MURDER IN THE CRYSTAL PALACE


By Richard Ciciarelli



Sheriff Sam Hartnet's daily siesta was interrupted by his screeching deputy.

"Sam! Sam! Come quick! There's been a murder."

The good sheriff stretched his short, stubby legs and reached for his hat. A butterball of a man, Sam Hartnet didn't look much like the sheriff of a rapidly growing western town, but he was an honest man — slow to anger, quick to forgive — so, like his father before him, the people of Silver Ridge elected him to the post of peacekeeper.

"Did you say murder?"

"That's right. A shooting over to the Crystal Palace. Come on."

Hartnet adjusted his hat and headed out of his office and up the wooden plank walk toward the town's biggest saloon. There'd never been a murder in his town — at least not in the five years he'd been sheriff. Oh, there were plenty of gunfights, but they were all on the up-and-up. And once there had been a bank robbery, but that happened at night and didn't involve gunplay. It wasn't like in the old days when his father was sheriff and the silver mines were in full operation. Those days were really rough.

Sam Hartnet was glad they were gone. The closest thing to a murder during his tenure came a few years back when the territory was proclaimed a state. A few of the boys got to drinking a little too much and Lem Turner shot off two of Jake Hardwell's toes.

The Crystal Palace was only a hundred yards away, and Sheriff Hartnet's short, quick strides covered that in no time.

"Crystal Palace," Sam thought as he approached the watering hole. "Whoever named it that? It sure ain't no palace, and the closest thing they got to crystal is the dirty set of glasses they serve their watered-down liquor in."

The sheriff pushed open the swinging doors and stepped into the saloon. His nose was assailed by the smell of cheap whiskey, spilled beer, and the stale smoke from yesterday's crowd.

Hank Wilkins, owner of the Palace and also full-time bartender, stood at one end of the bar, working a damp rag over and over nervously in his hands. As he spotted Sam, a look of relief crossed his face.

"Sheriff, it's Beau Lathrop. Somebody killed him." Hank pointed to a back corner where a poker table sat under a balcony. Slumped over the table was a man dressed in black. A reddish stream leading from the back of his head formed a puddle on the green baize that covered the table.

"When did it happen?" Hartnet asked as he approached the body.

"I'm not sure of the exact time, but not more than ten minutes ago," Wilkins answered nervously. "Beau came in at noon as usual and sat in his usual seat against the wall. We talked for a few minutes and then I left to go down to the cellar to get a couple of kegs of beer for today's crowd. When I came up with the first one, I found him dead. I ran and got your deputy and told him to fetch you here."

"How long were you down there?"

"I dunno for sure. Ten minutes. Maybe fifteen."

"How come so long for a keg of beer?"

"My supplier comes from the state capital today, so I was counting my stock so's I'd know what I had to order."

"You didn't hear any shot?"

"Nope. The cellar's pretty deep. It's hard to hear anything down there."

"Were the front doors open, like they are now?"

"Yup. At least the big ones were. Even though we don't start serving till two, once Beau comes in at noon, I leave the place unlocked. The back door, now, that always stays locked and bolted."

"So anybody could of walked in off the street and shot Beau while you were down cellar counting your bottles." Hartnet didn't like that possibility. "Jack!" he called to his deputy, who had stationed himself outside the swinging doors, "Ask around and find out if anybody seen anybody coming out of here in the last half hour or so." Then he turned back to Wilkins. "Is there anybody else in the saloon here?"

"Just Rosie," was the answer. "She's probably upstairs sleeping. She hasn't felt too good the last couple of weeks...been sleeping and complaining about being tired all the time. She's gonna be a lot sicker when she hears about this. Her and Beau had quite a thing going, you know."

Sheriff Hartnet just nodded an assent. He was looking at Beau Lathrop's lifeless shape. Even though a sheriff is supposed to be toughened against anything, Hartnet had never gotten used to seeing blood. He finally screwed up enough courage to approach the poker table and covered the distance in short, hesitant steps.

The late gambler sat in an armed wooden chair, the upper part of his torso sprawled over the table. His left hand loosely held a deck of playing cards. His right one was empty, having just dealt one of the pasteboards to one of four imaginary players. His head rested on his left cheek.

Hartnet looked toward Wilkins.

Without having to be asked, the bartender explained, "Beau came in here at noon every day. I always had a new deck of cards on that table for him. He'd sit there and deal out five hands of poker, one for him and four other pretend people around the table. He'd do that all afternoon until some real folks came in and started up a game."

"Why?" Hartnet asked.

