by Guy Belleranti
The Desert P.I. was originally published in Crimestalker, Casebook in 2003 and in Fictionwise in 2004.
Private eye Abby Adams set down her salad fork and stared across the table at Saguaro County Sheriff Al Moreno. “Al, are you seriously asking for my help on one of your cases?”
The big Arizonan scowled. “Let’s just say I’m requesting your input. You’ve got a knack for spotting things–even if you did choose being a PI over a cop.”
“Hmm,” Abby said. “That’s a back-handed compliment if I ever heard one, but I’ll take it, and I’ll also take another piece of that delicious bread.”
Moreno passed her the basket containing The Prospector Café’s famous southwestern onion cheese bread, sipped from his water glass and then said, “Okay, here’s the problem in a nutshell. The case involves–”
“Whoa,” Abby cut in. “Buying me dinner is nice, but it doesn’t pay the bills. I’ve got a business to run, overhead, a license and other nasty necessities to pay. If I’m going to get involved in a murder case, I think I’ll need a little scratch.”
“I’m just asking for input,” Moreno said, “not for you to stick your neck out or anything.”
Abby shook her head. “That’s all you’re asking now, but later….what if you break the case because of me? You’ll get all the glory and–”
“Okay, okay, two hour’s pay. That’s all the county can afford.”
Abby smiled. “Deal! At least for starters. Now fill me in on the details.”
“Remember Gracie Coolidge?” Moreno asked.
“Gracie Coolidge? Oh, of course.” Abby’s green eyes danced. “One of three wealthy sisters living in her deceased parents’ desert foothill’s mansion. One of three wealthy sisters who took an evening stroll along the property’s cliffs and fell–or was pushed–to her death. Scads of gossip followed, most of it intimating that Francine, the middle sister, was responsible. This, of course, Francine denied, but her taking up with Gracie’s boyfriend certainly made her look suspect. The police–” Abby smiled “–ably led by Sheriff Al Moreno, investigated but made no arrest. How’s that?”
“Fine as far as it goes,” Moreno said, “but it doesn’t include the latest.”
Moreno opened his mouth to reply, and then broke off as their waitress arrived with two heaped orders of barbecued baby back ribs and cowboy beans. “Ha!” the cop said when she’d left. “Now that’s a meal.”
“The case,” Abby reminded him. “Remember the money meter’s ticking.”
“Greedy woman,” Moreno mumbled between chews. “It happened yesterday morning. The youngest sister, Betty, had her own close shave with death.”
“Her own–are you saying she was shoved from the same cliff?”
“No,” Moreno said. “No cliff this time. She was poisoned.”
“Exactly. The housekeeper, Sadie Martin, found her doubled over in her bedroom and called 911. Soon after, we were called in.”
“What kind of poison?”
“Arsenic in her coffee pot.”
“And you think Francine–”
“Our search of the house turned up an opened container of the poison on a back corner shelf of her bedroom closet.”
Abby raised her eyebrows, and Moreno continued. “She was out at the time of the search, but it didn’t take long to track her down at her boyfriend’s.”
“And her story was…?”
“She said she didn’t know what we were talking about, and put on a show of great concern over Betty’s close call.”
“You didn’t buy it?”
The sheriff shook his head. “I’d already talked to Sadie Martin and to the other live-in, Roberta Valdez, the cook. Both told me Francine and Betty are always fighting, that they’ve barely been on speaking terms since Gracie’s death.”
“Sounds to me like you have a pretty good case, Al. Motive, opportunity and the poison in Francine’s closet.”
“Yeah, but not good enough to hold her for more than 24 hours. Her big-shot lawyer got her out this afternoon.”
“And the poisoned sister…Betty? How is she?”
“Weak from having her stomach pumped, but home and vowing she’s going to scratch Francine’s eyes out when she gets the chance.”
“So she’s convinced Francine is guilty?
“Oh yeah. Everyone is. As was I–at first.”
“Ah, so we get to it at last. What changed your mind?”
