Authors: Robert Thornhill
Dr. Crane met us in the lobby of her office building after lunch.
“It wasn’t your imagination, Doctor,” I said. “You were definitely being followed. I have a list of names here. Look them over and see if you recognize any of them.”
The doctor took the list and a moment later her mouth dropped open.
“These two,” she said pointing. “Billy Bob and Oren Thrasher. They’re my nephews --- my brother’s boys. Why in the world would they be following me? We may not know each other, but we’re still family. Why wouldn’t they just come up and introduce themselves?”
“Good question,” I replied. “You said you weren’t close with your brother. Why was that?”
“It’s complicated,” she said, thinking back to her childhood. “I was two years older than Gabriel. I was Mom’s little girl and Gabe was Dad’s pride and joy. Dad paid very little attention to me. I studied hard, got good grades and stayed out of trouble. Gabe was just the opposite. He fell in with the wrong crowd and Dad was always bailing him out of trouble. When Dad died, Gabe took off and it was just Mom and me until I went away to college.”
“When was the last time you saw your brother?”
“At Mom’s funeral. He showed up and we went through Mom’s things together. He was living in his car at the time and just took a few boxes of old letters and family photos. I made arrangements to have everything else put in storage at one of those rental places. It’s all still there. I should have gone through it all years ago but we had our practice and well, the time was just never right.”
“Well, something has definitely brought your nephews out of the woodwork,” Kevin replied. “Do you mind if we sniff around and see what we can find?”
We were parked on Linwood a block from the brick six-plex when we saw the Thrasher brothers exit the building and climb inside the van. When they pulled away from the curb, Kevin followed.
On Troost Avenue, they pulled into the parking lot of The Acme Cleaning Company. Kevin cruised by just as they exited the vehicle. They were both wearing coveralls with Acme Cleaning Company stenciled on the back.
“Great!” Kevin said, circling the block and heading back to the six-plex. “Now we can get to work.”
“Exactly what do you have in mind?” I asked.
“With both of them at work, we’ll have plenty of time to check out their apartment. Maybe we’ll find something that will tell us why they’re stalking the good doctor.”
“You mean break into their place?”
“Relax. I’m not going to break anything,” he said, pulling a lock-pick set out of his coat pocket. “Their apartment is the logical place to start --- unless you have a better idea.”
This was the part of the P.I. business I had been dreading. As a cop, I couldn’t go near a suspect’s residence without a warrant. I had seen Suzanne Romero get too much evidence tossed out of court for exactly this kind of thing.
Alarm bells started going off in my head as I remembered the Professor’s admonition about crossing the line to the dark side. Kevin and I were about to unlawfully enter an apartment. Was this just good investigative work or something more sinister?
“Well,” Kevin said, jarring me out of my reverie. “Any better ideas?”
“No, I guess not,” I replied truthfully. It did seem like the logical place to start.
We parked a block away from the building and strolled innocently to the sidewalk leading into the six-plex. Seeing no one close by, Kevin motioned toward the front door.
Once inside, we checked the mailbox again and saw that the Thrasher brothers occupied Apartment 4 on the second floor.
Kevin knocked twice and getting no response, whipped out his lock picks. In less than a minute I heard the ‘click’ and we were inside.
As much as I hated what we were doing, I had to admire the skill of my brother-in-law. I couldn’t help wondering how many locks he had picked in his thirty years as a P.I.
After seeing the Thrasher’s beat-up van, I fully expected their apartment to be equally trashy, but it wasn’t. It was actually quite neat for a couple of single guys. At least we assumed they were single. There were no other names on the mailbox, and at first glance, there were no frilly things to suggest that members of the fairer sex lived there.
The floor plan was simple, eat-in kitchen, living room, and two bedrooms with a ‘jack & jill’ bath in between.
“You take the kitchen and living room and I’ll take the two bedrooms,” Kevin said.
I started in the kitchen.
The refrigerator held a carton of milk, a carton of orange juice, and a package of cold cuts. In the cabinet were two boxes of cereal, a loaf of bread and several cans of soup. It looked very much like my kitchen during my bachelor years.
Seeing nothing of interest, I had just started going through the pile of stuff on the living room end table when I heard Kevin mutter, “HOLY CRAP!”
A moment later, he came into the living room grinning like the Cheshire cat and carrying a very worn book.
