Jason remembers Colonel Bartholomew as a loudmouthed bigot and a drunk. Now the Colonel’s been found dead with a knife in his back, and the Texas police think someone in Jason’s family killed him.
Jason Crow, double amputee and Vietnam War vet, has good reason to dislike the retired officer who bad-mouthed Jason’s father and his African American business partner. But when Bartholomew calls late one night with a mysterious request that Jason come by his house, then turns up dead, Jason has to set his feelings aside.
Clyde Burker, his old police nemesis and now head of the homicide division, doesn’t want Jason meddling in yet another murder investigation, but Jason won’t stay on the sidelines when Burker points a finger at Jason’s own loved ones. As pieces of the truth begin to fall into place, Jason may well hold the key to unlocking the dangerous puzzle.
CROW’S FEAT is the second book in Ken Casper’s Jason Crow West Texas Mystery Series, giving readers another glimpse into the world of one of mystery fiction's most intriguing and unique crime solvers.
Ken Casper is the author of more than twenty-five novels, short stories and articles. Born and raised in New York City, Ken is now a transplanted Texan. He and his wife, Mary, board and breed horses at their farm in San Angelo—which includes their own eight horses, two dogs and six cats. Mary is a therapeutic riding instructor for the handicapped. Visit Ken at www.KenCasper.com.
Tuesday, June 1, 1976
The body was slumped at the dining room table, a knife buried to the hilt in his back. I stared for several seconds, disturbed by the realization that I felt nothing. This man wasn’t a friend. I hardly knew him, and what I did know about him I didn’t like. His call last night had come as a surprise.
"You in charge of the Bicentennial program?” he’d asked, after identifying himself with full military title, his words slurred.
"Yes, sir. I’m the chairman of the committee.”
"Hear you’re gonna set up a display of military uniforms at the new mall.”
"Yes, sir,” I said again.
"Well, I’ve got one for ya.” He then offered me a set of "pinks and greens,” the standard Army officer’s Class A uniform in WWII. I’d spoken to several older vets who acknowledged having them hanging in the backs of closets or tucked away in footlockers in the garage, but none of them had been willing to give them up, even temporarily. They wanted to be buried in them. I gazed at the corpse at the head of the table. Had he?
"Come by tomorrow and pick it up. Anytime. And when you do,” he’d added before I had a chance to thank him, "there’s... a personal matter—” his thick Mississippi drawl was exaggerated "—I’d like to discuss with ya. In confidence, y’understand.”
When I asked for elaboration, he said only "Tomorrow” and hung up.
Now tomorrow had arrived. I leaned slightly forward, mindful of my balance, suddenly aware of the miasmic odor of death, and placed two fingers on his left carotid artery. He was dead all right and, judging by the coolness of his skin, he’d been that way for several hours.
I surveyed the scene. Just beyond his right hand was a nearly full old-fashioned glass, tan on top, clear at the bottom. From melted ice, I reckoned. An uncorked bottle of cheap whiskey was within reach of the other hand. The rest of the table was strewn with clean and wrinkled paper napkins, opened and unopened mail, bottles of aspirin, cough remedies and prescription drugs, as well as paper plates and plastic flatware.
At the far end of the table, draped over the back of the chair, was the uniform I’d come for, still on its hanger. His medals were emblazoned above the left breast pocket. The stylized silver oak leaves of rank adorned the shoulder epaulettes.
I pivoted back toward the kitchen of his modest house, walked beside the red Formica-topped counter to the wall phone, removed a handkerchief from my hip pocket and used it to lift the receiver from its cradle.
Most of the cops at the stationhouse knew me from my participation in community affairs—I also coached some of their kids in Little League, the only legless ex-football player and now part-time high school football coach in town—so I had no trouble getting put through to Lieutenant Burker, the head of homicide.
"What?” he snapped. "I’m busy.”
So he wasn’t having a good morning either. It was about to get worse.
"I’m at the home of Colonel Bartholomew.” I started to give him the address in the Indian Heights section of town.
"I know where Bart lives. What about him?”
"He’s not living here anymore,” I said. "He’s dead.”
A beat of time slipped by before he replied, "Well, he obviously didn’t have a heart attack or you wouldn’t be calling me. How?”
