DEATH and the Walking Stick
A Trudy Roundtree Mystery
Linda BerryChapter 1
"She's an unpleasant old turkey buzzard if I ever saw one," said Henry Huckabee.
"Now, Hen, she's just a poor old lady." Actually, I said "pore ol' lady," because I wanted to exaggerate my insincerity and get on Hen's nerves as much as possible.
Hen is Henry Huckabee, the Chief of Police of Ogeechee, Georgia, a town about sixty-five miles west of Savannah, with a population that's hovered around three thousand people for most of its hundred years. I am Trudy Roundtree, his cousin, the first (and so far only) female officer the OPD has ever had. "She" was Althea Boatright, five-foot-two, eyes of blue, ninety-seven pounds, and eighty-one years, as I was in a position to know since I had so recently taken charge of her driver's license. She reminded me more of a plucked chicken than a turkey buzzard, but I made allowances for Hen's heightened emotional state. Whether she was plucked chicken, turkey buzzard, or poor old lady could be debated. What was not debatable was that Althea Boatright had been at the controls of her Lincoln Continental when it crushed the life out of Mr. Charles Sykes of Jesup, pressing him between her grillwork and the side wall of the post office, that beehive of late-morning activity in Ogeechee.
"It was the awfullest noise I ever heard," testified ear-witness Caroline Strickland, who had been discarding most of the contents of her post office box directly into the handy wastepaper basket near the big picture window that overlooked the parking lot. "The crash. Lord, I thought I was done for! Thought she was gone plow right through the wall and get me, too. Althea's horn blowing and the man's scream cut off like that, I'll hear it the rest of my life, I swear, and on top of it all that yappy dog."
Oh, yes. The dog. Althea admitted to some responsibility for the accident because her dog, known variously as "that yappy dog" (Caroline Strickland), "that overgrown rat" (Henry Huckabee), and "Precious" (Althea Boatright), had gotten tangled up in her feet and made her hit the foot-feed instead of the brake in the stress of the moment.
"She probably had the dog navigatin' for her," Hen fumed. "Had him up there on a pillow so he could see out."
"That's right." I fanned his flames. "Did you notice the pillow matched the one Miz Boatright sits on so she can see over the dashboard? You don't think it was actually Precious driving, do you?"
"Precious! Lord help me," Hen said. "You got statements from everybody?"
Yes, I had. Besides Caroline Strickland, there had been Cooter Wilbanks. "Never saw anybody in my life look so surprised, when he saw that car coming straight at him like that. He waved like he thought he could stop it that way, like it was a nervous cow or something, and even after he was hit, it looked like he was trying to reason with it, talk his way out."
And Tara Hilliard, earnestly, around her tears. "It was awful! It was awful! That poor man! I hope he was saved. He was just standing there, like he was waiting for somebody. I guess he was waiting for the Angel of Death and didn't know it. Oh, to be cut off like that, with no chance to say goodbye to your family or make peace with your enemies or anything! I hope he was right with God. You never know when your time will come. Are you—"
"I'm a Methodist. Thank you, Tara. We'll get in touch with you if we need anything else."
And Holton Hooks, wobbling on his walker. "I heard he wadn't even from here. What was a man from Jesup doing at our post office, anyway? Shows what happens when you start ramblin' too far away from home."
"Open and shut," I summarized for Hen. "No extenuating circumstances, unless you want to count Precious."
"I don't want to count Precious as an extenuating circumstance or anything else in any way whatsoever," Hen summarized for me. Then he brightened. "Unless you think we could get that overgrown rat as an accessory—aiding and abetting, something like that."
What had him in such a bad mood was trying to decide what to charge Althea with. Everybody in town knew she was a menace, had been a menace for years, driving around with that dog. Since it was our clear duty to do what we could to protect the citizenry by getting Althea Boatright off the road, we didn't want to blow this heaven-sent opportunity. But coming down too hard on that angle might give somebody the idea they should sue the police department for failing to get her off the road sooner. A range of seductive possibilities beckoned. Vehicular homicide, with or without intent, was our favorite. Reckless disregard for the public safety was in the running. Since she was a good Methodist senior citizen, we had reluctantly scratched the possibility of getting her for driving under the influence, unless maybe it was the influence of her medication. Hen had deputed me to find out if she was on any kind of drugs that would qualify, in case we got so desperate we had to come down to that. I'd been trying to convince Hen that revoking her driver's license would be enough punishment. No need to try to send her to jail.
