Death and the Hubcap

A Trudy Roundtree Mystery


Linda Berry

Chapter 1

It had been a slow-moving Saturday morning. Henry Huckabee, Ogeechee's Chief of Police, was slouching against the doorframe between the dispatch room and the file room, where I, Trudy Roundtree, was sitting at the typewriter working on incident reports from the day before. Hen was watching me work. Maybe he wasn't trying to get on my nerves, but odds are he was, so I was trying to ignore him.

Hen added me to the police force a couple of years back because our grandmother (Jessie Roundtree) and his mother (my Aunt Lulu) leaned on him to give me a job so I wouldn't move back to Atlanta. They reasoned that all I'd had in Atlanta was heartbreak in a variety of sizes and colors, and they were looking out for my best interests as they saw them. Hen grudgingly went along, but he cuts me no slack and makes the job as safe and tedious as possible, no doubt hoping I'll decide I'm bored in Ogeechee, even with a job, and will get myself off his payroll and his conscience. As the only male in the immediate family circle, he's old-fashioned enough to feel like he ought to be the protector of the women. As the Chief of Police and my boss, he's supposed to put me--a police officer--in contact with people who might not have my best interests at heart. I'll admit, but not to him, that I know he has a problem reconciling the two roles. Understanding his dilemma doesn't make it easy for me to put up with. So far the only satisfying course of action I've found is to do my best to make sure he suffers at least as much as I do.

Hen's attention was distracted from me when Dawn, the dispatcher, took a call. I was relieved, but only briefly. The next thing I knew, Hen was looking my way again and wearing a smirk on his face that boded ill for me. Besides being his cousin I'm the only female on the force, so I have to take a double dose of aggravation.

"To serve and protect, Trudy, to serve and protect," he said. The normal crime rate in Ogeechee being what it is (low), Hen's fond of lecturing on the importance of the service aspect of the job over the crime-fighting aspect, so this comment didn't alarm me. It was the smirk that did that. Luckily for me, not all the genes that make Hen such a pain in the . . . well, a pain . . . are sex linked, so I sometimes manage to hold my own.

"That's what I signed up for, Your Excellency," I said, as perkily as I could manage. Sometimes if I'm irritating enough I can deflect him from whatever evil purpose he had in mind. This time what he had in store for me was so satisfying he was undistractable.

"It's Tanner Whitcomb," Hen said, and his smirk threatened to become a full-fledged grin. "Says he's run over somebody."

For you to understand why the chief of police would be slouching and smirking over a report that somebody has been run over, instead of, for instance, calling an ambulance and hightailing over to the scene, you'll have to know more about Tanner Whitcomb.

Tanner grew up in Ogeechee just like Hen and I did, and everybody knows him, or at least knows who he is. Most people probably wouldn't recognize him up close, though, because he's usually seen from a distance, walking along the side of the road out on the edge of town, picking up aluminum cans to recycle to augment his meager monthly check from the county--what Dwight Wilkes, who hired on with Hen when he retired from being a prison guard, calls Tanner's "crazy check." Tanner walks, that's all he does, although if you don't want to get him stirred up you don't let on that's what you think he's doing. As far as he's concerned, he's driving, and that accounts for the hub cap he's always holding out in front and turning like a steering wheel. If you get close enough you can usually hear engine noises coming from his throat, complemented by high and low whines when he's pulling a hill and has to downshift. When insulted or inconvenienced by other motorists, he pounds the center of his hubcap and honks or gives the highway salute.

Some people like to stir Tanner up, tease him, and some of those people are employed by the Ogeechee Police Department. That's one of the reasons--but only one of the reasons, as I have already tried to suggest--that Hen likes for me to respond to calls about Tanner. When Dwight goes out to help Tanner change a flat (which has happened), it doesn't always tend to add to the peace of the municipality. Being a guard at a maximum-security lock-up made Dwight well trained, if not over trained, for most of the business that comes our way. It also made him mean and cynical. I don't doubt he had natural talent along those lines, but his work experience surely helped.

Me? I never have felt so low about myself that I had to stomp on somebody else just so I could be sure I was standing taller-- especially if that somebody else was somebody like Tanner--and my Grandma raised me not to be rude just for the sake of it. The situation was a little tricky the first time Hen sent me on a Tanner call, in the grocery store parking lot, when Tanner said his battery was dead and would I give him a jump.

