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Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. Vol. 111, No. 1. Whole No. 677, January 1998
The Wireless Bluff
by L. J. Washburn
©1997 by L. J. Washburn
L. J. Washburn’s sleuth Lucas Hallam debuted a decade ago in a story for a Private Eye Writers of America anthology. Since then be has brought his author several honors, including a Shamus Award for best novel. The last Hallam story EQMM published (“Double Take” 12/95) was selected for The Years 25 Finest Crime and Mystery Stories.
Hallam hadn’t been to Fort Worth since the late twenties. A lot had changed in a decade and a half. Back then, even though Fort Worth had already grown into a city, a man could look at the place and see the frontier town it had once been. Now those vestiges of an earlier time were pretty much gone, replaced by structures of glass and steel that speared toward the sky and almost made Hallam feel like he was back in L.A.
Beside him, his daughter Beth let out a surprised whistle. “You didn’t tell me Fort Worth was this big, Lucas,” she said.
“Didn’t know it was,” Hallam replied as he picked up their suitcases and started through the lobby of the train station. The redheaded twelve-year-old hurried along beside him, carrying a smaller bag. Her coltish legs enabled her to keep up with her father’s long strides.
Hallam knew he looked more like Beth’s grandfather than her daddy. The shaggy hair that poked out from under his fedora was gray, as was the drooping moustache. His face was seamed by sun and wind and burned to the color of old saddle leather. Beth had been born late in his life, too late for any sensible fella to be having a kid, but Hallam had always been one to play the hand he was dealt. Besides, he was still in pretty good shape for his age, and he didn’t dwell on the fact that he was already grown when the centuries changed. A careful man kept an eye on his back trail, Hallam’s own daddy had been fond of saying, but a wise man watched where he was going, too.
“Lucas! There you are!”
The woman’s voice made Hallam stop and look around. Coming toward them was a handsome, white-haired woman in her late sixties. The family resemblance was strong, which was bad luck for his sister, Hallam thought. He put his arms around her, hugged her, and said, “Howdy, Sarah.”
She kissed him on the cheek, then turned to the girl. “This can’t be Beth! She’s gotten so big.”
Beth turned her eyes toward the floor and looked uncomfortable. Hallam said, “Say howdy to your Aunt Sarah, Beth.”
“Howdy,” Beth mumbled.
Sarah hugged her, adding to Beth’s discomfort, then she turned back to Hallam and said, “I can’t thank you enough for coming, Lucas. I don’t know what I would have done if you hadn’t. When the police came and arrested Johnny, I just... just...”
Beth looked up sharply, and Hallam winced. As far as Beth knew, they had come to Fort Worth simply to visit relatives and see some of Hallam’s old stomping grounds.
He hadn’t said anything about murder.
Now the cat was most of the way out of the bag, so Hallam patted his sister on the shoulder and said, “Don’t you worry, Sarah. We’ll get this mess all sorted out.”
“Johnny didn’t kill that man. He swore to me that he didn’t, and he wouldn’t lie.”
“Of course he didn’t kill nobody.” Hallam glanced at Beth, saw the interest shining in her eyes. “You take Beth on home with you, and I’ll take a pasear up to the jail to see him.”
“I want to go with you, Lucas,” Beth said eagerly, just as he had known she would.
“Not this time,” Hallam told her. He was going to make it stick, too.
Beth looked up at the Tarrant County Courthouse, impressive in its dark granite and marble majesty, and said, “Is this the jail?”
“Next door,” Hallam said. “Stay in the car with your aunt.”
He hadn’t been able to talk Beth into going home with Sarah, but they had reached a compromise. Sarah had driven them in her car from the south end of downtown, where the depot was located, to the north end, where Hallam now stood in front of the courthouse.
“I want to go with you and meet my cousin Johnny,” Beth said from the backseat of Sarah’s Ford roadster.
“A jail ain’t no place for a little girl, and Johnny’s got a lot on his mind right now.” Like being charged with murder, Hallam added to himself.
“I’m not a little girl anymore,” Beth protested.
Hallam grunted. “Don’t remind me.”
Without giving her a chance to argue anymore, he swung away from the car and strode toward the building next to the courthouse that housed the Tarrant County sheriff’s department and lockup. Kenneth Ward’s body had been found outside the city limits, in the northwest part of the county near Eagle Mountain Lake. So it had been sheriff’s deputies who had arrested Johnny Reeves.
“You got my nephew in here,” Hallam said to the deputy on duty at the desk in the jail. “I’d like to see him.”
The deputy was a young man with slicked-down hair parted in the middle, and his voice was even more of a drawl than Hallam’s as he asked, “And who might that be, old-timer?”
Hallam’s eyes narrowed at being called an old-timer, but that was exactly what he was, he reminded himself. Reining in his temper, he said, “Johnny Reeves. My name’s Lucas Hallam.”
“Lemme check.” The deputy looked at a list on his desk. “Yeah, Reeves’s mama said you’d be stoppin’ by.” He leaned forward as he noted something else on the paperwork. “Say, what’s this? You a real private eye, mister?”
“Licensed in California,” Hallam said. “Here in Texas I’m just a citizen.”
“You know Dan Turner? Lordy, I like to read about them adventures he gets into.” The deputy’s face creased in a grin. “It sure is funny the way all them gals seem to lose their clothes whenever Dan Turner’s around. That’s a mighty neat trick. You ever run into him out there in Hollywood?”
Hallam hesitated, unsure whether to explain to the deputy about how all those yarns in the pulp magazines were just made-up stories. Not wanting to disillusion the man, he said, “Nope, never have run into ol’ Dan.”
“Well, if you do, tell him Burt from Fort Worth says howdy.” The deputy snapped his fingers and stood up. “Oh yeah, you wanted to see one of the prisoners. Come on.”
Three minutes later, a jailer ushered Hallam into a cell and clanged the door shut behind him. Hallam frowned. He never had liked that sound, no matter which side of the bars he might be on.
The man in the cell sat on the bunk, smoking a cigarette. He was in his forties and seemed small, especially next to the tall, broad-shouldered Hallam. Johnny Reeves had gotten that from his father, Hallam supposed. Ben Reeves hadn’t been a big man, but he had treated Sarah decent. That was all Hallam could ask for in a brother-in-law. Ben had been gone for quite a few years now, ten or twelve at least.
“Uncle Lucas?” Johnny asked as he looked up at Hallam. He got to his feet, dropped the smoke onto the floor and stepped on it, held out his hand. “Good to see you again.” He smiled sheepishly. “I just wish it wasn’t under these circumstances.”
Hallam shook hands with his nephew and said, “You and me both, Johnny. This has been mighty hard on your mama. She tells me you didn’t kill that fella.”
Johnny blinked. “Well, of course I didn’t. You believe me, don’t you, Uncle Lucas?”
“I don’t know you well enough to say either way,” Hallam said bluntly. “You’re blood kin, so I want to believe you didn’t. But you’d