Mystery/Crime First Place Winner: "A Cowgirl Farewell" - Writer's Digest

A Cowgirl Farewell

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A line snaked out the door of the Dallas funeral home.

All those people couldn’t be here for my baby sister. She was a stranger to most. She’d only lived in the city for two years.

I elbowed my way into the building and found the appropriate room. Miriam’s photo sat on a table outside the door where she lay in repose. The guest register on the table listed two visitors—Ray McClanahan, a Dallas diamond supplier, and Frank somebody. Frank’s handwriting was illegible.

Inside the dimly lit room, an elderly man stood alone, head bowed, a long-stemmed yellow rose in his hand. Maybe another stranger.

I walked up behind him. “Miriam looks good.”

He laid the rose in the casket, then addressed me. “If she looked good, she wouldn’t be laying in a satin-lined box. How old was she, thirty?"

I touched the lines around my eyes. At forty-five my age had begun to show. “No. Miriam was forty. Look at her face. No wrinkles.”

“Maybe the bastards ironed it.” The grey-haired stranger hobbled out.

Miriam lay dead and all I could do was stare at her smooth face. No tears. No anguish. No wishing I’d spent more time with her. The fact was, I couldn’t stand her ever since she’d abandoned me and moved to Texas.

My cell phone vibrated. My assistant’s name floated across the display. Her text said call her. I’d call when I returned to the Magnolia.

I stood by her coffin until muffled footsteps broke my trance.

“Hello, Kate. Glad to see you buried the hatchet and made the trip.”

Charlie’s jab spun me around. “So, what the hell happened to her?”

“I wish I knew.” Charlie wiped his eyes. “She was feeling puny when I left for my trip and when I returned, she was dead.”

My jaw muscles tightened. “And you left her to die? You piece of crap.” A lump in my throat choked back the litany of epithets I’d rehearsed on the trip out after Charlie’s call.

I’d heard through the diamond-trade grapevine that Miriam and Charlie had hooked up the first month she moved to Dallas two years ago. I’d severed contact with Miriam until three weeks ago when I received a strange call. She left a terse message asking for a callback, but I didn’t bother. Miriam ended up dead two weeks later.

“Now Kate. Don’t get all sentimental on me. I loved that gal.” Charlie nodded toward Miriam’s body, hand covering his mouth.

“Holding in your brains cowboy?” He rubbed me wrong by living. “You loved her like pigs love shit. She was just something to roll in.” His crocodile tears left me cold.

“You aren’t gonna be nice. Not even today when your sister lies dead.” He shifted his eyes from Miriam’s body to a spray of yellow roses draped with a scripted ribbon, ‘Sweetheart.’

“This is as nice as I get.” My eyes followed his glance. His flowers dwarfed my bouquet, but at least I knew her favorite flower wasn’t yellow roses.

“How about we meet later and talk over a drink?”

My heart said no, but my head said talk to him. I could learn more about what happened to Miriam. “Okay. But I don’t want a late night.”

“Let’s meet at seven at Parliament’s. Miriam loved that place.”

I nodded. Seeing Miriam’s body had punctured the armor surrounding my heart. Guilt seeped in along with raw grief.

Charlie reminded me as we left the funeral home, “Don’t forget to wear your cowgirl outfit to the funeral tomorrow. Remember Miriam wanted a cowgirl farewell, boots and all.”

My ears burned at the thought of playing Dale Evans. Miriam’s request for the funeral arrangements felt off—foreign, being born and raised in Seattle. “I don’t own a cowgirl outfit. I wouldn’t waste money on one.”

“Miriam said you’d say that.”

I whipped around. “When did she say that?”

“When I called her the day before she died. I thought she was joking. Said she’d picked out a favorite for you. It’s in my car. Had to buy bigger boots though. She wore a size seven.” He ogled my size nines. “Come on. I’ll get the stuff.”

He retrieved a box labeled Justin boots and a bulging paper bag of clothing from his Jeep Cherokee. “Here. Maybe you’ll change your mind.”

“Don’t count on it.” I peeked into the bag. “A navy-blue Stetson. You’re kidding.”

Miriam’s voicemail haunted me as I got into a cab.

I’d fallen into a sweet job at the Blue River Diamond Exchange in Seattle. My timing was perfect. An upstart entrepreneur was ready to move on, and I was eager to take over. Blue River had an online diamond retailing business located ten minutes from my apartment.

