This story appeared in THE EX FACTOR, an anthology published in 2006 by Koboca Publishing.
A Short Story
By Earl Staggs
“You have visitors, Harry.”
Without looking up from the newspaper spread across his desk, Police Chief Harry Winfield asked, “Glenda, what’s another word for rebirth? Eleven letters with two ‘S’es in the middle.
“Did you hear what I said?”
“I heard you.”
“Do you want to know who it is?” Glenda’s ample frame filled the open doorway of his office. She stood with her arms crossed and her head tilted to one side, the universal pose of an impatient woman.
Harry didn’t look up. “Do you know the word or not?”
“Renaissance. Should I send them on back here?”
Harry made careful strokes on the paper in front of him. “Who?”
She emphasized each syllable. “Your vis-uh-tors.” The universal sign that a woman’s patience has reached its limit.
Harry finished writing and tossed his pencil in the air. “Did it! Finished it all.”
“Congratulations, mighty king of crossword puzzles. Call me when you can do them in ink. Now do you want to see them or not?”
Harry folded his newspaper. “Sure.”
“Do you want me to tell you who they are?”
“No need.” He gave a sideways nod to his left where a large window overlooked the street. “I saw them pull up.”
Glenda hmphed, spun, and stomped down the hall to the reception area.
Harry grinned. Glenda was the best asset he inherited when he took the job of Police Chief of Watango, Texas, a small town halfway between Dallas and Fort Worth. She was efficient, dedicated to her job, had almost a photographic memory, and at fifty-five, was on her third husband. He knew she enjoyed his teasing and needling as much as he did. She gave it right back to him, and he loved her for it.
She loved him for the state of the art computer system he’d spent three years pushing through the City Council. She had every feature available as well as access to every department and agency in the state, including the Texas Rangers. Not that he needed all that sophistication in a town of barely 36,000 citizens, but it made her happy, and keeping her happy made his job a lot easier. Between the two of them, she was the only one who knew how to operate the damned thing.
A minute later, two men entered his office. The taller one, a trim man around forty, about Harry’s own size and age, took a straight and confident path to Harry’s desk, leaned over, and offered his hand and a business card. “Detective Kevin Carver, Dallas Homicide. I hope you don’t mind our dropping in on you like this.”
Harry stood, returned the handshake and accepted the card. “Not at all. Good to see you again.”
The second man, shorter and stocky, said nothing and held a grim expression as he looked around the office, taking it in as if it were a crime scene. They made a good team, Harry thought. One, the friendly outgoing type with a barracuda smile, the other rarely spoke but scowled a lot to project an intimidating persona. The perfect good cop/bad cop combination. Harry met them at a forensics seminar in Dallas two months ago.
As the three of them settled into chairs, Carver said, “You remember my partner, Detective Doug Drummond.”
Harry exchanged nods with Drummond and would have bet he went by the nickname Bulldog. “What can I do for you gentlemen?”
“We’d like to ask you about someone you know,” Carver said. “We’re interested in talking to a Miss Pamela Wilson, a waitress at the Watango Diner. We understand you go there often, and you and she are friendly.”
Harry hesitated. What would they want with Pam? “Yes, I know her. I eat there a couple times a week, and she’s an excellent waitress. What do you want to talk to her about?”
Carver ignored the question and tossed one of his own. “How well do you know Miss Wilson? We’d like you to tell us anything you can about her.”
They were being evasive, and Harry didn’t like it. They were “playing him,” as though they were the big dogs from big D, and he was only a small town cop. It may have been true, but it irritated him.
Harry leaned back in his chair and looked first at Carver, then at Drummond, then back to Carver. “Gentlemen, I’m honored to have representatives of Dallas PD in my humble office, and I’ll gladly answer any questions you may have. But first, you’ll show me the courtesy of answering my question. In case you forgot it, I asked what you wanted to talk to her about.”
Carver smiled a tight little smile. “Of course, Chief Winfield. We meant no disrespect. We need to talk to Miss Wilson about a homicide in Dallas six months ago. She may have some information about it.”
