Authors: Ava Mallory
If smoke could actually come out of a person's ears, I can guarantee there would have been some escaping my ears at this point. Again, the blame fell right on me. Had no one heard a word that I said?
"Why would you lie about knowing Jeb? What's the big deal? Do you have something to hide?" I refused to back down now. I had too much at stake. Number one, the idea of jail didn't suit me. Orange wasn't my color and the thought of living with who knows how many women in such cramped quarters wasn't exactly what I would call my idea of rest and relaxation.
Sheriff Wagner waved his arm in between us, declaring a truce. "Let's not get ahead of ourselves. I told all of you," he addressed Pug and his cohorts, "that we were not going to come in here with guns blazing. We have to remain civil here and that's that." He sighed heavily, "Now, Mercy, let's be reasonable here. I know you're a smart woman. Let's say you have a patient with a fever. You take their temperature. The thermometer says that they have a fever, so you naturally assume that they do. Why wouldn't you? You have the evidence right in front of you."
I interrupted his long-winded tail. "We're not talking about a fever here. I'm being accused of being a thief and, not to mention, murder, so however you spin it, I still..."
He interjected, "No one is accusing anyone of anything, so just hold your horses there, Mercy."
"I will not, Sheriff! Ever since I arrived in this little town you call home, I've had people looking at me sideways, snickering as I walked past, and had fingers pointed at me in ways I never once thought possible." I hadn't realized I was holding my breath as I spoke until I couldn't get any more words out. They all waited for me to finish. "So, if you think that I'm being overly sensitive, well, you're darn right I am. When was the last time someone accused you of stealing their family heirlooms?"
No one said a word. I stared into Sheriff Wagner's eyes for a few moments until he turned away. The others averted their eyes from me. I'd like to think that they were ashamed of themselves for all that they'd said and done, but I sincerely doubted that they were.
After a few moments of awkward silence, the Sheriff cleared the room, telling me to stay so that he could speak with me privately. I began to panic on the inside. My heart rate shot up to levels I just knew would send me into some kind of cardiac episode. Beads of sweat formed on my brow and on the back of my neck, just under my hairline. I could feel that my face had flushed and knew it wasn't because I'd been feeling particularly happy. I'd had enough of this town and everyone in it, but it didn't appear that this town was yet ready to let me off the hook. They were out for blood and my Type B+ was just the ticket for them.
After he closed the door and made sure that the lock was engaged properly Sheriff Wagner turned to face me. "Your face is flushed. Did you want something to drink?"
Boy, did I ever, but knew admitting that would somehow be misinterpreted and I'd be put in front of a firing squad for partaking in libations, so I shook my head.
"Miss Mares," he started.
"Now, we're back to Miss Mares? Please, don't start this whole thing all over again." I groaned.
"Mercy!" Sheriff Wagner said a tad bit too loudly, startling me. "Stop this. No one has said you are guilty of anything. You know it wouldn't hurt if you let go of some of the attitude and just piped up and listened for a change."
Piped up? I'll tell you what, if I had a pipe, it would be awfully tempting to whack him over the head with it about now.
He shivered, saying, "Are you cold?"
"Apparently so," I grumbled. "Cold-blooded murderer is what everyone in town is saying."
He rolled his eyes and got down on one knee in front of me.
"Be careful. The last time a man did that, we ended up in a courtroom, arguing over who got the flat screen television we'd just purchased with our income tax refund." I wasn't really in the mood to joke, but sometimes I just couldn't stop myself.
"Believe me, the last thing I need is another ex-wife. The one I have already took half of what I owned, so no need to worry about me even mentioning the word 'marriage'." Sheriff Wagner quipped. It was the first light moment we'd shared together.
Our faces were only inches away from each other. As he looked into my eyes, I instinctively backed away from him. He hesitated for a moment, casting his eyes down on the front of his boot. I don't know what had suddenly come over us, but I didn't like it and no way was I going to allow myself to get friendly with the very same man who'd all but arrested me just a couple of days earlier. I wasn't that kind of woman.
He cleared his throat, turning his head to the side. "Things are getting a little heated and we don't need that. Everyone is just trying to get to the bottom of all this. I'm sure you can understand the frustration. These poor folks have lost a loved one. That's a traumatic experience. You're a nurse. I'm sure you've seen your fair share of traumatic events and you know what that does to people."
