An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock by Terry Shames is the 6th book in the Samuel Craddock Mystery series (Available January 3, 2017).
When the Jarrett Creek Fire Department is called to douse a blaze on the outskirts of town, they discover a grisly scene: five black young people have been murdered. Newly elected Chief of Police Samuel Craddock, just back from a stint in the Air Force, finds himself an outsider in the investigation headed by the Texas Highway Patrol. He takes an immediate dislike to John Sutherland, a racist trooper.
Craddock’s fears are realized when Sutherland arrests Truly Bennett, a young black man whom Craddock knows and respects. Sutherland cites dubious evidence that points to Bennett, and Craddock uncovers facts leading in another direction. When Sutherland refuses to relent, Craddock is faced with a choice that will define him as a lawman—either let the highway patrol have its way, or take on a separate investigation himself.
Although his choice to investigate puts both Craddock and his family in danger, he perseveres. In the process, he learns something about himself and the limits of law enforcement in Jarrett Creek.
When I walk into the kitchen Monday morning, Jeanne is standing with her back to me, stirring oatmeal on the stove. She’s still in her nightgown, and the outline of her body is visible through
the sheer fabric. My breath catches. I walk up behind her, put my arms around her, and nuzzle her neck, where she says it always makes her feel weak. She shivers and nestles back into me. She smells like lemon and soap. I slip my hands up to her breasts, and she whispers, “Samuel, the oatmeal . . .”
I reach over and switch off the burner. She turns around, and her mouth comes up to meet mine. We’ve been married for six years, and I still can’t get enough of her, ever. She steps onto my feet to bring herself up closer to my height, and also because she knows it arouses me. I move my hands over her, and she begins humming that low sound she makes in her throat.
The phone begins to ring, and she stiffens. “Leave it,” I say. My voice sounds strange to me, hoarse and urgent.
She clamps her arms around my neck, and I pick her up so she can wrap her legs around my waist. I carry her to the bedroom like that and slam the door to muffe the sound of the telephone. I hear the sound of the volunteer fire department whistle starting up. Thank goodness that’s not for me.
When we get back to the oatmeal, she says, “You’re just wound up because the cattle are coming today.”
“If owning cattle gets me that wound up, I’m going to buy more,” I say.
She’s right. I’m happy. Ever since we moved back to Jarrett Creek, I’ve been planning to buy twenty head of cattle for the pasture behind the house. It’s why we settled on this house to begin with. We weren’t in a hurry, thinking we’d start a family first, and then add the cows after we knew what we were up against with raising a child. But no children have come along yet, so we decided a few months ago to start shopping for cattle.
The phone starts up again. “You better get it,” she says. “The people bringing the cows may be lost.”
She knows that’s not true. It’ll be work. Something’s happened, and I’ll have to go in. Earlier this year I was appointed chief of police here in Jarrett Creek, the youngest chief they’ve ever had. When Hazel Baker, the city administrator, called me into her offce and suggested it, I laughed.
“Why me? I don’t know anything being a police offcer, much less chief.”
She didn’t laugh with me. “Don’t play dumb with me, Samuel. I’ve known you since you were a little kid, and you’re too smart not to know we’ve got a drug problem here.” She was right, I did know. If I hadn’t been so unprepared for her suggestion that I take over as chief, I would have asked her why she thought I was the one to solve the problem. Maybe I was too flattered to think carefully about the city council’s reasons for choosing me.
The whole country went through a big upheaval after President Kennedy was shot and the Vietnam War heated up. That was almost twenty years ago. It’s like a whole generation ran off the rails and straight into drugs. You wouldn’t think a small town like ours would attract drug dealers, but it was looking like we weren’t immune.
“Jack Knight is too old to get a handle on what’s going on with all the young people,” Hazel said. “You’re young and smart and from around here, so you know everybody. And I can guarantee you that Jack is going to be glad to get out from under the job.”
“Can’t one of the deputies take over?”
She snorted. “Eldridge is older than Jack, Doug Tilley is moving to Waco, and the less said about Johnny Pat Hruska, the better.” Johnny Pat was legendary for taking six years to complete high school. A sweet man, but not the brightest candle on the birthday cake.
“How does this work? You hand me a badge and tell me I’m the police chief?”
“It’s not quite that easy, but almost. Roland Newberry is the Bobtail County sheriff, and he’ll have to okay it, but I don’t expect he’ll put up a fuss.”
