Be aware that this story takes place in the deep South, 46 years ago. Times and attitudes have changed. You may find some of the language strong and offensive but please bear with it, the story is well worth it.
St. Ynez Island, The Caribbean
The rim of the lowering sun blazed like a halo around the thick, silvery hair of the man across the table. In his spotless tennis whites and with jagged fronds of greenery framing the blinding sky and azure sea at his back, he looked like a model in an ad for an expensive wristwatch.
“Have you had adequate time to evaluate the materials?” He indicated with his smoothly tanned chin the bulging expansion folder that lay on the linen cloth between them. The writer nodded. He was hot and uncomfortable and slightly irritated, still wearing the clothes he had been in when he had left New York aboard the private jet.
He had assumed there would be a room waiting for him when he arrived on the island. But there had not. An open Jeep driven by a large, uncommunicative black man in a muscle tee-shirt had collected him at the tiny air strip and he had been driven over unpaved roads directly to this cottage, where a cold buffet and an assortment of non-alcoholic beverages awaited him on the seaside patio.
He had found the thick folder beside his plate. The attached note suggested that he might wish to review its contents before meeting with his host.
They had given him four hours with the folder. He ate his lunch and looked through the materials inside, a collection of faded news clippings, a long typewritten monograph filled with undocumented personal recollections and a handful of Xeroxed public records.
He’d spent the remaining time gazing at the empty blue sea and desperately attempting to reconcile all that he had just absorbed with what he remembered of history.
The contents of the folder purported that history was wrong. Grossly so.
By the time his host finally arrived, he had a pounding headache. His temples were throbbing. “…would like your honest professional opinion.” He looked up, realizing that the man across the table was addressing him. The other’s dark glasses combined with the setting sun at his back to make his face an unreadable mask of shadowed planes and muted reflections.
The writer touched the folder. “Well, this presents quite a compelling… theory,” he began as diplomatically as possible. “And one that I must admit I have never heard fielded before,” he added.
The man across the table smiled. “But it proves nothing. That was going to be your next remark?”
The writer shrugged. “That’s true…unless one of your unnamed sources should come forward to confirm–”
“There’s little likelihood of that,” the other interrupted. “But I thought perhaps you might consider writing a book about the affair.”
“Unfortunately,” the writer replied, “without the principal witnesses to substantiate the key elements of your, ah, theory, it remains only supposition and hearsay. And, as you must be aware, unproved theories about the assassination of Martin Luther King are in abundant supply. There have been numerous books…”
“I understand all of that.”
“Besides,” the writer pointed out. “I wouldn’t be the right person for a job like this in any case. Though I’ve done some non-fiction in the past, I now write novels exclusively.”
“But that is exactly what I had in mind!”
“A novel?” The writer shifted uncomfortably in his seat. “But why? I mean, what would be the point?”
“Other than the fact that my version of events is, as you say, compelling?”
“It certainly is that,” the writer conceded. “But from your perspective, why?” He glanced meaningfully at their lush surroundings. “It doesn’t appear that you’re in particular need of money.”
His host stood and turned to face the sea. The writer followed his gaze and was surprised to discover that the beach was no longer deserted. A beautiful young woman with raven hair was running toward them at the water’s edge. Her perfect figure was barely concealed by the bright yellow bikini she wore, and her bronzed limbs glistened magically in the fading light.
“Years ago,” said the other, watching the runner, “I attempted to reveal the truth, or at least as much of it as I know, about the assassination. I only succeeded in bringing tragedy upon myself and my family. And I failed to prove anything. I am now convinced that the truth will probably never be revealed in any official way.” He turned to face the writer. “But the story might still be told by someone like yourself, using fictitious names and changing certain details.”
The writer was surprised when the lovely runner on the beach suddenly angled toward the cottage. His host waved to her. “You see,” he said, “I owe it to someone to see that the knowledge I possess is made public, if only in the pages of a novel.”
The young woman stepped onto the patio and he introduced her to the writer as his daughter. She was, the writer later learned over an excellent dinner, a surgical resident at UCLA. Her mother had been tragically killed by a hit and run driver when she was a child, and she obviously adored the father who had raised her.
That evening, she drove the writer back to the airstrip where the private jet was waiting. Just before he boarded, she confided to him that her father, despite his robust appearance, was not at all well. The weary writer, who had been hoping to sleep on the plane, instead sat clutching the thick expansion folder in his lap all the way back to New York.
Thursday, March 21, 1968
It was starting to snow again, as it had been doing on and off in western Tennessee for the past twelve hours. The light flurries were thinly mixed with freezing drizzle that stuck stubbornly to the windshield of the speeding pickup truck and clumped in patches on the shiny green paint. The pickup’s teenage driver frowned worriedly, then without warning he turned off the main highway and onto a narrow road bordered by heavy forest, nervous now about having taken the truck in the first place, and anxious to return it before he and his accomplice were found out.
His frightened passenger turned and looked back in disbelief at the well-traveled road they had just left. “Where you going, man?” he demanded in a high, squeaky voice. “This ain’t the right way.”
“Shut your mouth,” said the driver. “I’m taking a shortcut.”
The other shook his head in disbelief. “What if we get stuck?” he whined. Or lost back here?”
“We’re not going to get lost,” the driver told him. “I been back in these old woods lots of times. Nobody ever uses this road at night.”
“We shouldn’t have done this,” moaned his passenger. “We gonna get caught.” He directed an accusatory look at the driver. “This is all your fault.”
“I didn’t know it was going to start snowing again, did I?” countered the driver. “Now just be quiet and it’ll be okay.”
“We’re gonna get caught,” said the other with finality. Through the frozen windshield the lights of another vehicle glared in the trees ahead. “You said nobody never uses this road,” he murmured.
Unsettled by the approaching headlights, the driver touched the brakes, causing the truck to swerve on the slippery pavement. “Shut up!” he yelled. As they shot past the other car he glimpsed the red plastic dome light affixed to its roof. “They’re turning around,” shouted his panicked passenger, peering out through the back window. “Oh man, they’re turning around and coming after us.”