If he was trying to get me to empathize with them, he was wasting his breath. I already felt horrible for what happened to Rowdy. They had no idea how many hours I'd wracked my brain, trying to force myself to remember something - anything that would provide the answers that they so needed, but I just couldn't. For that, I will be forever sorry. It was my job to see the signs and I missed them.
Sheriff Wagner studied my face. "Now, don't go blaming yourself for anything. That's not what this is about."
I snorted. "No? Then, what is it about then? Because from where I'm sitting, it sure looks like everyone is blaming me for something. It's like they are grasping at straws to find something to convict me for."
He stood up, leaned down on the desk, his shoulder nearly touching mine and said lowly, "I don't believe you did this, but if you don't settle down, you just may change my mind."
I suppose I should have been relieved that he said that. I think that's the emotion he was going for with his confession, but I sure as pie wasn't ready to celebrate. I clenched my jaw and said as evenly as I could muster, "Then, why have I been questioned twice, dragged out of here in handcuffs, and interrogated by a room full of strangers?"
He stood up, rubbing the scruff under his chin as he looked at me. "I had questions."
"But, I didn't have any answers for you and, anyway, don't you have video footage implicating me in the crime?" I asked.
His eyebrows furrowed. "What are you talking about? Who told you that?"
"You did!" Again, my voice went shrill.
"No, ma'am, I did not. What I said to you is that I had video footage. I never said that I had any evidence that
did anything wrong. Where in the world did you get that idea?" His face reddened with what I could only assume was anger.
I zipped my lips. The last thing I needed was to talk myself into a jail cell. What I couldn't figure out was why my mentioning the video footage angered him so. I mean, he was the one that dragged me out of here in handcuffs to question me. He had to have some reason for that.
As I replayed our earlier conversations in my mind, Sheriff Wagner breathed heavily, shifting his weight from foot to foot as his mind wandered to someplace outside of the conversation at hand. I didn't interrupt him. Quietly, I waited, looking out the window into the dining room as the aides readied the residents for dinner. Kathy stood just beyond the dining room in the day room, checking her watch repeatedly. Randy and Pug were nowhere to be seen. I looked toward Betty's room, but couldn't see beyond the doorway. I assumed that's where they must have gone after the Sheriff asked them to leave the office.
Finally, the Sheriff spoke as he grabbed the doorknob to leave. "Give me the pocket watch and the ring." He held his hand out. I took them out of my pocket and handed them to him. "Meet me at the diner after your shift is over tomorrow morning. Come alone." With that, he walked out of the office, leaving me more confused than I was when I arrived for work nearly two hours earlier.
I watched as he motioned for Kathy to follow him. She pointed to the office and rushed in, grabbing her bags without saying a word and let the door shut behind her. Neither stopped to check in with Randy or the attorney. I found that to be odd, considering they were a united front just a few minutes earlier.
I stared straight ahead, barely able to keep my eyes open, but too nervous to allow myself to fall asleep. Every time I spoke with Sheriff Wagner I dug a deeper hole for myself. I didn't intend for that to happen again, but I wasn't feeling particularly confident that I could prevent it from getting that far either.
With no sleep, my nerves on edge, the voices of all of my accusers still ringing in my head, it was a wonder that I made it here at all. Although the drive from the nursing home to the diner was short, I couldn't account for exactly how I got here. The falling snow didn't do me any favors either. Now, that I remember.
A knock on the passenger side window catapulted me out of my thoughts and right back to reality. I would have to face the Sheriff and his questions again, only this time, I wasn't so sure how the conversation would go. He'd already told me that he didn't believe I was guilty of anything, so what in the world could there be left to talk about?
After the way he looked at me last night, I hoped this wasn't some kind of date because I'd retired that part of my life a long time ago. Yep, two dates with two equally odd men soon after my divorce was enough to make me write off the prospect of dating for good. I was not the kind of woman that could date. I'd look, but never - I mean, never - would I go anywhere near dating again, no matter how handsome he may be.
"Well, aren't you going to get out of the car or do I have to go in and get you?" Sheriff Wagner laughed.
