6

There was a parking ticket waiting for Howell on the windshield of the station wagon. He had put money in the meter, but his conversation with Mac McCauliffe had kept him at Bubba’s longer than he had anticipated. Five bucks down the drain for want of a dime. The back of the ticket said that it could be paid at the sheriffs office, opposite the courthouse.

The sheriffs office was a storefront in the square. Inside, a radio operator and two female clerks sat in an open office area separated from the public by a counter. He recognized one of the women immediately. What was her name? She had been a features writer on the Constitution when he was there. She recognized him, too, and beat one of her coworkers to the counter. “Can I help you, sir?” She quickly held a finger to her lips., her face miming urgency. Heather MacDonald, that was her name. He had seen her byline in the paper not more than a few weeks before. “What can I do for you?” she asked, her back to the others.

“Oh, I just want to pay a parking ticket.” Scotty, they called her. She was small, with short, dark hair; pretty. He had eyed her in the city room more than once.

“May I see the ticket, please?” Her eyes were begging him to go along.

He handed her the ticket. What the hell was she doing in Bo Scully’s office? He glanced over her shoulder. The sheriff was at his desk in a glassed-in office at the rear.

“That’ll be five dollars,” she said, reaching for a receipt book. She palmed a note pad at the same time. “Name?”

“John Howell.”

“Address?”

“The Denham White cottage on the north shore.”

“RFD 1, that would be.” She quickly wrote something on the notepad and turned it around, then went back to the receipt. It read: “Just shut up and leave. I’ll contact you later.”

“I guess so. I haven’t received any mail yet.” Howell looked up and saw Scully coming toward them. “Hi, Bo,” he said.

She quickly crumpled the note and ripped off the receipt. “Here you are, sir.”

“What brings you to see us, John?” Scully asked, stepping up to the counter.

“Came to pay a fine; forgot about a parking meter.”

Scully laughed. “Pity you didn’t see me instead of Miss Miller, here. You might have bribed me to fix it.”

Howell laughed, too. Miss Miller? What the hell was going on here?

“John, meet Scotty Miller, our latest addition here. She’s hell on the word processor. Scotty, this is John Howell, the famous newspaperman.”

“The former newspaperman,” Howell said, shaking Scotty’s hand.

“So he keeps telling me,” Scully said. “I was just on my way out, John; want to take a ride with me?”

“Where you going?”

“Just to make some rounds. I’ll give you the ten-cent tour, since you already contributed five bucks to the kitty.”

“Sure. I’ve got to do some grocery shopping, though. Will we be long?”

“An hour or two, depending on what’s happening.”

“Fine. Nice to meet you, Scotty.”

“Same here,” she replied, looking worriedly from Scully to Howell.

The two men left together and got into Scully’s unmarked car. “You seen much of the area?” Scully asked.

“Only what I saw driving up here. It’s been raining ever since, until today. This is the first time I’ve even been to town since that day we met.”

The sheriff wound the car idly through the streets of the town. “Eric Sutherland hired an architect from Atlanta to design the look of the town,” he said, waving a hand at some store fronts. “Got the city council to pass a bill requiring any new building to conform.”

“Looks nice,” Howell said. “Not too contrived. Simple, neat, lots of trees, too; bet it’s pretty in the fall.”

“Lots of leaves to get raked in the fall,” Scully said.

The sun struck the brick of the storefronts, giving them a glowing warmth.

“Those are Harvard brick,” Scully said, seeming to read Howell’s mind. “Sutherland went to Harvard, and I guess he liked the brick the school was made out of. When the major building was going on, he imported them by the carload. To this day, if you want another kind of brick, even to build your own house with, you’ll have to special order it. We got two building supply outfits here, and both of them stock nothing but Harvard brick. I reckon there’s some Yankee brickmaker up in Massachusetts wondering what the hell we’re doing with so much Harvard brick down here.”

“Eric Sutherland seems like a man who doesn’t leave detail to chance.”

