Chapter Two: Never Bring a Knife to a Gun Fight.
Lester blazed through Tunica at 90 mph, knowing full well that the driver of a police cruiser could ignore any posted speed limits. Farmers and the laborers they employed were just starting their day. The Blue and White Restaurant was doing a brisk business. Unfortunately, Lester didn’t have time to stop in for the “Early Bird” special. He made a mental note to stop in for lunch later in the week. A line of cars on Casino Blvd waited at the red light to turn left onto to Highway 61. These were the casino employees getting off of the graveyard shift. Some were heading home for some sleep, others going to their second job. Life could be hard scrabble tough in the land of cotton. Highway 61 was littered with the tattered remains of working men’s dreams.
When the casinos were built, the town was divided in two shifts, those who worked when the sun came up and those who worked when the sun went down. The two would meet on this stretch of Highway 61 every morning around 6:00am. By now, the entire town should have been transformed into a model community with all the amenities of well off suburb. However, the casinos did little to help Tunica, other than empty the wallets of many of its residents. They put a little of their profits into the schools but that was it. The casinos really got under Lester’s skin. He didn’t like the simple fact that the casinos were draining poor people of their money and no one said a word about it. While Lester had a list of character defects longer than most, stealing money from men and women who didn’t know any better was not one of them. Muttering under his breath something about the injustice of it all, he continued his drive home.
Before stopping by the office, he’d go home and take a quick shower. Then it was off to talk to Ma Rocket and her boys. He first met Ma Rocket when he started his job as Sheriff. He received a call about a shooting on the outskirts of Clarksdale. When he got there, he was met by three young men with shotguns who told him to either get off the property of get an ass full of lead. Not knowing who Ma Rocket was or just how much power she held in Southern Mississippi, Lester thought he’d call their bluff. When one of the men started to raise his gun, Lester shot him in the chest. The other two stood dumbfounded. No single man ever stood up the Rocket clan and lived to tell the tale. Lester had pulled the trigger without a second thought. Ma Rocket was impressed.
Her son, Junior Bubba Bob, survived the chest wound. Lester stopped the bleeding with a plumber’s torch and drove him to the hospital. He didn’t charge the young man but told him the next time he took a shot at Lester he’d find himself on a cold slab in Coroner’s office. As for the initial 911 call, it was a ruse to get the new Sheriff out to the Rocket ranch so they could size him up. After he left the young man at the hospital, he drove back out to the ranch to confront Ma Rocket. She gave him no trouble, knowing that any man crazy enough to shoot at her was a man to befriend. Since that day, the two had a strange working relationship that bordered on friendship. He turned a blind eye to her moonshine business and she offered her boy’s services when “off the books” work was required. Lester genuinely liked Ma Rocket. She and her boys were a throwback to the machine gun toting gangs of depression era America. They lived by a different code of ethics that Lester could appreciate. It was on “old school” way of doing business that had a strange sense of class to it. He turned right on Hopson Road, slowing down to cross the railroad tracks. Passing the Shack-Up Inn, he waved to the proprietor as he headed towards his home.
After a long hot shower and shave, Lester was beginning to feel human again. Changing into a clean uniform, he started the espresso maker, looking forward to two double shots of his favorite strong blend. Lester wasn’t big on kitchen accessories, thinking about the old adage “a fool and his money” every time he saw some overpriced gadget designed for the culinary connoisseur. Other than the espresso machine, the only other high end kitchen product he owned was a Viking range and that was because they were made down in Greenwood. Lester believed in supporting local business even if his stove cost nearly four grand. He thought about breakfast but opted for another pill. It balanced the effects of the espresso perfectly. He was back out the door and feeling good. He hoped his visit with Ma Rocket wouldn’t change his warm and fuzzy feeling.
