by Damon Nomad
A car accident that a clever country sheriff suspects may be more than an accident.
| Dirty Old Goat|
by Damon Nomad
Sheriff Curtis Fleming strolled along the sidewalk, scanning the sky for rain clouds. Finally, a clear morning after two days of heavy rain. It must have cleared up sometime overnight.
"Mornin Rufus", Fleming snapped a mock salute in the direction of his deputy as he entered the office. "What you readin? Not those silly word jumbles."
Rufus shoved the word jumble magazine into a desk drawer, holding up a book, "Biography of Washington you loaned me."
Fleming glanced with a raised brow, "You read it upside down like that, make it a little more challenging."
Fleming slid past Lucille's desk, "Mornin Lucille, a new color?"
Lucille growled, "Yeah, what about it?" She kept her attention on her nail file, gliding across her fingertips.
"Looks a bit young, if you want an opinion."
"I don't." She held a hand up studying her nails.
Fleming plopped into his seat behind his desk, wishing he had kept his mouth shut about the nail polish. He figured he would get some payback. He heard Lucille answer the phone, "Berry Creek sheriff's office."
She was jotting down some notes it wasn't a social call with one of her friends. Lucille waved towards Fleming's office. "Got a call-out Rufus."
Fleming leaned back fingers tapping lightly on the arms of his chair as Lucille and Rufus sat on the small sofa across from his desk. Lucille glanced at her notebook, "That was county dispatch, an accident over on goat road across from Chester Green's place. Car down that deep ravine, Green called the ambulance. They are on the scene waiting for you, somebody in the car is dead, not sure who."
Fleming turned off the paved road onto the muddy country lane everyone called goat road, "This is sloppy. What does that mean Rufus?"
Rufus nodded slowly, "Tracks, there will be clear tracks. A clear view of the vehicle's path before the crash."
Curtis thinks Rufus has potential he wants the young man to exercise that gray matter, "That's right, you focus on that when we get there. We take nothin for granted, a dead body we need to know how and why."
Fleming eased the SUV in behind the ambulance, there was no guardrail and a steep ravine ran along this portion of the dirt and gravel road. He eyeballed Rufus, "A clear description of what has been on and around this road since last night."
Rufus scrambled down the road with his notebook, camera, and a plan to impress the sheriff. Fleming recognized the two EMTs sitting in the back of the ambulance, a Mutt and Jeff pair. He spotted a brightly colored climbing rope anchored to a tree maybe twenty feet from the ambulance, "You boys use that to get down to the wreck?" Gesturing to the tree, near the edge of the ravine.
They stood up in response, blank stares as he plodded along the side of the road toward the tree, Fleming waved for them to join him. The tall one led the way, "Yep, that's what it took to get down there."
The shorter man grunted, "Dead as a doornail, no seat belt."
The tall one's head bobbed in agreement, "See it all the time, people don't strap in until they get to the hard top or a highway, think they are gonna be safe close to home."
Fleming peered over the edge; the expensive gray sedan had nose-dived a good hundred feet into the ravine. "Get any identification?"
The short one handed him a wallet; Fleming looked inside. Driver's license said Kyle Bland, "Yeah okay the apple orchard at the end of the lane." Fleming knew Bland had been living there for about three years, totally rebuilt the old farmhouse into a small mansion of sorts. A rich city guy.
Fleming rubbed his chin, "Thanks boys, you can go ahead and recover the body, I'll see what the autopsy shows me."
Fleming trudged across the muddy lane studying the ground. Especially interested in any indicators of another vehicle on the road. He spied a small pile of pellets near the middle of the road, some kind of animal feed, which looked to have been spilled on the spot. He paused when he got to the other side, his eyes tracing out the lane from the top of the hill where Bland's home sat. The road dead-ended at his place, a pretty steep grade coming down from the house right into this sharp turn before it headed pretty much on a straight path to the paved road. Looked like one set of tire tracks coming from the victim's place. Seemed like he drove right over the edge, maybe lost control coming down the hill and hitting the slippery turn. He would hear what Rufus found from a detailed look.
Fleming headed toward Chester Green's house right across from the spot. Traipsing along the path next to the goat pen; the pen ran right up next to the lane. The long narrow pen to his right, a colorful vegetable garden on his left filling up the rest of the front yard, the worn-down path between the pen and the garden. Fleming peered into the pen when he got to the gate about halfway to the house. There was a small trough with food and another with water just inside near the gate. There was a steel bucket with feed just outside the gate, he squatted down and picked up a handful of the pellets, the same as he had seen in the roadway. He looked up, the four goats were at the edge of the pen seemingly staring at him, "Not gonna steal any, promise." He dropped the pellets back into the bucket.
