DEATH and the Easter Bunny
A Trudy Roundtree Mystery
I was running from a group of drunken deer hunters who had mistaken me for a buck. I was the buck, panicked, bounding for cover, bound for safety, bounding over a precipice. I woke from the nightmare when the buck's death screams became silent screams I couldn't force through paralyzed lips, became the whoop of sirens, fire sirens cutting through the Georgia night.
It's been six years since my husband, Zach, was killed on that hunting trip and I started having that nightmare. Usually, now, it only comes when I'm upset or worried, not just out of the blue like it used to, and I don't spend nearly as much time as I used to, asleep or awake, dreaming that if I'd been there I'd have been able to make a difference in the way things came out.
Shivering, I focused on the reality of the sirens, letting the dream recede behind the mental exercise of following the whoops through the town. The sound seemed to come nearer, then recede, falling silent on the other side of 280, I guessed, and a little east. I visualized each house in the neighborhood near the elementary school. Naturally, in my mental picture, none of the houses was on fire. I knew I wasn't going to fall asleep again, so I rolled out of bed. The luminous clock on my bedside table said 11:40. Still groggy, half-in and half-out of my dream, I pulled on a pair of jeans and a shirt, and moved quietly down the hall to the kitchen, my sneakers tucked under my arm. It's a habit I formed for Grandma's sake and can't seem to break even with her gone.
I put some coffee powder in a mug, added water, and stuck it in the mircowave. While I waited for it to heat, I dialed the phone and sat down on a kitchen chair to put my shoes on.
The calm, deep voice of Brenda Whitson, the night dispatcher, said, "Ogeechee Police Department. What can we do for you?" Brenda's rich, smoky voice has a calming effect on the excited folks who ave a reason to call the police in the middle of the night. Some people like her approach so much they call any time they have trouble sleeping. Ogeechee's Chief of Police, Henry Huckabee, my cousin Hen, calls it Brenda's All Night Talk Show.
"Brenda, this is Trudy."
"Trudy, what you doin' up? Aren't you coming off days?" Our shift is 4:30 AM to 4:30 PM, which is more day than night and puts 11:40 PM right in the middle of sleepytime. It would be death on a social life, if there were such a thing in Ogeechee.
"I did, and I was catching z's trying to get my clock reorganized for a few days of normal life, but the sirens are making too much noise for me to sleep. Where's the fire?" The fire department it all volunteer, so the police dispatcher takes fire calls, forwarding them as necessary.
"Six-seventeen. Isn't that--"
"Mm-hmm. You've got a good memory. The old CCC."
"Uh-oh." The picture I had now was of a small, squarish frame house in bad need of a coat of paint and some yard work. I didn't have to ask who lived there. A few months earlier Reed Ritter had made a complaint about some vandalism, and I had been the officer in charge of looking into it.
The only thing even mildly dangerous, or mildly interesting, about that investigation had been wondering when or if one of Reed's piles of old newspapers or stack of used TV dinner trays might fall over on me. Hen likes to save assignments like this for me, rather than putting--or wasting--one of the men on it.
The vandalism has taken the form of the kind of thing boys at a certain age think proves something about how smart they are, or how tough or independent--eggs thrown against the house, porch lights broken out, and the real piece de resistance, piles of dog poop just outside both doors.
Except for the clue that the perpetrator(s) must have owned or had access to several dogs, the investigation hadn't turned up anything. The rest of the police department with great wit and originality referred to it as Trudy's CCC, my Canine Crap Case.
"Yeah. The Chief's gone over," Brenda said.
"Why'd you call him?" The microwave pinged and I took out the boiling coffee.
He was still here finishing some paperwork when the call came in."
The man never sleeps. Okay. Thanks, Bren. I'm awake now, so I guess I'll go take a look. You go on back to sleep now."
Brenda chuckled. "Yes'm. I'll try to fit in a nap between takin' requests from my fans."
I picked up my coffee mug and made my way out, stepping carefully around the cats who had made themselves a living minefield all over the glassed-in porch. I headed for town, enjoying the fresh air, and drove through the stoplight where the east-west highway, 280, goes by the name of Court Street and the north-south highway is Main Street. I turned left past the post office and a few blocks later saw the fire engines. I swung my car across the street half a block down from where smoke was pouring from the house at 617 Palm. Sparks and steam and billowing smoke made a hellish pattern against the night sky.
