Half in Love with Artful Death by Anthony Award-winning author Bill Crider is the 21st in the Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery series about Blacklin County, Texas (available August 12, 2014).
The local community college and an antique dealer team up to have a workshop for artists. One local man, Burt Collins, isn't fond of the art, and he isn't fond of having the artists in town. Sheriff Dan Rhodes is called to the antique store because Collins has been accused of vandalizing some paintings. When Rhodes arrives, two men are restraining Collins. But before Rhodes can take Collins into custody, a near riot breaks out. Rhodes gets the situation under control with the help of college math instructor and wannabe cop Seepy Benton.
Later that day Rhodes has to help the county animal control officer round up some runaway donkeys, and that evening there's a robbery at a local convenience store. After looking into the robbery, Rhodes goes by to see Collins and talk to him about the vandalism. Collins isn't talking because he's been killed, his head bashed in with a bust of Dale Earnhardt, Jr.
Rhodes is faced with other problems, too: a naked woman in a roadside park and a gang of meth-cookers. It seems as if a Sheriff's work is never done.
Sheriff Dan Rhodes didn’t know much about art, but he knew what he didn’t like.
One thing he didn’t like was having to listen to Burt Collins’s complaints. It was the sheriff’s job to listen to complaints, of course, or so the county commissioners insisted, but Collins got tiresome after a while. One day he’d come in to complain about the feral pigs that were rooting up his property, and the next day he’d be trying to get Rhodes to arrest Billy Joe Byron for picking something out of his trash. Billy Joe picked up things from trash all over town, and there was no law against it, but that didn’t matter to Collins, who had a natural tendency to become irate at least once a day.
Today, he was irate about artists.
“They’re all over town,” he told Rhodes, “making a mess of everything. You need to run them out of here right now.”
“They’re our guests,” Rhodes said. “They’re bringing a lot of money into town. I’m pretty sure the hotel managers wouldn’t want me to run them out. Neither would the folks who own the restaurants.”
“I’m as much a citizen of this town as the people who own those restaurants,” Collins said. Collins had been a track coach for the Clearview Catamounts at one time, but he’d retired as soon as he was eligible. Rhodes had heard that the track team had made immediate improvement. Collins had been slim in his coaching days, but he’d gained considerable weight since then. He didn’t appear to have exercised at all since his retirement, and his face was becoming mottled as he got more worked up. Rhodes hoped he’d taken his blood pressure medication. “I’m a lot more of a citizen than those people running the hotels, those Patels. They’re not even Americans.”
There’d been more than one little run-in between Collins and the Patels, and the Patels thought that Collins was guilty of some vandalism at the hotels. He might very well have been the culprit, but Rhodes hadn’t been able to prove it.
“You’re wrong about the Patels,” Rhodes said. “The Patels are citizens one and all.”
Collins looked doubtful. “Well, maybe they are, if you say so, but they don’t look like Americans to me. Neither do those artists, far as that goes. You seen their hair?”
Rhodes thought briefly about his own hair and the thin spot in back. He wondered if it had gotten any thinner lately.
“What’s wrong with their hair?” he asked.
“There’s this one woman, hers looks like a bunch of orange corkscrews sticking out of her head. I never saw the like.”
For just a second Rhodes wondered if he’d slipped into a time warp and wound up back in the sixties. Wasn’t that the era when folks got upset about how people’s hair looked? Or was it the seventies?
“They’re all over the place,” Collins said. “In the park, downtown, out in the country. Running around like cockroaches.”
Rhodes looked over at Hack Jensen, the dispatcher, who had his back to the sheriff and was pretending to be busy with something on his computer. Rhodes knew he was listening in and loving every minute of it, however.
“They’re not running around,” Rhodes said. “Mostly they’re sitting still. Or standing still. They can’t run around and paint.”
Collins wasn’t to be deterred by that argument. “Well, they might as well be running around. It’s like an infestation of ’em. Besides, I don’t call what they’re doing painting. Painting is what you do to a house or a barn. They’re just messing around.”
“I don’t think they’d agree with you,” Rhodes said.
“You seen any of their so-called pictures?”
“Several,” Rhodes said.
“Don’t look like anything I ever saw. I saw one that was supposed to be cows. You seen that one?”