"Knife in his back. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t suicide.”
It was a cheap shot, one I instantly regretted, a reference to eight years ago when I’d just come home from Vietnam, proud of the fact that I’d learned to walk, only to find my father had taken a single bullet to the head. Clyde Burker, the detective in charge of investigating the violent death, hadn’t questioned what appeared to be obvious—that Theodore Crow had committed suicide. I’d ultimately forced him to accept my contention that he’d been murdered, but only after I’d produced the killer.
Burker now spat out a word unsuitable in the presence of women and children. "I’ll be there in a few minutes. Don’t touch anything.” He hung up.
I replaced the receiver and scanned the room. The combination kitchen and breakfast nook ran parallel with the living room and dining area. It had a decidedly neglected feel about it. Fussy canisters shaped like owls lined one counter. Sentimental "collector” plates were spaced above the backsplash of the opposite wall. Bart’s wife had passed away several months ago. Reminders of her presence in the kitchen didn’t seem to have bothered him, maybe because he spent so little time there. One possibility I dismissed without a second thought was that he’d left things the way they were as a shrine to her memory.
I proceeded into the small entrance hallway and beyond it to the living room. Through the broad picture window overlooking the backyard I saw brown-paper wrapped bundles of roofing shingles dumped haphazardly under a magnolia tree along with a carelessly folded tarp and not very orderly stack of rough planks, probably to build a debris chute. Apparently the old sot was having the house re-roofed.
Burker needn’t have bothered telling me not to touch anything. I had no intention of disturbing the crime scene, but I would have welcomed a chance to sit down. I was wearing new legs, a marked improvement over my old prostheses, but the left socket wasn’t quite right. I had an appointment that morning to get it adjusted at the military hospital on Coyote Air Force Base. For the moment though I would have been content just to relieve the pressure. Unfortunately the rattan living room furniture was too low for me to settle onto without firmly grasping the armrests, and once seated, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get up without assistance. I wasn’t too proud to ask for the help of friends when I needed it, but there were occasions when I didn’t want to call attention to my limitations. Like now. The dining room chairs had armrests and would have been just right, but I would have had to move one out, and I didn’t want to do even that.
Having come full circle I now had a broadside view of the dining table and the sideboard behind it, including the china collection above the counter. Prominently displayed on the top shelf was a large plate that I instantly recognized as Japanese Imari. It was a magnificent piece with its distinctive dark blue, deep red and bluish-white thematic patterns, all trimmed in gold. I was no expert on the porcelain, but thanks to a family trip to Japan three years ago to visit my wife’s parents outside Tokyo, I knew enough to say it was probably late 17th century. That so valuable a piece was not encased or under lock and key was a little surprising, yet I approved of it being "in use” rather than hidden in a bank vault somewhere. Such objects of beauty were to be seen, not hoarded.
There was a den off the living room with a handsome stone fireplace on my left. What dominated the room, however, was the Steinway baby grand piano. I noticed the ceiling above it was badly water stained, which accounted for the roofing materials outside and the blue tarp neatly folded beside the secretary against the far wall. The piano bench would have suited me fine, except it was down two unguarded short steps. Under the circumstances I didn’t trust myself to navigate them without falling, so I turned back to the living room.
Across a wide expanse of wall-to-wall carpet I now faced a television in a recessed alcove. Wired to it was a Sony Beta video-cassette player similar to the one my brother Leon had hooked up in our dad’s old office in the carriage house. I would have liked to compare the two, but the colonel’s was stowed in the stand under the portable TV. Ours was mounted on top of the console, so I could get easy access to it. Still looking for a place to sit, I strode towards it, then out of curiosity veered left and headed down the hallway leading to the bedrooms. Directly in front of me at the end of the narrow corridor an open door revealed a pink-and-avocado bathroom. On my right were two closed doors, to what I presumed were bedrooms. On the left, the vent in the first door told me it was a utility closet that housed the heating and air conditioning unit. Beyond it were double doors. One was open. I stepped into the master suite.
It had a stale, bedroom smell. The Venetian blinds were closed, leaving the room dim. The bed was turned down but didn’t look as if it had been slept in. The decedent in the other room was fully dressed in daytime clothes. Had he been getting ready to retire for the night when the killer struck? Someone he knew, I surmised, since I’d seen no signs of a struggle or resistance.
