Inquiry at the Bar

An excerpt from Tucson author Becky Masterman’s new mystery thriller We Were Killers Once

Becky Masterman
Becky Masterman

Tucson author Becky Masterman's new crime thriller, We Were Killers Once, is the fourth book to feature Brigid Quinn, a former FBI agent who has retired to Tucson. In this latest escapade, her path collides with Jerry Beaufort, who is seeking to cover up his involvement in the Clutter murders made famous in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood.

The idea there could have been a third killer back in Kansas in 1959 came from Masterman's agent.

"She said, 'I've always wondered what a story like that would be about, if there was a third person that night at the Clutter house, along with Dick Hickock and Perry Smith,'" Masterman remembers. "I said, 'Oh my God, that's brilliant!'—even though I had never actually read In Cold Blood."

But she picked it up and eventually found an unnamed 12-year-old boy in the book who could play the role—and so Jerry Beaufort was born. She says she tried to create an antagonist who wasn't an evil mastermind.

"Jerry Beaufort throughout the book tries to convince himself that he was only a killer that once, because that was when he enjoyed it," she says. "Whenever he's killed since then, it's only been a necessity, so he doesn't think he's a real killer."

Like her retired hero Brigid Quinn, Masterman has also retired to Tucson, although she worked in publishing, not the FBI. She wrote her first novel as a lark, during the National Novel Writing Month challenge in 2004. It took years before an agent decided she liked the notion of an older female protagonist: "She called me back and said, 'I haven't finished the book yet, but I've been looking for this character for years.'"

Masterman still had to rewrite the original book—it was a simple kidnapping story and the publisher wanted Quinn to match wits with a serial killer—but the result was Rage Against the Dying, which would go on to become a finalist for several awards, including the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and the CWA Gold Dagger Award for Best Crime Novel of 2013.

Three books have followed, including We Were Killers Once, which hit bookshelves earlier this month.

As our excerpt opens, Jerry Beaufort is recently released from jail on unrelated charges and is looking into whether any evidence links him to the killings in Kansas back in 1959...

Beaufort had loaded his bike on the bus to Sarasota. A rental car would have been nice, but he needed Yanchak for that. He had told the man in Pascagoula he might be back and thanks for the use of the room.

It was easy to find the cop he wanted. Even if Beaufort hadn't seen his name on the internet article about the Walker cold case investigation, Ian Meadows's photo was on the Sarasota County Sheriff's Department website. Small towns like Sarasota, where they didn't think they had to worry about gangs, real criminals, they'd be all over themselves being friendly with the populace, that whole community-policing thing. Photographs of each guy in the division. There he was, round baby face with a mustache that didn't help, older guy who might have been a real homicide detective in his heyday, now working cold case homicides.

Beaufort parked his bike around the corner from the sheriff's office, and found a coffee shop close by where he could watch the entrance to the building. From there he saw when Meadows exited the building, and followed him on and off for a week to pick up his patterns. He wouldn't have been able to actually follow the guy home, as he couldn't keep up with a car. But he did find the guy's watering hole, which was within walking distance from the station.

Meadows was never on call in the evenings, which allowed him plenty of free time to drink. And talk like he was still somebody. But mostly drink. Always at the same bar, one of those places that cops frequent where there's always another cop to take them home in case of one too many. The Pelican Pub had dusty nautical decorations, a sign that said head instead of restrooms, heavy boat ropes with a sticky film on them lining the edge of the bar and making it uncomfortable to lean your elbows.

This guy, always on the same days, every other day. That probably meant he had a wife who would complain if he was gone too much. The same place at the bar, too, on this side of the corner. So Beaufort got there about a half hour before Meadows did, and parked himself, not on Meadows's usual stool, but on the other side of the corner.

Meadows arrived, and glanced at where Beaufort was sitting. He gave Beaufort a hurt look, as if the other man had taken something from him that was his by right. But he continued to amble down the bar and squished his body, not on his usual seat, but two away from the other man so it wouldn't look like he was gay. Beaufort had expected that. They were still close enough to talk. Two seats between them, no one would take one unless the bar was totally crowded; that was bar etiquette you could count on, and it had never changed.

