“Requiem for Antlers”
by Mitch Alderman
AHMM Jan/Feb 2010
Bubba Simms picked up his office phone on the twelfth ring, but didn’t speak. As he listened, he sipped harsh, steaming coffee. It matched his mood.
“What do you want, Arnie?”
“I expected to hear one of your fake answering machine messages.”
“I have been on a diet for three days, two hours, and eleven minutes, no, twelve minutes. I sit here waiting to share my joy with someone foolish enough to speak into a silent phone. I have to lose thirteen more pounds to be back at 315.”
“We have work for Simms Investigations regardless of its diminishing size.” Arnie’s voice remained strong, lacking the usual speakerphone fade when he walked laps around his office as head of perpetual claims denial at State Insurance. Unfortunately for Arnie, despite the number of laps he walked, buttons still popped off his shirt.
“Want me to find a missing steak?”
“You’re the reason most steaks go missing.” Arnie snickered at his own joke. “I need you to save us any part of a three hundred thousand dollar wrongful death claim.”
“Pay up and leave me to waste away in quiet.”
“Your usual per day versus ten percent of what we save when you find something useful.”
Bubba took his boots off the desk, grabbed a pen and a yellow pad. “Details.” He began to doodle a camel. It was 10:37, and only an hour and twenty-three minutes till non-lunch.
“I’ll messenger the package. Home or office?”
“After twelve, home.”
“Home then. It’s a hunting accident. One kid with a 7mm Mag and our liability policy shot another kid.”
“Messingham over to Polk City?” The camel’s ribs showed.
“Knew the grandparents. Not the kid.”
“He’s fifteen. The dead one’s sixteen.”
There was silence for a moment.
“You’re huffing, Arnie.”
“Twenty minutes at top speed on my NordicTrack treadmill. No more carpet marathons for me.”
“Two point seven miles per hour.”
Bubba hung up laughing.
Bubba left for home at eleven thirty. It was only a five-minute drive to his house, but he wanted to release Elvis from his pen so he could run crazy before the messenger arrived. The blue tick hound needed to resmell everything he had smelled a hundred times before if there were to be any peace and quiet.
The yard’s olfactory exploration finished, Elvis brought Bubba the tennis ball. Sitting in his bentwood rocker in front of the open door on the back porch, Bubba threw the ball down the slope toward Lake Otis. Elvis bayed the ball, then brought it back. The process was repeated. During the repetitions, Bubba called Corporal Marks, who should be on patrol this time of day. His cell phone answered.
“Marks, who’s working the Polk City violent crimes now?”
“Bubba, I am writing with great speed and polish at this moment an answer to the confounding mystery of excessive tire wear on patrol units. Call Public Affairs at the Polk County Sheriff’s Complex in Bartow. Information will have that number.”
“But you’re in my speed dial.”
“Lieutenant Selmon.” The phone number followed and then the connection broke. Bubba didn’t think that Marks could type and talk at the same time.
Ball thrown. Marks contacted. Bubba still had three minutes to wait until lunch. The highlight of the afternoon promised to be this wondrous salad filled with lettuce, tomatoes, onion, bell pepper, all topped with cucumber slices and one FDA-approved serving of canola oil and vinegar dressing. How did cows stay so big grazing on crap like this, Bubba wondered. Had to be poor portion control.
Bubba regretted that it had taken longer to build the salad than to inhale it. Dissolving the pink packet of artificial sweetener in his iced tea had taken longer than eating the salad. But at least he was still burping cucumber an hour later. A meal should stay with you.
The usual messenger in his usual black motorcycle helmet brought the overstuffed manila envelope around to the back porch. He ruffled Elvis’s ears while Bubba found him a cold Pepsi and a twenty-dollar tip.
Taking the package into the A/C, Bubba spread the contents across his dining room table. Elvis stretched across the couch in front of the TV. Bubba examined the coroner’s report and flipped through the pictures of the sixteen-year-old Caucasian male, 68 inches, 208 pounds, brown hair, blue eyes, healthy, with no visible scars or tattoos. Death caused by massive blood loss from a gunshot wound to the upper thorax, entry in the front between the right seventh and eighth rib, and exiting by blowing the shoulder blade and back to shreds, according to the pictures. No bullet recovered. Bubba always marveled at the amount of official documentation Arnie was able to acquire. Underpaid secretaries and overlooked clerks were always appreciative of State Insurance’s green gratitude.
An overexposed copy of Lieutenant Selmon’s official report followed the coroner’s. Well processed with an effective professional style (lately cops spent more time formatting bullets with Word than they did with Glocks), Selmon conveyed the events in a chronological pattern for that November Saturday.
Martin (Marty) Messingham had left his residence, 1131 Dorsey Rd., at 3:30 p.m. with two other youths, Barton (Bart) Caldress, 16, and Elmer (EJ) Jennings, Jr., 17; Bubba raised an eyebrow. Could be the son of EJ, Senior, who along with his dad—Willard—ran the largest trucking company in Florida. JennTruck was located between Auburndale and Lakeland. It was surprising that the story of a shooting death involving an heir to a trucking empire had not seen more extensive press coverage. But, then again, it wasn’t. Willard Jennings had as much pull when he needed it as one of his orange and blue Peterbilts that formed his long-distance fleet.
Bubba didn’t recognize the names of the victim or the other witness. The longer he was retired, and the more strangers moved into Imperial Polk County’s lush landscape, the more questions he had to ask, the less stored knowledge he relied on.
Continuing with the report, Bubba raised another eyebrow. After the shooting, the three boys had panicked, piled into the F-250—EJ, Jr.’s—and driven to Auburndale to find Senior. He’d driven his Esplanade back with them, then called 911 and supplied directions to the shooting site. Another ninety minutes passed before the EMTs and deputies arrived.
It was almost six, the evening darkened, before the EMTs found the body. The temperatures hung in the eighties, low-overcast skies, humid, threatening rain; blue bottle flies settling on the blood-soaked T-shirt sparkled in the flash photography.
Bubba pictured the scene: a country cousin to any of the deadly drunk driving or domestic violence calls he’d responded to during his twenty years in uniform. They twisted into a kaleidoscope of Polk County heat, clinging mud, mosquito clouds, fire ants finding ankles, crude jokes among the uniforms, detectives, techs, and medical staff. The feel of onlookers moving closer to gore as their protective shock eroded away. Violent death brought people toward the moving, functioning world; standing around felt too ghostly.
The M.E. had calculated the time of death between one and four p.m. based on body temperature. The more exact estimate of 3:55 p.m. was based on the boys’ statements. The boys were positive the victim was dead before they ran, for help or from fear. The M.E. estimated death within a minute after being shot.
By the time Bubba had all the facts organized in his mind, it was time to build another healthy, weight-losing meal based around a lone, pale pink chicken breast. The salt and pepper, splinters of garlic, and onions and green pepper slices sautéing alongside it didn’t make the meat look any bigger. Perhaps the diet sheet had meant a turkey breast. While the skillet seared on medium high, he dialed Lieutenant Selmon’s cell phone number.
