Old Tape

Shoeshine Drop

After I left Gail's, I had thinking to do, but not before I got some sleep. I don't function well without a good night under my sheets and especially when I know there's a load of heavy stuff I've got to get in front of. I called the station and told them not to bother me unless they ran into something they couldn't handle. There's not much they can't work out without me, so I went home and took a dose of some old cough medicine I had lying around and pulled down my blackout shades to kill the daylight. I considered switching my phone to Do Not Disturb, but decided against that. It'd be my luck that the worst thing to ever hit Waterman would pick exactly then to make an appearance and I'd have to be jolted awake by the sound of deputies banging on my door because they couldn't get me on the phone. I did turn off the scanner I usually kept on, though. The bleeps and cracks of static it makes sound enough like a whisper that I didn't think it was a great idea to let that be the backgroud for any dreams I might have.

I don't use sleep aids often, not even the one with the long list of things it fixes. I don't trust them not to keep me groggy if I do end up waking to some kind of emergency, but I didn't see how I had much of a choice that day. And it worked. I slept again and there were no dreams, no doors, no voices.

I set my clock to go off at 8 pm, but slept fifteen minutes past the alarm. A shower helped to wash off the last scales of the sleep aid and I shaved fresh. That always makes me feel stronger. I guess it's another nugget daddy left me that stuck. He'd tell me, Son, don't forget to shave every mornin'. It's one of the first things folks'll look for - whether or not the bow matches the wrappin'. It's a discipline I've tried to uphold.

I keep three sets of my uniform going. One set was already in the washer and the after the day I'd had, I expect you could have stood the one I'd been wearing right up without anybody in them, so I put on my last clean one and put the other one in the dryer.

There were a few things around the house I wanted to tend to, so I did those. I cleared the sink and cleaned up after my shave. I made my bed and threw out a couple of things from the refrigerator that had gone bad. I'm not your average bachelor. I keep a clean home, which felt like a sanctuary for the sanitary after my visit with Gail Warren, but I also felt the need to make sure the basics were covered so that I didn't start a snowball rolling that would be too big to tackle later. Really, though, I was wasting time - looking for an excuse not to think about the Drop.

I decided Clem's would be a good start before I went back to the office to try and get my ducks in a row. I had a couple of cups at the counter before heading in. It was nearly midnight by then and the diner was empty. Even Rita was off for the night and a pretty little thing I hadn't met before was working the floor. She told me she was new to Waterman and Clem had been gracious enough to give her and her little pebble a chance. I asked her what she meant by pebble and she patted her belly. I should have known what she meant, but she looked to be no more than 17 or 18 years old and she wasn't wearing a ring. Her shirt hung loose and if there'd been a bump yet, I couldn't see it.

I felt a pang of sadness for the girl, but then I remembered how strong a woman my aunt Sherry had been as a single mother. I asked her name and she told me it was Megan - I told her to call me Marty. When she wasn't looking, I bowed my head in a secret prayer that she would come out fine, that the baby would be healthy, and that maybe she would meet a man that would love her and her pebble more than life itself. According to Megan, her cousin lived the next county over. She had a kid of her own whose daddy had run off, but she'd offered to help as much as she could. Megan was originally from Tennessee - somewhere close to Chattanooga.

Then she asked if there was anything interesting to see around Waterman. I usually find it obnoxious when out-of-towners ask me that. Waterman is barely a speck on any map. If you're pulling up our section of Georgia online, you'd have to pull it in about as close as it would go for us to even register, but somehow folks passing through see the quaintness of it all and assume there's a treasure trove of interesting hillbilly stuff to get into. That's how they like to describe us, too. Quaint.

Funny thing is, I didn't consider Megan obnoxious at all. I realized that there was something about this young lady that touched me in a way that I hadn't felt in a long, long time. Frankly, I was ashamed of myself for feeling that way toward a woman that much younger than me, but what can you do? I'm a man and she hit all the pressure points of my ideal - at least so far. I shook myself sane and thought about what I could tell her about our quaint little town that would peak her interest and at the same time, keep her safe from any of the mouth breathers that like to crawl out from under their rocks at night.