“This is what we came for,” he said, holding up the book. “Motive wrapped in a big red bow.”
I saw the inscription on the cover, ‘The Diary of Chloe Fisher.’
“Here, read a few pages,” he said, handing me the diary, open to a passage he had found.
I read a few pages and soon, like Kevin, I was muttering “Holy Crap!”
Kevin grabbed the book and tucked it under his arm. “Let’s get out of here. We’ve got what we need.”
I was shocked. “We can’t just take this thing!”
He looked at me like I had lost my mind. “Really! Why not? We work for Dr. Crane. Don’t you think she needs to see this? If it were you, wouldn’t you want to see it?”
He was right, of course, but I was having great difficulty getting around the fact that in less than an hour I had been guilty of breaking and entering and now burglary.
As we headed to our car, the words from the
Eddie and the Cruisers
tune kept running through my mind.
You slip to the dark side
Across that line.
On the dark side, oh yeah.
On the dark side, oh yeah.
We spent the rest of the day pouring through Chloe Fisher’s diary. It read like a John Steinbeck novel. I was certain that Dr. Crane had no clue as to her family’s early history. She was in for a big surprise.
There was so much information in the diary, we debated on exactly how we should approach the doctor.
In the end, we decided to just present the part that related to her current situation, her being stalked by the Thrasher brothers. There would be plenty of time later for her to digest the rest of Chloe Fisher’s story.
We made arrangements to meet with her in her home that evening. We felt it would be easier for her to hear what we had found in comfortable and familiar surroundings.
Dr. Crane’s home, while elegant and certainly pricy, was not ostentatious. It was obvious that she and her husband had done well with their medical practice.
She greeted us warmly and led us to a family room where a fire crackled in the hearth. When we were comfortably seated, she offered a plate of cookies and tea from a silver service.
I was actually too nervous to eat, but since she had gone to so much trouble, I accepted. I bit into the cookie and it literally melted in my mouth. It was a far cry from the Nestles chocolate chip cookies that Maggie and I slice off the dough roll and plop in the oven. Kevin and I each ate three before we got down to business.
“So what have the two of you found that is so important,” she asked, placing the cookie tray just out of our reach.
“Before we get started,” I began, “I just want to let you know that we will most likely be telling you things about your family that you might not have been aware of.”
“Look, Mr. Williams.”
“Please, call me Walt.”
“Very well. Walt, Kevin, I’m nearly seventy and I’ve seen and done a great deal in my life. What you see around you here are just things and they in no way reflect the person I am. I’m quite aware of my humble beginnings and I seriously doubt there is anything you could tell me about my family that would shock or trouble me.”
“I certainly hope that’s true because there’s lots to tell. I’m sure you’re familiar with the name Chloe Fisher.”
“Of course. It’s my mother’s maiden name. I haven’t heard it for years.”
“Well, we have her diary,” I said, holding up the worn book.
I saw the shocked look on her face. “I’ve never seen that before --- never knew it existed. Where did you get it?”
“From your nephews, Billy Bob and Oren Thrasher.”
it to you?”
“Well, not exactly. It’s probably better that you don’t know the details.”
“I think I understand, but where would they have gotten it?”
“The best we can figure,” Kevin said, “is that when your mother passed, you met with your brother and he took several boxes of photos and family mementos. The diary was probably in one of those boxes.”
“So did you find something in the diary that would explain why my nephews are stalking me?”
“So tell me!”
“It’s complicated, so we thought the best way for you to understand would be to give you some background about your mother’s early life, then let you read her story for yourself.”
She settled back in her chair. “Let’s hear it.”
“By the time your mother was eighteen, she was pretty much on her own. She took a position as a live-in housekeeper with one of Kansas City’s wealthy families. Angus Tyler had amassed a fortune in the railroad business and was living high on the hog.
“According to the diary, she became friends with a young black man by the name of Nate Jackson who was Tyler’s groundskeeper. Apparently she would sneak sandwiches from the kitchen and share them with young Nate on their lunch breaks.
“With that in mind, I think you should read the next chapter in your mother’s own words.”
I handed her the open diary. “Begin reading with the December 1
She slipped on a pair of reading glasses and took the book.