“You better believe it, boy,” the sheriff grinned.

Scully left the town and headed for the north shore, in the direction of Howell’s cabin, but he continued straight at the crossroads. “You know, there wasn’t even a road around the lake in the early days,” he said.

“So Denham White told me.”

Scully laughed. “I wish you could have seen old Denham in that canoe, towing all that lumber. Boy, he was a sight.”

“I’ll bet.”

“He got the nicest lot on the lake, too, for my money. Only lot he leased in that cove. His father and Sutherland got along real well.”

“So I gathered from Mr. Sutherland. In fact, I got the impression Mr. Sutherland would have ordered me out of town if I hadn’t been old Mr. White’s son-in-law.”

“Yeah, well, he has a better opinion of the old man than the boy, I guess. Denham got mixed up with a local girl up here a few years back, somebody not of his station, you might say. Sutherland didn’t like it a bit, called up his daddy, and old man White snatched the boy out of here pretty quick.”

“Pregnant, was she?” Howell asked, interested.

“Nah, just in love – at least, Denham was. Never saw anybody so much in love.”

Howell chuckled inside himself, thinking of the cool, buttoned-up Denham, now married to an icy Atlanta debutante. He wouldn’t have thought his brother-in-law would ever have had so much passion. “Who was the girl?” he asked.

“Nobody you’d know. Catholic family. I think that pissed off old man White as much as their social standing.”

“Yeah, well he was a pretty hard-shelled Baptist, I guess. My wife didn’t take after him.”

“How’s your wife feel about your coming up here for such a long time without her?” Scully seemed to want to change the subject.

Howell hesitated. “Well, we’re separated, really. I think it’s probably best for both of us, my being up here.” Now he had said it out loud to somebody. That made it official, he supposed. He was surprised he’d let it out.

“Kids?”

“Nope. Just as well, I guess.”

Howell found it very easy to talk to Bo Scully. There was something very companionable about the man. “You married?”

Scully shook his head. “Nah. Never got around to it. I was engaged, once, to a girl in the valley, but she… it didn’t work out. I was just a kid, anyway.”

“No more close calls?”

The sheriff grinned. “Oh, sure. I found the perfect girl once, but, like the fellow says, she was looking for the perfect man.”

“I wouldn’t think there would be much of a supply of single women in these parts.”

“Oh, it’s not too bad. Fair number of divorcees. I’d have a shot at little Scotty in my office, if she wasn’t so close to home. You ought to give her a call, you know. Nice looking girl. Smart, too; she’s done a lot to shape up the office.”

“You said she was new?”

“Came a little more than a month ago.”

“Local girl?”

“Nah, Atlanta. Said she wanted to get away from big city life. She had real good references from a law firm – she was a legal secretary – and I just snapped her up. You don’t find many girls around here with that kind of experience.”

“I guess not. Seems like a pretty good life up here, too. I can see why she might want to get away.” He couldn’t see at all, really. She was up here with a phony name and phony references, obviously up to something.

“You better believe it’s a good life. Shoot, I can’t hardly believe it sometimes.”

“How long you been sheriff?”

“Since ‘62.I got a deputy’s job when I came back from Korea. When old Sheriff Bob Mitchell hung it up, I ran. Got elected. Been getting elected ever since.”

“Much crime up here?”

“Not much. Not the way you’ve got it in Atlanta, anyway. Oh, we get our share of cuttings, and burglary’s happening a lot more often than it used to. We get a murder once or twice a year, usually a domestic situation.” He grinned. “We stay busy, but we don’t bust our asses.”

They drove on along the smooth, two-lane highway, the lake appearing from time to time through the trees on their left. “How big is the lake?” Howell asked.

“Fifteen miles from Sutherland down to Taylor’s Fish Camp at the other end, but I guess it’s not more than a mile and a half, two miles wide anywhere. Looks like a river in the narrower parts.” He pointed at a narrow place they were passing. Light reflecting from the water flashed through the pines. “You ought to get out on the water before it starts getting too cool. Denham’s got a boat out to the cabin, hasn’t he?”