Harry leaned forward and rested his forearms on his desk. He’d known Pam since she started at the diner three months ago. When she had time, she’d sit at his table. They shared an interest in true crime shows and often discussed those they’d both seen on TV. She was bright, articulate, and witty. Pretty, too. Hell, he’d even been working up the nerve to ask her out. He returned Carver’s tight smile. “Be more specific, Detective.”
Carver cleared his throat. “Okay. Do you remember back in March when a prominent Dallas attorney named Vernon Cowsill was found shot to death in a motel room?”
Harry nodded. “Vaguely. What does that have to do with Pam Wilson?”
“We have evidence that Miss Wilson was in the room with him at the time of his death.”
Pam? In a motel room with a bigshot lawyer? Harry was caught off guard, but tried not to show it.
“Her fingerprints were found in the room. At the time, her prints were not on file, and we couldn’t match them. When she applied for a job at the diner here three months ago, the owners ran a background check as they do on all employees. That included having her fingerprinted. We run random checks of unidentified crime scene prints against our database on a regular basis. This time, hers were on file, and we got a match.”
“That only proves she was in that room, not when she was there or who she was with.”
Drummond finally spoke. His voice was high-pitched and didn’t match his bulldog appearance. “Her prints were also in Cowsill’s BMW, the passenger side.”
“So, at some time, she must have ridden in his — ”
Drummond interrupted with a slight grin as if he enjoyed adding, “. . .and on a condom wrapper found by the bed.”
“The way the scenario plays out,” Carver said, “they were having an affair, and it turned sour. Maybe she wanted to tell his wife, maybe she wanted money. Whatever the circumstances were, it’s clear she was there and shot him with his own gun.”
“Were her prints on the gun?”
Carver said, “No. The gun, one he always carried with him according to his wife, was wiped clean. She was smart enough to do that.”
Drummond grinned again. “But not smart enough to wipe the condom wrapper.”
Harry leaned back in his chair and studied his visitors for a moment. “Anything else? Eyewitnesses?”
Carver shook his head. “Several people reported hearing the shot, and one saw a Cadillac Escalade leaving the motel right after the shot, but didn’t get a tag number. Doesn’t matter. We have no reason to suspect that vehicle had anything to do with the shooting. We do, however, have enough to place Pam Wilson there.” He gave Harry the full barracuda smile. “Naturally, since she lives in your jurisdiction, we wanted to follow proper inter-agency protocol and contact you first to enlist your cooperation.”
Harry’s irritation grew. They weren’t being honest with him. He was also irritated at himself for misjudging Pam.
“Protocol? Contact me first? Let’s see how this particular scenario plays out, gentlemen. You knew I was friendly with Pam, which means you’ve already been to the diner looking for her, and someone there told you I was a regular. Before that, I’m sure you went to her house and when she wasn’t there, you talked to her neighbors. After all that, you came to me only because you were at a dead end. Am I getting it right so far?”
Drummond looked at Carver. Carver wiped a hand across his mouth, and his smile disappeared. He uncrossed his legs and scooted forward in his chair. “Okay, Chief Winfield, you have to understand. We didn’t know how friendly you were with our suspect.”
“Why didn’t you just ask me?”
“All right. How friendly are you with Miss Wilson?”
“I told you. She’s a good waitress. She knows how I like my steak and what vegetables I like with it.”
Carver seemed satisfied with that. “What we really need to know is how much cooperation and assistance we can expect from you.”
“You have enough to make her a prime suspect. I’ll do my job.”
Carver scooted back in his chair and recrossed his legs. “Good. Now that we’re on the same page, do you have any ideas where we might find her? Do you know any of her friends, someone she might have gone to for help?”
“No. I’ve never seen her except at the diner, and I don’t recall her mentioning any friends.”
“What about family?”
“She never mentioned any family except for her son. She said he was away in school.”
“Harvard Law School,” Carver said. “That’s consistent with what we were told at the diner and by her neighbors. Other than that, no one seems to know much about her.”