I got Miriam a job there too. Then one day she walked out without a word.

Back at the Magnolia, I called my assistant.

“Ray McClanahan wants to see you while you’re in Dallas,” she said. “He didn't say what it was about, but it sounded important.”

I checked my watch. It was already four o’clock. “It’ll have to be tomorrow morning before the funeral. Cocktails tonight with Charlie—gag me.”

We disconnected, and I called Ray.

“Thanks for calling back, Kate. Miriam contacted me a month ago, and…wait a minute.”

I heard Ray close a door.

“She asked where to buy high-density cubic zirconia.”

I got a bad feeling.

“I gave her the name of an online source. I have more, but not over the phone.”

“Your phone being tapped?” I laughed. He didn’t. “Just kidding. How about breakfast at Magnolia’s around six tomorrow?”

Ray agreed and we disconnected.

My meet with Charlie wasn’t for two hours. Unable to settle down, I called a cab and went to the bar early.

“This is it,” the driver said as he pulled up to Parliament’s.

The wind blasted down Allen Street through the tunnel of tall buildings. Plastic curtains flapped on the maroon awning. The joint didn’t look like much from the outside. The interior changed my initial impression. Parliament’s had class. An elegantly lighted, five-tiered liquor cabinet loomed over a crowded horseshoe bar.

“Evening, Ma’am.” The bartender smiled. “You’re Miriam’s sister.”

I almost fell off my chair.

“How’d you know me?”

“Your picture.”

I’d like a…”

“A Lucky Mule. Miriam said to serve you her favorite drink.”

My hair prickled. “Never heard of it.”

“She’s a regular.”

“Was.” The lump in my throat had returned.

“What do you mean…was?” The bartender leaned against the bar.

“She died a few days ago,” was all I could muster.

“I'm stunned. She was the picture of health.”

“Yah. Right.”

“Let me get you that drink.” He hurried off.

The Lucky Mule arrived in a copper cup garnished with a sprig of mint. I took a sip.

The bartender watched. “You like?”

I nodded. “I’m not a fan of ginger beer. But this is nice.”

He whispered, “Miriam insisted you’d understand the drink’s significance.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“She said you’d figure it out.” He left to serve another customer.

Charlie tapped my shoulder. “This place is a zoo. Let’s go to Adair’s. They never this crowded and they have music.”

I didn’t argue.

Adair’s felt homey. Graffiti on the walls—junk everywhere. We grabbed a booth.

I listened to a half-drunk patron kill a popular song.

Charlie sat opposite me. “I forgot. It’s open mike night on Thursdays.”

A waitress spotted Charlie, and came over. “Sorry to hear about Miriam.” Then she looked at me. “You’re Kate. Your sister had pictures of you.”

“Really.” The hair on my arms lifted. Maybe Miriam wasn’t such a stranger after all.

“She adored you.”

“Right.” She adored me so much that she left Blue River without a word and didn’t call me for almost two years.

The music stopped and a male voice announced, “This song is for Kate Malone.”

“What the hell?” Apparently, everyone in Dallas knew me.

Charlie craned his neck for a glimpse of the speaker.

'Your sister said you’d understand the drink’s significance’ the bartender at Parliament’s had said. Now someone dedicated a song to me.

The singer crooned Lyin’ Eyes.

“A favorite?” Charlie asked.

“Yup,” I lied. Miriam knew I hated the song.

When the song ended, another singer took the mike and looked at me. “Hi, Kate. Miriam said you'd understand.” His baritenor voice quieted the room. “Yesterday…”

That did it. I stormed to the stage. “Why are you doing this? You don’t know me. And I sure as hell don’t know you.”

Our waitress rushed over and took my arm. “Kate, may I have a word?”

“What the hell’s going on. I’m here for my sister’s funeral and all of Dallas knows me.”

“Not quite all of Dallas. Come on.”

I glanced toward Charlie. He sat wide-eyed as I trailed the waitress into the restroom.

The waitress checked all the stalls then began. “Miriam and I hit it off right away. Two months ago, she came in upset—said someone wanted her dead.”

I recalled her plea for a callback. “She knew?”

“She suspected.”

I squeezed my eyes shut. “I don’t get it.”

The waitress frowned. “I begged her to explain, but she refused, claiming it was too dangerous. She gave me two songs to dedicate to you if you visited should she die.”

