Thursday, June 04, 2015

Southern Fried Murder - a short story

Morning haze, the last remnant of a two-day rain, hung over the bayou. Summer had returned with a vengeance. Eight in the morning, it was already ninety in the shade. Sheriff Harmon Antley wiped the back of his neck with a blue bandanna.

Beyond ferns and cypress trees fringing the bayou floated an object, face down, and half submerged in dark water. A body. Antley stared at it until a squawk from the radio in the nearby police car broke the morning silence.

"Velma, we got a body out here on Black Bayou, just south of Spillway Road."
Another squawk from the radio and Deputy Sam Tate responded to Velma's unheard question.

"Don't know yet. Can you get Doc Branson out here?"

Satisfied with Velma's answer, Tate signed off. and slammed the door of the black and tan ’56 Pontiac. Before joining Sheriff Antley, he wiped an invisible smudge from the roof-mounted red lights. Antley grinned when he thought about the thick horn-rims goggling the younger man's eyes. They seemed out of place with the strike khakis and matching ten-gallon hat he wore.

"See who it is, Sheriff?"

"Hell no, but she hasn't been in there long. Body's floating too low in the water."

Sam Tate spoke in a sing-song drawl, more reminiscent of east Texas than south Louisiana. To Sheriff Antley it sounded like a twangy country riff played on a steel guitar. Antley himself had no regional accent. Lost in Korea while serving in the marines. Lost also was a large chunk of his right ear, taken by a North Korean sniper's bullet. He kept the narrow brim of his Humphrey Bogart hat cocked in that direction.

A distant siren heralded the approach of a black Cadillac ambulance, which slid to a halt beside their car. Doc Branson and his assistant joined them as a flock of white cattle egrets, on their way to Jeem's bayou near the Texas border, flew by.

"Somebody drown?" Doc Branson asked, shielding his eyes as he leaned out over the water.

"You're supposed to tell me," Antley said.

The little doctor with wispy white hair shook off Sheriff Antley's brusque reply.

"Tank, wade out there and pull the corpse to shore."

Six-four and almost two-fifty, Tank Slade's name fit. After school and during summer break he worked for Doc Branson. His blithe smirk expressed his liking for the job. Not bothering to roll up his pant legs, he waded into shallow water, not even recoiling when he grabbed the turgid body. As he pulled it to shore, a school of silver shiners danced around his feet. He dropped the lifeless body in front of the awaiting trio.

"Recognize her, Harmon?" Doc Branson asked.

"Leola Jones. Harvey Jones's wife," Antley said.

"Harvey Jones, the welder?"

"One in the same."

"Sheriff and me had to cart Leola home more than once," Sam said. "Spent most every night out at the Red Hen."

Doc Branson prodded the body with his toe. "Barfly, huh? Maybe she got drunk, stumbled into the bayou and drowned."

Sheriff Antley squatted beside the body, probing beneath her long hair with his fingers. "It's five miles to the Red Hen from here. Don't see no car. And there's blood in her hair."

Doc Branson bent down to join him. "Maybe she bumped her head when she fell," he said, using his index finger to push his wire-rims up on the bridge of his nose.

"Don't think so," Antley said. "Unless she hit something real heavy that's shaped like a half dollar."

Sheriff Antley pulled back the dead woman's hair, exposing a circular dent in back of her skull. "I'm betting you won't find any water in her lungs either. Can you check it out?"

"Do the best I can, but with a Republican in the White House our budget is pretty well cut."

Antley frowned and said, "You have money enough to do one little autopsy."

"Do the best I can," Doc Branson said. Then he added, "At least I voted for Stevenson and Kefauver."

Sheriff Antley ignored his sarcasm and glanced up at the sun now high in the sky. Then he tilted his hat back and mopped his neck with the blue bandanna.

"Sam, take a good look around."

Sam patted the big .44 in his side holster, nodded a silent okay and started away in the opposite direction of the bayou.

"What do you expect he'll find, Harmon?"

"Murder weapon maybe."

At the mention of murder, Tank's piggish eyes grew wider. Folding his big arms, he glanced over his shoulder, as if the murderer might still be out there somewhere, lurking behind a tree. Antley brushed his hands and started for the cruiser. Doc Branson and Tank followed.

