The Light Catcher Murders
Tessa Boatright is not a “people person”
Tessa Boatwright leveled eagle-sharp eyes upon B. D. Jackson as he ambled toward her appointed position near Lucy’s mural-sized photograph, which filled the back wall of the gallery. Ostensibly there to answer questions, Tessa also made it her duty to keep inquisitive children and unthinking adults from touching the expensive photograph. As a painter who had struggled for years before achieving critical and financial success, she was keenly aware of the thin edge between amateur and professional status that Lucy teetered upon. Tessa wanted to help her friend, and she was determined that every visitor appreciate what was special about Lucy Celek’s photographs. And B. D.’s air of indifference to the art around him made Tessa suspect him of needing to be educated.
For his part, B. D. hardly noticed Tessa who—to his boorish young eye—was merely an older woman with graying hair. Though he had no interest in the gallery aside from its convenience as a place to duck the attention of the sheriff’s deputy, the mural, which was scaled so that B. D. almost felt he could step from the gallery into the scene, had captured his interest the moment he had spotted it. The photograph showed an iconic Hill Country scene—a live oak tree, stately and alone on a distant hill that was carpeted with bluebonnets, Indian paintbrush, and pink evening primrose. The sun was setting behind the tree, bathing the scene in glorious luminous hues. B. D. removed his sunglasses so he could see the mural more clearly. He stood staring, his frown deepening as the realization dawned that he had been mistaken. The sun had to be rising, not setting. B. D. knew what direction the photographer had been facing because he knew this place.
“She makes wonderful use of light, doesn’t she?” Tessa asked.
“Huh?” B. D. barely heard the question. With his attention riveted by the mural, he managed a sideways glance in Tessa’s direction.
“It’s what sets her photographs apart,” Tessa persisted. “It’s what, in my view, makes them art instead of just pretty pictures. See how the brightest light starts as a point just at the horizon and then spreads out to touch everything with the full spectrum of new light? You can almost see each ray, each with its own particular hue.” When B. D. did not respond, she gestured toward the mural like a prize model on a game show. “Here,” she indicated with a graceful wave of her hand. “It’s as though everything in the world starts here, at this point, at this moment of a new day. Like the hope of a new birth rendered upon the landscape. Photographers have often been called ‘light catchers,’ and it’s such a good name for them, I think. Especially for Lucy.” Tessa glowed with pride as she gazed upon the mural.
B. D. turned his full attention to Tessa now, his expression saying that he wondered what this crazy old woman had been smoking.
Tessa, who was in full steamroller mode, did not notice the look. “And, see here,” she directed as she pointed to the portion of sky filling an upper corner of the mural. “See how she caught that exquisite moment when the sky explodes into daybreak hues? And see how she brings us the diaphanous play of light and color on the streaks of cloud?” Tessa stepped back, admiring the clouds. “Her inclusion of the distinctive clouds is a wonderful touch, I think. They lift the composition out of the ordinary.”
B. D. was staring at the clouds, too, though not because he had any particular appreciation for their aesthetics. He took a step closer to the mural, focus narrowed, and then stepped back again. It can’t be, he thought.
Tessa clasped her hands over her bosom and stood beaming at the young man. “You see it, don’t you?” she asked, the pleasure in her voice barely controlled. Her effort at instruction had not been wasted.
B. D. looked at her as though startled. “See what?” he demanded. “What do you see?”
The smile melted from Tessa’s face, and she blanched at the sharpness of his tone. “Well, the artful use of light, of course.”
“You’re a crazy old woman,” B. D. snapped. “Get away from me.” He scowled at the mural. “Goddamned picture. Goddamned photographers!” Red-faced with agitation, he turned on his heel and stormed away.
Tessa stared after him. “Well, screw you and the horse you rode in on!” she muttered a bit too loudly. A young mother glared at her and quickly steered her children away.
Lucy is pissed
Picking her way through the broken glass again, Kate slipped up behind Lucy. She gave the beleaguered deputy a sympathetic smile and gently took hold of Lucy’s elbow. “Lucy, dear. Do you think you might want to calm down? This officer is going to do his best to find out who did this and why. He isn’t the bad guy here.”
Lucy wheeled on her. “He doesn’t have to look far to find out who did this. If he’d just listen to me and quit asking irrelevant questions! I’ve been telling him that it has to be Stewart Wilson. You saw how Stewart behaved after the festival. He’s a horrible, angry, vindictive man! Did you see how he ripped into my mural? The bastard! If I could get my hands on him, I swear I’d rip into him the same way!”
