This time: Retired schoolteacher Fran Valentine has probably solved more criminal cases than her daughter Lucy, who is the county sheriff. But this time Fran’s unavailable, and Lucy’s on her own . . .
Sheriff Lucy Valentine’s wristwatch alarm was beeping as she and Deputy Ed Malone arrived at the home of local businessman Dallas Wade. Seven a.m. This was the time Lucy usually rolled out of bed. Up at seven, dress like a fireman, gulp some juice and toast, out of the house by seven-thirty. But this was no usual morning.
“Want a doughnut?” Malone asked, pointing to the open box in his lap. “This half’s jelly, that half’s plain.”
“Diet,” Lucy said, cutting the engine. “And don’t eat one of those in front of me, either. I’d hate to have to shoot my deputy this early in—”
The patrol car’s radio interrupted her, squawking like a strangled parrot. The dispatcher said, “Hey, you guys. I’m patching a call through.”
The next voice they heard sounded like an elderly lady’s: “Sheriff Valentine? My name’s Edith Gordon. I have a complaint.”
The sheriff sighed and said to Malone, “Can you handle this, Ed?”
Lucy climbed out of the cruiser and thankfully closed her door on the sound of Ms. Gordon’s seven a.m. grievance, whatever it was. Sometimes it was good to be the sheriff.
Not that she looked forward to the conversation she was about to have. A man was dead, a man she had known—at least in passing—and this was the first of several stops that needed to be made, in trying to investigate the murder. She approached the house, rang the bell, and heard heavy footsteps inside. A tall man with a scar on his left cheek answered the door.
“Mr. Wade?” Lucy said. “Hope I didn’t wake you up.”
“No. What is it, Sheriff?”
“I have some questions about your cousin Melvin Perry.”
The biggest question, of course, was Who killed him? Perry’s body had been found this morning behind his farmhouse on Oakwood Road by a neighbor. He had died from a blow to the head, and a brand-new, heavy, bloody flashlight was found beside the body. The coroner estimated the time of death at between six and twelve last night; no prints were found on the murder weapon and there were—not surprisingly—no known witnesses. A friend had told them she’d last spoken with Perry on the phone at his home around six p.m.
It was a shame, Lucy thought, that her mother Fran was out of town. Fran Valentine loved mysteries the way Lucy loved blueberry pie.
“I’ve heard,” Sheriff Valentine said, following Wade inside, “that you and Mr. Perry didn’t get along too well.”
“I wouldn’t say that. We just drifted apart, him and me. Didn’t see each other very often—”
“I’ve also heard you had threatened him in the past, about ‘borrowing’ things from you and never returning them. Is that true?”
Before Wade could reply, Deputy Malone appeared in the front doorway. “Sheriff?” he said.
Lucy excused herself and stepped outside.
On the porch and safely out of Wade’s earshot, Malone said, “That caller—a Ms. Gordon—was complaining about cars exceeding the speed limit on her street. Said she saw, from her front porch around six p.m. yesterday, a vehicle speed past. She recognized the driver.”
“Ms. George lives on the south side of Oakwood Road. At the edge of town.”
“And our victim also lived on Oakwood.”
“Yep. An east/west street. Melvin Perry’s place is several miles west of hers.”
“Who was the speeder?”
Malone glanced at the front door. “Dallas Wade,” he said.
Lucy blinked. “Is she certain it was Wade?”
“Positive. She saw his scar.”
“She got that good a look at him?”
“According to her, she has excellent eyesight, and her house isn’t far off the road,” Malone said. “Besides, speeding is relative. The posted limit there is only twenty-five.”
The sheriff nodded. “Which way was he headed?”
“She didn’t say. Just said, ‘You tell the sheriff she should arrest him,’ and hung up.”
Lucy thought a minute, then re-entered the house and told Dallas Wade that a witness had seen his car driving down the victim’s street around six yesterday afternoon. “Melvin Perry died between then and midnight,” Lucy added. “So if you were seen at six o’clock going toward his home—”
“Okay, I was at his house,” Wade said. “I admit that. But I left there about that time. If anybody saw me on that road, I was heading east, toward town.”
Lucy studied him for a beat, then said, “You’re lying.”
She leaned forward. “What if I told you your fingerprints were found on the flashlight that killed him?”
Wade gulped. “But—that’s impossible.”
“Not on the outside of the flashlight. On the batteries, inside it.”
“It was new, wasn’t it, Mr. Wade. You had to put four C-cells in. And it’s hard to put batteries in with gloves on.”
“No! I didn’t—”
“Are you sure?”
“I didn’t!” Wade blurted. “That flashlight already had batteries in it when I bought—”
The room went quiet. Wade’s face paled.
“You tricked me,” he murmured. “There were no prints, were there?”
“No,” Lucy said. Then, quietly: “Why’d you kill him, Mr. Wade?”
Wade closed his eyes; his shoulders sagged. Suddenly he looked like a much older man.
“Melvin stole my garden tiller,” he moaned. “My new garden tiller. I was looking for it in the dark, behind his house, when he came out back and saw me. We fought, and—” Wade swallowed again, and said, “I had to hit him, he would’ve killed me if I didn’t. But I didn’t mean to hurt him. It was an accident.”
“The judge’ll decide that.” Lucy slipped a set of handcuffs onto his wrists, clicked them shut, and steered him outside. Deputy Malone fell into step behind them, and when the suspect had been installed in the back seat of the cruiser, Malone stood facing her over the top of the car.
“I heard the confession,” Malone said to her. “You knew, didn’t you. You knew as soon as I told you what Ms. Gordon said she saw, when Wade passed by her house.”
“No,” Lucy said. “I knew for sure when Wade denied what she said she’d seen.”
“All he said was that he was going east instead of west. You suspected him based on that?”
Lucy tipped her hat back and squinted at her deputy. “Think about it. You’d told me Ms. Gordon lives on the south side of the street—an east/west street—and she saw the scar on Wade’s cheek as he drove past. His left cheek. Well, if that’s true, he couldn’t have been going east. He had to be going west, toward Perry’s house—not away from it.”
Malone thought that over, frowning. At last he nodded. “I didn’t catch that,” he said. He gave her a long, measuring look. “And they say women are directionally challenged.”
“Some are,” Lucy agreed.
Back at the office an hour later, as Dallas Wade sat brooding in a jail cell, the sheriff’s desk phone rang. Lucy, who’d been idly watching the view outside her window, swiveled her chair around and picked up the receiver. “Sheriff Valentine.”
“Malone called me, filled me in,” said Fran’s voice. “I’m proud of you.”
“Thanks, Mother.” Lucy chuckled to herself. “Maybe you did teach me something, after all.”
“You mean you finally learned your multiplication tables?” Fran asked.
During the moment of silence that followed, Lucy could picture her mother’s face, and knew she was smiling too.
“I’m working on those,” Lucy said.
She was still grinning when she hung up. She turned back to the window, propped her boots up on the sill, and had a another pleasant thought. “Ed?” she shouted, over her shoulder.
Deputy Malone, in the outer office, called, “Yeah, Luce?”
“You got any doughnuts left?”
John M. Floyd’s short stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in The Strand Magazine, Woman’s World, AHMM, EQMM, and The Saturday Evening Post. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, John won a Derringer Award in 2007 and was nominated for an Edgar in 2015. One of his stories has been selected by Otto Penzler and guest editor James Patterson for inclusion in the upcoming The Best American Mystery Stories 2015. John is also the author of six books: Rainbow’s End (2006), Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), Deception (2013), Fifty Mysteries (2014), and Dreamland (coming in 2016). Visit him at www.johnmfloyd.com.