The Storekeeper by J. M. Davis

Tom Carland stared at the slosh and hesitated before stepping from the stage coach onto the muddy street in his new boots. Why anyone would ever think they could find their fortune in a small town out west puzzled him even more than it had two years earlier when his uncle tried to convince him to leave the city life back east and head west with him. A one-street town with no more than twenty buildings situated along both sides of the road couldn’t have much to offer.
The Storekeeper
The Storekeeper by J. M. Davis
“Here’s your gear,” the driver said. He took the bag from the man. “Sir, could you help me? I’m here to see Seth Carland. Would you be able to tell me where I could find him?” A frown formed on the driver’s face. Perplexed by the man’s silence, Tom said, “This being such a small place, I assumed you might have heard of him.” “Everybody around these parts knew Seth.” He removed a red bandanna from around his neck and wiped his face. “I reckon he was one of the finest fellers I ever met.” Before he could ask the driver what he meant by was, the man continued. “You’re too late, young fella. Seth was buried last week.” The shock caused him to drop his bag onto the mud. He tried to get his breath, while his heart grew heavy with grief. Minutes later, he walked toward the other end of town, following the directions the driver had given him. Along the way he was appalled at the slapdash construction of some of the buildings. A few of the structures were unpainted or only painted on the front side. Arriving at a small house that had a makeshift hand painted sign above the entrance, he knocked on the door. He introduced himself and explained his reason for being there. The town’s doctor invited him inside so he could explain what happened to his uncle. “Seth walked in here one day complaining of back pain. He thought it was from work. I gave him a potion to rub on his back, but the pain kept getting worse. Six weeks later, his lower back was a hurting him so bad Seth couldn’t stand straight. There was nothing I could do for him, except give him laudanum. He told me he’d sent word back east to his only living relative. Said he figured his time was short.” Tom shook his head. “I received his message, but there was no mention in it he thought he was dying or that he was even ill. He wrote he needed my help and to come as soon as possible. I dropped everything and booked passage on the next train out.” The man stood and moved to a small desk located in one corner of the room. He removed some items from one of the drawers. The Doc stepped back toward him and held them out. “He figured you’d come. Seth signed his property over to you and wanted me to give you these. ” On top of what appeared to be a ledger, was a personal note from his uncle. He took the documents from the doctor’s hand and read the message. My dearest Tom, Good folks live in these parts. Take time to get to know them before you make a decision to go back to New York City. It was signed Uncle Seth. Why would his uncle have wanted him to stay here? He looked up from the note and gazed at the Doc. The man settled back into a chair across from him. “About a year and a half back, Seth established a general merchandise store, the only one around for forty miles. There’s a room above it where he lived. You’ll find his personal items there. The store is open. When he could no longer serve his customers, he kept the place unlocked so they could go inside and pick out what they needed.” Tom thanked the doctor and left. After making his way down the street to his uncle’s place of business, he stopped before crossing the street and studied the front of the building. GENERAL MERCHANDISE STORE, at least his uncle had a decent looking sign above the doorway. He stepped onto the wooden porch and kicked the dried mud from his boots before approaching the entrance. Finding the door unlocked, he stepped inside. Several of the shelves were bare. At the rear was a counter that had several pieces of paper lined up on top of it. They were lists items taken by people. Each person had signed their name along with the amount they owed for the goods taken. The stairway to his left had to lead to his uncle’s room. He gathered up the pieces of paper. Once inside the room upstairs, he found a bed, a small desk, chair, and a round table that held a wash bowl along with a pitcher for water. In one area of the room was a wardrobe for clothes. He dropped his bag on the floor and set the documents on the desk. Food felt like a priority having not eaten anything since leaving the train station earlier that morning. He leaned out a window and surveyed the buildings across the way and decided to inquire at the only hotel in town. After stepping through the entrance, he approached an older woman, who was wearing an apron. “Ma’am, my name is Tom Carland. Would you be so kind to tell me where I can find a dining establishment in this town?” “You the one people been talking about. The Lord don’t make many like Seth, biggest heart on a man I ever met. He took his meals here every day of the week. Your uncle Seth could talk the ears off an elephant.” She smiled. “He used to say the same thing about me. I sure do miss that man.” ‘Thank you, Ma’am.” “Right this way.” The woman led him down a short hallway to a room on the backside of the building. There were three square tables made from rough sawed lumber, each surrounded by four straight back chairs. “Tonight I have chicken soup with fresh bread.” He nodded. “Yes, that sounds fine.” She turned to leave. “Wait, may I have your name?” “Martha, but people around here call me Ma, cause I treat ‘em likes they’s mine. I’ll get your soup. Will you be needin’ a room?” “No ma’am.” Her chin drooped. “I will be needing breakfast tomorrow, if you’re serving.” She lifted her head up. “I got biscuits, gravy, and hot coffee here every morning for two bits.” “That sounds mighty good, Ma’am.” After finishing his dinner, he returned to the room above the store, and proceeded to study the ledger. His uncle had allowed many of his customers to use credit. Most had paid their debt while a few had not. In one case, it appeared the person had never paid even once on her account. He read the note written beside the customer’s name. Mrs. Hamby has promised to settle her debt upon the sale of her late husband’s farm, but I cannot find it within my heart to take money from a widow supporting a young child, for I have great fear their small farm will not bring much. According to the balance sheet entries, his uncle had been able to make a living from the store, at least enough to support one person in a reasonable fashion. But his future was back east as an accountant for a large bank. If he worked hard, in a few years, his employer might pay him twenty or possibly even twenty-five times what his uncle had been making from the store. Besides, who would want to live in a place like this? The stage ran weekly. He would leave on the next one that would take him to Larson, where he could board the train back to New York City. The next morning, he entered the hotel dining room. Martha was serving two men, dressed like ranch hands, at one of the tables. She looked up. “Take a chair, Tom. I’ll bring your food right out.” He pulled a chair back and sat in it. One of the customers, the man facing him, nodded. The other man turned