battle of,” with the rest obscured because the stone had sunk into the ground. “Date’s right for the Civil War,” Charlie said. “Same thing here? Headstone shifted?”
“Are the others you noticed in this same area? Could be the ground shifted, like you said.”
“Yep. Or could be because this is where most of the Civil War people are buried, that era, I should say.” He pointed to another one in the next row.
Even Charlie noticed it was tilted. He walked over to read the inscription. “No mention of the war on this one. Chief’s not going to be happy with this theory,” he muttered, staring at the ground. Then he looked up at Harry. “You didn’t suspect anything when the guy came in with the medal? Especially after seeing these graves disturbed?
Harry wouldn’t meet his eyes. “No.”
Charlie didn’t believe him, but it didn’t matter now. “These the only ones you noticed?”
“Just one more.” Harry led Charlie to the last one.
“Here lies Baby Girl Cuttleworth. Born on Christmas Day, 1874, died on New Year’s. May she rest in peace,” Charlie read. “Damn,” he said softly. “They wouldn’t rob a baby, would they?”
Harry said nothing. He was good at that. Well, they’d rob a war veteran, why not a baby? But why a baby? What would one have that would be valuable?
“Harry, you know anything about any of these people in this area of the graveyard? Are they related?”
“They’re all related. See that big stone over there?” Harry pointed to a small hill where a tall spire-like stone stood.
“That’s the great-grandfather. Don’t know how many generations back. Anyway, lots of his descendants are buried here. They’ve brought them back home from all over, sometimes.”
“So some must still live in the area,” Charlie mused.
Harry put his hands in his pockets and jingled his change. “We done here?” he asked.
“Just as soon as you give me all the names you can remember that are still around who will someday be buried in this area of the graveyard.”
“Not that many anymore.” Harry gave Charlie four surnames. Charlie knew two of the families, and a third sounded familiar, but he couldn’t remember where he’d heard it.
“Thanks,” Charlie said.
Harry nodded and shambled away. Charlie walked over to the monolith and gave a start when he saw the name. William Ray Barnstable. Barnstable was the last name of the victim. Why hadn’t Harry said something, Charlie wondered, but then he realized that the chief had probably never told the Crenshaws who the victim was.
Charlie walked to the parking lot, climbed into his SUV and drove back toward town, stomach rumbling with hunger, and air conditioning at full blast.
When he arrived back at HighLow, he found the café closed, and he groaned. He drove home to his small spread on the other side of town where he lived alone since his girlfriend ran off with the postman, made himself a bologna sandwich, and then went to the police station where he found workmen boarding up the front of the building.
Lucille looked up when he walked in. “You’ve had a busy day,” she said. “Chief wants you.”
He walked into the chief’s office. Piggsmithe was writing something in his journal and didn’t look up until he finished.
“Where you been?” he asked.
“I spoke to Harry. There’s a possibility that some of the graves have been robbed out there.”
“What? What are you talking about?” The chief stood up and began to pace around his office.
With the hammering as background, Charlie explained.
“The Cuttleworths and the Jenkins? No, no, no,” the chief moaned and sank back into his chair. “I didn’t know the Barnstables. Must have been mostly girls and the others left town.” He stuck a tiny cigar in his mouth and chewed on the plastic tip.
“What’re we gonna do?” Charlie asked.
“Nothing!” Chief Piggsmithe shouted. “We’ll probably never find the guy who did it, anyway. We don’t say a word. To anyone.”
“But chief,” Charlie said. “We’re officers of the law. We can’t suppress this.”
“It’s for the good of the community. We gotta think of the community.” The chief ran his hands over his pate and groaned.
Think of your job, you mean, Charlie thought bitterly. He left the chief’s office and went to talk to Lucille. Someone had pushed her desk into the far corner, and Charlie was surprised to see her working on the computer. The electricity must not have gone out. He saw that the men were almost finished putting up plywood.
“How’s our prisoner?” He rested his butt on the corner of Lucille’s desk.
“Silent as a clam. Slim showed up and advised him. You want to set up an interview?”
“Not until I search his truck–didn’t have time before.”
“Jake towed it to the yard. It’s about totaled. So was my office.” She made a face.
“Yeah,” Charlie said. “I’m surprised you’re at work. You should take the rest of the day off.”
“Naw. After the initial shock, I’m okay. Could have been worse.”
Charlie admired Lucille’s grit. Tough old broad.
“You’ve had quite a day yourself,” she said, giving him a rare smile.
“Just some murder and mayhem. What else can you expect on a holiday?”
Lucille rolled her eyes. “Go see Jake. That truck might have something interesting in it, although I doubt it. Probably just the usual drugs.” She shook her head and frowned. “Hate ’em,” she whispered.
Charlie looked away. Lucille’s only boy had got caught up in that scene. He was in rehab now, but the last time Charlie saw him, he thought he’d lost IQ points. Probably wrecked his physical health as well.
“I’m off,” he said.
He heard the keyboard clatter as he left. The hammering had stopped, and the two men, father and son, stood outside, heads back, admiring their work. “Hey, Charlie,” Bill, Sr., said when he spotted him. “Thanks for drumming up some business for us.” They grinned at him, and Charlie couldn’t help laughing.
“You’re welcome. Sorry to bring you out on a holiday, though.”
“Aw, that’s okay. We’re off now to barbeque up some hamburgers and chicken.”
He walked to Jake’s place, knowing that even on a holiday, it would be open. Charlie sometimes wondered how rich Jake was. He bet himself he had over a million stashed somewhere. Probably most in the bank–he wouldn’t trust stocks and bonds. His only expense now was taxes on his property. He got paid to haul away cars and store them. He got paid for the parts of the ones he kept until they were pretty well stripped, and he got paid when a company hauled them away for scrap.
Jake stood behind a counter, tall, stringy, chewing tobacco. He had a long face, a battered nose, and lips so thin they’d disappeared with age. Thin hair, clean shaven. They greeted each other, and Jake tossed Charlie the keys to the truck.
Jake had considerately parked it right by the entrance to the yard. Charlie had forgotten it was white. So many pickups were. He looked it over, walking around, his mouth turning down when he saw his old license plate still screwed to the back holder. What an idiot, stealing a cop’s plate. The front end was demolished, and the driver had been lucky he wasn’t hurt.
He opened the passenger door, and something fell out at his feet. He picked it up, bemused to find a cloth doll. It looked old with its painted felt face and was dressed in a confederate uniform. On the floor he saw more old things. After donning a pair of gloves from a pocket in his uniform and pulling out a few evidence bags, he picked up and bagged a canteen, an old leather belt, two metal buttons, a ring and necklace, what he recognized as two minie balls–Civil War bullets–and some other items he couldn’t identify. Underneath it all he found a list of now-familiar family names noting certain items, most of which had been on the floor. No wonder the thieves had known which graves to rob. Probably listened to old family stories of what was buried with the ancestors.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” he whispered. “Caught a thief, and probably a murderer, too. Bet they had a falling out–something to do with the antique shop. No forensics needed, either.”
But Chief Piggsmithe wasn’t going to be happy. Now it would come out about the grave robbing. It would be the most excitement the town had seen since the last Fourth of July when old Henry Piggsmithe, the chief’s brother, had run his pick-up into the fireworks stand, almost killing the owner and setting the place on fire when his lit cigar popped out of his mouth on impact.
What a display that had been.
Charlie walked back to the station, whistling “It’s a Grand Old Flag.” He refrained from dancing in the street.
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & short stories in our mystery section.