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.
Tommy Braxton waved at us from the bar when we walked into The Garden Cafe. I was a bit underdressed for the clientele Tommy wanted to attract, but about right for the clientele he actually had, so I didn’t mind sitting down in the closest thing that part of Union County had to a fancy steakhouse. Sheriff Dunleavy even pulled my chair out for me like a real gentleman and everything.
Leslie, Tommy’s youngest daughter, came over as soon as we were settled, and handed us menus. There were about three other tables occupied, two of them with elderly couples having dinner so they could drive home before it got full-on dark, and one a family with a young child sitting in a booster seat and trying in vain to have a decent dinner out with a toddler. I figured it was their first child and they just didn’t know any better. In a couple years, they’d be fine, but right now everything the poor little boy did was either a crisis or the greatest thing in the world.
I have always loved children, it’s why I spent so many years teaching Sunday School and Vacation Bible School. When I was a child myself, I wanted to grow up, get married, and have a house just bursting at the seams with young’s.
But as I grew older, I realized that my particular gifts make it hard to keep a relationship, thanks to odd hours that ghosts decide to visit me, and the general creepiness that most people see in somebody who actually converses with dead people, instead of just talking at them like most folks do. Add to that the unfortunate tendency of lingering ghosts to be nosy as hell, and I was not what most people would consider a “catch.” So children weren’t really in the cards for me. But I have been blessed with hundreds of boys and girls who love their “Miss Lila Grace,” and most of the time that’s been enough for me.
“Never wanted any, or never had the chance?” Willis asked.
My head whipped back around to look at him, and he just gave me a wistful smile. “Same here,” he said. “I always wanted them, but my ex-wife didn’t, and now it just seems a little late in the game.”
“I reckon that is one of the hazards of having dinner with a detective, ain’t it?” I asked. “He’s liable to know more than you want to let on.”
“Could be, except I’m not a detective anymore. I reckon I’m as close as what we’ve got for this mess, but if I’d wanted to keep dealing with murderers, I would have stayed in Milwaukee.”
“Is that where you’re from, Sheriff?”
“Willis,” he corrected.
“I’m sorry. Is that where you’re from, Willis?”
He gave me one of those little half-smiles again, the kind he had started doing when he knew I was being a smart-aleck but didn’t want to call me out on it. I kinda liked it. “That’s not where I’m from, originally, but I lived and worked there for thirty years, so I reckon it’s kinda where I’m from now.”
“Where are you from, originally?” I asked.
“Carrboro,” he said. “Just outside Chapel Hill.”
“I know it,” I said. “I knew a girl from there when I was in school. We went to Winthrop together.”
“I didn’t know you went to college,” he said.
“I did. I graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in English literature and proceeded to do nothing with it for most of my adult life,” I said.
“Never wrote the Great American Novel,” he asked, that teasing smile back for a second.
“No, I never wanted to be a writer. I thought I would teach, but that didn’t work out for me.” That brought back some unpleasant memories, and I guess they showed on my face, because Dunleavy wasted no time in poking that sore spot.
“What happened?” He asked. I looked up at him, and he shrugged. “If you don’t want to talk about it, that’s fine. I just thought it might be better dinner conversation than dead girls in cars in lakes.”
Of course the second he says the words “dead girls,” Tommy’s girl walks up with her little notepad out to take our food orders. The poor child looked so scandalized I couldn’t decided whether to laugh or cry, so I decided to fake a coughing fit and run to the bathroom, leaving Willis on his own to dig his way out of that one. It served him right, sticking his nose into everybody’s business. I washed my hands, splashed a little cold water on my face, and freshened up my lipstick before I walked back to the table, mostly composed.
“I hope you like escargot,” Willis said as I sat back down. “Because I ordered you an anchovy appetizer with an escargot main course. It’s the least I could do to thank you for leaving me in that mess.”
“I love snails,” I said, hoping desperately that he was teasing, but completely unwilling to ask him if he was.
