Garland Leigh's Last Case
Garland Leigh's last case
Garland Leigh had been a private investigator too long. He had resigned from HPD after ten years service because he couldn't stand the bureaucracy. That happened twenty years ago. His friends in the department say it’s even worse now. At least being a P.I. meant he was his own boss.
His sixth sense told him even before he accepted this case that he was getting into something he shouldn't. All he really wanted to do was finish the divorce case he was working on, give Natalie her severance pay, and head for Vegas. He had endured enough of these Houston summers. Las Vegas was hot too, but not inside the casinos. Casinos, the track. He didn’t care. He enjoyed them both. It was like playing the stock market except you got free rooms and they comped your meals.
When Darlene Striker appeared in his office, his common sense left before the door even closed. He was always a sucker for a pretty face. Darlene Striker ignored the stare he gave her and got right to business. She was used to stares and didn't have time for any nonsense. "Mr. Leigh, I need your help. Are you available? Money is no problem. Will you help me?"
"Well, Ms. Striker, I don’t plan on taking on any more clients but I'll listen to what you have to say," Garland offered. "I have to ask. Are you related to Bob Striker, the Houston police chief? I'm guessing you could be his daughter."
"You'd be guessing wrong. I'm his wife, or I guess I should say was. We were married three years ago, shortly after his first wife divorced him. I know people talked about us because of the age difference, but I really loved him. I found him dead early this morning in his bed. He'd been shot. I was sleeping in the guest bedroom because I hadn‘t been feeling good and didn‘t want to disturb him. He would have been in Dallas for a seminar if I hadn’t been sick. I had taken some sleeping pills. That’s probably why I didn’t hear the gun. It’s all my fault. I’ll never forgive myself. The security alarm didn’t even sound until I left the house. It hasn’t even hit the news yet. When I found him, I knew I'd be the first person they would look at so I left the house immediately. I've been in hiding ever since early this morning. That’s why I’m wearing this stupid wig and shades. What should I do? I know I'm rambling and sound panicky. Any ideas?
Garland thought a moment before answering. “Why didn’t you wait for the cops?”
“I knew I’d end up in jail. My step-son would use his influence to make sure of that.”
“You talking about the realtor? Isn’t his name Lance? I see his ads on TV all the time.
“Sure am. Sorriest piece of crap in south Texas. Used to try to hit on me almost every day until I told Bob. That set him straight. He doesn‘t come around any more.”
“Are there any other kids?”
“A daughter. Her name’s Gretchen. She lives in College Station. A professor at A & M. A real flake.”
“Do you have a lawyer yet?”
“Not yet. I thought I should see you first. Your secretary says you’re the best. Before I got married, I lived in the apartment just above hers. Small world, huh? She always talked about you.”
"For the record, my advice is to turn yourself in and retain a lawyer Off the record, I see what you mean. I didn’t say that though. I was just getting ready to go get a burger," he said. "Want one? We can talk while we eat."
"Good, Mr. Leigh.”
Garland interrupted, "Not Mr. Leigh. Just Garland. Okay?"
"Whatever you want. Hey, I'm a junk-food junkie myself, and haven't eaten since yesterday. I'll even buy," Darlene answered.
"I counted on that," Garland responded, a twinkle in his eye.
Darlene continued with her story as soon as Garland brought the food to their booth.
By the time she finished, Garland had decided retirement would have to wait. Oh well. It shouldn’t take long, and her story had aroused his interest.
“Normally, I’d say the first thing you need to do is turn yourself in, but I get your point about sonny-boy. Any objection to staying at Natalie’s apartment a few days? I‘ll rent a car for you in my name. Just leave yours where ever it is.”
Garland turned on the radio as soon as he got in his Hyundai. The announcer was in the middle of rerunning the story. “...learned that Bob Striker, Police Chief for the City of Houston was found shot to death at his home early this morning. The police are looking for his wife, but wouldn’t comment when we asked if she was a suspect in the homicide.”
Garland turned the radio off and headed for city hall. He had learned years ago to skip going through the chain of command and go straight to the top. A janitor. They always knew what was going on and nobody paid any attention to them. He found Emilio on the third floor. Emilio had been slipping him tips for years.
