This is probably the last chapter I'll post for a while, but I think it's a good one. It introduces another primary character, drops in another plot element and ups the stakes. It isn't absolutely polished yet, put it's getting close.
“Suicide, my ass.”
“There was a note.”
“Big fucking deal. That doesn’t mean anything. If the cops are on top of it, they’ll have a handwriting expert look at the signature. Bet my Harley it’s forged.”
“I’m sure they’ll look into it.” I was looking at the lower half of Gator’s body, sticking out from underneath the front end of a 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air. The car was up on ramps, and Gator was beneath it on a dolly.
“Where did you say this happened?” He’d not seen the news, which didn’t surprise me.
“The fish camp is in Barlow County.”
He rolled out from under the car, sat up and looked at me with his good eye. He wore a patch over the other. Gator looked like the prototypical Harley guy. He was large man with a broad frame and long black hair going gray, pulled back in a ponytail over which he wore a doo-rag, and a Fu-Manchu mustache that matched his hair. He wore a sleeveless black tee shirt that displayed well-developed, tattooed biceps. Worn out jeans, and black cowboy boots. The eye-patch gave him a pirate-type appeal.
He laid down the wrench he’d been holding and stuck his hand up to me. I took it, braced my feet and pulled. He groaned as he got to his feet. He took an oil-stained rag from the back pocket of his jeans and wiped his hands, frowning. He removed his doo-rag and wiped his forehead.
“That’s different, then.”
“Let’s go inside and I’ll tell you,” he said, leading the way from the detached garage in his back yard. His old Bassett hound, Bullet, had been lying in the shade of Gator's pick-up, and he gradually raised himself to his feet, wagging his tail as he followed us. We crossed the yard to the house, and I noticed that Gator’s limp seemed to have become more pronounced. The limp was from an injury sustained many years ago in a motorcycle accident. He’d lost his eye at the same time.
He never called it an accident. He called it the “reckless pursuit of justice.” He had been a bounty hunter in Savannah, Georgia, and he’d been in a high speed chase with a fugitive who was fleeing charges of distributing cocaine. Gator wrecked the bike when a passenger in the car he was chasing had leaned out the window and taken a shot at him. The bullet hit his helmet and shattered the face-shield and one of the fragments had lodged in his eye. He lost control of the motorcycle, ran off the road and hit a stop sign, nearly severing his left leg. The car he was chasing ran the stop sign and was struck by a tractor-trailer, and the fugitive and his partner had been killed. Gator’s leg was destroyed, but the surgeons had managed to piece it together and save it.
We went in through the back door and I followed him to the kitchen. He pulled a pitcher of tea from the refrigerator, filled two glasses with ice, and poured them full. Then he took an orange from a fruit bowl and sliced it into wedges, squeezed a wedge into each glass and handed one to me. Gator’s iced tea was the best in the land, bar none. I took a healthy swallow and was instantly refreshed. Two more swallows and the glass was empty. I helped myself to a refill.
Gator picked up the pitcher. “Might as well bring this with us,” he said, and limped out to the screened porch on the back of his house. The back yard was shaded by several mammoth live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, and was bordered by the Amelia River. We sat in rocking chairs and propped our feet on old wooden wire spools. He put the pitcher on the short table between our chairs, within easy reach for either of us. Bullet lay down in front of us, resting his sagging face on his front paws.
“So, what’s different about Barlow County?” I asked.
He pursed his lips and stroked his mustache with a thumb and index finger.
“Ever heard of the Dixie Mafia?”
“Dixie Mafia? I’ve heard bits and pieces. I don’t really know much about them. I thought they kind of fell apart back in the eighties.”
“That’s true, to an extent. The Dixie Mafia was never a true mafia type organization, with families and Dons and shit like that. The best way I can describe it is they were a loosely organized network of convicted criminals and crooked politicians, located primarily in small towns across the Deep South. Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida, with hubs in bigger cities like Atlanta and Baton Rouge, even Jacksonville. They were mostly involved in moving stolen goods, gambling, contract hits, and importing drugs. Most of the members were recruited while in prison, but many of the major players were police officers and sheriffs.”