Beaufort didn't look up at Meadows's approach, and nursed his beer until the other was through one finger of bourbon. He didn't want to speak until he figured the man was sufficiently relaxed.

Then in that nonthreatening southern accent Beaufort said, "Excuse me, sir."

When the man looked up with a face that didn't mind his particular thoughts being interrupted, Beaufort held up a few fingers. "Do you mind? If you'd rather—"

"No. No, that's okay," said Meadows. "What's up?"

"I'm traveling around Florida by myself and sometimes I get tired of the silence, know what I mean?"

The man nodded an opening, and rather than instantly start asking questions, which would have felt suspicious, Beaufort talked and talked like he really didn't want to hear what the other fellow had to say. He talked about Sarasota, and the weather in early December, how it makes everyone cranky because the summer should be over but wasn't. How the whole west coast of Florida had grown from the time he had lived there as a child. How hehad been away from the area for a long time, working in Mississippi.

After a while Meadows's look, formerly melting with the bourbon, got a little icy, like he suspected Beaufort was going to put the touch on him, but he didn't shift his eyes away. So Beaufort kept going, how he was an old man now. How he was making a pilgrimage to all his old haunts now that his wife had died a year ago, God rest her soul. How he grew up in a small town not too far from Sarasota. Osprey, did the man ever hear of Osprey? He was headed there next.

"Where in Osprey?" Meadows asked.

Beaufort was ready for this one, having found Google Maps. He named an address about a quarter mile from where the Walker family had lived.

Like any other cop, as long as he wasn't going against confidentiality rules, Meadows couldn't help spilling about the case he was working on. He said, "How old are you, if you don't mind my asking."

"I'm sixty-three, and proud of it," Beaufort said, shaving a few years off just in case at some point Meadows was to do some math to find out how old Beaufort was at the time of the crime. "But why do you ask?"

"Ever hear about the Walker family murders?" Meadows asked. "Hell, yeah," Beaufort said. "I was just knee-high to a grasshopper when it all happened, the Clutters and then the Walkers, and I was living in the same town. Remember the Clutters?"

"I guess I do," Meadows said.

"The Clutters was scary enough, and then blam, the Walkers happened like a one-two punch just a month or so later. I remember my parents locking the doors for the first time and not letting me go out by myself after dark. Everyone was scared that it would happen again. Times like that, the whole country changed, didn't it?" Beaufort mentioned how he had read In Cold Blood when it first came out, and that everyone in Osprey talked about how their town was made famous in that book, just because the men who committed the Clutter family murders were suspected of killing the Walkers, too. "You'd think I could remember the names of those guys. What was their names again?"

"Richard Hickock and Perry Smith," Meadows said. But you could tell he wasn't as interested in the Clutters. He was beginning to get bored and changed the subject back. "The Walkers? I'm on a cold case squad in this county, and I just reopened the case."

"No. Really? You're a detective?" Beaufort said, with that combination of slyness and squirming excitement a person exhibits when they meet a celebrity. He drew his hand across his mouth like meeting Meadows had made him salivate. "Can I buy you a drink? Sir," he said to the bartender, "another of whatever . . ." Beaufort looked expectant, and the man supplied his name.

"Ian Meadows."

"Whatever Detective Meadows is drinking," Beaufort said. "And another Bud for me."

Detective Meadows waved a dismissive hand, but you could tell he was suitably charmed by the reaction, enough to ignore the fact that Beaufort had not supplied his name in turn. It might have also been that he had been bored to an anesthetic state by all Beaufort's chatter, and was relieved to be able to do a little talking himself, and about a topic that no one else cared to hear anymore.

Beaufort asked, "So why are you so interested in the Walker case? You're a damn sight younger than me. Doesn't seem like you're old enough to even be born when it happened."

"That's what they say back at the station. I get ribbed all the time, how I'm looking for a dead man. They tell me the murderer must be in his eighties or nineties now if he's even alive. I dunno. Why are people still interested in Jack the Ripper? Why do they still talk about the Black Dahlia here in the States? The Walker killing happened near here, so we all grew up knowing about the family where they never found the killer. Just like you. Plus there's this possibility of DNA profiling that has opened up all kinds of cold cases."

Beaufort felt his breathing quicken at the mention of DNA and even with the beer had to concentrate on keeping his chest from rising and falling with his alarm. He decided to change the subject until he could get better control of himself. "They kind of have a point, you keep investigating even after the killer is dead."