around. “Martha told us you were in town. I’m Floyd Barnes, and this is my brother, Lewis. We got a small spread outside of town, run a few cattle. We knew Seth. It was a shame him dying like that.” “Thank you.” Martha brought him a plate of food and set a cup on the table. She grabbed a pot from the counter and filled it. The aroma of fresh baked biscuits and coffee filled the room. He took in a deep breath. “Smells good.” “I hope you’ll be takin’ your meals here regular.” After finishing off the breakfast, he paid Martha, and headed back to the store. Before he could make his way up the stairs to his uncle’s room, a woman entered the place of business. “Mr. Carland?” “Yes, I am Tom Carland.” “My name is Harriet Hamby. This is my daughter, Katie.” He nodded at the little girl who stood by her mother’s side. The child said nothing, but stared at him. “Folks told me you were in town. I came to tell you how sorry we all are for the loss of your uncle.” “Thank you, Mrs. Hamby. I regret deeply I did not arrive in time to see my Uncle Seth before his death. That’s a great weight upon me, which I no doubt will bear for life.” “Your uncle had been so kind to extend me credit in my time of need. I have received an offer for our farm two miles west from here.” She pointed. “I have come to pay my debt.” After retrieving several coins and one paper bill from a small black cloth handbag, she laid the money on top of the counter. The young widow with red hair was strikingly beautiful. Her worn black dress took nothing away from her attractiveness. She must have married at a very young age. He had assumed the widow his uncle had referred to in the ledger to have been much older than the woman standing before him. He could barely take his eyes from her. Forcing himself to stop staring, he glanced at the money on the counter. “As far as I am concerned, you have no debt to settle with me.” He pushed it back toward her. His gesture of good will appeared to offend her. Her expression changed as well as her tone. “Your uncle was too much of a gentleman to have treated me in this manner. I do not wish to be pitied by you, Mr. Carland.” She grabbed her daughter’s hand and left the store. What had he done to upset her so? He had only carried out his uncle’s wishes not to take money from a widow with a young child. Women were sure hard to figure out. During the next few days, many of the people who had left notes on the store counter came into the store and settled their accounts. Each and every one of them spoke highly of his late uncle. By the end of the week, he had received a total of five dollars and thirty-eight cents, including the dollar and eighty cents left by the widow days earlier. He went to the stage depot, hoping to find someone there. It remained unmanned except for the day before the stage was due to arrive. “I am here to book passage on the stage to Larson. Will it be leaving tomorrow?” The man nodded, “Yep, that’ll be four bits, mister.” He paid the man, who took the money and turned away from him. Tom began to walk away and then realized the man had not written his name down or even asked for it. “I can’t stay here another week. I must leave tomorrow.” The man looked up. “I reckon there won’t be a problem you gettin’ on the stage, you being the only passenger leaving out.” “My name is Tom Carland.” “Yep, everybody in town knows your name, son.” Satisfied he had secured passage out of town the next day, he made his way down the street. He stepped inside the hotel, found the dining room, and ordered a plate of food. Soon after his food was served, he overheard two women, seated at a table near him, talking about some unfortunate person. He didn’t pay attention to their conversation, until one of the women mentioned the name Harriet. “That poor girl should have known better than to believe some fast talking fancy pants traveling through town. I bet that scoundrel had no intentions of ever following through on his offer to buy her farm.” He placed his fork down and leaned forward a bit in their direction. The other woman said, “It’s a good thing she found that fellow out before she…” Both women glanced at him. The woman leaned forward and whispered. Embarrassed he’d been caught trying to listen to their private conversation; he tossed four coins on top of the table and left the hotel. After arriving at the livery stable at the end of the street, he spoke with Sam, the blacksmith and stable owner. Sam had already been to the store to pay his tab, him being one of the town’s folks who had left a promissory note on the counter. “I need to rent a horse and buggy.” A few minutes later he was headed west out of town. Sam had given him directions to the widow’s farm house and a description of it, a two room dwelling in need of repairs. When he arrived, he almost didn’t recognize the woman working in the garden, which ran the length of the house and then extended farther back behind it. If it had not been for her daughter Katie nearby, he would have assumed the person to have been a hired hand, from the looks of the clothing and the dirt on her face. He raised his voice while approaching her. “Mrs. Hamby, I apologize for this intrusion.” Startled, she straightened up allowing the hoe she had been using to fall to the ground. She rubbed her hands on her work dress, and then wiped her face with a rag she removed from a pocket. “Mr. Carland, you shouldn’t be here.” Katie ran to her side. Her tone indicated she was more angry than curious about his presence. “You’re right. I shouldn’t have come without an invitation. I hope you will find it within your heart to forgive me.” She stared at him. “I was wondering if you would consider helping me. You see I don’t know anything about running a general store and—” “No, I cannot help you.” “I would be willing to pay you a fair wage. I need to get the shelves restocked properly, and then I might be able to pay more, enough for you and Katie to live on.” “Mr. Carland, we all know you are leaving town tomorrow.” Apparently, news of his departure had traveled fast. “I’ve changed my mind about leaving.” “I’m afraid I would be of no help to you.” She reached down and picked up the hoe. Based on what the women in the dining room had said, the widow was desperate. He understood why she would be skeptical of his offer. In an attempt to reassure her he was not a scoundrel, he said, “Mrs. Hamby, I am a man of integrity. I assure you my intentions are honorable.” She didn’t respond and began working the ground again, leaving him no choice but to climb back into the buggy and return to town. On the ride back, he couldn’t stop thinking about the widow. She sure was different than any of the women he’d met in the city. The woman had enough pride for ten city women and was more independent than most men, but if she didn’t want his help, there was nothing more he could do. The next day, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun had baked the streets dry by the time the horses passed in front of the store. He leaned out of the upstairs window. The stage was two hours late. Tom carried his bag downstairs. The driver took his meal at the hotel, while a fresh team of horses were harnessed up. While he waited, all he could think about was the widow and her young daughter. What would happen to them? The stage left two hours late. The driver drove his team through the middle of the town, stirring