Chapter One: State Line Blues
Lester “Dickie” Potts sat on the porch sipping a cold beer listening to the cicadas sing their lonesome song. He winced while shifting his legs on the old car seat that served as a couch. The stitches had been out for the better part of two weeks, but the wounds still oozed a little. Lester looked down at the slowly spreading bloodstain on his tan pants. He’d let it spread, changing the dressings later on. The wound would heal and the scars would slowly fade into the limelight. Time would pass as it always does, gaining speed as Lester approached his golden years. Time would fix everything. However, the pain was another story. The pain was unbearable at times and would get worse with each passing month. By the time he hit sixty he’d be walking with a cane, if he could walk at all. It was a big price to pay for the small reward of temporary peace of mind. It seemed like everything was temporary in Lester’s life. No matter how hard he tried to live on the long term plan, short term reality always threw a wrench into things.
As twilight gave way to darkness, a loon cried out across the swamp, its haunting sound seeming so empty and lost. It reminded Lester of an old Hank Williams song his mother used to sing to him as a boy. The Loon’s cry cut a harsh line across his thoughts, further scarring an already damaged mind. He often wondered how long it would take for the emptiness to engulf him completely until he was permanently broken in spirit. The many miles he traveled had not been kind to him, especially in area of mental health. Lester was a loaded gun with loose trigger pin. One day it would all blow up in his face. He drained his beer and cracked open another. He preferred the local moonshine but tried to keep it down to beer on school nights as he called the work week. Lester glanced down at the badge pinned to his shirt and smiled. He was a long way from New York City and becoming a backwater Sheriff of a piss poor town was not in the plan. As he eyed the golden badge he noticed it starting to glow. No being one to believe in divine moments, he glanced out towards the swamp. A car was coming up the North side, heading up the fire road that led to his house.
Lester watched the car lumber along the potholed dirt road, bouncing violently along the uneven surface. He once thought about paving the road but decided against it. He was a private man who didn’t want visitors. He had enough ghosts haunting him to more than make up for a lack of friends. Besides, at fifty years old he’d become a first class son of a bitch who spoke first and thought later. He winced again as he prepared to stand up.
The car made the final turn up the driveway, raising a cloud of dry Mississippi dust in its wake. Lester grumbled as the car’s markings became clear. It was a Memphis State Police cruiser which could only mean one thing; bad news. Behind the wheel was a grim faced man with a crew cut. Some former jar headed marine trading in his army issued rifle for a cheap tin badge. Lester respected the badge of another man’s jurisdiction but he didn’t appreciate them rolling across the state line every time something happened remotely tied to the good state of Mississippi. Lester took the Sheriff’s job because he wanted an easy life. It was too bad that he didn’t know about the competitive world of moonshine before he signed on. Now, every time a mason jar filled with hooch was found across the state line policemen were sure to come running. The car came to an uneventful stop. As the door opened, the overhead light came on illuminating the officer’s face. Lester had seen this man before and didn’t particularly like him. It was Tom “The Saint” Masters, a bible thumping throwback to another era. Masters was from that era when Pat Boone sang about unrequited love and drive-in theatres were the place to be on a Saturday night. Masters was a throwback living in a world of guns, crack and lawlessness. He was the odd man out in a world filled with cops on the take. He earned the nickname “The Saint” because he never took a penny of graft money. He was hated by those who did, which made up the majority of his department. Even Lester was known to take a “donation for the widows and orphans” now and again when he was low on cash, but not “The Saint.”
Masters climbed out of the Crown Victoria cruiser. His face maintaining a scowl as he shut the car’s door and walked toward Lester with a slow mean gait. Lester contorted his facial muscles into the goofiest grin he could muster. He did it because Masters though he was just another dumb wannabe cracker. In fact, he thought Lester lead the pack in stupidity. After all, what kind of a man leaves a great life in a big city to become the Sheriff of a shit-hole town in the middle of nowhere? Maybe Masters was right. After all, only an idiot would give up the good life. Lester stood up as Masters walked up to the porch stairs, smiling like a witless rube.