“Hey, Garland. Heard about the chief?”
“Sure did. Any news here?”
“Just that the fuzz are looking for his wife, and that there was no sign of a break-in. Lieutenant Frank Rivers has assigned Geraldine Gardner as the lead detective. I hear she’s good to work with,” Emilio stated. “You working for Mrs. Striker?
“I just met her, but yeah, I am.”
“Nice lady! When she’s at city hall, she always stops and says hello. Doesn‘t care who sees her talking to a janitor.” “I’ll let you know if I hear anything.
Garland’s next stop was 61 Reisner Street. Maybe he could learn something at the jail. There was a whole different approach to law enforcement now and these new guys were pretty tight-mouthed, but he had gone through HPD’s academy with Jim Ward. Garland always wondered why Jim hadn’t retired yet.
“Hey, Jim, giving out any ‘Street Justice‘ lately or has this new bunch stopped all that?”
“Don’t know what you’re talking about. That wouldn’t be legal. I would be violating their constitutional rights.”
“Remember who you’re talking to? I still laugh when I think about the time you told one kid while he was talking about constitutional rights, he also had a constitutional right to get his butt kicked, and said he’d found the man who could do it. You told me I needed to go get some coffee. A big cup!”
“Well, it worked. The kid found the Lord that night. Or at least he found me. Same thing. We both have absolute power.”
“I also remember when you called one kid ‘boy’ and he said they don’t call me ‘Boy’ where I come from.”
“You said, well, you ain’t where you come from, ‘Boy’.”
“Those were the good old days.”
“Heard any scuttlebutt on the chief?”
“The whole department is on it, but I don’t have anything you probably don’t already know.
“I’m nosing around on this. Keep me up to date, OK?”
“Hey, my wife’s out of town and I get off at ten. Want some help? I could use a little extra cash.”
Garland’s next stop was at a comedy club called the Ha-Ha House at 936 West Gray, where all the cops went after work. Even if he didn’t find out anything, it was beer-thirty and he was way overdue. It was still early, so there were no other customers. The manager greeted him with her usual smile. Garland knew her name was Sheridan but everyone called her ‘Sumbitch‘. It didn't seem to bother her. He got the impression that deep down, she liked it.
“You’re sure early today, Flower. Whatcha havin’ and how’s it hangin’?”
If anyone else had called him Flower he would have probably been ready to fight, but if she could accept ‘Sumbitch‘, he had to accept ‘Flower‘.
“The coldest Coors Light in the house. It’s hangin’ about like always,” he answered. “Heard the news about the chief?”
“Yeah, and the grapevine tells me you’re working it. I’ll let you know if I find out anything they’re not releasing.”
“I knew I could count on you, Sumbitch. Thanks.”
By the time Garland had finished his third Coors Light, the bar had started to fill with people wanting to catch the comic who would be doing the early show. It was a woman calling herself Maya Turney. Garland had seen her and liked her delivery, but he had other things to do, so he left as she started to tell the audience something about placebos not being available as suppositories.
It hadn’t been a wasted trip. Sumbitch would be on the look-out, and would tell him anything she learned. She had been a cop before quitting HPD to manage her father’s clubs, and still maintained a close relationship with the Department.
Garland’s next stop was Natalie’s apartment. She had called him earlier, saying the rental car was ready and both she and Darlene were on their way to Bellaire where Natalie lived. They were already there when Garland arrived.
Natalie offered him a beer but he declined, saying he had already had all he needed at the Ha-Ha House.
Garland waited until Darlene left the room, then asked, “Hey, Natalie, had a chance to talk to her?”
“Just a little. Want my opinion?”
“I’m sure you’re getting ready to give it to me. Tell me what you think.”
“I’ll do whatever you want, but if it was my call, I’d show her the road.”
“I probably should. Let’s give it a few days though. Did she contact an attorney?”
“She disappeared for a couple hours after the rental car arrived,” Natalie said. “That’s probably where she went.”
Darlene returned before Natalie could say any more.
