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Better Off Dead

Terry Brill, a fourteen-year veteran of the Portland Police Bureau, is visiting his uncle’s wheat ranch in rural Washington State when a neighboring rancher is shot and killed. Pressured to join the investigation, Brill tracks down and arrests the prime suspect, drug-dealing bad boy Enrique Valdez. The locals couldn’t be happier, but Brill soon starts to feel as if he’s been played. Turns out it wasn’t so much solid evidence as an unsavory reputation and the community’s racism that made Valdez a prime suspect. And the murder victim, if an able rancher, was a bully, who any number of locals had reason to kill.

Sorting through the community’s dirty laundry, Brill is in for another surprise. Whereas Valdez, if released, will almost certainly resume his evil ways, the real killer—murder aside—is one of the community’s few guardian angels, a caring and generous benefactor. What now? Consistent with past practice, should Brill let Valdez take the fall? Or, consistent with a newfound desire to reform, should he divulge the true killer’s identity? Brill’s ultimate decision may or may not be just—but there’s no gainsaying its awful finality.

From Better off Dead, a novel
Autumn, 2005

Chapter One

Terry Brill, feeling muddled, turned off the Bronco’s engine and coasted to a stop in front of Carlson’s Family Grocery. His condition owed partly to lack of sleep, partly to the eight-mile ride that had brought him over foggy, washboard roads from his uncle’s ranch into town.

The loss of his job, if temporary, probably figured in too. The Portland Police Bureau’s human resources division had served him with papers the week before. Suspended him summarily for doing his job the way he’d done it in every one of his fourteen years as a cop. Old-fashioned hard-nosed policing. How many colleagues could match his case closure rate? Very few.

The Bureau’s new chief, August Richards, cared more about maintaining a squeaky-clean front than he did about closing cases. Under Richards, methods once admired and even commended were picked apart, deemed reckless, punished.

Would the charges stick? No chance, thought Brill.

Anyway, at least he had a place to wait the thing out, his aunt and uncle’s ranch, a getaway where he mostly felt welcome

Brill pulled his key from the Bronco’s ignition and checked the rearview mirror. Behind him, near the eastern edge of Carlson’s parking lot, a hay truck idled, hacking exhaust into the fog. A half dozen or so bundled-up citizens stood close to the truck, clustered around a stocky old man who wore a sheepherder’s coat and a crumpled Western hat. Brill had eye-balled the group as he rolled in

The old man appeared to be telling a story. The people around him leaned in, adjusting their winterwear without once looking away from the geezer’s ruddy face. Frosted breath combined and rose like campfire smoke from the center of the circle. It had to be one hell of a story

And no concern of Terry Brill’s. While he was here in Kamiakin County, he intended to mind his own business. He’d already set himself tasks that would occupy his time, repay his aunt and uncle’s hospitality, and foster a positive outlook. Yes. Just lie low and, like a fever, let the Bureau’s investigation run its course.

Brill stepped out of the Bronco, up onto the raised walk that ran in front of the store. He pressed cupped hands to the window and surveyed the dim interior. Two check stands, but only one checker—the one he’d hoped to see, Aileen. He’d shopped the store three times during the past week and, through the back and forth, felt that he and Aileen had made a positive connection.

Brill glanced over his shoulder. The old man was still giving his audience an earful. Closer in, grocery carts were scattered about the parking lot like worn-out horses on a nibbled-down field. Brill snagged the nearest and ran it inside. At the foot of Aileen’s check stand, he drew rein. He leaned over the cart, forearms braced on the red plastic handle.

“Guess you pulled the short straw,” Brill said.

“What’s that, hon?”

Aileen was in her late thirties, he guessed, forty at most, a few years his junior. No wedding ring.

“Working Thanksgiving,” Brill said. “You must’ve pulled the short straw.”

Aileen wore a hip-length black parka under her apron. The coat concealed her figure. Not big-big, at least. Presentable. Brill meant to build on the established connection. He could picture it, him and Aileen, a night on the town. Why not?

“We trade off holidays, me and the other gals.” Aileen glanced at Brill and then looked around him, taking in the parking lot scene. “It’s my day.”

“Still, tough duty,” Brill persisted, serving up his remark with a smile. “Leastwise it’s only till noon.”

