A Stan Turner Mystery, Volume 7
by William Manchee
Trade Paperback ISBN 1-929976-36-4 $14.95
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Stan is called out to Possum Kingdom Lake in Central Texas where a boy scout has been killed in a tragic Jeep accident. At first glance it appears to be just a typical case of a reckless teenager driving too fast, but the teenager, Steven Caldwell, insists the accident wasn't his fault. He claims he was distracted by an alien spacecraft flying over head. At first Stan thinks his client's story is ridiculous, but as his investigation progresses he discovers his client may be telling the truth.
My cell phone rang as I was pulling into my garage. I hated after-hours calls as they usually meant my evening would be ruined. After a ten hour workday all I wanted to do was grab a beer and watch Monday Night Football. The call turned out to be from my youngest son Peter. Peter was on a boy scout camping trip to Camp Comfort at Possum Kingdom Lake in West Texas. It was named Camp Comfort because it had every amenity you could ever want—cabins, flush toilets, a mess hall, rowboats, canoes, swimming area, gun and archery ranges, a baseball field, and even a campfire area with bench seating.
The connection was very poor and I could barely hear Peter's voice through the static. He was talking rapidly and I could tell he was upset.
"Peter? What's wrong?"
"There's been an accident with the camp Jeep."
"Were you involved? Are you okay?"
"No. No. It was Jimmy and Steven. They ran off a cliff."
"Oh, Jesus. Are they okay?"
Static came out of the receiver on my cell phone. "Peter, You're breaking up. Can you hear me?" There was more static and then the line went dead. I flipped through the cell phone's address book, found Peter's number, and pushed send. He answered but just a second later the signal failed again and I lost him. I decided to wait a few minutes and try again. My stomach tightened as I contemplated Jimmy and Steven's fate and thanked God it hadn't been Peter. The last garbled words from the cell phone, before I lost the connection, was something about Steven being arrested and his needing a lawyer. Figuring there was no time to lose, I scrambled into the house to tell Rebekah what had happened.
"They went off a cliff? Oh, my God. How could that have happened? Rebekah asked incredulously. "What about Steven? Was he hurt too?"
I shook my head. "I don't know. Peter didn't mention him being hurt."
"Does Jenny know Oh, my God. I should go to her."
Jenny Caldwell was Steven's mother. She was a single mom working as a legal assistant. She and Rebekah were good friends having crossed paths at school and in cub scouts.
"You give her a call. I need to get going. It's a two-hour drive to Possum Kingdom"
"No. Wait. I want to come with you," Rebekah said. "Jenny will want to come too if Steven is in trouble. There's no use taking two cars."
"Okay, that's fine, but just hurry."
"Oh, Jesus. Are you sure he was arrested?"
"Well, the connection wasn't very good, but I think that's what Peter said."
"Oh God, Stan. This is horrible. I hope Jimmy's okay. I should call his mother."
"We better not," I said. "We don't know what happened yet. We should wait until we know more."
"I don't know. If it were me, I'd want to know."
"What will you tell her?"
"Just that we heard there was an accident."
"Go ahead, but make it fast."
I had never met Jimmy's mother but Rebekah had known her from cub scouts. Peter and Jimmy were in the same den and Barbara Falk was the den mother. I asked Rebekah about Jimmy's father. She told me that Barbara and her husband were divorced. She didn't remember his name, but apparently he had fallen in love with another woman and just up and left.
While Rebekah called Jimmy's mother, I called Mark down from upstairs to fill him in on the situation and inform him he was in charge for the evening. Mark was nearly eighteen now, an excellent student, and reasonably mature for his age. We had no reservations about leaving him in charge of his sister Marcia and Jenny's daughter Mel. Mel and Marcia were almost the same age so they would share Marcia's bedroom that night while we were gone. It wasn't likely we'd be back before dawn. With the logistics of our journey in place, all we had to do now was break the bad news to Jenny and bring Mel over to the house.
Rebekah got off the phone long enough to report that Barbara had already been called by the Scoutmaster and was on her way to the hospital in Mineral Wells. Then she called Jenny. After Rebekah explained the situation, Jenny accepted our offer of a ride to the hospital. Rebekah left immediately to go to her place to pick up Jenny and bring Mel back to the house. While I waited for them to return, I called the Palo Pinto County sheriff's office.