“Just like I love explaining to high school girls that I am not a serial killer while their father has his hand on a sawed-off shotgun under the bar,” he said.
“I believe you were telling me about growing up in Carrboro,” I said, changing the subject.
“I wasn’t, but I will. I grew up there, and went to Chapel Hill. I studied Political Science, and was looking at law school when I decided to become a cop instead.”
“What brought on that change?” I asked.
“A kid I grew up with got shot in the head trying to buy coke from the wrong guy in the wrong part of town. The Durham police didn’t have a lot of time to look into the case of another dead black kid that summer, so I decided I’d become a cop to try and keep that from happening to anybody else.”
“That’s admirable,” I said. He looked up at me to see if I was picking at him again, but his shoulders relaxed when he saw I was sincere. I was, too. A life of putting yourself in harm’s way for the benefit of others is nothing to sneer at.
“Well, when I applied, I couldn’t get a job at any of the departments near home, and my dad had a sister who lived in Milwaukee. So I went to live with Aunt Gina for a while, got a job as a beat cop in the city, and worked my way up. Put in my thirty, got my city pension, and decided to come back home where I wouldn’t ever have to shovel snow again.”
“And where there’s a lot less chance of somebody shooting at you,” I added.
“That was a part of the thinking, yes. I’m not as fast as I used to be, so I wanted to go somewhere that the pace was a little slower, and a little safer. A man gets past fifty, he starts to think he probably wants to see sixty or seventy. A big city police department is no easy place to get old.”
“A woman does the same thing, Sheriff,” I said.
“You’ve heard,” he said.
“What does that mean?” I asked.
“Lila Grace, you play the old woman card pretty well, but if you’re a day over forty-five, I’ll eat my hat.”
I blushed a little. It had been a long time since a man commented positively on the way I looked, especially given my typical style of dress, and I had to admit, it felt good. I tried not to show it, though, as I grinned across the table at Willis. “Do you want some Texas Pete, or A-1 sauce, Sheriff? Because I’m fifty-years old, and proud of every one of them.”
“Well, I reckon there is something to be said for clean living after all, because you sure don’t look it,” he said.
“Thank you, Willis. You haven’t done too badly yourself, for an old coot.” We both grinned a little bit. “So how did you end up all the way down here? Were you reading obituaries nationwide looking for dead Sheriffs and police chiefs?”
He looked a little abashed, but chuckled as he said, “Well, almost. I set up a Google search for municipal job listings for a sheriff or chief of police position in a town of less than fifty thousand. This one popped up, and the county council was pretty happy to have somebody with my experience apply. Nothing against Sheriff Johnny, but the impression I got was that he wasn’t the most up-to-date in his techniques.”
I almost spit sweet tea across the table at him laughing. “You could say that. Johnny kept a baseball bat autographed by Buford T. Pusser hanging on the wall of his office. That was his hero, and his favorite movie was Chiefs. A fine piece of literature, I will agree, but not exactly what I’d call the forefront of police methodology.”
“What happened to him?” Willis asked. “I get that it wasn’t anything in the line of duty, but nobody seems willing to discuss it. Was he out with the wrong woman, or something?”
I laughed again. If he kept this up, the poor man was going to think I thought he was a moron. “No, nothing like that. I reckon it would be a little embarrassing, because he was caught with his pants down, after a fashion. Johnny was a fisherman, and he liked his liquor, like most fishermen do. Hell, most people around here like a drink or two. Well, Johnny was out in his little bass boat just tooling along Broad River, and he had him a jar, like he would most Sunday mornings. Johnny wasn’t much of a church-goer, you know. He said he felt like if God needed him, he’d know where to find him. Well, I reckon God needed him, because that Sunday morning, he found him, and he took him, right there in his boat.”
“What’s embarrassing about that? The fact that he was drinking? I can’t imagine anybody would care about that,” he said.