"Could be one of them bucks from darky town raped and killed her," Tank said.

Sheriff Antley frowned but kept walking.

"Maybe we should run up there tonight with some of the boys and find out," Tank persisted. "I wouldn't mind frying one of them bucks myself."

This time Sheriff Antley halted. After exchanging a glance with Doc Branson, he grabbed Tank's collar and slammed him against the ambulance. With his acne-scarred face inches from Tank's nose, he riveted his coal black eyes on the frightened lad. Grizzled forearms pinned Tank to the side of the vehicle.

"Boy, what you saw here is police business. I don't care what you think might have happened, you keep it to yourself. Understand me?"

"Yes," Tank said.

"Yes what?" Antley said, banging the boy's head hard against the roof of the ambulance.

"Yes sir, Sheriff Antley."

"That's better," Antley said, releasing his grip, backing away and brushing his hands again. “If I hear of anything happening to anyone on the other side of the tracks, you’re the first person I’ll come looking for. You got me on that?”

Tank looked at Doc Branson for support but got none. Instead, the old doctor said, "You heard the Sheriff. Now hustle up that body and pitch it in back of the ambulance. We got work to do."

A shout from over the hill diverted everyone's attention from Tank's red face.

"Sheriff, over here. I found something."

Antley patted Tank's cheek and started up the hill toward Sam Tate's shout. "Check her lungs, Doc. At least do that."

Despite disliking his political leanings, Antley knew Doc Branson would do a complete autopsy. He hurried away, upsetting a covey of quail as he reached the brush line. They scattered in a flurry of noise and beating wings. When he crested the hill and came out of the brush, he found Sam beside a red and white ’57 Chevy. It was empty and both doors open.

"Keys are in the ignition," Sam said.

Broken glass from the smashed windshield littered the car's hood. Something white protruded from the open glove box. Reddish-brown blood clotted the blue front seat covers. Antley grabbed the white object and held it to the light.

"What is it, Sheriff?

"Looks like Leola's girdle. And someone broke the windshield from the inside out."

Oil oozed from the holding tank of a nearby well, burnishing brown loam piled in a berm around it black. The walking beam moved up and down, screeching as it lifted metal rods in and out of the hole. There were also three sets of tire tracks in the dirt.

"Two trucks and a car," Sam said. "One of the trucks had wider tires and dug a deeper rut than the other."

"Carrying a heavy load," Sheriff Antley said.

Three turkey buzzards circled overhead in slow lazy loops. Harmon Antley watched them as he mopped his forehead with his bandanna. Then he started back down the hill to the cruiser and Sam Tate followed. When they reached the car, Antley said, "Call Velma, Sam. Have her get this place roped off and photographed, and a diver out here to check where we found the body.

The radio squawked as Deputy Tate called Velma. After replacing the receiver in its cradle he sat there, scratching his big hooked nose.

"Taking a break, Sam?" Antley finally said.

"No sir," Sam said. "Where to?"

"The Red Hen."

***

When they reached the blacktop, Sam cranked open the wind wing, gunning the engine to get a little cool air flowing through the hot car. Ten o'clock and one-oh-one. It made them both wish the Parish had opted for a swamp cooler instead of the fancy radio they provided it with.

Vegetation changed from cypress trees with waves of Spanish moss, to pines nudging the road. Sheriff Antley caught a glimpse of a snowy crane as the sleepy bayou disappeared in the rearview mirror. Sam continued along the winding hilly road, all the way to Bixley.

Bixley lay nestled in the crook formed by northeast Texas and southwest Arkansas. Three thousand farmers, roughnecks and businessmen. And retirees. A dozen honky tonks dominated the west side of town, just beyond the city limits. Texans and Arkansans surged across the border on Saturdays, drawn by wild times and no liquor restrictions. Most wore faded jeans, cowboy hats and pointy-toed shit kickers, though few were real cowboys. In the tri-state region of Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, many of the cattle were of the dairy variety. Miles of cotton, making the fields look like snow in July, grew instead of wheat.

Still, the area had more than a passing resemblance to the old west. Antley and Tate usually ended up on the strip, arresting drunks, breaking up fights, or escorting someone home. The Red Hen was the most popular honky tonk of all. Finding its graveled parking lot vacant except for the owner's white Caddy, they entered the front door.