up dust along its path. Tom stepped back inside the general store, his bag in hand. He could always catch the stage out next week. Moments later, a voice behind him said, “Mr. Carland.” Before turning around, he tried to contain his excitement. Harriet was wearing the same black dress she had worn the first time she had entered his store. He guessed it might be only non-work dress she owned. Katie was by her side. “If your offer still stands, I’d be willing to give it a try.” Before he could answer her, she added, “Katie has to be part of the deal.” “I would not have it any other way.” He reached for a jar and offered the little girl a sugar stick. “Here is your first payment in advance, little lady.” She looked up at her mother, appearing to be awaiting approval. Harriet nodded, and Katie removed a stick from the jar. Over the following months, Harriet handled the female customers while he handled the others. He had learned how to order new supplies, including women’s dresses from Boston and New York City. It had taken some doing convincing Harriet that wearing one of the new dresses might help drum up business from the other women in town. She selected a pretty green dress with white lace and matching hat. She received so many compliments from folks in town, before long, she’d taken orders for four fancy styled dresses from back east. Even a few ranch hands came into town and purchased wide brim hats and work clothing. Everything he ordered had to be delivered by rail and loaded onto one of the stage coaches that came to town each week. A few deliveries were late, but most made it within a reasonable time period. Business began to pick up and he settled into a routine. Learning how to schedule better kept the customers happy and increased sales. He learned Katie liked horses, so he asked Sam to find him a good one he could train. It gave him a good excuse to spend time with the young girl. Sam agreed to give him a fair deal on a horse and saddle. The blacksmith delivered on his word. When Tom asked the little girl to help him train the horse, her excitement was so overwhelming, Harriet smiled and gave her approval. He also got a lot of help from Sam, whenever Harriet and her daughter were not around to see he did not know as much about horses as he pretended. Although he, Harriet, and Katie took their lunches at the hotel, he sat alone at a separate table, while Harriet and Katie dined together. When the widow and daughter left at the end of each work day, he took his evening meal in the hotel dining room, before retreating to his room above the store. After making his statement to Harriet about being a man of integrity and having honorable intentions, he felt he needed to refrain from showing any feelings for Harriet and her daughter. Although Harriet appeared to have become comfortable with their business arrangement, she continued to address him as Mr. Carland, and he continued to address her as Mrs. Hamby. Fortunately, for him, another man, a ranch foreman, who had shown an interest in Harriet, had so far gotten none back from her. At close of business, he asked to speak to Harriet a moment before she and Katie left for their little place outside of town. “I don’t expect many folks to be coming into the store tomorrow, so if you do not mine, I wish for you and Katie to stay home tomorrow.” Without asking any questions, Harriet nodded. “Thank you, Mister Carland.” He helped her and Katie get into their old tattered buggy pulled by their plow mule. He then untied the reins and handed them to her. The following day, the team of horses came lumbering through town pulling a dusty stage coach behind them. Tom left his general merchandise store and hurried down to the stage depot. He arrived to find what appeared to be an upset passenger, dressed in city clothes, having it out with the driver. “I’ve got a good mind to report you. You could have killed us all. You scared my wife half to death, when she looked out and saw us barreling toward that cliff.” The driver bowed up. “Look mister, I’ve been making this run for more than two years now. It might have looked like we was going over the edge from where you two was sittin’, but there was plenty of room to make that turn from where I was positioned up top. Besides, that route cuts off about two miles. As I recall, when you two boarded the stage, your wife demanded we arrive on time.” The man’s wife grabbed her husband’s arm. “Leave the man be, Porter. We have more pressing business to attend to.” After the couple walked away, the driver turned around and shook his head. “What can I do for you, fella?” “Do you have any freight for me?” “Oh, Tom, I didn’t recognize you. Say, could you give me a little longer to pay my debt off at the store. Dang eyes is going bad on me. They told me if I don’t get spectacles, I’ll have to stop driving the stage. Can you believe they charge a dollar for those things?” “Pay me whenever you can, Hank. I’m not here about your debt.” “Oh, right, you said freight.” Sure enough, the package he’d ordered from Boston had arrived. He signed for it and headed back to his place of business, hoping he hadn’t kept any customers waiting. Upon arrival, he opened the package, and admired it contents. Harriet and her daughter entered his store. Before she could get close enough to see what he’d been admiring. He rewrapped the package and hid its contents beneath the counter. “Why are you here?” He asked, trying not to act startled. “I gave you a day for yourselves.” “Katie and I stopped by to see if you planned on coming out to the festivities tomorrow?” She was referring to a celebration one of the ranchers was putting together outside of town. The rancher had been a long time friend of Harriet’s late father. “Yes, I do intend to be there.” He hoped he didn’t sound too abrupt. “I have a birthday tomorrow.” The young girl said. He threw his hands out and acted surprised. “Is that what the big celebration is all about?” Katie nodded. The fact that Harriet had stopped by to find out if he was going to her daughter’s birthday party could mean she had some feelings for him. He sure hoped so, but then again there was the possibility she was just being polite. He tried to look for any indication she might be attracted to him. It was a guessing game from his perspective. “Can I ride Lightning on my birthday?” Katie smiled and her eyes widened. Harriet’s daughter had taken a liking to his horse, and Lightning had taken a liking to her as well. On a recent occasion, after he felt his horse was well trained enough, he had held the reins and led lightning up and down the street while the young girl sat in the saddle holding onto the saddle horn. Harriet placed her hand on her daughter’s shoulder. “Mr. Carland might be traveling by buggy tomorrow.” “I hadn’t planned on—” He’d spoken before thinking. Was she hinting at something? “I’m sure the blacksmith would allow me to use a buggy from the stable, if I had a need for one.” “Mr. Carland, you better ride your horse. We would not want to disappoint Katie.” Women were hard to figure out. He reached for an open jar sitting on the counter and then held it low enough so the widow’s daughter could reach its contents. “A sugar stick might hold you over until the party?” The girl pulled a piece of candy from the jar. “Thank you.” “You’re welcome young lady.” Harriet smiled and grabbed the girl by the