"What makes you think so?" Meadows asked.

"I don't know, I just figure all this time. Like your friends say." Meadows nodded and took a drink. "But there's the DNA."

Beaufort shook his head slowly in amazement, better able to talk about it now. "That DNA business. That's really something, isn't it? What did you have to test? And hey, am I keeping you from something?"

"Hell, no! It's my favorite topic and everyone else tells me to shut up about it already. The semen they found in Christine Walker, the mother, was still viable. That's how I got permission to exhume Smith's and Hickock's bodies. It was all high-profile enough to get me some attention, get my sample into the queue at the lab."

"What did you find out?"

Meadows's face fell. "Too bad their DNA was corrupt, but we kind of, kind of, got an analysis that showed it wasn't them. Hickock definitely excluded, Smith mostly. I still have my doubts, though."

"I bet you're right, I bet it was them," Beaufort said.

"Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Maybe we didn't get a match because the semen from 1959 was too corrupted after all. But there's evidence somewhere. There's that thing, too, about matching a family member who has given DNA to research their ancestry."

Beaufort didn't bother to ask for details about that. He was just glad that he didn't have any extended family alive anymore. He grinned to acknowledge his admiration of the detective's perseverance. "Do you think there's anyone else in the world as interested in this case as you are?"

"Well, there was the brother who has been suspected all these years. They were able to exclude him by showing it wasn't his semen. He's really happy to finally be vindicated after sixty years. Other than that, you get a person now and then who's interested in unsolved murders. But not too many, not at this stage anymore."

Beaufort kept quiet for a few seconds, feeling like he was fishing, playing out the line a little so the fish wouldn't get spooked. He took a slow swig of his beer before saying, "So, okay, you didn't get a DNA match with Hickcock or Smith. Are there any other suspects someone can run the results against someday?"

"Someday maybe. The profile lasts forever and will stay on file. If anyone cares." Meadows grimaced and shook his head like he had doubts about anyone caring.

"What about fingerprints?" Beaufort asked. "Seems like with this DNA business nobody cares about fingerprints anymore."

"Where did you hear about the fingerprint?"

"I didn't. I'm just assuming. So you say there were prints?" Meadows looked to his right and left and then leaned toward Beaufort as if he was about to impart something top secret. Beaufort could tell the alcohol had increased the intimacy. Beaufort leaned forward, too.

"Get this," Meadows said. "It wasn't a fingerprint."


"It was a palm print."

Well, now Beaufort felt like a man who'd been sitting for a long time underneath a hundred-pound pillow, heavy and suffocating. And now it was gone. One of the things that had preyed on his mind all those decades. Gone. They never took your palm print, just your fingertips. They only had his fingerprints on file. Even his voice felt lighter when he said, "Too bad. No way you can match it to anyone, right?"

"Sure we can," Meadows said. "But not necessarily in the way you're thinking. Even at the time it helped exclude about sixty people who didn't match to it. Now fingerprints, that would be a little easier, but ..."

Beaufort didn't much care about the "buts" of it, and he stopped listening to Meadows while thinking about how the colors in the room were a little brighter and even his Bud tasted a little more beery than it had before. He picked up the bottle with three fingers around the neck and thought of the unlikelihood of anything catching his palm print.

His palm print! Shit!

Meadows couldn't tell he hadn't been paying attention. "...still adding prints to the IAFIS database, but there are millions of them. Just think, two million people in prison right this minute, and that doesn't count the convicted felons who have come and gone over the past fifty years. Then if you add in the prints taken upon the arrest of a suspect, it's like a needle in a haystack, see what I mean?"

"Yeah, I see," Beaufort said. "Funny how this thing that happened so long ago, people are still interested."

Meadows took a package of unfiltered Camels out of his back pocket, and offered, "Cigarette?"

"No thanks, I'm trying to quit," Beaufort said when he was finally able to speak, yearning with all his soul to wrap his lips around a cancer stick. He wished he hadn't left his antacid tablets back in his room.

Meadows shook a cigarette out of the package and lit it with the flick of his Bic.