Hen's comment about Althea's unpleasantness notwithstanding, at the scene I had been struck—not in the same way Mr. Sykes had been struck, I'm happy to say—by her uncharacteristic docility. She asked several times, "Is he dead? Is he really dead?" and once she was convinced of that, she seemed to lose all her starch. For once, she hadn't tried to bluster or explain it away. She agreed it was terrible. She agreed that she was at fault, even if only to the extent that she hadn't kept Precious under control. I guessed she'd been under heavy fire from her family to quit driving, and she realized this was the last straw for her as well as for poor Charles Sykes of Jesup. Whether it was mostly guilt or embarrassment, it would have been hard to say, but it boded well for the future safety of the streets of Ogeechee.
Hen consulted his notes and looked up at me. "Littering?" he asked hopefully. "Assault with a deadly weapon?" At this point, his rantings were interrupted by the arrival of Officer Jerome Sharpe.
Jerome's a recent addition to the force, and he's worth his considerable weight in shelled pecans, a standard higher than gold around here. At six-foot-four and three hundred pounds, and ornamented with a gold earring and dark curly hair as long as Hen's regulations will allow, one of Jerome's best qualities is that the very sight of him scares the living mischief out of most people. People who might keep pushing because they think they can get away with something when they see me coming, fade and dwindle in Jerome's presence. Trouble simply evaporates. Even Hen, at about six feet and about two hundred pounds, looks small next to Jerome. What chance do my five-foot-six-inches and (about) one hundred thirty pounds have?
I know Jerome's slow, deliberate movements are the result of an ingrained habit of trying not to cause accidental damage by bumping into things, but the general run of evildoers seems to see controlled menace. I know he prefers gentleness and quietness, but we hope the word never gets around. Comparing him to a freight train isn't too far off: he's almost as big, he usually moves slowly but purposefully, and his voice has a deep rumble that seems to assure you everything is moving along on the right track and on schedule.
He's a big hit with women of every age, size, or color, but professionally he's developing something of a sub-specialty in irrational women. One of his groupies, Elma Coleman, lives east of town, or, as Hen says, her body lives over there, but her mind stays somewhere out in the O-zone. She's been one of Jerome's special women ever since the first time she called in to report that there were some snipers shooting at her from the roof of the Magnolia Blossom Motel, a new establishment just across the highway from her house, on what she probably thinks still ought to be a peach orchard.
Imagining everything from a drug deal gone bad to rabid, teenaged squirrel hunters run amok, we responded quickly. We don't get anything as interesting as snipers every day of the week. Not even every week.
When we got there, though, it didn't take us long to ascertain that there were no snipers on the roof of the Magnolia Blossom Motel and absolve the premises of any sinister goings on. The only odd thing we found was little old Mrs. Coleman, eighty-five if she's a day, nervously peering at us through her lacy front curtain.
We flashed our badges and she opened the front door as far as the security chain would allow.
"There's nobody up there, ma'am," Jerome told her. "Maybe we scared 'em off." "Well, of course you can't see them," she whispered, releasing the chain and grabbing his sleeve to hurry him inside where he'd be safe. I followed unassisted.
"Of course you can't see them," she repeated in a normal tone. "They're wearing that camouflage stuff that makes them invisible."
"Uh huh," Jerome rumbled, nodding wisely. I had to turn my unruly face away from Mrs. Coleman. "That makes a big difference in how we go about this," he continued, in a matter-of-fact tone that suggested utter control of the situation, now that he had all the facts. "Don't you worry, now, ma'am. I've had experience with this kind of thing and I know just what to do." Apparently he did know just what to do, besides laying on the "ma'am," which actually does seem to help in cases like this. Mrs. Coleman and I watched him stroll back to the motel and roust up the manager. They talked for a few minutes, then Jerome went back to his cruiser and rummaged around in the trunk. He disappeared from view, and the next thing we knew, Jerome appeared on the roof of the Magnolia Blossom Motel. From that distance, it was hard to tell exactly what he was doing, but he seemed to be walking back and forth across the roof, holding a spray can of some kind out in front of him. He spent a while walking and spraying, covering every corner and crevice. Finally, he turned to face Mrs. Coleman's house and gave a big thumbs up, along with his dazzling smile. Have I mentioned that dazzling smile?