Three men stood near where I stopped, hands in pockets, quietly critiquing the fire and the performance of the firefighters. I waved.
"Hey, Trudy," one of the men greeted me softly, as though speaking out loud might disturb the neighborhood even more.
Nearer the fire, a couple of boys who looked to be about seven or eight years old were crouched behind a lush hydrangea, presumably under the illusion the heavy pink blooms made them invisible. I didn't wave at them. Why spoil it?
Directly across the street fromthe fire, Miss Sarah Kennedy, swaddled in a purple velour housecoat, watched from the womf crackle of the flames was punctuated by the hiss of water and the calls of the men who were wrestling hoses into position.
I joined Miss Smith, sitting on the porch and leaning against the wooden rail aat the top of the steps. Her gaze flickered just enough to acknowledge my company, then returned to the scene across the street.
"That old place was doomed from the first spark," she said in the commanding voice I remembered so well from tenth grade American History, when she had been known in my circle as The Terror of Ogeechee High School.
The "old place" was decades younger than Miss Sarah's own, probably built in the early fifties. It had even been a reasonably nice place not too long ago, before Reed let it run down.
"I don't see Reed," I said.
"No, I haven't seen him, either," Miss Sarah said.
"Wouldn't he be home this time of night?"
"He usually is, but his car's not here."
As part of the investigation of the CCC, I had talked with Miss Sarah. We had sat in her living room drinking iced tea, our chairs positioned so that we both had a view of Reed's house through the tall windows. I liked the fact that she hadn't bothered to pretend she didn't keep an eye on Reed's house, but of course we didn't get right down to talking about Reed. First we had to talk about how I liked being back in Ogeechee and how my job was working out, working for Hen and all. Those are both topics I try to avoid, since in the first place bad-mouthing somebody's home town, even if it also happens to be your own, is generally considered rude, and in the second place there are a lot of people in Ogeechee who think Henry Huckabee hung the moon, and as far as I know Miss Sarah is one of them.
Childhood training being what it is, I couldn't quite lie to Miss Sarah, but my answers to her questions must have been unenthusiastic enough to give her a hint. She changed the subject on her own.
"Poor boy," she said, meaning Reed. Reed was thirty-five years old but to Miss Sarah he'd always be a high school student with promise, as all her students had been. No matter that his marriage had dissolved messily, he lived in a place a goat couldn't stomach, and he had a job only at the whim of his ex-father-in-law. All that just meant the promise was still to be fulfilled. "Poor boy. He doesn't need all this nonsense."
As if anybody did, but I knew what she meant.
"Do you know who's been messing up his place?" I asked.
"I have a notion."
"Do you want to tell me? I could have a talk with him. Them?"
"It's pretty definitely them,' but I'm not sure and I wouldn't want to have the police scaring the daylights out of the wrong boys." I might as well have argued with her over whether she would turn in those high-spirited hooligans who threw the tea into Boston Harbor.
"I'm glad you think I'm scary," I had said. "Hen isn't convinced."
"Oh, I wouldn't worry much about Hen. He's always been tractable."
If I was drawing up a list of words to use to describe Hen, "tractable" would come way down, somewhere after "stubborn," "chauvinistic," "spoiled," and even, when he feels like it, "entertaining." "Tractable" might not make the list at all, but I decided to remember it and try it out on him sometime.
"So you don't want to tell me?" I asked Miss Sarah then.
"No, not right now. But when I do get ready to tattle, you'll be the one I tell."
And that had been that. The investigation languished and the vandalism, for all I knew, continued to thrive. All I knew for sure was that Reed had quit calling the police about it.
Now, on this April night, sitting with Miss Sarah on her porch and watching the fire, I thought about that earlier talk. "Did you ever find out for sure who was bothering Reed?" I asked.
"Not for sure." But as she spoke her eyes cut over to the hydrangea bushes and she seemed to have a worried, thoughtful look. "You know, Trudy, it's pretty late for boys that young to be out."
Hm. I stood up and stretched, very casually. "Excuse me, Miss Sarah. I'll go see about them." I started strolling in the direction of my car, then angled toward the hydrangea.
