CHAPTER 3 – A DISPATCHER WITH A SPECIAL SENSE OF HUMOR
Bored out of her mind, Norma Jean was merely filing her fingernails when the phone rang. She threw her fiery hair over her left shoulder and scowled.
Then Norma Jean admired her long fingernails and thought to let the phone ring. She wasn’t in the mood to take any calls that night and didn’t care if half the county was out for a kill.
“Aren’t you going to take that?” Deputy Henderson asked from the door, dusting off his hat.
Norma Jean glanced at the tall figure looming in the door, and her scowl deepened. She hadn’t heard the deputy coming back from his round, although he wasn’t such a small man. He was well over 6.2, in her opinion. Now, she had to answer the damn phone.
She waved her hand in the deputy’s direction to shut him up and picked up the receiver with a grim expression in her green eyes. The deputy pitied the person who thought to call at that hour.
“The Sherriff’s Office,” she mumbled and then listened to the frantic voice at the other end of the line. Muffled bits and pieces of words reached the deputy’s ear, but he couldn’t understand their meaning.
“And who did you say you were?” Norma Jean asked rudely, and the deputy shook his head in desperation.
He knew why Norma Jean worked there. It wasn’t because of her secretarial skills or polite phone attitude but because she was the sheriff’s sister-in-law. That was how she had landed the job.
Of course, no one else would have hired her. Before working for the Sheriff’s Office, she had made the tour of all businesses in the county, or so people said.
It was common knowledge she couldn’t hold a job for more than three days anywhere else. She had been fired more often than some people changed their shirts.
There, in the sheriff’s office, her brother-in-law closed his eyes to her unorthodox manners, and no one wondered if he had lost or misplaced all the complaints filed against Norma Jean. And there had been quite a few. Chris Henderson had even witnessed a few of the accusations.
A while back, the deputy had wondered why the sheriff didn’t worry about not being elected again. His behaviour towards the constituents and his support for Norma Jean were telling.
Anyway, Chris found out why less than a year ago, when the rape kit related to Emily Logan’s rape was misplaced. Of course, after being lost for a while, the collection became useless, and they never resolved the case. Then Henderson put two and two together: the private discussions the sheriff had with Lorna Carter and Sheriff Willow’s confidence in the future election. The young man had been agonizing over Logan’s case ever since. He’d wanted to do something but didn’t know what he could do.
“Aha…aha… I’d say to ease down on the booze and go to bed,” Norma Jean’s voice boomed, followed by the receiver slamming in the hook.
Deputy Henderson winced and watched her with wide eyes. He’d seen and heard her doing many things, but until then, she’d never treated someone with so much contempt.
“Who was on the phone?” Henderson asked and put the hat on the top of his desk.
Norma Jean only waved her hand as if sick and tired of the subject. In a steely voice, though, Henderson insisted, “Who was on the darn phone?”
Norma Jean glanced at Chris as though she saw him for the first time. Her eyes swept over his thick, black, and unruly hair, dark blue eyes, the expanse of his chest, and muscular thighs, and her heart did a little tumble. Henderson was a tall and strong man, but he used to be an easy-going fellow. His present voice and demeanor were out of the ordinary, and something stirred in Norma Jean’s heart or maybe somewhere else.
“Just a drunk,” she replied briefly and shrugged.
“Exactly who?” Henderson asked again, and his sternness made Norma Jean shiver.
He’s like a damn terrier with a bone, she thought, now getting angry.
“Gus Carter,” she said through clenched teeth.
Her temper was rising. No one questioned her actions in that office. They all knew who she was, and Norma Jean knew to use the law of the land to her advantage. Henderson might have been a hunk – a sexy hunk, but that didn’t give him leeway to treat her that way. She would have to teach him a lesson or two.
“Gus Carter is not a drunk,” Henderson observed in the same steely voice, and his eyes turned into slits.
“Everybody is a drunk,” the petite curvy woman responded nonchalantly. “Even you can get drunk,” Norma Jean remarked, and the light reflected in the green of her eyes when she smirked at him.
“Maybe, but that’s neither here nor there. The man doesn’t get drunk. Ever,” Chris Henderson stressed and cut the air with his palm. “Get it through your thick skull, Norma Jean. He never gets drunk. What did he say, Norma Jean?” he prodded again.