To my left, another full bath. This one in blue. Blue asphalt tile on the floor. The cabinetry painted a darker shade. The ceramic tile of the counter matched the floor; the walls were a lighter hue. It was overpowering, and to me, oppressive. I wondered if it reflected Bart’s taste or his late wife’s.
I backed away from the threshold and rotated around. It was then that I saw them.
On the wall opposite the foot of the bed were a dozen framed photographs, some black-and-white, one sepia, the others in color. All were of young girls with big colorful bows in their hair. The camera man had been good, capturing innocent shyness and vulnerability, along with the poignant eagerness of a child to please. Why the bows?
I moved closer and examined faces. A couple of them, I surmised from their features and expressions, might have been related to Bartholomew. His grandchildren? I was surprised when I realized one of them was of mixed race. Her complexion was what would have once been called "dusky.” I wasn’t sure what to make of it. Did Bart the Bigot have a little black granddaughter?
I heard a car pull up outside and made my way back to the kitchen just as Burker came through the side door.
Six-feet tall with broad shoulders, his girth had expanded considerably in the nearly two decades since he and I had played on the Coyote Springs High School football team together. We’d competed for the same girl. I’d won, then ditched her. He’d married her and forgiven me. She hadn’t.
"What were you doing back there?” he demanded, without a salutation.
"Looking for a place to sit where I wouldn’t have to touch anything.”
He instantly broke eye contact, glanced around at the kitchen’s contents and muttered, "Heard you got a new pair of legs.”
"They still need adjustment. I have an appointment—” I looked at my watch "—had an appointment for 11:00. Doesn’t look like I’m going to make it now.”
"I would have gotten here sooner,” he said, "but there was a domestic murder-suicide up on the north side I needed to check out. It’s a mess.” He glanced at his watch. 10:45. "I can have a patrol car escort you to the base to make sure you get there on time.”
I appreciated the offer. He’d sworn to me a long time ago that he wouldn’t pity me, and he hadn’t, but once in a while he showed concern, even deference. Like now.
"Thanks, but a short delay won’t matter.” I hoped. I nodded in the direction of the deceased to change the subject. "He’s been dead a while.”
"How is it you found him? What’re you doing here?”
I told him about Bart’s offer of the uniform but was tempted to leave out the part about the "confidential” matter, until I realized there was no reason to. Could it have any bearing on his murder?
"You have any idea what he was referring to?” Burker asked a minute later.
We went to the dining room. He circled the table, examined the corpse from every angle but, just as he’d instructed me, touched nothing. I took the opportunity to note the names of the prescription drugs. Lanoxin. Lasix. Potassium. My wife was a nurse. She’d know what they were for. Finally Burker’s attention fell on the uniform.
"Forensics will have to go over it before we can turn it over to you or anyone else.” He popped a peppermint into his mouth, a defense, I supposed, against a variety of unpleasant smells he was inclined to encounter in his line of work. "Now walk me through exactly what you found and what you did when you got here.”
It didn’t take me long to explain. "I arrived at ten, figuring there was a reasonable chance he’d be up by then. When I received no answer to the front bell, I came around to the door off the carport and was about to knock when I realized it was ajar. I nudged it wider and called out, still got no response.”
At the time I’d wondered if Bart might have fallen, but that wouldn‘t explain the open door. Maybe he’d started to go to his car, gone back for something or became ill... . The possibilities seemed endless, speculation idle.
"So I came in but didn’t touch anything.”
"The door’s up two steps,” he commented casually. He knew the difficulty I had with steps. I generally need handrails, canes, crutches or a human hand to lend me the balance I needed to climb or descend them.
"I grabbed hold of the doorframe,” I admitted, "but you won’t find my fingerprints anywhere else.”
He grunted. "Go ahead to your appointment. I know where to find you if I have any questions. There is one thing though. I was planning to call you and Zack later today. I received notification this morning from Huntsville.” In his brief pause I knew what he was about to say. My jaw tightened. "Bubba Spites is being released this afternoon.”