Harry thought back. He and Pam had talked a lot, but she never brought up her past or said much about her son. Harvard Law School? Prestigious. And expensive. “What do you need from me?”
They talked another twenty minutes. They gave Harry the information on Pam’s car which he would get out to his force right away. The big dogs said they would keep him “in the loop.” He offered them the use of his facilities and staff if they needed it.
After they left his office, Harry stood at his window and watched them drive away. He was usually good at judging people. Pam a lawyer’s mistress turned murderer? No wonder she never mentioned a boyfriend. Good thing he hadn’t asked her out. Maybe he wasn’t so good at judging people after all.
Glenda’s voice on the intercom interrupted his thoughts. “Chief, you have a call.”
Harry reached back to his desk and picked up his cordless phone. He liked to stand and walk around when he talked.
“Harry, it’s Pam. What did they tell you about me?”
“You know who. The Dallas cops who just left your office.”
“How did you know they were here about you?” By then, Harry was out of his office and headed for the front door. She knew the Dallas detectives had just left, so she was close by and watching.
“I was on my way to work when a neighbor called me on my cell and told me they were at her house asking about me. It was the fingerprints, wasn’t it? I was afraid this might happen, but I needed that job and took a chance.”
“Pam, you have to come in.” Harry trotted past Glenda’s desk and her surprised expression.
“I can’t do that.”
Harry opened the front door of the station house and stepped outside. He scanned right, then left and spotted her gray Honda halfway down the block on the other side of the street.
“Listen to me, Pam. You’re a suspect in a murder case. You have to come in and deal with it.” He saw her behind the wheel, a cell phone to her ear. He walked in her direction, staying in the shade close to the building.
“I didn’t kill him.”
“If you’re innocent, you have no reason not to come in.”
“I have plenty of reason. If I come in, you’ll have to arrest me, and I can’t allow that to happen. If you knew why, you’d understand.”
“Let’s talk about it. You should know you can’t hide for long.” He reached the end of the building and the protective shade. Now he’d have to cross the street and she’d spot him. “Stay right where you are. I’ll come and get you.”
“I’m sorry, Harry, but I can’t do that. I see you now, so I have to go.”
“No, Pam. Don’t be a fool.”
“I didn’t kill him, Harry, but I know who did. I’ll call you back.”
The phone went dead. Harry sprinted into the street toward her car. Before he could reach it, she pulled away from the curb, made a U-turn, and sped away.
Back inside, Harry pulled from his pocket the sheet of paper on which he’d written Pam’s description and the make, model and tag number of her car. “Glenda, get this out to everyone right away and tell them she just left here heading west on Eighth Street. I’ll be in my office. If she calls again, put her right through.”
Glenda snatched the paper and turned to her computer. “You got it, Chief. After I do this, I’m coming back to your office, and you’re going to tell me who this Pam is and what’s going on.”
“Of course I listened. I have to. You never tell me anything.”
“So what do you think?” Glenda asked after he’d told her everything. “Do you believe her, I mean about her not killing him but she knows who did?”
“I don’t know what to believe. Maybe we’ll find out when she calls back.”
“You mean, if she calls back.”
They spent the next half hour taking care of routine police matters. When the two-way radio box on Harry’s desk buzzed, Glenda picked up the receiver and after a few words, punched the speaker button so they could both hear.
“It’s Troy,” she said. “About her car. Go ahead, Troy.”
Patrolman Troy Schinder blurted, “I found that car, Chief. It’s abandoned at the Burger King at Eighth and Market.”
“Good work, Troy. Any sign of her?”
“No, sir. I asked inside, and no one remembers seeing her. And, Chief, this is strange. The car is unlocked with the key in the ignition, and there’s a note on the front seat addressed to you.”
“What’s it say?”
“It says, ‘Harry, please take good care of my car. I’ll call you later.’ Chief, why would she leave her car like that with the key in it?”
Harry sighed. “Because she’s smart. She knew we’d be after her car right away, and she wanted to make it easy for us.”
“Should I have it impounded?”
