Showing posts with label story. Show all posts
Showing posts with label story. Show all posts

15 September 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
Whatever Has To Be Done, 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

Whatever Has To Be Done
Part 2

by Jan Grape

continued…

Just before 5:00 p.m., Elwanda Watson called and changed our meeting to her home. I stacked the paperwork on my desk, told C.J. I’d see her tomorrow, not that she heard me - she was still wrestling with the computer. Just before the door closed, however, she called out “Sunday brunch at my house, okay?”

Saturday afternoon traffic around the LaGrange Building was thicker than bees around molasses, maddening, but normal. The building is located two and a half blocks from the Galleria. Even in the early fifties, this whole area was still part of a dairy farm. Now, a six-block square area of high dollar shopping malls, department and specialty stores, hotels and high rise office buildings, including developer Gerald Hines’ sixty-five story, Transco Tower, filled the land where Crimson Clover used to grow and cows got fat. From the air, the whole area was filled with concrete, steel and bronzed glass and, looked like a city skyline, but it’s six miles from downtown Houston in suburbia-land. The lack of zoning laws here makes for some unusual building developments.

Elwanda Watson lived in a story and a half house made of white brick and wood and cedar shakes, four miles West of my office. An older neighborhood built in the late fifties before contractors and architects took a notion to make suburban houses all look alike. These were in a wide range of individual styles and colors. A huge Magnolia tree stood sentinel in front and a pink bicycle lay on it’s side in the St. Augustine grass. Four baskets of white and burgundy Impatiens hung from the eaves.

The woman who answered the door was short, overweight, with ponderous breasts and hips almost scraping the doorway. She had short, dark hair streaked heavily with gray and a startled expression which seemed to be a permanent look. She wore a dingy, white sweat suit, no make-up and said she was Elwanda Watson. It would be difficult to believe Liz Loudermilk came from this woman’s womb, if it had not been for the eyes. That unique shade of blue, tingeing to violet. Either Elwanda had lost her beauty long ago, or Liz got her looks from her father.

She led me to a large kitchen/den area, both paneled in knotty pine, and there were children’s play noises coming from the back yard. She indicated I should sit in the chair across from the sofa and brought tall glasses of iced tea before settling on the Early American style sofa.

I glanced around, the room had the look of having been hastily picked up. A large entertainment cabinet stood against one wall. Wires and plugs stuck out and dangled from the front and one side, indicating sound and electronics had once been installed and then removed. A small TV set was alone on a shelf. Newspapers, magazines, books, and games; Monopoly, Scrabble, Uncle Wiggly, Yahtzee, Pa-chiz-si, dominoes and cards, were piled on and in the cabinet. The drape hung loose from the rod on one side and drug on the floor. It was an “I don’t care look,” much like the woman herself. Two failed marriages had taken their toll. “Ms. Gordon, what . . .” she said.

Smiling at her, I said, “Call me Jenny, please.”

“And I’m Elwanda. Well, Jenny, what is it you wish to know? This whole horrible thing is too, too weird. Poor old J.W. dead. And Voda Beth accused of killing him. Unbelievable, I tell you. It just boggles my mind.”

“It’s hard to believe Voda Beth killed J.W.?”

“I’d just never figure her to do something so awful. She seems like such a nice person. Gracious and polite to me and she’s been really kind and generous to my Liz.”

“Really? Liz doesn’t share your feelings.”

“Oh that Liz. She can act like as spoiled brat. The things I could tell you would take half the night. But you don’t have time for that. She mouths off about Voda Beth something terrible sometimes, but deep down, I know she likes her step-mom.”

“That wasn’t the impression I got this morning.”

“Oh, I know,” said Elwanda. “Liz told me how tacky she was this morning and asked me to apologize for the things she said.”

“She doesn’t owe me an apology.”

“Well, she did mislead you. Made it seem like Voda Beth was a wicked person when she’s not.” She rubbed both eyes like a person just waking up. “My daughter is beautiful and brilliant, but she can also act like a two year old when she doesn’t get her way. Sooner or later you have to give in. Of course, she’s always sorry afterward and will make up for it a hundred ways.”

Despite Elwanda’s trying to make Liz sound like nothing more than a rebellious and rambunctious child, I had seen the rage Liz had for Voda Beth. It wasn’t just a temper tantrum. I’d hate to see that rage turned on anyone. Elwanda was maternally blind to her child’s faults. She didn’t want to think otherwise, and I thought it best to get off that subject.

“Voda Beth claimed J.W. was beating her when she killed him. Was he ever abusive to you?”

“Oh, my. No. I was married to the man for ten years and he never raised a hand to me.” She looked directly at me and her wide-eyed look of astonishment was more pronounced. “And I don’t see him abusing Voda Beth, either. He worshiped her. He was always a kind and wonderful husband. And father. Always.”

If that was true, I wondered, then why did she divorce this boy scout? I had to ask. “Why did you. . .”

“Divorce him? He left me. For another woman. Not Voda Beth, it was over long before he met her. There were lots of other women. Some men are born womanizers and J.W. was one. That is, until Voda Beth caught him. I don’t think he ever strayed from her.” Tears welled up in those big violet eyes and, this overweight, throw-away wife’s voice held a wistful note.

“What about his low boiling point?”

It took her a moment to speak, “He could get angry, real easy-like when he was young, but he’d mellowed out. Even so, his anger never, ever, led to violence.”

“Did Voda Beth ever go out on him?”

“I don’t think so. He probably would’ve told me if she had.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“It’s sounds funny I guess, but after he married her, he and I got real friendly-like. I mean, like close friends. He apologized for hurting me in the past. He was so good when my marriage with Don Watson broke up. Offered me money because he knew I was having a hard time with four little kids.”

At their mention, the children’s voices outside reached a crescendo and she walked to the patio door to check. Evidently, it was nothing which needed her presence. Mother-like, however, she stuck her head out and told them to stop whatever they were doing and find something else to do. She came back to the sofa and sat. “I think, it was because he was finally happy. He said once, Voda Beth had taught him the right way to treat a woman and he’d learned his lesson.”

Obviously, Elwanda still had deep feelings for J.W. Loudermilk and she wasn’t going to say anything against him. Unfortunately, what she said was detrimental to my client. If J.W. didn’t have a history of abusing women, it looked like Voda Beth had lied. I stood, “I appreciate your talking to me.”

“Sorry, I wasn’t more help.” We headed to the front door and she said, “Oh, I just thought of something. It’s possible they had some fights over Liz. That was one thing he could get angry enough to come to blows over. Although, I still don’t see it.”

“Why not?”

“Liz would have told me about it.”

After the way the girl had talked about her mother, I was not sure she’d confide in Elwanda, but what do I know about daughters? Especially teen-age ones.

“Liz was very angry with her father the past few years - for breaking up our marriage, for marrying Voda Beth. For what she saw as him neglecting her. She would gripe and complain how he didn’t pay any attention to her, how he was always fawning over Voda Beth. Now that I think on it, she must have been jealous of her father.”

That could explain the rage I saw in the girl. “I guess that’s normal in young girls who want their father all to themselves.”

“She could get all worked about it. Throw fits and scream at him. That’s one reason, he made her move out of the house.”

“He made his own daughter leave?”

“About three months ago. She was working and making good money, but she would stay out all hours and do things to aggravate him - like smoking pot in the house. Anyway, he got fed up and although, Voda Beth tried to stop him, he made Liz get a place of her own. She was really bent all out of shape over that for awhile.”

“I guess it’s hard to be a parent, these days.” I thanked her again and left.

I headed back to my apartment, grateful the traffic had slacked off, it gave me time to wonder about my client. Whatever had happened that night in the Loudermilk’s home was still muddled, but it looked as if my client had lied through her teeth.

I ate a light dinner, grilled chicken and a big salad and spent the rest of the evening reading a P.I. novel.

I went to bed and just before drifting off to sleep, I decided tomorrow I’d call Lieutenant Larry Hays of Houston’s homicide department. Maybe the police and autopsy reports would give me some fresh insights.



I called Larry Hays on his car phone and caught him as he was driving away from headquarters to go have breakfast. “No rest for the wicked, huh?”

“Not on Sunday,” he said. “Meet me at Kay’s in twenty minutes.”

Kay’s was a favorite hang-out of law enforcement personnel. The restaurant’s owner, Bert DeLeon, had a thing about listening to the cop’s war stories. He really got into that stuff. He’d been especially fond of my late husband, and when Tommy introduced me to him, I figured if Bert had not approved, Tommy would not have proposed. Kay’s served family style food and gave better service than the high priced restaurants.

Lieutenant Hays sat at the back booth on the west side and a mug of coffee was waiting for me. “Are you eating?” he asked.