“Good evening Sheriff.” Masters said in an aggravated tone.
“Tom Masters, what brings you down to our neck of the woods?”
“It’s now your neck of the woods? I don’t recall you being born and bred here. I guess you’ve been here long enough to be called a resident, but this is not your neck of the woods boy.” Masters face was now flushed with anger which concerned Lester.
“What do you want Masters? Did another jar of hooch find its way across the state line? And here I thought you boys up in the big city had your hands filled with sophisticated crimes like whores, crack and Elvis sightings.”
“There’s no need to get nasty about Lester. I don’t want to be here anymore that you want me here. However you and I have a problem.”
“How is it that we have a problem?” Now it was Lester’s turn to turn bright red.
One of the reasons the locals liked Lester was because he made an effort to keep police matters local. He gave his constituents a fair shake when it came to the law. Unless you killed someone or where a molster, as locals called child molesters, you could usually walk away with a warning or a little less cash in your wallet. Lester didn’t like half of the people in his county but they were now his tribe and he showed them some degree of legal compassion. Besides, all the paperwork he’d have to generate for petty crimes would take away from his real passions, chess and guitar picking. He wasn’t the best at either but he did pretty well with both in his spare time and his spare time was a priceless commodity. Therefore, when Masters said that they had problem, Lester knew this would become a time consuming legal thorn that would mercilessly dig into his backside until it consumed his precious spare time.
“Are you familiar with Johnny Ray Brower?” Lester’s heart sunk. Brower was the biggest problem is five counties. His file was so big it took up two and a half document boxes down at the station. Half the lawyers in the county had put their kids through college on money spent by Bowers on legal fees.
“I know Johnny. What’s he done this time?”
“For one thing, he was found in a bar on Beale Street with a recently fired gun that we think is tied to a homicide.”
Murder was the one thing Lester didn’t take lightly. Moonshiners shot at one another on a regular basis. It had been this way for the last one hundred and fifty years. Lester’s rule was simple; you can shoot at one another but do not, under any circumstances fatally wound your target. If you cross that line, the law will bear the full weight of its wraith on you. The locals, for the most part, followed his rule. While people ended up with a lead slug in them on occasion, the local veterinarian would patch them up and send them on their way. This was why there were no reported gun crimes in Lester’s county. It also allowed cash starved Veterinarians to earn money lost when the livestock market in the South took a dive. This was why his county had the lowest violent crime rate in the state. His county barely had a drug problem. Of course, this was due to the simple fact that everyone was too damn poor to spend cash on drugs in the first place. Well, that’s not exactly true. There were drugs but those doing the dealing and those doing the taking kept their business far below the legal radar. Lester, who liked an occasional pain pill, had a negative number policy when it came to drugs. “Just say no” had become “do that shit in my county boy and I’ll break your fingers one by one.” Needless to say, after a few broken fingers, any drug problems appeared to vanish.
Johnny Ray Bower was a lot of things. He was a moonshiner who ran whores, dabbled in drugs and petty theft, but he was not a killer. He was just too dumb. Bower was, in reality, dumber than a sack of door knobs and about as smart as a flat tire. Murder wasn’t his thing. He’d done short time at Parchman and didn’t like it. Mississippi still had chain gangs and Johnny Ray was the laziest man alive. As dumb as he was he wouldn’t commit a crime that would land him a lifelong spot on the road crew. Mississippi could be hell on earth during the summer and working the chain gang was as close to going to hell as you could get while still living.
“Hell Tom, Bower’s not a killer. He’s too stupid a son of a bitch for something like that.”
“Listen Lester, I know about your cozy relation with the locals and you’re not going to be able to fix this one for the Bower family. We got him locked up while he waits for a hearing.”
“So did you come down here to tell me the news in person or is there something else on your mind?”
“Lester, I don’t like you but you’re out of your league with this one. This one goes up the political flagpole. While I’d like to make Bower for this killing, I’m not so sure he did it.”
