17 June 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
Scarlett Fever, part 2

by Jan Grape
Jan Grape
Yesterday, we brought you a treat, an anthologized story set in Texas. That was Part 1; today we give you Part 2.

Crime family Jan Grape and her husband Elmer have enjoyed a long, varied, and storied career in the mystery business. Besides writing, besides winning awards, besides running a bookstore, besides getting away with murder, Jan knows everybody in the business… everybody.

This tale from Jan’s collection, Found Dead in Texas II, originally appeared in Deadly Allies II (Doubleday 1994). Pour a cup of coffee and enjoy this, the second part.

— Velma

Scarlett Fever
Part 2

by Jan Grape

continued…

I filled him in on Wilson Billeau and the saga of Scarlett, and on everything C.J. and I had done. “Everyone I talked to was convinced she’d left for more bucks and glory elsewhere.” It was difficult trying to talk and eat too, but I managed. “What’s the story on this guy you’ve arrested?”

“Tolliver tells a straight forward tale with only one twist. Says he was in town for a sales conference and he picked her up yesterday afternoon at the hotel bar.” Larry was shoveling his food and didn’t let the talk slow him down. “They spent a short time talking and indulged in a little slap and tickle. He figured she was a hooker, working the convention, but he didn’t mind.”

“Does he have a record?”

“Nope. He’s squeaky clean.”

“Then what’s the twist?”

“Somebody slipped him a Mickey Finn,” he said. “We had a few last year. Hookers setting-up and rolling out-of-towners. First one I’ve seen this year though.”

“But why did he kill her?”

“The captain thinks Tolliver woke-up earlier than expected. Caught the woman with her hand in his billfold and flew into a rage.” Larry finished his food and Paco unobtrusively removed the plate.

“You don’t agree?”

“I don’t know. Maybe I’ve got a burr up my tail. I think his story about waking up at one o’clock this morning and finding her dead in his bathroom is the truth.”

I shuddered. Finding a woman in the bathroom stabbed to death gave me the willies.

“It won’t be easy to prove his innocence. He claims he never saw the knife before, but it was there in the shower, his prints on it. Two points in his favor is that he didn’t run. He called the cops and waited until they showed. His hands were also unmarked.”

“Why wouldn’t he hide the knife?”

“Exactly. Or wipe his prints. Tolliver says he picked it up without thinking.” Larry lit up one of his favored cigarillos. “He wasn’t too coherent during questioning, he acted much like a person would if they’d been given a Mickey.”

“Do you have a better ID for the girl than Scarlett Fever O’Hara?”

Larry nearly choked on his iced tea. “Are you shitting me? Scarlett Fever O’Hara?”

“She danced at the Lucky Star Bar And Grill as Scarlett Fever. But she was registered at the Stagecoach Motel under Scarlett Fever O’Hara.”

“The Stagecoach Motel, huh? We don’t have that yet. Where is it?”

“On South Congress just before you get to 71.”

“I’d better make a trip out there. They took her prints at the morgue and are running a search with AFIS (Automated Fingerprint Identification System.) If she’s been arrested, we’ll get a positive ID and her real name.”

“She’d moved out, the place was empty. It’s probably been rented to someone else by now.” When I saw his face, I knew I’d said too much. “How could I know it was going to be a murder investigation. That was three weeks ago.”

Larry tried, but couldn’t hold his serious face and smiled, “You bribed the clerk?”

“Let’s say I donated to his favorite charity.”

“I’ll still need to talk to him - the sooner the better.” He punched his cigarillo out in the ashtray, stood up and grabbed his wallet. “Thanks for the info, Jen.”

“Thanks for lunch. You are buying?” I walked with him to the cash register.

“Sure. You saved me some leg work. That’s worth lunch.”

“Christmas will be here soon,” I said, as we walked into the bright sunshine.

“And someone’s daughter won’t be home. God, I hate this time of year.” He walked with me to my car. “That photo didn’t do her justice,” he said, as he bent to give me a brotherly goodbye kiss.

I headed for the Interstate wanting to get back to work before I started thinking about Wilson Billeau and his beautiful dead Scarlett and got depressed.



