Mystery at the Fair, p.1
Mystery at the Fair
A Jean Hays Story
By Connie Cockrell
Copyright © 2015 by Connie Cockrell
Cover Art by Connie Cockrell
Original Photo art by: Randy Cockrell
All rights reserved.
To all of the family, friends, and acquaintances who encouraged me to try my hand at something new.
To my friends at Forward Motion (https://www.fmwriters.com), and Power Writing Hour for their support. To the EJ at Silver Jay Media for being such a patient and supportive editor.
Jean Hays trudged across the fairgrounds. Sweat dripped down her temples. The sun beat down out of a cornflower-blue sky while end-of-the-monsoon season thunderheads built up into towering blinding white and ominous portents of future rain. Wish I'd remembered my hat. That's what I get. March had seemed so pleasant. Who knew September would mimic an oven with misters?
She reached the first of two shipping containers the Hise County Fair used as storage lockers. They called them Conex boxes. Jean remembered seeing them on every Air Force base she'd ever been on. She glanced at the cloud studded sky. Rain every year for the fair, she'd heard the Exhibits team say before she'd trudged to the storage container where the plastic tubs of left over ribbons, banners and other fair paraphernalia resided the rest of the year. She wiped her face and hoped the units were unlocked. The Fair Board President, Arris Van Horn wasn't answering his phone. I hope Arris came by and unlocked these. He should have them open by now. Jean examined the two-part mechanism to open the container. She briefly touched the handles. The doors received full sun all day. They were hot but not hot enough to give a burn. Jean pulled on one lever. Part of the mechanism moved a rod that connected with a top and bottom notch but it didn't allow the door to open. She wiped the sweat from her forehead. I really need to learn to wear a hat.
Jean had moved to Greyson, Arizona in February. It had been winter–there was even a bit of snow. Old northeastern habits died hard, she never used to wear a hat. Now, though, she wished for her wide-brim hiking hat to give her some relief. Must be ninety degrees out here.
She tried the second handle on the door. It lifted another bar. Maybe both of them at the same time? Jean lifted them both. The vertical bars lifted and lowered, freeing the door. She tugged it open. Now I don't have to track Arris down. He had the keys and the combinations to every lock and door on the fairgrounds. Jean was totally dependent on his expertise. She hadn't been VP of Exhibits more than four months so she was still learning how things worked in this county.
She swung the container doors open wide. The doorway was a tangled mess of everything the fairgrounds needed to have stored. Jean pulled a wooden tripod out of the doorway and used it to prop the right-hand door open. It looked as though it was a sign post. A lot of other events that were held at the fairgrounds used these containers. Five feet into the container she wished she'd brought a flashlight. Sweat began dripping in earnest as she peered into the musty darkness. Smells like mice in here. Hope they haven't gotten into the tubs.
Winding her way past safety cones, stacked tables, buckets of rope, steel cable and broken metal chairs, she stepped over a pile of rebar to reach her stack of tubs. One, two, three, four, she counted. Where's the fifth tub? The heat was giving her a headache so she massaged her temples after she'd wiped her filthy hands on her shorts. She hauled the bins out to the front of the container. When those were outside she decided to check farther to the back. The Exhibits team had been sure there ought to be five bins. A pile of cardboard boxes labeled Mud Run blocked her way. Jean moved the three boxes behind her and stepped over a pile of rusting chain. It's creepy and dirty in here. Let me just find the box and get out.
Squinting, she saw a medium blue tub labeled Fair Ribbons just out of reach on top of another stack of bins. There you are. She wiped her face again and held her breath. The smell of dead things was overwhelming. I hope nothing crawled into my bin. The ribbons will be ruined. She picked her way past boxes, rusting metal things she couldn't identify and a broken ladder. She pulled the tilted bin toward her–just a little more—and then the whole pile of bins fell over with a godawful racket. Her bin slid to the floor, taking part of her thumbnail with it and raising a cloud of dust.