hand. “We’ll see you tomorrow afternoon, Mr. Carland. People will start gathering about two o’clock.” The next day, Tom closed the entrance doors to his store and hurried toward the end of the street. Sam was already sitting atop his horse. “Are you leaving now?” Tom asked. “Yep, the last buggy load left a half hour ago. Nothin’ going on here. Figured I might as well head out. Your horse is shod and ready to go.” “Thanks, Sam.” Tom retrieved Lightning from his stall, saddled him, and rode him back to his place of business. He returned to his room above the store to get cleaned up. Satisfied he was presentable; he grabbed the gift for Katie, climbed into the saddle and set out toward the bluffs. With time to think, he put it to good use. Should he tell Harriet and Katie how he felt about them? Or should he keep waiting, until he was sure Harriet had similar feelings for him? She was four years older than him. He hoped that didn’t matter to her. It sure didn’t to him. He was making a fair living from the store and could provide for a family of three. Heck, if the town kept growing, he might even make enough to build a house later on. Lightning shook his head and tried to canter, but he brought the horse back to a trot. There was plenty of time to get there. He leaned forward and patted Lightning on the neck. “You want to run don’t you? Well, not today. Not in these fancy clothes.” Gazing up at the sky in front of him, he realized how something bad happening in his life had made things turn out better for him. Less than a year earlier, he felt his future was staying in the East, where the large cities were. Then he received that message from his uncle. It sure had changed his life. So far, it appeared to be for the better. He no longer missed the big city life, and was willing to stay in Rock Gulch for as long as he thought he had a chance with Harriet and Katie. He eased down from the saddle and left his horse untied to graze on the grass behind the buggies and wagons. It appeared most of the residents of Rock Gulch had gathered west of town for the Saturday afternoon picnic and birthday celebration. With the new dress for Katie, wrapped in paper and secured under one arm, he strolled between two large wagons. Kids were running and playing. Men and women were standing around talking and laughing. A few men were tossing horse shoes at a stake that had been driven into the ground. The smell of food cooking made him tip his hat back and quicken his pace. He hoped Harriet might take notice of the new outfit he’d received from New York. He approached a group of people standing around talking. Dirk Thurman pointed his finger at him. “Would you look at that?” Thurman said, raising his voice above the chatter. The crowd hushed, parted, and turned to stare. “Storekeeper, those fancy new clothes ain’t gonna get you no mind from Harriet.” Tom stopped and gazed at the man who had made the comment. Maybe the eastern suit he’d gotten for himself hadn’t been a good idea. Thurman had made it known around town he wanted to court Harriet, but she had shown little interest in the ranch foreman, other than displaying good manners when he spoke to her. That hadn’t stopped Thurman from trying to keep any other suitors away from her. He decided to ignore Dirk’s comment and focus on the birthday girl. Katie sat in the in the saddle on Thurman’s horse. She waved at him. “Hi, Mr. Carland.” “Happy birthday.” He waved back at her. Thurman stood next to his stallion holding the reins. His face turned red. “Keep your distance from them, Carland, if you know what’s good for you. Dirk was making it clear he would not tolerate any competition, when it came to getting Harriet and her daughter’s attention. “Can I ride Lightning?” Katie asked, too young to realize she was making things worse. “I don’t see why not,” Tom replied. She reached her hands out for Thurman to help her off of his horse. Instead of getting her down from the saddle, Dirk threw the reins to the ground. “I’m going to teach you to mind your own business, storekeeper.” Thurman was a strapping six-foot-four and outweighed him by a good sixty pounds, but Tom stood his ground, preparing to take on the husky ranch foreman, even if it meant taking a beating. He wasn’t about to back down in front of the town’s folks, especially, Harriet. The blacksmith grabbed Thurman by the arm. “Leave Tom be, Dirk. There’s no cause for any trouble today.” “Not till I’m finished with him.” Thurman yanked his arm away so hard his hand slapped the horse. The stallion bolted and took off with Katie holding on to the saddle horn with both hands. The girl screamed. The horse galloped in the direction of the cliffs that overlooked Dry Canyon. Several men scrambled for their horses. Tom tossed the package to the ground, stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled. Lightning galloped to his side. Tom placed a foot in the stirrup, swung into the saddle, and gave chase. Lightning’s nostrils flared and his hooves pounded the ground faster and faster as if the horse knew what was at stake. He passed the other horses and began closing the gap behind Thurman’s stallion, but they were running out of ground as they bore down on the edge of the cliff. With a two hundred foot drop off, the canyon floor below meant certain death for Katie, if he couldn’t stop Thurman’s horse in time. Lightning’s head pulled up alongside Katie’s left leg. With ground running out, he wouldn’t have enough time to reach the station’s reins. “Give me your hand,” Tom yelled. She glanced to her side and reached her left hand toward him. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her to his side, before yanking back on Lightning’s reins. Lightning came to a stop, his front hooves inches from the cliff’s edge. Dirk’s stallion bolted, but couldn’t stop in time and plummeted to its death. Returning to the camp site with Katie clinging to him, Harriet ran to her daughter. A crowd formed around Tom, Harriet, and Katie. Words of praise rang out from the other men who had given chase. A ranch hand who had worked with Harriet’s late father turned to her. “That was bravest thing I ever saw. I thought both of ‘em was gonners.” The ranch owner responsible for paying for the celebration fired his gruff foreman the following day. Word spread and Thurman was treated like a leper by almost everyone in the area. Unable to get any type of work around Rock Gulch, Dirk tied a bedroll to a cheap saddle and rode out of town on a ten dollar nag. Two months later, on a Saturday evening, near close of business, with only the three of them in the store, Tom made a decision. “Harriet, there’s something I’ve wanted to ask you for some time now.” Appearing overtaken with surprise, she released a new pair of boots she had picked out for Katie, and let them drop to the floor. She pulled her daughter to her side. Katie stared up at her mother. “What’s wrong, Momma.” “I think Mr. Carland wants to ask me to marry him.” The little girl smiled and stared at him, “Are you?” He gazed at Harriet. “How did you know?” “Mr. Carland, you have a lot to learn about women.” “Does that mean you’d consider a proposal of marriage?” “Only, if it is from you, Mr. Carland.” Six months later, after a proper courtship, Tom and Harriet were married. Everyone in town showed up for the wedding. Wearing a pair of spectacles, the stage coach driver, assisted the passengers