December 1, 1943. Mrs. Tyler and the kids left today to visit her sister in St. Louis. I hate being alone with Mr. Tyler. When his wife is not around, he says things to me he shouldn’t be saying and sometimes he tries to touch me. Today, he followed me into the kid’s bedroom and I don’t know what he would have done if the doorbell hadn’t rung.
Elizabeth Crane looked away and I could see a tear glistening in her eye.
December 2, 1943. What happened today changed my life forever. Like he done the day before, Mr. Tyler followed me into his bedroom while I was tidying things up, only this time there wasn’t any knock at the door to stop him. He grabbed me and threw me on the bed. I knew what he was planning to do and I fought him with everything I had, but he was just too strong. I was screaming as loud as I could. He had my arms pinned with his knees and was unbuttoning my blouse when Nate comes busting through the door carrying one of his shovels. He must have heard my screams. When he saw what Mr. Tyler was doing to me, he swung his shovel and I heard the crunch as it hit the back of Mr. Tyler’s head. He rolled off of me and onto the floor. There was blood everywhere and I could see from the blank look in his eyes that he was dead.
Dr. Crane gasped, “Oh my God. I had no idea. She never talked about any of this. It’s horrible.”
“If you think that’s bad --- well, it gets worse.”
“How could it possibly?”
I just shrugged
She continued reading.
Nate helped me up and when he saw that Mr. Tyler was dead, he told me that we couldn’t stay. We’d have to run. I said, “How can we run? We don’t have any money and no place to go.” And he said, “Then we’ll just have to get some.” Nate grabbed a silver-plated revolver that Mr. Tyler kept in his nightstand and pulled me toward the door. We got in his old pick-up truck and Nate drove to the Wells Fargo office and parked in the alley next to it. He told me to wait and he’d be right back. A few minutes later, he came back carrying a sack filled with money. He took off and drove as fast as the old truck would go. While we was driving, he told me to divide the money into equal shares. I did what he asked and counted out two stacks of bills worth twenty-five thousand each. I never thought I’d see that much money as long as I lived. Nate pulled into a motel parking lot. He told me to take my share, rent room #8, and he would be back for me in two days. He said that if he wasn’t back in two days, I should high-tail it as far away as I could go. I asked him why he had to leave. He told me it would be better for me if we split up. People had seen him at the Wells Fargo office, but they hadn’t seen me. He said he had some business to take care of, but he’d be back. I did what he asked and rented the room. I’ve never been so scared and alone.
Elizabeth Crane set the diary aside, removed her glasses and wiped the tears from her eyes.
“I feel like I’m reading a chapter from the life of Bonnie and Clyde and not my sweet, gentle mother. You think you know someone but ---.”
“I hate to tell you, but there’s more, and it’s not pretty.”
She sighed, put her glasses on and continued to read.
December 3, 1943. It’s a cold grey day and I only venture out of the room long enough to get something to eat and drink from the motel vending machines. I look out of the window often, expecting to see a police car coming to pick me up, but it’s quiet. I hope Nate comes back tomorrow. I want to get as far away from here as possible.
December 4, 1943. At ten in the morning Nate pulls into the parking lot and taps on the door. I let him in and he asks if I’m okay. I tell him yes, and we start making plans for our getaway. We’re about to leave when we hear a ruckus in the parking lot. We look out the window and see men climbing out of trucks carrying guns and a rope. Nate turns to me and says, “Chloe, hide under the bed. They’re here for me.” I say let’s just turn ourselves in. I’ll tell everyone what Mr. Tyler was doing and how you saved me.” He just smiles and says, “When a black boy kills a rich white man, it don’t matter why. I’m a goner for sure.” He pulled a locket out of his pocket and handed it to me. “This here has my momma’s picture inside it. Behind that picture is a note tellin’ where I hid my money. It’s yours, Chloe. Now get under that bed and save yourself.” He turned and ran out the door as fast as his legs would carry him. I hid under the bed until I saw that all the men had followed him into the woods, then I slipped out and hid in the bushes behind the motel. It wasn’t long before they came back dragging poor Nate, all bloody and bruised. One of the men threw a rope over the branch of an old oak tree and slipped a noose around Nate’s neck. Four of the men pulled on the rope hoisting Nate into the air. They tied off the rope leaving poor Nate kicking and struggling. A few minutes later, he stopped kicking and I knew my friend was dead. The men hung around and laughed for a while, but after about an hour, they climbed into their trucks and drove off, leaving poor Nate swaying in the cold December air.
