Originally published by “EWG Presents: Without A Clue” April, 2001
Derringer Award Winner for Best Short Story 2002
Earl Staggs is a three-time winner of the Derringer Award for Best Short Story of the Year and earned all Five Star reviews for his novels MEMORY OF A MURDER and JUSTIFIED ACTION. He served as Managing Editor of Futures Mysterious Anthology Magazine, as President of the Short Mystery Fiction Society, and is a frequent speaker at conferences and seminars. He invites any comments via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
He also invites you to visit his blog site at https://earlwstaggs.wordpress.com to learn more about his novels and stories.
ALL THE FINE ACTORS
A Short Story
by Earl Staggs
He’d been sitting on the hot tarred roof for an hour with his rifle across his lap. His back ached from pressing against the stubby concrete safety wall edging the front of the building, and his face and scalp itched from perspiration under the blond wig and beard. Campaign speeches rose with their own tinny echo from a PA system rigged up for the street rally below. The mayor was talking now, promising better schools, lower taxes and anything else the crowd wanted to hear.
“Good for you, Mr. Mayor,” the shooter mumbled to himself. “Now shut up
so I can do what I have to do and get off this stinking roof.”
As if he’d heard the plea, the mayor began what sounded like a wrap-up to
his part of the program.
“…so I hope you good folks know you can count on me. I know I’ll be
counting on you…”
Using his rifle for support, the shooter twisted himself around and rose
into a crouching position just below the top of the short wall that had
become like a second spine over the last hour or so, then inched his head
up to have a look. Four stories down, the street was cordoned off at one
end by police cars and an ambulance and by a mobile TV van at the other.
Blue and white lettering on the van said Channel Five Eyewitness News.
“…to put your confidence in me once again with your vote come election
Some two hundred people stood shoulder to shoulder in the street,
surrounding a speaker’s platform erected in the middle of the block for
the occasion. Twenty more sat in two rows of folding chairs on the
platform facing the building the shooter had chosen for his own part of
the program. At the lectern, the short, balding, pear-shaped mayor,
sharply dressed in a dark suit and red necktie, raised both arms high in
the air and gave the crowd his best smile as they erupted into a round of
shouting and applause.
The shooter lifted his rifle, gently rested its barrel across the top of
the wall and snugged the stock into his shoulder. He sighted his scope
on the mayor’s chest for a second, then slowly panned left. Sheriff
Sanford Thornberry, broad-shouldered and ruggedly handsome, sat there
tall and straight in his perfectly fitted tan uniform, reading something.
His speech. Beside him, an attractive, leggy blonde in a white suit and
pink blouse, did her best to appear interested in what was going on.
Mrs. Sheriff. Next to her, Chief Deputy Ansel Williams squirmed in his
chair as though he wasn’t at all comfortable being there. He was a tall
man like the sheriff and wore the same uniform, but his sloping shoulders
and bulging gut made it look like a misfit. Businessmen in suits and
more uniformed deputies filled the chairs in the second row.
The mayor waved his arms up and down in a motion to quiet the crowd and
leaned toward the microphone.
“And now it gives me great pleasure to introduce the man who
has served as your sheriff for two terms and needs your vote for another
The shooter pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped
perspiration from his forehead and eyelids
“…the man who’s done more to clean up this county than anyone else…”
He lowered his cheek to the stock of his rifle again, adjusted the scope
slightly with two fingers, and waited.
“…the best sheriff we’ve ever had around here and a man I’m proud to
call my very good friend, your sheriff and mine…Sanford L. Thornberry.”
The crowd exploded into a thunderous round of applause as the sheriff
stood, shook hands with the mayor, and stepped up to the microphone. The
man on the roof waited until the noise of the crowd died down before he
squeezed the trigger. He watched just long enough to see the sheriff
grab his chest and fall, then hurried across the rooftop to the stairwell
door, his rifle in one hand, a briefcase in the other.