Hen's voice interrupted my sidelong advance on the more-or-less alleged vandals. "Hey there, Deputy Roundtree." Actually, what he said was more like "Deppity." He can speak English as well as anybody and he had a law degree, but he likes to act like a hick and give people a chance to underestimate him. His blue uniform shirt was a little rumpled, his thinning blond hair was in disarray, and his chin showed a faint shiny stubble, but the long day he'd put in didn't affect his innately irritating manner.
He hitched up his britches and nodded toward my car crosswise in the street. "I suppose the idea is to keep traffic back out of the way?"
The only traffic since I arrived had been a couple of dogs and one slow-moving car that had turned off two blocks away. I hitched up my britches in return and grinned at him. He hates being reminded that his belly is beginning to force his britches into a position where they need to be hitched. "I saw it on Kojak when I was at an impressionable age," I told him. "Didn't see what it could hurt."
"Unless some citizen runs into your car, not expecting it. Miz Wolters down at the corner doesn't look where she's going anymore, figures people can look out for her for a change."
"She ought to be in bed asleep by now. Bad fire," I added.
"No telling. Haven't seen him. His car's not here. Gonna be a blow to him when he does come home. Won't be much worth saving."
From what I remember, there wasn't much in there worth saving even without a fire," I said. "Beats me how he ever noticed a little vandalism. Hen, I swear he hadn't swept the floor or thrown out a newspaper since Rhett walked out on Scarlett."
Hen watched the fire, rubbing at his throat with the back of his hand as though gauging the length of his whiskers. "Looks like they've got it under control," he said.
"Maybe I'll cruise a little and see if I can find Reed," I suggested.
"Good idea. Be a shame for him to stumble up on this without any warning. He drives a pre-divorce Chrysler, about a ninety-three. Red."
As if I wouldn't know what kind of car Reed drove. But I let it pass. "Okay. I'll go look. And Hen? Can you tell who that is?" I nodded toward the hydrangea.
He squinted in the light of the fire. "Looks like Dawsons. Daniel and David are about that size. What in the world are they doing way over here this late?"
"Slumming?" The Dawsons are the town's rich folks. Just coincidentally, Daniel and David's Aunt Vivi used to be married to Reed Ritter.
Hen snorted and stared thoughtfully at the hydrangea.
"I'll give them a ride home," I said.
"They won't appreciate it much."
"No," I agreed. "But their parents might. See you later."
Hen turned his attention back to the fire and I went to extend my invitation to the boys, but by the time I reached their hiding place they were gone. Well, they'd found their way here, I guessed they could find their way back. I tried to decide where to start looking for Reed. There wouldn't be too many options in Ogeechee this time of night.
When I came back to Ogeechee from Atlanta a couple of years ago I'd taken a fresh look at the town and been surprised to see how little it had changed in my lifetime.
Thirty years in Atlanta had seen suburbs pop up like chigger bites, superhighways writhe around the edges like nightcrawlers, and the construction of a knock-'em-dead airport that Aunt Lulu compares to Disney World, but there'd been no reason for Ogeechee to change much.. It's too far from Savannah for the land developers to be after it, and nobody has discovered gold or oil nearby. Ogeechee is in one of the four counties that can grow honest-to-goodness Vidalia onions, so the economy picked up a little when they got to be popular, but that boom was really more like a rat-a-tat-tat. A dress shop opened up a few years ago, but it didn't thrive since people were already in the habit of driving someplace where they could have some choices. There are still only two grocery stores, if you don't count the four newish mini-markets on the outlying arms of the highways. There are no more than a dozen places to "eat out," and to get up to that you have to include Kathi's Koffee Kup and the Daytime Deli, which is only open for lunch and caters mostly to people who have courthouse business. The same five churches--to Baptist (Missionary and Southern), one United Methodist, one Church of God, and the Abundant Light Pentecostal Holiness--still hold their ground, but the last time one of them (the Southern Baptist) had a Together We Build campaign was when I was in seventh grade.
I decided to cruise the outskirts, so back at Main Street I turned left, driving south toward the edge of town to look in the parking lot of the Twilight Inn and the Jive Joint, wondering as I drove if Vivi Dawson, the ex-Mrs. Reed Ritter, would have been petty enough to put her nephews up to the vandalism that had been perpetrated on Reed Ritter's property, and if it had gotten out of hand. It sounded a little childish for Vivi, Miss I'm-Rich-and-You-Aren't, but you never know.
