Friday, December 30, 2022

Death in Stopover by Mary Hagen



Roger Miller's death is declared a suicide.

Beth Hansen, former assistant deputy to the county sheriff, now has her own private detective agency. 

Roger's parents hire her to prove Roger was murdered. 

Probing into his death leads Beth into a discovery of evil she can not believe. 

Soon, her life is in danger. Every move she makes could end up her last.

Survival or becoming a missing person is in the hands of another. Her choices are limited. Will she survive? 

Chapter One

 I'm still living in Stopover, the one place I don't want to live, but my husband of two years, Hal Hansen, is now the sheriff of our county and I will live anywhere he wants. That's the way love goes, at least for me. When CJ was sheriff, I was a deputy, but because of nepotism rules of our local laws I can no longer work in the office. Not doing anything bored me out of my skin, so I opened the Stopover Independent Detective Agency.

Hal laughed, saying Stopover was too small and I'd never have any business. Ha-ha. Even I was surprised at the number of husbands and wives wanting me to find out about the activities of their husbands or wives. In addition, I work part-time for our monthly newspaper.

Jean Rand is the editor and owner and we get along super well. She likes my dog Chip, and he likes her. In fact, so much I sometimes am a little jealous. He is my dog. Most of our news is written by the two of us about such things as Making the Grade in High School, local sports – football, basketball, wrestling, track. You get the point. To keep up subscriptions, we, also, have a column on who's having a bridge party, or a dinner, or out-of-town guests, and thein of course, what's going on at the senior citizen center. We're always glad to get free articles. By the time our paper goes to press, we'll have ten or twelve pages plus advertisements I've sold to local businesses.

Not much of any importance ever happens in our small community, but we've had a few changes. Hemp has become a money producer for our farmers. The county raised enough money to buy Anna Sullivan's large home, so the sheriff's department has a new location. In addition, Hal has two deputies and a secretary. Surprises never end.

When I arrived early at Stopover News, Jean greeted me with an order that nearly knocked my socks off.

"We've got a possible murder," she said.

"What? Who told you that?"

"No one. I heard the rumor at Milly's."

My mouth dropped open.

"A dead body was found this morning next to his car on the east side of the reservoir. Get out there and find out what you can. Your husband will be a great source of information, since you have an in."

A few years back, a couple of our prominent influential citizens, or so everyone thought, were murdered. I never expected another one to occur. I grabbed my camera and Chip.

"Leave Chip with me," Jean offered. "You'll get more done. This will be a special edition for us."

I started out the door. Chip loves to ride. He pushed me aside and ran for my Jeep. I ran after him. He decided to play "catch me if you can" and it took a few minutes before I stepped on his leash and had him. We had a tug-of-war to the inside of the office where Jean sat with a bone in her hand. That was too much temptation for Chip and I was on my way.

When I arrived at the scene, Hal and his two deputies, the highway patrolman, and coroner Jim Black, who also happened to be our local veterinarian, were on the scene. Standing next to Roger's Ford van, was our funeral director, Godwin Bellamy. Hank Wright, one of the county's biggest landholders, was talking with Hal.

Yellow tape surrounded the area. A crowd of people stood outside the marked area. By crowd, I should say five individuals, was enough to call them a crowd. With my camera hanging from my neck, I marched past them, ducked under the yellow tape and peered over Hal's shoulder. He glanced at me with a scowl.

"Ron, get her out of here," Hal order one of his new deputies who had to be four or five years younger than me.

Can you imagine? This was my dearly beloved. I protested. Hal didn't even react to my words as I was unceremoniously led under the tape to join the crowd. I knew all of them. They had questions.

"Did you see who it was?"

"Was he murdered?"

"What do you know? We have another murder."

"How long has he been here?"

"Why would someone murder him?

"No." I answered. I stood with them, hoping I might catch something in their chatter. With one ear on the conversation, I took some photos of the crime scene although the other new deputy, Burt Reese was already doing so. The body lay face up and sprawled on his back with a pistol next to his left hand. When Reese moved aside, I noticed the victim had a beard, didn't appear to tall, and was thick through the middle. Squinting my eyes, I tried to identify who it was but could not from where I stood. I'd study my photos at the office. Maybe, I could identify him then.

I continued nosing around the area outside the marked-off section. Who knew what I might find? While I did, I fumed at Hal. He should have let me have information for the paper. Didn't he care about supporting me in my career? I am his wife, after all.