"Where's the battery?" I asked. "Women!" Tanner said. "Don't know thing one about cars!" At first I thought Hen or Dwight had put him up to it, but later I found out that sexism is as much a part of Tanner as his body odor and the wine bottle in his pocket. I won't say it doesn't bother me, but at least I know how to deal with it, and I consider the source. I figure Tanner has an excuse Hen and Dwight don't have. At least Hen doesn't.

Even in my most insecure moments, I'd be secure enough to know a reasonable person couldn't expect me to know where the battery is on an imaginary car, so I made an on-the-spot decision that has helped me in all my subsequent encounters with Tanner. I handle him the same way I handle Hen's six-year-old daughter, Delcie. I play along.

"I'm not familiar with this particular model, Tanner," I said. "You're going to have to show me where to put these cables."

"I'll do it myself," he said scornfully. "Gimme the cables."

Fine. I fished the jumper cables out of my trunk and watched with real interest as Tanner attached one end to my front license plate and the other end to the hip pocket of his faded brown jumpsuit, fussing the whole time about what was the world coming to when women are in uniform and carrying guns and don't even know how to jump start an engine. Grocery shoppers on the way in and out of the store eyed Tanner and me. Most managed not to come too close to us. Nobody offered to help.

Finally Tanner had all the adjustments made and told me to rev 'er up. Okay. I stepped back into my car and revved 'er up. Apparently it worked, because he went on his way without so much as a thank you ma'am. The cable pulled loose from his battery as he drove away, mercifully sparing me from having to chase him down and pull him over to get it back. When Hen asked me about it later, in front of Dwight, naturally, I said I thought maybe Tanner ought to have all his fluids checked because he seemed to be about a quart low on everything but alcohol.

All of which goes to explain why it was with a mild sense of being witty that, upon being told that Tanner had run over somebody, I asked, "Anybody hurt?"

Hen looked at Dawn and she answered. "I don't know, really. A woman named Bessie Overstreet called in. She said Tanner flagged her down and told her to go get the police because he'd run over somebody and we better come look. She said he was upset."

"I can see where he would be," I said.

"You better run on out there and see what it's about. You can save those reports for later." Hen might have thought he was doing me a favor, knowing how I hate doing the reports. Little as I like Tanner, I'd rather serve and protect even him than sit in the office on a beautiful morning and write reports. But I didn't want to appear eager. I managed a sigh and a pseudo-wistful glance at the computer. "Well, okay, then. Where'd this accident occur? Where do I run out to?"

"Miz Overstreet said she was coming back from Glennville, so out that way." Dawn said. She was answering my question, but she was looking at Hen for clues about how she was supposed to be taking this. She was having trouble knowing how seriously we were taking this call, but she idolizes Hen and lives in fear that she'll disappoint him so she was being careful. Hen's smirk had by now frankly given way to a grin, but that didn't seem to be helping Dawn.

"In town?" I asked.

"Find out," Hen said. We have a constant tug of war with Rufus Badcock, the county sheriff, over jurisdiction. Naturally, I wouldn't have minded being able to hand Tanner's problem over to him. Just as naturally, Hen would want to stick me with it if he could.

"I'm on my way," I said, and left Hen grinning and Dawn unenlightened about the source of the humor. She's a natural- born straight man--simple, sweet, and literal minded. She started working for Hen right out of high school. I started working on her lamentable case of hero worship as soon as I took my job, but I've still got a long way to go.

Leaving the station, I followed Court Street to Main Street, turned south, toward Glennville, and started looking for Tanner, thinking how nice it was to be out of the office and away from Hen, even if I was headed for Tanner.

It was a beautiful morning, the kind of day that reminds me how much I love south Georgia. Pines are the dominant tree around here, so we don't have drastic changes of season like you get farther north, with vivid color just before everything drops its leaves for the winter. It was mid-September but it wasn't even cool, and the trees that do shed hadn't gotten around to giving it any thought. It didn't take me long to find Tanner, sitting on the ground with his back to the road and leaning against a guardrail on a bridge, on the east side of the road, inside the town limits.

I slowed to a crawl when I got close, crossed the road, and pulled off onto the gravelly shoulder. Now I could see that Tanner was curled forward over his hubcap. His overalls were covered with fresh dirt, as though he'd spent some time wallowing around on the ground, and his newish Falcons cap was also dirty and askew. A half- empty wine bottle with a label showing a palm tree leaning over in a hurricane lay in the dirt beside him. He didn't move, even though he must have heard me coming. I walked around to face him.

"Hey, Tanner."

When he looked up at me, his expression was a mixture of belligerence and fear.