Before he could reply, the driver saw the red light atop the police car begin flashing in his rear view mirror. “Just be cool,” he said, glancing across the truck cab. He spotted a glint of light reflecting from the surface of the long dark object on the seat between them. “And hide that thing,” he hissed. His youthful companion stared from the damning object on the seat to the blaze of red light filling the rear window. “No way,” he said, stubbornly shaking his head as the pickup slowed to a bumpy halt. “I’m not touching it. You stole it, you hide it.”
Shelby Forest, Tennessee
The best thing about Reuben’s cabin was the window.
Layton Thomas stood naked in the moonlight, smiling at that thought. His own ghostly reflection, dark, deep set eyes and twice-broken nose framed in a close-cropped brush of black hair that made his ears seem more prominent than they really were, smiled back at him from the big square of aluminum framed plate glass that his eccentric friend had installed in the rough rectangle he had chainsawed out of the front wall of the antebellum trapper’s cabin, in brazen defiance of both architectural good taste and historic integrity.
Thomas’ smile broadened. Reuben was crazy.
But then, Reuben was also rich; rich enough to have reportedly informed the horrified doyens of the Shelby County Historical Society, and the state park service too, that they could all kiss his rosy pink ass if they didn’t like his window. For Reuben had, by God, wanted a view of the Mississippi.
And a hell of a view it was too.
Just beyond the rustic porch of rough hewn logs the snow covered forest floor sloped gently down to the edge of a bluff overlooking the river fifty yards away. And on clear moonlit nights like this the jagged black silhouettes of a few old growth pines left from the original homestead clearing stood in stark perspective against the sparkling surface of the river.
Two miles away across the great water the clouds above the uninhabited lowlands on the Arkansas side were a dark smudge delineating the western horizon from the clear, starry sky. It was a view that had gone unchanged in the hundred-odd years since Reuben’s great grandfather had cleared his little riverfront homestead and knocked together a snug cabin from the resultant harvest of straight, close-grained timbers; a view that had once framed the passage of majestic paddle wheelers pushing upriver to St. Louis with cargoes of imported fancies direct from Paris, then glided back on down to the port of New Orleans, with stops at every little Mississippi and Louisiana quay along the way to collect the numberless 500-pound bales of slave-produced cotton that fed the insatiable mills of Europe.
In the 1860’s, Union gunboats had sailed within hailing distance of this spot, taking command of the river and severing the most vital of rebel supply routes; shelling waterfront strongholds, disgorging troops to occupy key waterfront cities and, ultimately, pinning the gray coats beneath the crushing onslaught of advancing Northern armies.
But before the end had come, a bloody battle had been waged for Memphis–so many rifle balls fired and weapons dropped by dead and dying soldiers that they could still be easily found on the nearby mud flats when the river was low.
And, from this very piece of riverbank, one might have viewed at first hand the fiery drama of one of the cruelest and most ironic tragedies of the great and bloody civil war.
Beating upriver on the night of April 27 1865, the steamboat Sultana exploded and capsized in a violent storm. Her precious cargo–sick and wounded survivors of the horrible Confederate prison at Andersonville–was dumped into the swift, cold river. But for a handful who found salvation in the rowing skiff of a heroic former slave as they were swept past Memphis just to the south, all aboard were drowned. 1450 newly liberated Union soldiers perished that night, a death toll exceeding even that of the mighty White Star liner Titanic half a century later. The Civil War had ended just two weeks earlier.
Shortly after arriving in Memphis, Thomas had visited the little park dedicated to the black man who had rowed his frail craft into the stormy waters again and again to save the twice-damned soldiers. Like nearly everything else of historic interest in Memphis, Tom Lee Memorial Park, a weed infested patch of ground surrounding a stained bronze plaque, had been a great disappointment to the displaced Californian. But that was Memphis for you.
Reuben’s window rattled sharply in its frame as a hard blast of wind struck it, reminding Thomas why he was standing there naked in the cold.
He listened closely to the rattling window now, wondering if it was what had awakened him: Moments before, he had been dozing by the hearth when a harsh volley of closely spaced reports had jolted him back to consciousness. Coming up out of his warm dreamy fog, he had imagined the flat pop-popping to be the sound of distant gunfire.
But standing here with the sparkling river rolling silently past Reuben’s incongruous picture window, Thomas was no longer certain if gunfire was what he had heard.
For he frequently dreamed of being shot at.
Another gust buffeted the window and he placed his hand on the cold pane to still the harsh staccato clatter of glass on metal. Despite the heat radiating from the flat native stones of the fireplace at his back, the cold of the raw March night on the other side of the window chilled his fingertips and raised goose bumps on his skin. He released the glass and listened to the rattle again, smiling at his own paranoia. What he had heard had probably not been gunfire at all. Just the wind hitting Reuben’s poorly glazed window.
Anyway, he decided, it was time to get dressed and go. Because at Reuben’s cabin you could drink and screw and holler as much as you wanted, but you could not stay the whole night. That was the first of Reuben’s two rules.
Thomas turned and looked at the girl.
Her name was Janice. Janice Fordyce. She was twenty-one–three years younger than himself–a graduate nursing student at the city’s prestigious Mossler Presbyterian Hospital. She was also beautiful, funny, intelligent and a passionate lover. And Layton Thomas was madly in love with her.
He saw by the light of the fire that she was awake and watching him from the comfortable old bentwood sofa by the hearth. One smoothly muscled leg dangled like an irresistible bait from the folds of the Indian trade blanket she had wrapped herself in after they had made love. Her short blond hair shone red in the firelight and she was smiling reproachfully. “You let me fall asleep,” she accused.
He crossed the cold bleached floorboards and bent to kiss her. “You looked so tired, I thought…” he began.
Her arms slipped up around his neck and she pulled him down to her. “Well, now that I’m refreshed…” she whispered in her soft, slightly breathless mid-south drawl. Leaving the sentence unfinished, she nipped his earlobe with her small, even teeth, tugging insistently at it.
“Uh uh,” he said without much resolve. “We have to be out of here or Reuben will kill me.” He grimaced. “Then there’s your parents to think about…” Thomas straightened and took half a step back from the sofa. Her arms stayed wrapped around him and her long, pale body emerged from the blanket like the blooming of an exotic flower. “My parents go to bed at ten o’clock,” she said when her narrow hips were pressed tightly against his. “And they’re both heavy sleepers.
