Authors: Nick Russell
D.W. was back from his lunch with the Rotary and John Lee gave him an update on what he had learned in Tallahassee.
"Anything on that slug they found in the dirt with those bones? Or the bullets that got shot into your car?"
"That's a different part of the crime lab," John Lee told him. "Those are the ballistics people and apparently they're swamped. There was a big gang shooting in Pensacola, and half a dozen other incidents that they are working their way through. The fellow I talked to there said he hoped to get back to us in the next two or three days, but he wasn't making any promises."
"Violent times we live in," the sheriff said. "Anything else?"
"Yeah, this." John Lee took the disk out of the evidence bag and handed it to him.
D.W. studied it for a moment and asked, "What am I looking at?"
"I was hoping you could tell me. It's some kind of tag. Someone said it might've been a dog tag, but I don't think we had any kind of dog ordinances back then. And a couple people think it's a key fob, kind of like the plastic tags we use now for Department vehicles."
"That makes sense," D.W. said.
"I thought I'd ask around town, see if anybody remembers seeing anything like this."
"Have at it. But keep in mind, this may not be connected to those bones at all. It could've been dropped or lost at anytime and just be in the same area by coincidence."
"That's true," John Lee said. "But I still think it's worth checking out."
"Sure, but before you do that, I need you to just write me out a quick rundown of everythin' so I can prepare a statement for the press. They're all over this and I don't want to keep them waitin' and give them enough time to get distracted by some other story and forget all about us."
John Lee knew that having the press forget about him would be crushing to his father-in-law. D.W., like any politician, thrived on exposure, and getting face time in front of television cameras was not something a sheriff from a small county like Somerton got very much of. He needed to make hay while the sun was shining. John Lee didn't want to waste much time writing things out for D.W., but he wanted to stay on the man's good side as much as possible. Lord knows he had done enough to test D.W.'s patience lately.
"I'm on it."
As he was going out the door, D.W asked if he had heard about Flag's latest temper tantrum.
"I sure did. I'd have liked to have been there to see that."
D.W. shook his head in disgust. "Man thinks he's fit to be sheriff, and he pulls some dumb stunt like that?" And though there was a frown on his face, John Lee didn't miss the glint of delight in D.W.'s eyes, knowing his nemesis had given him new ammunition to use against him if he ever needed it.
"Never seen nothin' like that."
"Sorry, John Lee, nothin' I'm familiar with."
"Ya say it ain't a dog tag? That would a been my guess."
And so it went at Taylor's Hardware Store, Farmer's Supply, Somerton Auto Parts, Overton's Propane, and everywhere else John Lee showed the disk around town. The closest he got was at Gus Martin's Hunting Supply.
"I wouldn't swear to it," Gus said, "but it could be a trapper's tag. Trappers would put a tag with some identifying mark on each one of their traps. That way if the game warden or whoever came across a trap, they'd know who it belonged to."
"It very well could be a tag from an old steel leg hold trap," Kevin Stringer, a warden with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, told him when John Lee sent a picture to his phone. "But there's no way to know for sure, and if it was, no way to know when it was used or who it would have belonged to. We don't have any records dating that far back."
"Well, it was worth a shot," John Lee said.
He was discouraged. He felt like the tag was his best clue to whoever had murdered those three men so long ago, but he wasn't getting anywhere with it. It was late in the day and he had talked to more people than he could remember. His stomach was growling and he was trying to decide between stopping for a bite to eat before he went home, or throwing a TV dinner in the microwave when his cell phone rang and the decision was made for him.
"Where are you?"
"Downtown. What's up?"
"Greg and I are going 10-7 at the Fry Basket," Maddy said. "Want to join us?"
"Sure, I'll be there in five."
It was a short drive to the restaurant, and he pulled in and parked next to Greg's unit. Getting out of the Charger, he could smell the food cooking inside and his stomach growled.
Maddy and Greg were at a table in the corner and as he sat down, the waitress, a pretty young girl with braces on her teeth who was working there for the summer to earn enough money to buy her first car, put a glass of sweet tea in front of him.
"Do y'all know what you want yet?"
She had directed the question at Greg.
"I'll have the shrimp basket," he told her. "And could you bring me a couple extra hushpuppies."
"You got it. How 'bout you, sir?"
"I'll have the same," John Lee told her.
"Catfish for me," Maddy said.
The waitress nodded and headed back to the kitchen to deliver their orders.
"I guess she never heard of ladies first," Maddy said, shaking her head.
