Dead Man on a School Bus

 

Originally published by Wildside Press in the anthology Murder on Wheels in 2014.

DEAD MAN ON A SCHOOL BUS

by Earl Staggs

When the phone rang at 6:15 a.m., I groaned, pulled the blanket over my head, and waited for my wife Carol to answer it. Then I remembered she was visiting her sister in Maryland who was going through a rough time with cancer treatment. I groaned again, groped for the phone, and grumbled something that may have sounded like, “Hello.”

“Steve,” the voice said, “get your lazy butt out of bed and get over here. We found a dead man on one of our buses.”

I knew the voice. Lynn Ryan, a good friend. Took me a second to remember she ran the local school bus system. When I didn’t respond right away, she said, “Did you hear me? You’re still the police chief around here, aren’t you?”

“I heard you. Yes, when I went to bed last night, I was still police chief.”

“Good. Get over here. We don’t know what to do. He was strangled. Wait till you see what he was strangled with.”

“What?”

“You’ll see when you get here.”

“Did you call 911?”

“No, I called you.  Should I?”

“No need.  They’d just call me. Do you know who the deceased is?”

“One of our drivers. Pete Wilmer.”

By then, I was standing and some of the cobwebs had cleared between my ears. “Don’t touch anything and keep everybody away from the bus. Don’t tell anyone about it until I get there.”

“Okay. Hurry.”

I stretched and tried to remember if I’d set up the coffeemaker the night before. Carol always did that for me.

After I dressed and made it down to the kitchen, I discovered I had not done the coffeemaker. Fortunately, there was still a cup full in the pot from the day before. I microwaved it and headed out to my car with a hot dose of wake-up energy. I promised myself I’d clean up the dishes in the sink before Carol came home.

A dead man on a school bus. That was a new one. I’d seen bodies in cars, on trains, and once even on a plane, but never on a bus. I handled a lot of homicides during my thirty years on the Fort Worth police force, more than I wanted to. That’s why I retired from there a year ago and took the job here in Southlake, one of the many suburbs between Fort Worth and Dallas. There hadn’t been a homicide here in ten years, they told me.

Once in my car, I called Doc Spradley, the town’s beloved family doctor. I told him he was the closest thing we had to a medical examiner. He wasn’t happy to be pulled out so early either, but said he’d meet me at the bus lot. Then I called my chief deputy Vic Stack and asked him to meet me there. Vic works the night shift and would finish his tour at eight. If it took longer than that, he’d be happy to earn some overtime.

I’d never actually been to the bus lot, but I’d gone past it many times. It’s on Kimball Avenue, on the way to Home Depot.  I pulled into the driveway in front of a long one-story stucco building. Behind the building sat dozens of school buses lined up in rows inside a fenced-in lot covering about two acres.

I spotted Lynn standing on the curb beside the building. Lynn is an attractive woman of fifty-five, the same age as my wife. She’s always well-groomed with thick, perfectly shaped, dark brown hair. She and Carol go to the same hair stylist and the same manicurist, shop at the same stores, and attend shows together at Bass Hall in Fort Worth. Lynn’s husband Richard and I go to Home Depot together.

“You got here fast,” she said as soon as I drove through the gate and rolled the window down.  “Good morning.”

I climbed out of the car, walked over to her, and kissed her on the cheek.  Her skin felt cold and tight. She hugged herself like she might fall down if she didn’t.

I placed a hand on each of her shoulders.  “Are you all right?”

“Not really,” she said.  She turned her head to the side. “You might be used to seeing dead bodies, but this is a first for me.”

I cupped her chin in my hand and turned her face toward me. “Lynn, I’ll tell you a little secret.  You never get used to it.  You deal with it the best you can.”

She gave me a weak smile and nodded.  “I’ll try.”

“Good girl. Where’s the bus?”

“At the end of the second row, number 117. Our mechanic came out to replace a headlight and found Wilmer’s body. He called me right away. He and I are the only ones who know about it. I locked the bus to keep it that way. I’ll take you to it.”

She started walking toward the rows of big yellow buses and I fell in step beside her. Most of the buses were running and lit up. Flashing red and amber lights in the semi-darkness of morning gave the place the look of a lot filled with decorated Christmas trees. Drivers were busy walking around the buses, checking the lights, I guessed.

“One thing hasn’t changed,” I said. “They look the same as when I was a kid. Like big yellow boxcars. You’d think they would modernize them and give them a bit of style.”

“That’s not going to happen. These babies are built for heavy-duty service and safety, not looks. Did you know they’re the safest things on the road?”