"I just stopped by to see if either of you needed anything,” Garland stated. “Evidently not. I’m meeting Jim Ward at 10:15 at the Velvet Lounge on Memorial and Westcott so I better get going. Later. OK?”
“Gotcha,” Natalie answered.
Jim was already sitting at the bar when Garland arrived. He was still in his uniform as Garland knew he would be, and his marked cruiser was sitting right outside. "Got anything in mind," he asked.
"Think there's anyone at the Striker house? I'd like to look it over."
"Sounds good to me. I was thinking the same thing." They both knew no one would think anything of a police car showing up at a crime scene. Even if someone called it in, the call would be ignored.
They reached Memorial Drive in minutes. Just as they hoped, the house was empty. Garland picked the front-door lock and looked at Jim with a grin on his face.
"You're slowing down, Gar,” Jim joked. “Almost thirty seconds."
"A Schlage! They’re usually a pain,” Garland said. “I’m just glad it wasn’t a cheap lock. The cheap ones are usually harder to pick.”
“Why’s that,” Jim asked.”
“They usually have something called spool-pins in the cylinders to compensate for the cheap construction. It makes them a bitch to pick.”
“I guess I learn something every day. What we looking for?” Jim asked
“Darned if I know. Let’s look at everything.”
They started in the den, then went to the kitchen. They saved the bedroom for last. Garland noticed the alarm system. It was evidently an old unit without a motion sensor, and only triggered itself if a door or window was opened. As they were leaving, Garland mentioned the fact that the house was pier-and-beam construction rather than sitting on a slab. Slabs were more common in Houston.
They both realized they hadn’t checked for a hatch down to the crawl-space. They went back in and found what they were looking for in the laundry room. The hatch was square, about 24 inches. There wasn’t even a lock. Gravity was the only thing holding the cover down. They could tell the dust had been disturbed recently.
“Well, Jim. We did good, huh?” Garland joked.
“Don’t we always?”
It was after three when they got back to Garland's car. "Available tomorrow night if I need you?" Garland asked.
"Of course! It was fun. Same time?"
"Let me see what happens when I get to my office in the morning. OK? I'll call you at HPD."
When Garland got to his office on the 40th floor of the Exxon building, Natalie told him a detective was waiting for him.
“Mr. Leigh, I’m Detective Geraldine Gardner. I need to ask you a few questions. Do you want to go somewhere private?”
“No. Natalie knows more than I do about what goes on in this office. Right here’s fine. How can I help you, Detective Gardner?”
“Mr. Leigh, my sources tell me you might know where Darlene Striker is. Do you?”
“She was in my office yesterday. She told me what had happened. I advised her to get a lawyer and turn herself in. To answer your next question, I don’t know where she is now.”
“You will let us know if you hear from her! Right?”
“Gotcha. Anything else?”
As soon as the detective left the office, Garland asked Natalie where Darlene was.
“In the other room. She didn’t think she should come out. Was that OK?”
“You did good. She still here?”
“Yeah. She’s probably wondering what she should do. She‘s getting pretty antsy.”
Darlene entered the room before Garland could answer Natalie.
“Glad you’re here, Darlene. Now that I’ve thought about it, my suggestion is for you to turn yourself in. Did you get a lawyer?”
“I found one right here in this building. One floor down. He parts his name in the front, just like they all do. P. Martin Spark. Know him?”
“No, but that doesn’t mean anything. Trying to keep track of all the lawyers in Houston would be a full-time job.”
“You really think I should turn myself in? I’ve never been in jail. What’s it like?”
“I’ve only been on the upstream side of the bars, but most of the cons I know say the food’s a lot better in Houston than in the Galveston jail. Funny how they always mention the food.”
“Martin Sparks gave me the same advice. He said if we do it now, he’ll have me out before the end of the day. Let‘s do it now, before I chicken out. OK?”
Garland escorted Darlene down to Spark’s office. He turned out to be a likable guy, and seemed to know his stuff. Garland left her with the lawyer, saying he better get busy on her case. Natalie had arranged his appointments by the time he returned to his office.