“Selmon. How did you get this number? Who is this?” Curiosity, more than anger, filled the voice.
“Bubba Simms. I want to talk to you about the Messingham shooting.”
“Barnfield. The vic’s name was Elloy Barnfield, Ell to his family.”
“Sorry. You’re right. Barnfield. I’m looking into the circumstances for State Insurance.”
“No problem. So I finally meet the retirement legend, Bubba Simms. State’s pet bulldog, retainer to the deep pockets. When I retire I want to be you.”
“It’s a lonely life, walking the mean streets.”
Selmon laughed. “Okay, I go in at three tomorrow. Buy me lunch somewhere delicious, expensive, fattening. Somewhere in North Lakeland so I can arrive at the Polk City branch station without effort.”
“Thanks for the thought, Selmon. I am currently cooking a single chicken breast with peppers and onions. How about we meet at a salad bar?”
“I’ve heard you usually need to diet, but I also heard about State’s expense account. Their understanding of friendship.”
“The expense account is exaggerated. The diet rumors ugly, stereotypical slander about mesomorphs. Grimaldi’s all right?”
“Gri-mal-di’s,” he savored the syllables. “Oh yes. That is all right. One o’clock?”
“Works for me.”
“I’ll be the hungry cop.”
“I’ll be the P.I. with State’s friendship in tow.”
The chicken was searing harshly, the peppers and onions releasing their vapors as they wilted. It just had to be Grimaldi’s, didn’t it? The chicken faded from view as visions of beef braciola danced in his head. He built another salad and took it all to the end of the dining room table where no papers or photos littered.
He picked at the meal until he finished. Apparently the diet was working, or the sight of a dead boy affected his appetite. Or perhaps he was learning to only eat to live, not only living to eat. More likely he had found the Bubba Diet Plan, a series of crime scene photos and autopsy reports designed to be shared during mealtime. Weight loss without exercise or pills.
Because he had to be at Grimaldi’s at one tomorrow, he decided to spend the morning walking through the woods, looking at the shooting site. Ell Barnfield had lived a quarter mile down the road. Bubba thought he’d stop by and talk to any of the family after he searched, stop by and knock on the door. It was country; folks talked without appointments. Sometimes.
By nine thirty the next morning, Bubba and Elvis were easing along Dean Still Road outside of Polk City. Elvis’s ears flapped in the truck window’s breeze while he howled in his raccoon-beware register, his head and shoulders out the Bronco’s passenger side. Bubba’s window was up; the heater was on. Early December had a nip to it, for a change.
Bubba recognized the trail’s entrance from the photos but needed to drive about fifty yards past to find a place to pull off and park. Dean Still Road flooded so often that the shoulders were mostly washouts. As they walked back, Elvis performed the Dance of the Idiot Dog, but stayed on the woodland side away from traffic as he had been trained. The traffic on the two-lane road roared by with the sixty-five mile per hour semis holding up the commuters headed for Lakeland. Bubba eased across the limestone croppings left by the erosions that muddied the bottom of the ditch. He turned down the trail, immediately entering the Green Swamp ecology. His size 12E boots smushed the spongy, level surface layered with decaying vegetation. Even in this December dry spell, the ground seeped water into his tracks. Elvis followed, sniffing three square feet of terrain for every foot forward.
The trail was narrow, but well worn. It meandered for over a furlong, passing through broadleaf stands and one small group of long-leaf pines isolated on a sandy uplift. The shooting site was obvious. Four-wheel drives had rutted the clearing. Circles and U-turns elaborated from a straight track leading off to the southwest.
Much to Elvis’s disgust, Bubba made him sit and stay while he used the pictures and diagrams to orient the scene. The boys had been standing in the open on the south side of the clearing, looking almost due north, the sun off to their left. They had seen antlers. The victim had stood about forty yards away, about ten steps into a sweetbriar thicket, which was only about four feet above the ground. His shoulders and head must have been clearly visible. Barnfield had been facing them. He must have seen the rifle lift and point toward him, yet there had been no shout, no outcry, according to the accounts. But there had to have been at least a moment of terror before the bullet struck. Why hadn’t he screamed? Why did he have antlers with him?
The area was torn up by the efforts of the EMTs and the others, but Bubba also could see the remnants of a narrow path through the thicket. Probably a deer run, no bigger than the deer were in Green Swamp.
After a half hour, Bubba knew nothing more. No tracks of a gigantic hound, no tracks of a sleeping, blue tick hound either. A careless, stupid killing. Looked like Arnie was going to have to pay off on this one.
Bubba decided to walk out the rutted road left by the emergency vehicles. Elvis came instantly awake at his whistle. After four laps around Bubba, he conducted a thorough sniff of the entire area. Other than an abandoned glove some tech had used, he found nothing new either.
It was a short walk out, fifty yards at most. Back on the rocky shoulders of a paved road, two left turns put him back at his Bronco. Elvis piled in, ready for another howling ride. Bubba lowered his own window. Walking had taken the chill off.
The Barnfield house, like most of the places in Green Swamp more than ten years old, sat on a five-acre ranchette, dedicated to country living without actually having a ranch. Two hundred twelve feet faced the paved road; a thousand sixty feet ran to the wilderness. A single-story white Florida frame house was shaped to match the property. Twenty-four feet—three standard board-lengths—fronted the original home, with several long additions running sixty or seventy feet back. An oxidized Dodge K-car was parked under an open-sided, tin-roofed shelter. The grass immediately around the house was mowed, but the long yard was overgrown in stages.
Bubba parked the Bronco in the dirt behind the Dodge. He petted Elvis for a moment, adjusted the windows so he would have air, but without squeezing out. He gave the house time to ready itself to meet him.
Carrying his clipboard with its yellow pad, he walked to the porch door. Without climbing the steps, he leaned forward and knocked. The door of the house opened. A small, middle-aged woman in an apron stepped onto the porch. She tilted her head like a sparrow finding a new grub. “Whatever you’re selling, giving away, or demonstrating, you’re wasting your time.”
She wiped her hand on the apron, nodded when her head returned to center.
“My name is Bubba Simms. I’m a private investigator working for State Insurance. First, I want to tell you how sorry I am about the death of your son.”
She looked at him. “Thank you. What do you want?”
“State Insurance covers the Messinghams’ property. They hired me to look into your lawsuit.”
“My lawyer said not to talk to anyone. Not to say nothing.”
“That’s probably sound advice, most of the time. I’d tell you that myself.” Bubba nodded as he stepped back into the yard. He lowered his voice. “But, what I do for State is talk to people, read reports, look at facts, think about what I learn, talk to more people. Then I finally give them my opinion.”