Three slow moving overhead fans did little to stir the humid air, stagnant with the stale reek of beer. Their own boots echoed like tap dancer's as they crossed the faded dance floor to the wall-long bar, padded with red vinyl. There Mrs. Bea Hopkins, the Red Hen's owner, sat alone, a tall straight scotch in one hand and a half empty bottle of Chivas in the other. Sam and Sheriff Antley waited for the old lady to acknowledge their presence. When she finally looked up and saw them standing there, she grinned, her false teeth on the bar beside the bottle of Scotch.

"Little early, aren't you Sheriff. No drunks in here for another eight hours."

"Didn't come for drunks, Mrs. Bea," he said.

"Well, I know you tee-total so you didn't come for a morning toddy."

"We found Leola Jones floating face down in the bayou this morning. Answers are what we need, Mrs. Bea."

Antley's announcement of Leola Jones' demise didn't seem to faze the old woman. "Hell, Sheriff, I got lots of answers, but they might not be the ones you want."

"You knew Leola?"

"Sure, who didn't? Quite a looker."

"How often did she frequent the Hen?"

Mrs. Bea glanced at her watch. "Bout every night. Steady as clock work."

"Mr. Jones come with her?"

The old lady shook her head, causing the chicken skin on her neck to wriggle like an earthworm on a hook. "Works for hisself during the day and at the glass factory down the road at night. Only seen him in here once or twice."

"Lately?"

"Last week, maybe."

"They have two kids. Who cares for them when the parents are away?" Antley asked.

"Boy's thirteen. Looks after hisself, and his little sister."

Mrs. Bea poured another shot of scotch into her glass. Before it reached her mouth, her scrawny neck began to bend and her head drooped forward. Then her hand, still clutching the glass, sagged against the bar. For a moment Sam and Sheriff Antley thought she had passed out. When Sam cleared his throat, the sound echoed against the large open room's bare walls, and Mrs. Bea opened one eye and grinned again.

"Gonna swallow my teeth one of these days doing that."

Sheriff Antley ignored her flippancy and said, "Was Leola seeing anyone special?"

“What do you mean?”

“I think you know what I mean. Did she have a boyfriend?”

"Bobby Hartley."

"He from around here?"

"From up the road in Texas. Been sweet on Leola for a couple months now."

"Was he in here last night?"

Mrs. Bea didn't have to think about her answer. "He's in here every night."

"Did he leave with Leola?" Antley asked.

"No, but he weren't five minutes behind her after she did."

"What does Bobby Hartley drive?"

"Pretty little red Ford pickup."

Sheriff Antley edged closer to Mrs. Bea and rested his elbows on the bar. "Mrs. Bea, where did they go when they left here? You know, don't you?"
The old lady's green eyes flashed and facial skin wrinkled into her patented grin. "Sure. So does everyone else that comes in here. They go parking out on one of them oil well leases. Over by Spillway Road."

Antley pulled away from the bar. "Her husband know?"

"Sure he knew, but that didn't stop her."

"Ever notice any bruises on her arms or legs? A black eye, maybe?"

Mrs. Bea cackled. "No, but every now and then she'd get some mean dents in her car. That Chevy was her favorite possession. When Harvey got mad, he'd take it out on the car. Would make her real mad, too, and she'd give him the where-with-all. Have him crying like a baby. Forgetting why he'd done it in the first place."

Sheriff Antley pointed toward the door and Sam nodded. Mrs. Bea's head was now lying on the bar in a pool of scotch and they didn't bother saying goodbye. When they reached the squad car, the radio was squawking and Velma was on the line.

"Sheriff, the divers found something in the bayou."

"Like what?"

"A hammer."

"Claw hammer?"

"Ball peen. No rust but there's traces of blood on the handle."

"Good work, Velma," Sheriff Antley said, signing off.

Sam cranked down the windows and said, "Gonna look up Bobby Hartley?"

"Nope," Sheriff Antley said. "He didn't do it."

Sam pulled off his hat, combing the strands of damp hair off his forehead. Then he sat there, rubbing the tip of his nose and looking confused. "Pardon me, Sheriff, but how do you know that?"

