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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Half in Love with Artful Death

A Dan Rhodes Mystery

Sheriff Dan Rhodes Mysteries (Volume 21)

Bill Crider

Minotaur Books

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Chapter 1



Sheriff Dan Rhodes didn't know much about art, but he knew what he didn't like.

One thing he didn't like was having to listen to Burt Collins's complaints. It was the sheriff's job to listen to complaints, of course, or so the county commissioners insisted, but Collins got tiresome after a while. One day he'd come in to complain about the feral pigs that were rooting up his property, and the next day he'd be trying to get Rhodes to arrest Billy Joe Byron for picking something out of his trash. Billy Joe picked up things from trash all over town, and there was no law against it, but that didn't matter to Collins, who had a natural tendency to become irate at least once a day.

Today, he was irate about artists.

"They're all over town," he told Rhodes, "making a mess of everything. You need to run them out of here right now."

"They're our guests," Rhodes said. "They're bringing a lot of money into town. I'm pretty sure the hotel managers wouldn't want me to run them out. Neither would the folks who own the restaurants."

"I'm as much a citizen of this town as the people who own those restaurants," Collins said. Collins had been a track coach for the Clearview Catamounts at one time, but he'd retired as soon as he was eligible. Rhodes had heard that the track team had made immediate improvement. Collins had been slim in his coaching days, but he'd gained considerable weight since then. He didn't appear to have exercised at all since his retirement, and his face was becoming mottled as he got more worked up. Rhodes hoped he'd taken his blood pressure medication. "I'm a lot more of a citizen than those people running the hotels, those Patels. They're not even Americans."

There'd been more than one little run-in between Collins and the Patels, and the Patels thought that Collins was guilty of some vandalism at the hotels. He might very well have been the culprit, but Rhodes hadn't been able to prove it.

"You're wrong about the Patels," Rhodes said. "The Patels are citizens one and all."

Collins looked doubtful. "Well, maybe they are, if you say so, but they don't look like Americans to me. Neither do those artists, far as that goes. You seen their hair?"

Rhodes thought briefly about his own hair and the thin spot in back. He wondered if it had gotten any thinner lately.

"What's wrong with their hair?" he asked.

"There's this one woman, hers looks like a bunch of orange corkscrews sticking out of her head. I never saw the like."

For just a second Rhodes wondered if he'd slipped into a time warp and wound up back in the sixties. Wasn't that the era when folks got upset about how people's hair looked? Or was it the seventies?

"They're all over the place," Collins said. "In the park, downtown, out in the country. Running around like cockroaches."

Rhodes looked over at Hack Jensen, the dispatcher, who had his back to the sheriff and was pretending to be busy with something on his computer. Rhodes knew he was listening in and loving every minute of it, however.

"They're not running around," Rhodes said. "Mostly they're sitting still. Or standing still. They can't run around and paint."

Collins wasn't to be deterred by that argument. "Well, they might as well be running around. It's like an infestation of 'em. Besides, I don't call what they're doing painting. Painting is what you do to a house or a barn. They're just messing around."

"I don't think they'd agree with you," Rhodes said.

"You seen any of their so-called pictures?"

"Several," Rhodes said.

"Don't look like anything I ever saw. I saw one that was supposed to be cows. You seen that one?"

"I don't know for sure."

"No wonder," Collins said. "How could you know for sure? You can't, 'cause what they're calling cows looks more like blotches. Can't even tell if they got legs." He paused. "This is all that Lonnie Wallace's fault."

Lonnie Wallace was a young man who'd inherited a beauty shop and an antiques store at about the same time. He'd pretty much given up on the antiques after a short time because he'd found he couldn't run both businesses at once even if they were only a block apart. So he'd converted the front part of the store into an art gallery for local artists. That had worked out for a while, and then Eric Stewart had moved to town. He and Wallace became friends, and before long Lonnie had hired Stewart as manager of both the store and the gallery.

Stewart was something of an artist himself, and one of his ideas for generating more local interest was to hold a workshop and invite amateur artists from all over the state to attend. Stewart was teaching at some of the sessions, and Don McClaren, the art teacher at the local community college branch, was teaching the others.

"You'd better watch what you say about Lonnie," Rhodes told Collins. "He's a friend of mine. And he's done a lot for the downtown, what's left of it."

That wasn't strictly true, and Rhodes knew it, but since Lonnie had opened the art gallery, which, along with the antiques, was housed in a building that had once been a thriving hardware store, there'd been a little stirring of life in what was left of Clearview's central business district. A lot of the old buildings had fallen down or been razed, but a new senior citizens center had just opened, and a couple of the old stores had been remodeled and repurposed. A florist and a dentist had taken over a couple of the buildings, and others were home to a church and thrift store. Now and then there were even a few people on the sidewalks.