IV

Damn Sam. I was northbound, four miles from my exit when it hit me, that niggling little thing I’d overlooked earlier. Dancers work-out all the time, they have to to stay in shape. Why not strippers? Especially one hoping to latch on to a star. Neither C.J. nor I had thought about checking for a dance studio or health spa. I found a clear space in traffic, wrenched my car across the lanes, squealed off at the exit, crossed under the underpass, and headed down the southbound entrance ramp.

Once I was going in the right direction, I picked up the Cellular phone and dialed. “C.J.? What dance studios or panting palaces are near The Lucky Star or the Stagecoach Motel?”

“What do you think I am? The frigging information op. . .” She caught on fast. “Scarlett, huh?”

“You got that right. Why didn’t we. . .?”

“It was slim to none. She wasn’t into ballet.”

“Yeah, but,” I couldn’t explain the feeling, some inner instinct. “It’s a long shot.”

“I’ve gone out on a lot less before, Girlfriend.” She gave me names and addresses of two dance places and three health clubs in the area. “Let me know what you find out.”

The dance studios were a bust, ditto the first health club. The next sweat box on the list didn’t sound promising because of its name, but nothing ventured and all that.

The Texas Gym and Health Spa was three miles south of the Lucky Star. For boxer and weight-lifter types only, I thought. A dirty beige concrete block building. It looked like it went out of business in 1969. A sign in the front window said OPEN. I walked in and the stale odor of sweat almost made me walk back out again. The reception area was small, a motel-style counter and doors on each side leading to open hallways. LADY’S GYM right and MEN’S GYM left. So it was co-ed. A door behind the counter led to what probably was an office.

A man of indeterminate age came out from the MEN’S side. He had on sweat pants and a form-fitting T-shirt which didn’t do a thing for the extra fifty pounds he carried in his belly. His arms and shoulders were huge, but his face drew your attention. A deep red scar began at his nose and curled down across his chin. His small eyes were buried in folds of fat. How could he convince anyone they needed to shape-up?

“Are you the manager?”

“The manager ain’t here now. I’m his helper.” He spoke slowly, like he had to think about what I said and then think about what he was going to say before he said it.

“When do you expect him?”

“Tonight. He’s got a funeral this afternoon.”

That one threw me. “What?’

The man guffawed. “That’s right, Brother Adkins owns this gym and he’s a preacher, too.” He scratched his chin along the edge of the scar. “Brother Adkins says the body is a Holy Temple and we should treat it as such.”

A strange combination, if you ask me, but perhaps it did make a sort of weird sense. “Guess I never thought of it that way.”

“Can I show you around?”

“No, I really needed to talk to. . .”

“I’m Buddy. He leaves me in charge when he’s gone. I’m sure I can tell you. . .”

Taking the photo out of my purse, I said. “I’m Jenny Gordon, a private detective. I’m trying to find this young woman.” I held the picture out. He took it and studied it as if memorizing some state secret.

Eventually he looked up and said. “She sure looks like Miss Henrietta, but it can’t be. This girl is older and too painted up.”

“Miss Henrietta?”

“She’s Brother Adkins’ daughter.” He looked at the picture again. “I’m sure it’s not her.”

“Where would I find Miss Henrietta?”

“She’s gone. Brother Adkins said something about her going up to Dallas a few days ago. I don’t think she’s come back yet.”

This was maybe even a longer shot now, but I’d already started down this path and hated to give up. “And you’re sure this isn’t Henrietta Adkins?”

Buddy looked again. “No, it’s not Miss Henrietta, but it looks like her older sister.”

“Does Miss Adkins have an older sister?”

“I don’t think so. Brother Adkins never told it to me. Henrietta never said nothing about a sister either.” Buddy stared at me, his gaze almost as intent as the one he’d given the photo. “Did you say you was a cop?”

“No. I didn’t say that, Buddy. I’m a private detective. Looking for this missing girl.”

“Oh, yeah. You said that when you come in.”

“I’d like to talk to the Reverend. Maybe he saw this girl. Someone said she used to workout here.”

