by Earl Staggs
This story was originally published in the anthology The Killer Wore Cranberry: A Second Helping published by Untreed Reads in 2012.
People shouldn’t have to work on Thanksgiving day, but a sheriff’s office, even in a small Texas county, can’t shut down completely. If you happen to be the sheriff, you let the rest of the staff take the day off and you “man” the office, as they say. If you happen to be a woman, they still say that.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry about preparing Thanksgiving dinner. My husband Lilburn does the cooking in our house. When he retired, he bought a computer and took online cooking classes. I can cook, but to me, it’s work. To him, it’s art.
That’s why I was on duty when Elijah came in the station. I only had twenty minutes to go before my chief deputy came in to “man” the office and I could go home. I was hoping the phone would remain quiet and no one would come in. I certainly wasn’t hoping to see a redheaded, freckle-faced boy who looked like he hadn’t had a bath or a change of clothes for a month. He stood there stiff as a fence post at first, then looked around, spotted me, and made his way through the reception area to the doorway of my office.
I gave him my nice lady smile. “Can I help you?”
“Is this the sheriff’s office?” He looked pale and scared and spoke with a deep south accent, not a Texas one. I guessed Georgia or Alabama, maybe Tennessee.
“Yes, it is. What can I do for you?”
“Uh, can I talk to the sheriff?”
When I said, “I’m the sheriff,” I got the blank stare. I’m used to it. Most people are surprised when they learn a county in Texas has a female sheriff. We’re not all Wyatt Earps. I held the nice lady smile. “My name is Mollie Goodall, and I’m sheriff of Watango County. What can I do to help you?”
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other, crossed his arms then dropped them to his sides, and took a deep breath. “Sheriff Goodall, ma’am,” he said, “I come here to tell you you got a murderer living in your town.”
The boy was dirty and probably a runaway, but there was no one else there to talk to him. No getting around it. I’d be late for Thanksgiving dinner.
“Come in and sit down,” I said. After he made his way to the chair beside my desk and settled in, I asked, “What’s your name?”
“Elijah Curry, ma’am.” He ran his fingers across his forehead to swipe a handful of red hair back behind his ear. He needed a haircut two months ago.
“Okay, Elijah, why did you say I have a murderer in my town?”
“Because it’s true. My stepfather shot my mom, and he lives here. I come to see he gets put in prison for what he done.”
The population of Watango County includes a few hundred teenagers. I’ve dealt with many of them, and I’ve learned one thing. They don’t look you in the eyes when they lie or make up a story. This boy’s deep brown eyes were locked on mine, wide open, as serious as any I’ve ever seen.
“All right, when and where did it happen?”
“Six weeks ago, ma’am, in Memphis, Tennessee. That’s where I’m from.”
“How’d you get here?”
He shrugged. “I walked mostly, got rides once in a while.”
“All by yourself?”
“And how old are you?”
He hesitated too long before he said, “Eighteen.” He averted his eyes from mine to look down at the floor. He wasn’t telling the truth, probably because he knew he had to be eighteen to be out on his own.
I leaned toward him. “Elijah, I have a twenty-year-old daughter, and I work at the youth center at church, so I’m pretty good at guessing the ages of young people. I’m betting you’re fifteen, sixteen at the most.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. His cheeks flushed. “I’m sorry, ma’am. I lied. I’m sixteen.” He opened his eyes but turned his head away from me. “I ain’t never been good at lying.”
“No, you’re not very good at it, but you know what?” I reached over and patted his arm. “That’s not a bad thing. We’re not going to worry about that now. Why don’t you relax and tell me what this is about.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He didn’t look at me, but took in a lungful of air and let it out slowly. After a moment of silence, he began. “I was in school that day. My mom was home by herself. He came and shot her. When I got home…I found her.”
His voice had faded to barely a mumble. I knew it was painful for him to talk about it, but I had to know. I gave him a few seconds before I asked, “What did the Memphis police say about it?”
He cleared his throat and turned back to me. “They didn’t say nothing. They didn’t have no evidence against him. Her purse was missing, and she got paid that day, so they said it was just a robbery and anybody could have done it.”
“What makes you think your stepfather did it?”
“I just know, that’s all. He’s the only one who would hurt her. Everybody else liked her. She throwed him out three months ago because he was a lazy no account and wouldn’t work. That’s when he moved here. She kept his favorite hunting rifle and some other stuff for all the money he took from her, and he came back to get it and shot her. I know he did it because his rifle and everything else went missing the same day.”
“Did you tell the police about that?”