“Just an English muffin and half a grapefruit.”

“Watching your weight again?”

“Always. I weighed 125 this morning.”

“That’s about your normal isn’t it?”

“Yes, but you know how I love chicken-fried steak and Mexican food and the only way I can indulge, is to keep this five feet six inch woman on that 125.”

“Poor baby.”

Larry is six, three and weighs about 185 and never has to watch his weight because he has a great metabolism. It was frustrating and I tried not to think about it. “Just shut up and eat your cholesterol filled eggs and pancakes and bacon.”

“I intend to.”

Larry had been my husband’s partner and friend from the day they were rookies, until politics had caused Tommy to resign and become a private detective. Larry took on a self-appointed task of watching out for me after my husband was killed and sometimes, it was stifling. We’d had several arguments about it, but recently, he had weakened. Mostly because I’d learned from C.J. how to handle myself. He was a damn good cop and I respected his opinions. It was easier when he respected mine.

After we’d eaten, he answered my questions about the Loudermilk case. “The medical examiner has some doubts about your client’s story.”

“What?”

“The angle of the shot for one thing. Mrs. Loudermilk says she was crouched on the bed when she shot him, that doesn’t wash. The M.E. says the shooter was standing. If she were as close to him as she says there would have been powder burns on his body. The M.E. says the shooter had to be standing, at least, twelve to fourteen feet away.”

“Wow. Bulldog’s not going to like that.”

Larry ran a big hand through his sandy hair, “Probably a good thing, I don’t think he can prove she was abused.”

“Why not?”

“I talked to our police psychologist and, although, he didn’t talk to her, he says she doesn’t display the attitude of a battered woman. Immediately after a battering, most woman usually act meek and acquiescent. She came in there full of self-confidence. Almost daring us to believe her.” Larry signaled the waitress to bring him more coffee. “She’s got all the buzz words and phrases down pat. Like how he got boozed up and how he used his open hand on her face and his fists on her breasts and abdomen.”

“Yeah, she gave me those classic statements, too, the ones I’ve read about; like how he’d say he was sorry and how she deserved it.”

His hazel eyes narrowed, “At one point Thursday night, the sex crimes unit took her over to get a medical exam. No evidence of sexual intercourse. They noticed a couple of bruises on her torso, but thought they could have been self-inflicted. She gave us a pretty good story, but she hasn’t given us the truth, yet.”

“Could she be covering for someone. Like maybe the daughter?”

“Possibly, but the captain and the D.A. want to go ahead with the indictment, anyway. The physical evidence and her confession wraps everything up in a nice neat package with a big bow. I just never have liked neat packages.”

“The daughter is seething with rage against the step-mother.”

“Rage isn’t evidence. Lots of daughters hate their step-parents. You don’t have to worry. Bulldog will plead Voda Beth on diminished capacity and get her off or he’ll plea bargain.” He absently stirred the coffee and then realized he hadn’t added the sugar yet. “I do have a funny feeling there’s something else.”

“I guess I’d better talk to Bulldog. He’s not going to be too happy with this.”

“Likely not.” He grabbed the check and stood, “I hate to eat and run,” he said, “but I’ve got to go interrogate witnesses in a drive-by shooting last night.”

“Have fun.”

“Oh, yeah.” He said harshly, his mind already to the task that lay ahead.

I headed for the office and, for once, the traffic wasn’t a problem. Sunday morning is one of the rare good times to drive in this congested Bayou city.

I had talked with C.J. before leaving home and canceled our brunch date, she said she’d go to the office and see what she could turn up on the computer. She wanted to run credit records on all three women, Voda Beth and Liz Loudermilk and Elwanda Watson; and throw in J.W. Loudermilk, too.

She’d made coffee. I poured a cup and sat down next to her desk. She had not found anything unusual on the women’s credit records, and the daughter hadn’t established any credit yet. We discussed my interview with Elwanda and told her what Larry had said. “I’d better call Bulldog. I don’t have one solitary thing to help him. He’ll probably want to fire us.”

“Okay,” she said, “but I’ve got a couple more checks to make while you’re getting us fired.”

I walked back to my desk and called Bulldog Porter’s office. His answering service said he’d call me back within the hour or if he didn’t, for me to call again.

Twenty minutes later, C.J. came in my office and a gleam was in her dark eyes. “I got it.”

“What?” I asked, not remembering what she’d been trying to do. I was still waiting on Bulldog to return my call and was trying to get my reports ready for him and figure out how much I could deduct from the $5,000 he had given me.

“Remember Liz Loudermilk told you about a big insurance policy?” I nodded. “She was right. You’re going to love this.”

“Uh-oh. Don’t tell me you’ve found another motive for Voda Beth.”

“Our client isn’t the only one with a motive. Little Miss Liz could inherit it all. All by herself.”

“Oh, yeah? How?

“If Voda Beth dies first or is disqualified; it all goes to the loving daughter.”

“All…ll rii…ii…ght. And I guess if ole Voda Beth goes to prison for killing her husband, she’ll be disqualified?”

“You got that right, Ms. Gordon, and to help put Liz to the top of the suspect list; you won’t believe this, she put money down yesterday on a brand new, fiery red Miata.

“You have got to be kidding.”

“If I’m lying, I’m dying. But just don’t forget one important thing - step-mommy’s told you and the police a big lie.”

“That’s okay. Old Bulldog will say she made that statement under duress,” I said. “This is just what he needed. It gives him some ammunition for his reasonable doubt.”

“Wonder what the lovely Liz was doing that night?”

I called Lieutenant Hays, knowing he’d need to know what we’d found. Luckily, he was near his car phone and I filled him in on Liz. He wasn’t too happy. The case was closed as far as he was concerned, but after he grumbled, said he’d talk with the daughter tomorrow, to see if she had an alibi for the night in question.

“C.J., I think Liz did it and our client confessed, all under some misguided idea to protect Liz. Bulldog can take this and run with it.”

“When do I get to meet this mouthpiece anyway?”

“Anytime you say. You’ll like him, he’s positively charming.”

“Unh-unh. No way I’m gonna like a shyster who useta work fo’ de mob. Those guys ain’t nobody for this li’l black girl to mess wid’.” As usual, her slipping into southern black, street talk cracked me up. Coming from such a smart and beautiful woman it was funny.

As I laughed, she said, “By the way, while running those credit card histories I did find a few interesting tidbits on old J.W. himself.”

“How can someone who sounds like you be so smart? You can check credit card records?”

“If you know the right buttons to push and Intertect does.” She handed me the print out of J.W. Loudermilk’s Visa and American Express statements for the past year.

I flipped through them. “Holy shit, this is scary. You don’t expect any old Jane Blow to be able to run a credit card account check.”

“Oh hell,” her voice full of pride, “not just any old Jane Blow can do it. It takes a few brains and persistence. I took what I learned from my investigator pals and played around for awhile and was able to come up with a pass word for a security code.”

“My partner - the smartass computer hack.” I was scanning the account statements and something caught my attention. Loudermilk had visited three different doctors in the past month and had charged his visits to his AmEX. “Wonder what this medical stuff is all about?”

“Give that girl a gold star. That’s what I thought was so interesting.”

“I happen to know this Doctor Gaudet is a neurosurgeon. I’m not sure about the other two.”

“Think I should check them out?” she grinned.

“Holy shit. Why didn’t I think of that.”

“Because you hired me to think for you.”

“Someone has to do the important stuff,” I said. “I don’t want to talk to Voda Beth again. It makes me mad when a client lies to me, but I could go talk to Elwanda Watson again. Maybe J.W. confided some medical problem to her. It’s probably not important though.”

“Fine. But do it tomorrow. I make a motion we get out of here. Sunday’s almost over and we need a little R & R.”

“Honey,” I said, using one of her favorite expressions, “you ain’t never lied.”



Monday morning dawned with Houston shrouded in fog. Not unusual this time of year, with cooler air sweeping down across Texas and meeting the warm Gulf air, it was inevitable. It looked like the sun would burn it off around ten, and sure enough, I was right. When I left for Elwanda’s around 10:30, there were only a few pockets of misty stuff, although, the sky was still hazy.

I had not called first for an appointment, sometimes it’s better to catch people when they’re not on guard. Turns out Elwanda was not the only one to be surprised. I found my client, Voda Beth Loudermilk visiting Elwanda. Neither seemed pleased to see me, but I didn’t let that stop me. They were both dressed in gowns and robes, but it looked as if neither had slept. What was going on between these two? I wondered.

They sat on the sofa next to each other and I sat in a platform rocker which angled off to their right. After exchanging a few politenesses, I mentioned homicide was interviewing Liz this morning, setting off quite a reaction.