Henderson had a bad feeling. The hair on his forearms was standing up, and something close to anxiety was playing havoc with his heart.
Norma Jean fluttered her hand again, and then, she admitted, “Something about Lorna being on the floor and blood everywhere. No doubt that the man is in his bottles,” she remarked. “After a good night of sleep, he’ll recover,” she observed in her usual sluggish manner.
“Are you out of your mind?” Henderson shouted. “Someone called to announce a murder, and you sent them to bed?” His voice rose increasingly with every word, and Norma Jean flinched at every higher sound.
“Don’t get your bowels in a knot, Deputy,” she tried to hold her own. “The man was drunk, no question about it. I’m telling you. Nobody would touch Lorna. Believe me. The man or woman who’d dare that isn’t born yet,” she said, nodding emphatically.
Chris Henderson just shook his head in disbelief. The woman had done many things in that office, but that took the prize.
It was one thing to tell Old Maggie to stuff it when she called about her neighbor’s dog and another to dismiss a murder off-hand just because she wanted to. That was beyond mere negligence and laziness.
“Call the sheriff immediately,” he shouted at her with authority. “Tell him to come to Carter’s. I’ll be there,” he added, plucking his hat off his desk. He stormed out of the sheriff’s office, grumbling.
“Good riddance,” Norma Jean mumbled and picked up her nail filer to resume the grooming of her nails. She admired her long and rounded fingernails and started filing them diligently. She had to start the following week with a flawless manicure.
Ten minutes later, to her dismay, the phone rang again. She glanced at it with a frown but continued filing her nails. She imagined it would stop after ten or so rings. Yet, it didn’t.
Annoyed, she snatched the receiver off the hook and shouted irately, “What?”
“Are you out of your mind?” the sheriff’s angry reply reached her ears. “Is that how you speak to people?” he bellowed his outrage. “I’ve just had Gus Carter on the phone. He said that he called to announce that someone had killed Lorna, and you told him to ease off the drink and go to bed. Have you lost your damn senses?” the sheriff roared at the top of his lungs.
With a grimace, Norma Jean moved the receiver away from her ear. She just knew her hearing wouldn’t be the same after that conversation. She wondered what got into Kenneth’s bonnet.
“Kenneth, listen to me…” she began, trying to soothe him, but he interrupted her immediately with a shout.
“Listen… listen…” he sputtered, unable to find his words for a moment. “Do you want me to listen to you? You’re a crazy broad, Norma Jean, do you know that? You listen here. If Lorna’s dead, your job is gone. I don’t care what your sister says. You’re history,” he shouted in an increased volume.
Norma Jean pouted but didn’t give up. “You’ll see she’s not dead,” she reassured him, and her voice reeked with confidence.
“That’s what you say,” he argued back. “But Gus says differently, and he knows what he’s talking about,” Kenneth replied with contempt. “Where’s Henderson?” he asked.
“He went to the Carters’,” she replied in a small voice. Now, she was afraid.
“At least one of you has their head well screwed,” he replied. “I’m off to the Carters’ as well. And you try to be polite on the phone from now on if somebody calls, or you’ll be out on your ear otherwise. Do you understand, Norma Jean?” Kenneth shouted at her again and then disconnected the call.
Norma Jean’s feeling of well-being faded. She glanced at her hands but couldn’t find joy in her shiny fingernails either.
She knew Kenneth well. He was a stuffy prick, and if he felt a threat to his position, he would feed her to the wolves.
CHAPTER 4 – GUS CARTER IS DAUNTINGLY SOBER
Chris Henderson drove to the Carters’ as fast as he could without the lights on. He didn’t have confirmation of an emergency and couldn’t use the lights and siren just on a hunch.
He still reeled over Norma Jean’s scornful behavior. Norma Jean had a pretty face, and that went well with her curvy and luscious body, but her sly nature had always driven Chris away. He avoided her whenever he could.
When he turned into the Carters’ drive, his headlights passed over Gus Carter’s overflowing body. The man hunched on the front steps, his head in his hands, lost in God-knew-what thoughts.
When the lights brushed over him, Gus lifted his head and glanced at the deputy’s car. He seemed not to understand why the car was in his drive for a moment. He brushed his fingers through his messy hair and stood up like a drunk man.