“No, just sit tight, Troy. Glenda will send someone to drive it back here.”
After the disconnect, Harry gave Detective Carver’s business card to Glenda and instructed her to call and let him know they had Pam’s car, but not Pam.
Two hours later, Harry glanced at his watch. Quarter past two. He was starved, but didn’t want to leave the office to get something to eat in case Pam called. He rooted through his desk and found a pack of cheese crackers. When he was halfway through them, Glenda buzzed him.
“It’s her,” she said.
Harry reached for his phone. “Don’t listen in, Glenda.”
“You’re no fun.”
Harry grabbed his phone and stood up. “Pam?”
“Did you find my car?”
“Yes. It’s here. Where are you?”
“Somewhere where you can’t sneak up on me.”
“I’m sorry about that, but –“
“Don’t be. I know you have to do your job. Can we talk now?”
“You’re calling the shots, so let’s talk.”
“Harry, I was telling the truth when I said I didn’t kill that man. Why would I? I’d never laid eyes on him before that night.”
“Then why were you in a motel room with him?”
She was silent for a moment. “It was business. Do I have to spell it out for you?”
It only took a second. “No. I get it.”
“Harry, none of that matters now. I’m no longer in that business. That part of my life is over. What matters is, I didn’t kill him, but I know who did.”
“Okay, tell me.”
“We’d only been in the room a little while when a woman started banging on the door and screaming for him to let her in. He said it was his wife and that I had to get out of there. He helped me crawl out through the bathroom window. I went around the motel and came out the other end. I heard the shot and saw her come out of the room and get in her car. The next day, they showed her on the news, and it was definitely her.”
“Why didn’t you report it?”
“I couldn’t. And I can’t get involved now. I know I have no right to expect you to help me, but there’s no one else I can turn to.”
Harry paced back and forth. “Pam, you’re already involved. Up to your neck. You have no choice. You have to come forward and tell what you know.”
“I. . .I can’t. Now that you know what really happened that night, can you help me clear it up and keep my name out of it?”
“I have to be honest with you, Pam. Even if your story is true, I don’t know if it’s possible to keep you out of it. Do you have any proof his wife was there?”
“So you want me to tell the boys from Dallas his wife showed up at the motel, took his gun away from him and shot him after you climbed out the window? Do you really think that’ll fly?”
“He didn’t have a gun. She must have brought it with her.”
“Not according to the reports. His wife said he always carried his gun.”
“Harry, he did not have a gun. I saw everything he had.”
Harry mumbled, “I’m sure you did.”
“Nothing. Is there anything else you can give me to work with? Her car. What was she driving?”
“Uh, it was one of those big black SUV things.”
“Like a Cadillac Escalade?”
“I guess it could have been. Those things all look alike to me.”
“Did you see the license plate number?”
“No, I didn’t. It was dark, and. . .wait a minute! I remember something. She was in a hurry to get out of there and when she backed up, she rammed another car. When she drove away, her taillights were busted out. That’s why I couldn’t see the license plate.”
“That was six months ago, Pam. I’m sure she’s had it fixed by now.”
“That means she had to take it to a repair shop. Can you check the records to see who fixed it?”
“Do you have any idea how many auto repair shops there are in the Dallas area?”
“I guess you’re right. I can’t think of anything else right now. Will you at least think about it? You’re a smart man, Harry. You can come up with something. I’ll think about it, too, and if I remember anything else, I’ll call you again, okay?”
“Don’t hang up, Pam. We have to –“
Too late. She was gone.
Harry continued pacing, slamming his phone against his palm. Her story was hard to believe, but the truth often is. The more he thought about it, the more he realized she might be telling the truth. Why would a hooker kill a well-healed john? That’s not good for repeat business. She also pegged the vehicle seen leaving the motel. And if he didn’t have the gun with him, his wife had to have brought it.
Pam is a hooker?
Or ex-hooker, if she was telling the truth about no longer being in that business. Still, the word cut him like a dull knife. How could he have been so wrong about someone?
