This is chapter 6 of a serialized novel that I’m working on. I post a new chapter each Monday. To catch up on previous chapters, you can click HERE.
I followed the sheriff in my truck, but the closer we got to the scene, the more my heart just sank further down toward my toes. I wasn’t sure when we turned off onto Highway 9 out of town exactly where we were going, but the second we turned left onto Black Bottom Road, I felt sick to my stomach.
“This is where she did it, ain’t it?” Jenny asked.
“Yes, honey, this is where she did it.” I replied, thinking back to that summer when Union County got famous for the ugliest of reasons. A few minutes later, we pulled up to the boat landing at John D. Long Lake, where Susan Smith rolled her car into the lake with her two children strapped in, drowning them both. I hadn’t been to the lake since the day they pulled the car out, for fear of what I would see when I did, but here I was now.
“That’s just awful,” Jenny said.
“Yes, it is.”
“Are the little boys here?” she asked.
“I hope not,” I said. “I hope they went to Heaven to play and be little boys forever and have all the ice cream they want and never get skinned knees or stung by yellowjackets.”
“That would be nice,” Jenny said. “I hope that too.” I could feel her look at me. “You ain’t been out here, have you?”
“No, I haven’t. I don’t know if I can do anything for those boys if they are here, and I don’t know if I can stand it if I can’t.”
“You want me to look around and see if they’re here?”
“You’re sweet,” I said, putting the truck in park and unfastening my seatbelt. “But I’ll be fine. If there’s a couple little boys out there, I reckon I’ll try to help them move on. If not, then that’ll be better, I think. But they aren’t why we’re here.”
“I wonder who it is?” She asked, passing through the door to walk beside me.
There was a wrecker and an ambulance parked at the landing, and Sheriff Dunleavy was talking to Clyde, the county wrecker driver. A pontoon boat floated out in the lake, and I saw bubbles popping up to the surface around the boat. My best guess was they had Allan West down there looking around, since he was the only person in this part of the world with SCUBA gear that used it more than once a year.
I walked up to the sheriff’s side. Clyde tipped his hat to me. “Lila Grace,” he said.
“How are you, Clyde?”
“Oh, I been better, I been worse. Ain’t looking forward to this mess.”
“Cars get heavier than hell when you fill ‘em up with water,” Clyde said. “I ain’t got but a five-ton winch on this old girl. Too much water in whatever’s under there, I might not be able to pull it out. I can handle most cars, but we get something like one of them big stupid SUVs and we better be sure to break out all the windows before it comes up. That’ll let the water run out easier and give me less problem winching it up onto the landing.”
“What happened here, Sheriff?” I asked.
“You need to go on back outside the yellow tape, Ms. Carter,” Jeff came up to me and took hold of my arm. I shook him off and gave Dunleavy a look.
“It’s okay, Jeff. She’s helping us on the Miller case. She can stay.”
“But she’s not a deputy. It’s only supposed to be emergency personnel behind the tape, Sheriff,” Jeff protested.
“Jeff, I get to let anybody on this side of that yellow piece of string that I want to,” the sheriff said. “If it’ll make you feel better, when we get back to the stations, I’ll deputize Ms. Carter. But for now, leave her alone and go make sure that Cracker fellow stays the hell back.”
The “Cracker” in question was Gene “Cracker” Graham, the owner of the local newspaper, lead reporter, and chief photographer. Life in a small town meant he wore a lot of hats. I recognized his car pulling up to park next to my truck, and Jeff hurried off to intercept him.
“You were telling me what happened?” I asked.
“Shorty Horton was fishing out here when he hooked his line on something. Snapped it clean, so of course he decided that he’d finally found the one big catfish in Long Lake, and starts circling.”
“Don’t know why,” I said. “Catfish that old and big wouldn’t be fit to eat.”
“Anyway,” the sheriff continued. “He hit something with his outboard motor, and when he dove under to see what it was, he saw the car, with long blonde hair floating out the driver’s side window. He called it in, and you know the rest. Jeff was already on the scene when I got here, and he’d called Clyde. I got Allan out here, and once he gets the winch hooked up, we’re going to pull it up out of there and see who the poor woman was.”
“I thought Ethel said it was a girl?” I asked.
“Lila Grace, have you seen Ethel lately? Anybody who ain’t drawing Social Security is a boy or a girl, including you and me.”
I laughed. “Well, I think I’m a fair bit closer to getting my government check than you are, but it’s still a ways off. I can’t even get free sweet tea at Hardee’s yet.”
“I got it!” Allan shouted from across the lake.
“Get your boat out of the way and we’ll pull her up,” Clyde hollered back. Allan heaved himself out of the water, looking like the Michelin Man in his wetsuit. He waddled to the captain’s chair, leaving a trail of fins, tanks and mask as he went. Seconds later, the pontoon boat putt-putted off to the far side of the lake and Clyde put the winch in gear.
It whined with the load, but the old rollback wrecker had more than enough power to pull the black Honda Civic up out of the water. As soon as the back bumper crested the lake’s surface, I heard Jenny gasp.
I turned to her, my eyebrows up. “What is it, sweetie?” I asked, trying not to let on to Clyde that I was talking to a ghost. He didn’t believe in what I did, and didn’t look too fondly on my talking to dead people around him.
“That’s Shelly’s car. Oh my god, it’s Shelly!” The dead girl collapsed weeping to the ground, more upset about her friend’s death than I’d seen her about her own.
“Sheriff,” I said quietly. “We have a problem.”
“What’s wrong, Ms. Carter?”
“That car belongs to Jenny Miller’s best friend Shelly. She was the last person to see Jenny alive, and now she’s probably drowned child in the driver’s seat of that car.
“Son of a bitch,” the sheriff said under his breath. “Pardon my language, Ms. Carter.”
“Hell, I was just thinking the same thing myself, Sheriff.” I said, splitting my focus between the car slowly rolling backwards up the boat landing and the sobbing teenage ghost at my feet.
Sheriff Dunleavy motioned his deputies to push the lookie-loos further back, and went over himself to break up an argument between Deputy Jeff and the newspaperman Gene Graham, who had indeed shown up with a big old Nikon camera slung around his neck like a hillbilly Jimmy Olsen. Cracker was waving his arms and starting to wind himself up into a whole tirade about the First Amendment and freedom of the press when I walked up.
“Gene,” I said, my voice cracking through the muggy air like a whip. Gene’s head whipped around like he was back in my Sunday School class and I caught him trying to get a reflection up Renee Hardin’s skirt in his patent leather dress shoes again. That boy never would believe me when I told him patent leather didn’t reflect, no matter how much you polished it. He was a little scamp, but it did mean he always had polished shoes for church, so I let it go.
“Ms. Lila, what are you doing here, and on the other side of the tape, too?” Gene asked.
“The sheriff has done told you he can’t answer no questions, Gene. Now you need to put that camera back in your car and go interview Arthur Black about how his peaches are coming in after the cold snap we had in April. As soon as the sheriff has something he can tell you, he’ll call you and give you an exclusive.” I didn’t bother to point out that since he owned the only newspaper in town, he always had an exclusive. Ever since that mess with the Smith woman happened, Cracker liked to think he was a big-time newspaperman. He had one story picked up by the Associated Press and it went straight to his head, I swear.
“Now, Ms. Lila, I can’t do that. This is the biggest news to happen in Lockhart this week, and I have to cover it. I need to report on it, and I can’t do that without taking some pictures.”
“That is not going to happen, Mr. Graham, and if you point that camera anywhere near that vehicle without my permission, I swear on my mother’s grave you’ll find it at the bottom of the lake,” Sheriff Dunleavy growled.
Gene bowed up again, and I could just about see these too men getting ready to whip things out and start measuring, so I leaned into Gene and whispered, “We think it’s Shelly Thomas’ car, but we can’t have nothing getting out about it until we see if she’s in there and then notify the next of kin. You wouldn’t want that child’s mama reading about it in the newspaper before we get a chance to break the news to her, would you?”
Gene’s face went ghost-white and he took a step back from the yellow police tape. He stood there for a minute, then took a deep breath and wiped his eyes. “No, Ms. Lila, that would be awful. I see what you mean. I can go…cover some other stories and wait for word from the sheriff that he has information. Y’all know where to find me.” He turned and waddled off back to his truck and peeled out of the parking lot. I started walking back to the car, and Sheriff Dunleavy followed close behind.
“What was that all about, Ms. Carter?” he asked.
“Gene played baseball with Shelly’s daddy in high school. They fell out when Shelly’s daddy stole Gene’s girlfriend.”
“Why would that make Graham back off the story?”
“Gene’s girlfriend married Shelly’s daddy and had three little girls. The oldest one is about sixteen and I’m afraid we’re about to find her in the driver’s seat of that car.”
“So Gene doesn’t want to upset his old girlfriend, I get it.”
“Gene doesn’t want to break the heart of the only girl he ever fell in love with, Sheriff. He never got married, never had kids. He and the Thomas’ became real close after they got married, and Gene is godfather to all three girls. He would no more hurt that family than he would sell his newspaper.”
The car was all the way up on dry land now, and Clyde was lowering the end of the rollback to pull the car up onto the wrecker. Sheriff Dunleavy waved him to a stop, and walked around the car. I followed close behind, looking where he looked, but I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary.
“What do you see, Sheriff?” I asked.
“Not much,” he said, his eyes scanning the car as we did a slow lap around the outside. “There’s nothing to indicate that she wasn’t driving or operating the car under her own power when it went into the lake. We won’t know more until we get it back to the garage, but all the window are intact, and I can’t see any scratch marks around the keyholes to indicate forced entry.”
He paused at the driver’s door, peering inside. “Is that Shelly?”
I looked in the window and nodded. Shelly Thomas was sitting up behind the wheel, pretty as you please in a cute pink top and blue jeans. Her seatbelt held her upright, and there was no air bag deployed, so it didn’t look like she’d been in a wreck. I couldn’t see too much through the windows, all streaked with silt and lake muck, but I couldn’t see any injuries on her. She just looked like a pretty teenaged girl out for a drive.
The sheriff motioned the EMTs over to the car, and snapped on a pair of latex gloves. I stepped back out of the way as they rolled a stretcher over to the side of the car and opened the door. Water poured out onto the ground, and everybody stepped back.
Clyde walked up to me with a sheet in his hands. “Take a corner, Lila Grace,” he said, holding out the white fabric to me.
“What are we doing, Clyde,” I asked, then a lightbulb went off as I watched him walk away from me as far as he could while we each had one corner of the sheet, and he lifted his hand above his head. I did the same, and we held that old ragged sheet up like a curtain as the EMTs and Sheriff Dunleavy got the girl out of the car and onto the stretcher. They zipped her up in a body bag and covered her with another sheet before one of them nodded to Clyde and we let the makeshift privacy screen down.
I walked over to Clyde and helped him fold the sheet. “That was sweet of you, Clyde,” I said.
“People deserve not to have everybody in the world gawking at them when they’re laying there dead, Lila Grace,” he said. “I started carrying this in my car some fifteen years ago, when that kid ran his car into the bridge railing down on Old Pinkney Road.”
“I remember that wreck,” I said. I didn’t bother telling Clyde that I had talked with that poor boy several times before he got satisfied enough that his mama would be fine without him and he was able to move on.
“There was a bunch of people at that one, like there is today, and that boy was all tore up. His head was about split plum in two, and I remember thinking that it wasn’t fair to him that all them people that didn’t even know him were looking at him like that. So now I try to give people a little dignity in death. It’s the least I can do.”
“It matters more than you think, Clyde,” I said.
“I reckon if anybody would know, it’d be you,” he said, then turned and put the sheet in the cab of his truck. I stood there flabbergasted. I’d had a lot of people say a lot of things about my gifts before, but never had anybody just accepted them for what they were like Clyde. I swear, that little old man was a true onion. He had more layers than anybody would ever suspect.
I looked to Sheriff Dunleavy to ask him what our next move was, but caught sight of Jenny as I turned my head, and the look on her face stopped me in my tracks.