Lester’s thoughts came to a crashing halt. “The Saint” questioning the arrest of a known criminal was a first. Tom Masters didn’t like anyone who came across the state border and into Memphis, especially anyone with a Mississippi driver’s license. For Masters to question the guilt of a shit kicker like Bowers meant something was terribly wrong.
“What makes you so sure Bowers didn’t do it and while we’re on the subject, just who did Johnny Ray supposedly murder.”
“First of all, you’re right about Bowers. He’s a lot of things but a killer isn’t one of them. I bet we have a file on him just as big as yours. I went through his file this morning and its all non violent crimes. That boy hasn’t so much as raised a hand in anger. Now, the people that work for him are a different story.”
“Yeah, you’re talking about Ma Rocket and her kin.”
“Exactly. Look Lester, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over Bowers winning the judicial lottery and being sent straight to the chain gang or whatever we’re supposed to call them now.”
“Road crew is the new state sanctioned title.” I interjected. “We’re supposed call them road improvement crews so we don’t scare the tourist dollars away.”
“As if anyone comes down here that’s not looking for shine.”
“Let’s not get into a pissing match over my people.”
“They’re not your people Lester and they never will be.” However, you’re right about keeping this professional. As I was saying, there’s something off about this. We found Bower’s in a bar on Beale Street, drunk to the point of no return. The gun he had on him appeared to match the shell casings we found. What struck me as odd was the fact that he had no alibi. What’s the one thing Bowers always has when he gets caught for something?”
“An airtight alibi that can’t be broken?”
“That’s it son. We go into the bar, after getting an anonymous call, and he’s got no alibi. While the prosecutor says Bower’s lack of an alibi is just a case of apples and oranges, I’m thinking this arrest was too neat. When was the last time you had a textbook case?”
“I get your point. Where do I fit in to all of this?”
“Well, for one thing, he’s from your county. For another thing, you can open doors down here that are normally closed to Memphis PD.”
“So we’re working together?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.” The redness reappeared back in “The Saint’s” cheeks. “I am asking you, as a professional courtesy, to look into things on your end and to see what you think. You have forty eight hours to come up with something before this turns ugly.”
“Here’s the file. Take a look and give me a call. You’ll see what I mean when you read through the particulars of the case.”
With that said, he walked back to his cruiser. Within two minutes his car was turned around and heading back down the fire road. Lester cracked another beer and sat down with the file. He wasn’t sure what I’d find when he opened it but Lester knew it wouldn’t be good. Johnny Ray Bowers was a thorn in his side but the scoundrel had a certain charm. He had known Johnny Ray for the ten years he’d been Sheriff. He knew Bowers mostly through arrests, warnings and donations to the “windows and orphans fund,” but he knew enough about Bowers to know he wasn’t a killer. Some men had the ability to kill. You could see it in their eyes. Bowers didn’t have it. However what Bowers did have was a world of trouble and Lester had a sinking feeling that he’d have to help Johnny Ray, like it or not.
Settling back down on the old car seat, Lester stared at the file. Part of him wanted to forget about the whole thing until morning. After all, there was nothing he could do tonight. Lester was sure that Johnny Ray had already retained a lawyer and formulated some sort of half assed plan. Johnny Ray Bowers was a man who might be a close cousin to the village idiot but that didn’t mean he was stupid. Even the dumbest criminal has his moments. It really could wait until morning but Lester had a bad case of terminal curiosity and had to open the file.
After settling onto the bright red car seat, Lester took a long slow pull on his beer. He placed the file folder on his lap, carefully avoiding the large sticky bloodstain on his thigh. He was surprised that Tom Masters didn’t comment on it, especially considering Tom’s eye for detail. Lester figured either Masters had a lot on his mind when he arrived or he simply ignored it. Either way, Lester didn’t want to return a file with splotches of blood on it. Opening the file he realized why this case would explode. This case would become hotter than a cathouse special. As the old saying goes, the shit was about to hit the fan.
