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Small Town Sins

By Charlie Hudson

“Well, it’s not as if we can narrow suspects based on motive.” Dave shifted his bulk from one foot to the other.

Justin stood by the patrol car with Dave, his focus more on Sheriff MacFarlane and the substitute Medical Examiner – or what he could see of them through the large window of the studio above the garage.

“Mr. Thatcher had enemies? I didn’t think the Walllington Gazette roused that much emotion.” Sheriff MacFarlane was shaking his head, his arm sweeping across the room. The overturned chair, folders scattered, pewter goose neck lamp fallen to the floor. Dead body with bruising to a face not yet rigid in death – eyes closed rather than a frozen look of horror at some brutal attack. It didn’t seem to be the kind of beating that should have accounted for the still form sprawled face down on a rug that looked to be Persian. Antique most likely, based on softened colors in the pattern and the rest of the furnishings. The massive mahogany desk was for sure antique. Justin, having been first on the scene, had not turned the body; had only checked for pulse and stepped away carefully; he wasn’t senior enough to begin the investigation. He’d observed everything closely though until the Sheriff and Dave arrived, soon followed by the ME from the next county over. Dr. Cotton was away for a few days and Justin didn’t know the old man who had creakily climbed from his car, nodded to them vaguely and was now staring down at the floor as the Sheriff talked.

No sign of robbery and not much blood. The way Justin figured it, the assailant must have slammed the victim’s head onto the edge of the desk. Did he know he’d killed him? Or had he simply left him unconscious, not bothering to check the real damage? Second degree murder or manslaughter seemed to fit Wallington more than premeditated murder.

“Hell boy, how long you been in town? Eight months, isn’t it?” Dave thumped ash onto the driveway, their two police cruisers on the grassy lawn. “You don’t know about Gabriel Thatcher?”

“Guess not.” Justin’s surprise at finding Mr. Thatcher hadn’t been unfamiliarity with death; not after three years on the Baltimore force. It was that crime in Wallington had so far been confined to traffic violations, thefts, bar fights, minor drug possession charges, and inevitable domestic altercations.

The only reason he’d stopped at the classic gray-sided, white trimmed bungalow was because the garage door was wide open and Mr. Thatcher’s new Sirrus bicycle and Honda Goldwing motorcycle were alongside the red 1976 Corvette Stingray that Justin always admired. There had been a rash of bicycle thefts that they were pretty sure was a group of mouthy adolescents. They should pin them down pretty soon, but if Mr. Thatcher was absorbed in something either in the house or in his studio, the expensive Sirrus could be gone within seconds. When there was no response at the door, and no movement to indicate Mr. Thatcher noticed someone was on the premises, he’d clamored up the stairs to the studio, saw the door ajar and called out loudly twice before easing it fully open with his foot, hand automatically on his holstered gun.

The prone body, no blood, left arm and hand extended onto the hardwood floor. He assumed unconsciousness due to a medical emergency until he saw the bruising. An unbelieving Sheila when he called dispatch.

“Gabriel Thatcher’s place? Are you sure about that?”

He’d stopped before snapping an answer – he knew better than to get on Sheila’s bad side. He repeated the address slowly, knowing word would spread rapidly among those monitoring the police band.

“Let’s put it this way,” Dave said with a grin, bringing Justin back to the subject of suspects. “Gabe’s been involved with lots of women in town over the years and there ain’t that many unattached ones. Been a bullet, that would make the list longer, but not many women around likely to get those kind of punches in.” He sucked the cigarette to its end, glanced at the sky that was lighter now and then blew a stream of smoke away from Justin, a consideration even if he, like most of the older members of the small force, chaffed under the discussion of making public buildings smoke-free.

“Suppose I could go ‘round to Herb’s place and ask what he’s heard.”

“We haven’t been in the house yet and aren’t we going to canvas the neighbors?” Justin had already been disappointed with no tire tracks or noteworthy footprints to show the shared county crime scene technician that were en route according to Sheila. The railing to the staircase could be a good source of fingerprints. Justin had seen only a single coffee mug near the sink and one whiskey glass rolled away from the desk, a tiny puddle in an oval on the oak floor. The bottle of Maker’s Mark on the counter was one-third full, the Bombay Sapphire gin half-full.

Dave straightened, ground the cigarette out on the sole of his shoe and inclined his head toward the staircase as Sheriff MacFarlane and the visiting ME descended. The emergency response vehicle pulled into the driveway with the forensics technician behind him in a black sedan.

“Bob, you and Doreen are going to have to let Hank get photos first,” the Sheriff said, shaking hands all around. “It’s not complicated – get the shots you need, Hank, and dust for prints after they take the body,” he continued to the clustered group. “Dave, you go on and see if any neighbors are at home and Justin you come in the house with me and see if it looks like anything happened in there. Pretty sure it didn’t, but let’s take a look.”

Justin didn’t register the surprise he felt. As the junior man, shouldn’t he be sent to do the canvas and let Dave stay with the Sheriff? Everyone nodded with understanding and set about their tasks as the ME stepped over to speak to Bob and Doreen, the Emergency Medical Technicians. Hank took the stairs two at a time, not touching the railing.

Dave moved close to the Sheriff and gestured with a fresh cigarette that he hadn’t lit yet. Justin couldn’t make out what they were saying, but the conversation lasted less than two minutes.