I fumbled for my keys and purse and jumped out of the car, sliding on a thick patch of ice and tumbling to the ground, nearly decapitating myself on my driver's side window on the way down. The next thing I knew, my head was throbbing and good old Sheriff Wagner and his thin mustache were a mere two inches from my face, asking me questions I couldn't understand.
"Ouch!" I said, feeling for a knot on my head.
"Mercy, what are you trying to do?" Sheriff Wagner asked, hoisting me up and on my unsteady feet. He leaned me against my car and used his leg to hold me in place, grasping my shoulders with his gloved hands. "You okay there?"
I was so embarrassed and mad at the same time, I didn't know which way was up and didn't know how to respond.
I shifted uncomfortably, knowing that I'd have to nurse a few wounds before the day was over. Sheriff Wagner let me go slowly, just in case I landed flat on my back again.
"You really have to be careful. There's thick layers of ice under all this mess." He warned, but he was speaking to the choir. I'd spent the last several days warning myself to be mindful of the conditions. It's not like I'd never seen snow before or anything. I just never thought I'd see so much of it at once and up so close and personal.
"Thanks," I offered, grasping his arm for dear life as he closed my car door for me and led me to the ice rink. I mean, the sidewalk outside the diner.
The waitress turned around to greet us and the door chimed. After taking one look at me, her greeting never left her lips. Instead, her gaze began at the tousled mess atop my head that I called my signature do and skimmed down my snow covered body.
"What happened to you?" She asked.
"Snow happened," I answered, dusting the snow off my the back of my pants, while the sheriff tended to the snow on my upper back.
By way of explanation, Sheriff Wagner said, "She's from California."
The waitress nodded. "Okay, so what can I get for you, Charlie?"
She calls him Charlie? Well, isn't that special?
He looked at me, motioning for me to order. Sissy's eyes narrowed as she realized we were dining together.
What was that about? He was at least twice her age.
"Coffee black, no chaser." I said, wishing I had the stomach for something a little bit stronger.
"I'll take the same. Give us a few minutes to decide what we're eating, okay, hon?" Sheriff Wagner led me over to a table in the far corner of the diner, nodding at the small group of men already seated at a table.
I took my seat and waited, figuring he was about to drop more bad news in my lap, but he didn't. He handed me a few napkins from the dispenser. "You're all wet." He laughed.
What else could I say? My feet were squishing in my shoes.
I was just glad I was inside of a warm building and not outside in wet clothes. What I wouldn't give to get back to the motel and get out of these wet clothes, though.
"So, I suppose you're wondering why I asked you to meet me here this morning. I know you must be tired, so I'll try not to keep you too long." He said as Sissy arrived to place menus on the table for us.
I waited for her to get out of earshot before I said anything. "What are you going to accuse me of now?" I knew I sounded angry, but I'd been through a lot and didn't see any hope of us being able to chat like old friends anytime soon.
He put his hands in the air, defensively. "Wait. I'm not blaming you for anything. I told you that last night." He'd raised his voice a little, causing heads to turn in our direction. Lowering his voice, he tried again, "Like I said, I don't believe you had anything to do with Rowdy's murder. I think that you're just a victim of circumstance in this whole mess."
Finally! If I wasn't so fed up with the whole situation and wasn't dripping like a sieve, I'd hug him, but I'm sure there was some sort of penalty for putting your hands on a police officer and I didn't need any more problems in this town.
I looked at my watch. I'd officially been awake for over forty-eight hours. If he didn't get to the point already, I'd fall fast asleep right where I sat.
He looked at his watch too. "I know you must be exhausted. Sorry about that, but I have some questions, if you don't mind."
Oh, here we go again. This is the part where his henchmen come in and put handcuffs on me and drag me right on out of here.
"Now, don't get that look on your face. These are just questions. No one is getting arrested here." He patted my hands.
"Well, excuse me for being a little paranoid, but that is how things work around here, isn't it?" My snarkiness surprised even me.
He smirked, looking down at his hands. "I suppose that's what it looks like, but I assure you that's not what it's like for me. This whole thing with Rowdy has thrown this town and the people in it for a loop. Murder isn't something we're used to around here. I know for you, it's just another day, but Gering doesn't really have murders."
I huffed. "Just where do you think I'm from? Murder isn't part of my daily routine either. I didn't become a nurse to kill people."