She had turned back to the fry station to tell the cook something, so she didn't see my face as my stomach soured. I suddenly had a vision of Megan in her light blue Clem's Diner blouse walking to the edge of Shoeshine Drop. I imagined her regarding the spraypainted guardrail - a beacon of warning she'd laugh at and ignore. I saw her step over it, careful not to move around too dramatically because although you couldn't tell it, she had a pebble rolling around inside her. The old ladies had probably told her if she did, the umbilical cord might wrap around the baby's neck and strangle it. She wouldn't want that to happen, so she'd be careful. Careful in the Danger Zone. All she wanted to do was look over the edge and see what all the fuss was about, maybe get a glimpse of the river sparkling in the moonlight. Because it was night in my daydream. Of course it was. Maybe she'd heard a recent story about a boy who'd thrown himself over and she wanted to see how far it was. Besides, who could resist the morbid allure of being in the same place something like that had happened? It's the same rush some people get from ducking under the yellow tape to peer into the windows of a house where there's been a murder. That's all Megan and the pebble wanted to do. Look over the edge of the Drop. And hey! If she lost her footing, there's a big old looping root that juts out, then feeds back into the side of the cliff. So see? Totally safe.

Shooooooeeeeshiiiiinnnnne

And Megan was falling, falling, falling and screaming because she and the pebble have an unplanned meeting at the bottom with the water and the rocks. And in my daydream, I knew she hadn't lost her footing. She'd been pulled or pushed or whatever it is that happens and it wasn't fair. Death doesn't play nice, though. Death doesn't play fair.

"Sheriff ... Sheriff ..."

Megan stood opposite me on the other side of the counter, holding up her coffee pot. "Sorry, hon. Phased out for a second."

She laughed and her smile was absolutely breathtaking. I wondered how any man - or boy, really - could stand to let her out of his arms. I wanted more than I ever had to be twenty years younger. Then I saw her thirty years from now, holding up that pot and my heart bled for her. I didn't know her, but I knew she deserved better than that.

"If that's phasing out, we're two peas in a pod," she said and topped me off. "I have to say I've been guilty of the same thing, especially now. They call it Pregnant Brain."

"And I can't even tell you're pregnant yet. Do they say it'll get worse as you get further along?"

She laughed. "I don't know about that, but I sure hope not."

"Here's to better brain function for the both of us." I raised my cup and took a sip.

"You never answered my question, though. What is there to do around here to keep from being bored? You're the sheriff. You're supposed to know these things."

"Serve and protect. It says so on the side of my car."

"They left off 'welcome committee'. It's a typo." She slapped the counter and moved over to wrap the clean utensils in napkins.

I got the feeling she was flirting a little, but pushed the thought away. Impossible.

"Well there's not much information I can give you. It's pretty dull around here unless it's Friday night during football season. I can tell you what not to do."

"What's that?"

"Don't go driving around these mountains after dark," I said and immediately decided I shouldn't have mentioned it at all. Young people like to do the opposite of what they're told.

Megan and Pebble standing at the ledge. One quick push and off the edge.

"You don't have to worry about that," she said. "I'm not the adventurous kind. And besides, I'd have to have a car."

She grabbed two handfuls of dirty utensils and dropped them into a sink beside her under a flow of hot water from the faucet. The steam rising from the sink reminded me of fog. I said another inward prayer that this would all be over soon because I was sick of everything bringing Shoesine Drop to mind.

"How do you get back and forth to work then?" I asked, knowing I ought to keep from getting too personal.

"My cousin brings me. She's helping me save for a car, but this place don't pay much, so it's gonna be a while. Every little bit helps, though, and I'm trying to be patient."

"Mind my asking how old you are, Megan? I mean, I know that's not something you're supposed to ask a woman, but ..."

"It's okay," she interrupted. "I don't mind. I just turned twenty five."

I think my face must have flushed. She was still too young for me, but at least I didn't have to feel like a total creep anymore.

"Well, if you ever need a lift, or help with something, call over to the station and I'll see to it you get what you need. We take care of folks around here."

"That's sweet. Thanks," she said and I told myself to cool it. The sheriff's office isn't a shuttle service. Then again, my cruiser does have that creed stenciled over the rear tires and we believe in it: To Serve And Protect. Whether it was the right thing to be thinking or not, I hoped I got the chance to put the Serve portion of it into practice with Megan. She was delightful - something I needed in a bad way.