Thomas grinned and they rolled back onto the sofa, giggling like naughty children.
The moon was gone and the stars were vanishing beneath the leading edge of another approaching storm front as the couple hurried out to his old MG roadster, carrying with them a paper Kroger’s sack filled with leftover picnic supplies and an empty Wild Turkey bottle–Reuben’s second rule: You took away everything that you brought to the cabin.
Thomas scraped the snow from the windshield and folded his six-two frame into the little sports car with practiced ease. Janice slipped into the worn leather passenger seat beside him and squealed in sudden shock. “My God,” she gasped, “this seat is like a block of ice!”
“That’s the price you pay for wearing those scandalous miniskirts so all the other boys can see your gorgeous legs.” Thomas affected a villainous laugh and punched the dashboard starter button. As always, the cold-blooded little English engine groaned rebelliously for a few suspense filled seconds before finally stuttering to life.
“The heater!” Janice demanded through chattering teeth. “Turn on the bloody heater!”
“Heater? What bloody heater? Haven’t you heard? The Brits don’t believe in heaters.” He grinned and expertly backed the small red car around in a tight circle before slamming the shift lever into first gear and racing away up a narrow dirt track cut straight back through the thicker woods behind the cabin.
Two minutes later they bumped up onto a recently plowed park road and turned right toward the lights of Memphis, ten miles to the south. Janice fumbled with the cheap eight-track tape player he’d clumsily wired into the tiny storage console between the seats. Joe Cocker’s whiskey drenched voice wailed over the rhythmic clink of the MG’s tire chains.
Driving through groves of bare-limbed ash and maple, they passed a grassy triangle bordered by whitewashed stones. In its center an elaborately carved wooden sign marked with prominent green arrows pointed the way to the Meeman-Shelby Forest ranger station, the public picnic grounds and the Historic River Walk.
Janice squinted out at the sign and lowered the volume on the tape player. “I don’t understand how Reuben can have a cabin in a state park,” she said.
Thomas grinned. “He got it under some kind of grandfather clause,” he explained. For he too had been curious about the odd arrangement, and he had once asked Reuben about it.
Janice, an avid liberal, frowned suspiciously. “The so-called Grandfather Clauses were part of a group of antiquated Jim Crow laws used to keep Negroes from voting,” she coldly informed him.
“Well, except that this has nothing to do with race or voting, it’s the same thing,” he said. “The idea being that you couldn’t do something unless your grandfather had already done it before you.
“In the case of Shelby Forest, when the state decided to turn this wilderness area into a park they excluded any property that was already settled. As a result, there are still a number of privately owned farms and cabins scattered among the 40,000 odd acres of park land. If it makes you feel any better, several of the farms are owned by black families whose ancestors received the land during Reconstruction; for faithful service to the Union during the Civil War.”
“Well, I guess that’s fair enough,” she conceded.
Thomas shook his head. “Not according to Reuben it isn’t. The park covenants prohibit the private land from ever being sold. It can only be passed on to members of the owners’ immediate families, which is how Reuben came to own the cabin his great grandfather built. Now the state is constructing a levee along the river to protect the low lying areas of the park from flooding, and they want the owners of the private land to share the cost.”
He was about to add that the Shelby Forest property owners, white and black alike, were preparing to jointly sue the state of Tennessee in federal court to stop the unfair assessment. But Janice interrupted by touching his arm.
“What do you think is happening up there?” she asked.
He followed her gaze to the roadside ahead. Though the area was thickly forested, through the trees he made out the shape of a green and white county sheriff’s car parked a little way down a dirt side road. Behind and to the left of the sheriff’s car sat a tan Ford sedan with no markings.
The headlights of both vehicles were shining on a late model pickup truck that was slewed around on the dirt road, with one front wheel in a ditch.
Three men stood aiming bright flashlights at something on the snowy ground behind the truck.
“There must have been an accident,” said Janice. “We’d better stop and see if anyone was hurt. They may need help.”
Thomas obediently pulled over to the shoulder, braking at the icy intersection and sliding to a clumsy stop at the turnoff to the road. The three men by the disabled truck looked up. They exchanged a few hurried words before one of them, a tall, skinny guy with an odd pigeon-toed gait, came running toward the MG, waving a flashlight.
As the man hurried up the road and entered the wash of his headlights, Thomas could clearly see the silver badge glinting on his chest, and he recognized the khaki uniform of a county sheriff’s deputy. And in that same moment, something else tugged at his mind too: Something about the peculiar way the man ran seemed vaguely familiar.
“You in the sports car, go back!” shouted the running deputy in a high, thin voice. “This road is closed.”
Thomas slid back the plastic window in the canvas side curtain and waited for the panting deputy to arrive. “What’s going on, officer?” he asked as the man skidded to a halt beside his door. The deputy leaned down and scowled at him. “Serious accident back up in the woods,” he huffed officiously. “I need you to clear this road right now for the ambulance, sir.”
“I’m a registered nurse. Can I help, officer?” Before the gangly deputy could reply, Janice had opened her door and was standing beside the car. The color went out of the man’s face and his eyes darted back to his companions beside the truck.
“No!” shouted the deputy. He saw the confusion in Janice’s expression and forced a grim smile. “Nothing you can do here, Miss,” he said evenly. But thanks for stopping… Now if you all will just clear the road.”
“Fletcher! Bobby Fletcher! I thought I recognized you.”
The deputy whirled as if he’d been sucker punched in a bar fight. Then Thomas was out of the car grinning at him. “It’s me, Fletcher, “he said. “Layton Thomas, from the reserve unit. We were together on that ten mile fitness run last summer.”
The deputy shone his light into Thomas’ face and squinted. “Hollywood!” he croaked, using the stupid nickname that Thomas’s Marine drill instructors had hung on him at Parris Island, upon discovering that he was from L.A. “What in the hell you doin’ out here in the middle of the night, boy?”
Fletcher glanced over at Janice who was still peering down the road toward the truck, and a sly glimmer of understanding flickered in his eyes. “Look, Hollywood, you all had better clear out of here right now,” he said in a curious husky whisper.
Thomas nodded. “Whatever you say, Bobby. You’re the boss out here,” he replied gratuitously. “What’s going on anyway?”
