Heavy June rains had raised the humidity well above normal. Buck McDivit felt it as he pulled into the thoroughbred horse ranch north of Oklahoma City. The horses issued a noisy acknowledgment of his appearance when he entered the large barn.
“Sorry, gang. You’ll get your oats after I clean up a bit.”
Buck took the stairs to the upper level. A narrow walkway encircled the large structure. It provided passage to several luxury suites often used by jockeys and visiting horse buyers. The owner, Mrs. Virginia O’Meara rented one of the suites to Buck for almost nothing. In return, he fed the horses and watched after them. He’d often wanted to bring home a girlfriend to see the place, but knew Mrs. O’Meara had a crush on him. Perhaps the motivation for the cheap rent.
Mrs. O’Meara had a much younger boyfriend that spent little time in Oklahoma City. A wary man, he kept a jealous eye on his wealthy girlfriend whenever he came to town. Trouble Buck didn’t need. He hadn’t dated anyone lately extraordinary enough to chance losing his happy home, though he did have someone in mind.
Blood on his hands disappeared into the marble bathroom vanity. Besides his work as a P.I., he often assisted the Logan County death investigator. Earlier, he’d worked a messy murder just north of Guthrie, a quaint bed and bath town north of the City. The phone rang as he dried his hands. It was Doc Halsey, the Logan County death investigator. Halsey was a veterinarian. That didn’t matter much in Logan County.
“We got another homicide, this time in Felony Flats.”
“Do I have time to feed the horses?”
“Make time. This one ain’t going no place.”
Buck did his feeding and then hurried up Coltrane, past Waterloo Road. Felony Flats had earned its name. A preacher intent on something other than salvation had purchased cheap land and then built even cheaper houses on it. He carried the note for anyone that could sign their name and more than a few that couldn’t. The houses fell apart after a few years. The residents, many of them only a step or two ahead of the law, never protested.
Waterloo Road, the county line, is too far north to worry Oklahoma County police. It’s also far enough south of Guthrie to provide little interest to the Logan County Sheriff. Bad things often happened in Felony Flats. Tonight, the name fitted the area well. Darkness blanketed the neighborhood as Buck parked his “Cowboy Coupe” in front of a ramshackle mobile home. A body awaited inside.
Broken brick littered the front yard. Someone had begun laying a barbecue pit. It was far from finished. A golden moon shined through thin cloud cover. Fireflies lit the pathway to the mobile home as a chorus of tree frogs heralded his appearance. Long after dark, it was still hot. He found Doc Halsey squatting beside the body of a large man, two Logan County deputies looking on with tired eyes.
“Johnny Big Shoe,” Halsey said. “Never thought he’d end up like this.”
Pulling on a pair of latex gloves, Buck knelt beside Doc Halsey. Without asking what had happened, he cocked Big Shoe’s head and touched the clotted wound behind his left ear.
“Blunt trauma,” Halsey said. “Someone nailed him from behind with something jagged and heavy.
Been dead since last night. His cousin, Austin Big Shoe, found the body.”
“Where is he now?”
“Guthrie, for questioning. Our number one suspect, to hear the Sheriff tell it.”
“Doesn’t make much sense. Why did he call the police if he’s the killer?”
“And wait twelve hours before doing it?” Doc Halsey added. “Don’t have a clue, but then again that’s not my job. Not yours, either.”
Buck glanced around the room, noticing the many Indian art paintings. A bare spot on the wall behind the ratty sofa cried out for attention. Yellowed wallpaper of a chain smoker outlined the former location of a missing painting. Sheriff Farnsworth entered the squalid mobile home before Buck could digest this information.
“Bag him,” Farnsworth said. “Austin confessed. No need to proceed any further with your investigation.”
Farnsworth glanced at Buck as if he were about to stomp a cockroach when he asked, “What’s the motive, Sheriff?”
“Them two’s feuded for years. Started in high school. They had designs on the same gal. They couldn't tolerate each other.”
“Then what was Austin doing here?” Buck asked.
“Came to kill him, I guess,” Sheriff Farnsworth said, dusting his hands as he started for the door. “Whatever, Austin confessed, and his fate is out of my hands.”
Buck knew better than to pursue the questioning. So did Doc Halsey. Lowering his eyes, he began wrapping the deceased man in a plastic body bag as the two deputies followed Farnsworth out the door. Halsey waited until he heard tires slipping in loose gravel.
“You’ll get us both fired if you aren’t careful.”
“When I was on the O.C.P.D., we checked things out with a lot more care. There’s enough evidence here to prove the case, one way or the other.”
“This ain’t Oklahoma County, Buck. What happens in Felony Flats stays in Felony Flats. There ain't no slick city lawyers here to get a guilty man off death row.”