with their luggage. He then drove the newlyweds and Katie some forty miles to the east, where they boarded a train to New York City. After spending a week in the big city, all three agreed their future was out west in Rock Gulch. Three years later, Tom and Harriet established the first bank in town. While Tom ran the bank, Harriet took over running the general store. Katie learned to ride Lightning without any assistance from Tom, but he wasn’t sad for long. Their two-old-son would be sitting in the saddle soon enough. # # # Thank you for reading THE STOREKEEPER. I hope you enjoyed this short story and will consider leaving a reader rating and a short review. A few words from you, describing what you thought about the story, helps me learn what readers like or dislike about my stories. Reviews and ratings also help other potential readers make story selections. About the Author: Jim Davis writes mystery/suspense/thriller novels, romance, humor, and short stories. He lives with his wife in the Boston Mountains. Connect with the author online: Subscribe to my Blog: Follow me on Twitter: Friend me on Facebook: Favorite me at Smashwords: Other eBooks by this author: Portrait of Conspiracy As Tough As They Come A Woman To Die For Murder And Mayham The Ghost of Leonard Korn No Tears For Jack The Durley Incident Prom Friday Portrait of Conspiracy ( Excerpt: The First 3 Chapters ) Chapter 1 A fist sized lump formed in Philip’s throat when his eyes confirmed what his heart wanted to believe. Light reflected off the glossy surface of the art gallery brochure. An adorable little girl, a child he had never seen, gazed at her mother. The name of the painting, My Sweet Beautiful Rachel, erased any remaining doubt. Renée is alive. We have a daughter. The jet engine’s pitch changed and the plane began its descent toward Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Philip turned toward the young woman seated to his right. Through the window, a cloud passed in the distance. Wearing white jeans, a pink Hard Rock Café T-shirt, and matching flip-flops, he guessed her to be a college student returning home for a summer break. Her hand flipped through pages of Cruising World, the magazine he had purchased at La Guardia before boarding the plane. Appearing to be oblivious to his emotional reaction, he raised the brochure and asked, “Where did you get this?” She looked up from the magazine and said, “I’m not sure,” before lowering her head again. Not sure? “Please, I hate to trouble you, but it’s important.” She glanced out the window before turning her head toward him. “I took a shortcut through one of those big hotels with entrances on two different streets. Several pamphlets and brochures were in a rack. I liked the picture on that one, so I grabbed it on my way out. Sorry, mister, I don’t remember the name of the hotel.” “May I keep it?” She flipped through another page. “Sure.” He gazed at the portrait. Would it be enough to get the police to reopen the case? No one had been able to find anything, not even her car. All active searches ceased when legitimate private investigators quit taking his money. Statistically speaking, his wife was dead. Everyone involved in the case either felt that way or had said as much to him. Why had no one been able to find her? Confronting one possibility he had never considered, he tried to think of anything he had done. If she left voluntarily, why for God’s sake had she gone into hiding and kept his daughter from him? Rachel’s first words, her first steps; he had missed so much. He blinked away tears. By the time the wheels of the plane touched down, he had organized his plan to return to New York. The certainty his wife and child were alive had brought back all the hope and optimism the last seven years had drained from him. I have a daughter played over and over in his head. Nothing could stop him from finding her. The young woman broke the silence as the plane neared the gate. “Thanks for letting me read your magazine.” She offered it to him. He raised the palm of his hand. “Please, keep it.” “Thanks, but I’m not really into boats that much.” He took it and tucked it away. She gathered a small backpack from beneath the seat. “My name is Philip Lewellan.” “It’s nice to meet you,” she said. “I’m … I’m Carla.” “Nice to meet you, Carla.” He glanced at his watch. “Do you have a connecting flight?” “Not tonight, but I’m hoping to catch one out in the morning. I have to get to New York City as soon as possible.” She knitted her brows. “We just came from there.” “It’s a long story. What about you? Are you home?” “Almost, I work at the Red Bird Grill in Lubbock. They expect me back tomorrow morning at six o’clock sharp. My aunt paid for the trip. I wouldn’t have been in New York otherwise. She still has high hopes for me. If you’re ever in town, stop by. We serve a good breakfast.” * * * After she and Lewellan cleared the arrival gate area, she slowed to allow him to get ahead of her. He appeared to be in his early thirties, much younger than she expected. Why had she jabbered on so much? Nervous, scared, whatever, she had done her part. Jessica hoped throwing out the name Carla had not been her biggest mistake. She watched Philip leave the airport terminal. His confident stride, his hair, his clothes, everything about him indicated money and a lot of it. He could be featured in an upscale men’s clothing photo shoot without any additional prep work. His physical appearance was one thing, but his tears and emotional reaction to the photo had conveyed much more. He didn’t try to kill that woman, he loved her. She dialed the number for her contact in New York. When he answered, she said, “He took the brochure like you said he would.” “Did you keep your mouth shut?” “I did exactly what you told me. Now, I want you to follow through on your end of the deal.” “The charges have been dropped. You’re free to go. You can pick up your ticket at the counter. You have one more thing to do.” She squeezed the phone. “Wait. You said all I had to do was make sure he saw the picture on the brochure.” “Get out of Texas and never go back unless you want to be buried there.” “No problem. I don’t ever want to see you again either.” “Where are you going?” “None of your damn business,” she replied. “Have a great life,” the man said sarcastically. She slammed her cell phone shut and walked toward the ticket counter. What had she done to a man named Philip Lewellan—a man who had fought back tears. More importantly, why had Barletto threatened her? Why did he ask her where … hell it wouldn’t be hard for him to figure that out. Her stomach churned. She placed another call. A woman answered. “I’m going to be a few days later than I told you.” “Are you okay? Has something happened?” “I’m fine, Momma. There’s something I need to take care of first.” “I’ve been so worried about you. Please be careful.” She looked up and realized she was next in line. “I have to go now. I love you.” Stepping up to the ticket counter, she said, “My name is Jessica Riddling. I should have a one way open e-ticket.” The ticket agent entered her name and waited for her computer screen to update. Decision time. Go home and hope Barletto wouldn’t come after her, or go on the run. His sarcasm was a dead giveaway. He’d never planned to let her go. If she was going to run, she’d need help. She remembered what Philip had said, “I’m hoping to