He laughed, his tense shoulders relaxing a bit. "I know where you're from. You live in a small California town. You own your own home. You're divorced with one child. I know that there's nothing in your history that indicates you've led a life of crime or have some secret past. Heck, you even get along well with your ex-husband. That alone, makes you some kind of saint."
My jaw dropped.
He did a background check on me?
That never even occurred to me. I suppose it made sense, but it still shocked me to know that. I didn't have anything to hide, per se, but there was something rather off putting about someone looking into your private affairs to find something to connect you to a crime.
He continued, noticing my reaction, "Don't worry. There's nothing in your background that indicates any connection to Rowdy or his holdings."
"His holdings?" I asked, not wanting to say too much yet.
"Well, yeah," he started as Sissy walked up to take our order. He looked up at her, "I'll have the pancake special, please." Looking at me, he asked, "Are you ready to order?"
I hadn't had a chance to look at the menu, but the way my stomach was turning, I was pretty sure eating wouldn't be a good idea. I shook my head.
"You have to eat something." He said. "Do you like pancakes? They're really good. How about an omelette? What kind would you like?"
I blinked a few times to clear my thoughts. "Um, I'll have biscuits and gravy." Normally, my mouth would water at the thought of sausage gravy and biscuits. That dish reminded me of Saturday mornings with my folks around the kitchen table in our former family home, but today the idea of any food was the equivalent of ordering cardboard for breakfast - unappetizing, to say the least.
"That sounds good. My mother used to make the best sausage gravy." Sheriff Wagner was trying to engage me in conversation. I had to applaud his efforts, but I'm afraid, without sleep and a ticket out of town, he wasn't going to get much of a reaction out of me. At least not the one he was gunning for.
I had to stop him before I heard the story of his life. He wanted answers, I needed to know the questions.
My cell phone vibrated in my purse, shaking the seat underneath me. I offered a quick apology and answered it right away.
"Where are you? Is everything okay?" Ruby asked. "I just looked out the window and noticed that your car wasn't in the parking lot."
I looked up at the Sheriff and whispered, "I'm with Sheriff Wagner."
"Why? What happened now?" Ruby shouted into the phone.
Sheriff Wagner looked at me curiously as I tried to calm Ruby down.
"He's just asking me a few questions. We're at the diner. Things are okay. So far." I answered. I looked across the table at my breakfast companion.
"Charlie. Call me Charlie." He said.
I cleared my throat.
Ruby asked, "What did he say?"
"He said to call him by his first name." I answered dryly.
She hesitated a moment, then, said, "Oh. This is a friendly conversation, then?"
About as friendly as a bullfight
, I thought.
"I guess so. We haven't really started yet." I answered, moving back as Sissy arrived with our food. "I need to go. I'll call you when I'm on my way."
After our food was placed in front of us, Charlie waited for the waitress to walk away before he asked more questions. "You mentioned something about seeing Pug with Jeb. What was that about?"
I thought back to Pug's reaction to me. I didn't like him. Something about him just made me uncomfortable.
"You're making a face again." Charlie said. "This is just a friendly conversation. Nothing to worry about."
If he thought I didn't notice that he hadn't answered my question, he was mistaken. Before answering his question, I reminded him of my question. "What kind of holdings were you talking about?"
Charlie explained that the Knotts, specifically Rowdy, had acquired a lot of land over the years and recently had been approached about selling off some of their land. A developer had his eye on the property where their ranch and fields were and had offered Rowdy and Betty a hefty payout to acquire the property.
"Land? How much land?" I asked. "Was there an issue?"
Charlie nodded, laughing. "Boy, was there ever. You see, around here, there are as many stories about how it is Rowdy acquired his land as there are people to tell them. Some say that Rowdy hijacked land and hoodwinked people into selling him their land at rock bottom prices."
I'd heard plenty of stories about people who had done the same thing. I remembered Milton mentioning that very subject before he died.
"Well, if the Knotts had a lot of land, why did they have issues paying their employees? Did they have financial problems?" I asked.
Charlie looked around to see if anyone was paying attention to our conversation. Satisfied that no one could hear us, he answered, "I can't say for sure what their financial situation is or was. What I do know is that Rowdy had been the lone holdout on a highway project just south of town. His land sits right where the highway should run, but he refused to sell it to the developer and a lot of people were pretty angry about that because that new highway project promised to be lucrative for our community."