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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Compound Murder

A Dan Rhodes Mystery

Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries (Volume 20)

Bill Crider

Minotaur Books


Chapter 1

Sheriff Dan Rhodes sat at his kitchen table and glared at the plastic bottle of Mr. PiBB.
"Go ahead," his wife, Ivy, said. "Try it. You might like it. Breakfast of champions."
"That's Wheaties," Rhodes said.
Ivy ignored that. "Do you think you're going to bring the corporate giant to its knees if you never drink another Dr Pepper? They're not even going to notice."
Rhodes knew she was right. What good would it do anybody if he never drank another Dr Pepper? Would it really punish anybody other than himself? Still, he could never forgive the corporate giant for stopping the Dublin Dr Pepper plant from bottling the drink made with cane sugar the way it should be made. It had been a year now, and he still couldn't forgive and forget. It didn't matter that other bottlers were making Dr Pepper with sugar of some kind or the other. It just wasn't the same.
"Mr. PiBB tastes just like Dr Pepper, anyway," Ivy said. "You won't be able to tell the difference."
Blasphemy. "You might not be able to tell," Rhodes said. "I can."
"You could always try something else. A cola drink, maybe."
Worse than blasphemy. "Hah."
"What you need is some solid food," Ivy said. "I'll scramble an egg for you. Fry some bacon. That would do you a lot more good."
"I'm not in the mood," Rhodes said, giving the Mr. PiBB another glare.
Yancey, the poofy little Pomeranian, came running into the kitchen. He skidded to a stop when he saw Sam, the black cat, eating from his bowl near the refrigerator. Yancey had seen Sam there a thousand times, but it always seemed to come as a complete surprise to him that there was a cat in the house. He slid into the leg of Rhodes's chair and yipped in displeasure.
"That's kind of the way I feel," Rhodes told the dog, who sat looking up at him and whining as if looking for a little sympathy.
Sam ignored both of them and kept on eating. Cats didn't care about soft drinks, the presence of dogs, or much of anything else, as far as Rhodes could tell.
Rhodes stood up, took the bottle of Mr. PiBB from the table, and put it back in the refrigerator. He'd been going through that routine for weeks now. He wondered how long it would take to wear out the bottle. Or for him to break down and take a drink of the Mr. PiBB.
Yancey recovered himself and danced around Rhodes's feet, yipping.
"He wants to go out," Ivy said.
"I'll go with him," Rhodes said. "I need to feed Speedo."
He went to the back door, Yancey bouncing along behind. Rhodes picked up the bag of dog food and opened the door.
Yancey dashed out and down the steps. He tore across the yard, looking for that squeaky toy that he and Speedo shared. "Shared" wasn't really the right word, Rhodes thought. Each dog seemed to think the toy was exclusively his own.
While Rhodes poured dog food into Speedo's big metal bowl, Yancey's frenzied yips brought Speedo out of his Styrofoam igloo. Speedo charged for the squeaky toy, too, without even shaking himself. Speedo was a border collie, considerably bigger than Yancey, but Yancey didn't appear to notice the difference in their sizes. While he was easily intimidated by the cat, Yancey wasn't intimidated by Speedo at all. Maybe he sensed that Speedo bore him no ill will, whereas Sam almost certainly did, no matter how casual he seemed to be when Yancey was around.
Yancey got to the toy first, snatching it up and sliding right under Speedo's nose. Speedo didn't chase him, because he heard the food being poured into his bowl. He came over and started to eat. Yancey brought the squeaky toy in hopes that Speedo would try to take it, but Speedo was too interested in eating.
Yancey looked so depressed that Rhodes put down the bag of dog food, walked over to Yancey, and snatched the toy from him. Yancey was elated. He danced and yipped as Rhodes held up the toy and pretended to throw it. Yancey wasn't fooled. He'd seen that old trick too many times, so Rhodes had to toss the toy and let the dog romp after it.
