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Tar Heel DeadTales of Mystery and Mayhem from North Carolina
The University of North Carolina PressCopyright © 2005 Sarah R. Shaber
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Chapter OneDead in the Water
One of the things I hate most about Sunday mornings is opening up the Bait and Tackle Shop for Freddy. On those Sundays when he's out fishing, hoping to finally get good enough to turn pro, I get stuck with the shop. Oh, don't get me wrong, I'd do most anything for Freddy. I saw him through his divorce, didn't I?
After I unlock the door, cut off the alarm, and turn on the lights, it's time to clean out the bait tank. I gotta grab the net and scoop out the floaters who didn't make it through the night.
There they are, bodies distended, eyes glazed over, swirling around the surface. I pick each slimy minnow up and toss it in the trash. The fish stink. Maybe it's fish fear. All those minnows, swimming in a tank, waiting to be used as bait, they gotta be scared. I know, you're saying they can't think like humans. Maybe not, but fish are mighty smart, else they wouldn't be so dang hard to catch. Just look at all the lures and plastic worms we sell. Even with the best equipment, you gotta have technique. Fishing's a skill. So tell me them fish ain't smart.
On this one particular Sunday morning, I set the coffeepot on to brew and headed for the back where we keep the live bait. I figured the hot coffee would be a reward for cleaning the fish tanks. By the time I finished, the coffee would be ready. There can never be too much coffee at six o'clock on Sunday morning.
I flung open the back room door, reached around for the switch, and started screaming. There, floating in a tank full of reddish water, was Freddy's ex-wife, Eaudelein. Her hair was fanned out around what had been the back of her head. It was now a bloody mess. I stared and screamed, turned and ran to the tiny bathroom, and heaved into the commode. I was shaking and crying, "Oh my God, oh my God." There wasn't a soul to hear me. I hadn't even switched on the "Open" sign yet.
I ran back out to the front, around behind the counter, and grabbed the phone. For a moment I couldn't remember how to dial 911.
"Oh Jesus, God," I screamed into the phone. "Get somebody over here quick. Eaudelein's dead."
There's only two cop cars in all of Barrow, and they both raced into the parking lot with lights flashing and sirens screaming. They don't get many chances to use their lights around here. I don't believe Wallace County had ever had a killing, at least not as long as I'd been there, and that was all of my forty-five years.
Randall Vaughn was the first one to get to me. He was the duty officer. Raydeen Miller came a close second. She wasn't on duty but keeps the police band on all night in her bedroom. She don't like to miss much. This was just the kind of situation she'd been waiting for all of her professional life.
"Patsy," called Randy, "you all right? What's this about Eaudelein bein' dead?" He was a comforting presence as he reached out to touch my shoulder. Randy'd been on the force for years; we all knew him, of course. He and I'd been in school together and even dated briefly in high school.
I finally got it all out, how I'd found Eaudelein in the bait tanks. As soon as I told him, he and Raydeen headed for the bait room.
"Oh my God," breathed Raydeen, turning white. Randy, also looking quite pale, said, "Don't anybody touch anything. I guess I gotta call the crime lab and get them to send out a mobile unit." Wallace County isn't big enough to have its own lab.
The next couple of hours became a blur of activity. The state boys arrived and started taking pictures, fingerprinting everything, including me. Then, after the medical examiner arrived, they hauled Eaudelein out of the water.
Randy and one of the investigators from the State Crime Unit, Detective Mertis, made me tell them the whole story in detail, over and over. They wanted to know who had keys to the store. I said I did and so did Freddy, of course, and Hank, Freddy's partner. There were a couple of part-timers who had keys, Willie Smith and Jim Roy Learner.
"Did Eaudelein have a key?" asked Randy.
"I really don't know," I said. "I doubt it, since she and Freddy are divorced. Maybe she still had a key, but I can't imagine her coming in here." She and Freddy hated each other.
"Where was Freddy last night?" asked Randy. Detective Mertis looked curious.
"You know, Randy, he was with me. We saw you at Blockbuster Video last night. We rented a video, went home, and watched it, then we went to bed around ten. Freddy got up around 3:00 a.m. so he could go fishing. The largemouth were supposed to be biting, and he's gettin' in as much time on the water as he can before the Bass Master Classic. He's tryin' to turn pro," I said in an aside to Mertis.