“I didn’t never see her.” He looked at his watch. “He’ll have go to the cemetery for the grave side.”

“Will he come back here after the cemetery?”

“Maybe. In an hour. . .I guess.”

“Thanks, I’ll come back in a hour.” I stopped at the door and asked, “Is Miss Henrietta a dancer - like a ballet dancer?”

“No way. Dancing is forbidden by the Word. It’s a sin and ab-bomi-nee-tion for a woman to call attention to herself.” He stumbled over the four-syllable word.

“I understand. Well, thanks and don’t work out too hard, you don’t want to strain a muscle.” He gave me a puzzled look as I left. It taxed his brain too much to figure that one.

A hamburger emporium was a block down and across from the gym. I went inside, ordered a large iced tea, and found a pay phone.

“C.J.?” I told her about Brother Adkins and his daughter. “Can you check family records to see if there’s another child, an older girl?”

“Like a black sheep daughter?”

“Maybe. Something’s there, but I don’t know what or how it connects.”

“No problemo.” Our other phone line rang. “Check you later, Girlfriend. Bye.”

I sat in a booth facing the gym and sipped on my drink. I took out a pocket notebook and tried to make sense out of what I knew and what I didn’t. Mostly, I doodled.

All the tea I’d had for lunch added to these extra ounces soon sent me scurrying to the LADIES. I hated to leave my looking post, but when you gotta go. . .

A maroon station wagon, a sign on the side reading Texas Gym & Health Spa, had pulled up while I was answering nature’s call, and I saw a slender man in a dark leisure suit walking up to the gym’s entrance. That must be Preacher Adkins, I thought, hustled out and drove across the street.

The reception area was empty. I crossed behind the counter and stuck my head into the office. The man I assumed to be Adkins was bent over the open drawer of a file cabinet.

I knocked on the doorjamb.

He whirled around. “Who are y..you?” His gray eyes in his narrow oval face showed surprise. He was about six feet tall, his muscular arms and legs were well defined under the suit. A product of his own sound-body-dictum, probably. He had graying hair, thin, disapproving lips and a deep cleft in his chin. It was the Kirk Douglas-dimple that fit Delia Rose’s description of an older movie star.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you, Brother Adkins. I’m Jenny Gordon. I’m trying to locate a missing girl who supposedly worked-out here. I’m hoping you might know her.” I noticed the faint indentation in Scarlett’s chin on the photo I handed to him. Hard to deny family genes, I thought.

He took the photograph and glanced at it briefly. “I don’t know her. She may have been in here, but I don’t think so.”

“Are you sure? I was told this girl resembles your daughter?” “You’ve been talking to Buddy,” he said, handing the picture back. “You can’t pay too much attention to him. His brain is addled from taking too many jabs to the head. Every photograph he sees of a girl looks like Henrietta to him. He has a big crush on her.”

“Then this girl doesn’t look like your daughter?”

“No.” He evaded my eyes and his voice grew indignant. “My daughter is younger, more beautiful and innocent. She has blue eyes and blonde hair. Henrietta would never paint herself up like a harlot either.”

“Is Henrietta your only daughter?”

“My only child. My wife died in childbirth.”

The part about his wife was true maybe, but I didn’t believe for a minute he only had one child. “I’m sorry.”

“It was a long time ago. I’m sure The Lord had a greater need for her than we did.”

“This young woman is laying stone-cold in the Travis County morgue. Unloved and unwanted,” I said, hoping for some reaction. “Somebody’s family will miss her this Christmas.”

His voice took on the timbre of the hell-fire and brimstone evangelist. “I read about this harlot in the newspaper. She was a sinner, a whore. She doesn’t deserve a Christian burial.”

“That’s one way of looking at it,” I said. “Whatever happened to Christian forgiveness?”

“The Lord Almighty is the only One who can forgive sins. He will finally turn away from you if you keep rejecting him, just like some parents have to turn away from their children.”

He’d justified it all in his mind and I didn’t have any argument for that. “Thanks for your time,” I said, anxious to get away from this holier-than-thou Bible-thumper. No wonder Scarlett wanted to be anonymous. Henrietta probably felt the same way. “I’d like to call Henrietta. . .”