“We’re swapping,” Dave said, reaching one hand for the keys. “You ride back with the Sheriff. I’m going to see Herb after I’m done.”

Sheriff McFarlane was already striding up the walkway between the detached garage and the house, so Justin dropped the keys into Dave’s palm and hurried after their boss. Like many of the area’s houses, most people used the back entrance; in this case a combination mud room, laundry and pantry. An alcove immediately to the right of the door held a large black garbage can, but yesterday had been trash pickup day. The linoleum floor was a slate pattern with a dark grey entry mat and a washer and dryer were to the left of the door. There was a wooden coat rack against the left wall; the bench type with space beneath for shoes, a tall back with three wrought iron hooks and a shelf toward the top. One pair of tan leather boots and a pair of running shoes were in place, a red hooded rain jacket on the first hook, a black umbrella on the third hook and several spray cans were on the shelf, but Justin didn’t stop to identify them as he crossed into the kitchen.

“I don’t expect we’ll find anything, but Hank prefers not to be disturbed and he’ll be done pretty quick.” Sheriff McFarlane had removed his hat, his short brown hair salted with white that made him appear older than Justin knew him to be. The sense of age was heightened with skin leathered by outdoor hobbies of canoeing and fishing. Justin had initially thought him to be lacking in drive until he realized that his easy going style masked a close eye for detail. He seemed to know everything that happened in the office and anything important around town.

He stood in the middle of the room – updated without being ultra modern. A galley section for stove, refrigerator, dishwasher and corner porcelain sink; almond–colored appliances rather than the popular stainless steel of current remodels. The countertops were good quality butcher block laminate. The microwave was an over-the-stove model and a bank of lower cabinets with a breakfast bar and three wooden high-back stools opened onto the dining area. A round table to seat four that looked as if it would expand for six was positioned between a window on one wall and a bay window on the other. The floor was wide-planked pine and the braided oval rug was blues and greens. No dirty dishes in sight, and a telephone stand with a mobile phone against the far wall had a drawer, two telephone directories in the open area underneath and a dark green address book next to the telephone. A lack of faint cooking odors probably meant the freezer and pantry held mostly microwaveable items. Not unexpected for a bachelor unless he was into cooking shows.

“See if there’s a redial function on the phone, then look in the den while I check his bedroom,” the Sheriff instructed as he walked through the square opening that might have once been a door closing the kitchen off from the rest of the house.

Justin slipped on a pair of surgical gloves that he carried despite jibes from Dave and copied six stored numbers; all but one being local. The address book was actually only phone numbers and held no enlightening scribbled notes; mostly service numbers like for the landscaping company.

Sheriff McFarlane glided back into the kitchen, shaking his head. “Nothing that we need in here. Hank’s probably done by now and then I’ll tell you what comes next.” His voice had an uncharacteristic tightness that Justin didn’t remember having heard before. Had something in the bedroom caused it?

“Town will be buzzing over this,” the older man said evenly as they retraced their steps. “Get stickers and tape from the car, but no sense spreading it all over. Just the doors – house, garage and studio. Should be spare keys to the doors on the board in the mudroom. Make sure a patrol car comes by every couple of hours.”

“Yes sir,” Justin said in reflex even though he rarely called the Sheriff that – it seemed appropriate with the more somber circumstances.

By the time Justin completed his task, the covered body was being loaded and the Sheriff motioned for Justin to wait as the emergency vehicle cleared out of sight and they were alone.

Sheriff McFarlane exhaled deeply, hooked his hands into his belt and rocked slightly onto his heels, then back to stand solidly, an almost bemused look on his face. “I doubt Sheila kept this quiet for ten minutes. You know the last murder we had was pushing eight years ago – I’m not counting bar fights getting out of hand – get one of those every year or so. Situation being what it is, I’ll probably be having you work this as primary.”

“Sir? What situation? Not that I mind,” Justin said quickly, trying to regain a little cool instead of sounding ignorant. “I don’t get it.”

The movement of the Sheriff’s mouth was not quite a smile. “Dave tell you that Gabe Thatcher has had about every woman in the whole county and I’m not even talking about women come in from who knows where to see him? Problem being is, me and most everyone else in the office has been ready to beat on Gabe ourselves at one time or the other, and you’re about the only one doesn’t have bad history with him. Well, Cyrus neither, but he’s still on light duty from that operation. I don’t doubt it’s related to Gabe and some woman, but I need someone looking at it who’ll be objective.”

Damn! Justin wasn’t sure what to say. “Well, yes sir, I…”

The Sheriff held up a hand. “Listen, we may kid you some about being a big city boy, but the truth is that I’ve been impressed with you. You pay attention and you’re fitting in just fine. Not every man would be willing to leave a promising future because his wife wants to get back to a place where stealing bicycles is the major crime spree.” His jaw tightened a bit before Justin could react.

“I’ll tell you more later, but right now I need you to go over the studio again and I’ll send Dave or someone to pick you up. You’ll want to check his cell phone and I’ll get someone started on his telephone records. If his email is password protected, we’ll have to get someone from the county. I didn’t notice his cell phone, but it’s probably around. You bring it and the laptop in and I’ll see if Dave’s got an earful from Herb about who’s got it out for Gabe at the moment. You okay with this?”