He turned left and drove down Hopson until he got to Boone Road. To the left was a dirt road that led to the Big Sunflower River. At the bottom of the road, on the banks of the river were a collection of small, interconnected shacks. This was the home of Ma Rocket and her clan. He slowly drove down the road which had more potholes than the road leading to his house. Lester had to swerve a few times to avoid the pigs and chickens that wandered around the property. As he came to a stop in front of the first shacks, he saw Junior Bubba cleaning what looked like an AK-47. Junior looked up and waved. After the shooting, Lester and Junior became friends. Lester got out of the car feeling no pain from a night of pill popping and little sleep.
Glancing around, he was always amazed at how much junk the Rocket clan had managed to amass on their property over the years. There were cars of every make and year, an old tow truck, a barn filled with old electronics, what appeared to be the world’s largest Habitrail system for their pet opossums and a shed filled with clown memorabilia. Lester was fine with everything except for the “clown shed” as he called it. He and every other man he knew hated clowns. Junior caught Lester glaring at the shed and started to laugh.
“I don’t like them clowns either Lester but Ma collects them.”
“They give me the creeps, plain and simple. Why does your Mamma collect those things Junior?”
“She doesn’t.” He replied.
“What do you mean? She’s got a shed full of them.” Lester had always been curious about the clown collection. He had fantasies about burning the shed down.
“Mamma doesn’t care for clowns much. Her sister gave her one of those porcelain clown statues about thirty years ago. Mamma said she loved it but, truth be told, she hated the thing. She only kept it because her sister, now dearly departed, would ask about it every time she called or dropped by. Word got around that Mamma liked clowns. Folks trying to get on her good side would bring a clown. Mamma eventually filled that shed with all the clowns given her over the years. It’s a bunch of bullshit if you ask me, but nobody fucks with…”
“Fucks with Mamma’s stuff?” Lester interjected.
“Damn straight Skippy.” Both men laughed. “So what brings you down to The Big Sunflower?” Junior always bellowed the name of the river because most of the year it was anything but big. The “Uneventful” Sunflower would have been a more accurate name.
“I have to talk to your Mamma about Johnny Ray. I think he’s being given the short end of the rope regarding his latest arrest. For once, I think Johnny Ray is being set up and so does Tom Masters.”
“I wouldn’t trust “The Saint” with anything Sheriff.” Junior grumbled.
“I feel the same way Junior but I have to work with him whether I like it or not.”
“Are you going to give my brother a fair shake?” Junior asked.
“I am. You know the way things go on my watch. We take of our own here and I honestly don’t think that Johnny Ray is a killer. You boys are another matter but you keep your business out of my face so we’re square.” Lester shuddered, thinking about how many bodies the “boys” had put to earth. If Ma Rocket’s victims suddenly rose from the dead, the population of Clarksdale would double in a heartbeat.
“Come on in Sherriff. Mamma’s been expecting you.
Lester groaned, falling deep in thought. It seemed that he was expected wherever he went these days. There was one thing that Lester didn’t like and that was someone else writing his life’s script. When he was a research chemist, he learned this lesson the hard way. The company he worked for had told him that he would be left alone to develop his project with absolutely no interference. He took his employers at their word. At first, he was left alone to develop the organic fuel cell he was hired to create. Then, slowly but surely, the company started strangling his freedom. It started with the budget and ended with a speech about “cost effective” research that had to be done in a specific manner. At the zenith of Lester’s corporate fight, his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Within six months, he project was dead and so was his wife. Lester decided a lifestyle change was in order and hit the road. He had been a cautious man up until that moment in his life, but his breaking point had been reached. He left New York and his six figure income. Much to his credit, he never looked back. Lester learned to keep the wind at his back.
Prior to moving to Mississippi, Lester was the kind of man who ran on a well thought out schedule. Every moment of every day was planned out in advance. There was no margin for error and no chances to be taken whatsoever. This was Lester’s ace in the hole, his trump card. However, this all went to hell when his wife died and his employer’s tightened the noose around Lester’s neck. He woke up one day, realizing that a well crafted plan didn’t work as a hedge against the unknown. The only way to fight the unknown was to think outside of the box. It was an unlikely friend that helped propel the move to Mississippi and Lester’s new way of thinking.