I’d felt nothing at the discovery of Bart’s body, but I did at this news. My reaction was complex. Bubba—his real name was Harden—Spites was the son of Brayton Spites, my dad’s one-time employer and, it so happened, my mother’s long-ago lover. Brayton was also my biological father. That made Bubba my half-brother. Shortly after Theodore Crow, the man who’d given me his name and brought me up, the man I loved and respected more than anyone else in the world, the only man I would ever call my dad, was murdered, Bubba Spites was arrested for assault and battery against me and Zack Merchant, my best friend and business partner. Brayton did his best to persuade us to drop the charges, but we’d refused. Months later, additional charges were brought against Bubba for dealing hard drugs. Still, the case dragged on for a year and a half, thanks to Brayton’s high-priced lawyer’s delaying tactics. Eventually, however, Bubba ran out of excuses, was tried, convicted and sentenced to ten-to-fifteen years in prison. Now, six years later he was being set loose.
"Considering the threats he made against you and Zack after the trial,” Burker reminded me, "I’d watch my back if I were you.”
I missed my appointment at the hospital. The receptionist told me she might be able to squeeze me in later if there was another no-show but, seeing the number of people in the waiting room, it didn’t appear likely. On the other hand, there was an opening on Thursday morning, if I could hold out that long. Realizing I might have to anyway, I chose to take the firm appointment, rather than waste hours in the reception area reading months-old movie magazines. In the meantime I’d just have to endure the discomfort or give up the illusion of normalcy and stick to my wheelchair.
I drove to the carriage house behind the Crow’s Nest Steakhouse and took the outside elevator to the second floor where Zack Merchant and I had our Restoration, Inc. business. My father’s old office to the left of the entranceway hadn’t changed much. We used it principally for meeting clients. What had changed was the room to the right. It had once been the best college dorm room in the world for Zack and me. Now we called it our "drawing room” because a pair of drafting tables dominated the available space.
Zack was sitting at his, sorting through mail, when I arrived a few minutes past noon.
"You didn’t get your adjustment,” he observed as I crossed to my table opposite his.
"I know your stride.” The only one who knew it better was my wife.
I told him about Colonel Bartholomew.
He paused for a moment, then put down the letter opener he’d been using. "Any indication who did it?”
"Nothing obvious to me.” I reviewed with him what I’d seen, as well as my impressions.
"You think it might be family?” he asked.
In situations like this, in the victim’s normal surroundings, where there were no signs of a break-in or struggle, suspicion automatically started with members of the family. "I reckon that’s where Burker will begin.”
Zack resumed sorting through the morning mail. A minute of silence went by. He looked up. "Is there something else?”
"Bubba’s being released today.”
My friend’s brows rose, passivity banished.
"Burker suggests we watch our backs.”
"We’d better do more than that,” Zack said. "I’ll call our lawyer about a restraining order to keep Bubba at least a mile from our homes, businesses and families.”
I’d been thinking along the same lines, though I didn’t imagine we’d get a radius that wide. I also recognized a restraining order was like a lock on a glass case. It kept out the honest. Paper wasn’t much protection against fists and bullets. "While you’re doing that—” I picked up my phone "—I’ll call Michiko and have her alert Nancy to be on the lookout.”
Since my wife was half Japanese and half American, it always fascinated me to see which of her cultures came to the fore in any particular situation. In this case she took the news calmly. "We knew he’d get out someday, Jason. He’s had six years to think things through.”
"You mean plan his vengeance.”
"He’s not stupid, Jason. I’m sure he realizes by now there’s nothing to be gained by going after any of us.”
But I knew the woman who’d taken me for better or worse and accepted me the way I was. I could hear it in her voice. She wasn’t scared, not in the conventional sense, not for herself and, I liked to think, not for me. I wasn’t helpless, as she well knew. Bubba had learned that lesson the hard way. Nonetheless, she was justified in her unspoken concern that he might try to get to Zack or me by attacking our families. I hoped the ex-con understood doing so would make things even worse for him. I took my roles as provider and protector seriously. Nor did missing limbs hinder the rest of me from keeping fit. No way would I run from a fight.
"Just stay alert,” I told her, "and remember, if he starts following you, don’t try to outrun him—”
"I know, Jason. Head for the police station or any cop car.”