“Are you sure they don’t need any medical help?” Janice was still looking down the dirt road. A big heavyset man dressed in a white shirt and tie over dark slacks had stepped away from the slightly built blond deputy beside the pickup and was walking slowly toward them.
“Look, good buddy, this is sort of an undercover thing, and I’m gonna get in a whole helluva lot of trouble with my boss if you two don’t get your butts out of here right now.” Bobby Fletcher glanced nervously back at the big man. He had stopped in front of the tan Ford and was glaring up the road at them.
“Gotcha!” Thomas jerked his head at Janice. “Let’s go, honey,” he said, climbing back into the car.
“But if somebody’s hurt, don’t you think I should at least go down and take a look at…”
“Janice, now! Get in the car,” he snapped. Something in Bobby Fletcher’s eyes and the hostile stare of the heavyset man by the Ford told Thomas that whatever was going on down the dirt road was better left alone. He heard the angry slam of Janice’s door as he jerked the shift lever into reverse.
“See you Saturday, Bobby,” he told Fletcher. Then he backed the MG out onto the blacktop and sped away.
Deputy Bobby Fletcher just stood there watching them go. A muscle twitched like a miniature heartbeat beneath his right eye.
“Layton, what in God’s name was that all about?” Janice demanded as they headed at high speed into a tree lined curve.
“I don’t know,” said Layton Thomas. He glanced into the rear view mirror and caught a final glimpse of the lights on the police cars. “And I don’t think I want to know.”
“But you do know that deputy,” she said.
Thomas nodded. “Yeah, I know him… Look, I’m sorry I yelled. That scene was just a little too weird.”
Janice pouted for a minute or so. Then she giggled and prodded him in the ribs. “Do they really call you Hollywood in the Marines?”
“Unfortunately,” he replied.
A Road With No Name
When the taillights of the red sports car had disappeared from view, Bobby Fletcher turned and walked slowly back down the road to the unmarked Ford sedan. His palms were sweating in the chill night air and he felt like he was going to puke.
Sheriff’s Detective Duwayne “Dub” McIntyre was standing in the glare of the headlights, watching him through pale, bloodshot eyes. The hulking detective’s normally ruddy complexion was flushed bright red and his bushy black eyebrows were beetled together over the bulbous ruin of his veined drinker’s nose.
“What the fuck was that all about?” he growled as the young deputy stopped and leaned heavily against the Ford.
Fletcher started to say it had just been someone he knew from his reserve outfit. Then he thought better of making matters even more complicated than they already were by having to explain that Hollywood was okay and wouldn’t ask any questions. McIntyre was already in a very dangerous mood. No sense giving him something else to holler about.
“Nothing,” Bobby Fletcher lied. “Just some guy and his girlfriend thought there was an accident. She was a nurse and wanted to know if we needed any help. I thanked them and said everything was under control.”
Dub McIntyre scrutinized the gangly deputy’s plain farm boy face for several agonizing seconds. Then he shook his ugly head and spat into the dust at Fletcher’s feet. “Well everything is most definitely not under control, Bobby,” he said menacingly. “You and your dumb-ass partner have fucked up in a major way, and now you are in a whole world of shit. You understand what I’m saying to you, son?”
Bobby Fletcher nodded miserably. “I swear to Jesus, Dub, it was a goddamn accident…” he began.
McIntyre reached out and clapped a fat freckled hand on his shoulder. “Don’t make one fuckin’ bit of difference what it was, Bobby,” he said sympathetically. “They can hang you and Peebles just as high for what you done. And by God they will. You count on it.” He stepped back and surveyed the distraught deputy with distaste. “Now you wipe the snot off your nose and get your tail back down to that pickup right now.”
“Aw shit, Dub.” Fletcher clumsily swiped his uniform sleeve under his dripping nose and followed the big man like a whipped hound to the rear of the disabled truck.
Marvin Peebles, a slightly built deputy with thinning blond hair and narrow, acne scarred features, looked up hopefully at their approach.
“Hey, I’ve been thinking about it,” Peebles said confidently. “No way anybody’s gonna see this as anything but a clear cut case of self defense. I mean, me and Bobby both saw the driver reaching for–“
McIntyre casually backhanded him across the face with a ham sized fist. Peebles yelped and fell heavily into the ditch at the side of the road. “Marvin, kindly keep your stupid mouth shut,” the big detective ordered in a conversational tone. Peebles clutched his bloody mouth in his small hands and mumbled something incomprehensible.
Bobby Fletcher’s face darkened and he took a hesitant step forward. “Hey now, Uncle Dub, there’s no call for–“
The detective pointed a threatening finger at the tall deputy. “You too, Bobby. Just close your mouth. And go turn those damn headlights off,” McIntyre snapped. “Peebles, you get your ass up out of the dirt. And consider yourself luckier than shit that Bobby here is my only sister’s boy, and that he had sense enough to go to that telephone up the road and call me instead of radioing the dispatcher. Else I’d let the pair of you take the fall for this shit.”
Peebles scrambled hurriedly to his feet while Bobby Fletcher ran to douse the lights on the patrol car and McIntyre’s Ford. When he came back, the two deputies waited silently in the dark while McIntyre fumbled an unfiltered Lucky Strike from his shirt pocket and lit it with a battered WW II Zippo bearing an enameled representation of the navy submarine service’s twin dolphins.
“Now,” said Dub McIntyre, blowing a ragged stream of smoke into the rising wind, “let me see if I have the full picture: Peebles is riding along with you for familiarization, Bobby, ’cause he’s gonna start workin’ the north end of the county next week. You two boys are short-cutting through the forest here on the way over to your routine patrol area when you see this brand shiny new Chevy pickup weaving down the road from the opposite direction.”
Both Fletcher and Peebles nodded eagerly and Marvin Peebles opened his mouth to speak. McIntyre cut him off with a stern look.
“As the truck goes by,” he continued, “you get a quick peek inside and see a couple of black bodies. And from the way they’re driving, you figure they either been drinking a whole lot of cheap liquor or they stole this nice new Chevy truck. Or both. So you cut you a fast 180 and hit your red lights and siren. The Chevy slows down right away, but that blacktop park road is just a little narrow for a safe traffic stop. So you have ’em pull off down this little dirt track here. I got it about right so far?”
