Cast the First Stone

MURDER, YOU WRITE: How about taking a stab at thrilling and chilling the masses in our Mystery/Suspense Short Story Contest? Winners will be based on overall originality of plot and character development, with the plot hinging on at least three of the following clues: a murdered relative, red dress, piece of jewelry, pool of blood, magazine subscription, painting, abandoned car, clergyman, fax machine, golf bag, fire drill, heat wave and a partridge in a pear tree. (Got a little carried away there. Ix-nay on the partridge.) First Prize $3,000; second prize, $1,000.

The car had been sitting in the Park and Ride parking lot for at least a week. It was a dark blue Ford Taurus, brand new, the sales sticker still on the window. Mr. Seizler had parked next to the car for the past three days.

“Is that your car parked next to me?” he asked the lot attendant.

“Naw sir,” the attendant answered after Mr. Seizler pointed out which car he was talking about. “That ain’t my car. That car’s been here awhile though.”

The attendant was a wiry little black man with white hair. He wore a light blue jacket with the city’s Park and Ride logo on the lapel, and he didn’t seem to miss much that went on from his booth by the lot entrance.

“I remember that car,” he said. “A lady in a red dress left that car early one morning last week. It weren’t no going to work dress either. It was a going out on the town type dress. Low cut in the front and slit up the side so you could see what she had to offer, you know what I mean? But she was wearing it though, and she got on the bus downtown like she was going to work.”

“Shouldn’t you call the police or something and report it?” Mr. Seizler asked.

“What for?” the attendant asked back. “That car ain’t breaking no laws. It’s just taking up space on my lot. I ought to call a tow truck, that’s what I ought to do.”

Mr. Seizler didn’t think about it much the rest of the day, but when he got back from work the car was gone. He rolled down his window and stopped his car at the attendant’s booth.

“Where’s the car?” he asked.

“The police, just like you said,” answered the attendant. “I called for a tow truck and police came instead with their own tow truck.”

Detective Lou Lewis followed the police truck to the impound. There was an APB out on the car and the owner, a fifty-two year old priest from Sainte-Julienne in Canada. The bulletin came from the Service de Police de la Ville de Montreal and went out all across southern Quebec and upstate New York, and to Pinellas County in Florida. No one had seen the car or the priest for two weeks. The owner of the towing company matched the license number the parking lot attendant called in with the APB. He even called the police before towing the truck and charging his fee. Would wonders never cease? Now all Lou had to do was get the car to tell him where the driver was.

“Hey LuLu,” said the uniformed officer driving the tow truck when Lou got out of his car at the impound.

“What?” Lou answered sharply. LuLu was a nickname he was none too fond of, and which stuck for that very reason.

“What do you think, you’ll find the body in the trunk?” the cop smarted off.

“Just be careful, will ya,” Lou answered without a smile. “Maybe I’ll find something. If you don’t mess it up first.”

There wasn’t much to find, but there was enough to get started. There was an earring stuck between the cushions in the back seat, a golf bag in the trunk, and a copy of GOLF Magazine from the lobby of a motel on Gulf Boulevard. The earring helped corroborate the parking lot attendant’s story about the woman. The magazine gave him a place to start looking.

The mailing label on the magazine said Sea Breeze Motel with an address near the Gulf Beaches. It was hard to tell about the motels on Gulf Boulevard; some were nice, most were tourist traps, and some were just sleazy with hourly rates. Lou didn’t know what kind of motel he’d find until he got there. The Sea Breeze Motel was sleazy. Not quite hourly rate sleazy, but definitely not the kind of place you would expect a priest to be staying. Detective Lewis showed a picture of the priest to the clerk at the front desk.

“Yeah, I seen him,” the clerk said, “but he weren’t wearing no collar when I seen him.”

“When was the last time you saw him?” Detective Lewis asked.

“A week, ten days ago maybe,” the clerk answered. “He had a room here for about a week. Had a girl over a couple of times.”

“The same girl?” Lewis asked.

“Yeah, the same girl,” the clerk confirmed.

“What’s her name?” pursued the detective.

“I don’t know. Cookie or Candy or something. Something you eat I’m pretty sure though. She’s just some of the local talent around here.”

“She’s a prostitute?” Lewis clarified.

