Dead, to Begin With by Bill Crider is the 24th book in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries series (available August 8, 2017).
In Clearview, Texas, a wealthy recluse has joined the community and is leading the restoration of an old opera house. When he falls to his death, Sheriff Dan Rhodes suspects that he’s been murdered, but there doesn’t seem to be a motive. Who would want to kill someone who’s helping the town and hasn’t been around long enough to make any enemies?
The Sheriff’s suspicion proves to be true, however, and he begins to look for motives buried in the past, meanwhile having to deal with people fighting over baseball cards at a yard sale, writers who want to talk to him about his sex life, and the Clearview Ghost Hunters, headed up by Seepy Benton, who believes that the old theater is haunted. Clearview might be a small town, but there’s no shortage of excitement.
Sheriff Dan Rhodes was at his desk going over some arrest reports when the phone rang.
Hack Jensen, the dispatcher, answered the call. For a few seconds he listened. Then he said, “You sure about where she’s headed?”
Rhodes put down the report he’d been reading, something about a burglary at a house on one of the county roads.
“I’ll tell the sheriff,” Hack said. “He’s right here. Don’t worry, Harvey. He’ll stop her.”
Hack ended the call and turned to Rhodes. “Elaine Tunstall’s off her meds again.”
“Uh-oh,” Rhodes said, taking off his reading glasses and putting them in his pocket.
“Harvey said he thought she’d been takin’ ’em, but she’s good about pretendin’. She musta got to feelin’ so good that she figgered she didn’t need ’em. You know how it goes.”
Rhodes knew how it went. “I’m just guessing here, but I have a feeling the meds aren’t the problem Harvey called about.”
“Nope. What he called about is a bad haircut.”
“I had one of those once,” Lawton, the jailer, said as he walked in from the cellblock. “Wanted to stay in bed for a week but had to work instead. Wore a ball cap all day for a while.”
“I remember that,” Hack said. “That was a good while ago. Back when you had hair.”
“I got hair. More hair than some I could name.”
“You talkin’ about me or the sheriff? ’Cause he’s the one got the thin spot in back. I still got all my own hair. Mostly.”
Rhodes knew what they were doing. He’d thought for years it was a conspiracy to drive him crazy, but he’d decided it wasn’t, not really. They dragged everything out simply because they couldn’t help themselves. Or because they thought of themselves as the Abbott and Costello of Blacklin County, Texas, a duo to whom they bore a physical resemblance.
Or it might have been a conspiracy.
“Let’s get back to Harvey,” Rhodes said.
“He’s been breakin’ up an old sidewalk in front of his house,” Hack said. “It’s got all whomper-jawed, and he’s gonna pour a new one and level it.”
Rhodes hated to give them the satisfaction of asking what was going on, but if he didn’t, he’d never find out. “What does a whomper-jawed sidewalk have to do with a bad haircut?”
“I kinda wondered the same thing,” Lawton said.
“Harvey’s been usin’ a sledgehammer to break up the concrete,” Hack said, as if that explained everything.
“I still don’t get it,” Lawton said. For once he was as out of the loop as Rhodes was in one of these conversations.
“Well,” Hack said, “Elaine’s left the house, and she picked up the sledgehammer when she got in the pickup to come to Clearview.”
The Tunstalls lived in Wesley, a small town about ten miles from Clearview, which was the county seat and the home of the sheriff’s department.
“What size hammer is it?” Lawton asked.
“Not a great big one. Eight-pounder, Harvey said.”
“I still don’t get it,” Lawton said.
Rhodes didn’t get it, either, but he wasn’t going to admit it.
“She got a bad haircut at the Beauty Shack,” Hack said.
Rhodes got it then. “She’s going to get revenge for the bad haircut. With the sledgehammer.”
“That’s what Harvey thinks,” Hack said. “He says the haircut’s fine, and Elaine would know that if she was on her meds, which she ain’t. You better get on over to the Beauty Shack before she does. You’re just wastin’ time sitting there.”