He took the first flight of steps quickly, stopping at the third floor
landing long enough to disassemble the rifle and place it in the
briefcase along with the wig and beard. On his way down two more
flights, he wrestled off the dark tee shirt that covered his
short-sleeved dress shirt and necktie underneath. At the exit door on
the first level, he stopped to stuff the tee shirt in the briefcase and
took time to run a comb through his short dark brown hair. He
stepped out of the building onto a side street looking like any
thirty-five-year-old bank manager or insurance salesman out for a midday
stroll. If anyone had happened to spot him on the roof, their
description would be useless.
He weaved his way through the frenzied, horrified crowd in the street
and up to the speaker’s platform. Sheriff Thornberry lay on his stomach
beside the lectern. A ragged blotch of crimson stained the wood planks
beneath his chest. The mayor had removed his suit jacket and placed it
over the sheriff’s head and upper body. Within minutes, an ambulance
worked its way through the crowd and a team of paramedics lifted the
sheriff onto a stretcher and carried him away.
The shooter scanned the people still milling around on the platform
until he met another pair of eyes looking back. A nod passed between
them. The brief nod acknowledged that everything had gone as planned.
It was also an unspoken confirmation of the prearranged meeting to
complete the transaction. The old warehouse at the edge of town. Nine
The shooter turned and made his way back through the crowd and walked a
block away to his car. The easy part was over. The hard part lay ahead.
Most of the time, the final part went as planned, but sometimes his
clients got cute and decided to change the arrangements. Something in
that pair of eyes told him this would be one of those times. He checked
his watch. Ten past four. Nearly five hours to wait.
He drove slowly and casually around town to kill the first hour, then
stopped at the Four Star Cafe. By now, he figured the news would be well
spread. He was right. Inside the narrow restaurant, six locals stood
like a cluster of statues at the end of the long counter. Six more sat
motionless at small round tables along the opposite wall. A distressed
young anchorwoman, blond and long-faced, spoke from a TV set hanging on
the back wall next to the kitchen door. The shooter settled onto a stool
at the end of the counter close to the front door, unnoticed, and joined
the silent audience.
“Hundreds watched in shock and horror as Sheriff Sanford L. Thornberry,
apparently dead from a single gunshot to the chest, was taken away to
Memorial Hospital. Chief Deputy Ansel Williams spearheaded an immediate
search of the area to locate the person who fired the shot. Pete Crosby
is on the scene now. Pete, can you tell us anything new on this terrible
“Sally, I’m here with Deputy Ansel Williams who is in charge of the
investigation. So far the person or persons responsible have not been
apprehended. Is that correct, Deputy Williams?”
Williams stepped into camera view, looking even more nervous and
uncomfortable than he had sitting on the speaker’s platform. “We’re
still searching the area,” he said stiffly, leaning back from the
microphone the reporter had thrust within inches of his face. “Whoever
did this won’t get away, I promise you that.”
Crosby asked, “Did anyone see who fired the shot?”
“Uh, no,” Deputy Williams replied, finally looking at the camera. “As
of yet, we have not found a witness who saw anything. We’re still
combing the area and will continue to do so.”
The reporter had another question ready. “What about roadblocks? Is it
possible the shooter has gotten out of town this soon?”
Williams shifted his weight and looked from side to side as though he
wanted to finish the interview and get on with more important duties.
“We can’t rule out any possibility at this point, but we’ve been in
contact with the state police and roadblocks are being established.”
The shooter grinned to himself. Roadblocks. Yeah, right, deputy. Tie
up traffic for fifty miles around. Only an amateur would try to run.
The best place to hide is in plain sight.
Crosby was saying now, “Sally, I see Mayor Thompson over here. Let me
see if I can talk to him. Mayor Thompson, can we talk to you for a
minute?” Crosby walked to his left with the microphone, leaving Deputy
Williams where he stood.
The mayor turned to face the camera and ran a hand over his bald scalp
as Crosby asked, “Mayor, what do you have to say about this shooting.
The mayor looked at the camera for a moment, then closed his eyes,
lowered his head and wagged it slowly from side to side. “What do I have
to say?” he muttered sadly. “What can I say? One of the finest men I’ve
ever known has been shot down in broad daylight right here in the center
of town.” He looked straight into the camera then with a determined,
tight-jawed expression. “I’ll say this. We’re going to do everything
possible to find out who’s responsible. I’m personally taking charge of
the investigation and no stone will be unturned until justice is done.”
