Murder is the least complicated crime. Find the weapon, typically you'll find the killer. It's not like it is in the stories, where six experts in rolling cigars are locked in a room when someone is killed with --- you guessed it, an expertly made exploding cigar. And every one of them has a great reason to blow the poor sucker's head off. What I've seen, it's far more likely in a room filled with expert cigar rollers, that someone would lose it, grab the heaviest thing at hand, and beat someone else to death.
As a private investigator, I've not gotten tied up in a lot of murder cases. Catching murderers is up to the cops, and proving it up to the lawyers. On the rare occasion, there's room for a little work by a private investigator, usually something dull, like watching a building and recording who goes in and out and at what times. However, there are times when attorneys are unhappy, because a client is unhappy, usually over the results of the Last Will and Testament, or the life insurance suits get wind they've been had. Some free advice: Do not con insurance men. They're tougher than the toughs, and smarter than you, with resources to make your life miserable for a very long time. This time, though, the client was a friend. A buddy of mine from my time flying during The War To End All Wars.
Nicodemus Dobbs inherited the Spurlock ranch from one of his mother's people, an uncle as I recall. Nick couldn't have been a better pick, though members of the family thought otherwise. The ranch was modestly sized in my grandfather's day, however, buying up when neighbors lost out or gave up, the Spurlocks had come to own a large spread just beyond the city limits of Denver. It had grown to be just right for someone with big ambitions and the need for space. As the generations branched, the family built houses at the ranch's perimeter, close to the city, but it was the old Uncle John Spurlock that held the power, and owned all the land, permitting family members to build on tiny plots of only a few acres, and even then, only allowing them to lease the land, though their homes sat on it. Members of the Spurlock clan disagreed with the old man's wishes that a man named Dobbs nearly none of them knew would come to own the place. Apparently, Nick made an impression on his Uncle John who'd survived three wives and outlived his only son. Some said it was the old man's deep, abiding pig-headedness that he refused to die. Others said it was the land that kept him alive so long. He hadn't left the ranch since some time in the McKinley administration, and never will now he's buried in the family cemetery on the hill near the main gate.
Nick joined him there on that hill in early spring, several months ago. He had owned the Spurlock ranch a few years when the bad news came to my breakfast table via the Denver Post. He was one of the few men I kept in somewhat regular contact with from my time in Europe. He'd come to us from the mule skinners. He was placed with them by mistake. Well, not mistake, I guess, but by Army logic. He was a crack mechanic and had worked on about every machine known to mankind by the time he came to us, older than most, but sharper than anyone would usually guess, given his stooped shoulders, sleepy eyes, and droopy mouth. When I saw his obituary and the few notes surrounding his death in the Post, I couldn't believe his death being ruled a suicide. Nick wasn't the type. I'd seen the type, more than once. Men that got news about a brother killed at the front (or even at the back), or a wife who'd cut and run back home. Suddenly that man is game for every bit of tough action he can find, and usually getting tacked up with ribbons and gewgaws until they finally send him out for the final time, and have to go find enough of him to scoop into a little pine box to ship home, or simply plant him then and there.
Like I said, Nick wasn't the type. He loved his life, and God knows why, he loved that ranch. He talked about being the one to provide for generations of his family into the future. At least that's what it sounded like when I talked to him last, maybe a year ago. Time can get away; maybe it's been 18 months ago. Anyway, not the kind of guy to take a long look at a jar of rat poison and grow curious what it tasted like.
The police were called in. They decided his gathered kith and kinfolk were the likeliest to know what had happened, and their stories added up to one thing: suicide. According to the papers, there wasn't much else to go on. His sudden death was a shock, but it was no match for this past week when a woman claiming to be Mrs. Nicodemus Dobbs called. I had no idea there was a Mrs., and neither did the good folks on the obituary desk at the Denver Post. When asked, they said it was another of the Spurlock clan that provided the information and paid for the obit for old Nick last spring. The obit sure never mentioned a wife, widow, or "distraught companion."