Rhodes stood up and pulled on the insulated jacket that had been hanging on his chair. The jacket had the sheriff’s department logo on the back, a brown shield outlined in gold with a gold star in the middle. Above the star were the words BLACKLIN COUNTY, and below it SHERIFF’S DEPARTMENT.
“You’d better hope Elaine Tunstall doesn’t get there before I do,” Rhodes told Hack.
Hack wasn’t bothered by the implications of Rhodes’s comment. “Harvey tried to stop her,” he said, “but she come at him with the sledge. He was gonna call Lonnie and warn him, though. Lonnie’ll have the place locked up. He’ll keep ever’body inside.”
“He won’t keep the cars in the parking lot inside,” Rhodes said on his way out the door.
“I didn’t think of that,” Hack said, “but Elaine ain’t mad at the cars. Just the haircut.”
Hack might have added something to that, but the door closed behind Rhodes, who wasn’t listening anyway. He was too busy worrying about what Elaine might do with that sledgehammer.
Luckily nothing in the town of Clearview was far from anything else. The heater in the Tahoe wouldn’t even have time to heat up before Rhodes got to the Beauty Shack, which was too bad because a norther had come in overnight and dropped the temperature into the low forties.
The interior of the Tahoe wasn’t much warmer than the outside, but at least Rhodes was out of the wind. He started the vehicle and headed for the Beauty Shack. When he got there, he saw Lonnie Wallace and his partner, Eric Stewart, standing outside in the parking lot.
Lonnie was the owner of the establishment. He was togged out, as usual, in pressed jeans and high-heeled cowboy boots. Although boots were practically required footwear for Texas sheriffs, Rhodes had never been able to wear them comfortably, and he wondered how Lonnie managed to stand up nearly all day every day in them. Lonnie also wore a Western-cut leather jacket and a Western hat that Rhodes thought would blow off in the wind if Lonnie wasn’t careful. Rhodes didn’t wear a hat, either. On windy days like this one, he wished he did.
Eric Stewart was taller than Lonnie, and he wasn’t wearing boots. He had on jeans, though, and running shoes. Rhodes thought his feet were probably cold. The wind would go right through the mesh tops of the shoes. Instead of a cowboy hat Eric had on a knit watch cap pulled down over his ears and a puffy gray thermal jacket. Eric managed the combination art gallery and antique store that Lonnie owned. It was only a couple of blocks away, so Eric had probably walked to the beauty shop to help Lonnie out in the current emergency.
Rhodes got out of the Tahoe, and the north wind had found every crevice in his clothing by the time his feet touched the ground. It blew his hair in several directions, no doubt making the thin spot look even thinner. As much as Rhodes disliked hats, he disliked billed caps even more, but lately he’d started taking one with him in case of emergencies. He reached back into the Tahoe and got the cap, which was lying on the passenger seat. It had the sheriff’s department logo on the front, and Rhodes felt very official when he put it on and pulled it down tight.
“Glad to see you, Sheriff,” Lonnie said when Rhodes got the cap on and closed the Tahoe door. “Harvey told me he’d called you, so I guess you know what’s going on.”
“I’ve heard,” Rhodes said. “That must’ve been some haircut Elaine got.”
“It was fine,” Lonnie said. “Just what she asked for.”
“There’s just no pleasing some people,” Eric said.
The watch cap was pulled down low on his forehead, almost touching his eyebrows. It also covered his ears, and Rhodes, whose ears were already beginning to feel like two blocks of ice attached to the side of his head, wondered about getting a knit cap. He’d never considered it before, but the idea was suddenly quite appealing. Maybe he could order one with the department logo on it.
“How do you plan to handle things, Sheriff?” Lonnie asked.
“I’ll talk to her, try to calm her down, try to keep her in the car.”
“Sounds good,” Lonnie said.
“Where is she, anyway?” Eric asked. “She should’ve been here by now.”
“I don’t want to wish bad luck on anybody,” Lonnie said, “but maybe she had a flat tire.”
“Or ran off the road into a ditch,” Eric said. He paused. “Or maybe that’s too harsh.”
Rhodes wasn’t worried about Elaine, but he did wonder where she could be.