“Well, we didn’t have time to clock them, but when they was coming at us it looked to me like maybe they were speeding too,” Peebles timidly offered.
McIntyre scowled at him. “Marvin, honey, I don’t care if it looked to you like maybe they was cornholin’ J. Edgar-fucking-Hoover in the pickup bed. I’m talking about what happened.
“And what happened is you two boys stopped them right here. Then you got out of your car. And you thought you saw the driver point a weapon at you. That right?”
“Well, we thought it was a gun,” Bobby Fletcher murmured.
McIntyre suddenly knelt beside the truck and scooped something from the snow. He tossed the object at Fletcher who caught it and looked down at the slender brown cylinder glinting in his hand.
“But it wasn’t really a gun at all, was it Bobby?”
Fletcher shook his head like a confused donkey.
“Nossir! It was just that fucking half bottle of Dixie Beer you got in your hand there.” McIntyre’s laugh was caustic. “But of course you two boys didn’t know that then. So naturally you both just pulled out your service revolvers right quick and emptied them into the cab of the pickup. That right too?”
They nodded in dumb unison.
Dub McIntyre shook his big bulldog head in amazement. “Christ on a crutch,” he chuckled. “I’d say you’re about two of the dumbest fucks as ever took a shit ‘tween a pair of Sheriff’s Department socks.”
The two frightened deputies automatically cast their eyes down to their feet, but neither of them said anything.
“Now,” the detective continued in a matter of fact tone, “if we were, say, thirty miles south–across the state line in Mississippi–and you shot two drunk black men driving a stolen pickup, why everybody knows they’d probably give you a fucking medal.” He turned and lumbered a few steps down the road, then stopped and seemed to reconsider.
“Hell,” he hollered, whirling back to face them, “even right here, on the outskirts of a great big progressive city like Memphis, Tennessee, and even with the Jew politicians getting into office and the school integration starting up and the black garbage men having their goddamn protest marches down the middle of Main Street, you’d probably still get off with a slap on the wrist…if shooting a couple of drunk niggers in a stolen pickup was what you actually done.”
McIntyre tossed his half smoked cigarette to the ground and crushed it beneath the sole of a highly polished brown ankle boot. He looked thoughtful for a moment. Then he bent to retrieve the crumpled butt and shoved it into his pants pocket.
“But, unfortunately, you boys didn’t kill two drunk black men in a stolen pickup truck out here tonight,” he said, taking Bobby Fletcher’s six-cell flashlight and switching it on. He played the powerful beam across the muddy license plate attached to the pickup’s rear bumper.
“See, I took the time to run a check on this tag after I got your phone call. And this truck is not stolen.” McIntyre showed them a stubby, nicotine stained index finger. “So that’s problem number one.”
The circle of illumination from the flashlight slid down to a small crumpled body lying in a dark pool in the snow a few feet from the open passenger door of the truck.
“And problem number two,” said McIntyre, raising another finger for them to see and kneeling to shine the beam of light into the cruelly mutilated face of the corpse on the ground, “is that this definitely ain’t no black man. This here is a goddamn little black boy, no more than maybe twelve years old.”
The hulking cop stood and wagged his big head wearily. “And the one behind the wheel in the cab isn’t much older,” he said. “Fifteen, to be exact. Got him a brand new learner’s permit with his name on it right there in his pocket. And this pickup belongs to his daddy, all legal and proper.”
“But it looked like he had a gun,” Peebles squeaked.
Moving with a degree of speed that was nothing short of astonishing for a man of his great size and bulk, McIntyre whipped a blue Colt .38 Police Special from the holster slung beneath his left arm and pressed the stubby barrel hard into the deputy’s right eye socket. “No! This is what a gun looks like, you stupid little piece of shit,” he screamed.
“What you did, was you murdered two children riding down a country road in their daddy’s truck. Now, you say you killed ’em because they were trying to get rid of a fucking beer bottle that you took for a gun…”
McIntyre’s voice suddenly turned low and sinister. “But the real truth is, Marvin, you killed them because you just plain hate little nigger boys. Now isn’t that so?”
Peebles squirmed and tried unsuccessfully to shake his head in denial of the charge. Bobby Fletcher’s face went white with horror. “No, Uncle Dub. That ain’t so.”
The big cop smiled and winked at Fletcher. “Well now, that’s what the county prosecutor’s gonna say to the jury, Marvin.” McIntyre kept his gun pressed to Peebles’ eye. “And do you know why he’s gonna say that, instead of taking your word that you made an honest mistake?”
Peebles whimpered and shook his head.
Dub McIntyre leaned close and whispered softly into the sobbing deputy’s ear. “Well, if you’d ever read anything but the fucking comic books and girlie magazines, you’d know that Memphis and Shelby County been tearing themselves to pieces over the goddamned garbage strike and all this civil rights bullshit for months. Hell, boy, right now every black communist preacher and liberal rabble rouser in the country, from Martin Luther Koon on down, is heading to Memphis to march with them striking garbage men. And do you know why that is, Marvin? It’s because they’re all saying we ain’t doing enough for black equality here; that we discriminate against niggers.
McIntyre shoved Peebles away in disgust. Then he carefully re-holstered his revolver and lit himself another cigarette.
“So now, Marvin,” the detective said after a few puffs, “I want you to try to pretend for just a minute that you’re the county prosecutor, and that two dumb shitheads like you and Bobby suddenly fall right into your lap. Well, you got yourself the chance of a lifetime, boy. A chance to take the city and county both off the hook by proving to the whole world how really fair Memphis and Shelby County can be to black folks, when they set their minds to it.”
Dub McIntyre took another long drag on his Lucky and grinned at Peebles, showing a set of badly stained dentures. “Shit, the mayor, the city and county councils, every-damn-body is gonna absolutely love your ass, Marvin. And they’re all gonna owe you favors too. Big favors.
“Oh yeah, I almost forgot,” he added. “Just coincidentally, you’ll also turn yourself into a national hero by throwing the fucking book at the stupid county cops who murdered those two poor little black children out in Shelby Forest.”
