About the time Ash Burton was 170 miles away as co-driver in a car rally and drove over the finishing line to take third place, Sheriff Bates and deputy Frank Lynch reportedly burst into the Burton's ranch house after a neighbor reported hearing gunshots.
They found Sally Burton had been shot through the throat, apparently by a small caliber handgun and Jed had taken a full shotgun blast into the left-hand side of his chest at close range.
A full homicide investigation followed and subsequently the Coroner found the couple had been murdered by an assailant or assailants unknown and no motive had been established. No weapons were found at the scene and that ruled out the likelihood of a murder/suicide.
At that Coroner's inquest, Sheriff Wally Bates confirmed he had a new and recently unfired shotgun at the time of the investigation and claimed his former shotgun had been stolen from his vehicle a month earlier but he'd not reported the theft. He explained that breach of procedure occurred because he'd been embarrassed he'd left his vehicle unlocked when calling at a café for coffee and claimed the gun was overdue for replacement.
The slug from Mrs Burton was a .32 caliber and Sheriff Bates' claim his department's handguns were all .45s was established by documentation and collaborated by witnesses include the Sheriff Department's arms officer. The Coroner was critical of the sheriff's failure to report the theft of his shotgun and said that was no way to run a Sheriff's Department.
Ash Burton said at the hearing that Sheriff Bates and his father had recently quarreled over the alleged unfitness of a horse Jed Burton had sold to Sheriff Bates' wife and there had been a fight, watched by Ash and his mother, and Sheriff Bates had been knocked unconscious and dumped and left in his vehicle. Under oath the sheriff had claimed there had been no fight, just a heated discussion, and that Jed Burton had handed over half of the money Mrs Bates had paid for the horse. There was no evidence to support that claim.
"That's bullshit," yelled the enraged Ash Burton and two officials had to restrain him.
Elderly Tom Herbert, the closest neighbor to the house where the bodies were found, said in evidence he'd called the sheriff and reported hearing gunshots and that call had been logged.
It was established from records that Sheriff Bates and Deputy Lynch had been on routine patrol only a mile away from the scene and radioed they'd respond to the call. They found the bodies but no sign of an intruder and had not seen anything suspicious and the smell from gunshots in the room was still apparent.
"It remains a mystery to us," said the sheriff.
"Liar, you two murdered my parents," yelled Ashleigh James Burton who, at the instructions of the Coroner, was escorted from the hearing room.
Sheriff Bates said that the young man was gravely distressed by the horrific nature of the murders and was wildly ranting and attempting to implicate two lawmen who'd only been doing their duty in responding to a call and had arrived at the scene and discovered a crime had been committed.
The Coroner later ruled that the deaths of Jed Edward Burton and Sally Ann Burton were the result of two close-range shots fired from a shotgun and a handgun by a person or persons unknown and medical evidence had stated clearly in both instances death would have been almost instantaneous.
A full State investigation followed the release of the Coroner's report. No new findings eventuated but Deputy Lynch accepted transfer to another county in the State in an attempt to quell persistent rumor that the sheriff and his favored deputy were the likely murderers.
Ash's aunt and uncle were staying with him and returned him home from the inquest. He was sullenly distressed. When he calmed, Ash called another horse ranch owner Harry Smith four miles away and asked if Harry would he be interested in leasing the ranch for a year and having the first option of buying it.
"That was a dreadful thing what happened to your dad and mom Ash, and I said that to you at the funeral. But if I said yes to your proposal, wouldn't people think I was implicated in their deaths, to get my hands on their land?"
"This was my idea and I called you Harry. Think about that. And anyway I won't be putting the ranch up for sale immediately and I tell neighbors about the lease if you take it up."
"Oh that gets over the gossip problem. Well how many horses did you have on the ranch now?"
"One hundred and twenty-three from an independent count made yesterday on behalf of my attorney. They will be counted again when papers are being prepared for probate."
"Well what happens if I rent the property?"
"You care for the horses, land and buildings for twelve months from the date any lease is signed. At the termination of that lease the horses will be sold at auction and we'll split the proceeds 80/20 in my favor after the deduction of all expenses including anything you have spent on caring for the ranch."
"Would you accept 60/40 in your favor?"