“Well, yeah,” the clerk shrugged.

And Lou believed him. The clerk was a big, fat guy with greasy hair and a scraggly beard. His Hawaiian shirt wasn’t big enough to cover his whale white belly hanging over his trousers with the top button undone. He probably knew a lot of the local talent himself, but he had no reason to lie to the police. In fact, he probably had more reason to tell the truth since it wasn’t him that was in trouble, and that was why Lou believed him.

Still, believing and understanding didn’t follow each other this time. At least he had a little more police work to do. He had to find the girl in the red dress. He had to find out what the priest was doing with the girl. Even the abandoned Ford not being reported for over a week was an untidy detail. But he began by contacting the Sainte-Julienne police department that initiated the Missing Persons report.

“This is Detective Lewis of the Pinellas County P.D.,” he told the duty officer in Sainte-Julienne. “I’m calling about the bulletin your department put out down here on Father Robert Hebert and his Ford sedan, license number 83C 492.”

Lou could hear the officer shuffling papers looking for the report and heard him saying, “Do you have something for us?”

“I’ve got the car,” Lou answered. “I’m still looking for the priest.”

“Let me get the sergeant,” the duty officer said, “you better talk to him about this. I can’t believe you really found the car down in Florida.” The bulletin told the officer Pinellas County was in Florida, and he knew he needed to get someone in charge.

“Detective Sergeant LeClerq,” said the new voice on the phone. “What do you have for us Lewis?”

“Not much,” Lou responded. “I really need to know what you can give me. I told the duty officer we’ve found the car, but not the priest. The priest has been seen with a local prostitute. We haven’t found the girl yet, either.”

“A prostitute?” the Canadian detective questioned.

“That’s what I said,” answered Lewis. “What can you tell me about this Father Hebert?”

“Most popular man in the parish,” LeClerq answered, disbelief still in his voice. “Started a halfway house for runaways at the rectory. They make there way up here sometimes out of Montreal. The only reason we forwarded the APB to you guys was the other priest down at the church told us Father Hebert has a brother in St. Petersburg.”

“You got an address on this brother?” Lou knew a lead when he heard one.

“Yeah, hold on,” answered LeClerq, and then said, “The brother’s name is Francis Hebert.”

Lou Lewis took the address and got to work. He was beginning to have something to work with now. The priest’s brother lived in a pretty nice neighborhood north of downtown St. Pete. It was an old wood and brick house, probably built in the twenties, but kept nice with flowers and palms in the yard. Francis Hebert answered the door and invited Detective Lewis into the house. They sat in the Florida room with the rattan rocking chairs and the TV in the corner.

“I haven’t talked to Robert since I told him Candace left,” Mr. Hebert told Detective Lewis. “It was the same time I reported her missing to you guys. I haven’t seen her for more than three weeks now. She’s just turned eighteen.”

“I don’t know anything about Candace, Mr. Hebert. It’s your brother I’m here about,” Lewis explained. “Did you know your brother was in town?”

“He said he was going to come find Candace for me,” Mr. Hebert answered. “Probably just came down to play golf, if he came at all,” he continued with a hint of anger, well hidden. “Always too damn cold to play up there where he lives. But it’s Candace I’m concerned about, mister. Robert can take care of himself. I never talked to him since I called him up in Canada.”

“What did you tell him about your daughter?” Lewis continued.

“Robert has always had a special place in his heart for Candace,” was Mr. Hebert’s answer, “ever since her mother died when she was about twelve, even before that, really. She is a beautiful girl, you know. I told Robert I thought she was still in town. And I told him,” and Lou saw something like pain, or guilt perhaps, wash over the father’s face, “and I told him I thought Candace had been making money selling herself.”

“Is that why she left?” Lewis asked, “because you found out what she was doing?”

“I’ve known about Candace for a long time,” Mr. Hebert answered flatly.

“Do you have a picture of your daughter?” Lou asked quietly. Mr. Hebert left the room and brought back a picture with the fresh face of a Catholic high school girl in her crisp white school uniform and plaid skirt.

Lou took the photograph and didn’t ask any more questions. There was something beyond what Mr. Hebert told him, but it wasn’t his job to assign guilt to people he questioned. Lou just had to gather what information he could and put the pieces of the case together. That was the job.