Randy and Detective Mertis exchanged a long look; then Mertis asked, "Where is Freddy now?" He spoke in a still, flat voice. It was my first indication that Freddy was a suspect. Later, looking back, I could follow his reasoning. But hearing the words come from him, in Freddy's shop, with Eaudelein lying on a piece of black plastic in the bait room, sent shivers down my spine. They didn't believe me. I'm about as trustworthy as they come. I don't look like a liar. Hell, sometimes I wish I did, but I look more like your mama. I'm plump and short, with a fresh-scrubbed complexion and pink cheeks. My hair went gray years ago. Give me a ribbon-racked apron, and I could be Betty Crocker. I drive their children to school in one of the four schoolbuses that Wallace County owns. If they couldn't trust me, who could they trust?
No, they thought Freddy had somehow gotten Eaudelein to meet him at the shop and murdered her. My Freddy may have hated Eaudelein, but he would never have killed the mother of his daughter, no matter how evil she'd treated him.
Raydeen put the word out on the police radio she carried that we were looking for Freddy. Detective Mertis held a low-toned conference with Randy. Randy shot a few worried looks in my direction, then wrote a few more things in his notebook.
Around nine, Freddy and Hank came tearing up to the store in Hank's old pickup. Freddy rushed through the door. "Patsy, I just heard. Are you all right?" Surely, I thought, Detective Mertis could tell, just from meeting my Freddy, that he was no killer. But that wasn't the case.
"Fred, I'm afraid we're going to need to ask you to come down to the station with us," said Randy. He didn't say he was sorry or talk to Freddy like they'd known each other for years. He was Randall Vaughn, Wallace County sheriff. And Freddy was a prime suspect in a murder investigation.
They didn't tell me or Hank to come to the station. They just took Hank's prints and asked him where he'd been last night. When he said fishin', they didn't say anything about him coming down there. Of course, he hadn't been married to Eaudelein, but it was the principle of the thing.
As Randy was leading Freddy to the patrol car, Freddy stopped dead in his tracks and whirled around. "Oh my Lord," he cried. "What about Loretta? Does she know?" No one had thought to go to Freddy's daughter. "Babe, I hate to ask you, but would you find her? Someone's gonna have to tell her about her mama." I quickly figured out that the someone was me.
What else could I say but "Sure, hon, don't worry. I'll go get her and bring her back to our place."
Freddy and I weren't married. Yet. Freddy'd gotten taken in the divorce. Things were so tight financially that he just couldn't see getting married. He said he didn't want to marry me with so much debt hanging over his head. If you ask me, I think Eaudelein burned him so bad he was afraid of its happening again. So, against the town's better judgment, 'cause you know they judged everybody, I let Freddy move in.
He'd been such a pitiful wreck when we met. Although we both grew up in Barrow, he'd been a few years ahead of me in school and left to join the army as soon as he graduated. Freddy was a Baptist and I belonged to the Methodist church, so our paths never crossed until I stopped in the store to buy bait. Fishin' was gonna be my new hobby, and Freddy was only too happy to help me find a tackle box.
His divorce had only been final a few months, and he was bitter. He couldn't cook, didn't care to, and lived like a prisoner in his tiny apartment. When we began dating, all that changed.
We'd been living together for almost ten months, and in that time Freddy'd come around pretty well. He liked my fried chicken and creamed potatoes, and he'd put on about fifteen pounds. He'd made himself a little workshop in my shed out back and had even joined the softball league. But we didn't talk about marrying any more. I felt that was best left to time.
Loretta, his fifteen-year-old daughter, had been the one thorn in the side of our relationship. She was a dark-haired, sullen child who took after her mother in looks and attitude. Loretta saw me as the Other Woman, standing between her parents and reconciliation. No amount of talking on Freddy's part could persuade her otherwise. She tolerated me and rarely spent the night at our house. Of course, Eaudelein had a lot to do with that. She poisoned the child's mind. She told Loretta that Freddy had started seeing me long before he and Eaudelein separated. That was flat not true. Freddy was living on his own when I met him.
I was going to have trouble with Loretta, I just knew it.
When I pulled up in front of Eaudelein's house, there were cars parked in the driveway. Folks would have known that Loretta was alone, with no one to break the news to her. It wasn't their place, however, to come tromping over and interfere. It was just going to make my job harder.
As I walked up the path, I could hear Loretta wailing. She'd been close to her mother, but this was the wail of someone milking it for all it was worth.
Loretta's aunt, Minnie, Eaudelein's oldest sister, was sitting on the sofa, patting Loretta's hand. Tears streamed down both their faces, and a little group of busybodies stood around looking helpless.
