Warrick turned onto a one-lane road. On one side, a white fence ran the length of the road, keeping in a herd of cows. He didn’t know what the black and white ones were called and didn’t really care. He’d figure it out if he ever had a case that involved cows. One the other side was a field of wheat just starting to stretch from the dark soil.
Moapa Valley was a rare spot in Nevada, one that tourists and locals alike rarely saw. It was hidden between two stunted ranges of mountains – he’d seen mountains, these were not what he considered mountains. The valley floor was fertile with a very low water table. As rare as it was for him to see it, this was the fourth time in three days he was coming back, but this time he wasn’t headed toward racist Farmer Dell’s property. This time he was looking for Egon McAllister to see if he knew how Edith Stuckley ended up at the bottom of a well with his bullion.
At the end of the road, the property gave way to a small, two-story farmhouse. There were two outer sheds, and four large Cottonwood trees shading a green front yard. Inside one of the sheds was an old, dirty pickup that had been repaired rather than maintained through its life. Running through a sprinkler was a black-haired thirteen-year-old, two border collies, a golden lab missing one leg, and two mutts. Warrick smiled as he got out. He grabbed the folder off the passenger seat and shut the door. For some reason, the door of his Denali shutting caught the attention of the dogs. As a pack, they turned and charged Warrick barking as loud as they could. He hesitated with his hand on the door handle, uncertain if he should stand or jump back in his Denali. The dogs came to a stop around him and jumped up on him or waited with tails wagging. There was nothing vicious about these pets. Warrick laughed, trying to push them away.
“Get down! Get off!” Warrick laughed, pushing dogs away.
“GUYS!” the girl cried, running up. “No! Off! OFF YARDLY! Sam, no, stop it. Stop it you guys.” She grabbed as many collars as she could in both hands and pulled them back. “Sorry. They like company.”
“That’s okay. I’m looking for Egon McAllister.”
“Dad’s inside working on something.”
“Do you mind getting him for me?”
“Who are you?”
“Warrick. I’m a criminalist.”
She stood, putting her hands on her thin hips. “Criminalist? You’ve been in jail?”
“No.” Warrick grinned. “I put people in jail.”
“Is Dad in trouble?”
“I need to talk to him. Can you get him for me?”
“What is your name?”
“Madeline, but everyone calls me Madi. If Dad’s not in trouble, why can’t you tell me why you want to talk to him?”
“I’m sorry, Madi, but I can’t. Can you get him for me?”
“He’s busy and won’t stop working until supper. Come on.”
She turned and started toward the house with the pack of dogs following her. Warrick followed behind, watching them. Madi stopped them at the door repeating sternly ‘no’ as she let Warrick in, and then followed in behind him.
“In the shop, honey,” Warrick heard a voice call from the back.
Madi led Warrick through the house to the kitchen and through the back door into an atrium. The room had been converted into a wood workshop with vine plants hanging overhead to provide soft green shade from the sun. A tall, thin, blonde man stood at a lathe, slowly shaping a long block of wood into a rounded leg for something. Half-finished furniture was scattered through the room. Madi fell into a rocking chair missing an arm.
“I like this one, Dad. Are you selling it?”
Without looking up and in a mellow voice, he replied, “Yes, to Missus Jefferson. Who’s this?”
“He’s a criminalist named Warrick. He wants to talk to you, but he wouldn’t tell me what it’s about.”
Egon glanced at Warrick. “A criminalist huh? Well, pick a chair and tell me what you’ve come to ask to me about.”
Warrick walked to the end of the lathe table. “Have you seen this man?” Warrick pulled Edith’s photo from the folder and held it out.
Madi jumped up and ran over to her dad, standing up on her toes to see the photograph. Egon smiled, but it was sad. Did it mean guilt?
“That’s Edith Stuckley.”
“Edith? That’s a girl’s name!” Madi told him.
Egon started working again, telling her. “Ed-ith is a variation of Edith. Like Sam for Samantha or Samuel.”
“Oh.” She looked between her dad and the photo. “I’d never call my son Edith. Imagine how much he’d be picked on!”
Warrick really wished Madi would go do something.
“I knew Edith,” Egon admitted. “He was drunk most of the time I knew him, and unpredictable. He broke into people’s houses to steal just for fun, and then his family would pay the people off so they wouldn’t press charges.”
“Did he steal from you?” Warrick asked.
“No. Edith was always nice to us. After we adopted Madi, he’d bring bags of diapers or formula. He loved her. He’d always tell us that if he ever had a niece, he’d want one just like Madi. Edith never would have stolen from us.”
Warrick was thrown off by the answer. “You filed a report about stolen gold coins. You don’t think he would have taken them?”
Egon nodded. He sat the lathe down and started sanding the wood. “The collection was for Madi and Edith knew that. He never would have stolen from her.”
“Who else might want them?” Warrick turned his attention back to Egon. “Why would they want them?”