“I don’t know for sure.”
“No wonder,” Collins said. “How could you know for sure? You can’t, ’cause what they’re calling cows looks more like blotches. Can’t even tell if they got legs.” He paused. “This is all that Lonnie Wallace’s fault.”
Lonnie Wallace was a young man who’d inherited a beauty shop and an antiques store at about the same time. He’d pretty much given up on the antiques after a short time because he’d found he couldn’t run both businesses at once even if they were only a block apart. So he’d converted the front part of the store into an art gallery for local artists. That had worked out for a while, and then Eric Stewart had moved to town. He and Wallace became friends, and before long Lonnie had hired Stewart as manager of both the store and the gallery.
Stewart was something of an artist himself, and one of his ideas for generating more local interest was to hold a workshop and invite amateur artists from all over the state to attend. Stewart was teaching at some of the sessions, and Don McClaren, the art teacher at the local community college branch, was teaching the others.
“You’d better watch what you say about Lonnie,” Rhodes told Collins. “He’s a friend of mine. And he’s done a lot for the downtown, what’s left of it.”
That wasn’t strictly true, and Rhodes knew it, but since Lonnie had opened the art gallery, which, along with the antiques, was housed in a building that had once been a thriving hardware store, there’d been a little stirring of life in what was left of Clearview’s central business district. A lot of the old buildings had fallen down or been razed, but a new senior citizens center had just opened, and a couple of the old stores had been remodeled and repurposed. A florist and a dentist had taken over a couple of the buildings, and others were home to a church and thrift store. Now and then there were even a few people on the sidewalks.
“You say you’re friends with Lonnie?” Collins asked.
“I don’t see how that can be. Don’t you know he’s a—”
“Stop right there,” Rhodes said, interrupting him, “before you get yourself in real trouble.”
Collins’s mottled face got even redder in several places. “Man’s got a right to say what he pleases.”
“Man’s got a right to suffer the consequences, too,” Rhodes told him.
“Don’t see how a man could be friends with a—”
“Uh-uh,” Rhodes said, holding up a hand to stop him. “Don’t say it.”
Collins stood up. “I don’t have to stay here and put up with this.”
“You sure don’t,” Rhodes said. “In fact, it might be a good idea for you to be on your way. Might be a good idea for you to do a little thinking about things, too. Maybe change your attitude a little bit while you’re at it.”
“I’m not changing,” Collins said. “You’ll hear about this. I’m going to talk to your bosses and see if we can’t do something about getting some real law in this town, somebody that’d do something about those artsy weirdos.”
Weirdos. That was a term Rhodes hadn’t heard in a good many years. Maybe he really had slipped into a time warp.
“Look, Mr. Collins,” he said. “We have a lot more serious things to worry about around here than a few artists drawing pictures you don’t like. We have people cooking meth in their car trunks in the Walmart parking lot. We have wild hogs tearing up property all over the county. We have automobile accidents and robberies. We have—”
“I didn’t come to hear about how bad the crime in Blacklin County is,” Collins said. “I came to get one little thing taken care of, and you say you can’t do anything about it. Doesn’t sound like you’re doing much about all the other crimes, either, much less those hogs. I guess what it boils down to is that you can’t handle your job.”
“You just need to cool down and think about all the good Lonnie Wallace has done for the town,” Rhodes told him. “You’ll see that the artists are part of that.”
“I don’t think so,” Collins said. “I think they’re bad for the community, and so is that Lonnie Wallace and anybody else like him.”
Collins turned and huffed out of the jail. Rhodes thought he could see steam coming out of Collins’s ears, though that was probably only his imagination.
Hack waited until the door had closed behind Collins. Then he swiveled his chair around and said, “You’d think ever’body was over that kind of thing now.”
“What kind of thing?” Rhodes asked.
“You know. Lonnie bein’ gay.”
“Collins is old-fashioned.”
“That’s about as polite a way of puttin’ it as I ever heard. I’m older’n he is, and—”
“You’re older’n anybody in town,” said Lawton, the jailer, as he came into the office from the cellblock. He held the mop he’d been cleaning with in one hand. “You’re even older’n me.”