McIntyre leaned forward and squinted theatrically. “You starting to see the Big Picture now, Marvin?” He blew a cloud of smoke into Deputy Marvin Peeble’s bloodless face and laughed, a deep evil sound. “No doubt about it, son. Old county prosecutor, he’s gonna make you his sacrificial lamb. You and great big dumb old Bobby here. Gonna send you boys up to that maximum security state penitentiary at Brushy Mountain with all them nasty, pissed off, dangerous nigger convicts.
“Hell, boy, it won’t matter whether they give you six months or sixty years,” McIntyre chuckled “Cause a little piss ant like you ain’t really gonna last up there at Brushy Mountain, Marvin. I’m not a gambling man, but I’d give long odds on you making it maybe three days. A week, tops.”
“Oh Jesus!” Peebles sobbed. “Sweet Jesus!”
“Jesus can’t save your sorry ass now, Marvin. But I might can. You and old Bobby here.” McIntyre scowled at the cowed pair. “If you do exactly what I tell you to do. And I do mean exactly, boys.”
“Anything, Uncle Dub,” Bobby Fletcher whispered, his reedy voice cracking with emotion. “We’ll do anything you say.”
McIntyre nodded thoughtfully. “Well then, first off, we got to make it so this whole unfortunate incident tonight never happened at all.” He jerked his chin toward the small pathetic body on the ground. “Can’t have that poor little feller and his big brother showing up in the county morgue all full of police bullets, now can we?”
Marvin Peebles’ eyes grew wide. “You mean we have to get rid of the bodies?”
McIntyre wagged his ugly head in feigned disbelief. “Marvin, son, you are just plain eat up with the dumb-ass, ain’t you? Now you take a look around you. You two boys put more holes in this nice new Chevy truck here than a pound of Swiss cheese. And for every bullet hole there’s a bullet.
“That means you got to get rid of everything. This truck and every goddamned thing in it has got to vanish, just like a rabbit in a magician’s hat.” The detective glanced at his cheap steel watch. “And you got to do it pretty damn quick too. So get started.”
The stunned deputies stared at him. “But Uncle Dub,” said Bobby Fletcher, “how are we gonna make a whole truck disappear?”
Detective Duwayne McIntyre stepped back and plopped his generous ass down on the fender of his unmarked Ford sedan. “I’m gonna talk you through it, Bobby,” he said. “You start by putting that poor little dead boy back in that truck. Then you take your flashlights and you pick up every scrap of everything that’s not dirt for fifty feet around.”
McIntyre lit a new Lucky from the stub of the old one and watched the young deputies approach the small body in the bloodstained snow. In fact, the detective did not really care one way or the other whether his sister’s stupid boy Bobby and his equally stupid companion ended up in the state penitentiary.
But Dub McIntyre had been in law enforcement long enough to know that the unjustified killing of two black children at the hands of a couple of Southern sheriff’s deputies in the year 1968 was certain to bring a veritable horde of federal and state investigators down on the sheriff’s department, like stink on shit.
And the last thing the old cop wanted, just one year short of his retirement, was a bunch of outsiders poking around in his backyard. Because outside investigators, especially if they were feds, would not be satisfied to ferret out the killers of the two kids. The righteous assholes would automatically assume that other blacks had been victimized by sheriff’s deputies in the past. And they wouldn’t stop until they had discovered exactly how many times it had happened before. And when. And at whose hands. And Detective Duwayne “Dub” McIntyre had far too many skeletons stashed in that particular closet to withstand any sort of organized scrutiny by strangers.
It was, he reasoned, far less of an actual risk to forestall any such possible investigation by simply disposing of the bullet riddled pickup truck and its occupants tonight. Then, even if the truck and its grisly cargo were ultimately discovered–and McIntyre seriously doubted that was a possibility, considering how he planned on disposing of it– nobody would be able to prove a goddamned thing.
Then, too, McIntyre reflected as he watched Bobby Fletcher lift the body of the slain child into the pickup cab and slam the door, after tonight, Peebles and Bobby were going to owe him one very Big Favor. And Dub McIntyre liked people to owe him Big Favors.
Because favors were one and the same with power.
And power had cash value.
“You still haven’t told me what you think those policemen were doing out in Shelby Forest,” Janice said.
They were sitting in a sagging plastic booth at the rear of a steamy cafe situated between the freight terminals of two major trucking companies on the far southeastern end of the city. As far as Thomas knew, the little greasy spoon was the only 24-hour eatery even slightly close to the house Janice shared with her parents in the upscale Memphis suburb of Whitehaven a few miles away.
“Of course I can’t know for sure,” he replied, toying with the mound of saffron colored scrambled eggs and thick, greasy slabs of bacon that had sounded so appetizing while they were driving. “But I’d be willing to bet it was something illegal. For one thing, it was obvious that Bobby Fletcher was scared shitless that we were going to see whatever was going on down that road.”
Janice frowned. “Illegal? You mean you think they were dealing drugs or something like that?”
Thomas sipped bitter coffee from a chipped ceramic mug and made a face. “I doubt it,” he said. “Not directly anyway. More than likely, it was some kind of shakedown. There are quite a few cops and sheriff’s deputies from all over the tri-state area in my reserve unit. The assholes are always laughing about how “some old boy” in their department pulled over a black speeder or a hippie drug dealer out in the boonies late at night. The blacks they beat up and rob. The hippies they squeeze for cash.” Thomas grimaced, recalling details of horror stories he had overheard cops bragging about in the barracks at summer reserve encampments; tales that included killings with “throwaway” guns, cars run off of steep embankments into canals, blacks who “done strangled themselves” struggling to get free of hogtied restraints fashioned with slipknots around their necks.
“Kicking the crap out of some helpless black is a safe way to boost their white superiority fantasies,” he said. “And robbing hippies supplements their crappy cop salaries. A lot of these assholes consider stuff like that a fringe benefit of their jobs. And they never get caught because nobody ever knows and nobody ever tells.”
Janice’s lovely features registered her dismay. “I really didn’t think that kind of thing happened here. Not as much as it does in other places, I mean.” She shook her head. “For some reason I thought Memphis was just a little more civilized than some Alabama backwater.”