I paced. “Miriam expected me to figure out what happened to her based on a drink at Parliament’s and two songs at Adair’s?”

The waitress sighed. “I guess. Kate, I’ve got to get back to work.”

I returned to the booth.

“What was that all about?” Charlie chugged his second beer.

“Nothing.” My eyes watered.

Thanks to a couple of strong drinks, I survived the next hour with the dirt-bag.

Back in my room, I texted my assistant to rebook my flight for a few more days in the Big D. Charlie had offered to clean out Miriam’s apartment. At first, I accepted, but I’d changed my mind. My sister had left strange messages. Maybe the answer was at her place, the significance of the drink, the songs.

Unable to sleep, I’d showered and dressed for Miriam’s funeral by five a.m.

Shocked at how comfortable I found the cowboy boots, I slipped on the flared denim skirt and matching bolero vest. The vest fit snug across the chest, but it would work if I left it unbuttoned. The heavy rhinestones on the skirt hem gave the skirt movement when I walked. The ornate belt buckle was a little much, but with the navy-blue Stetson, everything worked.

“Not bad, Miriam.” Tears formed. Why didn’t she explain when she left the company? We had always shared everything.

I consumed two cups of coffee before Ray arrived.

“Hey, cowgirl. You look fantastic.” Ray seated himself across from me. We were alone in the dining room, so he took my hands. “I’m really sorry about your sister. I could tell when she called, she had problems.” Ray’s cold eyes didn’t match his actions.

I pulled away. “Why didn’t you call me?”

“Miriam’s orders.”

I sighed. “What did she get herself into?”

His eyelids fluttered. “No idea, but it had to be risky.”

He related her request for a cubic zirconia. “She wanted specific shapes and sizes. She insisted they had to be tooled by the best. I joked about a con.”

“And…”

Ray rubbed his chin. “And she didn’t laugh. I thought it odd. We joked all the time.”

“Did she say anything else? Mention Charlie?”

“Nope. Nothing. I referred her to a distributor I know pretty well—an honest guy. She seemed happy with that. I never heard from her again.”

Ray leaned back in his chair. “Did you hear about DeBeers? A couple of years ago they lost a bag of cut stones intended for your company. Didn’t report it until recently.”

“No, I didn’t. Why’d DeBeers wait to report it?”

“Might have suspected an inside job—or maybe insurance issues.”

“When did this happen?” I had a bad feeling.

“November 2017.”

My coffee sprayed everywhere, then I choked.

Ray jumped up and pounded on my back. “You alright?”

I waved him off. “I’m fine.”

He checked his watch. “Damn. I’m late for work. Call me if I can help.”

“I will.”

We walked to the lobby together where I caught the elevator to my room. Ray left.

During the ride to my room, I contemplated the diamond theft and Miriam’s disappearance two years ago. I hoped it was a coincidence, but my heart knew better.

Ray thought Miriam was into something risky. I feared he was right.

Miriam’s cause of death was extreme dehydration from an intestinal bug. Charlie said it was bad food at a hole-in-the-wall seafood place they frequented.

After her funeral today, she’d be cremated. The scenario didn’t feel right. She looked healthy in the casket. Not a wrinkle on her face.

The elevator beeped, and the doors opened.

I texted Charlie. ‘Bring Miriam's apartment keys to the funeral.’

Charlie brought the keys. He had no leg to stand on if he refused. He and Miriam had never cohabitated. I was her only next of kin.

The funeral was a blur.

After the service I begged off with a headache. Once outside, I called a cab.

The old man from the funeral parlor waved a yellow rose at me as my cab exited the lot. Something about his eyes suggested he wasn’t as old as he looked.

“I’ve changed my mind. Take me to Skyhouse Apartments.”

Miriam’s apartment was on the 18th floor. When the driver dropped me off, I was reminded of my place, except at home I could see Puget Sound and the mountains. Miriam’s view was glass, steel, and concrete.

When I opened her apartment door, I faced trouble. The living room had been tossed. Ankle-deep polyester fiber covered the floor. The couch and stuffed chairs looked like they’d exploded. I wandered through the place, careful not to touch anything.

A similar storm had hit the kitchen. Miriam’s mesh culinary strainer contained the remnants of sweet relish. Empty condiment jars littered the counter. A half-empty bottle of blue Gatorade lay on its side in the sink. A family-sized cereal box gaped from an open cabinet.

