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Tumbleweeds, p.39
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       Tumbleweeds, p.39

           Leila Meacham
 

  The phone rang again. She glanced at the caller identification screen. Will! But she could not trust herself to speak to him now, and she must hurry to find a place to dispose of the gun.

  Chapter Sixty

  The shotgun killing of nationally known football celebrity Trey Don Hall took precedence over other cases pending for the attention of the Lubbock Medical Examiner’s Office as well as plans its pathologist may have had for Saturday. The same held true for Charles Martin in the crime lab of the Department of Public Safety in Amarillo. In joint efforts, an autopsy was performed and evidence from the murder scene analyzed, and by noon Randy Wallace was in possession of both departments’ findings. Trey Don Hall had been shot with a .30-30-caliber hunting rifle. Clear sets of fingerprints, other than the victim’s, were found on his leather watchband, probably made by the killer when he or she folded Trey Don Hall’s hands across his chest. DNA had been extracted from tearstains found on the victim’s silk shirt close to the entry of the bullet. In addition there was the mold made of the Jeep tracks found on the other side of the road from where the body was found. No results of the analysis reports were to be released to the press.

  The news media descended immediately, arriving like rodents scuttling out of woodwork, filling up the county’s few motels and milling about in Bennie’s, the newspaper office, and the sheriff’s department. To interview Will Benson, Randy and Mike, his deputy, both wearing baseball caps rather than their uniform Stetsons, drove out of the department’s parking lot in Randy’s personal car so they wouldn’t be recognized and followed by “the paparazzi,” as he referred to them in disgust.

  The reason for his trip to question Will was simple. Will Benson was the only person in town who owned a Jeep with a motive to kill Trey Don Hall, weak as it was. His mother had a motive, but she did not drive a Jeep. Randy couldn’t fathom either one of them killing anybody. Cathy Benson was one of the most levelheaded women alive, and Will was one of the few boys who’d grown up in the county who did not hunt and probably owned no gun. Success was the sweetest revenge of all, and both mother and son had certainly exacted that from the man who’d deserted them. They might let him choke on their accomplishments, but why kill him?

  But he had to start somewhere, and he had a couple of reasons to drive out to Will’s place this morning. The Jeep tracks constituted one, but earlier he had wakened Linda Hadley, the receptionist at the Morgan Petroleum Company, from a Saturday sleep-in to ask what time Will Benson had left work yesterday. He did it with regret, since Linda had the loosest tongue in town and was sure to start rumors that the sheriff was investigating Will. The boy had suffered enough from the slings of gossip in this county, but he was following Deke Tyson’s line of thought. If Will had gotten off at his regular time at six o’clock, he could save himself the trip and eliminate him as a suspect.

  But, by George, Linda had told him that Will had signed out at five thirty, unusual for him, since he followed company rules to the letter, she said. That would have given him plenty of time to be on the road at the time TD was killed. Linda had also volunteered one other interesting piece of information. She’d said that Cathy Benson had paid an unexpected visit to her son yesterday at noon. Now that was definitely unusual. Randy ate his lunch at Bennie’s, and he couldn’t recall a time, except yesterday, that Cathy wasn’t overseeing the café at that time of day. When he’d asked Father John for the names of those who knew Trey was staying at Harbison House, he’d said he couldn’t say for sure.

  “Well, then, name the people you can say,” Randy had told him.

  “Deke Tyson and… Cathy Benson,” he’d answered reluctantly. “Betty didn’t learn Trey would be here until noon today.”

  “And when did Cathy learn the news?”

  “This morning.”

  It sounded reasonably certain to Randy that Cathy would have gone in person to deliver the shocking news to her son that his deadbeat father was in town. It also made sense that Will would want to meet him. Also—Randy found himself thinking like Deke Tyson again—there was the way Trey Hall’s hands had been folded over his body and the tearstains on his shirt. Folding those hands and crying—didn’t that sound like something a son, still feeling something for his father, would do after he’d killed him?