Voda Beth practically yelled at me. “Liz didn’t have anything to do with anything. I’m the one who shot J.W. The police already have my statement.” She burst out crying and Elwanda moved closer to put her arms around Voda Beth, making soothing sounds as if comforting a baby.

“I resent someone accusing my daughter,” Elwanda said. “Was that your idea, Ms. Gordon?”

“Not exactly. But some new information about Liz did come to my attention. Naturally, I had to tell the lieutenant in charge.”

“What information?” she asked.

“I’m not at liberty to say.”

Voda Beth was crying so hard, she began coughing and Elwanda got up to get a glass of water. As she moved to the kitchen, the telephone rang. The receiver was a few feet from her, but when she shot a quick look at Voda Beth, she turned and said, “Jenny, would you mind getting that?”

I walked into the kitchen as Elwanda hurried back to the sofa. “Watson’s residence,” I said.

“Jenny, is that you? Good. I thought you should know what I found out from Doctor James Gaudet. Seems that Loudermilk had a deep-seated, inoperable brain tumor.”

I turned by back to the two women and kept my voice low. “Neuroblastoma?”

“Some big long name,” she said, “I’m not sure if that was it, but the doctor said it was bad. Real bad. That he’d never seen a malignancy grow so fast. The man was only weeks away from blindness, paralysis and death.”

“Sound like Loudermilk’s luck… wait a minute.”

“Now. Now, you’re thinking. This may have been planned.”

“A mercy killing… maybe.”

“Bingo. Something else you should know. Larry called. Liz has a strong alibi. She and a girlfriend was baby-sitting for her younger brothers and sisters at her mom’s house.”

“Where did Elwanda go?”

“Liz says she doesn’t know, but maybe. . .”

“The Loudermilk’s,” C.J. and I said in unison. I thought for a moment, then said, “Why don’t you call Bulldog Porter. Ask him to come over here immediately. This may get interesting.” I hung up the receiver, walked to the coffee pot, and poured a cup, but it was bitter.

I could see Elwanda and Voda Beth still huddled. It looked as if both had been crying, but there were signs of recovery. I rinsed out the coffee pot. The coffee canister was empty and it took me a few minutes to locate a new can, open it and get the pot dripping. I’d just poured three cups when the front doorbell rang.

Elwanda answered it and led Bulldog back into the den. Both women were definitely not expecting him, and wanted to know what was going on, would someone please tell them?

I handed the coffee around and then stood near the glass patio door and began. “I’m presenting a hypothetical case here, Bulldog. If you ladies will, please listen.” They turned tear-streaked faces to me. Elwanda’s permanent look of astonishment was more pronounced. Voda Beth looked tired. Bone tired.

“I think there was this nice man, who had a nice wife and a nice ex-wife and a not so very nice brain tumor. He knows he doesn’t have much time before he will be totally incapacitated and a short time after that, he will die. He doesn’t want to die like that. The man also had some business losses. There’s the wife and an eighteen year old daughter to think about.” You could have heard an eye blink, they were so quiet.

“I think this very nice man decided to complete suicide. Everything is planned, but that night for some reason, maybe fear, he was unable to do this alone. He asked his wife for help. She refused. He was on somewhat friendly terms with his ex-wife and he calls her. The ex comes over. He convinces the women time is running out. That the job must be done. The discussion continues, he is adamant, he begs and cajoles and one of them is convinced to help. Maybe it was the ex. But the wife says to the ex-wife “no,” if anything goes wrong what will happen to your children? You can’t go to prison. I won’t allow it. But I can’t kill the man I love, either. Finally, one woman does it and the wife calls the police.”

I looked at each woman, was unable to read the truth. “How does that sound to you ladies? Bulldog?”

No one said anything and I saw big tears running, first down Voda Beth’s face and then, Elwanda’s. Silent tears which quietly dripped into their laps, leaving traces on the robes. Their hands were clasped tightly together.

Elwanda said, “That’s pretty much what happened. I’m the one who shot him first. Voda Beth took the gun then, and emptied it into him so if the police tested her hands there would be gun powder traces and her fingerprints would be on the gun.”

“No.” The anguish was clear and strong in Voda Beth voice. “I’m the one who fired the gun. She had nothing to do with it. I killed him and I’ll take the punishment.”

“Bulldog,” I said. “Looks like you’ve got your hands full.”

“Oh no,” he said, “this one is already won. I doubt there will even be a trial. And if there is, plea bargaining is still an option. Thank you for your help, Jenny. You can expect business from me, now and then, when I have the need of an investigator. Send me an invoice for your expenses.”

I walked out of Elwanda Watson’s house and drove to the LaGrange, parked and walked inside. When I reached our office, C.J. asked, “Which one did it? Who fired the gun?”

“I don’t think it really matters. They just did what they thought had to be done.”



Many thanks to Jan and those who made this possible. Let Jan know you enjoyed it. Perhaps she'll bring us another double feature.

14 September 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
Whatever Has To Be Done, part 1


by Jan Grape
Jan Grape
Once again SleuthSayers brings you a rare treat, an anthologized story from Jan Grape's CJ and Jenny series. The first half runs today, the rest tomorrow.

Originally published in Deadly Allies II (Doubleday 1994), this story also appears in Jan’s collection, Found Dead in Texas II. Pull up a chair, pour a glass of wine, and lean back. A fine Grape ages well.

— Velma

Whatever Has To Be Done
Part 1

by Jan Grape


A fierce lightening and thunder storm jarred me awake at 5:12 a.m. Autumn storms in Houston, Texas, often give the impression the end of the world is near. The dream I’d been immersed in had been pleasant, but try as I might, I couldn’t remember it. The brilliant streaks flashed a sesquicentennial fireworks display and seeped through the top edge of the mini-blinds as Mother Nature declared a moratorium for sleepers.

It’s not in my emotional make-up to wake up early; neither alert nor cheerful. Maybe it has to do with one of my past lives or blood pressure slow down or something. Anyway, I tossed around trying to will myself back to sleep, knowing all the time it wouldn’t work. But I waited until seven to crawl out to the shower. “Damn Sam,” I said aloud, while dressing and wishing I could have my caffeine intravenously. “Lousy way to start a Friday.”

The pyrotechnics were over, but the rain continued steadily, steaming the interior of my car and making the rush hour drive to the LaGrange building hazardous and hair-raising. Determined to shake off frustration at the lack of sleep and the Gulf Coast monsoon, I paused in front of the fourth floor door and felt a sense of pride as I read the discrete sign - G. & G. Investigations. My partner, Cinnamon Jemima Gunn, and I could be proud, we’d turned a profit the last three months. No one expected it to last. Sometimes, even we had doubts.

There was a message from C.J., as she was known to all except a few close friends, on the answering machine. “Gone to Dallas for the week-end, Jenny. Work today and play tomorrow. Keep outta trouble, Girlfriend.” She had a legitimate reason to go, a dying client wanted to find a missing niece and a good lead led to “Big D”, but once the work was done, she had a friend playing football for the Cowboys who would show her a fun week-end.

Lucky sister, I thought, ready to feel sorry for myself, “but wait - there’s only a half day’s work here,” I said aloud and it’s rainy - and besides it’s Friday.” It only took two seconds to decide to finish the paperwork and to blow this joint. I put myself in high gear and was ready to leave by noon.

I had straightened up the lounge/storeroom, grabbed my purse and reset the phone machine, when the outer door opened.

“Oh. No. Don’t tell me you’re leaving?” the woman said. “Are you Jenny Gordon?”

She was slender with reddish blonde hair, not really pretty, her eyes were too close together and her mouth too thin, but there was something about her. Vulnerability? She had one of those voices that rise into a whine and grated like fingernails on glass. I hate voices like that. She dropped her dripping umbrella, one of those bubble see-through ones, onto the floor. Her raincoat, after she peeled it off to reveal a blue velour jogging suit, hit the sofa, and slid to the floor. I hate slobs, too. As if your things are not good enough. Maybe people like that just don’t care. Or maybe she was used to someone picking up after her.

“I am Jenny Gordon and I was leaving, but what may. . .?”

“Well, great. That’s the way my whole life has been the past twenty-four hours. All screwed up.” She walked over and sat on one of the customer chairs, rummaged in her purse for a cigarette and pulled out a lighter encased in a silver and turquoise case. “It’s really the shits, you know. Me needing a P.I.,” she burst out laughing in a high-pitched nervous tone.

I tried to figure out what was going on without much luck.