“Yes sir,” Justin said, his mind churning ahead.

“Go on then, and let’s see if we can wrap this up in a day or two.” The Sheriff strolled to his car, shaking his head slowly.

Justin didn’t wait for him to pull onto the shoulder-less two lane road to begin a more studied stroll around the garage looking for anything he might have missed on his first walk around. Nothing upstairs was going to move and the breeze that had picked up could scatter something like a gum wrapper. The expanse of grass ran to the road to the left, to the house to the right and in the back before it ran into a thin stretch of shrubs and trees that separated the Thatcher and Fairfield properties. Thick boxwood shrubs formed a U around the garage and there was no sign of broken branches or other disturbance – it wasn’t as if someone had crouched hidden in them. The grass bordered on needing mowing, although the garage was devoid of any type of lawn mower. Based on what little he did know of Gabriel Thatcher, who wrote multiple columns for the bi-weekly Walllington Gazette and occasional articles for some of the larger surrounding newspapers and regional magazines, he would have left hard labor to the landscaping service annotated in his address book.

Outside seemed clean enough – if there had been something, it wasn’t to be found at the moment. Justin slipped on another pair of gloves, walked up the stairs slowly this time, studying each step. He wanted to center himself, step back into the studio with a fresh pair of eyes. Ah, there – at least one thing he’d missed. The door to the studio opened outward and while he had been alerted to the fact that it was slightly ajar, he hadn’t noticed the flecks of white paint on the edge beneath the knob or the fresh scrape on the white painted railing. The door probably yanked open, flung against the railing, not an inadvertent careless bump. This spoke to anger from the beginning, not an escalating argument.

Justin played it in his mind, imagining whoever pounding up the stairs. Had he – figure he for now – tried the house first? Everyone knew about above the garage. Justin stepped inside, stopping on the heavy duty brown door mat. The signs were not of a prolonged struggle. Considering the angle of the chair at the desk and the glass on the floor, Mr. Thatcher was probably at his computer, shoved back and rose at the intrusion. Then what, stepped around to try and reason with the man? That would make sense, but wait. Justin closed his eyes thinking back to the body. He hadn’t seen it turned face up and didn’t know if the shirt had been torn. He saw it now though – no defensive wounds on the hands. He was certain of it. Had the first blow been a sucker punch? A reeling punch by a significantly bigger man? The wounds had been made with fists – he knew what a pistol whipping or baseball bat beating looked like.

Justin checked the portable telephone in the base to verify that it was an extension of the house phone and didn’t see a cell phone on his initial survey. The laptop was password protected and while it was no doubt something simplistic, it would be best to let an expert have a go at it. Where was the cell phone? Justin stood at the corner of the desk and stared at the deep red upholstered sofa and matching chair that created a sitting area. He crossed, knelt and lifted the short piece of fabric around the base of the sofa. He withdrew the black cell phone that appeared to have been smashed with a heel, then kicked away. So much for getting numbers immediately.  He bagged it and continued his round until he made his way into the bathroom.

The mostly white room wasn’t large with a corner fiberglass shower stall. The medicine cabinet held an unopened toothbrush, a travelers’ size tube of Colgate and a bottle of Advil. The dark blue wicker wastebasket was nearly empty with a few tissues and the white plastic top to a medicine bottle. He pulled it out gently and lifted the basket to verify that it was only the top, no bottle. That was odd, but he wasn’t sure if it meant anything and made a quick note in his book so he wouldn’t forget it.

His radio crackled for his attention. “Hey, you ‘bout done? Sheriff told me to pick you up if you’re ready. I’m leaving the Hawkins’ place right now.” It was Lenny, the other deputy on day patrol. The Hawkins’ farm was close by and their goats had probably wandered into the neighbor’s garden again in the on-going feud between the properties.

“Yeah, I’m wrapping up.” Justin wanted to get the telephone and computer back to the station. He’d call the Sheriff to let him know they needed county support and maybe if they weren’t too busy, they could have a technician first thing in the morning.

The Sheriff had been correct about word spreading rapidly and Lenny pressed him for details as he injected stories about Gabriel Thatcher. “Ain’t no way Gabe was killed over anything but a woman,” he pronounced with a mixture of what sounded like satisfaction and awe.

Dave had come and gone at the station and after the ritual of shift change, Sheriff MacFarlane drew Justin into the office, closing the door behind him. He propped on the corner of his uncluttered wooden desk and motioned Justin to take one of the two armless chairs in front of the desk, their seats worn smooth from years of use. It was a utilitarian office with two windows opening onto the street. The weakened afternoon sun slanted in.

“We got a computer forensics lady coming in from County at 9:00 tomorrow and telephone report ought to be done about then too. Preliminary cause of death is fatal blow to the head, but the autopsy won’t be done until late tomorrow afternoon. Doc Cotton isn’t back yet and they got a backlog at the morgue, believe it or not.” He wagged his head in slow motion. “Anyway, Herb told Dave as how Gabe’s got two different women that he knows of on a string at the moment. Isabelle Jenkins and Reba Dearborn. Isabelle’s separated from Roger, but the divorce isn’t final and Roger’s got a mean streak in him when he’s drinking. Big enough guy, too. Reba’s been around the track more than once if you know what I mean and her husband’s on the road a lot. Fact is, I called and he left three days ago for a week’s trip. Not to say he couldn’t sneak back into town, but I don’t see that as likely.”

