CHAPTER 1

Durden Tate was a wealthy man. His company had a lock on eighty percent of the specialty -fats-and-oils market for fast-food restaurants in Mississippi, Louisiana, and Arkansas. Durden Tate’s company had achieved this extraordinary market share by creating a superior product, a frying fat based on a flavorful blend of deodorized palm oil and refined pork lard. Tru-Fry 2000, as it was known, boasted elevated oxidation resistance, a high smoke point, and true frying longevity. As a result, every time a donut, a catfish, or a basket of fries was lowered into a bubbling vat in this part of the country, the odds were good that it was Durden Tate’s fat.

As part of his commitment to quality, Durden spent four days a week visiting restaurants that used his product. After ten years of sampling crispy-fried hash browns at breakfast, corn dogs and fried pies at lunch, and hush puppies with dinner, the once trim and athletic Mr. Tate was pushing three hundred twenty pounds.

His wife, Wanda Lee Henshaw Tate, put up with his obesity and his frequent absence not only because she’d meant it when she’d said ‘for better or for worse’ but also because Durden had come through on the ‘for richer or poorer’ part of the deal. But when she began to suspect Durden was cheating, she decided to get out. And she wasn’t about to leave empty-handed. She’d put fifteen of the best years of her life into the marriage and felt she was owed something. But Wanda Lee needed proof. She needed some photos, something that would make the divorce easy and the alimony as fat as Durden’s lard ass. So she pulled out the phone book and looked under ‘Investigators.’

*

Rick waited until dusk before sneaking into the weedy field just off Highway 61, on the outskirts of Port Gibson, Mississippi. On the far end of the field was the back of the Pine Grove Motor Inn where Durden Tate had checked in an hour earlier, and not for the first time since Rick had been following him. Rick had a camera bag slung over his shoulder and high hopes that Durden didn’t draw the curtains all the way.

It was a typical Mississippi summer night, warm and sticky as a sweet pastry. Rick was sweating before he’d gone fifty feet. Halfway across the field, with burrs scratching through his socks and ticks scaling his leg, Rick stepped into a mud hole, sinking past his ankle. He pulled back, losing his shoe. Sewer gas filled his nose and he struggled not to gag. In the waning light, he looked down and saw the mud oozing into his size ten.

Rick stood there like a flamingo, thinking about the pair of boots in his truck. Sure the loafers were more comfortable, but, well, too late now. It turned out he was standing above an underground waste-water treatment pipe that had been leaking for a week. The rest of the field between Rick and the motel was a rotten-egg-swamp. The mosquitoes arrived just as the sun set. He tried to remember if the West Nile virus had been reported in Claiborne County yet.

Having no good options, he stuck his foot back into the ghastly muck, retrieved his shoe, and continued toward the Pine Grove Motor Inn. By the time he reached the motel, both of Rick’s feet were soaked through with sewage, his arms and neck were riddled with insect bites, and he reeked of shit. But he still had a job to do, so he crept along underneath the rear windows of the motel, peeking in each one until he found Durden Tate’s room. The good news was that the curtain was halfway open and Rick could see Tate sitting on the end of the bed. The bad news was that he was naked, all three hundred twenty pounds of him. The TV cast a bluish tint onto his blubbery folds. He had a beer in one hand and the remote in the other. Next to him on the bed were two paper sacks and his Dopp kit.

Durden began to talk, though Rick couldn’t see who he was talking to. Though Tate’s voice was muffled, Rick could tell he was sweet-talking somebody. It appeared the recipient of the honeyed words was lying on the floor. Durden reached behind him and grabbed one of the sacks. It was filled with onion rings from the burger joint across the highway. He continued his sweet talking as he ate the fried onions. He tossed one to the floor, presumably for his mistress. Why was she down there? Was Durden in a domination-submission relationship? Rick hadn’t figured him for the type but, as he knew, people will surprise you. Rick popped off the lens cap and waited for the leather hood to come out. Durden ate the onions slowly, eyes closed, lips glistening with grease. By the time he finished there was still no sign of the submissive lover. Maybe she was tied up.