The dispatcher advised me that the victims had been transported to Palo Pinto Hospital in Mineral Wells. I asked her if she knew about Steven Caldwell.
"He's being booked right now," she said.
"What are the charges?" I asked.
"I'm afraid so."
Feeling a little shaky, I walked over to a chair and sat down. The thought that Jimmy might die hadn't crossed my mind.
"Jesus. . . .Has bond been set?"
"Hang on." There was a pause. "No, they're waiting to get the results of the blood test."
"How will that affect his bond?"
"If Mr. Caldwell was drunk, then the charges will be bumped up to manslaughter."
"Manslaughter? Come on. That's ridiculous," I said incredulously.
She shrugged. "Hey, I'm just passing on what I've overheard. You can call the detective on the case to get more information if you need it."
By the time I got off the phone, Rebekah and Jenny were scurrying around getting the kids settled. I was sick inside. I couldn't believe Steven Caldwell was in such serious trouble. He was one of the most responsible teenagers I'd ever known. How was I going to break the news to Jenny that Jimmy had died and Steven would soon be charged with criminally negligent homicide or even manslaughter? Criminally negligent homicide had a sentencing range of sixty days to two years. That was bad enough, but if Steven was convicted of manslaughter it would be two to twenty years. I decided to wait until we were on the road to give Jenny the bad news—no need two worry Mel.
We took Highway 121 to Ft. Worth and just past the airport hit a string of thunderstorms. Lightning lit up the sky and deafening thunder rocked our station wagon. At times the rain came down hard and visibility got so poor we had to slow down to a crawl. By the time we reached Weatherford the rain had stopped. It seemed like the right time to tell Jenny what her son was up against.
"It can't be true," she sobbed. "He'd never drive recklessly. He loved those kids. There must be some mistake."
"You're right. It doesn't sound like Steven. There must be some other explanation."
She leaned forward and gripped the back of my seat. "This can't be happening. Steven was doing so well in school. Please Stan. You've got to do something. Steven can't go to jail." I turned and saw her wiping the tears from her eyes. Rebekah handed her a tissue and sighed. I could see she was nearly as upset as Jenny.
I took a deep breath and stared at the open road ahead. "I know. Don't worry. We'll figure this out. I'm sure Steven will have an explanation for all of this. Just sit back and try to relax."
It was pretty stupid asking Jenny to relax, but I didn't know what else to say. Usually, a person wouldn't be held for possible DWI unless they had failed a field sobriety test. The subsequent blood test would be the deciding factor. If the test showed a blood alcohol level above 1.0 he'd be presumed to be intoxicated and most likely charged. It was after nine when we arrived at the hospital. The parking lot was deserted except for a few cars parked around the entrance of the emergency room. In the reception area a nurse stood hovering over an open chart.
"Hi. We're here looking for the scouts who were in that Jeep accident at Possum Kingdom Lake."
The nurse looked up and squinted. "That group is all down in the waiting room." She pointed toward a double door. "Through that door and to your left—second door on the right."
In the emergency waiting room I recognized the Scoutmaster Roger Dickens in the corner talking to one of the parents.
"Dad. Mom!" Peter said as he came running over.
Rebekah and Peter embraced. "Oh, Peter," Rebekah moaned. "I've been so worried about you. Were you hurt?"
Peter shook his head. "No. I wasn't in the Jeep. I stayed back at the camp to fish."
"Thank God," Rebekah replied.
Roger Dickens came over and put his arm around Jenny. "I'm so sorry. I can't believe this happened. Steven is okay, though. He wasn't hurt."
"Can you tell us what happened?" I asked.
"It was a horrible accident. You know the curvy part of the road just before you get to the camp entrance?"
"Well, I guess Steven took it too fast and lost control of the Jeep. They went off the cliff and the Jeep landed in the lake. Somehow Steven managed to jump out, but Jimmy was found still strapped in his seat belt. The sheriff isn't sure if he died from the crash or the fire that broke out afterwards."
"Were there any witnesses?"
"I don't think so. Steven had gone to town to get some supplies for breakfast. Jimmy volunteered to go with him. Steven's a good driver so I never suspected—" Dickens took a deep breath trying to maintain his composure. "I never dreamed something like this would happen."