Lester stared at the photograph for what seemed like a lifetime. In it was the strangely contorted body of a woman in her thirties. Her face had been badly beaten and her arms and leg were bent at unnatural angles. He recognized the face before he read the report. It was Mandy Monroe, part time stripper and high class call girl, well as high class as you can get in Mississippi. She was also the mistress of Tennessee’s Governor. This could only get worse.
The crime scene report read like any other investigative report. A maid at The Riviera Motel, the dumpiest hotel on Elvis Presley Blvd in Memphis, found Mandy Monroe’s lifeless body behind a fur covered bed in the motel’s honeymoon suite on Monday, May 22nd 2011. Having conducted unofficial business at the Riviera, Lester knew what a roach infested fleabag the motel was. Any place that rents by the hour isn’t good and the motel’s idea of a honeymoon suite comes with a built in stripper’s pole. This was a place that the Governor would never haunt, even if he was meeting his mistress for a quick spin in the sheets. The motel was constantly being raided by the Memphis PD and the city council had been working on a way of forcing the motel to shut down permanently.
According to the initial report, the maid started to run out of the room after discovering the body, passed out as she ran through the door and hit her head on the door jamb for good measure. Burt Dingle, a Vietnam veteran who used the motel for recreational purposes found the maid as well as Monroe’s body and dialed 911. Police dispatch logged the call at 11:11 am which made since it was the standard checkout time at most motels. Lester knew that the first 48 hours of an investigation were critical. After that, evidence had a way of fading into the woodwork. According to report, the crime was committed 36 hours ago on Tuesday May 13. This meant the window of opportunity would close in approximately 12 hours. He read further, slowly sipping his beer and listening to the frogs sing their crotchety lullaby.
The rooms on either side of the honeymoon suite were occupied during the murder. Because of the motel’s upstanding clientele, there were no leads. There were no witnesses and nobody heard a thing in either or the two adjacent rooms. It was typical, no witnesses and a tailor made suspect. What really put the hook into Lester was how neat and tidy the investigation was progressing.
At the time of Lester’s bizarre election as county Sheriff, he knew that he was in over his head. Therefore, he bought a stack of criminal investigation and procedure manuals, studying them well into the winter nights prior to the election. Going into the job, he felt reasonably prepared. He learned the hard way that textbook theory seldom resembles real life crime. Investigations were like a used jigsaw puzzle. There’s always a few pieces missing and those missing pieces are usually tantamount to solving the puzzle.
He read on until midnight, jotting notes on a paper bag that once housed the six pack of beer he was now drinking. What did Masters really want from him? He wasn’t a career professional. He was a former chemist who got sick of living in New York. He was a man with too many ghosts in his life to ever get close to anyone. He was a prick who only cared about banging away on his flat top guitar and playing chess. He wondered if he and Johnny Ray Bower shared something in common, namely something that that would make them both the investigation’s patsies. Lester was smart enough not to become a victim of politics, or so he thought.
Sometime after 1:00am, Lester decided to make the drive up to Memphis and see Johnny Ray. He didn’t sleep much these days because the anniversary of his wife’s death was coming up. That was the real reason for his moving to the middle of nowhere. He couldn’t stand to walk by places he once shared with his wife. He couldn’t stand the way in which friends walked on eggshells when they ran into Lester on the streets. However, what he really didn’t like was the placating condolences from people that didn’t like him in the first place. He just couldn’t take it anymore so he ran. Unfortunately, no one told Lester that his ghosts would follow him no matter where he went. With that thought, he limped into his house, had four fingers of shine, grabbed his car keys, service pistol and started the 75 mile drive to Memphis.
One of the great things about being Sheriff, Lester thought, was the ability to drive around the county with a moonshine buzz. Lester’s moral compass would occasionally lose its bearings. He had no qualms about driving slightly drunk. He’d even ticketed tourists while three sheets to the wind. However, he wasn’t so sure about driving drunk in Memphis so he hit the Sonic Drive-in for coffee on the way out of Clarksdale. After wolfing down two large cups he was right as rain. He tuned WROX in on the cruiser’s stereo and cranked the volume. Chicken Foot Jones was singing another sorrowful song about shooting his woman. Lester smiled as he often did when he heard Jones. He and the legendary bluesman had spent many a summer night drinking shine and pounding out the blues on Lester’s porch. It was Jones who got him through those first rough years of life after Lester’s wife died. Some nights they’d talk until the sun rose and on other nights they’d sit and say nothing, each man lost in his own thoughts. It was people like Jones that made Lester want to spend the rest of his life in Mississippi. His was a backwater life but he’d found a place where the ghosts could be kept under control.
