A day off. Yeah, right. Like a cop deserves one.
So it was a Sunday. An early Sunday morning. Not a breath of air stirring. Not a cloud in the blue vault of a sky. Not a soul to be seen for miles. Just a few hundred yards away and behind a line of old Cottonwoods, the flat banks of the Brown river kept the slow-moving muddy waters in its banks. As I pushed open the hangar’s big door earlier this morning I heard fish flopping in the water.
But right now I was sitting in the cockpit of the old warplane I own, a Curtis Wright P-40E Warhawk of World War II fame. The canopy was slid back and I was about to flip the contact switch and start up the big Packard Merlin V-12 engine and taxi out of the hangar.
The bird and the hangar it sat in was out on private airstrip called Murdock’s Landing. Just one long grassy runway and maybe fifteen single hangars cluttering the grass lining the long strip used for landing and take offs. Off to one side was a big, rambling white painted two-story farmhouse. Actually, the grassy strip had been a pasture, part of the strip owner’s farm of about two thousand acres. But the old farmer was an avid aviator and he decided to make an airstrip and put up some small hangars and rent them out to pilots. Pilots who wanted something out of the way from the major airports. Guys like me.
Okay. Let’s get this over with. The name is Turner Hahn. Yes, I’m a cop. Homicide detective. And yes . . . I’m rich. And . . . no. I’m rich not because I’m a crooked cop. I’m not on the take. I got the money the hard way; through an inheritance. Inherited a fortune from a grandmother I never knew. Money, lot’s of money, suddenly came my way. So much money I don’t know what to do with it. I mean, years of working from pay check to pay check don’t prepare you when someone comes along and dumps a boatload of cash onto you. So what do you do?
I was a cop before I fell into the money. I was a cop after the money was deposited into my bank account. And I’m still a cop. Still, go to work every day. Still, like my job. Plan to be a cop until I retire. But . . . yes . . . I do like my toys. And the fully restored P-40 Warhawk is one of them. Flying is one of my hobbies. And today, on my day off, I wanted to get some stick-time in because an air show was coming up soon and I was going to take the plane up there and wow the crowd with it.
But the engine wouldn’t start. Dead battery. Pissed, and knowing it would take over an hour to charge up the plane’s batteries, I put one foot on the right wing root and was about halfway out of the cockpit when I heard the shotgun blast and the scream of a woman.
I recognized the scream.
It was the youngest daughter of old man Murdock. Lucy Murdock was her name. A sickly kid of about twenty who, for most of her life, was in and out of hospitals–mental hospitals. She was schizophrenic. Sometimes violently schizophrenic whenever she quit taking her medicine. Twice over the last three years I had noticed bruises and cuts on old man Murdock’s face where he had absorbed his daughter’s fury. She even broke his arm once after angrily throwing a hammer at him. But the old man would shrug it off and smile and just say it had been a rough day for the two of them and go on from there. The old man and Lucy were the only Murdocks living in the farm house. The mother had been dead for years. And Donna, the oldest daughter, was married and living across town in a gated community. A gated community with standing orders to not allow either the old man or Lucy to enter the premises for any reason.
Grabbing a .45 caliber Kimber from out of the glove compartment of my car I raced across the grassy field and entered the farmhouse through the back door and found Lucy Murdock standing over her father in the dining room. In her hands was a double barreled shotgun. On the floor was her father in a dark red pool of blood and half his face missing.
She was shivering violently, pale as a faded white sheet, with tears streaming down her face. The look on her face is still burned into my memory. The look of incomprehensible horror–disbelief–and grief all rolled up in one raw exposure of frayed nerves. As I walked toward her, the Kimber in my hand half raised, I reached out and gently took the shotgun from her hands. As I did I heard her whispering just above the threshold level.
“Daddy . . . daddy . . . daddy . . .”
Two hours later she was in the lock up ward at a local hospital in a deep sedative coma. Her doctor said she had had a complete break from reality. And the district attorney was rubbing his hands in smug satisfaction when he came out to look the murder scene over.