“I might be old,” Hack said, giving Lawton a dirty look, “but I ain’t any older’n you. Nobody’s older’n you. Dirt ain’t older’n you. I’m surprised they didn’t find your bones on that fossil dig the sheriff got mixed up in a few years ago, right along with those mammoth bones.”
Rhodes remembered the mammoth dig. It hadn’t turned out well.
“If I’m still here,” Lawton said, leaning the mop against the wall, “which I am, how could they find my bones?”
Rhodes knew from experience that this kind of dialogue could go on for quite a while. He leaned back in his chair to see how long it would go on this time.
“One thing’s for sure,” Hack said. “You ain’t bony.”
Lawton ran a hand over his stomach. “You got that right. Pleasingly plump is what I am.”
“Call it what you want to. You’re a fossil, anyway.”
“You gotta remember,” Lawton said, “I’m not the one talkin’ about how old he is. You’re the one doin’ that. I was just agreein’ with you. Kinda surprised you’d admit it, though. You been sparkin’ that Miz McGee just like you was a whippersnapper.”
“Don’t you get started on Miz McGee,” Hack said. “You’re just jealous ’cause no woman could put up with you.”
“Ha,” Lawton said. “Shows how much you know about it. It’s just a good thing for you that I’m your friend and not the kinda snake who’d try to steal your girlfriend.”
Ms. McGee hadn’t been a girl in a long time, Rhodes thought. A really long time.
“I’d like to see you try to steal her,” Hack said. “She’d laugh in your face.”
Rhodes had a feeling the argument was about to get to the “Oh yeah?” stage, and he was going to step in when the telephone rang. Hack gave Lawton a glare and answered.
“Sheriff’s Department.” He listened for a few seconds, then said, “We’ll have somebody there in five minutes.”
Hack hung up and turned to Rhodes. “There’s some kind of fight at Lonnie’s art gallery. You think Burt’s mixed up in it?”
Rhodes was already out of his chair and on his way to the door.
“I’ll find out,” he said. “Call Andy and have him back me up.”
“You might already have backup,” Hack said.
“Nope, but that was your friend Seepy Benton on the phone. He says not to worry. He has everything under control.”
“Uh-oh,” Rhodes said.
Seepy Benton didn’t have everything under control.
The crowd outside the former hardware store was too large to be made up of just the artists, and Rhodes realized that some of the people from the new senior center must have come out to watch the fun, and maybe some of the other people from the somewhat revitalized downtown besides.
Most of the people weren’t being unruly. Rhodes judged that at least half of them, and maybe more, were taking video of the unruly ones with their cell phones. Some of the videos would soon arrive on YouTube or Facebook or both, and shortly after that someone would see them and call the mayor or one of the commissioners, who would then call Rhodes and want to know why he was letting people take videos that hurt the reputation of the city of Clearview and all of Blacklin County.
It didn’t matter how many times Rhodes told them that people had a constitutional right to take video of anything that was happening. The commissioners and the mayor held him personally responsible for any bad publicity that was generated. Rhodes could have mentioned that just about a hundred percent of the population of the rest of Texas and the entire United States didn’t care what happened in Clearview and Blacklin County and that really there was no reputation to harm. Nobody would have appreciated that, however, so Rhodes never brought it up.
He got out of the county car and leaned against it while he waited for Andy to arrive. He looked over the crowd to see if he recognized anyone and saw Don McClaren, who looked more like a football coach than an art teacher, and in fact he’d played football in college with moderate success. He hadn’t been quite big enough or fast enough for the pros, but he’d kept himself in good shape. He wore dark shorts and an Athletic Department T-shirt, which was what he always seemed to be wearing when Rhodes saw him. The shorts were smeared with something that looked like clay, which it probably was since McClaren was a potter, among other things.
At the edge of the group, just watching, was a short woman with gray hair fixed in a bun. Nora Fischer, Rhodes thought, his high school history teacher. She must have come out of the senior center, unless she’d taken up painting, which was always a possibility.
Rhodes also saw the woman with the orange hair, though it didn’t look like it was twisted into corkscrews to him. She was in the midst of the crowd, and from the looks of it she was berating someone.
Seepy Benton, who supposedly had everything under control, was nowhere to be seen.