“You want me to go see if Roger Jenkins has an alibi?” Justin vaguely recalled the man. Mechanic? Air conditioning repairman? Something like that.

The Sheriff nodded and passed a slip of paper with the address. “Only other thing that might be nothing at all is Melanie Lister told Dave she saw Pete Newton’s pickup tearing past her place this afternoon going way too fast as far as she was concerned. Could have been around the time of death. Not much to go on, but he’s not at work or home. On the other hand, he’s still single and his ex-wife is already remarried, so not sure he’d have anything in for Gabe. You want a back-up with you?”

Justin stood and glanced at the paper. “Might not hurt. I’ll have Dispatch send the Patrol. Should be able to meet up with him if I leave now.”

“Call if you’re bringing him in. Otherwise, take the night off and we’ll start again in the morning.”

“Yes sir.” Justin almost reminded the Sheriff of the critical 48-hour rule except he knew the Sheriff was well aware of it. No solid leads in 48 hours and the chances of a case going cold escalated. The deal was though, with no homicides in eight years, maybe the rule didn’t apply. The idea that Gabe was killed over a woman certainly tracked with the top three motives of sex, money, and revenge and in a town the size of Wallington, keeping a secret like that would be damned difficult.

The trip to see Roger was inconclusive. The burly man was in his trailer with his brother, empty beer cans littering the stained coffee table.

“Heard the son-of-a-bitch got killed and glad of it,” had been Roger’s statement, followed by his alibi of taking the day off to go fishing with his brother. Where was his catch? Wasn’t any, and that wasn’t no crime, so best be that they leave him alone.

Justin resisted the urge to hassle him because a) he was right, b) he didn’t want to screw anything up at the beginning, and c) he was due to have dinner with his mother-in-law, Helen, in less than an hour and he wanted to change clothes. They departed with a warning for Roger not to leave town and ignored the expletives that followed them out the door.

Helen was one of those women that defied mother-in-law jokes. If it was true that he could see what his wife, Tricia, would be like in twenty years based on her mother, he had nothing to worry about. Helen had not only passed on her chestnut hair and a figure that could still draw admiration, but also green eyes in an oval face with a cute little freckle-prone nose and a bubbling laugh. She went up on her tiptoes to greet Justin with a quick peck to his cheek when he arrived and hustled him into the kitchen permeated with the aroma of chicken and homemade dumplings. Two other pots simmered on the stove and he was willing to bet on garden fresh cream-style corn and green beans. He’d brought a white and red wine, having forgotten to ask what was on the menu.

Wine glasses, the corkscrew, and the chilled ceramic wine holder were on the soapstone-topped kitchen island. Helen pointed a finger at him in the way a school teacher does. “You can open and pour the wine before you start talking and don’t bother to tell me you can’t say anything. Everybody knows Gabe was killed over a woman – it’s just a matter of who, or whom, I should say.” Her eyes sparkled and she turned to the pots on the stove. As soon as she lifted the lids, Justin’s stomach gurgled with hunger. Tricia was away with girlfriends, a kind of retreat to help one of them celebrate or commiserate about a divorce – Justin had been a little unclear as to the actual intent, but he assumed it involved spa treatments and martinis.

“You know I haven’t heard anyone suggest any other motive,” he said carefully, pouring the wine as instructed.

Helen gave the pots a quick stir and looked at him over her shoulder. “It’s what makes sense. We don’t get home invasions here or random killings. Of course, you should be looking for someone he’s recently been involved with. The others always get sorted out. Like with Neil.”

“Sheriff McFarlane, you mean?” Justin took a sip of wine.

Helen turned her head briefly as she picked up a plate. “Put that basket of rolls on the table, please, and move the wine, too. I’m serving right from the pots. Yes, I mean Neil. You could say Gabe broke up their marriage if you want to be strict about it, but the truth is that Sarah was all wrong for Neil and if you want my opinion, Gabe did him a favor. That’s what’s always been so odd about Gabe. Him tomcatting round has had inadvertent good effects.”

She carried both plates, his piled high, hers more moderately filled. A small platter of sliced tomatoes and cucumbers was on the square table. “Was his head caved in or was there really not much blood? And there weren’t any body parts chopped off, were there?”

Justin almost choked at that one and she waved her hand for him to sit. “I didn’t think so. I do understand Neil wanting you to investigate though. Dave flattened Gabe four, maybe five years ago. They tell you that?”

Her announcements and questions came with the sound of authenticity. “Uh no, I didn’t hear that.”

She gave a mock sigh. “Would you like me to explain about Gabe and then tell you who I would be looking at, and I don’t mean Roger Jenkins?”

How on earth did she know that? Justin’s surprise must have shown because Helen giggled. “Goodness, don’t look so startled. Our family has been in this town for six generations; two shy of being founding members. This is a backwater place and I say that with proud affection. I’ve made no secret that I think it’s wonderful that you were willing to move here so Tricia could help me with the business, but you’ve got to realize that Gabe getting murdered is the most exciting thing that’s happened since Warren Dearborn chased Danny Lister around the town square threatening him with a hatchet fifteen years ago.”