“Yeah, there’s a runabout under the house and a fifty horsepower outboard stored down at Ed Parker’s. I’ll have to get it out.”

They passed Taylor’s Fish Camp, a jumble of ramshackle cabins with a big main building. A sign out front said, “Home Cooking.”

“How’s the food?” Howell asked.

“Best fried chicken in the state,” Scully replied. “Real good breakfast, too; homemade sausage and country ham. Closest thing we’ve got to a good restaurant around here. No booze, though, not even beer or wine. The Taylors don’t hold with it.”

“I’ll have to give it a try.”

They headed back along the south shore of the lake, not talking much, enjoying the sunshine on the water after the days of rain. At the outskirts of Sutherland they passed a convenience store, and Scully slowed slightly. There was only one car out front. He nodded. “Now, just have a look at that,” he said. “Fellow sitting in a car with the motor running; out of state plates. That say anything to you?” Before Howell could reply, Scully picked up the car radio microphone and pressed the transmit button. “Mike, this is the sheriff, who’s out and where?”

A voice crackled back. “Car two’s here. Everybody else is scattered around the county. Jimmy’s right here.”

“Good. Jimmy, I’m out at Minnie Wilson’s store, and there’s a possible code eleven in progress. I’m going ‘round the back. Get out here right quick, no siren. There’s a ’74 Chevy with Tennessee plates parked out front with the motor running. Approach with caution and detain the driver. Watch out for whoever else might come out the front door. Don’t go too heavy; might be my imagination. Read me?”

“I read you sheriff.”

“And radio me when you’re about to Minnie’s. I won’t go in ‘til you’re there.” Scully put down the microphone, swung left into a side street, then left again into an alley. He pulled up at the back entrance to the store, switched the engine off and got out of the car. Howell followed as he went to the trunk and removed a short, pump shotgun. “Now, listen,” Scully said, “you stay right here until I come get you, you hear? If there’s any shooting, pick up that microphone, press the button, and tell my radio operator, okay?”

“Okay,” Howell replied, glad he wasn’t going into that grocery store with the sheriff.

Scully stood by the car, waiting impatiently to hear that his man was in place at the front of the store. The radio came alive.

“Sheriff, this is Jimmy.”

Bo picked up the microphone. “I hear you. You out front?”

“Listen, I’m real sorry about this,” Jimmy came back, “but I’ve got a dead battery. Can you hold off ‘till I can get a fresh one in there? Shouldn’t be more than four or five minutes.”

“Shit!” Bo said. He pushed the button. “Hurry up, goddamnit, get here as fast as you can.” He put down the microphone and banged his fist against the steering wheel, then turned to Howell.

“Listen, I can’t wait for him to get here. Minnie will be in there by herself. I could use some backup. You know how to use a shotgun?”

“Well, yeah,” Howell said.

He handed Howell the weapon. “That’s got eight in the magazine. The button there’s the safety. You just push that and pump, then shoot, okay?”

Howell nodded. “Okay.” He didn’t feel as confident as he sounded. He had been around cops when there was shooting, but he hadn’t been doing the shooting. He didn’t like this at all.

“Now, listen, you’re gonna be there to point that thing, not to shoot it – not unless you absolutely have to, and for God’s sake, don’t shoot me. You’re deputized as of right now. There’s a manager’s office through the door to the left; somebody could be in there. Follow me in; if the office is empty, we’ll work our way down toward the cash register.”

Bo Scully walked quietly into the back hallway of the store, staying close to the wall. He tossed his Stetson hat onto the floor behind him, looked carefully into the manager’s office, then shook his head. He held a finger to his lips, then motioned for Howell to follow him. The two men walked quietly forward into the main room of the store and found themselves facing a shelf of canned goods lying directly across their path. Scully stopped and cupped a hand to his ear. They could hear the cash register beeping softly as an order was rung up. That seemed normal enough to Howell, but he was afraid to be relieved. Scully motioned for Howell to go right, then he went left.

