Secrets and Lies
a Claire Callahan mystery
Jesse drove the stolen Toyota up to the gate, rolled down the window and let the smell of pizza waft out of the car into the crisp fall night. With the Big Pies sign on the roof and the company gimme cap jammed low over his forehead, he was sure the guard in the hut would wave him through with no questions.
Sure enough, the guy barely glanced up from his laptop and buzzed the barricade arm up.
Jesse drove into the exclusive neighborhood, ogling the houses and looking for the address he’d torn out of a phonebook.
He slowed at a Children at Play traffic sign, careful to obey all the laws even if dark came early in the fall evenings, and the kids were all inside waiting for their dinner. Well-bred, tidy kids. No bicycles in the driveways or skateboards kicked up in the grass. Their parents would soon be tucking them in their beds claiming they didn’t need to leave a light on. There were no bogeymen in this neighborhood.
Another block and he pulled into the circle drive of 781 Boulder Creek. The old car gave a groaning moan and shuddered to a stop.
Sounds like the freakin’ power steering pump is on its last leg.
He headed up the front walk, stopping to tweak the crotch of the uniform pants bunching between his legs. Too bad the guy he'd killed for it hadn't been twenty pounds heavier and three inches taller.
Jesse held the gun behind his right leg, and in his left hand, he held the red thermal pizza delivery bag where anyone looking could easily see it. He stood under the porch light and rang the doorbell with his left elbow.
A middle-aged balding man glanced out one of the side panes of glass. Jesse waggled the bag and smiled. The older man frowned and opened the door.
Jesse dropped the pizza bag, shoving the Smith & Wesson right in the guy’s face. Jesse moved forward, pushing him back into the house, keeping the gun right off the tip of his nose. He kicked the heavy oak door shut with his foot, then shot the man in the shoulder. The gunshot was no louder than a casserole dish hitting a tile floor—he’d put enough rounds through the silencer to be sure the noise wouldn’t have the neighbors calling the cops.
The guy fell backward, banging his head on the wall. Then he just lay still.
Jesse stepped over him and ran into the living room.
Morgan Tutwiler rushed through a door yelling, “Hawkins, what in the hell is going on?”
He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw the gun.
“No, please —”
Jesse aimed at his chest and squeezed the trigger twice. Thunk-thunk.
Tutwiler slumped to the floor like a bag of wet laundry.
Jesse stood over Tutwiler’s body, waiting for the feelings to come—relief, joy . . . something.
Damn it! Where is my freakin’ happy?
Jesse ran to the front door.
Hawkins was alert, his eyes following as he ran past.
Jesse yanked open the front door, grabbed the red bag off the porch and fast-walked to the Toyota. He tossed the pizza bag on the passenger seat and stuck the gun under the front seat.
His pants were so tight he had to half sit up in the driver’s seat to dig the keys out of his pocket. When he turned the key in the ignition, he heard ruh ruh ruh.
Was the damn car even going to start?
He cranked the key in the ignition and stomped hard on the accelerator. The car sputtered and turned over.
His heart pounding, sweating like a racehorse, he forced himself to drive slowly through the neighborhood to the guard hut. He wiped the sweat off his face with his sleeve and smiled when he idled at the gate.
The guard glanced up from diddling with his phone and waved him through.
He thought he’d made a clean getaway until a distracted woman in a minivan ran the stop sign outside Tutwiler’s neighborhood, nearly broadsiding him.
Jesse stomped on the brakes and swerved toward the curb. The brakes squealed, and the old rust-bucket popped the curb, shuddering to a stop with the front wheels in the grass. The gun slid out from under the seat coming to rest under his feet. Fortunately, the engine didn’t die.
The minivan-driving Mom with a row of little heads in the back seat shot him the finger and sped off.
Jesse stuck the gun back under the seat, backed off the curb, and drove the speed limit to an abandoned warehouse south of the truck stop on Interstate 70.
It was one of dozens in a deserted industrial complex. Squatters had been living in the warehouse when he found the place. He chased them off, piled their sleeping bags in a heap and set fire to them. He’d spent a couple of nights watching the place, and they hadn’t come back.
The warehouse was dark except for the few panes of broken glass up along the roofline letting in moonlight. He parked in the back corner, well out of sight from any cop driving by making his rounds. There were plenty of abandoned crates and machinery. He’d moved them around until he had his little hidey hole.
He unstrapped the Big Pies sign from the top of the car and threw it in the backseat. Amped up on adrenaline, he changed into his clothes in between bites of pizza. He threw the uniform in the back seat, remembered to get the gun, and left the keys in the ignition.