Rhodes heard a siren in the distance. Andy Shelby was on the way. Andy was fairly new to the department and still enthusiastic about the job, maybe a bit too enthusiastic, but this time the siren was probably a good idea. Rhodes hadn’t used it, but as Andy got closer, some of the people in the center of the crowd heard the sound and began moving back. When they did, Rhodes saw Seepy Benton, who was standing on one side of Burt Collins.
Seepy was actually Dr. C. P. Benton, mathematics professor at the community college branch. The initials had given him the name by which a lot of people knew him. He’d come to Clearview to leave behind a failed romance at a community college near Houston, and to occupy his time he’d gone through the Citizens’ Sheriff’s Academy. Somehow he’d gotten the idea that his attendance at the academy had given him semiofficial status with the sheriff’s department, and he’d appointed himself Rhodes’s civilian helper. Rhodes had to admit that Benton had been helpful now and then, though he didn’t admit that to Benton.
If McClaren looked like a football coach, Benton looked more like a rabbi, though today he was wearing a Western-style straw hat that looked as if he might have found it on the street and decided to keep it. Rhodes had no idea what Benton had been doing with the artists, though if Nora Fischer had taken up art, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility that Benton had done so, too.
Standing on the other side of Collins was Eric Stewart. Benton had a grip on Burt Collins’s right arm, and Stewart had a grip on the left. Collins occasionally jerked on one arm or the other, but he couldn’t pull away.
Andy Shelby parked beside Rhodes, across the street from the hardware store. He cut the siren when he got out of the car, and it made a dying whine. He left the light bar flashing, and everyone on the opposite side of the street stopped shoving and jostling and stood looking over at the sheriff and the deputy.
Rhodes looked back at them, doing his best narrow-eyed Clint Eastwood impression. He didn’t know if it was effective, but he’d always wanted to try it out.
“What’s the beef, Sheriff?” Andy asked.
“We’re about to find out,” Rhodes said.
He started across the street, and Andy followed. When they got about halfway across, Seepy Benton called out, “I want to make a citizen’s arrest, Sheriff.”
Every time he heard the phrase “citizen’s arrest,” Rhodes thought of Gomer Pyle arresting Barney Fife.
“So do I, Sheriff,” Stewart said. He was a tall, thin man about sixty with thick gray hair that reminded Rhodes of how his own hair was thinning.
“They’re crazy, Sheriff,” Collins said. “You make ’em let me go.”
Rhodes looked around the crowd again. Now that they’d stopped arguing and shoving, even more people had their cell phones out and were taking video of the scene.
Rhodes looked at Andy. “How do you feel about being an Internet star?”
Andy grinned. He removed his carefully creased hat and smoothed down his hair with one hand. “You think there’s a chance of one of those videos going viral?”
Rhodes envied anybody who could wear a hat. Even Seepy looked okay in a hat, but Rhodes was probably the only sheriff in Texas who didn’t wear one. In a photo in the Texas Lawman, taken on the day nearly every sheriff in the state had gathered in Austin to visit legislators, Rhodes was one of only two sheriffs not wearing a hat. Now that his hair was getting thin in the back, a hat would provide him with some protection from the sun. It wasn’t in the cards, however. Western hats made Rhodes look more like a comedian trying to do a John Wayne impression than a cowboy. Baseball caps were even worse. There was no way he was going to wear a baseball cap.
A car pulled to a stop back across the street. Rhodes half turned and saw Jennifer Loam get out. Loam had been a reporter for the Clearview Herald until she’d been downsized out of a job. Now she had her own news Web site, which claimed to present A Clear View of Clearview. She had her own video camera, not much bigger than a cell phone, and probably not much better. She’d started using it as soon as she got out of the car.
“The videos might not go viral,” Rhodes told Andy with a nod toward Loam, “but that one will be on Ms. Loam’s Web site within the hour.”
Andy shrugged and put his hat back on.
“You wouldn’t want to try to talk her out of using it, would you?” Rhodes said.
This time Andy blushed a little. Rhodes knew that he’d had his eye on Loam for a while. Romance was in the air.
“I don’t think so,” Andy said. “I don’t want to use my authority to try to intimidate the press.”