The deputy’s eyebrows shot up, and he shifted uneasily, his pen hovering over his notepad. Kate’s grip on Lucy’s elbow tightened, as did the smile she showed the deputy. “I’m sure Ms. Celek didn’t mean that, Deputy Green,” she said. When Lucy started to disagree, Kate squeezed her arm so tightly that Lucy let out a little yelp of pain. “She’s understandably distraught. If you have more questions for her, might I suggest that you give her some time to collect herself? I’m sure she’ll be more helpful when she’s feeling a bit more rational.”
“Rational?” Lucy flinched again under the renewed fierceness of Kate’s grip and did not finish what she had been about to say.
“Actually,” Deputy Green said, “I think that’s all I need for now.” He closed his notebook and turned his attention to the crime scene photographer who had just arrived.
Kate pulled Lucy a few yards away, putting some distance between her and the scene, then turned a mildly reproachful look upon her fuming friend.
Breathing audibly, Lucy glared right back at Kate. The expression on her friend’s face aroused all of Lucy’s defensiveness, and she folded her arms across her chest. “What?” she demanded.
Kate sighed. “Do you have to work today, Lucy?”
“No. I scheduled a vacation day because I thought I’d be wiped out after the festival. Little did I know I’d be destroyed.”
“That’s a bit of an exaggeration, don’t you think? I can see where this would upset you—”
“I’m pissed, Kate. Thoroughly, absolutely, completely pissed. Don’t start giving me that ‘be reasonable’ or ‘keep perspective’ stuff because I’m so not in the mood!”
Kate pursed her lips. “You’re huffing like a steam engine, Lucy. If you don’t calm down, you’re going to explode.”
“You’re an odd one to be telling me to calm down. Of all the people I know, you’re the least patient with ineptitude, and he’s as inept as they come!” She had shifted her glower back to Deputy Green.
“Yes, well, at this moment, I’m more concerned with keeping you out of trouble than anything else. Besides, Deputy Green isn’t inept, just inexperienced with this sort of thing. And you certainly weren’t helping the situation with your ranting. Instead of being helpful, you flustered him.”
A storm cloud settled on Lucy’s face. “Fine,” she said, though it was clear she was anything but.
“Oh, do stop behaving like a petulant child,” Kate said impatiently.
Lucy’s mouth dropped open. She felt as if she had been slapped, which was just what Kate had intended.
Chief Deputy Vela, Kate Atherton, and Miss Marple
“Tell me, if you can, Chief Deputy, has there been any progress regarding the investigation into the vandalism at Olivia Zavala’s gallery?”
Sheriff Stoker had dictated that all such queries were to be met with the standard “no comment pending further investigation,” and Chief Deputy Vela knew he should stick to that. Nonetheless, Vela was harboring a great deal of frustration in connection with that case, so the truth came out despite his better judgment. “Sheriff Stoker has assigned that case a low priority. Extremely low. He feels all of our resources should be focused on the shooting.”
“I understand that. Still—”
He interrupted her. “There’s no point arguing with me about it. He’s the boss.”
Kate’s face became pinched with distaste. “Has he moved it to the back burner, or completely off the stove?” Though Vela did not respond, the expression on his face suggested that the sheriff would do no more than wait for a solution to the vandalism case to land in his lap. “Very well, then.” Sighing, she handed the document folder to him. “I wanted to show these to you.”
Vela opened the folder and removed a handful of enlarged photos clipped in two groups. One group contained photos of a man; the second group contained photos of a woman. He quickly flipped through the two stacks. “All of these photos are of the same two people?”
“Yes. The man is someone we noticed at the gallery on the day of Lucy Celek’s exhibit. He seemed particularly interested in the mural, even somewhat agitated by it. The woman caught my eye on two separate occasions that same day. I mentioned both of them to the deputy who investigated the vandalism. At the time, I thought one of them could be responsible for the vandalism. Now we wonder if one of these people might have something to do with either the defacement or the shooting. Or, possibly both. We hoped you might consider them worth taking a closer look at, assuming you can identify them.”
“You said ‘we wonder’ and ‘we hope.’”
“Yes. That would be me and several of my friends. We inspected every photo we could find that was taken on the weekend of the photography festival and came up with these. They were all obtained from social media pages that are public. We captured all the metadata and the entire profile of the source accounts. If it comes to it, the photos should be admissible as evidence, although you have to go back and retrace our steps yourself. Of course, we didn’t have access to any available security footage from shops along Main Street that day like you undoubtedly will.”
Vela arched an amused eyebrow. He imagined a group of eager, graying women poring over photos with magnifying glasses. “You and your friends haven’t decided to become a bunch of Miss Marples, have you?” he asked puckishly.
Kate smiled. “Don’t be ridiculous, Chief Deputy Vela. Though, I award you points for knowing who Miss Marple is.”
