Saturday, July 28, 2012

Saturday's Chapter - Jude Pittman - Deadly Secrets

This is from one of my favorite books. I've read it three times.

Excerpt from

Deadly Secrets

Kelly McWinter PI – Book 1


Jude Pittman

Kelly stretched out in his recliner and dozed. At one-thirty, when the alarm buzzed for his two o'clock rounds at the flea market, he awoke to find that a storm had rolled in while he slept.

Kelly swiped the steaming window and squinted at the steady stream of rain that poured off the eaves. "Looks like a real gully washer." He told the dog.

Jake, who hated storms, paced anxiously back and forth from the front door to the kitchen.

"You might as well settle down. We aren't going out in that stuff. Kelly picked up the coffee pot and flicked the switch for brew then pulled a chair up to the kitchen table. When the coffee finished, he poured a cup and watched as a faint glimmer of light broke through the clouds. Giant maples thick with darkening leaves leaned across the path to the flea market. But by two o'clock the winds had receded. "Looks like it's about blown itself out." Kelly told Jake. He pulled on his boots and then grabbed a slicker out of the closet.

Jake raced across the room and stood expectantly in front of the door.

"Okay, I get it," Kelly chuckled. "Let's get on down there and get it over with."

Inside the barn that housed the flea market, the beam from Kelly's flashlight danced over sheet-covered tables. These tables were for the short-term vendors who rented from Friday to Sunday and covered their goods with sheets when they left for the night.

Permanent dealers had their own shops—enclosed three-sided cubicles with curtained entrances—where they sold everything from cultural standbys like hats, boots, jeans and t-shirts to gaudy jewelry and swirling salsa dresses. Then there were the new and used shops, like Anna's, where treasure hunters could browse through boxes of ornamental plates, old glasses and beer steins and baskets overflowing with everything from spoon collections to buttons and badges dating back to the civil war.

Kelly and Jake walked along the aisles. Gusts of wind whipped across the shrouded tables buffeting the sheets into dancing ghosts. The barn steamed with moisture left by the storm and Kelly itched to complete his rounds. He had an edgy feeling that made him anxious to get out of the barn. Jake seemed to feel it too. He paced the concrete, ears perked and alert, as if listening for something half expected.

When they finally turned into the last aisle, Kelly breathed a sigh of relief and quickened his pace. The refreshment stand, dimly lit by a Budweiser neon guitar cut in the shape of the state of Texas, loomed ahead in the shadows.

Jake had trotted ahead and he now stopped and lifted his nose, then he pulled back his lips and let out a menacing growl. Startled, Kelly clicked the flashlight on high and shone it into the refreshment stand. Inside, an old refrigerator leaned against the wall and a silver coffee urn glinted on the counter.

Kelly moved the light across the stand and shone it on the ground in front of the door. The light picked out a dark bundle that looked like rags. Kelly focused the light and started forward, moving fast. He reached a spot where the light sharpened the shadows into images, the bundle became a body and a sharp odor—the kind you never forgot—stung his nostrils.

"My God," he cried out and sprinted the distance to the booth with Jake hard on his heels.

Kelly had recognized the old, black poncho and instinct told him what to expect. Dropping to his knees, he reached out and pulled back the poncho. Jake stiffened and growled.

Anna Davis' pupils had rolled back under swollen lids and her blood-gorged tongue filled her mouth. Fighting waves of nausea, Kelly gulped air and clenched his hands into fists. After a couple minutes, he pulled himself together and got to his feet.

"Let's go boy." He cleared his throat with a kind of strangled cough. "We've got some calls to make."

Jake fell into step and they crossed to the box in front of the refreshment stand where Kelly flipped the master switch. Bright light flooded the barn and spilled across Anna. Jake growled and Kelly stroked his head. "Easy now." He settled his hand on Jake's back. "I need to call the county." Kelly pulled the phone out of his pocket and dialed the Tarrant County Sheriff's Department.

Seconds later, a crisp efficient voice said hello. Kelly identified himself, and the voice requested a report. Kelly complied. "My cabin's up at the entrance," he said, when asked to keep himself available. "I'll open the gates and wait out front for their arrival". That settled, Kelly pocketed his phone and turned to Jake. "Come on boy, let's get up the hill."