It was now close to 2:00am and Highway 61 was empty and would remain so until he reached Tunica. Tunica was a dying town meant to be revived by the influx of casinos. Lester always thought there was something wrong with putting casinos in one of Mississippi’s poorest towns. While it brought employment to an area desperate for work, it also became a Mecca for anyone with a dream of easy money. The poor flocked in to spend their grocery and rent money in the hopes of hitting the jackpot. Needless to say, the odds are in favor of the house and most of those poor dreamers left the casinos even poorer. Other than the casinos, the only people to profit from gambling were the town’s pawn shops that occupy many of the storefronts along Highway 61. Tunica was still 40 minutes up the road so Lester could enjoy the silence. As the speedometer reached 85, Lester looked out the windshield at the passing farm houses. He wondered what kind of life these cotton growers led. Were they happy and satisfied with their lives? Were they haunted by the ghosts of their pasts? Lester guessed that every man and woman had their own demons and crosses to bear and took some comfort in that thought.
By the time he was driving through Tunica, Lester was about one sheet to the wind. He was feeling tired and sore so he pulled out a bottle of Oxycontin and took two 30 mg tablets. Oxycontin or “hillbilly heroin” was a popular pain killer that was highly addictive. Lester didn’t care. He had a prescription with a refill and a doctor that owed him a few favors. He simply added drug addict to his list of character defects. If God didn’t like it, Jesus could file a complaint for all he cared. By the time he crossed the state line and hit Memphis he was feeling good. However, his mood would soon change when he saw Johnny Ray.
The Memphis County Jail was run by the Shelby County Sheriff’s Department out on Poplar Road. On the outside it looks like a community college with some barbwire thrown around the perimeter for good measure. Driving there can be a bit hairy since you have to cut off of Highway 61 and drive through some rough neighborhoods. Lester didn’t care because he was high as a kite. He pulled his cruiser into the area reserved for law enforcement, backing into a handicap parking sign as he tried to park. He chewed on a mouthful of gum to remove any traces of the shine had drank earlier. Adjusting his black Stetson, he proceeded to the front door. He looked back at his car, hoping he remembered to lock the doors. Crack-heads were known to cruise the parking lot in search of unlocked vehicles, proving that no matter where you park, a junkie was always standing by to relieve you of your possessions. Walking through the front doors he was hit with that institutional smell all jails had, the scent of sweat, fear and uncertainty.
Stopping at the check-in desk, he surrendered his firearm and was met by a jailer. The jailer, a solemn balding man who appeared to have no sense of humor, walked him through the seemingly endless series of locked gates. The two men finally reached the wing where Johnny Ray was housed. The guard on duty seemed to be expecting Lester which left him feeling uneasy. He got the feeling that he was merely an actor playing a role, reading the lines of a script whose ending had already been written.
“Who are you here to see Sheriff?”
“The Prisoner’s name is Johnny Ray,” the guard cut him off.
“Captain Masters said you’d be up tonight.”
“I didn’t realize I was expected.”
“The Captain said that he’d seen you earlier. He said you’d get up here before the roosters crowed. He said you were a man who wouldn’t waste time if one of your locals was locked up.”
“Sounds like the Captain said a lot.”
“I don’t know about that. You ready to see the prisoner?”
“Yeah, I need to talk to him and get back across the state line as soon as possible.”
“That’s not happening anytime soon Sheriff, but you can talk with the Captain about that.”