Circling around behind the Twilight Inn, I came up on a group of young people huddled around a rusty old Pontiac Catalina that I knew could outrun any horsepower the town owned. I recognized Half Pint Conroy and his big brother Pint. I had been disappointed to learn that the rest of the large Conroy family weren't measurements--say Tablespoon or Liter--but a series of botanical names like Wisteria was the most ordinary. Mrs. Conroy was apparently an old-fashioned kind of woman with interests the centered around children, canning, and gardening.
The last time I'd seen Pint was over at the courthouse where I watched with interest as Judge Griner tried to explain to him the puncturing people with screwdrivers would almost always irritate them. Pint had seemed to be bored at the time, bearing little resemblance to the smiling young stud he was at the moment.
"Hey there, Fuzz Lady," he called, giving me a friendly wave I figured was designed to show me he held no grudges and to show his friends he was on good terms with the law, which is pretty much true. Except for their occasional lapses from socially approved behavior, I like the Conroys. His brother and the girls inside the car all smiled and waved, too.
"Hey Pint. Half Pint. Having a party?"
They all laughed. "Yeah. We talking about riding over to Vidalia. Wanna come? Half Pint here ain't got no date." Half Pint poked at his brother, and the girls giggled at Pint's nerve.
"That whole carload of women for you, Pint?"
"Oh, yeah. Cain't fight em off."
"Well, thanks anyway. Maybe another time. Right now I'm looking for a red Chrysler four or five years old. Seen it?"
They all looked at each other, faces blank. Then, apparently deciding it couldn't bring unwanted attention to any of their friends, one of the girls spoke up.
"Was one at Billy Watson's a while ago. It'll still be there." They all laughed.
"Thanks. Y'all behave yourselves now." I eased the car back toward the middle of town and turned left on Court Street, wondering what was so funny. I hate it when I don't get a joke. If Reed wasn't at Billy Watson's, I'd call off my search and go back home to bed. Reed might not even be in town, and I wasn't on duty anyhow.
Billy Watson's Fish Place is one of the few eating places in town where you can sit down and have dinner. This late at night, Billy had turned out the neon beer signs and roadside flashing lights that tell people when it's open. The building is ramshackle and unpainted. Driving past when it's closed, anybody who didn't know better would think it was just sitting there waiting for demolition.
A few cars were parked in front, none of them the one I was looking for. I swung around the building to head back to town, and there it was, parked at the back edge of the shell-and-sand patch that Billy calls a parking lot. All four tires were flat. So now I knew what was so funny. It was too juvenile a stunt for Pint Conroy's Southside Gang to have bothered with, but they weren't too sophisticated to enjoy it.
Pulling back around in front, I parked the car and pushed open the plank door. The smell of grease and fried catfish was strong, but the lights and the noise level were lower than they would have been earlier in the evening. At this hour, without hungry patrons digging into catfish and hushpuppies, and covering up the deficiencies in the decor with their presence, the place looked worn-out and dreary.
Billy called to me from a booth where he was playing cards with three other people. He showed all eight of his teeth in a friendly grin. "What can I do for you? We're closed, just waiting for Idella to finish cleaning up, but we might could find you a leftover hushpuppy."
A clatter of metal on metal from the kitchen punctuating his offer indicated that Idella, Billy's wife and Ogeechee's unchallenged kitchen queen, was listening.
For a restaurateur, Billy is remarkably skinny, as though the constant familiarity with his food has bred contempt. Or maybe the fact that he'd dentally challenged slows him down. His work uniform is a pair of denim overalls. In winter he wears flannel shirts with it; in summer, T-shirts. On Sundays, year round, he wears a long-sleeved white dress shirt, which is only slightly paler than Billy himself. He chooses a necktie from a collection he hangs from a nail-studded beam in the dining room. Faithful customers sometimes contribute particularly interesting specimens to the collection and watch to see when they turn up on Billy. Hen has been known to say that Billy Watson's necktie collection is the closest the town can come to a porn shop. In fact, Hen once confiscated a particularly lurid one Billy indiscreetly wore on a Sunday when Hen took Teri and Delcie there for dinner after church. Tonight, a Tuesday night in springs, Billy wore a modest, long-sleeved yellow-and-blue striped T-shirt with his overalls.
Besides Billy, the only people I could see were the three playing cards with im, two rough-looking men I had never seen before and Vivi Dawson Ritter. Coincidence was working overtime on the Ritter-Dawson connection.