They waited a few more minutes, with Eric and Lonnie talking about hairstyles. Rhodes didn’t have much to add to the conversation. He was about to call Hack and ask him to see if he could find out anything about Elaine’s whereabouts when Lonnie spoke up. “There’s a problem with your plan, Sheriff.”
“What’s that?” Rhodes asked.
“Won’t work,” Eric said.
Eric pointed. “Because she outsmarted you and parked down at the antique store. Here she comes.”
Rhodes looked down the street. Sure enough, Elaine Tunstall was headed in their direction. She wore carpenter’s overalls, and the sledge hung from a loop on the side. The long handle bumped against her leg as she walked, and Rhodes wondered if the hammer might pull her overalls off. It wouldn’t be easy, not with the shoulder straps, but it might happen. Or the heavy hammer might rip out the loop.
As if she knew what Rhodes was thinking, after she’d gone a few steps, Elaine pulled the sledge out of the loop and gave it a little swing. Not just anybody could handle an eight-pound sledge as if it were lighter than air, but Elaine was making it look easy.
“The wind’s not doing her haircut any good,” Eric said.
“It’s what we call our classic bob,” Lonnie said. “Nice blunt cut, with a side part and just a few layers. The bangs really add a lot to the look, but the wind’s messing them up. That’s okay, though. It’s the kind of cut that’ll fall right back into place as soon as she gets inside.”
“It suits her.”
“That’s what I told her.”
“Nice color, too.”
“We call it sun-kissed brown,” Lonnie said. “I think it’s perfect for her skin. Don’t you?”
“I can’t really tell from here, but I guess she doesn’t agree with you.”
“She would if she was feeling herself. Her husband said it’s being off her meds that makes her like this.”
Rhodes had nothing to contribute to that conversation, so he kept an eye on Elaine, who continued in their direction, pushing the bangs up off her forehead with her left hand, the sledgehammer dangling from her right. She wasn’t wearing a jacket, but she had on a red-and-black flannel shirt and didn’t seem to notice the cold. Her eyes were narrowed, and as she got closer, she raised the sledgehammer.
“You two go on inside now,” Rhodes said.
Lonnie shook his head. “Uh-uh. You might need our help.”
“You don’t get paid for this,” Rhodes said. “I do. Besides, she’s mad at you, Lonnie, not at me. We don’t want to rile her any more than she already is, so you need to be out of sight.”
“Good thinking,” Eric said.
He took hold of the sleeve of Lonnie’s jacket and gave it a tug. They turned and went inside, just getting the door closed as Elaine arrived to confront Rhodes, stopping about ten feet away.
“Hey, Elaine,” Rhodes said. “I like the classic bob cut you got. Looks good on you.”
Elaine squared herself up, pushed her bangs out of her face, and glared at him. “It looks like hell. You get outta my way, Sheriff. I have some business to do here.”
“I like the color, too,” Rhodes said. “Nice shade of brown. What’s it called?”
Elaine looked at Rhodes as if he might have lost his mind. “Who cares what it’s called?” She brandished the sledgehammer. “Outta my way.”
Rhodes stood his ground. “Harvey says he really likes the way it looks.”
“Harvey’s required to say that because he’s my husband. He’d say he liked it if I was bald. This is worse than bald. I look like I’m hiding under a haystack.”
“No, you don’t. You look—”
Rhodes didn’t get to finish what he’d started to say because Elaine feinted to his right, and when he moved to stop her, she slipped past him on his left, giving him a tap on the elbow with the sledgehammer.
Something like an electric shock ran up to Rhodes’s neck and down to his hand. Not for the first time Rhodes wondered why anyone had ever called the ulnar nerve the funny bone. For a second or two his arm was paralyzed. By the time he’d shaken it off, Elaine was rattling the knob of the door to the Beauty Shack. Rhodes was glad that either Lonnie or Eric had remembered to lock it, but Elaine wasn’t happy that she couldn’t open it. She had a solution, however. She raised the sledgehammer.
Rhodes got to her just before she brought the hammer down on the doorknob. He grabbed the sleeve of her shirt at the elbow and pulled backward. She brought the sledge down anyway, but she missed the doorknob by about an inch. Angered, she rounded on Rhodes.