Lester wondered if was being played the same way in which Johnny Ray was being played. Lester was the perfect patsy. He liked his shine, his pills and he ran his department by his own set of rules. Masters was partially right. He was an outsider no matter how long he lived in Clarksdale and he wasn’t willing to bet his life on his constituents. Masters knew a bit too much about him as well. Some of it was local scuttlebutt, some of it was curiosity, but most of it was Lester’s big mouth having been documented during local investigations. He wasn’t cutout for the job. Not many white collar academics give up the good life, let alone wind up winning an election against a long term incumbent. Lester never planned on becoming the county Sherriff and was constantly reminded of why it was such a shitty job. Lester wasn’t a good politician and it would eventually prove to be his downfall.
As he walked down the long corridor, faces leered at Lester from behind the bars. A jumble of words spilled across the cement walled corridor. Angry taunts mixed with half-assed greetings, all tangled together to form a cacophony jail house sing-song. He recognized a few faces from his own jail, drifters who made the mistake of landing in Clarksdale and fucking up on Lester’s watch. Sallow faced meth-heads, toothless and covered with sores, prattled on and on, layering conversation on top of conversation until it became a schizophrenic melody of madness. After what seemed like a lifetime, they reached the last cell on the block. Johnny Ray Bowers sat huddled in the corner of his cell, cradling the stainless steel toilet as if it was a life raft. After letting Lester into the cell, the guard walked away, as if leaving Lester to his own fate. Johnny raised his head, a look of sheer terror pouring from his eyes.
“Man I am so glad to see you Sheriff. You got to get me out of here because their either going to send me to Parchman or they’ll just do me here.”
“Did someone threaten you Johnny Ray?”
“Yes and no, I mean I heard Masters talking to the guard and they were saying that they wanted to transfer me to the general population. There are people in there that want to kill me.” He continued, nearly crying as he spoke.
“Look Sheriff, I know I’ve been a problem for you and I know how you deal with problems but don’t let me die here. As for Parchman, you know what will happen to me there.”
Lester did indeed know what would happen if Johnny Ray ended up in Parchman. The Mississippi State Penitentiary in Parchman was a notoriously tough prison run the same way it was seventy years ago. Parchman is meant to house 4,840 inmates and sits on 18,000 acres of land. Its population runs much higher and overcrowding can lead to violence. Its prisoners run the gamut from small time crooks to death row inmates. Inmates who qualify are allowed to work, doing back breaking manual labor in the hellish summers, freezing winters and all days in between. Convicts still wear traditional jail stripes and it’s the kind of place where a man like Johnny Ray wouldn’t last a week. The clock was counting down for Johnny Ray and he hadn’t even been convicted. Lester’s moral compass started work again, pointing toward true north.
Johnny Ray had every right to be afraid, afraid of going to Parchman and afraid to stay in the Memphis jail. Lester wasn’t sure what to do. He knew Masters wouldn’t transfer Johnny Ray to the general population if he knew there’d be trouble. However, Lester was pretty sure that someone else had assured Masters that Johnny Ray would be safe. Then again, could Lester trust Masters in the first place? Lester had a sudden thought. He worked with an FBI agent on a case involving one of Ma Rocket’s kids. The agent was actually grateful for a change. Normally, Federal Agents looked down on backwoods law enforcement, but not this agent. Lester pulled out his cell phone and dialed the agent’s number, hoping a call at this late hour wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience. After four rings, a groggy, raspy voice broke the silence.
“This is Agent Barnes, who is this?”
“Duncan, this is Sherriff Lester Potts. I’m sorry to call so late but I need your help.”
“Lester Potts, how are you?”
“You know what they say, same shit different day.” Duncan chuckled on the other end of the connection.
“What can I do for my favorite Mississippi Sheriff?”
“I’m involved in an investigation that is about to go through the roof. I’ll fill you in on the details tomorrow. However, I need a prisoner moved into protective custody immediately, no questions asked.”