This Mrs. Dobbs sounded level enough over the 'phone. If I still had a legitimate place of business, I'd have met her there, unfortunately, the only place I have at my disposal at present is my own. Especially since she wanted to meet during the day, and I wasn't about to buy her lunch somewhere. I stood on the curb when she pulled in driving a recent blue Buick coupe. I wasn't sure what I expected after talking to her on the 'phone, but it took me a moment to decide if she fit the bill of goods I was being sold. Walking up the gravel drive back toward my place, watching her exit the motor, I decided to at least play along.
"Is this your place?" She asked, smiling.
"Yes," I said, not understanding the implications of her tone.
"I didn't realize you were one of those Winters."
"Ah." There it was. "Well, the big house is no longer in the family. I live here out back." I said, my nod following the curve of the drive. She was not bad looking, but very tall for a woman. Nick had been tall too, though. I'm not a short man by any stretch, but she was almost a head taller than me. Looked to be exactly the kind to run a one man show. Or a one-woman show, as the case may be.
I brought her up to my flat above the two-deep, five stall garage built by my father when I was a child, showing her into the large front room, overlooking the neighborhood. She was polished, maybe from one of those girls schools in Virginia or somewhere down there.
She was leaning into a photograph on the wall. I'd nearly forgotten it was there, it's hung there so long. "I remember seeing Speckled Band run as a girl. There are people who still remember your father's horse days fondly," she said taking in the room. She scanned my walls of overfilled bookshelves and photos and gewgaws that accumulate. She wasn't looking at the books or anything else in particular but organized her thoughts, maybe even marshaling her strength. Her gaze drifted around the room, settling to the corner of the room. I was about to offer her a drink but decided against it. She didn't need to be staying long and didn't seem the type to have a drink and start talking. She came with what she wanted to say, and that was all I was going to get. For now.
"Are these the old stables?" She asked, genuinely interested. Now that I had her in this room with the large southern windows, I could see she was well-dressed in riding breeches, and custom boots that were well looked after, and had a few years on them. No jewelry, except a modest silver wedding band. Maybe it was white gold. Doesn't matter.
I invited her to sit in one of the large leather club chairs with a wave."This hasn't been the stables in a very long time. My father infamously converted his racing stable into a garage, selling off his racehorses, and the north meadows when I was still fairly young." I said, pouring myself a whiskey, flipping a small, discreet lever on the bar cart as I did so. I wondered if she'd press on into less flattering common knowledge about my family or leave it for another time. A lot of people seem to still have questions after all these years, and don't seem to bother feeling bothered asking a near total stranger some rather intimate questions. I can't blame them for being curious, though. Questions still linger for many, myself included.
"Mr. Winters, I hadn't thought to call on you until this week when I came across your letters to Nick among his correspondence. Nick talked about you, that he'd known you from your time in France together, and that you were now an investigator for hire."
So far so good. The timing still felt strange, but it could have been the truth. I nodded. "Mrs. Dobbs," I always treat a new client as though I believe exactly everything they say, "Nick was a top hand in work, war, and friendship." This was a little thick but visibly pleased her. "What can I do for you?"
"Nick was murdered." She said it flat. It wasn't practiced, nor polished.
I had doubts about Nick's demise, but he was dead, there was not much sense going after a whole entrenched family like the Spurlocks if they had indeed plotted together. But the appearance of Mrs. Dobbs was maybe the opening I needed to find out what actually happened to my friend. "It's a bold accusation you're making Mrs. Dobbs. What gives you the idea he was murdered?"
"They told me they killed him! His family. They hated him from the beginning, and hated him all the more when the old man left him the whole place when he died."
I nodded. "People can get funny about family land and family money," she didn't seem to notice the unintentional bitterness, but I could hear it. It's been so long, but --
"That's true, Mr. Winters, but this was real Hatfields and McCoys nonsense. Using his pickup truck for target practice, killing his dog."
I sat up. "They killed his dog? How?"
"Sent it into a pit everyone knew was filled with snakes. They're vicious, horrid people."