Henderson caught Gus’s wobbling movement, and his eyes turned to slits. He hoped to high heaven that Norma Jean hadn’t been right about Gus’s state. He knew that he wouldn’t hear the end of that otherwise, and the last thing he wanted was to give more ammunition to that woman.
Gus started down the stairs with hesitant steps. He kept wiping his hands off his pants. His palms were clammy. His legs felt like jelly, and each step demanded more and more strength from him.
He met the deputy at the bottom of the imposing staircase, lined with geraniums in clay pots, and he tried to smile. The grimace on his lips reminded Chris Henderson of a gargoyle he had once seen in a horror movie.
Henderson shook Gus’s hand and regretted it instantly. Disgusted, he tried to wipe it off warily, but it was hard not to be evident.
“Good evening, Gus,” he greeted the older man gently. “What’s going on? I understand that you called the Sheriff’s Office,” he hinted at the conversation he had heard earlier. At least Chris had heard Norma Jean’s side of the discussion.
“That woman…” Gus started to say and choked. He cleared his throat noisily and tried again, “That woman….” He couldn’t push the words past his lips, although his throat worked hard.
“What woman, Gus?” Chris Henderson asked and thought of helping the man sit back on the steps.
Gus’s legs were shaking violently now, and Chris feared the man would collapse. He eyed Gus carefully. He wasn’t sure that he would be strong enough to support Gus’s mass if it came to that. Henderson wasn’t a tiny man, but Gus had the bulk of an ox.
Gus sat carefully on the bottom step. He seemed somewhat older, and new wrinkles lined his grey face. Taking note of all the visible signs, Chris was sure something unusual had happened in the Carters’ house. Besides, the deputy hadn’t sniffed spirits on the older man.
Gus braced his elbows on his raised knees and glanced up at Chris with weary eyes. His thick lips quivered, and he licked the bottom one nervously.
“That woman, the one in the Sheriff’s Office, she told me I was drunk,” Gus finally said. His eyes flashed with anger, but Chris didn’t say anything, although he understood that Gus felt insulted.
Afraid he might lose his position in the sheriff’s office, Chris didn’t dare say something detrimental about Norma Jean. He liked his job, even though he didn’t get to do what he had once dreamed. And besides that, there weren’t many available jobs going around, and unemployment didn’t hold any attraction for Chris.
“So, you spoke to Norma,” Chris said softly. “I know that, Gus. I was in the office when the call came. Why did you call? What happened?”
Gus looked at Chris as if horns sprouted on his forehead, and his eyes betrayed his disbelief. Gus had thought the deputy knew what had happened. He had come there, after all.
“Lorna’s dead,” he replied drily, too tired to go into details again.
“Dead?” the deputy repeated.
“Deader than a doorknob,” Gus nodded and licked his lips again.
He needed to drink something. Probably water, but he wouldn’t have refused a generous glass of bourbon. He shook his head with regret. I should have thought about it earlier. With this kid here, I can’t touch my stash. What if he asks for some?
Unconsciously, he wiped off his palms on his knees again. Sweat beaded his forehead as well.
“Where is she?” Chris asked, bending one knee to see Gus’s eyes better.
Gus pointed his head toward the house, “There, in the kitchen. She’s on the floor…” His lips trembled, and he shook his head. “There’s so much blood…” A new wave of nausea raised in his throat, and he pushed it back.
“All right,” Chris replied. “Stay here, and I’ll go to take a look. The sheriff should arrive soon. I told Norma Jean to call him,” he threw over his shoulder before starting up the stairs.
Gus fluttered his hand and said, “I called him just before you came. I wouldn’t let that Norma Jean thwart me like that. I’m better than that,” he nodded confidently.
Gus had regained some of his self-assurance. Now, Chris had before his eyes the man aware of his importance in society. Norma Jean had overstepped her boundaries, and Chris knew that Gus would let the matter die. However, the deputy didn’t care one way or another. Norma Jean made her bed after all. She could lie in it now.
Chris climbed the stairs and let himself into the house. Gus had left the door wide open in his rush out, and Chris noticed the bloody footprints that Gus had left in the hall. They were leading to the kitchen.
Carefully, the deputy avoided the footprints that ran the hall length and entered the kitchen. On his way, he stole a glance here and there. He wasn’t curious to see the interior of Gus’s house, even if he had never been invited to the house before. He wanted only to make sure that no one else hid inside and to see what possible clues lay in full sight.