For a guy who had never murdered anyone, he decided he’d done a damn fine job. It had all worked like he planned. The Big Pies guy showed up at the truck with a pie, the silencer had worked like a champ, and back in the dark by the dumpsters, no one had seen him strip the dead man. Finding and killing Tutwiler was easier than a deer hunt.
Jesse stuffed the gun in his waistband and walked over to the corner of the warehouse to take a piss. It was a two-mile walk east to the truck stop’s lot where he’d left his pickup.
His camping gear, plenty of food, and his rifle were stashed in the camper shell. If he showed at the ranch in a couple of days with a mud-spattered truck and his clothes smelling of wood smoke, Gus would believe he’d been camping in the Arapaho National Forest. No reason for anyone to suspect he'd made a little side-trip to Denver and killed a man.
The lights of the truck stop shone up ahead of him. He bushwhacked through a vacant lot bordering the east side of the parking lot. No one noticed when he stepped into the lot by the diesel pumps. The lot was too busy with hungry truckers rolling in for gas and grub.
He didn’t draw a second glance when he crossed the pavement to his pickup, unlocked it and drove away.
He took the Interstate north. He did worry a bit about not killing the man Tutwiler called Hawkins on the way out of the house, but he couldn’t shoot him. Not with him just lying there staring at him, waiting for it. He didn’t have a beef with Tutwiler’s hired hand.
Most likely, it’d all turn out just fine.
He cruised into the parking lot of an all-night convenience store. A couple of gang bangers loitered out front smoking and drinking beer.
Jesse parked by a dumpster overflowing with trash. He dropped the gun in a plastic grocery bag and tossed the sack in the bin.
He put the pickup in gear and continued driving north. He rehashed the night’s work, looking for any mistakes he’d made.
Hawkins wasn’t going to be able to describe him. His attention was on the gun. But even if the guy took in everything, Jesse was nothing special to look at, and he’d worn the gimme cap. He’d left fingerprints, but the cops could search their databases until the moon turned blue and they wouldn’t find him in a computer.
Yeah, it was going be fine.
When he saw the exit to the Arapaho wilderness area, Jesse quit thinking about the shooting. He was going camping.
The dirt-packed forest road was one lane wide with turnarounds every two or three miles. Ten miles into the wilderness, he rocked over a ridgeline and dropped down deep into the backcountry.
An hour later, he was in his tent listening to the rain. That soon turned to sleet. Then, heavy wet snow. Snow that might be a foot deep by morning.
Colder than a witch’s teat in a brass bra, he hunkered down spending a miserable night. He pulled the sleeping bag over his head to trap his warm breath and thought about her.
His whole life flushed down the crapper when she walked out the door.
He missed her something fierce. Did she miss him a teeny bit? Did she even think about him?
What would she think when she found out Tutwiler was dead?
She’d know it was him. Know he'd done it for her. No one else would have killed him for her.
Maybe she’ll come see me.
He tried to sleep, but the cold settled so deeply into his bones, he thought they’d crack when he stood.
Come daylight, he peeked out the tent flap. A couple of inches of snow lay on the ground, and windblown drifts were piling up on the north side of the tent. Nothing to do but head to the ranch.
Jesse broke camp and threw his gear in the back of the pickup. With one foot on the brake, he revved the motor to warm the cab faster. He wanted pavement under his tires and a big cup of hot coffee in his hands. It took him nearly three hours to reach the paved road.
The storm would make his story more believable. Snow packed up in the wheel wells and muddy side panels would back up his story he’d gotten caught in a storm. No one would suspect he’d gone to Denver.
The storm was well north and west of the city, and with the wind blowing the storm their way, the hands would be too busy dropping hay for the cattle to pay him any attention.
He pulled into a gas station and topped off the tank before going inside for coffee. He hung around for a minute or two hoping the clerk would turn on the television. When the clerk showed no sign of turning the set on, Jesse left disappointed. The radio in his pickup hadn’t worked in years. He had put a brand-new coat hanger in the antenna hole before he left home, but still, nothing.
Two miles up the road he took the ramp onto the Interstate. Traffic moved slowly in the light snow, and then all the northbound lanes turned into a parking lot. Row after row of taillights. Sirens and flashing lights came up from behind and shot past him on the shoulder moving fast to the accident blocking the road ahead.
Traffic was stalled the better part of an hour before two lanes were cleared and he crept past the accident scene.