“Yep, this will be the one.”
“This will be the one . . . what?” I asked, glancing at my partner and then at the DA suspiciously.
“This’ll be the case that gets me re-elected, boys. Open and shut! A daughter viciously killing her elderly father in a bid to inherit his wealth. Yes sir, boys! I’m as good as elected!”
“I wouldn’t start singing on the radio just yet, Jethro.” my partner–Frank Morales–grunted and shaking his head. “I know you’re a Republican and this is a Republican county, but trying to pin a First Degree Murder charge on someone as mentally unstable as the daughter is might be a bit sticky to prove.”
I looked at Frank and grinned. Jethro. A name . . .a label . . . he put on anyone he thought was a bona fide idiot.
“Goddammit, Morales. How many times do I have to tell you, my name is not Jethro,” the DA grimaced, the round orb of his sweating face shinny in the bright afternoon light coming in through the dining room windows. “And I can prove it was murder even if she is a certifiably crazy bitch! The last six months she’s been on her medicines and doing just fine. Her doctors told me that. Her nurses told me the same thing. You ain’t crazy if you’re taking your medicines, kiddo.”
Frank started to say something–but I looked at him and shook my head no. Frank, as big as a Himalayan mountain, with no neck and stringy carrot colored hair, eyed me for a second then shrugged, turned, and walked away. My Neanderthal lookalike for a partner had a way of opening his mouth and hitting all the right buttons that made the DA’s blood pressure go up about three hundred points and turn the man’s face beat red with fury.
Not that, most of the time, I didn’t mind seeing Frank do his number on the rubber faced, ass kissing sonofabitch. He wasn’t much of a DA. But he was all into getting elected to office. With dreams of bigger and more lucrative political plums to pluck from the tree of opportunity constantly dancing in his eyes. But today wasn’t a good day to give the DA an accidentally planned coronary. There was something the man said which I wanted to dig out of him. Something he knew and I didn’t.
“What? What . . . money?” the little man repeated, turning, surprised, and looking at me. “Who said anything about money?”
“You did,” I said, folding my arms across my chest and frowning. “You said it was going to be easy to prove Lucy Murdock murdered her father to get the inheritance. What inheritance?”
“Hell, Turner. Haven’t you heard? This land–this farm. It’s a friggin gold mine! Two major developers are going to build almost three hundred homes on this land. Homes, schools, a mall the size of New York City. The state is throwing a new bypass around the city just a mile away from here. Old man Murdock was going to be filthy rich. Filthy rich!”
“So your case is going to revolve around money as the motive for murder?”
“Sure,” nodded the shining face of the DA as he pulled out a cigarette and lit it with a gold plated lighter. “Makes sense, doesn’t it?”
Shiny face didn’t hang around much longer. He didn’t want to answer any more questions–like how did he know so much about a land deal no one else knew about. But soon after he left I exited out of the back of the house through the kitchen and found Frank, arms folded, leaning on the fender of one of the black-and-whites. On his face was the sour look of a man who wasn’t too happy with the ways of the world.
“Okay, spit it out. What do you want to tell me?”
“Wondering when you were to let me finally tell Jethro he’s a fucking idiot. A bell ringing, dancing shoes, tutu-wearing, fucking idiot.”
“Uh, not soon. Not until we’ve done some digging.”
“Digging? You mean to tell me, oh-great-detective, you think the DA’s theory of the girl doing her father in is full of shit?”
“I believe I am,” I nodded, grinning. “Although not quite in such colorful terms. But let’s give the man his due. I think money and murder may be a combination we should look at.”
“But at someone else. Not the girl. She may be as crazy as they come, but I don’t believe for a moment she’d kill her father. Even if she wasn’t on her medication.”
I nodded in agreement. I knew the Murdocks. Knew the daughter. I don’t know how many times over the years she came drifting down to the hangar to gawk at the old bird I owned. She was, when she was in her right mind, a shy but sweet young girl–not too pretty–but certainly not unattractive. And she had a love for airplanes. Just like her father. No. I didn’t believe for a moment she killed her father.