He returned to the cruiser and opened the back door, at the same time going through a pantomime I couldn't interpret. Then he put the can of whatever it was in the car and re-appeared at Mrs. Coleman's door, looking satisfied with himself, as well he should. When he announced that he'd taken care of the snipers, Mrs. Coleman and I both believed him.
"What were you doing up there?" Mrs. Coleman asked. If he tried to tell us he'd used insect repellant, I wasn't sure even Mrs. Coleman would believe him, but he surprised and impressed me by being more subtle than that.
"Hit 'em with special sniper paint," he said. "Once they knew I could see 'em, they caved right in. I got 'em locked in the cruiser, ready for special delivery to the lock-up."
I remembered the can of spray paint he'd taken from some eighth graders who were using it for what Hen called "unsanctioned outdoor art."
"I didn't see them." Mrs. Coleman said, doubtfully but trustfully.
Jerome didn't miss a beat. "It's distance sensitive," he explained. "Only works up close, messes up the light waves. But don't you worry. I got 'em all right."
She was convinced. She rewarded him—us—with homemade chocolate chip pecan cookies, still warm from the oven.
Since then, Jerome has periodically gone over to clean the snipers off the Magnolia Blossom Motel and have some of Mrs. Coleman's cookies. I'm not sure which of them initiates the contact. Jerome may do it whenever he's having a slow day and needs a cookie fix. Since I used to be just about the only member of what Hen calls his "fringe patrol"—his code for people who are on or beyond the fringe of normal society—I'm happy to share that niche, to let Jerome infringe, so to speak.
"You think we can get jail time for Althea Boatright" Hen asked him now.
"Old lady like that with no prior offenses? Nah," Jerome said. "Just get the town up in arms. It'll be enough to get her off the road. Even when she doesn't run into anybody, she's a nuisance. Don't sweat it. There's not a chance in a truckload she'll be able to pass the driver's test again."
"Public nuisance," Hen muttered, and made a note.
"She must keep the cruise control on that car set at five," Jerome continued. "Creates a dad-dogged parade any time she goes anywhere. Musta been going faster than usual when she mowed down that fella. Most of the time, even old Holton Hooks could outrun her."
"Now you mention it, we get her off the streets, we can probably hit Leland up for a fat donation next time we try to raise money to send kids to some camp besides the Rogers Correctional Institute," Hen said. "Having her hanging around over there can't be good for business."
Grinstead's Market is just across the street from the station house. Althea shops there because it's the family business. She was married to—and widowed by—Bert Grinstead before she was married to Rowland Boatright. Her son, Leland, is a Grinstead. When she and Rowland Boatright got together, she changed her name but not her interest in Grinstead's Market. Leland probably would appreciate it if Hen made it a little harder for Althea to drop in for unannounced inspections of how he runs the store. "I've noticed that when Althea comes for groceries, there's a rush of people coming out of the store to move their cars away from hers," I contributed.
"Might be a good idea to check with Leland before you settle on the charges," Jerome said. "Might could get a bigger donation out of him if you lock her up instead of just gettin' her off the streets." "You could play Leland against Homer, pretending you're going to let her off, and see which one will be more grateful to see her locked up," I suggested. Homer is the son of Althea's second husband, Rowland Boatright. Homer and his sister Susannah have been in one lawsuit or another against Althea over the Boatright estate ever since Rowland died.
"With or without Leland and Homer, the town will probably put up a statue in your honor, if you get her off the streets," I said.
"Or maybe in honor of Mr. Sykes, a martyr to the cause."
Jerome ambled off, brushing at the errant cookie crumbs on his shirt which both Hen and I had been too polite to mention. We heard him rumbling at Dawn, the dispatcher.
"Kid's got a good head on his shoulders," Hen said, completely ignoring my comments. "Lucky for us he went into law enforcement instead of crime, or even football, like those cousins of his."
"Yep," I said, thinking about the fringe-dwellers I was now sharing with Jerome.
Hen sighed. "Okay, no jail time. But she is an unpleasant old turkey buzzard."
For once, I couldn't bring myself to argue with him.