"You!" he said, his glance darting away from me in disgust and toward the shadows under the bridge.

"Uh huh. Me. What's the matter?"

"Women!" he said, and the idea of his innate superiority seemed to perk him up. "I told that woman."

"Miz Overstreet said you told her you ran over somebody."

His whole body began to shake. I took a step back from the rich combination of odors--old sweat, wine, grease--that wafted my way. "I guess you'd better tell me about it. Who did you run over?"

"Don't know."

"Well, what makes you think you ran over somebody?" This was delicate ground. I tried to sound businesslike and respectful, and I tried not to think of how much Hen and Dwight would enjoy my predicament. "Did you . . . did you feel a bump?" His glance slid away from me again. There was no doubt that something had upset him.

I nudged the wine bottle with my shoe. "You been drinking and driving?" Of course, technically, he could not have been drinking and driving, but I've never been able to count on finding the point where Tanner's fantasy intersects with reality. Not knowing if he's been taking his medication as directed makes it even trickier. Anyway, on that morning it was clear he'd been drinking. Whether he'd hit the bottle before or after the "accident," and whether it would make him less coherent or more agreeable, remained to be seen.

His eyes narrowed as he considered the pros and cons of the situation. Clearly, he wasn't sure how serious a drunk driving charge would be. He went for simplicity. "No," he said finally, "that bottle ain't mine." But he licked his lips at the sight of the sloshing wine.

"Okay, then. Let's start over. How do you know you hit somebody?"

No response. "I wouldn't worry about it, then," I told him. "Maybe you didn't really hurt whoever it was."

"He's lying there dead, ain't he?"

"Is he? Where? I don't see him." I made a big show of looking around, inviting Tanner to look with me at the wide ditch along the shoulder of the slightly elevated road, the pines and dense tangle of underbrush on the far side of the ditch, the gentle grassy slope down to the river under the bridge and up again on the other side. I was getting a little wistful for my untyped reports.

"Tanner, you've got to help me a little." I crouched beside him, but not too close, pulled out my notebook and pen, and tried to be patient. If there's one thing I know about children and slow thinkers, it is that they can't be hurried. As Hen might say in one of his folksy moods, you can pull a fishing line through water, but you can't push it. Finally, Tanner looked up at me. He looked at my notebook and my pen. He looked back at me steadily for a few seconds, then he darted a glance toward the shadows under the bridge. About the fourth or fifth time he did that, I began to get it.

Following his glance down the slope where free-spirited motorists have worn an access road down to the riverbank under the bridge, I saw something in the deep shadow, at the base of a piling. Now we were getting somewhere. Whatever that was--a goat? driftwood? a stray dog?--had to be what had upset Tanner. I went to take a closer look. With every step I took, it became more obvious that the shape that had appeared to be a pile of trash or an animal partially covered by leaves was neither. As I got closer and my eyes adjusted to the shadow, the shape began to look more and more like a person. A rock became the bottom of a shoe. The shoe was on a foot. It was attached to a leg. It wasn't moving.

Ogeechee is near enough to the state prison it's not unheard of for us to have wayward tourists on unauthorized leave, so it doesn't hurt to be a little cautious. "You just wait there while I take a look," I called back to Tanner, not that he'd shown any inclination to follow me. With my weapon drawn, I approached what undoubtedly was somebody lying very very still in the sand by the piling. It took no more than a glance for me to know there was no need to be worried about danger from this man, though. The fixed, dark, staring eyes-- with a coating of sand that had not been blinked away--told me there would be no pulse. His dangerous days, if he had ever had any, were over.

He lay on his back with the right arm close to his side, the left arm outflung, the hand resting in an ant hill. The ants might originally have resented this intrusion but had adapted and were matter-of-factly going on with their lives, some detouring, the single- minded ones going in as straight a line as possible right over the cafe- au-lait colored wrist. Tire tracks ran the length of his body, from right leg to left shoulder, just missing his jaw. Sand and grit clung to his clothing. His faded jeans and cotton sports shirt looked neat and clean except for that track. Where they weren't rumpled from the kneading and crushing action of the vehicle as it ran over the body, the clothes showed signs of having been pressed. The athletic shoes were worn, but the socks looked newish and clean. Touching nothing, I went back to my cruiser and called for help.

"Six twenty-four, Ogeechee. Looks like I've got a ten fifty- seven out here," I said into the radio, using the code we like to think will keep any riffraff who can afford a police radio from knowing everything that's going on in town.

"He really did kill somebody?" Dawn gasped.