He continued toward the house, he knew Chester had a huge field of corn behind the home. He also kept these few goats, pets of a sort Fleming guessed. His ancestors were the first to live back on this lane, four generations of goat farmers, his father started with the corn. Everyone called it goat road. Fleming knocked; Chester was a decent guy who mostly kept to himself on the farm with his wife Lydia.
Chester opened the door, wearing a red baseball hat cockeyed atop his narrow oval-shaped head and scraggly goatee on his chin. Scratching his belly under his dirty overalls like he had fleas. "Hey Curt, ya here about that fool who drove into the ravine. Bland, I'm guessing, looked like his car."
"Yea looks like it's Bland, won't take much of your time."
"We can have some coffee in the kitchen, Lydia went back to bed, so much commotion this morning and she woke up early before all that."
Fleming sat at the small kitchen table with Chester. He choked down a sip of coffee, strong and bitter, he could feel grounds swirling in his mouth. "Just need a basic timeline, the best you can." He had his notebook ready next to the coffee cup.
"Let's see we got sunrise about 5:40 this morning, not much to do right now with the fall corn but you know us farmers. I don't shower in the morning, no point I'm just gonna go out and get all dirty, just had some coffee and a bowl of cereal. I walked a few rows of corn, just to check and then headed down to take care of the goats, freshen up the water and put some feed into the trough. Got to control the food, they don't stop eatin if food is available. Must have been seven thirty when I got to the goats."
Chester frowned with a half-shrug. "It's a bit embarrassing, I had to take a whiz. I went over to the ravine, nobody out here to mind and I saw the car down at the bottom. Too steep for me to go down there, so I called the ambulance."
"You didn't hear a crash or anything? What about Lydia you said she was up early did something wake her?"
"Yeah, but it weren't the crash. Maybe half past four this morning, she shook me awake complaining about cow bells over on Simms place next door. Twenty-five years next door to Simms, with his cows, and all of a sudden, she complains about cowbells. I didn't hear a thing and told her to go back to sleep."
Fleming pushed the coffee cup aside; he couldn't take any more. "She has never complained about the bells before? You ever been bothered by them?" Fleming knew that Simms had a small corral in back of his home, with a few milk cows. He was a corn farmer like Chester, their large fields are side by side in the back.
"Nope like I say, first time. Maybe she just dreamed it up."
Fleming scribbled a few notes in his notebook, "I saw some goat pellets out in the lane, did you spill some feed out there?"
"Nah, didn't notice. Shouldn't be any out in the road like that, unless some critters been stealing it."
Fleming sighed tapping his pen on his notebook, "You know Bland?"
"Not really, other than to say howdy. Lydia took a pie up there when he first moved in, a homemade cherry pie. Pushed it back in her face and said he doesn't eat that kind of food. Made the sweet woman cry, who doesn't eat cherry pie? Not much interested in gettin to know him after that. He has hired people that take care of the orchard, they haul the apples away and make that cider he sells, wealthy some kind of finance wizard or something. He doesn't leave often, has everything delivered including groceries from the city, can you imagine? He has some kind of regular meetings a few times a month. Leaves really early, I seen him leaving well before sunrise and he gets back late. Lydia heard he drives to Atlanta to meet some muckety-mucks."
Curtis was surprised to see Lucille bringing him a cup of coffee the next morning, "Should I test it for poison?" A rare treat for her to carry a cup over for him.
She put the cup down on his desk, "Too clever for something that obvious, I'll go for something more sinister." She perched on the arm of the sofa across from his desk, "So Kyle Bland dead in the crash, Estelle's ex will be happy to hear. Did you see that dirty old goat Chester Green yesterday? Looks just like them goats he keeps."
Fleming sipped his coffee; Chester did look a bit like the goats. Lucille continued, "You know there are studies about it, you're a man of science. People kind of morph, that's the word, right? They come to look like their pets and for Chester them goats are like pets. Think about it, there are lots of examples." She shuffled out of the office.
Fleming chuckled, "You might be onto something."
Lucille spun slowly back around. "How is that ugly old bulldog of yours?" She cackled loudly as she drifted back to her desk.