A moment later Durden reached into the other paper sack and pulled out a jar of peanut butter. He unzipped his Dopp kit and removed a tongue depressor. He scooped a wad of peanut butter onto the wooden stick then crossed his legs and began smearing the goo between his toes. It looked to be smooth, not crunchy. Rick exposed a few frames of film.

When Durden finished with the left foot he lowered it to the floor then shouted “No!” at his lover. He crossed his legs the other way and took his time smearing the peanut butter between the toes of his right foot. He licked the tongue depressor and chased it with some beer, then he leaned back onto the bed and said something like, “Okay, c’mon baby.”

She was stout. Her hair was black, and she had a tongue the likes of which Rick had never seen on a woman. This was due largely to the fact that she was a Labrador retriever. She gave every indication that she was enjoying herself and, as she licked the peanut butter from between his toes, Durden Tate moaned and flogged himself as though he might win a prize for it. “Good girl,” he seemed to be saying over and over. “Good girrrrl.”

Figuring with no small amount of dread that this was merely foreplay, Rick snapped off a dozen pics, leaving another twenty exposures before he’d have to change rolls. Fortunately, Durden liked doing this with the lights on so there was no need for a flash. When the poor dog finished with his toes, Durden sat up and reached for the peanut butter again. Rick got a queasy feeling about what was coming and figured right then and there that he’d make two sets of prints, one for Wanda Lee, one for the ASPCA.

Rick decided to switch to a zoom. He was reaching into his camera bag when he heard a man say, “Hold it right there, pervert.” All things considered, Rick hardly thought that was a fair characterization. He turned and saw the man from the Port Gibson police department, gun in one hand, flashlight in the other. “Now you just back away from that window and ease on over here, boy.”

“This isn’t what it looks like,” Rick said.

“Yeah? What’s it look like?”

“Like I’m a pervert,” Rick said.

“That’s right, and we call this felonious trespass. That’s a fancy term for a peeping Tom, so let’s go.”

Rick slapped at a mosquito buzzing his ear. “Actually, I’m a private investigator.”

“Uh huh.” The cop gestured with his gun. “Well just bring your Rockford Files on over here.”

Rick pointed at the window. “There’s a man in there about to have sex with a dog.”

“And what? You wanna watch?”

Rick couldn’t believe this guy. “Did you hear me? I said sex with a dog.”

“And who’re you to be passin’ judgment on that?” the cop asked. “You sayin’ you ain’t never laid no pipe with uh ugly girl?” He stuck his nose in Rick’s direction and sniffed the air. “‘At’s bullshit. Now, c’mon, you’re under arrest.”

*

The guard leaned against the cell bars casting a friendly smile. “You sure you don’t want to stay?”

“Much is I love you,” Clarence said, “I think I stayed long enough.”

“Well, all right then. You ‘bout ready?”

“All packed, boss.” Clarence stepped out of the shadow of his cell, his tight gray coils like snow on cured tobacco. His face was seventy-five years of troubles, yet it shined with the dignity of a man undefeated.

“Well, all right then.” The guard gestured toward the freedom Clarence never should have lost and said, “C’mon.”

Clarence walked out of his cell for the last time. Never looked back, not once. No good memories in there. Eyes always forward. He said his goodbyes on the move too. He wasn’t going to stop until somebody made him. He’d been waiting too long to get going.

He walked into the administration office wearing the itchy black and white striped pants, the ring-arounds as they called them, and coarse prisoner’s smock with M.D.O.C. Convict on the back. There was paperwork to do and they checked his fingerprints to make sure they were releasing the right man, but they didn’t look too close. They all knew who he was. He was an institution within the institution.

A woman behind the counter reached over and pressed something into his hand. Clarence looked in his broad rough palm and saw a small gold cross on a chain. The woman smiled at him and said, “Now is the day of your salvation. You take care of yourself.”