Lester always had a great memory and he applied that gift to chess. He was able to memorize hundreds of openings, giving him the ability to swiftly crush the majority of his opponents. His chess rating rose quickly as he played tournament after tournament. However, a point came at which point he reached a plateau and his rating ceased to increase. While it didn’t go down, it wasn’t going up. He decided to employ a chess instructor from the Manhattan Chess Club to help him with his rating problem. His new Instructor was Richard Petrozovich, a well regarded Grandmaster who taught chess. Petrozovich, after playing a single game with Lester, told him that his playing was far too mechanical. Lester was confused. After all, he had done extremely well in the majority of his tournaments. Lester had even been mentioned in Chess Life magazine as a player to watch. Petrozovich had Lester describe a typical day in his life which got Lester upset. He was paying this Grandmaster to help him improve his game, not his day to day life. However, Petrozovich explained that his day to day life was so mechanical that it would never withstand a curveball thrown by the hand of fate. He continued by showing Lester how this mechanical way of thinking had infected his chess playing. After an hour of conversation, Lester had an epiphany, realizing that his world, both on the chessboard and off, was a carefully controlled environment. This man, a total stranger, had sized Lester up in less than 20 minutes. What did that say about the rest of the world, especially those who had known Lester for years? After refusing Lester’s $150.00 for the hour’s lesson, Petrozovich vowed to return the following week, saying they’d get down to the business of improving Lester’s game and perhaps his life, provided Lester was interested. This was the beginning of a lifelong friendship that didn’t end when Lester moved to Mississippi. Even now, Petrozovich came down to Clarksdale to prepare for his own tournament play as well as work with the Clarksdale Chess Society, which was made up of a grand total of five members. Four of those five members were deputies. The one member who didn’t work for Lester was a private detective. A sudden hand on Lester’s left shoulder pulled him from his thoughts.
“Are you alright there Sheriff?” It was Junior Bubba
“Yeah, I was just lost in thought. I didn’t sleep last night because I was up at the county lockup in Memphis and had to make a few stops before I left the city. This whole thing has stepped on my last damn nerve.”
“Hey Sheriff, thanks again for helping Johnny Ray.”
“Don’t mention it. Now let me see Mamma.”
Ma Rocket was the last of a dying breed. She and her clan had been distilling and running moonshine in Mississippi for over one hundred years. She came from a long line of country criminals, her parents having run with many of the great gangs of the depression era. She was a tough woman who had no qualms about shooting a family member if they made the mistake of crossing her in any way. If even a quarter of the local legends surrounding her were true, she was meaner than the devil himself. More important than her reputation for meanness was her unwillingness to die. Ma Rocket had been shot on nine separate occasions, four of them near-fatal. However, like the Energizer Bunny, she kept on going and going and going. The people of county feared her but loved her at the same time. If a family hit on hard times, Ma and her boys would pay their bills, feed and clothe their children or farm their land. She was smart and knew that as long as she had the locals on her side, she would be able to continue her operation. Almost everyone in the county owed her and would always provide an alibi or a kind word, including Lester.
Unfortunately, her boys were not considered an ideal catch by the local single women, so the Rocket clan would probably die out in a generation or two. Lester straightened his hat as he and Junior walked up the porch stairs and through the old shack’s front door. A dozen well used fly strips hung over the entrance, one of which stuck to Lester’s black Stetson. Lester pulled it off only after a couple of loose fly carcasses fell onto the hat’s brim. Junior mumbled something about getting around to changing the pest strips one day. Lester groaned. Entering the living room, they found Ma Rocket planted on greasy and tattered recliner. The television was blaring in the background. Appropriately, a reality show about life in jail was being aired. Lester took a peek at the boob tube to see if he knew any of the cops or criminals. They often filmed those programs in the south because there seemed to be no end to the supply of white trash criminals light in the smarts department. Lester himself had been filmed by a well known television producer and had been considered for a reality show about law enforcement in the south until he punched a cameraman in the face. Lester had been hitting the shine hard that afternoon. His life had turned into a series of fuck-ups and he learned to live with them.