But someone did. Someone who went out of their way to pin the rap on her. Someone who knew her. Knew her mental illness. Knew how easy it would be to get away with murder.
Routine. That’s what ninety percent of a cop’s work is. Routine. Asking questions. Driving around the city and county looking for people to talk to. Ask more questions. Sure, most people think a homicide detective, like a cop in general, is about two degrees dumber than a freshly cut 2×4. Maybe as thick between the eyes as freshly mixed cement. Of course, as always, perceptions and reality are always different. Sometimes–sometimes–it takes luck to catch a crook. Plain dumb luck.
Take Nicholas Rodney, for instance.
Nicholas Rodney was one of the dead man’s son-in-laws. A high flying reality lawyer with expensive tastes and an extravagant life style. Unfortunately for him his life style far exceeded his income potential. A hint of his financial woes, after a little digging, turned out to be quite extensive. The man was in a hole. A deep hole and digging deeper. He needed money, lots of it, to cover his debts. His wife, the old man’s oldest daughter, hadn’t a clue as to their financial hardships. But she was in the old man’s will and the one with the authority to the executor of Lucy’s half of the inheritance if the need arouse.
A little more digging into Nicholas Rodney’s background revealed he knew our esteemed DA. Were, in fact, buddies. Golfing buddies. Drinking buddies. Private club cronies. The two shared another trait together. Both where up to their collective elbows in schemes and political shenanigans. Involved with about every underhanded political deal going on the state as they could find. Political deals and land deals. That’s how the DA knew about the impending land deal. Through his drinking buddy, Nicholas Rodney.
“Okay,” Frank nodded, but sounding skeptical. “So our man is dead broke. He needs money in a bad way. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he killed his father in law and tried to make look like his sister in law did it.”
“Ah, but maybe we can convince our man otherwise.”
“Let’s take a ride out into the country. I want to check something out first.”
We drove out to the Murdock Farm. But instead of taking the paved country road which led up to the airstrip we drove past it and went a mile more to the next county road. A dirt road which ran straight as an arrow north with the Murdock farm house about a quarter a mile off to the right of the road. Climbing out of the black and gold striped ‘69 SS 396 Chevy Camaro–yeah, I collect cars as well–we walked around the car and down the road a few feet before seeing what I thought we’d see. Kneeling, we both inspected the tire tracks.
“This road goes no where. Farmers . . . meaning old man Murdock . . . uses this to get equipment into the fields. Only him. No one else has a reason to drive down this way. But look. Someone very recently parked here and then walked off in that direction. Toward the farmhouse.”
We found two foot prints in the dirt embankment beside the road. And through the tall weeds we saw the trail of someone recently beating his way through it as he headed across a large pasture and toward the farmhouse.
“You think our man stopped his car here, walked across the field, murdered his father-in-law, and somehow handed the gun to his crazy sister-in-law. Fine. Swell. Works for me. But how in the hell you gonna prove it?”
I grinned, winked at my cement-block headed friend and partner and stood up. We walked back to the SS and climbed in. Reaching into the back I pulled off of the back carpet a folder. Opening it I withdrew an 8×10 photo and handed to Frank.
“Shit. This is an aerial view of the farm. Here’s the house. The landing strip. Hangars. And . . . here’s the dirt road we’re sitting on right now. Wait a minute! What the hell is this?”
‘This’ was a tiny spot setting on the road almost exactly in the same position we were sitting in now. The spot was a car. A black Caddy STS. Funny, but Nicholas Rodney drove a black Caddy STS.
“Got a call last night from a buddy of mine,” I began, taking the photo from Frank and looking down at it. “A guy I know stores his private plane out there on the strip. He’s a professional pilot who flies for a surveying firm. He heard the news on the tube about old man Murdock. So he called to make sure it was on the up and up. Couldn’t believe it happened. Said his firm was contracted out by a land developer to survey the land around the farm, including the farm, the day the old man was killed. Took maybe two hundred photos.”