“Thank you,” he said. “You know I will.”

They gave him a hundred dollars gate money and what they called adequate free world shirt and pants. He was glad to wear anything besides the convict uniform he’d worn most of his life. The striped outfit was a cell unto itself, a further humiliation, bars within bars. Clarence had been a fine dresser back in his day, a real dandy. He looked in the mirror after changing and thought ‘adequate’ was about the best you could say for the clothes they’d given him this time. But that was a small thing, easy to fix once he got to town. He couldn’t let that bother him. He had bigger fish to fry.

The warden gestured toward the door. “Somebody meetin’ you out there, Clarence?”

“No, suh, ain’t nobody out there for me, but I’ll be all right. They’s a man down in Jackson I’m ‘onna see, gonna help me out. I’ll send y’all a postcard.” They all smiled at that and then it was time to go. They let Clarence out the gate right there on Highway 49 where he’d come in fifty years ago and told him where to go to catch the bus.

He stood there for an hour, watching the traffic, measuring his emotions, not sure if he felt the way he was supposed to feel getting out after all this time. He figured he mostly felt the same, probably take a while for it to sink in. When the bus finally got there, he saw how the people looked at him as he came up the stairs in his thrift store outfit. He didn’t guess he could blame them, the bus stopping so close to Parchman and all. But nobody bothered him, probably figured a man his age wasn’t going to cause them any trouble. And he wasn’t. Clarence was saving the trouble for someone else.

*

Rick made bail with three other overnight guests of the Port Gibson Police Department. There was Fred, a lanky mechanic, who had been drunk-and-disorderly. (At a bar with his wife, he’d flirted openly with another woman whose husband took exception. Fred lost the fight and the other guy got away.) A roofer named Charlie was busted for breaking-and-entering. (After downing a twelve pack, he broke into an auto parts store, filled his pockets with car air fresheners touting an exotic blend of coconut and forest fruits, then passed out.) And then there was Paul, a small business owner who’d spent the night on a domestic battery charge. (Too much tequila and an argument about whether they were going to watch ‘The Bachelor’ or The Atlanta Braves.)

The four men signed for their stuff and headed for the door. Rick, the only one not suffering from a hangover, was the first outside. He shaded his eyes against a blinding sun then watched in jealous dismay as the other three men shuffled out of the jail and into the arms of significant others. They all hugged and swore they were sorry and vowed it would never happen again. Rick couldn’t believe it. A philanderer, a thief, and a wife beater were doing better than he was, and he wondered what it must be like to have a woman like that. One who not only puts up with your stupidity, but who’s willing to pay to get you back for more.

It made him think of Traci, the love that circumstance had forced him to leave behind when he left McRae for Vicksburg. Traci would’ve bailed him out and picked him up if he’d stayed with her. But he hadn’t. Rick missed her but he understood why she couldn’t come with him. She liked her hometown and didn’t want to uproot her young daughter just to chase a disc jockey, let alone one that got shot at, like he had. Rick ran up his phone bill trying to talk her into moving but when she started making noise about reconciling with her ex, Rick figured it was time to move on in his quest for romance. Still, as he watched Fred, Charlie, and Paul drive off, he couldn’t help but think how nice it would’ve been to walk out of jail and into Traci’s arms.

As Rick headed for the impound lot to get his truck, he tried not to dwell on the fact that he had no one to blame but himself. He’d spent most of his life dodging commitment and the ties that bind in exchange for the alternative. Of course, early in his rock radio career, there had been some logic to this. But the older he got, the better he could see the advantage of having a solid relationship with someone other than a bail bondsman.

He shrugged off his regrets, got his truck, and headed back to Vicksburg. He’d been there a few months and, so far, it was working out all right. Weeknights he did a shift at WVBR-FM, a classic rock station where he had the freedom to play what he wanted. During the day he ran his private investigation business which he called Rockin’ Vestigations.