Rhodes took the bag of dog food inside and was about to go back to the yard when the telephone rang. Ivy answered it and listened for a bit. Then she said, "He's right here."
Ivy held the phone out to Rhodes. "It's Hack."
Hack Jensen was the dispatcher at the jail. He wouldn't call Rhodes at home unless there was some kind of trouble. Rhodes looked at the kitchen clock. Not even seven. It was too early for morning trouble, so this must be something left over from the previous night. Rhodes took the phone.
"What's up?" Rhodes asked.
"Lonnie Wallace phoned," Hack said.
That didn't exactly answer the question, but that was always Hack's approach. He liked to work his way up to the answer in his own way. Sometimes Rhodes thought it was a plot to drive him crazy.
"What did he want?" Rhodes asked.
"Some sheriffin'," Hack said. "Why else would he phone us?"
"I thought maybe there'd been a crime committed. That's usually why people call."
"Yeah, well, there was that, too."
"What was the crime?"
"Hair," Hack said.
"Must be an echo in here," Hack said.
"You know better than that. Tell me about the theft."
"You don't have to get snippy about it."
Hack always resorted to the snippy defense when he could tell Rhodes was irritated.
"Just tell me," Rhodes said.
"I thought I did."
Rhodes sighed, then wished he hadn't. It would just encourage Hack. "Give me some specifics."
"Lonnie Wallace called."
Rhodes didn't say a word. After a second or two Hack continued. "He said somebody broke into the Beauty Shack and stole his hair."
"His hair?"
"Well, he owned it, so that would make it his, right?"
Lonnie was the owner of the Beauty Shack and one of the operators. He'd more or less inherited the place from its former owner, who was no longer in the business. Lonnie had a nice head of hair, but Rhodes didn't think that was what Hack meant.
"I'll go by and talk to him on my way in," Rhodes said.
"Better go on soon as you can. He sounded pretty upset."
"I'm on the way," Rhodes said, but he wasn't.
After he hung up, Rhodes went back outside to fetch Yancey, who had one end of the squeaky toy in his mouth as he tussled with Speedo, who had the other end. Rhodes had no doubt that Speedo could have pulled the toy away at any time, but for the moment he was content to let Yancey appear to be his equal.
"Break it up, guys," Rhodes said, but of course the dogs paid him no attention. They both growled deep in their throats. Even though Yancey's own growl was far from impressive, Speedo's didn't frighten him.
"Time to go in," Rhodes said and picked up Yancey, who tried to hang on to the squeaky toy but couldn't manage it. The dog yipped pitifully as Rhodes carried him across the yard with Speedo walking along behind, looking smug with the toy dangling from his mouth.
Rhodes went in and set Yancey on the floor. Yancey charged off toward the bedroom to hide under the bed and sulk.
"Do you have time for breakfast?" Ivy asked.
Rhodes shook his head. "Not even a swallow of Mr. PiBB. There's trouble at the Beauty Shack."
"Not like the last time, I hope."
"So do I," Rhodes said.
* * *
Lonnie Wallace was waiting in the gravel parking lot of the Beauty Shack when Rhodes pulled to a stop. As usual, Lonnie was dressed in drugstore cowboy style: jeans held up by a belt with a big buckle in the shape of the state of Texas, a Western-cut shirt, and ostrich quill boots that cost at least five hundred dollars. Rhodes thought that the beauty business was very, very good to Lonnie.
The last time Rhodes had arrived at the Beauty Shack in the early morning, there'd been a dead woman inside. Rhodes didn't think things were likely to be that serious this time, but you never could tell. He got out of the county car, a white Dodge Charger, his shoes crunching in the gravel that covered the parking lot, and asked Lonnie what was going on.
"Hack said something about hair," Rhodes added.
"That's right," Lonnie said. "We're trying to reach out and get some new customers, so a few weeks ago I started stocking hair extensions and wigs. Made from real human hair. They're very expensive. Seventy-five dollars to start."
Rhodes glanced across the street at the derelict building. "The deputies are still checking that place every night, so your burglars didn't come from there. How did they get in?"
"Let's go inside," Lonnie said. "I'll show you."