"Exactly. Don’t forget to let Nancy know what’s going on.”
"We probably ought to get the family together tonight and discuss what to do if he decides to take the low road.”
"A cookout then. Steaks and burgers by the pool.”
When I was growing up we used to go swimming in a stock tank on my grandfather’s ranch. A year after taking up residence there following my father’s death I had a "real” pool installed which I used regularly as much for physical therapy as enjoyment. How my world had changed.
That evening, while Zack was grilling hot dogs and hamburgers for the kids and steaks for the adults, we discussed Colonel Bartholomew and the confidential matter he hadn’t gotten a chance to tell me about.
"Could it have been just a ruse to make sure you’d show up?” asked Nancy, Zack’s wife.
"But why wouldn’t I?” I replied. "He was offering me something I wanted. Why engage in intrigue?”
"Because he knew you didn’t like him.”
"I don’t know where he could have gotten that idea,” I said only half-seriously. It was true, but I’d done my best not to let it show. Apparently I hadn’t been very successful.
My first encounter with Lieutenant Colonel Mortimer Bartholomew, United States Army (retired), had been eight years ago at the Coyote Air Force Base officers’ club on the day of my father’s funeral. I’d gone there with Michiko, Zack and Ned Herman, not to drink, but to get away from the press. Bart came in and, unaware Michiko and I were sitting behind the potted palms in the lounge and could hear his every word, spewed a mixture of racist bigotry and false rumors to Zack and Ned at the bar. Eventually I’d made my presence known, but rather than punch his lights out, something my father would not have approved, I’d signed a bar napkin entitling him to a complimentary dinner for two at the Crow’s Nest Steakhouse. A few days later, I realized there’d been an element of truth in the retired officer’s inebriated ramblings. It helped me piece together what had happened to my father... and to me.
Those memories made me cantankerous. Loose ends bothered me, and now I sensed my sister’s seven-year-old loitering close by and trying not to be obvious about it.
"Is there something I can do for you, Lavinia?” I asked.
"Colonel Bart... I heard you talking to Uncle Zack and Aunt Nancy about him. Did something happen?”
"He died last night, Livy.”
Just then my son Ted called her from the other end of the pool. She looked up at me. I nodded permission; she bolted to the diving board and did a cannonball into the water, the subject dismissed—for now, at least.
"Sorry about the eavesdropping.” Aaron had been watching and listening. "I’ll have a little talk with her about good manners.”
Tall and dark-chocolate-brown, my brother-in-law still had the flat belly and wide shoulders of the competitive swimmer he’d been in college. He and my sister had married a couple of months before Michiko and I tied the knot. I’d been his best man.
I shook my head. "I don’t think that’ll be necessary. Livy’s curiosity is natural. We don’t want to discourage her from asking questions. Getting back to Colonel Bart... whenever we met, I made it a point to be friendly and polite, like the night he and his wife came to the Nest for their free meal. I turned on the charm, even threw in a complimentary dessert.”
Zack handed me a glass of half iced tea and half homemade lemonade. "Yet they never came back. That should tell you something.”
"Maybe there was too much gristle,” I joked, then told Michiko about the prescription medication I’d seen on Bart’s dining room table.
"Lanoxin? That’s digitalis. It’s used to treat heart conditions. Lasix is a diuretic. Sounds like he might have had congestive heart failure.” She paused to think. "He’s... he was a heavy drinker. Based on those medications, my guess is that he had alcohol cardiomyopathy.”
"What’s that?” Zack asked.
"Is it fatal?”
"If he kept drinking it would be.”
"So he was a dying man,” I said.
"Except,” Zack noted, "in this case a knife got him first.”
"I wonder how many people knew he had a terminal heart condition.”
"I hate to sound callous,” said Nancy, "but Bart isn’t our concern. Bubba is. What are we going to do about him?”
"Ignore him,” I replied. "We’ve taken out a restraining order against him. Beyond that there isn’t much we can do unless he violates it. If he does, call the cops. Burker assures me they’re all aware of the situation.”
"Will he be staying with his father, do you think?” Aaron asked.
"I have no idea. As far as I know Brayton hasn’t uttered a word about him coming home.”
Then again, I didn’t imagine many parents bragged about their son being released from prison.