John Lee chuckled. "Don't blame her. I'm sure she was blinded by all of Greg's good looks."
Greg blushed. "Yeah right.... ya' think so?"
"Oh, there's no question about it," Maddy teased. "I'm telling you, Greg, if I was a few years younger I'd be all over you."
Maddy and John Lee laughed at his discomfort, although secretly, John Lee was glad that somebody else was Maddy's target for the moment.
"I don't know if it's safe to let you two work the same shift, especially at night," John Lee said.
Maddy laughed out loud, and said, "No worries there, An old lady like me don't hold a candle to that sweet young thing."
"You're not that old," Greg said, and John Lee laughed at the look she gave the young deputy.
The waitress was back with a large cardboard container of hush puppies, which she placed in front of Greg. "Here, I brought you these just so's you don't have to wait for Maggie to get the rest of your dinner fixed."
She hovered over the table until a couple came in and sat down on the other side of the room.
"Wow, somebody's crushin' hard on you, Greg," Maddy said.
John Lee looked at Greg and said, "Just so you know, when shift is over I'm going to come back over and dust that little gal for fingerprints."
"Don't you worry about fingerprints, John Lee. Just have Greg here drop his pants and check his ass cheeks to see if she broke any fingernails off in them."
"You guys stop it," Greg said, protesting, but secretly basking in the good natured attention.
The waitress came back with their orders and made it a point to pat Greg on the shoulder and call him 'honey' when she asked if he needed anything else. John Lee and Maddy exchanged knowing grins when she did not give them the same attention.
As they ate, Maddy asked, "Did you hear about Fig?"
"Yep. D.W. was all over that. Said he's going to dock his pay to cover the cost of the window."
"What an asshole. I mean, D.W. isn't exactly Marshal Matt Dillon, but people keep electing him, so he must be doing something right. Fig makes no secret that he wants D.W.'s job, and then does something that stupid. He's his own worst enemy."
"You got that right, Maddy."
"Any luck with that disk you've been showing around town?"
John Lee shook his head. "I can't count how many people I showed it to and nobody can tell me for sure. Best guess is that it's either a tag for a key for some kind of vehicle or equipment, or else the tag off of a steel trap. But nobody really remembers seeing anything like it."
"This may sound like a stupid question," Greg said, "but did you ask at the Historical Museum?"
"The Historical Mus... holy shit! I never even thought of that, Greg. Jesus Christ, how fricking dumb am I? That's where I should have started!"
"I never thought of it either," Maddy said. "If D.W. ever gets rid of Fig, he needs to make you Chief Deputy."
Greg was blushing again, this time because of the admiration the experienced deputies were showing him. Meanwhile, John Lee was kicking himself for not thinking of Somerton County's small historical museum, which was tucked away on a side street in an old house that had been around for at least a hundred years. He knew the museum kept sporadic hours, only open a couple of days a week when any of the volunteer docents were available. He had only been in the place once, years ago on a field trip when he was in grade school, and he didn't know what the hours actually were, but he planned to be there first thing in the morning to find out.
There was a ten year old blue Ford Focus parked in his driveway and John Lee groaned. Magic met him at his cruiser is always, but as soon as John Lee had rubbed his ears a couple of times he ran back to the deck, where Beth Ann was sitting in one of the wooden chairs with her feet propped up on the rail.
"It's 'bout time you got home, I've got to pee."
"There's plenty of trees you could have squatted behind."
She got up and kissed him. She was wearing some kind of strawberry flavored lip gloss.
"Hurry up and unlock the door, John Lee, I'm about to burst!"
He did and she made a beeline for the bathroom, while Magic made one for the kitchen, where he sat next to his bowl and looked back at John Lee expectantly.
"I don't know which of you is a bigger pain in the ass," he told the dog as he fed him. He heard the toilet flush and Beth Ann came out of the bedroom and said, "Wow, talk about relief!"
"What are you doing here, Beth Ann?"
"I just wanted to hang out for a while and... whatever."
"You're gonna keep it up until either your daddy or your sister shoots me, aren't you?"
"Oh, stop be'in such a drama queen, John Lee. Ain't nobody shootin' nobody. You take life way too serious."
"Too serious? Jesus Christ, Beth Ann, your daddy just about walked in and caught us in the act! I expected him to take my head off right there."
"But he didn't, did he? I swear, John Lee, sometimes I think you wake up in the mornin' lookin' for somethin' to worry about."