She stopped laughing long enough to say, “And who does he send me to? A woman, for Christ’s sake.” She laughed some more and finished with a cough, then flicked the lighter and lit the cigarette without asking if I minded. I smoke, and didn’t mind, yet it’s nice to be asked.

I’m not the happy homemaker type, but I couldn’t stand the spreading, staining puddles. The woman really was a slob, I thought, picking up her raincoat. I hung it on the coat rack, folded her umbrella and stood it in the wastebasket near the door. There was no sign she noticed what I did and no thanks either. Some people should just stay in their own pig pens and not run around spreading their muck.

I headed across the room, intending to get some paper towels from our lounge/storage room to soak up the mess. “As I started to ask a moment ago, is there something I can do, Miss. . . ?”

“Ms. Loudermilk. Voda Beth Loudermilk.”

“Ms. Loudermilk, why do you need an investigator?” I paused momentarily, in the doorway. Her answer stopped me cold.

“I killed my husband last night. Emptied his own gun into him.” The whine was gone, and the words came out in monotone as if she were describing a grocery list. “He died on me.” She smashed the cigarette into an ashtray. “Isn’t that the silliest thing you ever heard?” She laughed, but sounded close to tears.

If I was surprised because she didn’t throw the butt onto the floor, I was totally wiped out by what she said. I was so intent, I didn’t noticed someone else had opened the outer door and entered. I blurted out, “perhaps you need a lawyer, Mrs. Loudermilk, not a detective.”

“It was time he hurt some instead of me.”

A quiet voice interrupted, “Voda Beth. Shut your mouth and keep it shut.” He spoke in a quiet even tone.

The speaker was a short wiry man I recognized immediately from his many newspaper photos and television appearances. A shock of steel gray hair, brushed back to emphasize the widow’s peak, the piercing blue eyes and everyone of his seventy-eight years etched on his face. I’d never met him, of course, but I knew who he was. Hell, everyone knew who “Bulldog” King Porter was - the best criminal lawyer money could buy.

“Oh shit, Bulldog,” Voda Beth said. “You know a P.I.’s like a priest. They can’t reveal the confidences their clients tell them.”

He was dressed like a lawyer would have dressed forty or fifty years ago. Dark charcoal, pinstripe, three piece suit, white shirt with French cuffs peeking out the prerequisite amount, big gold cufflinks. The tie, a shade lighter than the suit, was not a clip-on and tied with a perfect Windsor knot. A heavy gold link watch chain had a gold Phi Beta Kappa key dangling from one end. “That only applies to p.i.’s in dime store novels.” Bulldog walked over to me and held out his hand. “Ms. Gordon, I’ve heard a lot about you. I’m Bulldog Porter.”

His hand was soft, but the grip firm. “I’m honored to meet you sir, I’ve heard a lot about you, too.” Porter had begun his practice in Galveston, during the thirties, when the island city considered itself a free state, allowing drinking, gambling and prostitution. He had even defended members of the “beach gang” who smuggled Canadian booze into the Gulf port and shipped it to places like Chicago and Detroit.

“I’ll just bet you have, Ms. Gordon.” He chuckled, “and let me tell you up front, most of it is true.”

Mrs. Loudermilk stood up. Her curly hair framing the sharp angled face which twisted in anger. “Bulldog. . .”

“Voda Beth, just sit right back down there and keep quiet for a minute.”

She glared, but did as he said.

“Now, Ms. Gordon. . .”

“Please call me Jenny, Mr. Porter.”

“Only if you call me, Bulldog.”

“Deal. Now, I’m assuming you have a special reason to be here.”

“Good. I like that. Cut the crap and right down to brass tacks.” He nodded to our storage/lounge area. “Let’s go in here and have a little chat. Voda Beth, you stay put.” The woman sent him a lethal look, but didn’t get up.

“My client in there,” he said as we sat at the kitchen-style table, “was mouthing off when I came in. Let’s chalk that up to her current emotional state. To her grief, if you will. You see, her husband was shot and killed around 8:00 p.m. last night. She was questioned for hours, eventually charged by the police and locked up in women’s detention over at 61 Reisner, just before dawn. She’s been without food or sleep for over twenty-four hours.”

“Her lack of sleep,” I said, “plus the grief and trauma she’s experienced has rendered her incapable of acting correctly or speaking coherently.”

“Exactly. I heard you were sharp.” He took out a pipe and, within seconds, had asked if I minded and got it lit. Bulldog Porter wasn’t known as the plodding, methodical type. “We have great need of an investigator and you were highly recommended by Lieutenant Hays of HPD homicide department.”

The fact Larry Hays sent Porter to me was a surprise. Larry was a good friend, but he still thought it was laughable, my being a private detective. My background is medical; an x-ray technologist. I worked ten years detecting the mystery of the human body and knew nothing about real mysteries. Luckily, C.J. had police experience and I’d been a willing pupil.

If what Bulldog said about the woman was true, she needed help. Maybe I was wrong to condemn her casual attitude about her wet things. If I’d just spent the night in jail, I sure as hell wouldn’t be worrying about neatness. Besides, the chance to do a job for Porter was worth considering. G. & G. Investigations wasn’t doing so well that we could turn down someone with his clout. “Did she kill her husband?”

He didn’t answer immediately. “Voda Beth says she has been physically, sexually and emotionally abused her whole married life. She says he was hitting on her and couldn’t take it any longer. That she pulled his own gun out from under the mattress and emptied it into him. Her father and I were old school chums and I agreed to take her case because of him. Actually, it shouldn’t be hard to prove diminished-capacity.” He leaned back, and his eyes zeroed on mine like an electron beam. “What I need from you, Jenny,” he smiled, “is to discover if her story of abuse is true.”

“Is there any physical evidence of her being beaten; like bruises or anything?”

“Not to my knowledge.”

“Has she ever reported to a doctor or to anyone that she was abused?”

“I don’t think so. But I’d like you to find out.”

“What do you know about Mr. Loudermilk?”

“Another thing for you to look into. J.W. Loudermilk owned a development and construction company which was doing quite well until Houston’s oil bust. But you’d need to do a through background check on him. I do know he was married before and he has a daughter from that first marriage. The daughter lived with him, until recently, and she’d be the first place to start.”

“And next, the ex-wife?”

“Precisely. Her name is Elwanda Watson. Had a second marriage which also didn’t last. Four children by Watson. I have addresses and phone numbers for you.” He placed the pipe in the ashtray I’d placed near him, reached into his inner coat pocket and held out an index card. “I believe you’ve already decided to work for me?”

I smiled as I took the card, “I have indeed.” I went to get a copy of our standard contract for his signature. Voda Beth didn’t look up when I passed through. When I returned, Porter had written out a check and handed it to me. He’d not inquired about fees. I nearly gasped, it was made out for $5,000.”

“I need to have as much information as possible by next Tuesday morning for the preliminary hearing.” Bulldog said. “That means working through the week-end if necessary. If you can find out the truth about the Loudermilk’s relationship, I might be able to get the charges dropped and we won’t have to go to trial.”

“If the truth is as she says it is.”

“Oh. Naturally. But I believe it is.” Mr. Porter spent a few seconds with our client and left.

It was time to interview the widow. I walked in and sat behind the desk, searching her face. A neon sign flashing “not guilty” did not appear on her forehead.

“Why don’t you tell me what happened Voda Beth?”

Her eyelids were red-rimmed and the pale blue eyes were devoid of life or light. She was holding her body rigid and her mouth tight as if to keep herself from flying apart.

“Look,” I said, “I know you’re exhausted, you need food and rest, how about telling me a few brief details and if I need something else, we can talk later.”

“J.W. and I had been arguing all evening. If I said black, he said white. I can’t remember what started this particular one. Finally, I told him I couldn’t take anymore tonight, that I wanted to go to bed. I went to our bedroom, took a shower and he sat in the den and drank.”

“Did he drink a lot?”

“Sometimes, and even more lately.”

“Why lately?”

“Things were bad financially, really bad the past few months.” Voda Beth pressed her hands to her temples, then rubbed them slowly. “I remember now. That’s what started the argument. Money. I’d bought two new bras yesterday, the underwire on my last one broke that morning.”

My partner, C.J. had been a policewoman in Pittsburgh for eight years and one thing she’d taught me about interviewing someone, is it’s usually best to not say anything once the person is talking. If you interrupt you can lose them, they’ll clam-up.

“I had just finished brushing my hair and was ready to get into bed when J.W. came in, yelling about how stupid I was for spending money we didn’t have. He was furious. He’d sat in there and drank and got madder and madder.

He got right in my face, screaming and when I tried to ignore him, he got even madder. He slapped me. Twice, at least and the third time he knocked me onto the bed. He kept hitting with his open hand. One blow made me bite my lip, see?”