“Good answer,” Rhodes said, and he turned to Seepy Benton. “What’re you arresting Mr. Collins for?”
“Destruction of property,” Benton said. “Malicious mischief. Or maybe vandalism. I’m not sure of the difference. We didn’t learn that in the academy.”
“I’m not a vandal,” Collins said, trying without success to jerk his arms free. “I didn’t do anything.”
“It was vandalism, all right,” Eric Stewart said. He was considerably taller than either Benton or Collins, and younger than either, probably no more than thirty. “We all just got back here from the morning session and found him. He defaced a lot of paintings before we got to him.”
“Spray paint,” Benton said. “He put it on one of the sculptures, too.”
Collins looked shocked at the accusation. “Me? I didn’t do that. Did anybody see me do that?”
It always helped when the culprit confessed, but that wasn’t going to happen. Some witnesses wouldn’t hurt.
“Anybody see Mr. Collins spray-paint on anything?” Rhodes asked.
Nobody spoke up. Rhodes waited. Finally Eric Stewart said, “No one else was inside when it happened. As I said, we were just getting back. We saw this man”—he jerked Collins’s arm—“coming out of the building.”
“He must’ve done it,” Benton said. “He tossed the paint can in the trash, and it’s still there. Should have his fingerprints all over it.”
“That paint’ll clean right off whatever it’s on,” Collins said. “Not that I had anything to do with it.”
“It won’t clean off,” Stewart said. “The paintings are ruined.”
“I’d say what they are is improved,” Collins said, “and if I’d done the spraying, I’d sure take credit for it.”
He seemed to be enjoying himself. Maybe it was all the cameras. Everybody wanted to be an Internet star.
“Why were you in the building?” Rhodes asked him.
“I was looking for somebody to complain to. You wouldn’t listen to me. I thought maybe I could talk sense into these people. Instead, they grabbed me.”
“We went in and saw what he’d done,” Stewart said. “We were lucky to catch him before he got away.”
“Now just a minute,” Collins said. “I wasn’t trying to get away. I was right here on the sidewalk when you came back out.”
“Is that right?” Rhodes asked.
Benton nodded. He looked a little sheepish, as well he should, Rhodes thought. Both Benton and Stewart released Collins’s arms, and Collins shook himself before stepping away from them.
“Let me see your hands, Burt,” Rhodes said.
“Your hands. Palms out.”
Collins put out his hands. Rhodes took each one and looked it over. No paint traces were visible. A test might reveal paint traces, but not if Burt had been wearing gloves. Where were the gloves? That was a good question. There were plenty of places to hide them in the building.
“That’s all,” Rhodes said. “You can go.”
“It’s about time,” Collins said. “I’m an innocent man, and you’re harassing me.”
At that moment, Lonnie Wallace came running up. Lonnie had on a Western shirt, jeans, and boots, which some people might have thought of as being odd for the owner/operator of a beauty shop, but it was Lonnie’s preferred attire. Rhodes could never wear boots, any more than he could wear a hat, and he envied Lonnie for being able to run in them.
“What’s happened?” Lonnie asked, panting a little from his run.
“Somebody fixed up some of your artwork for you,” Collins said. “Improved it, you might say.” He grinned. “Wasn’t me, though, and I didn’t see who did it.”
What happened next was a matter of some dispute later on, but in describing the video that she posted on her news site, Jennifer Loam used the words “donnybrook” and “melee.” Those seemed like heavy literary terms to Rhodes, who would have just called it a scuffle, and even though the whole thing was caught on video, it was still impossible to say exactly how it had started.
Lonnie Wallace claimed that he slipped, but Collins claimed that he’d been attacked. It was true that Collins was smirking, which might have been an instigation for a fight, but it did appear that Lonnie’s foot might have caught on the curb, causing him to stumble forward. No video that Rhodes saw later showed Lonnie’s feet.
Rhodes tended to think that Lonnie was telling the truth, since he knew it wasn’t easy to run in boots, but several people from the senior center swore that Lonnie had deliberately jumped on Collins. The fact that they were friends of Collins might have swayed their testimony, however. Others said it was clear that Lonnie had stubbed his toe on the curb. Those witnesses were all women who had their hair done at the Beauty Shack, Lonnie’s establishment, so that could have had something to do with what they claimed.