"Owww!" she cried as she jerked her hand away and stuck the injured digit in her mouth. In front of her, the two doors of a metal cabinet against the right-hand wall of the container creaked open and a desiccated human body fell out of it in seeming slow motion.
In the moments it fell, her eyes were wide as her brain tried to make sense of the situation; she could see long hair trailing behind the head as the thing toppled. Female, was her instant thought, especially as the body wore a woman's pink down vest. The vest was discolored with rust stains. Then Jean realized that the discoloration must be body fluids. Her stomach rolled and as the thing hit the bin at her feet, she shrieked and scrambled outside.
Panting, she stared at the gaping mouth of the container. Jean pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and dialed 911. When the operator answered she said, "This is Jean Hays, VP of Exhibits at the fairgrounds. I just found a dead body in the storage container on the southwest side of the grounds."
Standing inside the yellow crime scene tape next to an ambulance, Jean watched what looked like complete chaos as an EMT bandaged her thumb.
"That should do it." He smoothed the tape. "You should get a tetanus shot, too. The Emergency Care place over on the corner of the highway and Longview Street can take care of you. If you go to the hospital emergency room it'll cost more."
"Thanks." Jean examined her thumb. "I'll do that." She nodded toward the crowd of milling police, the coroner and EMTs. "Crime scenes always look like this?"
He shrugged. "Don't know. There hasn't been a murder in town since I started working eleven years ago."
They were interrupted by a uniformed officer. "Who said it was a murder?" He was about six foot, wearing a tan uniform over a well-muscled body. This guy didn't sit around drinking coffee and eating donuts. He was clean shaven with a chiseled face, all planes and cheekbones. The dark blue eyes under bushy brows looked as though they didn't miss much. Fancy insignia marched along the shirt's shoulder epaulets. He had cowboy boots on his feet. They seemed incongruous to her.
"It looked like a murder to me." Jean nodded her thanks to the EMT who gave her a wink and left. The officer's tone annoyed her. She held out her right hand. "I'm Jean Hays."
He shook her hand after a brief look of suspicion. "I'm Chief of Police Nick White. You found the body?"
"Scared the crap out of me. Fell out of the double door cabinet. Stuff was piled in front of it that held the doors closed. If it was a suicide, how'd stuff get piled in front of the door?" She jerked her chin at the small crowd gathering outside the tape. "The press is here."
Chief White turned to see a photographer taking pictures with a long lens. "That's Scott Duley, works for the town newspaper. The editor will be calling me soon for the story." He turned back to her. "Did you recognize the body?"
"No." Jean was hot and wanted a drink of water. A whole bottle of icy cold water sounded really good, what with the sun beating down on her head. "Not really. I mean, I think it was female, long hair and a pink jacket, but it was too dark in there and I was busy getting out. I've only lived here a few months, anyway. Most people are still strangers."
His left eyebrow cocked up. "A newcomer? You're on the Fair Board. How'd that happen?"
Jean shrugged. His tone indicated he didn't think much of new res
Nick eyed her. "You have the keys to the Conex?" He studied her reaction.
She shook her head. "Sorry, Chief, I don't. Arris Van Horn holds the keys."
"So the box was just open?" He adjusted his equipment belt, then the cowboy hat.
It was Jean's turn to raise an eyebrow. "Sure. We're setting up the fair. Volunteers are in and out of this thing all day." She furrowed her brow. "You think Arris did this? A poor place to hide a body, since he's in charge of the container."
The Chief sniffed. "It's a small town and I've lived here all my life, as has Arris. As to whether Arris did it, I don't know, maybe." He looked around and waved an officer over. "Take Ms. Hays's statement and let her get back to her business."
"What about my bins?"
"Sorry, we'll have to take them to the lab. They're part of the evidence." He didn't even look at her, just turned and walked to the gurney where the body lay covered.