When he got back to the station, there was another piece of the puzzle waiting for him. The bloated body of Father Robert Hebert had washed up on the inter-coastal near John’s Pass, wearing his civilian clothes and priest’s collar. The coroner’s report wasn’t in yet, but the cop on the scene said it didn’t look like he’d drowned, not enough water in his lungs. But the body had been in the water for several days.

John’s Pass wasn’t far from the Sea Breeze Motel and that was where Detective Lewis went next, with the photograph of Candace in his jacket pocket. The clerk was still there, a regular fixture, and Lou asked him if he recognized the girl.

“Yeah, that’s Candy,” the clerk said. “It’s Candy, right? Knew it was something you eat. She was in here earlier, but she wasn’t working.”

“This is the girl that was with the priest?” Lou confirmed. The clerk nodded. “Did you tell her I was in here asking about her?”

“No way,” the clerk answered. “She’ll be back here tonight for sure.”

“I want you to set me up with her,” the detective said.

“That ain’t my job,” the clerk said, throwing up his hands.

“It is tonight,” Lou told him and looked hard at the clerk. “Give me the room the priest had.”

The room was small with just a dresser and a bed and bathroom with a shower. There was no place to sit except the bed. Lou sat there with his feet up, waiting for Candace. The knock on the door didn’t come until almost ten. Lou opened the door and Candace was wearing the red dress, low cut like the Park and Ride attendant said. She came right in and sat on the bed.

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“Have you seen your uncle lately?” Lou skipped the formalities.

“No,” Candace froze, but it was a thin lie. She got up from the bed nervously and she looked like a young girl to Lou for the first time.

“I’m Detective Lou Lewis with the Pinellas County Police Department,” he said and showed his badge. “We found your uncle today in the inter-coastal. Why don’t you tell me about it?”

Candace collapsed back on the bed. “I didn’t do anything to Uncle Robbie,” she said. “The first time I came here, he tried to get me to go back home, but I don’t want to go back home.”

It was all spilling out now. “Then I came back again. I knew he was still here, his car was still outside, and I didn’t want him to tell Daddy where I was. I started, you know, trying to get him excited. I always thought he liked me, you know, not like a priest should. He never did anything like Daddy, but I could still tell he liked me. So I started undressing, and he let me at first. All I had left on was my panties and then he just sort of keeled over. He grabbed his collar off the dresser and he put it on. Then he got up on his knees and looked at me like he was praying or something.

“He said something like ‘You’re just a little girl, Candace,’ but I didn’t say anything. I just stared down at him like Daddy used to look down at me. Uncle Robbie sort of stared back at me for a second and then he just fell right into me. He was, like, sprawled there on the floor after I pushed him away.”

“What did you do then, Candace?” Lou asked, sitting down by her on the bed.

“I tried to get him out of here,” she said as she got up slowly and went to the closet by the bathroom. “I dragged him out with his arm around my shoulder like he was drunk and put him in the back seat of his car. Then I came back and got the bag he had sitting at the end of the bed. I’ve still got it where I’m staying.”

Lou watched her in the mirror over the dresser as she pulled a windbreaker jacket out of the closet. Candace looked at the jacket, and looked back at Lou in the mirror. “I’m not a little girl, you know,” she said. Her eyes sparkled with tears, and Lou saw the same wave of pain or guilt that had washed through her father’s eyes. “I don’t want to go home,” Candace continued with determination. “I knew if they found Uncle Robbie here, Daddy would find out where I was for sure. So I took him to the bridge at John’s Pass, around to the back of that parking lot by the beach, and pulled him out of the car. I didn’t throw him in the water, he just kind of rolled in when I couldn’t hold him anymore. After that I took the car to a Park and Ride somewhere over in St. Pete.”

She came back to the bed then, bringing the jacket with her. “It was his,” she said as she dropped the jacket in Lou’s lap. “It’s been in there ever since. Nobody’s stole it, can you believe it?”

Candace looked down at him, the tears pooling in her eyes finally overflowing and washing away her painted face. Lou nodded without expression and went methodically through the priest’s pockets. There was nothing there, just the picture of a Catholic school girl stuffed in the inside pocket.

© 2012 Wasted Space Publishing

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