by Guy Belleranti
This story was originally published online by Mysteries in a Flash in January 2000 and reprinted by The Dana Literary Society in October 2004.
Sam Winston glared at Sheriff Dave Dark from his perch on the examination table in Dr. Amy Rivera’s office. “Sunday morning stick-ups aren’t supposed to happen in Pinedale, Sheriff.”
“Now don’t pop a corpuscle, Sam. Amy’s already got enough patching to do on your head. And you’ve still got to give me the robber’s description.”
Winston grunted. “He looked just like an outlaw from an old B western. Wore a big black hat, jeans, red bandanna, and boots.”
“That fits half the folks in town.”
“Yeah, but most folks don’t come into my market with ski masks over their faces and pistol whip me.”
“Everything in the register.”
“See what he was driving?”
“Nah. The scoundrel must’ve parked around the side.” Sam winced. “Easy, Amy!”
“Men have such a low threshold of pain,” Amy clucked good-naturedly. Her dark brows pinched together as she studied Sam’s head. “Seriously, I think you’ve got a minor concussion. But you’ll be chasing women and catching fish again in no time.”
Dark resumed his questioning. “How about his voice? Anything distinctive?”
“He didn’t talk. Just pointed his gun at me.”
“Medium, I reckon.”
“You always open the store alone?”
“Nope. Manuel was supposed to open with me at nine.”
“So where was he?”
“Late.” Some of the color returned to Winston’s face, and he grinned crookedly. “Sara Jessup stayed at his place last night.”
“Okay, Sam.” Amy stripped off her surgical gloves. “I’ll remove the stitches next week. Meantime, let Manuel do the heavy lifting.” She broke off as the phone rang. “Pinedale Clinic. Yep, he’s here. For you, Dave,” she said, handing him the phone. “It’s Billy Spenser.”
“Sheriff!” The deputy sounded breathless. “I’m out at Jay Jessup’s house. He’s lying dead in the living room with his head bashed in! His daughter’s babbling about seeing a black-hatted cowboy hightailing it into the woods.”
“I’m on my way.” Dark slammed down the phone. “Amy, I hate to ask, but I need you to come with me. Doc Cramer’s fishing somewhere and…”
The two stared at Dark, and he repeated the gist of Spenser’s call.
They dropped Winston at his store, then continued the final half mile on a graded dirt road. A huge ranch-style house isolated from town by towering pine and aspen, it reflected Jay Jessup’s success with real estate developments in the area.
Sara Jessup sat hunched over the kitchen table working on a box of tissues. Billy Spenser hovered beside her, running a hand through his red hair. He heaved a grateful sigh when he saw Dark.
“I’m sorry about what’s happened,” Dark told Sara.
She dabbed at her eyes. “I know I should’ve called you Sheriff, but Billy and I used to go together and, well, I thought it would be easier talking to him first.”
Amy patted her shoulder. “That’s perfectly understandable.”
“Billy,” Dark said, “why don’t you stay with Sara while Amy and I give things a look-see.”
Jay Jessup was sprawled face down on the ceramic tile floor near the stone fireplace. Amy bent over him, while Dark made several slow circuits around the room. “No sign of a weapon. Killer must’ve taken it with him. Or…” He squinted at the stone fireplace.
“What’re you eyeing there, Dave?” Amy peered over his shoulder.
“Blood, I think. And there’s more on the hearth.”
Amy examined both places. “Could’ve done it all right. Jay seems to have had a thin skull.” She scraped blood from the two fireplace sections into separate vials and marked them. “I’ll phone Pilgrim’s Parlor to send over one of their wagons. The body’ll have to be taken to the lab for a p.m. I’ll call you when I’m finished.”
“Thanks, Amy.” Dark checked the doors and windows for signs of forced entry. Negative.
He returned to the body, frowning. Jessup was still in his pajamas and robe. Hardly the attire in which to let in a stranger.
He sealed the doorways to the murder scene and glanced toward the kitchen. Jessup had been a widower, and Sara was his only child. Dark decided it was time he questioned her.
Sara waved him to the chair next to Deputy Spenser. “I guess I’m ready for your questions, Sheriff.”
Dark cleared his throat. “Sara, do know if anything valuable is missing?”
I…I don’t believe so. Of course, I haven’t taken an inventory.”
“Did your father keep a lot of money in the house?”
“Oh no. I’m certain he didn’t.”
“When’s the last time you saw him?”
“Yesterday afternoon. We…well…we argued.”
Dark stiffened. “About what?”