He had seen the short hours posted on the store’s street sign.

“Forty-five minutes yet.” Aileen frowned at her watch. “May as well close right now with the business we’re doing.”

Brill didn’t get it. Aileen had been downright flirtatious in their previous exchanges. He straightened and turned, following her gaze out to the lot.

“What’s the story?” he asked. The checker’s curiosity had stirred his own.

“Damned if I know.” Aileen toe-danced back and forth across her rubber mat, straining to see. “Haven’t had a customer ‘cept you since Boyd Little parked his rig and started jawing. Whatever it is, he’s caught folks coming and going like flies to fly-paper.”

“Boyd Little being the gent in the cowboy hat?”

“He’s the one.”

Brill pinched a limp store coupon from the bottom of his cart and set it on the counter. “Might be you’ll have a customer come back in looking for this.” It was an exit line. He’d have another go at Aileen when he checked out. “I best get on with my shopping.”

Brill steered his cart toward the beer cooler at the back of the store. The cart’s right front wheel shimmied and clattered. Whatever his current frustration with Aileen, he could at least be grateful that he had the store to himself.

Carlson’s Family Grocery was to a real grocery store what a Shetland pony was to a horse. Everything in it—the carts, the produce displays, the meat counter, the overhead fixtures—were half or, at best, three-quarter sized. Normally built people could barely pass in the aisles. Brill eyed the Corona through the beer cooler door. Nothing pint-sized about the prices though.

A shoplifting mirror mounted above the beer coolers reflected the aisles and the front of the store. Brill checked the mirror. Aileen remained absorbed in the world beyond her windows, more interested in local gossip than in getting something going. Priorities. A guy had to wonder. As for the beer, he yanked open the cooler door and slung two half cases of Corona into his pony cart. A holiday. What the hell.

Brill had promised his aunt he’d make dip for Thanksgiving dinner, a task that would chew up some time and explained the drive into town. Now he searched the shelves and coolers for ingredients. Turning a corner, the cart’s wobbly right front wheel locked up and squealed against the polished concrete floor. Aileen spun around, framed at aisle’s end by shelves that seemed to converge.

“You gonna be a few minutes yet?” she called out.

“I expect,” he replied.

“Back in a jif.”

What now? The woman was leaving the store. She cleared the entry and jogged toward Boyd Little’s frozen circle. At least he’d find out what the story was when she came back.
It took Brill more than ten minutes to find his groceries: lemons, sour cream, Tabasco, onion soup mix, chopped clams, salsa, and chips. Might have completed the job in half the time with a little help from Aileen. He ranged back to her abandoned station and stood there waiting. He paged through and re-racked a couple of check stand tabloids.

Come on now, sweetheart, duty calls. Imagine me in here stealing you blind.
At the front window, Brill looked across the lot, attempting by the penetrating force of his gaze to gain Aileen’s attention. She stood with her back to the store. At last, he made eye contact. Not with Aileen but with the tall, red-haired woman beside her. The redhead leaned down and whispered into the checker’s ear.

Aileen looked over her shoulder at Brill and turned back without signaling any intention to return to her post. Goddamn it. He still had to get cleaned up and make the dip. All before dinner. And, if he wanted to knock back a few Coronas at a leisurely pace, he had to get rolling.

Brill left his groceries on the counter and pushed through the market’s front door. The sound of highballing semis carried from the state highway farther east. Plumes of smoke spilled from the chimneys and stovepipes of the ramshackle houses across the road. Brill thrust his hands into his pants pockets and marched on Boyd Little’s gathering.

Besides Aileen and her red-haired friend, the group included a kid wearing a blue snowmobile suit and black moon boots, also a short stout woman whose tiny head was wrapped in a wheat-colored scarf. A middle-aged couple, nattily dressed in wool overcoats, leather gloves, and fuzzy knit hats, each clutched a heavily laden Carlson’s grocery bag in either hand. An older couple, rosy faced from the cold, looked as if they might have come straight to town from farm chores. The man wore padded coveralls. The woman wore multiple sweaters under a nylon shell and dabbed her runny nose with a wad of tissues.