When Glenda appeared in his office a minute later, Harry sat in his chair staring out the window, deep in thought.
“Wow!” she said. “A hooker, a wife, a dead man. What a story.”
Harry glared at her. “You listened.”
She struck an indignant pose, hands on hips, chin extended. “I did not. You told me not to listen in, so I didn’t.”
“No. I recorded it, then I listened.”
Harry shook his head. No matter. He would have told her anyway.
“So what’re we going to do, Chief?”
“Do you feel lucky?”
“Are we playing Dirty Harry? What do you mean?”
“First, crank up that wondrous computer of yours and see what the wife was driving six months ago. It may have been registered in his name, but he drove a BMW, so whatever else he owned was probably hers. Then see if that vehicle was ever stopped for not having taillights.”
“Oh, my,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. “You’re a real gambler today.”
“Do you have any better ideas?”
She shook her head. “No. Give me a little time. I’ll see what I can come up with.”
Five minutes later, Glenda buzzed him. “Harry, it’s her again.”
“I had to call back,” Pam said after he picked up the call. “I owe you an explanation.”
“You don’t owe me anything. I’m only doing my job.”
“I’d like to think it’s more than that, Harry. I’d like to think we became friends. As a friend, will you listen for a few minutes?”
“I told you my son was in college, didn’t I?”
“Harvard Law School, I understand. One of the best.”
“It’s also very expensive, more than I could ever make as a waitress, and there was no one else to help.”
“What about the boy’s father?”
“I was fifteen when I got pregnant, Harry. When I told the father, he suddenly decided he had a family emergency back in California. I never saw or heard from him again. I didn’t get to finish high school, and there weren’t many career opportunities for an uneducated poor white-trash teenage mother with a baby to raise.”
“You’re not trash, Pam, poor, white or otherwise. You’re intelligent, you’re well-spoken. . .”
“I read a lot, Harry, but thanks for saying that. Anyway, I did the best I could for my son with what I had to work with. He grew into a fine young man, a hard worker with dreams of making something of himself. He graduated from high school at the top of his class and earned a small scholarship. The scholarship was nice, but not nearly enough. Do you have any idea what tuition is in the Ivy League, Harry?”
“I’d guess in the neighborhood of a couple hundred thousand dollars.”
“That’s close, and it doesn’t even include pre-law. At first, there was no way I could even consider it. Then a girl I worked with told me about a company she moonlighted for on the side to make real money.”
“So you became a hooker.”
“I prefer the word escort.”
“What’s the difference?”
“About five hundred a night.”
“That’s how I financed my son’s college education. He did what he could for himself. God, Harry, even with a full load of classes, he worked two part-time jobs, but it wasn’t enough. When he needed money for tuition or books, I suited up and did what I had to do. Six months ago, I thought it was over. He was all set to graduate, but he needed money for books and study classes to pass the bar. Harry, he was being considered by one of the largest law firms in Boston. All he had to do was pass the bar.”
“So you suited up again.”
“Yes, but only for a few weeks. That’s all it would take. That night with Mr. Cowsill was the last one.”
“Your last john.”
“I prefer client.”
“My son passed the bar on his first try and got that job. Now he’s on his way to a great future. That’s why I couldn’t get involved in Mr. Cowsill’s death. It would ruin his career if it came out what his mother was.”
Harry didn’t know what to say.
“Harry? You still there?”
“I’m still here.” Harry noticed a change in her voice. She was crying.
“I’m not proud of what I did, Harry, but I’m proud of my son and what he’s accomplished. Somehow, there’s a trade-off there and most of the time, I can live with it. I just wanted you to know everything and, even if you can’t help me, I want you to know I appreciate your friendship.”
“Pam, I think– “
Too late. She was gone.
Harry plopped in his chair. His own mother had a rough go of it, too, but she never turned to prostitution. His father died when he was six, and his mother cleaned houses fourteen hours a day to feed him and his three sisters. There was a big difference between scrubbing someone else’s floors on your hands and knees and lying on your back and. . . Or was there? Probably. Maybe. Hell, what did he know about being a mother and raising kids?