"Hey, Garland, I got in touch with Lance Striker like you asked me to. He said he's showing a house right now, but can meet you at ten-thirty at the Denny's on South Main by the Astrodome. I told him that would be fine. Also, his sister said she'd be happy to talk to you if you don't mind driving to College Station. Jim called. Said he has some stuff you'll be interested in seeing. He couldn't talk, but said he'd tell you tonight. Is there anything else I need to do?"
"I think that's it. Want a sausage biscuit? It’s my turn to buy. After that, I‘ll head for my first appointment.”
“Shouldn’t someone stay at the office?”
“Why? We’ll be closing it for good at the end of the month.”
“Good point. Sorry I asked.”
Lance Striker wasn’t anything like Garland expected. Garland had been prepared to not like him. He only knew one other person named Lance. That Lance lived over on Montrose Boulevard in a high-rise with his “Special Friend”. He had track-lights all over the house, as well as carpet that looked like leopard skin. This Lance turned out to be one of the most likeable people he had ever known. Neatly groomed and wearing clothes he must have a spent a small fortune on. He was evidently aware of the accusations his step-mother had made because he was quick to produce a picture of his wife from his wallet. Garland immediately knew why. Any sane person doesn’t go out for a hamburger when he has steak at home.
“So, Garland, you must have heard I’m a no-good piece of crap. My step-mother always tries to give everyone that impression. She convinced my dad I was making a move on her. I know I should have confronted her, but it was easier to just stay away. Considering what‘s happened, I made the wrong choice. I guess you can tell I’m not her biggest fan. She was a topless dancer and part-time hooker at a strip club on Westheimer before my dad rescued her. Gretchen and I both thought he was crazy when he left mom for her. I didn’t like her from the start.”
Garland interrupted, calling the waitress for more coffee. Lance continued as soon as it arrived.
“My sister told me you‘re going to College Station this afternoon. I‘m sure she’ll confirm my side of the story. Say, I have another house to show in about an hour, so I need to go. Anything else I can help you with? If you think of anything, anything at all, just call. This damn cell-phone is always on.”
"I stored your number. I may need to call you. Thanks for offering.
After meeting Lance, Garland was starting to wonder if he had his money on the wrong horse. He had dreaded the drive up Highway 290 to College Station because of the traffic, but now he looked forward to it. It was going to be interesting to meet the daughter. Darlene thinks she's a little slow witted.
When Garland reached College Station, he found the address Gretchen had given him with no problem. Flake or not, she had given good directions. She was waiting at the front door when he got out of his car.
“Good morning, Mr. Leigh. The funeral home called just as you were driving up, so we‘ll have to make this short. They want me to come in to take care of the arrangements. Darlene and Lance can’t be here so I’m on my own. He’s going to be buried here. He was from Bryan, so it seems like that would be appropriate. Don’t you agree?”
Garland paused before answering. He finally offered, “If that is what you think he would want, that’s what you should do.”
She seemed relieved at his approval. She asked, “Mr. Leigh, I hate to ask, but would you go with me? I’ve never had to do anything like this. I’m not sure I can handle it alone.”
Garland started to say he didn’t have a dog in that fight, but caught himself. Not only would it be inappropriate, but her expression told him she really needed someone to accompany her. He could still be back in Houston in plenty of time to meet Jim when he got off work. Besides, that would give him more time to get to know her and find out if she was really the flake Darlene had made her out to be.
“Are you sure you want me to? he said.
“Of course. Please. Oh, pretty please.”
That settled it.
It wasn’t nearly as bad as he had expected, and he was on his way back to Houston by eight o’clock.
Jim was already sitting at the bar when Garland arrived.
“I hear you have something, Jim” Garland said. “Something good I hope. I could really use some good news.”
“If you want good news, you’ll love this. The Brass hasn’t released it to the media yet, but Detective Gardner went back to the Striker residence this morning. Rivers asked her to. I guess he felt like maybe she’d missed something and he wanted her to double-check. His hunch paid off. She found the crawl-space we saw last night. She knew right away there was a strong possibility of someone entering the house without triggering the alarm. On her recommendation, Darlene Striker has been released from jail, and now they’re thinking someone else did the deed.