“No. I didn’t know that.”

“It’s true. You’re safer in a school bus than any other vehicle.”

“Wasn’t very safe for Pete Wilmer.”

She sighed. “No, poor guy.  By the way, how’s everything going with Carol and her sister? Have you talked to her?”

“Every night. Her sister’s coming along fine, and Carol said she’d be home in another week.”

“And how’re you doing on your own?”

“I’m doing just fine.”

She snorted. “Sure you are. I know you. You’re lost without her. I’ll bet you haven’t had a decent meal since she left.”

“I’m eating fine.”

“Yeah, right. Drive thru hamburgers and microwave dinners. And look at your clothes. Your shirt’s all wrinkled and has food stains on it.”

“I have extra uniform shirts.”

“And I’ll bet they’re all in the laundry basket. You haven’t done laundry since she left, have you?”

She was beginning to get on my nerves a little, but I knew she was only doing her job. Carol asked her to keep an eye on me while she was gone.  “I said I’m doing fine.”

“Liar. Without her, you’re a mess. Tell you what. Sunday, you come to our house for a home cooked meal. And bring your dirty clothes. I’ll do them up for you. I wouldn’t want Carol to come home to a month’s worth of laundry.”

“Has Richard ever told you what a nag you are?”

“All the time. Be there at three o’clock. No arguments.”

She stopped beside one of the buses. “Here we are. Bus 117.”

She pulled a key from her pocket, unlocked the door, and pulled it open. Then she took two steps backward and hugged herself again.  “I. . .I’ll wait here if it’s okay. I don’t need to see it again.”

“That’s fine.”

I climbed three steps onto the bus and looked down the aisle between rows of seats.  Pete Wilmer’s body lay on the floor halfway down the aisle. As I moved closer, the first thing I noticed was his bruised and bloody face. He’d been badly beaten. The next thing I saw was something yellow tightly knotted around his neck. I leaned over for a closer look.

I stood up and felt dizzy. I never thought I’d see this again. Once was enough. Two years ago. Cecily Holstrom. Seeing someone strangled with a bright yellow silk scarf once was odd enough. But twice? Hard to believe.

I brushed past Lynn when I stepped off the bus. I’d put Cecily’s death behind me, but it came crashing back. I walked to the front of the bus and leaned against the fender. I didn’t notice Lynn standing behind me until she spoke.

“Have you ever heard of a man being strangled with a scarf before?”

“Not a man. A woman. A wonderful woman who didn’t deserve to die.”

“Did you know her?”

I nodded. “My partner’s wife. Her husband John and I worked together for ten years. A cop’s partner is family. That made her family, too.”

She touched my arm. “I’m sorry, Steve. That must have been terrible. How did her husband take it?”

“Not well. He went to pieces and never came back to work. He totally dropped out. I tried to keep in touch with him, but he didn’t return my calls. I went by his house a few times, but he was never home. Six months ago, his phone was disconnected. I tried his house again a month ago, and a neighbor told me he’d gone to Louisiana.”

“Did they find out who killed his wife?”

“No.“

“How awful.”

“Yeah.” I straightened up and rubbed my hands together. “But that’s history. Doc Spradley should be here any minute, and so will my deputy. They’ll take care of the details here. You and I need to talk about the victim.”

Doc Spradley and my deputy Vic Stack showed up a few minutes later, and I left them to take care of things. Doc would make arrangements for the victim to be taken to Fort Worth for an autopsy. Vic would go over the bus for anything that might tell us who killed Pete Wilmer.

Lynn and I went to her office. After we’d settled in chairs and had fresh cups of coffee, she asked, “Since it was a woman’s scarf, does that mean a woman did it?”

I shook my head. “Not likely. He took a brutal beating from someone powerful, and it takes a lot of strength to strangle someone.  When was the last time you saw him?”

“Yesterday morning when he came to work.  He did his daily routes and clocked out over the radio at his regular quitting time, about 4:30.”

“I’ll get an official time of death later, but it looks to me like he’s been dead at least twelve hours.  That would mean after he clocked out, someone boarded his bus and killed him.”

She nodded.  “That wouldn’t be hard to do.  There’s a lot of foot traffic on the lot at that time of day, everyone anxious to get home and not paying much attention to who they see.”

“Did Wilmer have any enemies here, anyone who might have had a grudge against him?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Kept pretty much to himself and didn’t seem to be the kind of man who made friends or enemies. I’d call him a loner. You can talk to the other drivers, but you’ll have to wait a couple of hours. They’ll be leaving to run their routes in the next few minutes.”

