Upping the ante
Somewhere in my library is a memoir written by a southern sheriff, about his days of breaking up stills and running moonshiners into jail.
When I read it, I thought there's a story here, but this one isn't big enough to carry a book. What if the illegal booze operation was so large that it extended into the state capitol?
Now I had something. Here's the thumbnail summary of Capitol Crime: Is it possible that an illegal whiskey business so large that it can supply half the state of Tennessee have anything to do with the brutal murder of a farm family that Sheriff Quill Rose is investigating? Rose doesn’t think so until he hijacks a series of tanker trucks hauling the illegal booze–to get a line on the money men intent on racking up big profits from Prohibition–and the murderer comes after him.
Here's chapter 1. Enjoy.
“Sheriff? Sheriff? It’s something awful.”
To Quill Rose, the voice on the telephone sounded like it was coming from the far end of the earth. He pressed the receiver tighter to his ear. “Who is this?”
“Oakie Brown, teacher out at Pistol Creek.”
“Oakie, you gotta speak up.”
“Sheriff, three people out here. They’re dead.”
Rose spilled his coffee. He motioned to his deputy for a rag to wipe it up. “What did you say, Oakie?”
“Three people, dead I tell ya. At the old Whitlow farm.”
“Oakie, where’re you calling from? There’re no telephones out on Pistol Creek.”
“Asa’s, in Rockford.”
“Why are you calling me instead of the undertaker?”
“’Cause they been kilt.”
“Oak, stay where you are. Tommy and me, we’re on the way out.” Rose snapped the receiver down on the hook of his candlestick telephone. He glanced up in time to snatch a rag that came flying from Tommy Jenks, his chief deputy. Rose went to mopping at the coffee dribbling down the side of his desk into a half-open drawer. “Oakie Brown, do you think he’s been drinking again? He’s seen some strange things in the past that weren’t real.”
“Best I know he’s still on the wagon. Why?”
“Says he’s come on three people dead at the Whitlow place. You better grab your jacket.”
Quill Rose had dealt with nine murders in the years he had been sheriff of Blount County, Tennessee, all singles. If this telephone call was right, he was in for his first triple. He headed for the office door. “We’ll pick up Doc Stanley. If we’ve got dead people, we can at least get the paperwork right the first time.”
Jenks hustled along. “Taking your gun?”
“You got yours?”
“Then we’re fine.”
Rose rarely went armed. He preferred wits over weapons.
The lawmen made an odd pair. Rose, tall and lean, with a mustache no one could be proud of, came out of the Tuckaleechee Cove in the high mountains east of Maryville, the county seat. As the only son of parents who had died poor, Rose determined early to get a job at the courthouse so he’d have a steady paycheck. Now he had stood for election six times, the last four unopposed.
Tommy Jenks, wide as a door and weighing the better part of two hundred fifty pounds, was a brawler who had worked for most of the logging crews in the mountains. When Rose got tired of arresting him, he hired him.
Over time, the two had become so close that courthouse regulars said they shared the same toothpick.
Jenks stopped the county’s new cruiser, a Ford Model B, in front of Hershall’s Drugstore. “You want me to come up?”
Rose eased his lank out the passenger door. “We’re not going to have to drag him out. This is Doc’s shining opportunity to escape from the office. He does love working on dead bodies.”
“He’s a ghoul.”
“Our ghoul and a nice one.”
Rose strode off across the sidewalk to the staircase beside the store. He took the steps two at a time. At the top, he banged on an office door.
“Yeah?” a voice called out.
Rose leaned in.
“I’m in the back,” the voice said.
Rose peered around Doctor Gallatin Stanley’s waiting room. Two women sat at the side, paging through long out-of-date Collier’s magazines. Rose gave them a casual wave as he went to an inner door. This he also opened. There before him sat Stanley on a stool, the town’s medic prodding at a man’s mouth.
Stanley swore. “Wilson, keep your mouth open. I’ve gotta see back in there.”
Rose rapped on the door jamb.
Stanley snatched a quick look over his glasses. “Quill, come here. Look at this.”
Rose came around. He leaned down on Stanley’s shoulder and gazed where the beam from Stanley’s flashlight pointed, into the mouth of Everett Wilson.
Stanley maneuvered the beam to spotlight something at the back of the man’s throat. “Doesn’t that look like tonsils to you, kind of red and swollen?”
“That’s what I thought, but old Wils here says another doc yanked his tonsils when he was a kid. Frankly, I think the quack swindled his parents. I’d say they’re still in there–Wilson, keep your mouth open–whadaya think, Quill?”
“Sure look like tonsils to me.”
“Suppose I shoot ’em off.”
The man bit down on Stanley’s tongue stick, snapping it in half.