“Normally, I’d tell you to go through appropriate channels and hang up the phone, but you took decent care of us down in Clarksdale so I’d like to return the favor. Just give me the details and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Lester filled Agent Barnes in on everything he knew. Within two hours, the FBI took charge of the prisoner on the grounds that Bowers was part of a larger, ongoing undercover investigation. It was a flimsy story at best, one that would hold up for a couple of days, but it bought Lester the time he needed to delve further into the case. Barnes came down with his partner of ten years, Rick Hughes, to oversee the transfer. They promised Lester that the paper trail would bury Johnny Ray Bowers so deeply that he’d be difficult to find at best. Lester stayed with Johnny Ray until the FBI came to escort him to their offices and holding facility on North Humphreys Road. This would probably raise a stink with the Memphis PD but Lester was willing to take that chance. He almost certain that Masters didn’t know that Johnny Ray would be in danger if put in the County jail’s general population and if Masters knew about the danger, the FBI would keep Johnny Ray safe.
After Lester collected his sidearm and left the jail, paranoia started to plant the seeds of doubt. What if Duncan Barnes was on the take? Did Lester just sign Johnny Ray’s death warrant? What if all parties concerned were as crooked as a pair of loaded dice? Lester started counting backwards from fifty, a technique he learned from his chess teacher to clear his head of unnecessary thoughts. He couldn’t operate in such a heightened state of paranoia. Lester had to hang on to what little sense of reality he had left. This wasn’t the time for a swim in the waters if irrational thought.
Lester had just gotten into his car when Masters and another officer pulled into the parking lot. Lester was sure that Masters had been tipped off, was angrier than a wet hornet and had come down to the jail for an explanation. Lester quickly started the car and drove off towards Beale Street. The bars had closed and the bus loads of drunken tourists were on their way back to their hotels or off vomiting in the alleyways off of the famous blues strip. Lester parked his cruiser on the side of the Peabody hotel, wondering if the hotel’s famous ducks were taking an early morning dip if the fountain. The hotel had a family of ducks who lived on the roof and would march across the hotel’s lobby promptly at 11:00am and 5:00pm, entertaining the hotel’s guests. With no ducks in sight, Lester walked down to Beale Street.
He checked his notepad for the name of the bar Johnny Ray had been arrested in. It was Bobby Jack’s Blue Note, a tourist dive if ever there was one. It was across the street from Schwab’s Dry Goods Store, an emporium of every imaginable oddity ever sold. Lester would often go though Schwab’s boxes of discounted CDs in search of Howlin Wolf recordings. Tonight, the old store was dark as a cemetery on a Sunday night. Lester proceeded to knock on the front door of the Blue Note, hoping someone would hear him above the jukebox. After a few moments of banging on the door, a muffled voice spoke from within.
“We’re closed in case you can’t read the sign.”
“You see this badge?” Lester said. “The next thing you’ll see is the gun that goes with it. Open the fucking door.”
“Hang on a minute.”
After some muffled conversation, the jukebox was suddenly silenced. Lester watched as two silhouettes performed a strange pantomime against the heavily frosted glass of the club’s front door. In a split second, the club’s bouncer was standing in the open door frame glaring at Lester. The intense glare gave way to a grin. It was Lester’s friend Tiny, the toughest bouncer on Beale Street.
“Tiny, I haven’t seen you a long time. How you been?”
“Sheriff Potts, what are you doing here?”
“I need to talk to you and Bobby. It’s about Johnny Ray.”
Tiny’s grin turned to a solemn frown. It was clear from his expression that Tiny was at the club when the police picked up Johnny Ray. It was also clear that Tiny didn’t think Johnny Ray had anything to do with the murder. The enormous bouncer waved Lester in, locking the door behind them. Bobby Jack was sitting at the end of the bar counting the night’s take. Lester looked around at the club which was completely empty except for the three of them.
Bobby Jack was a slightly successful soul singer whose best years had been in the 1970s. He had one or two regional hits, but never saw national success. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Bobby kept away from the demons and saved his money. He bought the Blue Note thirty years prior and earned a good living catering to European tourists and college students looking for authentic blues. Of course, Beale Street had become the Disneyland of the blues, the real deal taking place down in Clarksdale, but most tourists didn’t want to explore this genre of music much past the Memphis city limits. Only the truly faithful would come down to Clarksdale. That was fine with Lester since he didn’t like tourists, especially the ones that came to Clarksdale and made trouble.