Justin had been impressed with Helen’s perception from the first moment they’d met. Widowed with two adolescent daughters, she’d turned her love of gardening to a florist shop, a tiny business that she’d built into the best in town. Flowers for births, deaths, apologies – a place where gossip would flow freely. Helen would be a source of information.

“I have to admit that I’ve been getting bits and pieces all day and having the whole story might help.” Not to mention he could keep eating while Helen talked. Tricia was a better than average cook, but if he was forced to tell the truth, she wasn’t in her mother’s league.

“I’m not sure anyone really knows the whole story, but it does go back to Gabe’s parents. The Thatchers originally came from somewhere in New York, although I mean Gabe’s grandparents. Had the first pharmacy in town as a matter of fact. Stanley, their only son, wasn’t really interested in running the business and got in with one of the drug companies. He was a stereotypical traveling salesman and everybody except Caroline, his wife, knew why he was on the road so much which just goes to show that the old saying, ‘the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,’ has merit. The thing is, Stanley was very careful not to bring it into town.” Helen finished her wine and pushed her glass forward for a refill.

“Gabe, also an only child, was a handsome baby and with Stanley gone much as he was, Caroline doted on the boy. He was, in a word, spoiled rotten even though I’m not talking in the nasty kind of way.”

Justin wrinkled his forehead. “Not a bully, you mean?”

Helen nodded quickly. “Not in the least. Charm was Gabe’s signature. I mean from the time the boy could speak a sentence, he knew exactly the kind of thing women and girls wanted to hear. He was strong enough too to be a decent athlete, baseball actually, and while not a star player, it kept him in the popular circle. Caroline and Stanley weren’t wealthy, but she made sure that Gabe had stylish clothes, the new bicycle, that sort of thing. He was smart, too, but hardly what one would call a genius. Had a way with words from fairly early on. He was the high school year book editor and at the beginning of the senior year, Stanley died of a heart attack when he was, ah..with someone else if you know what I mean. A woman in another county and so Caroline was able to pretend that wasn’t true either. I don’t mean to speak ill of her, but she really lived in her own little world and of course she thought Gabe would be stifled in this town. Even though she hated for him to be away, she was bound and determined that he should go to an Ivy League college.”

Justin was beginning to think he maybe shouldn’t have asked for the whole story. He buttered another hot roll and chewed instead of trying to hurry Helen.

“Stanley had left insurance and he had made a decent living so the house was all paid for and it’s not as if Caroline ever had to work a day in her life, but I don’t hold that against the woman. Gabe didn’t qualify for Ivy League, but she found some Liberal Arts College near Boston to get him into and acted as if that was the same thing as Harvard. Now is where this all starts to tie together,” she said with a smile. “Oh, I have lemon pound cake for dessert. Leave all this and move to the counter while I put coffee on.”

They re-positioned and Helen continued, moving easily about the kitchen. “We don’t know exactly what happened, but Gabe was gone for oh, I guess six years. He majored in English with a journalism minor or vice-versa. Wrote some acceptable poetry and had a few short stories published although not in major magazines. He was doing okay and naturally as far as Caroline was concerned, he was on his way to a Pulitzer. He’d come back for holidays and visits and he had gotten someone’s attention. He was hired to a major publishing house as an editor’s assistant and that’s where the Thatcher male habits got the best of him.” Helen grinned now, all thought of don’t speak ill of the dead vanished with telling a juicy tale.

“He was doing his usual juggling multiple women and became involved with one of the board members’ wives and we’re not talking about a young one either. It wasn’t bad enough that the husband found out, but the wife discovered that she wasn’t the only one Gabe was seeing. The upshot was that Gabe Thatcher was sent packing and basically blacklisted from any major house and newspaper he might want to work for.”

Helen pushed the On button of the coffeepot and lifted the top from a rose motif ceramic cake stand. She looked over her shoulder again. “Caroline had developed some kind of heart ailment about then and Gabe rushed to her side, or tucked his tail between his legs and ran home, depending on which way you want to look at it. God rest Caroline’s soul, she became more or less an invalid and she barely lasted a year. In the meantime, Denise Grigsby, who had been close friends with Caroline’s mother, took over the Wallington Gazette after her husband died and she had a soft spot for Gabe. She’s the one who put him on the staff and even though I personally don’t think there was anything between them, there are those who swear otherwise.”

Helen motioned for him to come get the cake while she carried filled coffee mugs to the counter. “All right, now I’ve got the stage set for your murder.” She paused, tilted her head slightly and her tone mellowed. “You see, Gabe saw himself as this romantic figure who loved women so much that he could never bring himself to commit to just one. Considering Stanley, he might have had a point, but it did make for a convenient excuse. And Gabe certainly did know how to attract women. In addition to his poetry and his time away, he traveled some. I personally have no desire to see Paris, although it would indeed sound romantic to a woman who’s never been further than the state capital.” She took a tiny nibble of cake, wiped her mouth and grinned. “It was my sister that fell for him for a while. I won’t get into the details of his skills, but she was like all the other women that, I swear, would lose their senses over the man with one of his smiles and ridiculous lines. It wasn’t any time after her divorce, and if you ask me, that was Gabe’s specialty. Women right after a breakup who were feeling vulnerable and needed an ego boost.” She sighed dramatically and placed a hand over her heart. “This has been wonderful, but you know my dear, you deserve a man who can give you a full life and I simply have too much of the wanderer in me. It wouldn’t be fair.”

