by Gary Hoffman
This story was published in a newspaper in Temecula, California. It won first place in the Earl Stanley Gardner mystery contest
I could always find a million reasons never to attend funerals, but when Chuck Temple was shot and killed, they all went to hell. He and I actually went back to Elementary School #34 in Pittsburgh. My family had moved there so my dad could find a job. In a quirk of fate, Chuck started the third grade there on the same day and for the same reason. We’d been tight since then.
I shut down the offices of Joe Morello, Private Investigations, flew into San Diego, California, and rented a car to drive to the town of Temecula. The roads were good, the scenery spectacular, but the drive gave me too much time to think about him. I wondered if his ex-wife, Linda, would be there. Decided probably not. Their divorce had all the fun to it of a volcanic eruption. I knew Jody would be. They were the apple of each other’s eyes. I hadn’t seen Jody for sometime and was looking forward to that. She was my only godchild, and Chuck’s only child.
There were a handful of people at the funeral home. Since he wasn’t from there, attendance was slim. I think several locals showed up because they probably went to every funeral in town. Needed something to do and were just nosy. His brother flew in from Chicago. He and Jody were the only family there.
I shook his brother’s hand, gave Jody a hug, and mumbled some of the usual crap people say at funeral homes. That’s one thing that always gets to me at these events. Someone will say how good the deceased looks. I want to tell them they look dead. Dead people look dead! I glanced at Chuck and stepped to the side. I had my hands folded in front of me and was doing the usual weight-shifting routine while wondering what to do next.
Some guy in a suit that shouted “cop” stood from a chair in the rear and walked up to me. “Are you Joseph Morello?”
“And you are?”
He flashed his shield at me. “Detective Brad Simmons. Could I talk to you for a few minutes?”
“You working on Chuck’s case?”
“Yes. Let’s go out that side door over there. No need to disturb the family in here.”
I looked at Jody. She looked like she would do anything to have someone disturb her. “Yeah, ok.”
There was a small porch just outside the door. “I understand you’re a friend of Mr. Temples.”
“Chuck and I go way back.”
“I’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“Fine. Anything if I can help you figure out who did this to Chuck.”
“Glad you feel that way. To tell you the truth, we don’t have much to go on here. We have just a handful of crimes like this in Temecula each year, and this one really is giving us fits.”
“Well, first of all, his daughter told us he was coming out here for a vacation.”
I had to laugh at that one. Chuck had told me all about his plans. As soon as Chuck and I had graduated high school, we both entered the police academy in Pittsburgh. We were partners for a little over ten years before I wanted to go into private investigations for myself. Chuck stayed with the department and went to law school at night. Another one of his ambitions was to become a writer. He blamed having too many things on his plate contributed to his divorce. He came to Temecula because Erle Stanley Gardner had lived there, and he was a writer and lawyer. Chuck told me he just wanted to get away and hoped some of Gardner’s success was in the air or something out there. Then he got serious and said he just wanted to see if there was anything there to inspire him, like Gardner must have been.
“Yeah, he told me he was coming out here for a vacation, too,” I told him.
“That’s one of the strange things about this case. He didn’t seem to know anyone out here, but someone seemed to know him.”
“Well, he was shot, but wasn’t robbed. Shot five times, in fact. Outsiders are usually robbed, not just killed for no reason.”
“Five times! That’s usually a woman or someone expressing rage.”
“True,” he said. “You know of either one out here he might have known?”
“I don’t think he’d ever been out here before.”
“Possible someone followed him out here?” he asked.
“I guess it’s possible, but I talked to him a few days ago. Everything seemed to be fine. A person would have to be very angry to follow him all the way out here.”
“I have something here I’d like to show you, but you need to promise me you’ll keep it quiet. It’s something we haven’t released to the public yet.”
This was more than a bit puzzling. “Ok.”
He took a sheet of paper from his inside pocket. “This is a copy of a note we found by Mr. Temple’s body.” He unfolded it and handed it to me. It looked like it might have been written in crayon. Since it was a copy, it was hard to tell. It said, “Finealey!!!”
“Any idea what it means?” I asked him.
“None. I was hoping you could help with that.”
“Was this written in crayon?”
“Means nothing to me,” I told him. “Maybe the perp can’t spell well. Fine Alley? Finally? No clue.”
He folded the paper and put it back in his pocket. “Well, we figured that much out. Anything else you can think of that may help us?”
“I’m about as much in the dark as you are. Mind if I hang around for a couple of days and see if I can find anything? Sometimes people will talk to a PI and not a cop.”
He frowned. “Just don’t get in our way or step on any of our toes.”
I had to smile. “Don’t worry. I know the drill.”
She let loose with one of her famous smiles. “I’d be disappointed if you didn’t.”
I told her what Detective Simmons had told me. “What else do you know?”
She started to choke up before speaking, but suppressed herself. “They said he was shot between the eyes, but he was probably dead before that. The mortician did a good job of covering it up, don’t you think?”
I had to admit, I never noticed it. “What else?”
“Why did your father want to be buried out here?”
Another smile. “Daddy always told me to bury him where he died. He said he’d probably be killed by someone, and he wanted to be buried close so he could haunt them.”
“Do you know where he was staying out here?”
“Furbish Motel. That’s really all I know.” She jumped up and headed for the ladies’ room. I knew she was crying. I was kind of glad to see her go. Crying women and I don’t get along. I’m a sucker for them—they can get anything they want.