The shooter nearly snickered out loud. Very dramatic, Mr. Mayor. You
should be on the stage. But then, he thought, all politicians are actors
in a way.
“Thank you, Mayor Thompson,” the reporter said, “and now back to you in
the studio, Sally.”
“Thank you, Pete Crosby, for that on-the-scene report.” Sally stared
into the camera now from her anchor desk in the studio. “Angela
Thornberry, wife of the slain sheriff, was driven away from the scene
immediately after the shooting and made no comment. We’re attempting to
get an interview with her to get her reaction to the events of the day.”
Good for you, Sally, the shooter thought. Don’t you love to stick a microphone in someone’s face and ask how it felt to see a loved one gunned down? Reporters!
The TV screen played a scene taped earlier of Mrs. Thornberry being led
to and helped into the back seat of a police car. She appeared unsteady
on her feet and her movie star face was a smear of tears and mascara.
She looked into the camera for a second and mouthed something through
trembling lips as she collapsed into the car seat.
The shooter rolled his eyes. A bit over the top but not a bad performance
overall. Quite good, as a matter of fact. He wondered if Mrs. Sheriff
had ever been an actress.
The waitress, standing below the TV at the far end of the counter
turned her head in the shooter’s direction and noticed him. He gave her
a nod and a pleasant look as an invitation. She was a short plump woman
in her late thirties with a pleasantly pretty face now pulled tight with
obvious grief. Over her left breast, her dark blue polo shirt displayed
four embroidered white stars in a crescent pattern over the name “Mitzi.”
She came to his end of the counter with a glass of water in her hand
“This county’s never going to be the same without San Thornberry,” she
said, shaking her head as she placed the glass in front of him. Her
voice quivered as though she needed to cry. She pulled an order pad and
a short pencil from a back pocket of her tight jeans and looked at him
with her best effort at a friendly smile. “What can I get you?”
“Did you know him well?” the shooter asked.
After a deep breath and a loud exhale, she said, “All my life just
about. We grew up together, went all through school together. We even
dated a few times before he went away in the Marines.”
“And after the Marines?”
Mitzi sighed and tried the friendly smile again. It was weak. “Oh, he
was hooked up with that Angela by then. We stayed friends, though. He
came in here a lot and we talked. It’s not going to be the same around
here without him.” She turned her attention back to the TV.
“How’s the chocolate cake?” the shooter asked.
“Huh?” Her eyes were glued to the screen
“That chocolate cake down there looks good.” He had decided not to eat
a big meal until after the meeting later that night.
She looked back at him blankly for a second, then down the counter where
a three-layer chocolate cake sat under a clear plastic cover. “Oh. It’s
good. Homemade. Want a piece?
“Please,” he said and watched her walk over to get it. No acting job
here, just genuine emotion over the loss of an old friend. He wished he
could say something to relieve the grief she felt. He couldn’t, of
course, but he felt sorry for her. He wondered for a second what it
would be like to spend time with people like Mitzi instead of people
playing roles to serve their own purposes. He knew he couldn’t do that
either. Not with what he did for a living.
After serving his cake, Mitzi went back to the other end of the counter.
Anchorperson Sally’s face filled the screen now. “Sanford Thornberry
had been Sheriff of Wyncombe County for two terms,” she said, “and
according to local polls, was well on his way to being reelected to an
unprecedented third term. Recently, he announced that he was close to
making arrests after a long investigation into an alleged drug smuggling
operation that has plagued the county for several years.”
Right, Sally, the shooter thought. He was close all right. Too close.
That’s why I’m here.
He ate his cake slowly and caught snatches of conversation from the
others in the restaurant.
“If you ask me,” one elderly woman sitting alone at one of the tables
along the wall said, “that snobby wife of his had something to with this.
Everyone knows she’s been running around with the mayor. San Thornberry
must’ve been blind.”
“That’s just rumor, Mattie,” a fat man two tables away said, “and you
should be careful what you say about people.”
A young man sitting farther down the counter and wearing a baseball cap
joined in. “It was the damn Mexicans if you ask me, the ones bringing
the drugs up here. San never should’ve messed with them.”
Mitzi glared at the man. “Well, somebody needed to do something about
the drugs. It’s all over town and you know it.”