She showed me a large blood hematoma inside her cheek. I made appropriate noises of sympathy. “What happened next?”

“He straddled me and started punching me in the stomach and breast with his fists. A blackness came over me, slowly, at first. It got darker and redder. Somehow . . .I really don’t know how. I got my hand under the mattress and got hold of his gun. The next thing I knew, he was laying across bed and. . .and I remembered hearing the gun and there was blood everywhere and. . .”

She began crying, great shuddering sobs. I walked around the desk, handed her a box of Kleenex and patted her shoulder, not really knowing what to say or do. She kept trying to say she didn’t mean it, but it was a long time before she got it all out.

When she’d calmed down, and blew her nose, I sat down behind the desk. “This wasn’t the first time your husband beat you?”

“No. He didn’t do it often and he’d always apologize, say he was sorry and he’d never do it again. That he loved me and didn’t want to hurt me. Months would go by and I’d believe everything was fine, then wham.” She was back to her monotone voice.

“Did you ever tell anyone? Your doctor maybe?”

“No. I was too ashamed. Besides, whatever I’d done to set him off was all my fault. I was the one who. . .”

“Voda Beth. Whatever you did was no reason to be battered or beaten. But my telling you won’t help or make any difference to you. You need to get professional help.”

“I will. Bulldog is setting it up.”

I walked around to her again and patted her shoulder once more. “It’s time you went home. You didn’t drive over here did you?”

“Bulldog brought me. He said he’d send someone to pick me up.”

“Come on then, I’ll go downstairs with you.”

A white stretch-limo was waiting in the front circular drive when we reached the lobby and a driver lounging against the front passenger fender saw us and walked over. “Mrs. Loudermilk?” He helped her in and she waved one finger as he closed the door.

I walked to the parking garage. Lowly private investigators have to drive themselves home.



“If that tight-assed bitch thinks she can kill my father and get away with it, she’s crazy.”

J.W. Loudermilk’s daughter was two months over eighteen, but looked twenty-five. Her name was Elizabeth, but she preferred to be called Liz, she said, after inviting me into her condo in far southwest Houston. She mentioned that she was scheduled for a tennis lesson at the nearby YWCA, but said she could spare a few minutes.

I’d been unable to reach her the evening before and had secretly been glad. Voda Beth’s story had unnerved me. With a good night’s sleep, I’d hoped to be able to think more rationally. Silly me. My dreams had been filled with a faceless someone who punched and slapped me half the night. It was three o’clock before I finally slid into a dreamless sleep.

I showered and dressed in my week-end office attire - Wrangler jeans and a t-shirt - but since it was a cool forty-nine degrees this morning, I pulled on a sweater. My hair had been short and curly permed for summer and as I combed through the tangled dark mop, I decided to let it grow for the cooler weather. I checked out a new wrinkle at one corner of my right eye. “Damn Sam. At 33, you shouldn’t be having wrinkles,” I said. “Someday, you’ll have to pay more attention to such things, but not today.”

A tiny smudge of cocoa frost eye shadow added depth to my dark eyes, and a quick swipe of powder was easy and fast and completed my bow to cosmetics. Spending time with creams and moisturizers was not my idea of fun and I intended to fight it, as long as possible.

I’d arrived for my appointment with J.W.’s daughter at 10:30 a.m. on the dot.

She had offered a cold drink. I accepted a Diet Coke and sat down as she bustled around in the kitchen. Her living room was a high-beamed ceiling affair, all mirrors, posters and wicker furniture from Pier One Imports. There wasn’t a sofa, just two chairs, and a lamp table between them, set before a fireplace. As a young woman out on her own, she probably couldn’t afford much.

I studied her as she brought in the drinks. She was lovely, self-assured and poised. She had a heart-shaped face, blue-black hair, cut shoulder length and curly permed. Her eyes were such a deep indigo they looked violet and there was no doubt her resemblance to a young Liz Taylor was often mentioned. She was dressed in a white tennis skirt and top, showing off her golden tan to great advantage. Oh. To be eighteen again, I thought, but only for a brief second.

“Mrs. Gordon?” She seated herself opposite me.

“Jenny, please.”

“Okay, Jenny. Let’s get one thing cleared up right now. I never did like Voda Beth. She’s a coke-snorting, greedy slut who married my father for his money.”

“You know all this for a fact?” The violet eyes narrowed briefly, before looking at me head-on. Maybe she was sincere, but her cliched words sounded like the old evil step-mother routine.

“My father owned his own construction and development company. He built office buildings and shopping malls. When his business suffered reverses, she couldn’t stand it.” Liz sat her glass down on the end table next to her chair, picked up a nail file and began filing her nails. “They argued all the time. Mostly about money. She was always wanting this new dress or that new piece of furniture. Now, with Dad dead, I guess she’ll be in high cotton.”

“Were their arguments ever violent? Did you see or hear your father hitting her?”

Liz finished the nail she was working on, put that finger to her mouth and began chewing on the cuticle. She shook her head, “Dad did have a temper, but I don’t think he ever so much as slapped the bitch.”

I sipped on the Diet Coke, “What gave you the idea she’ll be in high cotton now? Insurance?”

“She talked him into taking out a policy for two million, a few months ago. She killed him to get that money, there’s no doubt in my mind.”

I made a mental note to check out the insurance. “How did you find out about this policy?”

She flaunted it in my face. It’s one of those big companies, something Mutual. I’m sure you can find a record of it someplace.”

“You mentioned she used coke?”

“I’ve known ever since I was sixteen and she offered it to me.” Liz’s face contorted with fury. “That bitch came along, turned my father against me, but it only worked a short time.”

“What else did they argue about besides the money?”

“The drugs and the men she slept with.”

“She slept around?”

“He said she did. I have no knowledge of that personally.”

The picture the girl painted was certainly not something to help Mr. Porter. In fact, it was more likely to hang Voda Beth Loudermilk. But it did strike me strange, the girl didn’t have one kind word to say about her stepmother. “How old were you when they married?”

“Thirteen.” She drained her glass. “My mother couldn’t hold on to Dad. She’s a silly bitch, too. Sometimes she doesn’t have the sense God gave a goose.” She stood. “Sorry, Jenny. I do have to get to the Y for my tennis lesson. My fondest hope is that Voda Beth rots in jail.”

Thirteen is a difficult age. I knew from losing my own mother when I was twelve that I would have resented it tremendously if my father had remarried. Her remarks about her own mother seemed strangely out of place. Didn’t this girl like anyone? I wondered. Placing the unfinished Coke on the table, I got up. “Appreciate your talking to me, Liz.” I handed her one of my cards. “If you think of anything else I should know, please call.”

Liz preceded me to the door and opened it. “If it’s something that’ll help convict her, you’ll hear from me.”



It would be easier to make notes of my interview at my office. When I arrived I was surprised to find C.J. at the front desk, hacking away at the computer. “It’s good to see you, but weren’t you supposed to stay in Dallas all week-end?”

“Yes, but don’t ask any questions, okay?” she said and her tone indicated she wasn’t kidding. C.J.’s face, which always reminded me of a darker-skinned Nichelle Nichols, the Star Trek actress, was marred by a deep frown of concentration. The new computer we’d recently bought, was giving her fits. She continued hitting the buttons and keys like she was working out on a punching bag.

The fun with the football player, obviously didn’t work out. “Ooo. . .kay,” I said and told her about our new client, Voda Beth Loudermilk, brought in by Mr. Bulldog Porter himself. She nodded without comment and I began telling of my interview of Liz Loudermilk. “Liz tried to look and sound sincere, but I’m having a hard time believing her. The hate this girl had was so thick in the room it nearly smothered me.”

She paused, and turned to listen. “Sounds like she’s definitely jealous of the second wife.”

“I’ve tried to imagine how I would feel, in that situation. I’m sure I would have resented any woman my father brought in to take my mother’s place.”

“Five years is a long time to nurse a grudge. Didn’t Voda Beth ever do anything nice for Liz?” C.J. looked down at herself and tried to brush off a minute piece of something white from her bright green sweater, gave up and plucked it with her fingernails and tossed it away. The sweater, trimmed in brown and gold leather, was worn over a slim dark brown skirt and she’d added a bright green leather belt. She was also wearing green tinted pantyhose and dark brown boots. At her six foot height, she looks great in whatever she wears, but a couple of years as a model in Manhattan had set her style forever into the high fashion look.

My taste usually runs to levis or sweats. Of course, no matter what I wore, I still looked just like me, Jenny Gordon, of Houston, Texas. “Liz Loudermilk will cheerfully push the plunger on the syringe if her step-mother is sentenced to die by injection. She ain’t too crazy about her own mother, either.”