“He called me a crackpot environmentalist for supporting the group opposing his condo-shopping center development project by the river. I walked out. Figured we’d work things out.” She wept softly.
“Sara!” Manuel Romero strode into the room and pulled her close. His dark eyes flashed at the Sheriff. “What have you been saying to her?”
“It’s all right, Manuel.” Sara sank back in her seat. “I’m afraid I broke down. That’s all.”
“You leave Sam alone at the market, Manuel?” Dark asked.
“Had to. Sam ordered me to get over here to comfort Sara, and when Sam gives an order…”
“I understand Sara spent the night at your place.”
“And you were late for work. Arrived after the hold-up.”
Romero’s square jaw jutted out. “Am I a suspect?”
“Hold-up?” Sara’s eyes widened. “Manuel what’s he talking about?”
Dark recounted the other events of the morning.
“Hey, the market robber sounds like the person you saw, Sara!” Spenser exclaimed.
“Just what did you see, ma’am?” Dark asked.
“A man running from the house.”
“You see his face?”
“What time was this?”
“Let’s see. I remember Manuel dashing to the shower at eight-thirty saying he’d be late for work if he didn’t hurry. And since it only takes a few minutes to get here from Manuel’s, it couldn’t have been later than eight-forty.”
Before Sam was robbed, Dark thought.
“Yes. Maybe if I’d chased him…”
“Good thing you didn’t,” Romero said. He reached down to squeeze her hands. “He was probably strung out on drugs.”
Sara leaned against him. “I went inside, found Father, and then I guess I fainted.”
Could you show me where he entered the woods?” Dark asked.
She led Dark and Spenser to a stand of aspen. “About here, I think.”
Dark knelt, but the ground was too hard from the recent drought to tell him anything. He straightened, walked with eyes still searching, then paused to gaze at the surrounding blue-green mountain ranges, while sucking in cool, pine-scented air.
Spenser sidled up beside him. “The killer must’ve gone through the woods, robbed Sam….He’s long gone by now.”
“Maybe. Maybe not.” Dark glanced at Sara and Manuel Romero standing hand in hand. “Things seem pretty serious between those two. I wonder if Jay Jessup approved?”
Spenser’s jaw dropped. “Do you mean you think that one of them…”
“Jessup was as narrow minded as they come. And Sam Winston said the robber didn’t speak. Why? Because he was afraid Sam would recognize his voice? Or hers?”
“Hers?” Spenser’s jaw hung even lower.
“Sara’s a rich woman now. The market hold-up could’ve been a clever smokescreen to start us looking the wrong way.”
“No way, Sheriff. Sara’s honesty itself. And it couldn’t have been Romero, either. He was getting in the shower when Sara left. Remember?”
Only if what Sara says is true, Dark thought.
“Yep, I bet Romero’s right,” Spenser declared. “It had to be some drugged-up drifter looking for money.”
Dark scowled, but said nothing. Maybe he just didn’t want to admit that big city type crime was coming to Pinedale.
Amy Rivera phoned late that afternoon. “I’ve finished the p.m., Dave, and things are pretty much like I thought. There’s just one unexpected development.”
Dark’s pulse quickened. “Yeah?”
“It’s the blood at the scene. They’re two different blood types. The one on the hearth is Jessup’s. The other isn’t.”
Dark chewed that over.
“Dave? Are you still there?”
“Sure am. And thanks, Amy. Now here’s what I need you to do…”
When Amy came in an hour later Dark knew from the look on her face he’d hit the bull’s-eye.
“Let’s take a ride,” he said.
They found Sam Winston in the small living quarters behind his market.
“Sam,” Dark said, “Amy’s matched some blood found on Jessup’s fireplace to some of yours she had from when she patched you up earlier. I think your robbery story was just that, a story. Something you quickly dreamed up to account for both your head wound and the man Sara saw running from her house. A man who stumbled because he was dizzy from a minor concussion.”
Sam stared, then tears started rolling down his face.
“I’ve got to read you your rights,” Dark said.
“It was an accident,” Sam mumbled when Dark had finished. “I just wanted to talk sense to Jessup about his river development project. The shopping center would’ve hurt my business, but even worse, the whole thing would’ve been an eyesore. But he went crazy. Accused me of using Manuel to turn his daughter against him. He grabbed me, and we both slipped on that damn tile. I cracked my head against the side of the fireplace, then saw Jessup lying there. I couldn’t get any pulse…tried to get him breathing, but I knew he was dead. I was scared and wasn’t thinking very straight. I know I shouldn’t have run and made up that robbery tale.”
Amy and Dark looked at one another. They believed him. Probably a jury would, too.
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