"You say you're friends with Lonnie?" Collins asked.

"That's right."

"I don't see how that can be. Don't you know he's a—"

"Stop right there," Rhodes said, interrupting him, "before you get yourself in real trouble."

Collins's mottled face got even redder in several places. "Man's got a right to say what he pleases."

"Man's got a right to suffer the consequences, too," Rhodes told him.

"Don't see how a man could be friends with a—"

"Uh-uh," Rhodes said, holding up a hand to stop him. "Don't say it."

Collins stood up. "I don't have to stay here and put up with this."

"You sure don't," Rhodes said. "In fact, it might be a good idea for you to be on your way. Might be a good idea for you to do a little thinking about things, too. Maybe change your attitude a little bit while you're at it."

"I'm not changing," Collins said. "You'll hear about this. I'm going to talk to your bosses and see if we can't do something about getting some real law in this town, somebody that'd do something about those artsy weirdos."

Weirdos. That was a term Rhodes hadn't heard in a good many years. Maybe he really had slipped into a time warp.

"Look, Mr. Collins," he said. "We have a lot more serious things to worry about around here than a few artists drawing pictures you don't like. We have people cooking meth in their car trunks in the Walmart parking lot. We have wild hogs tearing up property all over the county. We have automobile accidents and robberies. We have—"

"I didn't come to hear about how bad the crime in Blacklin County is," Collins said. "I came to get one little thing taken care of, and you say you can't do anything about it. Doesn't sound like you're doing much about all the other crimes, either, much less those hogs. I guess what it boils down to is that you can't handle your job."

"You just need to cool down and think about all the good Lonnie Wallace has done for the town," Rhodes told him. "You'll see that the artists are part of that."

"I don't think so," Collins said. "I think they're bad for the community, and so is that Lonnie Wallace and anybody else like him."

Collins turned and huffed out of the jail. Rhodes thought he could see steam coming out of Collins's ears, though that was probably only his imagination.

Hack waited until the door had closed behind Collins. Then he swiveled his chair around and said, "You'd think ever'body was over that kind of thing now."

"What kind of thing?" Rhodes asked.

"You know. Lonnie bein' gay."

"Collins is old-fashioned."

"That's about as polite a way of puttin' it as I ever heard. I'm older'n he is, and—"

"You're older'n anybody in town," said Lawton, the jailer, as he came into the office from the cellblock. He held the mop he'd been cleaning with in one hand. "You're even older'n me."

"I might be old," Hack said, giving Lawton a dirty look, "but I ain't any older'n you. Nobody's older'n you. Dirt ain't older'n you. I'm surprised they didn't find your bones on that fossil dig the sheriff got mixed up in a few years ago, right along with those mammoth bones."

Rhodes remembered the mammoth dig. It hadn't turned out well.

"If I'm still here," Lawton said, leaning the mop against the wall, "which I am, how could they find my bones?"

Rhodes knew from experience that this kind of dialogue could go on for quite a while. He leaned back in his chair to see how long it would go on this time.

"One thing's for sure," Hack said. "You ain't bony."

Lawton ran a hand over his stomach. "You got that right. Pleasingly plump is what I am."

"Call it what you want to. You're a fossil, anyway."

"You gotta remember," Lawton said, "I'm not the one talkin' about how old he is. You're the one doin' that. I was just agreein' with you. Kinda surprised you'd admit it, though. You been sparkin' that Miz McGee just like you was a whippersnapper."

"Don't you get started on Miz McGee," Hack said. "You're just jealous 'cause no woman could put up with you."

"Ha," Lawton said. "Shows how much you know about it. It's just a good thing for you that I'm your friend and not the kinda snake who'd try to steal your girlfriend."

Ms. McGee hadn't been a girl in a long time, Rhodes thought. A really long time.

"I'd like to see you try to steal her," Hack said. "She'd laugh in your face."

Rhodes had a feeling the argument was about to get to the "Oh yeah?" stage, and he was going to step in when the telephone rang. Hack gave Lawton a glare and answered.

"Sheriff's Department." He listened for a few seconds, then said, "We'll have somebody there in five minutes."

Hack hung up and turned to Rhodes. "There's some kind of fight at Lonnie's art gallery. You think Burt's mixed up in it?"

Rhodes was already out of his chair and on his way to the door.

"I'll find out," he said. "Call Andy and have him back me up."

"You might already have backup," Hack said.

"Andy's there?"

"Nope, but that was your friend Seepy Benton on the phone. He says not to worry. He has everything under control."

"Uh-oh," Rhodes said.



Copyright © 2014 by Bill Crider