Thomas laughed. “Trust me. It happens everywhere. It’s probably not even that much different in L.A. or Detroit. The only difference is they don’t put it in the papers here. Let’s not forget that it was police bullying that sparked the Watts riots two years ago.”
Janice frowned at him. “Well, if you thought something like that was going on out in Shelby Forest tonight why didn’t you say something? Maybe we could have stepped in…”
“And gotten our teeth knocked out for our trouble,” he completed her sentence. “Janice,” he said, feeling unreasonably like a spineless wimp for having done nothing, “when those guys are in their cop suits it’s always a no-win situation. Even if you and I could have gotten close enough to see what they were doing–which we couldn’t–it wouldn’t have changed anything. They’d stick together and claim we were the ones who caused the problem: We were interfering with them, we resisted arrest, etcetera.”
“Well, that’s really wonderful, Layton.” Janice’s voice rose angrily above the clatter of cups and saucers from the front of the coffee shop. “I can’t believe there wasn’t anything that could be done. I mean, there are laws…”
Thomas looked up to see a couple of truckers staring at them from the counter. He lowered his voice and leaned closer to Janice. “Honey, I’ve lived in close quarters with guys like Bobby Fletcher and his pals,” he said. “And while they might be just a tiny minority of Southern cops, I’ve seen what they’re capable of.”
He started to tell her what had happened to Willie Chambers at summer camp the previous year. Chambers, a transfer from a Chicago reserve unit, had been one of the Memphis battalion’s first black marines.
Laughingly designated a “night fighter” and a “smartass yankee nigger” by a senior NCO, who also just happened to be a Memphis cop, eighteen-year-old Corporal Chambers had been deliberately sent on a bullshit errand into a Camp LeJeune training field sowed with live anti-personnel mines: a field from which the prominent warning markers had been mysteriously removed.
Recalling the sickening details of the incident and the official inquiry that had cleared the blatantly racist NCO of all responsibility for Chambers’ death, Thomas decided to leave the story untold, knowing it would only upset Janice more.
“Look, you’re already doing the only thing that can effect any genuine change,” he said in a low voice, “working for civil rights legislation…” He started to mention her anti-war sentiments, then thought better of that, too, because their discussions on the subject always ended with angry words.
For although Thomas opposed the Vietnam conflict as vehemently as she, he was unable to join her in protesting it: Simply for expressing anti-war sentiments in public, at least two of his fellow reservists had recently been sent directly to the festivities in South Vietnam.
“…It’s just that I feel a special obligation when it comes to civil rights,” Janice was saying, oblivious to his mental self-censorship. “I always thought it was awful the way colored people were treated, but I never actually did anything about it until recently.”
She stared into her coffee cup. “When I was a little girl,” she said in a small voice, “we used to visit my grandmother in Georgia. And just outside the little town where she lived, there was a gas station with a huge white fence along the roadside. The owner had painted the words nigger leave here now in big black letters on the fence…and everybody seemed to think that was all right-“
“Janice,” Thomas interrupted, “you can’t blame yourself for something that a bunch of stupid rednecks did. You have to understand that some people-“
“No!” she shouted, pounding her fist on the table, “You have to understand, Layton. Those so-called rednecks who thought that sign was okay were my people; people I grew up with. Oh, they’d all trot off to church every Sunday regular as clockwork to sing about Jesus and brotherly love. They even put their money in the collection plate to send missionaries to Africa to save all those ‘poor little brown souls.'” Janice laughed bitterly. “But there wasn’t a single public restroom in that whole damn town that a Negro could use–“
“Y’all want some more coffee?”
They looked up to see the cadaverous, middle-aged counter man who had served them earlier standing at their table with a steaming glass beaker upraised. Thomas nodded, and the man poured more coffee into his cup. “No thank you,” said Janice.
“I heard what you was just saying, young woman,” the thin man politely interjected. “And I am afraid that you have got it all wrong about the nigras.”
Janice’s face flushed bright red and she stared at him. “Oh really?” she said evenly. “And exactly what is it that I have got all wrong?”
The thin man carefully set his coffee pot on the cracked Formica counter behind him. He ran one scabby, red-knuckled hand through his closely cropped orange hair and perched stork-like on a stool opposite their booth. “I am myself an anointed deacon of the church,” he announced. “And I can show you in the Gospels where it says it is a Christian duty to send missionaries to spread the word of Jesus (he pronounced it Jay-zuzz) among the heathen.”
He folded his hands in the lap of his stained white trousers and beamed an angelic smile at Janice. “You see,” he explained, “the scriptures teach us that Jesus loves even the nigra race, as he loves all creatures.”
Janice rolled her eyes. “Unless of course the nigras want to use a restroom or go to a decent school,” she replied, openly mocking his rural accent. “Then Jay-zuzz must not love them as much as he loves the rest of us.”
Thomas winced because he could see the truckers moving down along the counter to eavesdrop, and he knew this was neither the time nor the place for such a potentially explosive discussion. To his relief, though, the proselytizing counter man smiled indulgently at the angry young woman in the booth.
“The separation of the races is part of the Lord’s plan,” he explained patiently. “If the black man is allowed the familiarity of a superior white society, he will gain nothing but frustration. But great harm will befall our precious American democracy, and it may even falter and fail.”
The truckers nodded in solemn agreement and turned their dull eyes expectantly to Janice, awaiting her reply. “That is such a pile of shit,” she retorted. “How can you believe something like that? Negroes should have exactly the same rights as everyone else.”
“Wow,” said Thomas, lifting his watch and dropping some money on the table, “look at the time! Guess we’d better get going now, honey.”
The counter man’s watery blue eyes fixed on him like a cat cornering a mouse. “No need to go runnin’ off,” he said soothingly. “I always welcome the opportunity of witnessing to young people. It’s not hard to see that your misguided beliefs about the nigra have been planted in your minds by the godless communist media and the Eastern Liberal university professors.”
He closed his eyes in prayer, and gnarled veins stood out on the sides of his forehead as he clasped his knobby red hands above them. “We know that godless beliefs are responsible for the many nigra uprisings that even now threaten the sanctity of our women and our homes, Lord. And we know that ye may soon require us to take up arms and defend that which is most sacred to us, Jesus.” he intoned without pausing for breath.