She had gone on a break when I left. I laid five bucks on the counter and would have left more of a tip if I'd had it.

When I got back to the cruiser, I checked my phone to see what the forecast was calling for. Storms the next few days, pretty much non-stop. That was always good for long nights and a crap ton of reports. Overhead, the clouds were gray and it had already started to drizzle. I figured if I was going to make any headway on the Drop, I'd better get to it. There wouldn't be much I could do other than research at that time of night, but the quicker I worked, the less soggy everything would be. I keyed the ignition, pointed the tires toward the station on Oak Street, and readied myself for what I expected to be one mother of a night.

____________________

I sat at my desk for a couple of hours doing nothing. There's a bookshelf to the left of my desk that holds a bunch of criminal law books I never open and binders with updates to city ordinances. I looked at that for a while. Some of the books are out of sequence and I considered putting a remedy to that situation, but decided it wouldn't be a good use of the time I needed to be spending on the Drop, so I didn't touch them. Instead I stared blankly at them and came to the realization that the bookshelf to the left of my desk ought to top the list of the most boring things in America.

I did take the occasional sip of Gatorade from my personalized Waterman Sheriff's Office coffee mug. By then, I'd had enough of coffee and anything else would have done. It wasn't a hard decision, either. As I recall, the refrigerator in the break room held exactly three containers. A carton of milk that had expired the week before, a glass jar of something yellow that had a warning label: LAB SAMPLE - DO NOT DRINK!, and an unopened orange Gatorade that had no label and was, therfore according to office rules, available to whoever got to it first.

Those initial couple of hours amounted to stalling, pure and simple. I wanted to pour through the records one more time, paying closer attention than I had before. There was also a thumb drive on my desk with a Post-It note attached that read, Footage from the phone. Looks legit to me. Send off for further authentication?

I didn't think that was necessary. Jarreth didn't have the time or the resources it would have taken to work that detailed a con. I felt like I needed to watch it again, but I couldn't bring myself to do it. What if there was something I missed the first time through? Something that could maybe twist and turn my perception of everything back to the way it was supposed to be?

I knew there wasn't. I get it that most people would have been more resistant to the ideas I had in my head and wouldn't have come to the conclusion that there were unexplainable things at play so easily. I don't know why I was convinced so quickly and so fully. I mentioned resources to pull off some kind of a fake video con. It's true that these days kids can do amazing things with their media, but if you'd seen the video, you would have questioned reality too. Those are the kinds of effects it costs a lot of money and a lot of time to get right. We're talking dinosaurs in your backseat type of stuff.

My point is, we think the impossible is impossible until we find it not to be so.

I finally convinced myself to make my way to the back of the office where we keep the records. We call it the file room, but even after the fifty or sixty years since the building went up, it's held more odds and ends than files. Still, there were enough brown and off-yellow folders in there to make research a pain. Before this business with the Drop, I'd made noises about getting rid of some of the older ones to make room in the drawers for more important things like broken coffee makers and the unclaimed personal belongings of some of the folks that got themselves locked up. I'm glad we kept them now or else I would never have run across the the redacted file Sheriff Cromer had hidden under a false label. I hadn't found it the first time because I didn't know to look for a file Soseby said didn't make sense. I thought he meant whatever it was would be hidden inside an otherwise normal looking folder, but I was wrong. Once my eye settled on the single light green folder among the brown and off-yellow ones, I knew I'd found the redacted report.

If I thought I'd come to the pinnacle of disgust with Renault after hearing Soseby tell his story, then my feelings for the man shot up to full-on hatred after finding the information that got buried in the file cabinet.

The light green folder was fat. There hadn't been any paper stuck in there, but instead a small reel of audio tape. I spent some time as an intern at the local radio station while I was in high school and they still used a reel to reel machine to record voice overs and interviews. They taught me to use the gawdy thing, including how to cut and splice the film with a special sized tape that would make edits sound seamless. God knows why we still have an old reel to reel in storage, but we do and lucky for me, I was able to hook it up in my office.