As he spoke she moved across the porch till she stood at the screen door. “It helps them decide how hard to fight a claim. I am certainly not the final say, but over the years they’ve learned to listen to me. Some of the time.”
She shook her head. “The lawyer said he’d take care of everything.”
“Yes, ma’am. I understand. If he changes his mind, call me. Here’s my card. I’ll be happy to come out. I am truly sorry for your loss.”
She cracked the door and took the card. Bubba headed for the Bronco. When he opened the door, Elvis launched himself. Bubba caught him with one arm. After ruffling the squirming dog’s neck, he tossed him back inside the Bronco, climbing aboard.
“You know anything about mixing two-cycle gas?” Mrs. Barnfield stood halfway between Bubba and the porch steps.
“Enough not to drink it before driving.”
“That weeding gizmo of Ell’s uses mixed gas. I’m afraid I’ll mess it up.”
In the carport, Bubba squatted and read the directions on the can of oil. Same formula he’d seen all his life. The gas can held a gallon; one small can should do it. Mrs. Barnfield stood behind him.
“He was a sweet boy, Ell was.” Bubba nodded. “Not much for school, but no trouble. A sweet boy.”
Bubba poured the oil in the can and filled it to the gallon mark from the five-gallon jerry can. He shook the gallon vigorously. Sobbing started behind him. He filled the weed machine, adjusted the choke, and pulled the cord. Nothing, he adjusted again, and pulled. A puff of black smoke erupted; another pull, and the two-cycle’s distinctive whine filled the air. Bubba trimmed the posts of the car shelter, the front porch, and the bottom edge of the house. He was looking for more reasons to keep the engine revving when Mrs. Barnfield tapped him on the arm. She wiped her eyes with the corner of the apron.
“Thank you. My sister stayed a week after Ell’s funeral, but she’s got problems of her own.” She patted Bubba’s arm again. “There’s something boyish about you. Full-growed, but boyish still. Ell was always going to be a boy, according to the doctors. You want some coffee?”
“Anything else need trimming?”
“Coffee would be great.”
“Bring the dog.”
The kitchen was directly off the living room, part of the original house. A dining/TV room had been added, forming a large open area containing two recliners, eating table with six chairs, a Sony Trinitron with a sofa facing it, and a drawing table in the far corner. A closed door led to the rest of the house.
Bubba sat where Mrs. Barnfield pointed, the end of the eating table. Elvis sniffed and resniffed everything throughout the room, but not in the kitchen. Even he knew there were limits. The coffee, scalded from a percolator, was strong. It was old-fashioned coffee, not easily ignored. Perfect donut coffee, able to hold its own against, say, a fresh, hot, blueberry cake circle. Bubba’s stomach checked for remnants of the high fiber breakfast cereal. None.
Mrs. Barnfield sat with her plain white coffee mug and told Bubba about Ell, their lives, and the emptiness. She refilled their cups twice. She offered store-bought cookies halfheartedly. She patted Elvis as she passed by. She brought a stack of wildlife drawings done in pencil. The animals, in real-life proportions, all carried a human look to the cast of their eyes. Somehow even the snakes smiled. Just before noon, Bubba asked, “What happened that day?”
“Nothing. A usual Saturday, lollygagging around the place, mowed the yard, did his chores. Ate lunch at noon. Chicken potpie. Ell liked that. After we did the dishes, he left to walk in the woods.” She turned her mug. “Didn’t come back by three thirty when I expected him.”
“Why that time?”
“Football. The Gators playing somebody on TV. When he wasn’t back by four, I started worrying. But he was picky about my checking on him, being sixteen and all. So I stayed busy. Called the sheriff when it got dark. They came around eight.”
“Tell me about the antlers.”
“Those damned antlers. They were beautiful, but I guess they got him killed. Ell found them on a skeleton of a deer tangled up in a fence. He loved them. Carried them when he prowled in the woods. He’d decided he was part deer. Foolish child. Sometimes under a full moon, I’d see him dancing out back, in the field, holding them on his head.”
“Could he have been holding the antlers on his head, sneaking around?”
“Who knows? Stupid, silly boy. The woods made him powerful, not like school and such. Those boys could have shot antlers, a moving bush, whatever they thought. But they shot Ell for sure.”
Bubba nodded. She wiped her eyes with a left forearm. “Now they have to pay. Pay for shooting my little boy. You best leave now. I’m not going to talk anymore.”
Bubba nodded again. He left without saying goodbye, Elvis padding quietly behind him.
Bubba thought that Mrs. Barnfield shouldn’t have talked to him, but many people, who later wished they hadn’t, had talked to him over the years. The image of a young man foolishly playing at being a deer, then being shot, would influence a jury if presented correctly. State’s lawyers were nothing if not correct in their presentations. The most correct money could buy. Driving away, Bubba located the Messingham house, less than a mile away. The shooter would still be in school today. No sense stopping by right now. After lunching with Selmon, he’d drop back and see what the boy had to say.
Bubba arrived at Grimaldi’s a few minutes early. He stopped under one of the oak trees at the south end of the parking lot. With the shade, the windows cranked down a couple of inches, and the December chill, Elvis would sleep in comfort.
Tony Grimaldi, third-generation restaurant owner, met Bubba as he opened the brass-handled door. They shook. Tony said, “Your guest is already here. Second glass of Pouilly-Fuissé, Louis Jadot. I’ll send the bottle on, if you want?”
“Fine. It’s State expense money.”
Tony smiled. They walked the long way to the table, past the swinging door separating the energized clutter and clatter of the kitchen from the moneyed quietness of the elegant tables in the high-ceilinged dining room. Bubba usually sat near the swinging door so the flood of conflicting and complementing aromas would saturate his nose, his hair, his clothing; the rest of the day would become a portable feast.
“I hear you’re dieting.”
“How the hell did you hear that?”
“Big Al told Jerry. Now everyone knows.” Tony power-lifted out of Jerry’s All-American Gym in Lakeland. At five six, people thought him fat unless they bumped into his shoulder or watched his triple bodyweight squat. Of course, Bubba lifted superheavyweight at Big Al’s in Winter Haven.
“Don’t bother ordering. I’ll fill you up without ruining your dietetic efforts. I know how desperate you must be to actually leave your normal diet.”
“See food. Eat food. The way Nature intended.”
When they reached the table, Selmon stood to shake hands. Tall, skinny, with the beginnings of a pooch around his belt, Selmon wore a tan suit with a pale yellow shirt, a red tie loosely knotted, the jacket folded across an extra chair. A waiter brought the wine bottle and refilled Selmon’s glass. Bubba nodded and he filled another glass. Tony assured them that the meal would be memorable, then returned to the kitchen.
“I appreciate you taking time to talk to me, Lieutenant Selmon,” Bubba said, then sipped; the tingle of the wine reached his throat.