Brill aimed to cut Aileen from the bunch and steer her back inside. He wanted to be cool about it, though, to preserve the romantic possibilities. Looking to ease into the circle, he caught the eye of the kid in the moon boots, who nodded and made a place for Brill between himself and the woman in the wheat-colored scarf. Brill figured her for one of the East European immigrants who, according to his aunt, had lately infiltrated the south part of the county, beneficiaries of some sort of church-sponsored relocation.

“So the truck was running,” the kid in the moon boots said. Inexplicably, he held his chapped hands up high and extended, rubbing them together as if before a barrel fire.

“It was,” Little said, nodding. “Sitting way out there in the middle of that pasture.” The stout woman leaned in to hear—perhaps to understand—his words. Little cleared his throat and smoothed his collar.

A banty rooster type, Brill thought. Cocksure. A chip on his shoulder. No doubt telling his story for the third time at least.

“Still running,” Little said, “stock all around it, trying to get at what hay was left in the bed.”

“But that wasn’t where Van was at.” Aileen’s companion seemed to want confirmation. “You say he was up by the road.”

“Lying right there,” Little affirmed, “just inside the fence.”

“Van must’ve known who it was,” the kid said. “Seen him and went up to talk.”

“Our place,” the stout woman said, “is just a few fields away.” Her accent confirmed foreign origins.

People nodded and murmured their sympathies. Brill shuffled his feet and felt grit under his boots. Store management must have sanded for ice, though it hadn’t snowed yet according to his uncle. The frigid air smelled of wood smoke and diesel.

“Was Van’s rig broke into?” the kid asked.

“From the road I didn’t see no sign of it,” Boyd Little replied. “But I don’t expect it was locked.”

“And no idea whatsoever who done it?” the woman with the tissues asked. She dabbed her nose and raised her glasses to wipe her eyes.

Boyd Little let the seconds drift by like leaves on an Indian summer breeze. He pulled a lemon-sucking face and wagged his head. He scuffed the pavement with the toe of his boot. At long last he replied, emphasizing his words by leaving spaces between them. “Not. A. Clue.”
Playing the scene for all it was worth.

The woman in the city overcoat lowered her bags to the ground. She opened and closed her hands and flexed her shoulders, apparently trying to restore circulation.
“How’s Linda taking it?” she asked.

“Well, now,” Boyd Little said, “being as she’s the one who found him, and also his wife, not too good, I expect.”

A little snippy there, Boyd. The woman had to be a newcomer. Or maybe her city clothes and over-stuffed grocery sacks roused class resentment. Brill snatched a glance at Boyd’s seamed face and greasy coat.

“But you didn’t talk to her,” Aileen broke in, “or see her either. Linda, I mean. Maybe you already said this, ‘fore I come out.”

“No,” Little said. “She was home where she’d gone to call the sheriff. I understand one of the deputies fetched her from there. I expect she’s at the sheriff’s now. Or they took her over to the hospital.”

“On T’anksgiving,” the stout woman said.

“One round,” Little said. “Right through the chest. A big gun too, judging from the wound.”

“We not gonna sleep good tonight,” the stout woman said.

Brill looked around the group. No one poised to speak. Each absorbed in personal reflection, even puffed-up Boyd Little. A short in the street sign’s electrical circuitry made a low buzzing sound. Brill looked up at the sign and then over at Boyd.

Could he allow himself a question? No? Yes? One question. “Around the wound,” he asked, “did you notice any powder burns, any scorching?” He felt awkward butting in, but he wanted to know.

“And you are?” Little asked, turning a haughty gaze on Brill, nothing pleasant or polite in his tone.

Brill had failed to anticipate this rejoinder, which, especially in company, felt like a slap. Reflexively, he fixed Boyd Little with his bad cop stare. Locked it on, screwed it down. Didn’t say a word. Your move, pal. The banty rooster type always had pissed him off.

Boyd frowned and shifted his feet. He searched the faces of his companions as if seeking closer alliance. He looked at his truck as if it were calling his name.

Brill squared his shoulders. He lifted his chin and stepped into the circle.

“I’m a police detective,” he said. “Up visiting from Portland. Terry Brill’s my name. Who the fuck are you?”

Chapter Two

Brill drove through the fog, ferrying home his Thanksgiving groceries. The Bronco banged over washboard and coarse gravel.