"I didn't think that was legal anymore," Beaufort said, lip twitching as he watched. Meadows being a smoker himself wouldn't be able to smell it on Beaufort, but just to be on the safe side he kept his nicotine-stained fingers snug around his beer bottle.

Meadows inhaled luxuriously and blew the smoke in Beaufort's direction. "Nobody but cops frequent this place, mostly. If anyone complains I just put it out," he said.

Beaufort nodded like he knew that. "What's your next move?"

"Retirement," Meadows said, and then smiled. "I don't have a next move. I've been put out to pasture and these cold cases are all I have. Some on the force don't even see it as a job, they see it as a hobby. No, I think I may be the last of the guys who truly care about things like honor and justice." He took another drag off the cigarette. "You remember Kools? They found a bit of a Kools wrapper at the Walker crime scene. I had to research it but I found out they still make them."

"No shit?" Beaufort nodded. "Menthol, right? Do they even make menthol cigarettes anymore? I never liked them."

Meadows nodded back. "Menthol, unfiltered. My research showed that Newport is the most popular menthol brand nowadays." He tapped the ash of his Camel onto the dish the bartender had put in front of him. "This is the cigarette a man smokes. Personally I always thought menthol-flavored cigarettes were for pussies. So for the Walker case, if I ever do find the killer or killers, and it's not Smith and Hickock, I think they'll be pussies."

"If they're even still alive."

"If they're alive."

Beaufort thought this was going pretty well. He forced himself to relax what had become a tight grip on that beer bottle, and let his lower jaw hang down a bit so the muscle wouldn't pop with nervousness. He told himself he was in a superior position, Meadows knew nothing about him, and didn't appear to be a threat. He rubbed his palm on his jeans. When he looked up again, Meadows was looking at him with a glitter in his eyes.

"There's one other thing I just discovered," he said.

The way Meadows said that, it sounded like I've saved the best for last.

"What's that?" Beaufort asked, wondering what could possibly top what Meadows had already given him.

"I recently heard something about a confession. It's from Dick Hickock. And, get this, it contradicts anything that he and Smith said."

A confession.

"Hey, buddy, you doing okay?" The expression on Meadows's face, when he finally noticed it, had Beaufort wondering how long he might have been sitting there without answering that question. The answer bubbled up out of his throat. "Sure. Fine. Okay." He didn't dare risk raising the beer bottle to his lips.

"Seriously, you driving?" Meadows asked.

"No. I walked," Beaufort said. He didn't want to know but wanted to know. "What does it say?" he managed to ask.

"The confession? I don't know yet. But what if he finally confessed to killing the Walkers? Man oh man, that would be something."

"If it even exists," Beaufort said.

Meadows nodded, his face looking downcast but his fingers drumming on the bar, drowning out Beaufort's doubts.

Beaufort asked, "Have you had any thoughts about where to look for this thing?"

"Lots of thoughts. But here's one. One of my thoughts was, who do you make a confession to?" Meadows said.

"My defense attorney?"

Meadows shook his head and fixed his gaze on Beaufort in a score-one look. "Your priest."

"Hah," Beaufort said. "My priest."

"I tracked down the name of the chaplain at Lansing during the time just before Hickock's and Smith's execution."

"So you think this chaplain has a confession?"

"He said no. No, you're interested in Hickock and Smith, you should take a look at the Kansas Historical Society Archives. It's all online."

Beaufort shook his head and put a look on his face that he hoped wouldn't show too much interest, letting his eyelids drop a little, but Meadows ignored it.

"They have all the documents associated with Hickock's and Smith's stay at Lansing prison. I had gone over and over those things without noticing this one until recently. In his final days Hickock asked for a priest to hear his confession."

Meadows went on, "He sent a letter to Warden Sherman Crouse. Now, get this, he was specific about wanting a Catholic priest, not the Protestant chaplain connected to the prison at the time. The letter says it's because Catholic priests hold confessions in a higher regard than Protestants."

Beaufort wanted to ask the name of the priest, but he did not.

"In addition, Hickock asked that the confession not be recorded as prisoner conversations often were. He didn't want anyone else to hear what he told the priest. And Warden Sherman Crouse sent a letter back agreeing to this."

With a tilt of his head that disdained the detective's research, Beaufort risked saying only "So we'll never know what Hickock confessed to, or whether it changes the original confession."

