Vex Marks the Spot
by Ed Lynskey
"I found a suicide note tucked in his Bible," the Mrs. Tanner said. "Bryan's car was parked on the far side of the iron truss bridge."
"Do you still have the note?" asked Sharon Knowles. She avoided the other lady's heavy-lidded stare on her.
"I turned it over to the police," she replied at length. "They wouldn't let me xerox a copy. Later when I asked Chief Schmidt, he hemmed and hawed before admitting that the damn note had disappeared from their evidence locker. Strange huh?"
Sharon rubbed a fingertip along the coffee cup's chipped rim. "That does qualify as bizarre. Physical evidence doesn't grow legs and walk away by itself."
Half-nodding, Mrs. Tanner leaning back in the molded plastic booth seat sighed. "Exactly. Bryan's death is riddled with such oddities."
"Oh?" asked Sharon.
Hunching her shoulders in a guarded posture, Mrs. Tanner's luminous hazel eyes to look into burned. "How about this one? Bryan's cell phone lay on the bridge. I hit the redial button and listened. He was trying to call out to the house. Now I ask you, why does a man about to jump to his death phone up his residence? If that doesn't intrigue you, then why did Bryan set aside his cell? He never went anywhere without it."
Sharon raised the near empty coffee cup to her lips to fill the silence between them. "I'll take your second question first. Bridge jumpers typically first remove eyeglasses to put in a purse or pocket. Why I don’t know. As to why Bryan tried to reach home, well, you can answer that better than I can."
"Bryan never leaped," said Mrs. Tanner, her fierce whisper attracting curious glances in the diner. "He was coerced. Better believe it. Otherwise, we've no basis for doing business."
"I sympathize," said Sharon. "Of course, I'll give you my most diligent effort. It's just from what you've told me, I can't help but wonder how much of a solid chance we have to prove your claims."
"I'm at my wits end running it through my mind. Suicide is unthinkable. Bryan had everything to look forward to except for that little school thing."
Each of Mrs. Tanner's hands scratched an elbow. "I saved it out until last. As far as I'm concerned it has no bearing on this. Bryan was accused of a student assault. A loose girl with an overactive imagination complained that he’d groped her in the gym after-hours. Bryan denied it but scandals nowadays are magnified and distorted. Given enough time, he'd be exonerated. I know it. I never believed her. Even now, however, she refuses to recant her cock-eyed tale."
Sharon didn't like playing the devil's advocate but she had an obligation to herself. Besides, Mrs. Tanner's story though while earnest and heart-tugging was also riddled with holes. "What would this girl gain by still sticking with her story?" she asked.
Mrs. Tanner's chin fell to her chest. "You'd better ask Joanne Seale that question."
"Being a stranger, what sort of reception will I get nosing around?" asked Sharon.
"Oh, It'll vary depending on who you talk to," said Mrs. Tanner. "A few will help you. More will spit in your eye. Welcome to our little town."
# # #
Following the directions Mrs. Tanner had drawn on the back of a napkin, Sharon pushed on. A narrow curvy blacktop took her through a deciduous woods bereft of foliage. November's slate gray day compressed her mood into a chilly uneasiness. She pictured Bryan Tanner driving this same route during his final hours. Sweat oozed out of his sore body as he put the crowning touches on his self death. Shaking off the jimjams, Sharon switched on the radio. She passed a raw-built man in bib overalls pedaling a silver bicycle going the other way. A chain stringer hanging off a handlebar swayed with a mess of catfish on it. She returned his wave.
"Strange man," she muttered. Warren Zevon broke into "Guns and Lawyers" with a gusto that toughened her own resolve.
Soon the road narrowing to one lane crawled over a low bluff before corkscrewing down into a limestone-laden valley hosting the Eldritch River. Here the trees older than sin soared tall as the Twin Towers once did. Her foot riding the brake, Sharon crept into deeper, darker shadows to the sort of spot attracting those destitute in spirit. Even at noon with the sun beaming straight down, a melancholy struck unwary travelers.
Sharon's eyes scanned downward to the napkin. Mrs. Tanner had designated the iron truss bridge with triple Xs, the place where her husband had perished at his own hands. Or, if Mrs. Tanner was correct, was the victim of foul play. A small rise in the road took her to the bridgehead. A pull-off on the right accommodated one car. Bryan Tanner had tossed his Prizm into reverse and backed into the space. Sharon in her Honda did likewise.