Vivi was sitting back in the corner of the booth with one foot on the seat and a denim-clad knee bent up between her and the table in what looked like an extremely uncomfortable position and would have been impossible except that she was so thin, all angles. If I could give her ten pounds we'd both be better off.
Her right hand rested on the table and held her folded cards. A cigarette trailing smoke dangled from between the long, thin fingers of the left hand. What had to be acrylic fingernails were painted the same carmine as her mouth. With her sculptured short black hair, intense black eyes, and pale skin, she looked like she should have been in a cosmetic ad, not killing time with a couple of red-necks in a ramshackle small-town fish joint. That's how she's always been, too dramatic for Ogeechee. Even in jeans, obviously making no effort to be glamorous, she had it. Me, now, I could pull a sequined tank top over my 34Bs, sprinkle glitter in my short brown hair and paint green smudges around my bright blue eyes and all I'd look like was somebody who was trying to look glamorous but had no clue how to go about it.
"I'll come back Sunday for some catfish, Billy," I said. "Right now I'm looking for Reed Ritter. Is that his car around back?"
"What's the matter? Reed stand you up?" Vivi asked, lazily fishing a shred of tobacco from the end of her tongue with her carmine tongs. "I wouldn't have said you were his type." Vivi and her friends laughed at this even though it didn't seem particularly witty to me.
"I didn't think you ever figured out his type," I said. "Anyway, this is business."
They all laughed again and cut their eyes at each other, we-get-the-joke-and-it's-on-you. Ha. Ha. I still didn't see anything funny.
"Police business," I said, determined not to give them a reaction. "Is he here?"
"The police are after ol' Reed? I never thought he had enough imagination to do anything that would interest the police. Or anybody else."
"Is he here?" I yawned. It was a natural yawn that sneaked up on me but I liked the effect so much I did it again on purpose. I was getting a little tired of the question, not to mention the company.
"Nah. Left-what would you say?" Billy appealed to the others. "About nine?"
"About nine, I guess." Vivi volunteered. "Who'd notice?" She dreamily ran one of those fingernails across the back of the neck of the man sitting next to her. It didn't seem to bother him, but it made me shiver.
"How'd he leave? His car's still here."
"With Gordie. Tool polluted to drive." Vivi had noticed that much and seemed pleased to report it.
"Uh-huh. But you still didn't tell us why you want Reed."
"There's a fire at his place, and I thought he'd like to know about it."
Vivi folded her hand again. All four cardplayers looked up. "Bad fire?"
"Looks pretty bad. Do you know where he and Gordie were going?"
All four shook their heads. "Your turn, Billy," one of the strangers said. Compassionate bunch.
"Thanks for your help."
As the plank door squeaked shut behind me, I heard them laughing again.
I swung by Reed's in case he'd turned up there and I found an entirely different scene from the one I'd left not so much earlier. The fire was out. The rushing water and shouting men had quieted. Grimy firefighters stood in twos and threes, except for one who was sitting behind the hydrangea where the boys had been, his head hanging between his knees. Dwight Wilkes, the police officer on night duty, had joined the crowd and was standing with Hen and Fire Chief Phil Pittman.
As I came to a stop, I saw Phil walk over to the man behind the hydrangea. Hen made some final comment to Dwight and trudged in my direction, every minute of his long day showing now. Some trick of my tiredness or the night light even made him look smaller.
He leaned against the car, his arms making a frame for his head as he bent and peered down at me through the window. I began to report.
"The Conroy boys are over at the Twilight with some sweet young things, all of them high on something, and I guess it could be spring and romance and being out of jail, but that's probably not all. They sent me to Billy Watson's."
Hen waggled a hand as though to cut me off, but I went on. "Reed's car's there at Billy's but they said Reed left with Gordon Albritton. If he hasn't come back here, I could see if he's at Albritton's or I could go home and go to bed. You could, too. Do you ever sleep in a bed, or do you just nap at the office?"
"That's about it."
"Good. You can quit worrying about finding Reed."
"Oh, he's here? Good. When did he turn up?"
"Just a few minutes ago."
"Where'd he been?"
"In the house." Hen took a deep breath and straightened up, arching his back until it popped. He jerked his head to indicate the man on his knees behind the hydrangea. "Wallace found him."