DEATH and the Icebox
A Trudy Roundtree Mystery
On the day that was to launch a murder investigation that took us on a jerky trip down Ogeechee's memory lane, I was still trying to make the most of a recent on-the-job injury. Several weeks earlier I had taken a fall while following a hastily exiting patron of the Jive Joint who had gotten overstimulated and done some damage to the premises, which caused the proprietor to speed dial the Ogeechee Police Department, which brought me to the scene. When I took a tumble because of a carelessly discarded beer bottle, I heard a crack that had nothing to do with the flimsy construction of the door at the Jive Joint and, after the hospital's emergency room attendant cheerfully categorized it as a break caused by a FOOSH (Fall On Out-Stretched Hand), my left wrist and most of my hand were trapped in a cast. Since I'm left-handed, this is a real handicap, although, as I tell Hen, not as bad as it could be. Having spent my thirty-plus years accommodating to life as a left- hander in a right-handed world, I'm not as helpless as the average right-hander would be with a broken right wrist. I can brush my teeth with the wrong hand, for instance, and it helps that I'm pretty low maintenance. I usually don't wear much makeup, and I figure if I keep my naturally wavy brown hair short and clean I'll look as good as I need to.
My name is Trudy Roundtree and so far I'm the only female police officer the town of Ogeechee, Georgia (pop. 3412), has ever had. This situation is both good and bad.
The good part is that I have a perverse streak that thrives on being moderately rebellious, and moderate rebellion passes for flaming rebellion in this conservative little place.
The bad part is that the Chief of Police is my cousin, Henry Huckabee. Hen is in a constant turmoil over what he must see as the conflicting demands it puts on him to be my divinely ordained protector (since he's my nearest male relative and a few years older than I am) and also my boss in the dangerous field of police work. It is true, as he told me at the get-go, that the Ogeechee Police Department spends more time answering service calls than tracking down criminals and preventing crime, but that only means that when there is real danger it may take us by surprise.
Come to think of it, maybe Hen's turmoil is also one of the good parts of my job, since I consider it part of my life's work to raise his consciousness where the role of women in modern-day life is concerned. I know he'll be a better person for it. At any rate, since our grandmother and his mother (my Aunt Lulu) ganged up on him and made him hire me in the first place a few years ago, I think we both think he's stuck with me as long as I want the job and as long as I don't actually commit murder--or something worse, like maybe deciding to shack up with a twelve-year-old neo- Nazi drug dealer. I had come back home from Atlanta with a broken heart and I was slow to find my way back to what would pass for a reasonable life for a single thirty- something female. To everybody's surprise (and to Hen's disgust) it turned out that I like being a police officer.
Besides the fact that it gets on Hen's nerves, one of the things I like about my job is that I'm supposed to spend a lot of time out and around, being a visible reminder of law and order. Hen figures if a patrol car doesn't register sixty to seventy miles a day (a hundred or more on a night shift) the officer on patrol isn't doing the job right, the job being to keep in circulation and keep your eyes open. I have no trouble living with that rule. I grew up in Ogeechee, so it means I can legitimately do a lot of visiting with friends and acquaintances while I'm on the clock and creating a wholesome sense of a police presence in the community.
Once again, but innocently for a change, I was causing a conflict for Hen. For him to admit I was coping well-- better than he himself might have--would have been to give me credit for being more than a helplessly dependent female relative. On the other hand, since my injury was unquestionably job-related, for him to claim I was not coping well would mean putting me on sick leave but continuing to pay me. When the sick leave ran out we'd have to face another possibility, like using my vacation time. This option didn't appeal to either one of us, since there's very little fat in either the OPD budget or my personal one. In a flash of brilliance--and even I have never claimed that Hen isn't smart--Hen decided to redeem part of my recovery time by sending me up to the Georgia Public Safety Training Center at Forsythe to homicide school. We have few homicides in Ogeechee, very few that call for particularly heads-up detective work, but I share Hen's belief that education is never wasted. He likes doing what he can to create the best police force possible. And he knows and appreciates the fact that I like to learn. The way he put it to me, if I recall, was along the lines of, "You can go up to Forsythe and get on their nerves for a while, raise their level of consciousness or whatever it is that makes your life worth livin' and leave me in peace till you get back to some degree of usefulness around here."
So I arranged for Teri, Hen's wife, to come feed my cats and I went off to Forsythe, never imagining how soon I'd be able to flaunt some of my new knowledge.