“Knowing it and stopping it’s two different things,” the man shot back.
“You don’t mess with the Mexican mafia.”
“Shut up, Howard,” Mitzi said. “You think you know everything. The
mafia’s Italian, not Mexican.”
“Oh, no?” Howard shot back. “You just start messing around with the
drug business and you’ll find out if there’s a Mexican mafia or not.”
The shooter finished his cake, put enough money on the counter to cover
it plus a generous tip for Mitzi, and left the Four Star Cafe as
unnoticed as he’d come in. He drove to his motel and locked himself in
his room. Six o’clock. Three more hours to go. By now, he was certain
the person he was meeting would pull something. It was only a feeling
but a very strong one, and he was seldom wrong about people. With the
ones he dealt with, there was no honor left. Honor! He snorted at the
thought and lay across his bed to plan his moves for later.
* * *
The old cinder block warehouse sat by itself on the outskirts of town
with boarded windows and faded letters across the front saying “Johnson
Bros. Moving and…,” the rest of it washed away by wind and rain.
Beside it, a large parking lot had gone mostly to pot holes and weeds,
surrounded by squatty trees and overgrown brush. The lot was empty
except for an old moving van, rusted and sagging on flat tires against
the building wall. It was eight o’clock and quite dark, and the shooter
sat parked in his car half a block away.
At ten past eight, a dark minibus stopped on the street in front of the
warehouse. Seven men piled out. They talked for a few minutes before
three of them climbed back in the minibus. The other four walked to the
ancient moving van in the parking lot beside the warehouse, opened the
back door and climbed in.
At eight-forty, a car pulled into the parking lot, drove to the back and stopped. Three men got out. One man went left, one went right. The driver stayed by the car, leaned against the fender and lit a cigarette.
The scene was set.
The shooter drove down the street and pulled into the parking lot. He
stopped halfway across the lot, his car facing the other one. He got out
and walked over to stand with his back against the old moving van.
Deputy Sheriff Ansel Williams pushed himself off the fender of his car,
tossed his cigarette to the ground, and smiled. “You’re a little early.”
“No sense putting it off,” the shooter said. He shot looks right and
left for the two other men. The one on the left was crouched behind
overgrown brush, the other one was out of sight behind the warehouse.
“Let’s finish our business and get it over with. The sheriff is dead
like you wanted. Give me the rest of my money and I’m on my way.”
Williams held his smile for a moment, then wiped a hand across his
mouth. “I gotta hand it to you, pal. Hell, you walked right over and mingledwith the crowd like you belonged there. Very slick.”
“You’re pretty slick yourself, pal. With Thornberry out of the way,
you’ll get the Sheriff’s job and keep your drug business with the
Mexicans going strong.”
Williams’ eyes opened wide. “How…how did you know about that? I
never told you about that.”
The shooter glanced right and left again. The two men hadn’t made a
move yet. Probably waiting for a signal. “Just a wild guess. I picked
up a little scuttlebutt around town. Doesn’t make sense you’d want your
boss taken out just to get his job. Had to be more to it than that.”
Williams smiled again. More like a smirk. “Don’t matter if you know
now. You’re not going to be telling anybody about it.”
“No problem there. Just pay me what you owe me and I’m outa here for
good. What happens around here means nothing to me.”
“Yeah, well,” Williams said. He rubbed a hand across his chest slowly
and deliberately. The signal.
The shooter heard movement on his right first, then the left. The two
men stepped out into the open and both had guns in their hands.
Dark-skinned Latinos. Howard’s Mexican mafia. And they had him in a
crossfire. He sized them up quickly. The one on the right, stocky and
solid, about forty, eyes grim, mouth tight. He’d been around, a pro,
wouldn’t shoot unless he had to, wouldn’t buck the odds.
The other one, younger, maybe twenty, anxious eyes darting around,
licking his dry lips, came here to shoot and he would, no matter what.
Williams took a step forward. “About the rest of your money, I’m, uh,
afraid there’s been a little change in the plan. Sure, I had to protect
my business interests with my friends across the border. And I wanted
the Sheriff’s job, but there’s no guarantee I’d get it. Not without a
little insurance. Too bad you won’t hear the scuttlebutt around town
tomorrow. With all the publicity about me taking down the man who killed
San Thornberry, I’ll pull every vote in the county.”