It would have been anyone's concensus that something twisted is happening when a middle-aged man is cruising around dark mountain roads after midnight with the sixteen year old best friend of his daughter in his Mustang. The St. Claires had apparantly filed a suit with the estate of Tom Renault, but it all went silent almost immediately and was forgotten. After forty years and because nobody liked to talk too much about it, the only thing anyone remembered was that a teenage girl died in an accident. Tom Renault's name disappeared from the story, except when one of the really old folks like Soseby tell it. And that's only if their memories are firing sharp that particular day. That's the catch 22 about it all, though. Folks nowadays are thirsty for drama and gossip and I know it's always been that way, but stuff that happens today gets its fuel from the internet and a thousand channels on TV that offer a behind-the-scenes peek into people's private lives. At the risk of sounding like my daddy, forty years ago stories had shorter legs and there was usually a line of respect that you didn't cross, especially down here in the south where we're known for being somewhat polite.

The ladies would have whispered to each other, but their husbands would have kept themselves to themselves, as they say. Back then indescressions like Tom Renault's were considered bad for the community and if it was serious enough that it needed to be dealt with, well it was dealt with quietly.

I guess all I'm saying is that around here, we know how to take care of business and then make it go away. Now that I think about it, that sounds a lot like the kind of thikng that happens up north with wealthy families whose last last names are very often Italian. We just say Bless your heart before getting down to it.

The hidden tape was an interview conducted by one of the investigators while sitting at the kitchen table in the Renault home. Tom's new widow and their daughter Jessica gave the details.

The following conversation is copied verbatim from the tape and for reference so you don't get confused, M stands for Mallory - Renault's wife - and J stands for Jessica.

M - Jess might need to leave, so maybe you should start by hearing her. She can't take much more of this.

O (Officer) - Yes, ma'am. Jess - do you mind me calling you Jess or would you prefer Jessica?

J - Jess is fine.

O - Okay, Jess. I'm going to ask some questions and it's very important that you answer them as detailed as you can. But most importantly, I need you to be honest. Can you do that? Good. Then let's begin. How often did Regina come over to your house to sleep over? Mrs. Renault, you're welcome to jump in if Jess has difficulty or doesn't have an answer.

J - Maybe once every couple of months.

O - The two of you were the same age, correct?

J - Yessir.

O - How old were you when she first started coming over?

M - They were about eleven or somewhere around that age.

O - Did Regina ever mention anything to you, Mrs. Renault, about things that might have happened when she slept over?

M - No. Never.

O - How about you, Jess? Did she ever say anything to you?

There was a pause and you could hear Mallory tell Jess it was okay to tell him.

J - Yessir.

O - How soon was this after she started coming over?

J - After the first couple of times.

O - Tell me what she told you.

There was another pause. She was apprehensive.

O - It's okay. Nobody is going to hear any of this outside of those assigned to the case.

J - It was one night after she came back from the bathroom and layed back down on the pallet mama had made for us on the living room floor. She was gone a long time and I went looking for her. Daddy had a room where he kept all of his stuff. Nobody was ever allowed in except him, but I heard Regina and daddy in there.

O - Where was your mama?

J - She was asleep.

O - Go on.

J - When I knocked on the door, daddy whispered something. I don't know what it was he said and Regina wouldn't tell me, but when she came out she was crying. When we got back to the pallet, I asked her what she was doing in daddy's room and she said she'd gotten scared in the dark. He was in his private room and he helped her not to be scared anymore. She went to the bathroom in the middle of the night and stayed a long time every sleep over after that.

O - Did she ever tell you what happened?

J - Some of it.

O - Okay. At this point, I want to offer you the option of speaking to Mrs. Connelly here without me being present.

I hadn't realized there was anyone else in the room up to this point beside Jess, her mother, and the officer, but it made sense they would appoint a female go-between. The details involved a young girl and they would be given by a young girl. It was probably policy back then just like it is now. You want to make a situation like that as comfortable as possible for whoever is giving their testimony. The officer continued.

O - If the details you can give would embarrass you to say in front of a man, the county has provided this option, but it's up to you and your mother. Would you like me to step out?

Another pause. When Mallory spoke, I guessed Jessica was leaving it up to her.

M - No. All I ask is that you be patient while she figures out the most comfortable way to say it.

O - You take all the time you need, Jess. We're not in a hurry.

There was the noise of some shuffling and the clack of what sounded like somebody placing a glass back on the table.

J - Daddy touched her. He told her she didn't have to be afraid in our house because he could always make her feel better. He said he would protect her.