“Call me Lewis. Sometimes talking is the best way to get things done. We work for the public. A little cooperation goes a long way.” Selmon swallowed most of the wine in his glass. He reached for a hard-crusted roll in the basket, sliced it open, and spread butter across it. His long, slender fingers were quick, efficient in their movements. His entire appearance was that of a sensitive violinist rather than a gold shield detective for the Polk County Sheriff’s Department.
A waiter brought them leatherbound menus and a chalkboard with the day’s recommendations. Selmon listened attentively while he explained the specifics.
“Did we ever work together?” Bubba asked while ignoring the basket of rolls.
“I don’t think so. I came in before you retired, but I worked this side of the county. You were in the hinterlands.”
Selmon had folded the French cuffs out of the way. With his controlled movements, Bubba wondered why he bothered.
“I’ve read a copy of the file and autopsy on the Barnfield boy’s death. Anything that seemed out of place, anything not worth writing down?” Bubba sipped the wine, not bothering to look at the menu. He trusted Tony’s judgment more than his own ability not to order one of everything. Selmon refilled his own glass and looked at Bubba, who declined.
Selmon continued his perusal of the menu. “It looked like a case of careless youth who should not have been allowed firearms. A dead boy for no good reason, except inexperience and carelessness. You see anything different in the case file?”
“I saw no crime for me to investigate. Violations of the Fish and Game rules sure, but nothing for me. Just that poor dead boy with flies walking on his face.”
“Nothing out of the ordinary?”
“Antlers caught on a bush. Not seen that before. Son of very rich man crying. Not seen that before either. Rich man being cooperative, unusual, but I’ve seen that before.”
“What about the time delay in reporting the shooting?”
“Sure, they panicked. Ran for help. The Messingham boy initially wanted to go to his house to call, but I guess rich boys are used to substantial help when they have a problem. In the form of Daddy.” Selmon smiled a cop smile when he finished speaking, before he sipped. “I read all of them, Daddy included, the riot act before we left the scene. They were guilty of obstruction, maybe. But it was an accident and Ell Barnfield was beyond their help. The prosecutor agreed that there was not much sense tangling with the Jenningses’ lawyers over this. I guess now the civil lawyers are going to have their bite. Think State will two-step, sidestep away on this?”
“My guess too.”
Salads arrived. Any resemblance between what Bubba had been preparing and what appeared in front of him was in name only. Bubba tried to prevent it vanishing as quickly a normal salad would; but like beautiful sunsets, in a moment it was gone, leaving a lingering satisfaction. Their waiter cleared. Selmon’s salad had vanished too. Lasagna arrived for Selmon, soup for Bubba. Their waiter cleared. A pasta with cream sauce and chicken arrived for Selmon, a vegetable mixture of squash, tomatoes, green beans, and onions for Bubba. Their waiter cleared. And so it went until it ended. Without the cream cake for Bubba.
“How do you stay so skinny, Lewis?” Bubba asked as he watched the dessert vanish.
“Tapeworms, genetics, pure heart, I have no idea. I was born hungry and nothing has changed since. But I stay at a hundred and forty pounds, well, one forty-four nowadays. I do thank you and State for this wonderful meal. I don’t think I helped you any.”
“You never know. But I’m glad we met. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again on the mean streets of Imperial Polk County.”
Selmon left. Tony walked Bubba out. “Did you enjoy the food?”
“Of course, and I don’t feel like I have to take a ten-hour nap like I usually do after a meal with you. I might actually work this afternoon.”
“A lean, mean Simms Investigations would be a frightening thing to behold. Come over and lift with me when you have a chance.” They shook and Tony returned to his kitchen. Bubba whistled as he headed for the Bronco and back to the Green Swamp.
The Messingham house hid in a live oak grove; the trees horseshoed and covered the house, open in the front where the porch overlooked the road that connected to Highway 33. The trees had been planted when the house was built back in the flurry of the 1920’s land boom. There was a separate double car garage. A horse corral with stables stood fifty yards into the pasture. The entire scene was tranquil and complete.
A teenage boy carrying a bowl of ice cream answered Bubba’s knock. His T-shirt bulged at the arms, neck, and middle, but not with muscle. He needed a shower.
“I’m Bubba Simms. I represent State Insurance. I wanted to talk to Marty Messingham about Ell Barnfield’s death.”
“That would be me. Come on in.”
“Is your mother here?”
“Naw, she works. Just me. I skipped school today.”
“Maybe we should wait for your folks to get here.”
“Who cares? Come on in.”
Jerry Springer was soothing a panel of shallow-end gene-pool divers as they explained why every problem they had led directly to someone else’s lack of class. Marty piled in the recliner in front of the TV. He pointed to the couch for Bubba. “Want some ice cream?”
“No thanks. Want to tell me about Ell’s death?”
“I know how tough it is. Killing someone. I used to be a sheriff’s sergeant. There is something about sudden death that changes you. Sometimes it helps to talk.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t tell you, just said I didn’t want to. I’ve told this so many times it doesn’t seem real anymore. Sure you don’t want some ice cream, Publix French vanilla?” He climbed out of the recliner, went to the kitchen, and refilled his bowl. When he fell back into the recliner, he muted Jerry Springer as the stage security danced the twits apart.
“Is Jennings Junior a friend of yours?”
“No. They live right down the road, but we aren’t friends. He’s a year older than me. Doesn’t ride the bus to school, never has. The foreman used to drive him in, but he got that truck when he turned sixteen and drives himself now. Or did, until he went to Connecticut to military school.”
“When did that happen?”
“After I shot Ell. Guess Senior wanted him away from my bad reputation. Junior’s going to be an important man someday, senator or governor, don’t need friends like me.”
“So why did you go hunting with him?”
“Just happened. I was walking down the road with my shotgun, going to shoot some rabbits when he and Kletch—that’s Bart’s nickname—stopped and asked if I wanted to shoot a deer. I said sure and climbed in the back seat. We drove over to Dean Still and parked on the shoulder. They said there was a good site down the trail. We walked down it and there was this big buck and I shot Ell.” The spoon clattered against an empty bowl. He placed it on the TV tray beside the recliner.
“But Ell was shot with a rifle. You had a shotgun.”
“Junior loaned me his 7mm. Everyone knows he is a lousy shot, and I’m not. So I was carrying the 7mm, and he had my shotgun. We hit that clearing and they started pushing me. ‘See the antlers. That’s a huge buck.’ I had trouble seeing the buck, but the antlers were clear. I never should have fired, couldn’t see the deer. But I did, for whatever reason. I can still see those antlers.
“We ran over and there was Ell laying there dead, blood everywhere. I dropped the rifle. I remember that.”
“Why didn’t you call for help right then?”
“I wanted to, but Junior said Ell was dead and we needed to be sure we wouldn’t get arrested. So we called his dad from the truck. He said to meet him at the terminal and he’d take care of things. I remember the blood. I see the blood all the time.”
“So you drove to the terminal?”