“I told them, but they didn’t do nothing.” His voice went soft again. He was trying to hold back his feelings, but talking about his mom’s death brought them to the surface. “He claimed he took all his stuff when he left Memphis three months ago and said he ain’t been back there since.”
“And you think he’s lying.”
“I know he is. Most of his stuff was junk, but he wanted that Remington rifle real bad. He said it was worth a lot of money. I helped my mom put it all in the shed after she throwed him out, and now it’s all gone. He broke the lock on the shed and took it.”
“But you can’t prove anything.”
“No, ma’am, I can’t.” His voice cracked. He looked up at the ceiling. I could see he was fighting to keep from crying like a little boy.
“Elijah, if the police in Memphis couldn’t come up with anything against him, what makes you think coming here will make any difference?”
“I figure if you arrest him and I tell what he did in court, he’ll get what he deserves.”
“I have to be honest with you, Elijah. Even if I had a reason to arrest him here, the Memphis police have jurisdiction, so that’s where he’d be tried. He’d tell the same lies all over again. It’d be your word against his, and without any proof…”
His eyes met mine again. A moist glaze covered them. “Please, ma’am. Will you just try?”
Oh, boy. I think my own eyes glazed over a little. They do that sometimes. Allergies. I didn’t know if I could do anything to help Elijah. I didn’t even know if what he said was true. I did know that if an adult came in with an accusation like his, I’d be duty-bound to check it out. I had to do the same for a teenage runaway. Especially one on the verge of crying in my office.
“Tell you what, Elijah. First thing tomorrow morning, I’ll go talk to him. Then, we’ll see.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” He turned away from me again, sniffed, and rubbed his eyes with both hands.
With that much settled, I had a new problem. What to do with Elijah.
“Do you have a place to stay tonight?” I asked.
He looked down at his feet. “Yes, ma’am. That ain’t no problem.”
Well, that was that. I couldn’t let him go knowing he’d sleep under a bush or behind a dumpster somewhere. Since he was a minor, I could call Child Protective Services, but it was a holiday weekend, and they’d be closed till Monday. Anyway, they’d put him in that foster care home in town. That place is so shoddy, I wouldn’t put a dog I hated in the place. Or, I could call Judge Wheeler and ask him what to do. He’d probably tell me to put Elijah in a cell until CPS opened on Monday.
I called my husband and told him to set another place for dinner.
The two of them hit it off so well, they didn’t even miss me when I ran out to Walmart and picked up a couple outfits, underwear, and socks for Elijah. All he had was what he was wearing. Fortunately, our local Walmart never closes, even on holidays, and had a skeleton crew “manning” the store.
After Elijah had a long shower and put on clean clothes, he sat down with us to watch TV, but fell asleep after thirty minutes. Lilburn woke him and helped him stumble up to our daughter’s bedroom. She’s away in college and wouldn’t mind a bit. She’s the kind who’d take in any stray dog, cat, or person. I don’t know where she gets that from.
The next morning, Lilburn fixed eggs, waffles, and sausage for breakfast. After that, I left to check out Elijah’s stepfather, Virgil Foster. I don’t think they even noticed I was gone. Lilburn had planned to paint our shed that day, and Elijah volunteered to help.
I went to my office first. One of my deputies was there, and we chatted for a minute before he left to go on patrol. I stuck my head in the dispatcher’s office and said hello to Michelle. Then I settled in at my desk and cranked up my computer. Within five minutes, I found rap sheets on five Virgil Fosters from Tennessee. Two of them too old, one dead, and one too young. The remaining one’s mug shot fit the description Elijah gave me. He was forty-six years old and did five years for armed robbery, paroled three years ago. That made him a convicted felon who could not own a firearm in Tennessee or anywhere else. He’d transferred his driver’s license and truck registration over to Texas. That gave me his address.
I came up with the number of the Memphis police and, after several minutes and transfers, I managed to connect with Detective Pete Wilhelm, who was familiar with the case.
After mutual introductions, he said, “Well, Sheriff, I see I’m not the only one working on the Holiday weekend.”
“That’s how it goes, Detective. Holidays come and go, but there’s always work to do.”
“I hear that, Sheriff. Now what can I do for you?”
I told him about Elijah showing up and what he had to say about his stepfather.
“I think the boy’s right,” Detective Wilhelm said. “We wanted to nail Foster for it, but he wasn’t living here at the time it happened, and we have no evidence to prove he came here and killed her. We recovered a slug from her body, and we know it came from a Remington 30-30 rifle, but we can’t even prove he owned any guns at all. As for Elijah, I’m glad to hear he’s in your hands. He took off, and we’ve been looking for him. Our juvie people were all set to send him to his mother’s brother in Wyoming. The uncle checked out fine and said he’d be glad to take the boy in.”