He should have kept his mouth shut. No question. Should have stood and listened, taken in the news concerning the murder victim, one Vannoy Tellman, and quietly sidled up to Aileen. Did Boyd Little deserve a slap-down? Sure he did. So did a million other assholes. A truck blew past, headed for town, two milky headlights fronting a ghostly cab and trailer. The truck’s backwash side-checked Brill’s car.

His uncle’s ranch came at him out of the fog, a single jagged silhouette soon resolving into stand-alone structures. Old farm buildings to the left of the road. To the right, a new doublewide trailer. Brill turned into the doublewide’s frozen yard and parked beside his uncle’s pickup.

The trailer, clad in teal green siding, trimmed in bright white, already festooned with Christmas lights, looked wrong in this landscape. The buildings across the road showed the country’s true colors: dull grays and browns, dirty whites.

Brill’s aunt and uncle, Wanda and Stan, had moved into the trailer two winters before, after Stan quit farming and leased his land to the neighbors. People wondered why they hadn’t moved into town. Brill thought he knew. Stan complained about costs and weather and prices, same as every other farmer. But he loved his half section of land and was proud of what it produced. Wanda too. They’d been at it forty years. Much as ever, they wanted to see the wheat and alfalfa sprouting around them, but without the burden of making it happen.

Moisture had condensed on the trailer’s front door, a cold sweat. A swag made of gourds and Indian corn hung under the fanlight.

Brill rapped twice on the door. Without waiting for an answer, he wiped his feet and let himself in. He found Stan in the front room, tilted halfway back in one of the matching La-Z-Boys, a pro football game—Detroit? Dallas? —playing on TV. The teams swarmed in the reflection off Stan’s glasses.

“Smells good in here, Aunt Wanda,” Brill called toward the kitchen.

“I’m doin’ my darndest,” Wanda chirped. She had already set up her crèche on a low table under the heavily draped front windows. Some pieces were chipped. A donkey stood on three legs. A replacement set for Christmas?

Brill looked back at the kitchen doorway and moved closer to his uncle’s chair. Stan levered the chair upright and grunted. He wore a short-sleeved green polyester shirt that was wilted with age. Marine Corps suspenders secured brown twill trousers.

“Have you heard about Vannoy Tellman?” Brill asked. He kept his voice low, wanting to preview the news for Stan before sharing it with Wanda. She’d take over the conversation, pushing Stan to the sideline. Should he turn up the television?

“What is it?” Stan asked.

“Vannoy Tellman.” Brill leaned down, blending his voice with those channeling through the television speakers. “Word in town is that somebody shot and killed him this morning.”

“What’s this? What’s this you’re saying?” Not Stan but Wanda asking the questions. And not calling them in from the kitchen either—suddenly materialized here in the front room, hyper-vigilant, bird-boned, parchment-skinned Wanda. Let bad news flare and she was on it like a heat-seeking missile.

Brill told his aunt and uncle what he knew about the murder and left it at that. No sense getting into the parking lot dustup. He expected that business to surface soon enough in such a small town.

Washed-out blue eyes snapping behind rimless spectacles, Wanda spat questions. Who called in the report? Which of the deputies responded? Where exactly did all this happen? Was Van dead for certain or maybe only just wounded? Were there suspects? Arrests? She kept on and on, picking at Brill as if he were made of birdseed.

“I’m sorry, Aunt Wanda,” Brill said after a ten-minute interrogation. “I’ve told you all I know. I mostly stopped by to ask about dinner. Are we still on for two o’clock?”

Wanda nodded, working her thin lips, distracted. She couldn’t stop chewing the Tellman news, husking the tidbits with her sharp little teeth. Stan shrank back in his chair, as if fearing that his overwrought wife might go after him next.

Brill hated to abandon his uncle, but he was thirsty. Also, he had dip to make. He let himself out. Hard to believe that one of Wanda’s town cronies hadn’t called with the Tellman news. They’d damn sure regret the oversight. Wanda would give them what for.