“I sat in the backseat. Never got out again till they took me home. They say I was in shock. I guess I was. I don’t remember talking to Senior or anyone until the sheriff’s people talked to me. I don’t remember much after I saw Ell.”
He stared at the action on the screen. Bubba let him sit. If he asked one more question, he’d start to feel like a live Jerry Springer.
Marty stood up. “Sure you don’t want some ice cream? It works better than the Valium they had me taking. Good stuff.” He returned to the kitchen.
“Is there anything else you remember? Anything about that afternoon?”
“I remember everything till I saw Ell’s body. Then it blurs. We went hunting; I shot Ell. I remember that, all the time.” He sat down and unmuted the TV. Ending credits were rolling. Channel voice-overs were promising that Dr. Phil would solve everyone’s problems next.
Bubba stood. Marty had both hands on the bowl. No sense trying to shake goodbye. He reached the door without speaking.
“I remember. I remember one more thing. I remember when I try to fall asleep. Flies. I remember those blue-bottle flies all over Ell’s face. Like he had a Halloween mask.”
“Thank you for talking to me. Try to remember one more thing: It was an accident. You didn’t mean to kill him.”
“Yeah. That makes everything just peachy keen, doesn’t it?” The spoon clattered in the bowl.
As Bubba climbed into the Bronco, for once he was glad there was a crazy blue tick hound waiting for him. He ruffled his fur, feeling life radiate through the air.
The drive to the terminal only took twenty minutes, even without hurrying. Weaving his way through the diesels arriving, leaving, or mulling, he found parking in front of the main office. He left the Bronco idling so the A/C would keep Elvis cool. He asked the receptionist to tell Senior he was out front.
Instead, the old man himself came out and found Bubba. Willard Jennings stood tall, with erect posture and no sign of the wreck that had forced him away from driving and into the offices full-time. Bubba knew he had to be near seventy, though he looked something older than fifty but no more than that. He still had a trucker grip as he shook hands. “Come on back. How can we help you today, Sergeant Simms?”
They walked down a hall and through an open office corral filled with cubicles and phone talk. “Just plain Bubba. I’m working for State Insurance on the Messingham lawsuit. I wanted to speak with your grandson, but I hear he is out of state.”
“Prep school. I bet you don’t remember giving me a speeding ticket, do you?” Willard talked over his shoulder as they walked.
“No sir.” But Bubba did. It had been late at night, the second year he’d been on patrol. Winding back roads across north Polk County, doing ninety at one stretch behind a Peterbilt carrying a load of mining pumps. But he’d let the man do the talking, if he wanted to.
“Last big ticket I received. You were a lean, mean deputy then. Kinda scary, walking up through the dark, not having to stand on the truck step to talk to me. Ninety-two in a fifty-five. Burned-out brake lights. Cost me a bundle.”
“I wrote a bunch of tickets back then.”
“Sit.” They had entered a huge office with three desks, a computer and phone complex at each one. A conference table with chairs filled the east end of the room. He pointed toward that. “Coffee?”
“Black. Thanks.” He filled two mugs, gave one to Bubba, and sat at the head of the table in a fine, fine office chair. Bubba found he fit nicely in the one he picked. Perhaps truckers needed oversized chairs as a rule, rather than the exception. The coffee was good also.
“We heard that the Barnfields had sued. Only right, I guess. It was such a terrible loss for them. A wasteful accident. Money can provide a sense of closure. What did you want to ask Junior about?”
“His remembrances of the day. It’s the way I work. Talk to everyone, talk some more, think about what they say, look at whatever else there is to see. Then tell State what I think. Gives them a handle on how to go.”
“What do you see so far?”
“Waste. Barnfield’s dead. Messingham is eating himself to death. Not a good thing for anyone at all.”
“That was our thought at the time. Part of why we wanted Junior to go to prep school, that and improving his grades for U of F next fall. He’s going to be the Jennings that works with his brain, not his butt in a semi seat.”
There was a single knock on the doorframe. They turned to see Jennings Senior enter with a smile on his face and an outstretched hand. “Hello, Sergeant Simms. I had a meeting I couldn’t get out of. Glad I caught you before you left. Do you remember giving me a ticket, must have been ten years ago now?”
“Can’t say that I do. Wrote lots of tickets back then.” It had been late one afternoon, Bubba remembered. The semi had smoked through a red light in Lake Alfred. Bubba U-turned and caught him without effort.
“Speeding in Lake Alfred as I remember. Sort of convinced Dad and me that it was time for me to sit in an office chair, not a Peterbilt.”
“Son, we were talking about the Messingham shooting. What a waste it was. Bubba is working for State on the Barnfield lawsuit. Wants to talk with Junior.”
“Bubba, I am sure that Junior would be happy to tell you anything he can, though we have urged him to forget it, put it away, and move on with his life. Take it as a lesson in immature behavior and grow up.”
“Perhaps he could call me. Here is my card. He is one of my last bases to touch. Him and Bart Caldress. Do you know if Bart is still available?”
“Since Junior left, we haven’t had much contact with the Caldresses. Bart is a good enough kid, but not exactly who I wanted my son hanging out with. You know how it is, people you hang out with in high school, but lose as soon as you begin to grow up. He’s not going anywhere and Junior has realized that he has a future far beyond driving a semi.” Senior tucked the card in his shirt pocket. The room grew quiet as Bubba waited for them to continue. If running JennTruck wasn’t a real future, he wanted to hear what one was. But only silence continued. Nearly a minute passed before anyone spoke again.
“I’ll have Junior call you. Might not be tonight, they have strict rules, but he will call. Hope my son can help you.”
“I appreciate it. And your time this afternoon. I know you both have loads to deliver and miles to go. I’ll get out of your hair.”
They both stood and shook hands. “Not a problem. We want to put this tragedy behind us all,” Willard said while Senior nodded. “Son, come on back after you show Bubba out. There are some numbers I want to run by you.”
Bubba followed Senior through the offices to the front entrance. “Junior will call soon as he can. Give me another one of your cards. My security guy always complains about not having enough outside sources for special work. I’ll have him give you a call. Maybe you can help us out. You do that sort of thing also, don’t you?”
“Investigations are investigations.”
They shook again. Bubba headed for the Bronco and the drive to Bart Caldress’s house. It was after four, and Kletch should be home from high school. The Caldress house was between the Barnfield ranchette and the Jennings ranch. Only about two miles and a hundred million dollars separated them.
A tall, blondish woman in her late thirties answered the door after Bubba knocked. She wore black shorts, a red blouse untucked, and house slippers. She touched her hair when she saw Bubba standing there, “Oh, hi. What can I do for you?”
“I’m Bubba Simms from State Insurance.” He handed her his card. “I am looking for Bart. I’d like to talk to him about the Messingham accident.”
“Lordy. Somebody needs to talk to him, but you just missed him. He got a call from one of his lowlife friends about thirty minutes ago. He lit out. Not a word goodbye or when he’d be back.”