An unremarkable box in the belly of the refrigerator caught my eye. I pulled it out. It had a small label—onabotulinumtoxinA. I confirmed on the internet it was Botox. That’s why Miriam looked so good. She’d self-administered the drug. Or maybe Charlie helped.

As I peeked into the bathroom, I heard a shuffle of feet behind me. A thump on the back of my neck shot a pain through my entire body followed by a kiss on the forehead from the tub.

All went dark.

When my eyes opened, my head pounded. My cheek stuck to the cold floor. At first, nothing looked familiar. Then I realized I was in Miriam’s apartment.

I dialed 911. “I need help.”

The operator ran through her script.

As she promised, the police arrived in ten minutes led by what I assumed was the officer in charge.

He handed me his card. “Detective Arista. You okay?” he asked.

“Someone hit me from behind. When I fell, my head wacked the edge of the tub.”

Ray appeared right after the cops. I was surprised to see him.

“My God, Kate. What happened? Are you alright?” He patted my shoulder.

“I’m fine. Just a bump.”

Ray hovered until the forensic team arrived and kicked him out into the hallway.

At some point, Charlie appeared. I wasn’t sure who called him.

Detective Arista returned. “All done, Ma’am. Go get some rest. We’ll be done here by Monday. Then you can have your sister’s things.”

“I’ll take her back to the Magnolia,” Charlie offered.

I didn’t refuse. “Okay, but I want to check the terms of the lease with rental office so I can decide when to clean out the apartment.”

Charlie’s body stiffened. “I can do that. You don’t have to stay.”

“Sorry Buckaroo, I’m next of kin. My job.”

Charlie shook his head. “If that’s the way it is.”

“That’s the way it is.”

I had 30 days. I’d extend my stay and clean it out as soon as possible.

At my room, I collapsed onto the couch and barely heard the door close. Twelve hours later, my beeping phone woke me. I had a message. Detective Arista had more questions.

My stomach growled. I checked the time. I had time for breakfast in the lounge. After breakfast, I called Arista. He agreed to meet in the hotel lobby. I took my second coffee and waited by the front desk.

Arista arrived twenty minutes late with an expandable file under one arm. “Ms. Bedford, glad to see you doing so well. You looked rough yesterday.”

My head throbbed, but I’d managed worse hangovers. “Thanks.”

“Any idea what the perpetrators may have been looking for in your sister’s apartment?”

I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t have any proof Miriam had been involved in the DeBeers diamond theft. I pinched my leg. “No. I can’t think of a thing.”

Our eyes momentarily locked before he rummaged in a file organizer. “The forensic team ran tests on the food in Miriam’s kitchen. We sent her body to the coroner for a few tests.”

Unwilling to open up, I feigned surprise. “Do you suspect foul play?”

“Things don’t add up. Nothing seemed suspicious until Miriam’s apartment got tossed.”

“Right.” A healthy woman of forty dies and her apartment gets ransacked. I’d say that’s suspicious.

“We found dangerous bacteria in the blue Gatorade.”

“Miriam wasn’t much of a cook or housekeeper. I’m not surprised.”

“I mean deadly bacteria—bacterium Clostridium botulinum. You know what that is?”

“It’s the bacteria that produces the toxin in Botox. I thought Botox was safe?”

“Ingesting high concentrations is lethal. Street folks call it blue death.”

His strained face telegraphed his conclusion—murder.

“You think someone poisoned my sister?”

“It looks that way. Do you have any idea who might have wanted her dead?”

Guilt overwhelmed me. I’d harbored terrible thoughts about Miriam until I saw her in repose. I lied again, remembering Ray’s eyes. “Not a clue.”

“Yesterday you said you’re in the diamond business. Was she?”

“She was two years ago, but I’m not sure since she moved to Dallas.” Another lie.

Detective Arista chewed on his pen. “Do you know any of her local friends?”

“You’ve met Charlie. She had friends at Parliament’s and Adair’s. I’m not sure of their names. And Ray McClanahan, a diamond wholesale rep I know.”

“Right. The guys I met at her apartment.” Arista remained silent.

I watched and waited.

Finally, he spoke. “We’ve tailed Ray McClanahan for a year. He’s a suspect in a rash of diamond heists, but we haven’t linked Charlie.”

“Was the tail an old guy?” The old man at the funeral came to mind.

Detective Arista grinned. “You spotted Frank, didn’t you?”