“Maybe she’s got a fixation on her father and anyone else is just a big zero in her mind.”

“You’re probably right, I was madly in love with my father when I was fourteen.” I said, thinking back, “About six months later, I hated him.”

“That was a normal growing-up process. I did about the same thing.” She smiled and leaned the chair back, folding her hands across her stomach. “Girlfriend, you know what strikes me about your conversation with that girl?”

“That insurance policy?”

“Yes. But besides that. She called Voda Beth a tight-assed bitch. That describes someone uptight or morally rigid. It’s not something I normally would associate with a woman who used drugs and slept around.”

“You’re right. It’s total contradiction, isn’t it?” I lit a cigarette, forgetting for a moment how much C.J. disliked my smoking.

She fanned the smoke with an exaggerated flip of her black hand, “Get out of here with that thing.” She turned back to the computer. “Besides, until I figure out how to trace that insurance policy, I don’t need you in my hair.” She picked up the telephone receiver, “I guess I’d better call the ‘old pro’ over at Intertect first and find out where to start.”

C.J. had a good working relationship with the private investigators over at Intertect, an office which specialized in computers and data bases. Good thing. Computers blow my mind completely. I’d probably never figure this one out.

I went into the lounge and turned on the air purifier and thought about my client. Bulldog Porter had wanted me to find “something” to prove wife abuse. Unfortunately, the talk with Liz Loudermilk had only tightened the noose.

I’d felt sorry for Voda Beth when she told of being beaten. She might even be a greedy slut, but I doubted she was as bad as the girl had tried to make her sound. It’s easy to use pop psychology to categorize people, yet the girl did sound like the classic example of a jealous daughter.

I walked back through to the back office to my desk, taking care not to disturb C.J. as she punched keys on the computer and numbers on the telephone. I called to make a late afternoon appointment with the ex-wife, Elwanda Watson. She worked as a waitress at a seafood restaurant out in the Heights area and said we could meet there. I typed up notes of the “Liz” interview on my old IBM Selectric and placed them in the Loudermilk file. I’d never let that machine go, even if I did learn things like Word Perfect programs and networking with modems.




See you tomorrow for Part 2!

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.

16 June 2019

Jan Grape's Found Dead in Texas:
Scarlett Fever, part 1


by Jan Grape
Jan Grape
Once again SleuthSayers brings you a rare treat, an anthologized story from Jan Grape's CJ and Jenny series. The first half runs today, the rest tomorrow.

Originally published in Deadly Allies II (Doubleday 1994), this story also appears in Jan’s collection, Found Dead in Texas II. Pull up a chair, pour a glass of wine, and lean back. A fine Grape ages very well.

— Velma

Scarlett Fever
Part 1

by Jan Grape

I

It was one those crisp, autumn-tinged November mornings that central Texans rarely get. The heat often begins in April – simmers – builds to a boil in August and barely slackens until December. With the heat people snarl, cursing the weather or each other. Some folks go limp with exhaustion or shoot someone to relieve the pressure cooker. But when the jet stream pushes cool Canadian air down across the plains and deep into the heart of Texas, people actually smile at each other and say inane things like “Isn’t this weather great?” and “Reckon we might have some winter after all.”

The old Balcones Fault line runs through the center of Austin, dividing the city east and west. The eastern side slopes to gently rolling hills. The western side is rougher terrain, full of limestone cliffs and hills and canyons. My office, on the fourth floor of the LaGrange Building, is in northwest Austin and the building sits on a small hill. My apartment is only a few blocks from the LaGrange.

It was seven fifty-eight a.m. when I arrived. My partner, Cinnamon Jemima Gunn, or C.J., as she is known to most folks, is always in the office by eight a.m. We had just completed a big insurance fraud investigation and were behind on our paperwork and, I had promised to come in early. Okay, so eight is not exactly early to those who get up with the chickens, but it was early for me. I don’t do single digits of the day well.

The telephone rang as I walked in and C.J. answered. “G & G Investigations,” she said, listening briefly. “Yes, Mr. Porter, Ms. Gordon just walked in. Will you hold a moment?” Her professional-signal tone clashed with the surprised roll of her eyes when she noted the early hour.

C.J. punched a button, held the receiver out, and with a wry expression said, “Bulldog Porter wants you, Jenny.”

“Bulldog” King Porter, one of the best criminal defense attorneys money can buy, had sent work our way before. It began with us doing a bang-up job on the Loudermilk case, making Bulldog happy and a nice piece of change for us. His nickname came from being tenacious in court.

“You talk to him.”

“I don’t have time. He gets off on ‘those old rum-running days in Galveston,’ and ties a person up for hours.”

Bulldog’s stories can be endless depending on his mood. I hurried into the inner office, not wanting to leave him dangling. “Mr. Porter, how are you?”

His voice held a chuckle. “I thought we’d gotten past that Mr. Porter and Mrs. Gordon stuff by now, Jenny.”

“Well, we have, Bulldog, but. . .”

“Young lady, you don’t have to be polite to an old curmudgeon. Can’t say I deserve politeness even from a pretty lady like you.”

I could picture him, the widow’s peak and the thick steel gray hair, his piercing blue eyes startling in his seventy-eight year old face. I swivelled my chair around and looked out the window. A northerly wind swirled leaves around like a giant cake mixer whipping batter. Thick white clouds with black-streaked bottoms looked as if they would develop into thunder-boomers soon. “I’m sure you didn’t call just to pass out compliments, Bulldog.”

“Quite right. Complimenting you is a pleasant chore, but I will get to the point. There’s a young man I’d like you to see.”

“Fine. One of your clients?”

“Not exactly. He’s the son of an old and dear friend. The boy’s about your age. His is an unusual story I think you should hear. He’s looking for a young woman who’s disappeared. Someone special, but he. . . well, perhaps he should tell you himself. He does, however, need a good investigator and you lovely damsels at G & G fit the bill.” Bulldog held a whispered conversation on his end and when he came back asked, “Are either you or C.J. available today? Perhaps right after lunch?”

“Yes, I believe so,” I said, knowing full well we had all day free. “How does one o’clock sound?”

“One is fine. Wilson Billeau is my young friend’s name. Thank you Jenny, this means a lot. Wilson’s like the son I never had. His father, Jud Billeau, and I were deputy DAs back in the fifties and sixties and we . . .”

Damn Sam. I choked back a sigh. He could go on for another half-hour, but for once I got lucky. Bulldog’s secretary, Martha May, interrupted him, saying he had a long distance call on another line. “I’ll finish this story one day, Jenny. You’ll enjoy it. And listen, I appreciate this.”

“Don’t mention it, Bulldog.”

After hanging up, I walked out to our kitchen/storage room, grabbed a mug of coffee, and went to fill C. J. in on the conversation with Bulldog.

“Who does Porter think we are, the frigging Bureau of the Missing?” C.J.’s haughty tone made it all sound distasteful. She slammed drawers, shoved things around on her desk, and said, “A missing person, huh? Sounds boring, too.”

Hoo boy, she’s in one of her moods, I thought. But despite her gripes, I knew she’d never want us to refuse a paying customer.

My partner was a Pittsburgh police officer for eight years before moving back to her native Texas. She stands six feet tall, is built a lot like Racquel Welch, and reminds me of Nichelle Nichols, the actress who played in Star Trek, except C.J.’s skin tone is darker. Her tongue can be as sharp as a surgeon’s scalpel.

Good paying customers are her favorite kind. She’s not money-hungry, but her favorites are the ones with cash. We operate on a slim margin and, because of her excellent business head, manage to stay afloat.

“And who’s going to pay for this?”

“I assume Mr. Billeau is paying. Bulldog didn’t exactly say. Who cares? As long as we get paid.”

“You got that right. I’ve been going over the bank statement this morning.”

“We’re not overdrawn?”

“No, but damn these companies who run sixty days behind. Afraid we could be in deep dodo before then.”

Bank statements are Greek to me and I round everything off to the nearest dollar. C.J. knows her balance to the exact penny. I’d once offered to keep our office books, but she said not until our sun goes super-nova. She does the books, but it makes her cranky.

“Well, if the client’s due at one you can grab his check out of his hand and hot-foot it to the bank before it closes.”

“Aww, shit. Somebody has to worry about money around here.”

“I know, and you do it so well I don’t like to deprive you.”

“You just remember to get a retainer. We don’t do freebies.” The computer keyboard began clicking again. “Why don’t you get back to your desk and finish your reports?”

“Yessum, Miz Gunn, whatebber you say, Miz Gunn.”

“Smart Ass. You ain’t the right color to talk the talk.”