Howell followed the shelf to its end and peeped down the aisle toward the front of the store. The store seemed empty. He could see all the way into the parking lot but could not see the Tennessee Chevy. How the hell had he gotten into this? He took a deep breath and began tiptoeing down the aisle toward the front of the store, passing other aisles between the shelves to his left. At each aisle he could see Scully, his revolver drawn, moving forward. Fearfully, Howell kept pace with him. He stopped at a cereal display and peeped around the corner toward the cash register. A man in a leather jacket and a woman in jeans stood at the checkout counter, their backs to him, watching an elderly woman sack their groceries. Howell could see the Chevy, now; its motor was still running. Nothing else seemed wrong, though. The couple were just buying groceries. He began to relax a little.

“That’ll be thirty-two forty-one,” Howell heard the elderly storekeeper say.

“Uh-uh, Mama,” the male customer replied. His right hand went to his jacket pocket. “That’ll be everything you got in the cash register. Then we’ll go have a look in the safe.”

Howell froze. Oh, God, he thought, it’s on. What am I doing here?

“Yessir,” he heard the woman say, then a ringing and the noise of the cash register drawer opening. Howell braced himself and waited for Bo Scully to make a move. Sweat was trickling rapidly from his armpits down his sides, making him shiver. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the driver’s door to the Chevy open. The second patrol car was nowhere in sight.

There was an explosion, and the man in the leather jacket seemed to leap backwards onto another checkout counter. A potato chip display was knocked flat, and Howell saw bits of bloody debris spattered over the bags.

“Freeze!” Bo Scully shouted. “Everybody just freeze right where you are!” Scully stepped into the open area around the checkout counter, his pistol held in front of him with both hands. A movement outside the store caught Howell’s eye. The driver of the Chevy was out of the car and was leaning on top of the car, pointing a rifle at Scully. Howell pumped the shotgun, brought it up and fired. Simultaneously, a six-inch hole appeared in the store’s plate glass window, and the windshield of the Chevy turned white. The man dropped the rifle and flung his hands in the air. Howell could see a patrol car racing into the parking lot toward the Chevy.

“Freeze, everybody!” Scully shouted again. “Minnie, put that gun down!”

For the first time, Howell saw that the elderly storekeeper was holding a heavy revolver. She put it down on the counter as she was told. The woman companion of the robber stood, frozen, her hands out in front of her as if to ward off bullets. In the parking lot, a uniformed sheriffs deputy had the Chevy’s driver leaning up against the car being handcuffed.

“Okay, now,” Scully said, “everything’s all right. It’s all right, now, Minnie.” He came forward, spun the robber’s companion around, made her lean against the counter, legs spread, and thoroughly searched her. Satisfied, Scully handcuffed her hands behind her back. Only then did he approach her male companion. Howell put the shotgun on safety and stepped forward, too. The man in the leather jacket was sprawled backward across a second checkout counter, eyes and mouth open. There was a hole in the middle of his chest. Scully took hold of an arm and turned him halfway over. His back was an enormous mess. Blood dripped down the stainless steel counter onto the floor. “Jesus, Minnie,” Scully said, “what you loading in that thing?”

“Dum-Dums,” the woman said matter-of-factly. “Jesse got ‘em for me last year. They robbed me twice before, and they ain’t going to do it again.”

“This one sure ain’t,” Scully agreed. He looked at Howell, then at the car outside. “Nice going, John.” Scully looked at him worriedly. “You all right?”

Howell looked at the hole in the plate glass store window and at the shattered windshield beyond. He didn’t seem to have hit anybody. He wiped his face with his sleeve. “Yeah, I guess so.” Suddenly, the entire plate glass window collapsed with a crash. Howell jumped a foot.

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