Seeing that I hadn’t exactly figured out what I was going to do now that I was back in my hometown, I consented. Only after I said yes, without consulting Jeanne, did I find out she was opposed to it. She made her peace with it, but she’s short on enthusiasm.
After I agreed to take the job, there was still the matter of me having no training, so the county paid for me to take a three-month program in Austin. Jeanne stayed in Austin with me and often drove up to see her mother in Fort Worth.
Hazel was right. Jack Knight didn’t let the door hit him on the way out of offce. It turned out that Tilley decided not to move to Waco after all, but he seems fine with remaining a deputy, as do the other two. I worried that the three deputies might be surly about having a chief as young as me and without a shred of experience, but if they are unhappy, they keep it to themselves.
It’s Tilley on the phone. In addition to being deputy, he’s also a member of the volunteer fire department. “Where the hell have you been?”
I’m startled. Tilley is a deacon in the Baptist church, and he rarely curses. “I was outside. What’s the problem?”
He breathes hard for a couple of seconds before he speaks. Outside, I hear sirens in the distance, which means they’ve called the Bobtail Fire Department for help. Must be big. “We’ve got us a situation. It’s bad.”
He’s so agitated that his explanation is garbled, but when he says bodies, I interrupt. “Where are you?”
“Out in the woods in Darktown, across the tracks and south. Past the old Mitchell place.”
All the black people in town live across the tracks in a place that’s been called “Darktown” since before I can remember. After I cross the tracks, I turn south and speed along the gravel-and-dirt
road that borders the railroad tracks. Ahead of me, a plume of smoke rises through the trees. To my right, the fenced-in property is strewn with equipment and leavings from the abandoned railroad-tie plant that kept this town thriving when the railroads were big. Ties dark with creosote preservative lie scattered among knee-deep weeds. A few old railroad cars lie rusting alongside the fence.
On the other side, shacks are lined up close to one another. Most people who live here can’t afford paint, so the houses are whitewashed and weathered. They’re small but mostly kept up, although a few lean as if they are tired from the effort to stay upright. Many have late-season
flowers blooming in the yards—zinnias and climbing roses. Several people are standing out on their porches, eyes trained in the direction of the woods, toward the smoke. I pass the Bennett house, where Truly Bennett lives with his daddy and sister. His mother died last year—one of the kindest ladies you’d ever meet. I’ll be seeing Truly later. He’s coming to help me get the cows settled. I don’t think he’s twenty, and he already has a reputation as somebody who knows his cattle. His daddy is standing on the porch, and I wave to him. He half lifts his hand, but he’s focused on what’s happening in the woods.
I’m driving pretty fast, but a highway patrol car overtakes me, siren blaring, and speeds on by, leaving me in a cloud of dust. I get a glimpse of two officers, but I don’t recognize either of them. I follow the patrol car as it turns down a dirt road that’s rutted and barely passable. Scrub brush scrapes the patrol car and my pickup. We pull into a clearing at the side of the road where a path leads off through the woods.
There are already two fire trucks here. In addition to our yellow Jarrett Creek truck, there’s a red one from Bobtail. The Bobtail fire chief ’s pickup is here, too.
I park next to the highway patrol car and lean over to grab my badge out of the glove box and pin it to my shirt pocket. Tilley’s call sounded so urgent that I didn’t stop to put on a uniform. I leave my pistol there. I expect there’s enough firepower here already.
As soon as I open the door, the smell hits me. The smell of burning creosote is strongest, but there’s another smell underneath that turns my stomach: burned flesh. Somebody didn’t make it out alive.
The highway patrolmen are out of their car before me and don’t pause long enough for me to catch up. I follow them along the path through the woods until we reach the scene of the fire.
The fire crew got here in time to save part of the house, but a good portion of it is a charred mess. From the stink of creosote in the air, I figure the reason it didn’t burn to the ground is that it was built with stolen treated railroad ties. A lot of the illegal residences around here are built with lumber filched from the stack of railroad ties left behind when the plant shut down.
Tilley spots me and comes over right away. His face is an unhealthy color of gray/green. He’s a hefty man, under six feet but with a lot of extra pounds on him, and a couple of extra chins. He once told me his favorite food was pancakes, and it’s pretty clear he has eaten more than his share.