catch a flight out in the morning.” She wasn’t ready to confront him yet. Screwing up a police investigation could land her back in jail, or worse, she would end up dead, if Barletto got to her first. “I want to go to New York. Anything, but an early morning flight.” Chapter 2 The plane landed at La Guardia fifteen minutes later than scheduled. His carry-on bag strapped over his shoulder, Philip hurried through the terminal. After he passed through the doorway, marked Ground Transportation, he scanned the area until he spotted a man wearing a traditional chauffeur’s uniform. The man, a cap covering most of his gray hair, noticed him and approached. “Hi, Joseph.” Joseph reached for his bag. “Welcome back, Mr. Lewellan. I must be losing my mind. It seems like only yesterday you flew out of here.” Trying to appear amused, Philip said, “You’re not losing your mind.” His forced smile faded. “I hope I haven’t lost mine.” He jumped in the limousine and handed an address to Joseph. “Take me here first, then the hotel.” “The James Walker Chapman Art Gallery it is.” Forty minutes later, Joseph pulled the limousine over and stopped. Philip gazed out the window. “Are you sure this is the right place?” “Yes, sir.” Joseph pointed to an old brick structure packed between two scruffy looking facades. “The one in the center has to be it.” “Wait here.” Philip said. The hand-carved wooden door, dried and cracked from sun and rain, could have used some stain. A brass nameplate, tarnished so dark the raised letters James Walker Chapman Art Gallery were almost unreadable, confirmed he had arrived at the correct location. The foyer was well maintained, nothing like the exterior of the building. Pale green walls lined the entry. The odor of fresh paint hung in the air as he glanced at the four paintings displayed in the hallway, two on each side of two open archways leading to two rooms, one to his left and one to his right. At the end of the hallway a third open archway opposite the entry door allowed a limited view of a third room. More paintings displayed on its walls. “Hello,” Philip called. There was no response. He raised his voice and tried again. “Is anyone here?” Again, no response. You’d think someone would be delighted to greet a customer entering this place. Against the wall on the other side of the archway to his left were landscapes. Others hung above them. Upon entering the room, the sound of a muted alarm in the background disrupted the only other sound, a whistling return air vent in the ceiling. Gazing around the room, a portrait displayed on the wall to his right caught his attention. Illuminated by a light mounted above it, what he had come for was a mere few steps away. He walked close enough to reach out and touch it. The brochure photo had not done it justice. The details were flawless. Her brown eyes looked happy and inquiring, the way he remembered. Her hair had been longer the day she disappeared, but the color was right, dark brown, almost black. Scanning down the painting he focused on the smile that had stolen his heart the moment he first saw her. All of her features, so real, he wanted to reach out for her. And the necklace, painted in exquisite quality. The pearls appeared almost three dimensional. The overlapping twists and unique weave of the platinum links connected each pearl to the next. Hair pulled back over her right ear, exposed one of the matching black pearl earrings. The necklace and earrings, his gift to Renée on their second wedding anniversary, were his own custom design. Farther down, the little girl, with blue eyes, looked up at her mother. Her eyes and hair color like his, but she had her mother’s mouth. She’s precious. His heart raced. The alarm went silent. Moments later, approaching footsteps on the black and white ceramic tiled floor preceded a short man with white hair at the doorway. In his late fifties or early sixties, he appeared to take a quick assessment. His eyes cut a path from head to toe as he approached. “Beautiful, isn’t she.” Philip stared at the man. “I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to interrupt your concentration. I’m here to help. If you have any questions, it would be my pleasure to address them.” “What can you tell me about this painting?” The man smiled and extended his hand. “Roscoe Chapman.” He grabbed his hand and shook it. “Philip Lewellan.” “Randellini is an artist best known for his life-like portraits in oil. Do you notice how her dark brown eyes seem to study us as closely as we study her?” “Yes, I know those eyes.” Chapman hesitated, and then said, “Randellini captures the soul of a woman better than most artists of our time. Her hair looks so real it makes you feel even the smallest breeze would blow it across her face.” “Yes, thank you. Please tell me what else you know about this painting.” Chapman glanced at it. “I was quite surprised when it arrived. I don’t get many from him.” “I’m interested in finding out about the woman in the portrait. Do you know who she is?” Chapman put his hand to his chin. “That’s strange.” “What’s strange?” “Another man came in here a few days ago and asked me the same question.” “Who was the gentleman?” Chapman lowered his hand and rolled his eyes. “Sir, he was no gentleman. I can assure you. He never gave me his name. He was displeased when I told him Rudolf Randellini died over twelve years ago, and I had no way of knowing who the woman was. He stormed out of here mumbling words I don’t care to repeat.” Philip turned and gazed at the little girl. “This work is more recent than that, within the last year or two.” He turned toward Chapman. “You have no information in your files to help me find her?” Chapman shook his head. “Most definitely not, but you are correct, sir. I was merely stating what I told the other man. After he left, I decided to do some checking. I don’t know as much about art as my father. This gallery was his passion. After he became ill, he tried to teach me the business. Unfortunately, it was too late by then.” “I’m truly sorry about your father, but I must find this woman.” “Thank you, sir. Rudolf and my father were close friends. My father, deeply saddened by Rudolf’s death, sold many of his paintings over the years. This one was not done by Rudolf Randellini. Regrettably, I gave the other man erroneous information. Not intentionally, of course, but all the same I believe it probably cost me the sale.” “This painting is a fake?” Chapman jerked his head up, raised his voice slightly and said, “No, sir, it is not.” Pointing to the signature, Philip said, “It’s signed R Randellini. What else am I to think?” “I see your point, sir, but I can explain. This one was shipped with two other older paintings from France. I assumed all three were from Rudolf’s collection. I have since learned Rudolf’s son, Ramsel painted this portrait, not his father, Rudolf.” “You described how Randellini could—” “Capture the soul of a woman better than most artists of our time. Yes, sir, the artist capable of matching Rudolf’s ability is Rudolf’s son, Ramsel.” He glared at Chapman. One hoped to get simple straight forward information, but Chapman’s approach seemed to be anything but that. “If you’re disappointed, sir, I have the two by Ru—” ”I’m only interested in paintings of this woman.” Chapman shook his head. “I only have this one of her.” “Do you know when Ramsel completed it?” “As you