He pointed a finger at me and shouted. “Get out of here, you Jezebel. And you stay away from Henrietta. She has nothing to do with harlots and whores.”

I’d never been accused of being a Jezebel before. It was time to go before he started throwing stones at me.



V

Information poured from the office printer like hail coming from a Texas tornado cloud, amazing my technological aptitude of a horned toad with it’s speed. C.J. got all the information we needed without ever leaving her desk.

Two legal document copies blew away all my theories. Texas birth certificates require a response to: other children born to this mother? And more specifically: how many other children are now living? Henrietta Jo Adkins was the only child born to Mary Madeline Fever Adkins. A death certificate for the wife of Stephen Adkins showed Madeline died on January 29, 1970, from heart failure. “Fever” wasn’t just part of Scarlett’s clever stage name, it was also her mother’s maiden name. I’d been so sure there was an older daughter but Henrietta Adkins and Scarlett Fever O’Hara had to be one and the same.

“Any other proof?” I asked C.J.

“Uh-huh. Scarlett was arrested for solicitation twice under the name of Henrietta Jo Adkins. The Austin police department AFIS computer matched their fingerprints.”

Preacher Adkins’ attitude still infuriated me. “That sancti-monious bastard doesn’t even intend to bury his own flesh and blood. Doesn’t he care or know that Wilson is claiming the body?”

“No, because the heartless S.O.B. disowned her completely. But I hope he feels some fear right about now.”

“Because his daughter was identified as a hooker?”

“You got it,” said C.J. “His little church flock will probably tar and feather him. His reputation is ruined and . . .”

“Maybe he killed her to keep his reputation intact .”

“Good thinking, Jenny.”

“We seem to have a plethora of male suspects,” I said.

“Marshall Tolliver, the man found in the room with the very dead Scarlett and, Preacher Adkins. Who else?”

“Buddy, the pug-ugly down at the gym. Except I can’t see him being smart enough to carry out the complications of Mickey Finns. And. . .Wilson Billeau.”

“Surely you don’t think our good old country boy killed the girl he claims to love? Besides he’s our client.”

“He’s technically not ours anymore. It’s happened before, even to us.” I knew she didn’t want to be reminded about when her cousin, Veronica, and Veronica’s baby had been killed, so I continued.

“If we rule out Buddy,” I said, “we still have three viable suspects. You do know it’s not exactly our business to get into an active homicide case.”

“Larry Hays would never forgive us.”

“Understatement of the year. Yet you and I know what a heavy case load he has. He won’t devote much time trying to solve a hooker’s murder.”

“What have you got in mind?”

“Not a darn thing, but if we put our heads together, we should be able to come up with someone who might have wanted Scarlett dead.”

“Exactly and who was around to do it.”

We brainstormed for an hour and couldn’t figure out how to bypass Larry without causing trouble. “Maybe we should lay low and see what happens.”

“I’d much rather stir things up and see what happens,” said C.J. with an evil grin.

“What do we do about Mr. Tolliver?” I asked.

“After what Larry told you earlier,” she said, “we can probably rule him out. If we talk to the hotel employees we might collaborate his story.”

“Larry’s team has already done that, I would imagine.”

“Okay, let’s head out to Dripping Springs to see what Wilson Billeau has to say and come back by the Lucky Star. We can stop in there for a cold beer. Talk to some folks.”

C.J. drove us to Wilson’s house with the top down on her Mustang. It was a great evening for a drive, but I didn’t feel much like talking. I kept thinking how Wilson was really a sweet kid and how it would upset me if he was involved. C. J. knew how I felt, or maybe she even felt the same way, because she kept quiet too.

Bulldog Porter’s Lincoln Towncar was in the driveway and he greeted us at the door, a finger to his lips. “Wilson is laying down. He could use some feminine company. I’m not too good at this.”

We walked into the living room and sat down. “The police called my office a short time ago,” said Bulldog. “They knew I represented the man who claimed Scarlett’s body and made the funeral arrangements. They said she’d been identified as Henrietta Adkins, but I can only say the name Wilson always used.”