Stanley waved his half in front of his patient’s nose. “Dammit, Wilson, now the sheriff’s gonna have to arrest you for destroying my property.”
“Come on, Doc, I’m not about to do that. You better tell Everett what’s really going on.”
Stanley glared at Wilson. “You’ve got a sore throat, that’s all. It’s a little red back there, but you don’t have tonsils. Now get outta here. Go home and gargle with salt water.”
Wilson spit his half of the tongue stick into his hand. He opened his mouth, but Stanley jabbed a finger at him before he could speak. “Is your hearing bad, Wils? I said get out of here. You’ll get my bill.”
Wilson closed his mouth. He got up and shuffled away, the only sound the scuffing of his heels on the pine plank floor.
Rose raked his fingers through his mustache. “Doc, the way you treat your patients, I’m surprised you have any.”
“Hell, if I treat ’em nice, they just keep coming back. It interferes with my fishing.”
“And your work as a coroner.”
Stanley swung around, his eyes dancing. “You’ve got a dead body for me?”
“I’ve got three.”
“What is it, old age, murder, or did they get run over by one of those damn-fool aluminum haulers?”
“You get to make the call.”
“Hot-damn. Quill, let’s go.” He bolted to a closet for his black bag and coat. His fedora he snatched off the skull of Old Bones, his skeleton standing guard by the inner door. Stanley dashed past the reading women on his way out. “Sorry, Ethel, Min, dead people are calling. You stop back tomorrow, wouldja? And kill the light when you leave.”
Rose trotted after Stanley, chuckling. He clattered down the stairs, the coroner well ahead of him. When Rose hit bottom, Stanley was already across the sidewalk, huddled with Jenks, admiring the cruiser. “New, huh?”
Jenks held the backseat door open. “Quill got it last week.”
“Red wheels, whitewall tires, my oh my. If I brought this home, my wife’d call it the cat’s pajamas. And here I thought the county was broke.”
Rose came up. He put his arm around Stanley’s shoulders. “Thank our county’s moonshiners. They bought it for us. Hop in.”
Stanley took the backseat, Rose and Jenks the front, Jenks driving.
Rose motioned ahead. “Take us by way of Rockford–Asa’s–so we can pick up Oakie.”
Stanley pulled himself forward. “Oakie the one who called this in?”
Rose gave a thumbs up.
“Gawd, he’s not drinkin’ again, is he?”
“Tommy doesn’t think so.”
“How about you?”
“Me? I hope he is. If Oakie’s just seeing some wild things, we’ll have had a nice afternoon in the country and the fresh air that goes with it. I swear the county’s got Satan’s helper shoveling coal in the boiler down at the courthouse.”
“My, and in the middle of March. The moonshiners really buy this for you?”
“Yup. We bust up a still, we get to keep the copper and anything else we can sell and then the money when we sell it. The still busting business has been really good to us this winter.”
Stanley settled back. He ran his hand over the fabric of the seat. “Sure beats that old T-model the fiscal court judges stuck you with all these year.”
“That it does.
Jenks glanced in his side mirror as he swung the cruiser north onto the Knoxville Turnpike. “Doc, help me out here. What’s your fascination with dead people?”
“Money, it’s as simple as that.”
“I don’t get it, Doc.”
“Look, the county always pays me. With the live ones, I’m never sure I’m gonna get my money. And there’s something more.”
“The dead ones, they never complain.”
Oakie Brown, a tightly built little man with a wild thatch of hair that poked out in all directions from beneath his cap, stood with Rose, Jenks, and Stanley, all gazing down at the body of a dog.
Brown poked the toe of his shoe at the carcass. “This is where it starts.”
Stanley knelt. He ran his hand over the dog’s side, then riffled the hair back under its jaw. “Cut his throat. That’s what you do when you want to kill the animal’s family at your leisure.”
Rose rubbed at his elbow. “You’re the expert, now?”
“It’s what I’d do.”
“So, Oakie, what caused you to come by anyway?”
“Simmy. She didn’t come to school today. She’d just started on Monday. I was worried.”
“They’re all in the house?”
“We’d better go in then.”
Rose and Stanley stepped out ahead of Brown and Jenks. They went across the yard toward a one-story that listed to the east, its paint little more than a memory.
Brown stepped up on the porch. “I found the woman in the main room. The man’s back in the bedroom.”
“And the girl?”
“Simmy? I almost didn’t see her until I looked up. Her arm was hanging over the edge of the loft, blood everywhere. Sheriff, all I touched was the door.”
Rose, with his elbow, pushed the door open, and the smell of death rolled out.
The afternoon light spilled across the body of a woman clothed in a flannel nightgown, crumpled on the floor, one leg twisted back.
Stanley got down on his knees. “Cut her throat.” He put a finger on the edge of a blood stain in the middle of the clothing. “There’s a gut wound, but I don’t think that’s all. Can I roll the body over, Quill?”