They went inside the shop, which hadn't changed much under Lonnie's ownership. It still smelled the same way, which was the way all beauty shops smelled to Rhodes. He didn't know exactly what the smell was composed of, but it was powerful and distinctive. Not unpleasant. More like astringent. Shampoo, nail polish remover, and permanent wave solution all figured into it.
The shop had only one big room, not counting the restroom. The door to the restroom was open, and Lonnie pointed in that direction. Rhodes looked and saw that the window in the restroom was broken. Shards of frosted glass covered the floor.
"That's how they got in," Lonnie said. "The hair extensions were over here."
He pointed out a glass case that still held bottles of shampoo, conditioner, hair spray, scissors, nail clippers, and other notions.
"The case wasn't locked," Lonnie said, "so they didn't have to break it."
Rhodes thought the whole burglary would have taken five minutes at the outside. Maybe two people involved. Break the window, boost one person through it. That person grabs the extensions, hands them out the window, then leaves the same way. It didn't have to be two people. One person could have done it with something to stand on, say the hood of a car.
"Do you have a burglar alarm?" Rhodes asked.
"Yes," Lonnie said, "but it wasn't hooked to the restroom window."
"Your insurance company might not like that."
"I'm sure they won't. Sandra had it put in. I never updated it."
Sandra Wiley had owned the shop before Lonnie. The insurance company wouldn't care about that. Lonnie should have been more careful.
"Can you catch whoever did this?" Lonnie asked.
People always asked that question, and Rhodes was always honest with them, even when he knew the answer he gave wasn't what they wanted to hear.
"Probably not," he said. "We'll try, you know that, but those hair extensions are likely to be in Houston or Dallas by now. I wouldn't be surprised if they were stolen by someone just passing through town, or someone who came here from out of town especially to steal them."
"I've learned an important lesson," Lonnie said.
"To sleep in your shop with a shotgun?"
Lonnie did a double take. Then he grinned. "I never know when you're kidding."
"You aren't alone," Rhodes said. "I'm going to call Hack and get someone here to work the scene. You might have to cancel your appointments for the morning."
"I'll start making the calls," Lonnie said.
"Use your cell," Rhodes told him. "I doubt that your burglar used the phone, but we have to be careful. You can call in here, but don't touch anything."
"I'll be careful," Lonnie said.
Rhodes went out to the county car, got Hack on the radio, and asked him to send Ruth Grady to the Beauty Shack. "Tell her there's been a burglary. She can get the details from Lonnie when she gets here. I want her to work the scene."
"She's on patrol," Hack said.
"I know, but she's needed here now."
"Take her a while to get there."
"That's all right. Lonnie's closing the shop."
"I'll tell her," Hack said. "Hang on. I got a call coming in."
Rhodes waited. The Beauty Shack was a little past the edge of Clearview's old downtown area, and it was quiet at that time of day. For that matter, it was quiet just about any time of the day. There wasn't much left of downtown, a lot of which was like the building across the street, empty and about to fall down. In fact, some of the buildings had already fallen down. Where there had once been busy stores, there were concrete foundations and floors and nothing more.
A little breeze stirred up a dust devil at the edge of the parking lot, but the breeze didn't do much to cool things down. The day was warm even though it was the middle of October. Rhodes was used to it. The summer had been brutal, the drought had been severe, and there hadn't been much of a fall so far. The weather had been extreme for several years, and Rhodes wondered if things would ever straighten out again.
He didn't wonder long because Hack came back on the radio.
"You better get out to the college," Hack said. "Quick."
"What's the trouble?"
This time Hack didn't obfuscate or beat around the bush.
"In the parking lot in back of the building," he said. "Somebody's dead."

Copyright © 2013 by Bill Crider