It didn’t really matter which set of witnesses was correct. The result was that Lonnie fell against Collins. Or attacked him. Lonnie said he merely grabbed Collins to keep from falling down, but the next thing Rhodes knew they were rolling on the sidewalk and there was definitely some slugging and kicking going on. And shouting. Lots of shouting.
Collins’s friends jumped to help him, and some of the artists tried to stop them. That was when the donnybrook or melee or brawl began, complete with pushing, chest bumping, fist swinging, and shouting. Lots of shouting.
Andy looked at Rhodes and said, “How do we stop it?”
Rhodes shrugged. It looked worse than it was, but there were already some bloody noses, and there’d be some bruises and black eyes eventually. Those who weren’t involved were taking video or watching with considerable interest. Some seemed to be cheering for one side or the other.
“I’ll get the bullhorn,” Rhodes said.
He went across the street, fetched the bullhorn from the county car, and used it to announce the presence of law officers. No one paid him the least attention. Rhodes put the bullhorn back in the car and turned on the siren and light bar. That slowed things down for a moment, and what happened next was the biggest surprise of the day for Rhodes.
Seepy Benton emerged from the heart of the brawl and started picking off the angriest and most aggressive fighters one by one. Rhodes didn’t know what Seepy was doing, exactly, but he appeared to be touching people up around their necks somehow or other. The people would then drop right where they were. They’d have hit the sidewalk if Don McClaren hadn’t been right there to catch them and lower them gently down.
After Seepy had disabled three men, the fighting slowed considerably. Rhodes walked over and with Andy’s help separated Lonnie and Collins, who were still going at it. Rhodes pulled Lonnie to his feet, and Andy did the same for Collins.
“I’m really sorry,” Lonnie said to Collins. “I didn’t mean to fall on you.”
“Fall on me, my ass,” Collins said. “You were trying to kill me, you little—”
“Watch yourself,” Rhodes said. “You don’t want to start anything again.”
“Me start something?” Collins was boiling. “It wasn’t my fault. It was his.”
“He’s apologized,” Rhodes said. “You and Lonnie go stand over there out of the way. I’ll talk to you in a minute. And no fighting.” Without waiting for a response, Rhodes turned and looked at some of the crowd. “It would be a good idea for all of you to get back to what you were doing. We’ll investigate here and find out what happened to the artwork. I’d appreciate it if you’d wait a while in the building until I can come talk to you. You can put those cameras away now, though. The excitement is over.”
He hoped his last statement was true, and maybe it was. Even if it wasn’t, everyone seemed to accept it. The people who’d come out of the senior center started to return to their domino games and Pilates classes. Some of them looked at their videos as they walked, and Rhodes hoped that nobody would trip and fall. The artists, still muttering, went back inside the gallery and antiques building.
Seepy Benton stayed behind, because Jennifer Loam was still there with her camera. Rhodes had a feeling he knew who the next big video star was going to be, and no one would enjoy the attention more than Seepy.
Rhodes was glad that Seepy was the momentary center of attention, as it would give him time for other things. He motioned for Andy.
“I’m going to have a chat with Lonnie and Burt,” Rhodes told the deputy. “You go inside and see if you can get a better idea about the damage that Burt … or someone … did.”
Andy looked over at Jennifer Loam, who was now doing a video interview with Seepy Benton.
“Don’t worry about Seepy,” Rhodes said. “You know he’s dating Deputy Grady. He’s not looking for a new romance.”
“You sure about that?” Andy asked. “He looks interested to me.”
“He just likes attention. Call Hack and have him send another deputy, and then check out that paint can and anything else you can find.”
Andy did as he was told, but not without a couple of glances back in Seepy’s direction.
Lonnie and Burt were already arguing again, so Rhodes went to calm them down. Or try to.
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Bill Crider is an Anthony Award winner and Edgar Award finalist. He is the author of more than fifty published novels, including Compound Murder, Murder of a Beauty Shop Queen, The Wild Hog Murders and Murder in the Air. In 2010, he was inducted into the Texas Literary Hall of Fame. He lives with his wife in Alvin, Texas.
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