"No because the horses include six valuable breeding stallions and you haven't paid a cent towards any of that livestock and getting them to this state. I think you'll accept that Harry," said the 23-year old who was about to begin a college sport coaching career.
"Yeah you make the obvious point Ash. Well I'll talk it over with my wife Ellen and with my foreman Garth and give you a call tomorrow."
"Thanks Harry. Have you heard that earlier this afternoon at the inquest I accused Sheriff Bates and Deputy Lynch of gunning down my folk?"
"Aye and the phone went hot for a while. Some of the callers thought you were crazy with grief while others thought you had come to the logical conclusion."
"What do you think Harry?"
"Well Jed had told me about that fight and made no mention of giving Bates half the money back. Now that's really something to think about. Are you aware Lynch is Bates' nephew on his wife's side?"
"Jesus no and the inquest should have been told about that. Are you thinking of family conspiracy?"
"I might. For your additional information, I've been ranching here for nineteen years and in that time I'd not heard of Bates ever losing a punch-up until Jed knocked him down and out. What does that tell you?"
"Plenty. Look could you forget we ever had this conversation about Bates?"
"What conversation are you on about son? All you were asking did I wish to lease your ranch. I'll call you tomorrow morning with my decision."
"You know it's the best horse ranch in these parts Harry."
"I know and I also know you have no stomach for ranching. But you are a good youngster Ash. Just tread very warily and accept that out there somewhere is a nice young woman waiting for you. Bye."
That call left Ash seething. The family relationship between those two thugs and involving the sheriff's uncle who'd found the victims was the final straw in his belief the sheriff and his deputy had killed his parents. He had no idea what had happened in the ranch house that morning but suspected the sheriff had arrived with his nephew and took in his shotgun to give Ash's dad a good bashing but his mom had pulled out a .32 that Ash didn't know she had.
Ash, developing his theory, believed there had been a struggle, presumably by the deputy to get that handgun and he'd got the gun from Ash's mother, she swore at him and enraged he shot her or perhaps the gun when off in the struggle. The sheriff, aware of the implications of that, had reacted faster than Jed and shot him cold.
Ash knew the only way to settle this was to get a confession but right now those two guys would be watching him like a hawk.
Harry called Ash next morning and said he was interested in looking after the ranch for a year but not leasing it, and in return receiving 20% of the sale of the horses that he didn't wish to buy if he decided to buy the ranch in a year's time.
"I called my attorney and said if you accept my terms we need to do an agreement. So if you pay me $100 a month to looks after your property, including keeping the house and barns and whatever maintained, and establishing a contract allowing me access to your property, then we have a deal."
"Right I accept and thanks Harry. I'll pay your legal costs. When the agreement is signed I suggest you and the foreman tour the ranch with me and I'll answer your questions. I'll also give you dad's diary in which he will have logged what he'd done in farm management and has scheduled for the months ahead. It should be a breeze for you guys to manage. I'll just disappear for a year."
* * *
Ash's job was 700 miles away, far enough away to stop the seething but not to forget and to not having people talking to him sympathetically and looking at him as if they wondered had he shot his parents.
Jonathon Black College had been Crampton City's former Riverside College but was renamed as a memorial to the city's and only Olympian, middle distance runner Carl Bryson Black after his tragic death when caught in an avalanche on a skiing vacation.
Head coach Willy Benton greeted Carl warmly at the airport.
"I'm terribly sorry about the murder of your parent's young man. All I can add is perhaps it was fortunate you were not there at the time but 200 miles away at that car rally otherwise with the double murders unsolved, the finger could have pointed at you."
"Yeah so people have told me," Ash said bitterly. "Have you thought about the possibility that I employed a professional hit man?"
"Jesus Ash, they were your parents."
"And I'll never forget that," he sniffed and Willy saw the distress and hugged the new guy, patting Ash's back and noting with satisfaction the well-developed muscle under that thin blue checked jacket.
"You'll like it here son," Willy said. "With only just under 15,000 students we are not so big that you end up practically knowing no one on campus. We must divert to pick up my younger daughter Clara. She teaches at elementary school and this will save her getting the bus home with two changes."
"Why don't you buy her a car? She'll pay you back when she establishes. At your age I guess she's a recent graduate."