“Okay, I’ll wait. Someone might have seen someone who didn’t belong here. Have you seen any strangers hanging around lately, anyone or anything out of the ordinary?”

She sipped her coffee and frowned. “I don’t think. . . . Wait! There was someone. For the past three days, a man has been hanging around the parking lot.  The first couple of times, he was just sitting in his truck. It was an old gray pickup with a camper top in the bed. We notice strange people hanging around because of the kids.”

“Did you happen to get the license plate number?”

“No, I didn’t. I probably should have.  Sorry.”

“That’s okay. Did you get a good look at him?”

“Not those first two days, but on the third day, the day before yesterday, when I left at the end of the day, he was standing by the fence.  When I got close to him, he turned and walked toward his truck.”

“Can you describe him?”

She took another sip of coffee. “Let me see.  He was medium height and build, probably in his late forties or early fifties, gray hair. And something else.” She raised her hand to her cheek. “There was a scar down the side of his face. It was ragged, kind of like a lightning bolt, three or four inches long.”

I felt dizzy again. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I knew an old gray pickup with a camper top. I’d gone on a number of fishing trips in a truck like that with the man who owned it. And I knew the scar. I was with him when he got it. A guy we were trying to arrest for tearing up a bar went after him with a broken beer bottle.

Why was my partner, John Holstrom, hanging around the bus lot? Was he back in Texas?

I drained my coffee and stood up.  “Lynn, when Doc Spradley and Vic finish what they’re doing, tell them I’ll call them in a little while.”

“Where are you going?”

“I have to check something out.”

As I walked out of her office, I heard her say, “Don’t forget Sunday.”

Forty minutes later, I turned onto John’s street in Colleyville. His pickup sat in the driveway.

I parked at the curb, walked to the door, and rang the bell.  He opened the door almost immediately.  He smiled.

“Well, well,” he said.  “It’s been a while.  C’mon in.”

He was thinner than last time I saw him and hadn’t shaved for at least three days. He’d always been meticulous about his appearance, but he needed a haircut and wore grungy sweat pants and a faded, wrinkled Dallas Cowboys tee shirt.

He swung the door open wide and I stepped inside.  The house had a moldy smell. It needed a good cleaning.

“It’s been too long, John,” I said. “How’ve you been?”

“Not too bad.”

I followed him through the living room and into the den.  He sat at his desk and motioned to a chair beside it.  I sat down.

“I figured you’d come,” he said. “I didn’t think it would be this soon.”

“Sometimes things move along quickly.”

He smiled again. It was more like a teasing grin.  “So you found the guy on the bus.”

Why was he so calm and cheerful?  He knew why I was there.  “Yes, we found him.”

He picked up a pen from his desk and twirled it around in his fingers.  He did that a lot when we worked together.  “Hey, Steve,” he said, “want a cup of coffee?  How about a beer?”

“Thanks, but I’m good.”

“Remember that fishing trip we took to Arkansas?  Damn!  We put away a lot of beer that weekend, but we caught so many fish, we were giving them away to everyone we knew.”

“We had some good times.”

“Yeah,” he said, his voice barely a whisper.  “Great times.” He inspected his hands, rubbed them together, and looked them over again.

“I tried to contact you a few times, John.  You wouldn’t answer my calls and you were never home.”

“I know.  I didn’t feel like talking to anyone, know what I mean? “

“I suppose so.  The guy on the bus, John.  Want to tell me about it?”

He carefully laid the pen on his desk.  When he spoke, his voice was soft.  “Cecily and I were together for twenty-eight years.  Twenty-eight wonderful years.  We were like two halves of a whole.  I couldn’t imagine ever not having her in my life.  Then, one day, she was dead. It was like every organ in my body had been ripped out.  I didn’t want to go on without her.  I almost didn’t.  You don’t know how many times I wanted to eat my gun so I could be with her.”

“I know how tough it was, John.  She was special and you two were special together.”

He sighed.  “Yeah, like you and Carol.  You have to admit, we were lucky, both of us, to find wives like them.”

“I can’t argue with that.”

He picked up the pen again, but didn’t twirl it.  “I really wanted to end it all, but I couldn’t do it.  Something stopped me.  They came here and took everything that made life worth living.  Strangled her with her own scarf.  You remember that yellow scarf. Hell, you were with me when I bought it.”

“I remember.  Yellow was her color. She loved that scarf. Wore it almost every day.”

John chuckled.   “Probably the only thing I ever picked out for her she really liked.  Anyway, I couldn’t let it go as long as they were out there walking around.  You know how I am.”