Beth Ann was 24 years old and just as good looking as her sister, but in a different way. She had been somewhat of a tomboy growing up and still had a casual attitude about everything. Where Emily would have never thought of leaving the house without her makeup just right and her hair brushed to perfection, Beth Ann seldom wore anything but a bit of lip gloss and never took her appearance or herself seriously. Not that she was a slob by any means, she just didn't see the need to waste a bunch of time every morning primping in front of a mirror. Beth Ann accepted herself as she was, and expected the rest of the world to do likewise.
John Lee had always liked her, and enjoyed spending time with her when he and Emily were together, but the thought of them having any kind of relationship other than familial had never entered his mind. Sure, she was a nice looking girl, even sexy, there was no denying that. But she was off limits. Way off limits.
After Emily moved out John Lee had hit a low point and didn't know where his life was going. He considered leaving Somerton, but where would he go? Except for the time he spent away while he was in the Army, it had always been home and he had always expected to live the rest of his life there. The week that Emily returned to Somerton with Sarah and they set up housekeeping, John Lee was sitting on the deck one night working his way through a six pack of Budweiser when Beth Ann showed up with one of her own.
Looking back, he didn't think it was planned, certainly not on his part anyway, but as they drank and talked late into the night, something changed. He had a good buzz on, but he had not been drunk, so that was no excuse for what happened. One minute they were sitting side by side on the porch, and the next Beth Ann was in his lap, her arms around his neck and their tongues doing a dance. Neither of them had said anything as they walked into the house and into his bedroom. There had been no frantic tearing of clothes in a rush to get naked, it just seemed casual and natural. And while Emily had always been reserved in bed, enjoying their love making but always leaving him with the feeling that she was holding back, Beth Ann went about it like she did everything in life, with complete openness and enthusiasm.
Afterward, in the reality of the morning light, John Lee had been full of guilt and was mentally kicking his own ass. He had apologized to Beth Ann and she sat up in bed and asked, "Whatever for?"
"For last night. I didn't plan that and I..."
"Stop it. It's okay. I had a good time."
"But nothin'. Don't make a big thing of it."
"You're my wife's sister, for God's sake!"
"So what? This was a big mistake."
"John Lee, it was just sex. Don't get all bent out of shape over it."
"Can't you see how wrong this is, Beth Ann?"
"If Emily was still here, if she was bein' a proper wife to you, yeah, it'd be wrong. And it wouldn't never have happened. If you was out hound doggin' somewhere and picked me up while she was sittin' here at home, that'd be wrong, too. But it ain't like that, John Lee. She's the one that left. She's the one that's livin' with another woman, and you're the one settin' home alone."
"She's still my wife."
"For how long? You don't know if she's ever comin' home and neither does she. You plannin' to live the rest of your life like one of those celibate Catholic priests or somethin' while she's out gettin' her rocks off with her girlfriend?"
He didn't know how to respond to that, because he didn't know what the future held. Every time he had asked Emily where things were going with them, he always got the same response, that he was smothering her, that he needed to give her room, that she didn't know herself, so how could she answer that?
And so it was that he found himself in this mess. Every once in a while Beth Ann would come over and they'd do the deed. And he had to admit, the sex with her was very good. Maybe the fact that there was a taboo attached to it made it even better. And even though he knew it was wrong, it was something he enjoyed to a great degree.
Then, a few weeks after she had returned to Somerton, Emily walked in one evening as casual as if she had just returned from the grocery store. She had told John Lee that she loved him, that she couldn't picture her life without him, and he thought she was home for good. Those hopes were dashed the next morning when he woke up to hear her crying in the bathroom. He had knocked on the door, asking if she was all right, and Emily had come out and gotten dressed, ignoring him. He kept asking her what was wrong, and she had only said that it had all been a mistake. She wasn't ready for this yet. And then she was gone.
After that, the pattern repeated itself. He might not see her for a week or two and there would be no contact. If he called her, she always told him she was busy and hung up. But then, totally unexpected, she would return and spend the night. The first few times it happened he had been hopeful that life was going to get back to normal, but it never had. He never knew what triggered Emily's need to come back home, or why it never lasted more than a few hours. As time went on, he grew less hopeful. But at the same time, he had never turned her away.
Knowing that the debate with Beth Ann was not going anywhere, and neither was she, John Lee went into the bedroom and hung up his gun belt, then stripped and got into the shower. He wasn't surprised when the door slid open and Beth Ann got in with him, and though he knew he should, he didn't protest. What the hell, sooner or later someone was probably going to shoot him anyway.