At thirty-eight Kelly still had the smooth, well-paced gait of an athlete and only a practiced eye would notice the stiffness in his left leg—a souvenir from a stray bullet.

The clouds had been swirled away by the storm's wind and now moonlight bathed the cabin in an eerie gray and orange glow that seemed to fit the night. As promised, Kelly opened the main gates, and then he and Jake headed for the cabin. On the porch he settled into an old rocker and Jake flopped at his feet. Silence, like a blanket, covered the flea market. Even the crickets were still. Mechanically, Kelly set the chair to rocking. Pictures of Anna flashed through his mind—a kaleidoscope of memories tracing the years he'd spent at Indian Creek.

Time passed and in the distance a siren sounded. Squinting northward, Kelly spotted flashes of red and blue lights. Minutes later, a patrol car turned into the yard and pulled up to the cabin.

A young deputy jumped from the car and strode to the porch. "Are you Kelly McWinter?" He was just a kid with short blonde hair trimmed close to his ears and wearing an immaculate brown-and-tan uniform. "I'm Deputy Johnson," he said without waiting for an answer. "I understand you've got a body here."

"That's right." Kelly rose and crossed the porch to meet the officer. "She's down by the refreshment stand. I checked to make sure she was dead."

Johnson narrowed his eyes. His right hand, which had been resting comfortably on the butt of his holstered gun, stiffened.

"Nobody ever tell you not to touch a corpse?"

Kelly smiled, remembering the first time he'd been called out on a homicide. "Hey, it's all right." He kept his voice low and friendly. "I used to be on the force myself. I know the drill."

Johnson relaxed a bit but kept his hand on the holster. "Okay, just so's you didn't contaminate anything."

A squeal of tires announced the county ambulance. Two men in white overalls jumped out. A veteran with stooped shoulders and a mop of thick gray hair climbed into the back of the van and handed a large black case to a well-muscled, young Mexican.

Johnson walked over to the van, said a few words then signaled Kelly to lead the way down the hill.

Taking them through the double doors, Kelly approached the refreshr there." He pointed.

The younger medic stepped into the circle of light that beamed from the ceiling, set his case beside Anna's feet and started unpacking.

"Watch what the hell you're doing." The harsh voice boomed through the silent barn startling the young medic and causing him to stumble into Anna's cash box sending it skidding across the cement.

In the wake of the voice, a stocky cop with short legs and long arms stomped onto the scene. "Can't you see this is a friggin' crime scene?" The cop's thick, bulbous nose quivered and his cheeks puffed out as he let loose on the young medic. The red-faced medic bent to retrieve his case and the cop turned to Kelly.

"I'm Sergeant Adams," he said. "You the guy that reported this?"

"That's right. I'm the security guard here. I found her when I made my two o'clock rounds."

"Okay, I'll get to you in a minute."

Adams was a hard ass but Kelly sympathized. If there was any chance Anna was still alive, the medics would have priority at the scene. However, plenty of vital evidence could be destroyed in the first few minutes of an investigation. It was a standing joke with cops that an over-anxious medic was the defense attorney's best friend. They'd been known to smear fingerprints, brush off hair and fibers and wipe away any sign of bodily fluids.

Kelly had seen it all and a vivid memory of one of his own cases where an over-anxious medic had started CPR on a cold corpse popped readily to mind.

Adams and Johnson stood over the body, talking in low voices. Kelly watched as Adams bent down, lifted the poncho then dropped it back in place.

"Only an idiot would think there was any life left in that," he snapped and turned back to Johnson. "Go call the CID, then wait out front to show the lab boys where to bring their stuff."

Done with that, he turned to the medics. "You might as well get your shit out of here," he growled. "You can stick around out front until the coroner arrives, then shove off."

The senior medic, an old-timer who looked like he'd been through this before, shrugged and motioned to his partner to step away from the body. Johnson pulled his cell out of his pocket and pressed a button. His call would bring the criminal investigations division, a team of forensic experts and the county coroner.

