Authors: Bill Crider
Table of Contents
ALSO BY BILL CRIDER
To all the gang at Dooley’s Pub
WHEN HE WAS IN HIGH SCHOOL, SHERIFF DAN RHODES HAD BEEN compelled to memorize poetry. Unfortunately, very little of it had stuck with him over the years since. He had a vague recollection of a mountaineer whose fist was a knotty hammer, and he recalled that lives of great men all remind us of something or other, but that was about it. In fact, the only rhyming lines he remembered were a couple that went “of all sad words of tongue or pen / The saddest are these: ‘It might have been!’”
Rhodes, having had those words stuck in his head for a large part of his life, might even have believed them at one time. Now, however, he was convinced that they were baloney. The saddest words of all were “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Not that the Citizens’ Sheriff’s Academy hadn’t been a good idea in some ways. It created a lot of interest, it had informed people about the sheriff’s department and county government, and it had generated some nice publicity for the department.
But things had gotten out of hand.
“You’ve created a bunch of vigilantes is what you’ve done,” Jack Parry told Rhodes.
Parry was the county judge. He had a fringe of white hair around his head and a round pink face that was always shaved close. If he’d had a beard, a red suit, and some granny glasses, he’d have looked like Santa Claus. Sometimes he was almost as cheerful as old Santa, but this wasn’t one of those times.
He didn’t dress like Santa, either. He wore a navy blue suit, a white shirt, and a blue-and-red-striped tie. He had on some kind of fancy shaving lotion that Rhodes, being an Aqua Velva man, couldn’t identify.
“I think you’re wrong,” Rhodes told him. “We don’t have any vigilantes.”
“I’m the county judge. I’m never wrong. Well, hardly ever. I made the mistake of speaking to that academy of yours. I should have stayed home and watched the Astros game.”
“They lost,” Rhodes said.
“That was three weeks ago. How can you remember?”
“They lose a lot.”
Parry shook his head. “I know it. I don’t even know why I watch them. But even if they’d lost by ten runs, it would have been better than standing in front of those wild-eyed radicals you brought together.”
Rhodes and Parry were sitting in Parry’s chambers, located in a big corner room of the county courthouse. Rhodes also had an office in the courthouse, but his was sparsely furnished and seldom used. If the cleaning staff hadn’t visited it regularly, it would have had cobwebs hanging from the light fixture.
Parry, however, had an oak desk with a leather top, floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled with what Rhodes assumed were law books and commentaries, comfortable leather chairs for his visitors, and even a little refrigerator. Rhodes had never seen what was kept in the refrigerator. He sometimes wondered if there might be a Dr Pepper or two.
“You think Randy Lawless is a wild-eyed radical?” Rhodes said.
Lawless was a lawyer, probably the most prosperous one in Blacklin County. He looked more like a Republican legislator, which he had been for a couple of terms, than any wild-eyed radical Rhodes could imagine, which is why he’d offered Lawless as an example.
“Not him,” Parry said. He paused and leaned back in his chair. “He’s too busy making money on his court cases to cause any trouble for the county, unless maybe it’s for you when he defends somebody you’ve arrested. Come to think of it, though, he does drive an Infiniti. That’s pretty radical for around here.”
Rhodes could think of at least one case in the not too distant past in which Lawless had defended a client against a murder charge, but that was his job. Rhodes didn’t hold it against him.
“What about Max Schwartz?” Rhodes said.
“You’re getting warmer.”
Schwartz was one of two newcomers to the county who’d attended the academy. He’d arrived in Clearview about ten months earlier, behind the wheel of a red Chrysler convertible, with his blond wife at his side and a big dog, a black Lab, in the backseat.
Schwartz claimed that he’d left his law practice in Kentucky because of burnout and that he’d started driving, until he’d found a small town that appealed to him and had a business opportunity that he couldn’t pass up. Why he thought Clearview needed a music store was anybody’s guess, but he’d rented a building in the downtown area, such as it was, and opened up to as much fanfare as the chamber of commerce could provide. If you wanted to buy a guitar or a clarinet, Schwartz was your man. He’d already joined the Lions Club, and his wife worked with the town’s newly created amateur theatrical group, the Clearview Players.
“His convertible’s red,” Rhodes said. “He could be a Communist.”
“Now you’re just messing with me,” Parry said. “Anyway, there aren’t any more Communists since the Berlin Wall got knocked down. You know who I’m talking about.”
Rhodes knew all right. Parry’s wild-eyed radical was the other newcomer, Dr. C. P. Benton. Benton was chairman of the math department at the community college branch that had opened in temporary quarters in downtown Clearview several years ago. The enrollment had grown so much that there was now an actual campus on one of the highways outside of town. Many of the instructors had homes in or around Clearview now, instead of commuting into town for their classes, and Benton was one of them.