"You have a television, don't you Sam?"

"Sure. Almost a year now."

"Ever watch the Lone Ranger?"

"You bet I do."

Sheriff Antley paused as he scratched his chin. "Did you see the one where the Lone Ranger and Tonto were hot on the trail of three bank robbers?"

"Sure did. They was running from the posse and only had two horses"

"That's the one. How do you think the Lone Ranger knew there were three robbers on the two horses instead of only two?"

"Easy, Sheriff. Tonto got down in the dirt and studied the hoof prints. One set was deeper than the other."

"Exactly. Now lets go see Harvey Jones."

***

Sam was still digesting Sheriff Antley's story as he spun the car's tires in loose gravel. Leola and Harvey lived in a wood-framed house where Harvey ran a welding shop out of his garage. When Sam saw Jones' truck, heavy equipment weighing down its rear end, he understood the story's meaning. On the ramshackle porch, sitting in a swing, was Harvey Jones and his daughter Lila. Harvey Jr. peered out at them from behind the screen door. Harvey was a big man with thin blond hair bleached almost white by constant exposure to the sun. He was shirtless beneath his faded overalls. Antithetic to the rest of his body, his face was round and cherubic. It made him look about ten. As Sam and Sheriff Antley approached the porch, Harvey put his big face into his hands and began to cry. Lila tossed back her long brown hair, her mother's hair, and joined her father in his tears.

Sam and Sheriff Antley waited until Harvey Jones kissed his daughter's forehead and pulled away from her grasp. Harvey Jr. watched his father get out of the swing, holding out his wrists, waiting for Sam to cuff him.

"I'm ready, Sheriff."

"You okay, Harvey?" Sheriff Antley asked.

"My head hurts, but I'm making it." Harvey Jr. had come outside and was hugging the pine tree in the front yard.

"We need to see you downtown," Antley said.

"What about the kids?"

"Drive them to your sister's and drop them off. We'll wait for you at the station."

Harvey Jones hugged his daughter, who had joined him in the front yard.

"Thanks, Sheriff," he said.

Without waiting, Sheriff Antley retraced his steps to the squad car. Sam followed, still confused. The Pontiac started on the first crank and they headed toward town. Halfway there, a knowing grin spread over Sam's face.

"Now I know why he did it. Jealous rage, pure and simple. Everyone knew Leola was fooling around, and where she went when she left the bar. It wasn't hard for Harvey to find out, even though he didn't believe it at first. He followed Leola and Bobby to the lease road, grabbing his hammer from the truck when he saw the car."

"You're on the right track," Sheriff Antley said. "What else?"

"Velma was drunk but managed to wrestle off her girdle before passing out against the steering wheel. When they finished what they was doing, Bobby left her there and drove home. Harvey saw the girdle in the front seat and Leola's skirt hiked up to her navel and must have lost it. That's when he killed her in a jealous rage."

"You got it about half right," Antley said.

Sam took his eyes off the road, giving Sheriff Antley an appraising once-over. He returned his attention to the front of the Pontiac when a rabbit scurried in front of their path.

When he recovered his composure, he said, "If Harvey didn't kill her, who did?"

"Oh, Harvey killed her all right, but if he'd done it on purpose he wouldn't have knocked out the windshield and busted the dash. He just lost his temper and started swinging the hammer, but it wasn't Leola he intended to take his rage out on. It was her car. My bet is the poor slob nailed her by accident."

Sheriff Antley paused for Sam to digest his hypothesis.

"When Harvey realized he'd killed Leola, he likely bawled like a baby. When he thought of the kids, he carted her body down the hill to the bayou and tossed her in hoping we'd think she fell in and drowned. After sleeping on it, I guess he'd already decided to go ahead and confess."

After a moment, Sam said, "You think he'll come in on his own, Sheriff?"

"He'll come. He may well be a killer but he's not a liar."

As always, the sheriff's words rang true. After scratching the hook of his big nose, Sam gunned the engine and finished the short drive to Bixley in silence.

END


Eric Wilder is the author of the French Quarter Mystery Series, and the Paranormal Cowboy Series.. Please check out his books on his Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBook author pages

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