Hen probably enjoyed my absence as much as I enjoyed the course. When I got back he pretended to ignore my injury but continued to assign me to low energy, safe and minimally active jobs at the station house, along with what we officially call welfare checks. These welfare checks have nothing to do with income from the county. They are to make sure that there's nothing amiss when neighbors notice newspapers spilling out of somebody's delivery box. After I kicked up enough and promised to be quick to call in for backup if it looked like anything interesting was happening, I was also allowed to go on patrol.On that particular Thursday afternoon, I was patrolling. I had put some of the requisite miles on my cruiser by driving to the south end of town where a couple of my friends, Eric and Stacy Riggs, were clearing ground to begin building their new home.
It was late June, the middle of a beautiful day, beginning to get hot and muggy. Stacy had pulled their pickup into the shade and we were sitting on the tailgate drinking some of the iced tea she'd brought out for Eric and the men he had helping him. Across the road and back toward town we could see clouds of dust rising and listlessly drifting along behind where Pootie Winkle was plowing under the last of his onion crop. The oniony smell was enough to make my mouth water for an onion sandwich to go with my iced tea.
Corn was coming along nicely in the field between us and the old Riggs farm house, where Eric's mother still lived, and the same slight breeze that was bringing the onion scent from Pootie agitated the leaves and the developing tassels on the cornstalks and created a soft rustle that seemed cooling because it sounded like running water.
As far as I could tell, except for my growing impatience to be rid of the constant chafing and nuisance of my cast, God was in Her heaven and all was right with the world. Sitting in the shade and watching Eric, who was out in the sun supervising a couple of men with a front loader, added to my sense of well-being. "You're sure you want to live this close to your mother-in-law?" I asked, carefully positioning my elbow on the side of the truck, with my hand sticking straight up. One of the unpleasant surprises connected with my injury was discovering how hard it is to find a comfortable position for a cast.
"I don't think it'll be too bad," Stacy said. I could see her measuring the quarter mile between where we sat and the house where Eric grew up. "With the woods between us, and the back road into town, she won't necessarily be able to keep us under surveillance." She grinned. "That's why we decided to build on the dump. It's the most private place on the farm."
I could see her point. Farmers need a place to put their trash, but hardly anybody, except the really trashy ones or the ones who want to make some kind of a point about zoning and government infringement on individual liberties, puts the dump where it'll be an eyesore. The Riggs trash pile was well hidden from casual view, down a narrow lane overhung with trees. The lane turned off the dirt road that went by the farmhouse.
We watched as the front loader dumped another scoopful of years of accumulated debris into the back of a truck that would take it to the county landfill. "What sign you reckon Miz Riggs is?" I asked.
Stacy giggled. Lately, we'd been amusing ourselves by creating a specifically Ogeechee "horrorscope" that had nothing to do with the relative positions of the sun, moon, and stars, and everything to do with our high opinion of our own wit. Under our sporadically-evolving system, sharing a birthday with somebody was no guarantee you'd share the same sign. So far we had Hen down as Catfish. ("If you are a Catfish, your milieu is the lowest levels of society. You feed off of the muck and murk of life. Your unsophisticated image serves you well. People who can get past your fearsome exterior may find you surprisingly agreeable.") I thought that was fair, since Hen does enjoy acting like a hick and giving people a chance to misjudge him. He's especially gratified when a member of the criminal element underestimates him.
Stacy and I had also been working on the wording for Vidalia Onions, my category. ("Vidalia Onions are recognized and appreciated everywhere they go for their sweetness and adaptability." Stacy insisted the definition needed more development, but I felt we were on the right track.)
"I'm thinking maybe Miz Riggs is Sugar Cane," Stacy said.
She cut her eyes toward the Riggs house and lowered her voice. Humor is humor and wit is wit, but prudence is prudence, and I guessed her horrorscope of her mother-in-law wasn't going to be completely flattering. "If you are Sugar Cane," Stacy said, "your natural sweetness is sometimes hard to extract from the tough fiber of your morality."
"Needs work," I said, when it became obvious she had no more to say.
"Yes." She sighed.
"Something about grinding, or grinding down?" I suggested, vividly picturing an old-time cane mill I had once seen. They use tractors these days, but the old ones had mules walking around and around stone grinders, a farmer feeding cane between the grinding stones, and juice running out into a barrel. "How about, 'If you aren't careful, people will decide it isn't worth the effort'?"
"Uh huh. You're gettin' there, Trudy. Grinding. That's good. I know she's a good woman, who wouldn't deliberately do anybody any harm, but she does grind me down."
"Something in particular?"
"Right now the big thing is she wants us to live with her instead of building our own house. She keeps grinding away at it, acting like she doesn't even know we've got a contractor and everything."
"Her house is certainly big enough," I said.
"I'm not saying I think it's a good idea, but there would certainly be room."
"Not only do I not want to live with my mother-in-law, I do not want to live in an old farmhouse. It probably won't cost as much to build a new one as it would to fix that one up. You know that."