thought, within the last year. After I reviewed the records more closely, I realized Rudolf’s son had to be the artist.” “Where can I find him?” “I suppose I could get that information for you.” Picking up on Chapman’s hint, he asked, “How much for the painting?” “I can let you have it for five thousand.” It’s the proof he needed. “I wish to take it with me along with the information on Ramsel Randellini.” Pulling a credit card from his wallet brought a smile to Chapman’s face. “Yes, of course,” responded Chapman. He beamed and grabbed the card. “It will only take me a moment, sir.” He turned and walked toward his office. While he waited for Chapman to run the card, Philip read the name of the portrait again. My Sweet Beautiful Rachel. Painted within the last year. He removed his cell phone and took several photos of the painting. He should call Copeland. No one knew more about the case. But would she be willing to help him after what he had put her through? At the time, the detective seemed too young and inexperienced to lead the investigation. His requests for a more seasoned person had been denied. He was told Detective Sandra Copeland had outperformed her equals as well as older and more experienced detectives. If anyone could find his wife, she would. His thoughts were interrupted once again by the sound of footsteps. Chapman approached with a frown. “I have bad news. I should have checked the status of the painting after I returned from lunch. My assistant accepted an offer while I was out. I’m sorry, but this painting is no longer available.” He held out the credit card. Philip took it and said, “Can you tell me who made the offer?” “That’s not our policy. My assistant accepted it and confirmed the sale by e-mail.” “Tell them you have another buyer for the painting.” Chapman stared at him. “Another buyer? I’m afraid I don’t understand.” “I’ll pay them three times the price they paid you for the painting. In addition, you could earn a nice fee. Let’s say, ten thousand for brokering the deal, if you can get it done today.” Chapman’s eyes widened. “I’ll try my best, sir.” That was more like it. He held out a business card. “I expect to hear from you no later than this evening. Do you have the information on Randellini?” “Yes,” Chapman said, taking the card. “He lives in Paris, but like his late father, spends a lot of time in New York. He maintains his father’s old studio apartment, not far from the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, according to my assistant, he could be in town as we speak.” Chapman handed him a piece of paper. “Here’s the address. I’m sorry I can’t give you a telephone number. Ramsel detests them, but I’m told he often dines at the River Café, a nice restaurant near the bridge. If he’s not at his apartment, you might find him there this evening.” “Thank you.” He took the paper and glanced at the address. Brooklyn. “It is I who want to thank you, sir. Please accept my apologies for my lack of knowledge about the woman in the painting.” Philip left the gallery. As he approached the limo, Joseph opened the rear door. He handed Joseph the address. “Take me to this address.” Before he closed the door, Joseph glanced at it and said, “Brooklyn it is.” What if Chapman doesn’t come through? Without physical evidence, getting Copeland out of Dallas would be like getting Washington out of the dollar bill. There had to be a way to get her to New York, painting or no painting in hand. Joseph started the car. Philip pushed the button that lowered the privacy window. “Joseph, I need to make stop before we cross the bridge.” Chapter 3 Dallas Police Detective Sandra Copeland sat at her desk reviewing an investigative report. In an attempt to gain ground, she had skipped lunch again. Her new partner had made things better. For a change, he pulled his weight in their missing-persons case load. Unfortunately, Detective Kevin Franks posed a new problem. He had shown plenty of interest in her. Dating him was out of the question. They’d be yanked apart at even the hint of a romantic relationship. She’d figure out a way to handle the situation. But at age 32, how long could she keep her social life on indefinite hold? Her desk phone rang. The flashing light, the last in a row of ten, indicated a call on her direct line. The unlisted number given out to family members of missing persons. “Copeland.” “Detective Copeland? Philip Lewellan.” “Mr. Lewellan, it’s been a long time.” “About three years.” “I’m sorry, but we have no new information about your wife.” “I’ve always assumed you’d call me if you did,” Philip said. “Yes, sir, I would. What can I do for you?” “Do you remember our last conversation?” She leaned back in her chair. “Why don’t you refresh my memory?” “You told me there was nothing further you could do without physical evidence.” “I recall saying something like that.” “And what else you said?” Where’s he going with this? “What’s your point, Mr. Lewellan?” She straightened in her seat and leaned forward. “I’ve found proof that my wife and child are alive and I need your help.” She glanced at her partner. Kevin sitting at his desk less than three feet from hers was obviously listening to her side of the conversation. She moved the receiver to left hand and picked up a pen. “What kind of proof?” “Twenty minutes ago, I left an art gallery where an oil painting of my wife and child is on display. The painting is recent and the child appears to be the right age. I tried to purchase it, but someone else beat me to it.” She frowned and tossed the pen back onto her desk. “Mr. Lewellan, I don’t think an oil painting is proof they’re alive. It’s probably a painting of a woman who looks like your wife." “I thought you’d give me a little more credit than that. I’m not stupid. ” “I never meant to imply─” “Of course you didn’t. The name of the artist is Randellini. I’m going to find him. I’ve had the brochure scanned and I’m sending the image to you. I’m hoping you’ll be willing to meet me in New York City tomorrow. My cell phone number and your flight information will be in the e-mail. I can pick you up at the airport.” Why won’t he accept the fact his wife is dead and never coming back? She couldn’t let this start all over again. “I’m afraid that’s not going to happen. I can’t imagine getting travel authorization based on an oil painting.” There was no response. “Are you still there?” she asked. “Yes, I was considering my other options, since you don’t want to help me.” “You’re well aware I was forced to halt all active search activity. And that order came from a high enough level that not even you were able get it overridden.” “I know how much your department spent chasing down bogus leads. I spent twenty times that much on private investigators. This won’t cost your department anything but your time. I’m willing to cover that if necessary, but I realize I’m still asking a lot.” “It’s not that I don’t want to help you, but my hands are tied. I have other cases, active cases.” “I’m asking for twenty-four hours. If you’re convinced there’s nothing to what I’ve found, I’ll send you back to Dallas in the First Class cabin.” “Twenty-four hours.” She shook her head once. Why was she even considering it? “Your flight arrives at La Guardia at 1:20 tomorrow afternoon. I have an e-ticket confirmed for you on the seven o’clock flight tomorrow morning.” “I can’t promise you anything without the