As I made ever widening circles outside the yellow tape, I snatched glances of the corpse and took additional photos, that is until Hal put a stop to what I was doing.

"Beth, would you please stay with the onlookers?" his voice was a command. I sent him a dirty look that was almost lost on him since he had returned to examining the area inside the tape. At supper time, he would get an earful from me and his unacceptable treatment of my actions.

When the corpse was removed, I returned to the newspaper office. Jean was visibly upset that I had not gotten any good news for our exclusive. Together we made copies of the photos I had and tried to pinpoint who he was but to no avail. Jean decided to run a special edition using five of my photos anyway with a story I was to write about my observations.

"Stretch your information a bit if you need to," she said. "The public has a right to know. You might encourage anyone who has information, come forward to us." She jabbed her fingers one by one on her desk as she spoke.

Before she had finished, I sat at my desk and had my computer turned on telling myself I was in a great position to investigate on my own. Wouldn't Hal be surprised if I beat him to discovering why the victim died if it was murder. We are the only source for local news in our county. I hit the first key so hard I made a series of the same letter on the screen and had to delete. I won't bother to tell you what I wrote. You can read it in the newspaper. I did end with… The name of anyone who has information about the victim, who he was, and how he was killed will be kept confidential by our newspaper staff.

Our staff meaning Jean and me, Pip Spencer who is our printer, and Reynalda Hauk who helps on delivery day distributing papers in the country. We do have a paid subscription list but we also deliver free papers for pick-up at our local grocery store, library, and restaurants.

Jean's husband died several years ago in a car accident leaving the paper to her. She's done a bang-up job running the paper ever since. She's fifty-years-old, has black hair with streaks of gray, thinly plucked eyebrows, and the most penetrating black eyes I've ever encountered. When she wants something, she can bore into the heart of your soul and get whatever she desires out of you. You're squirming with your chest so tight it's about to implode.

Her height, at almost six feet, and her angular body, help with her intimidation. I love her. She's my kind of woman and a role-model.

By the time I finished writing a one and a half page about my observations at the death scene plus a few imagined tweets here and there, Jean and Pip had the page set up using every photo I took and space for my story. Reynalda had arrived on the scene and was pacing the floor anxious to deliver our special edition

In the article, I had made comments about what I saw at the location: male, found on the east side of reservoir lying face up on his back, pistol near left hand.  Ford van nearby. I did some mind searching about the Ford van. The made-up time of death I added was pure speculation on my part. Key content was the pistol near his left hand and my description of his size and age. He was not overly tall, appeared medium build, Caucasian, between the age of 35 to 40 years old. I forgot to write about his clothing which I had noted at the scene was more adapted to life in town than on one of the farms or ranches – dress pants, white shirt, purple tie with white stars as the pattern, and city shoes.

After reading my account uttering the words as she did and marking changes, Jean bellowed, "Yes. Let's get this finished." There is something about a special edition –it's like the brain being super smart.

We were late shutting up shop, but full of satisfaction, almost ecstatic over what we had accomplished.

With the long days of summer, it was still daylight as I pulled into our driveway. Chip bounded out of the Jeep and dragged me to the front door. Hal must have heard us and opened the door. Chip jumped on him, his fore paws on his shoulders, licking his face. I smelled Italian spaghetti wafting from the kitchen. He makes the best ever and doesn't mind cooking. Thank goodness. I hate to cook.

We kissed and I went to the bathroom to wash and get ready for my job I had that night checking on the activities of Crystal Rowe's seventeen-year-old daughter who she thought was sneaking out of the house late at night.  A single mom, Crystal worried Tasha might be headed for trouble. Sounded like an easy job.

Bless my husband. He's special in my eyes. For dinner, he had made a multi lettuce, avocado, tomato, and cucumber, salad, and had Milly's homemade rolls to go with the main meal. When I sat, he gave me a kiss on the back of my neck. My skin tingled, and I thought I was going to slide onto the floor and drip like sticky tree sap. I was glad I hadn't told him I had an all-night job.

"I'm working tonight," he said as he spread a napkin on his lap.

Inwardly, I made a silent "Whew" sound. I wouldn't need to listen to his objections to my night work.

"Did you discover anything about the body?" I asked.

Holding his fork in midair, spaghetti wound around the tongs, his eyebrow arched, he gave me a pained look before saying, "You know I can't reveal any information about an on-going investigation."