“Discrimination again. Boy, the things I have to put up with around here.” A Post-it note pad hit the doorjamb as I went through it.

I was tempted to say, Yah-ha ya missed me, but instead, I stuck my head around the corner of the door. “Are you going to join me when our client arrives?”

“Afraid not, Jen. I’ve got too much to do. These invoices need to go in tonight’s mail.”

“You just don’t want to listen to a tale of lost love.”

“You got that right. I heard enough of those when I was a cop.” C.J. came to the door to stand in front of me. “Besides, you’re so much better at that than I. You get all full of empathy and the client loves that shit.”

“Okay, I’ll wing alone, but if you think you can cut out early. . .”

“You just call me when the action begins.” Her laugh was evil. “That’s what I crave, Girlfriend. The excitement.”

“You are so bad.” I went back to my expense reports, glad she’d lightened up a bit.

Mr. Billeau walked in on time and introduced himself. He probably wasn’t thirty yet, but he had one of those faces that would look boyish for the next thirty years. His thick auburn hair was cut short, not quite a crew cut. He had a narrow waist and broad shoulders that looked like he wore football pads. His plaid western shirt was clean and his stone-washed Levis and scuffed cowboy boots, the working-type not the fancy dress ones, completed the picture. A burnt orange and white gimme cap with a U.T. Longhorn logo was tucked under his left arm.

“Mr. Billeau?” I held out my hand. He looked for a moment as if he wasn’t sure what to do and then took it. His hand was limp, but I gave him a firm shake and almost laughed at his surprise. Some men get uncomfortable when shaking hands with a woman. “I’m Jenny Gordon,” I said. “And this is my partner, C.J. Gunn.”

C.J. gave him a brief nod and went back to her monitor. Damn her, I thought, she could be a little more cordial, but she winked as I led the way to the inner office.

“We can talk more comfortably in here.” Once inside I indicated an upholstered customer chair for him and turned to walk behind my desk. I stopped. He had followed only to the doorway.

“Mrs. Gordon, I’m not sure about this.”

I put on my most disarming smile. “Fine, but you’ve made an effort to come here. Let’s discuss it. If you decide there’s nothing I can do to help,” I said, “you can be on your way. It won’t hurt my feelings.”

He stared at his feet. When he finally looked up, I could see he’d decided to give me a try. He walked to the chair. “Mrs. Gordon, if you can help, I’ll be obliged.”

He sat down and began staring at his feet again. He looked like a kid in high school taking a history test and looking for answers he’d written on his shoe tops.

Maybe he found something because he suddenly began talking. “I’m a country boy, Mrs. Gordon.” He raised his head. “Probably a little dumb, too.”

I smiled reassuringly after telling him to call me Jenny.

“‘Bout all I’m good at is farming. My grandpa left me a little place out near Dripping Springs. Nothing much, but it’s mine. I raise a few chickens - milk a few cows. I work hard all week and come Saturday night, I like to go into town maybe have a few beers.”

“Sounds normal to me.”

He began twisting the gimme cap in his large hands. “There’s this one place I like to go to - The Lucky Star Bar and Grill. You heard of it?”

I admitted I hadn’t.

“They have these girls that dance.”

“With the customers?”

“No, ma’am. I mean dance on stage. They take off their clothes, too.” He blushed. “For several weeks. . .one girl. She was so lovely and I, uh, I sorta fell for her.”

I nodded, not wanting to interrupt.

“Every man who came in - fell for her. I mean, this girl - pretty as a speckled pup - dancing in this joint. She made you feel special. Everybody stopped whatever they were doing just to watch Scarlett dance.”

“Scarlett?”

“Yes, ma’am. Her name is Scarlett Fever.”

I almost made a joke, but he was so doggone serious. “What happened?”

“It’s driving me crazy. Ten days ago her name was gone from that big sign out front. I went in and asked the bartender. He said she was gone. I asked where. He said maybe Los Angeles or Las Vegas. He didn’t know. He thought she’d moved on to a bigger city where she could make bigger money.

“Miss Jenny. I’ve gone to Dallas, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Houston, even Nashville. I can’t find a trace. And ma’am, I’ve got to find her. She and I. . . Oh, we never went out or nothing, but I knew from the way she looked at me - we were meant to be.”

Could anyone be so incredibly naive? He was such a country bumpkin. “Wilson, this world is full of big cities. Bigger and better places than Austin, Texas. She could be in any city.”

“Yes, ma’am, I know it’s hopeless. I might be dumb, but I’m not stupid.” He blushed again. “It was crazy to come here. Take up your time.” He studied his feet again for a moment. “But the crazy part. I’m afraid something bad has happened. I’ll never believe she left without saying good-bye. And I don’t know where else to turn. Mr. Porter said if anyone could find Scarlett, you could.”

“His vote of confidence is nice, even if it is somewhat skewed.”

Forlorn couldn’t even begin to cover his hang-dog expression as he realized what I was implying. That I probably wouldn’t be able to find her either.

C. J. had nailed it when she said clients love it when they feel you care. The police don’t have time to give them personal attention. That’s why they come to a private eye in the first place, but that’s also why it hurts when you can’t help.

Girls like Scarlett change locations about as often as the weather changes in central Texas, and they never leave a forwarding address. I knew what the odds were. An impossible mission, right?

No one was more surprised than I when the next words came out of my mouth. “Wilson, it’s not hopeless.”

Did I really say that? “There are a couple of things I can do that might produce a lead.”

“Like what?”

Yeah, like what, smart ass. Me and my big mouth. “First, I’d check where she worked. Maybe someone there knows something.”

“Jim, the bartender, didn’t know anything.”

“Maybe she had a girlfriend and confided in her. What about the other dancers and the waitresses and the musicians?”

“I’ve already asked. Nobody knows nothing.”

“Maybe they were leery about why you wanted to know. People working around singers and dancers, especially pretty ones, learn they have to be careful about giving out information. You can never tell who might be a sicko or a pervert. They might talk to me.” A faint hope shined in his eyes. And strangely enough, I started having a little hope myself.

There were a few other places I could check - the owner of the club - the person who wrote the checks. Maybe a talent agency or a dancer’s union. Surely a young woman moving on to greener pastures didn’t do it entirely on her own. Someone, somewhere knew Scarlett and knew where she had gone.

“Wilson, why don’t you give me a couple of days, let me see what I can turn up. That way you’ll at least have the satisfaction of knowing you gave it your best shot.”

“I’ll be happy to pay whatever it cost. I’ve got money saved. A lot of money.”

I almost said we could talk money later, but C.J. would have killed me. “Okay. A three hundred dollar retainer to begin. That’s two days. We can settle expenses afterwards.” I pulled a standard contract out of the top drawer of my desk.

He took out his billfold and handed me six fifty dollar bills. “I feel better already. Just knowing someone will be doing something. I haven’t been able to eat or sleep.”

Wilson Billeau walked out feeling hopeful and I wondered if I had lost my cotton-picking mind.


II

C.J. and I went into our missing persons routine. She began a paper chase via computer and since legwork is my specialty, I drove out to the Lucky Star Bar and Grill.

Beginning in front of the State Capitol Building and driving south on South Congress Avenue, you pass through the downtown area, cross Town Lake and continue along where eventually the area becomes a strip of nightclubs, bars, motels and prowling grounds for pimps and prostitutes. A scuzzy area only a few short miles from the state’s political power.

The club was on South Congress, a mile or so west of Interstate 35. As suspected it had a western motif, a big white Lone Star on the roof and country music twanged inside; also, as suspected, no one thought it was unusual that Scarlett had left. Dancers work here and there - leaving when the mood struck.

Oh, she had mentioned moving on, but who knew which bright lights had lured her. One day she just ups and didn’t show.

Jim, the bartender, looked like a Mexican bandido, but was talkative except he didn’t have a clue about Scarlett. I thanked him for his time and asked if he had a photograph of the girl. He found a black and white 8 x 10 publicity shot that the club had put in the lobby for promotion.

At the front door I had to pause to allow a young woman carrying a guitar case to come in, and Jim called out to me. “Hey, Detective Lady, this here’s one of Scarlett’s friends. I’ll bet Delia Rose can tell you what you want to know.”

The young woman was short, around twenty, a few pounds overweight, but chunky not fat. Her straight blonde hair was pulled back into a pony tail. Her blue eyes, more knowing than they should be at her age, told of all the hard knocks she’d received in her short life.

The bartender introduced us and Delia Rose and I slid into an empty booth. I told her I was a private investigator.

“And you’ve been hired to find Scarlett?”

I nodded.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “Scarlett talked about going to Vegas, but I don’t know if that’s where she went. She didn’t even tell me good-bye. I’m a little hurt, too, because I thought we were friends.”