Jean finished giving her statement, then stomped back to the Exhibits building. She was hot and thirsty and her thumb hurt. The doors to the building were open, letting in light and air but there was no air conditioning. She went straight to the cooler she'd brought this morning for the volunteers. It was full of bottles of water on ice. She grabbed one, twisted the cap off and started gulping it down. The water was so cold it made her teeth hurt and gave her instant brain freeze. She winced and pressed her hand to her forehead.
She heard a laugh behind her. "You shouldn't drink it so fast. You'll have a stroke or something."
Jean turned around. It was her new friend, Karen Carver, the Superintendent of Homemaking Arts. Karen was grinning, her blue-gray eyes crinkled in the corners. A smudge of dirt ran from her cheek to her chin and her blond hair was coming loose from her pony-tail. It fell in wisps all around her face. "I'm so thirsty." She held the cold water bottle to her temple. "I stood around out there in the sun for over an hour."
"You should get a hat."
"Tell me about it." Jean sipped some more of the water. "And I ripped half my thumbnail off." She held the bandaged thumb up for Karen to see.
"Did you find the bins?"
Jean moved aside as two men carried a display case past. "Thought we'd try putting the case in the center of the floor," the tall, gray-haired one of the two said. John Gonzales was the Superintendent of Gems and Minerals, and had been with the fair in that role for decades. "Seems like people just walk down the middle of the room and never look at what's displayed on the sides."
"Sounds like a plan, John. Go ahead and try that. We just need to be sure there's four feet of space all around it, otherwise the Fire Marshal will make us move it."
"Sure, I'll make sure."
She and Karen watched them carry the case another twenty feet and set it down. Sounds of hammering, people chatting and discussing display arrangements filled the warehouse-sized building. Lucky for Jean all of the Superintendents had been doing this for years. They didn't need her to tell them how to set up. She sat down on the cooler lid and finished the water.
"So what happened out there?" Karen tried to smooth all of the wisps of hair back out of her face.
"Well. After I found four of them, I spotted the last bin on top of a wobbly stack of boxes in front of a two door cabinet. I pulled it toward me and the whole stack toppled over. The bin took a chunk of my nail. While I was nursing that, the cabinet doors creaked open and this dried-up old body fell out."
Karen gasped, hand over mouth. "So that's what all the commotion was about. I wondered about all the cop cars. When I saw the ambulance I figured someone in Livestock got hurt."
"Scared the crap out of me. I shrieked like a little girl and ran out of the container. I'm lucky I didn't skewer myself on some rusty piece of junk that's piled in there."
"I'd have screamed, too." Karen shook her head. "Then what?"
"I called 911. The first cop car showed up in just a few minutes. Then it was a zoo–ambulances, more police cruisers, then gawkers. I saw the photographer from the paper trying to get pics from outside the crime scene tape." Jean got up and pulled another bottle of water out of the cooler. She sipped it this time. "I'm still dehydrated. And I'm supposed to get a tetanus shot, too."
"Go to the Emergency Care place."
"Yeah, that's what the EMT told me." She looked around at the activity.
"But what about the bins?"
"Oh!" Jean snorted. "They're being held as evidence. I asked the officer who took my statement how long they'd be held, and he said," she put on a drawl, "'I don't rightly know, ma'am. I s'pect the Chief would have a better idea.'" Jean rolled her eyes. "Good night. Do they teach them that drawl in cop school?"
Karen laughed. "I don't know. But we need those ribbons. What'll you do if we can't get them back from the cops?"
"When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout."
Karen stared. "What?"
It was Jean's turn to laugh. "An old Air Force quote we used to say when it was hitting the fan and we had to improvise. I guess we'll think of something." She stood up, drained the bottle of water and dropped it in the trash bag she had next to the cooler. "Tell you what. I'll go get my shot and afterward I'll stop by the police station and see if I can't get an estimated time of release on the bins. Are you all okay here? Need me to get anything?"
Karen waved her off. "Go, get your shot. We'll be fine here. I'll ask around and see if any of the other Superintendents have ribbon ideas."
Jean grinned. "Thanks, you've got my cell number if you need anything while I'm gone."
