Authors: Nick Russell
The handwritten sign on the door of the museum said it was open Fridays and Saturdays from 10 AM until 2 PM. It was Thursday.
John Lee cursed, then noticed another small handwritten sign on a 3x5 index card at the bottom of the glass with an emergency number to call. He took out his cell phone and punched in the number and a woman answered on the fourth ring.
"Whatever yer sellin', I don't want it. I don't eat Girl Scout cookies, I know who I'm votin' for, and I've already found Jesus. So if yer one of them solicitors just hang up and stop callin' me."
"No ma'am, I'm not selling anything, I promise. This is Deputy John Lee Quarrels from the Sheriff's Department."
"If that no count grandson of mine got himself arrested again, ya can keep him!"
"No ma'am, it's nothing like that. I'm down here at the Historical Museum and I need to talk to somebody."
Her voice grew concerned. "Is somethin' wrong at the museum? Did somebody break in or somethin'?"
"No ma'am, everything's fine, but I need to talk to somebody. Is there any chance that you could meet me here?"
"Can't ya read the sign on the door, deputy? We're open Friday and Saturday."
"Yes ma'am, I know that."
"And this here is Thursday."
"Yes ma'am, I know that too. But I really need to talk to somebody."
"Ya' ain't got a daddy or a preacher ya can talk to?"
"No ma'am. I mean, yeah, I've got a daddy. But this isn't something I can... look, is there anybody I can talk to?"
"Yer talkin' to me right now, ain't ya?"
John Lee tried to hide his impatience when he said, "Ma'am, this is a police matter and I really need to talk to somebody. Can you please come down here and meet me?"
"I don't even know yer really a deputy. Ya could be one of those serial killers like that there Ted Bundy."
"I promise you, I'm not a serial killer. You could call the Sheriff's Department and the dispatcher will tell you I'm for real."
"Whatever it is ya need, can't it wait 'til tomorrow?"
"No ma'am, it really can't."
There was a sigh and then silence on the line and he wondered if she had hung up on him. "I'm supposed to go to my sister Gracie Ellen's today to help her make potato salad for her husband's family reunion tomorrow. I don't know why, since she don't get along with any of the whole bunch. "
"Hopefully this won't take long," John Lee said. "You'd really be helping me out, ma'am."
There was another audible sigh, and she finally said, "Fine, but you better not be a serial killer!"
"I swear I'm not."
"I'll be there soon as I can. My bunions are acting up so it's going take me a while to get my shoes on."
"That's fine," John Lee said, "I'll be here waiting for you."
It was twenty minutes before an old black Mercury Comet with sagging springs and a piece of clear plastic taped over the opening where the rear passenger window had once been pulled into the driveway. John Lee couldn't help but wonder if Flag Newton was responsible for that one, too. The large woman behind the wheel turned off the ignition and the motor sputtered a time or two before it died. John Lee wondered if it would ever start again.
The woman heaved herself out of the car with great effort and demanded, "You that deputy that called and drug me down here on a Thursday when the museum ain't open?"
He was tempted to tell her that since he was the only deputy there, it was probably a pretty good chance he was the one who had disturbed her day, but instead he just said, "Yes ma'am, and I really appreciate you coming down."
"Well what is it ya want?"
John Lee took the envelope from his pocket and took out the disc. "Have you ever seen something like this before, ma'am?"
She looked at it and shook her head. "What in tarnation is it?"
"That's what I'm trying to find out?"
"You drug me all the way down here when I's supposed to be helpin' Gracie Ellen with her potato salad just to show me that? What the hell is wrong with ya?"
"Please ma'am, this is very important. It has to do with those three skeletons we found the other day."
"Well why you askin' me? I didn't shoot 'em!"
"No, ma'am, I'm sure you didn't. But we found this at the crime scene and we're trying to figure out what the connection is."
"Then why ain't ya talking to Chester?"
"Yeah, if anybody'd know anythin' 'bout somethin' like that it'd be him, not me."
"Does Chester have a last name, ma'am?"
"Course he's got a last name! Everybody's got a last name. What kind a damn fool question is that, anyway?"
John Lee needed to remind himself that she was an old woman, and a volunteer, and that she had gone out of her way to meet him at the museum. Even if she made it a point to let him know that it was a great sacrifice on her part.