The harsh light from the ceiling fell on Lorna’s body, sprawled in a pool of almost coagulated blood. The woman had dropped on one side of the kitchen table, one leg slightly bent and one hand clutched to her chest. She was on her back, and the light fell squarely on her face, revealing every line and flaw. Her expression had frozen in a mask of utter disbelief. Chris reasoned that the killer must have come as a surprise to the woman.
Chris knew that he didn’t need to check for a pulse. Gus had been accurate in his evaluation. Lorna was, indeed, deader than a doorknob.
His gaze fell on the remains of Gus’s dinner, and he closed his eyes. Chris left the kitchen, slightly queasy, as well.
He had never seen murder before and couldn’t recall a crime in the county during his entire lifetime. They dealt with drunken behavior, domestic arguments, and the occasional theft. Nothing in his career had prepared him for that scene, and he doubted that the sheriff was better suited to investigate a murder.
The deputy reached the front door right after he heard the screech of the sheriff’s car braking in the drive. In the same position he had left him, Gus suddenly looked up just in time to witness the sheriff coming out of his car.
“Henderson, you’re here,” the sheriff said and braced his hands on his hips. “That’s good. Have you found anything?” he asked, and a quiver of hope penetrated his voice.
Henderson guessed that the sheriff would have liked to put the Norma Jean matter to rest, but he couldn’t oblige him. Now, you’ll get it, you big-ass bully. Yet, he kept his satisfaction hidden and reported in an indifferent voice. “Yes, Sheriff, I did. Lorna Carter lies on the floor in the kitchen. Someone stabbed her multiple times. I didn’t approach the body, so I can’t tell you how many times exactly.”
A shadow crossed the sheriff’s face, and he bowed his head with a sigh. He felt defeated. He didn’t have too much love for Norma Jean. She might have been a very beautiful broad, but she was rude and smug.
Norma Jean had sealed her fate now, as well as his. He knew that his marital life would be hell. His wife had a strong family sense and would have his head for not protecting her little sister.
“What are you going to do about that ne’er do good, Norma Jean?” Gus jumped off the stairs, gathering steam with every step he took. “She treated me like the scum of the earth,” he bellowed, waving a tight fist under the sheriff’s nose.
Chris assessed the man with interest, but he kept his own counsel. Gus seemed more concerned with retribution than with his wife’s murder. It hadn’t been too much love spilled between the two of them.
“Don’t you think we should see about Lorna first, Gus?” the sheriff inquired, not without sarcasm. “Your wife lies dead on your kitchen floor, and I see you’re looking for satisfaction. That doesn’t vouch too much for you,” he continued, spearing Gus with his words, and neither Gus nor Chris missed the unspoken threat in the sheriff’s words.
“Kenneth Willow,” Gus exclaimed, “you can’t believe I’ve had anything to do with Lorna’s death.”
Gus’s eyes bulged, ready to pop out of their sockets. The dampness of his palms intensified, and when he wiped them off on his shirt, they left a wet trace. He bit his bottom lip uncontrollably.
Kenneth just shrugged indifferently, happy that he had derailed the conversation from Norma Jean. Then, he turned to Chris, “Henderson, do you have anything in your car? Like yellow paint, forensic kit, you know, the works?”
Chris stared at him, startled. He shook his head to clear it and inquired, “Shouldn’t we call OSBI, sheriff? It’s a murder, after all.”
He was pretty sure that no one in the sheriff’s office had the necessary training to investigate a murder, and definitely not the sheriff. He couldn’t find his head if he had to look for it.
“We don’t need them,” Kenneth replied sternly, dismissing his words off-hand. “Do you have the kit or not?” he barked.
His blood pressure had already raised a notch during the confrontation with Gus, and his face had slightly colored. Henderson’s suggestion just made things worse.
Chris nodded, and after a brief hesitation, he went to the car to bring the kit. He doubted that the sheriff knew what he was doing, and he didn’t like to think of the mess to follow. He decided to keep himself as far as possible from any subsequent disaster. Otherwise, his career would have ended before it had had the chance to start.
Kenneth followed him with small and complicated eyes. He had never liked that Henderson. The man reasoned too much and had too much common sense. Now that Lorna was gone, Henderson was in a stable position to take the sheriff’s place, and his hatred for his young deputy rose.
 Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation
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