THE BEAUTY SHACK.
The red sign painted on the big window on the front of the little white building bothered Sheriff Dan Rhodes. The words “beauty” and “shack” didn’t seem to belong together.
The wooden building had been sitting there on a concrete slab for twenty years or more, about two blocks from what was left of Clearview’s downtown. While the building was a little the worse for wear, it wasn’t a shack. There was nothing wrong with it that a new coat of paint couldn’t fix.
Rhodes got out of the county car. The early morning air smelled fresh and clean. The pea gravel crunched beneath his feet.
Two other vehicles were parked in front of the building. One was a red Chrysler Sebring convertible with cat tracks on the windshield and dew on the top and hood. Beside it was a black Suburban that was coated with dirt and dust. Someone had written WASH ME with a wet finger on the side near the back.
Rhodes looked toward downtown. Deputy Ruth Grady’s cruiser was headed in his direction, its light bar flashing. No siren, though. Ruth knew better than to attract too much attention this early in the morning, or any time of day for that matter, though it was hard to say just whose attention she might attract. The downtown area was deserted, and many of the old buildings had fallen down or been demolished. The bricks had been hauled away, and now only gaping openings remained. Businesses had migrated out to the highway where the new Walmart was, and the old central business district was like a ghost town.
The early morning sun threw a long shadow from the decrepit building across the street from the Beauty Shack. Fifty or sixty years ago the front half of the building had housed a Buick dealership, and a Studebaker dealership before that, or so Rhodes had been told. The second floor had been a hotel, respectable at one time, then a flophouse, and then nothing except vacant rooms.
The glass show windows on the bottom floor had been replaced with plywood, now dark with age and covered with fading graffiti.
Brush and trees grew thickly around the faded brick walls and hid most of the amateur artwork, which was as faded as the bricks except for one or two halfhearted recent attempts that had been partially foiled by the bushes.
In the window frames of the old hotel above, some panes of glass were missing entirely, and most of the rest were cracked. In one window a bedraggled bird’s nest drooped between a broken pane and the frame.
Rhodes heard the hum of an air conditioner as it kicked on behind the Beauty Shack. It was going to be a hot day. Rhodes brushed his fingers across his damp forehead and wiped them on his shirt. Ivy, his wife, wouldn’t have liked that, but she wasn’t there to see.
Ruth Grady drove into the little parking area and stopped her cruiser next to Rhodes and got out. She had a camera and some evidence bags in one hand.
“Ready to go in?” she asked.
Ruth was Blacklin County’s youngest deputy but one of the best qualified. Rhodes had never doubted her abilities or judgment until recently, when she’d begun dating Seepy Benton, a math teacher at the local community college branch. Benton was a bit odd. Ruth’s personal life was none of Rhodes’s business, however, so he kept out of it. So far her work hadn’t been affected.
“I’m ready,” he said.
He went up the two concrete steps that sat in front of the Beauty Shack and opened the door. As soon as he did, he smelled the peculiar beauty shop smell. Even with the air conditioner running all night, the smell remained. Rhodes had never known exactly what it was, other than that it had to be some combination of permanent wave solution, blow-dried hair, shampoo, perfume, ointments, creams, dyes, nail polish, hair spray, mousse, and other things he couldn’t identify.
Ruth was right behind him as he stepped inside. Thanks to the air conditioner, it was cooler there than it had been out in the parking lot. Both of them pulled on polypropylene gloves.
The shop had only one room other than the restroom. On the wall opposite the door were four chairs backed up against sinks with mirrors above them. Near the mirror on his left was a large rack that held bottles and jars of beauty products. Two big chairs with dryer helmets above them were on the right. A price list was thumbtacked to the wall between them.
A woman sat in one of the dryer chairs. She got up when Rhodes and Ruth entered, but Rhodes hardly glanced at her. He was looking at the other woman, the one who lay on the floor near the wall to his left, the one who wasn’t moving.
Her name was Lynn Ashton. Young, blond, and pretty. She was the owner of the convertible. Or she had been. She was too dead to own anything now. The usual wave of melancholy at the waste of a life passed over Rhodes. He couldn’t help the young woman, and it made him feel old and ineffective.