He drained his glass and refilled it from the pitcher. He pulled a pack of Marlboros and a lighter from the pocket of his tee shirt, shook one loose and put it in his mouth. He lit up and blew a couple of smoke rings that hung in the air, floating slowly upward as they expanded and dissipated. I sat quietly and waited for him to continue.
“In this area it was mainly drugs. Marijuana and cocaine. The importers would pay off the sheriffs in these small, backwoods towns, and then they’d either fly in and land the planes on some makeshift landing strip out in a cow pasture, or they’d fly over and drop duffle bags from the planes. The cops would stand guard while the planes were unloaded or the duffle bags were gathered up. This was mostly back in the sixties and seventies, before the real Mafia decided they wanted a piece of the action, and started working with the Cartels down in Columbia.”
“Bobby Joe Blakely was the sheriff in Barlow County from nineteen-sixty-five up until nineteen-eighty-three, when he was killed. All during the heyday of the Dixie Mafia. It was widely rumored that Barlow County was a significant drop off point for a whole bunch of drugs. I’m talking tons and tons of the shit. Coke and weed. Bobby Joe was in charge of security for the smugglers, and he was well paid for his services, so the story goes. In March of eighty-three the FBI busted a plane with four tons of Columbian coke on board, out in a cow pasture in Barlow County. Three days later, Bobby Joe was found in the trunk of his car with his throat slit.”
Gator took the last drag off his cigarette and stubbed it out in a tray on the table. “No one was ever arrested for the crime, but I’ve heard the inside scoop from some people that would know. What happened was, Bobby Joe was getting heat from the FBI, they were snooping around and causing problems, getting a little too close for comfort. At the same time, some Columbians had approached him about bringing in some of their shit, wanting to use Bobby Joe’s landing strip. He made the decision to let the FBI have the Columbian’s plane with all the coke on board, figuring it would take the heat off him and his partners. Well, the Columbians didn’t take too kindly to him donating their coke to the FBI – they don’t take it lightly when they get double-crossed – so they whacked him. This accomplished several things. Number one, the FBI was satisfied that they’d put a dent in the incoming drugs and with Bobby Joe dead, they thought it would put an end to the trafficking in that county. The other thing it did was take the Columbians out of the picture in southeast Georgia and northeast Florida. They wouldn’t take another chance on trying to partner with any of the Dixie boys in this area, and they found other ways to bring in their product, anyway. This cleared the way for the Dixie Mafia to get back to business as usual, because they had Bobby Joe’s nephew in their pocket. Guess who the nephew is.”
“Jimmy Ray Cooper, Bobby Joe’s deputy at the time. He’s been sheriff in Barlow County ever since Bobby Joe’s murder. Going on thirty years now.”
“Everybody in the gang have two first names?”
Gator laughed. “I think it’s a requirement.”
“So the Dixie boys are still running the county?”
“I guess you could say that, but it’s not the same as it was back in the seventies. It’s on a much smaller scale today, and much more low-key, but make no mistake, Jimmy Ray runs that county. I think his thing now is gambling. I guess drugs are still in the picture, but if what I’ve heard is true, he’s part of a fairly large gambling operation.”
“I wonder if any of this is related to Golden’s death.”
“What was he doing at the fish camp? I mean, why that place?”
“I don’t know. Like I told you, I’d barely started working for him when this shit went down. I have no idea how or if he’s tied to that camp. I guess the detectives will look into all that. It’s not my business anymore. Detective Gordon made that pretty clear.”
“Gordon?” Gator’s eyebrows went up, and then he made a face like he wanted to spit. “I know him, he’s an idiot. I did a couple of takedowns in Barlow County, back in the day. Matter of fact, that’s where I busted myself up.”