“That’s quite a plan, Williams. You hire me to take out Thornberry,
then you kill me and become the local hero. Looks like I underestimated
The shooter reached behind himself and rapped his knuckles against the
side of the van. Three times. “Only problem is, you underestimated me.
Did you really think I’d be stupid enough to come out here by myself?”
Williams cocked his head, confused. “What are you talking about?”
The shooter didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. The back door of the
moving van swung open and four men in uniforms jumped out. At the same
time, the dark minibus that had been parked in front of the warehouse
spun into the parking lot and skidded to a halt beside the shooter’s car.
Three more cops scrambled out with shotguns.
The first man out of the moving van, Sheriff Sanford Thornberry,
shouted, “It’s over, Ansel. Tell your men to lose the weapons and get
their hands in the air.”
Williams stood frozen in place, shocked and unbelieving. “San? What
The shooter’s attention was on the young gunman on his left, hoping he
wouldn’t shoot but knowing he would. When the kid raised his automatic,
the shooter dove forward, rolled on his shoulder and came up on one knee,
his gun extended in both hands. “Don’t do it!” he shouted but the kid
sprayed a dozen wild rounds before a bullet from the shooter’s gun hit
him in the gut, dead center. The kid froze for an instant, crumpled to
his knees, then fell face down.
The shooter jerked his head to the right. The older gunman’s hands were
in the air, his weapon at his feet, a grin of resignation pulling up one
side of his face. He looked back at the kid, now writhing on the
ground and uttering painful groans mixed with sobbing. “Stupid,” the shooter muttered under his breath.
By then, Sheriff Thornberry’s deputies had reacted and raced up to
surround Williams and the older gunman.
San Thornberry marched straight to Williams. “You went too far, Ansel,”
he said, furiously jabbing a finger at his Chief Deputy. “I knew you
were in on the drug business, but I didn’t have enough proof. When the
Feds told me you hired a man to get me out of the way, we put this little
show together. Now I can nail you for the drugs and conspiracy to commit
Williams stared at the shooter. “Feds? You mean this guy’s a Fed?
Jesus! A Fed.”
The shooter stood up and dusted himself off. He gave Williams a mock
salute. “You have to be careful who you hire these days, pal.” He then
stepped back and watched the sheriff and his men do their job. Within a
few minutes, Deputy Williams and the older thug were handcuffed and
loaded into the minibus. Someone had called for an ambulance for the
wounded kid lying on the ground. Its siren grew louder in the night air.
The shooter removed the small recording device from beneath his shirt and handed it to the sheriff.
“I’m glad that’s over,” Thornberry said. “I don’t mind telling you,
I’ve been nervous as a cat all day. It’s an odd feeling being shot at,
even when you know it’s blanks.”
“You pulled it off just fine, Sheriff,” the shooter said.
“Not really. I almost forgot to break the fake blood capsule when I
fell, and I was scared as hell somebody would see me laying there
breathing. Good thing they got me out of there in a hurry.”
“You can thank your mayor for that,” the shooter said. “He had the
ambulance crew all set to move in fast. He did his part well. So did
your wife, by the way. I hope it wasn’t too tough on her.”
Thornberry threw his head back and laughed. “Are you kidding? She said
she hasn’t had so much fun in years. She used to be an actress, you
The shooter smiled. “How about that.”
“Oh, yeah,” said the sheriff. “She wants to go back to it after the
kids are grown. So, what about you now? I guess you’ll be heading back
to FBI headquarters.”
The shooter shook his head. “I never go there. I’ll be heading home to Florida and try to get in a week or two of fishing.”
“Then someone else’ll decide to solve a problem the easy way. They’ll start asking around for someone to do the job, the word’ll get to us, and I’ll have another assignment.”
The two men shook hands and the shooter drove away. He had a long drive
back to Florida, but he’d be home in time for the redfish to start biting
in Green River. The big grouper would be hitting off Cedar Key in a day
or two. He grinned as he pulled onto the interstate. Very predictable,
fish, once you get to know them. Just like people.