Justin stared at her, the last bite of pound cake suspended on his fork, partway to his mouth. “Are you serious?”

“I kid you not. Like a line right out of some sappy old movie, but let me tell you, it worked.”

“You said something about Sheriff McFarlane’s wife.”

“Oh yes. Well, being a worldly man, Gabe took the view that if a marriage was really strong, a little fling wouldn’t crumble it.” Helen shifted on the stool and smiled wryly. “In that, I have to sort of agree. Remember, as a florist, I get people in all the time sending flowers to make up for things. Almost losing someone can snap you out of taking them for granted – at least for a while. In Neil’s case, Gabe simply exposed the flaw that others had seen. If Neil was being honest, he’d say Gabe actually did him a favor.”

“This is making more sense. And Dave punching Mr. Thatcher out?”

Helen shrugged. “That was at Herb’s, could be about four years ago. One of Dave’s favorite cousins was all ga-ga about Gabe, thinking she was the one that could settle him down. The girl got silly about it, made a little bit of a fool of herself talking all over town and then Dave saw Gabe with one of his lady friends who’d flown in. Dave had one too many beers in him and things got a little out of control. Not a big deal and the cousin went by the wayside like every other woman who fell for Gabe. She married Buster Dunford not long after that, had three kids and is doing well. Like I said, he loves them, using the word loosely, leaves them and it becomes this sweet memory.”

Justin took Helen’s mug and refilled both their coffees. “You see why no one is looking at other motives. Now, was it a bloody mess?”

Justin shook his head. “No, but I’d like to ask you if you think Mr. Thatcher is the kind of guy that would fight back if someone came after him.”

Helen raised her eyebrows. “Gabe kept himself in good shape, but the truth is that he knew good and well he deserved a punch in the nose on a pretty regular basis. So I’d say, he might take a blow or two like what happened with Dave, but he’d try and stop it there. Why do you ask?”

“Just checking and you said you had your own idea of who to look at.”

“I’ll let you off the hook because you’ve been patient with the meandering story. Melissa Newton, Pete Newton’s baby sister, works part time at The Sandwich Stop. Gabe eats there regularly. She’s sweet as she can be and for months, we’ve been talking about what she might want to major in when she goes to college. I was in, oh, I guess it was Monday since school was off for some reason, and I passed Gabe coming out. I sat down at the counter and Melissa had this look on her face that I have seen before – that dreamy trance that women get around Gabe. She starts in about how thoughtful he is, well-traveled, etc., and then makes a comment about how exciting it must be to be a writer and maybe she shouldn’t be rushing off to college. Maybe she ought to stay around, get some more life experience until she really knows what she wants to do. She’ll actually be nineteen when she graduates and I told her that she was going to love college and she could always take General Studies the first semester. I admit she’s younger than Gabe usually goes for and there might not be anything going on, but I’ll put a twenty dollar bill on this counter that if Pete knows about this, he’s the guy you should be looking for. He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body, but he’s not about to take kindly to Gabe Thatcher sniffing around Melissa.”

Newton. Justin remembered the Sheriff’s earlier comment. Melanie Lister told Dave she saw Pete Newton’s pickup tearing past her place this afternoon going way too fast as far as she was concerned. Could have been around the time of death. “You know I respect your opinion, Helen. You’re sure about this?”

She lifted her hand. “Like I said, I’d put money on it if Pete got word.”

Justin swung his feet to the floor. “I hate to eat and run, but I’ll need to make a couple of phone calls.”

She leaned over and patted his cheek. “You go on. I get to be one of the first to know if I was right though.”

He laughed, kissed her on the forehead and hurried out to his car, already dialing Dispatch. He patched through instructions for Patrol to swing back by Newton’s place and then called the Sheriff. An All Points Bulletin was issued twenty-three minutes later, but Justin took the Sheriff’s advice to go home and get some sleep. Tomorrow would be a busy day.

Justin almost beat the Sheriff to the station the next morning. He saw his lean figure going in the door as he pulled into the parking lot.

The forensics computer technician arrived at 9:15 a.m., and was on her way out at 11:00, a stack of emails from ten different women, to include dozens from Melissa, although compared to the text of the others, it would seem that no physical intimacy had yet taken place. The last file opened on the computer had been the morning of the murder. The heart, what irony of strength to love and yet betrayal it yields. How can we begin to understand the path down which it will take us?

There had been no title. A new poem?

By noon, the extended Newton family collectively disavowed having seen Pete and at 3:30, a weepy Melissa appeared at the station with her mother and oldest brother, Virgil.

They insisted that the Sheriff be present and no, they didn’t want no lawyer. It was crowded in the rectangular, multi-purpose room that had been used for more training classes than interrogations.

“No sense us beating around the bush,” Martha Newton said, her thin face set hard against the trials of scratching for a living. Melissa swears Mr. Thatcher ain’t never touched her, but she’s got some talking to do.”