He climbed into his Bronco and drove across the road, clattering over the cattle guard that bridged the roadside ditch. Black locust trees, seedpods massed in their scraggly crowns, surrounded the now-empty house where Stan and Wanda had lived most of their years, where Brill had spent so many happy days as a child. Harsh weather had scoured paint off the south side of the house. Dust and cobwebs clogged the few window screens that remained in place. Stan had given a buddy permission to winter over some beehives on the porch.

The house itself stood close to the road. Farther back were several structures typical of the county’s mom-and-pop spreads: barn, equipment shed, corrals, a long, low-slung bunkhouse where Brill was staying and behind which he now parked.

He lugged the beer and the rest of his groceries through the back door and into the kitchen, grateful for a route that shielded him from Wanda’s prying eyes. She frowned on alcohol, as she would on any ladies or lowlife companions he might want to invite for a visit. Aileen, for example, the grocery store checker. She’d rebuffed him this morning, but he meant to keep at her. He was pretty sure he could bring her around.

Brill set his groceries on the counter beside the white-enameled sink. Gone only two hours and the flimsy bunkhouse had already leaked much of its heat. He retrieved an armload of firewood from the cord he’d split and stacked out back. He shoved three sticks into the woodstove’s firebox, where they smoked on the coals and finally ignited.

Cleaned up and changed into the clothes he planned to wear to dinner, Brill mixed the dip and guacamole. He finished two Coronas and started a third. A knock sounded at the front door.

Brill stashed his open bottle under the sink and swished out his mouth with water from the tap. The boxed beer and both empties were shut inside the wheezy refrigerator. He surveyed the premises one last time and eased the door open.

Stan, wearing his shaggy winter coat and fur-lined Klondike hat, stood on the front step looking pinched and stupid with cold. Brill quickly invited him in.

Eyes lowered, looking neither left nor right, Stan crossed the threshold. Respecting a man’s privacy. Unlike what might be expected of Aunt Wanda. Or of Brill himself, for that matter.

“I’m just finishing up the dip.” Brill gestured at the bowls on the drain board. “Hearing anything about snow? I forgot to ask when I was across the way.”

“Nothing in the forecast. Sounds as if we’re in for more of the same.”

“Hard news about this guy that got himself killed. Assuming it’s true.”

“It’s true, all right. You know your aunt. She’s been on the phone, including a call to the sheriff’s office for confirmation. I saw Van Tellman, I guess it was only yesterday.”

“I don’t suppose it happens much up this way. Or does it?”

“We had the dope killings in the west county.” Stan squinted at the ceiling and drew whistling breath through his dentures. “I guess it was a year or so back. Sheriff called it murder-suicide. A lot of people, including your aunt, don’t put much stock in his explanation.” Stan shook his head. “People die here in accidents. Pulled into balers and whatnot. I can’t remember the last time we had a murder. Apart from maybe those dope killings, and now this.”

“That’s a commendable record.” Brill glanced at his watch. Five minutes past one o’clock. What was it that couldn’t wait an hour? “You want to sit down, Stan? You want something to drink? I got pop, orange juice. I could make us some coffee.”

“Thanks, but no.” Stan peeled off his hat and wrung it in his big gnarled hands. “Terry, this is maybe going to sound like an odd thing to ask, but this Sunday I wonder if you might join us for church.”

Brill felt his face grow heated. He leaned back against the refrigerator, working to maintain a neutral expression. Except for funerals, he hadn’t been to church since leaving home after high school. He’d been married at the Multnomah County courthouse in Portland by a judge who played on his softball team. His wife, now ex-wife, had gone along with the plan, mostly on account of the savings.

“I don’t know, Uncle Stan,” Brill managed at last. “I’ve pretty much fallen away from all that.”

“I said this earlier.” Stan shifted from foot to foot and continued to mangle his hat. “Your aunt has been calling around. I don’t know who all she talked to. Aileen Sheeley, I think, was one and maybe Jean Hart.”

Aileen? Brill’s favorite checker?

“Anyway, what your aunt’s been hearing is that you cussed out Boyd Little pretty good over to Carlson’s parking lot. And she’s hearing that you told Boyd you were a police officer. Which you are, of course. But your aunt—you know she can be a stickler for facts—she says, no, you’re not a police officer with the suspension, where you had to give up your badge and gun.”

Stickler for facts. One way to put it. Imagine having Wanda for a mom.