Rick was a radio veteran but relatively new at the PI game. He’d been in the former all his life and had stumbled into the latter after solving a multiple murder case while working at WAOR-FM, in McRae, Mississippi, where he’d met Traci. In the course of solving that crime, he suffered a serious gunshot wound and had his picture splashed on the front page of every paper in the state. With no small amount of encouragement from Rick, the press portrayed him as a dashing, hard-boiled, rock ’n’ roll, flirting-with-danger-kinda-guy. And without much effort, Rick parlayed his sudden celebrity into the new line of work.

When he opened Rockin’ Vestigations, he had a few things to learn. First, most of his work would be done at a computer. But not always. PIs still had to follow people now and then. And most of the people he was hired to follow, did their running around at night when Rick was on the air. So he found a couple of younger operatives whose primary qualifications were that they owned camera equipment and a car. They were freelancers, on call. They did the grunt work, except on occasions when Rick wanted to make sure he got the goods for particularly wealthy clients, like Wanda Lee Henshaw Tate.

After the thing in McRae, during which Rick had found himself without a weapon at precisely the moment he needed one, he decided to get strapped. He bought a .38 and took a concealed-weapons class. He was a good shot, a natural. But given the statistics on firearm deaths, he rarely carried the gun. Still, he kept it, just in case.

His radio job provided a modest, if steady, paycheck. He planned to build his PI resume and client base to the point that he could get out of radio before Clean Signal Radio Corporation owned every last rock station in the country and played nothing but Zeppelin’s Whole Lotta Love between fifteen minute commercial breaks.

So, despite the fact that he was out on bail and smelled like the inside of an outhouse, Rick felt like his train was on the tracks. It’s true he wasn’t in danger of getting rich as a private investigator but after so many years of watching the body of FM rock radio rotting in front of his eyes, he felt good that he was at least doing something to improve his future. The way he figured it, rock radio wouldn’t live forever, but he could always count on people to lie, cheat, and steal.

So far Rick had caught a bus load of cheating spouses, had tracked down a dozen check kiters, and had gathered evidence on a group running a disability insurance scam. It wasn’t the cure to cancer, but it beat the hell out of playing Free Bird.

Rick glanced at his watch as he eased his pickup onto the Clay Street exit. He had time to get a shower and a nap before starting his shift at eight. He passed the faded green and white sign for the Southern Pride Apartments. The building itself was gone but its foundation still sat proudly on the lot as if waiting for that part of the south to rise again. Further on, the road sloped toward historic downtown. His apartment was ahead on the right, a twelve-story, red brick building with ‘The Vicksburg’ painted down the side in large, bold letters just like it was when it opened in 1928, the year before the great Delta flood. Before being converted to apartments, The Vicksburg had been a classic river city hotel like The Peabody in Memphis, though somewhat less grand. And without the ducks.

Rick parked in the lot behind the building but couldn’t bring himself to get out. It was ninety-five outside and humid enough to wither a man. He sat there soaking up the A.C. But then he saw Veronica pull in to her parking spot. She was a cocktail waitress at the Isle of Capri with a one-bedroom on the fifth floor. They’d met the day Rick moved in. He’d flirted, but she was either playing hard to get or dropping hints that she wasn’t interested. Rick had a hard time distinguishing between the two. He wasn’t sure if he was really attracted to Veronica or if she simply reminded him of Traci. He figured it was the excessive eye makeup they both wore but it didn’t hurt that Veronica’s waitress outfit was on the skimpy side and she had the legs for it.

Rick got out of the truck. The humidity hit him like a pan of used motor oil. He shook it off and slung his camera bag over his shoulder. He knew he looked pretty rough but figured he’d make up a rollicking story about how he’d just returned from a wild night in New Orleans partying with the Neville Brothers. He headed for the back door, getting there just in time to hold it open for her. “Hey, Veronica,” he said. “How you doin’?”

Her face wrinkled as she passed. “Fine,” she said. “But you seem to be attracting flies.”

Copyright © 2007 by Reduviidae, Inc.

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