“Maybe she left with a boyfriend,” I said. “Was there a special guy? Someone you remember coming in to see her?”

She began shaking her head before I was through talking.

“Look,” I said. “She was a beautiful girl. Surely there was someone. . .”

“Not really. She flirted with everyone, but I don’t think there was a boyfriend.”

“Or a girlfriend?”

Delia Rose blushed. “She didn’t have any designs that way either and believe me I would have known.”

“Who of the regulars did she pay attention to?”

She thought a moment. “Only one guy - a farm boy. Sweet kid. He had a funny name.”

“Wilson Billeau?”

“Yeah, that was it. Wilson Billeau. He had the fever for Scarlett Fever.” She realized her joke and we laughed.

“He’s my client.”

“Scarlett was nice to his face, but she made fun of him behind his back.” Delia Rose looked wistful. “Man, I wish someone would get that kind of hots for me.”

I stood. “Well, I appreciate your help. If you think of anything, will you call?” I gave her my card.

Delia Rose arched an eyebrow and smiled. “When you find her, tell her I said to drop dead, okay?” She smiled wistfully again and that’s when I knew she also had the fever for Scarlett.

“Will do,” I said.

Before I was halfway to the door, she called me back.

“I just thought of something. The day before Scarlett left an older man came in. She was dancing and suddenly got a sick look. When she came off stage he grabbed her arm and said, ‘We have to talk.’ Scarlett pulled away and told him to leave her alone. His face got all red and Scarlett had this funny look. Not scared exactly, but sorta like resigned.

“The old guy doubled up his fist and I thought sure he was going to hit her. Jim saw the guy was acting up and came over. Told him we didn’t want any trouble and asked him to leave.”

“Did you ask her about this guy afterwards?”

“Yeah, but she said she didn’t want to talk about him and for me to forget it. So I did. I guess I forgot all about it until just now.”

“What did he look like?”

“Let’s see, I can’t remember much. Maybe late fifties. Dark hair, turning gray. Jim might remember. He got a better look.”

She called Jim over, but he couldn’t add much more. He said the guy was plain vanilla. “Some old fart. Dressed in a business suit that went out of style twenty years ago.”

“I remember thinking at the time he reminded me of a movie star,” said Delia Rose. “One of those older guys, but I can’t remember who.”

They couldn’t think of anything else and this time I really did leave.

I tacked Scarlett’s picture to the wall next to my desk hoping to be inspired. A striking dark-haired woman, twenty-two or thereabouts. Her eyes were dark, too, but with only a black and white photo, I couldn’t be sure of exact colors. A smile extended to her come-hither eyes, yet there was an innocence, too. Try as I might, I couldn’t see much to make her star-quality. Dark-haired beauties aren’t exactly a novelty. Obviously, you had to have seen her dance moves.

Strippers don’t belong to a union, but C.J. traced the photographer who’d taken the publicity picture. I talked to him and to the talent agency who’d booked Scarlett into the Lucky Star. Sure they knew her, but she hadn’t confided any plans to them.

C.J.’s nimble computer fingers found no records of credit cards or bank accounts. Scarlett Fever didn’t have a car registration or a driver’s license, either, but C.J. discovered Scarlett had a room, for the past six months, at the Stagecoach Motel, a half-mile south of the Lucky Star. She was registered as Scarlett Fever O’Hara.

A trip to the motel seemed logical. It was sleazy-looking, more like a place for rent-by-the-hour trysts than a home for a young girl. The manager was also a sleaze-bag, but he took my twenty dollar bill greedily and gave me the key. The room was pathetic; an old iron bedstead held a sagging mattress, a vanity-type dresser from the fifties stood against one wall. Worn carpet and torn drapes over yellowed window shades completed the decor. I found a rust-speckled can of Lady Schick shave cream and one lipstick tube, fire engine red, used down to the metal. Nothing else to show a young woman had lived in that depressing room for six months - no clothes, no receipts, no pictures. Scarlett appeared and disappeared - end of story.

As I left I asked the manager how Scarlet got around as she didn’t have a car.

“How should I know? Walked maybe?”

My twenty must not have extended to his answering questions.

It was discouraging, although I hadn’t expected much to begin with. Yet one tiny cell in the back of my brain kept taunting in a sing-song voice, “Nah-na, nah-na, nah-na - you’ve forgotten something.”

C.J. and I checked and double checked every scrap of information we had. It was wasted time.

At the end of two days I called Wilson Billeau. He didn’t seem surprised. The slight hope he’d nursed must have dwindled soon after he’d left our office.

“Thanks for trying, ma’am. I know you did your best.”

“Wilson, I believe things happen for a reason. Scarlett came into your life. Maybe to remind you that you ought to do something besides muck around with cows and chickens. I’ll bet if you tried, you’d find a young lady who’d like to live on a farm in Dripping Springs.”

“I guess. I promised myself I’d put this all behind me if you couldn’t find her, but I can’t give up yet.” His voice didn’t sound as if his heart was in it, but he was determined.

I wished him luck and broke the connection.

C.J. said Wilson’s money helped to ease our cash flow, but the whole episode left me feeling sad for a couple of days. Soon though, we both put the missing Scarlett Fever out of our minds.


III

Three weeks later, I unfolded the morning newspaper, The Austin American Statesman and, there she was - Scarlett Fever O’Hara. The grainy picture was the same publicity photo I had and she was identified only as Scarlett. The headline for this rainy December day read SCARLETT IS DEAD. The story said a hooker’s nude body had been found in one of Austin’s better downtown hotel rooms. The woman had been beaten severely and then, stabbed to death.

Unholy murder served up with notes of Christmas cheer.

A man registered to that room as Marshall Tolliver from Houston was now in police custody.

C.J. called me at home. “Did you see her?”

We discussed the murder for a few minutes and I said I’d better contact Wilson Billeau. “I hope he’s already seen the paper because I’d hate to be the one to tell him.”

There was no answer when I called Wilson, so I tried Bulldog Porter. The attorney said one of his informants had called him soon after the girl’s body was found and he’d notified Wilson of the girl’s death. He said Wilson had gone to the funeral home to make arrangements for her and would drop by Bulldog’s office later. Bulldog said he would give Wilson our condolences.

My next call was to Lieutenant Larry Hays. Larry works in the homicide unit of the Austin Police Department. He and I have been good friends for years. I’d first met him when he and my late husband, Tommy Gordon, entered the police academy together. They were partners until Tommy left APD to become a private detective.

After Tommy’s death Larry took a brotherly role with me. One I was grateful for, except when he got too protective. Especially where it related to the detective agency. Larry is sensitive, witty, and stubborn as only a Swede can be. He is also one hell of a good cop.

When he returned my call, I asked, “What’s the story on the dead hooker?”

“The one known as Scarlett? What do you know about it?”

“Nothing about the murder, but…”

“Just a minute,” Larry put me on hold, briefly. When he came back, he said in his official voice, “Meet me at Casa Mañana!”

His gruff, insistent order hit me the way that tone usually does and I almost told him to go take a flying leap from the Congress Avenue bridge, but with a conciliatory tone he said, “Please, Jenny. I could use your help here.”

I said I’d be there by one-thirty.

Casa Mañana is a Tex-Mex restaurant near APD headquarters and the officers frequently go there for lunch. It’s a converted old stucco house, yellow with green trim and the feel of a cantina. Inside were plain wooden tables covered with oilcloth and the tables at each booth had Mexican tile tops. The food is excellent, the price is reasonable and the service is top-notch.

Larry is attractive, long-legged, and wears a size 13 shoe. He’s five years older than me and I was unmerciful when he turned forty recently. He was seated in the corner booth when I arrived, two iced teas, hot salsa and tortilla chips already on the table. I slid into the booth and he said, “Where you been keeping yourself?”

“C.J.’s been cracking the whip. We’ve hardly had time to go to the bathroom.”

“That explains your pained expression.”

“If I have a pained expression, it’s because you haven’t called or come by to see us.”

“Hah! I used to complain when we had one homicide a month. Little did I know those were the good old days.”

“Makes you wonder what’s happening to our normally laid-back capital city.”

“Fast growth, drugs and hard times.”

We were interrupted by Paco Hidalgo, the owner, as he placed chicken enchiladas - with all the trimmings - on the table and refilled my glass. The chips and salsa I’d been nibbling called for constant mouth-cooling, but I get anemic if I don’t get my quota of Mexican food.

“I hope you don’t mind, I ordered your usual. Thought we could save time.” Larry began eating without waiting for my reply. “Tell me what you know about Scarlett.”



See you tomorrow for Part 2!