“I found her just like that, Danny,” said the woman who’d been sitting in the chair. She was Sandra Wiley, the owner of the shop. “I saw her soon’s I opened the door. Scared me half to death. I called you soon’s I got hold of myself. I got that dispatcher of yours instead, though.”
Rhodes shook himself and took a deep breath. Sandra was his own age, almost exactly. He knew that because they’d been in the same class in school, when her last name had been Rankin, and, thanks to the fondness that many of the teachers had for alphabetical order, they’d sat next to each other in homeroom and classes for twelve years. Only people who’d known Rhodes in those long-gone days called him Danny.
In the years since their graduation, Sandra had gained a bit of weight, and the skin of her face drooped a mite. Rhodes thought he was the same, at least as far as the weight gain, but while his hair was thinning at the crown and turning gray, Sandra’s was still as dark brown as it had ever been, maybe darker. Rhodes figured it had some help from the beauty shop. It was cut short and held firmly in place by some kind of spray. She had a wide face, thin lips, and sad brown eyes.
“I probably touched some things,” Sandra said. She nodded at a counter just to the right of the door. It held a cash register and an old push-button landline phone. “I know I should’ve used my cell.”
“Don’t worry about it,” Rhodes said. He didn’t think the killer would have used the phone.
Sandra wore a pair of navy blue slacks, a white shirt, and white canvas shoes with rubber soles. She reached into the shirt pocket and held up a cell phone as if Rhodes might want to inspect it. When she saw that he didn’t, she put it back in her pocket.
“Did you call anybody else?” Rhodes asked.
“I called Abby and Lonnie and told them not to come in to work today. I didn’t say why. They’ll think the air conditioner’s gone out or something. It’s happened once already this summer. Was that all right?”
“Sure,” Rhodes said. Abby and Lonnie wouldn’t be spreading the word about what had happened, not yet, anyway.
“That Hack Jensen, the dispatcher who works for you, said he’d call the hospital,” Sandra said.
Hack was the dispatcher, all right, but he worked for the county, not for Rhodes. Rhodes didn’t think this was the time to explain the distinction to Sandra, however.
“That Hack said you’d call for an ambulance,” Sandra said. “I didn’t think it was any use to call the EMTs. They couldn’t help her.”
With that, she started to sniffle. Ruth put the camera and evidence bags on the counter and went to her. She spoke quietly, and Rhodes couldn’t hear what was being said, but he knew Ruth was offering more comfort than he could. He walked over to look at the body of Lynn Ashton.
She wore the same color of slacks, shoes, and shirt that Sandra did, but she also had on a green smock. Rhodes knelt down and touched her neck. It was cold, and he could feel no pulse. He stood up and walked back to Sandra.
“When’s the last time you saw Lynn?”
Sandra sniffled into a handkerchief that had appeared from somewhere. She looked at a small gold watch on her wrist.
“About fifteen minutes ago.”
“I mean before that,” Rhodes said.
“Oh. Sure. Yesterday afternoon about five. Lonnie and Abby had left, and I was ready to close up. Lynn said she had a client coming in for a late appointment and she’d lock up.” Sandra started to sniffle again. “What am I going to tell Lonnie and Abby?”
“Did she say who the client was?” Ruth asked.
“No, and I didn’t ask. We stay all the time if one of our clients needs to come in late. Everybody has a key to the door so they can lock up. It was nothing unusual.”
Rhodes looked at the body. A silver blow-dryer lay nearby. It wasn’t plugged in. Rhodes knelt beside the body again. He saw an indentation in Lynn’s temple. There was only a little blood around it clinging to the blond hair. There didn’t have to be much.
Not far from Lynn’s fingers lay a pair of scissors. The points weren’t particularly sharp, but they could’ve done some damage.
Rhodes stood and looked around the shop for signs of a struggle. The chairs in front of the sinks weren’t aligned perfectly, but nothing had fallen from the shelves. If there’d been a fight, it hadn’t lasted long.
“That’s Lynn’s dryer on the floor,” Sandra said. “Everybody has their own. Their own scissors, too. I’ll provide what they need, within reason, but I won’t pay the price for some of those things. That dryer’s a little heavier than most, but it’s a good one. Ceramic heating element. Cost nearly a hundred and fifty dollars. The scissors cost almost that much, too.”