The counter man’s eyes popped open and he raised a bony finger and wagged it at the young couple. “I know these two young people you have brought before me today are not to blame for the evil seeds that have been planted in their minds, Lord,” he moaned. “And in thine divine presence we beseech them to read the scriptures and come to know the True Word…”
“I can give you a true word,” Janice murmured just loud enough for Thomas to hear. She opened her mouth to speak, but he was already hauling her out of the booth. “Really nice talking to you,” he huffed, dragging her past the truckers. “Quite interesting.”
The counter man’s eyes bulged. “Read your scriptures. Book of Matthew (May-athew)!” he commanded.
“Right! Thank you very much.” Thomas slammed out through the door of the cafe, hustled Janice into the MG and drove away, with its snow chains sparking on the crumbling, salted pavement. She sat staring straight ahead, refusing to speak to him.
By the time he pulled into the tree-lined drive of her parents’ grotesquely columned, 4-bedroom mock Southern mansion ten minutes later, Janice had regained her composure. It vanished again as she turned and glared at him. “Why are you smiling?” she screamed. “There was nothing funny about what just happened.”
“Will you get mad if I tell you something?” he asked.
“Black people don’t particularly like to be called Negroes, or colored.”
She snorted angrily. “Oh shit, I know that! You know damn well that I do, Layton.”
“But you still keep using those patronizing, old-fashioned words when you talk about them, like they were some sort of newly discovered plant species instead of people.”
Janice flushed. “I know I do, dammit! It’s just something else I grew up with.” She looked out at the darkened house at the end of the drive. “When my parents were trying to be very correct and very sensitive, they always very deliberately said Negro or colored, because that’s what Huntley and Brinkley always said on the news, and Martin Luther King too, for that matter. But of course that’s not really right at all.”
Thomas cast a meaningful glance in the direction of the ridiculous white house but said nothing. He and Janice’s father, a blustering insurance salesman who wore white loafers with his plaid sport coats, bullied his timid little wife at their ersatz country club and drank too much bourbon, did not get along at all. For one thing, Thomas couldn’t imagine Jack Fordyce trying to be sensitive or correct.
“Anyway,” Janice said, accurately reading his thoughts and anxious to move on, “words you’ve been hearing all your life are very hard to purge from your vocabulary. Sometimes they come out before you realize it.”
“I was just teasing you,” he apologized, sorry that he’d brought it up at all, and briefly wondering if there was any subject besides sex that the two of them could safely discuss. “Stick with me for a few more months and I’ll have you talking like a California surfer girl from the Valley,” he joked, hoping to lighten her mood. “Pretty soon you’ll be saying things like, Hey, didja see that gnarly black dude on the beach?”
Janice finally smiled and Thomas glanced at his watch. “Oh hell! Look at the time. I’ve got to be at work early if I’m going to bash out the summer media schedules before the weekend. Guess we better put the rest of the world’s problems on hold. I need to grab some sleep.”
She stuck out her pink tongue, sending an unexpected shiver of erotic longing through his body. “I’m on the late E.R. shift at the hospital all weekend, so I don’t have go on duty until seven tomorrow night,” she taunted. “I think I’ll just sleep all day.”
“I always knew that beneath that sweet exterior there lurked a sadistic personality,” he laughed.
She leaned across the car and kissed him, then she opened her door. “I won’t be able to see you Saturday,” she said.
“Saturday,” Thomas groaned. “It doesn’t matter. I have to go out and put on my highly-trained-killer act for Uncle Sam’s Mean Green Fighting Machine, all day Saturday and Sunday.”
Janice wrinkled her nose in distaste at his crude verbal imagery. “What time will you be through Sunday?” she asked.
“I’ll get out around six. Then I’ll need to go home and change and shower. Let’s meet around seven.” He grinned. “Can’t promise you what kind of shape I’ll be in though. The Marines may only have me for two days a month at the moment, but they sure as hell get their money’s worth.”
“Seven o’clock,” Janice agreed, stepping gracefully out of the car. “Come by here and I’ll fix a nice soothing dinner for you. And don’t worry,” she quickly added. “My parents are going away to a sales conference in Atlanta. They won’t be back until the middle of the week,” She gave him a lecherous grin. “Try to get some sleep between now and Sunday.”
Janice started to close the car door, then she suddenly poked her head back inside. “And sweetie, this weekend while you’re out playing soldier with the fucking bloodthirsty Marines, see if you can find out from that deputy what they were doing out there in Shelby Forest tonight,” she ordered.
“I’ll tiptoe very delicately around the subject,” he promised. “But I warn you, I’m not going to push it very hard. Getting on the wrong side of those guys when everybody’s carrying an M-14 and a full magazine of live armor piercing ammo can be just a tiny bit hazardous to one’s health. I don’t know Bobby Fletcher very well, and I don’t think I want to. Buttholes like Bobby love to brag though. If he volunteers anything after a little very gentle prodding, so be it. Otherwise, we forget all about what we saw tonight. Fair enough?”
“It’s not fair…but, okay,” Janice reluctantly agreed.
He waited until she had walked up the drive and let herself into the darkened house. Then he drove away, trying to remember how the two of them had ever managed to find anything to talk about in the first place. He desperately wished there was some way to get her out of her parents’ house permanently, so they could spend entire nights together instead of occasional stolen evenings in his tiny apartment or Reuben’s cabin.
Unfortunately, his situation ruled out marriage: Thomas had seen far too many grieving young Vietnam widows at the all too frequent military funerals he was obliged to attend with his unit’s honor guard whenever a Memphis area marine was shipped home for burial. He wouldn’t do that to Janice.
But the archaic rules of the religious hospital where she was completing her year of postgraduate nursing studies required all unmarried female students to live in a dorm on the hospital grounds, or to reside at home with their families: with no exceptions.
The snow, which had been falling on and off all day, started coming down harder as he drove to his sparsely furnished bachelor apartment in one of the faceless new complexes north of the airport. The trip took twice as long as usual and when he finally got there, Layton Thomas fell into his unmade bed still wrestling with those problems. He was asleep within ten minutes.
The recurring dream began almost immediately. In it, he was lying face down in a pool of warm, brackish water. And someone was shooting at him, a faceless enemy hidden in the perfect camouflage of a dark and threatening forest.