Lester first met Tiny when he had gotten out of Parchman for petty theft. Tiny had done a nickel for breaking and entering. The two became friends after Lester proved he had nothing to do with a series of burglaries down in Jackson. Lester believed in Tiny when no one else would. Tiny was one of the few regulars who came to see Lester whenever he had chance. Tiny stood six and a half feet, thus the nickname. Lester walked down to the end of the bar and pulled up a stool next to Bobby.
“Lester Potts is in the house. What are you doing up in the big city Lester? Were things getting a little too quiet down on the homestead?”
“Good to see you and Tiny.”
“I’ve been meaning to come and see you down in Clarksdale, but I’m always one step ahead of the bill collectors. Want a drink?”
“I can’t, I’m on medication.” With that said, Lester popped another Oxycontin.
“Yeah a heard you got cut up pretty bad by that cokehead.”
Bobby was referring to a coke dealer from New Orleans who tried to set up shop in Lester’s county. Unlike the locals, Lester wasn’t able to get rid of the dealer and his associates with a few broken fingers. In the end it took about one hundred rounds of ammunition and a few late night burials.
“I’m doing alright.” Lester replied, as all three men looked at the bloodstain on Lester’s pants. He continued. I’m here about Johnny Ray Bowers. I understand he was picked up in here the other night. Captain Masters and I are working on…”
“You’re working with the blue eyed devil?” Bobby interrupted.
“Masters and I think Bowers is innocent. I think he’s being set up for a murder he didn’t commit. As for working with Masters, he doesn’t like and the feeling is mutual.”
“That’s a relief.” Tiny interjected. “I thought you’d gone over to the dark side!” Bobby started to laugh as did Lester.
“I honestly don’t think Johnny Ray killed anyone. He doesn’t have it in him. I do think that the notoriety of the victim warrants someone being arrested and convicted quickly to keep a lid on things.”
“Yeah, the Governor’s mistress. Isn’t that a four-legged bitch?” Bobby added. Lester was perplexed that Bobby knew who the victim was. Before Lester could ask Bobby how he knew who the victim was, Bobby continued. “Don’t look so shocked Lester. You know shit like that doesn’t happen without some bigmouth passing the information out like Halloween candy.”
“I know Bobby, but that makes my job harder. If everyone around these parts knows my business, that doesn’t leave me with any aces up my sleeve. How am I supposed to win the game if I don’t have an extra ace?”
“Using deductive reasoning and old fashion police work?” Tiny asked.
“That’s good Tiny. You should try out at the comedy club up the street. I’d rather cheat if truth be told.”
After a few rounds of whiskey and insults, the three men got down to the business at hand. It turns out that Johnny Ray wasn’t alone in the hours prior to his arrest. He had been in the company of a blond woman who kept buying him drinks. At first, Bobby thought she was a call girl but later dismissed the thought. After all, call girls don’t buy drinks for their clientele. It’s the other way around. Tiny mentioned that they came in together about four hours before the arrest. What got Lester’s attention was the fact that the woman wasn’t mentioned in the police report which meant that she left just before Johnny Ray was taken away in handcuffs. Did she make the call that brought the police to the bar? It didn’t require much effort to tie her to the case, but in what capacity was she connected? Obviously, she helped set up Johnny Ray, but did she play a further role? Lester took another pill and washed it down with a shot of Jack Daniels. After another hour of small talk, he walked out the door towards the Peabody Hotel. It was just after 5:00am and the blackness of the night had given way to the grayness of early morning. He drove through Memphis, making his way back to Highway 61 and Clarksdale. A storm was coming over the horizon. It was a storm that would rain down on everyone involved. It was time to take another pill. Lester drifted into a euphoric state as he drove home. The sun was rising over the cotton fields along Highway 61 as WROX cranked out the hits from a bygone era. Lester rolled down the windows and took a deep breath of cool air.