Jessica went on to explain how it had escalated over the years and Tom convinced Regina that she'd ruin everyone's lives if she ever told. That she might even find herself in trouble, too.

If you study the psychology behind this stuff and other examples of situations like this one, you'll recognize the patterns. Regina had been molested and raped on several occasions. I can't bring myself to write down the details that were on the tape, so I'll skip to the end of the recording.

J - Regina told me earlier that night that she'd seen that look in daddy's eyes when she got to our house and that if he came to her, she was going to make him stop. She was going to tell him it had happened for the last time. I was asleep when they left. I never knew they were gone.

O - How about you, Mrs. Renault? Did you know he'd taken her from the house?

When Mallory spoke, it sounded watery and broken.

M - I had no idea.

She broke down.

J - Mom, you don't have to say any more.

O - Unfortunately, we need to hear everything she knows, Jess, but we can stop for now if you need to and pick it up later.

M - No. Let's get it done, please.

O - Alright. There's not much left anyway. How much of what was going on did you know about?

M - None of it. He had his room and it was as taboo for me to go near it as anybody. We had a huge screaming fight the last time I went in there because he said that I didn't know anything about boundaries. All he had in there were his Mustang models and I always suspected he had a stash of those magazines men like to look at, but I never thought it was a place he used for that.

J - Regina always went missing for a while after everyone was asleep. We'd try and stay up all night together so he couldn't come get her and take her to his room, but we never made it.

O - Jess, why didn't you tell someone, like your mother or us?

J - I wanted to, but Regina made me promise I wouldn't. She said she could handle it and she didn't want to make any trouble. She thought it would change us - our friendship, I mean. She said she loved me too much and if daddy got in trouble, I'd hold it against her. She made me promise.

O - I understand. You have nothing to be ashamed of. You were put in a difficult position. Mrs Renault, are you sure you never noticed him get up and go to Regina in the middle of the night?

M - I noticed him get up all the time. Tom was a night owl, but he always went to his private room and like I said, I was forbidden to go near it.

There was the sound of the officer closing his notebook.

O - I think that's all we need to hear. Mrs Renault - Jessica, we truly are sorry for your loss and what you're having to go through now. Mrs. Connelly has been retained by the department for counsel if you feel like you need it and for however long it takes. Call on her. Use her. That's what she's here for. The last thing you ought to do is try and go through this alone. This is officer Thurbolt. The time is 6:45 PM, fifteen June, 1977. Appointee present is Freida Connelly.

There was a click that only clunky machines from that era make as Thurbolt stopped the recorder and then silence, so I stopped the one on my desk and sat back in my chair. It creaked and whined with my weight on springs that had seen a whole lot of years doing the buisiness of law, or holding up the people who did. It's a good chair. Needs a little grease here and there, but don't we all? I was glad it was early in the morning and there weren't many people in the office. Frankly, the chair's squawking was the only complaining I could take.

I wanted to talk to Freida Connelly next, but a quick bit of research killed that notion. She'd passed a long time ago. It dawned on me that while I listened to the testimony, I'd made her in my mind to be as young as officer Thurbolt sounded, but she'd not said a word in the recording. She could have been eighty even then for all I knew, but she wasn't. Freida Connelly's obit put her at sixty-six when she died of a stroke in '97.

I was starting to feel the effects of my inconsistant sleep schedule, so I headed back home. I scribbled a note and left it on my office door.

Investigation. Once again, do not call me unless it's something you can't handle yourself.

Then I went home and slept the sleep of the dead.

____________________

It was around noon when I woke again. I was still in my uniform from the night before, so I gave my armpits the old one-two-snifferoo and splashed on a little aftershave once I'd fixed my face. I'd crashed on top of the covers without even taking off my shoes when I got home and with the running around I had ahead of me, there didn't seem to be any use in putting on a fresh set of clothes as long as I didn't smell like rotten garbage.