He looked at the photos, going back and forth between them, and then paused over one picture of the man. In most of the images, the man’s face was partially obscured by the shadow of his ball cap. Then, in the background of a photo someone had taken of a group of teenaged girls, the man’s face was visible. “I think I recognize this guy.” He pulled his keyboard toward him. “Give me a moment.” He logged into his computer and spent several seconds typing and clicking his way to the information he sought. “Ah-ha. Hello, Billy Doe Jackson.” He angled his computer monitor so that she could see the screen.
“Billy Doe? Good heavens. What could his mother have been thinking?” She put on her reading glasses and took a good look at the photo on the screen. “Yes, I believe that’s him.”
We’ve got trouble
They were on the ground. Lucy wanted to raise her head. Kate was holding her down, though, pressing her face into the rocky soil, and all Lucy could do was turn her head sideways. That was how she knew that Jack had tackled Parker in much the same manner as Kate had tackled her. They heard another shot, and Lucy felt a rain of debris kicked up by the bullet’s impact with the ground. “What’s happening?”
“We’re being shot at.” Kate stated the obvious without a touch of irony in her voice. “Keep your head down.”
“I said, keep your head down! For all we know, it’s you they’re shooting at!”
“Let’s worry about us for the moment, shall we?” She looked at Jack, who lay about ten feet away with Parker pinned protectively beneath him. “Suggestions?” she asked.
“See if you can get a signal. Call the sheriff and report an active shooter.”
“Seriously? It will take them an hour to get here!”
“Do it anyway.”
She fumbled her phone out of her pocket and looked at the screen. “Damn. No signal.” She rolled over onto her back and felt Lucy shift her position. “You raise your head, Lucy, and I swear I’ll knock you senseless.” Kate held the phone up as high as she dared and waved it back in forth, desperately peering at the screen in the hope that those tell-tale little gray bars would appear. “No joy,” she called out to Jack. “I can’t get a signal.”
“It’s a dead zone out here,” Lucy said into the dirt. “You have to go about five miles back up the highway to get a signal.”
“Great.” Kate tapped her phone lightly against the back of Lucy’s head. “New rule, Lucy. You don’t go where you can’t get a cell signal!”
Lucy momentarily considered pointing out the impracticality of such a rule, especially in the Hill Country, and then decided it was not the best time to provoke Kate.
Though the firing had stopped, they still didn’t dare raise their heads. Looking for a way out that didn’t involve going back up the slope, Jack surveyed the situation. The ravine wall to their left was even steeper and rockier than where they were now, while to their right, a stone outcropping jutted from the ravine wall. Neither alternative would be viable without climbing gear. Behind them—or, below them, as it was—the ravine wall dropped off several hundred feet and was so steep and littered with obstacles that he doubted their ability to reach the bottom in one piece. Besides, what would they do when they got there?
“Uh, Mr. Atherton?” Parker’s muffled voice rose from beneath him. “I think you’re cracking my ribs or something. Could you maybe get off me?”
“Just so you keep your head down, son.”
“Yes, sir. I promise. I’m really having a hard time breathing down here.”
Jack rolled to one side, freeing Parker, who turned onto his back. He drew several gasps of air and then turned his head to face Jack. “I think you saved me, sir.”
“Possibly,” Jack agreed. “Probably.”
“Well, thanks.” He felt around his body, taking stock. “I don’t think my ribs are broken, after all.”
“Well, that’s good then,” Jack said. He was too distracted by their predicament to care much about the boy’s ribs.
“So, what do we do now?”
The question made Jack focus on Parker. “That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it?” He could tell by the kid’s blank look that he had no idea what Jack was talking about, and sighed. To his surprise, Parker was still clutching the iPad, cradling it to his chest like a protective shield. “Can you launch that thing from here?” He indicated the iPad. “Your drone, I mean.”
Parker frowned, thinking. “Possibly. It’s not a clear line of sight. It might still receive the signal, though.”
“Can you try? I want you to fly it up to the parking area to see if our shooter’s still there.”
“No way! If he is still up there, he might shoot it down!”
“If he shoots it down, I’ll buy you another damned drone,” Jack snapped. “At the moment, I think our lives are a little more important, don’t you?” The look on Parker’s face made Jack regret his harshness. “Look,” he said in a milder voice, “the moment the drone gets off the ground, fly it fast as you can in that direction.” He pointed west. “If the shooter’s still up there, he’s watching for us. He probably won’t even notice your drone taking off. Once you’ve got it in the air, go as far as you can, and then loop up toward the road and back to the parking area. Hopefully, you’ll come up behind the shooter.” When Parker looked skeptical, he added, “Son, it’s your turn to save us.”