As Jean drove to the Emergency Care office she thought about the Police Chief's insinuation about Arris. The man didn't strike her as a murderer. Months ago when she'd answered an article in the local paper, The Green Valley Gazette, she'd walked into the meeting at the high school Agricultural class room where the fair board meetings were held. A man at the front of the room had stood up. He had a sun-reddened face with bright blue eyes, tall, about six foot two, wearing jeans, a denim shirt, cowboy boots and a wide friendly grin, and there wasn't a creepy, killer-vibe about him. At the time she'd noted everyone else in the meeting room for the fair board was smiling, too.
When the board discussed whether to approve Jean as VP of Exhibits, Arris sat at the front of the room, waiting quietly for the group to come to a consensus. She'd liked that. It had shown a level of confidence and competence that had been quite reassuring.
Jean shook her head. If Arris was a killer then she was a ballerina. Jean put on her turn signal and pulled into the Emergency Care store-front parking lot. She turned off the engine and sighed. Her thumb throbbed. She decided that after the shot, she'd go home and swallow a couple of ibuprofen. There was no way she wanted to meet with that arrogant Police Chief without some pain killer in her system.
The Police Station for Greyson was in a complex of other town buildings. There was plenty of parking for the Mayor's office, the town's Business Department, and the Water Department. They had solar panels over the parking lot here, too. She approved. It was Arizona, the town should be sucking every free dime of energy they could from a source that was available three hundred and forty or more days per year.
The front door of the Police Station led to a tiled hall. There was a small counter next to a window of bullet proof glass. At the window, green-tinted and with an annunciator in it, she saw an elderly woman typing on a computer. "Hi, I'm Jean Hays. I'd like to speak to Chief White concerning the incident at the fairgrounds this morning."
"I'll see if he's available." She picked up the handset of an office phone with multiple buttons running down the right side of the phone face. "Greta? The Chief in?" She listened for a moment. "A Ms. Hays to see the Chief about the murder."
So, word was already out. Jean shifted a little closer to the window to hear better.
"Yeah, I'll give her a vi
She's quick, Jean admitted as the woman wrote in a log and pulled a badge plainly labeled Visitor from a drawer. "Go to your left, I'll meet you at the door at the end of the hall."
Jean walked about twenty feet and found a door on her right. It only took a second for a buzzer to sound and the door to open. The woman was there and held out the badge. "Just clip it to your collar," she said, smiling. "Come on in."
Jean walked beside the woman through an office that could have been any business: government-issue desks, cheap office chairs, and people on phones or typing on computer keyboards. The only difference was that the people were mostly in police uniform and there were bars on the windows. "I expected some hard-boiled police officer at a high counter when I came in, to be honest."
The woman laughed. "Yeah, TV. Maybe that's because of the old stations back in New York City. I don't know if they still have it set up like that. We followed the current construction and layout advice for police stations when we built this station six years ago. Have to protect ourselves from the drug-addled and crazies out there." She opened an office door leading to a secretary. "By the way, I'm Martha, Ms. Hays. Greta will take good care of you." She nodded to the young woman inside as Jean stepped into the office. "You can lead her out afterward, Greta?"
"Sure, Martha. No trouble at all."
Martha closed the door behind Jean.
"Hello, Ms. Hays. The Chief is on the phone. Have a seat; he'll be done in a minute." She waved toward a row of chairs against the wall across from her desk.
"Thank you." Jean took a seat and picked up a magazine. Sport and Field she read on the tattered cover. The issue date was four years ago. She sighed and put the magazine down. Instead, she pulled a small notepad from her purse and began making a to-do list for the rest of the day and tomorrow. It nagged at her that the Chief suspected Arris could be the killer. She didn't know him that well but he didn't seem like the kind of man that went around killing people. But really, how many people did she know that were killers? What would a killer look like on normal days? Many a serial killer was supposedly very nice at his day job. What if Arris was like that? Nice until he was pissed off?