Tutwiler’s murder would have to be all over the news. She might be reading it in the papers right this minute or watching it on television. Maybe she was reaching for the phone to call him.
When he was clear of the jam up of cars, he whipped around a semi, hauling way too fast on the wet road. He wished he had a cell phone. He’d call her if he did.
Sheets of dry snow blew across the Interstate, and he slowed to less than 30 miles an hour. Riding in a slow-moving stream of traffic, Jesse had time to think.
He regretted killing the delivery guy. The guy looked so damned surprised when he’d shot him, but Jesse needed the uniform and car, and the way Jesse figured it, the driver didn’t die in vain. Innocent men laid down their lives every day for something bigger than themselves.
Tutwiler needed to be killed. He was a lying bastard. Cheated everyone on every deal he worked. Even when the bridge he built collapsed, his attorney off-loaded the blame onto everyone but him.
She got caught up in Tutwiler’s mess, and he hurt her. Jesse did what a man does for his womenfolk. He righted the scales. It’d taken him some time to get the job done right. He’d read every newspaper article for the past year on Tutwiler. The ranch’s dial-up connection really slowed him down, but he’d even printed some and made a little book of important things he’d need to know. Just like he studied the habits of deer before he went stalking. Not much difference in preparing for a deer hunt and a manhunt.
It was late when he turned off the county road and rolled up to the ranch gate. The wind tore at his coat when he pushed the gate back on its hinges. Icy blue clouds rolled off the horizon and raced across the sky. The storm was coming, and it was bringing snow.
He pulled the pickup up around to the side door of the ranch house. He could sure do with some of Frieda’s cooking. When his grandpa died, she and Gus took him in and ran the ranch.
He came through the back door into the kitchen. Frieda was washing the supper dishes in the sink.
“That you Jesse?” Freida asked without looking up.
“Yeah. Something smells good.” Jesse toed off his muddy boots and walked in his sock feet to the stove. He lifted the lid off a big stew pot, and the kitchen filled with the scent of boiled beef.
Gus walked in. “Got hit with the storm, didn’t you?”
“Miserable out there,” Jesse said. “There’s more snow than I’ve ever seen in the Arapaho this early in the fall, and the storm chased me all the way home.”
“Weather Service says it’s going to be a bad one, high winds and at least a foot of snow,” Gus said.
“You eat it while it’s warm,” Frieda said. She set a bowl of beef and mushy vegetables in front of Jesse.
“Thanks,” Jesse said.
“I wouldn’t let you go hungry.” She patted his shoulder.
Gus reached over and turned on the radio.
Jesse tried not to look eager. He had to look as surprised as Gus and Frieda when the news of Tutwiler came on. After the weather, and the commodities report and the cattle futures, the announcer read the news story of Tutwiler’s murder.
Frieda whirled around and looked at Gus. He held up his hand to keep her quiet until the reporter finished the story.
Frieda snapped the dish towel on the counter top. “I told you that business wasn’t finished. That man was pure evil, brought nothing but pain and misery to everyone around him. She’ll be a suspect. You know she will.”
“She doesn’t have anything to worry about,” Gus said.
She would be a suspect? He never meant to cause her trouble.
“She’s never been who you thought she was,” Frieda said. “A conniving woman. You know what I’m talking about. Old man, you were always blind about her.”
Gus slapped his palm down on the table. “Enough, woman. You never liked her, doesn’t mean she’s a bad person.”
Frieda turned her back on Gus and slammed the skillet in the sink. She stomped out of the kitchen and up the stairs.
Gus headed to his recliner in the living room.
Jesse shoved in one last mouthful of food. He unplugged the radio, followed Gus into the living room, and plugged it in there.
Gus popped up the footrest on the recliner. “Don’t worry about Frieda’s moods. Remember when you used to tie a string around one leg of a June bug, and he’d buzz around like crazy? That’s the way to handle an angry woman. Let her buzz at the end of her string until she’s wore out. She’ll come around.”
Jesse fiddled with the radio trying to find another station and more news, but he could only pick up the AM station they had been listening to.
“Don’t fret none about her being a suspect,” Gus said. “She’ll come out of this okay. You hear me? Don’t be worrying.”
Jesse mumbled “Yes” only to keep Gus quiet, so he could hear the radio.
The news reported on the storm and then the station went live to a play by play of the local six-man football team.
Jesse turned the set off. “I’m going up to bed.”
Upstairs in his room, he crawled into bed and watched the snow pound against his window.
Why hadn’t she called?
He’d done what a man did for a woman he loved. Any man who didn’t protect his womenfolk was worthless as horse apples.