“I did good again, didn’t I? Didn’t I? Where’s my raise? Huh?” Jim joked, imitating a small child begging for approval.
"Pretty good for an amateur," Garland said.
"That's not all. I saw Gardner in the break-room this afternoon. I bought her a cup of coffee and sat down with her. She knew I had been working with you, and said we need to be more careful the next time we busted into a crime scene. She didn't say how she knew, and I sure didn't ask. Anyway, she said not to worry. Said those cheap pens the department buys are always running out of ink, and hers ran out just as she was getting ready to include our break-in in her report. She added that Rivers doesn't know about it. She said she didn't learn much in the Marine Corps, but she learned how to keep her mouth shut. I hadn't realized she'd been a Woman Marine."
"I'd heard it somewhere," Garland said. "I think I was at HPD for something and overheard her telling someone she'd been a Marine. I don’t know her very well, but I think I already like her. Tell her the coffee's on me the next time I see her,"
"There's one more thing. That may be sooner than you think. She asked me to tell you she wants you to ride with her tomorrow while she makes calls if you're available. The tone of her voice left me with the impression you better be available."
“Well, if I’m going to meet her in the morning, let’s call it a night. I‘ll tell Natalie to put you down for four hours. OK?” Garland said.
“That’s fine with me. Same time tomorrow night?” Jim asked.
“I’ll call you tomorrow after I meet Detective Gardner."
Garland told Natalie his plans, and was waiting at HPD when Detective Gardner came in. Her first words were, “if we’re going to be riding together all day, you need to knock off that Detective Gardner crap. I prefer Geraldine or Gerry, but hate G.G. Sounds like a damn poodle."
“Gotcha. Just call me Garland. I guess you know Sumbitch at the Ha-Ha House. She calls me Flower. That’s fine with me if you want, but don’t tell anybody else.”
“Flower it is, but only if we‘re alone.”
“Where should we start?” Garland offered.
“I have an appointment with the ex-wife,” Gerry said. “After the divorce she bought a house in the 2000 block of Huckabee just off T.C. Jester. I hear she didn’t want to stay in the house they had, so Bob Striker bought her out. Probably cost him some big bucks. I hear her attorney arranged things so she is still in the will.”
“Sounds like my first wife’s lawyer,” Garland joked.
When they arrived at the home, the lady, who’s name was Paula had coffee and pastries waiting. “I hope you’re hungry,” she said. “I can never pass up a chance to show off my homemade jalapeno sausage and cheese kolaches. I learned to make them from my mother. If they‘re too hot for you, just say so.”
“I love jalapenos,” Gerry replied. “I’m really not hungry though. Well, maybe one if you insist. You are insisting, right? Right?”
Gerry was half-way through the third one before Paula was ready to talk about the reason they were there.
“I guess I’ve stalled long enough,” she started. “I don’t know what I can tell you that you don’t already know. I hadn’t seen Bob for about two weeks. I had gone by the house to talk to him about how I should file my income tax. I'm going to do that income averaging stuff and wanted to know if it would affect him. That bitch was there, so we didn’t get to talk. Forgive my language, but I‘m sure you must know why I call her ‘bitch.’ Oh, I have to admit she didn‘t do it by herself. Bob was a great cop, but he was always a sucker for a pretty face.”
Garland thought about how he frequently made the same statement. He said, “Mrs. Striker, I don't know who did it, but the city won't give up until they're caught. I’m wondering. You may not be able to answer this, but why wasn’t there a lock on the hatch going to the crawl space at the house?”
“I don't know what you're talking about. If I'd known that, I would have taken care of it immediately. I'm too security conscious to let something like that wait. For example, I had a locksmith change the locks as soon as I moved here.”
“Thank you for being so gracious, Mrs. Striker,” Gerry stated. “We’d love to stay and have some more of those delicious pastries but we two have other appointments. In fact, I think we’re going to be late for the next one if we don’t hurry. Thanks again.”
Garland wondered what Gerry had suddenly remembered. They didn’t have any other appointments. He made no comment until they were in the car. As soon as they were alone he said, “Why the sudden exit.”