Buck just shook his head. “Or an innocent man. What’s the story on all the paintings?”
“Johnny Big Shoe was an artist. I own some of his paintings myself. He never hit the big time. Maybe he will, now that he’s dead.”
Two men in a county transport truck retrieved Johnny Big Shoe's body. Doc Halsey supervised the loading and then walked over to Buck’s truck.
“Forget this one. Go home and get some rest.”
Buck took half of Doc Halsey’s advice. That night, he got enough sleep for the first time in a week. A good thing because the horses were in no mood for late feeding two days in a row. Next morning, some of the stalls needed mucking. He’d finished a surveillance job the previous day. Despite Doc Halsey’s advice, he decided to visit the Logan County jail.
Farnsworth figured into Buck’s decision to take the day off. Sheriff Farnsworth’s daughter, Carla, worked for the Logan County Sheriff’s Department. She smiled when he entered the front door. With blond hair braided into a sexy pigtail, she had the bright looks of a California surfer girl.
“To what do we owe this pleasure?” she asked as Buck approached her desk.”
“Nothing much. Just thought I’d give you another chance to go two-stepping with me Saturday night.”
“Maybe. Tom Jr. and me had a little fight last night. Don’t know if we’re broke up just yet, but it’s a definite possibility.”
“Then can I pick you up around seven Saturday night?”
“You here just to ask me out?”
“I also need to talk with Austin Big Shoe.”
“Daddy left orders for no one to see Austin.”
“I’m working for your daddy today.”
Skepticism flashed in Carla’s green eyes. “Sure about that?”
“Call and ask him if you don’t believe me.”
“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll have Roy bring him up to the visitor’s room.”
Buck walked away without a guilty conscience. A man’s life was more valuable than a little lie. Though that’s how he had it figured, he doubted Carla would see it that way.
There are no country club jails in rural Oklahoma. They’re all tough, the Logan County jail no exception. Buck waited as two jailers led Austin Big Shoe through the visitor’s room door. Clad in heavy shackles, he shuffled across concrete dressed in an orange jumpsuit. His wrists were cuffed, elbows manacled behind his back. Austin had two black eyes and a swollen face.
Buck didn’t smoke but kept a pack of cigarettes for just such occasions. Lighting one, he placed it between Austin’s bruised lips.
“Bad fall on the way to jail?” Buck asked. Austin likely grinned at the question. His eyes were swollen shut, and Buck couldn’t tell. “Sheriff Farnsworth said you confessed to killing Johnny.”
When Austin mumbled something indecipherable, Buck knew it was a denial. He always carried a pad and pen, a habit he’d learned from his days on the O.C.P.D. He placed the pad on the table and the pen in Austin’s hand
“I don’t believe you killed Johnny. I’ll help you, but you got to give me some information. What’s the story on the blank spot on the wall behind the couch in the trailer?”
Austin nodded. Although cuffs and manacles made movement difficult, he wrote until the jailers returned for him. Sheriff Farnsworth was talking with Carla when Buck reached the front desk.
“You liar!” Carla said.
“Get the hell out of here, McDivit,” Sheriff Farnsworth said.
Ignoring the sheriff, Buck glanced at Carla and said, “Does this mean our Saturday night date is off?”
Carla’s glare was his only answer. He rationalized that her anger didn’t matter. Still, he felt as though he’d just fallen on his sword. Despite her rejection, he had a hunch Austin was innocent, and set out to prove it before the trail became too cold. In hopes of scoring more clues, he returned to Johnny Big Shoe’s house. The smell of recent death hung in the air. No yellow crime tape encircled the house, nor was the front door locked. With Austin Big Shoe’s fate already sealed, no one cared.
The missing painting, according to Austin, was an original Charlie Red Bird. Red Bird had died of lung cancer shortly before becoming famous. The painting he’d given his friend Johnny was worth a cool quarter-million dollars. Austin’s estimate. The painting, Prairie Thunder, depicted a violent Oklahoma rainstorm. It had become a problem in Johnny’s recent divorce. His ex owned a studio in Oklahoma City’s Paseo Art District. She coveted what she considered her half of the painting.
Johnny had refused to sell it. As Buck saw it, this made her a prime suspect. The painting had occupied the back wall of the squalid mobile home, just behind Johnny’s old green couch. What caught his attention was the circular tear in the couch’s fabric. It would have defied dating except for one thing. He’d spotted several fresh droplets of blood, one within the tear. Because of the blood’s placement, he knew it had gotten there on or about the time of the circular tear. Of that, Buck had no doubt.
With this information, he headed toward Paseo District. But not before taking pictures and collecting samples of the blood droplets. The Paseo District lies just north of downtown Oklahoma City. It has a Santa Fe stucco appearance and is quite unlike any other place in the State. It’s now populated by art studios and a few southwestern style restaurants.