“I don’t know whether she’s right or not,” Stan continued. “But she says, suspended, you can’t be cussing Boyd Little or threatening to put him in jail.”

Brill chewed the inside of his lower lip and looked at his uncle’s hopeful face. The poor guy wanted denials, disputed facts, ammunition to carry across the road.

“We did exchange a few words,” Brill said. Exchange? Brill had backed Little out of the circle, had made him concede his exaggerations, his inconsistent statements, the gaps in his knowledge. A curse word or two had spiced the conversation. “I don’t remember exactly, but I think, somewhere along the way, I probably did tell Little I was a cop.” Brill knew he should offer to apologize, but couldn’t get the words out. They stuck in his craw.

“People are saying that I threatened to put Little in jail?” Brill chuckled, trying to cover self-reproach. “That strays pretty far from the facts. I’d be happy to tell Aunt Wanda what really happened if you think it would help.”

“I’m not sure that it would.” Stan turned to the kitchen counter. He lay down his hat and stirred the onion dip. “That’s why I mention church. Your aunt loves you, as I’m sure you well know. But this is her town, her county. It’s where she grew up.” Stan spoke across his right shoulder, avoiding Brill’s eyes. “Whatever happened at Carlson’s, right or wrong, she feels embarrassed about it. And I know she’s scared on account of this murder.”

“If she’s scared,” Brill said, touching his chest, “I’m her man. Dealing with bad guys is what I do for a living.”

“This has less to do with scared,” Stan said, now turning to face his nephew, “and more with embarrassed. And also—you know how important church is in your aunt’s life—with you telling her that you’ll go and then, well, all the years you’ve been coming up here, I don’t think you’ve been to church more than three or four times. Let me put it to you direct as I can. What I’m supposed to be doing over here is asking you—no, telling you—to pack up your gear and get. That’s how strong she feels on the subject.”

“Whoa.” Brill felt shaken. No way he expected such an extreme reaction, at least not from family. “What about you, Uncle Stan. You in the same place on this?”

“No, I’m fine with your being here. So long as it suits you, or the situation demands.” Stan reached back for his hat. “And I know what you’re thinking.”

Brill tried to break in. Stan raised his free hand, stopping Brill before he could start.

“You’re thinking,” Stan continued, “if that’s the way I feel, then why isn’t that the way it is.”

“I might be thinking that. I’m not saying I am.”

“Well, I know you are, and I tell you what. You’ll go back to the city, to Portland, sooner or later, and I trust things will work out for you there. But your aunt and me, we’re going to go on living across the road. I won’t pretend it’s ever been heaven, but I won’t make it hell, even for you.”

“But church,” Brill protested.

“It’s a simple choice.” Stan’s face showed resolve. “If you want to stay, you have to say yes. I can’t guarantee even that will change your aunt’s mind, though I wager it probably will. That’s the proposition. What’ll it be?”

When Brill was a kid, his family’s summer vacations typically consisted of a week at the ranch. Of five siblings, he was the only one to take a shine to the place. He loved the open vistas, the heat, the animals and machinery, the smells in the barn. He returned even after the rest of the kids mutinied and refused to make the trip. He pitched in on the farm work as soon as he was able. He was proud of the good money he made picking fruit. In late summer and fall, he walked the fields and ridges, hunting doves, chukars, pheasants, and quail. In Portland, he had a job, a bunch of bad habits, and a shit-hole apartment. The ranch might not be his mailing address, but it felt way more like home than what he had in the city.

“If that’s what it takes,” Brill said, “that’s what we’ll do. I am hoping to stay here. If I haven’t said it straight out, I’m grateful to both of you for taking me in.”

Stan pulled on his hat. “Unless I’m back to tell you I couldn’t make the case, you be at the house in, let’s say, twenty minutes. And Terry? Before you come over, you brush your teeth real good. And if it comes to kissing your aunt, you say you best not, you feel a cold coming on.”

People sometimes took Stan Brill for a half-wit because he was shy and doughy-looking. Could a half-wit read the scene as Stan had read it? Could he contrive the defensive maneuvers? Not hardly. “Twenty minutes,” Brill said. “I really am looking forward to dinner.”

©2021 Hal Dygert