"Beau made his living playing poker, Sheriff. You know that. He was good, too. I never seen him lose. And it was all because of what he did here every day."

Hartnet's eyebrows went up. "He marked the deck?"

"Nope. Didn't need to. You ain't gonna believe this, Sheriff, but I asked him one day and he told me. Every card is just a little different from every other one. An amateur like you or me would never notice it, but a professional could. Beau actually memorized the back of every card in the deck while he played his pretend poker games."

Sheriff Sam whistled. "How many other people know about this?"

"As far as I know, none. It wouldn't be too good for Beau's business if word got out."

"Or his health," Hartnet mumbled. "Maybe he let it slip one night when he had a little too much to drink."

"Nope," Wilkins disagreed. "Beau never drank. He said he always had to have a clear head so's he could keep his mind on the game right."

Hartnet took a deep breath and let it all out with a whoosh. He dropped his head and shook it slowly from side to side. That's when he noticed it. It lay on the floor between Beau's feet, partially hidden from sight. The sheriff bent down and picked it up.

"Beau's derringer," Wilkins said as Hartnet turned the gleaming object over in his hand. "He always had it sitting on the table near him when he played cards. Even when he played his pretend games. Said it was his good luck charm."

The sheriff sniffed the palm-sized pistol. "Some good luck charm. This is what killed him. No wonder you didn't hear a shot. This thing wouldn't make much noise when it went off."

"What's up, Sam?" a voice from behind him asked.

Hartnet and Wilkins turned to see Doc Prouty standing in the doorway. They stepped aside to give him a look.

"What're you doing here so early, Doc?" Hartnet asked.

"Rosie asked me to stop in," Prouty explained as he approached the two men. "I been giving her some sleeping powders to help her sleep a little, but I guess she needs more than that. She was complaining last night, so I told her I'd come over this afternoon and give her a good looking over. Want me to check him out?" He nodded toward Beau.

Hartnet shrugged. "If you want to. I don't think you'll find anything I don't already know."

"Then maybe I'll go upstairs and see Rosie."

"Maybe I'll go with you," the sheriff said. "I got a few questions I want to ask her."

Hank Wilkins led the men upstairs to Rosie's room. The saloon maid's eyes were puffy and red when the doctor and sheriff woke her up. They got worse when the men broke the news to her about Beau Lathrop. Even though she was still obviously under the influence of Doc's sleeping powder, Rosie got hysterical and had to be restrained to keep from hurting herself. Even when she calmed down, her answers to Hartnet's questions were practically unintelligible through all her sobbing.

"I loved him and now he's gone," she screamed between her tears. "He always said I didn't belong in a dump like this. He was going to take me away from here."

"Dump?" Wilkins was indignant.

Sheriff Hartnet ignored the bartender. "Rosie, did you hear anything a while ago? Any noise that woke you up?"

Rosie shook her head violently. "Every night I stood by his side and watched him win. And he'd smile and wink at me. Every night we got closer to leaving — now this had to happen."

Hartnet looked at Wilkins questioningly.

"That's right," the barkeep said. "Beau insisted that only Rosie wait on his table. He saw to it she got good tips from the other players, too. Between his winnings and her tips they probably got a pretty good pile of cash stashed somewhere."

By this time Doc Prouty had mixed another sleeping powder and made Rosie drink it.

"That ought to calm her down a little," he said. "Now if you gentlemen don't mind, I'd prefer to examine my patient in private."

Back downstairs, Sheriff Hartnet pulled up a chair opposite Beau Lathrop and sat down. The sheriff put both fists on the table, one on top of the other, and rested his chin on the uppermost fist.

This sort of thing had never happened in his town before, and the good sheriff wondered if he was going about things the right way. The shoot-outs were easy to handle — the survivor got jailed for thirty days for disturbing the peace. In the case of the bank robbery, well, that was solved when the Collins boys from the hills suddenly started spending more cash than they could account for. They never were too smart. And as for Lem Turner shooting off Jake Hardwell's toes — everybody saw that; there was no mystery there.

But this was different. Somebody shot Beau Lathrop for some unknown reason and didn't even have the decency to do it in front of witnesses.

The sheriff's ponderings were interrupted by the screeching voice of his deputy.

"Sam, I checked out all the shops within seeing distance of this saloon. Nobody seen nobody come out of here since Hank's bar girls come out about eleven this morning. I even chased around town and asked everybody who might have been riding by on a horse or in a wagon. Nobody seen nothing."