I wanted to go out to the Drop again - no, check that. I needed to go back out there, but I didn't want to. And it would have to be after dark. I used to think a touch self-righteously whenever someone told me how nervous they got in familiar places when the lights were out or the shadows in the corners of rooms held their deepest secrets. I was no stranger to that, either. I was a boy once. I tiptoed past my toy box on my way to the bathroom in the middle of the night a lot faster than I did in the daylight, I can promise you. And the old cemetery at the church a mile from my boyhood home wasn't in the least imposing, but after dark, to glance at it as we passed would be to bring on all manner of curses and vivid evil images. Who knew what I'd see? That's why I made sure to be interested in something else as we went by. But those were things from my boyhood and I eventually grew up. The bible says something about putting away the silliness of childhood once you become a man, only not in those words exactly. I always thought about that when I looked forward to adulthood and it hasn't changed until recently. The nightmare of Shoeshine Drop seemed to demand the potency of the dark. Welcome back, Reesie Piecie. That's the nickname they gave the boy I was thirty some-odd years ago.

For now I needed to locate the St. Claires and speak with anybody who knew anything about the night Regina died. I figured what information I could gather would be thin at best no matter what, but I wanted all I could get and every family has a couple of old timers who remember more from forty years ago than they do from yesterday. The original report yeilded Regina's parents' name, which was a good starting point. Her father - Truck - yes, that's what they called him - was dead. It wasn't hard to find his obit, but there was nothing that said her mother, Carol, was gone. I found her living the next county over with her daughter.

I called the sheriff of Shelby County and told him I was investigating an old case. His name's Jim Taylor. He's been sheriff over there for three decades and he's kind of a mentor of mine. I even had Thanksgiving dinner with his family a few years back when I was just getting my own feet wet. His wife makes a turkey you'd cut off your right arm for. We have a mutual respect for one another and when a case crosses the county line, we keep each other in the loop, whether we really need to or not.

His cell only rang once before he picked it up.

"Hey, Marty! What can I do for ya this fine mornin'?"

"About 80 in a 35 and write yourself a citation!" I replied like I always did. It's a running joke between us - the kind that would get real old real fast for anybody else, but we kept it going. He laughed deep from his belly like I knew he would, like it was the first time he'd ever heard it. "No, I'm just letting you know I'll be heading out to see one of your elderly ladies for an investigation. Used to live over here, but moved to Hilltopper country for some ungodly reason or another."

"Probably knew she'd get to celebrate more wins as a Hilltopper."

"Hey, I never said she changed her allegience. When your blood runs blue, it stays blue."

"Ha ha, you're probably right. Who is she?"

"Carol St. Claire. She lives with her daughter out Two Bridges Road."

"I know her. Fiesty old broad, but once she gets to know you, she backs a little off her bite. I go to church with her. She's the only one in the congregation that'll holler out an objection if the preacher says something she don't agree with. Ha HAAA!"

I figure his laugh gets on most people's nerves and I reckon it would mine if I didn't like him so much.

"You want to send somebody along with me to see to it I don't rattle her cage too much?" I asked.

"What's this about, if you don't mind my askin'?"

"Her oldest daughter died in an accident forty years ago."

"Woo hoo, forty years! How come you're still on something that happened so long ago?"

"Others have followed due to it, I think, so I'm tracking it from the beginning."

"You're lookin' into Shoeshine Drop," he said and suddenly the humor had left his voice. He was more perceptive than I'd given him credit for. "I thought this last boy committed suicide."

"I have my reservations about that." I didn't want to show my cards because I didn't want to look like a fool, so I tried to keep it as simple as I could.

"You don't believe all that ghost hooey, do ya?"

There it was. Impossible not to take that fork in the road.

"I'm thorough. That's all it is. I started looking into it out of curiosity and there's stuff from forty years ago that don't hold soup. You know me, Jim - I can't live with loose ends."

"I do know you and I know you're bad not to let sleepin' dogs lie. I told you that the first time you ever came to me for advice. It was that Judge Simmons case you refused to let go of."

"He was crooked and I proved it."

"You sure did and you run him straight out of Waterman and over here to me. He ain't sittin' behind a bench with a gavel in his big ol' fat hand, but he'll show his butt every chance he gets. Grocery store, gas station, bingo night, you name it. You sent me a cancer, young man."

I was glad to be rid of that cancer and I said so. "He's your problem now. Water under my bridge."

"Prob'ly not a bad idea doin' somethin' about that place, to be serious. I've done my share of warnin' kids to stay out from around there, but I'm not sure what you could do to change anything. God built them mountain cliffs and they've had guard rails for as long as I can remember."

"Forty years. They put them up after Regina St. Claire."