Fleming leaned back in his seat, figuring he earned that one for the comment about nail polish. He saw Rufus come through the door, wondering what he was doing coming in so late. Fleming grumbled loudly, "Rufus, we got work to do on this crash site."
Rufus breezed past Fleming's office pointing to the conference room with an excited expression, "Worked late, used the computer to come up with somethin, your gonna like it sheriff. I'll set it up in there."
Fleming studied the color-coded map that Rufus had on his laptop computer, a different color for each footprint or tire track. "This is good work, darn good work! No vehicles besides Bland's car, the ambulance, and our SUV. You even got the people moving around outside Green's house and out on the road, guessed on shoe sizes. Green from that morning going down to the ravine, us and the ambulance boys. No other people around. What are these? Animal tracks?"
"Yea, a goat going down to the road and back to the pen and a cow from the Simms place down the path along the goat pen to the road and back to the corral. Figured I should put them on here, could be useful evidence." He winced, not sure if it had been a mistake including the animal tracks.
Fleming bolted up in his seat, "You sure about this Rufus! You double-checked these animal tracks from your pictures and notes, nobody leading them along."
"I triple-checked. No footprints alongside, looks like the gates were left open sometime in the last couple days during or after the rain. They wandered out and back into their enclosures, not so strange for a farm animal."
Fleming rumbled over to the conference room door, shouting out, "Lucille, conference room."
Lucille slowly sat down, eyes darting around, expecting some sort of payback for the bulldog crack, "Why you squawking at me like that?" They were both up for some teasing but it wasn't like Curtis to raise his voice.
Fleming motioned for her to calm down. "Sorry about that, settle down. You said Estelle's ex would be happy to hear that Bland was dead, what did you mean?"
"I was just exaggerating Curtis, from what Estelle says he hated the guy."
"You're talking about Sherman Willard, lives on goat lane right next to the Simms place. Writes crime mystery novels and has an apple orchard on the side as kind of a hobby. Why does he hate Bland?" The Simms farm is between the Willard orchard and Chester Green's farm. Fleming has an idea about something more than a single car accident. These are the only homes on goat road besides Kyle Bland at the end of the road, another apple orchard.
Lucille snorted, "He ain't much of a writer according to Estelle, they were barely able to make ends meet, the orchard was the real livelihood. They moved here ten years ago, Estelle says it was all Sherman's idea he had started writing short stories and was sure after he sold one story, sure that he was gonna get rich writing. They took their life savings and sold their house and bought the orchard. He told her the orchard would be kind of a hobby, he started writing crime novels and got some published online but they didn't pay him anything upfront, sold a few hundred copies. The orchard was supporting them and he turned to making cider about five years ago. They finally started to make some money."
Curtis could see it coming, "Bland shows up and there is competition."
Lucille raised a brow, shaking her head. "More than competition, turns out the two men know each other from Atlanta with bad blood going way back. Bland didn't need the money from the cider, Estelle says Sherman claims Bland started the business just to hurt him and he undercut them in price. Sherman tried to infest Bland's trees with some kind of worm. He told her that Bland was planting stories online that their apples were contaminated. He went off the deep end, obsessed with getting back at Bland, that was it for Estelle, she got a divorce. She expected Sherman to go bankrupt."
Sherman Willard sat in the conference room waiting to meet with the sheriff, he knew it was about Bland's car wreck.
Curtis and Rufus sat down across from Willard; Fleming gesturing to him with an open hand palm up. "You understand your rights, you don't want an attorney."
He smirked, "I have studied some law for my writing, I am fine answering questions about this car crash without a lawyer. I am not in any jeopardy." He leaned forward his nose twitching, squinting looking at Fleming over the top of his glasses.
Fleming leaned back arms crossed across his chest, "Yeah, I glanced at a few of your books, you deal some with forensics, fingerprints, and footprints, you seem to really like those in your stories." Fleming wondered if Willard had a pet, he was guessing a weasel or ferret.
Fleming had Rufus walk through his analysis of the tracks and footprints. Willard nodded his approval, "Very systematic, so single car crash slippery muddy road coming down the hill and he lost control when he hit the turn. I was home alone sound asleep, sorry didn't see or hear anything."
Fleming slowly drummed his fingers on the table, "I understand you can see Bland's home pretty well up on the hill from your house. According to Estelle, she saw you several times with binoculars watching him. You could see when he was coming and going. Kind of knew his pattern for his meetings in Atlanta."
Willard shrugged, "Nothing illegal about watching someone. I didn't like the arrogant jerk, nothing secret about that."