"It's not your fault, Roger. But what I don't understand, though, is why Steven was arrested. If it was an accident—"
"He was talking crazy, like he was drunk or on drugs or something. I don't know if he hit his head on the windshield or what, but he claimed a spaceship ran him off the road."
"That's what they say he said. I didn't hear it myself. I know it sounds crazy. I don't know what to think. It's not like Steven to make up stories like that. Particularly since Jimmy was killed in the accident. I figure he must have seen a helicopter or a hot air balloon and was distracted. You know how a boy could be distracted by something like that."
"Is Steven a science fiction fanatic?"
Roger shook his head. "No. He plays Dungeons and Dragons and reads a lot of comic books, but that's pretty typical of kids his age."
"Where's Jimmy's mother?"
"They took her to the chapel. There's a minister with her right now."
I shook my head. "Oh, Jesus. What a horrible thing to have to face. I'll leave Rebekah here for awhile in case you all need any help with Barbara."
"That would be good. Thanks, Stan."
"I'm going to take Jenny over to the Sheriff's office and see if we can get Steven released."
Dickens nodded. "Good luck."
Jenny was quiet on the way to the Sheriff's office. I could only imagine what was going through her mind. A spaceship? Where had that come from? Was Steven suffering from a head injury like Roger suggested, or had he taken some kind of hallucinogenic. I was anxious to talk to Steven and get his side of the story.
We headed for the Palo Pinto Sheriff's office which was in the Courthouse just off Highway 180, twenty miles west of Mineral Wells. It took us about thirty minutes to get there. They said we couldn't miss it and they were right. Two miles east of Palo Pinto we saw the big courthouse protruding high above the tree line, a strange sight for a town whose downtown was scarcely two blocks long. The parking lot was empty with the exception of a single patrol car and an old Chevy pickup. We parked on the curb in front of the building and entered through the main entrance. A young female deputy was on duty at the front desk. We introduced ourselves.
"Has there been a bond set yet?" I asked.
"Judge Applegate won't set his bond until morning, so he'll have to stay in jail tonight."
"Can't we call him and get him to set it now?"
"I wouldn't recommend disturbing him. He's got a nasty temper and you wouldn't want to get on his bad side."
She was right. Some of the small town judges were pretty temperamental and could turn on you in a hurry. It was particularly dangerous for out-of-county counsel who often didn't know how far they could push the local judge. I figured Steven would survive one night in jail, particularly since he would probably be the only inmate in residence that night.
"Well, can we at least see Steven?"
"Yes, one at a time."
"Okay, Jenny. You go first. I'll wait."
She nodded and the deputy led her down a hallway. When the deputy returned, I asked her if she knew anything about what had happened.
"Just hearsay. Your client was talking real crazy like he'd been on LSD or something. Claims a UFO caused the accident."
"So I heard. Did anyone interrogate him?"
"A couple detectives did."
"What were their names?"
"Ben Hayden and Bert Hollingsworth."
I took a business card out of my wallet and jotted the names on the back. In my haste to leave I'd forgotten a legal pad. I wasn't a big note taker anyway, so it was no big deal. I found if you listened carefully to people you'd remember the important stuff. "Was Steven hurt at all?" I asked.
"They took him to the hospital first, just to check him out, but I guess there wasn't anything seriously wrong with him since they brought him here and put him in a cell."
"How was he acting when he got here?"
"Pretty normal, but they may have sedated him at the hospital."
"Have there been any reports of UFO sightings in this area?"
She laughed. "You're not buying into that boy's story, are you?"
I smiled. "No. Just covering all the bases."
She shook her head. "Well, we do get calls from time to time about strange things flying around, but they usually turn out to be military aircraft, small planes, or weather balloons."
"Any reports tonight?"
She shook her head and replied, "No. Sorry."
Jenny came back to the waiting room and sat down. She was obviously in shock. I went over to her and put my hand on her shoulder. She didn't look up. I was escorted back to a small detention room where Steven was pacing back and forth. He was tall, clean cut, and blessed with a handsome face. I knew him to be laid back and a little shy. It was no doubt he'd make a good impression on a jury.
"Hi, Mr. Turner."