"No, Dawn. I'll bet my pitiful little old paycheck he didn't. Will you tell His High-and-Mightyness and get things goin'?"

"Right," she said, but couldn't resist adding, "Trudy, you shouldn't talk about him like that."

"Right," I said. I surely do have a lot of work to do on her.

Knowing the scene was about to become cluttered with emergency and investigative teams, and guessing the confusion would not add to Tanner's ability to be coherent, I figured I had about five minutes to see what I could find out from him about what had happened.

"Tanner! Come down here!"

"Don't want to."

"Do it anyway."

After a few seconds I heard the rumbling and growling that told me Tanner was getting in gear. An eerie whine told me he was doing it under protest. He stopped well back from the body.

"Are you sure you don't know who that is?"

He clutched his hubcap and shook his head violently, his pale eyes fixed on mine, his lank, dirty, gray-blond hair flopping this way and that.

"Did you even look at him?"

He shook his head again.

"I think he musta been drunk," he volunteered. Well, it was something.

"Why do you say that?"

"Couldn'ta missed seeing me."

It began to dawn on me that Tanner was even further out of the loop than usual. He really didn't know what had happened. "When did you first see him?" I asked.

"I come down here lookin' for cans. I was backin' out. Made a wide turn and hit him. What's he doing over there's what I wanta know."

I tried to translate what he said into something that made sense, then translate my thoughts into a language Tanner would respond to. "So you're telling me you clipped him when you were backing up for a turn?" I hazarded.

"That's what I said."

"Okay. I just need to get it straight. And what then?"

"I got that woman to call the po-lice, and they sent you." His sneer showed he was recovering a little.

"So you didn't look at him. Then how did you know you ran over him?" The question seemed to unnerve him. He started cursing again and folded his hands under his armpits. This protective gesture didn't work out quite like he'd planned because it called my attention to the gold watch on his dirty wrist.

"Nice watch."

He stuck his wrist further under his armpit.

"You been robbin' a dead man, Tanner?"


"You kill him for his watch?"

"It was an accident. I told you. He ain't got no use for it, has he?" Tanner was getting worked up again.

"You give me that watch and go wait up by the road, away from the crime scene so you don't mess anything up till we find out what happened."

"It ain't your watch."

"No, it ain't, but it ain't yours either and I'm taking custody of it. You want to add robbery to the charges?"

With a hate-filled look at me, he removed the watch and handed it over. I was glad he didn't ask me what charges I had in mind. Not vehicular homicide and not driving under the influence. Not hit and run, since even if it turned out that he might technically be said to have hit, he hadn't run.

"You take anything else?"

He turned his back to me and shook his head.

"You stay out of my way, then. When Hen gets here he'll want to talk to you."

"Huckabee shoulda come in the first place," he said. As I turned my attention back to the scene, I could hear sputters and whining as Tanner pulled up onto the shoulder. He crossed the ditch and began to idle in the shade of a pine tree.

The appearance of the body was puzzling. Although the clothes were worn and old, the fingernails on the hand lying in the anthill were clean and looked like they'd been manicured since mine had. The hands looked soft, not the hands of a field worker or heavy laborer. The watch--Cartier--would have looked right at home on the elegant wrist, and it was still ticking away. No help there on the time of death. Takes a licking and keeps on ticking, I thought, but that was a different brand, and this situation wouldn't make a very good commercial, anyway. The man's dark curly hair was recently barbered, trimmed close to the scalp. There was discoloration and some swelling under his right eye, which didn't seem to have anything to do with the car tracks.

I was puzzling over the inconsistent details--careful grooming and expensive watch; cheap, worn clothing--when I heard two cars pull to a stop, the slam of a door, footsteps on gravel.

"Down here," I called.

Hen and Dwight crunched down the slope.

"Don't tell me Tanner's really managed to do some damage," Hen drawled, hitching his belt.

"No, not on the evidence, but somebody did. I've never figured out exactly what Tanner is capable of, but I'd be surprised if he could produce tire tracks." I stood aside so they could get a look. "Funny place for him to be, since he's obviously not a teenager looking for a little privacy, but the sandy car tracks on the body look like a match for the soil right here, so I'm guessing this is where he was killed. I don't think he's local and whoever killed him didn't rob him. Funny place for an accident, though. He was wearing this." I held up the watch I'd taken from Tanner.

Hen gave me that amused, surprised look he puts on when I'm unguarded enough to give the impression that I care enough what he thinks to be trying to impress him. That look always brings out the worst in me. I looked him up and down. "He's shorter than you by a couple of inches at least, maybe about five ten or eleven and he took better care of himself than you do, too. Maybe one fifty to your two twenty."