Egon shot him a look as if Warrick had just asked the world’s dumbest question. “Of course I know why. They were gold. They were valuable. They were in this hidden drawer in a desk with a silver necklace I gave my wife, but the thief only took the coins. But to find that drawer… Someone had to really look to find it. Whoever has them has probably spent the money on something worthless or drugs.”
Warrick pulled out the photographs of the coins and laid them down one by one in front of Egon. As he did, he saw the man’s recognition. Egon sat the sandpaper down and picked up one of them.
“Go check for eggs, Madi,” Egon told his daughter.
She looked at her watch. “Okay.”
Madi jogged to the steps going into the kitchen, bunny hopped up them and then skipped away. Warrick looked back at Egon once she was gone. He was feeling the wood he was shaping.
“Are these the same ones I reported? Do the numbers on them match?” Egon asked.
“Yeah. They do.”
“Where on earth did you find them?”
“Three days ago at the bottom of a well next to Edith Starkly.”
“When I met my wife, Camarilla, I though the world would never get better,” Egon told Warrick. “Then we found out we couldn’t have children, so we adopted Madeline. It must have been fate because the adoption went through in a week. Our attorney said she’d never had an adoption go through so fast.” Tears started to well up as he went on. “Then Camarilla got sick and died.” Egon looked at Warrick. “All I could think about was those damned coins. I ignored Madeline, didn’t take care of her. Someone told Social Services and I lost her too. That only made it worse for me. I blew up at work, lost my job. That day Edith showed up real angry with me for losing it like I had. He said I’d never get Madi back without my job. He told me I was going to lose my coins next if I didn’t stop drinking. I guess he was warning me, but I was drunk. I didn’t hear him. Then my coins were stolen… The night my coins were stolen, I had drunk myself unconscious, so I really don’t know what happened. Losing those cursed things was the best thing that happened to me, though. I finally woke up, fought to get Madi back, and started woodworking for a living.” Egon smiled, looking at the wood in front of him. “Doesn’t pay as much, but at least I’m always here for Madi. That’s all that matters.”
Warrick collected the photos, sliding them into his folder. Egon was innocent. Warrick’s certainty lay in Egon’s disinterest in the gold bullion. He was grateful that Edith Stuckley had taken his fortune and forced him to realize he loved his daughter more. Was that the secret of life? Forsaking material desires for something as abstract as loving a child? The love may not pay Egon’s bills, but he survived as a happy, content man. In that truth about Egon, Warrick had no doubt that Egon was exonerated of causing Edith Stuckley’s death. Warrick looked up at Egon.
“It could take a few weeks or a few months to get your property back to you. I’ll be in touch when I know more.”
Egon nodded. “Has anyone told his brother what happened?”
“I spoke to him, but I wasn’t able to give him details.”
“When his brother went missing, it tore Ronald up. He even picked up Edith’s gifts to Madi. Every Christmas he sends her three hundred dollars. He never signs the card, so I just tell her it’s from Santa Claus – even though she stopped believing me when she was nine. Ronald should know how his brother died.”
Warrick almost told Egon that he believed Ronald suspected him of killing Edith, but he refrained. In his mind, he’d already written the closing comments to this case: Edith Stuckley had fallen into the well by accident, likely intoxicated or otherwise under the influence. He was either dead or unconscious when the well was later sealed. Cause of death is accidental. Case closed.
“I’ll let him know,” Warrick promised. “Thank you for your time.”
Warrick headed back through the house. He reached the front door as Madi raced in.
“Are you leaving?” she asked. “I was about to start supper. We’re going to have French toast and bacon.”
Warrick smiled. “Thank you, but I can’t stay.”
She held out a coin to him. “Do you need this? I heard you and dad talking about coins.”
“No. Thanks for asking.”
Warrick walked through a swarm of dogs and climbed into his Denali. Warrick started it and headed back down the drive. He slowed near the end when he saw a black car blocking the exit, stopping several feet from the car. The driver got out, walked around, and opened the back door. Ronald Stuckley stepped out.
Warrick rolled his window down, but kept his vehicle running, in gear, and the door locked. Ronald walked up to his side of the vehicle, staring down the road at the house now hidden by the contours of the land.
“Did Egon kill my brother?” Ronald looked at Warrick.
“Mister Brown, you have not made friends in your past,” Ronald reminded Warrick, “and you are not really in a good position to be dodging a simple, very basic question.”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I answered it.”
Ronald looked at Warrick. “Was my brother drunk when he fell in the well?”
“His body wasn’t in a state I could determine that.”
“Did Egon do it?”
Warrick hesitated. He didn’t want to tell this man anything. That was against protocol and he was trying to keep his nose clean; however, telling Ronald was likely to protect Egon and Madi.
“No. Your brother’s death was an accident.”
Ronald nodded, glancing at the house. “Did everything seem okay when you were in there?”
“Was Madi okay? Was he taking good care of her?”
Warrick’s brow dipped. “Why are you asking about Egon’s daughter?”
Ronald looked at Warrick. “Did the child seem okay?”
“Yeah. She was fine. Why?”
Ronald nodded. “Any mention of money?”