Fleming patted Rufus on the back, "Rufus did quite the job on the tracks and shoe prints, better than I expected, pretty proud of the job he did. Even thought to get the animal tracks, that was kind of curious. I checked with Simms and Green; they are sure the gates have not been left open the last several days. Leaves us with no explanation for these goat and cow tracks back and forth to the lane."
Willard cleared his throat shifting nervously in his seat, "I don't know anything about that, never been near those cows or goats and never touched those gates."
Fleming nodded his lips pressed tightly together, "Hmm . . . I have a theory about them tracks. The cow corral runs all the way over to your orchard and Rufus didn't get any tracks on the Simms' property, no reason for him to do that. The gate is right near the property line with Chester Green's place on the other side."
Fleming's eyes narrowed, "I think someone got on the back of one of those cows in the early morning before the crash. Turns out Simms trained one of them to give rides for his grandkids when they visit, most people don't know you can get cows to do it. Nudged it to move over to the gate, opened the gate probably wearing gloves. Then rode that cow all the way down to the goat pen, moving slowly so that the bell around its neck would not ring."
Fleming waggled an index finger in the air, "Here is the tricky part. Guy had a rope, twenty to thirty feet long, with a small pail tied to one end. Lowered that pail down scooping goat feed from the steel bucket that Green keeps right outside the gate. Gets one of the goats to come over, they will follow food anywhere. He lets that pail sit on the ground while he makes a loop in the other end of the rope and drops it around the goat's neck. Opens the goat pen, never getting off the cow the whole time. He pulls the other end of the rope lifting the small pail off the ground and holding it close. Rides the cow out to the middle of the road pulling the goat along. Dumps the goat feed in the middle of the road at that sharp turn right across from Green's place. Rides the cow back to the edge of the road letting out the rope so as not to pull on the goat. The goat is having a small feast, oblivious to the dark gray sedan zipping down the road minutes later. We know from his business partners that Bland had a meeting in Atlanta that morning, and he has to leave not long after four in the morning for the long drive. Bland comes down the hill around the turn, the goat right there in the middle of the road, instinctively jerks the steering wheel to the left and can't stop before he careens down the ravine."
Fleming snapped his fingers, "You pulled the rope taut getting the goat away from the food, and rode the cow back to the goat pen. Put the goat back in the pen, closed the gate, and then rode the cow back toward the corral. Adrenaline was pumping, you were going a little fast for a moment. The cowbell ringing not far from the Green's bedroom window, before you realized and slowed back down."
Fleming gestured with a wave, "I went back and talked to Lydia Green about hearing a cowbell, she crept over to look out the window after she heard the bell, and Chester fell right back to sleep after snapping at her. She thought she saw someone riding on the back of a cow well past their house. It was dark and she went back to bed, embarrassed to tell her husband what she thought she saw the next day, he might think her crazy. You rode right into the corral, closing the gate behind you. Probably riding all the way over to the fence near your property. Climbing off onto the fence and taking your rope and small pail with you, not leaving so much as a footprint or fingerprint. I'm guessing you had seen Simms grandkids riding the cows, still pretty impressive for a city boy."
Willard nervously gripped the arms of the chair, "Don't see any proof, like you say nothing but goat and cow tracks. Not going to be any of my fingerprints on those gates, you can look around my home, you aren't going to find any rope or pail."
Fleming cocked his head with a nod, "I noticed something about your books. Not to be critical but they got a lot wrong with them, one of those things is you don't think broadly about evidence. Estelle says you never use cash always credit cards, it's probably going to be easy to find the purchase of a small pail and length of rope in the last couple of months. Even if you used cash, we will find the place. You will have to dream up a story about what happened to them. But that's not our strongest evidence."
Fleming pointed a finger at Willard with a mocking smile, "You need to do some homework on trace evidence, your books don't pay any mind to trace. We are going to find cow hair all over a pair of your pants and we will be able to find a close match to that cow. Estelle says you hate to do laundry says you wait weeks, the pants you wore that night are still in your hamper. The gloves as well I am betting you still have those, handled the rope pretty good chance of transfer evidence with goat hairs. The judge already gave us the warrant to look for the animal hairs."
Fleming leaned back in his seat, hands folded across his stomach, "We will have goat and cow hair, Lydia's testimony that she saw someone riding the cow, the purchase of the rope and pail. The history between you two and your financial situation, you are motive with a capital M. It's a good case, a very good case. A better explanation for these animal tracks than a goat and a cow that can open and close gates."