Wilson had heard us come in and he joined us. “Do you know if the police have arrested the man who killed her yet?” he asked without preamble. “Bulldog said they cleared that man from Houston and he was released from jail.” His face showed the ravages of grief and his eyes were red-rimmed. He was suffering. If it was an act, it was the Oscar-winning performance of the year.

C.J. and I looked at each other. An unspoken message passed between us. This young man can’t be the killer.

“We haven’t talked to the police in the past few hours,” I said. “I think our friend in homicide will call when APD makes an arrest.”

Wilson said Scarlett’s father still wanted no part of claiming her, so the funeral would be as he’d planned, tomorrow at two p.m. He said he hoped we’d come. We said we’d be there and he went back to the bedroom.

I could tell Bulldog was grieving along with Wilson. He obviously had unusually strong feelings about his friend’s son.

Bulldog said, “I’ve told Wilson the police will do their best, but they’ll soon give up unless the killer drops in their lap. They don’t have the time to devote to a long investigation. Wilson would like you to take the case when the police give up.”

We finally agreed to do what we legally could.

Bulldog was nodding off as we left, but Wilson came out to walk to the car with us. “Jenny, would you and C.J. promise me one thing?” he asked and for the first time since we arrived, his voice had some emotion. “No matter how long it takes or how much it costs, I want you to keep on looking. I want whoever killed her to rot in jail.”

“We’ll do our best,” I said. “But as far as the jail term, Wilson, you know today’s justice system - the killer may only serve a short time or get off completely. It’s up to a judge and jury.”

C.J. and I headed back to Austin.

“I can’t help feeling sorry for him,” I said. “For someone who’d never dated that girl, much less had a relationship with her, he’s in bad shape. Did you see those big sad eyes?”

“She represented a fantasy to him, a dream,” said C.J. “A dream that died. That’s what had been worrying me. I was afraid he might have been too obsessed. That when he’d found out she was a hooker he didn’t want anyone else to touch her.”

“I know. Deep down I was afraid of the same thing. Are you confident he’s innocent?”

“Yes. And if Larry has cleared Marshall Tolliver - that poor sucker from Houston - there’s only one suspect left.”

“Scarlett’s unforgiving father,” I said.

“And if Larry’s as smart as I think he is, he’s already checking Adkins from top to bottom. Let’s go to the Hyatt for some fajitas,” she said. “We can eat and talk about our options.”

“I can’t do it. I had a humongous lunch. We could go over to my house and I’ll fix a salad and grill a steak or a chicken breast for you.”

C.J. is a big gal and eats like a construction worker. Luckily she never gains an ounce, but she also lifts weights, swims, and does martial arts training.

When we reached my apartment C.J. parked and opened her car door. “I hope you have a cold beer - I could use one, maybe even two.”

We went inside. I went to the kitchen and got out a couple of Lite Coors. “I’ll make up the bed in the guest room for you and we won’t worry about you driving home tonight.”

“That works for me,” C.J. said and popped the top on her can.

I popped mine also and checked for my telephone messages. One was a hang-up and the other was Bulldog Porter. “Jenny? Are you there? Wilson has talked himself into doing something drastic. He’s on his way now to talk to Scarlett’s father. He thinks Adkins had something to do with killing her. I dozed off, but he left me a note. Wait, I’ve got Adkins’s home address here.”

Papers rustled noisily, then Bulldog gave out the preacher’s address. “That’s just off William Cannon and West Gate. We’ve got to stop him. I’m heading over there now.” A moment later Bulldog said, “It’s 9:05.”

“Holy Shit! That was over forty minutes ago,” said C.J. “Let’s go.”

The barely-sipped beer went down the drain and we left. The address where Preacher Adkins lived was five or six miles farther south and two or three miles west of the Lucky Star Bar and Grill It was a yuppified suburban area a good thirty to forty minutes from my apartment even at this time of night and using the freeway.

“MiGod, C.J. Did you see this coming?”

“No way. But in hindsight, I should have. Wilson was a man in pain and he wants a killer brought to justice.”