“Yes. At the funeral. I didn’t suspect at first. But his eyes—no crow’s feet.”

He smiled. “I’ll tell him you busted him.” He paused for a moment. “What do you know about McClanahan?”

“I’ve known Ray since I started at Blue Diamond. He mentioned my sister called him.” I caught myself. “Nothing important, but Miriam contacted him a few weeks ago.”

An uncomfortable silence wore me down. “Ray said Miriam wanted a source for cut cubic zirconia.”

Detective Arista’s eyebrows arched.

My hands sweated. “That was it.”

“McClanahan’s been passing off CZ to unsuspecting customers. We found out when a jilted fiancée tried to sell an engagement ring to the Dallas Diamond Exchange.”

My stomach sunk to my knees. “Great.”

“Do you know if your sister ever got the CZ?”

I shook my head. “Not a clue.”

“We’ve also tailed Charlie for a while. He’s quite the world traveler. And he’s McClanahan’s cousin.”

“Figures. I don’t know anything about Charlie, except he was my sister’s friend.”

“He and your sister traveled to South Africa once a quarter for two years. Charlie was there a few days ago. He may have smuggled in the botulinum concentrate found in the Gatorade. The forensic team found traces of it in a travel-size shampoo bottle.”

I sighed. “Miriam must have remained in the diamond business.”

“She did. We’ve also had her on our radar.”

I’d lived and breathed the diamond industry since I joined Blue River. That’s how Miriam and I met Ray, but I never suspected anything illegal. I chalked Ray up to being a typical sleezy salesman. He’d say whatever it took to make a deal work.

I thought back to Miriam departure right after a big sales meeting. Our major suppliers had gathered to gear up for the big Christmas push. Ray was there.

“Am I on your radar too?”

“No. You can return to Seattle whenever you’re ready.” Detective Arista stood. “Call me if anything suspicious turns up, or you discover something important.”

“I will.”

Home a week, I finally got around to unpacking. The cowgirl outfit lay on my bed as I searched for a hanger. I’d never wear it again, but it was Miriam’s.

Tears spilled down my cheeks. I’d never deciphered her message. The significance of the ‘Lucky Mule’ drink—the two songs at Adair’s, Lyin’ Eyes, and Yesterday.

My finger bled when I fingered the rhinestone swirls on the hem of the skirt. A sharp edge on a square stone had sliced my thumb. As I sucked the blood, things began to click. I rummaged in my purse for my diamond loupe. The square stone wasn’t a fake.

“Miriam, you devil.”

The hem decoration contained at least 200 diamonds. I was the 'Lucky Mule.’ I’d transported six million in diamonds from Dallas to Seattle on American Airlines.

For a moment, I thought about keeping them. I’d never need to work again, but where would I fence them? Everyone in the industry knew me.

If Miriam hid the diamonds, maybe she left an explanation. I spread the outfit on the bed. I examined the Roper shirt and bolero. Nothing.

I retrieved the Stetson from my closet shelf. Miriam had placed a strip of foam on the inside band. When pressed, the foam smiled. Using tweezers, I extracted a concealed note.

Her message read,

Sis, Return diamonds on skirt to DeBeers. Beware of Ray and Charlie. They’re partners. Too late for me. I got duped. Love and Regrets, Miriam

Once after a business meeting, Miriam called Ray’s eyes untrustworthy, Lyin’ Eyes. The song had identified her killer. Yesterday was meant for me—to express her regret.

I called Detective Arista and told him about the note.

“Text a picture and overnight the original. We’ll authenticate with your sister’s prints.”

Two days later, Detective Arista called.

“We arrested both men. Charlie spilled his guts. Claimed he loved Miriam and blamed Ray for poisoning her. Ray isn’t talking.”

“Charlie’s a lying sack. He wants a lesser charge.”

“We figured, but can’t prove anything. Both men had access to your sister’s apartment.” Detective Arista paused. “Charlie had a DeBeer’s bag of CZ’s hidden in his apartment. Your sister must have made the switch before she died. Any idea what she did with the real stones?”

I swung the skirt and watched the gems sparkle. “I have a hunch.”

“What’s your hunch?”

“It’s about blue denim, blue diamonds, and sadly, blue death.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Detective Arista asked.

“Miriam’s request for a cowgirl farewell wasn’t about living in Dallas.”

“No?”

“She wanted to right a wrong.”

“How?” Detective Arista’s voice softened.

“I have the diamonds.”