lieutenant’s approval.” A good excuse when she comes to her senses. “You’re not coming, are you?” “I told you I have to get the lieutenant’s approval,” she said, wishing her tone had not been so harsh. Even Kevin looked away. After a few moments of silence, Philip asked, “Can you at least promise me you’ll look at the picture I’m sending you?” “That, I can promise.” She reeled off her e-mail address and hung up. Kevin gazed at her eagerly. “Let’s have it.” “Philip Lewellan thinks he’s found proof his wife and child are alive.” “Never heard of him.” “It’s an old case, before you transferred to the department. Seven years ago, he went to London on business. When he returned to his home in Dallas, his wife was gone. She’s hasn’t been seen or heard from since. She was four months pregnant at the time.” “Seven years?” She nodded. “Exactly my thought.” He spun around in his chair to face her. “So what did he find?” “An oil painting.” “How does it prove they’re alive?” “He believes it’s a recent painting of his wife and child.” “Sounds like the husband in our last case.” “Lewellan’s actions didn’t add up to a murdering husband.” “How so?” “Nothing indicated another woman. There was no financial gain by her death. But the most compelling reason I don’t think he had anything to do with her disappearance was his unborn child’s nursery. When I was forced to put the case on inactive status, I went to his home to tell him. He showed me the nursery he and his wife had prepared. His voice cracked looking in the empty crib. I doubt any man has been more ready to be a father than Philip Lewellan. Struggling to fight back tears, he vowed he would keep searching until they were found. He did everything humanly possible. Never withdrawing the million dollar reward he offered for information leading to their safe recovery.” “Maybe a reward he knew he wouldn’t have to pay.” Kevin flipped his pen in the air and caught it. “Do you really think she could be alive?” “No,” she said shaking her head. “But from his tone, he wants to believe they are. A far different tone than three years ago when he seemed ready to give up on life” “I bet. Killing your pregnant wife might do that to a man.” She stared at him. “I was that way once.” “Pregnant?” “No! Suspecting the husband is the bad guy in every case where a wife disappeared.” “Since I’ve been here, we’ve closed three cases where they were.” “We’ve closed that many where women ran away for a new life.” Kevin shook his head. “Well, Lewellan’s wife didn’t, or she would have turned up somewhere by now. In my book, he’s still a suspect.” She laughed. “You have a few things to learn.” “Like what?” “When police stop actively searching, murdering husbands give up looking. You might want to put that in your book.” He swung back around in his chair and tossed his pen on his desk. “I’ll try to keep an open mind.” “Good idea.” She checked her e-mail and clicked on the one from Lewellan. There was an attachment. A double click, an image started filling the screen from the top down. She snatched a file folder from her lower left desk drawer. Opened it, retrieved a photo of Renée Lewellan, a photocopy of a fingerprint card, and the twenty-eight page summary of notes she’d made during her investigation. Kevin glanced at the label on the folder. “You’ve got to be kidding.” Ignoring his comment, she spread the documents out on her desk. “How did you end up with that fingerprint card?” “It’s a copy of the original. Her prints were on several of her personal items in their master bathroom. I wanted them entered into the database in case we needed to ID a body. I also collected strands of hair from one of her brushes.” “You’ve kept a closed case file on a missing person in your desk for seven years?” He shook his head. “No wonder your desk looks like a disaster area.” “For the record, it’s not closed. It’s inactive. And the official file is kept in the record’s department downstairs. This one has a photograph of Renée Lewellan and a copy of my report. I used to keep short files of photos and physical descriptions, inactive cases and data in my desk, before we had everything put on computers. It was a good way to quickly compare notes to forensic reports I received from the state lab.” “Maybe I should do that too,” Kevin said sarcastically. “Or, I could operate in the modern world and continue to use the department’s computerized file system.” When the full image filled the screen, she held the photo of Renée next to it. “Hmmm.” Could it really be her? “Kevin, I’d like your opinion on this.” He stepped over to her desk. Holding the photo next to the computer screen, she asked, “What do you think?” “She’s beautiful.” “That’s not what I was asking.” She elbowed him in the side. “Do they look like the same person to you?” For several seconds, Kevin examined the two images. “The hair’s shorter and the face in the painting is fuller, but otherwise I’d say they’re unquestionably the same person.” Putting the photo down, she said, “People do gain weight.” Kevin straightened up and patted his firm stomach. “Some don’t.” She waited until he was forced to let his breath out. “You’ll have to cover for me while I’m in New York.” “Good luck getting the lieutenant’s approval. Especially after you tell him all you have is an oil painting. Besides, have you forgotten he’s on vacation this week?” “How could I forget?” After the image was saved and sent to the printer, she said, “Must be why I don’t hear him telling me I can’t go.” “I’d love to see The Big Apple with you.” He grinned. She stood and glared at him. “I meant you may need backup.” She patted him on the shoulder. “I’ll call you when the shooting starts.” “I guess one of us has to stay and keep the crime wave to a ripple.” “You’re the man.” Checked her watch, gathered up the documents, and placed them back inside the folder. “I might need these in New York.” She grabbed her purse and said, “I’m going home to pack a few things. See you in a couple of days.” On her way to the stairs, she stopped at the printer and grabbed the photo and placed it in the file with the other documents. At the stairway, she stopped and turned around. Kevin, still standing beside her desk, smiled. “Change your mind about me going with you?” If he only knew how much she’d love that. Reality set in. With all the cases they were working, he had to stay. “No. I skipped lunch today. It’s in the refrigerator, lettuce and tomato on wheat, if you want it.” He nodded. “Call me if you need anything.” “I’m pretty sure I’ve got your number.” After pressing the unlock button on her car remote, she hesitated and looked back at the building entrance. Without authorization, going back would be the smart move. She’d received her fair share of warnings from the lieutenant. How much more would it take before he was forced to bring disciplinary action against her? Lewellan’s influence and money had made it one of the most publicized missing-persons cases in the country. The pressure from above to solve the case had been horrendous. Re-activating the seven-year-old case, based on an oil painting, would be the last thing the lieutenant would approve. Getting on that plane might be career suicide. A couple of vacation days left. She opened the car door, started the engine and pulled out of the parking lot. Who said they couldn’t be taken in New York?


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