“What happened?” I ask.
He groans. “It’s awful. At least four bodies.”
“Four!” I’m staggered. How did a fire happen so fast that four people got trapped?
“Tilley,” somebody calls, “We need you over here.” A firefighter wearing a Bobtail Fire Department baseball cap beckons to him.
I hear another car out on the road, and in a few seconds a lanky, energetic woman in her forties hurries into view with a notebook and pen in her hand, and a camera slung around her neck. We don’t have much of a newspaper in town, the Jarrett Creek Tribune, but Bonnie Bedichek struts around as if she’s the editor and chief reporter of the Dallas Morning News.
“What have we got here?” She strides toward the two highway patrolmen, ignoring me. She has never made any secret of the fact that she has no respect for me as a lawman, because of my age and inexperience.
“Hey, little lady, back it up.” One of the highway patrolmen puts up both hands to stop her. He’s at least three inches shorter than she is, stocky and red-faced. His gray hair is cut military-style. His eyes are what they call gunfighter blue—cold and unrelenting.
I flinch, knowing how “little lady” is going to go over with her.
“I’m not your ‘little lady,’” she says. “I’m a reporter for the Jarrett Creek Tribune, and I have every right to be here.”
He raises his eyebrows. “You have a right to be where I say you can be. I determine whether it’s safe for you, and I’m telling you it’s unsafe. Now back away, get in your car, and clear on out.”
“I’ll do no such thing.”
Before this can get into a pissing contest, I step up. “Bonnie, how about if you stand back here with me? We’ll find out what’s going on together.”
“Who the hell are you?” the patrolman asks.
I thumb my badge. “Samuel Craddock, chief of police here in Jarrett Creek.” As if he couldn’t tell from seeing the badge.
“Looks like they robbed the cradle when they found a chief,” he says. “It’s nice for you to take the trouble to come out, but we’ve got this under control. This is going to be a state matter, and we’re going to cordon off the area. So you can run along.”
I bristle at his tone and his words. “This fire happened in the city limits and is part of my jurisdiction.”
He puts his hands on his hips and moves a step closer. “Your jurisdiction be damned. As you may or may not know, in the state of Texas, the highway patrol investigates suspicious deaths in small towns. And if this little bump in the road isn’t a small town, I don’t know what is. Which means you have no standing.”
His partner, a man of about sixty, has stayed in the background, as if he’s used to his partner’s ways and isn’t of a mind to interfere. I noticed that his eyes follow everything, though, and I expect he doesn’t miss a thing.
The patrolman is stretching his facts. The highway patrol is usually the first to be notified of major crimes, but the Texas Rangers generally take over when an investigation is warranted. On paper, the highway patrol has the authority; but the Rangers have superior resources.
“I didn’t get your name,” I say.
“Sutherland. Now I’ll thank you to step aside.” He glances over at Bonnie, who is writing furiously in her notebook. “And take that . . .lady with you.”
Just as I’m ready to incite a turf war over my right to be here, Tilley comes back, shaking his head. “Craddock, this is a bad business.”
“You say there are four bodies?” I ask, ignoring Sutherland.
“They just found a fifth one out behind the house.”
I shudder, thinking of someone on fire fleeing a house, and then Tilley says, “But this girl wasn’t burned. She was shot.”
“Goddammit, I told you to stay out of this,” Sutherland says to me.
He’s got more authority and experience than I do, but his attitude aggravates me. “I understand you’re in charge, but I’m the chief here, and I want to be kept informed of what you find out.”
“What the hell do you care about a bunch of niggers killing each other, anyway? Probably all drinking and got into a fight over some whore.”
I’ve heard that kind of language my whole life, but it never sits well, and it sounds especially hateful coming out of a lawman’s mouth.
“I don’t think that’s likely,” Tilley says, shooting Sutherland a hard look. “They’re all youngsters.”
Copyright © 2017 Terry Shames.
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Terry Shames is the Macavity Award-winning author of the Samuel Craddock mysteries A Killing at Cotton Hill, The Last Death of Jack Harbin, Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge, and The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake. She is the coeditor of Fire in the Hills, a book of stories, poems, and photographs about the 1991 Oakland Hills Fire. She grew up in Texas and continues to be fascinated by the convoluted loyalties and betrayals of the small town where her grandfather was the mayor. Terry is a member of the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime.