This is the latest chapter of an ongoing serialized novel that I’m working on and posting up here in rough draft form. To read other chapters, CLICK HERE.
I never made it to the sheriff’s office. I stopped at Sharky’s Pub, the one bar in town. Sheriff Dunleavy’s car was parked out front between a Harley-Davidson and a Hyundai SUV. I pulled my truck into the gravel parking lot at the end of a string of cars and walked into the pub.
“Pub” is by far the most generous word ever applied to Sharky’s. Most folks always called it “the beer joint,” since it was the only licensed drinking establishment in town. Some of the more religious referred to it as “that place,” but one thing nobody ever accused it of being, was high class.
The squat cinderblock building had four windows across the front, and every one of them was plugged with air conditioning units. It was painted a sickly shade of beige, kinda somewhere between spoiled egg yolks and baby poop. The door was the only thing that ever looked fresh, on account of Sharky having to replace it about once a month when he put some drunk through it.
I stepped into the dim, smoky room, and Sharky looked up from the bar. “Hey there, Lila Grace,” he called out, and conversation slammed to a halt. I was not a regular, but this was certainly not my first time in the bar. When there’s only one place in town to get a cold beer that’s not your own refrigerator, everybody who likes a nip now and then will pass through the doors.
“Hello, Gene,” I called back. I think I was the only person in town that never called him Sharky. I just didn’t like the name. I didn’t think it fit. Gene was a trim man, slight of build and thin of mustache. He looked a lot more like a ferret than a shark, but he went away down to Florida to work construction one summer, and when he came back, he told us everybody down there called him Sharky. I doubt anybody ever called him Sharky a day in his life, but if it made him feel better, who was I to call him out on it? So after that, people called him Sharky.
The bar was about what you’d expect from a small town joint in South Carolina. There were half a dozen stools with cracked pleather seats in front of a bar that had four beer taps on it. Sharky’s served Budweiser, Bud Light, Miller Lite, and Coors on draft, and a couple more selections than that in the bottle. Corona was the sole nod to an import beer, but I knew Gene kept a six-pack or two of Red Stripe in the cooler for his personal use. There were two rows of bottles on the glass shelves behind the bar. The selections topped out at Jack Daniels and Jim Beam. Anything fancier than that or Grey Goose, and you were going to have to either drink it at home or drive to another town. Sharky also kept a few jars of Uncle Dargin’s Apple Pie moonshine tucked away, and he’d bring that out on special occasions or for special customers.
Today must have been pretty special, because there was a Ball jar sitting on the bar with the top off, and a shot glass in front of the Sheriff and its brother in front of Gene. “Y’all having a little taste?” I asked, pulling out a stool to sit next to the sheriff.
“Just a little bit, Lila Grace. Y’all want some?” Gene asked. I nodded, and he pulled me up a shot glass from under the counter. He wiped it down with a rag, and I honestly wasn’t convinced that took any germs or dirt off the glass. It looked like the rag started life a whole lot dirtier than the glass, but I wasn’t too concerned. Uncle Dargin made his ‘shine stout, and I figured it’d kill just about anything in the glass before it got my lips.
I took the offered drink from Gene and raised it to my lips. “May we be in heaven half an hour before the devil knows we’re dead,” I said, and took a long sip of the moonshine. Apple pie ain’t shooting ‘shine, it’s sipping liquor, and this batch was as smooth as any I’d ever had.
“That’s good stuff, Gene,” I said, putting the glass down. “Tell Dargin I said so.”
“I’ll do it, Lila Grace,” Gene said.
“Go see if Jerry needs a refill, Sharky,” Sheriff Dunleavy said.
“Jerry, passed slap out, Sheriff,” Gene replied, not getting it. He had that problem in school, too. It caused him to repeat fifth grade a couple of times, and by the time he finally got through eighth grade, ol’ Gene was through with schooling.
“Go check on him, Sharky.” The growl in Dunleavy’s voice left no question as to whether or not he was asking this time. Gene started, like he was surprised at something, then walked over to sit at a small table in the corner where Jerry Gardner was laying face down on the faux wood surface.
“What can I do for you, Ms. Carter?” the sheriff asked.
“I reckon I was going to ask you the same thing, Sheriff. You sitting in here all alone day drinking, I thought maybe you was in need of something.”
“I am,” he said. “I am in need of a drink. Then that drink might put me in need of another drink. I might even require a few more to follow that second one. I am almost certain by the time I get to five or six drinks I’ll be just about right, but I’m liable to have two more after that just to make sure.”
From the sounds of him, he’d already had more than one drink, but it wasn’t my place to judge. I just sat there and sipped my apple pie. “You talked to Shelly’s parents, I reckon.”
“That the first time you’ve had to notify parents their child has passed?”
The sheriff sat there for a minute, then poured himself another shot. I knocked back the last of my moonshine and held out my glass. Dunleavy looked at me sideways for a second, then topped it off.
“Don’t go giving me the side-eye, Sheriff,” I said. “I been drinking Dargin’s home-brew since I was a teenager fooling around in the back seat of Bobby Joe Latham’s Chevrolet.”
“I wouldn’t have pegged you for a drinker, Ms. Carter,” he said.
“Well, I ain’t a professional at it, like you seem to be, but I can hold my own if I need to.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” He turned to me like he wanted to say something else, but stopped.
“Which part?” I asked.
“That crack about me being a professional drinker. What did you mean by that?”
“I meant you’ve got two dead girls, no real leads, and instead of being out there trying to find out who killed them, you’re in here drinking moonshine in the middle of the afternoon because somebody’s mama or daddy hurt your feelings while you was doing your job. Well, I got news for you, Sheriff Dunleavy, you put on the badge, you strapped on that pistol, that means you get to take the bad days with the good ones. Most days, sheriffing in Lockhart ain’t nothing but overnight drunk tank visits, spray paint from teenagers, and speeding tickets, but right now we need a real damn lawman, not some damn stereotype of a Sam Spade movie sitting in a bar like a moody little bitch.”
I allowed as how calling the sheriff a bitch might have been excessive, but finding him hiding in a bar instead of out looking for a murderer riled me up a little.
“I don’t appreciate your tone, Lila Grace,” the sheriff said. He didn’t look at me, that’s how I knew he knew I was right.
“I don’t give a good goddamn, Sheriff,” I replied.
“Willis,” he said.
“My name. It’s Willis. I reckon if I’m gonna call you Lila Grace, and we’ve got to the point where you’re comfortable enough to read me out in a bar, we might as well be on a first name basis. So you can call me Willis. Unless we’re out in public doing something official. Then I’m still ‘Sheriff.’” He stood up, tossed two twenties on the bar, and put his hat on.
“We’re leaving, Sharky. I’m confiscating the rest of this jar of pie, though.”
“Aw, come on, Sheriff,” Gene whined. “That’s my last jar!”
“I left you forty bucks for it, Shark. I know you don’t pay Dargin but fifteen, so shut your cake hole.” He walked out the front door.
I followed, nodding farewell to Sharky as I passed him. “Gene,” I said.
“Bye, Lila Grace. Y’all come back now, y’hear?”
Like there was a single other option for a place to get a beer in this town.