  “Fancy a handsome bachelor like Will Benson renting a place way out here when he could be living the party life in that new apartment complex in town,” his deputy commented as Randy parked in front of a ranch house that looked to have been built in the days of Indian raids and buffalo herds.

  “He wanted a place to keep a couple of horses and provide room for his dog to run,” Randy said. The place suited what he knew of the boy from the years his son and Will had played on the high school baseball team. Will had seemed somewhat of a loner even then, favoring quiet and solitude and his animals to hanging out with his rambunctious buddies. As a father, Randy had deduced the boy’s preference for his own company was formed by the circumstances of his birth.

  Silently Mike pointed out the Jeep Wrangler parked in a leaning carport attached to the house. Randy nodded and climbed the worn steps to the weathered wraparound porch. The door opened before he had a chance to knock. “Come in, Sheriff,” Will said. “I heard you drive up. I was… sort of expecting you.”

  The boy looked as if he hadn’t had a wink of sleep. Randy hadn’t, either, for that matter. “Sorry to disturb your Saturday, Will, but I’ve got a few questions to ask you.”

  “I figured you would.”

  “I’m sorry for your loss, whatever it was.”

  “Not much,” Will said, sticking his hands into his jean pockets. “You guys want a cup of coffee?”

  “Sure could use one,” his deputy said.

  Randy nodded agreement. “Sounds good.”

  The men sat down, and a dog padded up wagging his tail, a blue-eyed Siberian husky. He gave their boots a cursory sniff, then followed Will into the kitchen off the main room. When Will returned with three steaming mugs, Randy took his carefully; while aware he could not remove it from the premises without a warrant, he’d thought of another way he could legally get a sample of Will’s fingerprints.

  “Will,” he began, pulling his handkerchief from his back pocket, “we’ve got to look at you and your mother as the only folks in town who might have a reason to kill your father.”

  “I can understand that, but my mother wouldn’t kill a rattlesnake, and I’d be pleased if you didn’t refer to Trey Hall as my father.” Will sat down, his strong, finely shaped hands—his batter’s hands—cradling the mug.

  “Good enough. And knowing you, I have a hard time believing you were involved, but I’ve got to do my job and ask where you were yesterday between six and seven o’clock. Excuse me a second—” He set down his cup and sneezed hard into the handkerchief.

  “I was at my mother’s,” Will said when Randy had recovered. “She made dinner for Father John and me.”

  Randy coughed deeply, covering his mouth with his fist. “The whole time?”

  “Most of it.”

  “Oh? What time did you leave Morgan Petroleum?”

  Randy, getting ready to sneeze again and ignoring his deputy’s puzzled look, noted a small hesitation. “I took off early,” Will said. “Around five thirty or so.”

  “Why?”

  “I was upset. Mom drove out to tell me Trey Hall was in town, and I kept hoping he’d come by to see me or telephone, but he didn’t.”

  “Did you go directly to your mother’s from there?”

  “No, I drove out here, fed my animals before I drove to Mom’s. I’d guess I got there somewhere around close to seven.”

  Randy loosened his black uniform tie. “Can anybody vouch for you out here?”

  Will shook his head and looked down at his dog, plopped on the floor beside his chair. “Nobody but Silva here. Sheriff, are you okay?”

  “I’m fine,” Randy said, clearly looking as if he wasn’t. He blinked hard, as if his eyes were
stinging. “And your mother? She was home then?”

  “Of course. She’d been cooking all afternoon.”

  Over the handkerchief he’d plugged to his nose, Randy twinkled a friendly smile, “Didn’t bring anything home from the café?”

  Will returned a slight grin. “Everything made from scratch—lasagna and cheesecake—right in her kitchen.”

  “All right then, that should do it—” Randy started to get up, then clutched his chest, the coffee mug rolling to the floor. The dog and Will leaped to their feet. “No, no!” he gasped, thrusting out a hand to prevent the husky from jumping on him. “Stay back.”

  “Randy!” the deputy cried. “Are you having a heart attack?”

  “No! No! I’m… allergic to dogs.”

  “Why didn’t you say so?” Will demanded. “What can we do for you?”