“Give me a hand, Tommy.”
Together, Stanley and Jenks rolled the woman onto her stomach.
“Tommy, look at this.” Stanley swept his hand along a tear in the back of the nightgown that exposed a gash in the woman’s back. It began high on the rib cage and carried almost to her buttocks. “A slash like that, she was running from him. What’s this?” He stared at the stump of a right arm, where the woman’s hand should have been. “He cut off her hand? Why the hell would he do that?”
Before Stanley could answer his own question, he glanced up, toward the loft, to an arm and the top of a head, and something else. “There’s two up there.”
Brown twisted away. “Oh, Jesus, not the baby.”
Rose also looked up. “There’s a baby?”
“Simmy said she had a little brother. Two, maybe three years old.”
Rose went to the ladder. He climbed the rungs, stopping when he could see into the loft. “Tommy, the boy’s here. He’s back in the corner. Doesn’t appear to be hurt.”
Rose climbed higher, high enough that he could reach the child. He caught him under the arms. “How you doing, little one? Oh phew. Tommy, he’s got a load.” Rose lifted the boy over the edge and down to Jenks. “Take him and find him some new britches.”
Jenks grimaced at the stench. “It’s a good thing I love children. Others wouldn’t do this job.” He hiked off to the kitchen, Oakie Brown with him.
Stanley hefted himself up. He took out a pad and pencil and scratched down some notes. “What’s the girl look like?”
Rose lifted her shoulder. “Throat’s cut. Slashes on her arms. She’s missing a hand, too. What in the world’s going on?”
He let the shoulder back down and worked his way down the ladder. “Oakie said the man’s in the sleeping room. What’s your bet?”
In a side room, from where Rose and Stanley stood in the doorway, they could make out a form in the bed, but couldn’t see details because curtains shut out the afternoon sun. Stanley took a small flashlight from his bag. He flicked it on.
They made their way to the bed, one man on either side, Stanley leaning down. “He was asleep, Quill. He never moved. Man cut his throat without ever waking him up.”
“Or a woman cut his throat.”
“Possible, but I don’t think so.”
“So you’re thinking the wife woke up and ran. Have I got that right?”
“Had to. I know I would have, and as tough as you are, Quill, you would have, too. Only thing that makes sense with her out there and that back wound she’s got.”
“And the girl?”
Stanley massaged behind his ear. “The woman screamed when she was cut. Wouldn’t you if you were being killed?”
“So the girl woke up. She saw what was happening and screamed, too.”
“So he had to kill her.”
“Then why didn’t he kill the boy?”
“I don’t know.” Stanley twisted on the balls of his feet as he peered around the room barren except for the bed, a caned chair, and a small chest of drawers. “Maybe the boy was under the blanket and God kept him from moving. The man didn’t see him.”
“Maybe he didn’t know there was a baby to look for. You see any toys around? Anything that says baby to you? These people were too poor to have toys for their kids.”
“Well, should we look at his arms?”
“I expect we’d better.”
Stanley untangled the blanket, then lifted it back. “Lord a mighty, hacked right through the wrist.”
“You’d have to have an axe to do that, wouldn’t you think?”
“Or a stout knife.” Stanley held the stump up, his light on it. “See this? He didn’t cut the bone. Just sliced through the tendons and the wrist joint came apart.”
Jenks and Brown came back, Jenks carrying the child whose bottom was now swaddled in a diaper made from a flour sack with the Martha White brand on it. “Got him cleaned up, Quill. He’s a happy little kid. What’re we gonna do with him?”
“What do you think, Doc? We could give him to the nurses at the hospital until we find some relatives.”
Brown fidgeted. “Sheriff, open to an idea?”
“Asa’s wife would take him, and I could look in on him there for you.”
Stanley glanced up from the body. “For God’s sake, she’s already got six of her own, Oakie.”
“But she’s always taking in strays.”
Rose gazed at the child playing with the flap of Jenks’s jacket. “Doc, I gotta admit Addie’s a good woman. Tommy, go ahead, take the boy down to the store and see what you can work out. And call Roy. Tell him to get out here with his hearse, that’s he’s got three bodies to get ready for the ground.”
“He’s gonna want to know if the county will pay.”
“Tell him yes.”
Jenks and Brown left with the child while Stanley took up a seat on the edge of the bed. He continued writing notes on the condition of the bodies for his coroner’s report.
Rose rummaged through the bedroom, then the kitchen and the main room. He threw up his hands. “Doc, these people have got next to nothing other than their clothes, a couple dishes, and a skillet. That’s it.”
Frustrated, he took hold of the front door, to close it. “What the hell? ”
Stanley peered up.
“Doc, get in here. You gotta see this.”