"Ma'am, I really appreciate you coming down here and helping me out, and I know you've got other things to do. If you could just tell me how to get a hold of Chester, that would really help me. And you could go on about your day."
"Damn right I got better things to do!"
"I understand that ma'am, I really do. Now, how can I talk to Chester."
"You can't, he won't be here 'til Saturday."
"Ain't that what I just said? I work Fridays and Chester works Saturdays."
"Is there any way I can talk to Chester before then?"
"I don't see how you could, he won't be here 'til Saturday."
"Is there a way that I could call him? Do you know his phone number?"
"No, I don't know his phone number. Why would I know his phone number?"
"Because you work with him at the museum? What if you needed to ask him about something?"
"Then I'd get hold of him when he was here on Saturday."
John Lee took a deep breath, "Ma'am, what if you were in the museum on Friday and a water pipe broke or something like that and you needed to get hold of Chester. What would you do?"
"Why would I call Chester for a broken water pipe? He ain't no plumber."
"I don't know, I just thought there must be some way you can get hold of him if you really had to."
"If I really had to, I'd call him. But Chester don't know nothin' 'bout water pipes. He ain't no plumber."
"Wait a minute. You'd call him? How could you call him if you don't know his phone number?"
"I don't need to know it, it's wrote down in the address book there inside the museum, along with everybody else's numbers."
"I thought you said you didn't have his number."
"No, you asked if I knew his number and I told you I don't, 'cause I don't. You didn't ask me if I knew where his number was wrote down."
John Lee wanted to throttle the woman, but he knew that wouldn't do any good. Instead, he asked, "Could you possibly open up the museum and write his number down for me and give it to me?"
"Deputy how many times I got to tell you? The museum ain't open today. It's open Fridays and Saturdays. And this here is Thursday."
"Right, it's Thursday and you need to go help Gracie Ellen with her potato salad. And I have to figure out who killed those men out there by the highway. And the quicker you get me that number, the quicker you can go do what you have to do and I can go do what I have to do."
"Well ain't you a snotty pants? I'll have ya know that I know Sheriff D.W. Swindle very well and I'm goin' to be talkin' to him about your attitude. Here I come all the way down here on a Thursday, when the museum ain't even open, and I got better things to be doin' and you talk that way to me. Yes, sir, me and D.W. are gonna have us talk!"
"That's fine. ma'am. In the meantime, can you just open the damn door and get me Chester's phone number?"
"There ain't no need for cursin'. After all, I'm doin' you a favor."
"You're right, ma'am and I apologize. Please, would you mind going in and getting me his number?"
"That's more like it, young man. Didn't your mama ever tell ya that ya can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?"
He was tempted to tell her his mother hadn't taught him much, except to never expect anything just because someone made you a promise. But instead, he just waited while she went inside the museum. She made a point of closing the door in his face and leaving him standing outside. She came out a moment later with a phone number written in a shaky scrawl and asked, "Are we done now? Gracie Ellen is waitin' on me."
"Yes ma'am, and thank you again for your time."
He started to open her car door for her and she said, "Step back. I don't need you lookin' up my dress when I get in the car."
John Lee was sure that whatever was under her faded print dress was not something he wanted to see. "No problem, ma'am, " he said, backing away. "You have yourself a good day."
She didn't reply, just turned the key in the ignition. The weak battery just barely managed to turn the engine over, and John Lee thought he might have to give her a jump, but then it caught and burst to life in a noisy cloud of blue smoke. She backed out of the driveway and into the street without looking, causing Billy Dickerman to slam on his brakes to keep from broadsiding her. She gave Billy a withering look, like it was his fault that he was driving down the street when she wanted to go someplace, then shifted into gear and drove away.
A man answered the telephone, and when John Lee asked for Chester, he said that was him. John Lee identified himself and said that he was a deputy investigating the murders of the three men whose skeletons were found recently and that he was at the Historical Museum and wondered if there was a possibility Chester could meet him there.
"Why sure, if you think it'll help you. I'll be right there. Sit tight."
John Lee went back to his car to escape the heat, but before the Charger's air conditioner could cool him down there was a knock on his window. He looked up to see a short, stoop shouldered man with white hair and a goatee.
"You that deputy?"
"I'm Chester Kelly. What can I do for you?"
"I'm sorry," John Lee said, getting out of his car. "I didn't see you drive up."