“If you could have him give me a call, I’d like hear what he saw that day.”
“It was awful, that’s for sure. He had his share of problems before that, but he’s really been different since. I guess seeing somebody shot and killed will do that to you.”
“Yes, ma’am, it will.”
“Don’t call me ma’am. Makes me feel old. Old enough to have a seventeen year old anyway.” She laughed. “He’s a good kid, but I can’t get him to talk about that day. Wish the Jenningses had sent him off somewhere away from here like they did Junior. They could afford it; we can’t.”
“It can be expensive, but worth the money, they say.”
“We took him to counseling at the Peace River Center, but he wouldn’t talk to anyone. It’s almost forty miles to over there, another forty back, so we quit. Spent all afternoon listening to silence, not worth the drive. So he listens to shrieking music in headphones, stays in his room, goes off and smokes dope. I can smell it in his car when he comes back. How he affords that I don’t know. We don’t give him that much of an allowance. He’s flunking his senior year of high school. It’s that shooting. Eating him up.”
“You have my sympathies. Could you have him call me?”
“Sure thing. Want to come in? I was fixing to start dinner. Smothered cube steak with onions. Bill, my husband, will be home in an hour or so. You could wait for Bart. He usually makes it for supper.”
“Thank you for the invitation, but no. I have more calls to make before I can head home, but thanks.” She smiled. Bubba smiled and headed for the Bronco. She stood in the doorway until the Bronco turned onto Highway 33.
It was after ten when the phone rang. Bubba was home writing up the day’s interviews and some ideas he wanted to check tomorrow. The pictures were spread out on the dining room table. The reports were spaced out across the far side of the table. Bubba had a half finished cup of coffee in front of him. It was Arnie.
“Punch in your time sheet, Bubba.”
“The Messingham suit has been settled. Bill me for what you’ve done.”
“They settled? No wonder you sound less than happy.”
“I’m pissed. Somebody from on high called down and said, Pay the claim.”
“Deets in legal said that it had been decided that the cost in bad publicity wasn’t worth whatever we might save. I asked what bad publicity. He said if we went to trial. I said it’s a three-week old claim. Trial’s a year away. What publicity? He said mind my own business, shut you off.”
“He said me?”
“Yeah, he did. Shut Simms off. Who did you piss on this time?”
“Are you still dieting? You probably growled at people and didn’t even know it. Anyway. Bill me. Find something else to occupy your time.” Arnie hung up with a crash.
Bubba hung up and stared at the table covered with information. Oh well, at least State would pay for Selmon’s hundred-dollar lunch.
Bubba was sitting on the back porch throwing Elvis’s soggy tennis ball down the slope when the phone rang. He needed a second cup of morning coffee so he went to the kitchen and answered.
“Mr. Simms, how can I thank you?”
“Yes. My lawyer just called and told me the good news. He said he had a check in his hand for three hundred thousand dollars. We had some papers to sign and he’d give me a check for my share. I don’t know what you said but the insurance company must have listened to you. Thank you so much. I can order the headstone for Ell.”
“I’m not sure that I had much to do with anything, Mrs. Barnfield, but I am glad for you.”
“I’m headed to his office right now, but I had to tell you thanks. Goodbye.”
Bubba held the phone, then hung it up. He refilled his cup and returned to the porch. He threw the tennis ball. Elvis brought it back, but instead of dropping it for a rethrow, he cocked his head and stared at Bubba.
“I know, I know. We’re out of work again. But you have a fifty-pound bag of crunchy stuff and three more pig ear chewies, so life is still good. I wish I knew what was going on.”
He was too restless to sit in the bentwood rocker. Elvis wasn’t interested in tennis ball retrieve. Might as well clear the table and go lift; today was heavy bench day. That always relieved stress.
He labeled manila folders, placed the various categories of information in them. The pictures were last. The final picture was of the silvery vest and face mask that the blue-bottle flies made on Ell Barnfield’s body. That would stay for a long time.
When he arrived at the gym, Big Al was demonstrating walking on his hands to a slim woman who must have expressed an interest in being able to impress people. Big Al could walk the entire gym on his hands, stopping to balance on one while he talked. Bubba went to the power-lifting room, found it empty of lifters, and began to relax. After he finished working through sets of two repetitions till he reached 380 pounds, he moved a flat bench into the power rack to do lockouts. He set the rack so the bar rested four inches off his chest; that way he didn’t have to worry about the weight being too much to lift. It would never crush him. He started at 440 for one rep. He was warmed up, so he didn’t need to do more than one or two reps at any weight. He increased the weight ten pounds at a time. He was locking out 440 when a notion flashed through his mind. Flies. Marty Messingham said he saw the flies all over Ell’s face. He was sure the boy said that.
Bubba returned home to the manila folders without stopping to shower or chitchat with Big Al. He let Elvis into the house before he sat down with the folders. Elvis plopped on the couch to watch. His notes confirmed what he had remembered. Marty said that he had seen the flies when they went to the body, that he had not seen the body again, stayed in the truck out of the way. Bubba leaned back and thought. Those big blue-bottle flies didn’t swarm like mosquitoes, which were everywhere with a finely tuned system of communication to coordinate attacks on the clean, soft skin of picnickers. They find food by the smell. It would take time for a cluster of them to arrive.
He called the Messingham residence. Marty might be home eating and enjoying the challenge of daytime TV. He was.
“Marty, I want to ask you about something you said.”
“I’m not supposed to talk to you anymore. The lawyer called and said there was a settlement, but we could never talk about Ell’s death to anyone. So what do you want to know?”
“You said you saw flies on his face. Is that right?”
“God, yes. That’s what I dream about. Those damn flies.”
“You saw them when the three of you walked up after you fired?”
“Not after you returned with Senior.”
“No. I never saw Ell after we left to get help. Couldn’t stand to see him again. What’s this all about? I thought it was all over.”
“Things like this don’t get over very easily.”
“Tell me about it. But what is going on?”
“I’ll tell you when I know anything for certain.”
“Ell’s dead and I killed him. That’s certain.” There was a silence, but Bubba could hear Marty’s breathing. “We were drinking that day. We never told anyone that, but since I can’t talk to you, I can say it. They gave me a beer when I got in the truck. I never do that, but they were, so I did. I was buzzed on one. Then they shared a joint with me as we walked into the woods. That’s why I shot like I did. I couldn’t be sure of anything except the antlers. I should be in jail or dead. Not Ell.” Marty hung up the phone.