"You appear quite sharp for a guy Ash," Willy said, scratching an ear. "Clara accepted Lil and my help to get her through college and says that's more than enough benevolence from us. She'll get a car when she can afford it."
"If she buys an old one I'll work on it for her. I've been working on vehicles and machinery since I was nine years old. My dad..."
He stopped and they drove on silently until Willy began telling his new recruit about the city.
Clara was sitting on a seat opposite the school gates, reading a book, her laptop and bag of homework at her feet. She looked up and smiled... and that smile seared Ash's brain, copying her image on to the hard-drive.
She looked, well wholesome, like a country girl, well most of them. She stood and Ash saw she was leggy and had nice puppies and she was blonde and very athletic and that was no surprise, her dad being head coach at her old college for the past seventeen years.
Ash jumped out and waved her to the front seat of the SUV.
"Hi Ash, dad said you were arriving this afternoon. Here I'll put these down to give you a big hug."
"Welcome and I'm so sorry," she said, without saying what she was sorry about but they both knew as did her father who would be listening.
"Thanks for the welcome Clara. I'll take your computer and bag into the back with me."
Ash watched with satisfaction as lovely Clara and her father hugged with obvious affection. He hoped she didn't have a boyfriend but would soon find that she did.
Ash was invited to the Benton's house on campus that evening for dinner where he met Lil and Clara's boyfriend an accountant who worked in his father's public accountancy practice.
Ah well, he sighed that evening, when being introduced to Paul Tanner. It's always said the best ones were already taken, meaning horses but it applied to women and cars for sale as well.
Later when the three Benton's stood outside at 9:30 to wave off the two visitors, Ash glanced at Paul's pre-owned mid-sized BMW and said, "Paul get that right-hand front tire off and dumped as soon as you can. It has a bulge that could turn into a blow-out."
"Where?" said Paul anxiously, standing beside Ash. He peered at the tire illuminated by the porch lights.
"See the slight shadow caused by the bulge?"
"No, it looks like a normal tire to me."
"Look in the position of 4 o'clock."
"Yeah I see something," Paul said, stepping forward and feeling the tire with his hand.
"Jeepers pal, you have extraordinary night vision."
"It comes with practice Paul. I've driven in night rallies for years where we have to rely on the integrity of the lights and tires. Just get that tire off in the morning."
"Help me do it now," Paul said. "Being accountancy trained I'm conditioned to avoid risks."
"I'll do it," Ash said, and changed the tire with smooth efficiency.
Paul shook hands with Ash and that established a bonding until Paul was dumped by the distressed Clara eight months later when she found he'd gone for a dirty weekend with a hot number who was a fellow accountant.
* * *
Ash was placed to share a two-bedroom unit with the female's tennis coach Bev Bosch, indicating that the college had liberal policies perhaps. Bev had just arrived back from an intercollegiate tennis tournament with her team and she and Ash met for the first time and he was hugely disappointment. She was built like a bridge pier and had a manly laugh. But she was jolly and friendly and hugged him, almost crushing ribs, and said the last time she'd shared with the opposite sex the guy was a gay wimp.
"So I'm manly in your opinion?" he said, pouring Bev coffee.
"Yes and I'll know you'll not be interested um sexually in the likes of me. I'll fix you up with some of our other female coaching staff. We aren't all lesbians."
Ash almost dropped the coffee glass carafe in shock although accepting she'd given him the message in really smart way.
By the time they went off to their separate beds he knew he'd really like Bev. She was so easy going and fun to be with and fastidious about cleaning up and he liked that. She was a late-riser and he an early-riser and next morning he served her breakfast in bed and she was delighted.
Willy (William) briefed Ash at 8:00 as pre-arranged.
"You are the last cab into the rank and for that you look after the general fitness of everyone on campus who bothers to use our gym, the pool or the track outside of coaching hours."
"What I'm responsible for their fitness levels?"
"Well not quite. You are responsible for personal programs and keep them motivated and attending fitness activities regularly and to measure any advancement or regression in their level of fitness."
"Jesus Willy. When counting everyone down to janitors we'll probably have 30,000 people on this campus."