Though he was a member of the community, he didn’t look like anybody else in town. What hair he had was often in wild disarray, he’d been seen carrying a guitar case, and he referred to his rented house as the “Casa de Math.” He didn’t mow his lawn much, either. He even had a beard—neatly trimmed, but still a beard. Clearly, he wasn’t a man to be trusted.
“He claims he moved here because of a broken heart,” Rhodes said.
Parry nodded. “He’s mooning after some woman down in a little town called Hughes, around Houston. Sally something or other. They taught at the community college down there.”
“You know more about him than I do,” Rhodes said, but he knew a few other things. So did Parry, and Rhodes figured he’d get around to mentioning them.
Sure enough, Parry said, “He’s been coming to the commissioner’s court meetings.”
The commissioner’s court had nothing to do with the dispensing of justice, even though it was presided over by the county judge. It was the county’s governing body, and each of the county’s precincts elected a commissioner to sit on it. Among other things, it set the tax rates and saw to the building and maintenance of county roads and bridges, as well as all other county facilities, including the jail. The court’s meetings were open to the public, but Parry wasn’t happy when too many questions got asked. He and the commissioners were used to having things pretty much their own way.
“Dr. Benton’s just interested in being a part of the community,” Rhodes said. “That’s why he wanted to be in the academy.”
“He’s nosy,” Parry said, dismissing all other motives. “And he’s a complainer. Won’t mow his lawn, but he’s worried about the ditches.”
Benton lived on a county road a couple of miles from the college. Rhodes knew he’d complained a couple of times about the maintenance of the ditches along the road, requesting that they be mowed more regularly.
“You won’t have to worry about his lawn, and he won’t have to worry about the ditches if it doesn’t rain soon,” Rhodes said. “The lawn and the weeds will all be dead.”
“He’s starting to ask about appraisal caps,” Parry said. “He’s a troublemaker.”
Anybody who both complained about road maintenance and asked about appraisal caps was a troublemaker in Parry’s book, even if citizens were more or less expected to do those things.
“Mikey Burns agrees with me,” Parry added.
Burns, whose name was Michael, was the commissioner in Benton’s district. According to county legend, Burns had been labeled “Mikey” by his older brother because he’d eat anything, like some kid in an old TV commercial. His brother claimed Mikey would eat worms and dirt and said that he’d once eaten part of an old bicycle tire. Rhodes was willing to believe the first two, but he wasn’t so sure about the tire.
“I called down to Hughes,” Parry continued. “Talked to some cop down there.” He looked out the window, thinking. “Weems. That’s the cop’s name. He says Benton got involved in a couple of murders down there.”
Rhodes had heard about that, too. Benton had told the academy class about it one evening.
“If by ‘involved’ you mean he chased down a killer, you’re right.”
Parry snorted. He’s pretty good at it, Rhodes thought.
“He was just in the right place at the right time. That Sally woman did most of the solving, and she nearly got herself killed. Benton was more of a hindrance than anything else. Damned vigilantes, both of them.”
Rhodes shrugged. None of what Parry had to say bothered him. Of course, Parry hadn’t even gotten around to the outside agitators yet.
“I think Benton’s all right,” Rhodes said. “A little weird, maybe, but he’s not going to destroy the county government. He might even be a radical, but he’s not wild-eyed.”
Parry leaned forward, resting his elbows on the leather desktop, and looked at Rhodes.
“You just wait,” Parry said. “When he starts trying to do your job for you, you’ll change your tune. I know he’s been complaining to you, too.”
Down the road from Benton’s house, around a curve and back off in some woods, there was a mobile home that Benton suspected of being a meth lab. He’d called the sheriff’s department a couple of times and asked that someone investigate.
Rhodes thought Benton could be right. The two men who lived in the mobile home were twin brothers, Larry and Terry Crawford. They both had records, though they’d never been known to traffic in drugs. And while meth dealers were usually consumers of their own product, the Crawfords didn’t show any of the usual signs of deterioration that users did.
Ruth Grady, one of the deputies, got the assignment of checking out the Crawfords’ activities, but she hadn’t been able to do much so far. To get to the mobile home, she would have had to go through a gate that was chained shut. Without any evidence other than Benton’s complaints, there was no way she could have gotten a search warrant, so she’d stopped at the gate.
“Dr. Benton doesn’t want to do my job for me,” Rhodes told Parry. “He might want a thing or two investigated, and that’s why the academy was good for him. We explain to people the way the county government works, we give them a short course in how the law’s enforced, and we take them on a tour of the jail. We don’t teach them to be vigilantes.”
“You didn’t mention the ride-along,” Parry said.
People who signed up for the academy were allowed to ride with one of the deputies for a shift or two if they requested it. Benton had asked for a ride with Ruth Grady. Rhodes thought maybe Benton liked her.
“The ride-along’s part of learning about enforcement,” Rhodes said.
“Then there’s the crime-scene investigation. You forget about that?”