“And I just had to remind him justice was blind and deaf.”

“He didn’t need you to figure that out, Girlfriend.”

“I know, but damn. Damn, damn.”

As we raced down Interstate-35 I called Larry’s house and office. No answer at either place. I dialed his pager and punched in our number. He still had not responded when we exited on William Cannon Drive and turned into a sub-division. The houses along here were a little older than others in the upscale section down the block. When we neared the address, I spotted Larry’s car parked behind two patrol units, their red and blue lights stabbing the darkness.

A Special Missions Team (SMT) was there, tall men dressed in black, with helmets and equipment hanging from everywhere. They carried heavy firepower and looked like alien warriors from Star Wars.

Two uniformed patrolmen kept back a small knot of thrill-seekers and, as we parked I saw the SMT squad move out surrounding the house.

Bulldog’s Lincoln Towncar was angled up to the edge of the lawn two houses away. We parked on the opposite side of the street. When he saw us he opened his car door and waved us over. “Can you find out what’s going on?” he asked. “No one will tell me anything.”

“They haven’t let you talk to Wilson?” I said. “Don’t they know you might be able to talk some sense into him? Come on, we’ll try to find someone in charge.”

The three of us walked slowly toward the house, edging our way through people politely so the uniformed officers wouldn’t think we were troublemakers. As we reached one of the patrolmen, a shot was fired, coming from inside the house.

A second shot followed, moments later. Both shots sounded like they were from the same handgun and not one of the rifles the SMT officers used.

“I don’t think Wilson has a gun,” said Bulldog.

The SMT squad swarmed in and someone yelled “He’s down.”

I knew it would be awhile before we would know anything. Two ambulances squealed up, one behind the other, and the silence when they turned off the sirens was exquisite. The EMS attendants ran inside the house.

“That’s a good sign, isn’t it?” asked Bulldog. “Someone needs medical attention.”

“It could mean anything, Bulldog,” I said. “Don’t get your hopes too high.”

When the Medical Examiner’s station wagon pulled up a few minutes later, I had to catch Bulldog when he slumped. I eased the old man to a sitting position on the ground and C.J., with tightened lips, said she was going to find Larry Hays and get some answers.

Time passed and I couldn’t get Bulldog to go to his car. We sat in the dewy grass and I kept my arm around his shaking bony shoulders. Neither of us talked.

When C.J. returned to where we sat, one of the EMS attendants followed and I could tell from her face the news was grim. “They’re both. . .,” she shook her head. “Looks like they fought. The preacher had a gun. After he shot Wilson, he killed himself.”

Bulldog started having chest pains. “He was my son,” Bulldog said. “His legal father was my best friend, but no one except his mother and I ever knew.”

The EMS guys began checking the old man.

C.J. took me aside. “The police found news clippings of Adkins being convicted of child abuse. He’d beaten up on Scarlett for years. Larry Hays had already found out that Adkins had served time for that conviction in another state and had been released from prison six months ago. There was also a letter of resignation to his church in which he admitted killing his daughter. Claimed she was a seed of Satan and had to be destroyed.”

The medics reported that Bulldog didn’t have a heart attack, it was emotional stress. They put him on a stretcher saying a check-up at the hospital was routine procedure. I said I’d ride with him in the ambulance and C.J. said she’d meet me there.

The EMS wagon was ready to roll, but I couldn’t get in yet. “Naive little shit.” The tears I’d held back slipped out. “What could we have done differently C.J.? What more…”

“Nothing,” she said, putting an arm around me. “Not a damn thing.”

“Why? C.J. Why?”

“The Scarlet Fever got hold of Wilson and never let go.”

Thanks to Kenny Rogers for writing and recording the song “Scarlet Fever” which inspired this story.



Many thanks to Jan and those who made this possible. If you enjoyed the story, let Jan know. Perhaps she'll bring us another double feature.

2 comments:

Eve Fisher said...

Loved it, Jan! Thanks for sharing it with us. Let's do this again!

Leigh Lundin said...

Thanks, Jan. Enjoyed it!