Glenda reappeared in his office, flushed with excitement.
“Bingo, you lucky devil. Deborah Cowsill, wife of prominent attorney Vernon Cowsill, owned a black Cadillac Escalade at the time of the murder, and it so happens that vehicle was stopped for a taillight infraction at 10:36 PM on the night of the murder. Deborah Cowsill herself signed for the ticket.”
“On Manson Avenue in East Dallas, two blocks from the motel where her husband was killed.”
Harry smiled. “I guess it’s our lucky day. Glenda, get Detective Carver on the phone, please.”
Glenda started to leave his office, but stopped in the doorway with her back to him. “You know, Harry, I was never lucky enough to have children, but if I had, I there’s nothing I wouldn’t do for them. I mean. . .nothing.”
“I’ll get Carver for you now.”
While he waited for her to make the call, Harry tried to remember if Glenda had ever mentioned having children – or not having children – before. She hadn’t, and he’d never thought of her as being the motherly type. Yet something in what she’d just said and the tone of her voice when she said it told him she would have been a devoted one who would make any sacrifice for her children. Like his own mom. Like Pam.
“Carver,” Harry said when the detective answered, “I have some information for you regarding the death of Vernon Cowsill.”
At 11:30 the next morning, Detective Carver called back.
“Chief Winfield, to bring you up to speed, we brought Deborah Cowsill in and sweated her for awhile. Your information was very helpful. When we told her we had concrete evidence that she was in the vicinity of the motel that night, and we had an eyewitness to put her in the room, she decided to plead. With her money and connections, the DA might let her cop to manslaughter or murder two, but we’ll settle for that.”
“Congratulations, Detective,” Harry said. “Nice work.”
“All we need now is to bring in your witness. I assume that’s Pam Wilson.”
“You have a confession. You don’t need a witness.”
“That’s not how we do it in Dallas. A confession is almost a sure conviction, but suppose she decides to recant? We can’t take that chance. I want that witness in custody.”
“Sorry, Detective, but that’s not going to happen. I’m sure you use confidential informants all the time, or maybe you big city boys call them snitches. You let a little fish slip out of the net if they give you a bigger fish. Think of it that way. I gave you Deborah Cowsill, a whale, and Pam Wilson is a little guppie. Her name is not to be mentioned. Otherwise, I’ll file a complaint against you and your bulldog for charging into my jurisdiction without following inter-agency protocol first. Are we clear?”
After a long pause, Carver said, “We’re clear.”
Carver hung up, but Harry stayed on the phone. “Did you get all that, Glenda?”
“I love it when you talk tough, Chief.”
“Now we wait for Pam to call back so we can tell her the good news.”
Glenda chuckled. “Why don’t you call her?”
“Don’t tell me you traced her call with that space age computer and all those high-tech connections of yours.”
“Didn’t have to. We have Caller ID. All I had to do was write it down.”
Harry laughed. “Would you get her on the phone for me, please.”
When Pam answered, Harry said, “I wish you’d stop hanging up on me.”
“I’m sorry, Harry, but I — “
“Never mind that. I have some good news for you.”
After he’d told her everything, she began to cry again.
Finally, she said, “Harry, how can I thank you? You’ve been a real friend.”
“Just keep on serving my steak the way I like it, okay?”
“I could do even better than that.”
She seemed okay now, Harry thought. There was a smile in her voice. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I’ve been serving you diner food for quite a while. How would you like a home-cooked steak for a change? I’m a pretty good cook.”
“Uh, I think I could be talked into that real easy.”
“It’ll cost you,” she said.
“Whoa! I thought you were out of that business.”
She laughed. “I am. What I meant was, you have to bring a bottle of wine. Merlot is good with steak.”
Harry grinned. “Merlot it is.”
A final note. The title for this story wasn’t so easy. I originally had two in mind, but my critique group talked me out of calling it “The Last John” or “The Best Little Waitress in Texas.” They convinced me those titles gave away too much up front, and I settled for “The Waitress.”