If Melissa was more than a faint image of what her mother had been, life had indeed been unkind to Martha. Melissa’s face, splotched though it was, nose slightly swollen from crying, was pretty enough to make a man look twice. Her wavy, light brown hair with blondish streaks fell to her shoulders and under other circumstances it would be easy to imagine warmth in her blue eyes.

“I’m over eighteen,” she blurted, holding a fresh tissue. “And Gabriel hadn’t done anything wrong. We hadn’t even had a date yet.”

Yet. Now there was a word to raise a red flag.

“Never mind with excuses, girl,” her mother snapped and nodded at Virgil. “You tell them.”

Justin started to object and saw the Sheriff’s warning glance.

Virgil, at nearly six feet, had a scarecrow build, gnarled hands with enlarged knuckles and bad teeth. He was uncomfortable in the straight chair and cleared his throat twice before speaking. “Pete saw Missy and Gabe out at her car day before yesterday. He didn’t like how things looked between them and Missy started talking about it wasn’t his business, that she could make up her own mind about who she’d see. That made him real mad because everybody knows what kind of man Gabe is. He chewed on it for a while and came over to our place that night. We went through half a bottle of whiskey and that didn’t help none. Fact is, Pete got madder the more he drank. Said he would take care of this.” He pointed his chin toward his sister. “Missy’s first one in the family to be going to college, always been good in school and got a chance to really make something of herself.”

Melissa was leaking tears again and her mother shoved a wad of tissues at her.

“Pete’s not a killer, Sheriff – you know that,” Martha said sternly.

“He wasn’t talking about killing Gabe, just making sure he left Missy alone,” Virgil agreed quickly. “Fact is though, Pete probably laid a beating on him and then went off up the river. We got a shack there where he always goes when he gets down. Went there for a week after Nancy left him. Got no phone or radio.”

The Sheriff looked directly into Virgil’s brown eyes. “You want to give us directions?”

“I figure it’d be better if I go with you,” he said slowly. “We don’t know for sure what happened and depending on what he did, Pete might not even know Gabe is dead.”

Justin replayed the scene of the crime as he watched everyone in the room. Murder fueled by rage was an ugly thing – he’d seen his share of bodies with entire magazines emptied into them and multiple stab wounds. He knew the difference between a beating meant to kill and what had been done to Thatcher. “Mrs. Newton, would you like us to have a car take you and Melissa home while Virgil goes with us?”

“I’d be grateful,” Martha said, her mouth still set in a line. “Virgil, Pete’s probably got his rifle and Sheriff, I’d ask you let Virgil talk with him first. We got enough trouble as it is with this.”

“Yes ma’am,” Sheriff McFarlane said solemnly. “And we appreciate you coming in.”

The drama was over with before quitting time. Pete had been repairing the sagging porch at the dilapidated shack. His shock at the news of Thatcher’s death seemed genuine.

“I think he was drunk when I got there and he just laughed, telling me there wasn’t nothing other than flirting, but hell, he had three calls from Missy on his damn cell phone,” he protested. “Like Gabe Thatcher was ever satisfied just flirting with a women and Missy barely eighteen years old. Yeah, I knocked that son-of-a-bitch around and left him moaning on the floor. I let him be after he whacked his head on the desk and yeah, I told him I’d do worse by him, he didn’t leave her alone. You can’t tell me he didn’t deserve an ass-whipping, but if I’d wanted him dead, I’d shot him to begin with.”

They booked him and got a Public Defender in to talk with him. They agreed there was no reason to disturb the judge about bail that he would deny and the Newtons couldn’t afford anyway, plus it was the Sheriff’s poker night.

 Justin told him to go ahead and he’d finish up the report. He’d already reluctantly called Helen. He didn’t consider it proper protocol, but if she heard about the arrest from someone else, he’d be in the doghouse. He declined dinner, thinking of picking up a pizza and settling in with a six-pack and television. The envelope on top of the Sheriff’s inbox had Hand Deliver, Sheriff McFarlane, Wallington Police Department printed on it. Justin verified that it was the autopsy report on Gabriel Thatcher and stopped part way down the page. He went back to the top, reading slowly, taking in each section. Damn, did this mean what he thought it did? He read through one more time, his finger tapping against the side of the desk. He stared at the telephone, not wanting to call Sheriff McFarlane if he was wrong. He looked up Dr. Cotton’s number instead, dialed and got voice mail. He left a message saying he knew the doctor was out of town, but could he call as soon as he got the message; he didn’t care what time it was. Not anything else he could really do until morning, but he wanted to be at Thatcher’s place at first light.

He awoke before the alarm clock and rolled out of bed, on the road with half an hour before sunrise. He saw that the police tape was undisturbed and removed it carefully so he would be able to refasten it when he was done. He hadn’t overlooked anything and he moved outside as daybreak lightened the yard. He made a round of the garage poking into bushes and then looked up at the landing. He imagined standing, leaning on the railing, drink in one hand, medicine bottle in the other. He paced off not quite twelve feet and found the lidless, plastic bottle in a clump of grass. His cell phone rang literally as he was reading the label. It hadn’t been filled at either of the local pharmacies.

“What’s got you all riled up?” Dr. Cotton’s voice boomed. “I wasn’t up to calling last night.”

“You heard about Gabriel Thatcher?”