That wasn't fair, but I had to do something to wipe that look off Hen's face. He works out and probably doesn't weigh more than a solid two hundred pounds, which is okay on a six-footer. He claims six-one, and I don't challenge him on that directly since I'm five-six and claim to weigh one-twenty. Some things are just off limits.

We made what observations we could while we waited for the ambulance and the GBI mobile forensics van, which has to come from Statesboro, close to fifty miles away. When it arrived, the crime scene technicians whipped into action, looking for whatever there was to be learned from the scene. As the day wore on they took plenty of pictures showing how the body lay in relation to the piling and the rutted road, with close-ups of some of the tire tracks.

While the technicians were doing their stuff, Dwight and Hen went at Tanner again, but even they weren't able to get any more out of him except that he swore he had flagged down Mrs. Overstreet right after he ran over the man, which couldn't have been more than twenty minutes before I got to the scene. I didn't need an autopsy to tell me the man had been dead a good while longer than that.

I had an inspiration. "Hey, Dwight," I said, pointing to the wine bottle. "Maybe you better get the lab to take that in and test it for fingerprints. Tanner says it isn't his."

Dwight looked at me as if I'd lost my mind; Hen looked thoughtful; Tanner tried to look shrewd.

"Good idea," Hen said.

"Maybe it is mine," Tanner said, eyeing the wine.

"Well, then, maybe we'd better give you a roadside sobriety test," I said.

"That balloon thing?"

"Oh, yeah, and that walking thing."

Hen shot me a disgusted look that almost evened the score for his earlier amusement, but he rose to the challenge. "Yeah, Tanner. We may have to give you a ticket for having an open bottle of an alcoholic beverage in the vehicle, at least," he suggested.

Tanner apparently decided that the prestige of having a DUI appealed to him. He stuck his arms out from his sides, and began a wobbly heel-to-toe walk along the edge of the road.

Hen and I left Dwight and Tanner to amuse each other, and went back down the slope to watch and make our own notes and diagrams of the scene. When the photographers were finished, the carefully gloved investigators placed the body on a sheet. They painstakingly examined everything they found near the body and placed it on the sheet. There wasn't all that much, if you don't count sand and ants.

One of the crew held up a scrap of cloth I'd noticed earlier lying partly under one of the dead man's shoes. It wasn't a rag, as I'd first thought, but a rumpled square, dirty but not old, about fifteen inches on a side, with a small design in one corner.

"That wouldn't be a monogram, would it?" I asked.

The technician grinned at me. "Like maybe the driver made everything easy for you and dropped a hanky for you with his initials on it? No such luck. Looks like a picture of a bird. Maybe an owl." Yes, an owl. I nodded. He dropped it onto the sheet.

The driver's license in the ostrich-leather wallet in the man's rear pocket identified him as Lester DeLoach and gave an address in Atlanta. The wallet and license joined the other items beside him on the sheet.

Finally the on-site investigation was wrapped up--literally. The technicians wrapped the sheet around the body and the collection of potentially useful objects, zipped the whole grisly package into a plastic bag, and slid it into the ambulance, which headed off to the mortuary.

What had started out as a low-key Saturday of catching up on paperwork had spun into something much more like what I used to think police work was about. Back when Hen was briefing me on the job--and trying to talk me out of it without being so obvious about it that I'd catch on--he claimed Ogeechee's crime situation was more like the country lanes of Mayberry RFD than the mean streets of New York City. Now that I've been at it for a while, I have to agree. That's not to say we don't have crime. We have people, so we have crime. Something about original sin, I guess. Still, our crime situation is small-town enough that I hadn't automatically assumed murder when I responded to Tanner's call. Even the presence of this body under the bridge didn't have to be murder. It could have been an accident, but I didn't think so. This was a strange place for anybody to be on foot. Whoever had run this man down had to have known it. Was it a drug deal gone wrong? That wouldn't be unheard of, even in sleepy Ogeechee.

Neither the man's name nor his address meant anything to me, but there was something familiar about him. Even without the Atlanta address on the driver's license, I'd have bet a summer's worth of Georgia peaches that the dead man didn't belong in Ogeechee. On the other hand, I'd have bet a June's worth of sweet corn that I knew him from somewhere. The big question was why Lester DeLoach had come down from Atlanta to end up under a bridge in Ogeechee with tread marks on his shirt and sand on his eyeballs.