Rhodes noticed quite a bit of hair on the off-white vinyl floor and asked about it.
“We always sweep up after every client,” Sandra said, “but it’s just impossible to get it all. I have someone come in on the weekends and do a real cleaning.”
“Let’s you and me go outside and talk,” Rhodes said.
He planned to let Ruth work the scene. She was good at it, better than he was, and she’d need some time alone with the body before anyone else messed up the place.
“I need to tell you something,” Sandra said.
“Tell me outside,” Rhodes said.
“That’s what I have to tell you about. Something outside.”
Rhodes opened the door and held it until Sandra had walked down the steps.
“You need anything?” he asked Ruth.
“Not that I can think of. Hair evidence won’t be any good, but I’ll collect it if you think we need it. There’ll be fingerprints all over everything in here.”
“Just do the best you can,” Rhodes said. “Then start on the car.” He went out and closed the door.
Sandra stood beside her Suburban, smoking a cigarette. When she saw Rhodes, she said, “I know these things are bad for me. I just smoke about two a day.”
She tossed the cigarette to the gravel and ground it out under the sole of her canvas shoe. She picked up the butt and put it in the pocket of her slacks.
“I like to keep the place clean,” she said.
Rhodes nodded. “You said you had something to tell me.”
Sandra looked over at the dilapidated building across the street. The sun was just above the top of it now, and Rhodes shaded his eyes with his hand as he turned to look. There were times when he wished he wore a Western-style straw hat in the summer like nearly every other sheriff in Texas, but he’d never liked hats, and they made him uncomfortable.
“I think there’s somebody over there,” Sandra said. “On the second floor. I thought about reporting it last week, but it slipped my mind. It’s some kind of tramp, I’ll bet. Maybe he killed Lynn. If he did, it’s all my fault.”
“It’s not your fault,” Rhodes said. He pulled off his gloves and stuck them in a back pocket. “Unless you killed her.”
Sandra lit another cigarette and sucked down some smoke. She let out a white plume and said, “You know me better than that, I hope, Danny.”
Rhodes could’ve told her that nobody ever knew anyone that well, but he didn’t think it was a good idea.
“I should’ve reported that tramp,” Sandra continued. “I did the last time somebody was there.”
Rhodes thought back. It had been nearly three months, but he remembered the call. Buddy, one of the deputies, had checked it out. He hadn’t found anyone, but he did see signs that someone had been living there: an old mattress on the floor, some empty bottles and cans. Buddy had checked on the building every day for a while after that, but whoever had been occupying the place had moved on.
Maybe he’d come back, or maybe someone else had moved in.
“I think he was there this morning,” Sandra said. “I thought I saw someone moving around up there when I got here.”
“Where was he?” Rhodes asked.
“Up there on the second floor.” Sandra pointed. “The first window on this end. He might still be there.” Sandra shivered. “I’m afraid he killed her, Danny.”
Rhodes stared up at the window she’d indicated. It was the only window along that side with all the glass panes intact. Rhodes thought he’d better take a look up there before whoever Sandra had seen took a notion to leave, never to be seen again. If he hadn’t left already.
Rhodes went to the door of the beauty shop, opened it, and told Ruth what he was going to do. She nodded, too engrossed in her examination of the scene to do anything more.
Rhodes closed the door.
“You can stay here,” he told Sandra.
“You don’t have to worry about me,” she said. “I’m not about to go over there. You be careful.”
“I will,” Rhodes said.
“Ivy says you aren’t, not always.”
Rhodes looked at Sandra. His wife had her hair done at the Beauty Shack.
“What can I tell you?” Sandra said. “We talk about everything here. It’s not gossip. Just sharing information.”
“I’ve heard that before,” Rhodes said.
“I’ll bet. You be careful, anyway.”
“I will,” Rhodes said. “Trust me.”
“I’ve heard that before. It usually means things won’t turn out so good.”
“They will this time,” Rhodes said. He hoped it was the truth.
Copyright © 2012 by Bill Crider