  Randy coughed loudly. “Water. I need water. My throat’s on fire.”

  “Put Silva outside while I get him some water,” Will ordered Mike, dashing for the kitchen. There was the sound of water blasting from the faucet, and Will was back in seconds with a Styrofoam cup, which Randy, standing, grabbed by its bottom and drank with great thirst.

  Breathing heavily, Randy said, “I apologize, Will. I thought I’d gotten beyond it,” and headed for the door as if in desperate need of fresh air.

  “You want me to call a doctor?” Mike asked when they were outside.

  “No, I just need to get away from the dog.” He tossed Mike the keys. “You drive. Will, thanks for your time. I’m sure there’ll be no need to bother you again.”

  As they drove away, the deputy said, “I didn’t know you were allergic to dogs, Sheriff.”

  “Lots about me you don’t know, son,” Randy said, fully restored and carefully holding the rim of the cup by his handkerchief.

  Chapter Sixty-One

  Will watched the squad car disappear in a cloud of dust. Had he just been duped? Had Randy’s allergic fit been a ruse to get a sample of his fingerprints? He’d given the Styrofoam cup to him willingly. His deputy would testify to that. The cup was not an object of an illegal search, but as long as he’d known Sheriff Wallace and his family, he’d never heard anything about his being allergic to dogs.

  Silva came to sit beside him, his expression asking pitiably if he was in trouble. “No, boy,” Will said, bending down to scratch his ears, “but I may be.”

  Like a fool he’d left his fingerprints on the wristwatch, his tears on the shirt. He should have removed them both. He had no alibi for the time of the murder. Sheriff Wallace had known he was lying when he accounted for his whereabouts. His regret and sadness for a longtime friend of his son’s were unmistakable in his eyes.

  Well, better he than his mother, Will thought, patting his leg for Silva to follow him back to the house so he could telephone his father.

  They met at St. Matthew’s in John’s office. “What’s this all about, Son?” John asked, hoping—praying, as he’d done all night—that he hadn’t already guessed. The Jeep tracks and Will’s generally known antipathy for Trey were enough to draw attention to him as a suspect. John had been in a sweat all night going over the names of every possible person who had the cold-blooded nerve and motive to kill Trey after so many years. Who besides Cathy and Will and Deke knew where Trey was staying? Who would Trey have known and stopped his car for? He wouldn’t have recognized Will unless Will had flagged him down.

  “I believe I’m going to be charged with the murder of Trey Don Hall,” Will said.

  John was preparing to pour coffee. Carefully he replaced the pot to its burner beside the empty cups. Images of Pelican Bay Prison flashed into his mind.

  “Confessions given to a priest, even if he’s a suspect’s father and the son’s not a Catholic, can’t be used in court, can they, Dad?” Will asked.

  God have mercy, John thought, his ear picking up on Will’s natural use of Dad through the boom of his heartbeat. Was his son about to confess to the murder of Trey Don Hall?

  “No, Son,” he said.

  “Then let’s go into the confessional.”

  Behind the wine velvet curtain of the confessional, through the grill, Will blurted, “I didn’t kill him, Dad. You’ve got to believe me.”

  “I do, Son. I do,” John said, for a moment dizzy from relief, “but why do you feel you have to assure me of your innocence in the confessional?”

  “Because I think I know who did.”

  “Really? Who?”

  “Mom.”

  “What? Why on earth would you think that?”

  Will’s face darkened. “I don’t want to think it. I can’t bear to think it, let alone say it out loud.”

  “Okay, Will, take a deep breath, and tell me why you suspect your mother.”

  Will described his discovery of the body, which satisfied John’s worry over the presence of the Jeep tracks, a detail not yet released to the press. He could imagine the boy’s shock and despair, his pain when he knelt beside the still form of the man he’d thought was his father. At such a moment, he would not be thinking of fingerprints or tread markings or DNA. “But why didn’t you call nine-one-one?” he asked.

  Will averted his eyes. “Because… because of Mom.”

  “Because she was on the road where Trey was killed?”

  “Because I thought she may have been involved.”