“That sounds great, and I’ll get back with you on that. Right now, I’m going to pay a visit to Mr. Foster.”
“Good luck, and if we can do anything, give us a holler.”
Virgil Foster lived in an old shotgun house on Johnson Road, a few miles south of town. The house sat a hundred feet back from the road with the nearest neighbors a quarter mile away in any direction. As soon as I turned into his rutted gravel driveway, I heard the old wood frame house screaming for a coat of paint. A fixer-upper, for sure, but from what I could see, Mr. Foster had done no fixing. I parked beside his beat-up, black Dodge pickup facing a sagging porch.
A large, flabby man, bald on top with a bush of dark hair on the sides and back, stepped out on the porch at the same time I stepped out of my car. I’d driven there in my personal car, but wore my uniform to lend an official air to the meeting. He wore his backwoods redneck uniform – old jeans, a black Nascar tee shirt, and sneakers something had chewed on.
“Virgil Foster?” I asked.
‘Yeah.” It was more of a grunt than an answer. His round, pockmarkedwa face was pulled into a frown like a man with a stomach ache. Ex-cons do that when they see a police uniform.
I’d only taken a few steps before I noticed shell casings scattered in with the gravel of the driveway. Some looked like they’d been there a while and some looked new. Interesting.
“Hi,” I said with my friendly smile. “I’m Molly Goodall, the County Sheriff. I’m sorry I haven’t been around sooner. I heard you moved here not long ago, and I wanted to come by and introduce myself.”
He grunted, “Okay.” He was looking at me sideways. People with something to hide do that. They keep their eyes on you, but turn their heads a little to the side like if they decided to run, their face would already be going in the right direction.
I started up the four steps to the porch with my hand outstretched. Two of the steps were cracked in the middle and the other two looked ready to join them. I stepped carefully at the ends where they’d be strongest.
He shook my hand, then took two steps backward, still looking at me sideways. This man definitely had something to hide.
“It’s that kid, ain’t it?” he said.
Time to play dumb. “What kid?”
“That boy of hers. ‘Lijah. Friend of mine back home said he was saying things about me.”
“What kind of things would he say about you?”
“Things like I shot his momma.”
Since he brought it up, I decided to run with the subject. “Well, did you?”
He wagged his head back and forth. “No, I did not.” He raised both hands and wagged them, too, just for emphasis. “I been right here ever since I moved in. I couldn’t shoot nobody back in Memphis if I was here.”
I saw beads of sweat forming on his forehead. He was nervous and worried. I decided then and there that Elijah was right. My instincts told me this man killed his wife. Proving it, though, would take more than instincts.
“So you haven’t left the house since you moved in? Not at all?”
He pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his forehead. “I go down to the Kroger for groceries once in a while. Had to go to Home Depot once, and a few weeks ago, I ran over to the Super Lube in Hamilton to get my truck serviced. Besides that, I ain’t been nowhere.”
“Well, I guess that settles that, doesn’t it?” I gave him another friendly smile. “So tell me, how do you like living in Texas?”
He seemed to relax a little now that I‘d changed the subject. “I like it just fine. Haven’t met many people here, but everybody so far has been friendly enough. Not much time to get out and meet people. I been busy fixing this place up.”
If he’d done any fixing up, it had to be inside. The porch hadn’t even seen a broom in a long time. Cobwebs, leaves and empty beer cans were everywhere. Too bad there’s no law against being a lazy slob.
“By the way, Mr. Foster, I noticed your pickup as I drove in. It’s a Dodge, isn’t it? My husband’s thinking about buying one. How’s it run?”
His chest puffed out. “She runs like a charm. Got a hundred and fifty thousand on her and still going.”
What is it with men and their vehicles? And they always refer to them as female. I wonder what that means.
I gave him my sweet smile this time. “Could I ask you a favor? Could I see the inside of your truck? If my husband gets one, I’ll ride in it, too. I’d like to see how it feels to me.”
“Sure,” he said. He even smiled back at me.
We went down to where his pickup was parked, and I climbed inside. I didn’t enjoy being in there. It smelled like a skunk family died inside that truck. The seat was dirty and threadbare and several greasy car parts covered the floor. I held my breath and looked at the odometer. He had exaggerated the mileage. It read only 148,912 miles. I also read the little sticker Super Lube put on the windshield when they serviced it. His truck had 147,775 miles on it when they changed the oil two days before Elijah’s mother was killed. The places he said he’d driven to would amount to no more than a couple hundred miles. That left around a thousand miles not accounted for, just about right for a trip to Memphis and back. That’s why he had it serviced. Men do that. If they’re planning a trip, they don’t worry about doing the laundry so they’ll have clean underwear, but they make darn sure their vehicle has fresh oil.