An hour later, Bubba and Elvis were standing in the clearing where Ell had died. He was standing where the shot was fired from, according to all the information. Elvis sat, without command, by his side. Bubba sighted down his imaginary rifle. Ell danced with antlers in his vision. Bubba fired. Ell vanished. But the trees and thickets were still there. The bullet had never been recovered, but bullets didn’t turn into steam. It was somewhere. Of course, being a 7mm Mag, it could travel a mile without any problem. But from the angle of the shot and the density of these woods it might still be here. Bubba walked through the thickets in a straight line to the trees behind. They were scattered in a line thirty or forty yards thick. He examined the closest one, nothing. Then, the one to the right; then, the one to the left. The fifteenth tree, a small sapling four or five inches in diameter, had a bullet explosion on the back. A high-powered rifle bullet had emerged. Somewhere nearby, it had to be lying spent on the ground. A metal detector could find it. Bubba tied a piece of hot pink plastic tape around the trunk. Six trees later, a tall pine leaked sap from a bullet hole. The bullet had not emerged. It would take a chain saw to extract the bullet. Bubba tied tape around the tree. He examined every tree in the area. No more bullet holes.
As he and Elvis walked back to the truck, he pondered what he had found, what he was speculating. Two shots. They could have happened anytime. This was public forestland. But both looked more recent than old. Two shots. They both followed the line from the shooting site through Ell’s body. Coincidence? They happen, often. By the time Bubba reached the Bronco and loaded Elvis, he didn’t believe in coincidences anymore.
Marty had fired one shot only. That was certain. Somebody else fired a second shot. That was also certain. Marty had killed Ell Barnfield. That was becoming less certain.
Sitting in the Bronco, Bubba dialed Selmon’s number.
“Good morning Lewis.”
“What can I do for you, Bubba? It’s too soon for another lunch.”
“I have a question, more like a hypothesis.”
“I try not to do hypotheses during the middle of the week. I save them for the weekends.”
“What if Marty Messingham did not shoot Ell Barnfield?”
“No way. He said he did. The witnesses said he did.”
“What if he thought he did, but what happened is that he shot at the antlers, not the boy?”
“I have work to do, Bubba. The case is closed. Accidental shooting. I hear your people have already settled.”
“Word travels fast. But what if he didn’t do it?”
“Not really yet. I think I found two bullets in trees in the shooting site.”
“Are you telling me that someone murdered Ell Barnfield and covered it up?”
“I don’t think he was murdered. But maybe accidentally shot, and that was covered up.”
“An accidental shooting covered up with an accidental shooting? You find someone to confess, bring them in; I’ll listen. Otherwise, case closed.” The phone clicked off.
Bubba dialed Arnie. “Listen Arnie. What if Messingham didn’t shoot Ell Barnfield?”
“What are you bothering me about? We settled. Papers signed. Check cut.”
Bubba explained what he had found, what he thought, what he guessed.
“Either Junior Jennings or Bart Caldress shot Barnfield, then blamed it on Messingham?”
“I think it’s possible.”
“Interesting. But, as I think about it, I can tell you that from State’s point of view, we would much rather have the current settlement in place than expose either of those two boys to suit. I know for a fact that we have huge liability policies in place for Jennings and a substantial one in place with the Caldresses.”
“So you don’t care that Messingham didn’t do it?”
“From State’s point of view, no. Given the alternatives. Personally, I would never want an innocent kid carrying a load of guilt around like that.”
“I’m going to keep looking.”
“Be careful. I know everyone involved will, or already, has signed non-disclosure agreements never to discuss this event with anyone. I also know the Jenningses do not like their private business becoming public. Watch what you say. You still are my chief outside man. We can talk all you want, but officially State Insurance does not have an interest in further investigation of the Messingham shooting.”
Bubba headed home. After he arrived, fixed and consumed a salad, he dialed the Caldress number. Mrs. Caldress answered in a bright mood, which dimmed when Bubba introduced himself.
“They told me not to talk to you, Mr. Simms. Not to talk to anyone.”
“Non-disclosure about the events. We signed papers today.”
“But this is important. I don’t think Marty Messingham shot Ell Barnfield.”
“I have a check here that is for over a year’s pay for us. We can get Bart help. That’s what is important.”
Bubba listened to the dial tone. Marty Messingham had not shot Ell Barnfield. That was certain. How to prove who did, that was another matter.
The next morning found Bubba and Elvis driving along Dean Still Road headed for the shooting site. There was a chainsaw and a metal detector sitting on the Bronco’s rear deck. The large bowl of Grape-Nuts left something to be desired in Bubba’s stomach. And his attitude. Perhaps finding the spent bullet and cutting out the buried one would help.
Bubba drove in and parked in the clearing. He could see fresh tire tracks. At least two trucks had been in here since yesterday. He walked to the line of trees. Two fresh stumps marked the trees he had tied off. The sections with bullet holes were gone. The remnants of the trees littered the ground. The ground cover was matted down where people had been walking. There was probably no sense looking for a spent bullet either. Bubba walked back to the Bronco, his stomach even more sour.
They had to have been following him. Senior and the Old Man, who else, has sicced someone on me after he talked to them. Only explanation. Going around like the Hardy Boys without a care in the world. Being so clever, so smart.
As Bubba pulled back onto the paved road, he turned right instead of left, which would have taken him back to Dean Still Road. He followed the road until he reached a house that would have been directly behind the shooting site. A car was there; people were home. He pulled in. Elvis had his head stuck out the window. The front door opened before Bubba could reach the porch.
“Hi there. Can I help you?” An elderly farmer stood in the doorway, his baldness gleaming in the sunlight.
“Is there anyone around here who sells blue tick hounds? I was wanting to buy another to go with the one I have.”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, I heard there was some over around here. But thanks.”
Bubba left and stopped at the next house, looking for blue tick hounds. And the next. After the fourth house, he doubled back. There was a white Chevy pickup parked in the farmer’s driveway. A familiar figure was talking to the farmer. Bubba pulled in behind the pickup and stepped out. Charlie Lyle, a private detective out of Lakeland, left the farmer and walked up.
“Howya doing, Bubba.”
“All right. Anything you want to ask me?”
“Where can I buy a blue tick hound? That’s rich.” Lyle smiled, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses and a pulled-down ball cap. He wore his usual cowboy boots, jeans, and western shirt. As far as Bubba knew Lyle had never ridden a horse, but he’d made detective in Tampa before retiring.
“Tough following when the surprise is out of the bag.”
“Yep. Where you headed now?”
“Home. I won’t tell the Jenningses I made you. You can follow for a few more days.”
“A buck is a buck. I charged extra for you, though. Buy you a coffee sometime.”
They nodded at each other without shaking hands. Bubba drove home. There was a message on his answering machine when he arrived there. EJ Jennings, Senior, asking Bubba to drop by the terminal this afternoon at three. RSVP.
Bubba arrived at three like he agreed. The receptionist motioned for a heavyset young man to walk him back to Willard Jennings’s office. No one said anything. The young man stood outside while Bubba entered. Four men were sitting around the conference table. Willard stood and motioned Bubba to come over.
“Thank you for being prompt.”
“I pretty much do what I say I’ll do.”