Ma Rocket glanced up, her frown turning to a somewhat human smile when she saw Lester. She liked the Sherriff a great deal and he had a hard won admiration for her as well. The two had worked out an amicable relationship over the years and often found themselves on the same end of an issue, such as the casinos in Tunica. Both were against bringing them into the area. Lester reasons had to do with poor people becoming poorer and Ma Rocket’s reasons had to do with her own local gambling interests. The casinos had become their common ground and the foundation of their rather bizarre friendship.
“I was reading the Press Register this morning and it seems that Reverend Norton over at the First Baptist Church is planning on going to the State Legislator again this year. You think we’ll put the screws to the casinos this time around Lester.”
“Probably not Mary, but one of these days we’ll find a way to get those assholes out of the area.”
“Nothing a few pounds of C4 wouldn’t fix.” She grinned, revealing a mouth full of bad teeth.
“You know Mary; if you ever decide to blow up the casinos, do me a favor.” Lester was one of the only people who had the right to call her by her birth name, a right earned the hard way.
“What’s that sugar?” She shifted her enormous frame on the recliner causing the greasy vinyl upholstery to let out a horrible squeal.
“Do it when I’m dead. I’d hate to have to lie to Homeland Security when they turned up to start their investigation.”
Ma Rocket laughed hardily, coughing and spitting up phlegm as she did. She knew that Lester would do just that, lie to the Federal Government if the cause suited him. While Lester had enough evidence of the old woman’s criminal activities hidden away to send Ma Rocket to jail for the rest of her life, he’d never use it. Ma Rocket had also collected evidence of Lester’s wrong doings, tucking them away for a rainy day. However, the two got along and there was no reason to rock the boat.
“Listen Lester, I wanted to thank you for taking care of my boy. Johnny Ray has been a pain in the ass since the day he was born. However, he’s my son. He’s my pain in the ass and I’m his momma.”
“Clara, your boy is in deep shit. I have to say, he’s screwed seven ways to Sunday. While I don’t think he had anything to do with Mandy Monroe’s death, he’s pissed someone off enough to be made the patsy.” Lester took a deep breath of the shack’s stale and smoky air. “I have to ask you some questions and I need you to be absolutely truthful with me. Johnny Ray’s life depends on it.”
“Get him out of this mess and I’ll do what I can.” Her voice cracked as she spoke.
“I’ll do what I can. I just got wind of this last night so I a little light on the details. Tom Masters came down from Memphis to break the news. While he doesn’t like me and I think he’s a first class turd, he doesn’t think your son had it in him to beat her to death.”
“Do you trust him Lester?” She was on the verge of tears.
“Unfortunately I don’t. I think he believes your son is innocent. However, he may be tied up with this somehow. I just don’t know what his connection is. It’s a gut feeling.”
“So what can we do?” Ma Rocket regained her composure when she noticed Lester’s concern. Weakness was a condition she despised.
“I had an FBI agent I know tuck your son away for a day or two until I could get a reading on the situation. Don’t worry, he’s buried in their system and it will take a pile of paperwork to get him out of their custody.”
Lester was concerned as to just how long Johnny Ray could be kept in Federal custody. If it was a local Memphis PD matter, Johnny Ray would be safe and sound for days. If someone bigger was behind the crime, then strings would be pulled and Ma Rocket’s son would be thrown into the county jail’s general population in a matter of hours. Johnny Ray had a lot more enemies than friends and, while they might not try to kill him in his own backyard, the county jail was another matter altogether. The murder of the Governor’s mistress was a hot potato that nobody wanted in their hands. It would be passed along until there was no one left to catch it and whoever was left at the end of the line would face the music, innocent or not. Lester wasn’t a politician and this matter of Johnny Ray’s arrest required someone with diplomatic skills and impeccable connections within the Mississippi political machine. Ma Rocket had enough dirt on the county’s local politicians to provide some help, but Lester had a feeling the problem was much further up the political food chain. Lester and Ma Rocket were big fish in their own pond, but not in the bigger ocean of the state itself.