Kelly walked over to where Adams stood frowning at Anna's body.

"Suppose you tell me what you know about this," he growled at Kelly. "Let's sit down over there." He turned and marched over to one of the picnic tables. Kelly rolled his eyes and followed him. Adams slid onto one of the benches and Kelly eased his long frame onto the other one.

Adams took out a notebook.

Kelly propped his arm on the table and turned his mind back to the start of his rounds. Jake, who'd stood back from the group of strangers, padded over, sank down and rested his nose on Kelly's boot.

"I was doing last rounds," Kelly said. "That'd make it about two o'clock when Jake here raised his hackles and started growling."

Jake, hearing his name, lifted his eyes to the sergeant.

"You don't know Jake." Kelly reached down and stroked the dog's head. "He doesn't make a fuss without a reason, so I was edgy. There's not much goes on around here after the barn's closed up but sometimes we get kids messing around. This wasn't like that though. Jake knows the difference between kids and trouble and something was damn sure setting him off."

"Whereabouts were you when this happened?"

"About half way down that aisle." Kelly pointed toward the last row of tables. "At first I couldn't see anything but when I trained my flashlight on the refreshment stand, I spotted what looked like a bundle of rags dropped in the aisle. I clicked the beam on high and that's when I recognized Anna's poncho."

"Did you hear anything?"

"Nope, not a sound, except Jake here. He was riled something fierce."

"Okay, then what?"

"Well, like I said, I recognized that old, black poncho of Anna's. She wore it all the time. So I took off down the aisle like a bat out of hell. The poncho was wrapped around her face and I pulled it off. That was tough." Kelly squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. Then he continued. "There was a red scarf sunk so deep in her neck, I thought she'd been slashed."

"Did you touch the scarf?"

"Just the edge. I pulled her skin back a bit, to make sure but there wasn't a chance." Kelly shook his head and shuddered. "After that, I headed for the phone, got the county dispatcher and gave her the details, then Jake and I went to the cabin to wait for your deputy."

"You got any ideas who did this?"

Kelly shook his head. "Just the obvious one that comes to mind from seeing her cash box broken open and coins scattered around the ground." Kelly leaned across the table and fixed his eyes on Adams' face. "It don't make a lot of sense, y'know? If all he wanted was money, why kill her? For that matter, what was she doing prowling around down here at that time of night?"

"He?" Adams questioned.

"He…her…whatever. I guess strangling's kind of fixed in my mind as something a man would do."

"Do you know of anybody who might've had it in for Ms. Davis?"

"Hell, no. Anna was kind of an eccentric. She drank like a fish, ate like a bird and God only knows how old she was. I liked her a lot but she was a bit of a tartar—especially when she'd been hitting the bottle. Still, I can't see any of the Indian Creek folks having it in for her. They pretty much took Anna in their stride."

"We'll be wanting a list of her friends and associates from you. Deputy Johnson will attend to that. In the meantime, it'd help if you could think of someone who might know about anything out of the ordinary happening around here."

"Well, these folks are pretty closed-mouthed with strangers but you might talk to Frank Perkins — you'll find him either up at the Hideaway or down at the bait house. If anybody so much as farts on the creek, Frank knows all the details."

Adams looked up from his notebook and nodded. "We'll talk to him. What about strangers? Was there anybody who paid particular attention to Anna or asked a lot of questions about her?"

"Anna had a bit of a ruckus with one of the shoppers over at her stall this afternoon."

Adams lifted his head and fixed his eyes on Kelly. "Suppose you tell me about it."

"There was a young woman showed up here about four o'clock. She was a real looker." Kelly gave Adams a teasing grin but the officer kept his eyes on his notepad. Kelly shrugged and continued. "For some reason, this woman rushed into Anna's shop and flung herself right on top of Anna's chair. I don't know whether it was deliberate or not. All I know is when I got there, both Anna and the woman were tangled up on the floor and the woman was out cold."

"Did you recognize her?"

"Nope. She wasn't from around here—not the flea market type. I figured she might've been an antique collector. Anna had a lot of collectibles in her stall."

"Can you give me a description?"

Kelly nodded. "She was around twenty-five, about five-six, around a hundred and ten pounds I'd say with plenty of curves in all the right places. Her hair was something long and silky and so blonde it was almost white. She wore it straight down her back, held in place with one of those silk scarves."

Adams scribbled in his book. Finished, he looked up and nodded. "Go ahead."

"I spotted her soon after she came through the front entrance. She was a knockout—that's what drew my eye—but then I noticed the way she acted. It was kind of funny."

"What do you mean by funny? Did you get the impression she might be intoxicated?"

"No, nothing like that. It was more like she was trying to hide from somebody. She kept looking back over her shoulder and when she realized I had my eye on her, she scooted into the crowd like a flushed quail. Her whole manner was suspicious. That's why I followed her down to Anna's."

"Did you happen to notice if anybody was paying any special attention to this woman? Is it possible she was being followed?"

"Nope. Nobody paid her any more attention than what she'd normally get, given her looks and figure."

Adams jotted a few more lines in the book then twirled his pen again.

Kelly grinned.

"The woman?" Adams nudged.

"I was keeping my eye on her but I wasn't making it obvious. When she got next to the refreshment stand, she stopped for a bit and stood there looking kind of nervous. She'd pulled the scarf out of her hair and was kneading it with her fingers."

"What color was that scarf?"

Kelly nodded. "I know where you're going with that," he said. "It was red and yes, it could've been the one that's wrapped around Anna's neck. I'd have a hard time swearing to it though. I didn't give it more than a casual glance at the time."

Kelly paused and Adams tapped his pen on the table. "What happened next?"

"Not much. I got there right after she and Anna went down. The fall knocked her out and after I got Anna back in her chair, I turned my attention to the young woman. She'd gotten to her feet by then."

"Did you get her name?"

Kelly shook his head. "She took off before I had a chance."

"You let her go without asking any questions?"

"I wasn't thinking about questions at that point. I needed to check Anna out and make sure she was okay. Besides, she hadn't done anything except fall into a chair."

"What did Anna have to say?"

"Not a damn thing. I picked her up, brushed off her dress and asked her what happened. She wouldn't say a word, just looked up at me with those big brown eyes of hers, set her teeth on her lip and tuned me out."

"Did you get the impression Ms. Davis knew the young woman?"

"I don't know. There was something going on between them but as to whether it was recognition or just plain shock, I couldn't say." Kelly stood up and shook down his pant legs. "That's all I can tell you. I'd never seen the woman before and I don't expect you'll find anybody around here who had. Now, if you're through with me I'd like to get back to my cabin. I need to call the owner and let him know what's been going on."

Adams closed his notebook. "Okay, go ahead but keep yourself available."

Kelly nodded, signaled Jake and they headed up the hill.

Kelly's first priority was a pot of coffee. That done, he picked up the phone and dialed Shorty.

"I've got one hell of a mess out here," he said when Shorty's voice came on the line.

"Wad'ya mean, mess?"

"Someone's murdered Anna."

"Murdered. What're you talking about? I thought you were supposed to be down at the barn making rounds?"

"Where the hell do you think I've been? I found Anna's body in there about two hours ago. Some son of a bitch had taken a scarf and damn near squeezed her head off."

Kelly's hands tightened on the phone. The events of the night had taken their toll. He moved the receiver away from his mouth took a deep breath, flexed his shoulders then put the phone back to his ear. "Sorry, Shorty. I guess I'm stretched too tight."

The anger in Shorty's voice had been replaced with concern. "Not a problem, Kelly. Sounds like you've had one hell of a night. Do you want me to come over and give you a hand?"

"No. There's nothing you can do now. The place is crawling with cops. I've already told them everything I know. I'll just grab a coffee and wait until they've finished up down below."

"You'll make sure they lock up once they get done in there?"

"Don't worry about that. They'll seal the place up tight. I'll make sure though."

Hanging up the phone, Kelly eased out of his chair and stretched. His hands grazed the ceiling and he flexed his fingers against the tile.

"It doesn't look like we'll get much sleep tonight," he muttered to Jake. "Guess we might as well make ourselves comfortable while those boys take care of business."

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