“That’s why we’re meeting. This is my longtime legal counsel, Henry Thomas.” They nodded at each other. Bubba had met Henry a few times over the years. “This is my head of security, Bill Lofton, former Navy Seal.” Bill stuck out his hand; Bubba shook. He had not met Lofton before. Lofton had pounded some weights over the years, but his grip stayed controlled. Bubba liked that in a strong person.
“I’m going to let Henry start this off. He’s the paperwork man.”
Henry slid two documents over to Bubba, who ignored them, content to watch Henry. “This is a document acknowledging that you are aware that you, as an independent contractor hired by State Insurance, are mutually bound by any agreement they sign in relation to a case they hire you to investigate. We need you to read this and sign it. The second is a hiring agreement whereby you will be on retainer as a consultant for JennTruck, payable monthly for ten days’ service whether you provide services or not.”
“I know I’m bound by what State does, but I’m not signing anything.”
“We need you to be sure that you understand you may not repeat anything you learned in the course of your investigation of the Messingham shooting to any third party. There can be severe penalties for violation of a nondisclosure agreement.”
“Please read and sign the document.”
“If I were inclined to sign any document you brought me, Henry, first I would have my legal counsel read it. Then we’d make any changes we saw fit. Sometime after the first of the year, we’d finally hammer out a final copy; then sign it. But not today.” Henry started to speak, but Senior cut him off with a wave of his hand.
“Bubba has made himself pretty clear, Henry. I told you he wasn’t going to sign anything for you.”
“Why don’t you ask Henry to step out of the room and take Bill with him, so we can talk?” Bubba looked around for the coffeepot. “Have big boy outside rustle up some coffee too.”
Senior waved his hand. Henry and Bill left, leaving the door open. The three men sat quietly until the young man brought a tray with three coffees, cream and sugar bowls, and spoons. He tried to glare at Bubba, who smiled back at him. This time the door was shut when he left.
“I used to think you two were men, not assholes, but I guess I was wrong. You insult me. Piss on my boots,” Bubba said as he doctored the coffee. Usually he liked it black, but the diet was beginning to change his cravings.
“We do what we need to do to protect JennTruck and our family. Do the simple, easy things first,” Willard said with a calm voice. He’d probably been called worse before.
“I remember giving both of you tickets. You impressed me back then. No excuses, no whining. Just do it and let’s get on. Now this, hiding and covering up. Like a dog with the runs.”
“Times change. Situations differ. My grandson has a bright future. He’s special. You are not going to ruin it turning over rocks. Ell Barnfield’s accidental death is closed. You leave things alone. Or else.” Willard’s voice grew louder as he spoke, but the last sentence dropped to a near whisper.
“Or else what, old man? You’re not going to haul freight for me, not going to invite me to your house for a cookout, not going to hire me to follow your enemies around? If you think any of the bullyboys here today can frighten me, have at it. There’s nothing you have that I want.”
“Okay, you’re tough as an old recap. But know this, Bubba Simms, if you continue to mess with my grandson’s reputation, I will spend whatever it takes to ruin you. I’ll flatten you like a three-legged armadillo crossing I-4,
never doubt that.” The old man was standing, leaning toward Bubba, his fists on the table.
“What were you doing when you were eighteen, Willard?” Bubba asked in a ho-hum voice, twirling his coffee cup.
After a moment, Willard sat and said, “I had a third-hand Diamond Reo hauling fruit for Lake Wales Co-op. Can to can’t. Didn’t drive on Christmas Day. All the rest.”
“Senior, what were you doing when you were eighteen?”
“Community college at night. Days, driving sulfuric acid loads for Royster in Mulberry. First big contract we had with industrial liquids. Bought four new Peterbilts that year, hired eight drivers. Hell of a year.”
“What will your grandson, son, be doing on his eighteenth birthday? Smoking dope, drinking beer, hiding out, calling daddy? You don’t have to worry about me. You already have too many people involved. What you going to do about his buddy Kletch? He’s smoking himself to oblivion. When he gets busted, he’ll dime Junior in a heartbeat. You have enough simply worrying about what you already know.” Bubba finished the coffee and sat the cup down. “But you might consider worrying about Marty Messingham. Unless you want two boys’ deaths on your tab.”
Bubba pushed back from the table and stood. The Jenningses stood. Senior spoke, “I guess we have an understanding. We’ll see what can be done for Marty. Kletch, well, no one believes Kletch anyway. You will go on with the rest of your life, but no more Barnfield speculations, investigations. Mouth shut.”
They didn’t shake hands. Bubba followed the young man down the halls to the outside. Elvis was whimpering when Bubba reached the Bronco. He let him out. Elvis ran between vehicles sniffing. He finally lifted his leg on the tire of a Hummer with a JENTRK1 vanity plate.
“Good boy, Elvis. We do what we can.”
It was Christmas Eve afternoon. Bubba was home making eggnog. He had finally gotten down below 315. The diet was over. An assortment of cops, former cops, power-lifters, donut fryers, and other vital people in his life were supposed to drop by to help celebrate. Tony Grimaldi had sent antipasti and regrets. The phone rang.
“Merry Christmas,” Bubba answered the kitchen phone, wooden spoon dripping.
“Merry Christmas to you. Is this Mr. Simms?” It was a young man’s voice that Bubba didn’t recognize.
“Santa Simms here. Who is this?”
“My father EJ Jennings suggested I call you.”
“Junior? How’s military school?”
“Allen, please. No more Junior. It wasn’t military school; it wasn’t prep school. It was rehab. I am home on leave for a week, provided I go to AA every day. Sixty-four days sober. I need to thank you for your efforts. It forced all of us to deal with some truths that we would have hidden away otherwise.”
“Like you shooting Ell Barnfield while you were stoned? Sticking it in the ear to Marty Messingham?” The phone was silent, but Bubba could finally hear breathing.
“I don’t need to discuss this with you. I acknowledged your role in all of this. I do not have to discuss it with you.”
“Maybe you need to discuss it with Marty. He’s the one carrying the load for you, while you suffer through rehab.”
“I did. About an hour ago. I owed him a face-to-face. I told him the truth. Asked for his forgiveness.”
“I am surprised. I didn’t think you had anything like that in you.”
“I wasn’t sure I did either. Now I have to explain to my momma how I got a black eye on Christmas Eve.”
“Tell her the truth.”
“Easier said than done.”
Bubba stirred the eggnog. Elvis climbed off the couch and came over to take a closer sniff. He shook his head and went outside.
“I guess that’s all, Mr. Simms. Merry Christmas.”
“The truth is always easier to carry than lies. No matter what it seems like at the time.”
“Only if I’m sober. Stoned, none of it has any weight. But, for the rest of my life, I’ll be hauling over the limit with a weigh station around the corner, as Granddad says.” The phone softly clicked off.
“And a Happy New Year,” Bubba said to the emptiness.