“Well,” I hesitated before going on, then I figured he was going to hear it eventually, might as well be over a good meal. “It wasn’t so much the drinking, or the fishing, as it was the fact of exactly how he went, that might be considered less than dignified.”
Willis made on of those “go on” motions with his hand, and took a sip of tea with his other. I waited for him to swallow before I went on, not relishing the idea of getting a faceful of the sweet beverage.
“He fell out of the boat taking a leak, hit his head on a rock, and drowned.” I said it all in a rush, so as to get it out all at once, like ripping off a bandage.
Willis did what just about everybody that hears the story of poor Sheriff Johnny’s demise does. He stared at me for a second, then his shoulders shook, kinda like a convulsion, then he couldn’t hold it back anymore and the laughter just blew right out of him like a cannonball. He laughed for about a solid minute before he wiped his eyes with his napkin and got himself under control.
“That has got to be the craziest death story for a cop I have ever heard, and like I said, I been at this for better than thirty years. I’ve heard more than one story about somebody getting caught with his pants down, but there’s usually a jealous husband, or wife, involved in those. This has got to be the first time I’ve ever heard of death by pissing. Damn, no wonder the poor man can’t move on. He’s got a lot to atone for before he feels like his legacy is secure again.”
I gave a little chuckle of my own. “Oh, that ain’t why Johnny’s sticking around.”
“So why is he still here? Waiting on somebody to catch the catfish that ate his nuts?”
“Don’t be crude,” I said. He held up both hands in apology, and I gave him a little grin to let him know that if it was crude, it was at least a little funny, too. “No, he’s just here until he decides if you’re a good enough replacement. If not, he’ll be here ’til somebody better comes along.”
Willis leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “Huh,” he said, a thoughtful look crossing his face. “He really loved this town, didn’t he?”
“The Thomases have been in Union County since they came over from England. His people have been here for hundreds of years. There’s a whole row of the cemetery with nothing but his kin. So yeah, he loved this place and its people. Still does, as a matter of fact.”
He leaned forward, fixing me with those blue, blue eyes. “You do too, don’t you?”
I thought for a second before I answered. “I do. It don’t matter if not all of them love me. It don’t matter if some of them think the things I can do make me a bad person, or mean I’m in league with some dark power. For every one of them, there’s somebody like Gene over at Sharky’s. Somebody I can help when nobody else can.”
“Somebody like Jenny Miller,” Willis said, his voice soft.
“Somebody just like Jenny Miller,” I agreed.
“You know we’ll find him, right Lila Grace?”
“The killer?” I asked. “Yeah, I know. We’ll find him, and we’ll make sure he pays for what he did to those poor girls.”
“Yes we will. But right now, I think we have something more important to focus our attention on.” He sat up a little straighter and motioned Tommy’s little girl over to the table. He smiled at the child when she arrived, and gave me a wink.
“And just what could that be, Sheriff?” I was starting to enjoy this side of Sheriff Willis Dunleavy. He was a sharp man, one that could be deep in conversation one second, and light-hearted and teasing the next. The man had layers. I liked that.
“Dessert, Lila Grace. We need to decide if we want to try the apple cobbler or the pecan pie.”
“Well, I do have you at an unfair advantage here, Sheriff,” I replied, smiling at the waitress. “Because I happen to know that this girl’s Granny Hope made a fresh peach cobbler just this afternoon, because I saw her this morning on the way to Farmer Black’s peach shed, and there ain’t nothing better this side of the county that Theresa Hope’s peach cobbler. So why don’t you get us a couple plates of that, darling, and you won’t even have to bother telling us about it?”
The girl grinned and turned around with a little flounce. “Yes ma’am, and I’ll be sure to tell Granny what you said about her cobbler. She’ll really appreciate it.”
I leaned forward when the girl was out of earshot. “That child’s grandmother thinks I had sexual congress with the devil himself to learn how to talk to dead people. Poor girl is going to be praying until daylight if she mentions my name in her presence. The old biddy can make a cobbler like nobody’s business, though.”