Dr. Crane set the diary aside again. “A lynch mob. Right here in Kansas City. I had read about such things, but I never figured ---. It’s so horrible!”
“Remember,” Kevin said, “this is 1943, twenty years before the Civil Rights Act and twenty years before Dr. Martin Luther King gave his famous
I Have a Dream
speech. Schools were still segregated and blacks couldn’t even drink from the same water fountains as the white folks.”
Suddenly, something clicked in Dr. Crane’s mind. “The locket! Nate’s locket! I wonder if my mother ever followed through and found Nate’s share of the Wells Fargo heist.”
“We read through the entire diary,” Kevin replied, “and it looks like she did not. She mentioned it once calling it ‘blood money’ and saying she wanted no part of it.”
“So that’s what this is all about,” Dr. Crane said, pensively. “Gabe’s boys must have found the diary and read about the locket. They must not have it and think that I do.”
“I have no idea. If I do, it’s packed away in that storage locker, which, thankfully, they don’t know about. What do you think we should do?”
“Before we get to that,” I replied, “you might want to read a few more entries from the diary. I’m afraid there are a few more things you didn’t know about your mother.”
“What more could there possibly be?” she asked, picking up the diary.
As soon as I was sure that the coast was clear, I started walking up the highway until I got to a used car lot. I bought an old Ford Coupe for four hundred dollars. I had decided that I would drive to my mom’s sister’s home in Mason City, Iowa. I hoped that Aunt Bess would take me in. I drove until I could barely stay awake. I found a motel just outside of Des Moines and spent the night. I was afraid I might not sleep. All I could think about was poor Nate hanging from that oak tree.
December 5, 1943. I must have been exhausted because it was almost nine when I woke up. I grabbed a quick breakfast at a truck stop and headed north. I was hoping to get to Mason City before dark. Just after noon, the sky started turning grey and by three o’clock the snow was falling so hard I could barely see the road. The highway was soon packed with snow and I was afraid to drive faster than twenty. I was somewhere close to Fort Dodge when the old Ford began to cough and sputter. It finally quit, but I was able to get off the highway. I tried and tried to start it, but the battery was soon dead. The temperature had to be close to zero, the blowing snow was drifting across the highway and there was nothing around me but empty corn fields. I bundled up as best I could, but figured I’d be as dead as Nate by morning. I was shivering and about to pass out when I saw headlights coming from the south. An eighteen wheeler pulled up behind me and a minute later there was a tap on my window. I rolled it down and a young man stuck in his head. “You okay,” he asked. When he saw I was too cold to answer, he knew I wasn’t. He helped me out of the car and into the cab of his truck where the heater was going full blast. Nothing ever felt so good. He wrapped me in a blanket from his sleeping compartment and poured a cup of hot coffee from his thermos. After he saw I was comfortable, he fetched my bag from the car and we headed to Des Moines. He told me his name was Johnny. He was sweet and kind and seemed to be genuinely concerned about me. The longer we were together, the more comfortable I felt with him. I had been carrying the burden of Mr. Tyler, the Wells Fargo robbery and Nate’s horrible death for three days and I just needed to share it with someone before I exploded. Johnny listened quietly while I told my story. I had just finished when we came to the outskirts of Fort Dodge. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and was starving. Johnny pulled into a motel with a restaurant attached. After eating my fill, Johnny said we should each get a room and wait out the storm. He said he was on his way to Rochester, Minnesota and would take me to my aunt’s place in Mason City tomorrow. I thought about what he said and I knew he was right, but after all I had been through, I just didn’t want to be alone and I told him so. We got a room and I spent the night curled up in Johnny’s strong arms while the storm raged outside. I had never done anything like this before. Johnny was my first, and it was wonderful. I had never felt as safe and secure as when I was snuggled at his side. The next morning after breakfast, we hit the road and by mid-afternoon we were at my aunt’s home in Mason City. Johnny kissed me on the cheek, wished me well and climbed into his truck. As he drove away, I noticed for the first time, the insignia on the side of the huge trailer he was pulling. There was a huge black and gold butterfly with the words, ‘Monarch Trucking Company.’ I knew in my heart I would never see him again, but I would always remember my ‘Johnny Butterfly.’ He had come into my life at the time I needed him the most.