Ronald turned to the driver that had followed him. “Put in some more orders for chairs. Top dollar.” He glanced at Warrick. “Have a good night, Mister Brown.”
The two went back to the car, got in, and the driver pulled away. Warrick watched it disappear, confused by the conversation. Slowly, the pieces clicked. Egon had said: Edith used to tell us that if he ever had a niece, he’d want one just like Madi. Edith would never have stolen from us.
Warrick looked in his side mirror in the direction of the house. Madi was Ronald’s illegitimate daughter, which explained why Edith had taken such an interest in Madi, and why Ronald was now concerned about her welfare. At some level, the casino tycoon wanted to be her father, and he was doing it the best way he knew how. Warrick sighed. He wanted to hate Ronald for what he was, but every layer on the man kept revealing there was a human underneath.
Warrick pulled out onto the road, heading toward the highway and back to Las Vegas. Right now, his concern was closing the case of the soap mummy.
Greg glanced up when he heard someone walk past the break room couch he was laying on. Warrick passed him, heading for the refrigerator. He looked back up at the ceiling, throwing a ball against it. Warrick appeared at the top of his vision, holding his leftover lunch container in one hand.
“Yeah?” Greg asked.
“You free tonight?”
“I need your help with something. Can I pick you up at seven?”
“I guess. Help with what?”
“We’ll have to figure that part out when I pick you up.”
Warrick sighed. Greg looked up at his thoughtful expression.
“You didn’t really think we always won, did you?” Warrick asked.
Greg caught and held his ball, staring at it while he pressed his fingers into the soft material.
“I guess I did.”
“Sorry man. Sometimes we lose.”
“I don’t wanna lose.”
Warrick shifted his weight. “Sometimes you have to. See you at seven.”
Warrick left and Greg resumed tossing his ball. Warrick’s words fell on deaf ears. He didn’t want to lose. Ever. He wanted to solve all his cases, even if they led to no suspects. He didn’t even know his victim’s name – that bugged him most of all. Greg’s mind wandered back to the start of the case and he began reanalyzing the evidence, hoping for an epiphany.
The minute he hit the door, the entire bar started welcoming Nick. He smiled, laughed, passed out hugs and a few kisses to women, handshakes to men. Warm, caring Nick had returned, marked by only a few red dots where the vanished pustules were still healing.
Warrick and Greg trailed in behind him.
“You just had to let him pick the bar tonight, didn’t you?” Greg yelled over the music.
Warrick smiled. “Hey, I’ll suffer a night at some hick bar if it means Nick’ll come to work in a good mood in two days. Wouldn’t you?”
Greg thought about that a moment. “Is that a trick question?”
Nick suddenly emerged from the crowd in front of them. “There’s a table over there.” Nick pointed them in the direction. “I gotta a rain check I gotta pay up on.”
“With who?” Warrick asked.
Nick pointed over his shoulder at a red head in a tight tank top, jeans, and cowboy boots. Everything about her curves was a head turner. Warrick and Greg both smiled.
“Rosie. She’s been asking me to dance for weeks.”
“You want us to order you anything?”
“Naw! I’ll get something when I come over.” Nick disappeared into the crowd with Rosie.
Warrick and Greg made their way to a table and sat down on tall bar stools. Greg leaned over the table.
“Have you ever seen Nick in a mood like he was in?”
“Yeah. Back when we were rookies. The first time it happened, we damn near got into a fight at a crime scene. I finally got tired of it and called up his oldest brother James; Nick normally does anything James tells him so I was hoping he’d talk some sense into Nicky. Instead, he tells me that not even God himself could bring Nick out of these moods. He said it only happened when something got a hold of him in the wrong way, and only he could figure out how to get free from it. But when he did, he told me to take him to a country bar and let him dance till he dropped, or hire him a hooker for the night. The bar’s cheaper!”
“Hey, are you two Warrick and Greg?”
The two turned, staring at the women watching them. One was a blonde-haired woman and average. She wore a western cut shirt with rhinestones and silver studs, a miniskirt and boots. Her friend was a tall African-American, flawless smooth skin, long curly hair, a midriff tank top, and tight blue jeans revealing her long legs that ended in pearl white boots.
“Yeah,” Greg and Warrick answered.
“Nick said you two don’t know how to do the Cotton Eyed Joe,” the blonde-haired woman said. “He asked if we’d teach you. It’s the next song.”
“What’s the Cotton Eyed Joe?” Greg asked.
Warrick reached over and smacked the back of his head. “Say yes to the lady.”
“I mean yes,” Greg said with a smile.
Warrick slid off the stool and held out his arm. The dark woman slid her arm into his and they disappeared. Greg waited until Warrick disappeared.
“You know Nick Stokes?” Greg asked the blonde-haired woman.
“Honey, everyone here knows Nick Stokes,” she answered with a smile. “All the guys wish they were him, all the girls wish they were his. You coming?”
“Right behind you.”
She led him to the dance floor as the Cotton Eyed Joe started.