by Henry Slesar
There weren’t many major crimes in Pinetree Mountain, and Sheriff Brawley liked it that way. Some people said he would rather catch a trout than a criminal. But when Brawley saw the body of the pretty young woman so brutally slaughtered, his kindly blue eyes turned to steel.
His deputy Stan Goren had taken the static-filled phone call at 2:15 p.m. that summoned them to the Miles place on Moccasin Road. The reason for the static became clear when they arrived five minutes later and saw Peter Miles standing alongside a fire-engine red Jaguar, holding a cellular phone in one hand, a Scotch on the rocks in the other. The first time Brawley had seen young Miles he was a spoiled, pesky teenager; now he was a sleek young man in his mid-Twenties, with the same disdainful look.
Brawley didn’t pay much attention to “society” news. Even though the Miles family had lost most of their money, they still kept a hunting lodge in his jurisdiction, and Brawley kept up with their affairs. He knew that Peter, the most frequent visitor to the cabin, was about to marry the daughter of a beer baron, a happy ending for an impoverished playboy.
“In here,” Peter said. He led them to a door that had been forcibly opened, the knob hammered to the ground. But once inside the cabin he froze and pointed to the open bedroom door. “I can’t go back in there,” he said. “It’s too awful.” He finished his drink in a gulp.
The victim was no more than twenty, and beautiful even in death. She was in the cabin’s single bedroom, wearing a light cotton dress and sandals. The cause of death was obvious. The hunting knife had been buried deep in her chest with a violence that spoke of either madness or great anger.
Stan Goren’s knees went liquid. Brawley was calmer. He sent his deputy out to look around the area, and then returned to Peter Miles to ask him the obvious question.
“No!” he answered fervently. “I didn’t know her! I think I’ve seen her at the Moosehead Inn once or twice, serving drinks, but all I ever said to her was, ‘another Scotch, please!'”
“Then let me introduce you,” Brawley said wryly. “Her name’s Alma Wilson. Been working at the Moosehead for about a year.”
Peter Miles shuddered. “I didn’t even know her body was in the bedroom when I arrived at the cabin.”
“When was that?”
“Only ten minutes ago! I found it open, but it’s broken into almost every time I come up to the cabin that’s why we don’t keep valuables here … The place has been shut up all winter, so there were things to do. I switched on the electricity, opened the windows to air the place out. I had a bottle in my car, and God knows I needed a drink when I saw what was in the bedroom! I called the police at once.”
“There’s one possibility,” Brawley mused. “Alma and a boyfriend could have broken into the place for a little rendezvous. But then they had a fight, and the boy got rough …”
There was a commotion at the door. Stan was pushing two men ahead of him, one of them holding a shotgun with a dented butt, one with a loaded tool belt. Both of them looking sullen.
“Found these guys right outside, Sheriff!” he said excitedly. “Josh Morton and Gary Logan!”
“Hello, Josh,” Brawley said to the bearded young man. “How’s the hunting today?”
Josh Morton scowled, well aware that the season hadn’t begun. “Just target shooting, Sheriff, ain’t killed nothing.”
Brawley looked out the open window at Josh Morton’s rusty old station wagon. He couldn’t see any dead animals in the vehicle, but Josh was never much of a marksman.
“And how about you, Gary? Driving that new pickup … Wouldn’t be picking up girls, by any chance?”
The second man looked at his muddy boots. “Just delivering some firewood, that’s all.”
“I want you fellas to take a look at something in the bedroom. Hold on to your breakfast. It ain’t a pretty sight.”
Sheriff Brawley didn’t know which one said the name first.
“I’m sure you’ve seen Alma plenty of times. You two are always hanging out at the Moosehead, aren’t you?”
Josh Morton, his eyes fixed on the body, gulped and said: “Where else do we have to go in this town?”
“In fact, Alma was one of the big attractions at the Inn, wasn’t she? All the men liked to watch her. Some of them even dated her. Didn’t you, Josh?”
“I suppose I dated her a couple of times. When she ditched her old boy friend.” He looked slyly at the man beside him.
“She didn’t ditch me!” Gary Logan shouted. “I didn’t want no part of Alma Wilson! You can’t trust a woman like that! She must have been out with every guy in town!”
The deputy grinned for the first time. “Maybe we better start making a list, Sheriff.”
By the time the coroner, Phil Cummings, arrived, Sheriff Brawley had finished a thorough search of the cabin. It would have discouraged a cop of lesser intuition. Except for a patch of dry mud in the living room, everything was clean and tidy, the kitchen spotless, the cupboards and closets bare, the fireplace filled with unburned birch logs.
But Sheriff Brawley knew he had the murderer just the same.