“You made me miss!” she said, bringing the hammer back up.
“It’s a good thing I did,” Rhodes said. “You’re in enough trouble without destroying someone’s property.”
As Rhodes finished speaking, the wind snatched the cap off his head and sent it tumbling across the parking lot and into the street. That was just one of the reasons he didn’t like wearing a cap. The wind blew his hair in three directions, and it wouldn’t fall back into place like it would on someone with a classic bob.
Rhodes ignored the cap, but Elaine didn’t.
“You better go get your cap,” she said.
“I’ll get it later.” Rhodes held out his hand. “Right now I want you to give me that sledgehammer.”
Elaine looked at the sledgehammer as if she hadn’t noticed it before and lowered it to her side. “What do you want with it?”
“I want to put it away where it can’t hurt anybody. Hand it here.”
“I wouldn’t hurt anybody.”
Rhodes thought about his funny bone. It had stopped tingling, but that didn’t mean it hadn’t hurt for a little while. He supposed he could forgive that.
“Just give me the hammer,” he said.
Elaine raised the hammer and appeared to be about to hand it to him when Rhodes heard the sound of a siren. He turned to look down the street and saw a sheriff’s department car headed toward the Beauty Shack. Hack must have called one of the deputies for backup.
Elaine, unlike Rhodes, hadn’t been distracted by the siren. She turned around and knocked the knob off the door with a metallic clang. She shoved against the door and managed to push it open. By the time Rhodes turned back, she was already inside the shop. He went in after her.
“Everybody get outta my way,” Elaine said.
She needn’t have bothered. Customers and beauticians alike had already run to the back of the shop. They stood between the sinks and chairs and watched Elaine, except for Lonnie and Eric, who advanced on her slowly.
Rhodes warned them off. “Lonnie, you and Eric step back. I’ll take care of this.”
The two men looked at each other. Rhodes figured they were thinking that he hadn’t done such a good job taking care of things so far, and they were right.
Elaine turned to look at him. “You leave me alone, Sheriff. I’ll just bust up a few things and teach them not to give me a bad haircut. Then I’ll go home.”
“I don’t think it’s a bad haircut,” Deputy Ruth Grady said as she came through the door.
Rhodes was glad Hack had called Ruth. She was smart, she was sensible, and she could handle almost any situation. She’d never dealt with a woman holding a sledgehammer before, though, not as far as Rhodes knew.
Ruth pushed the door shut, but it didn’t do any good. The wind shoved it open again and sent papers flying off the counter to her right. Rhodes stepped to the door, closed it, and held it shut. The wind hadn’t done much to clear out the odd chemical smell of the shop, and he considered opening the door again.
“I’m glad you like the cut,” Lonnie said to Ruth. “It’s a classic bob. It’s really very nice.”
“I agree,” Eric said.
“What do men know?” Ruth asked. “Right, Elaine?”
Elaine pushed at her hair with her left hand. “That’s right. Men don’t know squat about haircuts.”
Lonnie opened his mouth to protest, but Rhodes raised a hand to silence him. Lonnie shut his mouth.
“I think it’s cute,” Ruth said. “It just suits you.” She took off her hat and shook her head. “See? I have the same cut. Almost, anyway. It just shakes right out. No hat hair.”
The wind had ruffled Elaine’s hair, and now she shook her head. Her hair fell right into place. Rhodes was envious.
Elaine reached up and patted her classic bob. She looked at herself in one of the many mirrors in the shop.
“It really does work,” she said. “I guess maybe I was wrong about it. It’s not as bad as I thought. Catch, Sheriff.”
She tossed the sledgehammer to Rhodes, who grabbed the handle and barely managed to hang on and keep the head from hitting the floor.
“You gonna arrest me?” Elaine asked.
Rhodes hefted the hammer. “That depends on Lonnie. You broke his doorknob. You going to press charges, Lonnie?”
Lonnie looked doubtful. “I … I guess not.”
“Harvey’ll pay for the doorknob,” Elaine said.