Much like the rest of the country, a declining economy had affected Oklahoma City. The Paseo now lay somewhere between decline and prosperity. Buck loved the pink and blue buildings.
Parking in front of Dream Catcher Studio, he found it closed for lunch. A cozy bistro across the street called The Azure Pendant beckoned. When an attractive woman, dressed in faux-buckskin, greeted him at the door, he knew he'd made a wise choice. They were the restaurant’s only occupants.
“Slow day?” Buck asked.
“Every day’s slow in the Paseo.”
“What’s for lunch?”
“Honey lime, chipotle chicken, and cornmeal dumplings. To die for.”
“Twist my arm, sweet talker,” Buck said. “And I better have a Tecate in a cold mug.”
She disappeared into the back of the restaurant, returning with a mug of beer, its edges salted and topped with sliced lime.
“Beer’s on me. I’m Beth.”
“Pleased, Beth. I’m Buck. Nice place,” he said, admiring the Mexican tile and large window overlooking a picturesque patio. “You have a different accent. You’re not from around here, are you?”
Beth smiled, relishing the handsome cowboy’s blatant flirtation. “Followed my ex-husband here from Austin. He’s gone, but I stayed. What’s your story?”
“Just a lonesome cowboy that likes two-stepping on Friday nights, and cold Coors any old night. Can’t say as I’m sorry your old man is gone,” he said, noticing she wore no wedding ring.
“Hey, the best thing that ever happened to me.”
Beth was friendly and had a terrific smile. She looked like an American Indian princess, or perhaps a seventies hippie. Her thatch of thick red hair and a fair complexion marked her more as Irish than Indian. She was maybe ten years older than he was. It didn’t matter. He liked redheads. Something about her set his sexual bells ringing, almost causing him to forget why he was there in the first place.
“I’ll get your chipotle chicken,” she said, breaking eye contact.
Buck’s head had begun to spin as he exchanged quips with the attractive restaurateur, and not because of the beer. After finishing the last savory bite of chicken, he said goodbye and walked across the street to the Dream Catcher Studio. An attractive woman with thick braided hair met him at the door. She didn’t need her turquoise squash blossom necklace to proclaim she was no wanna-be Native American.
“I’m Brenda Big Shoe. How may I help you?”
She smiled. “Need help, I’ll be in back.”
Buck had no idea what he was looking for but soon found it anyway. Brenda Big Shoe was talking with a petite woman in a blue pinstriped dress. The attractive woman, despite her spiked heels, barely reached Brenda Big Shoe’s chin. They were in a heated discussion and Buck decided to interrupt their conversation.
“Sorry to butt in, but I have a question. Have any Charlie Red Bird’s?”
The interruption surprised Brenda Big Shoe. Her smile returning, she turned and faced Buck.
“You a collector?”
“I represent a client in Nevada that has a sizeable Red Bird collection. I don’t like saying money’s no object, but if you have the right piece, then. . .”
He could see that his Pacific-sized lie had caught their attention. The short woman also smiled and extended her hand. It was then he saw the large bandage on her arm.
“I’m Diane Plimpton, art agent for many prestigious galleries on the east coast. Perhaps I can help?”
“My client has a quarter million dollars burning a hole in his pocket for just the right Red Bird. Any ideas?”
Again the two women exchanged glances. “We have an early Red Bird titled Prairie Thunder,” Diane Plimpton said. “We’re asking a half-million dollars, and it’s worth every penny. I’m sure your buyer wants to keep this as discrete as we do.”
“Can I see it?” Brenda and Diane led him to a painting the exact size as the one missing from Johnny Big Shoe’s wall. Bingo! Buck could see it all now. The two had gone to Johnny’s mobile home to bargain for the painting. Greed had overcome good sense, and an argument had ensued.
While Johnny and Brenda screamed at each other, Diane Plimpton had hit him from behind with a brick. Then she’d punctured the couch’s thin fabric with one of her sharp heels as she took the painting. A check of Diane Plimpton’s DNA would likely link her to the killing. He began backing out of the room.
“I’ll call my client and get back to you tomorrow.”
Buck knew the Logan County District Attorney. He also knew every judge on the Logan County bench. He didn’t know for a fact that Brenda and Diane were Johnny Big Shoe’s killers. Didn't matter. He had enough evidence to convince someone with authority to force Sheriff Farnsworth to at least check it out.
The Sheriff had an over-inflated opinion of his own intelligence and often jumped to false conclusions. He also had an enormous ego, hated anyone proving him wrong, and he didn’t like Buck. A future with his daughter, Carla, was likely out of the question. It didn’t matter at the moment.
Instead of his truck, he returned to the Azure Pendant. When Beth met him at the door, he said, “You like to dance?”