Moreno waited as the waitress refilled their water glasses and then when they were alone, said, “I haven’t entirely changed my mind, but I do have some doubts. Francine Coolidge is anything but my favorite person, but she’s not dumb. If she is guilty why didn’t she cover her tracks better? Why didn’t she hide the poison somewhere other than her own closet?”
The two ate silently for a minute.
“Any latent prints found on the poison container?” Abby asked at last.
“Umm, no. Mmm…these ribs are good.”
“No prints at all?” Abby persisted.
“Nope.” Moreno tore open a damp towelette package and dabbed barbecue sauce from his black mustache. “The container was wiped clean.”
“Hmm. Yet she foolishly left it in her closet. You’re right, Al, it does look odd. Tell me, did the sisters have any visitors yesterday morning?”
“Only Francine’s boyfriend. Gracie’s old boyfriend. Slimy twerp named Brian Layland. But he didn’t drop by until after breakfast, after Betty had drunk her coffee.”
“The two servants–Sadie Martin and Roberta Valdez– what can you tell me about them?”
“Both in their fifties and have been in the employ of the Coolidge household for years.”
“Was either of them especially close to Gracie? Maybe blame Francine for her death?”
“As I recall, both were as angry at the gossip as the sisters. Besides, Betty’s the one who was poisoned, not Francine.”
“True,” Abby said, “but perhaps it wasn’t meant for Betty. Perhaps Francine was the intended target.”
“Good idea, Abby, but no go. Betty’s the only coffee drinker in the house.”
Once more they ate in silence.
How about this,” Abby said after a spell. “Could Sadie or Roberta hate both Betty and Francine, maybe even blame the two sisters for Gracie’s death? Might one of them have decided to hang two shingles with one nail by poisoning Betty and framing Francine?”
“Possible, I suppose,” Moreno muttered. “Yeah, maybe–”
“Al,” Abby said suddenly, “what’s the Coolidge home phone number?”
“The phone number? What–”
“Do you have it?”
“Well, yeah, in the case file back at the office.”
“Call in and have whoever’s on duty give it to you.”
“So we can make a call. So we can set a trap.”
“A trap? For who?”
“For the person I believe responsible for Betty’s poisoning and Gracie’s murder.”
Ninety minutes later Abby stood several hundred yards behind the Coolidge mansion, just yards from the cliff, shivering in the forty-degree temperature. Funny how cold the southern Arizona desert could get on a late autumn night!
Abby stamped her feet to warm them and wished she hadn’t quit smoking the week before. She popped a stick of cinnamon gum into her mouth and chewed rapidly. Maybe she’d been wrong. Maybe her call hadn’t had the effect she’d hoped. Maybe–
Someone was coming, walking slowly, deliberately, lit up in ghostly form by the half moon.
“All right,” the woman said. “I’m here. But that doesn’t prove anything.”
“I don’t need proof,” Abby said. “I saw. I was out walking that night. Trespassing, I admit, but I saw you. I saw everything.”
“That’s right. Gracie…you…by the cliff. I saw you reach out suddenly and–”
“Ha! If that’s all you’ve got to say…. I don’t have to listen to this.”
“No, but the Sheriff’s department will, and when they find your fingerprints on the shelf where you left the poison–”
“They won’t! I wore gloves. I– why you–” The woman sprang, a wrench suddenly visible in her hands, but Abby was prepared, twisted the woman’s wrist until the weapon fell to the ground. The woman struggled, but by then Moreno had sprinted from behind a nearby cluster of mesquite and prickly pear.
“Looks like you were right, Abby.” He snapped handcuffs on Betty Coolidge’s wrists, read the woman her Miranda warnings and then went on. “You wanted the Coolidge Fortune all for yourself, so you killed one older sister in hopes that the second would be blamed. When no arrest was made you took more drastic steps. You put just enough arsenic in your coffee to make yourself sick and then tried to frame Francine for attempted murder. Unfortunately for you I smelled a rat, and Abby here is one smart desert detective.”
“Private detective, Sheriff,” Abby said. “There’s still the matter of my fee.”
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