“Lester, you know this isn’t just a county matter that we can deal with as we see fit. This shit has brought Memphis into the mix and the Feds are soon to follow.”
“Yeah, I’ve been worried about that. I guess we both have a lot to lose…” Lester suddenly realized why Tom Masters had come to see him. It wasn’t because it was a local boy taking the heat for the murder. It was because Masters knew that Lester had too many skeletons in his closet to let this mess get out of hand. Lester would have to fix things or find himself under the State Attorney’s microscope. He was pretty sure that he’d be the front page story, which would bury Mandy Monroe’s murder somewhere on page 23, if it even made the papers.
“Jesus, Mary. I just realized why we’re knee deep in the shit. Who has the most to lose if this blows up in the press and who are the two people that could fix this by using their own brand of justice? I’ll give you a hint. One of those people is sitting in a beat up recliner and the other is wearing a black hat with two dead flies stuck to it.”
“Shit.” Ma Rocket had that look you get when all the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fall into place after wrestling with them for days.
“That’s right. Masters dropped this mess in my lap knowing I’d get together with you to fix things. He’s probably hoping we’ll both go down with the sinking ship and he’ll kill two birds with one stone. He gets rid of your operation plus one crooked small town Sheriff. I’d say that cinches his re-election bid next year.”
“Lester, you’ve actually gotten good at your job. Masters has been trying to put me out of business for years and we all know how much he hates you. I know he wants his brother running in the next election down here. He can get rid of both of us, put his brother into your job and win his own election in one fell swoop.”
“Not if I can help it. I’ve got no place to go Mary. Clarksdale is my home and I’m not about to give up my job, especially if it means being the patsy for someone else’s bullshit. You think Masters knew we’d eventually figure all this out?”
“Yeah, he’s a lot of things but dumb isn’t one of them. We need to come up with a plan and pick our own patsy. The potato’s hot and we need to pass it along to the next rube.”
With that said, the two got down to business. It was apparent that Mary, Johnny Ray and Lester had all bring dragged into a hot kettle filled to the brim with trouble. The trick was not getting out of the kettle PDQ but treading water until the right moment came along. Lester learned this from playing chess. The winning move in a game of chess has to be executed at exactly the right moment. Too soon and the move is worthless. Too late and the game is lost. It boiled down to making their move at just the right time. Masters was smart. He’d know that Lester and company would eventually figure out that they were the fall guys. The question was did Masters realize they’d catch on so quickly? Probably not, after all, Masters thought Lester was ill equipped to deal will anything bigger than a parking ticket. Lester played dumb around Masters for a good reason. Lester knew that the less Masters thought of his abilities the more he’d leave Lester to his own devices, hoping that Lester would hang himself if given enough rope. Masters only worried about those who threatened him and a dumb-ass backwater Sherriff posed no immediate danger. With a rough plan in place, Lester headed towards the front door, carefully side stepping the makeshift pest strip curtain. Outside, the birds filled the air with a light and airy chorus of chirping. Lester had secretly taken up bird watching after moving to Clarksdale and tried to identify a shrill cry he made out within the mixed avian chorus. Suddenly, the front door’s glass window exploded with a deafening roar. Shards of sharp glass blew inward as his ears started to ring. Time slowed down to a trickle as Lester quickly moved to one side of the door, his boots slipping on the linoleum floor as he moved.
“Mary, get on damn the floor now!” Lester screamed. He could feel blood trickle down his cheek and a stinging sensation in his left eye. A shard of glass must have hit his face when the window exploded. The birds were now silent and for a moment there was no sound whatsoever, just a faint ringing in Lester’s ears. He caught his breath, hoping to hold it together long enough to react correctly. He could taste the panic in his mouth. It was metallic and electric at the same time. A second shot shattered the silence. Lester spun around just in time to see Mary thrown to the floor, a spray of blood exploding from her right shoulder. Lester yelled out to Junior.