"Hi, Steven. Sorry about what happened tonight."
He shrugged. "I'm just sorry about Jimmy. I can't believe he's dead."
"It was an accident—just a tragic accident," I said.
"No. It was all my fault. I just panicked. I've never seen anything like that before. For a moment I was just mesmerized. You know. It was like my body was frozen."
"Why don't you start from the beginning," I said. "I don't quite understand what happened."
He took a deep breath. "Okay. Well, I was in charge of the mess hall at the camp and we were out of eggs, sausage, and a few other things. Jimmy was on KP duty and looking for a way to escape his assignment. Nobody likes KP duty, right?"
"Right," I said, forcing a smile.
"Anyway. I told Roger I'd take the Jeep into town to get what we needed. I liked to drive it, so I often volunteered to run errands. You know what I mean?"
"Sure, I understand. Who owns the Jeep?"
"It belongs to the Triangle Council. They own the camp and they keep it here to use for maintenance and to run errands."
"I felt sorry for Jimmy so I told Roger I could use his help. He agreed so he and I left about four o'clock. It's about twenty minutes to town and half way there it started to rain hard. We stopped and put the top up and then continued on to town. It took us about a half hour or so to get what we needed and gas up the Jeep. Before we left we played a couple video games, so it was about 5:15 p.m. or so when we started back to the camp. Jimmy was excited about riding in the Jeep and I guess I was showing off a bit. The rain had stopped so I opened her up."
"How fast were you going?"
"Oh, maybe 60-70 mph which really isn't that fast. It handles great on mountain roads."
"So what happened?"
"When I got to that the last curve, you know, before you get to the main gate, I heard a loud noise and noticed a huge spaceship flying overhead. It was so weird I couldn't believe it."
"Right. Yeah, it was kind of rectangular, but with blunt corners—oblong, I guess would be more accurate. It was moving pretty fast but not as fast as a jet—kind of gliding across the sky."
"How high was it?"
"I don't know. It sounded pretty low. That's why it got my attention. You don't usually hear jets or airplanes unless they're pretty low. I thought it might be landing."
"How big do you think it was?"
"Maybe the size of football field."
"That big? Wow!"
"Yeah, it was incredible. I just couldn't take my eyes of it. By the time I looked back at the road we were heading straight off the cliff. When I tried to veer back onto the highway, I lost control of the Jeep and we started to roll. I don't remember much after that. I must have blacked out."
"Did they give you a thorough examination at the hospital?"
"I guess. I spent about an hour there until they brought me here."
I shook my head. "It's a miracle you didn't die."
Steven nodded. "I know."
"So, Steven. You know this all sounds pretty bizarre—the spaceship, I mean."
He looked away. "I know, but that's what happened."
"The Sheriff thinks you were drunk or on drugs."
"I wasn't. I don't drink at camp and I don't do drugs ever."
"But you told them you saw a spaceship?"
"That's what it looked like. They asked me what happened so that's what I told them. I know it sounds crazy now, but what I saw had to be from outer space. It was the most incredible sight I've ever seen. I wish you could have seen it. It was totally awesome."
"Listen, I don't know what you saw and I'm not going to try to convince you that you didn't see it. But let's not mention the word spaceship from now on, okay?"
"Okay, I understand. What should I say?"
"Just say you were distracted by something, you're not sure what it was—a large bird, a plane, whatever—and you just lost control of the car. It was simply an accident—end of story. I don't want you to spend the rest of your life in a mental institution."
Steven looked down and took a deep breath. "Okay, Mr. Turner, whatever you say."
"Good. Then I'll be back first thing in the morning to get you out of here, okay?"
Steven looked up and his mouth fell open. "You can't get me out now?"
"No. I'm afraid not. The judge won't set bail until morning."
Steven's stood up and began to pace frantically. There was a look of utter disappointment on his face but nothing I could do or say was going to make him feel better, so I left. Once outside the room I half chuckled at the thought of having to blame the accident on an alien spacecraft. Wouldn't that be a hoot. But Steven seemed quite sincere in his belief that a spaceship of some sort had distracted him and caused this horrible accident. I wondered if we'd ever know what really happened, and if it was even remotely possible that Steven Caldwell was telling the truth.