Sheriff Stephen Drake always closed his office near twilight.
He took his radio and pager home, but usually by nightfall things were quiet in town. Sure, occasionally something went wrong, but that was mostly the weekend. On a normal weeknight, say a Tuesday or Wednesday, he could look forward to a hot meal and a shower at home without getting a call. Lazarus was small enough that everyone knew everyone else; he rounded up the same drunk and disorderly twice a month, busted the same teenagers, and dealt with occasional spousal fights.
He let his secretary off around 4:00, and his two deputies cleared out about an hour later. Stephen was finishing some paperwork in his office, and running late. He finally got up and was ready to leave around 6:20. He realized he’d left his wallet in his drawer and went back for it.
When he turned around, a man was waiting at his front desk.
Stephen frowned – he didn’t recognize his visitor. “Sir,” he called in his most authoritative voice, “I will be with you in a moment.”
“Very fine,” the man said in a soft voice.
Stephen sighed and came around the front and stopped short. He did know this man. This was a neighbor: Tom Dayton. But he had not seen the elderly man in at least two years.
“You’re looking well, Mr. Dayton.” He was actually trying to remember how old Mr. Dayton was. Was he around the same age as his own grandmother?
“I am sorry to trouble you,” the man said, his eyes shining, lips turned in an uneasy smile. “I am not sure how I got here today, but I have been trying to come see you, Sheriff. I hope you can help me.”
“Okay. Would you like a seat? What can I help you with?”
Tom Dayton sat down, holding his hands in front of him. “Is it hot outside?” he asked, taking a glance out the window. “Last time I was out it was snowing.”
The statement alarmed Stephen. Here, in Lazarus, California, a desert town, asking if it were hot outside in the middle of summer was like asking if people had a shortage of ice water in Alaska. And as far as snow, there had not been any since the January before.
“What brings you here today?” Stephen prodded.
Tom shook his head, as if trying to dislodge a bad memory. “I have not been well these last years. I am sure you’ve heard.”
“My son and that girl of his came up here from the city to help me out. For a while, it was fine. Pete’s a good kid, mostly. Some of the time. He gets mean.”
“Gets mean how?” Stephen’s stomach took a turn.
“He doesn’t listen to me anymore. I told him if he doesn’t want to stay, he should leave town. I don’t care about his having friends over, you know. But he’s got to respect my rules. Is that too much to ask these days, you think?”
“No, Sir, but I don’t know exactly what you’re trying to tell me.”
“I’ll get to it,” Tom said. “Haven’t got all night for jabbering, neither one of us.
“Anyway. I told him he and his little girlfriend needed to clear out. He’d went and got these papers drawn up from some lawyer. He wanted me to sign the house over to him. Said it was for my good and I couldn’t keep up the place anyway.”
Tom paused here, and Stephen nodded. “Go on, Mr. Dayton.”
“Of course, I did not sign. I went back to my room, and I heard the two of them talking downstairs. Mindy, Cindy, or Windy, whatever he calls that little heathen girl, was telling him something about them not being able to do without the house. I just sat there and listened. Turns out they had been playing me for a fool. They’d already tried getting money off the house. That I can’t help you with–the details I mean; it’s fuzzy in my mind.”
“That’s okay, please, go on,” Stephen said. He crossed his arms and sat back. He had the bad feeling that he knew where this was leading.
“Well, the girl brought me my meals now and then, and she did that night. Now here’s the thing. The girl’s actually a good cook. And I thought, well, if I promise to sign whatever they want, they’ll leave me alone. So I told what’s-her-name that if she sent Pete up in the morning, I’d sign whatever he asked. I was so hungry by then I really would have, too.
“My son never had as much backbone as a worm, I’m sorry to say. He always gets tied up with these little spitfires that kick him around. Whatever they gave me must have been in my tea… they both knew I always drank it to the last drop. I don’t remember much of anything after that. Just looking towards the window and seeing the snow.”
Tom Dayton looked dreamily out of the window, as if he could still see the snow in front of him.
“Can you help me, do you think?” he said softly. “Do you understand, son?”
“Yes,” the sheriff replied. “I believe so.”
“Thank you.” Tom stood, a relaxed smile on his face.
The phone rang.
“Excuse me,” the sheriff turned. When he turned back, the man was gone.
“Goodbye, Mr. Dayton,” he said to the emptiness.
* * *
One advantage of being a small town sheriff is that it’s easy to get a valid search warrant.
No one really cared to ask how the sheriff came about his “hunches” or the fact that they were always right. Stephen had a search warrant for the Dayton place before noon the next day.
Tom’s son and his girlfriend Cindy were living there. When they were first questioned, they had nothing to say. Once a thorough search was done, and they were told what was found on the property, both confessed. Pete broke first, saying he’d never have done it if only his Father were reasonable.
A search of the grounds revealed a partially decomposed skeleton. The corpse was male, and had been deceased about ten months. Tom Dayton had been buried beneath a window at the back of his house, where his spirit may have laid and stared up at the snow falling against the glass.
©2008 Lori Titus