“Junior, you alight?”
“I’m not hurt. There’s a shooter up on the west ridge. I’m behind the Ford.”
“Stay there. Your mamma’s been hit. I’m checking on her now.”
“Just watch the ridge. I’ll take care of your mamma. Keep it together Junior!”
Lester crawled over to Mary, taking the long way across the room to avoid exposure through the front window. Mary was moaning on the floor behind the recliner. A pool of blood was quickly spreading under her shoulder. Lester pulled a bandana from his back pocket and placed it over the open wound. As he applied pressure, he pulled his radio out and called the office.
“Jimmy this is Lester. Someone’s shooting at me over at Ma Rocket’s place. Get down here immediately. Call down to the club and get everyone over here and for damn sake, watch out because someone’s trying to do some serious damage. Get an ambulance here as well. Use the private company, not the county hospital’s rig. Keep the whole thing under the radar.”
“Jesus Lester, are you hit?” Jimmy asked in a panic.
“No its Mary, she’s taken one in the shoulder and is bleeding like a stuffed…” Mary looked up angrily, waiting for Lester to finish his sentence.
“She’s got a serious bleeder and needs immediate attention. Get Doc Johnson over here, not anyone else.” Doc Johnson was a local Veterinarian who patched up the locals when things needed to be done “off the books.” Doc Johnson had a gambling problem and was always in need of money.
Lester had Mary, who was by now woozy from blood loss, hold the bandana over the wound. He crawled over to the window and cautiously peered out towards the west ridge. He was fairly certain that whoever fired on them was long gone but didn’t want to take any unnecessary chances. Junior came running into the house, causing Lester to draw his gun on him.
“Jesus Lester, don’t shoot. It’s me, Junior.”
“I know who you are, but you can’t break cover and come barreling in here. You could have been shot.”
“I was worried about mamma.” Panic filled his voice.
“She’ll be alright. I promise.” Lester’s voice was calm since he was still a bit sedated from the last pill he took. The wave of panic and come and gone, thanks to the medication. “Listen Junior, this little show of force tells me something. It’s our first warning.”
“Mamma could have been killed. I don’t think that was just a warning.” Junior’s voice was angry.
“Trust me, it was a warning. The shooter had a perfect view of this room which meant he could have put a bullet into either of our heads or for that matter yours. The shooting was meant to scare us off.” Both men looked at Mary who was turning red with anger. She struggled to speak while trying to sit up, which was difficult for a woman of her size.
“No one, and I damn mean no one, takes a shot at me and lives to tell about it. I want that son of a bitch found. I’ll deal with him myself.”
“Mary, we just got caught with our pants down. We’ll get the shooter, but first things first. It’s a bit unnerving that the moment we realize we’re being set up that the bullets start flying. Obviously, we’re into something bigger than we expected. We’re going to have to act fast before whoever’s behind this decides to sharpen their aim.”
“Jesus Lester, you’d better make sure that Johnny Ray’s alright. I’ll call in some kin folk and set up some security.” Lester groaned loudly.
Ma Rocket’s idea of security was a dozen or so drunken relatives with itchy trigger fingers. While she had every right to protect herself, any tourist that took a wrong turn leaving the Shack-Up Inn was subject to being on the receiving end of a 12-gauge double barreled shotgun. Dead tourists were the last thing Lester wanted to have to answer for. Lester’s deputies arrived within minutes, as did Doc Johnson and the private ambulance. Mary was cleaned up and hauled over to Doc Johnson’s to have the wound treated. Lester’s men went through the area looking for evidence. Lester was sure that they wouldn’t even find a shell casing but let them search the outer property anyway. Deputy Patti DuPont led the search. She was the smartest of the group and also the best chess player in the club. While Lester knew the search was a futile exercise at best, it was the only way to let them feel as if they were helping. As he walked towards his car he thought about the old adage, don’t bring a knife to a gunfight. He cursed himself because that’s exactly what they did. They showed up for the fight but didn’t bring the right weapons.