“Well, all right then,” Lonnie said. “We’ll just forget it ever happened, but it better not happen again.”
“Harvey will make sure of it,” Rhodes said. “I’ll talk to him.”
“So will I,” Ruth said. “Come on, Elaine. I’ll take you home.”
They left together. Elaine seemed perfectly happy to go with her. Rhodes hoped Elaine didn’t have another mood swing on the way back to Wesley.
“Thanks, Sheriff,” Lonnie said when the two women had left.
Conversation started up all around the beauty shop as the customers and beauticians resumed what they’d been doing. Rhodes knew that the incident would be talked about all over town within an hour or two. He was glad that Jennifer Loam hadn’t been there. She had an Internet news site called A Clear View of Clearview, and she also had what Rhodes considered an irritating habit of exaggerating a lot of things that happened in the town and the whole of Blacklin County. He remembered clickbait headlines along the lines of SHERIFF BATTLES JURASSIC TURTLE! and THE CROCODILE FIGHTER OF CROCKETT’S CREEK. It had been an alligator, not a crocodile, but nobody seemed to care. Rhodes supposed it didn’t make much difference, but since Jennifer didn’t mind making the switch, there was no telling what she’d say about Elaine’s little escapade. At least there wouldn’t be video, unless someone in the shop had been using a cell phone to take some. Rhodes hadn’t noticed.
“That ended better than I thought it would,” Eric said. He shook his head. “Nobody got hurt.”
“I’m glad,” Lonnie said. “I wouldn’t want anybody to get hurt, especially me or my customers, and that includes Elaine. Thanks again, Sheriff.”
“Deputy Grady’s the one you should thank,” Rhodes said. “She’s the one who got Elaine calmed down.”
“Well, you kept her busy until the deputy could get here,” Lonnie said. “If it hadn’t been for you, I’d have lost more than a doorknob.”
He gave Rhodes a critical look that made Rhodes a little self-conscious. He tried to push some of his wayward hair back into place.
“You want a haircut on the house?” Lonnie asked. “I could give you what we call the Brad Pitt cut. Looks tousled all the time but still looks really good. What do you think, Eric?”
“He’s definitely the Brad Pitt type,” Eric said. “A little taller than Brad, though.”
Rhodes didn’t think he was the Brad Pitt type at all.
“I don’t know about that thin spot in the back of your hair, Sheriff,” Eric said. “That might not work with a Brad Pitt cut. Lonnie, you got any of that protein hair fiber stuff you sprinkle on thin spots?”
Lonnie frowned. “I don’t carry it. I don’t think it looks good.”
“Mainly because it looks like you sprinkled iron filings on your head.”
“I’ll pass on the sprinkles and the haircut for now,” Rhodes said. “I have to get back to crime-fighting.”
“And I need to go get a doorknob for this place,” Eric said. “I have some nice brass ones in the antique store. I’ll be back in a jiffy to install it.”
He and Rhodes went outside.
“I had a cap around here somewhere,” Rhodes said.
Eric pointed to the street where something lay like roadkill. “That it?”
“That’s it,” Rhodes said. “Somebody ran over it.”
He went to pick it up. The bill had a greasy tire track across it, and gravel and dirt were ground into the crown. Now Rhodes had another reason not to like caps. He slapped it against his leg to get some of the dirt and gravel off.
“See you later, Sheriff,” Eric said, and started to walk back to the antique store.
Rhodes looked around for a trash can but didn’t see one, so he jammed the cap in a jacket pocket and went to the Tahoe. Before he got settled behind the wheel, the radio crackled.
It was Hack Jensen. “You need to get over to the opera house, Sheriff. Looks like there’s trouble.”
“What kind of trouble?” Rhodes asked.
“Jake Marley’s dead,” Hack said.
Copyright © 2017 Bill Crider.
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Bill Crider is the Anthony Award-winning author of the Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries (Red, White, and Blue Murder) and the Professor Sally Good Mysteries (A Knife in the Back). His short story “Cranked”, which appeared in Damn Near Dead, was a finalist for an Edgar Award.