"Drive up? I only live three houses down. I can walk here quicker'n I could start my pickup and drive here."
"I wish I had known that," John Lee said. "I've spent the last half hour dealing with a lady whose phone number is on the door there as an emergency contact for the museum."
"Hazel? Why'd you call her when I'm almost next door?"
"Hers was the only number there."
Harold walked to the museum door and leaned down to peer at the sign.
"There should be a card there with my number, too." He pulled a key ring from his pocket and sorted through a number of keys until he found the right one and unlocked the door. "Come on in, officer."
He opened the door and bent down to pick up another 3x5 card with his phone number on it and said, "Here it is. Guess I need to put some more tape on it. Come on in, get out of the heat." They were met with hot, stale air. Chester went behind the counter and rummaged around in desk drawers for a moment, then came back with a roll of Scotch tape and re-affixed the sign to the window in the door.
"So you met Hazel?"
"Is that who she is?"
"Yep. Did she bust your balls?"
"Oh, yeah. I don't know why she wouldn't tell me to just walk down to your house and knock on the door."
Chester laughed and shook his head. "That'd be too easy. Hazel's been volunteering here for five or six years now, and I think she drives as many people off as she ever makes feel welcome."
"You might be better off without her," John Lee suggested.
"If I had anybody else that would open up even one day a week, she'd be gone. Most times we don't get enough traffic in here to make it worth keeping the door open, so we have to depend on volunteer help. And she's the last person we had offer to volunteer in as long as I can remember."
"Well anyway, I really appreciate you coming down, Chester."
"No problem. Now what is it I can do for you, son?"
John Lee took the tag from his pocket and showed it to him. "We found this out at the place where those three skeletons turned up. We don't know if it has anything to do with them or not, and we don't know what it is. Some people have said they think it's everything from a dog tag to a key fob, to a tag that went on a steel jaw leg trap. But nobody knows for sure. I know it's a long shot, but I was hoping you might have some insight."
Chester was shaking his head, and John Lee expected him to respond the same way everybody else had, but instead Chester said, "It's not a dog tag or a key fob or any of that stuff people been telling you."
"Nope. Follow me."
He led John Lee through a series of cluttered rooms, turning on lights as he went. Each room held displays of the county's history, each with its own theme. In one a female mannequin with its right hand missing and a worn-out wig on its head stood in front of a wood burning stove. Another had high school football trophies and other sports memorabilia. It looked like the newest display may have been from the 1950s. A third room seemed to be dedicated to Somerton County veterans. There was a mannequin of a World War I Doughboy, and another wearing a World War II vintage Eisenhower jacket. Everything seemed neglected and forgotten.
In the fourth room they came to, Chester stopped at a glass display case and said, "What you found out there is one of these." He pointed into the case at two identical brass tags, one with the letters SL and the number 236 stamped into it, and the other with SL 103.
John Lee couldn't believe that after running into so many brick walls, he would find two more tags just like the one he had been carrying around on display at the historical museum.
"I'll be damned. What are they, Chester."
"Those are ID tag
"Turpentiners? What are turpentiners?"
. There haven't been no turpentiners around here since I was knee high to a grasshopper. They're a breed that died out a long time ago."
"Do you know anything about them?"
"About the ID tags, or about the turpentiners?"
"Anything you can tell me will help."
"Oh, I can tell you a lot about those days, if you've got time to listen."
"I've got nothing but time," John Lee assured him.
"Most folks are in too much of a hurry for history lesson," Chester said. "I guess that's why this place don't get much traffic. Folks are too busy playing with computers and texting and all that nonsense to remember the past. Not me, I've been studying it forever. So do you want the
condensed version or the full story?"
" I want anything you can tell me. I've already learned more from you in five minutes than I have all week."
The old man smiled with pride and said, "Well then, you're in for a bit of education, officer. Are you from around these parts?"
"Spent my whole life here except for a couple of years when I was gone in the Army."
"And I bet you never heard a word about the turpentine industry in these parts when you was in high school, did you?"
"No sir, I didn't."
"Don't surprise me none. It's one of those things we don't talk about 'round here. One of those dirty little secrets, kinda like slavery and lynching and things like that. Guess that makes sense though, since a lot of the turpentine industry wasn't much more than just another form of slavery. Only difference was, it lasted half way through the 20th century. Pull up a chair, deputy, let me tell you all about it."