“I did. I was also told that you got Pete Newton locked up.”

How would he have heard that already? “Listen, we got the autopsy report in and I really need you to come to the station right away. I mean like right now if you can. And I’ve got this empty bottle of Valium you prescribed to him.”

There was a momentary silence. “Meet you in fifteen, twenty minutes,” he said and disconnected. Justin called Sheriff McFarlane next, explained what he was doing and was met with a similar, brief silence. “Guess we better talk to Doc Cotton for sure,” was his comment.

Both men were in the Sheriff’s office when he made it back to the station.

“Grab a fresh coffee,” the Sheriff said, motioning to a carafe on the small table shoved against the wall. Dr. Cotton raised one hand in greeting, the autopsy report in the other. Glasses were perched on the edge of his sizeable nose and gray was overtaking the brown of the fringe of hair left on his round, balding head. Steam rose from a cup of coffee on the edge of the desk.

Justin helped himself to coffee and took the second chair. Dr. Cotton looked up before he had a chance to ask a question.

“They won’t get the toxicology report for another four to five days, but they’re correct in that cause of death was not acute subdural hematoma. Who was the ME on-scene?”

The Sheriff scratched his chin. “John Miller.”

Dr. Cotton snorted. “Jesus Christ, the man should have retired ten years ago. If he’d bothered to look close enough, he’d have realized the blow wasn’t fatal.” He shook his head and retrieved his coffee. “Damn fool. I warned him about mixing booze with those meds.”

“So you’re saying….” Justin trailed off.

“Look, patient confidentiality isn’t the main issue here, but for the sake of everyone, I’d like to keep the details quiet. Can we agree to that?” He passed the report back to the Sheriff, removed his glasses and stuck them in his shirt pocket. “People who thought Gabe Thatcher led a charmed live didn’t know about his family’s medical history. Bad genes, weak hearts; one of those things that you’ve got to be careful with. Gabe started having problems maybe four months ago. Didn’t want to have the tests in town, so I sent him to a friend of mine. It wasn’t as bad as it might have been provided Gabe was willing to make some major life style adjustments.” Dr. Cotton paused, swallowed coffee and gave them a pointed look. “Dealing with E.D. was not something Gabe was taking well to.”

Justin fought to keep his mouth from falling open and he shot a glance at the Sheriff who looked as surprised as he had ever seen him.

“Erectile dysfunction? Gabe Thatcher?”

Dr. Cotton nodded. “It’s not uncommon. That’s what caused him to come see me in the first place. It wasn’t with one of our local ladies or word would have gotten around real fast. Anyway, the medications he was on were for his heart and asking for valium wasn’t unusual either.”

“Well, that’s a hell of a thing,” the Sheriff said without inflection. “Give us your take from a medical point of view.”

Dr. Cotton shrugged. “I’ll need to see the actual tox report to see specific drug and alcohol levels. Based on the time of death, stomach contents, alcohol level, what you told me, and where you found the bottle, I’d vote for accidental. I suspect he took his regular meds, didn’t have a whole lot to eat, went up to his studio, had however many drinks, and started feeling sorry for himself. Let’s say he went into the bathroom, opened the bottle and for whatever reason decided to wash a pill, hell maybe two, down with another drink. He might have walked out onto the landing because he heard something or just wanted fresh air. He swallows the pill or pills, and he tosses the empty bottle in a gesture of frustration. I had a no refills so he couldn’t use it anyway. He goes back in, sits at his computer or whatever, and Pete shows up as the drug and alcohol interaction is setting in.”

“He said Gabe acted drunk and it doesn’t look like he put up a fight.”

“Doubt he could have,” Dr. Cotton said. “Pete assaulted him okay, and even though that head injury would have needed attention, it wasn’t what killed him. I’m not sure where that puts you legally with Pete. All I’m telling you is what the medical evidence shows.”

Sheriff McFarlane scratched his chin again. “Well, I guess we’ll have to call the D.A. on that. I appreciate you coming in like you did. Want to take a coffee for the road?”

Dr. Cotton pushed up from the chair, shook hands and left without the coffee. Justin didn’t know what to say and he was trying to keep a straight face. It was a tragic situation after all.

Sheriff MacFarlane’s laughter gave him the release he was looking for. Their guffaws tapered to chuckles. “If that’s not one for the books. I guess Gabe was just having a harmless flirtation with Melissa and she misunderstood. That was a good catch you made though, calling the Doc. One night in jail for Pete won’t hurt him and he did admit to assault. I can’t see bothering the D.A. on this one. It’s not like Gabe can fill out a complaint.”

“What are we going to tell people?”

“More or less the truth. There was a fight, but Mr. Thatcher died from an accidentally mixing medication and alcohol – happens all the time. That’ll be enough gossip to last for a while. I’ve got my own history with Gabe, but I’m willing to not spread the details around.”

“From what I’ve heard over the past couple of days, I don’t think telling the whole truth is necessary.” Justin wondered how long it would take Helen to pry it from him and he suspected it would be the same with Sheriff MacFarlane’s wife.

“Let’s send Pete on his way and then I’ll buy you breakfast. I’d say things will get real quiet around here again.”

Justin grinned and stood. “Yes sir, but don’t forget that we’ve still got to bust that bicycle stealing gang.”

The End