  John struggled to subdue his panic. “And what made you think that?”

  Will’s tone grew bleaker. “I… saw her yesterday evening about six fifteen at the intersection to the road to Harbison House. She had come from that direction and was stopped at the light. I was at the gas station across the street. She didn’t see me.”

  “But she admitted she’d gone to see Trey and changed her mind.”

  “Yeah, well, if that were all, she wouldn’t have looked so strung out. She looked like she’d seen… a murder. I thought that maybe she’d gone to start something again with Trey. She’d changed out of her smock and was all dolled up, but from her face I thought he’d rejected her again, and that’s when I went to have it out with him and… came across the body. The bullet hole looked like a rifle shot to me—like the kind that old .30-30 of Great-grandmother’s would make.”

  The confessional was suddenly too confining and stuffy. “How do you know she didn’t turn around before she came to the body?”

  “Because I know my mother. Her public expression is trained. It takes a lot for it to slip. She’d been crying and looked pale as a lily.”

  John reflected back on the evening. Cathy and Will had not seemed themselves. He’d attributed their agitation to the emotional upheaval of the day, but they’d been going through travails deeper than his.

  “Have you spoken with your mother since last night?”

  “No. I telephoned right after the news broke, but she didn’t pick up, and her cell was off. I had to leave a message. I’ve been worried about that ever since. She may have simply not wanted to talk to me right then. I can’t imagine why she’d leave the house unless… it was to get rid of her grandmother’s rifle.”

  Will had reason to be worried. After Randy had left, he’d called Cathy, too, and gotten the answering machine. Concerned out of his mind, he’d gunned the parish truck back to her house, but the place was dark. There was no answer to the bell and no way to tell if her Lexus was in the garage. He’d left, hoping she’d closed herself away to deal with Trey’s death in her own way. It was completely unlike her to shut him out, especially now, but he’d had to hope that’s all there was to it.

  “You didn’t try to call her this morning?” John asked.

  “No, because… there’s more,” Will said, and related the early morning’s episode with the sheriff. “When Randy compares my prints on the cup to those I left on the body, he’ll have all the evidence he needs to arrest me. I didn’t kill Trey Hall. I’m telling you that under the seal of the confessional, but if I’m charged, I’m going to say I did it.”

  “Will,
listen to me!” John threw back the grill. “You have done nothing wrong, and neither has your mother. You can’t even for a second believe she’s capable of murder—”

  “I don’t, but the police may.”

  “They’ll have to prove it, and there’s nothing to put her at the scene of the crime. She probably came upon the body same as you did, which was the reason she looked upset, so there’s no need to confess to something you didn’t do. If Randy comes for you, say nothing—not one word—until I get you a lawyer. Your actions were perfectly reasonable, and your failure to call the police understandable. You did what any son would do who found his father lying beside the road and was afraid his mother would be charged with the crime. Your mother had no reason to kill Trey. Remember she knew he was dying.”

  “But I didn’t know until after I found the body,” Will reminded him. “When Randy finds that out”—he shook his head hopelessly—“it will be one more nail to hammer into my coffin.”

  John massaged his forehead in thought. Will was right. An autopsy would reveal Trey’s cancer. Randy would ask when Will had learned of Trey’s terminal illness. While the time frame of that information would serve in Cathy’s defense, it wouldn’t in Will’s.

  His father could always lie for him, of course—a bad option. He’d sell his soul to protect his son, but as John well knew, lies beget lies that snared and entangled when the truth had the chance of setting you free.

  “And by the same token,” Will said, “I didn’t know Trey wasn’t my father until after he was dead. I’ve been thinking that if that information gets out, won’t it make my motive to kill him look even worse if I go to trial? I killed a man out of vengeance for being a lousy father when he wasn’t my father at all?”

  “W-w-w-ell, I—,” John stammered, rendered at a loss by Will’s astute reasoning. If he and Cathy announced the truth of Will’s paternity, they’d be adding weight to the murder charge. He didn’t dare lay claim to his rightful son publicly, at least not yet.

 
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