"The figure is 24,000 and we don't call cleaning staff janitors. Half of that number becomes 12,000 who turn up at least a couple of times a month and about 5000 of those will regularly exercise and approximately half of those don't want any of us trainers near them. So how are you with 2500 to 3000 bodies to care for with one guy and two women to assist you at the gym and one female at the pool and one female at the track?"
"How am I with 1500 to 3000 people to look after? I'd say overwhelmed."
"I suppose you thought you'd be coaching the senior football team?"
"No you made it quite clear at my initial interview you did that with two assistant coaches."
Willy smiled and said the usual reply he got from new coaching recruits was yes.
Ash said, "Well as your notes will show I gave swimming or track as my coaching preferences."
Willy scratched an ear. "We are short of a coach for the women's social soccer team. Those girls are yours, with coaching on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons."
"But I know little about coaching soccer?"
"Hmmm. Don't I recall you played soccer at high school?"
"Jesus Willy, why does an old guy like you have to have a good memory?"
"If I didn't already like you son I'd be kicking your butt for saying that. No one around here abuses the head coach."
"Willy, I apologize."
"Accepted and don't worry about those social soccer players. They have little idea what they should be doing and will regard you as god no matter what crap you teach them. They are required to be involved in at least one active sport and it's known by students that being in social soccer is a breeze."
"Oh Christ. This is turning into a nightmare. Have you any idea who my roommate is?"
"Yes Bev. I placed you with her because of her leadership qualities. Bev has forgotten more than you ever learned about coaching at college and going to that fancy sports coaching academy. Academies are for masturbators."
Ash said dryly, "Did you attend a coaching academy Willy?"
"Listen here punk..."
"Oh that might have been regarded as offensive. I'm willing to consider apologizing Willy."
"Son I'll telling you once, if you wish to stay on my team you never ever think I might masturbate."
"Yes what?" Willy roared.
Ash said panicking, "I was saying no I'll never ever think that."
"Yeah right. Go to the gym and take over your team. Ask for Caroline."
There was only one person in the well-appointed gym who wasn't sitting on a bench resting. She was exercising with 25 lb. dumbbells.
"You have good fluid movement. I suggest you tighten your butt muscles as you lift."
"Fuck off bozo," she said, not turning to look at him.
"Well okay. Um do you know where I can find Caroline?"
She said she was Caroline.
Oh crap. "I'll come back later."
"Stop, are you Ash?"
Ash said yeah.
She turned, grinning and he couldn't take his eyes off the sweat patch between her breasts.
"What you are looking at?" she said mildly.
"I was checking out the sweat on you top. It's a sure sign you've been giving it plenty."
"Is that all you were looking at?"
"Yeah apart from the top. I like that blue in Lycra."
She smiled and put the weights into the rack and invited him to come for a juice before she showed him around and brief him.
When they came out of the office, everyone who'd been sitting on benches chatting was up and involved with equipment. A guy and two other females were in blue Lycra.
"In here and at the pool, assistants to coaches are the only people permitted to wear blue Lycra for ease of identification. The assistants are students who accept that role as credits for campus involvement in valued activity."
"Good idea," Ash said, trying not to look at them and thinking they must be 34Cs. Lovely.
"What size do you think they are?"
She laughed and said never mind.
An hour later after a full briefing, Caroline took Ash to the three-pool complex, one of the pools being a separate diving pool, and introduced to the assistant coach, Wendy another 34C in blue Lycra who was in charge of the team of 'pool attendants' who were on 8-hour shifts and were responsible for overall supervision at the facility that opened at 5:00 and closed at 9:00. The school's swim teams had their own coaches of course and did most of their work-outs in the smaller pool or roping off four lanes in the Olympic sized pool.
Wendy them took Ash to the track and introduced Ash to Thelma, who appeared to have no bust and who Wendy had said held the college's women's track records for the 200 yards and the 400 yard hurdles in the days when she was a student.
Thelma took Ash on tour in a golf cart and she said to Ash, "I don't require you to supervise me but you a welcome to drop in and say hi and go through the motions. I run this facility my way. It's open 24/7 but I do time trials for students who want them between the hours of 8:00 and 4:00 and assist anyone who cramps up or spikes their foot with their javelin. Any questions?"