I plastered a poker expression on my face. "Of course, you can't, but I thought you could give me a little non-essential tidbit, something I could use for the paper."

Hal didn't bother to answer me and we ate in silence. Finished with our meal, Hal pushed away from the table. "Hope you don't mind the clean-up. I don't know what time I'll get home."

"You'll likely beat me. I'm on a stake-out tonight."

"I wish you'd quit that. I worry something you don't expect might happen to you. Are you taking Chip?"

"No. You keep him with you. He's apt to bark and give me away."

"Hear that, Chip?"

Asleep on his rug, Chip opened one eye, closed it, and wagged his tail.

Darkness descended about nine-thirty. With my night vision glasses in the seat, I drove to Crystal's small nineteen fifties red brick house with white trim and shutters that looked exactly like an entire block of similar houses and parked behind a big cottonwood. Stake outs bore me right out of my skin and tonight was no exception. By twelve o'clock, every house was dark. I adjusted my night glasses and concentrated on Crystal's house and specifically on Tasha's bedroom window. Sure enough, at one o'clock – I checked my watch – she climbed out her window, landing on both feet before dashing along the hedge next to their driveway to the street. Within minutes, a new BMW two-door sports car pulled up next to her. When she opened the door, the interior light went on and I caught a glance of the man in the driver's seat. Forty-year-old Jerry Peters married to Belinda, father of two children. Oh, Oh. The old goat. Tasha was headed for heartbreak. I hoped nothing more serious. Her mother was wise in her suspicions.

I waited until he was at the end of the block before starting my Jeep. He made a left-hand turn toward the main highway to the west of Stopover. Leaving my parking lights on, I followed, saw him turn on the frontage road that led to the three motels we had. He parked in the space for room 205 at Luxury Inn. One light went on. I stayed where I parked beyond the edge of the motel until they closed the door. Exiting my car, I sneaked over to the unit, but the drapes were drawn, giving me no chance to get photographs. Anyone could imagine what was about to take place. Making my way back to my vehicle, I wrote down the name of the motel, room number, his license plate, their time of departure from Crystal's, and time of arrival at the motel. With the task completed, I immediately called Crystal. She answered, her words punctuation by the sound of yawns." "Who is this?

"Me, Beth. I followed your daughter. You'd better get to Luxury Inn and check on Tasha."

"She's at Luxury Inn? I knew something was going on. I'll be right there."

"I'm parked under the big cottonwood just before the entryway."

At my vehicle, I poured coffee from my thermos and waited.  Once in a while, I have the satisfaction of knowing my work at Stopover Independent Detective Agency is worthwhile. Tonight, I could be saving Tasha from a sad outcome and Jerry might end up in jail for molesting an under-aged girl. It didn't take Crystal long to pull in behind me. She exited her car and closed the door quietly. I stepped out of mine.

"Let's go check my daughter," she said with a slight hiss. "Who's the bastard with her?"

"Jerry Peters."

"What? That scrawny bald-headed jerk. I can't see Tasha going for him. Which room?"

She beat me to the door and pounded hard enough to wake everyone. A light went on.

"Who's there? What do you want?" Jerry Peters called. I heard feet hit the floor and someone slam a door.

"You're blocking one of the parking spaces to the room next to you. You need to move your car." I couldn't think of any other story quick enough to get him to show himself.

 The door opened a crack. Crystal slammed against it sending Jerry to the floor as she marched in. I followed and aimed my camera to take pictures. Tasha came out of the bathroom fully clothed. "Mother."

Crystal grabbed her daughter's upper arm and dragged her toward the door. On the way, she stomped down hard on Jerry's back as he was attempting to get to his feet and flattened him on the floor. Tasha struggled against her mother's hold, saying, "But we love each other."

"Oh my god. He's old enough to be your father."

After the two had left, I suggested Jerry get dressed and then I slammed the door behind me and followed Crystal and Tasha. By the time I reached my Jeep, they had driven off. It was 2:24 a.m., by my Fitbit watch, and I added that to my notes. Jerry Peters exited the motel room. Before I started my vehicle, I watched him leave. With a feeling of satisfaction at getting several photographs, I drove home.

I beat Hal. After showering, I got into an empty bed and attempted to stay awake until he came in. It didn't work and I wasn't even aware when he climbed under the blankets next to me.

Tomorrow I would start my own newspaper investigation return it. She was determined to have it.


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