When I stepped out of his truck and could breathe again, I looked down at the shell casings in the driveway. “Looks like you do some shooting,” I said in a casual way.
He wagged his hands again. “Oh, no, not me. Them things been there since I moved in. I don’t own no guns. I wish I had one, though. Damn coyotes prowl around the yard every night. If I had a gun, I’d fire a few rounds in the air to run them off.”
“I know what you mean. We have the same problem at our house. My husband uses a Remington 30-30 rifle to chase coyotes away. You ever had one of those?”
That shook him up. He shifted his weight from one foot to the other and turned his head to the side. “Uh, no, never owned one.”
I rubbed the back of my neck to buy a little time. I had to choose my words carefully. “I’m glad to hear that, Mr. Foster. Too many people have guns these days. But I’m afraid we have us a minor problem here. With you being a convicted felon and not allowed to own firearms of any kind, and me seeing these shell casings on the ground, I have to search the premises to make sure there are no guns around here. I hope you understand. It’s a pain in the neck, I know, but it’s a requirement of my job. I can do it right now with your permission, or if you want to make sure it’s done all legal-like, I’ll run into town and get a search warrant.”
He took on that nervous worried expression again. “Well, I…uh…reckon we ought to make it official with a search warrant and all.”
I gave him my no-problem-at-all smile. “Yeah, that’s probably best. I’ll run in and see Judge Wheeler and be back here with a warrant in an hour, hour and a half at the most.”
I thanked him for being so understanding, and he watched me drive away. I was sure he was rattled about my mentioning the Remington rifle. The question was, how rattled?
I drove about fifty yards, made a right turn onto Hall Road, and parked behind a stand of trees and brush bordering the road where my car would be out of sight. I wedged myself into the brush until I had a clear view of the side of the house and the front and back yards.
Five minutes later, he came out the back door of the house and walked straight across the yard to a shed. In his left hand, he carried a rifle. He went in the shed for only a second and came out with a shovel in his other hand. I was glad he was going to bury it here instead of taking the gun somewhere else. I would’ve had to follow him. I was sorry to see him go toward the far side of the house, though, where he’d be out of my sight. That meant I had to get closer.
First, I called my dispatcher and told her to send the nearest patrol car there as backup. Then I crept across the field between Hall Road and Foster’s house as quietly as I could. Someone once told me Indians walked on their tiptoes when they sneaked up on people. That’s how I walked, all the way to the back of the house. As I eased up to the corner, I heard the sound of him digging and panting. I pulled out my cell phone, leaned around the corner of the house, and pushed the video button. There he was, twenty feet from me, with the Remington 30-30 rifle lying on the ground and him digging a hole to bury it in.
I filmed him making three more scoops and decided that was enough. When I shut off my phone camera, I must have made a noise because he suddenly swung his head toward me. His expression went from sweaty and surprised to mad and mean.
“What the hell?” he said. “What’re you…”
That’s all he got out before he lifted the shovel over his shoulder like a baseball bat and came at me. I had only seconds to shove my phone in my pocket with one hand, pull my gun with the other, cock it and point it at him.
I got it all done, and he stopped three feet from me with my gun aimed at his chest. He could have swung the shovel from that distance, but he didn’t. It must have been the firm, fierce look on my face. Inside, I was quivering like a bowl of Lilburn’s cranberry sauce, but I didn’t want him to know that.
“Put the shovel down and turn around,” I ordered in my toughest voice.
He did, and I put the cuffs on him real fast. Then I took a deep breath and tried to relax. By the time my backup deputy arrived a minute later, I was halfway calm. After we secured Foster in the back of the patrol car, I stowed the rifle in the trunk of my car and called Lilburn to let him know I had Foster in custody. He said he’d pass it along to Elijah who was on the roof of the shed with a paint brush.
As soon as I got back to my office, I’d call Detective Wilhelm in Memphis and let him know I had Foster in jail for possession of a firearm in violation of his parole. He could come and get him for indictment on a murder charge and take the rifle back for comparison with the bullet taken from the victim. There was no doubt in my mind. It would be a perfect match.
I’d also talk to him about getting Elijah moved up to his uncle’s place in Wyoming, but there was no rush on that. Lilburn would enjoy having him around for a while.
Besides, we had a lot of Thanksgiving leftovers to eat up.
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