Now Meadows delivered his final thrust because he couldn't stand not to. "I know the name of the priest."

Come on, give me a lead. "But he's dead, right?"

"Nope, and he's not even far from here. Priests are like the rest of retirees, they all move to Florida. He's living at a Dominican abbey."

Give me a name, for God's sake. Beaufort struggled to get control over his lips, which were jumping around on their own accord. He clamped his hand over his mouth and forced out a single word between his fingers. "So."

Meadows nodded. "I contacted him. He told me he might have something he's allowed to share with me, did I want to come up and visit him. He's apparently very ill, so I may be just in time. I thought I'd drive up there next week. It's a nice area and a good excuse to get out of town. Away from the wife. You okay? You got pale before and now you're a little flushed. How's your blood pressure?"

"I don't remember it being so hot here. I guess my blood needs to thin." With all his attention on keeping his hand from shaking, he put the payment for both his and Meadows's drinks on the bar with a small tip, and left.

Meadows looked disappointed.

Going up against a seasoned investigator, that might not have been the smartest thing, but how else could he find the information he'd just received? His face felt cold with fear despite the Florida heat as he made a beeline three blocks away where he could run into a Quick Stop and get a pack of Newports.

After a couple of those he told himself he was safe. Meadows hadn't even asked his name. There was no record of him anywhere, except for those fingerprints taken decades ago, the last time he was arrested. They were probably still sitting in some file with the other millions of prints, waiting to be scanned into the FBI database. Even if that happened, the Walker print wasn't a finger, it was a palm.

Only with the possibility of that confession, and this Meadows on the verge of finding it, whether it was in writing or whether that no-name priest would testify to it . . .

He brought the cigarette up to his mouth and looked at his palm. Which of the lines etched in it had been left on the faucet? Which lines could indict him? He rubbed his palm on the side of his jeans.

He wasn't safe. He had gone into the bar thinking he was following up on the Walker case, and come out knowing that there might be a document that linked him not only to the Walkers, but to the Clutters, too. He couldn't be sure he was safe unless he got to Hickock's priest before Meadows did.

Beaufort knew how to do things at this point. He found the closest library and the computer bank therein. He googled Kansas Historical Society Archives. Over seven hundred separate documents covering everything from Hickock's plea for clemency to an envelope addressed to the warden from Hickock's mother. Long, neatly handwritten letters from Hickock asking for a radio. For drawing materials. Reading those letters put Beaufort back into the past and he didn't want to be there anymore. He was reaching the end of a short fuse and was about to pop when he finally found the letters written seven days before Hickcock's execution:

Dear Warden Crouse:

April 7, 1965

As you know, I am to be executed on April 14, 1965. Before that event I wish to make my confession. As the chaplain in the prison is a protestant minister, and because the protestant religion does not hold confession in the same regard as the Catholics, I request that a Catholic priest be called in to hear my final confession. In addition, I request that no recordings are made and that no one else be allowed to hear what I tell the priest. Our long relationship is nearly at an end and I hope you will grant me this last request.

Respectfully, Richard Eugene Hickock Prisoner number 14746

And the very next document after that was the response from the warden.

Dear Mr. Hickock:

April 8, 1965

I am going to grant your request. We have located a priest at a local church who will be here at two o'clock pm tomorrow. He has agreed to hear your final confession and grant absolution. A guard will be posted outside the door, but other than that your time with the father will be private and unlimited.

Warden Sherman Crouse

Is it asking too much that somewhere here there should be a goddamn mention of the goddamn priest's goddamn name?

The library had a second floor. He ran up the stairs and down the aisles of shelved books until he got to an area that was empty. He drove his fist into a collection of large hard-bound copies of National Geographic. They resisted and gave with just the right balance so as not to damage his fist. The magazines bounced back and hit whatever was on the shelf on the other side, those books spilling onto the floor. He breathed in and out the way they had taught him in prison, and that calmed him. In case anyone might be coming around to check on the noise he moved casually back to the stairs, down, and to the computers.

He needed to approach this from a different angle. Getting control of himself again, he searched Dominican abbeys in Florida. There was only one, about an hour's drive north of Tampa. And in that abbey he hoped there would be only one very sick, very old priest.