"That's just fine," the sheriff said sarcastically. Then he addressed Wilkins. "Who was Beau playing poker with last night?"

"Let's see. Last night was...Tommy and Joe Barnes from the general store, George Barlett from the feed store, and Jed Obadiah, the blacksmith."

"Jack," Sheriff Sam said, "get those four men over here — and fast. I want to talk to them."

As the deputy departed, Hank Wilkins asked, "You think one of them found out about Beau's trick with the cards and came back to get even?"

"Maybe, maybe. Right now I'm not sure what to think. Hank, Rosie's upstairs, but what about your other girls? Did they all leave before Beau came in?"

"Yup. They go out every morning and come back about one — just in time to get ready for the first customers."

"Did Rosie usually go with them or did she stay, like today?"

"Sometimes she went, sometimes she stayed," the bartender answered. "Lately she stayed because she ain't felt too good."

Sheriff Hartnet resumed his thinking posture. This was no good. Nothing helped. Everywhere he turned was a dead end. Who shot Beau Lathrop? Who could have walked in the front door, pulled the trigger and walked out again unseen? And why?

Baker wondered how his father would have handled this problem. His father had always said that common sense would solve any problem a sheriff came up against. "Use your eyes and your head the way God wants you to," the elder Hartnet had told son Sam more than once.

"Okay," Hartnet thought, "I'll use common sense. Common sense says it's impossible to walk out of here and not be seen by anybody on that busy street. But it was done, so where does that leave me?"

Before he could answer himself, Sam's deputy came in the door, followed by four motley looking men.

"Here they are, Sheriff," he announced.

"That was quick." Hartnet gestured to an empty table. "Take a seat, please, gentlemen. I'd like to talk to you about Beau there." He tossed a thumb in the dead man's direction.

The four men looked at the dead gambler and then quickly averted their eyes in unison. They seated themselves around the table Sheriff Hartnet had indicated, now consciously trying not to stare at the body near them.

"Well, boys," the sheriff began, "I understand you all sat in on a poker game with Beau last night." Four nods acknowledged that statement. "How'd you do?"

"How does anyone ever do against Beau?" Joe Barnes responded. "We lost."

"How much?"

"Oh, I don't know," Barnes thought a moment. "I didn't get took too bad. I might of dropped thirty or forty bucks."

"How about you, Tommy?" Hartnet asked Joe's brother.

"About the same, I guess, maybe a little more."

"Jed?"

"I got cleaned out, Sam. Pretty near a hundred dollars. I had good hands, but Beau's were always a little better. I got stuck playing every hand out to the end." The blacksmith scratched his head with his huge, calloused hand.

"George, you're last. How'd you make out last night?"

"Bad enough. Somewhere near fifty bucks."

"That makes you the big loser, Jed. Why do you guys keep playing with Beau anyhow? You always lose."

"I guess we figure he's got so much of our dough now, it doesn't matter much, Sam," Jed Obadiah said. "Besides, I kept hoping the tables would turn one night."

"Looks like they did," Hartnet nodded towards Beau's remains. "Now, don't get too mad, boys, but I gotta know where you all were this morning. George, let's start with you."

George Bartlett ran a hand through his graying blond hair and wiped it on his store apron. "This means you think one of us killed Beau?"

"I don't know what to think, George, Just answer the question, please."

"I was at my store the whole morning, Sam. You know that mornings are my busiest times. Folks do all their buying and toting while it's cool. Once the sun gets high, it's too hot to be walking around the streets or riding buckboards in and out of town."

"Were you in the store all the time?"

"Yeh." Bartlett paused. "Except for the couple of minutes I sneaked out back to cool myself off at the well."

"Then there was a time nobody was with you?"

"Well, yeh, but it wasn't more than five minutes, Sam. I couldn't leave my customers any longer than that."

Sam Hartnet stroked his chin. "Okay, George. Jed, how about you? Where were you all morning?"

"At my shop, Sam. I had three wagon wheels to repair, and Mister Jenkins wanted two of his horses shod, so I was busy the whole time until your deputy came calling."

"Can anyone vouch for you being at your place the whole time?"

"I don't think so. Mr. Jenkins brought the horses around real early, and the wagon wheels were dropped off yesterday. You know, Sam, I promised those jobs would be done today, and they ain't getting done while I'm here talking."

"Relax, Jed. You'll be able to leave in a minute." Sheriff Hartnet now turned to the Barnes brothers. "How about you boys?"

"I opened the store at about seven this morning," Tommy said. "Maybe ten, fifteen minutes later Joe came in. We been together waiting on people or taking in new shipments from back East the whole time."