"Danger Zone!" Jim said. He didn't mean anything by it, but I didn't care for the mocking tone. I tend to be cranky when my sleep patterns get tangled, so it made snese that I'd be on edge about the Drop. I kept my irritation to myself and started to wind up the call.

"You want to send one of yours with me while I rattle the bushes?"

"Nah, I can't spare anybody right now. Half the station's got the flu and I'm short on crew as it is."

I heard his siren make a short blat as he flipped it on, then right back off and yelled through his window.

"Slow down, Darrell! You know better'n that!"

"Git 'em, Jim," I teased and he laughed again.

"Ha HAAAA! I give that boy so many tickets over the years, I started to have some pity on him. Anyhow, about your investigation ... I trust you, Marty. Don't rile her right off the bat and you ought to be okay. Let her warm up to you a minute and it wouldn't hurt to bring her some chocolate. The kind with the soft center. Everybody at church knows she loves those."

"I'll keep that in mind. Thank you, Jim."

"Sure thing. Before you go, where're you goin' to church these days?"

"Still at First Baptist, but I don't make it much. I like to give my deputies the time to worship with their families. You know how it is."

"Word of advice you didn't ask for. Make time, my friend. We need that recharge. We'd love to have you over at Beulah Creek. I know you southern baptists think us fundamentals handle snakes and such as that, but we don't. At least not in Sunday school, ha HAAAAAAAAA!"

I laughed. Jim Taylor was a good man.

"It's a date."

"Let me know how it goes, buddy. See ya." I heard him flip on his siren again and keep it wailing this time. "Dang it, Darrell, I told you!"

I tapped the red button on my phone and dialed the number I'd written down for Carol St. Claire's daughter. It rang several times before an exasperated female voice answered. There was a young child screaming bloody murder in the background.

"Hello." It was a young woman's voice.

"Hi, this is sheriff Marty Reese from Waterman ... do you need me to hang on while you deal with that? Sounds like you got your hands full." I tried to smile with my voice and let her know I understood if she needed me to wait.

"He ain't gonna stop it. He's been in this mood all mornin' and no amount of discipline helps. What can I help you with, sheriff?"

"Is your mother Carol St. Claire?"

"That's mama."

"I'd like to ask her some questions about your sister's accident. Do you think she'd be up to talking about it? I don't want to upset her, but she's probably the only one who could shed some light on it for me."

In the background, the screaming child had ramped it up a notch. I could already feel a headache coming on, just from hearing it over the phone. He was screaming at such a pitch that it felt like a red hot poker in my ears. I thought about what my daddy would have done if I tried anything like that. At least I could finally make out what the fuss was about. He wanted a cookie and he was trying to make sure everybody within a five mile radius knew it. 
COOOOOOOKIIIIEEEE!
COOOOOOOOOOOOOKIIIIIIIIIIIIIIEEEEEEE!

The woman on the other end seemed unfazed, save for the weariness in her voice.

"She's not too feeble to talk to you, but I doubt you'll get much out of her. She never liked to talked about it before daddy died, but since he's been gone, she's clammed up completely. I don't know much about it myself."

"I see," I said, disappointed.

"But you're welcome to come over and have a go at her. She'll get a kick out of havin' a go at you, I'm sure."

"I have it under advisement that Mrs. St. Claire is a bit of a spitfire."

"You have no idea," she said comically, but there was a hint of warning there too.

"Should I bring chocolate and a cookie?"

"Yes, you should, but only the chocolate. No cookies. Hunter ain't gettin' a cookie after the way he's been actin'."

I didn't know who I dreaded meeting more, Carol St. Claire or the cookie craving Hunter. "What's a good time for me to come, ma'am?"

"Any time. We're here all day. Wait - how long will it take you to get here?"

"Thirty minutes, maybe."

"That's good. It'll give me a minute to pick up around here. I'll tell mama you're comin'."

"Thank you ... I'm sorry, I never got your name."

"It's Regina." She must have read through my silence. "Yeah, I know. My sister died before I was born, though, and mama loves that name."

I shook the fuzz out of my brain. "Good talking to you, Regina. Expect me in about half an hour."

I remember I scratched my head after we hung up. My face probably read like some goofball in a comedy who's trying to make sense out of the unsensible.

"Okaaaayy," I said aloud.

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