“Your crash happened in Barlow County?”
“Yep. The dude I was chasing was from Durden, county seat of Barlow. When he fled the charges in Savannah he went home thinking he could go underground for a while, get some help and disappear. I tracked him there with the help of another bounty hunter; a guy goes by the name of ‘Hawk’. Hawk knew all about Barlow County and its Dixie Mafia tie-in, that’s how I learned all this history. Your Detective Gordon came to the hospital to interview me after the crash. He’s one of Cooper’s boys, you can believe that.”
I didn’t say anything. We rocked and looked out at the river. I’d been wondering why Richard had gone to that particular fish camp. Now it took on a new importance. If he was involved with the Dixie Mafia in some way, the real cause of his death and the reason behind it might never be resolved. The Barlow County cops might just bury the whole thing.
“What are you planning to do?” He was looking at me out of the corner of his eye.
“Nothing. It’s none of my business, like Gordon said.”
A smile was twitching under his mustache. “That right?”
“That’s right.” Bullet was looking at me, too. He blinked in slow motion.
“I’d be real careful if I was you.”
“What did I just say? I’m going to mind my own business.”
“Well, then, I’ll just tell you. While you’re minding your own business, watch your fucking step up there. If you decide to go looking around, you’ll want to do it real quietly. Gordon wouldn’t think twice about making you disappear if he thinks it’s in his best interest.”
I decided it would be useless to continue the argument. “Okay. If I decide to go looking around, I’ll be careful.”
“Right. Real careful.”
The phone rang inside the house and Gator rocked out of his chair to go answer it. I sat there, looking out through the screen at the trees and the river, wondering if any of the information Gator had shared with me tied in to Golden’s death, or if it was simply coincidence. I looked at Bullet and he blinked at me again. He seemed to have his own thoughts on the matter.
“What do you think, Bullet?”
He raised his head and licked his drooping chops, let his tongue dangle as he considered the question. He didn’t say anything, but his eyes were full of doubt. He didn’t believe me either.
Gator came back out to the porch. “That was dinner calling. Charlene’s makin’ chicken and dumplins, and she invited you to join us. You don’t want to turn this down, I promise you.”
“Chicken and dumplins sound pretty damn good to me. You talked me into it.”
I followed Gator over to his girlfriend’s house, which wasn’t far. He wasn’t lying. Charlene’s chicken and dumplings were as good as I’d ever had, and I told her so numerous times. Her biscuits were of the same quality, as were the turnip greens. It was as fine a meal as I’d had in a long time. I told them I owed them one and they brushed it off, but I invited them to my house for a cookout next weekend.
Gator walked out to the driveway as I was leaving. He had a few more words for me.
“I know you said you aren’t going to get involved in the investigation, and maybe you won’t. I hope you don’t, for the reasons I’ve already told you. But, if you somehow find yourself looking into the thing, watch your back. I can’t stress that enough.”
“I appreciate it, Gator, I really do, but I’m sure the police don’t want my help. It’s their case, and they can have it. I need some clients that can pay for my services and, unfortunately, Richard Golden won’t be writing any more checks.”
We shook hands and he watched me back out of the driveway. I waved as I pulled into the street and drove away.
My cell phone rang as I was driving home. I checked the ID but didn’t recognize the number.
“Brody, this is Detective Gordon.”
Barlow County’s finest. Wonderful. “Hello, Detective.”
“I need you to come up here tomorrow; we have to get an official statement.”
“Should I bring an attorney?”
He made a noise that was supposed to be a laugh but sounded more like a bark. “That’s up to you, shamus.”
I didn’t plan to bring a lawyer, but I’d let him think about it.
“Ten o’clock. My office is in the police department building next to the county courthouse in Durden. Know where it is?”
“I’ll find it.”
Chapter Five will conclude this scene, and the stakes will go up some more. Once again, comments are appreciated! Peace and sunshine.