“Yeah, I know.  Once you got onto a case, you couldn’t let it go until you finished it.”

He twirled the pen a few times and tossed it across the desk.  “Two men were seen leaving the house that day, but they were never identified.  They found one print in the house, but when they ran it, it wasn’t in the system.  Dead end.”

“I remember.”

“All I could do was hope that someday, they’d find a match.  I pestered the hell out of the department and got them to run that print every month for a year.  Sooner or later, I knew that guy would get into the system.  Finally, he did and they got a match.  He was doing a year in Louisiana on DWI charges and driving without a license.”

“That’s why you went to Louisiana.”

“When he was released, I was waiting for him.  I knew Colleyville PD would eventually get around to picking him up because of that print, but I got to him first.  It took some, uh, unfriendly persuasion, if you know what I mean. . .” He flashed a grin and a wink to make his point. “. . . but he gave me the name of the man who was with him that day.”

“Pete Wilmer,” I said.

“Yes, Pete Wilmer.”

“Did he tell you why they did it?”

“Money.  They were drinking that day until they ran out of cash.  Then they hung around an ATM machine waiting for someone to make a withdrawal.  When Cecily took money out, they followed her home.  She had two hundred dollars.” He looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then squeezed his eyes shut.  “They killed her for two hundred stinking dollars, Steve.”

“So what happened to the guy in Louisiana?”

John shook his head and flashed the grin again. “Oh, maybe someday if they drain that swamp, they might find him.”

“With a yellow silk scarf around his neck?  Like Cecily?”

“That’s a good possibility.”

“And like Pete Wilmer?”

He held the grin and turned toward me.  “You catch on quick, Steve.  I always said that about you.  The guy didn’t have an address, but he told me Wilmer worked as a school bus driver somewhere in the Dallas/Fort Worth area.”

“And you found him.”

“Like you said, I always had to finish what I started.  Took a while.  I started calling every school district in the area.  Finally found him working in Southlake, in your jurisdiction.  How ironic was that?”

“John,” I said, “you know I have to take you in. You and your truck were seen at the bus lot.”

“I know. And you’ll find my prints and DNA traces all over that bus.” He brightened again. “How about I make it real easy for you?  I’ll write you a full confession.  How does that sound?”

“That sounds fine, John.”

He picked up a writing pad from the corner of his desk and stared at it for a moment.  “Before you judge me, Steve, let me ask you something.  What would you do if someone did to your wife what they did to mine?”

He’d caught me off guard.  I couldn’t answer.

He shrugged it off and picked up his pen. “You know what?  This will take a while.  Why don’t you get us a cup of coffee?  You know where it is.”  He tossed his head toward the hallway behind us.  “There’s a fresh pot.  Nice and strong the way you like it.”  He laughed.  “Sorry I don’t have any doughnuts.”

“That’s okay.  I don’t want any doughnuts.  Be right back.”

I walked into the kitchen feeling something was off.  Why was he so calm and jovial? I was going to take him in and charge him with murder.  He acted like a man completely at peace with himself, not a care in the world.

His kitchen was a disaster.  Plates with dried food on them filled the sink and pots in need of washing cluttered the stove and countertop.  The room smelled as bad as it looked.  His Cecily had been like my Carol.  Everything used in the kitchen had to be cleaned and put away immediately.  I reminded myself I had to clean my kitchen before Carol came home.

Then I remembered why I’d come into his kitchen.  Coffee.  I spotted his coffeemaker beside the stove. It was empty.  It wasn’t even plugged in.

Dammit!

I turned and raced back to the den.  I was halfway there when I heard the shot.

John was slumped over his desk with a pool of blood under his head and a .38 dangling from his right hand.

I should have known.  I should have seen it coming.

When I picked up the writing pad, he’d written only one word on it.

“Finished.”

I fell into the chair beside his desk and looked at the man who’d been like a brother to me for ten years.  He was the best cop I’d ever known, the best friend I’d ever had.  He finished what he felt he had to do, and he exacted the price for it on himself. If I’d been thinking clearly, I would have seen what he was going to do.  Maybe I could have stopped him. Or was it better to let him finish it his way?  I don’t think I’ll ever know the answer to that.

After a few minutes, I called the Colleyville police.  While I waited for them, the question John asked me repeated over and over in my mind.

“What would you do if someone did to your wife what they did to mine?”

I don’t know the answer to that either. I hope I never have to find out.

* * *

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 earlstaggs@sbcglobal.net

 

 

 

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