"The dog? Who does that? I couldn't do that, even to a mean dog." This was taking a strange tack. I needed to bring it back around. "Why'd the old man choose Nick anyway? What's the problem with the family?"
Turning from me, she looked out the large window. "Nick's mother was the next sister older than Uncle John, and a bit of a black sheep. It turns out, she kept in touch with Uncle John, especially in their later years. They had always been very fond of one another, I'm told. Nick reminded him of her, the good parts anyway. And, Nick was of the same mind as the old man when it came to important things. They had that in common too. No squabbling, no bickering. Just doing your best with what you had."
I nodded. "Yes, that makes sense," I said, even though it didn't. Sure, Nick was a helluva guy, but this was getting downright noble, saintly even, and a hard worker it was true, but he looked out for himself. And his uncle, John Spurlock, if what was said about him had even a grain of truth, he was a vicious son of a bitch. "Nick was reliable. A top hand, no matter what," I said, a little closer to the truth.
She nodded but again looked to the corner of the room. My desk was there, with a model I was building of a Sopwith Camel. I suppose looked peculiar for a grown man to build stick and paper models of planes, but maybe she understood. At first, I thought this was only a lull in the story, but that seemed to be the end.
"Now, Mrs. Dobbs, I do enjoy lifting a glass to the memory of a friend, but that's not why you called me."
"No, Mr. Winters, it's not. I'd like to hire you Mr. Winters because Nick didn't kill himself. One of his family members murdered him."
"Why would they do that?"
"Haven't you been listening?"
"You can be a nightmare of a human, a violent crank, and even commit .... dogicide, but it doesn't mean you're a murderer." I took another sip. "Except a dog murderer, I guess."
"Mr. Winters, Nick was murdered. You were his friend." She said.
"Yes, ma'am, he's dead. What would it change now?"
She frowned. "You're no friend at all. Nick said you weren't just a friend, but a good one. I'd imagine you'd want justice for him, if nothing else."
"Mrs. Dobbs, Nick and I had lots of friends die. Nearly all of them pointless deaths in the scheme of things. I was lucky. More than lucky in fact, but it doesn't change the fact that it was all random. From day to day, it could be you, it could be the guy next to you who isn't at the next morning's briefing. At least Nick got to pick the day."
A look of horror spread across her face. "How dare you." Her color rose to her hairline, her voice bounced off the ceiling. "Nick did not take his life, it was taken from him! He had dreams, plans, and love in his life!" She started to cry, angry. "He had everything to live for! His life was torn away by one of the Spurlocks."
I finished my glass as my eyes wandered to the shelf with a framed photograph taken many years ago now. We were so young but proud. Even me. I'd gone all but kicking and screaming, but once I was told I could continue flying, I thought it may not be too bad. I'd never been so wrong in my life, and that's saying a lot.
"Mrs. Dobbs." She looked at me. She'd already quit crying, and was dabbing a final time at her eyes. "I'll look into it." She nodded. "In fact, I had a document drawn up between Nick and I a couple years ago or so, but he said it had been resolved and I wasn't needed any longer." One of her eyes narrowed. It was small, but it was there. "In fact," I continued, "why don't I just add you to the contract, and you can sign it."
"Honoring your old rate, I presume?" She asked sharply.
"Of course," I said, ignoring that she meant it as a slight. "I think that would have pleased Nick," I said.
"I'm sure it would have."
I went to my desk and rolled it up. Nick's contract was still there, where I'd left it a while ago. I brought it to his widow.
She began to read. "This doesn't say a whole lot."
"No, it does not. Nick only said he may need my help professionally but never got around to explaining what he needed. I drew things up so he could fill in the blanks, but we never did. Later he'd said the matter sorted itself out. I left it at that." She put the paper down, making no move for the pen laying at hand. "If you aren't willing to trust me and sign it now, I'll draw up something fresh and official for you to sign soon since you've ambushed me with this."
Her smile was stark. "That suits me fine, Mr. Winters."
It sounded like a threat.
Merci pour la lecture!