"That right, Joe?"

"Sure is, Sam. I don't remember a busier day for the last three or four months. If this keeps up we may have to hire a helper."

Sheriff Hartnet shook his head slowly and let out some air in a snort.

"Okay, boys, I guess that's about it. If I need you for anything, I'll have Jack come and get you."

The four poker players stood up and, almost as if they had been choreographed, looked at Beau Lathrop and away again and shuffled through the swinging doors into the hot sun.

"Well, Sheriff," Jack said, "looks like the Barnes boys are out of it, but the other two could be guilty."

"Why are the Barnes boys out of it? Because they both alibi each other? Humph. Who's to say they didn't plan this thing together? Say, Hank, would all of those guys know about Beau's habit of coming in here early?"

"Why not? A lot of people did. Beau used to brag about getting here and practicing all day."

"Yes," Hartnet mused. "If we only knew if he bragged to anybody about his trick of memorizing the cards. Any of those four could be Beau's killer."

"But, Sheriff," Jack reminded him, "nobody seen nobody come out of here this morning, remember?"

"Yeh, I remember. But that don't mean nobody did. I'm sure anybody could sneak in and out of here if he wanted to."

The sheriff spun his chair around so he could face Beau again.

"Use your common sense," his father's voice rang in his head. "Use your common sense."

Hartnet stared at the dead body that lay on the table before him. The lawman found his eyes being drawn from the pool of sticky blood to the small hole in the back of Lathrop's head. They rested there for a minute — then two — then three.

Then it occurred to him. The answer was right in front of his face. Sheriff Hartnet was always the first to admit he wasn't the smartest man in the world, but common sense now told him that only one person could have killed Beau Lathrop like this. Beau Lathrop the professional gambler. And he knew why, too.

Doc Prouty came clumping down the stairs from Rosie's room.

"Have I got a surprise for you," he told the sheriff.

"No, you haven't Doc," Hartnet disagreed.

When the medical man looked puzzled, the sheriff explained.

"Rosie's pregnant, ain't she? That's why she's been tired and sick these last few weeks."

"How did you know?" Prouty was amazed.

"Look at Beau here," the sheriff said. "Tell me how he died."

"Come on, Sam. You know how he died. He was shot in the head."

"No," Hartnet corrected. "He was shot in the back of the head, Doc. The back of the head. How could a gambler who sat with his back to the wall get shot in the back of the head? With his own gun, no less?"

The thought had never occurred to the doctor.

"I'll tell you how," Hartnet went on. "When Hank there went down cellar to count his stock, Rosie came downstairs. Like she usually did, she stood behind him — probably even put her arms around his neck. That's when she told him she was pregnant and wanted to get married.

"Now you know guys like Beau Lathrop. They ain't gonna get married to nobody. All that business about him and Rosie running away was just talk to keep her on the string. I figure Beau told her that, or something like that, and she lost control. She grabbed that silver-plated pea shooter he so thoughtfully kept on the table and shot him. From behind — where she always stood. Ain't nobody else Beau would let stand back there. Then she went upstairs and took one of your sleeping powders so she'd be asleep when we got to her. That explains why nobody was seen leaving here this morning. Nobody did."

After a minute of silence Hank Wilkins asked, "What're you gonna do to her, Sam?"

"I don't know, Hank. Killers get hanged in this county, but I ain't never hanged a woman, let alone a pregnant one."

"You won't have to," Doc Prouty said. "Rosie being pregnant is only half the story. She's got consumption, too. Real bad. And being pregnant only complicates things. I don't think she'll live to give birth to her child."

"Well," Hartnet drawled, "if it comes to that, I can't prove none of what I said, you know." Then, with a slight smile on his face, the common sense in Sheriff Hartnet made him say, "I guess my first murder case is gonna go unsolved."


Richard Ciciarelli is a member of Mystery Writers of America and since 1982 has published numerous short stories in some of the country's top magazines and on-line mystery sites. "Murder in the Crystal Palace" is the author's 80th published story. Sheriff Sam Hartnet is also featured in "Sheriff Sam's Triumph" which was published online with omdb! in March, 2012.

Mr. Ciciarelli is the author of the popular Charles Blake III series of short stories first introduced to omdb! readers in "A Private Murder" followed by "Ghost of a Chance" and "Scent of Murder." Two non-series short stories "A Rose by Any Other Name" and "In Vino Veritas" were also previously published on omdb!.


Copyright 2012 Richard Ciciarelli. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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