I had to agree. The house I live in, my house, is more than a hundred years old. It was my grandmother's house, where Hen's mother and my daddy grew up. When Grandma died, she left it to me. Having lived in more modern places, I'm well aware of some of the shortcomings of the place, and every now and then I focus on something I'd really like to have re-painted, re-placed, re-built, re- furbished, or re-novated, but I've had a hard time mustering the energy and the money to tackle it. A recent brainstorm, I think, was to enlist Teri to help me make a plan of attack and line up the people to do some of the work. Teri's a great organizer, but we haven't been the best of friends, so it's too soon to tell if that's going to work out.
"Why are we whispering?" I asked. "Even if Mrs. Riggs is home, I don't think she could hear us from here."
"When kept cool, Vidalia Onions are long-lasting, but they sometimes lose their crispness and develop an unpleasant sliminess that people find distasteful," Stacy said.
That wasn't fair to me or the onions. "Well, pardon me!" I think Stacy is Grits. ("Grits are everywhere in the south, so ubiquitous that they are often undervalued. They almost always blend in comfortably, but are not to everyone's taste. People who don't grow up with grits may find them hard to stomach.") "Anyway, she's not home," Stacy said. "I think she went to see Miss Sarah. How's she doin'?"
Miss Sarah Kennedy, who taught history to me and Stacy and Eric and everybody else at Ogeechee High School for at least a hundred and fifty years, had recently had a hip replacement. Naturally, with my new status as Shut-In Patrol (which the ER attendant would probably have wanted to call SIP), Stacy knew I'd be up-to-date.
"They've got her walking, if you can call it that, shuffling along with a walker. She knows she has to do it and she's trying to keep a good attitude, but it's hard. Aunt Lulu and I are going over to see her this evening. You ought to go by when you get a chance. I know she'd appreciate it."
"That place is so depressing," Stacy said. "Every time I go, I see somebody I know--or used to know before they lost their minds."
"Well, Miss Sarah's mind is fine," I assured her. "She's spending her time reading and whipping through books of puzzles. Remember how she used to make us study history backwards?"
"I remember how hard it was."
"Maybe, but interesting, too. It taught me that whatever happens--attitudes, events, laws--everything has roots in the past. Things don't just happen out of the blue. I never thought about it before, but studying history her way is a lot like working those logic puzzles."
"No wonder I wasn't good at it," Stacy said.
"She won't hold that against you. Go see her."
"Maybe I'll wait till she goes home."
"She won't need the company so much then," I argued. Having no reasonable rebuttal to my flawless logic, Stacy-Grits ignored me. We quit arguing and focused on watching as Eric tried to steady an old refrigerator and guide it into the scoop of the frontloader. It must have been exactly the wrong size or shape. Finally he gave up trying to get it into the scoop mechanically, and he and one of his helpers tried to wrestle it into place. At first they seemed to succeed with that effort, but as the scoop moved, the refrigerator fell away, too soon. It missed the dump truck and dropped to the ground. I heard a curse, stifled because of the presence of ladies, I presumed, as the men dodged out of the way.
On impact, a strap that had been encircling the refrigerator, holding the door closed, broke, and the door swung open. When the dust had settled, the men moved toward the refrigerator, then recoiled. I heard a completely unstifled curse and then one of the men asked the universe in general, "What in blazes IS it?"
Stacy and I perked up.
Then, "Somebody better call the po-lice."
"Hey, Trudy!" Eric yelled. "Come here!"
Something in his tone kept me from kicking into the mulish mode I instinctively adopt when somebody tells me to do something and forgets to say "please." I slid carefully off the tailgate, holding my cast high and trying not to jolt it, and joined the men around the refrigerator. Stacy was right behind me.
I stared with them into the cavity, and the sight was so bizarre that it took my brain a second or two to make any kind of sense out of what I saw. Even then, my first thought, immediately chasing the perception of the musty but not entirely repulsive smell you might find in any old refrigerator that hadn't been opened in a while, was to wonder what a department store mannequin was doing in an old refrigerator. A lot of blondish hair, a body that seemed to be sculpted out of soap. Even as we stared, the smell grew sharper and more repulsive, suggesting swampy depths, forest mold, and something less pleasant. I realized we were looking at an oddly transfigured, curiously preserved, human body there in the old refrigerator in the Riggs trash heap.
We all backed away and gulped for clean air.
I drew myself up as tall as I could and summoned my maximum hardened, blase, official manner, in what I realized later was an imitation of Henry Huckabee, hardened, blase Chief of Police.
"Well, folks," I said. "It looks like my coffee break's over and y'all are through playing in this particular dirt pile for a while. Keep back from that refrigerator."
I turned toward my car and my cell phone. They all stayed respectfully back from that refrigerator, but they couldn't keep their eyes off it.