“I noticed the wrappers from Shipley’s donut shop in the trash. Also, she was just too nice. It was almost sickening. That, along with that crap about the locks aroused my curiosity. Those locks were ten years old at minimum, and must have come from the discontinued aisle at the hardware store. I‘m wondering why she was trying so hard to do impress us. Any idea why?”
Garland thought before answering. When he spoke he said, “I don’t know, but I’m thinking I’m going to have to extend my lease. I guess I wasn’t paying attention. I didn’t even notice the locks. My Alzheimer’s must be getting worse. Glad you caught it, Gerry.”
“Just stick around, Flower. I’ll teach you all about women,” Gerry joked.
“Say, Gerry, I’ve been putting it off all morning, but I want to thank you for not saying anything about Jim and me going into the crime scene without authority.”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about. You must have me mixed up with someone else.”
“I Must. If you happen to see that person, would you pass on my appreciation. Jim said you weren‘t like most of these new guys. I‘m starting to understand what he meant.”
“Gotcha. No problem, Flower.”
When they got back to HPD headquarters on Reisner, Gerry offered to buy coffee but Garland begged off, saying he needed to get back to the office and try to convince Natalie to stay on longer.
Garland was still walking toward his car when his cell-phone rang. It was Frank Rivers.
"Rivers here," he said. "Hope I caught you before you got too far. Can you come back? We need to talk."
"Be right there, Lieutenant Rivers. What is it?"
"I'll tell you when you get upstairs. OK?"
Garland wondered what it was. Maybe Gerry had changed her mind and ratted to Rivers about him and Jim going to the house. That was the only reason he could think of. Oh well, he’d know in minutes.
When he got there, Rivers greeted him with a smile. "I know you're wondering if Detective Gardner changed her mind and squealed on you. She wouldn't do that! She's not wired that way. I guessed it because I know how she is. Like they say, I was born at night, but it wasn't last night. Forget it. I would have done the same thing. That's why I had her go back to the house. I knew you rode with her this morning, and that you had been retained by Darlene Striker.
Figured you'd appreciate being kept in the loop. I did more checking on Darlene. We already knew her maiden name and where she was born. It didn't register for a while, but I finally woke up and looked into it some more. Turned out she was born in Alvin. The Brazoria Sheriff knew who I was talking about immediately. Said his name at birth was Darin Youngblood. Said he remembered when the boy used to walk around town in a ruffled white shirt and hot-pink shorts. He added that the boy never caused any trouble. Just weird. He said the last he knew, the family had moved to Houston and his parents had found a doctor to do the deed. Must have been a good one. I didn't even notice an Adam's Apple."
"You mean to say we're dealing with a he/she?"
"Sure do. I have some officers picking her up right now for more questioning. Want to stick around?"
"Wouldn't miss it. Thanks for including me."
When the officers brought her in, they immediately took her to an interrogation room. Garland waited outside the room for a couple hours, then decided to leave. He left his number with the desk-sergeant and asked if someone would call him the minute they got a confession.
He had been home about three hours when the call came.
“Garland, Rivers here. It wasn't at all what we thought. We just got a confession. Paula Striker turned herself in a few minutes ago. She remarked that something you said made her decide it was all she could do. I'll make sure you get mentioned when it hits the news."
Garland thought about Darlene and asked, "What about the wife?"
"What about her?" Frank asked. "She may be a weird one, but we can't lock her up for that. we would have half of Houston in a cell. I'm not even sure which side of the bars I'd be on. I hope we can work together again sometime. I think we think the same. OK?"
"I'd love it. I had thought about retiring, but this case has made me change my mind."
Garland didn’t think about the case until the arraignment. Of course he received a summons to attend.
When it was over, and he came back to the office, Natalie asked, "Garland, what happened at the arraignment?"
"Not much," he answered. "She said her conscience got her to admit everything. Since she confessed, I didn't even get called to the stand. She’ll probably get life without the possibility of parole. Most wasted three days I ever spent. I always did hate going to court."
"So, what happens now?" Natalie asked.
Garland responded by saying, "Natalie, you don't need to look for a job. I'll still be needing you here."