After a very small graveside service the next morning, Jody had to get back to her job in Washington, D.C. Her uncle caught a noon flight out to Chicago, and I went to the Furbish Motel. Chuck’s body hadn’t actually been found there—it was out more in the desert country—but he’d stayed there. The motel manager told me the police had been there to question her, had taken Chuck’s personal effects from his room, but had talked to no one else that she knew of. She gave me permission to talk to anyone who worked for the motel.
Several years ago, I had learned a valuable lesson from a friend of mine, a high school teacher in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. There were times where they were going to have an assembly for all the students. Even the principal may not know which hour it was going to happen. She learned to talk to the custodians. They may have a work order to set up chairs in the gym third hour and tear them down fifth hour. Therefore, the assembly was going to be fourth hour. I looked up the maids and maintenance people.
Actually, none of them could give me any useful information. I didn’t figure they might be able to, but sometimes I can learn a lot from the way a person acts when answering my questions, rather than what they say. One of these people was a man named Charles Diego.
I could tell he wasn’t the highest dollar denomination in the cash drawer—and that might have accounted for some of his nervousness—but he just didn’t seem real happy to talk to me. He hemmed and hawed around each question and finally told me he had a lot of work to do. Everyone’s excuse to leave a bad situation: “I’ve got work to do!”
I knew no more than before I got to the motel, except there was one guy there who wasn’t thrilled to talk to me. I headed out to where Chuck had been found. The area was part of a Cahuilla Indian Reservation. If there was any evidence there, I couldn’t see it. I went back to town to find Detective Simmons. I had thought of a few more things I wanted to ask him.
“Any idea how Chuck got out in the desert?” I asked him.
“That’s another part of the mystery. Apparently, he was out there for almost a day before anyone found him. In the meantime, we had a minor windstorm. Any tire tracks or footprints were blown away. Of course, no one out there saw anything.”
“Do you know if he was killed there or was his body just dumped there?”
“From the bleed-out on the ground, our medical examiner thinks he was killed there.”
“Do you know where Chuck was before he disappeared?”
“Apparently, just at the motel. We checked several places in town, but no one could remember him being there the night before.”
“Well, he wasn’t much into partying or drinking. Find any shell casings out there?”
“None. Shooter probably picked them up.”
“Or used a revolver.”
He pursed his lips. “True.”
“His daughter told me he was shot five times, once between the eyes. Where else?”
He opened a folder on his desk. Once in the wrist and three times in the chest. “Why?”
“Just trying to cover all the bases. He use credit cards anywhere else in town besides the motel?”
“How’d you know he used a credit card at the motel?”
“Mainly just because most people do that these days. Anywhere else?”
“Not according to his bank. We checked all of that,” he said.
“Have you checked out his ex-wife, Linda?”
“One of the first people we looked at. According to the police in Pittsburgh, airtight alibi. No way she could have done it.”
I left and headed for the local library. I wasn’t sure what I was going to look for, but hoped I recognize it if it popped up. This sort of thing has worked for me before. I started by looking up information about the Cahuilla Indians since Chuck had been killed on their reservation. I also wanted to find out if he might have had distant relatives in the area he had never mentioned to me.
I copied a page from the local phone book that listed several people with the last name Temple, just in case I would need it later. Then I started on information about the history of Temecula and the valley surrounding it. There was gobs of stuff to sort through. About two hours into the process, I came across information about a book titled Ramona written by Helen Hunt Jackson. After reading about it, I sat back and thought about how this might have something to do with Chuck’s murder. When I put the note found by Chuck’s body with it, I decided to go back and talk with Detective Simmons. I was at his office early the next morning.
He threw his pencil on his desk and sat back in his chair. “So you think you’ve got this figured out, do you?” he said with a smirk on his face.
I held up a hand to show him I was serious. “Maybe! Just maybe. Hear me out!”
“Go ahead. I need a good laugh for today.”
“I assume you know about the book Ramona?” I started.
He snickered. “Everyone out here does.”
“Ok, one of the reasons the book was written was the murder of a Cahuilla Indian named Juan Diego. Now Juan suffered from an affliction that caused him to do strange things. It put him in a trance-like state of mind. While in these trances, he was known to steal things, but return them the next day when he came back into his right mind. One night he stole a horse. The owner of the horse came after him and shot him in cold blood. Juan was shot once in the chest with a shotgun, once in the wrist with a revolver, and once between the eyes after he was dead and on the ground.
“The man who shot him, Sam Temple, was tried, but not convicted of murder. Juan’s wife could not even testify at the trial—even though she was an eyewitness—because at the time Indians could not testify in court.
“Now, Charles Diego, who works at the Furbish Motel, is the grandson—three times removed—from Juan Diego. This affliction may have been carried down through the generations. When Chuck Temple checked into the motel, Charles may have found out his last name was Temple and figured he must be related to Sam Temple. He saw this as his chance to settle a score with his family.
“The note was probably meant to say, “Finally,” meaning revenge was finally complete.”
Simmons had now leaned forward in his chair and was listening intently. “Why write the note in lipstick?”
“Maybe something he found in the trash at the motel. Maybe he wanted it blood red. Might be worth bringing him in to question him.”
He tapped his fingers on the desk. “Worth a shot.”
Charles Diego confessed and seemed to be rather proud of it Simmons told me later. He had defended his family’s honor. A revolver was found in his room at the motel that matched the slugs used to kill Chuck.
My flight back to Pittsburgh gave me more time to think. Solving any crime starts with one clue leading to another. I couldn’t remember ever figuring out a case where the trail of clues started a hundred and fifty years ago.