Before hopping out to examine the bridge span, she took a few moments to catch the end of Zevon's husky vocals. In the same moment, a red-blue strobe light cracked into view and a single siren blurt told her to stay put.
"A sheriff deputy tailed me out of town," said Sharon under her breath. "Fancy that. I'm suddenly a popular girl in town. That in itself means something. Now just what?"
Sharon’s windshield framed the braking CV cruiser with teal stripes running down its brown sides. It blocked her in. Flight or escape was impossible. The toad-faced sheriff deputy hauling himself from behind the steering wheel didn't know that was the last thing on her mind. She’d been planning to see local law enforcement. The sheriff deputy bent back inside the cruiser and pulled out a Stetson hat to stuff on his head, probably the for the first time in weeks from the dour look it left on him. Approaching Sharon's side, he circled his hand and made a roll-down motion. His nametag said "Smothers."
"What might you be doing out here?" Smothers asked.
Feigning surprise, Sharon blinked twice. "Why what do you mean?"
"Was my question complicated?" said Smothers. "I asked why you're driving on this road and not on the highway?"
Sharon opted to play it straight and dug out her PI license to show him. "Mrs. Tanner asked me to investigate her husband's death."
"Ms. Knowles, it was a suicide," said Smothers. "Bryan Tanner pawed a girl, faced jail time, and freaked. It was an open-and-shut case."
"Mrs. Tanner thinks different," said Sharon. "She calls it murder and his young accuser lied to police."
Smothers planted knobby fists on his stolid hips. "His ‘young accuser’ happens to be my step-daughter, Joanne Seale. She's honest as the day is long and I dare anyone, Mrs. Tanner included, to say different to my face."
Sharon recovered her wits in the next breath. "Understand those were her words, not mine."
"Yes ma'am, I heard that," said Smothers. He reached a hand with stubby fingers up to a shirt pocket to unbutton and fish out a pack of Big Red chewing gum. He peeled off the foil wrapper, folded the stick in half, and wedged it between his teeth. "So, you’re a private detective, ma'am?"
"Licensed by the Commonwealth of Virginia," replied Sharon.
"Huh-huh. Well, you're out of your jurisdiction, then. West Virginia has no reciprocal agreement with your state. That then leaves you out as a meddlesome busybody." Smothers worked his jaws slow and deliberate.
"You got me there," said Sharon. "Do I then turn around and get out of town?"
Unexpectedly, Smothers jerked his head. "Nope. No-no. You've poked a stick in the hornet's nest so it's too late to cut and run now."
A chill raked across Sharon's shaking shoulders. "Suggestions?"
"Well, ma'am, I've never went along with that suicide theory about Bryan Tanner," said Smothers. "I was just toeing the department line about it. You see, I grew up with Bryan and I doubt he'd ever bump himself off even if he was in hot water over what he'd done to my step-daughter."
"You figure it for murder?" asked Sharon.
"Yeah I do," said Smothers. "Only not the way your client probably sets it down. My suspicions fall on her. I believe Mrs. Tanner killed her husband and staged it like a suicide. Got a minute?"
Sharon exited her car and walked with the sheriff deputy to the point where the rusted iron truss arches fell into a vee. "It's not an awful long drop to the river," she observed gazing down into the lazy jade green water.
"Precisely my contention," said Smothers. "A jumper might walk away with a sprained ankle but not a broken neck. And Bryan plunged down feet first, too."
Sharon decided to test the sheriff deputy. "Too bad nothing except the suicide note was recovered."
After a snort, Smothers said, "No we ran across a cell right about where you are standing now. Guess what? No prints were lifted from it. Yep, it was wiped down. If Bryan deposited it there, wouldn't his palm leave its print?"
The eeriness of what Smothers was saying strained her belief in Mrs. Tanner's credibility. She said in a curt tone. "You have a certain bias. After all, Tanner mauled your step-daughter."
Smothers shrugged. "I can separate my personal feelings from my professional duties. Bryan fondled a girl. He should've known better, no matter if she plays a big flirt all the time. I say this only because you're a stranger and won’t repeat it but Joanne isn’t as innocent as she goes to great pains to pretend."
"All right then," said Sharon to the tough but honest peace officer. "What next?"
"Let me answer that by asking you a question," said Smothers. "Who do you work for?"
"It's virtually a cliché to say but I work for the truth," said Sharon. She wanted to add that working for such a client as the truth seldom paid much monetarily.