They were not glad to see me, but Minnie was at least civil. She only asked "What are you doin' here?" instead of "What are you doin' here, bitch?"
"Freddy was worried about Loretta. He asked me to come over and make sure she was all right. He's down at the station, helping the police with the investigation." I was putting the best light on the situation for Loretta's sake.
"Loretta," I said, "your daddy wants me to bring you back to our place till he gets home. Then we can sort things out from there."
Loretta lifted her tear-swollen face and favored me with a malevolent glare. "You did this," she shrieked. "You killed my mama!"
Minnie broke in, "Now, Loretta, honey, Patsy wouldn't have killed your mama. And if she had," she continued, with a warning glance in my direction, "the cops would have her in jail." Minnie wasn't defending me. She just didn't want to end up with Loretta in her custody. Everybody knew that Loretta was trouble. Her mama'd been having a devil of a time trying to ride herd on her rebellious child.
Every time Freddy turned around, Eaudelein was on the phone whining about how Loretta had skipped school, missed curfew, or talked back. What was he going to do about it? Then, when Freddy tried to do something, Eaudelein and Loretta double-teamed him. Watching the two of them work Freddy over was like watching Roller Derby, only my Freddy was stuck in the middle.
"Loretta, honey," I said, trying again, "I know you feel awful. I can't imagine how terrible this is for you. Let's get a few of your things and go on back to my place. Your daddy needs you."
That did it; Freddy's baby girl was on her way to comfort her daddy. She tolerated me on the ride back across town. She sat hunched against the passenger-side car door, snuffling into a crumpled Kleenex. She was actually a very sad little girl, vulnerable in her grief, and not the hard case she led the rest of us to believe.
I didn't say much until we were inside. I offered her a Coke or something to eat, but she said no. "Where's my dad?" she asked after an hour had passed.
"I don't know, sugar." I was beginning to feel a little anxious myself. "Loretta, did your mama go out anyplace last night?" I figured Loretta might know something that would help Freddy out. The police would want to talk to her at some point, too.
"I don't know. I was over at Tammara's, spending the night. Mama said she might be going out later but that she wouldn't be gone long." Loretta was tugging at her long black hair and chewing her lip. I could tell that my asking her questions was only going to make her more nervous, so I quit.
The sound of a car door slamming had both of us up out of our seats and over to the front door. It was Randy, and he was alone. Where was Freddy?
He didn't look me in the eye the whole way up the path. When he got to the bottom porch step, he looked up at the two of us. "Patsy. Loretta, I'm sorry about your mama." His eyes were sad.
"Where's my daddy?" Loretta asked, ignoring Randy's solicitude.
"Let's go inside," I interjected. I didn't figure we should be talking about all this under the neighbors' watchful eyes. Randy seemed to jump at the idea, so we trooped into my tiny living room.
"Loretta, Patsy, I wanted to be the one to tell you this. Freddy has been arrested for the murder of Eaudelein."
"Randy, how could you?" I yelled over Loretta's howl of rage and grief. "You know better than that! You've fished with him. You know Freddy would never hurt anybody. It was all that Mertis's doing, wasn't it?"
Randy looked apologetically at Loretta. "Honey, I need to talk to Patsy alone. Would you excuse us?" Loretta favored him with one of her most evil glares, then flounced from the room. I figured she'd go just far enough to be out of sight yet still overhear our conversation.
Randy caught on and lowered his voice. "Patsy, his prints were all over the baseball bat used to bash in Eaudelein's head."
"Well, that don't mean nothing. Freddy kept that bat behind the counter, by the register. It stands to reason that his prints would be all over it."
"Freddy was out alone, without an alibi, at 4:00 a.m., the time of the murder. Everybody knows he and Eaudelein were at each other's throats. Somebody overheard the two of them fighting last week, and Freddy threatened to kill her then."
I knew the fight Randy meant. It had been all over town. Freddy had stopped to pick up Loretta at the house, and Eaudelein had come out to pick a fight. She threatened to keep Loretta away from Freddy. He'd freaked out and told her he'd see her dead before he let her take Loretta away from him.
He didn't actually mean he would kill Eaudelein. It was a remark made in anger. I had to admit I wasn't sure what would have happened if Eaudelein had somehow taken Loretta away from Freddy.
"Daddy wouldn't kill Mama." We hadn't heard Loretta creep down the hallway, hadn't seen her walk into the room.
"I'm sorry, Loretta."
Excerpted from Tar Heel Dead Copyright © 2005 by Sarah R. Shaber. Excerpted by permission.
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