“And a light bulb went on in that noggin’ of yours,” Frank smirked, nodding in pleasure. “Maybe we had evidence after all. Dammit, Turner. But this is too good to be true.”
Dumb luck. Too good to be true.
Later that night the two of us were standing beside Nicholas Rodney as he and his wife were sitting at the supper table. Nicholas seemed both surprised and annoyed that two homicide cops would be disturbing him and his wife. Oddly, both acted as if they hadn’t heard the news of the murder. Donna, his wife, watched us intently her dark brown eyes but kept absolutely quiet.
“Good evening, detectives. I don’t want to be rude but what could possibly require the two of you to come visiting us at this time of the night?”
Our suspect was a compact man. Trim, nattily dressed, dark haired. Gray around the temples. Supremely confident.
“Murder,” Frank grunted bluntly. “Didn’t think we’d come around to talk to you?”
“Murder?” blinked our suspect, setting his coffee cup down and looking up with confusion in his eyes. “Who’s murder?”
“The murder of you wife’s father,” I said.
“What!?” the man shouted, suddenly the confidence, along with color in his face, draining out of him in the blinking of an eye. “What the hell! When? How?”
“Yesterday just before noon,” I said, watching the man closely and either impressed with his acting ability–or confused at the man’s genuine shock at hearing the news.
“Who? Who . . . . killed George?”
“Lucy Murdock is being held on suspicion of murder,” Frank said, and like me, impressed at the man’s acting ability. Or . . .
“Lucy? Murder her father? Not in a million years!” Nicholas Rodney exclaimed angrily, shaking his head. And then his eyes blinked and somehow more color drained from his tanned face. “Wait a minute. You think I killed George!
“That’s what we’re thinking,” I agreed, nodding.
“But I didn’t, detective. In fact I can prove it! What time did you say George was murdered?
“Just before noon. I was there–down working on my plane–and I heard the shotgun blast and a woman’s scream.”
“Lucy screaming,” Nicholas said, nodding, and taking a quick–odd–glance at his wife. “Well, it couldn’t have been me, gentlemen. Yesterday at that time, and lasting all the way to six last night, I was standing in front of maybe ten or twenty potential investors in an office on the seventeenth floor of the Empire State Building in New York City.”
“You sure? ‘Cause we have evidence which says something different,” Frank said–oddly and curiously–turning his head to look at Donna Rodney.
I pulled out the aerial photo of the farm, the road, and the black STS Caddy and laid it on the table so both could see it. Donna Rodney looked at the photo, sucked in a breath of air, and dropped the coffee cup she was lifting up from fingers that no longer worked properly.
“Damn!” she hissed in bitter fury, the eyes of a wild animal glaring up at Frank and me from the table. “Damn. Damn. Damn.”
“Shut up, you idiot. You asshole. You simpleton. I married you because you promised to take me off that damn farm. Take me away and bathe me in luxury. Build me a fine house with a pool in the back and give me an unlimited checking account! But what do I find out? Find out from a bank clerk, mind you. We’re broke. This house–my house–isn’t mine anymore. A bank in Dallas owns it. No one will accept any of our credit cards! So there was only one thing to do. And I did it. I did it.”
“Donna, don’t say another word. Not until we hire a lawyer.”
“Hire a lawyer? With what? A promise to pay him someday? Forget it. Yes, I killed Dad. I shoved the gun into Lucy’s hands. I hated them both. Hated them. Dad always thought Lucy was the special one. Doted on her. Gave her everything. And me? The oldest? Nothing. Nothing! When I heard about Dad’s land being worth a ton of money I thought this was our opportunity. The perfect way out of the hole this stupid sonofabitch for a husband got us into. Yes. I confess. I did it. Now take me away. I never want to look at the face of my husband again. Ever.”
Just like that.
And oh. . . our kowtowing, ass kissing little DA? Re-elected in a landslide. Thanks to Donna Rodney’s confession. Yeah, dumb luck.