"In that case, ma'am, let's put our heads together and find some truth," said Smothers, removing the hated uniform hat.
# # #
"Bryan never had an eye out for the girls," Mrs. Tanner said. "We had a special marriage, the type you find once in a lifetime. If you're lucky and I was lucky."
"I don't doubt of his depth of love," said Sharon. "I'm only asking if he may've inadvertently encouraged or flattered Joanne Seale. From what I gather around town, she's a spunky girl with a lot of personality."
"She's an opportunistic slut," said Mrs. Tanner. "She saw what Bryan and I had and wanted to wreck it. I wouldn't put it past her to have schemed up a way to sue him for a slug of money in civil court. Well, let her try now. Dead men have no cash. And she can't squeeze me though she’d love to."
Sharon detected a pattern to Mrs. Tanner's outburst. "You don't hold a mortgage on this house?" she asked.
"We paid it off three years ago," said Mrs. Tanner. "Shall I refresh your coffee? No. Fine. We worked our butts off doing it, too. Overtime, no vacations, clipping coupons, macaroni and cheese suppers. Frugality bonded us in a common cause."
"Did folks know about your financial solvency?" asked Sharon.
"Syria is an old coal town, Ms. Knowles. Surely you must realize there are few secrets between inhabitants in such a place. We didn't go out of our way to discourage such talk about us. We weren't ashamed of what we'd accomplished."
"I'm exploring possible motives for murder," said Sharon. "What you've told me suggests one that Joanne Seales had."
"Sure, she coveted our worldly wealth," Mrs. Tanner said. "My God but you don't waste time in digging down to pry out the truth. Joanne Seales, the little tramp, is our killer. Can't be any other. She's the one."
Sharon said in a sly tone, "We'll need proof to incriminate her. Here's my plan --"
# # #
The diner at the dinner hour was jampacked, animated by bright conversation. Shorthanded, two waitresses hurried here and there. Sharon marveled at how they memorized orders and shouted them through the slot back to the fry cook. Mrs. Tanner and she occupied the same booth as they had earlier that day.
"Here comes Sheriff Deputy Smothers and Joanne," she told Mrs. Tanner in an even voice.
"Okay, I know my lines by heart," said Mrs. Tanner. "And relax before you blow it. I can keep a lid on my emotions in order to nail a cold-blooded killer."
"I'm depending on it," replied Sharon before looking up. "Deputy Smothers, so we meet again."
Sheriff Deputy Smothers drew up to halt on Mrs. Tanner's side of the booth with Joanne just short of his elbow. "Hello ladies. Ms. Knowles, have you spilled the news to your client?"
Suspicious, Mrs. Tanner asked, "Spilled what news?"
"Ms. Knowles has no valid license to play her trade in West Virginia," said sheriff deputy. "She's been asked to leave our fair town. Being an honorable officer of the court, she has agreed to it."
Mrs. Tanner wasn't intimidated. "She's here as my guest. In that capacity, she's free to stay for as long as she wishes. You can't shoo her away just like that."
"No, no," said Sharon, "he's right. I did agree to move along."
Mrs. Tanner couldn't balance herself on the grounds shifting so fast under her. "And leave me here in the lurch?"
Typical for a teen-ager, Joanne blurted out: "Mrs. Tanner, think what you will about me but it's true. Your husband accosted me. I've never seen a teacher act so ill-behaved before. He had his hands all over me."
"Liar," screamed Mrs. Tanner, a red flush discoloring her hue. "You want to get your grubby hands on what's mine."
"Easy," Sharon said in a low, confidential register, her pre-emptive touch on Mrs. Tanner's forearm. "Careful. Stick to our plan."
"Lady, my stepdaughter could care less about what you own,"
said Sheriff Deputy Smothers. "You can throw that far-fetched idea out of your
Joanne nodded with renewed vigor. "All true. Mr. Tanner came on to me. That's what happened."
Mrs. Tanner slid over in her seat and bucked straight up. Glints of maniac smugness fired her eyes. "Liars. All of you. Ha. No matter. Your little girl, deputy, will never get anything of mine. Never."
"Never?" said Sharon using a bemused tone.
"Never. I fixed it. I killed Bryan."
"Listen at what you're saying," said Sharon. "You just confessed to your husband's murder in front of a deputy sheriff in a crowded diner."
Mrs. Tanner didn't shirk or flinch, only threw her shoulders back in gleeful triumph. "Yes, but I kept all of what's mine, didn’t I? What else is there?"